The Allegory of Zeniff


I arrived in the mission field at the end of September 1989, excited and ready to go. My mission president had all sorts of useful information about transitioning to the English culture, but he also had a challenge for us. We were to join the rest of the mission in reading the Book of Mormon 4 times through by Christmas. That’s 4 times through in 3 months, without reducing our proselyting time. Shamefully, I’d only read the Book of Mormon once through by this time, so while I was thrilled to take the challenge, I was nervous about how I’d manage and what I’d get out of such a frantic reading.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the powerful impact that such a speed-reading would provide. That tour, once focused on the story line, a second time focused on doctrine, a third time focused on prophecies and parables, and a fourth time focused on Christ, provided a vista of the broad, sweeping patterns and themes that infuse these scriptures. I saw a divine hand in the book in a way that I hadn’t before as I could see the rise and fall of the Nephites and Lamanites as a people. I learned new lessons that couldn’t be learned by focusing on just Alma or just Nephi.

Years later, I was in one of my “scripture slumps” when I wasn’t getting as much out of the scriptures as I should be. In pondering what I should do about this, I remembered my mission challenge and decided to take another whirlwind tour to kickstart my studies. Again, I was surprised to have my spiritual eyes opened. I’d like to share with you one of the more profound lessons I learned on that reading from the book of Mosiah.

The Allegory of Zeniff

The overarching theme of the book of Mosiah is the delivering power of faith in the Savior, with Abinadi’s Messianic speech at the center. The story of Zeniff and his descendants that forms the core of the book contains many parallels with the story of Israel’s deliverance, with some important and instructive differences. If Zarahemla represents the promised land, then Zeniff is like Joseph arriving in a heathen land. Regardless of how they arrived, they were delivered by a Savior-figure–Moses for Joseph’s people, a combination of Abinadi and Ammon for Zeniff’s–and they passed through many trials before eventually finding salvation in their promised lands.

In addition to the general theme of deliverance, there is also a pattern or allegory in the story of Zeniff’s people that teaches us about how to be better home and visiting teachers, and more specifically how to rescue our brothers and sisters who have strayed from the gospel. We can all improve our shepherding by learning from and applying this pattern in our stewardships.

The tale of Zeniff, the leader of a new Nephite kingdom who was “overzealous to inhabit the land of his fathers,” is told as a flashback when Ammon discovers Zeniff’s grandson Limhi in bondage to the Lamanites. The key to understanding this pattern is to liken the people of Zeniff to one of the less active families in your ward, or perhaps to your own family. Zeniff represents the first family member to go astray, and his descendants represent other members of the family as they interact with the church and their new homeland.

Zeniff: the road to inactivity is paved with good intentions

The story of Zeniff begins with his assignment to spy on the Lamanites. While it’s possible to see his compassion for the Lamanites in Mosiah 9:1 as a virtue, if we’re looking at the broader pattern taught by the book of Mosiah, Zeniff’s reaction is more akin to looking for good among the wicked in order to justify uniting with them. While it is important for us to see the good in others, our motivation should be to build on that goodness rather than to embrace the evil along with the good. For Zeniff, his move was the first step toward apostasy for himself and his descendants. Many of our less active brothers and sisters started on their path in much the same way–seeing good amongst the wicked, and choosing not to see that acceptance of worldly influences would take them and their posterity further from the light.

As Zeniff and his followers move in to the land of Nephi, they receive a warm welcome (Mosiah 9:6-7), not unlike the acceptance that the world offers to those that leave the church. Our youth in particular are often blind to the hidden agendas of the drug and gang cultures, or even of groups with less nefarious goals, all of which initially provide Satan’s counterfeit for unconditional love. When acceptance creates comfort that makes it more difficult to leave, the snare is sprung, and the slavery begins.

In verse 17, Zeniff’s people are still close enough to the Lord, the memory of the gospel still fresh enough in their minds, that they call upon Him when the first trials come. The Lord still loves them, of course, and so they are blessed for their sincere pleadings and are victorious. After burying their dead, however, do they recognize their error and return to the relative spiritual safety of Zarahemla? No, they dig in, enjoy a temporary peace, and set the stage for their decline to total apostasy.

