Feast upon the Word Blog

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GD BoM Lesson 23, Alma 9:5-6

Posted by BrianJ on June 24, 2008

If you’re preparing a lesson or studying for one, there are already some very good notes available; I see no need to duplicate. For my notes, I’ll focus on just two verses.

When Alma goes to preach in Ammonihah, we hear again and again how awful, wicked, iniquitous, etc. the people there were. But we never really get a detailed picture of their sin until after Zeezrom’s conversion. And yeah, the people are really horrible, murdering their fellow citizens because of religious belief. Rewind a bit, however, and ask what was the big problem when Alma first arrived? Why was Alma convinced that this city was so wicked?

I don’t think we can really say without hefty speculation. Some might say that the fact that they rejected Alma’s message is evidence of wickedness, but I’m not so ready to condemn every non-believer in the world.

In chapter 9:5 we read one of the specific criticisms:

Now they knew not that God could do such marvelous works, for they were a hard-hearted and a stiffnecked people.

If I wanted to give them the full benefit of the doubt, I’d say they were merely ignorant of God—and surely ignorance is not the same as hard-heartedness. It’s the next verse, though, that really caught my attention (emphasis added):

And they said: Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man among this people, to declare unto them the truth of such great and marvelous things?

Where else do we find that question in the scriptures? By asking, “Who is God?” the Ammonihahites join a dubious crowd:

  • Pharaoh – “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2)
  • Nebuchadnezzar – “[If you don’t worship the idol,] who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? (Daniel 3:5)
  • King Noah – “Who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?” (Mosiah 11:27)
  • Agur – “Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” (Proverbs 30:9)
  • And lastly, Cain – “But behold, Cain hearkened not, saying: Who is the Lord that I should know him?” (Moses 5:16)

Yikes! Not a group I want to emulate (except Agur, of course). What do all of these people have in common—besides asking this question—that would shed light on the Ammonihahites?

Agur’s prayer is especially interesting. He paints a series of events that would lead up to this question, with this question being set up as sort of the Ultimate Act of Sin. His main concern seems to be that if he has everything he needs (materially), that he will be tempted, out of pride or self-satisfaction, to deny his dependence on the Lord. This the question, “Who is the Lord?“—or, in other words, “What use is the Lord to me?

I think the other people on the list could be seen in the same way. Cain seems to be asking, “Why should I bother with the Lord—what’s he got to do with my crops?” The three kings all ask the same question, “How am I affected by the Lord? How is he going to change my plans one bit?”

Could this be the key to understanding the people in Ammonihah? More importantly, could this be the key to placing ourselves in Alma’s audience and seeing how we, sometimes, ask the same prideful question? Lastly, if we think of this as the “main sin” of Ammonihah, how does that influence the way we interpret Alma and Amulek’s message?

17 Responses to “GD BoM Lesson 23, Alma 9:5-6”

  1. robf said

    Very interesting, thanks for these notes. I’ve been thinking a bit about this as well, and while I’m sure that their material circumstances contributed to their rejecting the Lord, I’m wondering what else may be at play here. Another verse that gets me thinking is Alma 8:28–the people were apparently doing something that would allow Alma to judge that they were waxing more gross in their iniquities. Not sure what that was, but it was apparently something visible. The people of Ammonihah are apparently preparing to overthrow the religious liberties of the people (following in the footsteps of Amlici), and are following the Order of Nehor. So there’s a lot not to like!

  2. BrianJ said

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that it was merely wealth—or even necessarily wealth—that was the problem. I meant to say that it was a general sense of independence, a “We don’t need _______ because we can take care of ourselves.” For Agur, that was wealth, but for Noah, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar, it was military strength. For Cain it was…I don’t really know.

    I also noticed that part in 8:28, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There are so many details left out!!

    How do you know that the people were “preparing to overthrow the religious liberties”? I know that they eventually moved that way, but were they trying to do it when Alma first arrived?

  3. robf said

    The angel told Alma that the people “do study at this time that they may destroy the liberty of thy people” (Alma 8:17).

