Mosiah 20


Out of Bondage through Covenants

      Jarom -- Mosiah



Mosiah 20:1 There Was a Place in Shemlon Where the Daughters of the Lamanites Did Gather Themselves Together to Sing, and to Dance:


     How do we reconcile the daughters of the Lamanites being at "a place in Shemlon" (Mosiah 20:1) and being spied upon by the priests of Noah, if the priests of Noah had "fled farther into the wilderness" (Mosiah 19:23)? Either the priests of Noah were not very far away from Shemlon and were constantly observing the Lamanite daughters, or they had made a return trip from a more distant location for the specific reason of taking wives. If the latter was the case, then the priests probably were able to predict where the daughters of the Lamanites would be and when they would be gathering.

     Based on research by Robert Smith, John Welch, and Gordon Thomasson, just as the month of February means Valentine's Day (and sometimes Bachelors' Leap Year Day) to many Americans, the fifteenth of Av had significance to the ancient Israelites. On that day in the fifth month of the Israelite calendar (which fell originally on midsummer's day), the maidens of Israel would gather to dance. This was, among other things, a "matrimonial holiday for youth."

     The ancient holiday is described by Abraham P. Bloch. Bloch concludes that this unnamed holiday was of very early origin, dating back to Moses according to one rabbi. In those days, the festival was primarily a matrimonial holiday, very much like the Jewish Lag Ba'Omer of springtime. Following the conclusion of their summer chores in the fields, youths would turn their attention to "bride-hunting," and the dance of the maidens was "designed to meet that end." The dancing took place outside a temple city--during the period of the Judges, the dances were in the fields outside Shiloh. During later times they were at Jerusalem.

     After the return of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon, the holiday took on a much different character. It became the festival of wood-gathering and of offerings of wood for the altar of the temple.

     Lehi and his people would only have known the earlier traditions of "dancing and bride-hunting," and perhaps this sheds light on the time when the priests of Noah carried off twenty-four Lamanite daughters to be their wives.

     Mosiah 20:1 recounts that "there was a place in Shemlon where the daughters of the Lamanites did gather themselves together to sing, and to dance, and to make themselves merry." Apparently the place was a customary one. The place may have been at an outlying shrine or sacred spot. It was not in the wilderness as such, for the priests went from there into the wilderness (see Mosiah 20:5), but neither was it inside a city.

     There the priests found the young women, hid themselves and watched, and sprang out of their hiding places, taking the young women into the wilderness (see Mosiah 20:2-5). The Hebrew idiom translated "lying in wait" usually connotes premeditation and planning, implying that the priests may well have known of this place and the custom for young women to be there. Indeed, the young women apparently became the priests' wives willingly enough; at least we find no indication that any of them tried to escape, and all of them later pled with their brothers and fathers not to kill their husbands (see Mosiah 23:33).

     This suggests that the Lamanite daughters had gathered to dance in celebration of a vestige of the preexilic Israelite festival of the fifteenth of Av. Is that how the priests of Noah knew where to go and when to be there? Is that why the young women accepted the priests as husbands? After all, they would have been dancing to attract husbands. [Robert F. Smith, John W. Welch, and Gordon C. Thomasson, "Dancing Maidens and the Fifteenth of Av," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, pp. 139-141]


Mosiah 20:5 Twenty and Four:


     According to John Welch, certain numbers were clearly meaningful in antiquity: seven was the number of spiritual perfection (as in the seven seals in the book of Revelation); twelve was a governmental number (as with the twelve tribes, twelve apostles). The number twenty-four, being a multiple of twelve, was associated with heavenly government, especially priestly judgment and temple service.168 . . . Twenty-four courses of priests continuously operated Davidic tabernacle and Solomonic temple services (see 1 Chronicles 24:3-18) . . . Apparently there were twenty-four judges on King Noah's court, since Noah and his priests kidnapped twenty-four Lamanite daughters (see Mosiah 20:5).

     Turning to other places in the Book of Mormon, we see that twenty-four has remarkably similar significance (Listed below are only 3 of 8 listed by Welch):

     1. There were twenty-four survivors of the final destruction of the Nephites who witnessed the judgment of God upon this people (see Mormon 6:11, 15, 22).

     2. The twenty-four plates of Ether were seen as a record of the "judgment of God" upon those people (Alma 37:30).

     3. Like the twelve apostles of the Old World, the twelve Nephite disciples (for a total of twenty-four) will act as judges in the final judgment of the world (see 3 Nephi 27:27).

