1 Now it came to pass that after the end of Korihor, Alma having received tidings that the Zoramites were perverting the ways of the Lord, and that Zoram, who was their leader, was leading the hearts of the people to bow down to dumb idols, his heart again began to sicken because of the iniquity of the people.
2 For it was the cause of great sorrow to Alma to know of iniquity among his people; therefore his heart was exceedingly sorrowful because of the separation of the Zoramites from the Nephites.
The Zoramites are a separate city within the political hegemony of Zarahemla. Mesoamerican cities tend to be located fifteen to twenty miles apart, and the city centers are separated by farmland and perhaps untilled areas. This physical separation allows for internal autonomy, even when trade and military matters might tie them to the over-city; Zarahemla in this case. The leader of the city is named Zoram, and the people are called after him. Nevertheless, the land in which they settle they name Antionum rather than Zoram (see verse 3). It is possible that the name Antionum existed prior to their arrival.
Textual: Mormon’s story must make a transition from an individual dissenter to a city-dissenter. As was noted at the end of chapter 30, it is very possible that Korihor’s death at the hands of the Zoramites was a literary device to assist in making that transition. We should remember that there is no chapter break here in Mormon’s text, so this story flows directly out of the Korihor episode. That tells us that Mormon is conceptually linking these stories, and that while they are different, they both move forward the main idea of the chapter he is writing.
One of the keys to understanding Mormon’s development of his text is that he is working with the records of Alma the Younger, and selecting from those records the episodes that will be told. Regardless of the actual history of the Nephites at the time of Alma the Younger, what Mormon is working with is Alma the Younger’s perception of the important events of that history. When we take a look at the themes that are coming from Alma the Younger’s record, we note that they are heavily oriented to religious contention and the efforts to correct religious error. Note the major stories that we have in Alma:
1) The story of Nehor. This is a conflict over alternate religious ideas, and the text gives us Alma’s role in combating this threat to religious stability.
2) The Amlicite invasion. This is mostly a military story, but still fits Alma’s themes of religious conflict because the Amlicites are Nephite dissenters.
3) Alma’s missionary journey through the land of Zarahemla. To bolster the strength of the church, Alma gives up the governance of the land, and works to improve the religious unity. He begins with reforms in Zarahemla, and ends with the more apostate Ammonihahites. In between we have the faith of those in Gideon. The faith of the true convert will be held up as an example by Alma, and it would not be surprising if one of the reasons he notices such stalwart faith among the true converts is that he himself is one. Inside the story of the Ammonihahites, Alma focuses on a particular person, Zeezrom. One of the subthemes in Alma’s writings is the person to person “battle” between the gospel and apostate ideas. We have this individual theme with Nehor, Zeezrom, and later Korihor.
4) The missionary efforts of the sons of Mosiah to the Lamanites. Of course this isn’t Alma’s record, and we cannot be certain that Alma included in his record, or whether Mormon had access to Ammon’s record (the apparent original source of this material). In any case, it fits with the themes Alma builds, and would not be out of place in the Alma source material.
5) Chapter 28 has a condensed version of a major Lamanite invasion. Alma records the event, but diminishes the military aspects to deal with the human and religious aspects that come out of the military action.
6) The conflict with Korihor.
7) The conflict with the Zoramites
8) Alma’s father-blessings to his sons
9) The Lamanite invasion led by the apostate Amalikites. This is the last episode before Alma the Younger closes his own record. The remaining chapters in our book of Alma come from Helaman, the eldest son of Alma.
The only apparent aberration in this list is the final description of the Amalikite invasion, which is much longer than Alma’s previous treatment of military actions. Based on this chapter alone, we might suggest that Alma’s record did indeed contain greater information about the military actions, but that it was Mormon’s editorial choice to limit such information in the record of Alma the Younger. Rather than military actions, the clear themes present here deal with religious conflict and Alma’s attempts to combat religious error.
Either Alma emphasized, or Mormon selectively chose, those events in Alma’s life that dealt with the questions of apostasy and conversion. This may not be surprising since the seminal event in Alma’s life was his own conversion from apostasy. He was uniquely attuned to the temptations of apostasy, because he had once succumbed to them. He was keenly interested in the process of conversion, and made sure that he showed the examples of true converts, even though they might have been tainted by Lamanite connections, such as the people of Gideon (who had been the people of Noah in the land of Nephi) and the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. As we noted in the early discussion of Alma the Younger, it appears that he had been tainted by the Lamanite ideas around him. The people of Gideon and Anti-Nephi-Lehi (now called the people of Ammon) were prime examples of the faithfulness of a conversion that might come from one with Lamanite ties.
