Alma 4:1-20

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Home > The Book of Mormon > Alma > Chapters 4-7 > Chapter 4
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Summary[edit]

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Discussion[edit]

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  • Alma 4. Chapter 4 is a transitional chapter. In it, Alma makes the transition from functioning in Nephite society (and in the text) primarily as a civil and military leader to functioning primarily as a religious leader. This transition may be foreshadowed by the dual endings, secular then spiritual, of chapter 3 (see exegesis on Alma 3:25 and 3:27). Like those endings, Alma moves from the secular to the spiritual doman, from Chief Judge to full time High Priest, in this chapter.
A major theme in this chapter is the swift moral decline of the Nephite people, a decline that establishes the need for Alma to go on the preaching missions that are the focus of the ensuing chapters 5 - 15. The swiftness of the moral decline, the sudden transition from great righteousness to great wickedness may indicate that the narrative here and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon is conventional rather than strictly and empirically historical in its descriptions of the righteousness and wickedness of the people. The narrative frame tends to be Manichean, with sudden sharp transitions from great righteousness to great wickedness. While these passages no doubt reflect real changes in the degree of Nephite faithfulness, there is reason to believe that their righteousness in the good times and wickedness in the bad times are both somewhat exaggerated by the Manichean narrative conventions of Mormon and his sources.
  • Alma 4:1-2: What Alma has wrought politically. As the exegesis for Alma 1:11 - 15 indicates, Alma has not been an entirely successful politician. He seems to have mishandled the Nehor affair and may, thus, bear some responsiblity for the bitter war that is recounted in Alma chapters 1 and 2 and for the terrible plight of his people in verse 2 of this chapter. To be sure, there is no contention now, but the war just ended has been devastating. Verse 3 tells us that "every soul had cause to mourn." No one escaped the suffering engendered by this unfortunate war.
  • Alma 4:3: War caused by the wickedness of the people — or was it? The people believe that the war and their sufferings are a judgment of God because of their wickedness, but is this attribution valid? Read Alma 1:25-31 which describes the state of affairs in Zarahemla before the outbreak of the war. As the exegesis in this wiki for those verses indicates, this passage is one of the lengthiest descriptions of people living in perfect righteousness found anywhere in the Book of Mormon. It is hard to imagine a people less deserving of God's judgments than the Nephites described in that period just prior to the outbreak of this war. It is worth noting that Mormon says only that they believed their wickedness caused the war, not that it actually did.
This is probably an example of the human need for a narrative explanation of events that occur and an instance of seeing with the eye of faith (Alma 5:15). Like the apostles in Mark 14:19, these righteous Nephites ask, to their credit, "Is it I?" when calamity befalls them. They look for possible personal failings that might have occasioned their suffering. But far from validating their attribution of being themselves blameworthy, this pattern of thought is consistent with the righteousness described in 1:25 - 31 and is a further sign of it. While some of the blame for this war may be ascribable to Alma's mistakes as a politician, the bulk of the fault must rest with Amlici and his followers. Human beings are co-creators of this world in which we live. Not all that happens to us is God's doing or God's will. So while we should follow the example of these Nephites and closely inspect our behavior for any example of faithlessness or wickedness, we should also recognize that the agency of others will sometimes visit misery upon us.
This passage may explain why the Nephites are so often described as being morally fickle, as transitioning so easily from complete righteousness to utter moral degradation and visa versa. They have a strong instinct for seeking coherent narrative explanations for what happens to them, and their narrative conventions seem to include a Manichean assumption that they must be guilty of wickedness and abominations if something bad happens and must be people of sterling good character when somthing good happens. It is likely that the swings in their moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness are less violent than the Book of Mormon narrative implies. In other words, the story Mormon tells may sometimes be truer to Nephite narrative conventions than it is to empirical reality.
This instinct to seek narrative explanations for material good or bad fortune is not confined to the Nephites. Modern investors demand from the business press narrative explanations for why stock markets move up or down on a given day. Journalists accommodate this desire by providing narratives that attribute the movment to this announcement or that technical factor when, in fact, no one really knows what motivates most of the millions of buying and selling decisions that move markets from day to day. While reality is often complexly unintelligible, the human need for causal attribution means that people, ancient and modern, develop and accept narratives they can understand that explain what happened and why it happened even if the facts actually defy explanation.
