Alma 21


 



MDC Contents

 

 

Alma 21:1

1  Now when Ammon and his brethren separated themselves in the borders of the land of the Lamanites, behold Aaron took his journey towards the land which was called by the Lamanites, Jerusalem, calling it after the land of their fathers' nativity; and it was away joining the borders of Mormon.

Alma 21:2

2  Now the Lamanites and the Amalekites and the people of Amulon had built a great city, which was called Jerusalem.

 

Geographic: Sorenson suggests that Jerusalem was located on the more southern shore of Lake Atitlan, which he has identified as the Waters of Mormon:

 

“When the original missionary band split up, Aaron went directly to a land called Jerusalem, "away joining the borders of [what Alma had called] Mormon" (Alma 21:1). Nephite dissidents had led the Lamanites in building "a great city" there. (The place had been founded not long before; here is another case where the status of "great city" did not refer to the duration or size of a settlement but to its concept and layout.)

 

….Let us recall that this Jerusalem was covered by waters at the time of the Savior's crucifixion (3 Nephi 9:7). Now, the level of Lake Atitlan has shifted dramatically—by as much as 60 feet within historical times, and up to 15 feet in a single year—so a city located on this shore could understandably be submerged quite abruptly. So several interesting and plausible reasons lead to our locating Jerusalem at this site” (Sorenson 1985, pp. 223-4.)

 

Alma 21:3

3  Now the Lamanites of themselves were sufficiently hardened, but the Amalekites and the Amulonites were still harder; therefore they did cause the Lamanites that they should harden their hearts, that they should wax strong in wickedness and their abominations.

 

Textual: This verse is Mormon’s explanation of the events that will follow. Since the point of this addition to his work is to describe the preaching of the gospel among the Lamanites, Mormon interjects his understanding of why Aaron received a very different reception than did Ammon in the land of Ishmael.

 

There is much of the social relationships of that area that are quickly encapsulated in this verse. First, we understand that there is an antipathy between the Lamanites and Nephites that could be quite strong, witnessed by the reaction of Lamoni’s father to Ammon that we have just seen in the last chapter. However, the reaction of many of the Lamanites appears to have been less volatile as we saw in the story of Ammon in Lamoni’s court. In that story there was nothing that indicated a strong hatred, although the original welcome did fall short of complete embrace. This suggests that one of the reasons for the success of the Lamanite mission was that the old antagonisms may have been diminishing, with the majority of the people understanding that the Nephites were an opposing political entity, but not having extreme hatred as did some others.

 

On the other hand, Mormon reminds us of the Amalekites and the Amulonites, both of which were peoples living among the Lamanites but with a Nephite heritage that was quite recent. For those peoples, the wounds of separation were still much newer, and their hatred of the people upon whom they had both turned their backs and previously engaged in battle must have been extreme. Mormon understood the general trend of apostates to turn hatred upon the group from which they have apostatized, and thus he suggests that it is these two former Nephite peoples who have escalated whatever natural antipathy the Lamanites had for the Nephites.

 

Alma 21:4

4  And it came to pass that Aaron came to the city of Jerusalem, and first began to preach to the Amalekites.  And he began to preach to them in their synagogues, for they had built synagogues after the order of the Nehors; for many of the Amalekites and the Amulonites were after the order of the Nehors.

 

Historical: Aaron comes to this relatively new city of Jerusalem and finds two major groups of people represented, the Amalekites and the Amulonites. We have seen the Amulonites before as the followers of Amulon, chief of the priests of Noah (Mosiah 23:31-32).  In verse 32 we find that Amulon established a “place” called Amulon.  It is possible that this location of Amulon became the location or Jerusalem, but it is also possible that the Amulonites were given a better location by their Lamanite overlords.

 

We know very little about the history of the Amalekites. This is the first mention of this people, in the Book of Mormon, but we do know that they, like the Amulonites, were dissenters from the Nephites (see Alma 43:13). The location of the Amalekites in Jerusalem suggests that the Lamanites gave this location to dissenters from the Nephites, and that neither the Amulonites nor the Amalekites were so numerous a people that they could not be subsumed into a single population.

 

Cultural: Both the Amalekites and the Amulonites are described as being “after the order of the Nehors.” This designation to the Amulonites in particular tells us something about the order of the Nehors. It is named for Nehor, a man who arrives on the scene in Alma 1. The timing of his arrival forcibly postdates the creation of the Amulonites, as the Amulonites begin their separate existence prior to the departure of Alma the Elder from the land of Nephi, and Nehor appears before Alma the Elder in Zarahemla. Thus the Amulonites where “Nehors” before Nehor. This gives us two possibilities for the origin of the Nehors.