S. Kent Brown has suggested that Alma’s conversion experience heavily influenced his sermons (S. Kent Brown. “Alma’s Conversion: Reminiscences in his Sermons.” Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Alma, the Testimony of the Word. Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1992). To that we should add that his conversion experience heavily influenced virtually all of the episodes he elected to write in his record.
3 Now the Zoramites had gathered themselves together in a land which they called Antionum, which was east of the land of Zarahemla, which lay nearly bordering upon the seashore, which was south of the land of Jershon, which also bordered upon the wilderness south, which wilderness was full of the Lamanites.
Here we have further confirmation that this is a new city. The idea that they had “gathered” suggests that they were in various locations and became converts to Zoram’s interpretation of religion. Seen in this light, Zoram is another Nehor, Zeezrom, and Korihor. Zoram has succeeded in teaching, where Korihor did not. Other than that, they are both apostates, and Alma’s story of the fight for conversion and against apostasy continues.
Geography: The land that they chose to go to lies on the outskirts of Nephite control, and borders a “wilderness [that] was full of the Lamanites.” Sorenson suggests that Antionum was a liminal land, neither under the control of the Nephites nor of the Lamanites (John L. Sorenson. The Geography of Book of Mormon Events. FARMS 1990, p. 268). This selection tells us something of the nature of the Zoramites. They understood their separation from Nephite ways, and possibly understood that they were incorporating some Lamanite philosophy in their religion. Thus they moved to a location away from Nephite strength, and toward the Lamanites. While not apparently an area of Lamanite strength, it was still a location that gave the Zoramites options for political alliances.
4 Now the Nephites greatly feared that the Zoramites would enter into a correspondence with the Lamanites, and that it would be the means of great loss on the part of the Nephites.
The tenuous nature of the Zoramite allegiance to the Nephite hegemony was not lost on the rulers in Zarahemla. They, even more rapidly than we, could discern the potential danger in having the Zoramites so close to the Lamanites, and a potential defection to the Lamanites would significantly weaken the Nephite Eastern defensive line. Sorenson describes the military significance of the Zoramite-held land of Antionum:
“…Alma, the high priest, with friends and two of his own sons, addressed an adjacent problem area with strategic implications. The party traveled into the land of Antionum. (See map 12.) There they sought to reclaim a group called the Zoramites who were wavering in their loyalty to Nephite rule. Antionum was located "east of the land of Zarahemla, which lay nearly bordering upon the seashore, which was south of the land of Jershon, which also bordered upon the wilderness south, which wilderness was full of the Lamanites" (Alma 31:3). If Alma could anchor the Zoramites within the Nephite political and cultural sphere, it might forestall war. The highland Lamanite culture centers were then expanding into the lowlands—to the Nephites "the wilderness south." To attack the Nephites in that sector, they needed a base, and allies. The Zoramites in Antionum offered both. Thus, "the Nephites greatly feared that the Zoramites would enter into a correspondence with the Lamanites" (verse 4). Political allegiance and religious orthodoxy were closely connected, as in all the ancient world, and the high priest's first concern was for the Zoramites' faith. Upon coming among them, Alma was shocked to find how far the Zoramites had veered from the Nephite ideal. Despite some preaching success "among the poor class of people" (Alma 32:2), the missionaries were finally forced by the Zoramite elite to leave the land for Nephite Jershon. Their converts followed (Alma 35:1-6).” (John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985], 239-40).
5 And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
Mormon’s synopsis of Alma’s record begins with the military significance of Antionum. This is perhaps not surprising coming from Mormon the military general. He would have recognized the danger posed by this tenuous member of the Nephite alliance holding a strategic position so near the Lamanites. What Mormon also tells us, however, is that while there is a military need for a strongly Nephite Antionum, the Nephite response was not military, but religious.
The mission to the Zoramites is a religious one. Once again we must remember that the dividing line between religion and politics is a very fine one in the ancient world. While the Nephites had a line that was perhaps better demarcated than most, it was nevertheless still a thin line. Religion and politics were never far apart in Zarahemla, even when the leader of the political alliance and the leader of the religion were two different people. This political mission has a religious face because the laws of the land and the structure of society would have made it nearly impossible to do anything else.
