No one teaches sermons about Zeniff. He is mentioned more or less only in passing in the book of Mosiah, yet he plays an important role in the overall story of how the Book of Mormon plays out.
Everything I reference in what comes below comes from Mosiah 9-10. What makes it new is that for the first time I see the possibility of a greater story embedded in these verses than I ever saw before and that I was ever taught was there before.
Because I am not aware that any prophets have taught this information, please DON’T take it as absolute doctrine. Take it with a grain of salt, for it might all be true, but we have no revelation from one of God’s prophets saying that it is true. If you know me, you know I am very careful not to put anything forward that isn’t based on the teachings of both the scriptures and the prophets. In this case, it is definitely based on the scriptures, but as far as I know, this view is based solely on my own thinking. I hope you will comment with your thoughts once you have read the article.
Zeniff the man
When king Mosiah was told to flee the land of Nephi to avoid being destroyed by the Lamanites, he discovered the people of Zarahemla, who also left Jerusalem shortly after Lehi left. We don’t know how long Mosiah’s people lived among the people of Zarahemla before Zeniff’s story began. Zeniff, himself, says he had a knowledge of “the land of our fathers’ first inheritance,” but he never states that he actually lived there.
Zeniff was sent out with an army to scout out the Lamanites who had taken over the land of Nephi when the Nephites fled, abandoning their cities. We don’t know what the orders of this army or group of men were. All we know is that there were a lot of them, and that they had been sent out to learn more about what had happened to their old homeland. They were sent out by Mosiah, the prophet, so they weren’t sent out to start a war, since that would be counter to everything the Lord had taught the people. The Lord has always told His people that they can defend themselves, but unless specifically commanded to do so, they can’t go to battle until their lives and their homes are directly threatened. So we don’t know why there were so many sent into the wilderness.
We know two things about this group. The first is that Zeniff was sent with them as a spy. The second is that the leader of the group, whose name is not given, was “an austere and a blood-thirsty man” (Mosiah 9:2). If you read between the lines of verses 1 and 2, this leader wanted to kill all the Lamanites he could. But, for whatever reason, Zeniff had seen that their society had some good aspects to it, and he wanted to spare them. We are never told exactly why he was so enamored with the Lamanite society, but he was.
An argument broke out within the group over what should be done with their knowledge of the Lamanites. Should they kill them or not? Zeniff was on the “spare them” side, and the leader of the group wanted them dead. The debate grew heated to the point that blows were given, and the men split into two factions who actually warred with their own fellows, father against father, brother against brother, until almost all of the army was dead. Zeniff apparently became the new leader of the survivors, and lead those still alive back home to tell the tale to their families. All of this took place in just the first two verses of Mosiah 9.
Zeniff, himself, admits he was over-zealous, or excessively zealous. To be zealous is to be very active or diligent about something, but to be overly active or diligent to see that something happens takes it up a notch. In today’s terms we might say he was obsessed with returning to the land of Nephi. But why? this is the question of the day, and one for which I have a proposition that might explain it.
Eager to return, he gathers as many people who will listen to him as he can find, and assembles a group of settlers who all want to return to the land of their first inheritance to live among the Lamanites. This group were religious, but weren’t very conscientious about living up to their religious commitments, and Zeniff uses their lax attitudes about how they worshiped God to explain why they had so many troubles and trials while they traveled in the wilderness.
That is the explanation of those two verses. Now I would like to ask some questions about what was happening. The Lamanites had an “eternal hatred” toward the Nephites. Why would the Nephites want to go back and live among the Lamanites, knowing they had this hatred for them? What gave them the impression that the Lamanites would even remotely consider vacating whole cities to allow them to move back into their old stomping grounds? That doesn’t make any sense, does it?
So far, nothing Zeniff is doing makes any social or political sense if all we are going by is what we are told on the surface of his own story. Remember that these chapters were written by Zeniff. I don’t think he was very keen on the idea of admitting to the world just how bad of an idea this was to try to return to the land of Nephi. As far as he is willing to go in his own recounting of his story is to chalk it up to being a monstrous miscalculation and mistake by admitting that he was over-zealous in his behavior. But to this point in the story there is nothing that would indicate he was being over-zealous, so he must have been making that statement from the clarity of 20/20 hindsight.
I need to refer directly to verse five, so let’s quote it here.
5 And it came to pass that I went again with four of my men into the city, in unto the king, that I might know of the disposition of the king, and that I might know if I might go in with my people and possess the land in peace.