This comment suggests that Mormon's accounts of utter moral transformation in Nephite society may sometimes be exaggerated by his narrative conventions and by his audience's need for clarity. A prophet’s narrative must be adapted to human nature if it is to benefit hearers or readers. A narrative may be pragmatically more true—may have more capacity to move people to be righteous—if it meets needs of the human mind for clear causality than if it describes an empircally more accurate series of random events that form no coherent narrative. While God has the capacity to fully know reality in all its complexity, the limitations of the human mind require of us that we often humbly settle for pragmatic rather than absolute truth as a guide for living our lives. Fortunately, when we are guided by the Holy Ghost, we can act in harmony with the absolute truth that God can know but we can't.
  • Alma 4:4: Contrasting symbolism of bodies immersed in the River Sidon. This verse echoes two previous sections of the Book of Mormon. The first echo is of Alma the Elder baptizing people at the Waters of Mormon (Mosiah 18:8 - 17). Here his son, Alma the Younger, renews the strength of the church founded by his father by again baptizing multitudes. Like his father, Alma the Younger is a collosal figure in Nephite history. This verse is a first sign of the spiritual power of Alma the Younger that will be revealed to us more fully in diverse settings, sermons, and personal communications to his children. This passage echoes the baptisms at the Waters of Mormon by direct parallel.
But the verse also echoes an earlier passage by contrast. In Alma 2:33-34 and 3:3 we also see Alma at the edge of the river Sidon putting bodies into the water, the bodies of his slain enemies. The enemies he casts into Sidon go under the water never to rise again. "Their bones are in the depths of the sea, and they are many" (Alma 3:3). The thousands Alma baptizes rise again to new life after their immersion while the enemies he immerses are lost forever. These contrasting passages thus symbolize the contrasting fates of those who support and oppose Alma, of those who keep the commandments of God and those who break them.
  • Alma 4:5: A golden moment. This verse describes a golden moment in Nephite history (not a golden age because there are none outside of 4 Nephi). Lots of baptisms, lots of peace. In short, the people are poised to experience a sudden and complete reversal.
  • Alma 4:6-8: The revenge of Nehor. In an article entitled "For the Peace of the People," Ryan W. Davis argues that King Mosiah's democratic reforms make the Nephites a formidable military power (see link below). They also seem to facilitate great material prosperity. Unlike King Noah's people who were "reduced" by taxes and other economic burdens (Mosiah 19:2), these Nephites are free to prosper. But in their prosperity, they become in their behavior followers of Nehor whom they had earlier rejected and defeated. Like him, they become full of pride and wear costly apparel (Alma 1:5-6). Alma's greatest political achievment was his defeat of the Nehorite Amlicites. But the people described in verses 6 and 8 sound like followers of Nehor, not of Alma. This is Nehor's revenge. Though Alma won the battle, Nehor is winning the war for the souls of those who rejected Amlici and, as an organization, the Nehorite religion. The irony of this is probably not lost on Alma. It may explain his great sorrow in verse 7.
  • Alma 4:8: The significance of "will and pleasure." The phrase "own will and pleasure" has special significance in the Book of Mormon. It is typically used to describe the exercise of God's agency. God is a being who rightly acts according to his will and pleasure. (See 2 Nephi 10:22, 25:22; Jacob 4:9, 5:14; Mosiah 7:33). The phrase is used one time to describe the acts of the Lamanite king (Alma 17:20) and one time by Laman and Lemuel to accuse Nephi of usurping authority that was not rightly his (1 Nephi 16:38). The only other use is in this passage. Here, the phrase suggests that the people of the church are deifying themselves, that they are aspiring to and presumptively assuming the status of God who rightly acts according to his will and pleasure and rightly judges others and visits punishments on them. These church members should be much more humble.
  • Alma 4:9-10: Conventional narrative and the importance of myth. In these verses, the people of the church are described as being more wicked than those who are not part of the church. One reading of this passage is to see it as reflecting a narrative convention, not the empirical reality of the people at that time. (See the exegesis on verse 3 above.) To be sure, these verses undoubtedly reflect real moral decline and forgetfullness, but is it really so complete in such a short period of time that those who were paragons a short time before are now the most base of men?
