From Feast upon the Word (http://feastupontheword.org). Copyright, Feast upon the Word.
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- Verses 1:1-2
The first verse begins setting the reader up to hear what will happen in the first year of the reign of the judges. We may expect that this introductory clause is to be answered within the first sentence, but instead it serves as an opening phrase for a large section of text. This construction (an opening phrase incomplete by the end of the sentence) is odd for readers but occurs elsewhere in the Book of Mormon as well [fill in other examples]. More unique is the use of the phrase "from this time forward" which though we expect it to lead to some explanation of what happens from this point forward, we realize after finding nothing in front to complete it's thought, must point backward to mean something like the judges reigned over the people of Nephi from this point in history forward.
- Verse 1:3: Popular
The term "popular" occurs only 3 other times in Mormon scripture: 1 Ne 22:23; Alma 35:3; JS-H 1:23. From Webster's 1828 dictionary, the most fitting definition would seem to be #3: "enjoying the favor of the people."
- Verse 1:4: Nehor's doctrine and the War in Heaven
In Satan's War on Free Agency, Greg Wright offers a deeply persuasive interpretation of the War in Heaven. Teryl Givens independently comes to the same conclusion in a Meridian Magazine article. Both interpretations are highly germane to and greatly illuminate this verse. Brothers Wright and Givens both suggest that Satan's plan in the preexistence was not (as is often said) to destroy human agency by controlling all human action and compelling it to be good. He would, rather, destroy agency by letting people do whatever they wanted with no consequences. In other words, he told people they could do their own thing on earth, follow their bliss, with a guarantee that he, Satan, would return them to heaven no matter what they did. Satan offered a no risk guarantee and, thus, destroyed agency not by controlling choice but by rendering it meaningless. If all choices lead to the same end, human beings do not have the power to choose their own destiny. Thus, choice without consequence is antithetical to agency.
It is unsurprising that Satan's seductive plan was popular: giving free reign to the natural man without fear of damnation is a seemingly attractive proposition. Nor is it surprising that Nehor, Satan's agent, should offer the same seductive plan here on earth. When Nehor and his followers, ancient and modern, preach and believe that all will be saved regardless of what they do, they embrace in mortality the plan they rejected in the pre-existence. They here vindicate a plan that they there rejected. Nehor gives us an exceptionally clear presentation of Satan's plan from the preexistence. But other variants are ubiquitous, e.g., the atheistic variant of the plan assures us that no matter what we choose to do in this life, all end up the same--eternally dead. So do as you please. The cheap grace version suggests that all who merely confess that Christ is their Savior are saved, regardless of what their antecedent or subsequent behavior may be. In other words, all are saved and come to the same end regardless of what choices they make (apart from the choice to confess Christ). Except for that one choice, they have no ability to determine their eternal destiny.
- Verse 1:5
The Book of Mormon often makes a point of saying that false prophets are supported financially by the people. In this case, they give money to Nehor who preaches that salvation will come to everyone. It seems they are willing to sacrifice their money for an easy salvation rather than their sins for true salvation.
We might be tempted to look with disdain at those in the past who appear so easily deceived. It seems the danger of our day is to think that the Former-day Saints were fools and we in the Latter-days are wise (see Related Links, Carlos E. Asay). Here we might apply Mormon's test for passing judgment (Moro 7:15-17).
- Verse 1:9: Feisty Gideon
It is no surprise to see the Gideon from the Land of Nephi, the man who chased King Noah to the top of his tower (Mosiah 19:4-8), standing boldly against Nehor even as an old man. Verse 9 implies that Gideon drew his weapon and battled Nehor. This is implied in the statement that Gideon's age made him unable to withstand Nehor's blows. Age would be a factor only if Gideon was battling with his own weapon. No person of any age could withstand an attack with a sword if unarmed and unresisting. Thus, this language suggests that Gideon did draw and was fighting. To see the importance of this fact, go to the exegesis below of verses 11 - 15 on Alma's political error and the assessment of Alma as a politician in the exegesis at the end of this chapter.
- Verse 1:10: Land of Gideon
While it is not explcitly stated here, this episode probably occured in the Land of Gideon, a land named after Gideon who is now slain. This is the land in which the Zeniffites (followers of Limhi and Alma the Elder) settled after their escape from the Land of Nephi. Gideon played a major role in that escape (Mosiah 22:3 - 8), just one of the reasons why he was viewed as a hero and especially revered by the now resettled Zeniffites. Having once been apostate and having learned from their past mistakes, the people of the Land of Gideon have become especially faithful and resistant to apostacy. As these people here resist Nehor's seductive doctrine, they will later again resist the false doctrines of Korihor (Alma 30:21-22). Just as these people here forceably carry Nehor before Alma, so they will forceably carry Korihor to Alma for judgment (Alma 30:29). When Alma begins his great preaching mission to the Nephites, it is the people in the land of Gideon who most warmly receive him. His sermon in the land of Gideon basically congratulates the people on their righteousness and faithfulness, a message very different from the one he delivers in the lands of Zarahemla and Ammonihah.
