“Women and Children Did Offer Them Up as Sacrifices Unto Their Idol Gods”

Brant Gardner

Culture/Text: Mormon has mentioned prisoners previously; but this is his first mention of women and children captives and his first mention of human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was entrenched in Mesoamerican culture and was certainly practiced before this year. I argued, in the commentary on the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, for sacrifices needed to accompany a coronation as the best explanation of those events. (See commentary accompanying Alma 16:3–4.)

If human sacrifice had been a part of Mesoamerican culture for hundreds of years and if Nephite captives had been sacrificed during those centuries, why does Mormon mention it now? I argue that this is the first time that women and children, not just captured warriors, have been used for this purpose.

Mormon was probably not an eyewitness to the sacrifices, since the sacrifice of women and children would have occurred in cities with temples and altars, not on the battlefield. Thus, his statement that the women and children were being sacrificed reveals his unstated assumption that sacrifice was the reason for taking captives. What is new is that women and children, not just men, are being sacrificed. This detail contrasts with his own cultural expectations, thus providing valuable clues to interpret his cultural vision and providing evidence of his “high-context” approach, meaning that he makes numerous assumptions about his audience’s knowledge and background. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh comment on this phenomenon among biblical writers:

Biblical authors, like most authors writing in the high-context ancient Mediterranean world, presume that readers have a broad and concrete knowledge of their common social context. That is a given. Moreover, a document like John makes the additional assumption that its original readers/hearers were members of an alternate society. It expects them to have a high knowledge of that peculiar context and thus offers little by way of extended explanation.
… By contrast, “low-context” societies are those that assume “low” knowledge of the context of any communication. They produce highly specific and detailed documents that leave little for the reader to fill in or supply.

Verse 14 is an example of high-context expectation. Mormon has never mentioned human sacrifice before, even though the Anti-Nephi-Lehi story suggests that the practice was known in Book of Mormon times and archaeology also suggests its presence. Mormon could not have been unaware of male sacrifice. He is remarking on the sacrifice of women and children.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6