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Book of Mormon Lesson #31: Alma 43-52 (another take)

Posted by joespencer on September 8, 2008

At Robert’s behest, I’m posting some notes on Alma 43-52, effectively after the fact, since I was asked last minute to teach this lesson last Sunday. Robert’s interest seems primarily to be in how one can take up the “war chapters” without (1) having to appeal to the symbolic reading (i.e., we are all in a war with Satan, etc.) on the one hand or (2) making the war chapters into a kind of trite passage in Nephite history. I hope I can do something that distracts that polarizing opposition in the following notes.

First, I had a chart something like the following on the board:

Kings Zeniff/Noah/Limhi Sons of Mosiah Zoramites/Amalickiah
X X X X Etc.
Priests Mosiah/Benjamin/Mosiah Alma the Younger Moroni

This charts a pattern that runs through Nephite history up to the coming of the Savior: Nephite society is, from the time of Nephi’s death, always split in one way or another. At first it is a separation between the kingship and the priesthood, or between the small and the large plates. That is overcome with the coronation of Benjamin, but then there is a split between two Nephite kingships: the Mosiah/Benjamin/Mosiah trio of kings located in the land of Zarahemla, the Zeniff/Noah/Limhi trio of kings located in the land of Nephi. That is overcome with the events at the close of Mosiah, but then the sons of Mosiah go the land of Nephi while Alma the Younger remains in Zarahemla. When they come back together, the Zoramites and Amalickiah dissent and so split Nephite society again. The pattern continues right into Helaman with the split between the surface state and the underlying Gadianton bands.

The X’s in the chart represent not only breaks, then, in the split pattern, but reversals of a sort: the priests as outsiders become central and the kings somewhat marginalized as one moves from the Book of Lehi to the Book of Mosiah; the Mosiah family switches from Zarahemla to Nephi and the Alma family from Nephi to Zarahemla as one moves from the Book of Mosiah to the Book of Alma; as one passes from the first half to the second half of Alma (from Alma 29 to Alma 30), the group among the Lamanites becomes military rather than missionary; etc.

What is so important about this pattern for the present chapters is that it highlights what is really at work in the “war chapters” as a whole: it is not a question at all of Nephites vs. Lamanites, but of Nephites vs. Nephites. It is a great mistake to understand the wars to be a question of the righteous Nephites standing against the apostate and idolatrous Lamanites. Actually, as the battle of Zarahemna and then the situation with Teancum and Amalickiah (the two bookends of the lesson) make clear, it is a question of the way two Nephite positions relate to the interesting idolatrous beliefs of the Lamanites. What those two “Nephite positions” really come to will prove to be rather interesting.

First illustration of this way of seeing things: the battle with Zarahemna, Alma 43-44. What was meant to be a war right in the land of the Zoramites and the Anti-Nephi-Lehis (the latter having been moved from the east coast to an isolated area along the western mountain range) suddenly shifts to the land of Manti because of the complete unbalance between the Nephite and Lamanite armies’ manner of war: the Nephites are dressed in heavy armor, while the Lamanites are effectively naked. Moroni consults Alma to find out where the Lamanites are going to attack the unprepared and so he is able to defend Manti, bring the opposing army eventually to make a covenant not to fight, and so fix the situation.

But something seems odd about the entire situation: why don’t the Lamanites have armor? The point is worth mentioning, since Zarahemna is specifically described as a Zoramite (a former Nephite), and the text goes out of its way to mention specifically that the Nephites among the Lamanite army were not naked (43:20). The Lamanites were not without the technology to protect themselves, nor could they have been so ridiculously stupid not to have recognized that covering up the skin makes one less likely to be pierced by the sword. So what is going on with the Lamanites’ wickedness?

They are described, it should be noted, as “naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins” (43:20). That the editor of the text bothers to mention this detail ought to strike the reader as interesting: why just a skin or a girdle? On at least one reading of the text, this skin is an apron or a girdle, used quite commonly in ritual practices in the ancient world (even in ancient America, I’m told). The nakedness, covered only by a self-imposed apron, is of course an echo of the Eden story: the Lamanites come out against the Nephites as if they were Adam and Eve hiding from the presence of the Lord—which would pick up on significant Book of Mormon theme. This, at least, might be how the Nephites would have seen the situation or read the story subsequently, but the Lamanites themselves likely were practicing a form of holy war, in which they trusted in their aprons—symbols of their powers or of their particular idolatrous priesthoods—rather than in armor. In short, they were practicing what the Nephites inevitably would have called superstition. That the Zoramite and Amalekite fighters among them did not dress this way is important: they too regarded it as so much superstition.

