Alma 37

Alma 37 is the second part of Alma’s counsel to his son Helaman, this time revolving around the sacred records that Helaman is being charged to take care of, as is clear from the verses that book-end the chapter:

And now, my son Helaman, I command you that ye take the records which have been entrusted with me;

(Alma 37:1)

And now, my son, see that ye take care of these sacred things, yea, see that ye look to God and live. Go unto this people and declare the word, and be sober. My son, farewell.

(Alma 37:47)

This is quite a sizeable chapter that ranges over several topics, but if one thing unites them it is this theme of sacred records, of scripture. Thus in the first part, Alma charges Helaman to take the records, and to make a record himself, and to keep them sacred. For these are not just any records:

Behold, it has been prophesied by our fathers, that they should be kept and handed down from one generation to another, and be kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon.

(Alma 37:4)

Verse 3 immediately preceding this is talking about the plates of brass, which might cause one to wonder if it’s the plates of brass that are thus prophesied about. However, verse 2 speaks of the plates of Nephi and the record Alma has kept and that Helaman is to keep, and so it seems verse 3 is more parenthetical, and verse 4 refers to the Book of Mormon and the future records that are due to come forth (which includes, of course, some of the material on the plates of brass).

Alma expands on why in the following verses, in which he speaks about the power and influence of such records. I particularly like verse 6-8 here:

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.

And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.

And now, it has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved; for behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people, yea, and convinced many of the error of their ways, and brought them to the knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls.

God, it appears, likes working in ways that confound human expectation. Thus he works through the weak and foolish to confound the mighty and “wise” of the world, and he works through “very small means” to accomplish great works. Thus while the sacred records themselves are literally small – we can hold them in our hands – and perhaps seen as small by those who look down upon them, they will work great things because of the power and influence they have to sway people: to enlarge our memory, to convince us our our errors, and to bring us to a knowledge of God.

From verse 21 onwards, Alma speaks of the contents of the 24 Jaredite plates, which Mormon – our narrator – has already promised we will have an account of (Mosiah 28:19). Alma here, however, instructs Helaman to be careful about what and how he shares. Lest this point be misunderstood, however, I think we also need to bear some of Alma’s other comments here in mind.

Thus in verse 21, Alma instructs Helaman to keep these records and preserve the interpreters that go with them:

And now, I will speak unto you concerning those twenty-four plates, that ye keep them, that the mysteries and the works of darkness, and their secret works, or the secret works of those people who have been destroyed, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, all their murders, and robbings, and their plunderings, and all their wickedness and abominations, may be made manifest unto this people; yea, and that ye preserve these interpreters

A significant contribution of these twenty-four plates is to make manifest the Jaredite misdeeds. Indeed ultimately the destruction of such “secret works” relies upon revealing and bringing them to light, as Alma goes on to prophesy:

And the Lord said: I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone, which shall shine forth in darkness unto light, that I may discover unto my people who serve me, that I may discover unto them the works of their brethren, yea, their secret works, their works of darkness, and their wickedness and abominations.

And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled, which he spake, saying:

I will bring forth out of darkness unto light all their secret works and their abominations; and except they repent I will destroy them from off the face of the earth; and I will bring to light all their secrets and abominations, unto every nation that shall hereafter possess the land.

(Alma 37:23-25; it’s not entirely clear who Gazelem is and various identifications have been proposed, including Mosiah, Joseph Smith, an unknown Jaredite, or others, including that it may be the name of the stone)

While, however, it is God’s purpose to ultimately replace darkness with light and make all such things manifest, Alma counsels Helaman to be careful about what he shares. Thus he tells him:

And now, my son, I command you that ye retain all their oaths, and their covenants, and their agreements in their secret abominations; yea, and all their signs and their wonders ye shall keep from this people, that they know them not, lest peradventure they should fall into darkness also and be destroyed.

Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, and only their wickedness and their murders and their abominations shall ye make known unto them; and ye shall teach them to abhor such wickedness and abominations and murders; and ye shall also teach them that these people were destroyed on account of their wickedness and abominations and their murders.

(Alma 37:27, 29)

And elaborates in verses 32-34:

And now, my son, remember the words which I have spoken unto you; trust not those secret plans unto this people, but teach them an everlasting hatred against sin and iniquity.

Preach unto them repentance, and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ; teach them to humble themselves and to be meek and lowly in heart; teach them to withstand every temptation of the devil, with their faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Teach them to never be weary of good works, but to be meek and lowly in heart; for such shall find rest to their souls.

Thus Alma counsels Helaman to not share the details of the secret oaths, agreements so on by which the Jaredites performed their “secret works”, only to make clear “their wickedness and their murders and their abominations”, and to teach repentance, faith in Christ, humility, and other such inspiring principles.

I think there’s a number of things we can learn from this passage and episode, but I’m not entirely sure what to conclude. Some thoughts:

  1. As a bit of a spoiler such secret combinations get reintroduced to the Nephites by the original “source” anyway. Does this mean Alma’s plan didn’t work, or did it buy several decades of peace. As his prophecy indicates, Alma realises that such discretion isn’t the permanent solution to such things, anyway.
  2. I do think this counsel underlines the power of words, ideas and of course of the scriptures. If they have a great power and influence to do good – as Alma taught for much of the first half of the chapter – then misused, it makes sense they could have power in inflict harm. It perhaps underlines that we should not be careless about how we use such things.
  3. Likewise, I think the counsel in verses 32-34 teaches a valuable lesson on the importance of focusing on good and inspiring things, in what we learn and what we teach. There are dangers we need to be warned against, true, and sins we should be taught against. But – and I believe I’ve seen this – if we focus unhealthily on such things to the neglect of that which is good, we risk negative consequences. Our thoughts affect our actions, our emotions, our psyche, and our spirituality. If we wish to draw closer to God (and not some other influence) we need to focus on goodness. Likewise we don’t conquer sin with an obsession with it, but by yielding to the influence of the Holy Ghost towards righteousness. Darkness is ultimately conquered by light.

A third part of these chapter involves Alma giving a typological reading of an earlier episode in the Book of Mormon,, namely their use of the Liahona, and the direction it gave to the promised land provided their exercised their faith and diligence. As Alma reads it:

And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass (now these things were temporal) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual.

For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise.

(Alma 37:43-45)

I’ve written about typology before, but one thing that struck me upon reading this time round was how it addresses the supposed divide between literal and allegorical readings of scripture. This has been very much a concern in the West, for a considerable length of time. Thus several scholars have read the concern in 1 Nephi 22, for instance, about whether prophesied events are to be understood “according to the spiritual” or “the flesh”, as addressing concerns along these lines. That’s actually not quite the case in 1 Nephi 22, as I cover in pp. 136-140 of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible (and my blog post on 1 Nephi 22), but it’s understandable why people might leap to that conclusion.

It should be evident that there are parts of scripture that should definitely be read in a symbolic fashion (the parables, for instance, are not fundamentally about agriculture), and others that should definitely be read quite literally (such as prohibitions on murder and adultery). But as I was reading Alma 37 this time round, I was really reminded of how types and typology (in which actual events can also carry a prophetic or symbolic meaning) can really bridge that gap. A purely literal reading of Lehi’s journey would prevent one from seeing any deeper intended meaning, and indeed may cause on to think of it simply as a historical account or story of a long distant time. On the other hand, a purely allegorical reading would render the examples of faith and faithfulness, and the examples of how God intervenes and delivers his people, null and void; they would, after all, be fiction. But reading the story as a type allows us both to learn the lessons from and be inspired by the actual events, and perceive the symbolic meaning of the story in our own journey through the wilderness of mortality. It preserves and transmits both sets of lessons, without destroying either.

