King Noah as “Wicked King” Archetype

Accession of a Maya king, San Bartolo Murals, ca. 100 BC, as drawn Traci Wright

As I previously noted, the book of Mosiah (as we have it) begins with a polemic against certain aspects of kingship ideology as likely found among the Nephites neighbors in ancient Mesoamerica. At the same time, its opening chapters work to democratize the kingship ideology they inherited from their Israelite ancestors. The book of Mosiah concludes with an abolishment of the institution of kingship altogether (Mosiah 29). In between these two points is a story about a king that embodies the very worst aspects of kingship, the reason kings Benjamin and Mosiah worked to undermine the royal ideologies of their time and place. I am talking, of course, about King Noah.

King Noah as the Archetypal Wicked King

One of the very first things we are told about King Noah is that he had many wives and concubines, and that he heavily taxed the people to enrich himself and his priests, using the excess gained through taxation to build elaborate thrones and spacious palaces, and literally exalted him and his high priests “above all the other[s]” (Mosiah 11:2–11). We’ve seen this combination of wealth, pride, and polygamy once before—Jacob spoke out against it about 400 years earlier.  And just as in Jacob’s time, these practices should be understood against the backdrop of the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17:14–20.

Taylor Halverson has shown that King Noah literally checks every box of in terms of what not to do as king over Israel (or a branch of Israel, as the case is here).[1]  In particular, law of the king says the king should not “multiply wives to himself … greatly multiply to himself silver and gold” or “his heart be not lifted up above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17:17, 20). As Halverson concludes, “Noah was a spectacular failure in living as God expected kings to live. In fact, it is striking how distinctly opposite all Noah’s actions were from God’s ideal for kingship as set forth in Deuteronomy 17:14–20.”[2]

King Noah as the Archetypal Maya King

When we look into the broader Mesoamerican context in which the Nephites most probably lived, we discover a description of the typical Maya king which fits Noah remarkably well. William Carlson succinctly explained, “We know the holy lords [of the Classic Maya] lived polygamous lives surrounded by wives and courtiers in royal palaces. They sat on thrones covered with jaguar pelts, commanding their subjects,” and “they wore finely dyed textiles with geometric designs and flamboyant headdresses.” Carlson goes on, “They prized exotic goods brought from the coasts and the mountains in trade or tribute,” and most of all, “nothing demonstrated their supremacy like their ability to mobilize mass labor forces, corps of engineers, artisans, and artists, to build and embellish monumental centers devoted to their reigns and dynasties.”[3]

While this is a description of Classic era (AD 250–600) Maya kings, the institutions of Maya kingship have been shown to go back to ca. 100 BC, bringing it within a generation of Noah’s time. It is uncanny how well this description fits that of King Noah in Mosiah 11:1–15. And, significantly, the very things that made Noah like kings in the Maya world are the things that make him the archetype of a “wicked king” based on the Israelite law of the king, as discussed above.

Conclusion

In a significant way, the story of Noah and his priests is a continuation of the anti-kingship (and specifically, anti-Maya kingship) polemics that the book of Mosiah started with. Noah’s story specifically helps us understand why Benjamin critiqued the Maya institution of kingship in the first place—it was the antithesis of what a righteous king was supposed to be according to God’s law. Thus, Benjamin sought to undermine the credibility of such kings and demonstrate the blasphemous nature of their ways.

This background also help us understand why Mosiah was so concerned about “how much iniquity” and “great destruction” just “one wicked king,” such as Noah, can “cause to be committed” (Mosiah 29:18–19). Noah was merely an example—an archetype—of the nascent institution of kingship emerging throughout Mesoamerica. Benjamin and Mosiah witnessed only the beginnings of royal excess. As Carlson explained, “The building projects increased in size, scope, and beauty throughout the Classic era and each passing century required more and more investment of resources and human labor.”[4]

The recently translated Jaredite record (Mosiah 28:11–19) likely helped Mosiah understand the increasingly intensive costs of such kingship, and it’s long term consequences. Clearly, as the example of Noah illustrates, the Nephite people were not immune to the influences of such kingship. To prevent this wicked royal institution from making further inroads amongst the Nephite people, Mosiah abolished kingship altogether. Still, the pressures for kings like those had among their neighbors would plague the next several generations of Nephites.



[1] Taylor Halverson, “Deuteronomy 17:14–20 as Criteria for Nephite Kingship,” Interpreter 24 (2017): 7–8.

[3] William Carlson, Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (New York, NY: William Morrow, 2016), 382–383.

[4] Carlson, Jungle of Stone, 383.


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