This turns out to be helpful because it makes the situation at the beginning of chapter 44 much clearer. There, after the Lamanite army has realized that it is in the power of Moroni, Moroni offers a little speech, telling the Lamanites that they need to recognize that they have lost specifically because of their faith: “But now, ye behold that the Lord is with us; and ye behold that he has delivered you into our hands. And now I would that ye should understand that this is done unto us because of our religion and our faith in Christ. And now ye see that ye cannot destroy this our faith” (44:3). Moroni’s speech was directed, of course, to the supersititous Lamanites: our God is real, yours is false.

Zarahemna the Zoramite’s response is fascinating: “Behold, we are not of your faith; we do not believe that it is God that has delivered us into your hands; but we believe that it is your cunning that has preserved you from our swords. Behold, it is your breastplates and your shields that have preserved you” (44:9). Zarahemna, not at all taken with the idolatry of the Lamanites, points out that Moroni’s divine victory need not be read as such: there is no reason to see any transcendent power behind the whole event, whether Nephite or Lamanite supersition.

This spells out, I think, two important themes of the “war chapters” generally. First, the Lamanites are essentially pawns in this game. That is, they are superstitious and idolatrous, interested primarily in whatever religious cults they embraced at the time, and less than interested in a purely materialist or immanent religion: this is likely why they constantly needed “stirring up” to fight. Second, though, and more importantly, the truth of Nephite victory cannot be demonstrated in any absolute sense: only the superstitious would see a kind of necessary implication in Nephite victory. From a strictly materialist position, there is no reason to see Nephite victory as meaning anything about religion. It is in that sense that war ultimately serves nothing but basic protection in the Book of Mormon: to make it a question of anything like the coming into being of a true kingdom or church, or to make it a question of demonstrating the power of God, is to betray its actual purposes. It is never anything more than mere defense.

At any rate, after this first situation comes to its close, chapter 45 returns to the commanding figure of Alma to make a quick interlude. It should be noted how promising things look at the beginning of chapter 45: the Lamanites have not only just been defeated, but they have made covenants not to come against the Nephites again! Alma would seem, then, to be leaving when everything is as settled as it can be. We have an exchange, almost ritualistic in tone, between Alma and Helaman, and Alma takes his leave. But immediately, things fall apart: new management in the church leads to conflict. Helaman goes around, installing new priests and teachers, which leads to a contention, the head of the dissenting party being none other than Amalickiah, who will be the source of all of the subsequent problems.

A couple of important details should not be missed here: (1) the long series of war chapters, beginning with chapter 46, issue out of an ecclesiastical dispute; (2) ecclesiastical dispute cannot be too sharply distinguished from political debate, as the first verses of chapter 46 make clear; (3) Amalickiah turns out to be radically volatile, since it is his task not only to foment a rebellion among the soon-to-be kingmen, but also to get the Lamanites to turn against the oath they have just made. Things are starting to look really ugly.

The next three chapters (Alma 46-48), then, do an interesting job of setting Moroni and Amalickiah against each other. Three themes in particular mark the divergence between them. First, while Moroni does things by covenant (note not only the oaths he has had the Lamanites take but also the covenant set up of chapter 46, the garment-rending, etc.), Amalickiah does things by compulsion and flattery (he never binds the Lamanites to him by covenant, but finds ways to subvert their authority through their own laws, etc.). Second, Moroni gives his people a scriptural depth (whatever might be said about his interpretive abilities!), while Amalickiah can do nothing of the sort. Third, and most importantly I think: Moroni does his work by writing, while Amalickiah does his work by speaking. This last point is so curious, but it seems that Mormon (or whoever might have edited this text) is at pains to emphasize it particularly: “And it came to pass also, that [Moroni] cause the title of liberty [with its written text] to be hoisted upon every tower which was in all the land, which was possessed by the Nephites; and thus Moroni planted the standard of liberty among the Nephites” (Alma 46:36); “And now it came to pass that, as soon as Amalickiah had obtained the kingdom he began to inspire the hearts of the Lamanites against the people of Nephi; yea, he did appoint men to speak unto the Lamanites from their towers, against the Nephites” (Alma 48:1). Note that there is a pairing of the use of towers here, the one topped with the silent text scrawled on the title of liberty, a constant inscribed reminder of the covenants that had been made and of the scriptural texts associated with that covenant; the other vulgarized by the presence of an unceasing voice, an unrelenting compulsory call to anger and hatred against those who had taken the scriptures in the earliest days of Nephite/Lamanite history.