Mormon has introduced us to the rule of law in Zarahemla in the discussion of Korihor. A fundamental law in Zarahemla was one that did not condemn people for their beliefs. The Zoramites certainly had different beliefs, but those beliefs alone did not constitute a crime. The potential defection of the Zoramites held the potential for treason, which would certainly have been a crime, but this had not happened, and was the very thing that Alma was attempting to avert. There was really no legal option for Zarahemla available to recover Antionum by either force of military or force of law. The only way to recover them was to return them to full community with Zarahemla by returning them to the religion of the Nephites that could bind them to all other Nephites.
The general principle that Mormon suggests is a correct one. Our religions define the way the world works for us, and that fundamental definition of reality helps us when we deal with laws and governments. In modern pluralistic societies, we may all be governed by the same law, but our understandings of that law may have much to do with our relationship to that law and to society in general. The example of the Amish is a clear example of how religious ideals can create an internal community in a larger community goverened by the same general laws, but very different communal “laws.” The power of the religious conviction transcends law and can be a much more powerful governor of the way men act.
6 Therefore he took Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner; and Himni he did leave in the church in Zarahemla; but the former three he took with him, and also Amulek and Zeezrom, who were at Melek; and he also took two of his sons.
Alma arms himself with a small righteous army for this particular battle. It is interesting that he proceeds on this missionary journey with many more people than he took on the tour a few years earlier. This time he brings spirituall powerful allies, the sons of Mosiah, Amulek and the converted Zeezrom, and also two of his own sons.
The presence of Zeezrom in this group is significant. We first met Zeezrom in Ammonihah as the lawyer who contends with Alma and Amulek. The result of that episode was Zeezrom’s conversion (Alma 15:10-12). From the time of his baptism, Zeezrom taught the gospel (Alma 15:12. And Alma baptized Zeezrom unto the Lord; and he began from that time forth to preach unto the people.) Considering the company he is in on the way to Antionum, Zeezrom must have become not only faithful, but a powerful force for the gospel. It may be that Alma wants this particular group of men not only for their strength in the gospel, but for their past outside of it. Other than his sons, the rest of the men in this party had been outside the gospel at some point in their lives, with the possible exception of Amulek, who had nevertheless lived in a city with Nehorite teachings.
7 Now the eldest of his sons he took not with him, and his name was Helaman; but the names of those whom he took with him were Shiblon and Corianton; and these are the names of those who went with him among the Zoramites, to preach unto them the word.
We learn very little of what role Shiblon and Corianton played in the missionary effort among the Zoramites, but what we do learn suggests that this experience was a test for them. It was a test of their characters. When Alma gives his final blessings to his sons, the experience among the Zoramites is specifically mentioned for both Siblon and Corianton.
Of Shiblon, Alma notes:
3 I say unto you, my son, that I have had great joy in thee already, because of thy faithfulness and thy diligence, and thy patience and thy long-suffering among the people of the Zoramites.
4 For I know that thou wast in bonds; yea, and I also know that thou wast stoned for the word's sake; and thou didst bear all these things with patience because the Lord was with thee; and now thou knowest that the Lord did deliver thee.
The text that we will see for the effort among the Zoramites centers on Alma’s preaching. These events of imprisonment and stoning are not mentioned, so we may suppose that the group did not stay together, but split up to cover more people. This is similar to the actions taken by the sons of Mosiah among the Lamanites.
To Corianton, Alma says:
2 For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.
Clearly the experiences of Shiblon and Corianton were very different. They had the same father, who had the same desires and hopes for them. They had the same opportunity to prove themselves among the Zoramites. They chose different paths. Even in the modern missionary work, there are some missionaries whose characters are polished through their work, and there are others who go through the motions and leave their field of mission with the same problem as Corianton, a self-pride, a boasting in their own strength and wisdom rather than that of the Lord. As with Alma, it is not the parentage nor the faith of the parents that makes all of the difference. The individual’s agency is the ultimate determiner of their ability to follow the Lord. There have been many a righteous parent who, like Alma, had to watch a child fail a test of faith or character.
8 Now the Zoramites were dissenters from the Nephites; therefore they had had the word of God preached unto them.
9 But they had fallen into great errors, for they would not observe to keep the commandments of God, and his statutes, according to the law of Moses.
