Alma 1

 


MDC Contents

   

Alma 1:1

1  Now it came to pass that in the first year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, from this time forward, king Mosiah having gone the way of all the earth, having warred a good warfare, walking uprightly before God, leaving none to reign in his stead; nevertheless he had established laws, and they were acknowledged by the people; therefore they were obliged to abide by the laws which he had made.

Textual: Mormon begins a new book. Even though the book is new, Mormon is abridging the information. We may presume that he is following the gross organization of the plates, and that this shift in named books was present on the original plates from which Mormon is taking his record.

The shift from the book of Mosiah to the Book of Alma appears to hinge on the shift in the nature of the government. The ending of Mosiah is: “Mosiah 29:47 And thus ended the reign of the kings over the people of Nephi; and thus ended the days of Alma, who was the founder of their church.” Similarly, this first verse of Alma begins with the marking of years that now date from the establishment of the reign of the judges.

As was noted previously, the division of books appears to be something that Mormon retains from the original plates rather than something that reflects his own conceptual divisions of the information. The most probable reason for the change of names to date has been a dynastic record. Had we the original 116 pages, we would apparently have the Book of Lehi followed by the Book of Mosiah. This shift would have come because of the dynastic shift that followed the flight of Mosiah I from the land of Nephi.

In the Book of Alma we have another type of new beginning. This one is not properly a dynastic change, but a shift from one type of government to another. Nevertheless, it is conceptually the same type of major change as the dynastic shift that created the new book of Mosiah after the book of Lehi. We have the book of Alma because he is the first high judge of the new governmental order.

Social: When the people of the land of Zarahemla agreed to abandon kingship for the rule of judges they were signaling a major change in their understanding of their relationship to those who ruled over them. One of the ways they used to emphasize this complete change in their social structure was to accompany this new government with a completely new count of years. Rather than continue with the count of years since the departure from Jerusalem, they begin a completely new count that dates years from the first year of the reign of the judges. According to the Nephite-year-to-modern-year correlation used in this commentary, the reign of the judges begins in 92 BC.

The social implications of resetting the year should not be missed. There was no compelling reason for the people of Zarahemla to change the way they ordered their conception of time. Nevertheless, they made a change so complete as to discard a mode of counting years and establish a new one. Such calendric manipulations are not made upon whimsy, as the way years are conceived partially orders our perception of the world. In the modern world, the division of time into BC and AD reflects the Western importance of Christianity. Even though that change in accumulating years came later than the event, it nevertheless signaled the importance relegated to that event.

For the people of Zarahmela, their change was timed to a particular event, and the shift similarly signaled the tremendous change they had made in totally discarded a mode of rulership. It would be even more significant in the context of their world, because they would be accumulating years very differently than any of their neighbors. Even though they had already had a different mode of accumulating the years, that mode provided sufficient history to at least conceptually parallel their neighbors (at least as we understand from the later monuments giving a Maya calendric system with a very ancient origin date). This new organization was emphasized as a difference from other Mesoamerican societies by their alteration of the calendar.

Unique calendars were no surprise in Mesoamerica. Even among similar linguistic groups, the calendars could have differences, including different starting dates. For more information, an early but still excellent sourcebook is Alfonso Caso’s Los Calendarios Prehispanicos. Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. 1967.

Mosiah the Lawmaker: Verse one very specifically notes Mosiah as a giver of law: “…he had established laws…” Nevertheless, Mosiah seems to indicate that laws already exist, and that, at least conceptually, kings and laws may also be part of the same governmental order:

Mosiah 29:22-25

22 For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

23 And he enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness.

24 And now behold I say unto you, it is not expedient that such abominations should come upon you.

25 Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.

Mosiah is first proclaiming against an evil king. Note that Mosiah expects that even an evil king will enact laws (verse 23). Very specifically, Mosiah clarifies that the basic laws they should use were those that had already been in place: “the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” Thus Mosiah does not appear to be a lawgiver in the sense of one who creates brand new laws.

In what sense, then, should be understand Mosiah as a lawgiver, since beginning with the book of Alma he will be considered to be the originator of law? What Mosiah did was to shift the ultimate responsibility for correct decisions from the person of the king to the rule of law. Law replaced the king as the method of determining the basis for judgment. Thus Mosiah is properly the giver of the law because it was he who elevated the existing laws to their new cultural prominence. The reign of the judges would have been impossible without the elevation of law, because there would have been no measuring stick against which to judge.

Nephite Culture at the beginning of the reign of the judges: It is appropriate at this new beginning point in Nephite history to recap the nature of Nephite society at the beginning of this new era. Zarahemla has risen to some prominence in the region, with multiple dependent towns and/or hamlets. These towns and hamlets would be some distance away from Zarahemla and have their own populations that farmed surrounding areas. The existence of seven churches in the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 25:23) suggests that there were at least six dependent towns/hamlets, with one of the churches located in Zarahemla proper.

Assuming typical Mesoamerican patterns, Zarahemla is the central city, with the largest public architecture. The dependent towns would be larger and smaller, depending upon how they were populated. The larger ones would have their own center with some public buildings. The association with Zarahemla was elective, not forced. There is no indication that Zarahemla supported a standing army to enforce its laws over the dependent cities.

The cohesiveness of the communities that made up the land of Zarahemla was retained by a common participation in a cultural set of ideas that were mutually beneficial. During the reign of the kings, this would have included the common belief in the divine investiture of the king, as religion and politics would have been virtually inseparable. However, Mosiah had already begun creating a separation between conceptual religion and political power when he appointed Alma as the head of the collection of churches.

The social and political climate was rather fragile throughout the Zarahemla period. Beginning with our first clear indication of internal strife in the reign of Benjamin (see Words of Mormon 1:12-17) the undercurrent of dissention never appears to completely leave Zarahemla. Mosiah II and Alma the Elder deal with religious contention that is termed “persecutions” and even the children of these stalwart men are part of the contentions and persecutions.

Thus on the eve of the reign of the judges, Zarahemla society is a collection of independent locations who have accepted governance from Zarahemla. Among the people in the “land” of Zarahemla are many who have different ideas about God and probably about economics (which was another long-standing issue that resurfaces frequently). The centralized control of these independent towns with perhaps differing ideas was weakened first by the split between king and church during the establishment of the churches. The reign of the judges had now altered the political organization to where it is probably that each community has its own judge to whom it looks, with the overarching control resting in the chief judge. This situation further separates and disperses the decision making and government, increasing the power of the local judges and decreasing the cultural vision that pushed to see a single person as the embodiment of their government. While there are years of peace, this combination of long-simmering contentions and an organizational structure that decentralized power, and therefore increased independence will come to cause even greater problems for Zarahemla.

