Friday, September 27, 2013

The Sign in the Questioning of Seantum for His Brother’s Murder, Helaman 9:25-38

In Helaman 9 when the prophet Nephi gives the second sign to the unbelieving judges, there are some very odd features about it that have puzzled me more and more.

25 And now behold, I will show unto you another sign, and see if ye will in this thing seek to destroy me.
26 Behold I say unto you: Go to the house of Seantum, who is the brother of Seezoram, and say unto him—
27 Has Nephi, the pretended prophet, who doth prophesy so much evil concerning this people, agreed with thee, in the which ye have murdered Seezoram, who is your brother?
28 And behold, he shall say unto you, Nay.
29 And ye shall say unto him: Have ye murdered your brother?
30 And he shall stand with fear, and wist not what to say. And behold, he shall deny unto you; and he shall make as if he were astonished; nevertheless, he shall declare unto you that he is innocent.
31 But behold, ye shall examine him, and ye shall find blood upon the skirts of his cloak.
32 And when ye have seen this, ye shall say: From whence cometh this blood? Do we not know that it is the blood of your brother?
33 And then shall he tremble, and shall look pale, even as if death had come upon him.
34 And then shall ye say: Because of this fear and this paleness which has come upon your face, behold, we know that thou art guilty.
35 And then shall greater fear come upon him; and then shall he confess unto you, and deny no more that he has done this murder.
36 And then shall he say unto you, that I, Nephi, know nothing concerning the matter save it were given unto me by the power of God. And then shall ye know that I am an honest man, and that I am sent unto you from God.
37 And it came to pass that they went and did, even according as Nephi had said unto them. And behold, the words which he had said were true; for according to the words he did deny; and also according to the words he did confess.
38 And he was brought to prove that he himself was the very murderer, insomuch that the five were set at liberty, and also was Nephi. (Helaman 9:25-38)

Take that first question, “Has Nephi, the pretended prophet, who doth prophesy so much evil concerning this people, agreed with thee, in the which ye have murdered Seezoram, who is your brother?”  The question is technically a loaded one about on par with “Have you stopped beating your wife, yes or no?”  The question Nephi tells them to ask presupposes that Seantum has murdered Seezoram, and an innocent man would object to that presupposition, as would a guilty man who wished to conceal his guilt.  Yet it is very strange that with all the other emotional and physical reactions that Nephi prophesies that Seantum will have later, this first question doesn’t seem to raise anything besides a simple “No.”  What is he saying no to?  We can observe that the simple “no” can be taken as a denial of both agreement and murder or an ambiguous denial of one of those.  This doesn’t seem to get anyone anywhere.

I really didn’t understand why Seantum was not worried until the second question, “Have ye murdered your brother?” and not when the first is asked.

What I finally realized was that the judges questioning Seantum were also part of the Gadianton robbers.  This may seem obvious, but as I thought about the true implications of this, I began to realize that this brought into the dialogue a subtext that Seantum would read differently than he would have if the questioning had been done by someone outside the Gadianton robbers.

We have to keep in mind that the Gadianton robbers protected their own from suffering for their crimes or from being exposed to Nephite justice, so the Gadianton judges probably thought that if they did the questioning, they could protect Seantum and that Seantum would easily deny any charge against him.  What they didn’t realize was that the line of questioning that Nephi laid out for them was inspired by God with the purpose of using the Gadianton’s own association and culture of wickedness against them, using questions that would seem almost absurd.  It is likely that if the Gadianton judges suspected any particularly pointed question, they would have altered it or softened it.  That they didn’t alter it meant that they thought there was no way that it would succeed and therefore wasn’t much of a danger to them or Seantum.

What the Lord designed that first question to do was give Seantum the impression that his questioners were speaking to him confidentially about Gadianton business, merely to find out who was involved in a particular caper.  “Has Nephi, the pretended prophet, who doth prophesy so much evil concerning this people, agreed with thee, in the which ye have murdered Seezoram, who is your brother?”  It makes it seem like they were uninformed the murder was supposed to happen and they just want to get the real facts of the matter.  Again, an innocent man would immediately have been worried by this question, but a Gadianton would not, if talking to other Gadiantons.

