The prophet Abinadi holds a singular place in the Book of Mormon. He was the first to die as a martyr, and his doctrinal teachings clarify the purpose of the law of Moses, identify the Redeemer, and declare facts about the doctrine of resurrection not previously mentioned in the book. He was capable of exquisite language sparked with fiery metaphor, yet was plainspoken to the point of bluntness.
Abinadi confronted the wicked establishment single-handedly. The record gives no hint of any other prophet being present with him. So far as we know, he converted but one man, yet that one man (Alma) became the progenitor of a posterity that kept the sacred records and served as the ecclesiastical leaders (and sometimes the political leaders) for the remainder of the Nephite history, a period of well over four hundred years.1 Without Abinadi’s story, the Book of Mormon would lack continuity, and a major part of the book’s message would be missing.
We know nothing of Abinadi’s early life. Arnold Friberg has given us an outstanding painting that depicts the Abinadi we read about as an old man, thin and weather-beaten. It may have been so. But we find nothing in the record to indicate whether he was old or young, large or small. What we do find in his teachings and in his manner when confronting the priests of Noah—baiting them, challenging their knowledge, questioning their behavior—is a man of courage with an agile mind, a profound knowledge of the gospel, and a strong personality.
Abinadi ministered to the people of Zeniff, a group of Nephites who had left the land of Zarahemla and settled in the land of Lehi-Nephi and Shilom (see Mosiah 7:21) about 200 B.C. Zeniff reigned as king of this people (under the permission of the Lamanite king of the land) at the same time as Mosiah and King Benjamin reigned in Zarahemla. Zeniff was a good man, although he identifies himself as “over-zealous.” (Mosiah 9:3.) His son and successor was Noah.
Under Noah’s reign, both the government and the people moved rapidly into idolatry, laziness, unchastity, materialism, secularism, pride, and extensive consumption of wine. The society became characterized by pride in their own strength, priestcraft, speaking lying and vain words, self-justification, love of riches, and excessively elaborate buildings (supported by very high taxes). As shown during a military victory over their Lamanite oppressors, they delighted in the shedding of blood.
This degeneration flourished because of the wickedness of the king and his priests. Several times in Mosiah 11 the point is made that it was because of the bad example of the leaders that the people fell into wrongdoing. (See Mosiah 11:2, 6–7, 15, 19.) Pointing out this cause-and-effect relationship is a major contribution of the story. People have a tendency to follow their leaders, and corrupt leaders corrupt the whole kingdom.
It is to such a people that Abinadi comes, declaring, “Thus saith the Lord—Wo be unto this people, for I have seen their abominations, and their wickedness, and their whoredoms; and except they repent I will visit them in mine anger.” (Mosiah 11:20). Unless they repent, the Lord would bring them all into bondage. They would be in such difficulty that only the Lord would be able to deliver them. (See Mosiah 11:21–23.)
Abinadi is careful to say that he is speaking for the Lord. The Lord had told him what to say. The people don’t like Abinadi’s message. Unrepentant, they seek to kill Abinadi, but the Lord enables him to escape.
After two years Abinadi comes back to the city in disguise and again publicly preaches repentance. His first-person message this time is even more direct and descriptive: He tells them that since they have not repented, they would be “brought into bondage … and shall be slain; and the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts, shall devour their flesh. … The life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace.” (Mosiah 12:2–3.)
Abinadi’s language is full of high-intensity verbs, descriptive adjectives, and colorful nouns. It would be difficult to misunderstand him.
Abinadi is taken by the people, bound, and brought before King Noah. His captors tell the king of Abinadi’s prophecies (see Mosiah 12:9–12), and Noah responds by ordering Abinadi to be cast into prison. He then calls the priests together to decide what to do with him. The priests ask that Abinadi be brought before them, that they might find a charge on which to formally accuse him.
The record says that they began to question him, “but he answered them boldly, and withstood all their questions … and did confound them in all their words.” (Mosiah 12:19.) Abinadi’s “defense” before the priests is not defensive. Rather, he becomes the questioner:
“Are you priests, and pretend to teach this people, and to understand the spirit of prophesying, and yet desire to know of me what these things mean? …
“What teach ye this people?
“And they said: We teach the law of Moses.
“And again he said unto them: If ye teach the law of Moses, why do ye not keep it? Why do ye set your hearts upon riches? Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots, yea, and cause this people to commit sin? …
“What know ye concerning the law of Moses? Doth salvation come by the law of Moses? What say ye?” (Mosiah 12:25–31.)
They answer that salvation does come by the law of Moses.
Abinadi refutes their answer by explaining that salvation comes only through Christ and that the law alone cannot save. He quotes the first two of the ten commandments given to Moses—“Thou shalt have no other God before me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”—then asks the priests:
“Have ye done all this? I say unto you, Nay, ye have not.” (Mosiah 12:32–37.)
When Noah hears Abinadi’s thunder-and-lightning words, he orders him put to death, declaring, “He is mad.”
But as the priests attempt to take him, Abinadi withstands them:
“Touch me not, for God shall smite you if ye lay your hands upon me, for I have not delivered the message which the Lord sent me to deliver. …
“And his face shone with exceeding luster, even as Moses’ did while in the mount of Sinai, while speaking with the Lord.” (Mosiah 13:1–3, 5)
Abinadi then reads to them the remainder of the ten commandments. It is very likely that he could have quoted them from memory, but it appears that he has an object lesson in mind by reading from a written text. “I perceive that they are not written in your hearts,” he tells them; “I perceive that ye have studied and taught iniquity the most part of your lives.” (Mosiah 13:11.)
