1 Now, as Ammon was thus teaching the people of Lamoni continually, we will return to the account of Aaron and his brethren; for after he departed from the land of Middoni he was led by the Spirit to the land of Nephi, even to the house of the king which was over all the land save it were the land of Ishmael; and he was the father of Lamoni.
Mormon has been weaving a fairly complex story here, interweaving the experiences of Ammon and Aaron. Both were important, because we needed to be introduced to the father of Lamoni, who is the focus this part of Aaron’s story. What we must remember about the father of Lamoni as we begin this part of the story is his extreme hatred for Nephites, and his personal battle with Ammon that left him astonished at Ammon’s beliefs. That original amazement opened the door for Aaron’s release. It will now begin to open the door to the over-king’s heart.
Textual: Our current chapter 22 was not a separate chapter in the 1830 edition, and the chapter break was made on a natural separation in the original narrative. This verse was the transition sentence between stories in Mormon’s chapter. This chapter will focus on the story of Aaron before the father of Lamoni, but this verse opens with the conclusion to the previous story of Ammon and Lamoni. The reason is precisely in its functional position as a transition between the two stories, a function that is now accomplished by the more formal break in a chapter.
Political Geography: This verse tells us something more about the political structure of these particular Lamanites. The father of Lamoni reigns in the land of Nephi, that land that became Lamanite around 200 BC and caused the flight of Mosiah I to Zarahemla. As we noted in the story of Zeniff, it appears that the land of Nephi was populated with many who were lineally Nephite, but politically Lamanite. This may explain some of the great antipathy of the father of Lamoni towards the Nephites. We see through multiple examples in the Book of Mormon that those who are most vehemently anti-Nephite are those who had once been Nephite.
In Sorenson’s geographical correlation, the city of Nephi is aligned with the site of Kaminaljuyu, which is the most prominent city of this area at this time. It is therefore quire right that the over-king reside in land of Nephi (presumably at the city that was formerly Nephi, quite probably at the site known as Kaminaljuyu).
2 And it came to pass that he went in unto him into the king's palace, with his brethren, and bowed himself before the king, and said unto him: Behold, O king, we are the brethren of Ammon, whom thou hast delivered out of prison.
3 And now, O king, if thou wilt spare our lives, we will be thy servants. And the king said unto them: Arise, for I will grant unto you your lives, and I will not suffer that ye shall be my servants; but I will insist that ye shall administer unto me; for I have been somewhat troubled in mind because of the generosity and the greatness of the words of thy brother Ammon; and I desire to know the cause why he has not come up out of Middoni with thee.
Aaron and his brethren arrive in the land of Nephi and present themselves before the king over all of the land. We do not know whether or not they used the technique of volunteering to be servants in the other cities where they had preached, but it appears that they did not. In this case, they have subsequently spoken with Ammon, and have certainly heard of the extraordinary experience Ammon had with Lamoni. It is not surprising, then, that they begin with the same basic premise of presenting themselves to the king as servants.
The difference in this case is that the father of Lamoni has had more preparation for these missionaries than did his son for Ammon. The father of Lamoni has had his owns experience with Ammon, and has seen the determination of his son, a determination to follow the new beliefs that was so strong that Lamoni was willing to commit possible political suicide by rebelling against his over-king. All of these events have, at the minimum, piqued the curiosity of this great king whose name is not recorded.
4 And Aaron said unto the king: Behold, the Spirit of the Lord has called him another way; he has gone to the land of Ishmael, to teach the people of Lamoni.
5 Now the king said unto them: What is this that ye have said concerning the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, this is the thing which doth trouble me.
Mormon’s editorial process necessarily leaves out certain pieces of information. The father of Lamoni is interested in what Aaron has to say because of his experience with Ammon. This verse makes it appear that one of the points on which the over-king has questions is about the Spirit of the Lord. This would appear to be a phrase that he had learned in connection with Ammon. Our record, however, never tells of any conversation including the phrase “Spirit of the Lord” between Ammon and the over-king. Nevertheless, we may assume that it was contained in the explanations among Ammon, Lamoni and his father. This Spirit of the Lord was instrumental in moving Lamoni from unbeliever to believer, and it is most likely this context that has the over-king most curious as to what happened to his son. Therefore Aaron begins with a simple statement addressing Ammon’s current location, and the king focuses on the phrase that is important to him, and likely the reason that he has allowed the Nephites into his court and still refused them as servants.
