Alma 17


 



MDC Contents

 

 

An account of the sons of Mosiah, who rejected their rights to the kingdom for the word of God, and went up to the land of Nephi to preach to the Lamanites; their sufferings and deliverance-according to the record of Alma. [Comprising chapters 17 to 26 inclusive.]

Textual: This introduction is part of the 1830 edition (with the exception of the text in brackets. It is interesting that the source for this information is declared. Mormon indicates that it comes form the record of Alma. Certainly the current chapter does, but there will be another such preface before our chapter 21, and the source material is not cited there. It is probable that the account will still come from Alma, as it continues the information on the sons of Mosiah who reported their activities to Alma. Neither this section, nor the one beginning with chapter 21 are written in the first person, so we may suppose that this is Alma's recording of the stories as they were told to him.

Alma 17:1
1 And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla.


We have Alma journeying in the last of chapter 16 without specific information on where he visited. At this point we have him leaving Gideon and traveling south to Manti. Gideon was the location of Alma's pleasant visit recorded in chapters 6 and 7 of Alma. With the triumphant theme of Alma's preaching as recorded in chapter 16, and the praise Alma gave Gideon in chapters 6 and 7, we may expect that there was no need to call Gideon to repentance. Alma either stopped at Gideon for the pleasure of a friendly and righteous location, or it was simply on the way to Manti. Of course, it may also be that it was on his way to Manti from wherever else he had been, and he stopped not only for refreshment in travel, but for the pleasure of the righteous company.

In any case, as he leaves Gideon and travels toward Manti, he meets his friends, the sons of former king Mosiah. It is logical that he might meet them here, as Manti apparently stands guard at the main connection between the land of Nephi (the principle land of the Lamanites) and the land of Zarahemla. Thus Alma fortuitously meets his friends just as they are returning from a long journey into the heartland of the Lamanites.

Alma 17:2
2 Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.


The sons of Mosiah were still faithful, even though they had spent the last fourteen years in a very difficult mission field. They had gone to the enemies of their people, both politically and religiously. How did they fortify themselves against the overwhelming culture in which they found themselves? They had turned to the word of God, and searched the scriptures diligently. That model is easily applied to the modern world, where many find themselves daily surrounded by those with different beliefs, and sometimes customs. Just as the sons of Mosiah, we have access to the word of God in the scriptures, and may use that source to deepen our understanding and relationship to God despite the pressures of the world around us.

Textual: As an editor, Mormon understands that he has separated the stories of the sons of Mosiah from that of Alma the Younger. When he comes to this juncture, he reminds us of who these men were so that we may better follow the story. His description includes their relationship to Alma and his conversion, and their current spiritual relationship. This continuance in the way of the Lord is an important revelation for two reasons. First, these were men who were, as was Alma, enemies of the church only fourteen years before. Even though they had been converted, it is important to note that they had not reverted to their original ways. The second reason for describing their righteousness is that they have been fourteen years among the Lamanites, among those who believe differently, and perhaps were the source of the beliefs the sons of Mosiah held during the time they persecuted the church. Thus it is important information to know that the strength of their conversion was equal to that of Alma the Younger.

Alma 17:3
3 But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.


The process of gaining spiritual strength began with searching the scriptures. Mormon notes, "but this is not all." There is more to becoming spiritually powerful that just reading the scriptures. In addition to reading the scriptures, the sons of Mosiah had given themselves to prayer and fasting, "therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation."

While the particular spiritual achievements of the sons of Mosiah might be beyond many of us, the basic mechanics of their spiritual growth area readily available, and flow in a rather logical progression. As with the Sons of Mosiah, we too may begin by reading the scriptures. The scriptures present the lessons others like us have learned. We may see in them the struggles of real people that mirror the problems that we face, even if the specifics are very different.

Just reading the scriptures, however, does not ensure that they have a transforming power over us. It is possible to read the scriptures for literature alone, or history alone, and miss the spiritual insights they contain. These "dangers" of scripture reading may be overcome by combining the reading of the scriptures with prayer and fasting. Fasting is an intensifier to our prayers, so it is the prayer that becomes the important conduit for learning, with fasting a means of improving the "connection" of the prayer with the Spirit.

When the Spirit is applied to our reading, the ability of the Spirit to teach us all things (John 14:26, DC 75:10) can springboard from the historical issues of the scriptures into the contemporary problems we struggle with daily. It is this application of the Spirit to the scriptures that opens up our learning to true spiritual wisdom. Through our increasing sensitivity to the Spirit, we may become more open to personal revelation, to personal prophecy.

Alma 17:4
4 And they had been teaching the word of God for the space of fourteen years among the Lamanites, having had much success in bringing many to the knowledge of the truth; yea, by the power of their words many were brought before the altar of God, to call on his name and confess their sins before him.
Alma 17:5
5 Now these are the circumstances which attended them in their journeyings, for they had many afflictions; they did suffer much, both in body and in mind, such as hunger, thirst and fatigue, and also much labor in the spirit.


Mormon is setting up the story. He reminds us that they Sons of Mosiah have been teaching among the Lamanites for fourteen years, and that they have had many journeyings and afflictions. The story he will tell will elaborate on those journeys.