10 Neither would they observe the performances of the church, to continue in prayer and supplication to God daily, that they might not enter into temptation.
11 Yea, in fine, they did pervert the ways of the Lord in very many instances; therefore, for this cause, Alma and his brethren went into the land to preach the word unto them.
Mormon lays out the reasons for Alma’s visit to the Zoramites. The detail of the nature of the apostasy of the Zoramites in these verses suggests that there was quite a bit more information in Alma’s original record and that from that larger body of information Mormon is giving us this highly abbreviated account.
What we learn is just as much about Mormon’s expectations as we do about the particulars of Zoramite apostasy. In particular, we have the distinction made between the information in verse 9 and that of verses 10 and 11. In verse 9 Mormon notes that “they had fallen into great errors” with the first of these being the rejection of the law of Moses. This is a serious problem for the Nephites because it indicates a greater degree of apostasy than we have seen in most of the groups we have seen depart from the standard Nephite religion. The Nehors apparently retain much of the Law of Moses, but rejected Christ. This is the basic form of the apostasy we saw among the people of Noah, and more recently in Ammonihah. The Zoramites, however, have gone further, and rejected the law of Moses.
What is interesting beyond this statement of the rejection of the law of Moses is the way that Mormon makes a separation between the Zoramite disbelief in the law of Moses and the remaining catalogue of their transgressions. In verses 10 and 11 we are led to believe that these transgressions are for elements of the Nephite religion that are in addition to the law of Moses. The only one specifically mentioned is daily prayer. While prayer was certainly part of the law of Moses, it becomes a greater emphasis in the Nephite religion that understands so much of the Atoning Messiah.
Mormon is writing his text long after the Nephites had received the visit of the Savior, and transformed the law of Moses into the law of Christ. As in the Old World, that transition resulted in the abandonment of many of the particular performances of the law of Moses. For Mormon, the Zoramite abandonment of the Mosaic law was a problem because it was the law they should have been under, but it was a law that Mormon had also “abandoned” due to the fulfillment of the law by Christ. For Mormon there were laws that transcended the law of Moses, and verses 10 and 11 are intended to highlight the rather complete apostasy of the Zoramites. Not only did they abandon the law of Moses, but they abandoned the other performances that survived the law of Moses into the law of Christ.
12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;
Translation: We have an interesting word in this verse: synagogue. We have seen the use of synagogue earlier in the Book of Mormon and suggested that it refers to a religious gathering place rather than anything as specific as a Jewish synagogue. In this verse, we may have confirmation that this word is being used generically. The Zoramites are said to have built synagogues, yet we are also told that they do not follow the law of Moses. This suggests that their places of worship had to be designed for a different function, and a different religion. They could not have been Jewish synagogues, not only because of time and distance from the Old World, but because they did not follow the religion that we attach to the concept of a synagogue. Clearly, this term is being used more generically. Since the Greek origin of the term is a place for meeting together, we may suppose that whatever term was on the plates also conveyed the meaning of a religious meeting place, and it is in that context and meaning that we have synagogues among the Zoramites.
13 For they had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head; and the top thereof would only admit one person.
Cultural: There are two ways that we might understand the relationship of the “place for standing” (Rameumptom, see verse 21) and the synagogue. The fundamental relationship is that this Rameumptom is in the center of the synagogue. The issue is the nature of the synagogue.
In the Old World, we might expect that a place for standing might be inside a building. In this case, it would require nearly a two story building since the stand rises above the head, and a person must stand on top of that. Any building that contains such a place for standing would require an open covered area that allowed for at least two person heights before the ceiling.
In the New World at the time of the Zoramites, there are no such edifices known. What is known is open area courtyards surrounding low stepped pyramidal platforms. The difference between most of these platforms and the Rameumptom is the surface area of the top of the platform, which is generally larger than the one-person size of the Rameumptom. We have two models, then of how a Rameumptom might be in the center of a synagogue. In one case, it would be the center inside a taller building, and the second is that it would be in an open air courtyard.
There is no clear evidence of the nature of the synagogue in our text, but the impression is that it was quite easy to hear those who worshipped upon it. The function of the speech on the Rameumpton was a public declaration of unity, and therefore was meant to be heard by many. Finally, the constant use of the “place for standing” would indicate that it was easy to get to the top of it. This suggests stairs rather than a ladder. The presence of the stairs does not require a pyramidal shape, but the prevalence of this type of structure in Mesoamerica certainly is suggestive. The public function and the probable size of the Rameumptom all suggest that the synagogue was an open air meeting place rather than an enclosed building.