    I think if we can take the Nehors as advocating a more of a traditional Mesoamerican socioreligious order (note that Nehor is a Jaredite name, perhaps indicating an ancient lineage), perhaps backed by royal separatist Mulekites (Ammonihah in opposition to Nephihah), then Ammonihah was probably a powderkeg ready to explode out from under the thumb of the new Nephite chief judgeship. Alma portrays it as a complete rejection of the Nephite religion and political order.

  4. NathanG said

    We’ve talked on this blog about becoming as a child in part being an acknowledgement or recognition of our dependency on God as a child is dependent on its parents. You seem to have described the antithesis of this concept. Very interesting.

  5. BrianJ said

    Nathan, thanks for the reminder. I hadn’t thought of it that way.

  6. robf said

    Interestingly we seem to have very little of Nehor’s doctrine in the Book of Mormon–most of what we have is in Alma 1:3-4. If this is an accurate reflection of his teachings, and the people of Ammonihah were following these, than we know that they:

    a) believed in God–but we don’t know how they conceived of him, except that there would be a Lord who created all men who would save all men.
    b) thought all mankind should be saved at the last day–so, presumably God is willing to put up with all kinds of behavior? and there would be a universal atonement?
    c) felt there was no need to fear, but cause for rejoicing (echos of the priests of Noah here?)
    d) Believed priests and teachers should be supported by the people–really an alternative priesthood here, which functions in society as more of a professional class, probably closely tied to the political leadership, as opposed to separate from it as in the Nephite system under Mosiah or the judges.
    e) considered it acceptable to apply and enforce this system by the sword.

    So when Alma shows up, they refuse to see his preaching as legitimate, because he wasn’t a member of this priesthood class which they were planning to impose by force upon the rest of the Nephites. He was just “one man” and not part of the system.

  7. robf said

    In re-reading Alma 9:27-28, its amazing to see that Alma seems to be giving a point by point refutation of Nehor’s teachings found in Alma 1:3-4.

  8. RuthS said

    “Pharaoh – “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2)
    Nebuchadnezzar – “[If you don’t worship the idol,] who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? (Daniel 3:5)
    King Noah – “Who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?” (Mosiah 11:27)
    Agur – “Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?” (Proverbs 30:9)
    And lastly, Cain – “But behold, Cain hearkened not, saying: Who is the Lord that I should know him?” (Moses 5:16)
    Yikes! Not a group I want to emulate (except Agur, of course). What do all of these people have in common—besides asking this question—that would shed light on the Ammonihahites?”

    What all these groups have in common is idolatry. They all place something above the Lord. I am reminded of the story of the siege of Jerusalem when Hezekiah was king. The enemy translators spoke directly to the people to try and encourage them to surrender. What they did was attempt to plant doubts about the ability of the Lord to deliver them by saying none of the gods of the other peoples they had conquered had saved them.

    The Ammonihahites knew what Benjamin, Mosiah and the two Alma’s believed. They were not ignorant of religion. Alma’s teachings were well known as the Ammoniha was founded by dissenters from the Nephite realm. They worshiped something other than the Lord God of Israel and wanted to replace the judges with a government more favorable to their own group. If we assume that stiff necked is a description of someone who cannot or will not bend, then the term really has very little to do with what a person believes and a lot to do with being able to be taught. It has to do with being willing to accept something other than ones own preconceived notions.

    However, it is not surprising that they took a defensive posture when Alma came to teach them. I think that is a pretty normal reaction. Later we will see that those who were teachable listened.

  9. robf said

    I seem to have these people of Ammonihah (Nehors) on my mind today! Upon further reflection, I think it interesting that they:

    a) believe in a universal salvation, but
    b) believe in the necessity of priests and teachers

    There must be more to the justification for priests and teachers than we’re getting here. Taken with their belief in “the Lord” and the hint of idolatry (as mentioned by RuthS #8), this makes me wonder if these folks are advocating some form of the traditional Mesoamerican religion, whereby a Corn God (“the Lord”) or other such figure is sacrificed for the salvation of all. All would be saved, but priests would be necessary to perform the rituals necessary for this sacrifice to be enacted and made effectual for all the people.