 

The first possibility for the origin of the Nehors is that Nehor was a Nephite who lived in the land of Nephi-Lehi under Noah’s reign, and was instrumental in establishing the nature of the religious order among the Noahites. While this is possible, circumstances argue against it. Had Nehor been instrumental in developing the religion of the Noahite court, Alma the Elder would surely have been very familiar with him since Alma had been a priest in that court. There is no indication in the Book of Mormon text that Alma had previously known Nehor, a situation that would be rather unlikely had Nehor begun his religion in the court of Noah.

 

The second, and more likely, scenario for Nehor and the religion of the Nehors is that Nehor was a particular proponent of a religious movement that had been developing among the Nephites. His preaching coalesced the understanding of the mainstream Nephite religion about this opposing cult, and thus his name was attached to what was already a wider movement.

 

What was the nature of this movement? As we have previously seen, this new religion maintained some of the religion of the Nephites in that there was a belief in the Laws of Moses (particularly witnessed in Noah’s court in the trial of Abinadi). While there were some of the Nephite beliefs, there were also a number of facets of the religion that we have identified as coming from the pagan religions that existed in the area. In the study of

Religions, this is called a syncretic religion, or one that  blends religious elements from different sources.

 

Syncretic religions often arise from the conflict of two well established traditions. In Mexico, the particular flavor of native Catholicism is well known to have elements blended in from the pre-Contact native religions. What has emerged is not the pre-Hispanic pagan religion, nor a European Catholicism, but rather some new hybrid of the two religions, where rituals and elements have been remixed into a new way of seeing and understanding the world that is more complex than a simple blending of elements. The order of the Nehors appears to be a particularly Nephite religion, showing up as the religion of Nephite dissenters, but not being given as a Lamanite religion. It would appear that the order of the Nehors was a name given to a widespread phenomenon that probably had slightly different elements, but maintained in common the retention of certain Nephite religious principles coupled with imported ideas from the surrounding areas.

 

Alma 21:5

5  Therefore, as Aaron entered into one of their synagogues to preach unto the people, and as he was speaking unto them, behold there arose an Amalekite and began to contend with him, saying: What is that thou hast testified?  Hast thou seen an angel?  Why do not angels appear unto us?  Behold are not this people as good as thy people?

 

As Aaron begins to preach, an Amalekite heckles him. It is unclear how Mormon knew that this was an Amalekite, as there were both Amalekite and Amulonites in the congregation, either of which might have made these comments. It can only be speculation as to how Mormon had a record that particularly noted that it was an Amalekite. Perhaps there is more to the story that Mormon has left out that might have let us know the reason for this particular designation.

 

Historical: Aaron enters synagogues. This particular designation for a location of worship is at least controversial in the Book of Mormon as many scholars hold that there were no pre-exilic synagogues from which the Lehites could have taken their pattern. In any case, we are faced with the question of what a synagogue is in Book of Mormon terms. As we have seen in other occasions, there is a tenuous relationship between the words on the plates and the English words that are used to give us the information that was on the plates. In the case of synagogue, we have a Greek term that literally meets a meeting place. It is hard to tell given the evident translation of the Book of Mormon whether or not the plate text meant “meeting place” and Joseph translated it into the word with which he was more familiar (synagogue), or whether it actually meant a particular type of structure.

 

Sorenson notes:

 

What were synagogues? They are mentioned among both Nephites and the Lamanites under dissident Nephite influence (Alma 21:4-5; 32:1-12; Helaman 3:9, 14; Moroni 7:1). Would they have left ruins that might have been discovered? At first glance the very idea seems to pose a problem for the Book of Mormon. Many historians have maintained that synagogues were not known among the Jews until well after Lehi had left Palestine. Another group of experts, however, now argue that the synagogue predated Lehi's departure. They propose that when King Josiah carried out his sweeping reforms of Jewish worship in order to clean out pagan intrusions, he closed the old sanctuaries (2 Kings 23). "The centralization of worship in Jerusalem from 621 B.C. onwards, with many Jews thereby denied a share in temple worship, must inevitably have led to the establishment of non-sacrificial places of assembly"—in effect, synagogues. So at least the concept of the synagogue could well have been around for a generation by the time First Nephi begins. Later synagogues served as community centers open to any who wished to worship or speak (compare Alma 26:29). According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish synagogue was normally oriented to face Jerusalem and was also located on the highest place in town and near water. A synagogue was not necessarily a building; it might be only an enclosure.

