Alma 18


MDC Contents



Alma 18:1
1 And it came to pass that king Lamoni caused that his servants should stand forth and testify to all the things which they had seen concerning the matter.

It should not surprise us at all that the king would ask his servants to account for their experience when a stack of arms was brought before him. Surely the most jaded of kings would be curious as to why the task of watering flocks should result in a stack of trophy arms. Of course, the king would also have been completely aware of the difficulties that previous servants had at the waters of Sebus, because previous servants were executed, and the king would have known of it, if not given the order directly. Thus the king was aware of the tension at the waters of Sebus, and that there is evidence before him that a dramatic change has occurred in the nature of that conflict.

Alma 18:2
2 And when they had all testified to the things which they had seen, and he had learned of the faithfulness of Ammon in preserving his flocks, and also of his great power in contending against those who sought to slay him, he was astonished exceedingly, and said: Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people, because of their murders?

We can easily understand the wonder of the king at Ammon's mighty feat. However, it is more difficult to understand the nature of the king's response. The king responds with several pieces of speculation that we should understand more fully.

[Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit] The king had previously met Ammon, and had seen him bound. The servants had traveled with him for whatever distance the watering location lay from the king's palace. All had been able to attest that Ammon was a physical being. How should we then understand the king's declaration that he might be "more than a man," and that he might be "the Great Spirit?" We may gain some insight into these statements by understanding the nature of Mesoamerican deities.

The line between human and divine was not as firmly drawn in Mesoamerica as it is in the Western world. Many of the Mesoamerican religious stories deal with exploits of named individuals who are "more than men." The hero twins of the Popol Vuh are certainly depicted as men, but they are just as certainly more than that. The Mixtec deity male 9 Wind is shown in the Codex Vindobonensis as a being in the heavens who descends and acts upon the earth. There are indications in the myriad of legends surrounding the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl that he also has a heavenly aspect, and one in which he operates on earth as "more than a man." (Popol Vuh. Tr. Dennis Tedlock. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985; Jill Leslie Furst, Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I: A Commentary. New York: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, 1978, pp. 104-106; Brant Gardner, "Quetzalcoatl's Fathers: A Critical Examination of Source Materials,"; Alfredo Lopez Ausin. Hombre Dios. Mexico: UNAM, 1972). These "more than men" may be best understood as demi-gods, or deities that inhabit the world and function here, but retain other-worldly powers. It is in this light that we should see King Lamoni's speculation on the nature of Ammon. King Lamoni and the servants know him to be physical. The very term "Great Spirit" has some connotation of ethereality, and so there is little chance that there was any indication that Ammon was less than tangible. However, Ammon could be one with the status of the demi-god, and it is in this light that we may see the king's questions.

[the Great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people, because of their murders?] This is a most perplexing statement. First, Ammon was not punishing anyone in the service of the king, but rather defending the honor (and flocks) of the king. It is difficult to see how the king might see Ammon's action as a form of punishment. Secondly, how might the king connect Ammon's heroic defense with Lamanite murders?

The term "murder" is used with some frequency from Alma to the end of the Book of Mormon. There are times when it is very clear that it should be understood precisely as we assume it to be, as an intentional, unjustified, killing. However, there are other times when it is more difficult to understand how the term is being used. For instance, we find a description of the deeds of the Gadianton robbers:

3 Ne. 1:27
27 And it came to pass that the ninety and third year did also pass away in peace, save it were for the Gadianton robbers, who dwelt upon the mountains, who did infest the land; for so strong were their holds and their secret places that the people could not overpower them; therefore they did commit many murders, and did do much slaughter among the people (italics added).

In this verse we have the interesting difference made between the "many murders" and the "much slaughter." It is possible, of course, that this is simply a literary device that pairs two similar terms. However, we may also be seeing a difference in the understanding of murder.

One of the important aspects of "murder" is that is unjustified. This is an important distinction, because it allows us to separate a number of cases where a person dies. When an accident occurs, a death may occur, but not a murder. We understand when we are involved in the death of another person, we are not guilty of murder if it can be classified as an accident. Similarly, it is not murder in the case that our legal system recognizes as self defense. In the case of Ammon, he has killed seven. Yet he has not murdered them. Similarly, those killed during military actions are certainly casualties, but they have not been murder. No nation ever categorizes its own military actions as murder.

Thus we have a problem with King Lamoni's worry over murders. We do not know why Ammon might be considered as punishing King Lamoni's people, and why this should be attached to "murders" committed by King Lamoni's people is still to be explained. One possibility emerges from the Mesoamerican milieu that deserves consideration. Just as inescapable as the concepts of kingship and socio-economic hierarchy in Mesoamerica was the concept of human sacrifice. It is possible that some of the times that we see murder in the Book of Mormon, what is represented is human sacrifice. Whether this translation issue is due to Joseph Smith or to Mormon we cannot know. For Mormon, the sacrifices would certainly be murders because he saw no justification in them.

