Alma 3:1-27

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Home > The Book of Mormon > Alma > Chapters 1-3 > Chapter 3 / Verses 3:1-27
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Summary[edit]

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Discussion[edit]

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  • Alma 3:1-2: Artful representation of suffering and death. In verse 1, Mormon artfully emphasizes the magnitude of the destruction and the magnitude of the task of burying the Nephite dead through the form of his sentence. He starts with the burial of the dead--which is interrupted by an extended statement that there were countless corpses--with the burials continuing after the interruption. In other words, he brackets an interjection that repeats the word number three times to emphasize how many dead there were with phrases that describe the burial of those dead. The sentence highlights the large number of people who were buried over an extended period of time by bracketing the unnumbered dead by phrases discussing their burial. The burying starts before and is still going after the long interjection about the countless number of the dead.
Mormon then artfully manages our emotions to bring the devastation home to us. After describing the sad burial, Mormon shifts to the language of joy: "they all returned to their lands, and to their houses, and their wives, and their children." These Nephite soldiers have survived. They are returning to hearth and home. They will have the experience every soldier dreams of during battle, a safe return to the arms of their wives and children. Except that they won't. The next sentence is devastating: "Now many women and children had been slain with the sword...."
These devastating verses make a critically important point about miracles—they do not fully protect us from great loss and pain. The victory of the Nephites is miraculous. They have defeated enemies as numerous as sands of sea. But they have also suffered unnumbered losses of their own, including many innocent non-combatant women and children. While God sometimes intervenes to protect us, his interventions never remove all pain and suffering from our lives. In part, this is because we are the co-creators of this world who get to choose what kind of world we and others will live in (see exegesis of verse 19). God respects our agency to choose for good and ill with real consequences for ourselves and others. To set aside those consequences would be to deprive us of our agency. (See exegesis on Alma 1:4, Nehor's doctrine and the War in Heaven.)
  • Alma 3:3: Death with honor and dishonor. As with Alma 2:38 (see exegesis), this verse is designed to illustrate the fate of those who fight against God by fighting against his righetous people. Mormon and his sources drive home the dishonor of Lamanites who were cast into Sidon (Alma 3:3) or had their bones piled up (Alma 2:38) by highlighting the respectful burial of the bodies of the Nephite honored dead (Alma 3:1). So while war and disaster are bad for the righteous, they are worse for the wicked who, in aggregate, suffer more than the righteous and lack the consolations of faith if they survive.
  • Alma 3:4-19: Sociologcial Seam in the text. This section constitutes a seam in the text. A seam is an insertion that breaks the thread of a narrative to provide background or other information. Often, the inserted material appears to have been added after the fact and can be deleted without a trace, i.e., no one would know it had ever been part of the text because it is not an integral part of the narrative. Mormon here breaks the narrative thread and provides sociological context much as Nephi broke the continuity of his narrative with Nephi's Psalm, another seam in the text, that artfully comments upon the narrative with a lyrical lament for Nephi's personal weakness in that moment of family dissolution (2 Nephi 4:10 - 35). Here, the sociological seam provides background on the three combatant groups, with special attention to how the new group, the Amlicites, relates to the now familiar Nephites and Lamanites. In its structure, this passage is analogous to the artful first sentence of this chapter. It contains a seam within a seam. The discussion of the Amlicites seam brackets the discussion of the Nephites and Lamanites seam just as the act of burying bodies brackets the countless corpse interjection. Structure aptly mirrors meaning in this passage, for the Amlicites combine attributes of Nephites and Lamanites, the two groups they bracket. The Amlicite bracket is found in verses 4 and then 13 - 19. The review of the controversies between Nephites and Lamanites is the bracketed content in verse 5-12. By strucuring the seam in this way, Mormon signals that discussion of controversies between the Nephites and Lamanites is really about Amlicites.
  • Alma 3:5-12: Competing cultures and foundational myths. The Nephites and Lamanites have developed two competing cultures that are disinct in their clothing, grooming norms, modes of ornamentation, religion, and foundational myths. These verses summarize the differences between the cultures, with the summary being inflected by the Nephite point of view. The contrasts are as follows, in each case putting the Nephite value first, Lamanite second: shaved/unshaved head, covered/uncovered body, and light/dark complexion (possibly because of unshaved and covered versus shaved and uncovered bodies). The most important difference, however, is in their religion and foundational myths. The Nephites hold to the religion handed down to them in the Brass Plates and the Christian teachings of Lehi and Nephi. The Lamanites hold to a religion of their own devising. The Nephite foundational myth holds that Nephi had the right to rule Lehi's family because his righteousness led to God's explicit endorsement of his leadership. The Lamanites have rebelled against that legitimate leadership. The Lamanite foundational myth holds that Laman had the right to rule as the eldest son. Laman and Lemuel rightly sought to destroy the usurper, Nephi, who stole the Brass Plates and other symbols of sovereignty afer Lehi died.