There’s also a lesson here for those who remain faithful. Like the dutiful son who resents the prodigal’s feast, we sometimes see the peace and happiness of those who have become less active and grumble. Why do they “get to” spend their Sundays as they wish and seem to be happier than ever? At times like these, it’s wise to recognize that we, like them, are looking with the natural man’s eyes at the short term. Wickedness never was happiness, and our friends, like Zeniff’s people, will sooner or later receive the consequences.

Noah: the psychology of the less active

The children of the less active often rebel more vigorously against the gospel, not having seen as vividly the blessings of obedience. Thus it was with Noah, the son of Zeniff. King Noah illustrates many of the tactics, most of which are subconscious, used particularly by apostates to stay comfortable.

In Mosiah 11:5-7, we see Noah surrounding himself with people that support his wicked lifestyle. He chooses priests that are as apostate as himself, who will whisper soothing words like we find in chapter 12 to echo his own justifications. He makes those friends as comfortable as possible–the golden seats mentioned in Mosiah 11:11 serve as golden handcuffs, binding these friends to each other in a co-dependent relationship. Verses 8-11 and 14 highlight all the material wealth that ignoring the principles of tithing and charity can provide. These are the comforts that soothe the guilty mind and remind them daily how “happy” they must be without all those burdensome commandments.

When the trials come at this stage, the apostate King Noah doesn’t consider turning to the Lord for support, but provides a woefully insufficient opposition to the Lamanites’ attacks. This reminds us of the insufficient protection provided by a family that’s no longer praying and studying scriptures together, let alone attending church. The attacks of the adversary have no trouble getting through, accelerating the descent into slavery and darkness.

Abinadi: a home teacher to the rescue

In chapter 11, we are introduced to the key that unlocks our less active family’s deliverance: the home teacher, here played by Abinadi. He arrives in verse 20, sent on assignment from the Lord. His first message is bold, clear, and comes with a way out: they can avoid future bondage if they will repent now. How many home teachers have felt the sting of those rebuking questions in response, “Who are you, to tell us what to do? Or how to live our lives?” (v.27) Bold language in early visits as a home or visiting teacher may be called for, as prompted by the Spirit. However, we should be prepared to stand in the company of prophets like Abinadi if our initial calls to repentance are rejected with equal boldness. It is our duty to warn, as D&C 88:81 makes clear, and to partner with Christ to gather them in.

When Abinadi the home teacher returns after giving his stewardship two years to change, his message is even stronger: bondage is now inevitable, but destruction can be avoided if they would repent (Mosiah 12:2, 8). Their response this time is much the same as before, but illustrates another attitude that we often see in the less active: they believe they’re still active. In Mosiah 12:19-28, Noah’s priests try to demonstrate their righteousness by quoting scripture and stating that they still teach the law of Moses.

Many families that have left activity don’t see how far away they’ve drifted and may not classify themselves as less active because they have retained remnants of their former testimony and habits. They may still believe in Christ, but the deterioration of their testimony was gradual, sometimes spanning generations as it was with Zeniff’s descendants. Temple attendance and family home evenings likely stopped a year or more before church attendance; disobedience to the Word of Wisdom may not appear until the children grow to adulthood. Somewhere along the way, the “why” of the gospel is forgotten completely, just as it was for Noah’s priests. Those that leave the church often pass on to their children the common worldly maxim, “Live a good life, don’t hurt anyone, and God will be merciful.” While true, this philosophy is missing those principles and ordinances that will exalt families to their full potential.

Abinadi quickly realizes that he needs to start with the basics, and in chapter 12 begins his remediation. Following his example, our home teachers shouldn’t be afraid to bring in the full time or ward missionaries to our less active brothers and sisters. Those basics, delivered by those called to teach them, bring a powerful spirit into the home and can lay a new gospel foundation. In Abinadi’s case, that foundation was laid not for the leader, but for Alma. As we deliver our home teaching messages to the less active, be aware of the children or others in the home who may create a legacy as great as Alma’s.