Alma 14

They chose… poorly.

Some don’t: some of the people of Ammonihah repent at Alma the Younger and Amulek’s teaching. Then there’s Zeezrom who – fuelled by guilt for his role in shaping the public mind – now testifies on behalf of Alma and Amulek, and is cast out and driven out along with other believers by stoning for his troubles.

But the rest of the people choose to reject their preaching, and do so in a way that proves their culpability. They arrest Alma and Amulek, the people stand as false witnesses against them, and then:

And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire; and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.

(Alma 9:8)

Even if they had a legitimate grievance against Alma and Amulek, what right had they to take out their “hurt feelings” by murdering those who simply happened to believe their words? Or not even that: some of those burnt here are simply the wives and children of those they drove out for believing; those they burnt may not even believe themselves. It is simply guilt by association, and an act that entirely vindicates the judgment God is about to bring upon them.

It’s interesting that they burn the holy scriptures too, as if by destroying them they can remove the threat posed by those words. By while they may destroy the physical copies, you cannot burn the word of God, only be burned by it.

Understandably, Alma and Amulek – who are forced to witness this – are moved by this:

And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

(Alma 14:9-11)

It’s worth contemplating that it’s possible Amulek is seeing members of his own family burn before him. We know he has a large family: he speaks of “my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk” (Alma 10:11).* But while later it is mentioned that he was rejected “by his father and his kindred” (Alma 15:16), there is no mention of his “women” and childen. 

There’s also a bit of wordplay going in this chapter. The Greek word from which we derive the term martyr (and hence martyrdom) is μάρτυρ (martur), which literally means witness. It’s present association with dying for the faith came from the fact that, for many early Christians, bearing witness of the faith and dying became synonymous. In this passage we likewise see the very term used (“place of martyrdom”), and then notice how the word “witness” is repeated in the verses following. I write more about that here.

Of course here the focus is on what Alma and Amulek are witnesses, which is not so much of the faith (though they – and the martyrs – have surely done that), but of the crimes of the unrepentant people of Ammonihah, who by this act demonstrate that they deserve every piece of judgment coming their way. Verse 11 is particularly interesting here: God could intervene. He has done so on other occasions when people were threatened with burning (such as Shadrach, Meschach and Abed-nego in Daniel 3). As I’ve mentioned before, it might be confusing, even troubling, as to why God intervenes in some cases but not others. Divine providence in the immediate sense can be unpredictable: God is working according to a plan that we cannot see in its entirety, and the challenge is that we must trust him that – whether he intervenes, or not – that his choice will in the end be right. As indeed Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego did, for while they knew God could save him, they didn’t know if he would, but they trusted that whatever he willed would be right and pledged to serve him anyway (“But if not“, Daniel 3:18).

What we do know, however, is that mortal life is one of deferred judgment. In order to give us freedom to act, the freedom to either repent or to hang ourselves, God does not immediately judge us for what we do. Alma in fact has just been teaching the people of Ammonihah this, of how this life is “a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God” (Alma 12:24). As Peter states:

The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

(2 Peter 3:9)

What this means is that in the present, the “right now”, that this life is often unjust. To give us this freedom, one way or the other, means that we live in a world in which the wicked can act against the righteous, as they do so murderously here, without immediate intervention. That can be hard for many people. Of course, Christ himself has personally experienced this injustice at the hands of men; he knows what if feels like.

But this present state of injustice is not fated to continue: while God’s judgments are deferred, they are not to be denied. God himself will impose justice sooner or later, which involves both making things right for those who are hurt, and bringing judgment down upon those who have incriminated themselves. Thus this life fulfils its purpose as an arena in which by our own choice we rise or sink, not in worldly stature, but to either rise towards goodness and godliness and virtue, or to sink into evil and depravity. The people of Ammonihah have been allowed to make their choice: those they hurt will in the end be blessed, and lose nothing, while the guilty have been left with no excuse and will lose everything.

Not that they recognise the full depth of their error just yet:

Now it came to pass that when the bodies of those who had been cast into the fire were consumed, and also the records which were cast in with them, the chief judge of the land came and stood before Alma and Amulek, as they were bound; and he smote them with his hand upon their cheeks, and said unto them: After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?

(Alma 14:14)

I suppose they think that was terribly clever.

Now this judge was after the order and faith of Nehor, who slew Gideon.

(Alma 14:16)

I find this interesting and significant. The Nehorite belief, after all, is that:

… all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

(Alma 1:4)

That can sound good and positive to many people; indeed I know it does because I’ve heard several members of the Church say so (and even think there’s not much wrong with that statement) in recent discussions. And yet there’s a glaring omission, that of repentance. The Nehorite salvation is one that excludes the need for any repentance, and any need to meet a higher standard.

Now I’m sure there were those who adhered to the Nehorite creed who did not approach the level of the people of Ammonihah. And yet I think there is a connection, between that belief and the acts we see here. A world in which everyone is already “saved”, in which none of us need to reform or change, is a world in which no bad tendency need to be fought, no habit need to be curbed, and no effort made to prepare for heaven (defeating the very purpose of mortality that Alma has spoken about). A world in which people do not repent, do not seek to be better, is not a world of people destined for heaven. It is hell. And we see here the hellish conclusion of Nehorite belief, where the notion of moral disapproval and calls to repentance inspire murderous rage.

Judgment, of course, is coming for the people of Ammonihah, and in their case that judgment is not deferred for too long. Indeed for their leaders it comes far sooner than they can expect:

And it came to pass after they had thus suffered for many days, (and it was on the twelfth day, in the tenth month, in the tenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi) that the chief judge over the land of Ammonihah and many of their teachers and their lawyers went in unto the prison where Alma and Amulek were bound with cords.

And the chief judge stood before them, and smote them again, and said unto them: If ye have the power of God deliver yourselves from these bands, and then we will believe that the Lord will destroy this people according to your words.

And it came to pass that they all went forth and smote them, saying the same words, even until the last; and when the last had spoken unto them the power of God was upon Alma and Amulek, and they rose and stood upon their feet.

(Alma 14:23-25)

I think that fact that God intercedes at this point, after the leaders collectively make the challenge that if Alma and Amulek will deliver themselves, they’ll believe the people will be destroyed, is a significant reflection of how Alma and Amulek’s mission has become one of providing grounds for incrimination.

And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.

While from our perspective, as readers, this comes soon, I’m sure that’s not how it felt to Alma and (maybe especially) Amulek. It’s not clear how long they spent imprisoned (verse 22 simply says “many days”). Alma made his way to Ammonihah early in the 10th year, but then spent some time with Amulek and his household. But since it is now almost halfway through the 10th month, I think months is a reasonable guess.

It is interesting that these leaders begin to flee the moment the cords are broken, before any other displays of divine power, “for the fear of destruction had come upon them”. This suggests their final, unanimous, challenge was true; and now Alma and Amulek have been delivered from their bands, and now the people recognise they will be destroyed. I wonder if they recognise in these moments – perhaps they begin to sense it in full – precisely how far they’ve gone wrong, if they realise the pit that is opening beneath them, and how much they truly deserve it.

And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.

And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith which was in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands; and the prison had fallen to the earth, and every soul within the walls thereof, save it were Alma and Amulek, was slain; and they straightway came forth into the city.

