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Relationship to Chapter 32. The relationship of Verses 32:1-5 to the rest of Chapter 32 is discussed at Chapter 32.
Story. Verses 32:1-5 consists of ___ major sections:
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Verses 32:1-5 include:
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- Alma 32:1: Streets. If the word here for "streets" has any relation to the Hebrew word chuwts, which means "outside or street" and probably comes from a root meaning "to sever," then this may signal the beginning of an interesting temple type of theme at work in this narrative. That is, Alma and Amulek end up being themselves cut off or thrown outside of the Zoramites' temples (i.e. synagogues and houses), analogous to Man being cut off from the Lord's presence in the Garden of Eden. The word of the Lord, through Alma and Amulek, thus comes to those who have been cut off (cf. "cast off" in v. 2) by those who were rejected, and we might thus read Alma's sermon on the seed as a riff on the atonement theme of the common four-fold pattern of creation, fall, atonement, and veil (in which case the partaking of the fruit at the end of this chapter would match up with the veil, or entering the Lord's presence). Alma and Amulek, in this sense, however, would be more like a Christ or scapegoat figure, who are rejected by the world and received by those "in the wilderness" so-to-speak.
- The first verses of this chapter, while clear enough in content, are somewhat ambiguous narratively: do they describe the entire story that is about to be told, or do they narrate events that occur before the story about to be told? That is, when verses 1-2 find the missionaries preaching and finding success among the poor, is one to read in the remainder of the story a fleshing out of these first details—a kind of going back to the beginning to tell how it all happened—or a continuation of the story (some success with the poor was followed by the event about to be described)? At least one aspect of this first verse would seem to point to the latter of these two options, would suggest, that is, that the missionaries had already begun to have success with the poor before the event that is detailed in the remainder of the chapter. How that is can only be explained at some length.
- The "yea" and "even" in this verse sounds as if preaching in the streets was only a last resort after they had been rejected from synagogues and houses.
- Alma 32:2: Class. The word "class" occurs only one other time in the Book of Mormon in 4 Ne 1:26 where two hundred years of peace where "their goods and their substances" were "common among them" is interrupted with the people being "divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain." Interestingly, the class distinctions described there are, as here, closely linked to ecclesiastical institutions (there "churches," here "synagogues").
- The actual use of the word "class" here is of some significance: the word only appears in the scriptures in translations and revelation provided by Joseph Smith. It in fact only appears twice in the Book of Mormon: here and 4 Ne 1:26. This other instance is helpful for interpretation here, since it describes the falling apart of Nephite utopia as class-structure comes into being. The perhaps Marxist ring of the word should not be missed: while every civilization has had its poor, the Zoramites are strikingly "modern" in that they have a poor class. This deserves much further attention.
- Alma 32:2: Synagogues. The word synagogues is used in the small plates in 2 Ne 26:26, apparently as a synonym to "houses of worship." In Alma 16:13, Alma and Amulek are said to preach in "their temples, and in their sanctuaries, and also in their synagogues, which were built after the manner of the Jews." Both of these verses use the term synagogues in a rather neutral way, referring to the building in which worship is conducted. In contrast, synagogues are described in Alma 21:4ff as being built "after the order of the Nehors" which seems to have a strong negative spiritual, even apostate, connotation (cf. Alma 1:12; Alma 14:16; Alma 24:28). Synagogues are also mentioned in Hel 3:9, 14, along with temples and sanctuaries, as well as in 3 Ne 13:2, 5, following the wording in Matt 6. Interestingly, in 3 Ne 18:32, Christ specifically admonishes his chosen Disciples (v. 26) to "not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship" who is unworthy and forbidden from partaking of the sacrament. Moro 7:1 describes Mormon teaching "in the synagogue which they had built for the place of worship." These latter verses in Moroni and 3 Nephi suggest there might be some sort of distinction between places of worship and places of teaching. That is, synagogues might have been primarily places to study and teach, as opposed to worshiping in ways less closely related to studying and teaching—perhaps worshiping in more silent ways—like praying—or more ritualistically.