Alma 17:6
6 Now these were their journeyings: Having taken leave of their father, Mosiah, in the first year of the judges; having refused the kingdom which their father was desirous to confer upon them, and also this was the minds of the people;


Mormon now transitions from the current timeframe to an earlier one. He has begun this chapter in the fourteenth year of the judges, and now goes fourteen years earlier to the time when the sons of Mosiah declined the kingdom and left for their mission to the Lamanites. This story is spread across Mosiah 27-29.

Alma 17:7
7 Nevertheless they departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and took their swords, and their spears, and their bows, and their arrows, and their slings; and this they did that they might provide food for themselves while in the wilderness.


Mormon mentions the weapons they took with them, but makes certain to note that they are for provisions. An ancient mind might not have needed to know this specifically, because the bow and the sling were more hunting weapons than weapons of war, though they do find their way into Mesoamerican warfare. The sword is more obviously a military weapon, and Mormon feels constrained to indicate their peaceful status by stating directly what their intents were for the weaponry they carried.

Alma 17:8
8 And thus they departed into the wilderness with their numbers which they had selected, to go up to the land of Nephi, to preach the word of God unto the Lamanites.


The missionary party was larger than four. We are not given the number, but simply that there was a number who accompanied them. This is a logical precaution for survival. Not only do the extra numbers allow for a larger number of hunters to supply food, but it provides a better defensive rotation for their encampments. This would be required not only for human, but for animal foes.

Alma 17:9
9 And it came to pass that they journeyed many days in the wilderness, and they fasted much and prayed much that the Lord would grant unto them a portion of his Spirit to go with them, and abide with them, that they might be an instrument in the hands of God to bring, if it were possible, their brethren, the Lamanites, to the knowledge of the truth, to the knowledge of the baseness of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct.
Alma 17:10
10 And it came to pass that the Lord did visit them with his Spirit, and said unto them: Be comforted. And they were comforted.


As they begin their journey, the pray for guidance. We should not discount the situation into which they were inserting themselves. They were a band of armed men entering the land of a sworn enemy which had driven previous Nephites from their land (the original Nephites and later the Alma/Limhites). Thus they were entering a militarily precarious situation. On top of this delicate physical circumstance, they were also attempting to preach the gospel to a people who rejected it, and probably considered their religion superior to that of the Lamanites. It is no wonder at all that they would pray for guidance.

It is similarly no wonder that the first response of the Lord is one of comfort. The situation must have invoked trepidation if not outright fear. The Lord replies with comfort. Because they could understand the Spirit, they were comforted. Many times the Lord may speak comfort to us, but we are unable to hear, and so we do not receive the of the blessing of comfort because we not tuned to receive it.

Alma 17:11
11 And the Lord said unto them also: Go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.


Here we have the Lord giving instructions on how to do difficult missionary work. He approves of their mission, and tells them to go to preach and establish his word. As he does so, he tells the company what they will need to do to be successful. The advice is appropriate for a modern audience as well.

[patient in long-suffering and afflictions] Very few missions are immediately successful, and missions in their early stages are even less obviously productive. Patience allows us to realize that the lack of immediate success is not evidence of lack of success. People require time. Missionaries need the time to find the right people among all of the possible converts. The potential converts need time to accept the change in their lives that will come through the acceptance of the gospel. Patience allows the missionary to wait for these natural processes to take place. This is patience in long-suffering. This is not meant to emphasize "suffering" but the other meaning of "suffer" which is to allow. To be "long-suffering" is to have the patience to allow events to develop at their own pace.

Patient in afflictions is self-directed, where the patience in long-suffering is directed to another person. Missionary tasks are not always easy, and they may lead to different types of afflictions. In the days of the Sons of Mosiah, those afflictions would have been more numerous, and potentially life-threatening. Nevertheless, they were to have patience even through those trials.

[show forth good examples unto them in me] One of the greatest tools of the missionary is their own soul. The change effected in the person of the missionary is the example before the investigator of the possibilities offered in the gospel. Anyone who would make a great change to leave a life behind and follow the Lord needs to know that the process is both possible and worthwhile. The example of the missionary is a paramount tool to show both of these aspects.

[I will make an instrument of thee in my hands] Lest any missionary forget, it is not the missionary that does the converting. The excellent missionary is an instrument, not the hand that moves the instrument. It is the Spirit that converts, through the tool of the missionary, who through faith and effort, is in the right place at the right time.

Alma 17:12
12 And it came to pass that the hearts of the sons of Mosiah, and also those who were with them, took courage to go forth unto the Lamanites to declare unto them the word of God.


This band had already decided to declare the gospel to the Lamanites before they departed. However, that may have been a more "logical" decision. In this case, it is the result of the comfort of the Lord that their determination to preach has been increased. Given the difficulties they might face, we may see much in the phrase that they "took courage to go forth…" The comfort of the Lord gave them that courage.

Alma 17:13
13 And it came to pass when they had arrived in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, that they separated themselves and departed one from another, trusting in the Lord that they should meet again at the close of their harvest; for they supposed that great was the work which they had undertaken.


