Lost and Found in the Wilderness

LostintheWildernessI’m still playing catch-up this week as our reading takes us through the end of the Book of Mosiah (11-13 CofC/23-19 LDS). Having left the people of Limhi reunited with the main body of Nephites in Zarahemla last week, we turn from the “the Record of Zeniff” to a new subset of the text introduced by the header “An account of Alma and the people of the Lord, which was driven into the wilderness by the people of king Noah.”

However, relatively little time is spent on the separate existence of the people of Alma. Very quickly they are found by the Lamanites and decide to flee to Zarahemla where the bulk of our reading is set. Thus, the seemingly complex structure that we saw established last week — where the people of Alma, the people of Limhi, and the priests of Noah all existed separately in lands divided by the wilderness — quickly reduces with the first two groups merging back into the main body of the Nephites at Zarahemla, and the last group uniting with the Lamanites.

To sketch out the narrative: the people of Alma are living in the newly settled Land of Helam. They are righteously devoted to their new church and are said to “multiply and prosper exceedingly,” but we are told “the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith” (Mosiah 11:22-23 CofC/ 23:20-21 LDS). This is a somewhat unexpected twist on the Deuteronomic history. Apparently the rule is sometimes if you’re righteous and therefore prosperous, you fall into sin and the Lord sends the Lamanites to chastise you and bring about repentance. However, at other times, if you’re prosperous and stay righteous, the Lord sends the Lamanites merely to test your faith. Either way, it seems, you get the Lamanites. (It’s a little like because the Lord has a hammer, every situation looks like a nail.)

In a kind of ongoing “lost in the wilderness” comedy of errors,[1] the Lamanite army chasing Limhi’s people into the wilderness instead finds the wicked priests and their stolen Lamanite wives. Through the intercession of these wives, the Lamanites forgive the priests and they all attempt to find their way back to the Land of Nephi. Instead, they stumble upon Alma’s people in the Land of Helam. (These lost in the wilderness snafus are a sequel to the experience of the Zeniff’s scouts who found gold plates at the Land of Desolation, imagining that they were in Zarahemla.) King Laman of the Lamanites appoints Amulon, leader of the wicked priests, to be a sub-king over the Land of Helam. Amulon proceeds to enslave Alma’s people who ultimately respond by fleeing into the wilderness (not forgetting their flocks!) and rejoining the main body of Nephites at Zarahemla.

 

The Acts of the Almas

The bulk of the narrative now focuses on the combined group at Zarahemla, still led by King Benjamin’s son, King Mosiah. Although called “Nephites” in shorthand, we’re now told that the majority of the people were actually descendants of a figure alternatively known as “Muloch” in the original manuscript, “Mulok” in the CofC edition, and “Mulek” in the LDS edition (Mosiah 11:78 CofC/ 25:2 LDS). Presumably Muloch’s story, the founding of Zarahemla, and the original migration of the Nephites to Zarahemla (including the establishment of a Nephite kingly dynasty) were stories lost with the 116 pages.

In arriving at Zarahemla with his people, Alma has brought something new: the church he has previously established in the wilderness. With the authorization of King Mosiah, Alma now begins to “establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla” led by priests and teachers. Alma himself is the “high priest,” which appears to be the title of the head of the church (unlike the way the term has been used in the Restoration tradition since 1835).

As the narrative tells the story of the establishment and growth of the Nephite church, it draws inspiration from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles — with one major twist.[2] The opponents of early Christians in the eastern half of the Roman Empire are, by and large, pagans, Jews, and false prophets and magicians. Essentially no one in the ancient world was an “unbeliever” — everyone, including most philosophers, held some idea of higher powers, God, or gods, even if they rejected mythology and/or cultic practices as superstition. The church in Acts, therefore, is built up as a result of victory over groups and individuals from these groups of rival believers who conspire to persecute the early Christians.

In Joseph Smith’s day, the Christians of the Second Great Awakening squared off, not against Greco-Roman paganism, but against the new kind of skepticism that had been born in the wake of the Enlightenment. Like them, the rivals of Alma’s church are not practitioners of some earlier Nephite or Mulekite religion that predated Benjamin and Abinadi’s prophesies of Jesus Christ, they are “unbelievers.”[3] And it seems that although Alma, as high priest, enjoys religious and political ascendance (including active sponsorship by the king), the unbelievers are still able to inflict great “persecutions” on his church (Mosiah 11:150 CofC/ 27:1 LDS).

 

Alma Jr on the Road to Damascus

Among the most prominent unbelievers, initially, is Alma’s own son Alma (“Alma Jr”), along with Alma Jr’s friends, the sons of King Mosiah. However, like the most famous episode in the Book of Acts, where the persecuting Saul is confronted by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus and is converted and becomes the great missionary apostle “Paul” (Acts 9), Alma Jr and the sons of Mosiah are likewise visited by an angel of the Lord.

