Alma 13:1-20 may be the most linguistically and theologically dense section of the entire Book of Mormon. The first half–about ordination to the high priesthood–has been considered in pieces such as this, and the second half–about Melchizedek–has been analyzed in works such as this.
I see these as part of a whole–a single sermon where Alma not only elucidates several tough ideas in a masterful lecture, but does so in a way that was appropriate for the context and powerfully motivates us to act on the implications of his teachings. This is actually part of a longer work I’m drafting about Alma’s standard teaching template, where his unique pedagogical paradigm in the Book of Mormon–establishing authority, delivering content, and inspiring with a challenge–is briefly repeated towards the end of each of his sermons.
The colors, italics, underlining, etc. in the chart given here are meant to connect the many words and phrases that are identical, or at least synonymous. Just glancing at this arrangement shows how dense the concepts are, especially in the first half of the pattern. We see priesthood, discipleship, and Atonement themes discussed here, and this colorful arrangement shows how they are entwined in Alma’s sermon.
As the punctuation was not part of the original translation, I’ve taken some liberties with it here, modifying it as needed to clarify the meaning of the passage.
I hope this helps demystify a difficult passage for Book of Mormon students.
One of my favorite things about the Book of Mormon is how fully it presents the emotional depth of mature life experiences. It profoundly describes, for example, both the crushing frustration and the soaring ecstasy of missionary work (Alma 31 and Alma 26, respectively), the anguish of parents who worry about straying children (2 Nephi 1, Alma 39), and the utter loneliness of those whose devotion to God has made them outcasts among their own people (Jacob 7:26, Ether 13:13-14, Moroni 1:1-3).
It seems unreasonable to me to think that undereducated, 23-year-old farm laborer Joseph Smith could have fathomed these extreme feelings, much less could have imagined them in rich detail.
Another example: there are three characters in the Book of Mormon who make it their professional business to publicly oppose the work of the Church, arguing that the beliefs of the Saints are wrong (Jacob 7, Alma 1, Alma 30). By far the most fully developed of these is Korihor, the Nietzsche wanna-be in Alma 30. The Book of Mormon presents his rhetoric in ample, sophisticated texture. The prophet Alma ultimately engages him and responds to each attack with withering, syllogistic precision. Their dialogue is worthy of Aristotle’s tales of Socrates. And we’re supposed to believe that this, also, was written by the unlettered and inexperienced Smith?
But most impressive to me of all this, these days, is just how presciently Korihor prefigures the current spate of elite Anti-Mormon commentators who seek to enlighten the unwashed masses about the insane, conniving cultists from Utah in this cultural “Mormon moment.” Continue reading
I had the privilege again today of speaking in another ward’s sacrament meeting, on the topic of “faith of our fathers.” I tried to take a slightly different approach to the subject, mostly trying to connect it to the Savior, scripture, and basic gospel doctrines. I think it turned out pretty well:
This is the time of year when we build inspiration and faith by focusing on the great lives of our pioneer ancestors. Whether or not we have great grandparents who pulled handcarts across the plains, whether we were born into the church or were baptized yesterday, as Latter-day Saints, we all get to draw from this great well of pioneer devotion and sacrifice to fill our hearts.
This is not the only dispensation where pioneer stories have been helpful in strengthening the Saints. In Alma chapter 5 in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma gives a great talk where he does the same thing. First he introduces himself and explains that he’s there to speak to them with authority from previous leaders, like any visiting authority in the church today. Then Alma reminds them of the hardships faced by those previous generations who had founded their church, starting in verse 5:
I say unto you, they were in captivity, and again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage by the power of his word; and we were brought into this land, and here we began to establish the church of God throughout this land also.
Reading Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon today, I was most touched by the portion where the clairvoyant Cassandra waxes poetic about her impending doom. She says:
Why am I then so pitiful? Why must I weep?
…I will go through with it. I too will take my fate.
I call as on the gates of death upon these gates
to pray only for this thing, that the stroke be true,
and that with no convulsion, with a rush of blood
in painless death, I may close up these eyes, and rest. (1286-1294)
I’m not sure if such an attitude predicts Roman Stoicism or is simply fatalistic, but her frank courage in facing an imminent and ignominious death reminds me of a few of the prophets in the Book of Mormon, men who similarly looked down the barrel of immediate demise and never blinked. Unlike Cassandra, though, their motivating characteristic is in no doubt: they trusted God implicitly and thus had no reservations about going full speed ahead on the errands to which He had appointed them.
Take three representative examples. First, Abinadi. As this lone, wild man confronted the court of wicked King Noah, a prisoner, surrounded by those who had chosen to hate him and set themselves against him, he withstood their taunts and tempts with nothing more than teaching and testimony. At one point, he speaks the truth so boldly that he radiates holiness, stunning his would-be adversaries. He remarks on this condition, their physical inability to reach out and kill him, but then says, “But I finish my message: and then it matters not whither I go, if it so be that I am saved” (Mosiah 13:9). Before continuing his doctrinal dissertation, he then adds that what they do to him would be a type of how they themselves would die.
Abinadi knew that he was being preserved by divine power, but he also knew that such protection was temporary, that it would only last until the mission was done. If that had been me, I might have been tempted to draw out the lesson a little bit! Abinadi, however, calmly and confidently finished his message, knowing full well that after he’d delivered it, the Lord would then let him suffer the death his listeners were so eager to mete out. Did he resent that? Was he afraid? No. As he’d said, being saved is all that matters.
For a long time I’ve wanted to go through the 50 questions that Alma put forth in Alma chapter 5 in order to spur people back into spiritual activity, and answer them based on where I’m at in life. I feel like I’m active and serious in my faith, but I know that I have a long way to go, and a lot of improvments to make both in my “spotlessness from the world” and in my discipleship. I hope this exercise helps, and I’ve created a starter to-do list at the end based on my answers. I can see these being good spiritual goals for 2010. The chart I filled in is found here.
I’ll “liken the scriptures” to myself by picturing the current prophet, Thomas S. Monson, asking these questions, in place of the ancient prophet Alma. When he mentions my ancestors and other prophets, I’ll think of the pioneers and Church history.
Verse in Alma 5
Remembering God’s Acts for His People
|1.||6||Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers [or the LDS pioneers] ? Probably not sufficiently. Learning more about them and doing more to remind myself, more often, of their suffering and sacrifices would surely do me good.|
|2.||6||Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance God’s mercy and long-suffering towards your fathers? Again, I’m aware of it, but I could stand to refer to this in my study and prayer more often.|
|3.||6||Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell? Not yet.|
|4.||8||Were your fathers destroyed? No.|
|5.||9||Were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell which encircled your fathers about, were they loosed? Yes.|
Knowing the Essential Logic of the Gospel
|6.||10||On what conditions were your fathers saved? Their faithfulness to the commandments and covenants they’d made.|
|7.||10||On what grounds had they to hope for salvation? The grace and mercy of God, through the power of the Atonement; through His promises about His role in the covenant.|
|8.||10||What is the cause of your fathers’ being loosed from the bands of death, yea, and also the chains of hell? A combination of my answers to the last two questions!|
|9.||11||Did not my father Alma [or any other modern prophet] believe in the words which were delivered by the mouth of Abinadi [or any earlier modern prophet] ? Yes, our prophets are definitely role models of faithfulness.|
|10.||11||Was Abinadi not a holy prophet? Indeed, prophets are great guides for us.|
|11.||11||Did Abinadi not speak the words of God? Yes, he did.|
|12.||11||Did my father Alma believe them? Yes, he did.|
Being Personally Converted