The great faith of these men is evidenced in their willingness to separate. The smaller the group, the less likely to be able to withstand hostile raiding parties. However, it is also possible that the separation into smaller groups made the proselyting task easier, not only because they could speak to more people, but because they certainly could not be seen as a military threat in small numbers.

One of the facets of many ancient societies that may help us understand the dynamics of this visit to the Lamanites is the dichotomy between official tensions between different peoples, and the rules of hospitality. While the Lamanites and Nephites as a group certainly do not get along in the Book of Mormon, smaller numbers of people have no difficulty traveling from place to place and even entering the cities of their enemies. The official wars and armed conflicts appear to take place on a larger, more political level. On a personal level, people were people, and there appears to be nothing that we would term racial hatred that appears. There were certainly adverse beliefs that each held about the other, but in the end we have people who understand the importance of hospitality to travelers, particularly when they are obviously of no political or military threat.

Literary: "At the close of their harvest" refers to the harvest of souls, not the season of the agrarian harvest.

Alma 17:14
14 And assuredly it was great, for they had undertaken to preach the word of God to a wild and a hardened and a ferocious people; a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites, and robbing and plundering them; and their hearts were set upon riches, or upon gold and silver, and precious stones; yet they sought to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands.


Cultural: Once again we see the Nephite perception of the Lamanite coming through. The particulars of this description, however, show us that while the Nephite view of the Lamanites remains as negative as ever, there are some interesting changes in the nature of the complaints. Of course, we must also understand that this is Mormon's description, so it probably describes the nature of the conflicts as Mormon saw them rather than the perception that the sons of Mosiah had, although they could have had similar preconceptions.

For Mormon, the Lamanites are still "a wild and a hardened and a ferocious" people. This simple description has some generic continuation from the Lamanite catalog of Enos in Enos 1:20. In that catalog, they were also "wild and ferocious." Thus a basic characteristic perception of the Lamanites spans nearly the entire Book of Mormon. This "wild" apparently remains while the original basis on which it was based has been nearly completely erased. In 2 Nephi 5:24 the word "wild" is not used, but a description of the Lamanites as nomadic hunters without apparent culture is clearly given as the general perception. This "uncivilized" morphed into "wild" and remained a description of the Lamanites even when the term "uncivilized" could no longer be applied to them as a people.

[a people who delighted in murdering the Nephites] There are two distinct possibilities for this description. The first is that there is a continuation of the historical antipathy between Lamanite and Nephite that makes the assumption that the Lamanites would like to "murder" the Nephites. However, the development of the Book of Mormon shows that there were, in fact, an increasing number and intensity of wars between Lamanites and Nephites. In the cultural context of Mesoamerica, we are in the time period when war is being developed as a religious duty among many Mesoamerican peoples. Particularly when Mormon is writing, the intensity of the wars would be apparent, and this description particularly apt. This particular phrase may be seen as both a description of the Lamanites and of virtually all of the known larger populations in Mesoamerica during Mormon's time, from what is now Honduras to Central Mexico.

One interesting possibility in Mormon's statement is the interesting selection of the term "murder." Mormon is a military man, and it would be unlike a military man to describe death through battle as a "murder." Casualties have been part of warfare since warfare was introduced into humanity sometime in the past so far away that we cannot tell a time when there was no warfare. Death in such conflicts have developed many euphemisms, with some societies exalting a death in warfare to a more respected religious plane than other forms of demise (this was an aspect of Aztec religion, where the warrior dying in battle went straight to their heaven).

Even though warfare may be against mortal enemies, there is still a distinction between a death in battle and a murder. It is possible that Mormon is referring here to something more than the deaths which came from the battles in which the warriors engaged. In Mesoamerica, human sacrifice developed as an important religious rite, and one of the major functions of warfare was to supply needed prisoners for sacrifice. Certainly the Nephites did not practice nor condone human sacrifice, and while Mormon the military man might not see death in battle as murder, he would certainly see death by sacrifice as a murder. Murders are unjustified deaths with intentional causes. Accidents are not murders because there is no intention. Deaths in war are intentional, but they are justified by the circumstances. Because the Nephites do not share the ideology that justified human sacrifice, they would not see it as a justified death, thus it would clearly be defined as murder by a Nephite.

[and robbing and plundering them] Mormon gives us two different categories of conflict between Lamanites and Nephites. While they are most likely referencing the situation at the time Mormon is writing, they are not out of place during the time of Alma and the Sons of Mosiah. In addition to murdering the Nephites, the Lamanites want to rob and plunder them. Once again, these descriptions fit the nature of Mesoamerican warfare. The function of warfare was to supply prisoners for ritual sacrifice, and to create and maintain control over tributary cities. It is this latter function that Mormon sees as "robbing and plundering."

