I’ve been reflecting on the structure of the Book of Alma1 , as well as what the Book of Alma means. What is its message? What did Mormon intend us to learn from it? What did Mormon intend us to learn from its structure and narrative?
The Structure of Alma
First, structure. The Book of Alma might be described in 4 narrative cycles, framed with a prologue and epilogue. Here’s my working outline:
- Prologue (Alma 1-3): The stage is set. We meet Nehor and Amlici–whose legacies will haunt the remainder of Alma’s record. The Amlicite Civil War is recounted.
- Movement 1 (Alma 4-16): The Nephite Reformation: the story of Nephi’s efforts to reform the Church of God, ending with the terror at Ammonihah and their subsequent destruction at the hand of the Lamanites.
- Movement 2 (Alma 17-26): The Lamanite Mission, led by Ammon and his brethren, and the eventual (though short-lived) war between Ammon’s converts and the other Lamanites.
- Movement 3 (Alma 30-44): The Zoramite Mission and ensuing Zoramite war, with Alma’s counsel to his three sons sandwiched in between the two events.
- Movement 4 (Alma 45-62): Helaman’s (unsuccessful) reform, the ensuing Amalackiahite wars, and the military leader’s constant reform efforts
- Epilogue (Alma 63): The effects of the war on the Nephite people, including the passing of a generation.
Importantly, each of these cycles is a kind of repetition, a “variation on a theme,” that includes these similarities:
- Reform. Each section begins with an attempt to reform the people
- Preaching. Each reform effort involves preaching and sermons centered on Christ
- War. Each section ends with a war precipitated by the reform attempt, usually involving a secession or separation.
- Covenant Victory. Each war involves a victory by God’s covenant-keeping people
A couple of notes and nuancing.
First, the prologue sets up some major players: introducing the Amlicites (who will return later during the Zoramite war) and Nehor, who directly influenced the people of Ammoniah (and may have set precedent for the Zoramites’ conduct).
Second, the preaching and sermons that make up the reform effort are a dominant note in every cycle except for the final one, which is instead dominated by the war (flipping the emphasis of most sections)–possibly a long war because of Helaman’s initially unsuccessful reform, and Moroni’s repeated attempts to bring his people to obedience.
Third, most of the cycles–including the prologue and epilogue–involves separation and fragmentation: the Amlicites, Ammonihahites, Zoramites, and followers of Amalickiah separate themselves politically or spiritually from the Nephites, and (more importantly) from covenant faithfulness, while the Anti-Nephi-Lehites separate themselves from the Lamanites and join with the Nephites.
Fourth, all of the wars are won by God’s people, the one difference being the destruction of Ammonihah, which is accomplished by the Lamanites (fulfilling God’s promise in 1 Nephi 2:16, that the Lamanites will be a “scourge” unto Nephi’s children, and showcasing that God is the one fighting the battles).
In addition, there are original chapter breaks at each of the division markers.
If this outline is correct–at least in the broad strokes–what does this suggest? What meaning are we supposed to take from the Book of Alma?
The Meaning of the Book of Alma
As a preliminary note, I think two obvious themes emerge. The first is the more obvious one: the covenant, and specifically, the covenant God had made with Lehi (2 Nephi 1:20) that ties keeping God’s commandments to prospering in the land, with God’s protection denied those who disobey. This theme is obvious in the church’s efforts to humble and discipline the Church of God, and in the subsequent wars and consistent victories by the righteous. Commenting on Alma 50:17-23, Brant Gardner specifically links Mormon’s emphasis on war with demonstrating the covenant:2
Mormon is not narrating Nephite history in these verses, he is using it to demonstrate the fulfillment of Lehi’s promise for the land. He specifically invokes Lehi and then emphasizes the contrast between the prosperity of the Nephites and the conditions that “brought upon them their wars and their destructions.” While many readers of Captain Moroni’s exploits in Alma see in them a glorification of that military chief captain, Mormon saw him restoring proper Nephite obedience before the Lord, having removed the contrary elements. Thus, “there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni.” Mormon was correct that many readers might miss this message, so he made it explicit.
Mormon’s military descriptions have a specific purpose in his envisioned project; they carry a larger message about the literal fulfilment of Lehi’s promise… here was a promise given to Lehi that had two prongs. Nephi recorded the Lord’s promise to his father: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence” (2 Nephi 1:20). At times, Mormon emphasizes the positive aspect of the promise. In this case, he emphasizes the negative side. In addition to pointing out that they invoked the curse through their rebellion, he emphasized that it was due to their own actions.
This seems right. The wars are a feature not because the Book of Mormon is obsessed with violence for its own sake, but because it demonstrates the covenant. (Additionally, our human author–Mormon–has fought a war himself. As Ben Spackman notes, the focus on these wars might be an “alternate history” for Mormon: “Imagine [Mormon] sitting there, surround by plates and destruction, thinking “this could have all been different, if we’d had a Moroni.”)
The second theme, I think, is found in the sermons. While the sermons vary, all of these are linked to the Nephite anticipation of a suffering Messiah, who would take upon Him the sins of all people, and covenant faithfulness to this Messiah. Alma explains this to the people of Zarahemla, Gideon, and Ammonihah; Amulek preaches to his native city of Ammonihah and later to the Zoramites; Ammon and Aaron both preach Christ and repentance to the Lamanite dynasty; and Alma’s counsel to his sons, especially to Corianton, is centered on this Messiah figure.
Christ and Covenant. Covenant and Christ. These are the two main themes of the Book of Mormon. Mormon’s son, Moroni, says as much in the title page:
Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers, and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever
And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.
With this lens in place, the Book of Alma begins to make some sense. Every movement involves reform and war. Each reform effort is initiated to bring the people–the Nephites, the Lamanites, the apostate Zoramites–back to their Lord, and observing the covenant that promises them the Lord’s protection. Those who do “prosper in the land,” and those who don’t are “cut off from my presence.” Blessedly, each movement includes some individual instruction as well, helping outline and illuminate the figure of the Lehite Messiah, Jesus the Christ–the very Lord who prospers them–so that the people can better trust God and His mercy.
- Inspired in part by watching the Bible Project videos, and my reading so far in the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions. Both resources are incredible. ↩︎
- I’ve long had this issue with the Book of Mormon: the book’s emphasis on war. This emphasis, that runs throughout the Book of Alma and culminates in “the war chapters,” has long bothered me: why would a God of mercy place so much about war in a book ostensibly about Christ? The idea in this quote has begun to help me answer that question, and I think it can sort-of generalize to the Hebrew Bible’s similar emphasis on violence (especially in Joshua). ↩︎