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;
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.