- Alma 32:2: Poor. Though the meaning of the word would perhaps appear quite straightforward, its theological place in the broader canon is so important and so currently (constantly) controversial that it perhaps deserves at least a word or two of attention. It is often enough pointed out that the poor receive the gospel more readily than do the rich, that because they experience lack, it is easier for them to make room for the gospel message (cf. 1 Cor 1:26-29). Of course, it is not clear to what extent this is the case with the Zoramites (see exegesis), but the word "poor" cannot be read independent of this general situation. This is perhaps especially so in light of currently fashionable theological trends, such as liberation theology and its powerful influence in historical Jesus studies (Jesus came among the poor: the gospel he preached is just the same message that secular humanists have been preaching for the past century and half, etc.). There could well be formulated—though this has not as yet been undertaken systematically—a similar theology in light of LDS scripture (especially the exaltation of the poor in D&C 88 and like texts). But such contemporary theological concerns, it should be noted, are contextualized otherwise than Alma's discourse, which follows on the somewhat diagonal approach of King Benjamin (in Mosiah 4). (Of course, the rise of Nephite classes and class structure seem to be directly connected with the collapse of the kingship in Nephite society, which complicates the theological precedent that Benjamin's speech might have been.)
- Alma 32:3: Not permitted. No form of the word permit occurs in the KJV of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, permit is used as a translation of the Greek word epitrepo (cf. Acts 26:1; 1 Cor 14:34; 1 Cor 16:7; Heb 6:3). In Mosiah 7:8ff, the word permitted is used when Ammon is standing before the king and "permitted to speak" (vv. 11-12). This is interesting because the context is one of monarchical power, whereas here the political situation is quite different. The context is also different here because the power being exerted pertains to religious life. Although there may be good reason to think about religious and political power being distinct in Nephite culture at this point in their history, the explicit class and economic relations being described here suggests at least some overlap, at least of a form of political power being exercised by the religious authorities in a peculiar way. The text here does not explicitly condemn this exercise of religious power, but it seems rather implicit (esp. if we are reading Mormon's hand at work here) that such practice is at least symptomatic of religious apostasy.
- Alma 32:3: Dross. Dross is defined in Webster's 1828 Dictionary as "The recrement or despumation of metals; the scum or extraneous matter of metals, thrown off in the process of melting." The third definition is even more telling, "Waste matter; refuse; any worthless matter separated from the better part; impure matter." This is clarified by other instances of the word in the Old Testament, where it is plain that what is to be cast out of the precious metals is lesser metals, metals that are common or cheap. "Dross" would thus seem not to refer, strictly speaking, to what is unnecessary, but rather to what is useful only for common, everyday kinds of things, tools and the like. Helpful as well, though more on the textual level, is the only other appearance of the word in the Book of Mormon: Alma 34:29, a verse that is part of this same discourse to the Zoramites (though it is Amulek who is speaking in chapter 34). Interestingly, it is not Alma but the historian who employs the word in this earlier instance, perhaps anticipating Amulek's later use (much like the instance of "the word of God" in verse 1 here). The literary effect is beautiful: while the rich Zoramites here already regard the poor Zoramites as dross, Amulek will assert that they can indeed become dross, but only if they are without charity, that is, if they become like the rich Zoramites. The two instances of the word thus work out a kind of reversal of the entire socio-political situation (it is interesting, in this regard, that the Zoramites are said, only verses earlier in Alma 31:24 to be focused on precisely these precious metals: silver, gold, etc.). One might also point out the hint of an impossible allusion to Mal 3:3, where the apostate priesthood at the temple (in the synagogue?) is to be purified as silver (this passage was not had, of course, among the Nephites until it was quoted by Christ in 3 Ne 24:3, though Nephi uses the language of Mal 4 in a number of places: might the Nephites have had a proto-Malachi text, or might Malachi have been drawing on some imagery—including this purification of the priesthood—to be found in a text common to him and the Nephites?).
- Alma 32:3: Things of the world. This phrase is used 16 times in LDS scripture according to this lds.org search. The usage of the term in the Book of Mormon often seems to be related to economic standing, but is not limited to that. For example, in 1 Ne 22:23, "the things of the world" are coupled with "eyes of the world" and "lusts of the flesh" (though it's not clear the extent to which that coupling represents similarity vs. a contrast). Alma 1:16 also uses "riches and honor" in describing those who "loved the vain things of the world" suggesting that honor might be included in the phrase "things of the world." Alma 4:8, in fact, explicitly mentions "riches" separately from "the things of the world." Thus, when "the poor" are not simply referred to as "the poor" but as "the poor as to the things of the world" here, it seems there is much more at work than simple "riches." For example, "the world" might be taken as a particular "place" (cf. 31:13, 21; 32:5, 22, 27-28; 34:26, 35, 38 etc.), but a place that is fallen, or corrupted (cf. the "gulf" in Lehi's dream of 1 Ne 12:18), that the poor are driven out of, perhaps not unlike Adam and Eve from the Garden (and once this link is considered, more might be thought about here in terms of the mobile tabernacle/temple among the Israelites as a world beyond the world, and yet within the world, and Alma admonition in verses 10ff).
