Tag: book of mormon

What does the Book of Alma mean?

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:

  1. Reform. Each section begins with an attempt to reform the people
  2. Preaching. Each reform effort involves preaching and sermons centered on Christ
  3. War. Each section ends with a war precipitated by the reform attempt, usually involving a secession or separation.
  4. 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.

  1. 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. ↩︎
  2. 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). ↩︎

Michael Austin’s “Buried Treasures”

Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time is Michael Austin’s chronicle of him reading, for the first time after 30 years, the Book of Mormon. Having spent the better portion of that intervening span analyzing and teaching great literature as an academic, he admits he was afraid the Book of Mormon wouldn’t measure up to the great works he had spent so long studying and teaching. His report? “I was wrong… it is a book that Latter-day Saints should never be ashamed to place alongside the great books of the world’s traditions—both religious and secular.”

This chronicle is composed of 44 short chapters, written originally as blog posts, so they’re short and accessible; they range across the whole Book of Mormon. Some chapters read like sermons, drawing principles to live by from the text and with quotes I’d happily draw from when preparing a Sacrament talk. Other chapters show you some literary or rhetorical aspect of the Book of Mormon that makes you appreciate how rich the Book of Mormon really is. My favorites were “Alma and the Dunbar Number,” “Why Alma’s Mission Failed while Ammon’s Succeeded,” and “Why the ‘Anti-Nephi-Lehis’ Matter Today.” (That last one, especially, touched me deeply.)

But calling those favorites belies how much I loved the entire book. He has some great insights onto warfare in the Book of Mormon, including how nearly ever war was, in fact, a civil war. He walks you through the “typological” connections in the Book of Mormons, the allusions the Book makes to itself and the Bible, that enhance it richly. (The connections between Lehi’s Tree of Life Vision and the Fall story in the Bible was especially enlightening.) He dwells on how the Book would have been received by the faithful saints in the 1830s. And he shows you, too, how to read “against the grain” at parts: questioning some of Mormon’s decisions, especially when it comes to how Mormon depicts religious freedom and warfare. Far from diminishing my faith in the Book of Mormon, it enhanced it: for it showed that the Book is precisely what it claims to be, an inspired tragedy commissioned by God, but written in the limited perspective of a faithful but flawed historian, doing the best for his people and for the people he knew would inherit his book a millennium-and-a-half down the line, testifying of Christ.

I heartily recommend this collection. There were some observations I disagreed with, and several small grammatical mistakes, but the substance and range of the insights have expanded my view of the Book of Mormon immensely. It’s accessible and handy and always thought-provoking, and as I read the Book of Mormon each year, I’m going to be looking back to this book to see what buried treasures I might have missed.

[UPDATE: Michael Austin added “an additional chapter” through a blogpost here, called “Enos and the Joy of the Saints.” It’s an excellent addition.]

Brant Gardner’s Labor Dilgently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture

Brant Gardner’s “Labor Dilgently to Write: The Ancient Making of a Modern Scripture,” serialized in the Interpreter Journal in eight-to-nine parts, builds on his prolific portfolio of studies on the Book of Mormon by asking some very specific questions “about a very specific aspect of two different men.” Gardner poses his main question this way:

Nephi conceived writing Nephite history. Mormon conceived turning that history into a message to a future generation. Each wrote with purpose and elaborated that purpose by recounting stories. Knowing that each man used a chronology of events as the backbone structuring his intent, how did they select and then write the stories so Nephite history served their larger intent?

At first, I thought this might mean a “literary” approach, following what Grant Hardy has done. While there are literary aspects of this project, it resembles more a “source criticism” approach, trying to do for the Book of Mormon what source criticism has done for the Bible–identify the strands of thought and sources that make up each Biblical book. But of course, the comparison isn’t quite fair: unlike the authors and redactors of the Hebrew Bible, we know so much more about the Book of Mormon’s abridgment, because Nephi and Mormon both allude quite often to what they are doing. Both men leave explicit notes and implicit clues about how they built their book from their life experience and their life work. And both are very pointed about how they hope their work will be read.

The way Gardner approaches this is by dividing the book into two parts: first, he looks closely at the writers themselves. “What do we know about them? How did they learn to do what they did? What sources did they use, and what techniques did they employ to further their messages?” In the second part, he begins to interrogate the writers’ handiwork: “What drove the creation of specific chapters? What message was intended by the stories selected and the way they were told?”

Several things stuck out to me. Gardner is very attuned to detecting structure in the text: for every “and it came to pass,” “now,” and “behold,” he’s detected patterns that show how Nephi and Mormon use these terms in purposeful way. Additionally, I’ve always wondered about the original chapter breaks–which seem to have been designed by Nephi and Mormon. But they have never made sense. Gardner uncovers fascinating rules behind these, such as the “testificatory amen.” (Any “amen” exerts a nearly omniconsistent force in ending the old chapter and beginning a new one.) There are exceptions, and Gardner offers hypotheses for each.

He also notes–and I found this utterly fascinating–when Nephi and Mormon seem “triggered” by something. No, not in that way–what he means is that they’ll write something which will remind them of something else: something they promised to write earlier, or need to say now. So they’ll deviate into an aside or editorial, before returning to the planned episode or main narrative. There’s a detectable thrill in tracing the possible thought-lines of these two great authors, and trying to imagine them engraving each word and sentence.

There are so many other observations: repetetive resumption; sermons as chapter boundaries; the Mayan hotun, and its possible connection with Mormon’s calendrical system. There are new insights on every page. For me, the second half of the book–where Gardner walks through each original chapter division of the Book of Mormon–will be a constantly-consulted resource going forward. It is a fascinating, novel approach: I don’t think anyone has so systematically analyzed the subjective and objective experience of how Mormon and Nephi received their scribal training, drew from records and experience, made and engraved the plates, and set out to divide their records into chapters and episodes. It’s an incredible read. I can’t wait to revisit it.

(My one complaint: because the Interpreter Journal split this serialized book into five parts, and because Kindle titles are so long and almost exactly the same, and the specific chapters are at the very end of the title, I had SUCH a hard time finding the right book on my Kindle Paperwhite. Which was VERY frustrating. I look forward to seeing this as a single volume, though I’m not looking forward to having to re-annotate the entire thing–since my notes won’t transfer over. I’ll do it; it’s just annoying.)

[UPDATE: Brant Gardner assures me a single-volume edition is coming! I’m most looking forward to it.]