6 And also, what is this that Ammon said—If ye will repent ye shall be saved, and if ye will not repent, ye shall be cast off at the last day?
The father of Lamoni is taking one of the comments Ammon made during their confrontation, and repeating it to Aaron. It apparently made some impression on him, perhaps the explicit threat of being “cast off.” We should not forget that this is not only a king, but a king over kings. This is not a man who is used to being told that he might be cast off, he is much more sued to doing the casting off himself. It may be reasonable, therefore, that the audacity of Ammon’s statement to him, and subsequent sparing of his life made enough of an impression that he would ask for an explanation.
7 And Aaron answered him and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God? And the king said: I know that the Amalekites say that there is a God, and I have granted unto them that they should build sanctuaries, that they may assemble themselves together to worship him. And if now thou sayest there is a God, behold I will believe.
It is impossible for Aaron to explain what it might mean to be cast off if the king does not believe in God. As we saw with Ammon before Lamoni, the God that Ammon and Aaron understand is not being worshipped by the Lamanites. We get a little clearer picture of this when the father of Lamoni indicates that he understands that the Amalekites worship God, and he has allowed it. This simply confirms what we already know of the order of the Nehors, that they believe some of the Nephite gospel, but have introduced other beliefs to create a new way of believing.
The father of Lamoni has no real experience, but when Aaron tells him there is a God, he says that he is willing to believe. This is not so much of a jump as we might expect, as the father of Lamoni is probably a polytheist, and has probably had experience with regional gods of other peoples. As with most polytheists, it is not hard to add yet another god to the pantheon.
8 And now when Aaron heard this, his heart began to rejoice, and he said: Behold, assuredly as thou livest, O king, there is a God.
9 And the king said: Is God that Great Spirit that brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem?
Obviously the king had some connection to the religion of the fathers from the Old World, but that relationship was tenuous at this point. The religion of the Lamanites has clearly been altered away from that original belief. This is no simple doctrinal difference about the Law of Moses, but rather a nearly complete replacement of that early religion with a different way of understanding. The over-king’s question about the connection between God and the Great Spirit does not conclusively indicate that the Lamanites worshipped many gods, but the implication is strong, and the archaeological information is certain.
The reason that this statement indicates a pantheon of gods is the quick acceptance of a “new” god that the king does not previously understand. He relates that god of Ammon and Aaron to the Great Spirit from Jerusalem, but the very idea that it must be equated suggests that the king presumes that there might be other choices. It might be a different god, or it might be a new one altogether. Once again, the archaeological evidence is quite clear on this fact. The Lamanites in this area would be worshipping more than one god.
10 And Aaron said unto him: Yea, he is that Great Spirit, and he created all things both in heaven and in earth. Believest thou this?
11 And he said: Yea, I believe that the Great Spirit created all things, and I desire that ye should tell me concerning all these things, and I will believe thy words.
Aaron begins his instruction to the king with an attempt to establish a baseline of common belief. That belief begins with God as the creator of all things. By linking God to the Great Spirit of the king’s understanding, the king can use his beliefs about that god to help him understand the message that Aaron is bringing.
12 And it came to pass that when Aaron saw that the king would believe his words, he began from the creation of Adam, reading the scriptures unto the king—how God created man after his own image, and that God gave him commandments, and that because of transgression, man had fallen.
The common ground of a God who has created everything opens the door for Aaron to explain what God has created. Since Aaron begins with Adam, it is not even so much what as why.
Textual: As we have seen before, Mormon elects to condense this story. The material covered here must have been part of the original source material that he appears to be citing for the conversational exchange, and certainly we have abundant evidence that sermons were recorded. In this case, the sermon is repeating information Mormon has already presented, and so he gives us just a description rather than the entire text.
13 And Aaron did expound unto him the scriptures from the creation of Adam, laying the fall of man before him, and their carnal state and also the plan of redemption, which was prepared from the foundation of the world, through Christ, for all whosoever would believe on his name.
14 And since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins, through faith and repentance, and so forth; and that he breaketh the bands of death, that the grave shall have no victory, and that the sting of death should be swallowed up in the hopes of glory; and Aaron did expound all these things unto the king.
