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One of the provisions of the law of Moses was blood vengeance, or "an eye for an eye." It is generally accepted that this practice was to recompense the family of the victim for the loss of a faculty or limb. In practice, that compensation would not be monetary but in kind: the perpetrator would perform whatever tasks his victim could no longer perform. This idealistic law was designed to obviate the need for incarceration. However, inadvertent manslaughter had its own set of laws.
Asylum was prescribed to take the form of escape to a city of refuge. Moses established at least six cities as places of refuge for those who committed inadvertent manslaughter (see Deuteronomy 19:4; compare vv. 1–13; Numbers 35:6–34; Joshua 20).7 The law provided that the refugee would request a trial, either by the elders of the city of refuge or by the elders of his own city, to determine the inadvertent nature of his offense. If his innocence from murder was established, he would be able to stay in the city, free from the blood vengeance of the victim's family, until the death of the current high priest, after which he was presumably free to leave the city.
The law of Moses made provision for atonement for inadvertent sin. During Yom Kippur, the high priest sacrificed two goats—one designated as the Lord's goat and the other as the scapegoat, or the Azazel goat (see Leviticus 16:7–10). According to biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, when the purified high priest laid his hand on the live scapegoat, he transferred to it the awonot, "iniquities"—"the causes of the sanctuary's impurities, all of Israel's sins, ritual and moral alike, of priests and laity alike."8
The conditions of asylum can be summarized as follows:
- Some kind of injustice is about to be perpetrated (see Deuteronomy 19:4).
- The cause must be declared in the ears of the elders (see Joshua 20:4).
- The seeker of asylum must be judged by the congregation (see Numbers 35:12, 24).
- The seeker will either be delivered from those from whom refuge is sought (see Numbers 35:25; Joshua 20:5) or be delivered into the hands of the avenger of blood, that he may die.
- The seeker will be released from asylum after the death of the high priest (see Numbers 35:25).
The Nephites were aware of the seriousness of premeditated murder, as evidenced by Jacob's imprecation "Wo unto the murderer who deliberately killeth, for he shall die" (2 Nephi 9:35). So it might follow that they were also aware of the stipulations in the law of Moses regarding inadvertent manslaughter. In his study of blood vengeance in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon, James Rasmussen comments: "There is no indication that the punishment is required to be administered by man. Indeed, the context suggests that the death referred to is a spiritual death. . . . 'Remember, to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.' [2 Nephi 9:39] This makes it clear that spiritual death is discussed and not criminal law. . . . Jacob's teaching is notable for making explicit that it is intentional killing which is forbidden. In the Old Testament the requirement of intention is implicit in the contrasting provisions for accidental homicide."9
A case has been made for Jershon, the land ceded to the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, as a city of refuge.10 While there are certain similarities between Jershon and the biblical cities of refuge, I do not believe that we can go so far as to classify it as a city of refuge; but we can categorize it as an area of asylum.
When Ammon successfully converted Lamoni and his people, it was necessary for them, and the Lamanites converted by the other sons of Mosiah, to make significant changes in their lives. The first step for the converted Lamanites was to call themselves Anti-Nephi-Lehies, a name chosen after Lamoni's father, the king over all the land, consulted with "Aaron and many of their priests" regarding a name whereby "they might be distinguished from their brethren" (see Alma 23:16–17). To strengthen this separation further, on his deathbed Lamoni's father conferred the kingdom upon his other son and changed that son's name to Anti-Nephi-Lehi (see Alma 24:2–3, 5).
To save the Anti-Nephi-Lehies from destruction at the hands of their unconverted brethren, Ammon, with the Lord's blessing, conducted them to the land of Zarahemla (see Alma 27:11–26). The converted Lamanites' manner of atoning for the perceived murders was to present themselves for voluntary bondage: "We will go down unto our brethren, and we will be their slaves until we repair unto them the many murders and sins which we have committed against them" (Alma 27:8). Ammon, however, cited the law that Mosiah, his father, implemented after the example of his father, Benjamin: "It is against the law of our brethren . . . that there should be any slaves among them" (Alma 27:9).
We can look at what followed in light of the conditions of asylum given above:Having the opportunity to do this research into the minutiae of the transfer of the converted Lamanites to Jershon has given me greater insight into the biblical asylum tradition and has also strengthened my belief that the people of the Book of Mormon possessed and carried on the traditions brought with them by Lehi and Nephi from Jerusalem. Considering Joseph Smith's educational background and his very limited knowledge of the Bible at that time, as well as the short time it took him to translate the Book of Mormon, it is very doubtful that he could have extrapolated the details of asylum from the Bible and incorporated them into the story of the people of Ammon.
1. Some kind of injustice was about to be perpetrated (see Deuteronomy 19:4). The Lamanites were going to exact vengeance on the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (see Alma 27:3).
2. The cause must be declared in the ears of the elders (see Joshua 20:4). Alma pled their case before the chief judge, who then sent out a proclamation to hear the voice of the people regarding the fate of the converted Lamanites (see Alma 27:20–21).
3. The seeker of asylum must be judged by the congregation (see Numbers 35:12, 24). The decision was to give the Anti-Nephi-Lehies a fertile land, Jershon, "on the east by the sea," as "an inheritance." The reasons for this generosity were (a) to enable the Nephites to set armies between the lands of Jershon and Nephi, (b) to answer their "fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin," and (c) to facilitate "their sore repentance . . . on account of their many murders and their awful wickedness." The only condition was that "they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies" (see Alma 27:22–24).
4. The seeker will be delivered from those from whom refuge is sought (see Numbers 35:25; Joshua 20:5). The Anti-Nephi-Lehies joyfully accepted the offer of asylum in Jershon, but apparently another transition was necessary, for "they were called by the Nephites the people of Ammon; therefore they were distinguished by that name ever after" (Alma 27:26). It is interesting to note that, according to Hebrew scholars Stephen Ricks and John Tvedtnes, the name Jershon has an "authentic Hebrew origin" in the root ry, "meaning 'to inherit,' with the suffix -ôn that denotes place-names." Each mention of Jershon is accompanied by some reference to inheritance (see Alma 27:22–24; 35:14).11 In addition, from the Book of Abraham we learn that Abraham built an altar, a traditional place of asylum as well as of worship and sacrifice, at Jershon, which was between Haran and Sechem (Shechem) on the way to Canaan (see Abraham 2:16–18). Jershon is identified with ancient Jerash in the footnote to Abraham 2:16. Jerash, of course, has the same root as Jershon.5. The seeker will be released after the death of the high priest (see Numbers 35:25). As mentioned earlier, an inadvertent manslayer was required to remain in a city of refuge until the death of the current high priest. Although no such stipulation is mentioned in the account of the people of Ammon, it is interesting to note that (1) Ammon was appointed high priest over them (see Alma 30:20), and (2) the only reason they left Jershon was for their safety. After the converted Zoramites joined their ranks, the vengeful Zoramite chief made an alliance with the Lamanites in order to destroy the people of Ammon and the Nephites (see Alma 35:10–11). As a result, Ammon took his people to Melek so that Jershon might become a defense outpost (see Alma 35:13). Some thirty years later, well beyond Ammon's life expectancy, some of the people of Ammon formed part of the exodus to the land northward (see Helaman 3:12).