In Paul’s vision, Jesus asks “Saul, Saul, why persecutist thou me?” (Acts 9:4). The angel appearing to Alma Jr asks “Alma, arise and stand forth. For why persecutist thou the church of God?” (Mosiah 11:165 CofC/ 27:13 LDS). For Saul, the experience was so astonishing that he fell to the earth, and afterward was struck blind and speechless for three days. Then, after his site and speech were restored, he was fully converted to the cause of building up the church, ultimately becoming its greatest missionary.

Alma Jr shares Saul’s experience, falling to the ground in astonishment and losing the power of speech and movement for two days and two nights (Mosiah 11:179-185 CofC/ 27:18-23 LDS). Arising from the experience, Alma announces that he has been “born of the Spirit” and that it is necessary for everyone to become “born again, yea, born of God” (Mosiah 11:186-187 CofC/ 27:24-25 LDS).[4] At this point he and the sons of Mosiah become, like Paul became for the early Christian church, the Nephite church’s greatest missionaries. We’ll have more of their stories inspired by Acts in future weeks.

 

On Kingship: Sermons of Alma and King Mosiah

The pattern we’ve observed to date in the text are a series of stories told largely by an anonymous narrator[5] interspersed with sermons spoken directly by figures within the stories. At the beginning and end of our reading this week, we have sermons on the topic of kingship. The idea of functional monarchy is rather dated from our 21st-century perspective. The issue was largely decided in the Great War (whose centennial we’re commemorating this year) and its sequel; but the question of monarchy vs. republicanism and democracy was very much open in the early 19th-century.

The first sermon on the topic is given by Alma, who is addressing his people while they were still an isolated group in the Land of Helam. His words “if it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your kings, it would be well for you to have a king” (Mosiah 11:8 CofC/ 23:8 LDS) are sometimes cited in support of divine-led monarchy as the best form of government. In fact, Alma’s arguing the opposite, i.e., since it’s impossible for the king to always be a just man, “it is not expedient that we should have a king” (Mosiah 11:7 CofC/ 23:7 LDS). Moreover, Alma quotes the Lord’s opposition “Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another” (Mosiah 11:7 CofC/ 23:7 LDS). Rather, Alma desires that his people:

Ye should stand fast in this liberty wherewith ye have been made free and that ye trust no man to be a king over you… (Mosiah 11:14 CofC/ 23:13 LDS)

Nevertheless, when Alma and his people relocate to Zarahemla, they do end up trusting a man to be king over them: King Mosiah. But King Mosiah himself ultimately agrees with Alma as he explains in a much longer sermon at the end of our reading this week.

As Mosiah approaches old age, following the pattern we’ve seen with his father King Benjamin and with King Limhi’s grandfather Zeniff, he would normally retire and confer the kingship on his son. However, all of Mosiah’s sons have become uber-missionaries following their “road to Damascus” experience. None of them wish the kingship, and even if they did, they are currently away from Zarahemla, evangelizing the Lamanites. Mosiah argues that it’s too dangerous to appoint someone else to the kingship, lest one of his sons change his mind, return and spark a civil war (Mosiah 13:11-12 CofC/ 29:6-9 LDS). Also, if the king proves wicked, it’s extremely costly to depose him (Mosiah 13:28-31 CofC/ 29:21-23 LDS).

Instead, Mosiah proposes that after he dies the people will transfer their governance to a set of “judges” chosen “by the voice of this people” (Mosiah 13:34 CofC/ 29:25 LDS). Rule will be by the majority, since Mosiah believes “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth any thing contrary to that which is not right, but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right” (Mosiah 13:35 CofC/ 29:26 LDS). As such he has much more faith in direct democracy than America’s founding fathers. Even so, Mosiah perceives the need for some checks and balances:

If ye have judges and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that he may be judged of a higher judge. If your higher judges doth not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together and they shall judge your higher judges according to the voice of the people. (Mosiah 13:39-40 CofC/ 29:28-29 LDS)

Mosiah then retires and Alma Jr, who had inherited the position of high priest from his father Alma Sr, was appointed “chief judge,” thus apparently ending the brief Nephite experiment with the partial separation of state and church.

 

Stray Observations

• When Amulon and the priests of Noah join the Lamanites, we are given the impression that the Lamanites and Nephites have come to speak different languages as the Lamanites are now taught “the language of Nephi” (Mosiah 11:49 CofC/ 24:4 LDS).