Aaron begins with Adam because he must discuss the Fall. He must discuss the Fall to provide the foundation for the discussion of the Atoning Messiah. That is the great message that he has. It is that revelation of the Atoning Messiah that he had that compelled him and his brethren to undertake this journey. Certainly this is the heart of the message that he wants to deliver to the king.
15 And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.
This is the pivotal verse in one of the most powerful conversion stories in the Book of Mormon. It is important to remember that this is the king who exhibited such hatred towards Ammon and attempted to kill him for little more than the sin of being Nephite. This is the king whose acquiescence to the freeing of Aaron and his brethren was compelled rather than voluntary. This is the man who knew so little of God that he had to ask if God was the same as the Great Spirit. It is that very man who has now glimpsed the joy of God through the words of Aaron. We may be certain that the Spirit touched the king through Aaron, and that it was not the specific words that effected this change. Such a tremendous change does not come through intellectual debate, but through the softening of the heart.
16 But Aaron said unto him: If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest.
17 And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying:
The king desires the joy of God. Aaron directs him to God to receive it. Aaron does not sell it to him. Aaron does not indicate that Aaron is the gateway to receive it. Aaron does not suggest that Alma has the key. Aaron simply tells the king that God is available, and that he should take this request, and this offer, to God directly.
18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead.
This short prayer is one of the most remarkable recorded in any scripture. We are told to have faith, and to exercise it. Later in Alma we will be told:
27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
We know that many may have a strong and powerful faith, but how weak may faith be and still be faith? The over-king’s prayer answer’s that question. Alma suggests that the lowest form of faith is simply the desire to believe coupled with an action based upon that belief. Notice what we have in the prayer of Lamoni’s father:
[O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God] This God to whom the over-king prays is not really a God that he has understood. He has made a connection to a god he has known, but this is not his god, it is Aaron’s God. When he begins the prayer, he addresses the prayer hesitantly.
[and if there is a God] Here is the very definition of a faith so small that it is only the desire to believe! Here is the great word, “if.” If there is a God! The king addresses God, but is not yet convinced completely of his existence. Yet he prays.
[and if thou art God] We have yet another “if,” and this one is perhaps more significant that the first. If there is a God, and if thou are God! In the king’s heart he is saying: “Aaron has told me about this God, and it sounds good, so I am praying. I don’t know if this God exists, and if he does, I don’t know that you are the one!” This king is the picture of hesitation, the portrait of doubt. What he has of faith is not built on any understanding, but rather on that pure and simple desire to believe, that lowest form of faith.
[wilt thou make thyself known unto me] The king asks for the thing he desires. He desires to believe, and asks that this desire be fulfilled into a belief built on something stronger.
[and I will give away all my sins to know thee] This is the perhaps the most powerful phrase of the prayer. At this point we separate curiosity from a true desire to believe. A curiosity about belief could be fulfilled if God made himself known – but God tends not to fulfill such curiosity. The merely curious transcends into the desirous through the sincere willingness to change as a consequence of the developing faith. Curiosity requires to fundamental change of being, faith does.
The extent to which the king is willing to go has an interesting shift in the few verses we have. In verse 15 the king begins with things that the wealthy tend to think equates to a sacrifice. He is willing to give up his kingdom and possessions. In a sense, he expects that he might buy this joy. When we actually see him on his knees, however, his humility and desire to believe allow the Spirit to touch his heart and he now offers the treasure that God truly desires. He offers his entire soul to God. This lowest form of faith is still built upon the firm conviction that faith is transforming. If we are unwilling to accept the requisite cleansing of our souls, the elimination of the sins we sometimes treasure, then we will be unwilling and unprepared for the joy that God offers. This man who does not even know if this God exists, or, if God does exist if he is praying to the right God, this man beginning with only the barest form of belief, still has that most important essential of faith. Faith is more than the desire to believe. It is the desire to act on that belief.
19 And it came to pass that his servants ran and told the queen all that had happened unto the king. And she came in unto the king; and when she saw him lay as if he were dead, and also Aaron and his brethren standing as though they had been the cause of his fall, she was angry with them, and commanded that her servants, or the servants of the king, should take them and slay them.
