Alma 7:1 — LeGrand Baker — Alma’s ‘language’
1 Behold my beloved brethren, seeing that I have been permitted to come unto you, therefore I attempt to address you in my language; yea, by my own mouth, seeing that it is the first time that I have spoken unto you by the words of my mouth, I having been wholly confined to the judgment-seat, having had much business that I could not come unto you. (Alma 7:1)
Every once in a while, one bumps into a statement in the Book of Mormon that seem to make no sense. The way we usually handle it is to superimpose our own preconceptions upon it, and read on without ever noticing that we have come head-on with an incredibly meaningful insight. This verse contains one of those. The words say: “therefore I attempt to address you in my language; yea, by my own mouth, seeing that it is the first time that I have spoken unto you by the words of my mouth.” That sounds funny, but we can read it as, “I’m glad to be here so I speak to you personally.” It works, so we read on, not noticing the bump.
The truth is, it doesn’t make much sense the way Alma said it, unless we assume the people of Zarahemla and the people of Gideon spoke different languages. Historically there was some possible truth to that. The people of Zarahemla did speak a different Hebrew dialect when they were discovered by Mosiah I. Then he taught them to speak, read and write his kind of Hebrew. But that was four generations before Alma II came to Gideon. By that time it is extremely unlikely that there was actually a language barrier between the two communities.
So one might ask, “If Alma didn’t mean that, why did he say it?” I suspect the answer is not found in the words he used, so much as in the way he used them—and probably not so much in his ability to speak, but rather in his audience’s ability to listen.
This audience is markedly different from the one to whom he spoke in Zarahemla. There were members and non-members of his church in that audience. But the one at Gideon is a priesthood meeting. That is made clear by his addressing them as “my beloved brethren.” In the Book of Mormon that phrase is almost always used referring to a priesthood congregation and the sermon is almost always temple-covenant setting. This is a temple covenant audience. That is clarified in the last verse where Alma says, “may the peace of God rest upon you, and upon… your women and your children, according to your faith and good works, from this time forth and forever.” (v. 27) (A fun exercise is to collect all the places in the Book of Mormon that refer to temple marriage.)
More about Alma’s audience can be found in v. 17-19 & 26. Those verses also help one understand what Alma meant by “my language.” And again the definition of the language is found in the identification of the audience. While the following verses do not actually talk about the language itself, they do say why Alma is so comfortable in speaking that language in the company of those men.
17 And now my beloved brethren, do you believe these things? Behold, I say unto you, yea, I know that ye believe them; and the way that I know that ye believe them is by the manifestation of the Spirit which is in me. And now because your faith is strong concerning that, yea, concerning the things which I have spoken, great is my joy.
18 For as I said unto you from the beginning, that I had much desire that ye were not in the state of dilemma like your brethren, even so I have found that my desires have been gratified.
19 For I perceive that ye are in the paths of righteousness; I perceive that ye are in the path which leads to the kingdom of God; yea, I perceive that ye are making his paths straight.….
26 And now my beloved brethren, I have spoken these words unto you according to the Spirit which testifieth in me; and my soul doth exceedingly rejoice, because of the exceeding diligence and heed which ye have given unto my word (Alma 3:17-19 & 26).
So we have in these two sermons expressing two contrasting sentiments, spoken to two different kinds of audiences. The question is: Why did Mormon select these two sermons, and why are their differences important for us to know?
I am not privy to Mormon’s thinking, but I would like to venture a guess.
The undergirding fact of the Book of Mormon is that Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni know us. They know our opportunities and our challenges, and above all else, they knew that we have the fulness of the gospel with all of its requisite priesthood ordinances, covenants, and blessings. Knowing that probably answers our question.
Mormon selected stories and sermons from primary sources that stretched over a thousand years of Nephite history. He used only the stories that fit into his sub-textual order that was patterned after the ancient Israelite temple rites of the New Year’s festival. But he arranged those stories in their obvious chronological order to create a wonderfully profound history for anyone to read. He inserted sermons into that history to fit correctly in the sub-textual order.
In the chronology by the time we get to the book of Alma, Mormon has brought the people out of the wilderness where the first generation of church members had covenanted to live the law of consecration. Now their children and grandchildren are living comfortably and peacefully in Zarahemla and its environs. That is the context of Alma 5 and 7. It seems to me that the two sermons he chose to insert into the history at this point fit perfect into its sub-textual context — especially if the story and the sermons are addressed to us. For those of us who try to get by and believe that the Lord will somehow let us into the Celestial Kingdom because we keep enough of the commandments to have a current temple recommend, Alma 5 is very applicable. For those of us who seek to live all the covenants made and understood by the fathers, Alma 7 is a statement of hope.
I suspect that’s why Mormon placed these contrasting sermons for us to read side by side.