The contrast turns out to be vital: Moroni is able to garner the support he needs to protect, and Amalickiah is unable to garner the strength needed to counter that support. In fact, it is fascinating that Amalickiah does not even come down to battle, something the editor points out explicitly. This turns out to be vital, because it means that the captains of the Lamanite army end up making an overly rash oath that they will fight at a second town (after being frightened by the first), and so they condemn themselves to suffer at the hands of Moroni’s remarkably prepared city of Noah. This rash oath gives way to a second, very important rash oath: Amalickiah, hearing that they Lamanites had failed in their battle (something he apparently thought was as good as won in advance), makes an oath to drink Moroni’s blood (Alma 49:27). This stands in sharp contrast with what is happening among Moroni’s people at the same time: “But behold there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni, yea, even at this time, in the twenty and first year of the reign of the judges” (Alma 50:23). That is certainly a remarkable claim!

Of course, Amalickiah is getting ready to fight in all the meanwhile, and it would seem that if the Nephites can simply maintain their covenants and so remain happy, they will have nothing at all to fear from the enemy. Of course, it isn’t long before two internal contentions break out, one after the other, and everything falls apart. The first of these comes as a kind of warning contention: the people of Morianton start some troubles, but the issue is resolved through the intervention of Teancum, who kills Morianton and puts the remainder of Morianton’s people to covenant. But when the same things happens all over again the following year, now in Zarahemla itself, things don’t turn out so well.

In fact, this second contention effectively gives way to a kind of repetition of the Morianton experience: Amalickiah himself comes down at the head of his army, attacking the Nephites all along the eastern seashore, and he, just as Morianton, is aiming to cut through to the old Jaredite lands so that the Lamanites can surround the Nephites on three sides (south, east, and north). It is significant that Moroni cannot seem to get any covenants happening among the rebellious kingmen in Zarahemla.

But back to the rash oath. Teancum again is the one who stops the northward bound army. And he does something simply brilliant. After routing the Lamanite army all day, Teancum takes advantage of their exhaustion by stealing into their camp in the middle of the night and putting a javelin through the heart of Amalickiah.

Now, several things deserve attention here. First, it should be noted that Amalickiah would not have been there at all were it not for his oath: had he not made the oath to drink Moroni’s blood, he likely would not have himself been killed. Second, the scene draws on an entire tradition of murders in the tent, which deserves attention. Third, though, and this is the point I want to use to wrap things up here: Teancum plays on the popular Lamanite superstitions discussed above by killing Amalickiah on New Year’s Eve.

Note that this happens on that important day: Teancum kills Amalickiah and gets his armies ready to defend themselves in the last verses of chapter 51, and then we’re told “And thus endeth the twenty and fifth year,” etc. And then the first verse of chapter 52: “And now, it came to pass int he twenty and sixth year of the reign of the jduges over the people of Nephi, behold, when the Lamanites awoke on the first morning of the first month, behold, they found Amalickiah was dead in his own tent,” etc. This all happens the morning of New Year’s Day.

Now, every ancient pagan civilization had a New Year’s ritual complex. This was clearly the case in the ancient Americas: everything we know about all the civilizations we’ve unearthed archaeologically suggests this, and we’ve found it everywhere else in the world as well. The general ritual practice is something like this: a dummy king is put on the throne on New Year’s Eve, and then, through some kind of combat drama, he is killed, after which the real king appears on the throne as if resurrected, and everyone celebrates the king’s power over death and chaos, etc. Notice, though, what happens here: the Lamanites wake up, and, sure enough, the king has died. But they can’t rouse him, and he doesn’t bring himself back to life. On the very morning when he should have died and also risen, he simply dies. To any pagan society, this would have had one meaning: your gods have been conquered by the gods of your enemies. Teancum takes advantage of the same superstitions we saw with the leather aprons business: he knows that the popular Lamanite religious practices would ensure him some kind of victory in this situation, and keep the Lamanites from getting into the old Jaredite land.

