In 1965, John Sawyer published an article titled "What was a Mosiac?" He argues that the term mosiah was an ancient Hebrew term, like go'el ("redeemer, or avenger of blood"), or sedeq ("victor, savior"). Such terms originally had meaning in Hebrew daily life and culture but came to be used among their titles for God. The word mosiac (pronounced moe-shee-ah) is a word peculiar to Hebrew, a "word invariably implying a champion of justice in a situation of controversy, battle or oppression."
Sawyer's analysis sheds interesting light on the name Mosiah in the Book of Mormon. Several subtle reasons show why Nephites, who continued to speak Hebrew in the New World, would have been attracted to the use of such a name or title.
Apparently the form of the word Mosiah is a "hiphil participle" in Hebrew. It occurs in the Hebrew in Deuteronomy 22:27; 28:29; Judges 12:3; Psalms 18:41; and Isaiah 5:29-texts that in all probability were on the Plates of Brass. This word, however, was not transliterated into the English by the King James translators, and thus the Hebrew would not have been known to Joseph Smith. It was, however, known and used as a personal name in the Book of Mormon, as well as by people in the Jewish colony at Elephantine in the fifth century B.C.
The key meaning of the word mosiac was "savior." People in danger cry out, "But there is no mosia" (Deuteronomy 22:27). After examining all occurrences of this term in the Hebrew Bible, Sawyer concludes that the term applied to a particular kind of person or role and was sometimes a title designating "a definite office or position." Typical of this office are the following traits:
1. The mosiac is a victorious hero appointed by God.
2. He liberates a chosen people from oppression, controversy, and unjustice after they cry out for help.
3. Their deliverance is usually accomplished by means of a nonviolent escape or negotiation.
4. The immediate result of the coming of a mosiac was "escape from unjustice, and a return to a state of justice where each man possesses his rightful property."
5. On a larger scale, "final victory means the coming of mosicim [plural, pronounced moe-shee-eem] to rule like Judges over Israel."
Thus the term also had judicial, legal, or forensic connotations, similar to the word advocate." A mosiac gives refuge to those on his "right hand" from their accusers in court (Psalm 17:7).
The exact derivation of the Book of Mormon name Mosiah is unknown, but it appears the same as mosiac, which derives from the Hebrew yasac ("to be wide open, free, deliver, rescue, preserve, save"). It is thus quite different from the Hebrew word masiah (anointed, "messiah," Greek christs). The Nephite word mosiah might also contain a theophoric element (-iah), thus meaning "the Lord is a mosiac."
Interestingly, the term mosiac applies perfectly to the Mosiahs in the Book of Mormon. King Mosiah I was a God-appointed hero who delivered the chosen people of Nephi from serious wars and contentions by leading them in an escape from the land of Nephi (see Omni 1:12-14). It is unknown whether he was called Mosiah before he functioned as a mosiac of his people or whether he gained this well-earned title afterward, perhaps as a royal title, but either is possible.
Indeed, the themes of God's salvation and the deliverance of his people are strong in the book of Mosiah. It tells of one mosiac after another. Alma was a God-inspired mosiac who peaceably saved his people from king Noah and the Lamanites. Zeniff tried to return to the land of Nephi to repossess the rightful property of the Nephites. His efforts failed, however, and his grandson Limhi eventually functioned as a mosiac by leading his people in their escape back to Zarahemla. At the end of the book of Mosiah, the reign of judges was established, a fitting development for a people that had been well served by mosicim for over a century. Thus, the book of Mosiah, like the book of Judges in the Old Testament, appears to have been meaningfully named.
Finally, the Hebrew term mosiac also was used as a divine title. God was and is such a savior, who would come down and bring salvation (see Mosiah 3:9). The Book of Mormon adds support to Sawyer's idea that the divine title mosiac was also at home in a cultural context. It seems to preserve traces of a broader usage when it says that "the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation" (Mosiah 3:20; italics added), "in other words a Savior of the world" (1 Nephi 10:4; italics added).
Ultimately this term, as a divine title, was applied exclusively to God. As Isaiah 43:11 states, "I . . . am the Lord; and beside me there is no mosiac." Likewise, the angel to Benjamin affirmed the unique work of the Savior, the only way and means whereby salvation comes to mankind (see Mosiah 3:17). Thus, in several respects, the Book of Mormon usage of this term is quite remarkable, meaningful, and wholly consistent with Hebrew usage.
(John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992], 107.)
Lee L. Donaldson contrasts Benjamin and Noah:
The book of Mosiah's penetrating look into the characters of king Benjamin and king Noah illustrates a lesson on righteous and unrighteous uses of power and authority. The scriptural term for power is dominion (see Gen. 1:26; D&C 121:39, 46), which Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary defines as "sovereign or supreme authority: the power of governing and controlling. . . . [The] right of governing." Dominion is not limited to the realm of civil government. Whenever any individual makes decisions that affect the lives of other people, be it through family, church, or municipal government, that person exercises dominion.