Zeniff “went again … into the city, in unto the king.” That means he had probably been in to speak to the king before. How many talks had Zeniff had with the King? Had the king sold Zeniff on the advantages of living among his people on his first visit when he came as a spy? Is that why he was so desirous not to destroy them? Had the king given Zeniff an indication that he would welcome Zeniff bringing settlers to live in the land of Nephi? Why else would Zeniff assume the Lamanites would tolerate Nephites living among them? This has all the makings of a major book or movie drama.
When Zeniff went in unto the king to see if he would let his people move into the land of Nephi, the king promised they could have two whole cities. He commanded his own people to move out so Zeniff’s people could move back into their old homes. What king does that? He was letting the object of their eternal hatred move into their own neighborhood, and making his own people give up their homes for their greatest enemy. Either king Laman was really and truly one of the most benevolent kings on earth, or he had sold Zeniff a bill of goods because Zeniff was gullible enough to buy them. From what we learn later on, it was that Zeniff was just that gullible. I think that is why he kindly calls himself over-zealous in his own history. That is a polite way of telling us he was completely duped by king Laman.
In verse eight we learn that the Lamanites were either really lazy or they simply lacked the knowledge of how to build buildings like the Nephites did. The Nephites had to repair all their city walls and build new buildings. This tells us that the Lamanites were more than willing to live in what someone else built, but they knew nothing about maintaining or improving what they had taken.
After 12 years king Laman began to get nervous that his scheme to bring the Nephites into bondage would backfire. He couldn’t let them get too powerful or grow too large or he wouldn’t be able to keep them under control. This began his systematic stirring up of his people to hate the Nephites (again). Over and over again in the Book of Mormon we learn that even though the Lamanites don’t like the Nephites, they also know that they rarely win any wars with them. The Nephites almost always win, so the Lamanites have to be made really angry for them to enter into yet another war. This is why we are always told that they had to stir them up to anger before they were willing to go to war. And later on they were so reluctant to go to war with the Nephites the king had to send his army out to compel the people to take up arms or lose their life from their own army.
It is in verse 12 that we learn why they were willing to go to war with the people of Zeniff – they were lazy. They were promised that if they went to war they could live off the labors and fruits of the labor of the Nephites. Sweet! This appears to have been the plan of king Laman all along.
12 Now they were a and an people; therefore they were desirous to bring us into bondage, that they might glut themselves with the labors of our hands; yea, that they might feast themselves upon the flocks of our fields.
Clever king Laman. Did he sweet talk Zeniff into coming back to the land of Nephi with promises of free land, ready-built cities, and prosperity, planning all along to enslave the whole lot of them so they wouldn’t have to grow anything for themselves? This appears to be what Zeniff is reporting in his own record of events. Oh, and did I mention that Zeniff got to be king in the bargain? Good deal for Zeniff all the way around, until the hidden balloon payment came due on the settlement of the land of Nephi and he and his people became the slaves of the Lamanites.
When the Lamanites came upon the people when they were out working in their fields and began to slay them and to carry off their animals, they all fled to the king for protection. Sadly, king Zeniff was woefully unprepared to protect his people, since he thought he was on such peaceful terms with the Lamanites. In verse 16 he admits he was improvising to protect his people.
16 And it came to pass that I did arm them with bows, and with arrows, with swords, and with cimeters, and with clubs, and with slings, and with all manner of weapons which we could invent, and I and my people did go forth against the Lamanites to battle.
Did you catch that comment in the middle of the verse? He says that “I did arm them … with all manner of weapons which we could invent …” They were scrambling to get up to speed before they would be forced to face the full might of the Lamanite army.
I believe one of the verses that makes this part of the story so valuable to us is verse 17.
17 Yea, in the of the Lord did we go forth to battle against the Lamanites; for I and my people did cry mightily to the Lord that he would us out of the hands of our enemies, for we were awakened to a remembrance of the deliverance of our fathers.
Earlier on in his record he admitted that they faced many trials because they had forgotten their God. Now he tells us that by remembering God and remembering all the times and ways in which He had delivered their forefathers, they were able to muster the faith that God would protect them this time as well. Think back on your knowledge of scriptural stories. Can you think of very many instances when the Lord expected anyone to trust Him blindly, without any evidence at all? In order for faith to be exercised, there must be some sort of evidence first. It is in that evidence that enables us to have faith that the Lord will do more of the same. So in all these experiences we are told to remember. Remember God’s dealings with His people in the past, how He delivered them and protected and saved them from their enemies when all else looked hopelessly lost.
Note that in the remaining verses of this chapter it demonstrates that exercising faith in God did indeed result in being protected. They lost only a couple of hundred men in the war, but the Lamanites lost thousands. The losses among the Lamanites were almost 10 to every 1 soldier who died of the Nephites.
