Wednesday, May 1, 2024

The Bloodthirsty Commander and King Benjamin's Preemptive War


        Part of an ongoing series about preemptive war in the Book of Mormon. See part onepart twopart threepart fourpart fivepart sixpart sevenpart eight.

        Twice in recent years writers have used Zeniff’s description of his “blood thirsty and austere” commander as evidence that diminishes or casts doubt on the morality of the preemptive attack listed in Mosiah 9:1.

        The first mention comes from a piece which discusses the potential wordplay on “good.” The authors mentioned the preemptive war in Mosiah 9:1, but then focus on the term bloodthirsty. As far as I know, they seem to be the only other authors to recognize the preemptive war in that verse. They only mention it in passing, but they seem to connect the strategy with the description of Zeniff’s bloodthirsty commander.

        The second attempt is from Mark Henshaw who claims the commander's "bloodthirsty" nature undermines the righteousness of the attack. Henshaw’s opposition in this case is especially frustrating because earlier in the same piece he said there is no “unequivocal case of righteous preemptive military action,” as though the Book of Mormon is supposed to be an exhaustive guide to strategy instead of a religious text that testifies of Jesus Christ and his mission. But he also questions the lack of Mormon’s editorial dissent as evidence that favors preemptive war. In other words, the silence of Mormon in not explicitly endorsing preemptive war is enough evidence for Henshaw when dismissing the concept, but Mormon’s lack of explicit dissent is not enough when supporting the concept. It certainly seems like a standard about explicit details that changes based on the side he wants to favor.

        Regardless of his shifting standards regarding details, those we do have in the text do not suggest that the bloodthirsty commander makes this attack unrighteous because the Book of Mormon outlines the importance of the heart, the unreliability of Zeniff’s narrative, and implications of Omni’s narrative that suggests King Benjamin at least allowed this attack.

The Heart:

        As I’ve written about often, the heart remains the most important part of the just warrior. The bloody accounts at the end of the Nephite nation seem like an odd place to make that argument, but they represent the best example of how readers have missed the heart of the matter. A careful reading of the account in Mormon chapter 3 and 4 shows that Mormon is not objecting to offensive warfare but objecting to the wicked state of their hearts.

        In describing the behavior that led to his refusal to lead the Nephites, Mormon wrote (Mormon 39-10):

And now, because of this great thing which my people, the Nephites, had done, they began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies.

And they did swear by the heavens, and also by the throne of God, that they would go up to battle against their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land. 

        It was the boasting and swearing that Mormon rejected, and the strategy has been thrown out with the wicked bathwater. As I remind people often, the Nephites lost and were annihilated on the defensive as well. But we blame their hearts for their wickedness and defeat, not the strategy. Once the pattern is recognized that a person can renounce war in their heart while wielding the sword, it becomes clear that it permeates the Book of Mormon, and they can even launch righteous preemptive wars. The importance of the heart includes many scriptures that weren’t considered pertinent to warfare. For instance, in the next chapter of Mormon, “it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (Mormon 4:5). And in verse 11: “every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually.”

       I could go on for thousands of words, as this subject makes up significant parts of the first and eleventh chapter of my book, as well as multiple blog posts and presentations. But the point is that strategy is assessed independently of the heart. And thus the bloodthirsty commander of the expedition doesn’t necessarily negate the potential reasons for the attack, and the hearts that launched the attack.

The Narrator:

        We don’t even know this commander is bloodthirsty because we depend on an unreliable narrator that admits to seeing what he wants to see in others and being overzealous to the detriment of his own people (Mosiah 9:3). He saw the good in the Lamanites while later admitting he was deceived by cunning (Mosiah 10:18). Despite seeing what was good in them a chapter before, Zeniff then tells us the Lamanites are “wild and bloodthirsty” (Mosiah 10:12).

        If he was so mistaken about the Lamanites, going from good to bloodthirsty and cunning in his description of them, he could be just as mistaken when discussing his “bloodthirsty” commander. In fact, careful reading suggests Zeniff was the aggressor that caused the conflict. (Since Zeniff is giving a primary account, we should accept his narrative more than the secondhand Omni narrative that suggests the commander caused the fight.)

        In Mosiah 9:2 Zeniff “contended” with his brethren and leader to make a treaty with them. Zeniff was the one disobeying orders or the intent of the mission. He argued his point so much that apparently, he was bound and set for execution because he had to be “rescued” by those who agreed with him. As far as I know, this is the only example of munity among Nephite armies. And Zeniff was the culprit. Mormon argued his people were “without order” (Moroni 9:18), and Moroni threatened to “stir up insurrections” (Alma 60:27), but this is the only actual recorded civil war.