 

Structures for seemingly sacred purposes that meet most of the Talmudic criteria existed in early Mesoamerican sites. It remains for some ambitious student to make detailed comparisons. That study should look carefully at names as well as ruins. The term synagogue is difficult to distinguish in concept from related terms used in the Book of Mormon. The "churches" set up by Alma in Zarahemla, and also the "assembly" of the Lamanites (Alma 21:16), were apparently functional parallels to synagogues. Several Old Testament terms signify "congregation" or "assembly" or the meeting place for such a group, the terms overlapping in translation. One of those words has come to be translated "synagogue," but anciently words like synagogue, ekklesia, kenishta, and 'eda were translated quite freely as though they were equivalent. Thus, we may find that whatever distinguished a synagogue from a local church by Nephite standards was so subtle that we will be unable to tell them apart on the basis of their remains (Sorenson 1985, p. 236).

 

Alma 21:6

6  Thou also sayest, except we repent we shall perish.  How knowest thou the thought and intent of our hearts?  How knowest thou that we have cause to repent?  How knowest thou that we are not a righteous people?  Behold, we have built sanctuaries, and we do assemble ourselves together to worship God.  We do believe that God will save all men.

 

Rhetorical: It is interesting that two occasions on which there are theological arguments being presented on the basis of argumentation are both related to the order of Nehors. We have seen this questioning method with Zeezrom, a lawyer of Ammonihah. We understand that Ammonihah is principally of the order of Nehor because a judge is directly identified as being after the order of Nehor (Alma 14:16), and Zeezrom’s arguments reflect that philosophy. Here we an Amalekite offering the same questioning method, and the same types of arguments. It is possible that this mode of argumentation was a cultural trait associated with this type of order. The use of argumentation and logic may also help explain why the order of the Nehors could hold such sway among Nephites with a long traditional belief in the gospel.

 

In the then modern world, the wonders of the world were presenting different options and possibilities to the people, and the examples of the more wealthy cities would have been Nephite at this point in time. A religion that logically found ways to mix the Nephite with the Lamanite might have been particularly attractive as a way to retain some of the old while embracing the more tempting new. Certainly our modern world sees much of the same, where the powerful influence of the philosophies of men have had a marked impact on the teaching of the gospel since the time when they were instrumental in triggering the great apostasy.

 

Alma 21:7

7  Now Aaron said unto him: Believest thou that the Son of God shall come to redeem mankind from their sins?

 

Why does Aaron begin with this question? The Amalekite has asked how it is that Aaron suggest that they were in need of repentance, and this is the response that Aaron gives. It is an ironic twist that in this exchange Aaron asks this question, where the question is one of testing in the mouth of Zeezrom when he confronts Alma and Amulek (see Alma 11:32-34). This is not a mistake, but a certainty on Aaron’s part that this is where the primary focus of the Nehorite error lies. As we have seen in the past, one of the first alterations that the order of the Nehors makes in Nephite doctrine is the removal of the doctrine of the Atoning Messiah.

 

Alma 21:8

8  And the man said unto him: We do not believe that thou knowest any such thing.  We do not believe in these foolish traditions.  We do not believe that thou knowest of things to come, neither do we believe that thy fathers and also that our fathers did know concerning the things which they spake, of that which is to come.

 

The response of the Amalekite shows the difference in the doctrines between the two groups, and does so in ways that are familiar to modern readers. First step is the denial of an important doctrine. The second step is to deny that there is any evidence for that doctrine, and the third is to impugn the tradition that would lead one to believe that way. Note that the Amalekite says that these are “thy fathers and also … our fathers.”

 

In this particular response, the Amalekite is not only dismissing the belief in the Atoning Messiah, but also in the principle of revelation. He notes that the “fathers…did [not] know concerning the things which they spake, of that which is to come.”

 

Alma 21:9

9  Now Aaron began to open the scriptures unto them concerning the coming of Christ, and also concerning the resurrection of the dead, and that there could be no redemption for mankind save it were through the death and sufferings of Christ, and the atonement of his blood.

Alma 21:10

10  And it came to pass as he began to expound these things unto them they were angry with him, and began to mock him; and they would not hear the words which he spake.

 

Aaron begins to teach them from the scriptures. He does this not only because the scriptures are where the prophets have explained these things, but because the order of the Nehors does accept some set of scriptures. It is possible that they only considered the brass plates scripture, holding the rest of the writings since Nephi as part of that set of information where the “fathers” did not know of “which they spake.” We know that when Abinadi was before the court of King Noah brass plate scriptures were used as part of the test against Abinadi. Thus what Aaron does is begin to open the scriptures that they accept, to show in them the doctrine that they do not accept. The result of this preaching is that the people are angry. They are certainly not repentant, and their turn their anger into a verbal assault on Aaron.