Abinadi goes on to deliver the remainder of his message, which consists of a prophecy and explanation of the coming of Christ to redeem mankind. He cites Moses and Isaiah particularly, and all of the prophets generally, as having taught that God himself would come down from heaven in the form of a man on the earth and redeem mankind from the Fall. He speaks at length of Christ’s mission and of His power to redeem mankind from sin and from the grave.
There is a significant point to be made here. Abinadi, with all the power characteristic of any Old Testament prophet, preaches repentance and inveighs against the sins of king and populace alike. But he shows that forgiveness and redemption are not available merely by change and reformation, but only by repentance and faith in the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. And he explains with great clarity that it would be the God of Israel himself who would be the Son of God in the flesh. This point is often obscured in our present Old Testament text.
In summation, Abinadi says to the priests:
“And now, ought ye not to tremble and repent of your sins, and remember that only in and through Christ ye can be saved?
“Therefore, if ye teach the law of Moses, also teach that it is a shadow of those things which are to come—
“Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father. Amen.” (Mosiah 16:13–15.)
When Abinadi finishes, King Noah sends him back to prison and counsels again with his priests. Three days later, Noah sends for Abinadi and informs him that they had determined he is “worthy of death.” The accusation is that Abinadi has said that “God himself should come down among the children of men”—a charge of blasphemy, rather than a charge of a crime against the state.
Then, betraying the false nature of the charge, King Noah (mentioning nothing about the charge of blasphemy) offers to rescind the penalty of death if Abinadi will take back all that he has said against Noah and the people. Abinadi refuses, declaring that he would die to prove the truth of his words. He also warns the king that if the king causes the death of Abinadi, an innocent man, the king will have to answer for that at the last day. (See Mosiah 17:7–11.)
Fearing the judgments Abinadi has spoken of, Noah prepares to release him. But the priests appeal to the king’s vanity, remonstrating that Abinadi had “reviled the king” (Mosiah 17:12)—possibly a real crime against the state. The king is stirred to anger again and delivers Abinadi to be slain.
We usually envision Abinadi being burned at the stake. That may be true. But the scripture does not say he was burned at the stake; what it says is that he “suffered death by fire.” Mosiah 17:13 says that his executioners “took him and bound him, and scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death.”
Several words in the foregoing sentence should be noted. The first is that they bound him. That seems self-explanatory. The second is that they scourged him. To scourge means to whip or flail or beat. The third term is faggots. A faggot is a bundle of sticks or twigs, tied together and used for fuel.
We can imagine Abinadi being bound. As the “flames began to scorch him” (Mosiah 17:14), his fiendish executioners, probably the priests, gathered about him, possibly shouting, exulting, and gloating over what they are doing. And during it all, Abinadi is pronouncing prophecies of God’s vengeance upon them. Then, says the record, he falls, “having suffered death by fire,” having “sealed the truth of his words by his death.” (Mosiah 17:20.)
The law of Moses. Abinadi characterizes the law of Moses as “a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.” (Mosiah 13:30.) He further said that the things of the law were “types of things to come” and that the day would come when it would no longer be necessary to obey the law of Moses. He also said that the ancient people “did not all understand the law” and did not comprehend that the law would be unable to save anyone without the “atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people.” (Mosiah 13:28, 31, 32.)
It is not only ancient Israel that has misunderstood the law. There is a great deal of misunderstanding today about what the law was and why it was given. This misunderstanding is found among both Christian and Jewish denominations. It is found even among teachers in the Church. Abinadi’s concise, summarylike statements about the purpose and place of the law are very enlightening in clearing up this confusion.
The Atonement. A second major point of Abinadi’s teachings is that “God himself” would make the atonement that will redeem mankind. Abinadi leaves no doubt in his teaching that the God of Israel himself will be the Redeemer who will come to earth as the Son of God. He is not the first in the Book of Mormon to teach this doctrine (see 2 Ne. 9:5; 2 Ne. 10:3; Mosiah 3:5–10), but he gives the topic such intensive and extensive coverage that a reader who had not picked up the concept earlier could scarcely miss it in the teachings of Abinadi.2
The Resurrection. A third major contribution Abinadi makes is his clarification about the doctrine of resurrection. Earlier prophets probably knew the details of the resurrection, but in our present Book of Mormon record, Abinadi is the first to speak specifically of the first resurrection and to discuss the general resurrection in detail. His discourse begins in Mosiah 15:20 and extends through Mosiah 16:11.
Abinadi was an energetic witness for the Lord Jesus Christ and a fierce terror to evildoers. There is a significant lesson to be learned here. If he had not been so blunt, the people might not have thought he meant what he said; nor would they have thought that what he said was important. His testimony, given with fervor and energy, no doubt helped Alma have the strength to repent.
Abinadi was exactly what the Lord needed. He was the right man for the right situation. As a result, his ministry not only influenced the second half of the Nephite history but has influenced millions in this dispensation who have read the Book of Mormon. It will yet influence billions more.