I suspect that Zeniff was a very persuasive fellow. Consider the instances when he used his persuasion:
1) As a member of the first group sent to re-colonize Nephi-Lehi, Zeniff contended with his people to try to convince them to make a treaty with the Lamanites instead of invading and destroying them. He convinced enough people that the leader seems to have wanted to permanently shut him up by commanding that he be slain. (Zeniff must have had a lot of good arguments, but in his record he merely says, “I saw that which was good among them.” Ostensibly, he suppresses his reasoning in his record because it won’t fit well with his final indictment of the Lamanite culture. He is reluctant to seem inconsistent; few of us like to seem inconsistent so we should be able to understand this..)
2) Zeniff returns to Zarahemla with the 50 who were not slain in the contention, and he tells the tale of what happened to everyone else in a persuasive enough way that the families of those who were slain do not seek retribution.
Zeniff’s account in Mosiah 9:2 says he contended with his brethren not to kill the Lamanites, but in another account in Omni 1:28 by Amaleki, the story is that the leader caused a contention among them. Amaleki may have gotten the official story told to the families, whereas in Zeniff’s own account he feels free enough to give a different view, perhaps one closer to what actually happened.
As I think about the version in Omni, it does seem very odd that a leader would cause a contention among a group. Usually someone else besides the leader causes a contention. The leader represents the official policy, and others with different alternatives cause contention.
3) Zeniff manages to convince ANOTHER party of Nephites to come on a second colonizing party even after the first one failed. He seems to have been able to persuade them that a peaceful settlement among the Lamanites was a cinch and they had nothing to worry about. He didn’t even know where they would settle, yet he was able to make it sound possible and reasonable. Also take into account that he didn’t even know the disposition of the Lamanite king yet.
4) Once Zeniff returned to Nephi-Lehi, he was able to persuade the Lamanite king to give up some of Lamanite lands, evacuate his people, and let the Nephites settle in their place. Zeniffi later attributes his success to Lamanite cunning plans to destroy and bring Nephites into bondage, but I can’t help but wonder why the Lamanites would wait a full 12 years before attacking instead of attacking at the beginning? Why would they not try to bring them into bondage at the beginning as well? Wouldn’t they try to make some sort of tribute agreement?
Another detail I noticed that makes me wonder is the fact that Zeniff says in Mosiah 9:6 that the Lamanite king covenanted with Zeniff that the Nephites would possess the land of Lehi-Nephi and the land of Shilom. “Covenant” usually means a two-way promise. Yet Zeniff only records one side—what the Lamanites would do for the Nephites (give up land). It seems extraordinarily generous of the Lamanites to just vacate their land immediately like that, especially if they were as bloodthirsty, hateful, fierce, and cunning as Zeniff later insists they are.
I suspect that Zeniff actually had an obligation of his own to fulfill in this covenant, but that he chose not to record it. I suspect that he promised to provide the Lamanites with a certain amount of tribute crops and animals. Then, I suspect that after 12 years, that burden of tribute began to feel too obnoxious, so he decided to skip paying it.
So now, consider that first Lamanite attack on the Nephites that comes out of the blue after 12 years of peace. Its focus is rather unusual. Instead of attacking the city, the Lamanite army attacks the Nephites in their fields. Then they start taking off their flocks and the corn of their fields. It is like the Lamanites are hungry.
However, this makes perfect sense if you assume that Zeniff agreed to a tribute of food and then didn’t pay it on the 12th year. He even inserts his reasoning that the Lamanites were lazy, idolatrous, and wanted to glut themselves on the labors of the Nephites hands. This is the same kind of resentful grumbling you will hear from people determined to avoid paying their taxes. “The government is stealing from us. The government is a parasite!” they will say. If Zeniff withheld tribute, then the Lamanite army attack would be completely understandable. They would be sent to collect what was agreed upon.
Another point of Zeniff’s narrative that makes me wonder is his description of the reason for the second battle the Lamanites start with the Nephites. He says that the new king of the Lamanites began to stir up his people in rebellion against Zeniff’s people (Mosiah 10:6). Rebellion is such an interesting word here. It implies that somehow Zeniff’s people had gained some sort of ascendancy, as if they were starting to subjugate the Lamanites. I have to wonder if this actually describes the reality, or if Zeniff was just twisting the narrative a little.
But either way, calling the Lamanite attack a rebellion raises questions. If the Lamanites were rebelling against Nephite domination, then Zeniff actually kept some very important contextual information out of his record. On the other hand, if Zeniff called it a rebellion when it was nothing of the kind, then he bent the truth for his own purposes. One way he withheld truth, another way he bent the truth.
(Things that make you go, “Hmmmmm..”)
Anyway, all these little details, little inconsistencies add up to a picture of a man who was very persuasive and who was skilled at bending the truth to whatever purpose he had in mind, even going so far as to rewrite his version of history.
Now, when a ruler is adept at bending the truth for his purposes according to circumstances, what are the ruler’s children going to learn to do? They will do the same, and they may push things even further.
Thus, this accounts for the wild mismatch of views between King Noah and his wicked priests on one hand and Abinadi on the other about what is happening in the land. King Noah and his wicked priests are bending the truth and not only have they bent the Nephite historical narrative, they are now bending the Law of Moses to fit their purposes. Abinadi’s view represents the clear truth to which the Lord desires to bring the people back.