Textual: Mormon begins a new book. Even though the book is new, Mormon is abridging the information. We may presume that he is following the gross organization of the plates, and that this shift in named books was present on the original plates from which Mormon is taking his record.
The shift from the book of Mosiah to the Book of Alma appears to hinge on the shift in the nature of the government. The ending of Mosiah is: “Mosiah 29:47 And thus ended the reign of the kings over the people of Nephi; and thus ended the days of Alma, who was the founder of their church.” Similarly, this first verse of Alma begins with the marking of years that now date from the establishment of the reign of the judges.
As was noted previously, the division of books appears to be something that Mormon retains from the original plates rather than something that reflects his own conceptual divisions of the information. The most probable reason for the change of names to date has been a dynastic record. Had we the original 116 pages, we would apparently have the Book of Lehi followed by the Book of Mosiah. This shift would have come because of the dynastic shift that followed the flight of Mosiah I from the land of Nephi.
In the Book of Alma we have another type of new beginning. This one is not properly a dynastic change, but a shift from one type of government to another. Nevertheless, it is conceptually the same type of major change as the dynastic shift that created the new book of Mosiah after the book of Lehi. We have the book of Alma because he is the first high judge of the new governmental order.
Social: When the people of the land of Zarahemla agreed to abandon kingship for the rule of judges they were signaling a major change in their understanding of their relationship to those who ruled over them. One of the ways they used to emphasize this complete change in their social structure was to accompany this new government with a completely new count of years. Rather than continue with the count of years since the departure from Jerusalem, they begin a completely new count that dates years from the first year of the reign of the judges. According to the Nephite-year-to-modern-year correlation used in this commentary, the reign of the judges begins in 92 BC.
The social implications of resetting the year should not be missed. There was no compelling reason for the people of Zarahemla to change the way they ordered their conception of time. Nevertheless, they made a change so complete as to discard a mode of counting years and establish a new one. Such calendric manipulations are not made upon whimsy, as the way years are conceived partially orders our perception of the world. In the modern world, the division of time into BC and AD reflects the Western importance of Christianity. Even though that change in accumulating years came later than the event, it nevertheless signaled the importance relegated to that event.
For the people of Zarahmela, their change was timed to a particular event, and the shift similarly signaled the tremendous change they had made in totally discarded a mode of rulership. It would be even more significant in the context of their world, because they would be accumulating years very differently than any of their neighbors. Even though they had already had a different mode of accumulating the years, that mode provided sufficient history to at least conceptually parallel their neighbors (at least as we understand from the later monuments giving a Maya calendric system with a very ancient origin date). This new organization was emphasized as a difference from other Mesoamerican societies by their alteration of the calendar.
Unique calendars were no surprise in Mesoamerica. Even among similar linguistic groups, the calendars could have differences, including different starting dates. For more information, an early but still excellent sourcebook is Alfonso Caso’s Los Calendarios Prehispanicos. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. 1967.
Mosiah the Lawmaker: Verse one very specifically notes Mosiah as a giver of law: “…he had established laws…” Nevertheless, Mosiah seems to indicate that laws already exist, and that, at least conceptually, kings and laws may also be part of the same governmental order:
22 For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;
23 And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.
24 And now behold I say unto you, it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.
25 Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.
Mosiah is first proclaiming against an evil king. Note that Mosiah expects that even an evil king will enact laws (verse 23). Very specifically, Mosiah clarifies that the basic laws they should use were those that had already been in place: “the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” Thus Mosiah does not appear to be a lawgiver in the sense of one who creates brand new laws.
In what sense, then, should be understand Mosiah as a lawgiver, since beginning with the book of Alma he will be considered to be the originator of law? What Mosiah did was to shift the ultimate responsibility for correct decisions from the person of the king to the rule of law. Law replaced the king as the method of determining the basis for judgment. Thus Mosiah is properly the giver of the law because it was he who elevated the existing laws to their new cultural prominence. The reign of the judges would have been impossible without the elevation of law, because there would have been no measuring stick against which to judge.
Nephite Culture at the beginning of the reign of the judges:
It is appropriate at this new beginning point in Nephite history to recap the nature of Nephite society at the beginning of this new era. Zarahemla has risen to some prominence in the region, with multiple dependent towns and/or hamlets. These towns and hamlets would be some distance away from Zarahemla and have their own populations that farmed surrounding areas. The existence of seven churches in the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 25:23) suggests that there were at least six dependent towns/hamlets, with one of the churches located in Zarahemla proper.