In the warning moments of his life, king Mosiah II gathered his people together to propose a change in the structure of their government. He warned them of the risks of unrighteous dominion in a monarchy and illustrated his point by summoning up the two most prominent examples of kingship from Nephite political history, king Benjamin and king Noah:
If it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, . . . I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you. . . . Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you. For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction! (Mosiah 29:13, 16-17)
A close look at the book of Mosiah makes it obvious why Mosiah II would have selected these two kings to make his point: Benjamin is the type of a righteous king, Noah the model of a wicked one. King Benjamin's purpose was to bring his people to Christ, while Noah led his people away from Christ. The "great joy" of Benjamin's people came from the teachings of their righteous king (Mosiah 5:4), whereas the "sore afflictions" of Noah's reign were the fruits of his evil leadership (Mosiah 12:4).
The book of Mosiah contrasts the characters of Benjamin and Noah on at least seven points: their treatment of and attitude toward temples; their handling of conflicts with the Lamanites; their methods of succession; their use of and reaction to sermons; and their attitudes toward physical labor and service, the written word, and the living prophets. These contrasts give life to our understanding of the principle of dominion.
For the ancients, character and personality were best seen in a person's deeds. Mormon followed this ancient philosophy in portraying the deeds of the two Nephite kings, Benjamin and Noah. But the deaths of the two monarchs also characterized their lives. Benjamin peacefully passed the kingdom to his son, retired from the kingship, and spent the last three years of mortality in peace. His obedience secured him a place in God's kingdom. On the other hand, Noah, who spent his life on the lusts and desires of the flesh, pronounced a death sentence on the one messenger who could have saved him from destruction. His cruel treatment of Abinadi became his own death sentence, though his desire for power and dominion consumed his soul long before the physical flames ever touched his body. How fitting it is that Noah was consumed in flames of his own making.
Mormon's graphic account of the two contrasting leaders makes the book of Mosiah vital reading for anyone who would aspire to lead others or who is called to lead others in the latter days. Mosiah II also recognized the great value of studying these two kings and concluded the book of Mosiah with a one- chapter summary of the lessons we should learn from them. Those who have dominion either follow the Messianic model of leadership by service (exemplified by Benjamin) or the satanic model of leadership by domination (exemplified by Noah). Leadership by service builds Zion, while leadership by domination builds Babylon.
(Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Mosiah: Salvation Only through Christ [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1991], 49, 57.)
Kent P. Jackson and Morgan W. Tanner on King Noah:
While King Benjamin and Zeniff are fine examples of righteous leadership, King Noah is a prime example of unrighteous leadership in the Book of Mormon. The account relates: "[King Noah] did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. . . . And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord." (Mosiah 11:2.)
The account goes on to tell how King Noah had removed from office all of the priests who had been consecrated by his father, Zeniff. He then consecrated priests who were "lifted up in the pride of their hearts." (Mosiah 11:5.) In other words, King Noah put men in positions of authority who were wicked like himself and who would do the evil deeds that he had in store for the people. The tax Noah imposed was for supporting the "laziness, and . . . idolatry, and . . . whoredoms" of the king and his priests. (Mosiah 11:6.) The people labored to support the iniquity of their rulers. Noah's rule was characterized by disobedience to the Lord's commandments: he did whatever he wanted to do, and he caused his people to sin.
Noah's people were taxed heavily and had to work hard to support the wickedness of their government. (Mosiah 11:3-4, 6.) Yet there is no hint in the record that they saw themselves as oppressed. They shared in the wrongdoing of their leaders: "They also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them." (Mosiah 11:7.) The wicked government affected the people, who also became wicked.
Unrighteous governments in all ages have maintained power by appealing to the vanity of the people over whom they rule. Two of the most common ways of doing this are: (1) building large buildings and other highly visible monuments that supposedly demonstrate the greatness and prestige of the nation, and (2) being victorious in warfare, demonstrating the supposed superiority of one's forces over those of a foe. Vain people allow themselves to be seduced by such meaningless and shallow displays of presumed glory.
Mosiah 11 shows that Noah and his priests used both of these flattering methods to subject the people by appealing to their vanity. "King Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper; and he also built him a spacious palace. . . . And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple. . . . And . . . he built a tower near the temple. . . . [and] caused many buildings to be built in the land." (Mosiah 11:8-10, 12-13.) Notice in these verses the great emphasis on the construction of luxurious buildings during King Noah's reign. A contrasting view of such emphasis on material things was presented by President Spencer W. Kimball:
The Lord has blessed us as a people with a prosperity unequaled in times past. The resources that have been placed in our power are good, and necessary to our work here on the earth. But I am afraid that many of us have been surfeited with flocks and herds and acres and barns and wealth and have begun to worship them as false gods, and they have power over us. Do we have more of these good things than our faith can stand? Many people spend most of their time working in the service of a self-image that includes sufficient money, stocks, bonds, investment portfolios, property, credit cards, furnishings, automobiles, and the like to guarantee carnal security throughout, it is hoped, a long and happy life.
