For a range of chapters in Mosiah, starting with chapter 11, we see the people of Zeniff now led by his son named Noah. In common views of King Noah, he is held up as a scenery-chewing Big Bad Wolf sort of character, lush in his Orientalist despotism, surrounded by ostentation and sycophants, as illustrated by Arnold Friberg’s famous painting, “Abinadi Before King Noah.” But it’s all too easy to just say that Noah was bad and leave it at that. He ordered the death of a prophet, right? Isn’t that bad enough?
Not really. The lesson of King Noah shouldn’t be “don’t kill prophets” and no more. It’s easy enough to say that and then ignore it: “well, so-and-so wasn’t really a prophet…” No, the lesson of King Noah runs much deeper and becomes even uncomfortable to read as we see parts of ourselves or our society depicted in opposition to the earnest strivings of the prophet, Abinadi.
Straight away, we are told that Noah did not keep the commandments of God, but had many concubines. There is a temptation to say, “OK, don’t also commit adultery. Got it.” But that is not the full lesson of Noah. After all, anyone can commit adultery and still repent. The tragedy of David is not that he committed adultery, but that he abused his power as king to arrange the death of a loyal subject in order to cover his sin. The adultery is bad, the cover-up is worse, the murder horrific, but worst of all was the abuse of the power and authority that David held. Was not David anointed of God to be the king? And with that sort of set-up, how much worse it was for David to behave as other kings. He was supposed to be better than that.
And indeed, we see worse for Noah in the next verse. He raised taxes on his people. Too many stop there and say, “Right, taxes are bad. Moving on.” No, that is not right, either. Under the Law of Moses, it was the duty of a righteous people to provide a just government. When I first read that, it halted my sympathy towards anarcho-libertarianism. It is the duty of a righteous people to provide a just government: taxes are therefore justified. Taxes are justified not as a necessary evil, but as a necessary good. Noah, however, raised the taxes to directly benefit himself, his family, and his closest supporters, not to benefit the poor. That is how he “changed the affairs of the kingdom.” This is the line Noah crosses. Up until this line, he was just personally responsible for his evil. When he institutionalizes the abuse of power for the benefit of a privileged few, he creates a situation in which the nation falls under condemnation.
That’s what we see in the Friberg painting: a rich elite that is leading their nation to its doom being contrasted with the simple, threadbare prophet of God. This is also where things become more uncomfortable for us. How close are we to King Noah in terms of our wealth and what we do with it? If we exploit loopholes or benefit unjustly from unfair laws or practices, we are more like Noah than Abinadi. When we give freely to those in need and search for ways we can help – not just be ready if called to help, but to actively search for ways to help – we are more like Abinadi than Noah.
The wickedness Noah brings on his people is outlined in how the tax money is spent: palaces, fineries, ornamentation. The workmen of the kingdom build up his benefits – seemingly ignorant of the looming threat of another Lamanite attack. While Noah’s father built up fortifications and weapons so that the people could desperately defend themselves, Noah legitimizes skimming off the resources of the people solely to benefit his clique.
And, no surprise, the Lamanites do notice the lack of defenses and commence raiding of Noah’s domain. Noah manages to mount a successful campaign against the Lamanite probes, but mistakenly thinks that his defeat of their reconnaissance in force is a bigger victory than it is. Noah’s people are condemned by Mormon for their boasting and their “delight in blood.”
At the end of Mosiah 11, we see Noah using his power as king to justify a death warrant against Abinadi, who preaches against his wickedness. Noah claims Abinadi’s words are seditious. Now, the truth of the matter is that Abinadi’s words are seditious, in that the people could be led to oppose Noah’s wicked institutions. With the laws that Noah has, Abinadi is absolutely in violation of them. That the laws are unjust is not an excuse. Abinadi will preach in full knowledge that his life is forfeit in that preaching. It is therefore, not Noah that slays the prophet: it is Noah’s nation and government that slays the prophet.
This, therefore, is the fullness of the social tragedy of King Noah. The wickedness of the ruler was all too easily embraced by a segment of the people who saw a way to profit thereby. The laws of the nation were bent and twisted and made to provide not a just government, but an unjust government. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer in Noah’s government – where that happens in the world, the nations permitting such things are under as much condemnation as was Noah’s.