I smile a bit at the very first verse of this chapter, for we learn:
And it came to pass that after the space of two years that Abinadi came among them in disguise, that they knew him not, and began to prophesy among them, saying: Thus has the Lord commanded me, saying—Abinadi, go and prophesy unto this my people, for they have hardened their hearts against my words; they have repented not of their evil doings; therefore, I will visit them in my anger, yea, in my fierce anger will I visit them in their iniquities and abominations.
(Mosiah 12:1, my emphasis)
Abinadi’s disguise did not last very long, for he promptly announces himself. I’m not sure why this is. There’s been several suggestions, Alan Goff in particular appealing to the idea of a type scene in the Old Testament of a king or a prophet disguising themselves when going to see a prophet or another king (see here for a summary of the suggestion). I’m not convinced, however; not only are the proffered examples mostly kings (with only one offered example of a prophet in disguise), but crucially the prophet reveals himself after presenting his message to the king. Here, however, Abinadi promptly reveals himself when speaking to the people, long before seeing the king. So I’m not sure, but my gut instinct suggests something more is going on. Though, as suggested, it may well have a connection with Noah’s “who is Abinadi… or who is the Lord that shall bring upon my people such great affliction” from the preceding chapter (Mosiah 11:27).
Verse 3 of this chapter does appear to be a direct reply to Noah’s challenge:
And it shall come to pass that the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace; for he shall know that I am the Lord.
The Lord’s answer appears to be that the time will come when Noah will know full well the answer to his question, but by that point it will be far too late (and painful)!
I was also struck by verse 8, another part of Abinadi’s prophecy against the people:
And it shall come to pass that except they repent I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth; yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them for other nations which shall possess the land; yea, even this will I do that I may discover the abominations of this people to other nations. And many things did Abinadi prophesy against this people.
On one hand I was struck by the fact that, of course, this did eventually happen, albeit not with these people at this time, but with their descendants centuries hence. What stood out more, however, was I feel like this answers part of the puzzle as to why king Limhi in particular, when we heard from him a few chapters ago, was particularly interested to learn the contents of records his people had retrieved from the ruins of the civilisation northwards, and particularly the reason that civilisation had been destroyed (Mosiah 8:12). Remember, of course, that we’re in somewhat of a flashback sequence here: Limhi is the son of king Noah, speaking to Ammon some years later. But perhaps Limhi remembered these words of Abinadi, that have this concept of records being left behind and preserved by God of civilisations he has caused to be destroyed.
In Mosiah 11, I commented on some disingenuousness on the part of king Noah, but it’s interesting to see it also displayed by his people here too. Thus from verse 9 onwards:
And it came to pass that they were angry with him; and they took him and carried him bound before the king, and said unto the king: Behold, we have brought a man before thee who has prophesied evil concerning thy people, and saith that God will destroy them.
And he also prophesieth evil concerning thy life, and saith that thy life shall be as a garment in a furnace of fire.
And again, he saith that thou shalt be as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot.
And again, he saith thou shalt be as the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land. And he pretendeth the Lord hath spoken it. And he saith all this shall come upon thee except thou repent, and this because of thine iniquities.
And now, O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man?
(Mosiah 12:9-13, bold is my emphasis)
Now the people’s paraphrase of Abinadi’s words against the king in verse 10 is not word for word, but it’s close enough to what Abinadi said in verse 3. However, verses 11 and 12 are very interesting; verse 3 is the only thing Abinadi said about Noah specifically, so where’s the content of verses 11 and 12 coming from? Now verse 8 does state that Abinadi prophesied “many things” against the people, so perhaps it’s not mentioned. But I have another theory. It seems to me that there is a resemblance (although a rather looser one) between the report in verses 11-12 and Abinadi’s words as we have them in the remainder of verses 2-7: there’s mention of beasts (v. 2), the wind (v. 6), of crops (grain in v. 6, implied by mention of stalk in verse 11). But crucially, these are not words that Abinadi directs against the king, but against the people.
My suggestion is that the people are offended not so much at Abinadi’s words against Noah as they are the words directed at them personally. Thus verse 13: “and now, O king, what great evil has thou done, or what great sins have they people committed, that we should be condemned of God, or judged of this man?” It is pitched as the people taking offence at words spoken against the king, but their real concern – being offended at works spoken about them – comes right out afterwards, despite the fact it appears they have recast many of Abinadi’s prophecies as being about the king in an attempt to rouse him to anger (Noah’s priests will also manipulate Noah by playing on his anger in Mosiah 17:12). And perhaps the passionate offence the people felt at Abinadi’s words against them also explains why they report these words less accurately than the actual words Abinadi directed against the king: in the former case their emotional reaction may even have affected their memory (anger strongly affects what people think they hear), while the words actually directed at the king himself were regarded more dispassionately.
Connected to this, in some degree, although this is not a new observation, is what I believe is the reason the priests of Noah end up quoting Isaiah 52:7-10 (incidentally a frequently quoted scripture in the Book of Mormon, albeit usually from better sources than the wicked priests):
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good; that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth;
Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion;
Break forth into joy; sing together ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem;
The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God?
Why would the priests of Noah quote these words and ask Abinadi about them? I think the crucial issue is that they’re trying to catch Abinadi out. All parties involved – king and people both – have taken offence at Abinadi’s prophecies of affliction and destruction. These verses, however, speak about “good tidings”, about those that preach “peace” and “salvation”, and speaking about how the Lord has “comforted his people [and] hath redeemed Jerusalem”. My suggestion is that the priests of Noah are offering these up as a contrast, an implied claim that they contradict Abinadi’s prophecies and so the latter can’t possibly be true. Of course Abinadi takes the opportunity they give him to speak and runs with it, but I think we can learn from the contrast between the two prophecies and the priests attempted misuse of Isaiah. For as readers, we can know, as they do not, that both prophecies are true.
Why is this important? Because I think the same temptation can exist today, to have a very selective image of God and his words. The priests of Noah appear to imply that because God has given prophecies offering hope, peace and good tidings, that he couldn’t possibly offer prophecies that threaten destruction and death. But he gave both. Likewise, as I’ve written about before, there’s selective images of Christ, that emphasis only a part of his character and teachings, and ignore those that run counter to it. Rather perversely, this makes Christ himself “un-Christlike” by some people’s selective definitions, but even more crucially it can be a species of idolatry, albeit of an idol that exists only in the mind.
We may all have favourite teachings in the scriptures, parts that particularly resonate with our personality, or which perhaps we need particularly need to hear. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we do need to be careful not to ignore those parts that may challenge us, or which differ from those that accord with us so well. It may well be that it is those passages we particularly need to pay attention too, just as Noah’s people really really needed to pay attention to Abinadi’s rather more grim prophecies. Likewise, just because we’re used to God speaking in a certain way, or on a certain topic, does not that he will not or cannot speak in very different ways and on different topics. We should not and cannot try to limit God’s word, either as it exists in the past or will exist in the future. All we’d succeed in doing is deafening ourselves to the full range of all that God has to tell us.