Now the people having heard a great noise came running together by multitudes to know the cause of it; and when they saw Alma and Amulek coming forth out of the prison, and the walls thereof had fallen to the earth, they were struck with great fear, and fled from the presence of Alma and Amulek even as a goat fleeth with her young from two lions; and thus they did flee from the presence of Alma and Amulek.

(Alma 14:27-29)

Thus ends the first stage of the judgment of Ammonihah.

 

* Incidentally, Amulek may be one of the few polygamous individuals in the Book of Mormon. While it’s possible “my women” may refer to other female members of the household, it seems a very strong term to describe servants or even other female kinsfolk, while Hebrew uses the same word for “wife” and “woman” (אִשָּׁ֣ה), and the Book of Mormon likewise uses “women” as a synonym for “wives” in 1 Nephi 17:1-2 & 20.

Mosiah 12

I smile a bit at the very first verse of this chapter, for we learn:

And it came to pass that after the space of two years that Abinadi came among them in disguise, that they knew him not, and began to prophesy among them, saying: Thus has the Lord commanded me, saying—Abinadi, go and prophesy unto this my people, for they have hardened their hearts against my words; they have repented not of their evil doings; therefore, I will visit them in my anger, yea, in my fierce anger will I visit them in their iniquities and abominations.

(Mosiah 12:1, my emphasis)

Abinadi’s disguise did not last very long, for he promptly announces himself. I’m not sure why this is. There’s been several suggestions, Alan Goff in particular appealing to the idea of a type scene in the Old Testament of a king or a prophet disguising themselves when going to see a prophet or another king (see here for a summary of the suggestion). I’m not convinced, however; not only are the proffered examples mostly kings (with only one offered example of a prophet in disguise), but crucially the prophet reveals himself after presenting his message to the king. Here, however, Abinadi promptly reveals himself when speaking to the people, long before seeing the king. So I’m not sure, but my gut instinct suggests something more is going on. Though, as suggested, it may well have a connection with Noah’s “who is Abinadi… or who is the Lord that shall bring upon my people such great affliction” from the preceding chapter (Mosiah 11:27).

Verse 3 of this chapter does appear to be a direct reply to Noah’s challenge:

And it shall come to pass that the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace; for he shall know that I am the Lord.

The Lord’s answer appears to be that the time will come when Noah will know full well the answer to his question, but by that point it will be far too late (and painful)!

I was also struck by verse 8, another part of Abinadi’s prophecy against the people:

And it shall come to pass that except they repent I will utterly destroy them from off the face of the earth; yet they shall leave a record behind them, and I will preserve them for other nations which shall possess the land; yea, even this will I do that I may discover the abominations of this people to other nations. And many things did Abinadi prophesy against this people.

On one hand I was struck by the fact that, of course, this did eventually happen, albeit not with these people at this time, but with their descendants centuries hence. What stood out more, however, was I feel like this answers part of the puzzle as to why king Limhi in particular, when we heard from him a few chapters ago, was particularly interested to learn the contents of records his people had retrieved from the ruins of the civilisation northwards, and particularly the reason that civilisation had been destroyed (Mosiah 8:12). Remember, of course, that we’re in somewhat of a flashback sequence here: Limhi is the son of king Noah, speaking to Ammon some years later. But perhaps Limhi remembered these words of Abinadi, that have this concept of records being left behind and preserved by God of civilisations he has caused to be destroyed.

In Mosiah 11, I commented on some disingenuousness on the part of king Noah, but it’s interesting to see it also displayed by his people here too. Thus from verse 9 onwards:

And it came to pass that they were angry with him; and they took him and carried him bound before the king, and said unto the king: Behold, we have brought a man before thee who has prophesied evil concerning thy people, and saith that God will destroy them.

And he also prophesieth evil concerning thy life, and saith that thy life shall be as a garment in a furnace of fire.

And again, he saith that thou shalt be as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot.

And again, he saith thou shalt be as the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land. And he pretendeth the Lord hath spoken it. And he saith all this shall come upon thee except thou repent, and this because of thine iniquities.

And now, O king, what great evil hast thou done, or what great sins have thy people committed, that we should be condemned of God or judged of this man?

(Mosiah 12:9-13, bold is my emphasis)

Now the people’s paraphrase of Abinadi’s words against the king in verse 10 is not word for word, but it’s close enough to what Abinadi said in verse 3. However, verses 11 and 12 are very interesting; verse 3 is the only thing Abinadi said about Noah specifically, so where’s the content of verses 11 and 12 coming from? Now verse 8 does state that Abinadi prophesied “many things” against the people, so perhaps it’s not mentioned. But I have another theory. It seems to me that there is a resemblance (although a rather looser one) between the report in verses 11-12 and Abinadi’s words as we have them in the remainder of verses 2-7: there’s mention of beasts (v. 2), the wind (v. 6), of crops (grain in v. 6, implied by mention of stalk in verse 11). But crucially, these are not words that Abinadi directs against the king, but against the people.

My suggestion is that the people are offended not so much at Abinadi’s words against Noah as they are the words directed at them personally. Thus verse 13: “and now, O king, what great evil has thou done, or what great sins have they people committed, that we should be condemned of God, or judged of this man?” It is pitched as the people taking offence at words spoken against the king, but their real concern – being offended at works spoken about them – comes right out afterwards, despite the fact it appears they have recast many of Abinadi’s prophecies as being about the king in an attempt to rouse him to anger (Noah’s priests will also manipulate Noah by playing on his anger in Mosiah 17:12). And perhaps the passionate offence the people felt at Abinadi’s words against them also explains why they report these words less accurately than the actual words Abinadi directed against the king: in the former case their emotional reaction may even have affected their memory (anger strongly affects what people think they hear), while the words actually directed at the king himself were regarded more dispassionately.

Connected to this, in some degree, although this is not a new observation, is what I believe is the reason the priests of Noah end up quoting Isaiah 52:7-10 (incidentally a frequently quoted scripture in the Book of Mormon, albeit usually from better sources than the wicked priests):

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good; that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth;

Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing; for they shall see eye to eye when the Lord shall bring again Zion;

Break forth into joy; sing together ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem;

The Lord hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God?

(Mosiah 12:21-24)

Why would the priests of Noah quote these words and ask Abinadi about them? I think the crucial issue is that they’re trying to catch Abinadi out. All parties involved – king and people both – have taken offence at Abinadi’s prophecies of affliction and destruction. These verses, however, speak about “good tidings”, about those that preach “peace” and “salvation”, and speaking about how the Lord has “comforted his people [and] hath redeemed Jerusalem”. My suggestion is that the priests of Noah are offering these up as a contrast, an implied claim that they contradict Abinadi’s prophecies and so the latter can’t possibly be true. Of course Abinadi takes the opportunity they give him to speak and runs with it, but I think we can learn from the contrast between the two prophecies and the priests attempted misuse of Isaiah. For as readers, we can know, as they do not, that both prophecies are true.

Why is this important? Because  I think the same temptation can exist today, to have a very selective image of God and his words. The priests of Noah appear to imply that because God has given prophecies offering hope, peace and good tidings, that he couldn’t possibly offer prophecies that threaten destruction and death. But he gave both. Likewise, as I’ve written about before, there’s selective images of Christ, that emphasis only a part of his character and teachings, and ignore those that run counter to it. Rather perversely, this makes Christ himself “un-Christlike” by some people’s selective definitions, but even more crucially it can be a species of idolatry, albeit of an idol that exists only in the mind.