[and their hearts were set upon riches, or upon gold and silver, and precious stones] The list of tribute items in Mesoamerica was certainly larger than gold and silver. Precious stones in Mesoamerica were typically jade rather than stones that we might consider more "precious" such as emeralds, rubies, etc. In the Book of Mormon, we frequently see gold and silver used as a set of terms that is applied to the desire for wealth. As has been discussed, Mesoamerica did not value either gold nor silver as highly as did the Western world that nearly destroyed the New World searching for those metals. What we are probably seeing in the Book of Mormon is a linguistic phrase that has a meaning as a set above and beyond its literal meaning. English has several of these phrases where the meaning exceeds the reality of the statement. For instance, we understand what it means when somebody acquires a property "lock, stock, and barrel." We understand that someone has purchased land and all that is on it. What we typically don't see is the awkwardness of using that term to describe land. This stock phrase refers to parts of a rifle. How is it that we understand something about a land purchase by referring to parts of a gun? Clearly there is nothing like a gun in the purchase of land. That phrase no longer refers to the items it originally described, but rather has gained a new meaning as a set.

Similarly, we go to a sporting goods store to be outfitted for any sport, and buy "the whole enchilada." Of course there is nothing about food in the items purchased, let alone anything particularly Mexican about them. The phrase does not refer to the specifics, but to a meaning that is larger than the term itself. The use of gold and silver in the Book of Mormon would appear to have taken on similar meanings. They are always used to express wealth, even though they do not necessarily equate with wealth in the cultural world in which the Nephites found themselves. Nevertheless, the connections of the Nephites to the Old World could easily have brought conceptions of gold and silver as wealth with them, and remained as a descriptor of wealth long after it was not descriptive of the particular elements of wealth.

[yet they sought to obtain these things by murdering and plundering, that they might not labor for them with their own hands.] By now, this phrase should have become quite familiar as a description of the evils of non-Nephite society. The idea that people should not work with their hands is embodied in the plundering. Mesoamerica at the time of the Book of Mormon presents precisely this scenario in the development of the great city states of the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, and Teotihuacanos. Each of these societies created their wealth and influence on the back of military conquest and domination of other locations which sent tribute back to the dominant city. This system of tribute fed the hierarchical society, and allowed them to have a wealth and prestige that they did not create with their own hand. Thus we have seen since the time of Benjamin a Nephite hatred of any system which supported the ideologies of social hierarchies and not "working with their own hands." These are some of the major facets of the competing ideologies which were always with them.

We should not be surprised that Mormon's catalog of the evils of the Lamanites should so closely resemble both the earlier catalogs and the general descriptions of non-Nephite behavior. Indeed, we have seen that much of the order of the Nehors consisted in accepting some of these elements while apparently mixing them into a form of brass plates religion. The ancient world did not change nearly as rapidly as does the modern world, and it is quite common to see certain types of culture sets persisting for hundreds or a thousand years.

Alma 17:15
15 Thus they were a very indolent people, many of whom did worship idols, and the curse of God had fallen upon them because of the traditions of their fathers; notwithstanding the promises of the Lord were extended unto them on the conditions of repentance.


Mormon's catalog of Lamanite evils continues.

[Thus they were a very indolent people] This phrase flows directly from the assertion that they do not want to work with their own hands. To Nephite ideology, this is the definition of indolence.

[many of whom did worship idols] Mormon could have said that most of them did, if not all. Particularly during his day, the presence of idols would have been pervasive. Certainly the Mesoamerican cities that have been excavated show ample evidence of having certain types of idols. Nevertheless, much of Maya monumental art is not depicting gods, but rather mortals and kings, who were considered semi-divine, but were yet real men. We do see idols large scale idols in later Mesoamerican history, and perhaps there is some development that Mormon witnessed that allowed him to indicate that there were "many" who worshipped the idols rather than "all." Certainly, whether or not there was an idol involved, they worshipped multiple foreign gods.

[and the curse of God had fallen upon them because of the traditions of their fathers] Mormon applies the curse to them generically, and does not really state what the curse is. From his next phrase, however, it appears that he relates the curse to a distance from the true religion, since they appear to be redeemed from the curse with conversion.

[notwithstanding the promises of the Lord were extended unto them on the conditions of repentance.] Even though they carry a curse from God, they may be redeemed. Certainly the implication is that they are also redeemed from the curse. Thus whatever Mormon conceived as their curse, it was something that could be removed though repentance and acceptance of the gospel. One of the aspects of the curse was the required separation of the Nephites and the Lamanites, with the particular prohibition of marriage. When a Lamanite was converted, he became a Nephite, and we hear of no continuing marriage prohibition. Indeed we will see converted Lamanites living in Nephite lands and becoming completely accepted members of Nephite society. Thus this curse was entirely removed through conversion.

Alma 17:16
16 Therefore, this was the cause for which the sons of Mosiah had undertaken the work, that perhaps they might bring them unto repentance; that perhaps they might bring them to know of the plan of redemption.


Since conversion to the true gospel could redeem the Lamanites from their cursing by the Lord, the Sons of Mosiah chose to undertake their mission to the Lamanites.

Alma 17:17
17 Therefore they separated themselves one from another, and went forth among them, every man alone, according to the word and power of God which was given unto him.


Textual: We see here another of the characteristics of Mormon's style. Verse 17 is a repeat of the basic information in verse 13. The essential information communitcated is that they separated.