Literary: The conversion stories of Lamoni and of his father are remarkably parallel. In both cases we have a conversion that involves multiple people falling as though dead, and the presumption by some witnesses that they were dead. In both cases we have the attempt or the command to kill the righteous messenger. Mark Thomas has noted that these experiences also parallel much of the conversion experience of Alma the Younger, and has suggested that there is a particular conversion “form” in the Book of Mormon (Thomas 1999, pp. 135-142). The presence of similar elements certainly stands out. The question is what these parallels mean.
Of course it is possible that they are completely accurate descriptions of precisely what happened. It is also important to remember, particularly in the case of Lamoni and his father, that we have the same redactor telling the story. Even in the case of historical information, there are certain literary forms that might inform the way a particular author tells a tale.
One important literary form that appears to underlie many biographies is the set of traits that Lord Raglan described as “The Hero” (Raglan, Lord. “The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama.” In: In Quest of the Hero. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 89-175). This discussion of the elements of the hero tale have been analyzed and reanalyzed to expand the examples of this set of traits that appear to provide a somewhat structured and ready-made biographical outline for the lives of multiple figures. Lord Raglan gives the structured biographies of Oedipus, Theseus, Romulus, Heracles, Perseus, Jason, Bellerophon, Pelops, Asclepios, Dionysos, Apollo, Zeus, Joseph, Moses, Eliajah, Watu Gunung, Nyikang, Sigurd, Llew Llawgyffes, Arthur, and Robin Hood (Raglan 1990, pp. 139-147). Probably the more famous exposition of the hero tale structure is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press 1973). Campbell expands on the elements of the tale structure, and expands upon the number of “heros” whose biographies might be informed by this structure.
While the situations are not precisely parallel, they are sufficiently parallel to be instructive to our understanding of the similarities in the conversion stories in the Book of Mormon. What we have in the hero tales are disparate biographies that tend to fall into recognizable patterns. Of course one might assume that the patterns therefore invalidate the historicity of all of the biographies, but Lord Raglan specifically noted that he did not categorized the people as ahistorical, but only the common biographies (Dundes, Alan. “The Hero Patttern and the Life of Jesus.” In: In Quest of the Hero. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 180).
What we need to understand is that when biographies and stories are written down, there are frequently structural patterns embedded in society which tend to dictate the form in which we prefer to see those stories. Vladimir Propp investigated Russian folktales and found that there was a very common plot structure which informed those tales (see Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977). This commonality of preferred forms can sometimes create structures where they are least expected. The results of one examination are instructive:
“Utley applied the pattern somewhat tongue-in-cheek to the biography of Abraham Lincoln and found that Lincoln scores no less that the full twenty-two points [of Lord Raglan’s marks of the hero tale]. The significance of Utley’s essay is that it underscores the distinction between the individual and his biography with respect to historicity. The fact that a hero’s biography conforms to the Indo-European hero pattern does not necessarily mean that the hero never existed. It suggests rather that the folk repeatedly insist upon making their versions of the lives of heroes follow the lines of a specific series of incidents” (Dundes 1990, p. 190).
Combining all of this information on the literary structures of folklore, and remembering that we have both a common tradition, and in the case of Lamoni and his father, a common redactor, there is every reason to see the commonalities as preferred structures. The stories are parallel because they are made to appear as parallel as possible, not because they were invented, but because the literary expectation was to link such conversion events into an understandable and acceptable pattern.
20 Now the servants had seen the cause of the king's fall, therefore they durst not lay their hands on Aaron and his brethren; and they pled with the queen saying: Why commandest thou that we should slay these men, when behold one of them is mightier than us all? Therefore we shall fall before them.
21 Now when the queen saw the fear of the servants she also began to fear exceedingly, lest there should some evil come upon her. And she commanded her servants that they should go and call the people, that they might slay Aaron and his brethren.
The circumstances of the conversion continue to parallel Lamoni’s. In both cases we have the call for an outside presence. In the case of Lamoni, Abish is a closest believer, and calls the witnesses so that they might see and believe, and one who arrives decides to kill Ammon. In this case, it is the queen who desires the death of Aaron, and calls the witnesses in.
22 Now when Aaron saw the determination of the queen, he, also knowing the hardness of the hearts of the people, feared lest that a multitude should assemble themselves together, and there should be a great contention and a disturbance among them; therefore he put forth his hand and raised the king from the earth, and said unto him: Stand. And he stood upon his feet, receiving his strength.