If these verses are to be taken literally, they make a strong statement on the importance of foundational myths. Given that Nephites now exhibit moral failings that exceed those of the Nehorite Amlicites and the Lamanites, why are these fallen Nephites rather than Lamanites or Amlicites still God’s chosen people? The answer must be that they continue to embrace the foundational myth of Nephites: that Nephi was a prophet and the rightful ruler, that his words and those of other prophets are binding. The Amlicites have adopted a variant of the Lamanites foundational myth: that Nephites are usurpers (of a Mulekite right to rule). Alma can still appeal to Nephites using scripture to persuade them that they are fallen. He can’t do that with Amlicites or Lamanites who have rejected the correct Nephite tradition. So we must distinguish between individual and cultural culpability. Individual Lamanites/Amlicites may now be superior to individual Nephites as these verses suggest, but Nephite culture remains superior to Amlicite/Lamanite culture. Salvation for any who are saved will occur within the Nephite tradition, so the Nephites remain the chosen people even though many individuals have not been true to their tradition.
  • Alma 4:11-14: Narrative Manicheanism. As the exegesis on verse 3 above indicates, there seems to be a Manichean convention in Nephite narrative. That convention is fully evident here. In verses 11 - 12, we see people who, though members of the church, are diabolically evil and untouched by any goodness. Then in verses 13 - 14, we see people who are angelically good and untouched by any evil. What we don't see are people who are trying to be good but fail because of weakness, who condemn themselves and try to repent but often relapse into sin, and yet, having true faith in Christ, repent again. In other words, people like us.
We do see this more recognizable type in Nephi's Psalm, 2 Nephi 4:26-29. Nephi's anguish at his own weakness may be the most important contributor to the power of that great piece of poetry. Nephi's narrative, on the other hand, is decidedly Manichean. Nephi is always good and Laman and Lemuel always bad. (The lack of nuance in Nephi's narrative might have been due to its political purpose [See the Larsen article linked below]). Nephi's Manichean narrative may have influenced subsequent Nephite historians, including Mormon, so the people in verses 11 - 12 are Laman and Lemuel analogs while those in 13 - 14 are analogs of Nephi.
  • Alma 4:12-14: Helping the poor. These verses represent a reversal of the process found in Alma 1:29-30. In Alma 1 Mormon chooses to highlight the temporal effects of the charity, that the members of the church became richer and more prosperous than those that did not belong to the church. In these verses he highlights their probably motivation for helping the poor, that these actions helped them retain a remission of their sins as taught by King Benjamin in Mosiah 4:26.
  • Alma 4:10-12, 13-14: Asymmetrical effects of good and bad examples. Verses 10–12 describe very wicked behavior on the part of church members and verses 13–14 very righteous behavior on their part. What is striking in this passage is that the bad example of church members is repeatedly described as strongly affecting surrounding unbelievers whereas the good example is not described as having any positive effect. This passage, therefore, seems to suggest that the effects of good and bad examples are asymmetrical, with bad effects outweighing good. Though it is not stated here, we know good examples do sometimes have good effects on nonmembers. It is nevertheless possible—judging from this passage—that wickedness in the Church has a more powerful effect for bad than goodness has for good, i.e., the example of good a Mormon is dominated by the example of a bad Mormon in the lives of non-members. If true, this is one point of advantage for Satan in the competition for souls.
  • Alma 4:16. At this time in the Book of Mormon the people are ruled by judges. As we can see from verse 16, judges had the power to enact laws in their government. The following phrase "according to the laws which had been given" suggests though that unlike the kings previous, there were restraints on how new laws could be enacted by the the chief judge.
Verse 16 also tells us that there was some form of democratic process was a part of the process. When Alma gives Nephihah power, he does it "according to the voice of the people."
  • Alma 4:16: Election by the nod. The government of the Nephites has a democratic element but is not a recognizable democracy in the modern sense. The best modern analogue may be the one party government of Mexico from the 1930’s to 2000 in which each successive president of the country selected his successor by giving him “the nod.” Here Alma, like Mosiah before him, selects his successor. In subsequent years, the Chief Judgeship comes either by the nod or by sons succeeding their fathers. It thus is closer to being a monarchy than a democracy in the modern sense, though the people do, at least in theory, have a check on the power of their ruler.
  • Alma 4:17. This is the first time that a '-hah' name is used in the Book of Mormon. The origin is an Egyptian suffix, meaning, 'eternal'. Much like we would call a child by our own name today, like Frank 'Junior', the Nephites sought to perpetuate the name of their first parent eternally. See also, for example, Shine-hah from the Book of Abraham, etc.
  • Alma 4:19: Preview of Alma's ministry. Verse 19 gives us a preview of the rest of Alma's life, as it is recorded in the Book of Mormon

