Alma 36:22 — LeGrand Baker — Alma and Lehi saw God
Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
Moroni concluded his introduction to the Book of Mormon with these words:
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.
Our quick and easy way of reading that is: OK, so sometimes the authors of the Book of Mormon made some mistakes! But that may not be anything like what Moroni had in mind. He did not separate the content of the Book of Mormon into “the mistakes” of the authors and “the things of God.” It is not the authors, but it is the readers who are apt to make the mistakes. And it is the readers who ought to be very careful about judging their opinion to be more accurate than the words in the book. Today’s verse, which is about the testimonies of Alma and Lehi is an excellent example of how easy it is to read the scriptures to say the very opposite of what they really say.
The following is from an upcoming commentary on First Nephi that Stephen Ricks and I are preparing together:
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1 Nephi 1:8, Lehi “Thought” He Saw God
8. And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.
To people in our modern culture it seems strange that Nephi would report that his father only “thought he saw God sitting upon his throne.” When we use that phrase, it means that we were not sure what we saw. However, Nephi came from a different culture, one that reflected the Greek influence that was being felt all through the Mediterranean world. The Greeks had established city-states along the southern coast of Italy and the island of Sicily. Archaeologists also fine evidence of Greek influence on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, near Palestine.
In the ancient world, most apparently in Greece, the highest human activity was to think. Our own western culture is based largely upon that same belief. The Deists of George Washington’s time picked up on that and asserted that the surest evidence that there is a God is that man can think and feel emotion. The Deists’ reasoning went this way: Man exists, therefore, we must have been created. If we were created, then there must have been a creator. If man can think and feel emotions, then his creator must have been able to think and feel even better than his creation. If that creator could think and feel as well as create, then he must be God. If those things are true, then it follows that God’s most important desire is to bring about good for the people he has created. That was their rationale for believing God had helped them in the American Revolution and had been instrumental in creating the Constitution.
The ancient Israelites believed that same sort of thing. To the ancients, the seat of both human thought and emotion was the heart. So they understood that the place where one thinks and the place where one feels emotion was the same. For example, in the Psalms, one can not “ascend to the hill of the Lord” or “stand in his holy place” unless he has “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24).
In that ancient world, to think was the most significant of all human activities. In Nephi’s culture, to think was the supreme act of the human “heart.” The past tense of “to think” is “thought.” Thus, Nephi’s use of the word “thought” is simply the past tense of “to think.” That is the way he explains his father’s reaction to his vision. Nephi was not expressing his father’s uncertainty about what he saw, but he was saying—in the strongest language he could use—that Lehi not only saw God but that he understood what he saw.
There is another example of a similar vision’s being introduced the same way. Enoch begins the Book of Enoch by saying,
Enoch a righteous man, whose eyes were opened by God, saw the vision of the Holy One in the heavens, that the angels showed me, and from them I heard everything, and from them I understood as I saw. *
So when Nephi says his father “thought” he saw God, he asserts that he not only saw with his eyes, but understood with his heart. That is a far stronger testimony than his only saying that Lehi “saw” God.
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In our verse, Alma seeks to add additional credence to his own testimony by saying that he saw the same things and in the same way that Lehi saw: He saw “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.” And he understood as he saw.
Neither does he say that he saw God in a distant vision and wished he could get over to where God was. Of the four parts of a classic sode experience ** he mentions only two. The four are that the prophet returns to the Council in Heaven to reaffirm the covenants he made there. He mentions the other members of the Council. He sees Elohim sitting on the throne and presiding at the Council. Jehovah conducts the affairs of the Council and makes the assignments.
Nephi, whose purpose was to show that his father was a true prophet, mentions all four. Alma, whose purpose is to teach his son the reality of his experience, mentions only “God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels.” The next part of the vision (had he explained that to his son) was for Jehovah to teach Alma about his premortal covenants. That, no doubt happened, but it was beyond the scope of what Alma wished to emphasize to Helaman just then.
Alma’s statement, “my soul did long to be there. But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet” (Alma 36:22-23), is typical of many who have been beyond the veil and are reluctant to leave and come back to this dreary world again.
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*Enoch 1:1, R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Oxford, 1964, 1:188.
** For a discussion of a sode experience see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, 95-107.