Alma 9:13, LeGrand Baker, ‘prosper’ as a codeword

Alma 9:13, LeGrand Baker, ‘prosper’ as a codeword

Alma 9:13
Behold, do ye not remember the words which he spake unto Lehi, saying that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land? And again it is said that: Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.

This is one of those fun scriptures for which we have no referent. The Book of Mormon does not give us an account of the Lord’s speaking those to Lehi, though Nephi quoted them twice, once when the Lord spoke them to him, and the second time when he recited them in his psalm in 2 Nephi 4:4. In our account, what Lehi says is this:

9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever. (2 Nephi 1:9)

The Book of Mormon is essentially the story of one family—the descendants of Nephi who were the kings and the priests throughout the book. Nephi was beginning a new dynasty, and the whole legitimacy of his dynasty is founded of the Lord’s statement in 1Nephi 2:20-22. In the ancient world, any man who claimed a crown, who had not been foreordained to that authority by God, was a usurper. The doctrine was true for the Israelites, but even among the apostate religions all the ancient kings (whether in Egypt, Babylon, or Assyria) claimed to have been chosen by their god to be king. So both in terms of his cultural correctness, and the eternal reality, Nephi had to show that he was chosen by God or he could claim that nothing he was doing was legitimate. No doubt, it was partly for that reason that Nephi begins his account by telling us:

20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.
21 And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
22 And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren. (1 Nephi 2:20-22)

“Prosper in the land” is one of those key phrases in the Book of Mormon that was frequently employed by its authors to convey a sacred message without actually saying it. The meaning of the phrase is clarified here, where it is first used, by showing that the opposite of prospering has nothing to do with a rich harvest. Rather the opposite of “prosper” is to be cut off from the presence of the Lord. Therefore, as a code phrase, “prosper in the land”is the opposite of that, and means to be brought into the presence of the Lord. “Land” also has two meanings, one is the land of promise (America) to which the Nephites have been brought. The encoded meaning is the same as “earth” in the promise, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” That is clarified in section 88 which says that to inherit the earth means to “be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father.”

17 And the redemption of the soul is through him that quickeneth all things, in whose bosom it is decreed that the poor and the meek of the earth shall inherit it.
18 Therefore, it [the earth] must needs be sanctified from all unrighteousness, that it may be prepared for the celestial glory;
19 For after it hath filled the measure of its creation, it shall be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father;
20 That bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it [the earth] made and created, and for this intent are they [the meek and the poor] sanctified. (D&C 88:17-20)

The importance of the Lord’s promise to Nephi is emphasized by its frequent use by other prophets who employed the phrase the same way. {1}

Lehi told his sons:

20 And he hath said that: 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)

Alma told his son:

13 O remember, remember, my son Helaman, how strict are the commandments of God. And he said: If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land—but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence. (Alma 37:13)

One of the most interesting uses of that phrase is in Zeniff’s short autobiography.

4 And I did cause that the men should till the ground, and raise all manner of grain and all manner of fruit of every kind.
5 And I did cause that the women should spin, and toil, and work, and work all manner of fine linen, yea, and cloth of every kind, that we might clothe our nakedness; and thus we did prosper in the land–thus we did have continual peace in the land for the space of twenty and two years. (Mosiah 10:4-5)

Its wording is remarkably like the Lord’s instructions to Moses about making the sacred temple clothing:

40 And for Aaron’s sons thou shalt make coats, and thou shalt make for them girdles, and bonnets shalt thou make for them, for glory and for beauty.
41 And thou shalt put them upon Aaron thy brother, and his sons with him; and shalt anoint them, and consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office.
42 And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; (Exodus 28:40-42)

One cannot help but contrast Zeniff’s words with the account in Ether, when the people who were engaged in civil war, each trying to get the better of the other. Moroni observed:

24 And they did have silks, and fine-twined linen; and they did work all manner of cloth, that they might clothe themselves from their nakedness. (Ether 10:24)

The difference is subtle but very real. The two closely similar statements read: “that we might clothe our nakedness” and “clothe themselves from their nakedness.” The difference is reminiscent of the story in the Garden of Eden. At first “they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons,” but later, God himself did “make coats of skins, and clothed them.” The clothing with which the Lord clothes us, is different from the clothing with which we seek to hide ourselves. Moroni quietly observed that difference. Rather that using the familiar phrase, “to cover their nakedness,” which acknowledges that the nakedness is there, notwithstanding the clothing, Moroni wrote this commentary: “ that they might clothe themselves from their nakedness,” suggesting that this clothing, like Adam and Eve’s aprons, was an attempt to disguise the fact that they were naked at all.