14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:
15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
Mormon enters the worship statement of the Zoramites. This is the same prayer offered by all Zoramites on the Rameumptom (verse 20) and therefore it is quite logical that Alma would have been able to record it. Mormon is inserting this full text from Alma’s record.
The first statement of the Zoramite prayer is their definition of God. They continue to believe in God, but declare that “thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.” This statement should be taken as a direct precursor to the statement we find in the next verse that “there shall be no Christ.” They begin with the declaration of God as an eternal spirit because they deny that Christ should come and be in a body. When we remember that the Nephite teaching was that Jehovah (the pre-mortal name for Christ) would come to earth and take a body, we can more fully understand that this statement of the Zoramites not only defines their belief, but contrasts their beliefs to the Nephites from whom they have apostatized.
Cultural: When the Zoramites stand on the Rameumpton the text says that they “stretch forth … hands towards heaven.” In addition to the formalization of the prayer itself, it is accompanied by a formal stance and action. Nibley notes:
“This is the way they would go. They would go on the top and stretch forth their hands to heaven. That's the hallel gesture, which you find anciently everywhere. It gave us the Hebrew letter h. It's the little hallelujah mannequin here [Brother Nibley draws it on the board]. You see it on jars, vases, rocks, glyphs, etc. They would do that. It's the usual gesture, the hallel or hallelujah. Hallel means "to greet the new moon" and various things like that.” (Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon--Semester 1: Transcripts of Lectures Presented to an Honors Book of Mormon Class at Brigham Young University, 1988--1990 [Provo: FARMS p. 432.)
16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
This recited prayer has two functions in Zoramite society. The public nature of the declaration (particularly assuming the open air platform as proposed) creates a unification in the society. These are all people who have elected to follow Zoram to this new location, and this public declaration serves to create community solidarity by openly displaying the commonality of belief in their community.
The second function after internal unity is to emphasize the external separation from the Nephite religion (and therefore politics). Specifically, the belief statement of the Zoramites specifically identifies themselves as apart from “our brethren.” Those brethren are the believing Nephites, from whom the Zoramites and religiously and physically separated themselves. This statement of internal unity creates much of that unity by directly focusing everyone on a common disunity. They are defining themselves by their separation from the Nephites. It is not enough to be apostate Nephites, they are defining themselves by dramatic contrast to the religion (and government) which they have left. Notice the explicit statements of contrast to the Nephites: “we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren; … there shall be no Christ.” These statements constitute declarations of separation. They are defining themselves by what they are not as much as by what they are. Nevertheless, the overall result for the Zoramites would have been a heightened internal consistency and unity.
17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
While the Zoramites may have rejected the performances of the law of Moses, they have not totally rejected all of the old religion. They have retained two essential elements of what we know as Old Testament religion. They believe in God, and they believe in the election of God’s chosen people. The difference in this second retained belief is that they have shifted the concept of election from the house of Israel to the city of Zoram. It appears that they have theologically expanded the role of election in their inherited Nephite religion and pushed that concept to a higher function in religion than we have seen to date in the Book of Mormon. They are the chosen, and the elect, and therefore it is they who are exclusively in the grace of God. This election will assure their salvation while condemning all others.
19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure.
20 For behold, every man did go forth and offer up these same prayers.
The astonishment may be credited to a difference in the nature of prayer between the Nephites and Zoramites. If Alma and his brethren are astonished that all are giving the same prayer, that indicates that their expectation of prayer is that it ought not be so formal. However, their astonishment might also be due to the anti-Nephite content of the prayer, which combined with the religious difference, should have been quite disturbing to these emissaries.
What we should not forget as we read this passage is that the prayer had an important function for the Zoramites. While we might not see this as the proper form of prayer, we must still recognize that the public repetition of these phrases functioned to confirm a unity of worldview among the Zoramites.
21 Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.
