Mosiah Chapter 17
1 And now it came to pass that when Abinadi had finished these sayings, that the king commanded that the priests should take him and cause that he should be put to death.
2 But there was one among them whose name was Alma, he also being a descendant of Nephi. And he was a young man, and he believed the words which Abinadi had spoken, for he knew concerning the iniquity which Abinadi had testified against them; therefore he began to plead with the king that he would not be angry with Abinadi, but suffer that he might depart in peace.
verse 2 "there was one among them whose name was Alma" Alma was one of Noah's priests.
The Book of Mormon's use of Alma as a man's name has occasioned considerable amusement among uninformed critics of the book. If Joseph Smith knew the name Alma at all from his environment, it is highly likely that he would have known it as a Latinate woman's name rather than as a masculine one (many will recognize the Latin phrase alma mater, which means "beneficent mother"). Recent documentary finds demonstrate, however, that Alma also occurs as a Semitic masculine personal name in the ancient Near East-just as it does in the Book of Mormon (see Paul Y. Hoskisson, "Alma as a Hebrew Name," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7/1 : 72-73; Terrence L. Szink, "Further Evidence of a Semitic Alma," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 : 70; and Terrence L. Szink, "The Personal Name 'Alma' at Ebla," The Religious Educator 1/1 : 53-56).
Brother Hugh Nibley has pointed out: "The name Alma has long been derided for its usage in the Book of Mormon as a man's name. It is interesting to note that the name Alma has now been found in the Bar Kokhba letters as "Alma, son of Judah" (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, volume 1, "Book of Mormon Near Eastern Background"). See the supplemental article, Names in the Book of Mormon.
Joseph, of course, could not have known about Alma as a man's name from any source existing in his frontier American environment.
"he was a young man" We can calculate that Alma was about twenty-five years old at this time, his having been born about 173 BC. Abinadi's death was about 148 BC. We will later learn that Alma will die in 91 BC at the age of 82.
"he knew concerning the iniquity which Abinadi had testified against them" This phrase suggests that Alma had been troubled over the iniquity of his people, even before Abinadi's appearance among them.
3 But the king was more wroth, and caused that Alma should be cast out from among them, and sent his servants after him that they might slay him.
verse 3 "But the king was more wroth" Alma's pleading caused the king to be even more angry. Undoubtedly Noah harbored the nagging feeling, though mostly suppressed, that Abinadi had been teaching the truth. Noah's psychological defense against this ambivalence and feeling of guilt was to become violently angry and seek to strike out against Alma also.
4 But he fled from before them and hid himself that they found him not. And he being concealed for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken.
verse 4 "he being concealed for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken" This period of "many days" must have been for this young priest a period of profound anguish and soul searching as he "repented of his sins and iniquities" (Mosiah 18:1; Mosiah 23:10) and sought for the Lord's forgiveness.
We learn that the senior Alma was the author of that part of the record of the Zeniffites which gives the account of Abinadi's ministry among them. Even though this phrase states that Alma wrote all the words which Abinadi spoke, we need not assume that our present-day book of Mosiah contains all of Abinadi's teachings. There is evidence that the prophet Mormon may have abridged this record of Alma before he placed it upon the plates of Mormon. If you are interested in reviewing this evidence then see the commentaries for Mosiah 7:27, Mosiah 12:19, and Mormon 1:19.
In the Book of Mormon text there is no evidence that Alma ever had a private conversation with Abinadi or that he was ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood by him. One wonders if Alma had heard Abinadi's initial testimony when Abinadi preached two years earlier. Perhaps that testimony prepared him for this final witness.
5 And it came to pass that the king caused that his guards should surround Abinadi and take him; and they bound him and cast him into prison.
6 And after three days, having counseled with his priests, he caused that he should again be brought before him.
verse 6 Abinadi was retained in prison for three days before being formally accused and condemned to death. Why the delay? Perhaps Noah and his priests had difficulty in deciding on a plausible capital charge to level against him. Or perhaps they were using a psychological maneuver to break his spirit through fear and intimidation. It was suggested previously that these events might have occurred at the feast of Pentecost, and that perhaps Abinadi was imprisoned until the festival was concluded (see the commentary for Mosiah 13:5).