  • Alma 3:4, 13-18: Amlicite mix of Nephite and Lamanite attributes. The Amlicites have grown up in the culture of the land of Zarahemla. In their dress, grooming, complexion, and other cultural attributes, they resemble the Nephites. Since they look so much like Nephites, they put a mark upon themselves, red paint on their foreheads, that links them to the Lamanites and becomes the mark of their curse. The important point Mormon makes in the structure of his narrative is that the real divide among the people is what foundational myth they embrace. When Nephites became kings over the combined Nephite and Mulekite peoples, the Amlicites embraced the Nephite foundational myth (while also learning more about David, their own royal progenitor from the Brass Plates that the Nephites brought with them). Now that the Nephite monarchy has ended, the Amlicite rebels, it appears, want to reestablish a Davidic monarchy with Amlici as king. They now view the Nephites as usurpers. In other words, they have embraced a foundational myth that is aligned with that of the Lamanites because both frame the Nephites as usurpers of legitimate authority. Having a compatible myth, Amlici allied himself with the Lamanites to overthrow what both groups perceive to be Nephite usurpers.
  • Alma 3:8: Assumption of asymmetrical potential for conversion. The reasoning in verse 8 seems flawed. There seems to be an implicit assumption that conversion runs only one way. Only Nephites have the power to choose between belief and unbelief. The Lamanites must be marked to keep them separate from the Nephites because when they mix, the Nephites become Lamanites rather than the other way around. But why should that be? The people of Ammon and the Lamanites who later respond to Nephi and Lehi demonstrate that Lamanites can become Nephite in their beliefs and culture. They, too, have the power to choose. Thus, the idea of the mark seems unnecessarily defensive. Most troubling is the idea that dark complexion is the mark, that darker skin is somehow associated with unbelief. But verse 4 indicates that the mark and race are not the same thing. The Amlicites do not differ from tne Nephites racially but are nevertheless marked as being one with the Lamanites now that they have adopted a similar foundational myth. While the often implicit assumption in Nephite discourse that Lamanites are incorrigible, that only Nephites are moral agents, is ill founded, the mark of the curse may nevertheless have practical spiritual value. As the liken unto us exegesis below indicates, those who are weak in faith do need to separate themselves from those who bear the mark and its associated curse. On the other hand, those who are very strong in the faith should gravitate to the lost souls who bear the mark and curse as, e.g., the sons of Mosiah do in chapters 17 - 27
  • Alma 3:4, 8-10: Likening the mark and cursing unto us. What is relevance of this section on marks and cursing to our time? Do we have marks? Do we have a cursing? We do. The markings of our day are piercings, tattoos, the goth look, and almost all extreme styles of dress and grooming and music and dance. The cursing that follows the adoption of these styles is separation from God and his people. If we, or more typically, our children adopt the styles of the world in dress and comportment, we or they will in most cases ultimately move away from the faith. This is partly a function of natural social dynamics. Adopting dress, grooming, and behavioral norms that differ from those typical among the saints reflects and intensifies alienation from the Lord's chosen people. When our dress and grooming are outre, faithful people will naturally tend to distance themselves from us. In some cases--e.g., if our deviations reflect a need for friendship and acceptance--they probably shouldn't withdraw, and the best of them won't. After all, their Lord was found among the publicans and sinners, not joining but saving them. In other cases--e.g., when our deviation reflects defiance, hostility, a desire to leave the kingdom and drag others down with us--they probably should withdraw unless they are themselves very strong in their faith. Young people, in particular, who are just beginning to build their own testimonies need to be cautious about associating closely with those who bear the marks of the world and their associated curse of separation from God and his people.
  • Alma 3:11: Foundational myths and ethnic identity. Whether people are Nephite or Lamanite is a function of the foundational myth they embrace. While there are other markers, the one that matters in the end and determines their long-term identity is the story of origin that they accept. See also Jacob 1:13-14.
  • Alma 3:12: True and false myths. Mormon indicates in this verse that the Nephites tell the true story of both the Nephites and Lamanties. He warrants the truth of the Nephite and denies the truth of the Lamanite foundational myth. While the truth or falsity of a foundational myth is worth knowing, it doesn't affect the social function of the myth. Myths define a people's sense of self and their social cohesion. The resentments of the Lamanites are stoked just as much by a false myth as they would have been by a true myth.
  • Alma 3:14-17: Source of quotation. These verses quote a revelation given by God to Nephi. This revelation is not found in Nephi's writings in the Small Plates. It must have been taken from the Large Plates.