Linguistic: Rameumpton appears plausibly related to Semitic linguistic roots:
“Rameumptom was the name given by the Zoramites to the elevated place in their synagogues whence they offered up their vain-glorious and hypocritical prayers. Alma states that the word means a holy stand. It resembles, in its roots, Hebrew and also Egyptian in a remarkable manner. Ramoth, high (as Ramoth Gilead), elevated, a place where one can see and be seen; or, in a figurative sense, sublime or exalted. Mptom has probably its roots in the Hebrew word translated threshold, as we are told that the Philistines' god, Dagon, has a threshold in Ashdod (See 1 Sam. 5:41 Sam. 5:4 1 Sam. 5:4-5 ). Words with this root are quite common in the Bible. Thus we see how Rameumptom means a high place to stand upon, a holy stand.” (George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, edited and arranged by Philip C. Reynolds, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955-1961], 4: 80.)
“While many words and names found in the Book of Mormon have exact equivalents in the Hebrew Bible, certain others exhibit Semitic characteristics, though their spelling does not always match known Hebrew forms. For example, "Rabbanah" as "great king" (Alma 18:13) may have affinities with the Hebrew root /rbb/, meaning "to be great or many." "Rameumptom" (Alma 31:21), meaning "holy stand," contains consonantal patterns suggesting the stems /rmm/ramah/, "to be high," and /tmm/tam/tom/, "to be complete, perfect, holy.” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 181.)
22 Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.
23 Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand, to offer up thanks after their manner.
Social: These verses provide a description of some important features of Zoramite society, and also of Nephite society since they are presented in a way that tells us that they are different from the Nephite norm. First, we again have the discussion of the “selfsame” prayer. What we have added to this information is the implied communality in previous verses explicitly stated in verse 23. This is a prayer that is given when “they had assembled themselves together.” The function of this prayer is not individual worship, but communal worship. This public statement of communal unity is clearly not a part of Nephite worship since it is obviously the subject of criticism. From this we learn not only that the Zoramite worship maintains distinct political and communal overtones, and that the Nephite worship did not use public prayer in this manner.
The second criticism appears to be that this is a practice that is relegated to a specific day, and that the Zoramites do not speak of their God in the intervening days. The Zoramite practice of relegating worship to an event is not all that different from many religions, where worship is associated with days and functions. Where the emphasis of religion in on the community rather than the individual, the focus is logically on events that may be planned for the gathering of that community. The Nephite worship is, on the other hand, an individual worship as well as a communal one. There are communal functions, but the essence of religious practice is individual.
Of course the gospel of Christ is intended to be internalized. It is intended that the practice of religion be personal and not uniquely communal. We continue to participate in communal religious gatherings because those also have value, but in addition to Sunday meetings, religion happens in personal prayers and in the moral lessons we teach our children and in the moral lessons we attempt to live ourselves each day.
24 Now when Alma saw this his heart was grieved; for he saw that they were a wicked and a perverse people; yea, he saw that their hearts were set upon gold, and upon silver, and upon all manner of fine goods.
Social: We are not given the connection that Alma is able to make between the prayer of the Zoramites and the idea that their “hearts were set upon gold, and upon silver, and upon all manner of fine goods.” The prayers themselves do not indicate that. What does indicate their economic desires is the nature of the clothing, which is mentioned in verse 28. The prayer itself does not convey their love of riches, but they clothing does, and Alma certainly sees that clothing as the Zoramites individually mount the Rameumptom.
This tells us even more of the nature of the Zoramite community and the function of the prayer upon the Rameumptom. The Zoramites are anti-Nephite, and have selected a location that is bordering a location where there are numerous Lamanites. In the description of the fine clothing we have a repetition of one of the characteristics of the adoption of Lamanite culture among the Nephites. We have previously discussed the meaning of fine clothing. It is a Book of Mormon signal of apostasy because it is the adoption of specific cultural trappings and attitudes that come from the surrounding Lamanite cultures.
In Zoramite society we have the Rameumptom in an open square standing in the center so that when a person mounts the stand they are standing above all of the people in the open area (termed a synagogue). When a person stands upon the Rameumptom he might be better heard because of the height, but we should not forget that the person is also seen. The nature of the Rameumptom is also that a single person at a time might stand there. This gives unique visual presence to the person on the stand. Since all of the people who are on the stand are in the same place, and repeat the same words, the differences between them can become more apparent, especially since these differences are represented in the clothing that they wore. As we have noted, Mesoamerican clothing was a demonstration of status and wealth, and thus the Rameumptom becomes not only a mode of communal unity of religio-political belief, but a display mode to underline status and wealth. It is no wonder that the poor were excluded from this display, as we shall see. Even had they been allowed, they would quickly note that their manner of dress would be insufficient beside the other displays on the stand, and they would elect not to participate.