23 Now this was done in the presence of the queen and many of the servants. And when they saw it they greatly marveled, and began to fear. And the king stood forth, and began to minister unto them. And he did minister unto them, insomuch that his whole household were converted unto the Lord.
The presence of a large number of people becomes crucial to the story of the conversion, because there are a number of people who may attest to the miracle of the conversion. The king arises on Aaron’s command, and the household is converted. This quantity of people who share in the experience of the king provides the nucleus for belief in the Lamanite city. Not only does the conversion process begin with the king, it is confirmed by his household.
24 Now there was a multitude gathered together because of the commandment of the queen, and there began to be great murmurings among them because of Aaron and his brethren.
25 But the king stood forth among them and administered unto them. And they were pacified towards Aaron and those who were with him.
26 And it came to pass that when the king saw that the people were pacified, he caused that Aaron and his brethren should stand forth in the midst of the multitude, and that they should preach the word unto them.
The calling of the larger crowd has the same effect as in the story of Lamoni. The conversion process is validated by the king, and the preaching of the gospel proceeds among the people.
27 And it came to pass that the king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west—and thus were the Lamanites and the Nephites divided.
The king sends a proclamation. For some reason, Mormon gets so involved in his description of the lands of the Lamanites that he forgets to specifically tell us what the proclamation was. We are left to assume that, like Lamoni, he allowed the preaching. In neither case does it appear that the king proclaimed a required change in religion. Indeed, that would have been a political if not a religious mistake. The people must change because they desire to change, not because they are forced to make the change.
Redaction: The remaining verses of this chapter provide significant geographical information. Why is it here? Mormon is concluding this particular section and concludes not with the conversion of Lamoni’s father, but with the lands of the Lamanites. The probable reason is that Lamoni’s father is the over-king of a larger land, and the proclamation opens the missionary doors throughout the whole of the lands under the over-king’s influence. Thus we have a catalog of the lands that are now open to the missionary work. While much of this land must have been under the direct influence of the over-king, some of the description suggests that there are areas described that might not be specifically beholding to the over-king. We have the description in verse 28 of the location of “the more idle part” of the Lamanites. These people do not appear to be formed into cities, and are therefore less likely to be participants in the full culture of the more highly organized Lamanite political structures.
Geographical: This verse gives us the political dividing line between the Lamanite holdings and the Nephite holdings. Because the Nephites are generally “in the north” the division line will run west to east. Mormon describes this division as having a buffer zone of a “narrow strip of wilderness.” As we have seen, the textual use of “wilderness” refers to uninhabited areas, and typically to rough terrain rather than barren terrain. The wilderness area has been a physical barrier to easy communications and passage between the Nephite and Lamanite realm, and has kept the Lamanite raids in Nephite lands to a minimum.
28 Now, the more idle part of the Lamanites lived in the wilderness, and dwelt in tents; and they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore, and on the west in the land of Nephi, in the place of their fathers' first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore.
Cultural: This verse provides a de facto division in types of Lamanites. We have been discussing kings and overkings in various cities. Now we have a description of “the more idle part of the Lamanites.” These people do not dwell in cities, but in “tents.” Whatever might be meant by “tent” it is clear that this is to be contrasted to the cities and kings that we have just visited. Thus while we are seeing the extent of the “Lamanite” lands, we are also seeing lands where there is perhaps a tenuous control over the population. They may be Lamanite because they are not Nephite (following the definition in Jacob 1:14). They are certainly not the more sophisticated city dwellers that we have seen. They are contrasted explicitly with the city dwellers as “the more idle part.” The clear implication is that the city dwellers do not fit this description of “idle,” nor indeed would we suspect idleness of those who would have cities large enough to command other cities. Many of these “idle” Lamanites are along the coast “in the place of their fathers’ first inheritance,” which was the landing spot. Along the Guatemalan coast the conditions were such that the loaded idea of “idle” might have had an environmental cause. Sorenson notes the early description of the Lamanites in this area, and suggests:
“As Nephi tells the story, the Lamanites down in the hot lowlands were nomadic hunters, bloodthirsty, near naked, and lazy (2 Nephi 5:24; Enos 1:20). The circumstances of life in that environment could account for some of those characteristics. Many centuries later the Spaniards spoke in like terms of natives in the same area. The Tomas Medel manuscript, dating about A.D. 1550, just a generation after the first Spaniards arrived in the area, reported that the Indian men on the Pacific coast of Guatemala "spent their entire lives as naked as when they were born." That practice may have seemed a sensible response to the oppressive climate. In the late seventeenth century Catholic priest Fuentes y Guzman contrasted the "lassitude and laziness" of the same lowlanders with the energy of the highland inhabitants. As for getting a living, the tangle of forest and swamp along the coast itself may have been too hard for the Lamanite newcomers to farm effectively, since they wouldn't immediately get the knack of cultivation in that locale. (They, or their fathers, might not even have been farmers in Palestine.) It may have been economically smart for them to hunt and gather the abundant natural food from the estuaries, while again the damp heat would make their lack of energy understandable” (Sorenson 1985, p. 140).
Geographical: Sorenson suggests the following data that may be extracted from this information:
“This strip [of wilderness] is “on the west of the land of Zarahemla,” not in that land., hence the greater land of Zarahemla was not conceptualized to reach the west coast, while the general land of Nephi was. No hint is ever given that Nephites settled or traveled in the strip between the west sea and the (obviously mountain) boundary of the (Sidon basin or) land of Zarahemla. . . The Lamanites may have controlled this west strip formally from early on, as 22:28 suggests, or perhaps only Lamanite squatters occupied it. Either arrangement would explain how their armies could move to attack Ammonihah undetected by Nephites (16:2; 49:1). But possibly the territory was neutral, occupied primarily by a population unconnected politically with either Nephites nor Lamanites, the inhabitants not sufficiently strong to oppose a large Lamanite army if it determined to pass through, let alone to cause any problem for the Nephites on the other side of the wilderness mountain barrier” (Sorenson 1990, p. 257).
29 And also there were many Lamanites on the east by the seashore, whither the Nephites had driven them. And thus the Nephites were nearly surrounded by the Lamanites; nevertheless the Nephites had taken possession of all the northern parts of the land bordering on the wilderness, at the head of the river Sidon, from the east to the west, round about on the wilderness side; on the north, even until they came to the land which they called Bountiful.
Geography: We do not have the record of the time when these Lamanites had been driven “on the east by the seashore.” It is possible that this “expulsion may have been tgriggered when the Nephites lost track of those Lamanites who took the prisoners around Noah (Sorenson 1990, p. 259). What the Nephites hold is a mountainous region that does not reach to the west coast, but is protected on the west by a rough mountain range. On the opposite side they hold a line that extends to another wilderness. The northernmost extent of Nephite lands is the land Bountiful.
30 And it bordered upon the land which they called Desolation, it being so far northward that it came into the land which had been peopled and been destroyed, of whose bones we have spoken, which was discovered by the people of Zarahemla, it being the place of their first landing.
This verse continues the description of the land of Bountiful. This is specifically a region, and not a city in this description. The location of this land extends sufficiently north to border the land called Desolation, which was the location where the Jaredite plates and remnants were found by the people of Zarahemla and Limhi’s search party. In terms of Mesoamerican cultural areas, this extends the Nephite lands from the Southernmost boundary between the Maya and the epi-Olmec cultures, and on the north into the Olmec heartland. This general holding reinforces the concept of the land of Zarahemla and a liminal location between the two great culture areas of the Olmec and the Maya, and serving as a cultural buffer zone between the two. The evidence of the Book of Mormon is that the cultural connections should be stronger downstream of the Sidon, and the southern borders are near the headwaters of the Sidon, and the land Bountiful closer to where the Sidon will empty into the ocean.
As we have already noted, this area is linguistically Zoque, which is a language more closely related to the ancestral Mixe-Zoque of the Olmec. The linguistic evidence of the location continues to fit the geographical and cultural descriptions of the Book of Mormon for this area, as the Book of Mormon suggests the Jaredite (Olmec-influenced) connections of the people of Zarahemla.
31 And they came from there up into the south wilderness. Thus the land on the northward was called Desolation, and the land on the southward was called Bountiful, it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food.
