Sunday, May 17, 2020

What About Nephite Coins? –Part I

Alma teaches Amulek the purpose of people suffering death at the hands of evil men

Midway through one of the most heart-wrenching accounts in the Book of Mormon, when Alma and Amulek were on trial for their lives and Amulek's faithful women and children were put to death by fire, the story is interrupted with an explanation of King Mosiah's system of weights and measures (Alma 11:3–19). It is a strange interruption, a mundane hiatus, but at least a relieving diversion from the mounting tension between Alma and Amulek's showdown with Zeezrom and the legal officials in Ammonihah.
     Yet, why would Mormon bring up these incidental economic fundamentals at such a point in the record?
    Several reasons might explain why this information was included at this point. For one thing, this brief insertion of weights and measures are not only intertwined with the debate between Amulek and Zeezrom (Alma 11:21–25), but they also provide an important building block in Mormon's grand narrative, and allows the future reader a better understanding of the importance of what was taking place.
    Obviously, these lawyers were abusing the justice system and misusing the lawful weights and measures—or wages earned by those involved. In this example, the wicked people of Ammonihah effectively opened the floodgates of God's judgment upon themselves, a pattern that would apply later to Nephite civilization as a whole.
    In addition, this sidelight in the book of Alma contains enough facts to support meaningful parallels between King Mosiah's weights and measures and the constant ups and downs of the Nephite wealth and success and their unrighteousness.
    Consequently, Mormon points out that this attempted bribery, the overreaching of the lawyers, the royal standardization and official codification of this monetary system and their various amounts helps us to better understand Zeezrom’s attitude and Amulek’s reaction. The weights and measures, their mathematical relationships, and the unusual names involved in Alma 11 had specific meaning to Mormon and to his explaining one of the causes of Nephite unrighteousness.
    Studying a large and detailed text such as the Book of Mormon is a complex task, requiring careful attention to such details as Mormon here introduces. Thus, the intriguing details found in Alma 11 offers several points to help us more fully understand the events unfolding. Yet, we cannot see clearly where Mormon’s course may lead until we explore the various series of meanings to which these events lead.

Amulek Preaching to Zeezrom

To understand Zeezrom’s bribery and the depth of the lawyer’s guile, Mormon gives us two major insights into the situation:
1. First, was an insight into the event itself and why it occurred;
2. Second, was an understanding of the value of the bribe being offered Amulek by the unscrupulous lawyer, Zeezrom.
    The first is described as Alma the Younger, who had become the high priest over the church in King Mosiah's former realm, undertook a preaching mission to call people to repentance and to reclaim the loyalty of inhabitants of outlying areas for the church. On reaching the city of Ammonihah, Alma found the people to be strongly alienated from his system of religious belief. Rebuffed and discouraged, he left the city only to be instructed by a heavenly messenger to return and try again.
    This time he met a man named Amulek who gave him food, shelter, and companionship during the remainder of his mission. On the first day of their renewed effort to reach the hearts of people, the two men became embroiled in a public dispute about whether the Messiah would really come. It is in the midst of this debate that we find information about how people in the land of Zarahemla weighed and measured their basic economic goods, for into this confrontation came the clever voice of Zeezrom, one of the most prominent lawyers in the city.
    As an attorney, Zeezrom was one of the most skillful among them, having much business to do among the people (Alma 10:21). His work was to get gain and he achieved this through a well-known reputation as a lawyer, and because he was skillful in the devices of the devil, that he might destroy that which was good” (Alma 11:21).
    Now it was in the law of Mosiah that every man who was a judge of the law, or those who were appointed to be judges, should receive wages according to the time which they labored to judge those who were brought before them to be judged. Thus, Zeezrom earned his pay from creating problems among the people, that he could then be hired to solve their differences.
    At this time, Zeezrom was the foremost to accuse Amulek and Alma, and in doing so caused a large crowd to gather about them.
Zeesrom tries to bribe Amulek with six onties of silver

Playing to this crowd we find in Alma’s second insight that Zeezrom’s outlandish accusations had gathered a crowd about them. In this venue, Alma delves into the value of the various Nephite measurements, or coins.
    First of all, we should recognize that actual coins of some type are used here, for Zeezrom had at least six of them on his person at the time, and held them out in his hand for both Amulek, and the audience to see as he made his offer or bribe (Alma 11:22).
    Though Zeezrom began by asking Amulek if he could be given answers to his questions, he obviously paid no attention to Amulek’s answer, because almost immediately he offered Amulek an outright bribe: "Behold, here are six onties of silver, and all these will I give thee if thou wilt deny the existence of a Supreme Being" (Alma 11:22).
    “Here are six” clearly indicates Zeezrom had on him the onties and held them out for Amulek to see them, as well, no doubt, showing them to the crowd.
    “All these,” clearly states that Zeezrom considered this sum to be an impressive amount, and fully expected it to achieve the results he desired.
    Of course, one tends at this juncture, to ask, what are "six onties of silver" and how large was the offered bribe?
    Appreciably, it appears that Mormon anticipated these sorts of questions from his future readers and therefore listed the relative values of the weights and measures used by the Nephites at that time to calculate the wealth of this bribe.
    To be sure, it was an impressive sum. A judge earned one onti of silver for seven days of work. Hence, six onties of silver would equal a judge's salary for 42 days of work; or if seven judges were involved in a case, enough to pay them all for a six-day trial. Thus, Zeezrom's six onties no doubt was seen to be a considerable sum both to the Lawyer and to those who had gathered about them to hear the discussion.
    For any who have spent time in a village marketplace where merchants sell goods measured out by using old metal weights, one notices how bulky the weights themselves are. The story shows us that an onti of silver represented a significant amount of silver in raw weight.
Ruth gleaning grain in the field after the workers had gathered the wheat

We get an insight into the value of a measure of barley in the biblical story of Ruth, מגילת רות‎,, (abbreviated Rth), a book between Judges and Samuel, considered one of the historical books, or in the Hebrew bible in the third section of K'tuvim, which is believed to have taken place between the 12th and 11th centuries BC, about 400 or more years before Lehi left Jerusalem.
    At that time, a measure was the same as a seah, and six seahs contained about 2½ gallons or about 21 pounds. Also, while barley in biblical time was much more widely cultivated than now its main use was as a staple food. It can be grown in a variety of environments, and is the fourth largest grain crop globally, after wheat, rice, and corn. Barley is commonly used in breads, soups, stews, and health products. Since barley would sustain a family of five in good health for eight times longer than meat, six onties of silver would indeed be a significant amount of money.
    Thus, since one onti of Zeezrom’s bribe would purchase seven measures of barley, six onties of silver would have purchased 42 measures—a substantial amount, but Amulek, who himself was a wealthy man, had no trouble turning down the offer. He saw it for what it was—an appeal to the greed that Zeezrom apparently assumed influenced all individuals. It was one version of the age-old question, "What price your integrity?" The legal officials in Ammonihah, however, lacked integrity. Bribery, as they must have known, was strictly prohibited by the Law: "Thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise and perverteth the words of the righteous" (Exodus 23:8).

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