Alma 5:1-7 — LeGrand Baker — spiritual life and death

Alma 5:1-7 — LeGrand Baker — spiritual life and death

There is a fun bit of information given by Alma in v. 4 and 5. Speaking of the people who followed his father Alma, he says:

they were delivered out of the hands of the people of king Noah,
they were brought into bondage by the hands of the Lamanites
they were in captivity, and again the Lord did deliver
we were brought into this land
we began to establish the church of God throughout this land also.

Bible scholars who analyze that same sort of language in Acts, conclude that when Luke writes, “they traveled” he was giving second hand information, but when he writes “we traveled” that indicates Luke was traveling with Paul and his party. If we can use that same criterion here, then it is apparent that Alma II was not with is father at the Waters of Mormon, or when they were held captive by the priests of Noah, but was with him when the Lord delivered them from the Lamanites the final time. That indicates to me that Alma II was born just a short time before his father’s people came to Zarahemla.

6a.    And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church,

An important key to reading the Book of Mormon is to know the audience to whom a sermon is addressed. An example is that in a sermon, the repetition of the phrase “my beloved brethren” indicates the speaker is in a formal priesthood gathering. Jacob’ sermon at the temple (ch. 2) uses that phrase repeatedly, as does Alma 7, and Mormon’s sermon in Moroni 7.

In contrast, King Benjamin, in Mosiah 8, addresses “My friends and brethren, my kindred and my people,” then he doesn’t use the word “brethren” again. The Saviour’s sermon at the temple in 3 Nephi 9 to 17 is spoken to families — “men, women, and children.” In 3 Nephi 27 the Saviour is speaking to his disciples who “were gathered together and were united in mighty prayer and fasting.” That information is important when one reads the sermons. The fact the Saviour’s sermon at the temple was spoken to and about families is very important in understanding that sermon’s temple connotations.

In Alma 5, the prophet was talking to both members and non-members of his church, but this was not primarily an instructional sermon to the non-members. The first part of his sermon is directed to wayward members of the church — and even though he doesn’t beat around the bush, he is careful not to speak too clearly. Much of what he writes is in code. If one assumes that Alma’s audience understood the code and were not just hearing pretty poetic phrases, then that also tells us a great deal about his audience. Let me show you what I mean.

6b.   have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them?

This may be read as an historical reference to the trouble they had with the Lamanites, as he had just reminded them. But his next sentence suggests he was referring to something far more important than that.

6c.   And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?

In a quick read, an easy way to deal with that statement is to observe that the words “he has delivered their souls from hell,” might be that he was talking about people who were then dead, but that isn’t what he said he was talking about.

His words can be read as Hebrew poetry where he simply repeats his same idea in different ways. And when it is read that way it is very beautiful. But, as is often true with Hebrew poetry, the second statement is not a repitition of the first idea, but an expansion of it. What Alma says is:

6b-7a.   have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell? Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God.

Alma was describing the power of their conversion — “he changed their hearts.”

As I’ve mentioned before, in the ancient world the heart was understood to be the seat of both one’s intellect and one’s emotions. So to change their hearts did not mean just to change their feelings and attitudes, it meant to change their thought patterns and their systems of belief. Changes in one’s academic thinking are as much a part of the conversion process as are changes in one’s sense of kindness and compassion. He explains:

7b.   Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God.

The notion of awakening has an important meaning in the scriptures. It is often found in a couplet: “Awake and arise,” as in 2 Nephi 1:1, and Moroni 10:31.

This is not just a poetic couplet, the words “awake” and “arise” have different meanings. That difference was emphasized by Paul, who wrote, “Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” (Ephesians 5:14.) There, Paul was not writing to people who were physically dead and in the grave. The symptoms of the death he was talking about will melt away as one assimilate’s the light that shines from the presence of the Saviour.

To “awake” suggests becoming fully cognizant of that light, while to “arise” suggests becoming physically alive in it.

Isaiah equated “awake” with the notions of kingship and priesthood when he wrote, “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments.” (Isaiah 52:1)That is quoted twice in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 8:24-25.)(3 Nephi 20:36-38.), and paraphrased by Moroni who emphasize that same connotation but extended it to include the idea of eternal families. (Moroni 10:31 & Isaiah 54:1-3)

The same idea is expressed a bit differently by Isaiah where, just a few verses before that, he says: “Awake, awake, stand up.” (Isaiah 51:17, In 2 Nephi 8:17-24 it is quoted without a chapter break.)

The words, “stand up,” are significant, for in Old Testament times one stood to make a covenant. (2 Kings 23:1-3) And that practice may help one understand the significance of Alma’s words:

7b.   Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God.

Alma continues by describing what he meant when he says “they awoke unto God.”

7c.   Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word;

That reads as an extension of the previous sentence, rather than a repetition of the same idea.

It is universally understood that when one’s eyes are closed, as in sleep, one is in darkness. An interesting aside is that if one is asleep and dreaming, part of the dream is that there is enough light to see. But the light by which one sees in a dream is a fantasy, just as the dream is. The actual darkness from having one’s eyes closed is not perceived in the dream even though it is the reality. Walking in darkness without the light of the gospel is like that. To awaken is to open one’s eyes and to be in a world of real light.

Alma says, “their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word,” but words, by themselves, are not luminous. And whereas the words in the previous sentence (heart, sleep, awake) have a physical connotation, this has a spiritual meaning. It says “their souls were illuminated.” Steve Stay suggested to me that it might more accurately reflect Alma’s meaning if it read: “by the light of the Everlasting Word.” I suspect he is correct, for Alma seems to be expressing the same idea as John’s:

1   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2   The same was in the beginning with God.
3   All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4   In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5   And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5)

The idea is the same as quoted above from Paul: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” (Ephesians 5:14.)

Alma continues:

7d.   yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them.

The death Alma was talking about was not physical death, nor was the hell one that would follow mortal life. Both the death and the hell he was talking about were experienced during this life. Fortunately we have Alma’s own words to tell us precisely what he meant. When he was speaking to Zeezrom, he explained that the phrase, “chains of hell,” meant not knowing the mysteries of God.

9   And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.
10   And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.
11   And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell. (Alma 12:9-11)

The scary thing is that for Alma, “the chains of hell” are not a condition of those who have never known the gospel, but are a condition of those who have forgotten — who once knew, or who once might have known, and have chosen not to know.

It seems to me that it is safe to assume that the people whom Alma was speaking to in Zarahemla understood the connotations of Alma’s words, and therefore understood the full impact of his message. If that is so, then it seems to me that it is safe to assume he was addressing a temple worshiping people. If that is so, then knowing who his audience was sheds an important light on what he was saying to them — and to us — and why he was saying it.

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