If these "murders" were indeed references to human sacrifices, we may be able to better interpret Lamoni's comments. First, we must understand that Mesoamerican deities were rather like Greek deities in that their presence among men was ambiguous at best. They were not always beneficial, and often were malevolent. In Mesoamerica, the presence of such a demi-god would be at the very least dangerous, even it not immediately threatening. Thus when the clear prowess of Ammon was demonstrated, he was certainly seen as a dangerous man, with no guarantee that he would be just as dangerous to Lamoni's people as to the enemies of Lamoni.

If a dangerous demi-god had come among them, what might be the cause of it? In polytheistic societies, it is not uncommon that there be sacrifices to the gods. Such sacrifices do not only ask for boons from the gods, but just as often were designed to keep the gods away. We see a similar sentiment in Tevye's prayer for the Tsar in Fiddler on the Roof: "God bless and keep the Tsar - far away from us!"

If the king is concerned that Ammon as demi-god had come because of their "murders," one reading of this situation might be that the king assumed that the demi-god had come because of something to do with the sacrifices that were done. Perhaps there were not enough in his honor, perhaps they were not done correctly. While there is no concrete evidence in the Book of Mormon to support this reading, it nevertheless fits with the known culture of the are and the time, and explains why the mention of a religious concept such as the Great Spirit might lead King Lamoni to speculate on "murders."

There is another possibility that is less speculative than that does not require the speculation about the connection between murder and human sacrifice (though that connection will appear as a possibility again in future chapters). In verse 4 Lamoni notes: "he has come down at this time to preserve your lives, that I might not slay you as I did your brethren." This might indicate that Lamoni saw the execution of the previous servants as the "murders" in question. This requires that the king reconsider his order to execute the men and reclassify it from justified to unjustified. It is possible, but does not fit the cultural circumstances as well.

Alma 18:3
3 And they answered the king, and said: Whether he be the Great Spirit or a man, we know not; but this much we do know, that he cannot be slain by the enemies of the king; neither can they scatter the king's flocks when he is with us, because of his expertness and great strength; therefore, we know that he is a friend to the king. And now, O king, we do not believe that a man has such great power, for we know he cannot be slain.

The servants pick up the king's question about whether or not Ammon is a mere mortal. They indicate that they cannot say, although the as much as make him divine in the last verse. As servants, these men would be loathe to place themselves in a position where they might possibly be seen as contradicting the king, so they hedge their answer. In spite of that, they are of the clear opinion that they have witnessed something miraculous.

One of the important comments made by the servants, a comment which will have some bearing on the rest of this story, is that they declare Ammon to be a friend of the king. Based solely on the miraculous power, the king is nervous. As noted, this is because powerful deities were notoriously unpredictable in creating blessings or havoc among the people. The servants opine on this point that the evidence suggests that Ammon is "a friend to the king." Of course this is important in the gaining of the trust of the king so that the process of teaching will be able to take place.

Alma 18:4
4 And now, when the king heard these words, he said unto them: Now I know that it is the Great Spirit; and he has come down at this time to preserve your lives, that I might not slay you as I did your brethren. Now this is the Great Spirit of whom our fathers have spoken.

King Lamoni accepts the evidence as presented by the servants, and draws the same conclusion as they did. Ammon cannot be a mere human, therefore he is a manifestation of the Great Spirit. King Lamoni gives the statement that Ammon must have come to save the lives of the servants. Above this was noted as a possible explanation of Lamoni's fear of the charge of murder. However, see in the context of his response to the servants, this entire response appears to be a recasting of his opinion. Where he was at first fearful of Ammon, he now accepts him as a friend. Where Ammon's purpose in coming was at first a punishment, it is now salvific for the servants. Coming as it does among statements that indicate that the king is restructuring his opinion of Ammon, it is quite probable that this statement is also a part of the restructuring, and not a veiled reference to any guilt the king might have harbored over the death of previous servants.

Alma 18:5
5 Now this was the tradition of Lamoni, which he had received from his father, that there was a Great Spirit. Notwithstanding they believed in a Great Spirit they supposed that whatsoever they did was right; nevertheless, Lamoni began to fear exceedingly, with fear lest he had done wrong in slaying his servants;
Alma 18:6
6 For he had slain many of them because their brethren had scattered their flocks at the place of water; and thus, because they had had their flocks scattered they were slain.

The end of verse 5 continues the recasting of the meaning of Ammon's appearance. It is the extrapolation of the statement in verse 4 that the king now sees a connection between Ammon's efforts and the fate of previous servants, and the fate that would have awaited the current servants. As he contemplates the situation, he now sees Ammon as possibly concerned with the king's position concerning the servants to failed at this given task. The extreme punishment of servants who fail in a task assigned by and for the king is not at all unusual in the various cultures of the world, and certainly the king had not previously lost any sleep over his actions. It is the appearance of Ammon, and his process of reassessing the meaning of Ammon's appearance that has brought this particular conflict to the fore.