[John W. Welch, "Number 24," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., p. 272]


Mosiah 20:5,21:21 Carried Them into the Wilderness:


     Which way did the priests of Noah go when they carried the Lamanite maidens "into the wilderness" (Mosiah 20:5)? And how far would they have to go before they felt safe enough from both the Nephites and the Lamanites? A good guess is that they would have had to travel beyond the borders of the general land of Nephi, yet not into the land of Zarahemla. They could have been located somewhere in the narrow strip of wilderness which divided the two lands (see Alma 22:27), perhaps beyond the land of Helam because the priests of Amulon and the Lamanites were trying to return to Shemlon when they stumbled upon Alma and his followers in the land of Helam (see Mosiah 23:35). The priests of Noah might have been located away from the route of both Ammon and Limhi, who traveled the route from Zarahemla to Lehi-Nephi without any mention of encountering the priests of Noah (also known as the brethren of Amulon -- Mosiah 24:4).

     If the priests of Noah traveled any significant distance from Lehi-Nephi, we are faced with a chronological and geographical problem. At the time of Ammon's arrival in the year 480, at the very end of Limhi's reign, Mormon makes the following commentary:

       "Now the people of Limhi kept together in a body as much as it was possible, and secured their grain and their flocks; and the king himself did not trust his person without the walls of the city, unless he took his guards with him . . . And he caused that his people should watch the land round about, that by some means they might take those priests that fled into the wilderness, who had stolen the daughters of the Lamanites, and that had caused such a great destruction to come upon them. For they were desirous to take them that they might punish them; for they had come into the land of Nephi by night, and carried off their grain and many of their precious things; therefore they laid wait for them.” (Mosiah 21:18-21)

     Because the phrase "they had come into the land of Nephi by night" (Mosiah 21:21) comes at the end of Limhi's 18-year reign and the stealing of the Lamanite daughters apparently happened at the beginning of his reign, some chronological assessment is required. Did the priests of Noah come from some nearby wilderness area to raid the Nephite lands, or were they coming from the land of Amulon? Before we answer, we must consider the fact that when Limhi and Ammon finally escape, the Lamanites follow them and lose their tracks, only to stumble upon the priests of Noah in the land of Amulon (Mosiah 23:31). The priests join the Lamanites and stumble upon Alma's group in the city of Helam while trying to find a way back to the land of Nephi (Mosiah 23:35). Alma then shows them the way back (Mosiah 23:37). If the priests of Noah had been continually raiding the people of Limhi, then they would have very easily been able to show the Lamanites the way back, without Alma's help. Perhaps by this time, the priests of Noah had removed themselves to a much more distant location.

     The priests of Noah could have remained on the move in the wilderness, much like North American Indian tribes, in a hunter-gatherer existence, which they supplemented by occasional raids on the people of Limhi. It should be noted that Limhi's people paid tribute in grain and domesticated animals ("flocks") to the Lamanites (Mosiah 19:26,28; 21:18), who were apparently hunter-gatherers (2 Nephi 5:24). This manner of extracting tribute of those foods which were not supplied through hunting or gathering might have been how the priests of Noah survived, only they personally collected their own "tribute" through raids. After about 10 to 14 years, the priests of Noah might have moved much farther away to the land of Amulon. If they traveled beyond the borders of the general land of Nephi, yet not into the land of Zarahemla, they could have been somewhere in the narrow strip of wilderness which divided the two lands.

     Or perhaps a factor besides distance was involved in the Lamanites getting lost and the land of Amulon was actually closer to the local land of Nephi. For example, in the Guatemala highlands foggy mists at times enshroud travelers, greatly decreasing visibility.

     There are a couple of other possibilities that might affect this chronological dilemma:

     1. Alma could have stayed at the waters of Mormon for many years, which chronologically would extend the length of Noah's reign from what has been estimated. Thus, Limhi would have reigned for just a short time.

     2. The definition of a "young man" (Mosiah 17:2) by which Alma was referred to just previous to his fleeing into the wilderness away from King Noah, could possibly mean a man up to the age of about 40. In the text, the young stripling warriors of Helaman were referred to as "very young" (Alma 56:46), while at another point in the text, "young men" are associated with those capable of putting on armor and fighting (Mosiah 10:9). Whatever the case, if the age limit for a "young man" is raised, then Alma wouldn't have departed for the waters of Mormon until later in his life, and thus Limhi’s reign would have been shorter. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes] [See Appendix A]


Geographical Theory Map: Mosiah 20:1-5 Daughters of Lamanites Taken by Priests of Noah (Year 464)


Mosiah 20:8 Limhi Had Discovered Them from the Tower, Even All Their Preparations for War:


     Mormon notes that when the Lamanites found that their daughters had been missing, they went up to the land of Nephi to destroy the people of Limhi. But "Limhi had discovered them from the tower, even all their preparations for war did he discover" (Mosiah 20:8). Apparently this tower was the one mentioned in Mosiah 11:12 which Noah built "near the temple; yea, a very high tower, even so high that [Noah] could stand upon the top thereof and overlook the land of Shilom, and also the land of Shemlon, which was possessed by the Lamanites; and he could even look over all the land round about." Thus, Limhi could view the land of Shemlon from Noah’s tower clearly enough to "see all their preparations for war" (Mosiah 20:8). If so, the distance between the two locations was not very far, and the land of Shemlon might have been lower in elevation than Lehi-Nephi. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 20:7, 9, 15 Up:


     It seems probable that the direction from the land of Shemlon to the local lands of Shilom and Lehi-Nephi was always "up” (see Mosiah 10:6,8,10; 20:7,15). Whether the land of Shilom was lower than Lehi-Nephi is uncertain.