 

Textual: Mormon makes an interesting editorial choice here. Mormon’s typical editorial process has been to take a speech from his source plates where the subject of the speech is important to his message, and present the speech in its entirety. That does not happen here. We have just verse 9 as Mormon’s synopsis of the discourse. Was this discourse missing from the source, or did Mormon choose to condense it dramatically?

 

Of course we cannot know all that was on Mormon’s source plates, but it may be suggested that the evidence in this case points to Mormon’s choice rather than necessity. It would have been necessary to synopsize if the original account did not have the full discourse, but if it were there, then this is a conscious choice. What evidence do we have that Mormon’s source material contained the full discourse?

 

The first hint is the exchange between the Amalekite and Aaron. As noted, the identification of the man as an Amalekite must have had some more important role in the plate text. The conversation between the two is precisely the form we expect of recorded dialog, and the similarity to the issues and format of the confrontation between Zeezrom and Alma and Amulek suggests that this may have been a copy from the plate text, though ancient authors were not above creating conversations which they could not have heard.

 

The strongest suggestion that Mormon chose to leave out material at this point is the text that comes later. We get a much longer discourse of Aaron before Lamoni’s father. Since Ammon is not there, it must come from Aaron’s record, and having that much of the record in one case, but not the other is not consistent. It would appear that Mormon simply decided to leave this sermon out. Why?

 

First, it is redundant information. While Aaron may have been a righteous man and a good speaker, the information that Mormon synopsizes for us is material that has recently been covered by Alma and Amulek. Mormon controls his text, and he understands that this information has already been presented. What Mormon is interested in here is the bare bones history that will get him into the tale of Aaron so that he can give us the discourse with the father of Lamoni.

 

Alma 21:11

11  Therefore, when he saw that they would not hear his words, he departed out of their synagogue, and came over to a village which was called Ani-Anti, and there he found Muloki preaching the word unto them; and also Ammah and his brethren.  And they contended with many about the word.

 

Aaron leaves Jerusalem and “came over to a village which was called Ani-Anti.” Here he meets with Muloki and Ammah who were preaching in this village.

 

Geography: Of Ani-Anti, Sorenson suggests:

 

Probably "came over" means that he walked across the foot of Volcan Toliman; the normal path from Santiago Atitlan to the next village runs over those lava outflows. At Ani-Anti he met some of his companions, who had arrived by another route. They must have gone the other way around the lake from their dispersal point, past the old "Mormon" area where Alma had hidden out. San Lucas Toliman, on the southeast extremity of the lake, fits the bill as Ani-Anti. (Sorenson 1985, p. 225).

 

Alma 21:12

12  And it came to pass that they saw that the people would harden their hearts, therefore they departed and came over into the land of Middoni.  And they did preach the word unto many, and few believed on the words which they taught.

 

Textual: With this verse Mormon gets the three brethren together, and brings them to Middoni, where we know that Ammon and Lamoni will come to free them. Part of Mormon’s purpose in his history so far had been to get us to the point where the stories intersect and we have Ammon and Lamoni in Middoni. The way the history is constructed, however, gives us another clue to the source that Mormon is using for this account.

 

We have Muloki and Ammah as two preachers. While they might have been of a lesser status, and therefore “assigned” to a village rather than a city, nevertheless it is not unreasonable to suppose that they also might have kept s missionary journal similar to what we obviously have for Ammon and Aaron. In spite of this, we get no earlier history of Muloki and Ammah. There is nothing of their preaching to this point except these verses.

 

This contrasts with the account of Aaron in Jerusalem, which, though brief, is still more fleshed out that what we have for Muloki and Ammah. This suggests that Mormon is taking this full account from Aaron’s record, in which Muloki and Ammah appear. Perhaps Mormon had the records for Muloki and Ammah, and perhaps he did not. This section, however, must have come from Aaron’s record.

 

Alma 21:13

13  Nevertheless, Aaron and a certain number of his brethren were taken and cast into prison, and the remainder of them fled out of the land of Middoni unto the regions round about.

Alma 21:14

14  And those who were cast into prison suffered many things, and they were delivered by the hand of Lamoni and Ammon, and they were fed and clothed.