We may all have favourite teachings in the scriptures, parts that particularly resonate with our personality, or which perhaps we need particularly need to hear. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we do need to be careful not to ignore those parts that may challenge us, or which differ from those that accord with us so well. It may well be that it is those passages we particularly need to pay attention too, just as Noah’s people really really needed to pay attention to Abinadi’s rather more grim prophecies. Likewise, just because we’re used to God speaking in a certain way, or on a certain topic, does not that he will not or cannot speak in very different ways and on different topics. We should not and cannot try to limit God’s word, either as it exists in the past or will exist in the future. All we’d succeed in doing is deafening ourselves to the full range of all that God has to tell us.

2 Nephi 28

2016 notes:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

(2 Nephi 28:4)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the themes of 2 Nephi 25-30 is the way a contrast is built up between human learning and the knowledge from God, and this is an example, where contending priests are condemned for teaching by their learning while denying the Holy Ghost and true inspiration. I find it cautionary: in my approach to the scriptures, and when I discuss them with other people, how often do I rely on what I think I know rather than being open to the spirit to teach me things I don’t?

For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

(2 Nephi 28:20)

2 Nephi 28 also spends quite a bit of time talking about the different tactics of the devil, including flattery, complacency and in this case rage. A lot of present political developments are currently predicated on rage, of course, with people being “angry” and demanding that their anger be validated. And I’ve found in turn that there’s a strong temptation to be angry in turn with certain movements. Such unbridled anger, however, is a tool of the devil, and we/I have to be careful not to let him use such tools against us.

2020 Edit:

This is a very powerful chapter, the culminating point that the last three chapters have been building up to. Here we have many of our modern errors, particularly in religion laid bare.

Notice, once again, the issue of denying the power of God and the existence of miracles, and a reliance on human learning instead of divine inspiration, recurs again:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance.

And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, and hear ye our precept; for behold there is no God today, for the Lord and the Redeemer hath done his work, and he hath given his power unto men;

Behold, hearken ye unto my precept; if they shall say there is a miracle wrought by the hand of the Lord, believe it not; for this day he is not a God of miracles; he hath done his work.

(2 Nephi 28:4-6)

Verse 4 caught my attention again, as it did back in 2016. In 2016, however, my principle focus was thinking of my own study of the scriptures. When I read it this time, I was struck that a key part of the issue is that the contending priests will “teach with their learning”, and was reminded of the following passage in Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

And if it be by some other way it is not of God.

And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?

If it be some other way it is not of God.

(D&C 50:16-20)

Teaching the gospel is not like teaching other subjects. There may be overlaps in terms of skills and techniques in terms of effective teaching, but it is not the case, when teaching more “secular” subjects, that being inspired by the Holy Ghost is not only expected, but mandatory. It caused me to likewise reflect on the experience of teaching the gospel, meaning both in classroom settings and in things like sacrament talks. It seems that unless we are guided by the spirit, and communicate in such a way that those we are teaching can feel the spirit, than no matter how “correct” the content of our teaching, it is not of God. We must teach so that those who are in our audiences and classes are in a position to feel the spirit. That goes for Sunday School & Priesthood and whatever classes too: no matter how correct the teaching, nor how emotionally touching, nor how good the comments, unless those in the class have had the opportunity of a spiritual experience, it is not of God. I feel we may all have some way to go on this score (I certainly feel I have a better idea of what to speak about in teacher council meetings).

The chapter then goes on to hedonism (it certainly has the modern age pegged):

Yea, and there shall be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; and it shall be well with us.

And there shall also be many which shall say: Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.

(2 Nephi 28:7-8)

The first verse seems an outright hedonistic attitude. What I find interesting is the second verse (v. 8), which seems to address a more moderated approach: one that still says “nevertheless, fear God”, and even foresees suffering “a few stripes” (so it acknowledges the possibility of wrong), but only to a degree. Perhaps the most crucial words there are “a little”: it is believed God will justify “a little sin”, and he may punish “a little”, but at last all shall be saved, so fear God… “a little”. It reminds of the comment in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis), where Screwtape (a demon, counselling another demon) states that “a moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing”. Nephi’s assessment of the idea is blunt: “false and vain and foolish doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:9).

2 Nephi 28:11-15 is striking:

Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.

Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.

They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.

They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.

O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!

Pride, false teachers and false doctrines have caused all manner of sin and condemnation falls upon those responsible for such things: the wise, the learned and the rich. Still, repentance is possible, but God’s judgment is coming and must fall on the kingdom of the devil, and those within must either repent and be freed or perish with it (vv. 16-19).

There is then a recap of various satanic strategies. In some cases, as mentioned above, Satan will provoke rage and anger. In others he will do the opposite, lulling into complacency:

And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

(2 Nephi 28:21).

Others he will lead astray by teaching that neither hell nor he exist:

And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

(2 Nephi 28:22).

The verse stands out to me, because this sort of idea seems not only widespread outside the Church, but I’ve heard some within the Church hold to the same mistake (that there is not hell). I even ended up writing a post on the topic when one such member decided to claim such (and claim said opinion was what “Mormons” believe). But this is really true of everything this chapter is talking about: these are not just problems “outside”, or which categorise the situation before the restoration of the gospel, but pervasive modern ills to which Satan would have us subject too. This is likewise true of the fact, taught in verses 27-30, that those who reject some of God’s revealed words will lose “even that which they have”. We can’t pick and choose with God’s revelations and teachings: past, present nor future.

These ills all risk the same fate:

Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.

(2 Nephi 28:23; I imagine at this point it might get difficult to teach that there is no hell).

These ills also have, at least in many cases, the same source, which I think can be linked to this penultimate verse:

Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.

This is not the first time this statement about trusting the arm of flesh has appeared in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 4), nor the first time it has appeared in scripture (see Jeremiah 17:5), but here its application is clearly visible where trusting man, making flesh our arm, is equated with “hearken[ing] unto the precepts of men”. And much of the tendencies described above perform the same substitution: God’s power, knowledge, judgment and blessings are denied, and instead there is a reliance upon human learning, capacity, riches and impulses. And indeed, that is characteristic of pride – which lies at the root of much of this – to vaunt ourselves against others, and especially against God himself.

2 Nephi 11

Come Follow Me’s reading schedule is a little unbalanced; the coming week covers 15 chapters, so blog posts and edits for 2 Nephi 11-25 will have to be somewhat brief to be manageable.

In any case, from my original posts four years ago:

And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him.

And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him as I have seen him; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words.

(2 Nephi 11:2-3)

I’m not entirely sure why these verses have hung on me today. There’s lots that can be found in them, of course, such as this concept of Nephi, Isaiah and Jacob acting as three witnesses of Christ. Likewise in the concept that God will both send more witnesses and vindicate his words. But what I think most sticks out to me at this time is the power of scripture, to both convince and act as evidence for other of God’s words. It’s very easy when writing about scripture to hung up on one’s own words, but really it’s the scripture itself that has the most power.

Back to 2020:

It’s verse 4 that caught my attention today:

Behold, my soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.

Typology has long been a traditional approach to Christian interpretation of scripture, dating from the New Testament, and its an approach the authors of Book of Mormon adopt and advocate at many times themselves. Thus events, individuals, and all many of other things may not only have a significance in and of themselves, but also for what they pre-figure or symbolise, the antitype. This is often (as it is here) Christ, but can be other things. In a sense, it is a way in which actual events or individuals can also have a symbolic meaning. In an other, it’s also an understanding of the world and its history, understanding that God is able to shape events so that prophecy is given not just in words, but in the fabric of historical events and in the lives of individuals.

However, despite the advocacy of typology within the Book of Mormon (including, as in Alma 37, applied to events described in the Book of Mormon itself), it’s an approach to reading we don’t always do much of in the modern Church. Perhaps that’s something we should strive to do more of.

