Alma 1-3

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Home > The Book of Mormon > Alma > Chapters 1-3

Subpages: Verses 1:1-15  •  1:16-33  •  2:1-19  •  2:20-38  •  3:1-27

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Summary[edit]

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Relationship to Alma. The relationship of Chapters 1-3 to the rest of Alma is discussed at Alma.

Story. Chapters 1-3 consists of ___ major sections:

Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Chapters 1-3 include:

Discussion[edit]

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  • These chapters introduce the Amlicites, who are Nehors (Alma 2:1), and who are likely also the same group as the Amalekites.[1]
Chapters 1-3 relate two episodes. In the first year of the reign of the judges over the Nephites, Nehor is executed, leading to societal unrest. In the fifth year of the judges, Amlici seeks to be king and causes warfare. The break between these two episodes at Verse 2:1 is clear. The other divisions between page breaks are reasonable ways to divide long wiki pages, but are not hard breaks between separate episodes.
  • Alma's political error. However just the execution of Nehor in Verses 1:1-15 may have been, it proves to be politically catastrophic. In the wake of the execution, an uprising of followers of Nehor occurs that extends throughout the Book of Alma into the Book of Helaman and that kills tens of thousands. This uprising is fairly predictable. Influenced by Alma the Elder who had learned the bad effects of mixing church and state in Noah’s kingdom (something that could not have been learned in the kingdom of Benjamin and Mosiah), Mosiah tried to separate religion from government. But while he formally separated church and state by vesting civil authority in the Chief Judge and religious authority in a High Priest, he fatally undercut his own reform by favoring the appointment of Alma the Younger as the first Chief Judge. Since Alma also inherited from his father the office of High Priest, civil and religious authority once again came to be vested in the same person.
Alma executes Nehor, a rival religious leader, acting in the office of Chief Judge. But this execution surely appeared to Nehor’s followers to be an unjust exercise of state power by the High Priest to suppress the rise of a competing religion. People of Mulekite heritage would be especially likely to perceive injustice in this execution. Nehor appears to be a Mulekite (with possible Jaredite heritage as well). Alma, on the other hand, is a pure-blooded Nephite whose heritage lay in the Land of Nephi rather than in Zarahemla where Nephites and Mulekites have mixed. Alma executes Nehor because he killed Gideon, another pure-blooded Nephite who was a military hero in the Land of Nephi. Gideon was a feisty man and, though aged, probably drew his weapon in the confrontation with Nehor. But Alma whose family is connected by ethnic heritage, personal history, and religion to Gideon judges the death of Gideon to be a crime. Clearly Alma was not a disinterested party in this trial and was surely not perceived to be by the followers of Nehor.
Evidence suggests that when Mosiah ended the monarchy, some of the descendants of Zarahemla, the last Mulekite king, felt they had a legitimate claim on power in light of their Davidic heritage. Alma seems to have stoked the revanchist passions of these Mulekite kingmen by executing their religious leader (see exegesis on Alma 1:1). So however just the execution may have been (and Alma’s personal rectitude makes it likely that appearances notwithstanding, it was just), this act was politically maladroit. A politician more deeply skilled than Alma probably would have avoided creating this casus belli by minimizing Nehor’s punishment based on some technicality. At a minimum, a more adroit politician would have avoided a forced confession and an especially ignominious execution tailor made to dishonor a political and religious opponent and, thus, stir up his followers. However unjust it might have been to Gideon to let Nehor off lightly, it may have saved tens of thousands of lives. And Gideon was a man who, like Nephi, would have understood that it is generally better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and, ultimately, perish (1 Nephi 4:13) through endless war.
In verse 1:12 Nehor has, presumably, committed murder by killing Gideon (though Gideon probably drew his own weapeon which complicates that issue [ see exegesis on verse 9 ]). But in this verse, Alma focuses more on the issue of priestcraft than on the murder. Since Alma, as High Priest, is the head of a rival religion, this emphasis in the text on Nehor's crime being priestcraft could easily lead Nehor's followers to conclude that their leader has been executed by his religious opponent because of his religious views and practices. See the exegesis above on Alma's political error.
  • Assessing Alma as a politician. Some of the commentary for Chapters 1-3 suggests that, politically, Alma mishandled Nehor. How would a really skilled politician handle this case? Nehor has a large constituency, but so does Gideon. The savvy political response would have been to assign some blame to Gideon, some to Nehor. It would have struck a balance by punishing Nehor moderately, just enough to sufficiently satisfy Gideonites, not enough to alienate the Nehorites. It certainly would have avoided alienating Nehor's followers by humiliating their leader with a maximum, ignominious punishment. A skilled politician would probably have been a nominal member of the leading religion but known to be not particularly devout so that competing religions would not feel threatened. The skilled politician would definitely have avoided a situation in which he is a devout member of one major religion who appears to be suppressing the most devout members of another major religion. Nehor probably deserved the punishment he got, both as a civil matter and still more clearly as an eternal matter. Alma was right to worry about the eternal consequences of Nehor’s teachings. But skilled politicians focus on more mundane matters. A narrow, pragmatic focus is an important part of their craft. The appearance of justice is often more important for them than real justice. Keeping people just happy enough is often more important than upholding highest standards of truth. And all have a stake in their successfully practicing their craft, for when they fail as policians (as Alma does here), war breaks out.
Alma is the exponent of a particular kind of conservatism--one that uses the power of the state to enforce a particular religious vision. Using the state in this way raises the stakes in the acquisition of power. If those with other moral views likewise use the power of the state to enforce their moral vision, then shifts in power will lead to dramatic shifts in what kind of behavior is permitted and not permitted in the society. All parties will rightly fear the acquisition of power by people with other views because those others will limit their ability to act on their beliefs. This dynamic seems to have taken hold in Zarahemla during Alma's reign as chief judge. He suppresses the Nehorites and they, in turn, fight to seize power from him. The fight is bitter because the stakes are so high for both parties. Winning means one has the right to live one's religion and losing means one does not have that right.

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Resources[edit]

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Notes[edit]

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  1. Conkling, J. Christopher. "Alma's Enemies: The Case of the Lamanites, Amlicites, and Mysterious Amalekites." Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 108-17. (Provo, Maxwell Institute: 2005).

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