The second issue in this verse is the discussion of the Great Spirit. It is quite probable that the particular translation of the Lamanite deity as "Great Spirit" is an artifact of Joseph's experience with Native American traditions in his own day. That is the translation that had become common for the Native American deity, though all tribes has rather more specific names for the deity. Similarly, King Lamoni would probably have named a particular god. This particular explanatory verse is given to us by Mormon. Mormon tells us that they believe in a Great Spirit, because that will be an important point on which Ammon builds. What Mormon does, however, is make sure that we understand that while they believe in the Great Spirit, they "they supposed that whatsoever they did was right." For Mormon, this is how Lamoni could justify executing the servants even though he believed in a Great Spirit. In fact, virtually all peoples suppose "that whatsoever they [do is] right." We all have our definitions about how things ought to be, and we assume that our way must be the right way. Mormon certainly holds such feelings about his own culture, but does not recognize that in himself, because he assumes that it is obvious that the Nephite way really is right.

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.

Textual: This verse is an explanatory insertion by Mormon. Mormon apparently realized that he had not well described the reason for this assault on the flocks of the king. He tells us that it "was the practice of these Lamanites." Mormon does not make distinction between Lamanite communities. As was noted in the last chapter, it would be very unlikely that these particular Lamanite thieves would be members of King Lamoni's community because the chance of recognition would be too great. Mormon's indication that it was a "practice of plunder" may refer to several types of activities. It may be a reference to the general practice of warring for booty. It may indicate that there were small bands of thieves (perhaps the forerunners or cousins of the Gadianton robbers). It may also simply be a Nephite exaggeration concerning a people for whom we know that Mormon has an abiding antipathy.

Alma 18:8
8 And it came to pass that king Lamoni inquired of his servants, saying: Where is this man that has such great power?
Alma 18:9
9 And they said unto him: Behold, he is feeding thy horses. Now the king had commanded his servants, previous to the time of the watering of their flocks, that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi; for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.

Now that the servants have reported to the king, the king is very curious about Ammon, and will want to speak with him. For this reason he asks where Ammon might be.

Translation: Verse 9 introduces two of the most obvious anachronisms in the Book of Mormon text, horses and chariots. While there are some possibilities of horse bones found in archaeological strata that date to pre-conquest times, there has not yet been a confirmation on the dating off the bones, and therefore they remain enigmatic. To date, there is no firm evidence of horses existing in the Americas during Book of Mormon times. As for chariots, there is no evidence whatsoever of a chariot, nor any large scale means of conveyance with wheels. There are, of course, small ceremonial objects with wheels, but these simply indicate that the wheel was known, not that chariots were. What might we understand about horses and chariots?

It is important to note at the beginning of this discussion that much of what we may understand about horses and chariots relies upon an understanding of the nature of translation, particularly the type of translation that we see in the Book of Mormon. John L. Sorenson approached the problem of anachronistic animals and plants in his An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. In that volume he suggests that we have a type of translation error that is very common in cases where a different linguistic group is required to find names for new animals or plants. In the English of the King James Bible, "corn" was a generic term for a grain crop. When English speakers were required to find a term for New World maize, the existing term was adopted, and the meaning has now sufficiently shifted so that "corn" means maize to the majority of English readers, and the generic grain meaning is fading to the realm of historical linguistics and scholars off ancient texts.

It is in this light that Sorenson would see the horse. He supposes that the Nephites used a familiar label for an unfamiliar animal. He suggests that perhaps it might have been the deer, which was ritually important in the New World, and might even have been "ridden" in certain ceremonies. Certainly the reverse of this was true, where many Mesoamericans used "deer" to describe the Spanish war horses. This explanation is perfectly legitimate, and follows know linguistic patterns when different languages and cultures come into contact. Nevertheless, I suggest that it probably is not the case for the Book of Mormon.

The reason for this difference of opinion is that there are different ways of interpreting the translation method of the Book of Mormon, and Sorenson and I differ on the nature of that process. For Sorenson's suggestion to be the reason we see a horse instead of a deer, his interpretation requires a tight control over the text that was on the plates. A "tight control" suggests that what we have in English may be reliably read as very close to what actually existed on the plates. In this reading of the translation process, there is very little room for any of Joseph Smith's interpretations or insertions in the text. If such a tight control were possible in any of the text, then a tight control should be available for all of the text.

The analysis presented in this study has consistently suggested that there was a much less firm control between the underlying text and what we see on the surface. The evidence of the incursion of New Testament language suggests that the translation occurred more on the level of meaning than text. This is not to say that there is no relationship between the plate text and the English we read. What it does say is that there is evidence that Joseph was an active participant in the translation, and that we must therefore be very careful of too heavy a reliance on any interpretive method that requires specific words or word forms. A consequence of this understanding of the translation process is that all studies which attempt to see Hebraisms in the English text are not seeing the underlying plate text, but rather the Hebrew forms that were preserved in the King James style. While such forms may exist in the Book of Mormon, they may not be evidence of the nature of the plate text (which declares itself as not Hebrew, see Mormon 9:33).