Historical; the Maya World around the time of the reign of the judges:

Mesoamerican archaeology divides the time periods of Maya culture into various stages, which do not precisely overlap with the major events in Book of Mormon history, since the periods are described by general cultural developments. The particular time period of the events at the end of the reign of Mosiah II and the beginning of the reign of the judges falls into the Late Preclassic Period, roughly dated from 400 B.C. to A.D. 250. John S. Henderson provides a general picture of the overall world into which the Book of Mormon might plausibly be placed at this point in time:

“Although some parts of the Maya world—mostly in the highlands—were firmly tied into the economic networks and related patterns of interaction of the Olmec world, centered to the west on the Gulf Coast, most early Maya communities, especially in the lowlands, were small, simple, egalitarian vil­lages. By the end of the Middle Preclassic period, after 500 B.C., communities like Mirador were be­ginning to reflect a new developmental trajectory. Jewelry and other goods made from exotic raw ma­terials indicate increasing prosperity, expanded eco­nomic ties to distant regions, and sharper differences in wealth and social status; large—scale, elaborately decorated public buildings reflect the emergence of powerful permanent leaders, chiefs or kings. These trends continued and intensified during the Late Preclassic period, setting the fundamental patterns of Classic—period Maya city—states.

The most distinctive features of political art and propaganda that would typify Maya states of the Classic period appeared first at Abaj Takalik and other towns in the highlands, the adjacent piedmont and coastal zones, and throughout the Intermediate Zone. Stelae with relief carving that depicted rulers in elaborate dress, studded with emblems of their office, also bore hieroglyphic texts recording their names, biographical details, and great deeds in the context of the Long Count calendar (Fig. 5-4). Standing before public buildings, often paired with altars, these monuments reinforced the power of the lords both by highlighting their genealogical and su­pernatural connections and by celebrating the fact of their offices. Some aspects of this dynastic politi­cal art can be found in towns scattered across the Maya lowlands, where it would reach its full elabora­tion, in the Late Preclassic period. But there is no evidence of the full pattern – notably, monuments with texts that include Long Count dates – until the Classic period.” (Henderson, John S. The World of the Ancient Maya. Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 87-88).

The description of the general trend of civilization in this part of the world provides an fascinating backdrop for the events of the Book of Mormon during this period. This period sees, archaeologically, an increase in the development of kingship and attendant rites and public architecture. The Book of Mormon is similarly interested in kingship – and there appears to be an undercurrent of comparison between the Nephite kings in Zarahemla and unnamed other kings (see Mosiah 2:12-13).

Even more important for our understanding of the pressures that seem to erupt in the Book of Mormon is the increasing emphasis on wealth and social divisions that are seen archaeologically. These are the very same pressures that continue to plague the egalitarian Nephite ideals, as we have seen.

Alma 1:2

2  And it came to pass that in the first year of the reign of Alma in the judgment-seat, there was a man brought before him to be judged, a man who was large, and was noted for his much strength.

Alma 1:3

3  And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.

How rapidly the threats to the unity of Zarahemla begin. In the very first year of the reign of the judges, some of the principles upon which the larger community rested were called into question. This begins the incident of Nehor, a name that will last longer than this particular incident. Certainly this incident was important for Mormon because Nehor created a challenge to the church, and Mormon’s clear purpose is to demonstrate the continuity of the principles of God throughout all attempts against them by man.

In the more historical sense, however, we need to ask ourselves why Nehor was brought to be judged. The fact that he was brought for judgment suggests that some, if not many, thought that Nehor violated some type of community law. Our question will be what type of law he might be violating, and what the nature of his crime was. While the most likely cause for having him brought before the judge was the death of Gideon (Alma 1:9-10), what is most fascinating is the amount of time spent on his other crimes.

One of the first things that is perhaps important in the case of Nehor is Mormon’s description of him. Nehor is “large, and was noted for his much strength.” Since Mormon certainly could not have known Nehor personally, this is very obviously information contained on the plates that Mormon used as a source. Amidst all of the other things said about Nehor, why did the ancient writer include the information that he was large and noted for strength?

While we cannot be certain what the reasons were, it is probable that this description was intended to help us understand why Nehor was successful. Even today we note the taller people faster than those of more normal height. Even today we note the more athletic much faster than those who are of lesser build. For a man to be noted for size and strength in an ancient world where much work was manual labor suggests that he was stood out over and above the average working man, not simply over the pampered nobleman. Apparently Nehor had a physical presence that was notable, and probably admired. For the ancients as well as our modern world, there are values we attach to physical good looks, and Nehor apparently had a physical charisma that apparently matched by his personal charisma (as will be seen).

In verse 3 we get the very first indication of the nature of the “problem” of Nehor. While his most egregious crime will be noted in verses 9 and 10, the beginning of the case against him starts with Nehor’s attack on the nature of Nephite priesthood (as an organization, not a power). Rather than the egalitarian priests of Benjamin and Mosiah, Nehor was preaching a professional priesthood. We will hear that he also had some doctrinal differences, but Mormon’s very first concern (likely taken from the original plates) was for the conflict between the lay and professional priesthood. As we work our way through his case, note how often it is this type of problem and not the murder of Gideon that is described.

Alma 1:4

4  And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

Here we have a doctrinal statement. We have Nehor preaching to the members of the church, and he is preaching salvation. In this brief discussion of Nehor’s preaching, the most important is the phrase “for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men…” First, note that we have the Lord creating all men. This is the task of Jehovah, the God of Israel (and the Nephites). At this point, we must also remember the nature of Abinadi’s argument before the priests of Noah. Abinadi preaches:

“Mosiah 13:27-8

27 And now ye have said that salvation cometh by the law of Moses. I say unto you that it is expedient that ye should keep the law of Moses as yet; but I say unto you, that the time shall come when it shall no more be expedient to keep the law of Moses.

28 And moreover, I say unto you, that salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law of Moses.”

Abinadi was preaching to the priests of Noah who were denying the need for an atoning Messiah. Abinadi’s Messiah was yet in the future, but was to be the source of redemption and salvation for man. Nehor is picking up on this critical issue of redemption, but notes that Jehovah (the Lord who has created everything) has already redeemded mankind. Nehor is preaching that salvation has already occurred, and that it is currently available to all. Abinadi preached that salvation was in the future person of the atoning Messiah, that “god himself” who would come down and atone for sin.

Another important aspect of Abinadi’s preaching was the more narrow application of salvation; not all would be saved:

“Mosiah 15:11-12

11 Behold I say unto you, that whosoever has heard the words of the prophets, yea, all the holy prophets who have prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord—I say unto you, that all those who have hearkened unto their words, and believed that the Lord would redeem his people, and have looked forward to that day for a remission of their sins, I say unto you, that these are his seed, or they are the heirs of the kingdom of God.

12 For these are they whose sins he has borne; these are they for whom he has died, to redeem them from their transgressions. And now, are they not his seed?”

Nehor is directly contradicting this aspect of Abinadi’s preaching of the atoning Messiah. What Nehor is doing is bringing into Zarahemla some of the essential heresies into which the priests of Noah had fallen. How ironic that so soon upon the death of Alma the Elder the very things he had preached prior to his conversion by Abinadi would enter the Zarahemla community!