- Alma 32:3: Poor in heart. This phrase is little used in the scriptures. The only other occurrence is 2 Ne 28:13. Understanding the meaning of this phrase then largely depends upon interpreting it according to its context here. Unlike humility, being poor in heart is not praised as a virtue—we don't see anything here which suggests we should strive to be poor in heart. Instead, poor in heart is a description of the feelings of these people, of the feelings that come to people who are "esteemed by their brethren as dross" (verse 3) and who, essentially, define themselves according to that view. This is not the same as the humility of Moses who recognizes that all mankind is nothing compared to God. Instead this is to see oneself as worthless in a world where there are two types of people--the elect and the worthless (Alma 31:17). Note that for the Zoramites, the act of praying in their synagogue is tied to their definition of election. This prayer may have been, in their view, the single ordinance necessary and sufficient for salvation. The downcast feelings of the "poor in heart" are the feelings of those who are prevented from taking part in that ordinance. Alma rejoices in their lowliness of heart only in so far as it leads them to humility and then repentance (verses 12-13). The phrase might be compared with a few other similar-sounding phrases that ultimately seem to be quite different in meaning:
|Poor in spirit||Poor in heart||Lowly in heart|
| Usage suggests it is a virtue
(a quality we should seek)?
|No|| Yes |
Matt 11:29, Alma 37:34
|Leads to something positive?||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Usage suggests something negative about it?||No||Yes||No|
| Other scriptures provide additional
insight to meaning?
- While the "therefore" that opens this verse makes perfect sense, the second "therefore" in the verse seems curious. It seems the most natural way to interpret the grammar here is in terms of the poor being poor because they were cast out of the synagogues. The meaning implied by this reading, however, runs counter to the way we would probably expect to read this verse. That is, it would seem more natural to read the causation the opposite way: the poor were cast out of the synagogues because they were poor. Possible interpretations include the following: (1) "Poor" in this case might be taken to mean "poor in heart." One criticism of this reading is that if this were indeed the intended meaning, then it seems curious that the last phrase of the verse, "poor in heart," has an explicit modifier, whereas the first use of the phrase does not. If this were the intended meaning, it seems this order should be reversed. (2a) "Poor" might be taken here as a condition imposed upon the poor by the gaze of the wealthy, as more of a social class, emphasizing the "socio" aspect of their socio-economic position, rather than their economic status. (2b) "Poor" might be taken as referring to the economic status of the poor and the reason the poor are poor is a result of their being relegated to a lower social class. (3) "Therefore" might be chalked up to a mistake in translation.
- Perhaps the first two of these possibilities (both variations of the second possibility) could be worked together in a single reading of the verse. While verse 2 states explicitly that the Zoramites in question were poor materially, this verse adds this curious phrasing that seems to suggest that their poverty is primarily a function of their relation to the Zoramite wealthy (it is the esteem of the others that renders them poor). This shift destabilizes the rather straightforward meaning of "poor" in verse 2 as part of a kind of movement towards the (also curious) phrase "poor in heart." This would seem to follow from the concluding "therefore they were poor as to things of the world [first meaning of "poor," displaced by the oddity of the grammar]; and also they were poor in heart [second meaning of "poor," replacing the first meaning by virtue of the odd grammar]."
- It would seem best, then, to understand "poor in heart" as a question of relation, as the way in which one is regarded, almost as a social construction (cf. the lexical note above on the phrase "poor in heart"). This careful phrasing—most likely on Mormon's part?—anticipates Alma's many caveats during the discourse in speaking of the humility of his audience: they are not to be praised for their humility, because it is a compelled humility, but God can still take advantage of such a situation.
- The flipside of this "poor in heart" business is also worth exploring: that the poor are poor because they are esteemed as filthiness, the rich are rich because they are esteemed as somehow clean. Such a correlation, of course, as it seems to be among the Zoramites, can all too easily be misconstrued: whoever has wealth is all too easily regarded as somehow righteous.
- Alma 32:4: Impoverished rebels seek a leader. Onidah was, or at least became within a few years, "the place of arms" (Alma 47:5). Given the military setting of the Zoramite city—and the likely military position of their "leader," Zoram—it seems best to understand Onidah to be a place of some military importance, perhaps the headquarters of the (as yet) Nephite military. That Alma is addressing an entire multitude there (verse 7 makes quite clear that a multitude of the wealthy were gathered listening to him) would appear, then, to be of some significance: Alma is probably making a political argument. Alma 32:1-3 suggests that he is worried the Zoramites who have separated themselves from the other Nephites may be disloyal and, therefore, pose a threat. He is presumably trying to persuade the rich and powerful Zoramites to remain part of the Nephite polity. Zoram, their leader (Alma 30:59; 31:1), is probably part of the audience, and he may be the same Zoram who succeeded Alma as the overall commander of the Nephite army. Like Alma himself, that Zoram led a successful campaign against the Lamanites (Alma 16: 5). While he deferentially sought council from Alma after succeeding him and appears to have been a righteous man, he may later have become the disgruntled leader of these breakaway Zoramites. If so, he would certainly not be the first successful general to become full of himself and feel he was not given his due following a great victory. So Alma is probably striving--not very successfully--to maintain the Nephite/Zoramite alliance as he addresses this multitude of the rich and powerful.
