Chapter 9: The Influence of Prior Governments on Reign of the Judges
Influence of Brass Plates
In this work we are primarily concerned with the Nephite experience with self government. However, since our understanding of this experience can be materially aided if we have in mind the religious and political beliefs handed down by their ancestors, we will devote this chapter to a discussion of those governments under which they and their forefathers had lived.
The Brass Plates brought to America by the Nephites contained a detailed record of the laws and governments of the Israelites down to the year 600 B.C., and were regarded by them as the word of God. These plates were to them both the law and the prophets. They contained the will of the Lord on matters both religious and political and their influence on Nephite governments in any period can hardly be overestimated.
The Nephites were led by living prophets to whom they looked for new revelations. But the Brass Plates contained the Ten Commandments and these were the rock foundation of their religious-political code of justice.
The Concept That the Lord Is King and Lawgiver
There is probably no truth contained in the Brass Plates which had a greater impact on Nephite history than this: The Lord is political ruler and lawgiver, and the people can look to Him for guidance and protection when they are obedient to His commandments. The Book of Mormon, like the Old Testament, is filled with accounts of divine intervention [p. 54] on behalf of those who serve and place their trust in the Lord. Throughout their entire history the Nephites were continually finding themselves in such desperate circumstances that they were compelled to go to Him for help.
There Was Only One Set of Laws and They Came from God
Those who accept the Lord as king and lawgiver should consider themselves as rebels against His wishes and authority if they enact laws contrary to His laws. To adopt and enforce laws which punish conduct which He has not condemned, is in and of itself a sin of the most serious nature. It would be a forcible taking of life, liberty or property without justification and thus a violation of His commandments. No one has a right to alter the laws of God. Moses told his people:
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. (Deut. 4:2)
In the days of the Israelites the Ten Commandments applied as much to those who enforced them as they did to those against whom they were enforced. Furthermore, not only was it a sin in the eyes of the Lord to punish the innocent, but it was a sin to fail to punish the guilty. (Deut. 19:18-21)
The Israelites entered into a blood covenant to obey the laws, statutes and judgments: (Ex. 24:7, 8) they were to be binding upon them and their posterity forever; (Deut. 29:29) the people were commanded to teach them diligently unto their children; (Deut. 6:7-10) and as a nation they were to be blessed or cursed depending upon the extent to which the laws were obeyed. (Deut. 11:26-28)
Only the Prophets and the Righteous Should Hold Public Office
It is illogical to choose men to judge and enforce laws who fail to obey the laws themselves. Such a person is dishonest and cannot be [p. 55] trusted. Unless he believes in a law firmly enough to obey it, he will not be respected and would be a hypocrite if he enforced it.
Since the Israelites and the Nephites believed that they were enforcing the laws of God, the only acceptable candidates for the position of judges were prophets and righteous men. These of course were their religious leaders, priests and teachers. When the political system was established among the Israelites, this is the instruction given concerning the selection of judges or rulers:
Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God; men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens; (Ex 18:21; see also Deut. 1:15)
From the following scripture it appears that after the Levites were separated from the other tribes to serve as priests and do the service of the tabernacle, they also served in the capacity of appellate judges:
If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment . . . thou shalt come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days, and enquire; and they shall shew thee the sentence of judgment. (Deut. 17:8-9; see also Ex. 28:30)
Israelite history provides examples of judges such as Samson and Eli whose personal lives were not entirely above reproach. However as a general rule, the judges were the most righteous and God-fearing men who could be found.
When the Israelites rejected the Lord as their king and demanded a king like other nations, (1 Sam. 8:6, 7) the Lord had His prophets choose their rulers and anoint them to their positions as kings. In so doing the people continued to recognize the Lord as the governing hand in their political affairs.
Union of Church and State among the Israelites
Inasmuch as the commandments, statutes and judgments of God were enforced by the Israelites as the laws of the land, and inasmuch as those who taught and enforced them were prophets, priests and other religious leaders, there appeared to be no necessity for a separate state [p. 56] organization. Indeed what functions would remain for a civil government to perform under such circumstances? The religious and political affairs were almost completely integrated and the people could see no need for forming a separate government organization which would only laden them with taxes.