Historical: Where does such a disruptive man come from? The simplest answer is that he comes from the land of Zarahemla. However, there is a possibility that more is communicated through his name. Nehor was the main city in the land of Nehor described in the Book of Ether (Ether 7:4,8). Thus Nehor is a Jaredite name. Nehor appears to be old enough that his naming would have preceded Mosiah’s translation of the record of Ether (recorded in Mosiah 28:11-18). Had he been named after the translation, we might suppose that he could have been named for the city because of the translation. Since this does not appear to be the case, he must have received his name through some other connection to the Jaredite culture and lands.

While a name in and of itself does not clearly indicate an affiliation, it is likely that Nehor’s differences in religion have something to do with outside influences coming from the Jaredite regions. In this time period in Mesoamerica, the Olmec influence (the Olmec living at the time of the Jaredites, and the Jaredites likely living in the lands of the Olmec) had waned. Nevertheless, there were still cultural remnants that pushed south as the more “pure” Maya culture pressed north. In the borderlands between the two there was known interaction of the cultural influences. The location of Zarahemla places it in one of these border zones where such influence would be possible.

Once again, we cannot tell for certain more than that Nehor carries a Jaredite name, but it is possible in both time and space for his family to be influenced by the remnants of the Olmec culture. That culture held many beliefs that would be contrary to the Nephite religion, and the nature of priests among the Olmec would be much closer to what Nehor preached. It is an interesting possibility.

Alma 1:5

5  And it came to pass that he did teach these things so much that many did believe on his words, even so many that they began to support him and give him money.

In the ancient context in which this commentary is suggesting the Nephites lived, it is not coincidental that both the priests of Noah and Nehor are connected with both the rejection of the atoning Messiah and a paid priesthood. In the cultural context, these ideas would have been available in the surrounding cultures, albeit the doctrines were modified so that they would be more easily acceptable to people who held to the fundamentals of the law of Moses. The connection between priesthood and elitism was unmistakable in Mesoamerica, and was an obvious facet of Noah’s court. It is now described as happening again. This is not a case of independent invention, but rather of reintroducing a model with which they were well acquainted, and perhaps even envied. Nehor was able to package the beliefs of the world in a way that it allowed the Nephites to presume that they could have the best of both worlds – the religion of their fathers and trappings of the world that they probably envied.

Translation: This verse contains a clear translation error. The people of Zarahemla clearly provided Nehor support so that he did not have to work, but Joseph Smith translated this support as “money.” The use of money as a medium of exchange was not known in Mesoamerica. Even though the original Nephites would have known of money, it is unlikely that they would have instituted a monetary system early in their community as there was nothing to give it value. Money has value only because we agree that it has value. In the types of communities known in Mesoamerica, there was little to “buy” in many cases. Barter was the means of exchange, and the support Nehor received would have initially been subsistence that he didn’t provide with his own hands.

However, it is also clear that he was provided with more than simple necessity. He was supplied with some type of surplus. Nehor was able to turn his “support” into the trappings of wealth. It is in this sense that Joseph translated “money.” Nehor was able to “buy” the trappings of wealth. While the word is technically incorrect, the connotation is correct.

Alma 1:6

6  And he began to be lifted up in the pride of his heart, and to wear very costly apparel, yea, and even began to establish a church after the manner of his preaching.

As with virtually all incidences of unrighteous wealth or pride in the Book of Mormon, it is first manifest in the wearing of costly apparel. We saw this as early as Jacob, Nephi’s brother (Jacob 2:13). When the Nephites begin to drift from the ways of the Lord two hundred years after Christ’s appearance in the America’s, the first sign of that drift that is noted is the wearing of costly apparel (4 Nephi 1:24).

This intimate connection between unrighteous pride and expensive clothing has an dramatic correlation in Mesoamerican economics. To understand this connection more fully, let’s look as the nature of wealth in Mesoamerica:

“ The Maya used commodities both in their raw state and as worked objects for money. These currencies included jade and other green stones; flint and obsidian, in both worked and unworked forms; other precious stones and minerals; spondylus (spiny oyster) shells; cacao beans; lengths of cotton cloth, both in plain weave and made into clothes; spices; measures of sea salt; birds and their feathers; animal pelts; forest products such as dyes, resins, incense, and rubber; wood in both worked and unworked form; and ceramics, especially beautifully painted elite wares. People at all levels of society used these currencies within their communities as well as in the markets and fairs. Farmers and villagers could use their crops and handicrafts to barter for or buy other goods for use in their daily lives or in special rituals, such as marriages, funerals, and house dedications.

People throughout Mesoamerica wore these currencies as jewelry and clothing to display the wealth and enterprise of their families.”(Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings. Scribner, 1998, p. 19).

The costly apparel was one of the most obvious ways in which a Mesoamerican would display their wealth. As Schele and Mathews note, they wore it. Thus the connection between costly apparel and the sins of pride were dramatic and direct. Subtler, however, is the necessity of trade to obtain those goods. The interaction with other people who might be deemed to be “better” because of their displayed wealth would allow for not only the importation of style, but of other understandings of the way things “ought to be.” The costly apparel not only displayed wealth which highlighted social differences, but also indicates that there was a continued influence in Nephite society that probably included much more than just fashion and accessories.

Alma 1:7

7  And it came to pass as he was going, to preach to those who believed on his word, he met a man who belonged to the church of God, yea, even one of their teachers; and he began to contend with him sharply, that he might lead away the people of the church; but the man withstood him, admonishing him with the words of God.

Alma 1:8

8  Now the name of the man was Gideon; and it was he who was an instrument  in the hands of God in delivering the people of Limhi out of bondage.

The background of Nehor’s specific crime is now presented. Once again it is significant that other “crimes” of Nehor were presented prior to this particular one. One of the reasons is that while Nehor is specifically punished for this crime, his influence on the religious climate of Zarahemla will continue. The other issues are the ones that are the specific problems that Mormon is most concerned about.

Nehor is preaching his own version of religion, and attempting to gain converts to his own way of thinking. As he does this he meets Gideon, that very same Gideon who was prominent in the city of Lehi-Nephi and whom we last saw as a great military leader. We see him now as a teacher. We do not know specifically what Gideon taught, though he was clearly well versed in religion as he was able to discourse with Nehor and hold his own. It is possible that Gideon was a teacher in the sense that he was appointed to teach religious principles to the people. It is more likely, however, that his was a position that taught religion as part of the essentials of an educated life.

Alma 1:9

9  Now, because Gideon withstood him with the words of God he was wroth with Gideon, and drew his sword and began to smite him.  Now Gideon being stricken with many years, therefore he was not able to withstand his blows, therefore he was slain by the sword.