 

Words of Mormon

This was the next chapter on this list, but I actually went into this chapter with one particular segment in mind, since in a recent discussion via email I was asked to outline my thoughts on God’s relationship with time, and its implications for things like his omniscience, and a part of this chapter features. I’ll briefly touch on that in a bit.

Perhaps the first thing I found interesting on this occasion however is how strongly Mormon’s voice comes over at the very beginning:

And now I, Mormon, being about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni, behold I have witnessed almost all the destruction of my people, the Nephites.

And it is many hundred years after the coming of Christ that I deliver these records into the hands of my son; and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people. But may God grant that he may survive them, that he may write somewhat concerning them, and somewhat concerning Christ, that perhaps some day it may profit them.

(Words of Mormon 1-2)

If you think that sounds a bit depressing, welcome to Mormon. His is an interesting voice, because it contrasts so strongly with that of Nephi, who has been the voice most often heard in the chapters up till now. Yet it’s still different from Jacob, who also formed a contrast with Nephi. Nephi, while he does face his times of grief and disappointment (such as his reaction to a vision of the destruction of his descendants in 1 Nephi 15, or his own personal struggles in 2 Nephi 4), is fundamentally an optimistic, almost bombastic character. I’ve even joked with people, and to be honest I’m not really joking, that I don’t think I’d have liked him. That’s not a fault of Nephi, by the way, but perhaps simply a case of how different personalities respond to each other. Jacob, as I’ve written about before, seems to have faced struggles with feelings of personal inadequacy, and when he speaks, he speaks in a very different way from Nephi. Contrast their approach to the Final Judgment: Nephi speaks that he has faith ‘that I shall meet many souls spotless at [Christ’s] judgment-seat’ (2 Nephi 33:7), while Jacob – while righteous – mentally includes himself with the wicked by observing ‘we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14, my emphasis).

Mormon takes a blunt, realistic approach:

And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;

Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen.

(Helaman 12:25-26)

Mormon is a lonely figure, fighting to preserve his people but knowing that they are doomed to lose and deserve to lose. For him, the story of the Book of Mormon is fundamentally a tragedy, hence here – the first time we really hear his voice – he opens up by stating that he has seen almost the entire annihilation of his people, and anticipates its completion soon. There is little room for optimism in his experience, much of which he actually hides from us (Mormon 2:18-19). He is not devoid of hope, although he is without hope for his people (Mormon 5:2). Rather much of his hope is very remote: that this book he is working on will do good, that some day it may help draw people to Christ, that day being fourteen centuries after he has written the work, with no one to even read it in the meantime. In some respect he had the opposite experience of Nephi. Nephi faced intense trials, but he and his people got to live ‘after the manner of happiness’ in his lifetime (2 Nephi 5:27), while part of what he felt grief over was a visionary experience about what would happen centuries later. Mormon had ‘been filled with sorrow … all my days’ (Mormon 2:19), while his hope was invested in the revelation of centuries later events.

So its particularly interesting that not only does Mormon’s voice come in at this stage, but its his voice that dominates the rest of the book and indeed the structure of the book as a whole. While he personally cannot be heard in the small plates, he chose to include them, and he now narrates the rest of the book until Mormon 7, something that often seems to be forgotten when people attribute an narrator’s statement to Alma or whoever, when it is Mormon speaking, and we really only hear the others in quotations Mormon has selected. Even Mormon 8 onwards, in which Moroni is the narrator, follows plans Mormon laid out (it is Mormon who states that the account of the Jaredites will be told, in Mosiah 28:19, even though it is Moroni who ultimately tells it). The Book of Mormon is a pessimist’s book. This is not to condemn optimism (I think President Hinckley, for instance, was a great advocate and example of the power of optimism, though he never let that become wishful thinking nor hinder him from speaking unpleasant truths), but it is interesting to think about.

Onto the other matter of time, God’s relationship to it, and omniscience. I’m not going to go into this in depth at this stage, since I plan to address it, and the crucial concept of ‘retrocausality’, in the future. I have already written about the concept of time and explicit examples of retrocausality within the Book of Mormon in The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible, and quote this when talking about Enos here, for anyone looking for further discussion of this right now. Suffice to say, there is a strain of philosophical thought, one which some LDS scholars have shared, that believe that complete divine foreknowledge and human agency are incompatible. We cannot truly have the ability to choose, this thought runs, if God already knows what we’re going to pick.

If the possibility of retrocausal events (that is, where the effects precede the cause, such as Enos being forgiven through the Atonement before it happened, or Lehi explicitly quoting John the Baptist centuries before he is born) is admitted, then such philosophical difficulties disappear. Causality, however, is a very strong assumption, and amongst those assuming causality applies universally, some (I’m thinking Blake Ostler, but others have too) have proposed that God is omniscient in the sense of knowing all things that exist. They then argue that future events that are dependent upon chance or choice, that is “contingent”, do not exist yet, and so God does not know them.

While I’m sure many of the people making this argument are well-intentioned, I reject this conclusion. For one thing, what future events are not “contingent”, when we move beyond the bounds of astronomy and geology? This version of omniscience knows very little of the future, especially when we factor in how many choices are in turn dependent on the outcome of the choices before that, and before that. In its crassest form, this idea was put to me by an advocate as “God does not know what people are having for breakfast tomorrow”, and while some advocates may shy away from that description, I do think its an inevitable consequence. Now factor in that someone’s decision on what to have for breakfast may be influenced by what they decided to have the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and may in turn be influenced by parents who were influenced by a lifetime’s worth of breakfast decisions, and so on for countless generations. And this is a comparatively small decision (though perhaps with significant consequences, should someone fifteen generations back choke on a kipper)! What of the big ones? How could any long term view be remotely accurate?

This sits at odds with what we learn in this chapter. Firstly, Mormon outright states that ‘the Lord knoweth all things which are to come’ (v. 7). But beyond this explicit statement that God’s knowledge does include the future, there is the demonstration of it in this chapter, for Mormon makes this comment in reference to the inspiration he is receiving to include the small plates in with his record (as Nephi was similar inspired to begin writing it). Here it is particularly interesting, because it appears Mormon was actually inspired to break his record at this point to make this note, since he hadn’t written the rest of the record yet: note that verse 5 talks about how he ‘shall take’ the remainder of his record from the plates of Nephi (future tense) and in verse 9 states that ‘now I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record’. Words of Mormon thus breaks the account at a specific point, namely the small plates being given to King Benjamin, and transitions smoothly into the establishing of peace in the land (see Words of Mormon 18 and Mosiah 1:1).

Why is this significant? Because the material prior to Mosiah was lost, part of the 116 missing pages. The small plates were the inspired solution to this issue. But with Words of Mormon, they cover precisely the right amount of material. If Joseph Smith and Martin Harris had stopped translating a week or so earlier, the transition would not be remotely as smooth. Had they been able to continue translating for another week or so, and so lost the first parts of our current book of Mosiah, then a great deal of sense would have been lost. In other words, the inspiration that prompted the writing and the inclusion of the small plates, and the writing of Words of Mormon to integrate them into the book, foresaw not only that a portion would be lost, but precisely at which point they would be lost fourteen hundred years before they were actually lost. Were 106 pages or 126 pages lost, things would read very differently.