Taking this approach to the text on horses, I would suggest that we still have a translation problem, but rather than suggest that it is due to the Nephite mismatching of words and animals, it is due to Joseph making the mismatch. In other words, we have "horses" because Joseph assumed horses, and didn't give us a better translation of whatever was on the plates. This process is also attested in the process of translation. For instance, we have in the King James Bible the statement that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). While this verse appears innocuous enough, it is an anachronism. Swaddling clothes were a means of bundling babies when this version of the Bible was translated, but they were not used in early Jerusalem. What the translators did was see something associated with a baby and being wrapped with cloth, and translated a more familiar term, "swaddling." While technically anachronistic, it does not invalidate the rest of the translation, nor especially the text itself.

Another example of the same type of phenomenon has had a lasting effect on many modern perceptions of the Aztec "white god" Quetzalcoatl. Spanish sources clearly note that Quetzalcoatl wore clothing different from that of the common native, and they frequently note that it is similar to the clothing of the Spanish. Cervantes de Sálazar is one of the authors who emphasizes the unique nature of Quetzalcoatl's attire: "He was never dressed but in a robe of white cotton, well girded to the body and so large that it covered the feet, for greater modesty". (Francisco Cervantes de Sálazar, Crónica de Nueva España. 3 volumes. Madrid: Hauser y Menet, 1914, 1:36.)

As with many facets of this complex character, Spanish descriptions are frequently distorted descriptions of something that was really much more native. In this case, there was a type of male dress that was a sort of cape called a tlilmatli, which was a piece of cloth worn across the shoulders and tied in a knot over the left shoulder. The most common style reached to just below the shins, but social status dictated longer lengths for those of higher social rank. Only the most important men could wear a tlilmatli which reached the ankles. It is therefore highly probable that when the Spaniards were shown representations of Quetzalcoatl or any other important figure in the codices, he would be wearing a tlilmatli which indicated his high rank by reaching the ankles. Indeed, Durán's seated Quetzalcoatl is wears just such a garment. (The description of the tlilmatli is found in Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Pan-Mesoamerican Costume Repertory at the Time of the Spanish Contact. Dissertation, UCLA, 1975, 77-78. The reproduction of the picture is found in Durán 1971, p.323.)

Not only did the Spanish emphasize this long tlilmatli, they transformed it. The Spanish word used for Quetzalcoatl's garment is ropa 'clothing, garment, or robe'. Once the garment was called ropa instead of tlilmatli, the concept was free to alter its basic shape and take on the characteristics of Spanish ropa. Very soon, it was no longer a cape tied over one shoulder, but a garment with sleeves. In the labeling process the original tlilmatli lost its capacity to distinguish rank and became a sign, not of power, but of humility and modesty. So completely did Quetzalcoatl's apparel lose its original significance that the Relación de genealogía actually states that the clothing of those who accompanied Quetzalcoatl was "like the dress of Spain." ("Relación de la Geneaolgía y linaje de los Señores..." In Nueva Colección de Documentos para la Historia de México, edited by García Icazbalceta, (Nendeln/Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1971, reprint 1891), 3:263-280.) The royal tlilmatli-become robe eventually became a friar's habit in Torquemada. (Torquemada, 1954, 1:254-5.)

This labeling error came not from a mistaken visual, but from the application of a term to the native article of clothing that had differing meanings in Spanish. That new meaning overtook the original, and virtually all later Spanish sources anachronistically have contemporary Spanish clothing being worn by a native prior to the conquest. Neither in this case, nor in the case of the swaddling clothes, does the translation error, or the extrapolation of the translation error, in the case of the Spanish, invalidate all of the historical data in the Spanish documents. Indeed, it is possible to reconstruct much of the information about this fascinating native deity in spite of the anachronistic elements in the Spanish treatments of the theme. Indeed, it is precisely these
early Spanish distortions of native categories that has led to much modern misinformation about the deity (see Gardner, Brant. Quetzalcoatl papers web page.).

All of this says that we have a translation problem, and that it is probably somewhere in Joseph's worldview that he gave us a horse and a chariot for whatever it was that was on the plates. If we take this assumption, what might the horse and chariot have been? From this point on, all is speculation, but once again, speculation consistent with the world in which the Lamanites and Nephites might plausibly be placed.

There are a couple of possibilities that may fit the circumstances. The first has to do with the wheeled "toys" that have been found. Richard Diehl has worked with a large number of these from Tula, and concludes that they are most certainly not toys, but rather objects with some ritual meaning. The objects all consist of some animal on a flat bed under which are two axles, and four wheels for those which retain the wheels and not simply the grooves for the axles. While all of these are small, it is quite possible that they are small replicas of some larger ritual conveyance which places some animal on a cart to be pulled. It is very possible that some type of such larger conveyance is meant by the horse/chariot combination mentioned in this verse. The context of this verse does suggest a ceremonial setting: "for there had been a great feast appointed at the land of Nephi, by the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land."

