1 Behold, now it came to pass that the people of Nephi were exceedingly rejoiced, because the Lord had again delivered them out of the hands of their enemies; therefore they gave thanks unto the Lord their God; yea, and they did fast much and pray much, and they did worship God with exceedingly great joy.
Textual: The end of the last chapter was described as the end of the writing of Alma on the plates. In spite of that ending, we do not have a new beginning of a book, but rather a continuation in the same book of the writings of Helaman, Alma’s son. As we have seen before, the principles of “book” creation in Mormon’s writings appears to have to do with a shift in dynastic writers. Thus Helaman is still of Alma’s dynasty or rightful lineage. As a continuation of Alma, Helaman continues writing in the book named for Alma. We will see that this acknowledgement of a shift also occurs along political religious divisions as well, as the separation of those conceptions in Nephite society moved the recording on the plates of Nephi in and out of the combined political/religious sphere. At the present we are in a tradition where the religious lead has the plates, but is not the political leader.
Mormon’s function in this section is to introduce Helaman as the next writer on the plates, and to complete the story of Alma. He uses the break in the year to make his division. Even though he has said that Alma is not longer writing, Alma did not die at the end of the nineteenth year. The event that marks Alma’s division in the chapters is not the death of Alma, but the “death” of the year. In the following chapters (chapters as defined in the 1830 edition, and therefore likely Mormon’s chapter divisions) we will see that a large number of them are broken on year markers. As previously noted, this is a very Mesoamerican way of marking historical records, and an indication of the nature of the source plates from which Mormon is taking his abridgement.
2 And it came to pass in the nineteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, that Alma came unto his son Helaman and said unto him: Believest thou the words which I spake unto thee concerning those records which have been kept?
3 And Helaman said unto him: Yea, I believe.
Textual: After the transition information in verse one that links this event with the ending of the last chapter, we have the introduction of the passing of the plates from Alma to Helaman. This is a charge that was promised to Helaman during his blessing in the previous year (Alma 37:1-2).
The giving of the plates takes the form of a type of “recommend interview” where Alma reviews the essential faithful understanding of Alma before giving him the plates. The first question deals with the task of the plates, and Helaman’s remembrance and belief in the sacred nature of that mission.
4 And Alma said again: Believest thou in Jesus Christ, who shall come?
5 And he said: Yea, I believe all the words which thou hast spoken.
Alma’s next question is the critical one of the definition of Helaman’s true Nephite belief. He must believe in Jesus Christ. Note that he specifically says “who shall come.” This is the essential Nephite distinguishing believe, one in the coming Atoning Messiah.
Translation: Here as in other places we have discussed, the appearance of Jesus Christ as a designator is misleading, and is the result of Joseph’s understanding rather than the understanding that would have been on the plates. The “Christ” is a title meaning the anointed one – or the Messiah (Hebrew for the “anointed one”) who is to come.
6 And Alma said unto him again: Will ye keep my commandments?
7 And he said: Yea, I will keep thy commandments with all my heart.
The next interview question is not on belief, but focuses on action. Will Helaman do what is to be required of him? Of course the answer is yes, “with all my heart.”
8 Then Alma said unto him: Blessed art thou; and the Lord shall prosper thee in this land.
The interview is now over, and with the affirmative responses Alma gives over the plates. What we get at this point is not focused on the plates, but rather on the blessing that Alma gives Helaman for his coming position. The first blessing is that the Lord will “prosper” Helaman in the land. This is a remarkable blessing because Helaman inherits his position in very perilous times, and will live through tremendous warfare. The Lord’s version of “prosper” is not always what we might wish it were.
9 But behold, I have somewhat to prophesy unto thee; but what I prophesy unto thee ye shall not make known; yea, what I prophesy unto thee shall not be made known, even until the prophecy is fulfilled; therefore write the words which I shall say.
Alma now provides a prophecy that will perhaps give Helaman an understanding of the very different concept of the Lord’s promise of “prospering.” This is a revelation of the future that is to be kept from those to whom it applies. This is a dark prophecy, one that will not encourage a nation, and so it is to be kept from them.
10 And these are the words: Behold, I perceive that this very people, the Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them, shall dwindle in unbelief.
Textual: The prophecy is introduced with the phrase “and these are the words.” There are two possible meanings for that phrase. The first is that Alma speaks it to introduce the Lord’s words in the prophecy. The second is that they are Mormon’s words used to introduce Alma’s words from the plates. The second is the better interpretation. Not only does prophecy come to the prophet in his own words, but we have the interesting first phrase of the prophecy which says” “Behold, I perceive….” This phrase is perfectly at home in Alma’s description of his prophetic event, but hardly a term we expect from the Lord, whose statement would have been much more forceful than a perception.