Nehor apparently sees his confrontation with Gideon as a battle of words, and when Nehor appears to lose that battle, he escalates the confrontation to a battle with a more deadly weapon. We have in this brief description of the murder of Gideon some more information that is somewhat curious. The first item of interest is that Nehor is walking about with his “sword.” The sword is a military weapon, and would not have been part of the normal dress of those who were frequenting a city. However, if Nehor had traveled from another city, he might have such a weapon for protection.

What is now of interest is whether or not Gideon had a “sword.” No sword is mentioned, and rather than say that Gideon was slain outright, the text indicates that he gave a fair accounting of himself, but fell because he was “stricken with many years.” Gideon was a military man, and certainly knew the sword. In this case, however, the particulars of the sword may explain some of this encounter.

As has been noted earlier, the Mesoamerican “sword” might have been a macahuitl, or obsidian lined club. These were weapons of war that could certainly kill, but were used in later Mesoamerican combat as a means of capturing prisoners alive. Thus it is possible that a skilled man might be able to find a way to fend off some of the blows without being severely injured by the obsidian blades. Of course this may also be the original author’s means of defending Gideon’s honor after the fact, we cannot tell. If we assume that this is an accurate depiction of the conflict, however, it fits into the Mesoamerican context that a skillful unarmed man might withstand the attack with the Mesoamerican “sword” for some time without fatal injury.

Gideon falls because he is “stricken with years.” With how many years would Gideon have been “stricken”? Of course we cannot know, but we can create a ballpark. According to the chronology used in this commentary, Mosiah II takes the throne in 124BC. It was probably three years after that the expedition to find the Zeniffites was mounted. The reunion of the people of Zeniff (the group led by Alma and the group led by Limhi) could not have been prior to 121 BC, and was perhaps as late as 111 BC. Mosiah II dies in 92 BC which initiates the reign of the judges. Thus we have a frame for the life and death of Gideon. We know that he was a captain of the guard between 121 BC and the reunification at perhaps 111 BC. During that time he was probably already mature, given his position of importance. He died in the first year of the reign of the judges, which was the year following Mosiah II’s death, or in 91 BC. This gives Gideon some twenty years of life in Zarahemla before his murder.

While he might have been stricken with years, he was still able to hold off for a while, so we need not see him as entirely feeble. An age at his death of about 50 would have him as a captain at 30. Those ages are a comfortable guess.

Alma 1:10

10  And the man who slew him was taken by the people of the church, and was brought before Alma, to be judged according to the crimes which he had committed.

Now that Nehor has committed murder, he is taken to be judged. However, notice that he is to be judged according to his crimes – in the plural. He is not simply on trial for murder. In fact, as with our introduction to Nehor, the murder is not even the first crime to be discussed. In the context, it even appears to be perhaps a lesser crime!

Alma 1:11

11  And it came to pass that he stood before Alma and pleaded for himself with much boldness.

Alma 1:12

12  But Alma said unto him: Behold, this is the first time that priestcraft has been introduced among this people.  And behold, thou art not only guilty of priestcraft, but hast endeavored to enforce it by the sword; and were priestcraft to be enforced among this people it would prove their entire destruction.

We do not know the specifics of Nehor’s self-defense, but Alma’s reaction to the case begins with a denouncement of priestcraft. Notice how odd this seems to our modern sensibilities. We have a man who is guilty of murder, and the most important crime he commits appears to be priestcraft! More than the concern over Nehor as a murderer is the concern over Nehor as a man who preaches priestcraft. Why?

In killing Gideon, Nehor had certainly deprived Zarahemla of a respected man. However, even though that one man is irretrievably lost, he was nevertheless a single man. By preaching priestcraft, however, Nehor was undermining the entire social structure. This was a crime against all of the people of Zarahemla as it would foment dissention and schism. Nehor might not kill again, but he would certainly be a great harm to society as a whole as he created dissentions among the people. It was those types of dissentions that had created the civil war in the time of Benjamin, leading many to leave Zarahemla to join with the Lamanites (see Words of Mormon 1:15-16). In the long view, this was a much more dangerous crime than a murder of a single man in the heat of passion.

Alma 1:13

13  And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man, yea, a man who has done much good among this people; and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance.

Alma 1:14

14  Therefore thou art condemned to die, according to the law which has been given us by Mosiah, our last king; and it has been acknowledged by this people; therefore this people must abide by the law.

Alma pronounces a judgment upon Nehor. That judgment has two important parts that we should understand. The first is that it is a judgment based upon law. Alma very specifically renders judgment “according to the law which has been given us by Mosiah.” Thus, as we have suggested, law had become elevated to a principle against which such judgments can be made. Of course this does not surprise a modern audience that is accustomed to the rule of law. In fact, one might wonder why it is worth mention at all. The principal interest is not so much that Alma rules according to law, but that religious meaning backs the law.

In verse 13 we note that the very first reason given is not the law, but the vengeance of blood. This concept of the efficacy of blood upon the people is one of the concepts that has been passed down from the “fathers.” We see this concept in many of the earlier writers in the Book of Mormon:

Jacob:

2 Ne. 9:44

44 O, my beloved brethren, remember my words. Behold, I take off my garments, and I shake them before you; I pray the God of my salvation that he view me with his all-searching eye; wherefore, ye shall know at the last day, when all men shall be judged of their works, that the God of Israel did witness that I shook your iniquities from my soul, and that I stand with brightness before him, and am rid of your blood.

Nephi:

2 Ne. 26:3

3 And after the Messiah shall come there shall be signs given unto my people of his birth, and also of his death and resurrection; and great and terrible shall that day be unto the wicked, for they shall perish; and they perish because they cast out the prophets, and the saints, and stone them, and slay them; wherefore the cry of the blood of the saints shall ascend up to God from the ground against them.

Benjamin:

Mosiah 2:27

27 Therefore, as I said unto you that I had served you, walking with a clear conscience before God, even so I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you.

28 I say unto you that I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might rid my garments of your blood, at this period of time when I am about to go down to my grave, that I might go down in peace, and my immortal spirit may join the choirs above in singing the praises of a just God.

Abinadi:

10 Mosiah 17:10

10 Yea, and I will suffer even until death, and I will not recall my words, and they shall stand as a testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day.

For each of these men, blood has a meaning and a voice that is quite different from a scientific view. This is a religious concept, and it apparently lies behind the particulars of the law given by Mosiah. For our understanding of the reign of the judges, it is important to understand that while there is a weakening of the strength of the bond between politics and religion, it is not severed entirely. Indeed, it would have been conceptually impossible to sever the link entirely, as religion defined the way of the world. In this particular case, the efficacy and power of blood defined certain responsibilities concerning blood, that is, there must be a payment for one to spill innocent blood.

Historical: The concept of the vitality and voice of blood is part of the Old Testament as well as the Book of Mormon. When Cain killed Abel, the Lord remarks to Cain:

Gen. 4:10

10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.

The beginnings of the conception of the Book of Mormon can certainly be laid to the Jewish background of the Lehites. However, it must certainly have been reinforced by the conception of blood extant all around them in Mesoamerican cultures. Even more than the Biblical notion of the vitality and voice of blood, Mesoamerica elevated the fluid to a powerfully vital substance.