Once while visiting with a less active sister, I probed a little into why she was reluctant to join us in sacrament meetings. While I’m not convinced the reason she gave was the whole story, it was based on some incorrect ideas of church doctrines. I hope I was able to boldly but kindly correct those ideas and remove some of her reasons for staying away. I also pray that I can be in tune as Abinadi was so that I can receive more insights in helping my assigned families.

In some respects, the story of Abinadi illustrates the worst-case scenario for a home teaching experience; the home teacher never sees the fruits of his labor in this life. Most of those he was assigned to rescue are lost spiritually. However, as it is with our missionary efforts, successful home teaching shouldn’t be defined by acceptance of the message, but rather in its delivery, in the invitation. That said, though Abinadi rescues just one soul, he just happens to become a cornerstone of God’s church in the new world–a church that will prepare a people for Christ’s coming.

Limhi: making an effectual struggle

After Abinadi’s martyrdom and Alma’s escape, Limhi now inherits the conquered people his father Noah created. He’s willing to pay a grievous tax in order to keep the peace with his oppressors (Mosiah 19:26), and in a similar way, we often see the descendants of those that leave the church paying the wages of sin. For example, these wages can take the form of poorer health from no longer living the Word of Wisdom, or the inability to answer the heartfelt questions about God that come from their children.

The cost of serving mammon can also include guilt by association, as Limhi’s people found in chapter 20, when they’re falsely punished for stealing Lamanite women, a crime committed by their former high priests. This episode always reminds me of a saying from my Scottish mother-in-law: “Ya flee wi’ the craws, ya git shot wi’ the craws.” Flying with a wicked flock of crows will land you in trouble eventually, no matter how innocent you may be.

By the time Ammon finds Limhi’s people, they are truly humbled, and have been vainly seeking for Zarahemla (Mosiah 21:25). They desperately want a new life in a covenant with God, having now learned that He is their only way to peace and freedom. They recognize that it’s “better to be slaves to the Nephites than to the Lamanites,” (Mosiah 7:15) an admission that commandments are a lighter burden than the slavery brought on by sin.

In both Limhi’s and Alma’s stories, their people needed to be chastened and humbled on their road to salvation. Their journeys differed in the amount of assistance the Lord provided, based on their humility and faith. Our lost friends in this situation need honest guidance that their road to peace may look more like Limhi’s road than Alma’s. One of Limhi’s more profound statements when realizing that Ammon could help them to freedom was the recognition that there was still a tough road ahead. He explained to his people, “…I trust there remaineth an effectual struggle to be made.” (Mosiah 7:18) It would be wise for home and visiting teachers to help families that are beginning their path back to the gospel come to Limhi’s understanding, and to develop the humility to admit that it was them, not God, that had changed and brought on their misery (Mosiah 7:20).

We may also need to help them make their plans of escape and to guide them back to their Zarahemla, as Ammon did in Mosiah 22. Our plans should include the three elements President Hinckley said every member needs: a friend, a responsibility, and nourishing by the Word of God.

When I receive a new home teaching assignment for a less active family, I ask the Spirit to help me answer the question: “Am I dealing with a Zeniff, a Noah, or a Limhi?” I seek for the Alma among them, and try to be as bold as Abinadi in my invitations and as quick to serve as Ammon. Abinadi’s Messianic message, especially the redemptive words of Isaiah reaching out to all who, “like sheep, have gone astray,” would be as relevant to our less active families as it was to Alma (Mosiah 14:6).

I try to follow the examples of the home teachers that were instrumental in bringing my own father back to activity in the church, so that one day perhaps I can witness the Lord repeating to the families under my care His words to Alma: “Thou art blessed because of the thy exceeding faith in the words… of my servant… and I covenant with thee that thou shalt have eternal life…” (Mosiah 26:15-20)

A recent video production from the Church depicting Abinadi’s mission:


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