I think most of us remember that strange, seemingly totally out of place section in the Book of Alma when Mormon stops the action—the contention of Alma and Amulek with Zeezrom the lawyer and the people of Ammonihah—to give us a detailed description of Nephite money. Senines (the smallest amount) and seons and limnahs and onties (the greatest) and so forth. It takes up almost an entire column of the page and doesn’t seem to have a great purpose, even in context. We only learn from it that lawyers made large amounts of money, and Zeezrom tried to bribe Amulek into denying God with six onties of silver, a large amount of money. Amulek rejects it, of course, and turns the tables back on Zeezrom and preaches and we forget the whole thing.
So, why is the currency laid out? General worldbuilding? Mormon rarely does that. The only use we get out of it here in Alma is to know that what Zeezrom offered Amulek a LOT of money to deny the faith, and Amulek didn’t even have to think about it. That tells us a lot about Amulek, but was laying out the whole system really necessary?
(Doubters have pointed out that coins weren’t even used as currency in this time period, and that there is no evidence for coinage in the Americas and that the currency as it was laid out is evidence of the falseness of the Book of Mormon. Very well, let’s agree that there was no coinage in ancient America before Columbus, et al, arrived.
But wait just one second. Where does Mormon write about coins? He doesn’t. The word “coin” is not used. Only “wages” and “measures” and “reckonings.” Certainly familiar terms to any ancient economy. Weights and measures and things like that.
Now, “coin” is used in the chapter heading: “Nephite coinage set forth,” it says. But that’s not what Mormon wrote. It’s a modern day assumption that what Mormon is describing are coins. But it’s not scripture.)
But I digress. The question was, why currency. Why we should, as modern-day readers, care that Nephites had a system of money.
The answer I give is not a scholarly one. There are probably other answers that are better, more educated, more researched. Mine was a tiny little thought, and yet it makes my heart melt with love for the Savior. And as a novelist with my own penchant for subtle, quiet, but powerful moments that you can miss if you blink, I am deeply grateful to Mormon for putting this in there.
Fast forward over a century and approximately two hundred pages. Christ has just shown Himself to the Nephites. He is giving them the sermon on the mount. It is the pure version, not the one we have in our New Testament scriptures. Small changes here and there that alter the understanding of doctrine when compared. And in this case, adapting it to His Nephite audience.
25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
26 Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou has paid the uttermost farthing. [“the last penny”]
And then in 3 Nephi 12:25-26:
25 Agree with thine adversary quickly while thou art in the way with him, lest at any time he shall get thee, and thou shalt be cast into prison.
26 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, thou shalt by no means come out thence until thou has paid the uttermost senine. And while ye are in prison can ye pay even one senine? Verily, verily, I say unto you, Nay.
The word “senine” here hasn’t been brought up in two hundred pages. Mormon makes no special note of it in his commentary. It is simply there, in Christ’s words, adapted tot he Nephite people without a spotlight or any fanfare.
This little moment tells me two things: 1) It is yet more evidence of the Book of Mormon’s veracity. Joseph Smith could not have made this up. He would not have the foresight or the retrospective capacity to do this, and especially not without calling attention to it somehow. It is simply there for people to notice if they will. And why should they? Because 2) Jesus knows His sheep, and He speaks their language, according to their understanding. And that is the greatest tender mercy of all. He knows us all individually, our customs and our traditions and our backgrounds. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world—wherever, whatever we are, He is our Savior, and He knows us intimately.