Now factor in all the decisions that affect the precise circumstances of this episode: not only when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris began their work, and ended their work, but every single time they decided when to begin their working day and when they decided to end it. Also every decision that led to them meeting when and where they did. Every decision, in fact, that Joseph and Martin made that led up to that specific moment at that place in the manuscript at that time. And then beyond that, every decision of every single one of their ancestors that factored into where they lived, where they moved too, who they reproduced with, and so on, involving many thousands of people, over many many generations, for over a thousand years. The very mortal existences of this chain of ancestors is “contingent”, relying as it does on the decisions of people in each and every generation. God shows that he knows and takes into account all of this.

As said, I plan to address the concept of God’s relationship with time in a future post beyond what I have already done, and while there’s undoubtedly much we don’t know about in this area, and much we maybe aren’t in a position to understand, believe that we can learn enough to resolve any philosophical difficulties between God’s omniscience and our agency. However, as to the actuality of God’s foreknowledge, I believe this chapter both states and demonstrates that he truly ‘knoweth all things which are to come’.

2020 Edit:

I’m keeping this fairly brief, as the original post was a) fairly recently (within the last year) and b) quite extensive.

I’ve already commented on the character aspect. Just to add to that, while my 2020 “Come Follow Me” reading may have led me to have a greater empathy and understanding for Nephi, Mormon is still a character I feel almost instinctively in tune with. I’m not even entirely sure for all the reasons why, but I do feel he is one of the greatest men in the book (and not simply because he authored most of it), and always appreciate returning to his voice.

I was struck by his comment about why he personally liked the contents of the small plates:

And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass

(Words of Mormon 1:4)

Mormon, looking back with some centuries, was able to see many of the events that the small plates prophesied of came to pass. This wasn’t just pleasing in and of itself, but was added reassurance that the events it prophesied of that went beyond his era would also come to pass. As I read this, I reflected on those times in my life where the spirit has shown me something which would happen, or where I’ve seen prophecy fulfilled, and how remembering such experiences can build our confidence and trust in God’s promises that are yet to happen.

I also can’t finish without quoting a bit of verse 11, since it touches on one of the recurring themes in this blog:

… And I know that they will be preserved; for there are great things written upon them, out of which my people and their brethren shall be judged at the great and last day, according to the word of God which is written.

One of the standards by which we shall be judged in the final judgment is by the contents of the scriptural books, including the Book of Mormon, those things which are “the word of God which is written”. Now this is not our initial relationship with those books: when any of us come into contact with the books of scripture for the first time, we are left to judge and determine whether they are true and correct and from God. But when we gain a testimony or a witness that they are, then that relationship changes. Then they become a standard against which we are to measure our lives and our understanding, and we are out of sync with the contents of holy writ, then it is our understanding or conduct that we need to give urgent consideration to changing.

“The word of God which is written” is not the sum total of that which we shall be judged by, of course: God continues to reveal more, some generally – some of which is added to the written word, for his word never ends – and much personally, for we all need a living connection with God. But that portion which God has caused to be recorded and sent forth is important, and will be raised as a witness for or against us. This is a message the Book of Mormon repeats on several occasions and it is one we need today, for so many of the approaches to scripture that find favour today reverse that proper relationship. They sift through the contents of scripture, affirming that which they already believe, but discarding whatever is uncomfortable or which they do not understand. Such approaches place the reader into the position of judge and the scriptures as judged. They assume the modern scholar already has greater access to the mind of God, and knows it better than the word of God.

Yet we shall find, as the Book of Mormon teaches, that at the great and last day that our own mind will not be the measuring rod by which we shall be judged. But the scriptures shall be. There is much for us to learn, much that God has yet to reveal to us, and much for us to learn from the things that he has already revealed to us. If we approach the scriptures in humility, prepared to let our ideas and lives be challenged and even judged by his word, we may be surprised at what we can learn if we do not discard his word.

Alma 33

While part of the same sermon as Alma 32 and 34, Alma 33 often seems quite neglected in comparison. And while Alma 32 and 34 do have quite a few amazing things in them, this perhaps shouldn’t be the case, for if Alma 32 is where Alma encourages his audience to try an experiment by believing the word, and the process by which faith in that word can be built up, it’s in Alma 33 that he describes the content of that word. Thus this chapter probably deserves more attention than it gets, including the brief attention devoted to it in this post. Possible areas of attention include: Zenos’ and Zenock’s words (or indeed, their very existence, and Alma referring to their writings plainly as “scripture”); the way the Zenos quote addresses both questions held by Alma’s audience (namely – by mentioning all the places he prayed – where they can worship, and by reference to the Son, who they should trust in); and the type of the serpent staff in the wilderness, and how we might look upon Christ.

One thing stood out while reading it today, however, which was how Alma himself seems to condense the “word” he wishes the Zoramites to plant into one verse, which does indeed seem to condense the core of the Gospel into one sentence:

If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.

(Alma 33:22)

This is the word that Alma desires they should “plant” in their hearts, and then nourish by their faith (v. 23), and presumably one we should too, and which will likewise lead us to eternal life. That we too should “cast about” our eyes, and begin to believe on the Son of God, that he came (and will come again) to redeem his people, that he has suffered and died to atone for our sins, and he rose again from the dead, which will bring to pass our resurrection, so that all of us will stand before him, to be judged. This is the very core, that Christ came down to Earth, that he is our redeemer from sin and from death, and that he is our judge and we are accountable to him. If we truly believe these things, I believe Alma to be saying, and exercise our faith in them, that is the message that will transform our lives, and indeed shape our eternal destiny. As I think upon this verse, it seems strange that such a powerful message can be condensed into such few words, and yet thinking upon it, it seems so obvious that nearly all our errors stem from forgetting one of these simple elements.

2020 Edit:

Once again – by no means most of the time, but enough to be noticeable – my reading has once again caught upon things that I’ve already written about. However, in this case it’s the verse immediately preceding which particularly struck me, verse 21:

O my brethren, if ye could be healed by merely casting about your eyes that ye might be healed, would ye not behold quickly, or would ye rather harden your hearts in unbelief, and be slothful, that ye would not cast about your eyes, that ye might perish?

I like this verse for how it emphasises how accessible the power of the gospel is: after all, it’s not like we’re the motive force behind it, Christ is. In some cases we simply have to look for help in the right direction, and in some cases we struggle because we don’t know where to look or – for various reasons – are hesitant to do so. But we can look, and that aid and hearling are there to be seen.

 

Alma 32

Alma 32

Alma begins teaching the Zoramites, and we find here a phenomenon that I’ve seen myself:

And it came to pass that after much labor among them, they began to have success among the poor class of people; for behold, they were cast out of the synagogues because of the coarseness of their apparel—

Therefore they were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart.

(Alma 32:2-3)

Alma and his fellow labourers begin to find success amongst those Zoramites who are poor, and consequently – doubtless due to Zoramite beliefs on elitism and ‘the elect’ – have been cast out of their places of worship, places they in fact helped build (v. 5).

I think it is no coincidence that it is these people that are particularly receptive to Alma’s message. While the gospel is to be offered to all, and there are some out there who, in Alma’s words, “would humble themselves, let them be in whatsoever circumstances they might” (v. 25), from observation people who are in a comfortable position do not often realise why they might need the gospel, and so are less inclined to listen. Conversely, it is those for whom life is not going well who are most prepared to listen, because they realise they need something, even if they don’t know what it is yet. This isn’t a straight case of poor vs rich, either. Notice that it’s not just poverty these Zoramites are experiencing, but also ostracism and being barred from their synagogues, and it is this last that seems to most trouble and animate them. Likewise, while those who are materially prosperous may be more likely to feel comfortable, they too can experience crises that cause them to realise they need something else, something more. Many of those I taught on a mission – not all, but many – had experienced something that had caused them to feel their life was lacking something, and that they should begin to seek for it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the question these people ask – what should they do when they have no place to worship – as we read this chapter and the next two. As I’ve mentioned before, the present chapters and the versification we find inside the Book of Mormon were put there in 1879 by Orson Pratt, and while the original Book of Mormon did have chapters (and – per Royal Skousen – those appear to reflect original divisions in the text), they were often much longer. While chapters and verses are very useful, they can cause us to break our reading up in ways that hinder our understanding of the text.

