To his hearers, Abinadi’s words about God being simultaneously the “Father” and the “Son” (Mosiah 15:2) didn’t present the anomaly it may to us. Those are technical terms they were familiar with based on the Nephites’ and Lamanites’ ancient Near Eastern covenant heritage. The word “father” designates an emperor while “son” identifies a vassal king.
The difficulty King Noah and his priests had was that “God himself shall come down among the children of men” (Mosiah 15:1; 17:8). This seemed to them blasphemy, the same blasphemy with which the Sadducees charged Jesus (John 10:33). Their disbelief in the true nature of God inevitably followed their decline into wickedness, a phenomenon from which none is exempt.
An ancient Near Eastern emperor was called the “father” of his vassal kings, and they were called his “sons.” Emperors formally adopted their loyal vassals as “sons,” whether there existed a blood relationship or not. Under the emperor’s protection, each vassal ruled over a city state that comprised his particular “promised land.” The vassal king, in turn, was a “father” to the people over whom he ruled, while the heads of households were his “sons.” Carrying this hierarchical arrangement to its conclusion, the head of a household was a “father” to his children, to his servants and handmaidens, who, in turn, were his “sons” and “daughters.”
This patriarchal order existed principally for the welfare and protection of all concerned, particularly women and children. It functioned on the principle of vassal kings keeping the law of the emperor, heads of households keeping the law of their vassal king, and persons within a household keeping the law of the head of the house. So long as this order remained intact, all was well. The emperor or “king of kings” extended his protection and blessing to all within his empire and God prospered him and his peoples.
In the case of an outside threat, the emperor mustered his armies or “hosts” to meet the danger on behalf of his whole empire. Anyone who posed a mortal threat to his peoples, such as a rival emperor or invader, was called the “common enemy” of the emperor and his peoples. In his combative capacity to meet this danger, the emperor functioned as the “lord of hosts” to his peoples. In that capacity also he could turn against any among his own peoples who sided with the “common enemy” or who rebelled against him.
In the case of individual infractions within this hierarchical arrangement, heads of households answered to their vassal king for the disloyalties or misdemeanors of their households, and vassal kings answered to the emperor for the disloyalties or misdemeanors of their people. In other words, the term “father” became synonymous with being a proxy for those over whom one exercised a stewardship. Each “father” was responsible as a “son” to his “father” for those to whom he ministered. Protection broke down when a “son” transgressed the law of his “father,” which law constituted the terms of the covenant between a “father” and “son.”
In the context of these ancient Near Eastern covenant relationships, the Son’s deliverance of humanity from the effects of the Fall, as Abinadi taught it, makes eminent sense. Moses and the Hebrew prophets had used this very paradigm to portray God’s covenant relationship with Israel and with Israel’s kings. Under this arrangement, the Lord functioned in the role of emperor, while his people and their kings served as vassals. Both the Nephites and Lamanites followed this pattern of vassalship and protection in one form or another throughout their history.
Latter-day Saints have inherited this pattern in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, as is evident in the covenant of baptism and in priesthood and temple ordinances. It forms the basis of patriarchy and divine protection for us today in our own role as spiritual vassal kings and provides the clearest rationale behind God’s plan of salvation.
Just as the emperor was bound by the terms of the covenant to deliver his vassals from a mortal threat if they kept his law, so Jesus Christ, as his people’s “Father,” was bound to deliver them from the ultimate mortal threat, which was death itself. That is why Jacob personifies death, calling it “that awful monster,” the supreme or ultimate threat, lumping it together with hell and the devil as common enemies whom Christ overcomes (2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26).
King Noah and his priests could accept the fact that God was a Father, but they could not fathom that he could come down to earth in the form of a Son according to the pattern they were familiar with. A divine Vassal who would answer to his Father/Emperor for the disloyalties or misdemeanors of his “sons” and “daughters” on earth? Who would willingly suffer the disciplinary actions that normally befell those who rebelled against their emperor, which usually meant death? Could this God or Son of God fulfill the roles of both emperor and vassal, and die, and still somehow be “one God” (Mosiah 15:4–5)? These things lay beyond their corrupt minds to understand.
Jesus’ covenant relationship with his Father—the “Most High God” (Psalms 82:6; 1 Nephi 11:6; D&C 76:112)—throws light on this anomaly. Just as Jesus, our Father/Emperor, the King of kings, was bound by the terms of the covenant to deliver his “sons” and “daughters” who keep his law, so the Most High God was bound to deliver his Son who kept his law. On the other hand, if Jesus willingly underwent death in order to answer for the disloyalties or misdemeanors of his people, then the only way the Most High God could deliver him was to resurrect him. Consequently, in the process of atoning for the transgressions of his people, the Son would also conquer death.
Additionally, just as the emperor was bound by the terms of the covenant to deliver the people of a “son” or vassal who kept the law of the vassal, so the Most High God was bound to deliver from death those who were his Son’s. All to whom Jesus serves as a “Father,” therefore, the Most High God, too, must resurrect from the dead. The Son’s “power of intercession for the children of men” (Mosiah 15:8) thus resides in his covenant relationship with the Most High God, under which terms our Heavenly Father is bound to deliver the “sons” and “daughters” of his Son. All who “bend the knee and swear allegiance” to Jesus, then, will ultimately qualify for resurrection from the dead (cf. Isaiah 45:23; Mosiah 27:31; D&C 76:110).
See also Chapter 8, “An Infinite Atonement.”