        In contrast, the austere and bloodthirsty leader that Zeniff defied was simply following orders or the intent of the mission in the face of intransigence. Zeniff’s disobedience is reinforced when he recounts that in their second attempt Zeniff admits the Lord smote he and his people because they were slow to remember their God (Mosiah 9:3).

        Zeniff is the narrator and sees some good in the Lamanites. But in a mere three verses he is mistaken about the Lamanites, instigated a fight with his commander, mutinous to the point of treason, seems to cause a civil war, and the Lord smote him and his followers for their unrighteousness. A chapter later his people are snared by cunning and unprepared in their defenses. (He had to “invent weapons” in [9:16], and despite being a scout he didn’t set guards until [10:2]). In later chapters they are often wicked (9:17; 11:2-14), and the Lamanites eventually enslaved his people. Zeniff’s account admits in so many ways that he is horribly misguided and that should include the bloodthirsty commander.

The Omni Narrative:

        We should think further about the very start of Zeniff’s account. Zeniff’s account makes it sound like a military expedition. But Omni’s account makes this an armed expedition to settle the land (Omni 27). The Book of Mormon doesn’t record free-lance Nephite attacks from armies. The army is raised (Alma 16:3) and gathered (Helaman 1:19). It is then led by a captain or chief captain appointed by the government or the people. The Book of Mormon does include the free movement of settlers such as Hagoth (Alma 63:-5-6) and Alma the Elder escaping the Lamanite king. But the Anti Nephi Lehi’s had to receive permission to enter Nephite lands (Alma 27:15). And an expedition that was aimed to expel the Lamanites by force of arms in a preemptive attack could be considered an act of war. And a similar expedition by Morianton to “possess” the land of Bountiful made Moroni fearful enough to intercept him (Alma 50:29, 33.)

        If King Benjamin opposed this, it beggars’ imagination to believe that he would have allowed it to continue. There is a chance he didn’t know about it. But the last writer of the Small Plates of Nephi had a brother that joined the attack (Omni 30). And that same writer delivered the plates to King Benjamin (25). In fact, it seems that the loss of that brother ended the direct descendants of Nephi and record keepers, which necessitated the transfer to King Benjamin. All of which suggests a close community which undermines the idea that Zeniff’s party was a secret, free lance attack.

        This means that King Benjamin, “a just man,” who “fought in the strength of the Lord,” the heart that fights righteous wars, actively equipped, supplied, and launched this attack or at the very least, allowed the expedition (Omni 25, Words of Mormon 1:14)! He looked at their swords, heard their intentions to possess the land by preemptively attacking the people there, and didn’t stop it.

       The more passive allowance seems more likely for two reasons. First, the only account of war in this period, Words of Mormon 1:14, says the Nephites “drove the Lamanites out of all the land of their inheritance.” Unless “lands of inheritance” include the aborted attack on the Land of Nephi King Benjamin did not actively launch the attack. In allowing the expedition to leave King Benjamin could have removed some troublesome Nephites (Words of Mormon 1:15-16). These people were so troublesome that upon arrival they immediately descended into civil war where they killed their own kin (Mosiah 9:2).

        Given the separation of the settlers and the Nephites, and the difficulty of the settlers to even find the Nephites decades later (Mosiah 8:8), this seems more like King Benjamin letting separatist settlers leave than some sort of state policy of King Benjamin. All the same, King Benjamin still allowed a preemptive attack and there is no recorded displeasure or “thus we see” sermon from Mormon.

        I’m glad more scholars are studying Mosiah 9:1 and noticing its implications for preemptive war. Unfortunately they are reading too much into the description of the bloodthirsty commander, and not enough about the ample context found throughout Zeniff’s narrative and the Book of Mormon. That context tells us that the heart of the person making the strategy is the most important factor in determining its righteousness. Zeniff is a narrator that consistently shows flaws like his own wickedness, poor decisions, and misreading of the people around him. And there is evidence that the righteous King Benjamin, at least allowed this expedition and could have launched it. For all of these reasons, the description of the bloodthirsty commander by Zeniff does not condemn the use of preemptive war.

 Thanks for reading. If you found value in this work please considering donating to get more of it. You can use the paypal button at the bottom of the page or buy one of books linked in the top left. 

No comments: