“The First Year of the Reign of the Judges Over the People of Nephi”

Brant Gardner

Text: Mormon begins a new book but continues to abridge the information as he did in Mosiah. The reason for the new book is obvious: the change in government. The book of Mosiah concludes: “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” (Mosiah 29:47). Similarly, the book of Alma begins by marking the years that are now dated from the establishment of the reign of the judges. Mormon retains the division of books from the original plates rather than creating 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.

The book of Alma demonstrates a similar beginning. While the monarchy has ended, the judgeship will function dynastically. Alma2 is not descended from Mosiah; hence, he becomes the head of a new dynasty. The book of Alma signals his position as the chief ruler—the first high judge of the new governmental order. (Mosiah, Part 1: Context, Chapter 2, “Mormon’s Structural Editing: Chapters and Books.”)

Culture/Chronology: When the people of the land of Zarahemla agreed to abandon kingship for the rule of judges, they accepted a major change in their understanding of their relationship to their rulers. A marker of that change was to begin a new count of years. Rather than using the departure from Jerusalem as their base year, they begin their chronology with the first year of the reign of the judges. According to the correlation used in this commentary, the reign of the judges begins in 92 B.C. (For information on calculating Nephite years, see commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 10:4.)

There was no externally compelling reason for the people of Zarahemla to reorder their conception of time. Nevertheless, they discarded the traditional mode of counting years for a new one. Such calendric manipulations are not made upon a whim. How the passage of years is conceived partially orders our perception of the world. In the modern world, the division of time into B.C. and A.D. reflects the Western importance of Christianity. Even though that calendar change came much later than Christ’s life, it nevertheless signaled the importance attached by church and state to that event.

The change in Zarahemla was timed to a particular event and the shift similarly signaled the significance of replacing the monarchy. It was particularly significant since it meant that they could keep track of time very differently than any of their neighbors, whose calendars they had already decided against. The Zarahemlaites’ new organization of time emphasized their difference from other Mesoamerican societies. Unique calendars were no surprise in Mesoamerica. Even among similar linguistic groups, the calendars could have differences, including different starting dates.

Mosiah the Lawmaker: Verse 1 describes Mosiah2 as lawgiver: “he had established laws.… ” Nevertheless, Mosiah2 seems to indicate that laws already exist, and that, at least conceptually, kings and laws may be part of the same governmental order:

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;
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.
And now behold I say unto you, it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.
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 29:22–25)

Mosiah2 is denouncing the devastation wreaked by an evil king but assumes that, even so, he will enact laws (v. 23). Mosiah clarifies that the traditional laws “which have been given you by our fathers” were “correct” because they had been “given… by the hand of the Lord.” Thus, Mosiah2 does not appear to be creating brand-new laws. Yet beginning with the book of Alma, he will be considered to the law’s originator. Mosiah2’s contribution to the law was to shift the ultimate responsibility for correct decisions from the king to the rule of law. Law replaced the king as the basis for judgment. Thus, Mosiah2is the establisher of the law because he elevated the existing laws to their supreme position. The judge system would have been impossible without this near-sanctification of law, because otherwise there would have been no measuring stick against which to judge.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4