“The Blood of the title refers directly to several aspects of Maya life and to Maya beliefs about their world and their kings. Blood was the mortar of ancient Maya ritual life. The Maya let blood on every important occasion in the life of the individual and in the life of the community. It was the substance offered by kings and other nobility to seal ceremonial events. Even more important, the purpose of art was to document the bloodlines of Classic Maya kings. Kingship normally passed from father to son: descent and bloodlines dominated the determination of legitimate rule. For this reason, records of parents and ancestors transferring power to their children consume a large part of Maya pictorial imagery and writing. After the birth of an heir, the king performed a blood sacrifice, drawing his own substance as an offering to his ancestors. Human sacri­fice, offered to sanctify the installation of a king in office, was in some cases recorded as a vital part of accession imagery. Among the most common events recorded on Maya monuments are war and capture. Although Maya warfare fulfilled several needs, the primary ritual role was to provide the state sacrificial victims, whose blood was then drawn and offered to the gods. At death, Maya kings were placed in richly furnished tombs that often displayed the imagery of the watery Underworld, their walls painted the color of blood or in blood symbols. In the Maya view, none of these behaviors was bizarre or exotic but necessary to sustain the world.” (Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings. George Braziller, Inc. 1986,  pp. 14-15).

In addition to this general cultural significance of blood, there is another interesting parallel to this Book of Mormon usage. Note that the blood is speaking from the ground. Notice now this reference to modern Maya belief:

“The Zinacanteco Maya also believe that the blood talks; in this context, however, it is the blood of the patient. A skilled shaman diagnoses soul sickness by taking the patient’s pulse at the wrist and elbow. Sometimes patients have lost a piece of their soul (ch’ulel), or their animal spirit companion is wandering lost outside the ancestral corral underneath the mountain. Even Evon Vogt, the great ethnographer of the Zinacanteco Maya, is not sure exactly what is speaking to the shaman through the blood, but he has observed that ch’ulel, the “inner soul or spirit” of an individual, abides in that blood, and perhaps it is that soul that speaks.” (Freidel, David, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker.  Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1995,  pp. 201-2).

This combination of the Mesoamerican conception and the inherited ideas lend texture to the understanding behind Alma’s ruling. The law existed, but Alma’s first reason was not the law simple, but rather this powerful concept that lay underneath the declared law.

Alma 1:15

15  And it came to pass that they took him; and his name was Nehor; and they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death.

This is the first time Mormon mentions the name of the man who comes before Alma. Mormon certainly knew the name, but he consciously withheld it until this point. We cannot be certain of Mormon’s reason, but it is possible that it was withheld for emphasis. The name Nehor will be repeated multiple times as a means of defining a religious movement. It is possible that Mormon saves the name to highlight the nature of the man behind the movement. First he shows the common crimes, and then he gives the name. Thus Mormon’s reader’s understand the evil of the man whose name labels a competing religious movement in Zarahemla.

Social: There are three elements in Nehor’s punishment; place, confession, and death. Each of these has some interesting social implications. First, Nehor is taken to a specific place to be executed. He is taken to the hill Manti. He is not executed immediately, he is not taken to a prison, he is taken to a hill. With the conceptual meanings associated with hills in most of the ancient world, including both Israel and Mesoamerica, the hill is particularly important. Hills (and other raised places, including the artificial “hills” that were Mesoamerican temples) were locations of sacred significance. There was a closer communication between God and man on a hill. Thus Nehor, whose crimes were as much religious as they were social, is taken to be closer to God in his last moments.

The second aspect of the execution is the confession. It may be reading too much into the text, but it certainly appears that Nehor’s was not a spontaneous confession. Mormon states: “there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge…” This would suggest that the confession was an important social part of the execution, and was necessary – voluntary or not. In the context of the times and place, this necessary confession makes a great deal of sense. Note that the confession is very specifically “between the heavens and the earth.” Nehor is on a hill, or on a location “between the heavens and the earth.” This is, or at least can be, a sacred location where the powers of deity are more readily manifest. In this place, Nehor must confess his crimes before God. This provides to all the justification of the actions of the judge. They are righteous, and so attested before God.

The final element is the actual execution. We are told nothing of it except that it is ignominious. We do not know what an ignominious death would have constituted in Nephite thought, but it is clear that there were conceptions of honor and dishonor associated with the mode of death. Nehor is clearly executed in a way that removes personal honor from him. With a Mesoamerican setting, one might think of multiple modes of death that we moderns would find appalling, such as the removal of the heart of the living man. We would not expect that the Nephites would engage in such practices, but even in other cultures where they were, they were actually a death that conferred honor on the one who was sacrificed. Thus by Mesoamerican conceptions, most of the types of death we associate with those cultures would probably not be the one selected for Nehor.

One possibility of death with dishonor is stoning. Among the later Aztecs it was the punishment for adultery. This was a death of shame. It could have been a mode of death for Nehor, as it would provide the community with an active participation in expressing their communal outrage at his act of shedding blood.

A final note on the execution scene; the final events occur on a hill, and the hill may be visible from many locations. It is also possible that one of the reasons the hill was selected was to increase the visibility to the community. Such visibility would not only allow the community to vent its feelings, but to serve as a visible warning against similar actions by others in the future (or at least these are the types of reasons given for such public executions).

Alma 1:16

16  Nevertheless, this did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land; for there were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines; and this they did for the sake of riches and honor.

Notice the nature of Mormon’s conclusion to the Nehor story. Nehor is executed without honor. It would appear that it was the killing of Gideon that led to that particular judgment. Nevertheless, the result is described as not limiting the spread of priestcraft through the land. Once again, the specific crime may have been killing Gideon, but the true danger of Nehor was in his ideas and words. Those ideas did not die with him, but continued to build in the land. Notice also the very close connection between the priestcraft and the riches and honor. The priestcraft of Nehor is intimately tied with these aspects of society. The tie is greater than simply the idea of paying a priest, for even in the LDS lay priesthood the men are expected to find a way to earn a living.

The problem isn’t just that a priest should have money, but that in the conception of Nehor there are social distinctions that come with the type of priesthood he proposed. It is a return to social stratification. It is a return to the ostentatious wearing of costly apparel. It is the antithesis of Benjamin’s covenant.

Alma 1:17

17  Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief.

Alma 1:18

18  And they durst not steal, for fear of the law, for such were punished; neither durst they rob, nor murder, for he that murdered was punished unto death.

Mormon finishes with these two affirmations of law. These should be seen in contrast to the continuation of the pressures towards priestcraft in verse 16. What Mormon is doing is noting that law did not cure the priestcraft, but that law was applied for greater order. It is as if he is contrasting the failure on the one hand with successes on the next. Also implicit in Mormon’s argument is that the ideas of priestcraft were not against the law. As we have seen before, Mosiah set in motion a potential division between the religion and the state. This immediately legitimized multiple religions in the community. When Mosiah passes the non-persecution laws, they apply to all, not just the Nephite religion. This tolerance opens the door for the priestcrafts, and leaves no legal recourse against them.