- This sudden appearance of a second multitude of the poor would, thus, represent a major disturbance, perhaps a planned one, given the rhetoric of the "foremost" among them in verse 5. Why have the poor and excluded come en masse to a place of arms and why do they appeal to Alma for an answer on what they should do? They probably know that Alma suspects the loyalty of the wealthy multitude that is at odds with the poor. And they are surely aware of Alma's great military exploits, of how he led the Nephite army in battle and defeated the formidable rebel leader Amlici (and the Lamanite king) in single combat (Alma 2:29 - 32). Alma's military and political stature would make him an ideal leader of any contemplated rebellion by the excluded, stigmatized Zoramite poor against the rich and powerful who oppress them. He is a hero whose banner they could rally to. Perhaps they intend to offer themselves as a force he can use to achieve his political objective by military means. Their rehearsal of their grievances prior to asking “what shall we do” lends support to this supposition. If that was their intention, they were probably surprised when Alma discounts their grievance and defuses the tension by telling them in 12 “it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues.”
- Alma 32:5: Despised. The word despised is also in the famous Isa 53:1 suffering servant passage (quoted in by Abinadi in Mosiah 14:3. Whether an intended allusion or not (the Zoramite poor do, after all, display some familiarity with scripture), the parallel suggested between the poor and Isaiah's suffering servant interesting (esp. since the first Zoram mentioned in the Book of Mormon was himself a servant, the servant of Laban—cf. 1 Ne 4:35). This rhetorical link might also suggest ways to think about the Zoramite poor as playing a savior role in subsequent history, either in the way the "craft" of "the more popular part of the Zoramites" was destroyed (Alma 35:8), or by viewing the exodus described in [[Alma 35:9]ff as a Isaianic remnant (is it possible their posterity were among Helaman's 2000 stripling warriors?), or by some other means in subsequent Zoramite/Lamanite history (Alma 43:4 tells us "the Zoramites became Lamanites," so perhaps the promises to the Lamanites are tied to a savior role the Zoramite poor end up playing).
- Alma 32:5: With our own hands. This phrase is used in Isa 2:8, as well as other passages in LDS scripture, in a negative context, referring to idolatrous worship of "work of their own hands." This statement may betray an underlying attitude among the Zoramite poor that is related to Alma's later accusation that, at least a good number of them, are compelled to be humble (cf. vv. 14ff).
- Alma 32:5: What shall we do? This exact phrase is used in Jacob 5:33 and Hel 5:40, as well as in verse 9 of this chapter. Other passages in LDS scripture where this exact phrase is found can be found here. It seems this phrase is typically used to describe those who are humbly seeking to learn the will of God or who are awaiting further light and knowledge. This phrase, in particular, seems to offer important first evidence of the humility had among the Zoramite poor.
- Alma 32:5: Place.Because the question raised by the Zoramite poor is grounded in precisely this question of place, and because Alma's response will effectively disengage this very question of place, a rather curious emphasis is placed on this word (see the exegesis below). Though it is unclear to what extent the Hebrew language may have still had any major effects on thinking, the Hebrew word mqwm is of some interest. It derives from qwm, meaning, quite basically, to rise or to raise (something) up. But this root is far richer as well: not only does it have reference to physical acts of rising up, it also frequently functions, in the command form, as a kind of call to attention; it often has reference to preparation (especially in military contexts); and it is a word of some importance in covenant renewal contexts (always as a confirmation, rather than an initiation, of the covenant). Place is thus, in Hebrew, determined or oriented by some kind of conscious activity: it issues from some kind of "unnatural" (vertical and hence spiritual, cultural, political, religious, etc.) movement.
- If one takes the apparent formality of the title "foremost" and the still more apparent formality of the term "brethren" in the appeal made to Alma, it becomes possible, perhaps, to detect a hint of formal organization on behalf of the poor here. Rather than being faced with hungry crowds who have suddenly united in their humility and so appealed to Alma, the text presents an organized, perhaps militant, group, one that makes its appeal with formal rhetoric and perhaps in a rather public, dramatic manner (while Alma is speaking, according to appointment, to the military elite).