While this is possible, it may not be a precise fit for this situation, as there is some indication that this should be a means of conveyance for the king, not for the "horse:" "that they should prepare his horses and chariots, and conduct him forth to the land of Nephi." It is possible, of course, that the "conduct him" does not require us to understand that the king was conducted in the horse/chariot. Indeed, in the next verse, we have horses and chariots, but only the king being "conducted." This might suggest that we are dealing with multiple ritual objects rather than a conveyance. Verse 12, however, does reopen the possibility of multiple conveyances when it suggests that they are made available for the king had his servants. This would be highly unusual, however, if servants were to ride in a culture where everyone walks. This would place them in the same social status as the king, and that would be quite unacceptable. It is therefore doubtful that the servants would have ridden in chariots unless chariots were very common, and nothing in the text suggests that they were.

There is a possibility for a conveyance that might be construed to fit the very limited evidence presented in this chapter. Important men are frequently depicted as being carried in a litter, but of course, that simple mode of transport lacks any association with an animal. The battle litter, however, does have a connection to an animal. In Maya battle imagery, the king rides into battle on a litter. This is a prominent aspect of the battle, and the capture of the king's litter is tantamount to the capture of the gods of that king. What makes this most interesting for the horse/chariot pair is the assertion that a conceptually linked idea was the "battle beast" that is, an animal alter ego which also accompanied the king, and was embodied in the regalia of the king and litter. Thus there were three important elements of this complex which went into battle: king, litter, and battle beast. Let's suppose that Joseph Smith, while translating, is coming upon ideas which he must put into words. What might Joseph have thought if the actual text held the image of a kingly conveyance associated with an animal?

Clearly, there is no way to know precisely what was on the plates. However, there is ample evidence that the process of translation allowed for the imposition of modern terms and concepts in lieu of the ancient ones. There are plausible combinations of elements that may explain the horse/chariot combination in the Book of Mormon. It is important to note that we see this rarely, and only in this ceremonial context. Chariots are never used in warfare. Indeed, even were there some type of wheeled conveyance for the king. It could only be used on roads, and the only roads suited for such conveyances where the highways built between friendly cities, called sacbeob (plural, sacbe is the singular, meaning "white road/way") among the Maya.

Alma 18:10
10 Now when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and his chariots he was more astonished, because of the faithfulness of Ammon, saying: Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for even he doth remember all my commandments to execute them.

Of course the function of these verses has nothing to do with discussing horses and chariots, but rather to further show the faithfulness of Ammon. The king is amazed that a man who has so recently performed such a heroic feat is now simply attending to his next task. It would be human nature to want to wait around for some praise for such a mighty deed. In fact, it would be human nature to expect perhaps some reward for such a tremendous labor. Ammon, however, does none of these forgivably human possibilities. He simply goes about his work as though nothing special has happened, and the king understands that this may be the most remarkable thing of all. Ammon has, in this small thing, further demonstrated his loyalty to the king by such a simple thing as obedience.

Alma 18:11
11 Now I surely know that this is the Great Spirit, and I would desire him that he come in unto me, but I durst not.
Alma 18:12
12 And it came to pass that when Ammon had made ready the horses and the chariots for the king and his servants, he went in unto the king, and he saw that the countenance of the king was changed; therefore he was about to return out of his presence.

The king is now even more convinced that Ammon is "more than a man." For this reason, he dares not summon Ammon. Even a king may not give orders to a "more than a man," and the king has placed Ammon in that high category.

When Ammon finished his tasks, he reports to the king. This is not an audience requested directly by the king, but rather the simple reporting of a servant, and the presentation for the next ordered task. The events as Sebus, and the discussion between the king and the other servants and set a very different stage for this audience, however, and Ammon is walking in to an opportunity to teach, not to receive another task.

Alma 18:13
13 And one of the king's servants said unto him, Rabbanah, which is, being interpreted, powerful or great king, considering their kings to be powerful; and thus he said unto him: Rabbanah, the king desireth thee to stay.

The servants of King Lamoni have now accepted that Ammon is "more than a man," but they do not know what he is, or what to call him. They use a term of respectful address that places Ammon on the level with the king, a level that the king tacitly granted when he declared that he was hesitant to call Ammon to his presence.

Alma 18:14
14 Therefore Ammon turned himself unto the king, and said unto him: What wilt thou that I should do for thee, O king? And the king answered him not for the space of an hour, according to their time, for he knew not what he should say unto him.

Ammon must have sensed the change in the atmosphere of the room. It says in verse 12 that he at least noted a change in the countenance of Lamoni. He certainly knew something strange had happened, if he understood the import of the word Rabannah. It is possible that Ammon's reaction indicates that while he is obviously able to converse with the Lamanites, that he still had some linguistic differences, and he may not have understood the full impact of what was meant when the servants addressed him as Rabannah. We might have expected a humble man such as Ammon to deny that accolade, but he simply accepts it without recorded comment and simply turns to the king as asks what he can do for the king.