The prophecy is that the Atoning Messiah will come, but that the people will fall away anyway four hundred years later. This prophecy is to be kept from the people because it prophesizes failure. With an understanding of future failure, it might deter the intermediate populations from striving as hard during their own lifetimes. Hope is a much better motivator than fatalism.
Cultural: It is possible that Alma and Helaman understood something sacred in the four hundred year period. The number four is a sacred number of completion in the Mesoamerican world, and therefore four-hundred years would be a “completion” number. Indeed, it was the “completion” of the Nephite people. This would have placed a stamp of finality on the prophecy of the ultimate destruction of the Nephite people.
One can only imagine how Mormon must have felt when he read and copied this fatalistic prophecy, as he was living the fulfillment of it. Mormon would have known that his efforts were in vain, and that he was foretold to fail. What courage it would have taken for him to carry on his task with the knowledge of eventual failure so surely before him.
11 Yea, and then shall they see wars and pestilences, yea, famines and bloodshed, even until the people of Nephi shall become extinct—
12 Yea, and this because they shall dwindle in unbelief and fall into the works of darkness, and lasciviousness, and all manner of iniquities; yea, I say unto you, that because they shall sin against so great light and knowledge, yea, I say unto you, that from that day, even the fourth generation shall not all pass away before this great iniquity shall come.
The destruction of the Lamanites will come with “wars and pestilences… famines and bloodshed.” This will be the end of the Nephite world. The cause of this destruction will be that “they shall dwindle in unbelief and fall into the works of darkness…” Both Alma and Helaman would immediately understand this as the true cause for the destruction of their people. Once they lost their commitment to the God of the Nephite religion, the identity of Nephite people would be lost. Remember that we have seen that the Nephites feared that mixing with Lamanite peoples and ideas would lead to the destruction of the Nephites:
8 And this was done that their seed might be distinguished from the seed of their brethren, that thereby the Lord God might preserve his people, that they might not mix and believe in incorrect traditions which would prove their destruction.
The final destruction of the Nephites will be accompanied by bloodshed, but the cause will be spiritual, not military. It is the “incorrect traditions” that the Nephites will eventually adopt that will “prove their destruction.”
13 And when that great day cometh, behold, the time very soon cometh that those who are now, or the seed of those who are now numbered among the people of Nephi, shall no more be numbered among the people of Nephi.
14 But whosoever remaineth, and is not destroyed in that great and dreadful day, shall be numbered among the Lamanites, and shall become like unto them, all, save it be a few who shall be called the disciples of the Lord; and them shall the Lamanites pursue even until they shall become extinct. And now, because of iniquity, this prophecy shall be fulfilled.
This part of the prophecy specifically tells us that it is not the destruction of the lineal Nephites, but the political Nephites that will come. Not every Nephite is destroyed, but there will be no more Nephite because there is no more political organization deemed Nephite. Those who are left “shall be numbered among the Lamanites.” As we have seen, the process of switching sides rapidly associates former Nephites with current Lamanites, a process we recently saw with the Zoramites in Antionum (Alma 43:4).
15 And now it came to pass that after Alma had said these things to Helaman, he blessed him, and also his other sons; and he also blessed the earth for the righteous' sake.
Alma gives his sons a final blessing. We do not have this blessing recorded, so we cannot discern the different nature of this blessing to his son and the various blessings that begin in Alma 36.
16 And he said: Thus saith the Lord God—Cursed shall be the land, yea, this land, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, unto destruction, which do wickedly, when they are fully ripe; and as I have said so shall it be; for this is the cursing and the blessing of God upon the land, for the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.
This is the specific blessing that follows Mormon’s description in the previous verse that Alma “blessed the earth for the righteous’ sake.”
Notice that the “blessing” actually takes the form of a “cursing.” The important point here is that it occurs for the benefit of the righteous. The particular cursing of the earth is attached to those “which do wickedly.” It may be that after the revelation of the ultimate destruction of the Nephite nation that Alma sought some affirmation that while there would be a victory over the Nephites, that there would not be a victory of evil over good. In this prophetic blessing, Alma promises that the wicked will not prevail, and thus this becomes a blessing for the righteous in that it promises ultimate salvation, if not more immediate victory.
17 And now, when Alma had said these words he blessed the church, yea, all those who should stand fast in the faith from that time henceforth.
Alma moves from the land to the church. He blesses the church and “all those who should stand fast in the faith.” It is not the organization, but the people and their righteous efforts that are facilitated through the church that matter.
18 And when Alma had done this he departed out of the land of Zarahemla, as if to go into the land of Melek. And it came to pass that he was never heard of more; as to his death or burial we know not of.
19 Behold, this we know, that he was a righteous man; and the saying went abroad in the church that he was taken up by the Spirit, or buried by the hand of the Lord, even as Moses. But behold, the scriptures saith the Lord took Moses unto himself; and we suppose that he has also received Alma in the spirit, unto himself; therefore, for this cause we know nothing concerning his death and burial.