     In Mosiah 10:6 it says that "they [the Lamanites] began to prepare for war, and to come up [apparently from Shemlon] "to battle against my people." Thus, if the Lamanites came from the land of Shemlon, the land of Shemlon was probably lower than the lands of Shilom and Lehi-Nephi.

     In Mosiah 10:8 it says that the Lamanites "came up upon the north of the land of Shilom, and in Mosiah 10:10 it says that "we did go up to battle against the Lamanites." All Zeniff might be implying in these verses is that his people had to go "up" a hill in order to reach the Lamanites. However, if the Nephites came from Lehi-Nephi past the land of Shilom to go up against the Lamanites, then Lehi-Nephi might have been lower than the land of Shilom.

     In Mosiah 20:7 Mormon notes that the Lamanites went "up to the land of Nephi to destroy the people of Limhi." He further notes in verse 15 that the Lamanite king said, "in my anger I did cause my people to come up to war against thy people." Thus, once again, the land of Shemlon seems lower than the "land of Nephi." [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 20:8 Therefore He Gathered His People Together, and Laid Wait for Them in the Fields and in the Forests:


     Mormon's statement that the people of Limhi "laid wait for [the Lamanites] in the fields and in the forests" (Mosiah 20:8) seems to imply that fields and forests were on the route the Lamanites had to take from the land of Shemlon in order to get to the local land of Nephi. This is compatible with the proposed mountain valley setting of the land of Nephi.

     Limhi could see the Lamanites from a tower, so they were not far away. So how long would it have taken the Lamanites to prepare for war and march the distance from the land of Shemlon to Lehi-Nephi in comparison to the time it would have taken Limhi to gather all his people and place them strategically in the fields and in the forests with specific instructions on battle tactics? The preparation that Limhi observed might have taken place over a period of days. Additionally, the apparent lack of Lamanite towers equivalent to those of the Nephites (a reasonable assumption if the land of Shemlon was lower than the land of Nephi) would leave the Lamanites without knowledge of the locations of Limhi's people. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Geographical Theory Map: Mosiah 20:6-26 Lamanites Invade Nephi from Shemlon (Year 464)


Mosiah 20:10 They fought like lions (Illustration): The jaguar in the wild is still greatly feared wherever it is found in the lower forestlands of Mesoamerica. [John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, p. 184]


Mosiah 20:11 Not Half So Numerous As the Lamanites:


     At this point in time: (1) Alma and 450 people had departed, (2) Noah and his priests had also departed, (3) there had been a "great contention" among the people of Noah in which "the lesser part began to breathe out threatenings against the king" (Mosiah 19:3), and (4) the general land of Nephi was Lamanite country. Thus, even a remark that the people of Limhi "were not half so numerous as the Lamanites" (Mosiah 20:11) seems inflated. How could the numbers of the people of Limhi even come close to being "half so numerous as the Lamanites"? Either the people of Limhi were numbered in the thousands, or perhaps the Lamanites had not sent their whole army against the people of Limhi at this time. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 20:11 Dragons:


     Richardson, Richardson and Bentley note that the Book of Mormon indicates that some people of that period believed in monsters or dragons of some kind which supposedly inhabited the subterranean waters (2 Nephi 8:9; 9:10, 19, 26; 23:22 Mosiah 20:11; Alma 43:44) This is also verified by modern research from Mesoamerica.169 It is interesting that the Bible contains similar imagery. Indeed the Bible speaks of such mythological creatures as the Behemoth which could drink up whole rivers (Job 40:15-24), the cockatrice (Isaiah 11:8), dragons (Isaiah 11:8; 13:21-22; 27:1; 43:20; Ezekiel 29:5; Psalms 143:7), the fire breathing leviathan (Job 41), the satyr (Isaiah 13:21-22), sea dragons and sea serpents (Psalms 74:13; Isaiah 27:1), and event he unicorn (Numbers 23:2; 24:8; Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 39:9-10; Psalms 22:21; 29:6; 92:10; and Isaiah 34:7). [Allen H. Richardson, David E. Richardson and Anthony E. Bentley, 1000 Evidences for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Part Two-A Voice from the Dust: 500 Evidences in Support of the Book of Mormon, p. 211]


Mosiah 20:11 Like Dragons Did They Fight:


     According to John Sorenson, another bit of Mesoamerican atmosphere appears in a figure of speech the writer used in Mosiah 20:11. "Like dragons did they fight," he wrote (see also Alma 43:44). What kind of "dragons" did he have in mind? The reference was probably to the crocodile or caiman. There are a number of reasons to think so. One colonial period observer described these saurians thus: "Very ferocious, and greatly feared. . . . Some of the caymans are from twenty to thirty feet and upwards in length . . . and covered with scales through which a musket ball cannot pierce. Their tails are very powerful and dangerous; and their mouths are large, with three rows of formidable teeth."170 But this "dragon" was much more than a dangerous bit of the natural world. In Mesoamerican mythology a giant creature of crocodilian form was thought to float on the supposed subterranean sea. His back was the surface of the earth, and his connection with earth and waters tied him symbolically with productivity and fertility. This "earth monster" is repeatedly shown at the base of relief carvings at Izapa (on the Chiapas/Guatemala border), in early Maya sculpture, and even in Olmec art; hence the idea is very old and fundamental.171 . . . The Book of Mormon and the Near Eastern cultural background from which it developed represents a crocodile-related monster in similar ways. Second Nephi 9:9-10, 19, and 26 picture "the devil" as a dragon or monster dwelling beneath the earth's surface. The Israelites shared with their Near Eastern neighbors the idea and image of this being as a symbol of chaos and evil. The Old Testament name of the creature is sometimes given as "leviathan."172 Its scaly back formed the ridges and hills of earth's surface. The "high places" where early Palestinian inhabitants worshipped were named from a root that meant "back of an animal."173 The sea creature--chaos--was thought to have been conquered by Jehovah in an ancient epic struggle (Isaiah 27:1; 51:9; Psalms 74:13-14). This is surely the dragon referred to in 2 Nephi 9:9 and the "old serpent" in Mosiah 16:3. The entire topic of dragons, monsters, and serpents is obviously too complex to do more than touch on here. We can at least note two things about Zeniff's dragon imagery: (1) it had powerful meaning to his listeners--beyond being a mere literary phrase, and (2) the complex of ideas is represented not only in the book of Mormon but in Palestine and Mesoamerica as well. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., pp. 187-188] [See also 2 Nephi 9:9-10, 19, 26]


Mosiah 20:18 Do Ye Not Remember the Priests of Thy Father:


     During the war with the Lamanites, the Lamanite king was captured (Mosiah 20:12) and brought before Limhi. The Lamanite king explained that they had attacked Limhi's people because the Lamanite daughters had been carried away (Mosiah 20:15). Limhi was about to search among his people to see who had done this deed when Gideon asked, "Do ye not remember the priests of thy father?” (Mosiah 20:18). Apparently, a number a months or years had passed since the death of Noah and the flight of his priests. How much time had elapsed? We must take into consideration Mosiah 21:21 which says that the priests of Noah "had come into the land of Nephi by night and carried off their grain and many of their precious things." If these raids were going on just before the Lamanites attacked as recorded here in Mosiah 20, then why wouldn't Limhi immediately think to blame the priests of Noah for the disappearance of the Lamanite daughters rather than needing Gideon’s prompting? [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 20:19-20 Now Behold . . . for Behold . . . and Behold . . . and Behold:


     In Mosiah 20 the Lamanites have come against the people of Limhi because 24 Lamanite daughters have been taken. In the fighting the Lamanite king is captured, and brought before king Limhi to explain why he has come against them in war. After explaining the kidnapping of the 24 Lamanite daughters, the Nephites are not only perplexed, but fear death at the hands of the Lamanites. Gideon realizes that the kidnappings were probably the fault of the priests of Noah and rushes to tell king Limhi in hopes that something can be done to prevent another Lamanite assault. According to Hugh Nibley, there is an interesting rhetorical device used here by Gideon. In Arabic, for example, and in Hebrew less, you cannot begin a sentence cold. You just can't say "he went into the house" or "there was a house on the hill." You have to begin with hinneth, "behold." . . . But in urgent cases you have to introduce what you're saying by an excitement word. In Egyptian you have to use it before every sentence. . . . so notice the way Gideon builds up his message to king Limhi here:

           And now, behold, and tell the king [of the Lamanites] of these things, that he may tell his people that they may be pacified towards us; for behold they are already preparing to come against us; and behold also there are but few of us. And behold, they come with their numerous hosts; and except the king doth pacify them towards us we must perish.


     Gideon uses the word "behold" four times here. He builds up the climax and excitement; he says we've got to act quickly here. It's just like it came to his mind in a flash. He knows who it was now, so he uses this series of beholds, which are very Semitic, very eloquent, and very necessary.

     Nibley sarcastically comments: "Anybody could see that [the need for such a rhetorical device]. Joseph Smith knew this very well, of course." [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 2, p. 134]