25 Yea, and he also saw that their hearts were lifted up unto great boasting, in their pride.
We should be careful to note the nature of the Zoramite pride and boasting. It would be easy to assume that there was great pride in their assumption that they were better than other peoples. We should be somewhat cautious of excoriating that particular sentiment, since it is such a fundamental part of human nature. We, as humans, tend to believe that the best organization is the one to which we belong. This tendency is seen in national pride and in such mundane things as sports teams. The very idea that people might argue which sports team is the best is an indication that pride of belonging is a very strong urge. While the Zoramites don’t have sports teams, and are not a large nation, they are nevertheless a city, and they are unified in their common beliefs. The very fact that they have chosen to gather themselves together suggests that they think their beliefs are better than those of the peoples from whom they have separated.
The pride of the Zoramites that Alma is concerned with is not the pride of community. Alma would not mind that different colleges each suppose their own sports teams are “the best.” What Alma finds disruptive is the same marker of pride that we have seen from other prophets in the Book of Mormon. It is the social stratification that comes with using economic wealth as a divider. It is no mistake that we get Alma’s concerns over pride after his mention of the love of gold and silver and in the context of the fine clothing (coming shortly). Those are the dangerous and divisive elements of pride because they undermine communities and fragment them into smaller groups that are not based on principles that might been a wide number of people together, but rather principles that clearly separate and lift one privileged group over another. Sports teams may include all social strata, but the tyranny of the economically elite is exclusive. We should also remember that it isn’t the money, it is the social segregation, the attitude of superiority linked to money, that is the evil.
26 And he lifted up his voice to heaven, and cried, saying: O, how long, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that thy servants shall dwell here below in the flesh, to behold such gross wickedness among the children of men?
27 Behold, O God, they cry unto thee, and yet their hearts are swallowed up in their pride. Behold, O God, they cry unto thee with their mouths, while they are puffed up, even to greatness, with the vain things of the world.
28 Behold, O my God, their costly apparel, and their ringlets, and their bracelets, and their ornaments of gold, and all their precious things which they are ornamented with; and behold, their hearts are set upon them, and yet they cry unto thee and say—We thank thee, O God, for we are a chosen people unto thee, while others shall perish.
Alma’s response to the Zoramite social situation is an anguished prayer to God. Alma sees Zoramite worship as a complete reversal of the principles of the gospel. Since these are a people who had access to the gospel, and who have actively rejected the gospel for this new religio-political creed, Alma sees them as grossly wicked. They have consciously chosen to oppose the plan of God.
As Alma describes the particular problems with the Zoramites, he specifically mentions their pride, and the evidence of their pride is plainly manifest in what Alma sees as each persons mounts their holy stand. They are wearing costly apparel. Fitting precisely the description of Mesoamerican wealth display on clothing, these people are wearing their wealth in the form of visible displays of precious items. Alma does not have to hear their pride, he can see it in what they wear, and in the ceremony that is designed to highlight that visual appearance by placing the wearer above the crowd is full display.
29 Yea, and they say that thou hast made it known unto them that there shall be no Christ.
30 O Lord God, how long wilt thou suffer that such wickedness and infidelity shall be among this people? O Lord, wilt thou give me strength, that I may bear with mine infirmities. For I am infirm, and such wickedness among this people doth pain my soul.
Notice that while their pride disturbs Alma, it is their rejection of the Christ that causes him greatest suffering. He describes this action as “wickedness and infidelity.” It is after this particular transgression that he asks the Lord for strength. The social ills of Zoramite society might be a perversion of the gospel that Alma understands, but this is a separate community and their social stratification would not directly affect anyone outside of the community. Their rejection of Christ damns their souls. That is a more serious problem.
31 O Lord, my heart is exceedingly sorrowful; wilt thou comfort my soul in Christ. O Lord, wilt thou grant unto me that I may have strength, that I may suffer with patience these afflictions which shall come upon me, because of the iniquity of this people.
32 O Lord, wilt thou comfort my soul, and give unto me success, and also my fellow laborers who are with me—yea, Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner, and also Amulek and Zeezrom and also my two sons—yea, even all these wilt thou comfort, O Lord. Yea, wilt thou comfort their souls in Christ.