Alma leaves and disappears. He clearly ended his role as the chief high priest over the church, and passed on the plates, so the people knew that Alma knew that his end had come. Nevertheless, he simply disappears. No one knows what had happened to him, but they speculate nonetheless.
We do not know which scriptural tradition is being cited here. Deuteronomy 34: 5-6 notes a much more mundane death and burial for Moses:
5 ¶ So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.
6 And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.
Whatever scriptural tradition is being cited, it is lost to modern texts. Of this verse Sperry says:
“This quotation is an exceedingly interesting one. It is possible that the writer was attempting to imply that Alma had been translated, even as Moses was translated by the Lord. It will be remembered that on the Mount of Transfiguration Moses appeared with Elias (Elijah); according to the Prophet Joseph Smith, they conferred keys that were necessary for Peter, James and John to have in their future work. (Matthew 17; see Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 158.) It may be reasonably inferred, therefore, that Moses appeared as a translated being, not as a spirit.” (Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968], 364.)
The interpretation that Moses was translated appears to rest on Deuteronomy 34:6, where is says that “he buried him,” with the “he” in the verse apparently referring to the Lord. If the Lord is doing the “burying” then it is reasonable to suppose that Moses death was in the Lord’s hands. Of course one of the ways that this might have happened would be through translation. The ending phrase of Deuteronomy 34:6, “but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day,” suggests that he did not have an earthly burial.
This verse in the book of Mormon appears to follow that interpretation because it notes that Alma might have been “buried by the hand of the Lord, as was Moses.”
It should be noted that there were variant textual traditions for this passage. The Masoretic text that is behind our current Old Testament preserves the “he buried him,” which appears to be the version behind Nephite scriptures. There was a different reading in the Septuagint and in the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, that read: “they buried him.” This variant makes to appear that Moses death was of a more normal nature (Martin Abegg, Jr. Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich. The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible. Harper Collins, 1999, p. 195).
20 And now it came to pass in the commencement of the nineteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, that Helaman went forth among the people to declare the word unto them.
We do not know the position of Helaman in the religious order of the Nephites, but it appears that he inherited the position of chief high priest. As we noted earlier in the discussion of the mechanism of the voice of the people, that mechanism did not preclude lineage positions in Nephite society, so it would not be unusual to have Helaman step into this position by right of inheritance.
21 For behold, because of their wars with the Lamanites and the many little dissensions and disturbances which had been among the people, it became expedient that the word of God should be declared among them, yea, and that a regulation should be made throughout the church.
Notice the conceptual parallel between the reason for Helaman’s preaching tour and the reason that Alma took his sons on the mission to the Zoramites:
4 Now the Nephites greatly feared that the Zoramites would enter into a correspondence with the Lamanites, and that it would be the means of great loss on the part of the Nephites.
5 And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.
In both cases we have threats of dissention, and the solution is not a military presence, but rather a reassertion of the fundamental glue of Nephite society, religion. The dissensions were seen as religious even though they might be more readily seen as political in the modern world. For Alma and now Helaman, the real cause of the “many little dissensions and disturbances” was the drifting away from true Nephite religious beliefs and toward the religious worldview of the surrounding Lamanites. Thus the cure would be that which most directly attacked the cause. Helaman preaches to cure the social unrest.
22 Therefore, Helaman and his brethren went forth to establish the church again in all the land, yea, in every city throughout all the land which was possessed by the people of Nephi. And it came to pass that they did appoint priests and teachers throughout all the land, over all the churches.
Churches have been established before. The establishment of the church again is an indication of the nature of the apostasy in the various locations under the control of the Nephite hegemony. Apparently, the recent victory encouraged the people in their belief in the God who had delivered them from this large Lamanite army, and they were willing to return to more full belief in the Nephite religion, even to the reestablishing of churches in their midst.
23 And now it came to pass that after Helaman and his brethren had appointed priests and teachers over the churches that there arose a dissension among them, and they would not give heed to the words of Helaman and his brethren;
24 But they grew proud, being lifted up in their hearts, because of their exceedingly great riches; therefore they grew rich in their own eyes, and would not give heed to their words, to walk uprightly before God.
The unity of feeling did not last long, but dissentions develop very quickly. In the commencement of the nineteenth year of the reign of the judges the churches are established. We have the word of dissentions that occur within that same year, as we do not have the commencement of the twentieth year of the reign of the judges until Alma 50:1. Thus the establishment of the true religion lasts less than a year. This tells us that the pressures against the Nephite religion and way of life are mounting rapidly. These are internal dissentions, not attacks by Lamanites. At this point in history the Nephite political hegemony is beginning to fall apart from the inside out.
Textual: There is no chapter break at this location in the 1830 edition. Indeed, we will not see a chapter break until the end of our current chapter 49 which will conclude the events of the nineteenth year. Mormon is now organizing his sections in the same way as his source material, by year markers.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2001