Insofar as we can determine, the united church and state organization had little need to impose taxes. Apparently the people forged their own weapons of war, and when contributions were needed for the building of such things as the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle, the people stepped forward and made sufficient voluntary contributions. The tithes collected seemed to provide all which was needed to carry on united activities. (Lev. 27:26-34)
The Levites who spent their time in serving in religious and judicial capacities, were supported by the tithes of the people. (Num. 18:21) Of course when the people chose to have a king as other nations, their monarchs did not hesitate to impose heavy taxes just as the Lord warned would be the case. (l Sam. 8:10-18)
Influence of Nephite Monarchies on the Reign of the Judges
Since the monarchial form of government which existed among the Nephites appeared to be a continuation of the system of king-rule among the Israelites, we seem justified in assuming that it served to strengthen and perpetuate the customs and influence of the Israelite political system. There are however, some facts related in the Book of Mormon which deserve special mention.
Nephite Kings Were Outstanding Examples of Personal Righteousness
The Book of Mormon indicates that in most instances, the Nephite kings were inspired prophets of God. The record states that Nephi, Mosiah I, Benjamin and Mosiah II were all exceptional men and great leaders in every sense of the word. Not only were they mighty kings and prophets, but skilled military leaders as well. Mormon is especially lavish [p. 57] in his praise of King Benjamin. (Words of Mormon) He does him the well deserved honor of copying into the record a part of his final discourse.
No Imposition of Taxes
One crowning evidence of the superiority of the Nephite kings over many of the Israelite monarchs, was that they labored with their own hands for their support rather than burdening the people with taxes. (Mos. 2:14; 29:40) Of course the wicked King Noah imposed a twenty percent tax on his people, (Mosiah 11:3) and the Lamanite kings went even farther and exacted a fifty percent tax from the same group. (Mosiah 19:26)
It also might be noted that after a great many of his men had been killed in trying to throw off Lamanite bondage, King Limhi,
. . . commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and children, that they might not perish with hunger; and this they did because of the greatness of their number that had been slain. (Mosiah 21:17)
We must recognize however that this edict by King Limhi was for the purpose of more equitably apportioning the cost of war rather than to enrich the king or any of his subjects.
The Law of Moses Enforced by the Nephite Kings
As was true of the Israelites during their periods of righteousness, the Nephite kings enforced the Ten Commandments with their related statutes and judgments. (1 Ne. 4:15; 2 Ne. 5:10; Jarom 1:5) In his great discourse King Benjamin reminded his people;
Neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another, nor that ye should murder, or plunder, or steal, or commit adultery; nor even have I suffered that ye should commit any manner of wickedness, and have taught you that ye should keep the commandments of the Lord, in all things which he hath commanded you(Mosiah 2:13;, for a similar statement by King Mosiah II, see Mosiah 29:14, 15) [p. 58]
Union of Church and State During the Reign of Nephite Kings
Because the Nephite kings were, in most instances, also prophets of God, they did not need the guidance of other prophets as did so many of the Israelite kings. Thus there was an even greater unity of church and state within the Nephite monarchies than within those of the Israelites.
The Nephite kings appointed the priests and teachers who assisted them in teaching and enforcing the laws of God throughout their realm. (Mosiah 6:3; 11:5)
The Law of Primogeniture
One common practice among both the Israelites and the Nephites which had an enormous influence on the Nephite government called the reign of the judges, was that of handing down religious and political offices from father to eldest son. It will be remembered that the right to officiate in the Aaronic Priesthood among the Israelites was restricted to the descendants of Levi and that the right to reign as king usually descended from father to son.
The insistence of Laman and Lemuel on their right to rule because they were the elder brethren, caused an enormous amount of bloodshed. (Mosiah 10:11-17) The practice among the Nephites of appointing the eldest son of the previous leader as his successor influenced the people in their voting during the reign of the judges.
The foregoing should help us understand more clearly the reasons and objectives of certain leaders who undertook to alter the laws and form of the Nephite government. Especially should it help explain why such leaders were able to obtain such large followings. The people who lived under the reign of the judges still remembered and studied the political systems of their ancestors and often sought to return to them. [p. 59]