- he fact that one person is explicitly mentioned as representing the group of people here seems to echo the organizational structure outlined in Mosiah 18:18 where there is one priest ordained to be in charge of "every fifty of their number." This, coupled with Jacob's description in Jacob 1:19 about the responsibility he felt, "answering the sins of the people upon [their] own heads," might point to a kind of mind set that carried over to the Zoramite poor of one person (typologically, the high priest) representing a group. Moreover, the one representative of the poor who is here petitioning on behalf of his brethren, seems to echo the covenant to "bear one another's burdens" given in Mosiah 18:8ff. The familiarity with scripture that Alma presupposes amongst the poor suggests that links to these previous teachings among the Nephites may not be wholly unfounded.
- The usually benign reading of the foremost Zoramite's words is perhaps unsettled by the inclusive/exclusive use of the phrase "our God" in this verse. It would seem that he is trying to draw—however subtle—a distinction between the god of the Zoramites and the God of Alma. If this strengthens the remarkably political, perhaps even Marxist, reading of this passage, it remains to be worked out to what extent this difference in gods is understood by the Zoramites to be of significance and to what extent Alma dismisses the difference entirely. This question is perhaps especially important given the political position gods had generally in the ancient world.
- The rhetoric of this verse really deserves extended attention: so much of the appeal and power of the group's representative is tied to the manner of his words. This is still more important given Alma's interpretation of these words: whatever is spoken in them, he understood them (or opportunistically took them) to be penitent in nature. What can be read into the rhetorical structure of this appeal?
- Alma 32:5: Behold. Because "behold" appears as often as it does in the scriptures and because of its relatively archaic character, it is too easy to miss the thrust of the word itself. When it appears in narrative contexts, the word carries much of the weight of the narrative movement, almost like an emphatic "and then, guess what happened!" Here, of course, it does not play a narrative part, though it remains quite as emphatic: in conversation, it has the power of a commanding formality. It is undeniably a kind of summons, a call to the other to see something. Like the more current, "Look," it would seem to imply that the person being summoned has not yet grasped the weight of something, has not yet considered everything that needs to be considered. And yet it has a formalism about it: the person who is told to behold is being summoned to an almost dramatic conversation or situation, is being asked to become a part of something at least formalistic in character.
- Alma 32:5: Place. Because of the emphasis that falls, ironically, on place in this broader situation, the weight of this word deserves some direct attention.
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- Alma 32:1: Yea. What is the significance of the "yea" in verse 1? Why does it separate the paired mention of synagogues and houses from the solitary mention of the streets? How does this anticipate or even interpret in advance the situation that is about to be presented to Alma?
- Alma 32:1-5: How should one read the fact that Alma and his companions are admitted into the synagogues to teach, while the poor class who actually built the synagogues are cast out. Is there an irony at work here?
- Alma 32:1-5: What should be read into the exclusion of the poor class from the act of worship? How is this political? How is this not political? We're they essentially excommunicated?
- Alma 32:1-5: What should be read into the imagery of silver and dross in verse 3? What does this image imply about natural and unnatural states? Do the Zoramites not understand the poor class to be somehow necessary?
- Alma 32:4: What kind of a setting is described in verse 4? How formal or official was this setting? How formal is the group that approaches him with their question?
- Alma 32:5: What is significant about the active thrust of the question asked to Alma in verse 5? That is, what should be read into the fact that the poor want to know what they should do? How might Alma take advantage of this kind of a question? How might such a question make it difficult for him to teach them what he would like to teach them?
- Alma 32:1-5: How should the ironic use of the word "abundantly" be understood, especially as it is paired with "labor"? Is one justified in reading Marxism into the rhetoric of the speaker?
- Alma 32:1-5: How should the question of "place" be read? What of a dialectics of inside and outside here, of the shade-haunted space that is the threshold of the synagogue? Again, how political or non-political is this theme?
- Alma 32:5: In verse 5 the poor tell Alma that they have no place to worship because they have been cast out of the synagogues. Alma 31:14 tells us that the Zoramites believed they had to go to the Rameumptom to worship. Why might the Zoramites' church leaders have wanted the people to believe that they they could only worship God on the Rameumptom?
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- Alma 32. See Alma 32, a post by Clark at his blog, Mormon Metaphysics. Note also the link to the pdf file of Jim F.'s notes on the chapter.
- Alma 32:1-6. Julie Smith's post and comments on Alma 32:1-6 at the Alma 32 Experimental e-Seminar in Mormon Theology
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