As the Lord himself said in our day, "They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall." (D&C 1:16; italics added.)
Mosiah 11:16-18 tells how the Lamanites invaded Noah's territory. At first they were successful in their raids, but later Noah's forces were able to defeat them. As a result of their victory, Noah's people increased in their vanity: "Because of this great victory they were lifted up in the pride of their hearts; they did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousands of the Lamanites; and thus they did boast, and did delight in blood, and the shedding of the blood of their brethren, and this because of the wickedness of their king and priests." Their self-flattery because of military victory led them to "delight in . . . the shedding of the blood of their brethren." (Mosiah 11:19.)
President Kimball wrote:
In spite of our delight in defining ourselves as modern, and our tendency to think we possess a sophistication that no people in the past ever had-in spite of these things, we are, on the whole, an idolatrous people-a condition most repugnant to the Lord.
We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel-ships, planes, missiles, fortifications-and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan's counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior's teaching: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 5:44-45.) . . .
What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.
In the period of the Nephites' vain glory following their military defeat of the Lamanites, the prophet Abinadi began to preach among them. Through him the Lord offered Noah's people a clear choice of actions with two sure options: (1) they must repent, or (2) they must be taken into bondage. Notice how clearly and unmistakably these choices are spelled out in the following verses:
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. And except they repent and turn to the Lord their God, behold, I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage; and they shall be afflicted by the hand of their enemies. . . . And it shall come to pass that except this people repent and turn unto the Lord their God, they shall be brought into bondage; and none shall deliver them, except it be the Lord the Almighty God. . . . And except they repent in sackcloth and ashes, and cry mightily to the Lord their God, I will not hear their prayers, neither will I deliver them out of their afflictions. (Mosiah 11:20, 21, 23, 25; italics added.)
The word of the Lord through Abinadi is as valid for us today as it was for Noah's society. People of all nations must repent or suffer spiritual and temporal bondage.
The people of Noah refused to repent, and Abinadi was rejected-not only by Noah and his priests, but by the people as well. As the account states: "The eyes of the people were blinded; therefore they hardened their hearts against the words of Abinadi, and they sought from that time forward to take him. And king Noah hardened his heart against the word of the Lord, and he did not repent of his evil doings." (Mosiah 11:29.)
Two years passed before Abinadi returned. But this time he had a different message from the Lord: "My people . . . have hardened their hearts against my words; they have repented not of their evil doings; therefore, I will visit them in my anger, yea, in my fierce anger will I visit them in their iniquities and abominations. Yea, wo be unto this generation! . . . Because of their iniquities, [they] shall be brought into bondage, and shall be smitten on the cheek; yea, and shall be driven by men, and shall be slain; and the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts, shall devour their flesh." (Mosiah 12:1-2; italics added.) When Abinadi first came before Noah and his priests, he challenged them to repent or be taken into bondage. Now he simply affirmed that their punishment of bondage (and other things) would in fact take place, saying, "It shall come to pass."
Other examples in the scriptures also teach us that eventually it is simply too late to avert disaster by repentance, and the prophesied punishment from the Lord is sure. In Helaman 13-16 is the account of the Lamanite prophet Samuel, whom the Lord had sent to prophesy against the Nephites. He declared to them: "Behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure." (Hel. 13:38.) Similarly Mormon witnessed a time among his people when "the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually," and their destruction was assured. (Morm. 2:15.) King Noah and his people were now under the same condemnation: It was "everlastingly too late" for them.
When Abinadi appeared before King Noah and his priests, he chastised them for failing in their callings as priests and teachers of the people-for neither understanding nor living the principles of righteousness themselves: "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? I say unto you, wo be unto you for perverting the ways of the Lord! For if ye understand these things ye have not taught them; therefore, ye have perverted the ways of the Lord. Ye have not applied your hearts to understanding; therefore, ye have not been wise. Therefore, what teach ye this people?" (Mosiah 12:25-27.) After teaching King Noah and the priests about the law of Moses, he continued to condemn their actions. King Noah and his priests had not kept the commandments of the Lord, neither had they taught the commandments to their people. Abinadi knew that they were not doing what they should because, as he explained to them: "If ye had [kept the commandments and taught them to the people], the Lord would not have caused me to come forth and to prophesy evil concerning this people." (Mosiah 12:37; 13:25-26.)
Zeniff and his people were examples of those who seek happiness and security in the things of heaven. They learned that to prosper in the land, they would have to obey the commandments of the Lord. King Noah and his priests, only one generation later, were examples of those who seek happiness and security in the things of the world. They tried to gratify their vanity with the construction of luxurious buildings and to find security without the protection of God. Yet Abinadi taught them of the evil of both their behavior and their outlook. How truly Alma taught: "Wickedness never was happiness." (Alma 41:10.) True happiness and true security can come only from Christ, through whom alone is salvation.
(Kent P. Jackson, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 7: 1 Nephi to Alma 29 [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 231.)