At the end of the Book of Mosiah, the Nephite’s governmental structure changes from kings to judges, bringing a full circle to the transition from judges to kings that occurred nearly a thousand years earlier in Israel (1 Samuel 8-11). In a very real way, the Book of Mormon walks back one of the most controversial political passages in the entire Bible—and it does so through a process of almost complete narrative inversion.
In 1 Samuel, the Deuteronomic historian describes the end of the rule of the judges (who were more like military heroes than judicial figures). Samuel, the prophet, appoints his sons “judges over Israel” (8:1), but the people rebel. Samuel’s sons are corrupt, they complain, and besides, all of the cool countries have kings. They go to Samuel and demand a king too. In what one day become one of the most contested political pronouncements in the Bible, Samuel explains to them why they shouldn’t want any such thing:
And he said, this will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. (8:11-18)
This passage became enormously controversial in England (and much of Europe) during the 17th century, or the “Century of Revolution,” when it was used to define the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. No less a figure than King James I (the Bible Guy) staked the absolutist claims of the Stuarts on this very passage—claiming that Samuel’s parade of horribles represents the legitimate power of a monarch, accepted by the people and endorsed by the voice of God. In this opinion he was backed by, among others, Robert Filmer, Thomas Hobbes, and the not-very-famous-anymore poet Abraham Cowley, whose epic poem Davideis was considered the last word on the subject.
Oliver Cromwell and that lot disagreed, as did John Locke, Daniel Defoe, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and the late-century political faction that became known as the “Whigs.” Whiggism advanced the interpretation that eventually won the day, which is that God told Samuel how bad kings would be because, for the most part, kings were bad–or at least potentially scary enough that they should be kept on a very short leash.
All of this seventeenth-century history became important to the nineteenth-century context of the Book of Mormon when Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. Soon after Jackson’s election, Henry Clay and his political allies formed the National Republican Party (as opposed to Jackson’s Democratic-Republican Party), which very soon came to be known as the “Whigs” because they opposed the tyranny of Andrew Jackson. This was roughly the political situation when Joseph Smith first published the Book of Mormon. Jackson was wildly popular with people who had not been part of the political class before, but he was also held in deep suspicion by the political elite (think: Donald Trump) as an unpredictable character who could start American down the road to tyranny.
This is why it would have been significant to readers in 1830–when all of this poop was in the process of hitting the fan–that the Nephite monarchy dissolves into a reign of judges that continues until the coming of Christ. Not only does this highlight a contemporary argument–it revises and reinterprets the very biblical passage at the heart of that controversy. In a complete inversion of Samuel, who appointed his sons to be judges, Mosiah offers the kingdom to his sons and is refused. Rather than risk a new hereditary monarchy, he warns the people about kings using rhetoric very similar to Samuel’s rhetoric a thousand years earlier:
Behold, O ye my people, or my brethren, for I esteem you as such, I desire that ye should consider the cause which ye are called to consider—for ye are desirous to have a king. Now I declare unto you that he to whom the kingdom doth rightly belong has declined, and will not take upon him the kingdom. And now if there should be another appointed in his stead, behold I fear there would rise contentions among you. And who knoweth but what my son, to whom the kingdom doth belong, should turn to be angry and draw away a part of this people after him, which would cause wars and contentions among you, which would be the cause of shedding much blood and perverting the way of the Lord, yea, and destroy the souls of many people. (Mosiah 29: 6-7)
And thus the reign of the judges begins, as if King Mosiah had corrected the mistake that the people of Israel made a thousand years ago and returned power to the people through the mechanism of the judges–like any good Jacksonian American would have done in the same situation.
But in context it is not quite so easy, as the judges don’t do any better than the kings would have. As the Books of Alma and Helaman progress, it becomes clear that judges are just as capable of “perverting the way of the Lord” as kings ever were. Like the reigns of David and Solomon, the reigns of Benjamin and Mosiah become a sort of golden age for the generations that follow.
Though the Book of Mormon inverts the Bible’s transition from judges to monarchy, it ends up teaching about the same lesson that the Hebrew narrative does–which is that every form of government outside of the Kingdom of God has, not only problems, but fatal flaws that will ultimately destroy it. This would have been a cynical buzzkill to Americans high on Jacksonian optimism, but, as the Latter-day Saints would soon discover, “government by the people” has plenty of fatal flaws. Ultimately, both the Bible and the Book of Mormon end up teaching us that people usually end up with the government they deserve, which may be the most depressing thing I have ever known.
 Geek alert: The 17th century interpretation of this passage was the subject of the first academic article that I ever wrote about anything, back when I was an unemployed graduate student trying desperately to turn my dissertation into MPUs (Minimally Publishable Units) before facing the horrors of the academic job market. You can read it here.