Thus, Zeniff’s seeming casual, “ that we might clothe our nakedness,” teaches us a great deal about the religious faith and practices of this Nephite colony.

I suspect that one of the reasons the dichotomy of”prosper in the land” and being “cut off from the presence of the Lord,” was so frequently used by the Book of Mormon prophets, was because it, and others like it, were familiar to them in the psalms they sang. {2} It seems to me that it is also an important key to our understanding the faith and practices of the Nephite people.

That phrase introduces into our discussion one the major premises upon which I personally base my understanding of the Book of Mormon. Gunkel, Mowickel, Johnson, {3} and many other great biblical scholars of the last century spent much, if not most, all of their academic lives showing that the Psalms were the liturgy of the ancient Israelite temple ceremony of the New Year festival. {4} If they were correct, and I believe they were, then one should expect to find a strong representation of the words and ideas of the Psalm’s in the Book of Mormon, especially in conjunction with its discussions of priesthood and sacral kingship. In fact, one does find that, and it begins near the beginning of First Nephi with the word “prosper.”

The psalms still show that the ancient Israelite temple ceremony included an enactment like a play, probably on a stage or in an amphitheater type setting in one of the valleys that surrounded Jerusalem. The drama showed the whole scope of human existence. It was a portrayal of a sode experience in the form of the cosmic myth. It showed events in the Council of heaven, the creation and Garden of Eden story, both good and bad experiences in this life, and ultimately being brought into the presence of God again.

Hooke has pointed out another area where the pattern of the drama of the New Year festival is evident. He has observed that apocalyptic works such as the Enoch (and he includes Revelation) reveal the same pattern as the Festival. {5} Similarly, James has found the same pattern in the story of Jesus and the Easter Drama. {6 } We can add Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life to the list. This is to be expected, because many of those works tell of the pre-mortal existence, then talk about the events of this world, and conclude with the triumphal second coming of the Saviour, and the eternal life of those who have endured to the end. The pattern is already there, it is not surprising that it is seen in those great visions that include the full sweep of human existence, just as it is not surprising that the ancient Jewish New Year festival retold in song and drama that same story, or that it should found repeatedly in the Book of Mormon.

At least two Psalms deal directly with events in the Council in Heaven: Psalm 82 contains Elohim’s instructions to the members of the Council; and Psalm 45 is a re-enactment of the foreordination of the king and queen. It is in Elohim’s blessing to the king, in Psalm 45, that the word “prosperously” contains the promise of the earthly and eternal successes of the king’s reign. It was probably no coincidence that the Lord chose to use the word “prosper” when he spoke the blessing that promised Npehi’s eternal kingship. The 45th psalm tells the story all of the king’s foreordination at the Council in heaven. There, Elohim is represented as giving a the king a blessing.

The blessing begins with the command that the king should put on his sword and dress himself in glory and majesty. As elsewhere, these are names of clothing: “glory” representing the garment of his priesthood; and “majesty” representing his robes of kingship. {7}

The words of the prayer are these:

3 Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and thy majesty.
4 And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness; and thy right hand shall teach thee terrible things.
5 Thine arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; whereby the people fall under thee. (Psalm 45:3-5)

That is an extraordinary blessing with sums up in only a few words all of the criteria for sacral kingship. It says “in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness.” That is, because he has met the qualifications of “truth and meekness and righteousness” the king will “ride prosperously.” Truth is knowledge of things in sacred time: “as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come. (D&C 93:24) The meek are those who keep their eternal covenants. Meekness is shown to mean knowing and keeping the covenants one made Council, as is shown in the prayer that is Psalm 25.

Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul….
Lead me in thy truth, and teach me….
The meek will he guide in judgment:
and the meek will he teach his way….
All the paths of the Lord are mercy [hased] and truth
unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies….
His soul shall dwell at ease;
and his seed shall inherit the earth.
The secret [sode] of the Lord is with them that fear him;
and he will shew them his covenant. (Psalm 25: 1, 5, 9-10,13-14)

Righteousness is zedek, which means rectitude and correctness in Temple things. That is, that the ordinances are performed the right way, using the right words with the right authority, in the right place, and dressed the right way.

In Elohim’s blessing to the king in Psalm 45, there are two promises, besides prosperity, that are associated with the king’s meeting that criteria: one is “thy right hand shall teach the terrible [awesome] things.” The other is a promise of success and invulnerability.

It is one of the most amazing blessings ever recorded. It is only three short verses, the blessing incorporates into its few words every important concept of sacral kingship and priesthood—except one—the promise of a righteous posterity. That blessing is reserved until the end of the psalm when it is given by Elohim to the king and his bride.

As this psalm was an enactment of the king’s foreordination and represented the legitimacy of his reign on earth, one may assume the that (along with every other Israelite) Nephi was familiar with the Psalm and the coronation ceremony that was enacted in conjunction with it. That being so, when the Lord conferred upon Nephi the rights of kingship and priesthood, his using the phrase “prosper in the land” would have been meaningful to the boy prophet and king.


{1} As Dil observed, “It is repeated by Lehi (2 Nephi 1:9) and by Nephi (2 Nephi 4:4). Subsequently it is quoted or stated by Enos (Enos 10), Jarom (Jarom 9-10), Amaron (Omni 6), Alma (Alma 9:13; 36:1; 37:13; 48:25; 50:20), Mormon (3 Nephi 5:22; 4 Nephi 18), and Moroni (Ether 2:7-10).

{2} Another example is Psalm 122.

{3} Hermann Gunkel, “Psalm 24: an Interpretation,” The Biblical World, new series, vol 21, Jan-June 1903, p. 366-370; The Influence of the Holy Spirit, translated by Harrisville and Quanbeck (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1979); The Folktale in the Old Testament, translated by Rutter (Sheffield, Almond Press, 1987); What Remains of the Old Testament, translated by Dallas (New York, Macmillan Company, 1928).

Sigmund Mowickel, The Old Testament as the Word of God, translated by Bjornard (New York, Abingdon Press, 1959);, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 2 Vols. translated Thomas (Nashville, Abingdon, 1962); He that Cometh (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954).

Aubrey R. Johnson, Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1964); Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1967); The Cultic Prophet and Israel’s Psalmody (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1979).

{4} See, for example, S. H. Hooke, ed., The Labyrinth, Further Studies in the Relation between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935)

{5} S. H. Hooke, “The Myth and Ritual Pattern in Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic,” in S. H. Hooke, ed., The Labyrinth, Further Studies in the Relation between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935) 213-233.

{6} E. O. James, “The Sources of Christian Ritual and Its Relation to the Culture Pattern of the Ancient East,” in S. H. Hooke, ed., The Labyrinth, Further Studies in the Relation between Myth and Ritual in the Ancient World (London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1935) 213-233

{7} There are always two articles of clothing, an inner one and an outer one. In the Captain Moroni story, his is called a “coat” at first, then a “garment” after that. So it was probably the outer of the two.

In Exodus, Moses is instructed to make an embroider the coat of fine linen with linen breeches “to cover their nakedness.” Above that was worn a blue robe with small golden bells and pomegranates along its hem. (Exodus 28:31-42)

In Isaiah, they are called “ the garments of salvation” and “the robe of righteousness.” (Isaiah 61:10)

In Job they are given two sets of names. The Lord instructs Job: “Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty.” (Job 40:10)

In the “Hymn of the Pearl” they are called a coat and a toga. The poem contains a lavish description of the former. In part it reads:

82 My splendid robe adorned
Gleaming in glorious colours, …
86 And the likeness of the king of kings
Was completely embroidered all over it…
97 And my toga of brilliant colours
I drew completely over myself.
(Hdgar Hennecki (Edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, English translation edited by R. McL. Wilson), New Testament Apocrypha, Writings Relating to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, Vol. 2, (Westminster Press, Philadelphia), p. 498-504.)

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