In the days of the king, the king could rule against priestcrafts on the power of his position. Under the reign of the judges, they can rule only on the basis of received (and interpreted) law. This shift in the way authority was imposed upon the land of Zarahemla allowed for the continued increase in priestcrafts, while law could deal with specifics such as lying and robbing, or murder.

Alma 1:19

19  But it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church of God began to persecute those that did belong to the church of God, and had taken upon them the name of Christ.

Alma 1:20

20  Yea, they did persecute them, and afflict them with all manner of words, and this because of their humility; because they were not proud in their own eyes, and because they did impart the word of God, one with another, without  money and without price.

Alma 1:21

21  Now there was a strict law among the people of the church, that there should not any man, belonging to the church, arise and persecute those that did not belong to the church, and that there should be no persecution among themselves.

Social: These three verses are easily read too simply. We can dismiss them by saying that the people of the church obeyed the law, and that those who were not of the church did not. We might even justify this position by our supposition that the members of the church were the “good guys” and that the non-members were the “bad guys.” Reading the text this simply would miss much of what is going on in Zarahemla.

As has been noted, there was a fundamental schism in Zarahemlite society between the religion of the Nephites and a competing religion. Also as has been noted it is impossible to separate religion from all other aspects of life in the ancient world, so that a difference in what we term “religion” was easily a difference in politics and a difference in culture. Mormon very clearly states that those who were members of the church obeyed the law, and the non-members did not. However, the underlying issue lies not in simple obedience, but obedience to a particular belief system.

The members of the church obeyed because it was a law that reflected their politics and social understanding. The non-members did not share all of those fundamental assumptions. It would be precisely along the lines of the political/social differences that non-member disobedience would take place. Following this logic, it is important that Mormon does discuss the reasons for the non-member persecution of the members. Note that the differences of opinion fell upon social economic and religo-political lines: “because of their humility; because they were not proud in their own eyes, and because they did impart the word of God, one with another, without  money and without price” (verse 20).

What are the essential elements of the difference of opinion, those differences that led to a form of civil disobedience? First, we note that the members of the church had a religion “without money and without price.” It would be facile to read this as a dialog against the professional clergy of modern Christianity, but it would also be anachronistic to the Book of Mormon text. As we have see multiple times, most recently with Nehor, there was a conflict between the egalitarian ideal of Nephite religion and the very obvious social/economic differentiation that was inherent in the competing religion. Mesoamerican society did not have money, and therefore could not properly have a “paid” clergy. What they did have, however, was a class distinction marked by wealth and ostentatious clothing (the wearing of their wealth). It was this type of religious/social structure that Nehor had advocated, and clearly there were many (constituting most likely the majority of the non-church-members) who supported Nehor’s type of priesthood.

Even in the way Mormon couches the Nephite virtues we can see the thrust of the argument against the church. The churchmen were despised “because of their humility; because they were not proud in their own eyes.” While we might read into humility and lack of pride any number of meanings, the context is suggestive that this is an economic humility rather than a spiritual one. The Nephite religion holds to the egalitarianism of Benjamin, as opposed to the priesthood as implemented by Noah and most recently represented by Nehor. As Mormon unfolds his description of the Nephite church, notice how often the definition follows economic concepts rather than doctrinal concepts.

Alma 1:22

22  Nevertheless, there were many among them who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists.

Textual: Mormon’s clear sympathies for the Nephite church are manifest here. The Nephite churchmen were persecuted, and while (in general) they obeyed the command to avoid persecutions of the non-members, there were still some who lost their tempers and retaliated against the persecutions heaped upon them.

Humans being who humans are, we find it none too surprising that some who were persecuted should fight back. The point here is not human nature, but the nature of Mormon’s editing. When Mormon enters this information, it is couched in such a way that the blame lies with the non-churchmen rather than the churchmen. Mormon makes sure that we understand that it was a retaliation, not an initiation of persecution. There is too little information to know precisely what was on the original plates. Mormon could be reading accounts of actions, and making his own interpretation. It is also possible that the originals also had sympathy for the churchmen, as the records were being kept by churchmen.

Regardless of the nature of the original, Mormon chooses to present this information, and presents it in a certain way. This is not the stuff of raw data, but rather the conclusion of one who has analyzed the situation for us. What the very specific actions might have been, we cannot know. We know that persecutions led to fistfights, but we do not know from this information if fists were equal retaliation or excessive retaliation. Because of Mormon’s editing, we presume the best of the Nephites. In a very similar way, most LDS accounts of persecutions place the LDS in the blameless position, even when they were pressed by circumstances into retaliation. It is quite possible that, just as with the LDS history, there were times when the churchmen were not entirely excusable.

Alma 1:23

23  Now this was in the second year of the reign of Alma, and it was a cause of much affliction to the church; yea, it was the cause of much trial with the church.

Textual: There is no chapter break here, but Mormon does signal a shift in topic. That shift is signaled by two markers in the text. First, he uses the word “now” which word Mormon uses to initiate new thoughts. Secondly, Mormon “marks time.” He indicates the timing of these actions as the second year of the reign of Alma. In the next set of verses Mormon gives a picture of the nature of the church at this particular point in time.

Historical: The second year of the reign of the judges would correlate to approximately 90 BC in the correlation used in this commentary.

Alma 1:24

24  For the hearts of many were hardened, and their names were blotted out, that they were remembered no more among the people of God.  And also many withdrew themselves from among them.

Social: Verse 23 tells us that the differences of opinion caused “much trial” in the church. These trials included people who not only left the church, but left the community. It is one thing to leave this artificial division that Alma created, but quite another to leave the community entirely. Modern man does not completely understand how severe an action this would have been. Inside ones’ community are one’s kin, and the kin group serves as a first line of defense against the world. Systems of obligations are created among kin so that one may be cared for inside of the group, but typically excluded from another kin’s attention. Thus someone who left a community left not only a familiar environment, but a protective safety net and entered into another community where such a connection may or may not have been present.

We may suspect that those who “withdrew themselves from among them” would have gone to some other community where they had some kind of connections. The context of those who leave comes as an extension of those whose “names were blotted out.”  Thus there were two kinds of people who left – those who simply left the church and remained in the community, and those who left the church and the community.

For those who physically left, they could have had kin in another area, or they may have had business (that is, trading) relations with the other community. In any case, those who withdrew themselves would certainly not leave for another community dominated by the Nephite religion/culture. They would go to some other location where the culture matched better their new understanding of how they chose to live. The introduction to these problems began with Nehor, and we may presume that they were following this order of Nehor, as it came to be known.

Alma 1:25

25  Now this was a great trial to those that did stand fast in the faith; nevertheless, they were steadfast and immovable in keeping the commandments of God, and they bore with patience the persecution which was heaped upon them.