The second question was, “Have ye murdered your brother?”  The Gadianton judges thought it would be easy for Seantum to make a confident show of denying his involvement and bold-face his way through it.  They fully expected that Seantum would deny it, but they didn’t realize that the question carried subtext to Seantum that they perhaps didn’t mean.  In Seantum’s eyes, that question would reveal that they were not asking in the role of fellow-associates, but as investigators.  Investigation implied they didn’t approve of the murder.  (They may have approved, but the question made him think they didn’t.)  Thinking they didn’t approve might lead Seantum to think that somehow he had run afoul of a particular Gadianton faction that favored Seezoram over him and was angry at what he had done.  He might worry, not about Nephite justice, but Gadianton “justice.”  Or he might begin to wonder if his questioners were going to throw him under the bus and betray him for their own advantage.  It is here that he begins to fear, to not know what to say (since he no longer is sure these questioners on really on his side), and to deny his guilt and declare his innocence.  But his denials are too delayed.. and they are desperate.

Then, they examine Seantum and find blood on the skirts of his cloak.  This puzzled me for a long time because it seemed incredibly stupid that Seantum didn’t get rid of his cloak or have it washed or something.  I mean, really!  You’d think he would be smart enough to notice he had blood on him, right?  It kept bothering me until I noticed it talks about “the skirts of his cloak,” and not “skirt.”  It may have been multiple panels of cloth that made up this cloak, not just one, possibly to indicate status.  The more cloth involved, the more difficult it would be to catch and clean blood spatters.

The next questions the Gadianton judges asked –“From whence cometh this blood? Do we not know that it is the blood of your brother?”—might sound to them like they are making a wild assertion, especially since for all they know Seantum could have killed other people since killing his brother.  But to Seantum it would sound like his questioners had seen his animosity and jealousy against Seezoram building for a long time and had predicted that it was only a matter of time before he struck.  It would make him wonder, “Am I that transparent?”  This would make him worry that other Gadiantons saw it too and disapproved.   This made him tremble and look pale as he worried he would have to deal with the anger of other Gadiantons.

The next thing the Gadianton judges say seems even more strange.  “Because of this fear and this paleness which has come upon your face, behold, we know that thou art guilty.”  It seems odd to tell someone they are guilty just because of the fear they manifest.  It is contrary to all our ideas of justice!  People are supposed to be pronounced guilty because of direct evidence or a collection of circumstantial evidence that strongly supports an inference they committed the crime over other options.  The blood on Seantum’s clothes could be called circumstantial evidence, but they don’t really have a way to say with scientific certainty that it is Seezoram’s blood.   And yet, this wacky line is enough to put the fear of God into Seantum and make him confess everything!  So what is it about that observation that scared Seantum even more?

To the judges making those statements, it would sound like another bold assertion that was full of hot air.  To Seantum, it sounded different—menacing.  Why?  As I pondered  and prayed about this, my mind fastened on the words “thou art guilty,” and I remembered another verse earlier in Helaman:

And whosoever of those who belonged to their band should reveal unto the world of their wickedness and their abominations, should be tried, not according to the laws of their country, but according to the laws of their wickedness, which had been given by Gadianton and Kishkumen. (Helaman 6:24)

Seantum thought he was being pronounced guilty by Gadianton law in an impromptu trial and that he was about to be punished for his crime.  If he had been innocent, being called guilty just because of his fear and paleness would have made him angrily declaim against the injustice of it, but Seantum was too well acquainted with Gadianton trials to see that declaration as meaningless.  It is possible he himself had condemned other Gadiantons under similar groundless causes with flimsy or nonexistent evidence.  Further, he thought he was being condemned for revealing Gadianton doings to the prophet Nephi, thus his fear, his confession, and his violent insistence that Nephi knew nothing about the matter except it were given by the power of God.

So, the miracle of Nephi’s second sign is that even with Gadiantons trying to protect their own in the questioning process, the questions that looked harmless and laughable forced them to condemn one of their own and prove Nephi’s innocence.  It is a prime example of how the Lord takes the wicked in their own craftiness. 


catania said...

I love this analysis. I think that you're right - it is important to remember that the Gadianton Robbers were thinking a lot differently than "normal" people would. They were entrenched in their world of sin and treachery.

These stories in the book of Mormon SO remind me of Shakespeare...both exciting and instructive.

Michaela Stephens said...

Thanks! Credit totally goes the Lord for it. One of those things I had to pray about to understand better.