 

Textual: Once again Mormon elects to give the terse historical account rather than a citation from his sources. What he needs to do is get Aaron, Muloki, and Ammah into prison so that they can be freed, and he does so in a single sentence. When he has them freed in verse 14, he simply notes that they were fed and clothed, not dwelling on the apparent tortures they endured that were already explained to us. Once again, Mormon is condensing the repetitive information to concentrate on new material while still giving enough history to provide the structural framework of his narrative.

 

Alma 21:15

15  And they went forth again to declare the word, and thus they were delivered for the first time out of prison; and thus they had suffered.

 

Textual: This is an interesting sentence. It reverses the chronological order of the events. It is used as a capping statement on the information that went before. With such an inverted time order, we might suspect that something like a chiasm was dictating this reversed order, but the earlier sentences to not lend themselves to setting this sentence up as the second half of a chiasm. Nevertheless, we may suppose that this is a sentence given for a stylistic purpose. The current preaching of the word is the important message, and is given first. The chronological events that led to this current situation are subordinated by coming next, and since the order places the current first, the logic suggests that the events proceed from newest to oldest.

 

Alma 21:16

16  And they went forth whithersoever they were led by the Spirit of the Lord, preaching the word of God in every synagogue of the Amalekites, or in every assembly of the Lamanites where they could be admitted.

Alma 21:17

17  And it came to pass that the Lord began to bless them, insomuch that they brought many to the knowledge of the truth; yea, they did convince many of their sins, and of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct.

 

After their near disastrous beginning, Aaron, Muloki and Ammah begin to have success in their missionary labors. This should ring true in the hearts of modern missionaries everywhere. Initial failures are not permanent failures. A successful missionary is not always successful.

 

Alma 21:18

18  And it came to pass that Ammon and Lamoni returned from the land of Middoni to the land of Ishmael, which was the land of their inheritance.

 

Textual: The story of Lamoni and Ammon in Middoni was important for two reasons. The first is that it introduced us to the father of Lamoni, an account taken from Ammon’s record. The second is the simple narrative requirement of freeing Aaron so that he might continue to preach. Mormon has done both of these, and now closes out Ammon’s account.

 

Alma 21:19

19  And king Lamoni would not suffer that Ammon should serve him, or be his servant.

 

 

The story of Ammon begins with an offer of nobility in Lamoni’s court that Ammon rejects for the status of servant. After all Lamoni has been through, he now rejects Ammon as a servant. We are not told to what status Ammon was elevated, but certainly it was to some level appropriate for a retainer in the court of Lamoni.

 Alma 21:20

20  But he caused that there should be synagogues built in the land of Ishmael; and he caused that his people, or the people who were under his reign, should assemble themselves together.

 

Cultural: The building of synagogues in Ishamel, and the presence of a synagogue in Jerusalem suggests that the practice of a physical location termed a synagogue was a Nephite or Nephite derived practice.

 

Alma 21:21

21  And he did rejoice over them, and he did teach them many things.  And he did also declare unto them that they were a people who were under him, and that they were a free people, that they were free from the oppressions of the king, his father; for that his father had granted unto him that he might reign over the people who were in the land of Ishmael, and in all the land round about.

 

Cultural: Lamoni declares to his people that “they were a free people, that they were free from the oppressions of the king, his father; for that his father had granted unto him that he might reign over the people who were in the land of Ishmael, and in all the land round about.” This is an important insight into Lamanite politics.

 

First, the very fact that Lamoni was a king subject to a king is an aspect that rings true in Mesoamerica, but not necessarily in other parts of the world. Secondly, note that the people are “free from the oppressions” of the over-king. Of what are they freed? In the Mesoamerican model we have been using, they would be freed of their responsibility to provide tribute. Because tribute was part of the produce of the people, it is easy to understand how it might be seen as oppressive to be required to send part of their produce to another city, with no overt goods in exchange.

 

Alma 21:22

22  And he also declared unto them that they might have the liberty of worshiping the Lord their God according to their desires, in whatsoever place they were in, if it were in the land which was under the reign of king Lamoni.

Alma 21:23

23  And Ammon did preach unto the people of king Lamoni; and it came to pass  that he did teach them all things concerning things pertaining to righteousness.  And he did exhort them daily, with all diligence; and they gave heed unto his word, and they were zealous for keeping the commandments of God.

 

Textual: This has been Ammon’s story, and Mormon must end it before beginning the essential story from Aaron. This quick narrative serves to sew up the basic facts quickly. In the 1830 text, however, this is not a chapter break. This chapter is about the missionary efforts, no just one man’s efforts. While we find it logical to break these stories into chapters for the individual protagonists, Mormon lumped them all together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001