The 2017 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. We asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences, offering a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. This post features Nate Oman, Rollins Professor of Law at the law school of the College of William and Mary. He is a legal scholar and educator. Over the next few weeks you’ll hear from more participants of the 2017 Mormon Theology Seminar.
The great virtue of the Mormon Theology Seminar is the power of reading slowly. Pouring over Mosiah 15 for two weeks more than anything brought home to me the fact that the text of the Book of Mormon rewards those who read it carefully and slowly. My own engagement with the this passage ultimately centered on just three words “standing betwixt them and justice”—an image that Abinandi uses to describe the role of Christ in the Atonement. Mosiah 15:9 is the only place in LDS scripture where this image is used in connection with the Atonement. My suspicion was that the phrase could be understood as a military metaphor for Atonement, with Christ standing as a defender, protecting a sinner from an attacking justice. Such a reading is suggestive on several fronts.
First, I believe that it is possible to argue that Abinadi was a soldier, based on Mosiah 11:19-20, where Abinadi is identified as “a man among them” with the most natural antecedent of “them” being the victorious Nephite army referred to in verse 19. I would also point out that this reading is also consistent with alternative theories of Abinadi’s identity, such as that he was a priest of some kind, which would make sense of his deep engagement with Isaiah and the law of Moses. Indeed, priests are included in the Nephites named in verse 19 and warrior priests are suggested by the easy conversion of Noah’s priests into raiders in Mosiah 20. (Notice that raiding seems to be the model of warfare between the Lamanites and the Zeniffites, e.g. Mosiah 11:16-17.) If Abinadi was in fact a soldier, then the military metaphor would be natural.
Reading the text as using this image makes sense within the broader context of the ideology of holy war in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The Bible regularly invokes the idea that divine justice is revealed in the outcome of military confrontations, an idea the draws on the widespread idea of trial by ordeal in which the justice of a litigant’s case is revealed through some act of divine judgment. The ideology of holy war also appears in the Book of Mormon, but becomes increasingly problematic and, I would argue, is ultimately rejected by Mormon. We can read all of these ideas as feeding into Abinadi’s military image of Atonement. Rather than accepting the vengeful attack of justice as divine retribution, Abinadi suggests that justice is itself an enemy from which Christ protects us. The image both invokes and subverts the logic of holy war and thus, I would argue, points toward a vision of Atonement as calling us to transcend efforts to achieve or model righteousness through domination of others.
My reading of Mosiah 15:9 may or may not be correct. It is certainly open to plausible objections. For me, the excitement of the seminar was less in the particular conclusion I reached on this text, or that my co-participants reached with regard to the passages and ideas with which they wrestled. Rather, what was delightful was the opportunity to engage in a close reading that was ultimately not apologetic or historical but theological. To be sure, we discussed alternative approaches to the text from the theory that it represented a bit of frontier fiction by Joseph Smith to possible resonances with ancient Mesoamerica or Hebrew (we had the good fortunate to have participants with graduate-level training in both areas). We were careful to look at the textual history of each passage from Joseph Smith’s dictation to the current LDS edition of the Book of Mormon. However, in all of this our goal was to find out what the text might be saying, and how what it was saying could inform our own thinking about the human relationship to the divine.