Textual: Mormon’s description of the Nephite church must include the controversies and problems, but Mormon is certainly a sympathetic observer, and his summation emphasizes the good. This emphasis on the good stands in specific contrast to those few who came to blows with their opponents. Mormon is essentially saying that there were a few “problem children” in the church, and the church endured problems, but that they continued to do as the Lord commanded.

Modern Perspective: The position of the Nephite church in their culture creates a dramatic parallel to the modern church, which also finds itself as a culture within a culture. While the modern church may share many traits with the rest of the culture in which it resides, it is nevertheless a different set of beliefs and practices. These differences have always set the church apart, and will (and should) continue to do so. The differences may no longer lead to direct persecutions, but they will always be differences. Of old, these differences led to difficulties. They may now lead to opportunities.

Alma 1:26

26  And when the priests left their labor to impart the word of God unto the people, the people also left their labors to hear the word of God.  And when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.

Alma 1:27

27  And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.

Mormon is continuing his descriptions of the good things about the Nephite church. Notice that the very specific “good things” are defined economically. When these good things are contrasted with the “bad things” of the non-churchmen, the differences will continue to be defined economically rather than theologically. No matter what else Mormon is telling us, he is highlighting the fact that the major controversy between churchmen and non-churchmen was a particular attitude towards a social system of economics. The churchmen advocated an egalitarian society, and the non-churchmen advocated a stratified society.

The specifics of the economic issue appear to focus on the role of the priests. It was priestcraft that was given as the social crime of Nehor (apparently more socially significant than his murder of Gideon). Here, Mormon defines the “good” of the Nephite society by examining the economic actions of the priests. After the priest has preached, he “returned again diligently unto [his] labors.” Benjamin had made a point of describing how he had labored with his own hands for his own support (Mosiah 2:14; Alma also established that priests in the church should labor with their own hands for their support, Mosiah 18: 24). These priests follow those traditions, and preach, and then work with their own hands. Mormon then gives the “moral” of this description, just in case we might miss it: “for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.” The moral of Mormon’s description is the equality of the people. As was discussed in the analysis of Benjamin’s sermon, this equality was not simply moral, but economic and social. Nephite religion emphasized a social and economic equality.

When Mormon summarized this virtue of the priests he returns to another Benjaminic theme, that of sharing of substance. This sharing is again a facet of the egalitarian lifestyle, and inimical to social divisions. What is most curious, however, is the very specific notice of what did not happen. The priests “did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.”

This is not simply a comment on the virtues of neat dress as opposed to high fashion. As we saw with Nehor, the wearing of costly apparel was part and parcel of the social and economic system that was in conflict with the Nephite religion and culture. Mormon is very clearly noting that the Nephites were very good people, in spite of the fact that they did not wear the costly apparel. The nature of Mormon’s comparisons between the faithful churchmen and their ideological opponents is even more clear in the next few verses.

Alma 1:28

28  And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions.

Textual: This verse is the structural conclusion to the preceding section. It is easily separated from the next verse because of the “and now” beginning, which Mormon uses to mark new subjects. With this verse, Mormon concludes the picture of the Nephite church, and concludes the positive picture with the positive statement that they “began to have continual peace again.” While this may have described external affairs, it is certain that it did not apply to the internal climate of opinion. The underlying differences in Zarahemlaite society did not go away. They may have hit a lull, but they were not eradicated. Those same issues lay smoldering under the surface, waiting for another incident to stir them again into civil strife. Mormon’s next section discusses the next major upheaval of Zarahemlaite society.

Alma 1:29

29  And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need—an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.

Social: Read in its most simplistic form, this verse indicates that the Nephite churchmen became rich – even richer than the non-churchmen in Zarahemla. Mormon even explicitly states this in verse 31. However, a closer reading shows that this comparative wealth may have been defined by sympathetic eyes. How were the Nephite churchmen so wealthy?

First, Mormon’s essential definition of wealth was; “having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need.” This is an egalitarian’s definition of wealth, not a modern one. A modern definition of wealth might be that we have an abundance of things that surpass what we need. If, in the modern world, one might suppose that one “needs” an automobile, then having one that works satisfies Mormon’s definition of “wealth.” For most of us who not only own one automobile, but even more than one, we find that this doesn’t make us feel very wealthy at all. If we are to measure wealth by automobiles, we would discuss the excessive cost of the automobile, or deem one wealthy if they had a different car for every day of the week.

Similarly, we can gain an understanding of Mormon’s definition of wealth by examining the precise items he uses as evidence of this “wealth.” Most of the items of “wealth” have to do with the adequate, even abundant, provision of the necessities of life: flocks and herds, fatlings, grain, material for clothing. One of the particular types of cloth is very clearly noted as “good homely cloth” (note that “homely” in this context is not the modern connotation of unattractive, but rather “plain”).

It is also very true that some of the items of wealth do come closer to our modern definitions; gold silver, silk, and fine-twined linen. What we must remember, however, is that in the Mesoamerican culture in which we posit Nephite society, gold and silver were not intrinsically valuable. They were not money but rather a product for barter. Having gold or silver did not make one rich, because the gold and silver did not have any value of their own. Similarly, the silk and fine-twined linen let us know that with abundant foodstuffs there was sufficient time to make nicer cloth than simply the “good homely cloth.” However, the silk and the fine-twined linen are specifically not the costly apparel that was the mark of social distinction.

All of Mormon’s markers of wealth were the marks of an egalitarian society that had what they needed, but were not involved in ostentatious display that led to social divisions. It is probably very fair to note that were a non-churchman to look at this Nephite society, they might not deem it nearly as “rich” as does Mormon, precisely because it did not contain the ostentatious “costly apparel” that they came to associate with wealth.

Alma 1:30

30  And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

What is the value of Nephite wealth? The value is that the society could share in the necessities of life. If there was any sick, naked, or hungry, they could be provided for. What does the provision for the needy have to do with wealth?

In an agrarian culture the provision of the necessities of life is the first priority. It is also the first priority to provide for one’s immediate family, and secondly to the kin group. The ability to eat is directly related to the ability to labor. When one is ill and unable to work, they must still eat, and must eat food produced by someone else. Either they take that food out of someone else’s mouth, or they take if from a store of food that exceeds the needs of those who labor. This is the “wealth” of the abundance of the flocks and grains. The Nephites prospered in that they had more than required for bare subsistence. This extra allowed them to be generous and provide for those unable to provide for themselves. They were wealthy because they could provide.

Even in the modern world we understand that true wealth has an assumption of social responsibility to share the excess of wealth. We call this philanthropy, but it is a different economic system’s equivalent of the Nephite wealth. The excess allows for the redistribution of needed items to those who were unable to provide for their own needs.