When Mormon wrote, he had two tasks before him. The first was to construct the historical framework of his story, and the second was to hang the gospel onto that framework. In this case, Mormon presented both types of information in the same verse. He indicates that there is an event of structural import for the story; the Sons of Mosiah separate. This will become very important as the story of these missionaries unfolds, as Mormon will be relating stories from different protagonists. He is also interested in the gospel import of the story he is telling. Therefore, he organizes this section in the following way:

History and religion
Religious moral as an aside
History as a return to the structure.

Mormon the editor takes his read down the structural path, diverts for a religious aside, and then returns to the historical backbone by repeating the point at which the diversion took place. We have seen Mormon do this on other occasions.

Alma 17:18
18 Now Ammon being the chief among them, or rather he did administer unto them, and he departed from them, after having blessed them according to their several stations, having imparted the word of God unto them, or administered unto them before his departure; and thus they took their several journeys throughout the land.


Ammon appears in this verse as the "chief" among the sons of Mosiah. It is possible that he has this position as the eldest, a fact suggested not only by his determination as the "chief," but also because he is listed first in the list of the names of Mosiah's sons given in Mosiah 27:34 (this same list is given in the same order in Alma 23:1, 25:17, 31:6. There is another mention of the first three in Alma 31:32). As noted in the discussion of Mosiah 27:34, the only counter indication against his being the eldest is the initial proposal of the people that Aaron be the king.

We are not given much information about what it was that Ammon did to "administer," but the way the sentence is constructed it appears that there is a softening of the possible meaning of being chief among them. Ammon may be the leader, but it is he who "administers" to his brethren. Ammon appears to understand the principle of leadership that the Savior taught:

Matt. 23:11
11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

Rather than make himself the subject of service, Ammon apparently renders service. This service included blessings, and possibly directions, though we are told only of the blessings. It is probable that as the "chief" among them, Ammon was the one to direct the nature of the separation of the brothers, but the text is careful to emphasize his service rather than his orders.

Alma 17:19
19 And Ammon went to the land of Ishmael, the land being called after the sons of Ishmael, who also became Lamanites.


Geography: The land of Ishmael is a hereditary holding of the Ishmaelite clan. Sorenson suggests the area around Chimaltenango, Guatemala, as a plausible location for the land of Ishmael (Sorenson 1985, p. 225). While we do not learn extensive amounts of information about it, it is clear that this is a region controlled by a king with dependent lands, and that it falls under the larger collective name of Lamanites.

Cultural: This verse offers further confirmation that Lamanite is a collective term rather than a lineal one. If the land of Ishmael is "called after the sons of Ishmael, who also became Lamanites," then Lamanite cannot be a name specifically dealing with the descendants of Laman. Clearly it had a minimum division of Lamanite (as a clan), Lemuelite, and Ishmaelite. As a collective name for the polity, there is nothing that hinders that collective from also describing "others" who might have joined with those original clans, just as we have suggested that there were "others" joining with the Nephites very early.

Alma 17:20
20 And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king; and thus it was left to the pleasure of the king to slay them, or to retain them in captivity, or to cast them into prison, or to cast them out of his land, according to his will and pleasure.


Even with his hunting weapons, a solitary Ammon would hardly be a threat to the Lamanites. Additionally, we are not told how it was that they recognized Ammon as a Nephite. It is quite possible that it was because of the manner of dress, since there are, even today, certain unique styles and patterns of dress among the Maya of Guatemala that allow one who knows the code to determine the local of the persons origin by the designs and colors in certain items of clothing.

What we have in this description is a very clear indication that Ammon is being treated as a captive. This is significant in a Mesoamerican context because of the religious and political importance of captives to the public functioning of the city state. Such captives were always bound. It may also be significant that he was "carried" before the king, rather than being allowed to walk. This type of description indicates the public humiliation of the captive, and reflects the utter domination of the captor over the captive. This was an important part of captive display rituals among the Maya.

Next, we notice the range of options that was open to the king regarding this prisoner. This is a captive from a foreign polity, and one who has done nothing against the Lamanites except enter their land. Thus this is a man with no crime except being a foreigner. Nevertheless, the options of the local king include permanent captive, or death. This range of options also fits what is known of the way that captives were treated. While Ammon was certainly not captured in war, he was nevertheless presented as a captive of war, and his fate was possibly the same as a captive of war.

Alma 17:21
21 And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishmael.


Cultural: This verse confirms the clan association between land and rulership, at least in the land of Ishmael. We have Lamoni declared to be a descendant of Ishmael who is the king in the land of Ishmael. That is more than we should expect of coincidence. This particular Lamanite polity appears to have a lineal connection for its rulers, with the current dynasty having lasted nearly 600 years. We should not expect, however, that there was an unbroken chain from father to son, as Mesoamerican inheritance patterns could easily move to brothers. What is important is that there is a clan connection between the rulership and the land. This tells us that, like the Nephites, clan structures are active and important among the Lamanites. We could have assumed such, but it is good to have the confirmation.

Alma 17:22
22 And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.
Alma 17:23
23 And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.