The king is now faced with what must have been an agonizing problem. It is a problem with which the king wrestled for the space of an hour. It must have been tense in that room. In all the world where there are kings there are rules about the relationship between king and subjects, and rather universal courtesy proffered kings is that one does not leave without dismissal from the king. Thus Ammon asks a simple question, and the entire room of people is forced to stand wait in silence (surely in silence!) for and entire hour as the king contemplates the way to answer such a simple question. No doubt the king, believing Ammon to be "more than a man" has some trepidation in asking a question of such a being, and might consider it not only presumptuous, but some type of test from one of the gods. For an entire hour the king wrestles with this problem, holding all in the room silent and probably rigid hostages to his dilemma.

Alma 18:15
15 And it came to pass that Ammon said unto him again: What desirest thou of me? But the king answered him not.

These short verses do little justice to the power of this moment. We have an entire court held captive to the king's silence for an hour, and then Ammon asks again. While we do not know for certain what the protocols of the Lamanite court were, many monarchies would consider it a great breach of etiquette for anyone to speak when it was clearly the king's "turn." In many courts in the history of the world, Ammon might have been killed on the spot for speaking without the king's express acknowledgement. We cannot suppose that any of this is accidental, because it follows such a long silence. There is an impasse here, and Ammon elects to move things forward as the king has proven incapable of that effort. While it is the next verse that explains that Ammon felt the promptings of the spirit, we may be assured that he felt them in order to have the temerity to speak in this remarkable situation.

Alma 18:16
16 And it came to pass that Ammon, being filled with the Spirit of God, therefore he perceived the thoughts of the king. And he said unto him: Is it because thou hast heard that I defended thy servants and thy flocks, and slew seven of their brethren with the sling and with the sword, and smote off the arms of others, in order to defend thy flocks and thy servants; behold, is it this that causeth thy marvelings?
Alma 18:17
17 I say unto you, what is it, that thy marvelings are so great? Behold, I am a man, and am thy servant; therefore, whatsoever thou desirest which is right, that will I do.

Through the spirit, Ammon addresses the question on the king's man. Note that his important statement is "I am a man." This has come in direct response to the king's fear that Ammon is "more than a man." Ammon has understood that he appears as a semi-divine being to the king, and he refutes that concept by asserting his complete humanity.

Alma 18:18
18 Now when the king had heard these words, he marveled again, for he beheld that Ammon could discern his thoughts; but notwithstanding this, king Lamoni did open his mouth, and said unto him: Who art thou? Art thou that Great Spirit, who knows all things?

Of course, the precision of Ammon's spirit-led perception has only heightened the king's hesitation rather than assuage it. Where Ammon thought to lay claim to nothing more than mortality, the king's surprise at the accuracy of Ammon's question leads him to wonder even the more at what type of man stands before him. At least the silent icejam is broken, and the king now speaks. He asks the most important question on his mind "Who are thou?" This is not a question asking for Ammon's genealogy or homeland, it is a question about is very nature. In spite of Ammon's declaration of humanity, the king specifically asks him if he is the great spirit. Perhaps if he is not a demi-god, he is a full god. The last statement "who knows all things" is related to the accuracy of Ammon's question about the king's hesitation.

Alma 18:19
19 Ammon answered and said unto him: I am not.

Ammon replies very simply, and denies that he is a god, or demi-god. Ammon intends to stand before the king as a simple man, and use the spirit to teach the king about the benefits of the spirit to simple mankind.

Alma 18:20
20 And the king said: How knowest thou the thoughts of my heart? Thou mayest speak boldly, and tell me concerning these things; and also tell me by what power ye slew and smote off the arms of my brethren that scattered my flocks-
Alma 18:21
21 And now, if thou wilt tell me concerning these things, whatsoever thou desirest I will give unto thee; and if it were needed, I would guard thee with my armies; but I know that thou art more powerful than all they; nevertheless, whatsoever thou desirest of me I will grant it unto thee.

The king is now presented with perhaps even a greater dilemma. Had Ammon been a god, then the king could explain his feats of strength and perception. Now that Ammon has declared himself to be as human as anyone in the room, his deeds stand out in even higher contrast to those of a mortal man. Therefore, the king wants to know how a man can do these things that were only moments ago more fitting for a god. The king sincerely wants to know, and offers a rather unlimited exchange for that information.

What the king might have thought at this point in time is unknown, but we may surmise that he was still rather oriented to his own concerns at this point in the discussion with Ammon. Upon learning that Ammon as a man commanded such power, it is no wonder that the king was interested, and willing to pay a handsome ransom for the ability to do the same. If Ammon the man could do these things, then Lamoni the man could also. Lamoni was likely thinking of the power he might have in the conflicts between cities if he wielded the power of Ammon, either the strength or the perception of thoughts. As a very human king, Lamoni would be very anxious to possess such powerful tools.

Alma 18:22
22 Now Ammon being wise, yet harmless, he said unto Lamoni: Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things? And this is the thing that I desire of thee.
Alma 18:23
23 And the king answered him, and said: Yea, I will believe all thy words. And thus he was caught with guile.

Mormon must have had a laconic sense of humor. It is virtually certain that this description of Ammon as "wise, yet harmless" is Mormon's and not part of the text that Mormon is copying. Why would Mormon insert this phrase, or that Lamoni was "caught with guile?" Why these terms?

