Essay: The judiciary of the ancients


A long time ago in a land far, far way, one man, a prophet, lead 600,000 men, plus women and children out of slavery. Every day, hundreds, if not thousands of people, inundated him with disputes and complaints. His father-in-law, a wise man, offered his son-in-law a solution.

Over a thousand years later a king of a great nation knew his reign’s end was nigh. So, he asked his subjects who they wanted to take his place when he was gone. The people wanted his son to take over the throne, but his son wanted nothing to do with it. Nor did any of his other sons. So, he devised a plan and presented it to the people.

The prophets Moses and King Mosiah faced different problems, but the solutions were similar: establish courts and let judges rule the people.

“All judicial systems are an integral part of the societies in which they are found,” wrote Robert R. Wilson in Jewish Quarterly Review in October 1983.

This is just as true for the modern United States as it was for the ancient Israelites and Nephites.

God was central to each of their legal systems. God was the essence, the foundation, of law.

Article III of the United States constitution lays out what role the Supreme Court plays in American society, and is at the forefront of American minds with controversial, landmark cases and, most recently, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

In his book, The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon, John Welch explained that ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean people did not have elected governing bodies to create laws and constitutions. Separation of powers was hardly on any ruler’s mind. No paid judges or political parties, and no representative legislature.

“The concept of legal rights was scarcely developed, let alone the idea of a bill of rights,” Welch wrote. “Duties and obligations, together with honor and shame, formed a greater part of the legal consciousness among ancient peoples than they do in modern Western societies, which have come to focus more on rights than on duties.”

However, Welch further explained how important law was for these ancient peoples, not only in ancient Israel but for the ancient Nephites as well.

“Modern people can scarcely fathom the degree to which law was venerated and respected by people in the ancient world,” Welch said.

In an article titled “Six Nephite Judges: A Study in Integrity,” published in the September 1977 Ensign, James Moss wrote about the charter King Mosiah set forth when he established the reign of the judges.

Moss wrote, “One, the concept that law, not force, authority or personality, rules in society; two, the procedure that law will be determined by the voice of the people; three, the recognition that correct principles of law are given to man by God through the prophets; and four, a commitment to the necessity for a spiritual foundation of the law in society.”

Moss explained Mosiah’s charter was written after he had evaluated the negatives of an absolute monarchy. Similarly, the Preamble to the Constitution was written after the colonists lived under an unjust monarchy.

Just as the Constitution, as introduced by the Preamble, established laws to govern the country, Mosiah’s charter established the code by which the judges were to rule the people with God as the lawgiver.

Law handed down from God is not an unfamiliar design.

The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence are imbued with the belief, “… the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Divinity, as an integral part of the law, is a concept Welch addressed in his book.

“Law was an expression of the divine will, the highest ideals of a civilization, the necessary order of life and the fundamental substance of justice and reality,” he said.

It is hard to imagine judges in modern society conflating law with “divine will,” but ancient judges were not what we are familiar with today.

“… In most parts of the ancient world, town elders, priests and leading citizens of the village served as citizen-judges hearing lawsuits that were initiated quite spontaneously and were usually argued, deliberated, decided and concluded within a fairly short period of time,” Welch wrote.

Welch explained these ancient judiciaries relied on tradition, common sense and wisdom instead of strict legal codes.

Similarly, when Mosiah established the reign of the judges, there was no strict, codified law, but Moss is clear on the strict adherence the judges held to Mosiah’s charter.

“The judges’ judicial actions were characterized by the strictest adherence to principles of equity and justice,” Moss wrote.

It was only when the judges stopped abiding by Mosiah’s charter, the reign of the judges came to an end.

Moss wrote, “it died through the accumulated unrighteousness of internal secret combinations and monarchical conspiracies, drained by the wounds of its own political divisiveness.”



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