We receive this information through Ammon's report to Alma, which comes long after this particular exchange. It is doubtful that this information has any relationship to official Lamanite documents, if there were any. Thus the particulars of the exchange are likely to be Ammon's remembrances, and not an accurate word for word reporting of the original exchange. This does not make a serious impeachment of the text, only cautions us to remember the particular bias of the reporter.

In this case, we have Ammon declaring his desire to live among the Lamanites. This is tantamount to severing his Nephite relationship, and becoming Lamanite. Without some assurance that Ammon had no ulterior motive as a spy, it is unlikely that this declaration of a desire to live among the Lamanites would be taken at face value.

Alma 17:24
24 And it came to pass that king Lamoni was much pleased with Ammon, and caused that his bands should be loosed; and he would that Ammon should take one of his daughters to wife.


Here we have a very curious statement that comes so simply that it is easy to miss. To highlight the modern improbability of this, let us restate what has just happened.

Ammon has come among a foreign and hostile people armed for hunting, but certainly armed. Ammon is taken as a ritual captive, and his complete humiliation and subordination to the king of Ismael is demonstrated by his public binding, and being carried before the king. For political reasons alone, this captive might be held in prison (and no doubt publicly tortured, if we use the Maya model) and possibly killed. Again with the Maya model, this is not an execution, but probably a public sacrifice, making a religio-political statement rather than simply extinguishing the life of an enemy.

With such a dire future, Ammon says that he wants to live with the Lamanites, and the king says, in effect, "oh, what a good idea. While you are at it, why don't you marry my daughter?" Doesn't something seem rather wrong about this?

Absolutely not. In fact, in the context of this type of society, the king's response is actually almost the only one that would allow Ammon to live. In kin based societies, such as we find in Mesoamerica, and such as are evidenced in the Book of Mormon, marriages create nearly unbreakable links between families. We are familiar with political marriages in Western royalty, but this is even more important, and much more binding.

Let's return to the problem as King Lamoni would see it. He has a man who has voluntarily come among his enemies. This man, while presented as a captive, is not a captive of war, but has come willingly. Thus there is little political and religious significance in his death or captive-torture. This man has professed that he wants to live among the Lamanites, but it is possible that he could want to do so to be a spy. Thus there is a problem facing the king. He could kill him, but achieve very little, or he could let him live, but worry about what he might do in the future. What the king decides to do is allow him to live, and morally and legally bind him to the Lamanites by marriage. This is no simple marriage, but one into the royal family. Thus the king allows Ammon to live, but places him in a position where his allegiances must change (to local family rather than the distant Nephties) and where the king might be able to keep an eye on him as one of the retainers of the king. What appears to be incongruous, is consistent in context.

Alma 17:25
25 But Ammon said unto him: Nay, but I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.


Ammon counters with a similar proposal, but one without a tie to privilege. Ammon asks to be a servant. To assuage the sensibilities of the king, there must have been some type of formal declaration, and perhaps Ammon was no simple servant, but rather a slave. Whatever the condition, Ammon was able to meet the requirement of calming the king's legitimate fears, and he was dispatched among the other servants of the king.

A servant, whether one with some rights, or a slave with few rights, was still a position of subservience, and contrasted with the probable life of a retainer that Ammon might have had as one married into the royal family. For Ammon, the difference was in the ability to serve. A servant had tasks. A retainer of the court would have become one of those who existed on the labor of others, one of the higher rank in society, one who did not work with his own hands. If Ammon had accepted the offer to be married into the royal family, he would have necessarily renounced some of the major tenets of his religion, clearly not something he was willing to do when he had come to do missionary work.

Alma 17:26
26 And after he had been in the service of the king three days, as he was with the Lamanitish servants going forth with their flocks to the place of water, which was called the water of Sebus, and all the Lamanites drive their flocks hither, that they may have water-


Language: We have an interesting adjective here, "Lamanitish." This is using a political term to describe the servants, who might otherwise expect to have been Lamanites (politically or lineally). It is possible that this usage denoted others such as Ammon who were not originally of the Lamanite polity who had been pressed into service, or had otherwise come into the service of the king. However, since this adjective is only used here and in Alma 19:16, we cannot be sure if it accurately denotes a category recognized in the plates, or is simply an artifact of the translation process. In both cases, the term is applied to a servant of the king, so both possibilities fit the two examples. Upon such thin evidence it is impossible to be certain, however, so we must simply leave it open to speculation.

Alma 17:27
27 Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, behold, a certain number of the Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon and the servants of the king, and they scattered them insomuch that they fled many ways.


The power of an image may be demonstrated in these verses. There are few readers of the Book of Mormon who have seen the Frieberg painting depicting Ammon with a metal sword guarding a herd of sheep who can help but see these "flocks" as sheep. In fact, the text never tells us what kind of animals these flocks are (the use of the terms flocks and herds in the Book of Mormon are problematic, see the explanation following 2 Nephi 5:11). We know only two things, that they require water and that they may be easily scattered. This latter behavior rather discourages the image of sheep, as they will tend to stick together rather than scatter. Whatever animal it was, it was not one with a herd instinct, and was one that was fast enough that when scattered they could not be easily recovered.