In a sense, Ammon did trick Lamoni, though benevolently, and appropriately for his mission. Lamoni had offered material goods, either protection, or implicit wealth. Ammon asks for none of these material things, but rather a very simple request that the king listen to him preach. Surely Ammon understood that the offer was for material goods. What Ammon does is use the traditional inviolability of the word of a king to request the chance to preach. Lamoni could not refuse Ammon's offer. The wry humor in the situation is Mormon's understanding of the nature of the trade Ammon made. The king had offered tremendous wealth and perhaps power, and Ammon took only the chance to make a speech. What Mormon also knows is the result of Ammon's preaching, and that what Lamoni eventually paid was his soul, but a payment not to Ammon, but to God.

Alma 18:24
24 And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
Alma 18:25
25 And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.

Ammon begins teaching by assessing the current understanding of his student. Ammon begins with God, because that is a rather fundamental beginning point. Ammon would be unable to explain his power without an understanding of the God who had granted it.

For the power of this story, it is important to note King Lamoni's response. Ammon asks if he believes in God. The response is "I do not know what that meaneth." Clearly there is a cultural/religious difference between Lamanite and Nephite. Even though both peoples had begun from the same Israelite stock, there is no longer enough religious similarity that King Lamoni would even understand what Ammon meant when he said "God." This is perhaps similar to the missionaries who must serve in Asian lands where there is no word that adequately translates the concept we understand as God. King Lamoni apparently had no reference readily available. Ammon and King Lamoni are beginning worlds and cultures apart.

Alma 18:26
26 And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
Alma 18:27
27 And he said, Yea.

Ammon backs away from the specific question about God, and uses a term that he has heard King Lamoni use. We do not know whether or not Ammon fully understood what the King meant when he used that term, but Ammon took what he could from the concept and used it as the springboard to teaching. What Ammon is doing is creating a common base of understanding. Most teachers will find that to teach more, they must begin with less, and specifically a point where there is some commonality. The student will learn more if there is at least a beginning from some common understanding than they will if they are presented with completely foreign concepts. In this, Ammon is using a technique similar to the one Paul used in Acts 17 when he used the altar to the Unknown God as the springboard to his discussion of the Christian godhead.

Alma 18:28
28 And Ammon said: This is God. And Ammon said unto him again: Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?
Alma 18:29
29 And he said: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens.

As with Paul, Ammon makes and equivalence between God and the pagan deity. It is quite certain that most people would not have understood either the Greek god nor the Lamanite god in the same terms as the God preached to them, but the important aspect that Ammon is teaching is that God is at the same place in the conceptual universe. For Ammon, it is probable that King Lamoni was a polytheist, and that this Great Spirit was the deity considered to be the highest ranking of the multiple gods.

King Lamoni says that he does not "know the heavens." This must be seen as a comment on Ammon's religious terminology, not our understanding of "the heavens" as the study of the night sky. Where we might thing of astronomy as a study of "the heavens," it appears that Ammon has some conception of heaven as a multiple, or layered place. Thus he asks not simply about "heaven" where God resides, but "the heavens" in plural.

Alma 18:30
30 And Ammon said unto him: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels.
Alma 18:31
31 And king Lamoni said: Is it above the earth?
Alma 18:32
32 And Ammon said: Yea, and he looketh down upon all the children of men; and he knows all the thoughts and intents of the heart; for by his hand were they all created from the beginning.
Alma 18:33
33 And king Lamoni said: I believe all these things which thou hast spoken. Art thou sent from God?

Ammon takes the first point of commonality, and then expands upon King Lamoni's response. Since Lamoni has opened the subject of heaven, Ammon continues to create a correspondence with what Lamoni would know. The place from which Lamoni's Great Spirit looks down upon mankind is equated to "the heavens."

King Lamoni process this information, and finds that it is easy to believe. After all, it really is little different (at this point) from what he already believes. He now pushes for the thing that is of interest to him, which is the source of Ammon's power. He therefore asks if Ammon comes from that God.

Alma 18:34
34 Ammon said unto him: I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God, and I am called by his Holy Spirit to teach these things unto this people, that they may be brought to a knowledge of that which is just and true;
Alma 18:35
35 And a portion of that Spirit dwelleth in me, which giveth me knowledge, and also power according to my faith and desires which are in God.

Ammon continues to assert his essential humanity. He says "I am a man." What Ammon now does is take this opportunity to explain much of the plan of life to King Lamoni. He will teach the King what the King should know to understand where Ammon receives his abilities. At this point, we do not know what King Lamoni might have assumed about the Holy Spirit. As a probable polytheist, King Lamoni may have simply accepted the Holy Spirit as another deity of lesser rank. In any case, what Ammon has told the king is that Ammon is a man, but that there is a Holy Spirit associated with God that is the source of his "knowledge, and also according to� faith and desires which are in God."

Alma 18:36
36 Now when Ammon had said these words, he began at the creation of the world, and also the creation of Adam, and told him all the things concerning the fall of man, and rehearsed and laid before him the records and the holy scriptures of the people, which had been spoken by the prophets, even down to the time that their father, Lehi, left Jerusalem.