7 And he said unto him: Abinadi, we have found an accusation against thee, and thou art worthy of death.
8 For thou hast said that God himself should come down among the children of men; and now, for this cause thou shalt be put to death unless thou wilt recall all the words which thou hast spoken evil concerning me and my people.
verse 8 Abinadi was not charged with a crime against the state. Rather he was charged with the crime of blasphemy. He had indeed said what he was accused of saying (see the commentary for Mosiah 13:28).
9 Now Abinadi said unto him: I say unto you, I will not recall the words which I have spoken unto you concerning this people, for they are true; and that ye may know of their surety I have suffered myself that I have fallen into your hands.
verse 9 "that ye may know of their surety I have suffered myself that I have fallen into your hands" Somehow Noah's ordering and carrying out the execution of Abinadi will cause Noah to know in his heart that Abinadi's preachings had all been true. We will learn in verse 11 that Noah already suspected their truth and was frightened by them. In verse 20 we will read that Abinadi's death will also "seal the truth of his words." For a discussion of the meaning of this provocative phrase, see the commentary for that verse.
10 Yea, and I will suffer even until death, and I will not recall my words, and they shall stand as a testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day.
verse 10 "if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood" What does it mean to shed innocent blood? How serious a sin is this? To shed innocent blood is simply to take life without justification, to kill unjustly. The premeditated shedding of innocent blood is said to be a "sin unto death" (1 John 5:16-17), meaning a sin for which there is "no forgiveness" (D&C 42:79). Does this mean that the shedding of innocent blood is the unpardonable sin? Can a man not repent and be cleansed of this sin?
The ultimate and unpardonable sin is to figuratively shed the only completely innocent blood, the blood of Jesus Christ. Once an individual has been converted to the divinity of Jesus Christ by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost and has come to know God and have an absolute witness, then that individual has a most serious and binding obligation. If he should ever turn altogether against the Church and come out in open rebellion against it, then he is guilty of the unpardonable sin. It is as though he "crucifies [Christ]" afresh or "assent[s] unto [his] death" (D&C 76:35; D&C 76:132:27). Such an individual will be resurrected but will not inherit a kingdom of glory. Rather he will become a son of Perdition and spend eternity with Satan and his angels.
The unjustified shedding of human life is second only to the unpardonable sin in its gravity. Murder is said to be the unforgivable (rather than unpardonable) sin. A murderer may repent and be cleansed in the post-mortal life, and he may be admitted to a kingdom of glory-the telestial kingdom. He cannot, however be forgiven to the point of being worthy for the celestial kingdom, or even the terrestrial kingdom. He may become a "servant of the Most High; but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come" (D&C 76:112). For a more complete discussion of the Three Most Abominable Sins, see Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 3, chapter 18.
"this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day" Does the Lord allow the shedding of innocent blood in order that actions of the murderer may eventually serve as a witness against him? It is true that many unjust and dreadful things happen here on earth. Though the Lord certainly has the ability to intervene in such happenings, generally he does not. Usually he is inclined to allow man to use his agency as he wishes-for good or for ill (see Alma 14:10-11 and Alma 60:13).
11 And now king Noah was about to release him, for he feared his word; for he feared that the judgments of God would come upon him.
verse 11 "for he feared his words" Though he likely remained somewhat ambivalent, it is clear that Noah strongly suspected and feared the truth of Abinadi's teachings.
12 But the priests lifted up their voices against him, and began to accuse him, saying: He has reviled the king. Therefore the king was stirred up in anger against him, and he delivered him up that he might be slain.
verse 12 "the priests lifted up their voices against him" The priests, seeing that the king was beginning to waver, knew just how to appeal to the king's vanity. They said, "He has reviled the king." Apparently reviling the king was a crime against the state, a type of sedition.
"he delivered him up that he might be slain" At the encouragement of his priests, Noah regained his depraved courage and delivered Abinadi to be slain.