- Verse 1:14
Here Alma feels he has to argue for the rule of law. Judging by Mosiah 29:11, 15, 22-23, they seem to have had laws during the reigns of the kings -- but laws that existed at the kings' pleasure. The rule of the king had been primary, not the rule of law. With Mosiah newly dead, Alma takes pains to emphasize that the law both remains and rules.
Alma grounds the rule of law in the people's acceptance of it, not in the authority of his office as chief judge. This is a distinct break from the old ways described in Mosiah 29:22-23.
- Verse 1:14-15: Rule of law, or rule of man
Alma tries in verse 14 to depersonalize his execution of Nehor, framing it as a disinterested enforcement of the law handed down by Mosiah and agreed to by the people (see exegesis on verse 1). This claim was probably not persuasive for Nehor's followers, and it is undercut in verse 15 by the suggestion that Nehor "was caused" to confess errors, i.e., was forced to say something he didn't believe before "he suffered an ignominious death," i.e., was dishonored in the mode of his death. The compelled confession and ignominious mode of execution undercut the suggestion of a depersonalized rule of law in verse 14.
- Verse 1:15: Ignominious
- History is written by the victors
Here is an interesting thought experiment. Suppose it had been a younger Gideon who had been traveling and that he had met Nehor in Ammoniah. Suppose that after a heated theological exchange Nehor had started the swordplay but Gideon had prevailed and then Gideon was taken before a local Order of Nehor judge. Suppose the events were then described by a pre-conversion Zeezrom. With minor changes it could be the same story with only the names reversed.
 Points to ponder
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- Verse 1:1. How significant is it that the Mosiah-Benjamin-Mosiah dynasty would no longer continue, but the laws would?
- Verse 1:1. Why were the people "obliged to abide by the laws which [Mosiah] had made"?
- Verse 1:1. The end of this verse greatly resembles the end of verse 14. Are Mormon and Alma both citing some constitutional document? (Perhaps Mosiah certified to the people's acknowledgement of the law after Mosiah 29:38?) Is Mormon just quoting Alma twice? (Why?)
- Verse 1:2. This verse introduces Nehor as "a man brought before [Alma] to be judged." Why don't we learn Nehor's name until the end of the story, in verse 15, when Nehor is about to be killed?
- Verse 1:2. Why is it noted that Nehor "was Large" and "noted for his much strength"? In what ways might his size and strength have been evident? Is there a relationship here between how he is described and how the royal Mulekite Ammon and his brothers are described in Mosiah 7:3? Who else in the Book of Mormon is described as large and mighty?
- Verse 1:3. What does it mean for priests and teachers to "become popular"?
- Verse 1:3. This occurs just after political leadership among the Nephites is turned over to the voice of the people. Is Nehor now mainly arguing that leadership in the church should also be established by the voice of the people?
- Verse 1:3. Why would Nehor argue that the priests "ought to be supported by the people"? The Nephite kings Mosiah, Benjamin, and Mosiah had all labored with their hands for their own support, why would Nehor argue that priests and teachers shouldn't have to do this as well? Were the new judges supported by the people? Is this a reflection of the practices in King Noah's time, when the priests were supported in the court of the king through taxation?
- Verse 1:4. What are Nehor’s doctrines? For what appears to be more of them, see Alma 15:15 and 21:6-8.
- Verse 1:4. Where might Nehor have gotten these teachings? Do they reflect the teachings of the priests of Noah, who rather than seeing their own wickedness wanted to justify their position and status through an appeal to Isa 52:7?
- Verse 1:5. Is it likely that some of the many who "did believe on his words" were members of Christ's church? If so, how is it that they left the truth and believed in these false doctrines?
- Verse 1:12. To what group does “this people” refer? Is Alma saying that this is the first case of priestcraft since Lehi’s colony arrived? Why would priestcraft result in the destruction of the people? Do we have priestcraft among us today? Outside the Church? In it?
- Verses 1:12-13. Why does Alma reason from collective, corporate consequences and responsibilities, and not (as modern American law would do) from Gideon's individual right to live?
- Verses 1:13-14. What is Alma’s justification for the death penalty?
- Verse 1:14. What does the last part of v. 14 mean: “[the law] has been acknowledged by this people; therefore this people must abide by the law"? How do we acknowledge our laws? Why does Alma need to ground even the rule of law in the people's collective acknowledgement, rather than taking it as given? (Is he establishing a constitutional precedent? Was the rule of law itself somewhat novel?)
- Verse 1:15. Why do you think ancient peoples felt it was important for a criminal given the death penalty not only to die but to suffer an ignominious death?
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