Ammon finds that he must explain the spiritual history of mankind. The fall of man is particularly important to understand the nature of this life on earth. For many modern religionists, the misunderstanding of the purposes of the Garden have led to much confusion about God's intentions and our purposes. Without that clear foundation of purpose, it is difficult to know how to accomplish that purpose.

Alma 18:37
37 And he also rehearsed unto them (for it was unto the king and to his servants) all the journeyings of their fathers in the wilderness, and all their sufferings with hunger and thirst, and their travail, and so forth.
Alma 18:38
38 And he also rehearsed unto them concerning the rebellions of Laman and Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael, yea, all their rebellions did he relate unto them; and he expounded unto them all the records and scriptures from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem down to the present time.

While attempting to establish common ground, Ammon also recounts the sacred story of the Lehites, clearly from a Nephite perspective. We cannot tell whether this Lamanite king was of a lineage which understood any of this heritage, or whether this is new information to him. In any case, Ammon is establishing a connection by lineage to the Lamanites, and a connection from God to the Lamanites. Ammon is creating a shorter distance for the understanding of King Lamoni to travel.

Alma 18:39
39 But this is not all; for he expounded unto them the plan of redemption, which was prepared from the foundation of the world; and he also made known unto them concerning the coming of Christ, and all the works of the Lord did he make known unto them.

The plan of redemption is the essential message that Ammon has for the King. It is the essential message for all of mankind. Regardless of how distant we find ourselves from the path of God, there is a way back, and that way is the same for all men throughout all time. The Christ is the way, and understanding his mission is the key to our reconciliation with God, to our renewed and revitalized Eden of the future.

Alma 18:40
40 And it came to pass that after he had said all these things, and expounded them to the king, that the king believed all his words.
Alma 18:41
41 And he began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people.

King Lamoni demonstrates the proper understanding of believing. When the gospel is presented to him, particularly from one of such powerful spirit, Lamoni recognizes the truth and believes. For Lamoni, however, belief was not a simple intellectual enterprise, but a requirement to change and to adopt this new understanding as his new world. He does not simply acquiesce to understanding, but his heart opens to the desire to repent and receive the power of the Atonement. The prays to the Lord, and asks for "abundant mercy." This is an action. The proper role of believing is to move us to action.

Alma 18:42
42 And now, when he had said this, he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead.
Alma 18:43
43 And it came to pass that his servants took him and carried him in unto his wife, and laid him upon a bed; and he lay as if he were dead for the space of two days and two nights; and his wife, and his sons, and his daughters mourned over him, after the manner of the Lamanites, greatly lamenting his loss.

The Book of Mormon frequently uses the concepts of falling down as though dead as the indication of the powerful influence of the spirit. While these experiences certainly took place as recorded, it is still important to understand that this particular understanding of the effect of the spirit was particularly familiar to Joseph Smith from his experience with the revivalist movement in upstate New York. In addition to this particular form, much of the language that is in the Book of Mormon concerning the conversion process contains echoes if not outright repetitions of conversion terminologies with which Joseph was familiar. An interesting comparison of these descriptions of conversion from the revivalist movement and the Book of Mormon may be found in the chapter on conversion stories in Mark Thomas' Digging in Cumorah. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999, pp. 123-147). Of note for the experience of King Lamoni is the following:

Another common manifestation of those under conviction is the falling exercise, or falling "under the power of God." Evangelicals used war imagery (the enemies of God slain in battle) or the image of subjects prostrate before their king. Speaking of the preaching in 1821 in Eden, New York, David Marks stated that "the solemnities of the eternal world were unveiled, and the arrows of the King sharp in the hearts of his enemies. Eleven were wounded, bowed before the Lord.

The falling exercise itself took several forms. Sometimes those who fell simply lost the use of their limbs but were still conscious and would "cry for mercy." At other times they apparently stopped breathing and were described "as if they were dead," or "as if they were dying." When they revived, they sometimes reported hearing and comprehending everything going on around them. At other times they saw visions of heaven or hell. Although they literally fell, this state also symbolized the death of the natural man. Revivalist George Baxter says that the falling exercise was also experienced by those "under the influence of comfortable feelings." In other words, the falling exercise could be a manifestation of joy as well as conviction." (Thomas, 1999, p. 131-132)

The experiences of the various Book of Mormon converts would have been easily understood by those who first read the book, and the language employed made understanding the spiritual nature of what was happening very clear to Joseph's contemporaries. However, we should not presume that these were artificial explanations any more than we should deny the reality of the spiritual experience of those who fell down in Joseph's day. In the case of King Lamoni and Alma the Younger, the falling down is similar, but clearly the period of time is rather extended. As has been noted, it is extended in a very Mesoamerican way, with the two days and two nights adding to four periods. In Mesoamerica the number four is just as quickly a reminder of symbolic meaning as it seven or twelve in the Old Testament.

Textual: There is no chapter break in the 1830 edition.








by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001