13 And it came to pass that they took him and bound him, and scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death.
verse 13 "scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death" How exactly was Abinadi executed? We will later learn that he "suffered death by fire" (verse 20). In our minds eye we intuitively think that he was burned at the stake, yet nowhere in the scripture do we read that he burned at the stake. Referring to this quotation from Mosiah 17:13, Robert J. Matthews wrote: "Three words in the foregoing sentence should be noted. The first is that they bound him. That seems self-explanatory. The second is that they scourged him. To scourge means to whip, flail, or beat. The third term is faggots. . . . A faggot is a bundle of sticks or twigs, used for fuel. This passage seems to say that Abinadi's tormentors took burning torches and poked him with these, burning his skin until he died" ("Abinadi: The Prophet and Martyr," The Book of Mormon: Mosiah, Salvation Only Through Christ, Provo, Utah, 102-03). Then Abinadi "fell, having suffered death by fire" (verse 20). Brother Matthews further speculates: "In my mind I see Abinadi bound, possibly supported by something, and his fiendish executioners (probably the priests) gathered about him with burning torches (faggots) in their hands, jabbing him and rubbing him with these until they caused him to die. They actively, eagerly, and physically caused his death; they were not merely passive, interested bystanders watching a bonfire. I can imagine them dancing and cavorting about Abinadi, and hear them shouting, exulting, and gloating over what they were doing. And during it all, Abinadi was pronouncing prophecies of God's vengeance upon them-prophecies that were literally fulfilled. The noise, the din, the stench would be awful! Wickedness and righteousness, life and death, are real, and Abinadi's martyrdom really did happen" (Ibid., 103).
Brant Gardner has described an ancient Aztec practice of punitive beatings with "firebrands" or flaming sticks. In the Codex Mendoza, a richly illustrated ethnographic record of Aztec daily life that was produced in Mexico City around AD 1541, he discovered a painting which depicts two men beating a youth with burning firebrands. Although this Aztec practice of beating transgressors with firewood followed more than one thousand years after the death of Abinadi, it provides an interesting parallel to the method of Abinadi's execution (FARMS Insights, volume 21, 2001, 3).
Royal Skousen has suggested that the word scourged in this verse probably represents a scribal error, and should rather have read scorched (FARMS Update, number 154, volume 22, 2002). The word scourged is found in the printer's manuscript, but unfortunately the original manuscript is not extant for this passage. Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, Abinadi is consistently referred to as having been burned to death (Mosiah 17:18; Mosiah 17:20; Alma 25:9; Alma 25:11). The reader should note that the following verse refers to the flames scorching Abinadi (for other uses of the word scorch, see Alma 15:3; Alma 32:38). This scribal error might have occurred during the dictation of the text, or perhaps in creating the printer's manuscript from the original. Dr. Skousen concludes: This "reasonable emendation permits the text to read consistently and plausibly-and without [having to hunt] for evidence that people can be scourged to death with faggots" (Ibid.)
14 And now when the flames began to scorch him, he cried unto them, saying:
15 Behold, even as ye have done unto me, so shall it come to pass that thy seed shall cause that many shall suffer the pains that I do suffer, even the pains of death by fire; and this because they believe in the salvation of the Lord their God.
16 And it will come to pass that ye shall be afflicted with all manner of diseases because of your iniquities.
17 Yea, and ye shall be smitten on every hand, and shall be driven and scattered to and fro, even as a wild flock is driven by wild and ferocious beasts.
18 And in that day ye shall be hunted, and ye shall be taken by the hand of your enemies, and then ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire.
verses 15-18 Even as Abinadi was suffering death by fire, he prophesied: (1) that the descendants of his tormentors will yet execute others by fire for their beliefs. This occurrence is documented in Alma 25:5 when the seed or descendants of Noah's priests exercised unrighteous dominion over a group of Lamanites and burned some of them because of their beliefs. (2) Abinadi also prophesied that Noah and his priests would be afflicted with diseases, smitten, driven, scattered, hunted, and suffer death by fire. Noah himself will eventually be executed by fire at the hands of his own people (Mosiah 19:20). Many of the priests of Noah will be hunted and put to death by Nephites (Alma 25:3-4) and by the Lamanites (Alma 25:7-12).
19 Thus God executeth vengeance upon those that destroy his people. O God, receive my soul.
20 And now, when Abinadi had said these words, he fell, having suffered death by fire; yea, having been put to death because he would not deny the commandments of God, having sealed the truth of his words by his death.
verse 20 "having sealed the truth of his words by his death" Abinadi's death would serve as a witness or testimony against those who did not accept his teachings. Also it is likely that Abinadi's martyrdom planted or "sealed," in the hearts of those who heard him, an abiding suspicion or fear that Abinadi was in fact speaking the truth.