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Alma 5-16: Alma’s Ministry as High Priest
The next 11 chapters cover Alma’s ministry to people in territory controlled by the political regime he has headed as Chief Judge. As we clearly see in chapers 1 – 5 of the Book of Alma, there is a political divide in the land of Zarahemla. As the exegesis for Alma chapter 1 indicates, these political divisions substantially flow from the still incomplete melding of the Nephite and Mulekite peoples and political traditions. But it isn’t just in politics that the people are divided. In religion, too, there are multiple traditions competing for the people’s allegiance. This is most obvious in the conflict between Alma and Nehor. But there also appears to be a divide among the followers of Christ that Alma is attempting to close.
The Nephite/Mulekite peoples living in the land of Zarahemla are the beneficiaries of two separate restorations of the gospel of Christ. One occurred in the land of Zarahemla and came through King Benjamin (see Mosiah 3:1-22). The other occurred in the land of Nephi and came through Abinadi and then Alma the Elder (See Mosiah 15:1-9, 18:1-17). When the people of Zeniff returned to the land of Zarahemla, these two restorations came together. They coexisted with a measure of harmony that reflected the mutual respect between Alma the Elder, who headed the church of the Zeniffites, and King Mosiah, who headed the national religion in the land of Zarahemla. With the passing of Alma the Elder and Mosiah, Alma the Younger inherited the leadership of both groups.
It is apparent, however, that Alma now wants to give primacy to the restoration that occurred in the land of Nephi. He presumably has two reasons for doing this. He wants to confirm his own authority to lead the religion of the Nephites. His claim to that authority is stronger to the degree that the people look to his father and the Waters of Mormon as the wellspring of their religion. And now that he has resigned the Chief Judgeship, he heads a religion that is clearly separated from the state. That is the tradition of Abinadi and his father Alma, not of Mosiah. The upshot is that memorializing the founding of the church by Abinadi in Noah's court and by Alma at the Waters of Mormon will be an important theme in his ministry. And having established Abinadi as the principal founder of restored Christianity among the Nephites, Alma and Mormon will closely link Alma the Younger with Abinadi through multiple narrative parallels between Abinadi's mission in the land of Nephi and Alma's mission in Ammonihah. The links these parallels create between Abinadi and Alma serve to confirm Alma's authority to head the religion founded by Abinadi.
Alma’s ministry begins in Zarahemla where he gives a lengthy sermon that begins with a focus on the Zeniffite heritage of the church. The people of Zarahemla are a challenging audience, but they ultimately respond favorably to Alma’s preaching. He then goes to the land of Gideon where the Zeniffites settled. This is Alma’s home crowd, a righteous, friendly audience to whom Alma gives a sermon suitable for an already righteous people. In a very brief account, we then learn that the city of Melek also responded favorably to Alma’s preaching. Melek is probably mentioned, perfunctorily, because it serves as a third witness against hard-hearted, Nehorite Ammonihah, which will now violently reject Alma and his message much as Noah and his people rejected Abinadi. Mormon recounts in greatest detail this largely failed mission of Alma in which his experience most closely parallels that of Abinadi.
Alma 5: Alma's Sermon at Zarahemla
Under Benjamin and Mosiah, the people of Zarahemla had a state religion, which everyone was part of by virtue of their birth. The religion headed by the king was the religion of all. (Note Mosiah 5:2 where all the people cry aloud with one voice and make a collective covenant to be true to the state religion.) Alma the Elder, having seen the dangers of a national religion headed by the king in King Noah's realm, became persuaded that the religion should be separated from the state. He took a dim view of kings and persuaded Mosiah to share that view and abolish both the monarchy and the state religion insofar as membership was ascribed by virtue of birth rather than being individually chosen.
The freedom of religious belief announced by Mosiah upon his retirement opened a religious market where different faith systems could compete for adherents. The two dominant traditions in this contest appear to have been the religions established by Abinadi and Nehor. Alma begins this sermon by reminding the people that the roots of their faith are in the land of Nephi in the court of Noah where Abinadi testified and at the Waters of Mormon. Then with Nehor's doctrine of universal salvation as an implicit foil, Alma presents an argument cum testimony that salvation is not universal, that one must be born again and then endure to the end upon the path one has chosen under the influence of the spirit.
Alma is artful in his use of rhetoric in this semon. His principal rhetorical method throughout the sermon is to ask questions of his audience. Why does he do that? What does it accomplish? He is trying to motivate self examination, so he addresses the his audience, including us, in the second person as you. His questions seems to call for a response from those who hear him.
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Prompts for life application
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Prompts for further study
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- Alma 5: In this sermon Alma asks forty-five questions. Why do you think he uses questions to structure what he says?
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