  • Alma 3:15: Meaning of mingling. What does it mean to mingle one's seed with the Lamanites? The most likely meaning is to adopt the foundational myth handed down by Laman and Lemuel rather than that handed down by Nephi. It probably doesn't mean marriage. Mingling with the people of Ammon would anchor one more fully in Nephite culture given their deep faithfulness.
  • Alma 3:17: The Nephites yet live and walk among us. The Nephite people were not entirely extinguished in 400 A.D. and can never be extinguished while any descendant of Lehi or Nephi believes in the Book of Mormon. This fact is implicit in verse 17 and is made quite explicitly in Jacob 1:13-14. Those who depart from the faith cease to be Nephites (as the Amlicites here illustrate) regardless of their bloodline. Conversely, those who have some trace of the blood of Lehi or Nephi and who embrace the foundational myth of the Nephites, e.g., those who believe the Book of Mormon which articulates that foundational myth, become Nephites by virtue of those beliefs. They inherit the birthright of Nephi. As the Lord promised Nephi, they will be blessed henceforth and forever as Nephi himself has been blessed. Thus, members of the Church who have a Native American heritage should not be called Lamanites. They should be called Nephites. See discussion of verses 11 and 12 above.
  • Alma 3:19: Powerful statement of the Law of Justice. Verse 19 is theologically profound. It is a pithy statement of one of the two most fundamental laws of moral universe: the law of justice. Any eternal cursing that comes upon us is the natural consequence of our actions. We get what we have chosen. This verse provides a solid foundation for theodicy--for dealing with the problem of evil in the world. In the end, it is we, not God, who are responsible for the evils we and others suffer in this world. We create those evils by our choices. Even random natural disasters may be necessitated by human evil because they complicate the calculations of the natural man, situating him always on the edge of eternity and in the aggregate probably lessening the sum total of suffering that would exist if the natural man was not constrained by an awareness of his own contingent mortality which can elicit salutary fear of God.
This verse sheds light on the cursing of the Lamanites and Amlicites. Their differentiation and separation from the people of God is self inflicted. The red mark that both Lamanites and Amlicites put on their foreheads is clearly a self inflicted mark of the curse. They willfully mark themselves as being at odds with those who hold to the true religion and the valid foundational myth. Indeed, the grooming and clothing choices of the Lamanites mentioned in verse 5 may explain their darker skin, which may be a natural consequence of greater exposure to the sun.
The principle of justice that is articlated in this verse is applied in verse 26.
See exegesis on Alma 1:4, Nehor and the War in Heaven, and exegesis on verses 3:1-2 above.
  • Alma 3:20-24: The denouement of Alma's political career. This second great battle--what seems to have been the decisive battle for it is the one that ushers in a period of peace--gets little attention. The most prominent person in the passage is one who doesn't go up to battle--Alma. This is a lineage history with Alma as its focus. Since he didn't participate in this battle, it is ipso facto less important than the previous battle reported in such detail in 2:11 - 38. The passage devotes more attention to Alma's act of sending out a numerous army than to the great battle that ensued.
Alma’s wound and non-participation in this battle may have been included as a symbol that foreshadows his resignation from his political role as Chief Judge and war leader. Alma the politician has been wounded and will be less active. Alma the politician will give way to Alma the Prophet and High Priest who takes up his full time ministry in chapter 4.
  • Alma 3:26: Echo of Benjamin's great discourse. This verse echoes King Benjamin in Mosiah 2: 32, "But, O my people, beware lest there shall arise contentions among you, and ye list to obey the evil spirit, which was spoken of by my father Mosiah." The stakes in this verse are the same as those in Benjamin's valedictory sermon. The principle of justice that is so well articulated in verse 19 is applied in this verse.
  • Alma 3:25, 27: Dual endings--secular and spiritual--of the passage. Sections in this part of the Book of Mormon often end by stating in what year of the reign of judges the events occurred. This section of the book (and this chapter) are unusual in having two standard endings instead of the usual one. The first ending occurs in verse 25: "all these wars and contentions were commenced and ended in the fifth year of the reign of the judges." The second occurs in verse 27: "And thus endeth the fifth year of the reign of the judges." Why was it necessary to mention twice that these events occurred in the fifth year of the reign of judges? The reason for the two endings is that they offer different readings of the same event. The first is a secular/temporal ending of the war, with the soldiers returning home in 24 and the summative statement of the date in 25. The second is a spiritual/eternal reading of the same events, with tens of thousands of souls returning to their eternal home and facing final judgment, with the summative statement of the same date in 27. Once again, Mormon is artful in his recounting of content from his sources.

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  • Alma 3:14-18: How do these verses understand the mark put on the Lamanites and others? How do you reconcile these verses with verses such as 2 Ne 5:21-24? How do you reconcile the fact that in vv. 14-16 the Lord says he will put a mark on certain groups of people and v. 18 tells us that the people put the mark on themselves?

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