33 Wilt thou grant unto them that they may have strength, that they may bear their afflictions which shall come upon them because of the iniquities of this people.
34 O Lord, wilt thou grant unto us that we may have success in bringing them again unto thee in Christ.
Alma asks for two things in his prayer. He asks for comfort through the trials, and success in their labors. Notice that he does not ask that the labors be easy. He does not expect that there will be no trials. Alma fully expects that the mission to the Zoramites will be difficult. We know from his later blessing to Shiblon that he had been imprisoned and stoned (Alma 38:4). This certainly would not be an easy mission. Nevertheless, what Alma asks is not that the way be made easy, but that they be comforted in their trials.
35 Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren; therefore, give unto us, O Lord, power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee.
36 Now it came to pass that when Alma had said these words, that he clapped his hands upon all them who were with him. And behold, as he clapped his hands upon them, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Alma ends his prayer and at the end performs an action. He “clapped his hands upon all them who were with him.” The simplest explanation of what is happening here is more typically a “laying on” of hands rather than a “clapping:”
“Alma so invoked the power of the Holy Ghost in behalf of his colaborers: "He clapped his hands upon all them who were with him. And behold, as he clapped his hands upon them, they were filled with the Holy Spirit." The Savior gave authority to the twelve Nephite disciples, by touching them one by one; they were thus commissioned to bestow the Holy Ghost.” (James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981], 150.)
Unquestionably, the result of this action is the conference of the Spirit upon those who were to continue in this missionary journey. Of course we should see this as a special blessing rather than as the conferral of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. This is the blessing of a prophet to his fellow missionaries, a particular invocation of the Spirit for the task ahead.
Linguistic: What is interesting is the “clapping.” This is an unusual usage of the term. We understand the basic action, but clapping is a much more violent action that laying. The discussion that follows is entirely speculative. It is possible that the word clap is a result of some idiosyncrasy of translation. What follows is a discussion of a possible meaning if it really is a direct translation, and that word held a meaning more specific than laying might have.
One of the characteristics of a clap is that the action is accompanied by a noise. One of the little noted aspects of the ancient Mesoamerican psyche is their attention to sounds. These sounds frequently link sounds to deities. The roar of a jaguar was associated with hills and rain (Codex Telleriano Remensis 1:186) and a deity is specifically noted as making loud noises in the mountains (H.B. Nicholson. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. University Press of Colorado, 2001, p. 97). We noted a possible connection between the Mesoamerican understanding of the presence of God in thunder and earthquakes when we examined Alma’s experience with the angel in Mosiah 27:11 (see the commentary after that verse).
These elements give us an interesting possibility. If Alma is, as a person of a generally Mesoamerican culture, sensitive to the symbolism of sound as well as action, the noise of the clap may have been a significant signal of the transfer of the Spirit, just as the physical touch would have been. Additionally, we should remember that for both Hebrew and Greek the word that we translate Spirit was more properly breath, or perhaps wind. If Alma had swung a hand hard enough to produce a “clap” it would also have necessarily been accompanied by a rush of wind. Thus we would have a unique set of symbols combining in this particular event, all of which highlight the divine nature of the spirit that is being conferred.
37 And after that they did separate themselves one from another, taking no thought for themselves what they should eat, or what they should drink, or what they should put on.
38 And the Lord provided for them that they should hunger not, neither should they thirst; yea, and he also gave them strength, that they should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ. Now this was according to the prayer of Alma; and this because he prayed in faith.
Alma and his brethren begin their missionary work, and do it in the same way that the Apostles in the Old World did. This preaching without purse or scrip (to use the New Testament terminology) was easier in a world that was more agricultural than our modern societies. Most ancient societies that were not money-based as is our modern economy, had rules of hospitality that required the generous care of the hungry. The reliance upon hospitality by the missionaries had two important functions in the mission to the Zoramites. The first was that it clearly separated Alma and his brethren from the ranks of the priests practicing priestcraft, or administering religion for gain. The presence of these missionaries requesting hospitality would be in direct contrast to priests demanding tribute.
The second, and more important, function of the reliance upon hospitality is that it created a situation in which the offerer had to become sufficiently humble to offer the hospitality. This provided an opportunity for the missionaries to be with the Zoramites at a time when their hearts might not be quite so hardened.
Textual: There is no chapter break here in the 1830 edition.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001