Assuming typical Mesoamerican patterns, Zarahemla is the central city, with the largest public architecture. The dependent towns would be larger and smaller, depending upon how they were populated. The larger ones would have their own center with some public buildings. The association with Zarahemla was elective, not forced. There is no indication that Zarahemla supported a standing army to enforce its laws over the dependent cities.
The cohesiveness of the communities that made up the land of Zarahemla was retained by a common participation in a cultural set of ideas that were mutually beneficial. During the reign of the kings, this would have included the common belief in the divine investiture of the king, as religion and politics would have been virtually inseparable. However, Mosiah had already begun creating a separation between conceptual religion and political power when he appointed Alma as the head of the collection of churches.
The social and political climate was rather fragile throughout the Zarahemla period. Beginning with our first clear indication of internal strife in the reign of Benjamin (see Words of Mormon 1:12-17) the undercurrent of dissention never appears to completely leave Zarahemla. Mosiah II and Alma the Elder deal with religious contention that is termed “persecutions” and even the children of these stalwart men are part of the contentions and persecutions.
Thus on the eve of the reign of the judges, Zarahemla society is a collection of independent locations who have accepted governance from Zarahemla. Among the people in the “land” of Zarahemla are many who have different ideas about God and probably about economics (which was another long-standing issue that resurfaces frequently). The centralized control of these independent towns with perhaps differing ideas was weakened first by the split between king and church during the establishment of the churches. The reign of the judges had now altered the political organization to where it is probably that each community has its own judge to whom it looks, with the overarching control resting in the chief judge. This situation further separates and disperses the decision making and government, increasing the power of the local judges and decreasing the cultural vision that pushed to see a single person as the embodiment of their government. While there are years of peace, this combination of long-simmering contentions and an organizational structure that decentralized power, and therefore increased independence will come to cause even greater problems for Zarahemla.
Historical; the Maya World around the time of the reign of the judges
Mesoamerican archaeology divides the time periods of Maya culture into various stages, which do not precisely overlap with the major events in Book of Mormon history, since the periods are described by general cultural developments. The particular time period of the events at the end of the reign of Mosiah II and the beginning of the reign of the judges falls into the Late Preclassic Period, roughly dated from 400 B.C. to A.D. 250. John S. Henderson provides a general picture of the overall world into which the Book of Mormon might plausibly be placed at this point in time:
“Although some parts of the Maya world—mostly in the highlands—were firmly tied into the economic networks and related patterns of interaction of the Olmec world, centered to the west on the Gulf Coast, most early Maya communities, especially in the lowlands, were small, simple, egalitarian villages. By the end of the Middle Preclassic period, after 500 B.C., communities like Mirador were beginning to reflect a new developmental trajectory. Jewelry and other goods made from exotic raw materials indicate increasing prosperity, expanded economic ties to distant regions, and sharper differences in wealth and social status; large—scale, elaborately decorated public buildings reflect the emergence of powerful permanent leaders, chiefs or kings. These trends continued and intensified during the Late Preclassic period, setting the fundamental patterns of Classic—period Maya city—states.
The most distinctive features of political art and propaganda that would typify Maya states of the Classic period appeared first at Abaj Takalik and other towns in the highlands, the adjacent piedmont and coastal zones, and throughout the Intermediate Zone. Stelae with relief carving that depicted rulers in elaborate dress, studded with emblems of their office, also bore hieroglyphic texts recording their names, biographical details, and great deeds in the context of the Long Count calendar (Fig. 5-4).
Standing before public buildings, often paired with altars, these monuments reinforced the power of the lords both by highlighting their genealogical and supernatural connections and by celebrating the fact of their offices. Some aspects of this dynastic political art can be found in towns scattered across the Maya lowlands, where it would reach its full elaboration, in the Late Preclassic period. But there is no evidence of the full pattern – notably, monuments with texts that include Long Count dates – until the Classic period.” (Henderson, John S. The World of the Ancient Maya. Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 87-88).
The description of the general trend of civilization in this part of the world provides an fascinating backdrop for the events of the Book of Mormon during this period. This period sees, archaeologically, an increase in the development of kingship and attendant rites and public architecture. The Book of Mormon is similarly interested in kingship – and there appears to be an undercurrent of comparison between the Nephite kings in Zarahemla and unnamed other kings (see Mosiah 2:12-13).
Even more important for our understanding of the pressures that seem to erupt in the Book of Mormon is the increasing emphasis on wealth and social divisions that are seen archaeologically. These are the very same pressures that continue to plague the egalitarian Nephite ideals, as we have seen.