And so this ten-chapter series ends up where it began: with the reduction to immanent religion. The transcendent superstitions of the Lamanites are again put on display, while Moroni gives himself in all fidelity (that is, in all faith) to the faith of the church of Alma. By Teancum’s materialist brilliance, things come to something of a standstill, and it becomes possible for the Nephites to begin sorting out their internal problems bit by bit (Amalickiah and Ammoron being the most obvious figures in these internal problems, etc.). The remainder of the war chapters are predicated on this tenuous balance.

11 Responses to “Book of Mormon Lesson #31: Alma 43-52 (another take)”

  1. robf said

    Thanks for this take on the wars and conflict running throughout the Large Plates history. Given what we have learned about spelling in the BoM manuscripts, it appears that there may be an even stronger relationship between Amlici/Amaleki/Amalickiah than we have previously understood. The Nephite “kingdom” from the time of the first Mosiah was always divided, and probably shouldn’t even be considered a “kingdom” in the European sense–and featured rival lineages continually struggling for power. A very complicated history, and for sure not the “good guy, bad guy” story that we often want to make of it.

  2. Robert C. said

    Joe, a lot of fantastic thoughts to chew on here. I’m swamped the next few days, but hopefully I’ll have time after that to get back to this….

  3. joespencer said

    I highly recommend this article on the Amalekites/Amlicites issue in the Book of Mormon manuscripts: http://farms.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=14&num=1&id=364&q=amlicites

    Thanks, Rob.

  4. grego said

    Some nice insights, thanks.

  5. JakeW said

    Joe,
    I liked reading this a lot. Last time I read the war chapters, I tried formulating some connection between those and the first half of the book of Alma, all which has to do with missionary work; first among the Nephites, then among the Lamanites, then the (dissenting) Nephites again. But I like this a lot better.

  6. Kim M. said

    Am I correct in seeing some of the thoughts we worked out in Helaman being played out here (Nephite vs. Nephite and the fundamental break after Nephi)?

    Loved the “two towers” business–paralleled writing and speaking.

    And I can’t help but return to the slight beginnings of work I’ve done on Alma 44: the focus on the sword. I’m beginning to see the significance of all that. Hm.

  7. joespencer said

    Jacob,

    Very nice to hear from you. (It’s been far too long!) How are things?

    I’m glad this was to your liking. I think there are some rich possibilities to be found in bringing the two “halves” of Alma up against each other. I’ve actually worked up a little chart of Alma split in half that might be of some interest to you for further thinking along these lines. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll send it along to you.

    Kim,

    Yes, very correct. And do return to your work on Alma 44! You’ll recall that it was your work on Alma 44 that convinced me to start up the Helaman project… :)

  8. Kim M. said

    Oh really? That means it might have been worthwhile. Hm. Well, I do have a free Sunday afternoon. I’ll see what I can do. (Although I had a cool experience last night that led to ideas for a paper involving how the Lehitic covenant is worked out in Nephi’s vision. We’ll see.)

  9. JakeW said

    Joe,

    Yeah, that sounds very itneresting. And I suppose things are doing alright over here. As well as could be expected, at any rate. Ben’s at the MTC now. He’ll be in Albuquerque in a couple months. So that’s exciting news. And I’ll be at BYU in January. Life’s just chuggin’ along as usual, I guess.

  10. Janet Lisonbee said

    Wow! Loved your insights. Loved your theme of false religions verses the truth and how “they may know that there is none like unto the Lord our God” [Exodus 8:10] Loved the death of Amalickiah on new year’s eve insight. With Amalickiah being a type for Satan, this even adds more to that imagery. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. […] significance, the gods were in place for the year–or so the wicked might have imagined. From https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2008/09/08/book-of-mormon-lesson-31-alma-43-52-another-take/ : “The general ritual practice is something like this: a dummy king is put on the throne on […]

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