Verse 31 continues a geographical/historical description of the people of Zarahemla, known better to us as “Mulekites.” The ancestral Mulekites landed, and from there the people of Zarahemla went “up” into the south wilderness. Eventually the people of Zarahemla continue “up” until they are following the Sidon to the point where the city of Zarahemla is eventually located.
32 And now, it was only the distance of a day and a half's journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward.
Geography: This may be the most famous of all of the geographic references in the Book of Mormon, giving us the general shape of the land as one with a “narrow neck.” We have been told that there is a “line” that divides the north and south areas, the land of Desolation and the land Bountiful, and this “line” runs along the narrow neck. We have some indication of the distance from sea to sea because we are told that it was “only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite.” Of course this does not give us mileage, but only a time-distance. Nevertheless, that distance may be estimated, and Sorenson suggests that a plausible distance would be 75 to 125 miles. (Sorenson 1985, p. 17).
This gives us the conceptual “hourglass” shape of the land, with this narrow “belt” cinching in the larger landmasses to the north and south of this narrow neck. Other general features of the land are suggested by the general references in the text:
“The directional trend of the two lands and the neck was generally north-south. The east sea (six references) and the west sea (twelve references) were the primary bodies of water that bounded this promised land. But notice that the key term of reference is not “land north” (only five references) but “land northward” (thirty-one references). There is, of course, a distinction; “land northward” implies a direction somewhat off from literal north. This implication that the lands are not simply oriented to the cardinal directions is confirmed by reference to the “sea north” and sea south” (Helaman 3:8). These terms are used only once, in reference to the colonizing of the land northward by the Nephites, but not in connection with the land southward. The only way to have seas north and south on a literal or descriptive basis would ble for the two major bodies of land to be oriented at an angle somewhat off true north0south. That would allow part of the ocean to lie toward the south of one and another part of the ocean to lie toward north of the other. (Sorenson, John L. Mormon’s Map. FARMS 2000, pp. 19-20).
Another important general feature of this general geography is the textual requirement of a much larger west coast that east:
“An east coast of 85 or so miles for the4 Nephite-controlled area is far shorter than the length of the land southward measured via Zarahemla and Nephi. That axis was on the order of 350 miles. The difference in these lengths is so great that it cannot be due to erroneous assumptions. The Book of Mormon text really does require that the east coast of concern to the Nephites be much shorter than the west, and any map we come up with must accommodate that fact (Sorenson 1985, p. 19).
33 And it came to pass that the Nephites had inhabited the land Bountiful, even from the east unto the west sea, and thus the Nephites in their wisdom, with their guards and their armies, had hemmed in the Lamanites on the south, that thereby they should have no more possession on the north, that they might not overrun the land northward.
Mormon gives us the essential political geography, and the likely source of the coming Lamanite/Nephite conflicts. The Nephites control the best land that connects the Lamanite lands from the northern sections, and along the coastal “wildernesses” they control even the northernmost reaches to the narrow neck of land. Thus Nephite held territory lies directly in the line of any possible Lamanite northerly expansion. Indeed, the reconstruction of the movement of Maya languages suggest that there was precisely this northerly push into the lands previously held by the Zoquean speakers (Sorenson 1985, p. 335).
34 Therefore the Lamanites could have no more possessions only in the land of Nephi, and the wilderness round about. Now this was wisdom in the Nephites—as the Lamanites were an enemy to them, they would not suffer their afflictions on every hand, and also that they might have a country whither they might flee, according to their desires.
It may have been seen as wisdom on the part of the Nephites to protect their territory from a general Lamanite intrusion, but this “wisdom” was shortly to lead to pressures that mounted into escalated warfare. The Nephites held a respected territory with many defensive options, but apparently also stood directly in the path of the desired expansion of the Lamanites, a geographical push described in the Book of Mormon, and witnessed during this general timeframe in the dirt archaeology of the Maya region.
35 And now I, after having said this, return again to the account of Ammon and Aaron, Omner and Himni, and their brethren.
Textual: Mormon concludes this story of Ammon and Aaron. Even with the condensed material where Mormon declines to include sermons that were evidently in the plate text, Mormon concludes this section as the end of an included citation. Even though he continues the story of the Lamanite mission, a significant change creates the beginning of this next chapter. Mormon moves from cited material to more completely abridged material. Thus this chapter ends and a new one begins with the condensed historical material.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001