Alma 32-34 is a great example of this: in the original Book of Mormon this was one chapter (in fact Alma 30-35 was one chapter!), and when one looks at these three chapters they are one continuous sermon, begun by Alma in chapter 32 and continued in 33, and then picked up by Amulek in chapter 34. But we may break it up into parts without paying sufficient attention to the rest of the unit, which would be like trying to watch a conference talk in only 5-10 minute segments, only returning to it the following day. We may be able to still learn much from doing that, but it’d be very easy to lose the main thread of the conference talk.

So it is with Alma 32-34, which is wonderfully knit together: The poor (both in possessions and in spirit) come to Alma, wondering how they can worship when cast out of their Synagogues. This is a question that may well be especially relevant to many of us at this time, where we – albeit for different reasons – are likewise “cast out” of our “synagogues” and are unable to gather for worship due to “social distancing”. This question of worship runs like a thread through Alma and Amulek’s response, as they also tie it in to their teaching of Christ and the gospel.

 

Thus in this chapter, Alma first addresses how they can test his words and build faith in them with his simile of the word as a seed, and really gets to what the heart of worship is, which is not something that only occurs in a certain place at a certain time:

Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

(Alma 32:10-11)

Rather the heart of worship is our own personal faith and spiritual connection with God, something that must occur in every individual heart.

The following chapters will build upon this: in chapter 33 Alma will again address their question, quoting Zenos about praying in the wilderness and so on (33:4-5). This quote, however, also refers to God’s son, leading Alma to then talk of the need for Christ and for the Zoramites to plant this word in their hearts, quoting other scriptures (Zenock and Moses) for this purpose. Then Amulek gets up, clarifies the real question is “whether the word be in the Son of God” (34:5), and then after referring to Alma’s quotation of scripture then adds his own witness of the same “behold, I will testify unto you of myself”, speaking of the Atonement of Christ. He then exhorts them to exercise their faith by repenting, the first step being to pray to God and ask him for mercy, and once again addressing the initial question of “where can we worship God” by making clear that one can and should pray everywhere. It’s a wonderfully tight and powerful sermon, that one could pull lots of things from, and incidentally a great example to missionaries on how a companionship can pass off to each and other teach together effectively.

There is one thing in Alma 32, however, which is often misunderstood.

Faith is not compared to a seed

Alma 32 is understandably – and rightly – referred to often, when people talk about faith and the process of gaining a knowledge of the Gospel. However, when this has happened in my hearing I have often heard people claim that Alma is comparing faith to a seed. This is not true. It is not faith that is being so compared, and I think correctly understanding Alma’s imagery can help us better understand faith, and also its relation to works, an often vexed subject.

So what is Alma comparing to a seed?

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed…

(Alma 32:28)

It is not faith that is the seed, but “the word”, namely the word of God (v. 22). That word may be received in many different ways for, as Alma states, “he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also… little children do have words given unto them many times which confound the wise and the learned”. We might receive the word of God through the words of another (a friend, a family member, a Church member, a leader, or a missionary). We might read them for ourselves in the scriptures, or elsewhere. We might receive it directly, though angels, or through the inspiration of the spirit. The word too might refer to a specific instruction on a topic.

Where does faith come in? As Alma goes on to state in verse 28:

… Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Faith then is not the seed, but allowing the seed to be planted: that is, to believe the word. In contrast to disbelieve it, or to resist the spirit of the Lord, is to cast out the seed. And when we believe the word of God it brings a spiritual change (Alma 5:11-13).

And I think when we understand that relationship between the word and faith, we are in a better position to understand the relationship between faith and works. The subject of much controversy throughout Christendom, within the Church we usually understand well that – following James in James 2 – faith without works is dead. Sometimes, however, I see that over-corrected, with claims that faith means action, in short to effectively conflate faith and works. But the two are distinct, for if faith without works is dead, works can be dead also (D&C 22:2-3). As Mormon teaches (Moroni 7:6-7):

For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

The phrasing in verse 7 is particularly suggestive, considering the statement given in Genesis 15:6 about Abraham’s response to God’s promises:

And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

Or as Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3:

For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

Genuine faith leads to action, to works. But works motivated by some other reason, that are not accompanied by belief and real intent, have no saving value.

So there is a distinction between faith and works. Yet these should not be seen as being in opposition to each other; such was certainly not James’ intention when he taught that “seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” (James 2:22). And it may be easier to see how the two work together when we bring “the word” into the picture, and see both faith and works as a response to God’s word. Our initial response to the word will be of belief or unbelief: if we believe, we plant that seed and it beings to “grow”. That can strengthen our faith, but as Alma goes on then to teach in verses 38-39:

But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.

Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.

Once we have planted the seed – once we have exercised even “a particle of faith” – we must continue to exercise our faith, by acting upon the word of God that we claim to believe in. And so we must nourish the tree, by our acts of devotion (prayer, study of the scriptures and so forth) and by our obedience to what the word of God says. In this way, the “seed” will continue to grow, and our faith will become stronger, wrought with our works:

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.

(Alma 32:41)

Incidentally, I love how the tree of life imagery is used in this chapter. We’ve seen it used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision, where it was at the end of a dangerous and hazardous journey. But here, tying once more into the question the poor Zoramites have asked him, Alma portrays the tree of life as something that grows within us, as we experience the workings of the spirit in response to us planting the word. If we do not resist the spirit, cast the word out by unbelief, or neglect “the tree” through complacency or lack of diligence, then the tree and its fruit grows inside us:

And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.

Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.

(Alma 32:42-43)

Faith and knowledge

I also like how faith and knowledge are depicted in this chapter. In our modern society, faith is often described as antithetical to knowledge. Yet Alma shows how the two interrelate.

It is true that faith and knowledge are not the same thing:

And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

(Alma 32:21).

But they are not disconnected. Rather faith and belief are the beginning, and part of an ongoing process, of an experiment:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

(Alma 32:26-27)

Try this, Alma counsels. Try this, and see what happens. If this is true, something will happen:

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

(Alma 32:28)

This is a very delicate experiment, one that might easily be stopped by our own interference, stopping it through unbelief or through resisting the Spirit (and the latter I’ve definitely seen). But if we pursue the experiment on a true seed, we will feel something.

Now this doesn’t mean we have yet arrived at knowledge. But it can give us confidence enough to continue to pursue this course:

Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

(Alma 32:29-30)

Eventually, we may have tested the word to a degree that we can claim to some degree of knowledge:

And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

(Alma 32:33-36)

We can thus reach some knowledge, but that’s not the end of the story: we may have attained “perfect” knowledge – that is, we know a specific thing is true – in a given area. But there is more to learn, more to gain a knowledge of. But faith here is not the enemy of knowledge, nor a competitor, but part of a process and means by which we attain knowledge. Faith leads to knowledge, and knowledge in one area encourages us to exercise more faith in other areas. And this is a process that is real. This spiritual phenomenon is tangible, we can “taste this light”; an entirely deliberate mix of senses, I believe, for in my own experience our spiritual senses do not seem to precisely match or map onto our physical senses. And yet while non-physical, such sensations are real and “discernible”, if we pursue this path.