Now that Zeniff knew they were living in the heart of enemy territory, he set guards all around their lands so they could be warned of any approaching army. For 10 more years they had peace. It appears that king Laman waited too long in his plan to subjugate the Nephites. During this time of peace for the Nephites Laman died, and his son ruled in his stead. His son decided to take up where his father left off. He began to incite the people against the Nephites so they would be willing to once again go to war. Again, we can but assume it was with the promises of being able to live off the free labor of a whole mini nation of slaves who would do all the work for them.
In the previous paragraph I gave king Laman’s goals for subjugating the Nephites. In this set of verses Zeniff outlines the reasons Lamanites in general hated the Nephites. These reasons always seem to crop up every time there is a call for war. It is a monstrous sense of entitlement that was taught to Laman and Lemuel’s posterity that they never let go of. They were always the poor cousins to the Nephites, jealous of their prosperity, wealth, and glamor. They envied the Nephites, telling themselves that those things really belonged to the Lamanites, and would have if only Nephi hadn’t run away with half the population and stolen the government, etc., etc.
Zeniff ends his record by saying that because they had turned to the Lord for help, and had prepared themselves to be able to protect themselves, when the Lamanites came into their lands again, they slew them with such a great slaughter that they didn’t even bother to number all the dead. He ends his record this way:
22 And now I, being old, did confer the kingdom upon one of my sons; therefore, I say no more. And may the Lord my people. Amen.
Lessons learned from Zeniff
Some of the greatest stories in the Book of Mormon come from the events that surround Zeniff’s people. We get the conversion of Alma the Elder, who listened to the teachings of Abinadi. We sorrow over the wickedness caused by Zeniff’s son, Noah who perverted all that was good his father taught the people. We have captivity and miracles that lead to their escape and eventual reunification with the rest of the people of Zarahemla. All of this came about because of Zeniff’s gullible and overzealous behavior.
All these events didn’t just happen magically. There was intrigue and plotting, lying and sabotage. As exciting as the life of Zeniff and his people were, what we need to be looking at is the lesson that they learned the hard way. We need the Lord. Life will always find a way to get out of our control, whether by someone else’s design or just because that is what happens in life. The Lord is our rock and our strength. We need to remember all the times He has come to our rescue, not just when He rescued our ancestors or some other people in another time and place.
When we recognize God’s influence in our lives and see all the times He has intervened in both little and big ways to rescue or to make a way for our escape from hardship or continuing hardship, it will help us exercise greater faith in Him once again. Remembering is the key.
Click the link below to read a PDF version of this article.
Kelly: You should write a book with this plot. This is terrific. I love the way you express yourself. I was glued to the story. Why not write a book????? You already know how to write, you do it well, and the plot is yours for the taking.
DO IT. Mum
It says in the scriptures that Zeniff led them righteously, and I’m not so sure that’s the case. I believe it should say he eventually led them righteously at times. His over zealous caused them to be deceived, smitten, and brought even deaf among his people. He was blind to a King Laman, and completely fooled. He then turned the kingdom over to his son Noah who was an complete idiot and ruined so many lives and families, leading his people in certain destruction and spiritual death. I can’t fully agree with Zeniff leading his people righteously scripture.
I think being overzealous is more about lacking wisdom. He was so anxious to get something he wanted greatly that he didn’t use proper caution and was beguiled by king Laman. As to Noah, my wife and I have been discussing several possibilities about him, and we are leaning toward the belief that he was vain and weak willed. He surrounded himself by councilors who were more interested in seeing what they could get out of their puppet king. They used flattery to talk him into all the things they themselves wanted. I think the scriptures, though thin, could make a good case for this. That also doesn’t make Zeniff, his father wicked. Perhaps not wise, but certainly not wicked.
I wouldn’t say Zeniff is wicked, but if He served righteously even with the mistakes he made along the way, then it makes me feel good about myself! That gives all a hope that serving righteously means we get room for errors, even errors because of lack of wisdom.
Great article, I stumbled across it while I was preparing my Seminary lesson. I enjoyed your insights and the context it gives to the story. Your mum is right, it sounds like a great plot for a book. I can’t believe they left this out of the Book of Mormon videos.
Thanks, Lindsey McKim.
Pertaining to your question re: What King would command his people to vacate two cities to enable him to give them to their avowed enemies?
In a similar vein, I’ve always wondered why a Lamanite King, Lamoni, would offer his daughter as wife to a hated Nephite simply because Ammon states he desires to live with them a while and, perhaps, for the rest of his life.
The Lamanite royalty do seem to be willing to make very odd deals with members of the hated Nephites.