This entire episode requires some careful examination. Ammon intends that we read it as a story of the power of the Lord, and so we do. However, we should also read it for what it tells of us Lamanite society, for there are parts of the story that otherwise seem to make little sense.

First, we must set the basic scene. There is a place of water that appears to be required for whatever animal was in these flocks. This place of water is clearly in territory pertaining to King Lamoni, as it is inconceivable that there would be a major trail drive simply to take animals to water, particularly since this was a regular function. Into this area we now have a continuing set of marauders. We find in chapter 18 that these are thieves:

Alma 18:7
7 Now it was the practice of these Lamanites to stand by the waters of Sebus to scatter the flocks of the people, that thereby they might drive away many that were scattered unto their own land, it being a practice of plunder among them.

The attackers as well as the attacked are both Lamanites. Thus we are not seeing a Nephite/Lamanite conflict, but a Lamanite/Lamanite conflict. This is an important aspect of our understanding of the Book of Mormon because it is rather common to see the Lamanites as a homogeneous population. There are clearly divisions among the Lamanites that are not only indicated by multiple kings, as we will see during the story of the sons of Mosiah, but also differing factions. These thieves may or may not have had the approval of their own city, but it is rather unlikely that they would be connected to the city where Lamoni resided, because they might be recognized. Their anonymity is assured only if they are from a different city.

Alma 17:28
28 Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already.


The servants have responsibility for the flocks, and the scattering of the flocks sees them in dereliction of their duty. Of course a king must respond to such an offense, but he would be unable to act against the true culprits because they are not present. Nevertheless, such an offense would have to be punished, or it would be a signal that the king did not notice, and was therefore weakening. Indeed, the king had executed previous servants for the same problem.

Alma 17:29
29 Now they wept because of the fear of being slain. Now when Ammon saw this his heart was swollen within him with joy; for, said he, I will show forth my power unto these my fellow-servants, or the power which is in me, in restoring these flocks unto the king, that I may win the hearts of these my fellow-servants, that I may lead them to believe in my words.
Alma 17:30
30 And now, these were the thoughts of Ammon, when he saw the afflictions of those whom he termed to be his brethren.


Once again we should remember that we are receiving this tale long after the fact, and as part of Ammon's recounting to Alma. We don't get all of Ammon's thought processes here, only his conclusion. Ammon had to have had some indication from the Spirit that he would be able to use this event to position himself with king Lamoni, for the situation would not obviously present itself as advantageous. There is nothing about Ammon to suggest that he was so assured of his physical prowess that he would invite a fight. There was some indication through the spirit that this would be an advantageous course of action.

Alma 17:31
31 And it came to pass that he flattered them by his words, saying: My brethren, be of good cheer and let us go in search of the flocks, and we will gather them together and bring them back unto the place of water; and thus we will preserve the flocks unto the king and he will not slay us.


Since the flocks were not destroyed, but only scattered, there was the possibility that they could be recovered. Again, this tells us that the flocks consisted of animals that were fast enough, that they would be scattered into many locations, and that they would not be easy to find. There is no indication that Ammon waited a long time before making this speech and initiating the search. The fact that this rather obvious idea did not occur to the others in the party also suggests that we are dealing with some type of flock that was easily scattered, and that they were fast enough, and perhaps small enough, that they would be difficult to find after having been scattered. In this we may suppose that Ammon also felt some guidance of the spirit to be able to say to the others that they would be able to find the flocks and present them back to the king.

Translation: This is an interesting use of the word "flattered." We tend to have a connotation with flattery that it is insincere, yet that fault can hardly be placed at Ammon's feet. The "flattery" here must relate to convincing through speech, without the connotations of doing so with any hidden intent or falseness.

Alma 17:32
32 And it came to pass that they went in search of the flocks, and they did follow Ammon, and they rushed forth with much swiftness and did head the flocks of the king, and did gather them together again to the place of water.


Ammon lead the search, and was doubtless led by the spirit to find at least the bulk of the flock. Note that "much swiftness" was required to catch and head the flocks. The flocks were still in flight mode, and had to be stopped and then turned to head back to the water.

Alma 17:33
33 And those men again stood to scatter their flocks; but Ammon said unto his brethren: Encircle the flocks round about that they flee not; and I go and contend with these men who do scatter our flocks.


When the flocks were brought back to the water, the men who had originally scattered the flocks came to do so again. They would have had a similar problem in recovering any of the flock, and apparently Ammon was able to recover the majority. Bereft of their plunder, the men attempted to recover their prize.

One of the questions that remains unanswered is why no one had attempted physical force as a solution prior to Ammon. Since Ammon was a servant, as were the others, we must assume that the others would be just as likely as Ammon to be armed. Perhaps the difference lay in the training with the arms. There was some situation in play that appears to have assured that the men who did the scattering would be considered more powerful than the defendants.

Ammon has the men he is with circle the flocks. This is to prevent another flight of the flock. Ammon was likely certain that he would be at the center of a disturbance, and it had been some type of disturbance that had frightened and scattered the flocks before. Therefore he takes this precautionary measure.