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Prompts for life application[edit]

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Prompts for further study[edit]

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  • Alma 4:6-8: What do you make of the fact that wearing costly apparel is the sign of Nephite pride? To what could we compare this in our own day? The word “heresy” originally referred to something that created divisions in the Church. What does verse 8 tell us created divisions among the Nephites? What sorts of things are comparable today?
  • Alma 4:10: This verse tells us that the wickedness in the church became a stumbling-block for non-members. It is pretty easy to understand how that can happen. Verse 11 tells us that the wicked example of chuch members was leading unbelievers from one iniquity to another. Why did the wicked examples of church members lead unbelievers from one iniquity to another?
  • Alma 4:10-11: Shepherding. Verses 10-11 make a strong point about how our actions affect others. I'd love to see some deeper analysis of this point and/or at least cross-references to other passages that teach similar doctrine. For example, here are some related passages I'd like to look up when I get the time:
  • Cain asking "am I my brother's keeper?"
  • I'm thinking of at least one passage (Jacob in the BOM?) that says something to the effect of "if we didn't preach to them, we knew we'd be held accountable"
  • though not as directly related, verses related to the "where much is given much is required" (D&C 82 somewhere?) concept and how Lamanites are given more chances than Nephites b/c they were sinning against less light.
  • Matthew's recent comment about robbing the poor by not giving to them - those verses also suggest a very strong connection between our actions and their effect on others. (Again, this is only indirectly related and should probably be analysed on a user page or somewhere other than this commentary page.)
  • Alma 4:10-11: If the wickedness of the members is described as a stumbling block for nonmembers in v. 10, and in v. 11 we read that it lead the unbelievers on from one iniquity to another, should these be read as two separate points, or the same point stated differently? Are nonmembers and unbelievers the same people? Is the stumbling block something different than the leading to iniquity? As the question is currently worded, it suggests the stumbling block is easy to understand but the leading to iniquity isn't, suggesting two different notions (unless you are trying to emphasize the how vs. the why...). Any thoughts on that difference?
  • Alma 4:12-13: What kind of inequality begins to come among the people? What causes it? How is that inequality related to the sins we saw described in verses 6 and 8?
  • Alma 4:18: When Alma said that he "delivered" the judgment-seat to Nephihah, does that mean that it was a sort of calling or was it a responsibility? Is it like the church today that some teachers who teach Seminary are called to do so and others have to go through college to get paid to do so?
  • Alma 4:19: What does the last part of this verse suggest we must do if we wish to see peace in the world? How is this related to Alma’s teaching in Mosiah 18:9? Does Alma here imply that other things are unnecessary? This verse suggests that testimony has a saving power, not only in heavenly, but also in temporal things. How can that be?

Resources[edit]

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Notes[edit]

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