• We are once again reminded of the extreme importance of text in the view of the Book of Mormon’s author. When all the Nephite groups are reunited, King Mosiah gathers them together and reads them the various records he’s acquired: the Record of Zeniff and the story of Alma’s church (Mosiah 11:81-82 CofC/ 25:5-6 LDS). This act of devotion is reminiscent of Ezra’s reading of the book of the Law of Moses to all the people assembled in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8). Mosiah also translates the gold plates found by Limhi’s people (Mosiah 12:16-26 CofC/ 28:13-19 LDS) and discovers to his sorrow that it contains the record of a people who emerged from the Tower of Babel and were ultimately destroyed. Our narrator promises “this account shall be written hereafter; for behold it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account” (Mosiah 12:26 CofC/ 28:19 LDS). Finally, Mosiah confers all the records and the interpreters on Alma Jr., who is destined to be both high priest and chief judge (Mosiah 13:1 CofC/ 28:20 LDS).

• Although we learn that King Limhi gets baptized into Alma’s church (Mosiah 11:94 CofC/ 25:27 LDS), it isn’t clear what his status is now that he’s in King Mosiah’s land. Limhi falls out of the narrative and is not considered by Mosiah, when the latter is searching for a possible successor.

• The churches of Zarahemla founded by Alma Sr. are seven in number (Mosiah 11:102 CofC/ 25:23 LDS) which is reminiscent of the seven churches in Asia who are the recipients of John’s letter in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 1:4).

• Pretty much the first thing Alma is faced with after founding a church is the perceived need for church discipline. This is resolved at considerable length by setting up a system of excommunication: if members “would not confess their sins and repent of their iniquity, the same were not numbered among the people of the church; and their names were blotted out” (Mosiah 11:145 CofC/ 26:36 LDS). Unhappily this prefigures the early Restoration experience. Anyone reading early church records can’t help but be amazed at the amount of time early members spent excommunicating each other.

• In the wrap-up of the Book of Mosiah, we’re treated to some chronological reckonings for the year both Mosiah and Alma Sr die, which is 82 years since Alma Sr was born, the 33rd year of King Mosiah’s reign, 63 years since Mosiah was born, and 509 years “from the time Lehi left Jerusalem” (Mosiah 13:66-68 CofC/ 29:45-46). Next week we’ll begin numbering “the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi”.

• The concept of reverting to rule by “judges” draws on the Biblical precedent in the Deuteronomic history, especially the Book of Judges and the First Book of Samuel. In these stories, the early Israelites are led by a series of “judges,” the last of whom, Samuel, only reluctantly accedes to the desire of the people to appoint a king. However, the word “judge” here in Mosiah describes the 19th century American use of the term (a public magistrate who deals with legal matters), as opposed to the use of word in the Book of Judges, where “judges” fill the role of tribal heroes. (The most famous judge in the Bible, Samson, isn’t much of a lawyer.)

 

Next week we begin the Book of Alma (the son of Alma) with Alma 1-2 CofC/1-4 LDS.

______________

[1] I tend to read the imagery here as a kind of memory or imagination of early colonial New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, prior to the vast clearances of forests by European Americans for plow agriculture. My picture of the various “lands” are cleared areas with farms set in the imagined virgin woodland “wildernesses”. Once you’re in the woods, the Book of Mormon assumes there’s very little hope of knowing which land you’ll find when you come back out. We’ll have occasion to talk more about Book of Mormon geography in future weeks.

[2] Regarding parallels with Acts, we already saw how Abinadi’s speech and martyrdom at the hands of Noah’s priests mirrored Stephen’s speech and martyrdom at the hands of the Sanhedrin. Both Stephen and Abinadi explicitly quote the same passage from Isaiah (53:7-8) as predictive of Jesus (see Acts 8:32-33 and Mosiah 8:33-34 CofC/ 15:6 LDS). Both speeches are lengthy summaries. While the author of Acts puts a summary of the Hebrew Bible into Stephen’s mouth, the Book of Mormon’s author summarizes the Christian gospel in Abinadi’s speech. Finally, Abinadi’s speech led to the conversion of Alma, who had previously been one of the wicked priests of Noah. Similarly, Saul of Tarsis is among the Pharisees who hear Stephen’s speech. As we observe this week, Saul’s subsequent conversion is paralleled with the conversion of Alma’s son Alma.

[3] Prior to his conversion, as leader of the “unbelievers,” Alma Jr is described briefly as a “very wicked and an idolatrous man” (Mosiah 11:159 CofC/ 27:8 LDS). While it could be argued that this implies he is literally worshiping idols, there’s no description of such idols in the text thus far. I read this as “idolatrous” in the figurative sense of a Second Great Awakening sermon, e.g., putting worldly concerns above faith in God.

[4] Although the need to be “born again” of the Spirit through a dramatic spiritual experience was a huge part of Second Great Awakening religious revivals, the terminology in the Restoration tradition today receives less emphasis, having been subsumed into the ordinance (LDS) or sacrament (CofC) of confirmation.

[5] The main exception, thus far, was the narration by Zeniff at the beginning of the Record of Zeniff.

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