Alma 17:34
34 Therefore, they did as Ammon commanded them, and he went forth and stood to contend with those who stood by the waters of Sebus; and they were in number not a few.
Alma 17:35
35 Therefore they did not fear Ammon, for they supposed that one of their men could slay him according to their pleasure, for they knew not that the Lord had promised Mosiah that he would deliver his sons out of their hands; neither did they know anything concerning the Lord; therefore they delighted in the destruction of their brethren; and for this cause they stood to scatter the flocks of the king.


This is Mormon's description. Clearly the intents and thoughts of the attackers were not known to Ammon, and Mormon is guessing at their motivations. What we can discern as completely accurate was that the attackers outnumbered the single Ammon. What we must also understand of Mormon's description is that Ammon was full of the spirit and knew that he could withstand the attack of the men. Although Mormon indicates that this would be in fulfillment of the promise made to Mosiah, it is certain that Ammon would not be so foolhardy to place himself in harm's way just because he had been promised protection. The Lord may promise us protection, but expects that we use reason and caution as well.

Alma 17:36
36 But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slain of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him.


While Ammon may have been confident in the protection of the Lord, he began his defense from a distance. Using a sling he cast stones at his enemy and killed six of them (see verse 38). During this time, the other group also began to sling stones, though their aim was not as sure as Ammon. When they were unable to subdue Ammon from a distance, they "came forth" with their clubs.

Stones are effective from some distance, but closing the distance to a personal contact makes the stones ineffective. At close range, the men choose their "clubs." We will discuss the weaponry in the next verse. In this case, the combative situation has begun with several men against one at a distance, and now will consistent of multiple men against one in close combat.

Alma 17:37
37 But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm.


There are several aspects of this combat that are worth examining. The first is the nature of the combat itself. We have a situation where there are several men contending against a single man. We might expect that the several should be able to easily overpower the one. The description of the action, however, appears to have a single pair of combatants at any one time. Regardless of the protection of the Lord, it would be difficult for Ammon to be so fast that he could smite the arms of six men who attacked simultaneously. Even in the Asian martial arts demonstrations where one man withstands a number of assailants, there is typically only one pair in combat at a time, however rapidly they might come in succession.

This is partially cultural, and partially practical. The pragmatic reason for a single pair of combatants is clearly the danger to one's own companions from the swinging weapons. Both clubs and swords require room to make the swings, and friends might suffer as much as foe in a close encounter. In the ancient world, combat was typically very personal. The advantage of six on one was not the simple superiority of numbers, but the superiority of stamina. The effort expended by Ammon is clearly six to one. It is therefore not surprising that the larger numbers would typically be victorious. Even a temporary gain by the one might be assumed to be overcome by the fatigue of the effort.

The next question we have to work on is the nature of the weapons. We are given two categories, club and sword. For the clubs we have little information, but may suppose that there was no cutting edge. For Ammon's sword we certainly expect a cutting edge, but that makes the description of the use of that weapon curious. For some reason the text explicitly states that Ammon smote the arms of his enemy "with the edge of his sword."

If we return to our assumption that a sword in the Book of Mormon is a modern term for a more common ancient weapon such as the macuahuitl, then there is a possibility that this unusual description has a more logical explanation. The macuahuitl was essentially a club with embedded obsidian blades on two sides forming a plane. Thus the "sword" had two edges that were sharp, and two sides that were nothing more than a club. When used without deadly intent, the side might be used. The edges, however, were clearly deadly, and fit the description of using the edge of the "sword." The macuahuitl was not typically a stabbing weapon, but a slashing weapon.

The final question before us is the practicality of a blow severing a human limb. Without dealing with issues of anatomy, we need only reference the report of the Spanish that a blow of a macuahuitl severed a horse's head during the fighting of the conquest. Certainly a weapon capable of decapitating a horse was sufficient for the gruesome task described here (see the translation of the Titulo C'oyoi in Carmack, Robert M. Quichean Civilization. University of California Press, 1973, p. 303.

Alma 17:38
38 Now six of them had fallen by the sling, but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword; and he smote off as many of their arms as were lifted against him, and they were not a few.


In the next chapter (Alma 18:16) we find that the six were killed, and the death of the leader by the sword made seven dead in all. The different treatment of the leader from the lead may indicate that Ammon recognized the role of the leader and intentionally executed him for his role. The others were clearly severely wounded, but it is probable that these were wounds from which they might recover. The Mesoamericans were well used to battle injuries, and were doubtless capable of stopping the blood loss and giving those without limbs a chance of survival.

Alma 17:39
39 And when he had driven them afar off, he returned and they watered their flocks and returned them to the pasture of the king, and then went in unto the king, bearing the arms which had been smitten off by the sword of Ammon, of those who sought to slay him; and they were carried in unto the king for a testimony of the things which they had done.


Cultural: The practice of cutting off some body part as a token of conquest is not unknown in the history of the world. In the Old World, the practice was often used to count enemy dead or perhaps to more accurately pay mercenaries ("Ammon and the Cutting Off the Arms of Enemies." Reexploring the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and FARMS, 1992, pp. 181-2).

Textual: There is no break in the 1830 edition. This is the introduction to Mormon's essential story, so he would not have made a break in the text at this point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001