    I think what we have here are Nephites (and Mulekites) who have forsaken the covenant of Benjamin and rejected the Church of Alma, for a traditional Mulekite (via the Jaredite) version of Mesoamerican paganism. That system would involve kings and priests, and universal salvation for the people as a whole, rather than the individual works and judgment advocated under the gospel as preached by Alma, and which the Nephite system of judges was instituted to support.

  10. BrianJ said

    robf, I am totally blown away but what you are doing here. And RuthS, thanks for building on his insight!

    A couple of major points:

    1) I too was thinking how strange it is to believe in a universal, do-whatever-you-want-and-be-saved atonement and still care at all about what others believe, the need for priests, etc. One way of looking at Nehorism is that it is very ecumenical: all roads lead to heaven. The explanation that priests are required to open that road is so very compelling because it makes them soooo important, and it makes their religion extremely restrictive and not ecumenical at all. A Unitarian Universalist (today), would say to let every religion flourish and “do it’s thing,” but a Nehor would say that anything that gets in the way of the priests of Nehor would hinder the “opening up of salvation” and thus all other religions should be suppressed. In contrast, our (LDS) gospel is much more open than Nehor—though not quite as open as Unitarian Universalism. We (LDS) say that the individual can (and must) approach God directly, and if one misses out on priesthood in this life, don’t worry because that can be taken care of later.

    2) You totally change the way one might regard Alma’s teachings on works in Ch 9. Instead of preaching from a “clean slate,” this is a direct rebuttal to a false teaching. As such, it may be a bit “heavy on the works” as a matter of contextual emphasis and not a matter of doctrine. This is how I read Timothy’s thoughts on works as well: Paul preached grace, grace, grace so much that some early Christians misunderstood and thought “anything goes”; Timothy comes in hard against that belief and reminds everyone that actions matter.

    3) I wonder if there is something more to the “just one man” accusation.

  11. robf said

    1) thanks for bringing up Unitarian Universalism. That was another thing I was thinking about today. Some folks see the BoM as a 19th Century response to Universalist teachings. But the close reading we’re trying to do here seems to point more strongly in another direction. The Nehors are less like your live and let live tweed-clad UU neighbor and more like the folks running around in Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto!

    2) A very important insight, thanks.

    3) Yeah, a lot more here to think about. I suspect there’s a lot more here than just the law of witnesses thing that we normally emphasize.

    Also, there must be something more to the whole “earth should pass away” part of Alma 9:2. What’s that all about? Still pondering that one.

    Actually, now that I think about it, the whole purpose of the Mesoamerican priestly rituals I’m referring to is to keep the whole world going. Perhaps they are responding to something Alma said that called that worldview into question? They “don’t know” that the world will pass away, because all their rituals are focused on maintaining the cosmos (just read some stuff on Maya Cosmology to get a flavor of what kind of stuff the Nehors may have been into here). I’ll have to go back and look at that some more.

  12. robf said

    For those who aren’t too faint of heart, here’s a wikipedia article on Mesoamerican bloodletting rituals–perhaps the Nehors were into something similar as a ritual to keep the cosmos going.

  13. robf said

    I’ve always been struck by how Mesoamerican bloodletting and heart sacrifice seem like an overly literalistic, or perhaps sarcastic, take on true gospel teachings about atonement through the blood of Christ and the sacrifice of your heart.

    Interestingly, the Nehors in Ammonihah seem to take a similar overly literal take on the gnashing of teeth (Alma 14:21).

    Not sure what to make of all that, but there seems to be echoes here of something deeper.

  14. BrianJ said

    robf, I don’t really understand the whole “law of witnesses” thing anyway.

  15. NathanG said

    As I’ve been thinking through Alma and Amulek’s teachings in light of this discussion here, I am struck by the depth of doctrine that is given to these people. I have thoguht in the past about the sermons to the people in Zarahemla and then Gideon as being appropriate for the relative spirituality of the people with a strong “repent” message to Zarahemla and a message of finer points of the atonement to the more righteous people in Gideon. So why do the Ammonihahites get this discussion on high priests, garden of eden and the fall, Melchizedek, and knowledge and the chains of hell?

  16. cherylem said

    I think this doctrine was going to the priests of Ammonihah – they could “get” this deep doctrinal teaching; indeed only such an indepth argument might have the chance of reaching them . . .

  17. […] Note on this verse here. […]

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