A final note

There’s one more thing that really stood out to me in my reading in 2020:

I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.

(Alma 32:12, my emphasis)

I was really struck by Alma’s line that “it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues”. After all, for these people this was a serious trial and burden, one that concerned them more than their actual poverty and the other ostracism they had received from the other Zoramites. And yet Alma is right, in the sense that that crisis brought them to a point in which they sought the gospel, and so that crisis was ultimately, from an eternal perspective, a blessing, though I’m sure it didn’t feel like it at the time. And it caused me to reflect that it may be that some of those things we have or will experience in our lives that seem the most bothersome, or that come to us as a considerable trial or even source of torment, may likewise ultimately prove to be a source of blessings. That one day we may look back – possibly long after this life is over – and look at those events and see that ultimately, they were “well” for us.

Jacob 3

But behold, I, Jacob, would speak unto you that are pure in heart. Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your destruction.

O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever.

(Jacob 3:1-2)

This follows up from Jacob 2, where Jacob faced the dilemma that because of the need to condemn particular sins his words could not offer the comfort others needed. What I like about these verses is that, although Jacob himself cannot offer consolation, there are other sources of comfort to be had, particularly though looking to God, prayer and receiving the word of God, which I believe includes both personal revelation and receiving the scriptures (and of course the latter should often include a degree of the former).

There are some topics, of course, that the scriptures don’t appear to address all that explicitly. But as I’ve also mentioned before (in reference to Jacob no less) the scriptures can address issues in far less direct and more subtle ways. The scriptures are the word of God, an inexhaustible well of inspiration, which we are invited to “liken” them unto ourselves and through which we can receive personal guidance and revelation.

Studying the scriptures in such a way is of course a very personal experience: what one sees or needs to see, may not be what other people need to see. Perhaps this is why the scriptures don’t address certain topics explicitly, and another reason why Jacob could point people to the “pleasing word of God” but not offer such comfort personally. Each of us is an individual, with our own issues and challenges, and – while there are fixed eternal truths – for our own different issues we need individual guidance to resolve them. But there is a common path by which we can receive that guidance, that through prayer and contemplation of the word of God we can each receive the individual comfort and counsel we need. But we cannot rely on others to walk that path for us: each of us personally must look towards God, pray to him and receive his “pleasing word”.

2020 edit:

This chapter really concludes Jacob’s sermon to his people. If chapter two was the first half, addressing the two specific areas of concern, in this second half Jacob first turns (as above) to those in his audience who may have been hurt by such sins (and by his necessary words about them), and then switches back to warning against sin and urging repentance and reformation on the part of his wider audience.

Behold, their husbands love their wives, and their wives love their husbands; and their husbands and their wives love their children; and their unbelief and their hatred towards you is because of the iniquity of their fathers; wherefore, how much better are you than they, in the sight of your great Creator?

(Jacob 3:7)

I find it interesting that Lamanite family life is so commended here (in contrast to the Nephite situation), and indeed seems always to have been comparatively healthy, when one looks at episodes like the stealing of the daughters of the Lamanites (Mosiah 20), or in the Sons of Mosiah’s mission to the Lamanites, and the role various wives and daughters (generally an unrepresented group in the Book of Mormon) played in that narrative. This rather healthy family life is not without divine reward, too: “because of this observance, in keeping this commandment, the Lord God will not destroy them, but will be merciful unto them; and one day they shall become a blessed people” (Jacob 3:6), despite other sins and unbelief which they inherited, so to speak, from their forefathers.

Wherefore, ye shall remember your children, how that ye have grieved their hearts because of the example that ye have set before them; and also, remember that ye may, because of your filthiness, bring your children unto destruction, and their sins be heaped upon your heads at the last day.

Jacob 3:10 here introduces an interesting corollary to this idea. If the Lamanites could end up the way they are because of the decisions of their ancestors, it follows this may not be a one-off: the Nephites, and for that matter any of us, could act in ways that bring disastrous consequences upon following generations, with little choice on their part. And I think one can see this, when one looks at the generational consequences that can accompany things like abuse, addiction, family break-up, or apostasy. It’s this phenomenon that I believe is reflected in scriptural statements such as those in Exodus 20:5 about the “the iniquity of the fathers” being ‘visited’ “upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me”. This doesn’t mean that those successive generations have been abandoned by God or left without hope: after all, neither were (or were to be) later generations of the Lamanites. But it does mean that our actions, including our sins, can have wider consequences than just ourselves and those we directly sin against.

Jacob 2

And it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God, yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul.

Wherefore, it burdeneth my soul that I should be constrained, because of the strict commandment which I have received from God, to admonish you according to your crimes, to enlarge the wounds of those who are already wounded, instead of consoling and healing their wounds; and those who have not been wounded, instead of feasting upon the pleasing word of God have daggers placed to pierce their souls and wound their delicate minds.

Jacob 2:8-9

Jacob speaks in such a distinctive, individual fashion, unlike any other voice in the Book of Mormon (something I’ve mentioned before). This is an example of that. But I believe the phenomenon he’s talking about here more universal. The word of God can comfort and console, or it can chastise and correct. Which seems fitting: God speaks according to what we need and can understand (D&C 1:24-28), and sometimes that means correction and other times consolation. The dilemma Jacob faces here – and I guess this must be true at other times (Elder Oaks has certainly mentioned the concept in reference to General Conference) – is that his audience includes both groups. In this particular case, Jacob can’t help but be distressed that he is unable to offer the words of comfort that some need, because the need to correct others has to (at least in this case) take precedence. Sometimes we’re discomforted because we need to be. Sometimes, however, we’re just part of the same audience, and certain remarks may not be aimed at us.

2020 edit:

Somewhat in line with the observations above, there’s also the very last verse, where once again we see Jacob’s personality really emerge, in his concern for the emotional impact, both of the sins of those he is addressing upon those they have let down, and of the words of God he is speaking upon those very same people in his audience:

Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.

I was struck that Jacob has two issues to deal with once: problems of wealth & pride, and problems of sexual immortality (manifested in this case particularly in illegitimate polygamy). The Come Follow Me manual happens to mention that these two broad problems affect our own era, but that’s also not the first time they coincide. I guess what I really thought of reflecting on these conditions is the issue discussed in Helaman 12: that when people are protected and prosperous, they forget God and turn against his teachings. Jacob speaks (in Jacob 2:13) about how these people have been blessed with prosperity, and sure enough these ills follow. There seems to be something about comfort and security, and particularly material prosperity – which keeps at bay the trials of hunger, thirst and the need for shelter and their attendant worries – which seems a particularly fertile ground for us to lose our way. It is as if when we are in a position to relax about matters of physical life and death, we have a tendency to relax about other things too, to our detriment.

I was also struck by a slight difference between Jacob’s instructions re: seeking wealth and those in regards to morality & polygamy. While he’s acting under direct divine instructions for both (vv. 11-12), his teachings about wealth and pride (vv. 12-21) don’t, for whatever reason, involve direct quotations from deity: he simply teaches the principles. Yet when he turns to his second subject, he then does start quoting deity, with the first “thus saith the Lord” in verse 23 (and others following rapidly), and much of 23-33 being given as a direct prophetic commandment from God. I’m not entirely sure if there’s any significance in this change, and if so what it might be (although verse 22 indicates it is the more serious matter, and it does in part hinge on specific commandments given to Lehi and his children), but thought it was interesting to observe nonetheless.