Lest we make any mistake in our assumptions of Nephite wealth, however, Mormon is very clear that they did not seek after riches but rather that they had wealth. For the modern world it might be a odd distinction, as we suppose that wealth is riches. For Mormon, however, wealth was more an attitude than a thing. It was the communal abundance over the individual acquisition that he defines as wealth. In Mormon’s terms, none of the people might be considered to have riches, but they were wealthy in that they had what they needed and more to share.

Alma 1:31

31  And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church.

Alma 1:32

32  For those who did not belong to their church did indulge themselves in sorceries, and in idolatry or idleness, and in babblings, and in envyings and strife; wearing costly apparel; being lifted up in the pride of their own eyes; persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness; nevertheless, the law was put in force upon all those who did transgress it, inasmuch as it was possible.

Social: Only by understanding Mormon’s distinction between riches and wealth can we properly understand the juxtaposition he presents in verses 31 and 32. It is too simple to read verse 31 in the modern sense that the churchmen were “wealthier/richer” than the non-churchmen. That would assume that the churchmen had the “riches” that Mormon suggests they did not.

Verse 32 begins with “for….”, which is a conjunction that indicates that an explanation is coming. Verse 32 explains how the churchmen are wealthier than the non-churchmen. Notice the list of things that make the churchmen wealthier:

·        Did not indulge in sorceries

·        Did not indulge in idolatry

·        Did not indulge in idleness

·        Did not indulge in babblings

·        Did not indulge in envyings and strive

·        Did not wear costly apparel

·        Did not persecute others

·        Did no lie

·        Did not thieve

·        Did not rob

·        Did not commit whoredoms

·        Did not murder

·        Did not commit other forms of wickedness

Of all of these reasons for the wealth of the churchmen, the only one that says anything about any valuable possession is that they did not wear costly clothing! In other words, the only thing remarkable about their “rich” possessions was that they did have them!

Mormon is clearly equating wealth with the peace and spiritual wealth of the gospel, not economic goods. Those economic goods were there in abundance, but only those that were necessary for their well-being – not the types of goods that others would consider to be wealth, such as the costly apparel.

Linguistic: The catalog of differences between churchmen and non-churchmen includes two terms that have come to have similar meanings in modern English: theft and robbery. The nature of the list of things the churchmen did not do is otherwise made up of fairly distinct items, so we cannot understand the listing of theft and robbery as parallels of similar terms for the purpose of emphasis. These two terms appear to indicate a more strict differentiation between what makes a theft (which may be impersonal – a theft may occur when no one is around) and a robbery (which requires the presence of the person being robbed, a very personal event). It is quite likely that Nephite law made a distinction between these two crimes. Such a distinction would follow known traditions:

"…there was a big difference under the law of Moses, and in ancient Near Eastern criminal law generally, between being a "thief" and being a "robber." (Discussed in John W Welch, "Theft and Robbery in the Book of Mormon and Ancient Near Eastern Law," F.A.R.M.S. Wel-85a; summarized in "New Developments in Book of Mormon Research," Ensign, February 1988, p. 12. See also Bernard Jackson, Theft in Early Jewish Law [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975J.) A thief was an inside member of the community; he usually worked alone, and he stole things like chickens at night. A thief's criminal offense was not serious, and he was punished lightly, usually being required to return double that which he had stolen. A robber, on the other hand, was an outsider, literally an outlaw, living outside the community and outside the protection and rights of local law. Robbers hid out in the hills in bands, swearing oaths of secrecy and swooping down on villages, openly assassinating and plundering. Robbers were one of the greatest scourges of ancient civilization; sometimes in Egypt they occupied whole cities. Soldiers were sent out after them, and when they were caught, they were put to death on the spot-no trials were necessary.

In both Greek and Hebrew the words "thief" and "robber" have very unique and different meanings. A thief is an embezzler or pilferer - one who steal by stealth. The robber's way is threat and violence; he is a plunderer who usually joins with others of his kind to prey upon the weak and unprotected. In Hebrew history the robber is a military problem, and may be executed on the spot when caught. The Old Testament translation accurately reflects this difference but the New Testament ignores it. This is clearly evidenced in the Strong's Greek Lexicon where the word lestes is defined as "a robber, plunderer, freebooter, brigand (not to be confused with a thief, one who takes property by stealth)." Strong then goes on to acknowledge that in the New Testament this word has been translated "thief" eleven times. Luke 10:30 is a clear example if this carelessness:
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves (lestes), which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

But, by this ancient definition, you don't "fall among thieves," only amongst robbers.
In the Book of Mormon, this distinction of thief and robber is never confused. Nephi and his brothers are called "robbers" and Laban sends his servants after them to slay them. It's the military that deals with the Gadianton robbers and when the robber leader, Zemnarihah, was caught he was hanged without trial (3 Nephi 4:28). (Cited by Richard Grant (http://www.cometozarahemla.org/) Welch, John W. Study, Faith, and the Book of Mormon. A devotional address given at BYU by John W. Welch - 10 May 1988)

Alma 1:33

33  And it came to pass that by thus exercising the law upon them, every man suffering according to that which he had done, they became more still, and durst not commit any wickedness if it were known; therefore, there was much peace among the people of Nephi until the fifth year of the reign of the judges.

Textual: There is no chapter break in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, there is no paragraph break. Unlike the chapter breaks, however, the paragraphs were not indicated in the plates and were added later by the printer. There was no chapter break, but is this a natural break in the text?

To answer this question, we need the next couple of verses from chapter 2:

Alma 2:1

1  And it came to pass in the commencement of the fifth year of their reign there began to be a contention among the people; for a certain man, being called Amlici, he being a very cunning man, yea, a wise man as to the wisdom of the world, he being after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword, who was executed according to the law—

Alma 2:2

2  Now this Amlici had, by his cunning, drawn away much people after him; even so much that they began to be very powerful; and they began to endeavor to establish Amlici to be a king over the people.

The “and it came to pass” phrase has been used transitionally by Mormon. It might begin a new subject, and it might serve as the conclusion to the previous subject. It would appear that its most frequent use is as a transition from one topic to another. In this case, Alma 2:1 which begins with “and it came to pass” falls on the introductory side rather than as a conclusion. Mormon’s transition from one topic to another is the mention of the fifth year of the reign of the judges – with this marking of the years being another of the clear ways Mormon divides his topics in an otherwise undifferentiated text.

The chapter division as we have it may not give us the picture of Mormon’s larger editorial picture, but it does accurately depict the nature of the topic division. Mormon is building his narrative with a series of contrasts between the churchmen and the non-churchmen. He has just complete praising the churchmen, and now (in our chapter 2 of Alma) he will turn to the effect of the non-churchmen on Zarahemlaite society. Notice that the very last thing we see at the end of Alma 1:33 is the statement of peace. Mormon has used the peace/conflict pair before as he constructs his narrative, and he is using that same technique here. He establishes a peaceful society under the Nephite rule (which is equivalent to saying under the gospel) and then contrasts with that the contention that comes from non-gospel-believing sources.

       
      by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2000