Alma Chapter 4
1 Now it came to pass in the sixth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, there were no contentions nor wars in the land of Zarahemla;
2 But the people were afflicted, yea, greatly afflicted for the loss of their brethren, and also for the loss of their flocks and herds, and also for the loss of their fields of grain, which were trodden under foot and destroyed by the Lamanites.
3 And so great were their afflictions that every soul had cause to mourn; and they believed that it was the judgments of God sent upon them because of their wickedness and their abominations; therefore they were awakened to a remembrance of their duty.
verses 2-3 "they believed that it was the judgments of God sent upon them because of their wickedness and their abominations" The reader is likely to view this conflict between Alma and Amlici and their respective armies as simply good versus evil-the righteous versus the unrighteous. It is interesting to note that the Nephites did not regard this military conflict in that way. Rather they saw themselves as deserving of God's punishment because of their own wickedness. In a sense the very occurrence of war in the Book of Mormon betrays the unrighteousness of the Nephites since the Lord had indicated to Nephi that the Lamanites would have "no power over thy seed except they shall rebel against me also" (1 Nephi 2:23).
4 And they began to establish the church more fully; yea, and many were baptized in the waters of Sidon and were joined to the church of God; yea, they were baptized by the hand of Alma, who had been consecrated the high priest over the people of the church, by the hand of his father Alma.
5 And it came to pass in the seventh year of the reign of the judges there were about three thousand five hundred souls that united themselves to the church of God and were baptized. And thus ended the seventh year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi; and there was continual peace in all that time.
verses 4-5 The missionary work of Alma and his co-workers in the church was tremendously successful during this seventh year of the reign of Judges. Some 3,500 people were baptized into the church "by the hand of Alma." Presumably Alma did not personally perform all these baptisms himself.
6 And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.
verse 6 "the people of the church began to wax proud" In this verse we are introduced to the downward cycle with which we will become all too familiar as we continue our study of the Book of Mormon. Initially the people obey the counsel of their leaders and keep the commandments of God. As a result of their obedience and their industry they prosper and are blessed with riches. However, some become caught up and begin to lust after these riches. They begin wearing costly apparel and become proud, fancying themselves better than others. Their hearts then become set on riches and the vain things of the world. They become scornful toward one another and begin to persecute those who do not believe as they do or have as much as they do. An element of class consciousness and inequality begins. Thus, there occur envyings, strife, malice, persecutions, and great contentions among members of the church. Those who remain faithful have to endure great afflictions and persecutions even from within the church. Some turn their backs on the needy, the naked, the sick, and the afflicted. Some church members become even more proud than those who are not members of the church. President Ezra Taft Benson succinctly warned: "God will have a humble people. Either we can choose to be humble or we can be compelled to be humble" (CR, April 1989, 3-7). For further discussion of the concept of pride, Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 5, The "Natural Self" and "Spiritual Self."
Those "afflicted" with material wealth are said to be faced with the "test of prosperity."
The Book of Mormon prophets often point to an early sign among the people that signals the beginnings of apostasy. It is the wearing of "costly apparel" (Jacob 2:13; Alma 1:6; Alma 1:27; Alma 1:32; Alma 5:53; Alma 31:28; 4 Nephi 1:24, Mormon 8:35- 37). This trait is seen among both men and women and is inevitably associated with pride and wickedness. Why is this so? Mae Blanch in her article, "Challenges to the Reign of the Judges" (Studies in Scripture, volume seven, 1 Nephi to Alma 29, 292), observed:
An analysis of the attitudes that lead to and are involved with this habit [the wearing of costly apparel] indicates why it is associated with wickedness. First, it promotes idleness and vanity. One who spends many hours coveting, shopping, spending, and adorning oneself becomes increasingly self-absorbed and uninterested in anything requiring that attention to be diverted from self. Accumulation and adornment become the prime concern. This practice is also a way of displaying wealth in a prideful manner, a manifestation of what has been called the "conspicuous consumption" of the rich, which leads to despising the poor as somehow inferior, a separation of people into "us" and "those kind of people." And when money and possessions become the chief marks of distinction in society, then the pursuit of money becomes the only action worthwhile. And if this pursuit requires the sacrifice of honesty, integrity, compassion, and all the other virtues, then so be it, for the love of money is indeed the root of all evil. Thus the wearing of costly apparel involves the soul as much as the body.An analysis of the attitudes that lead to and are involved with this habit [the wearing of costly apparel] indicates why it is associated with wickedness. First, it promotes idleness and vanity. One who spends many hours coveting, shopping, spending, and adorning oneself becomes increasingly self-absorbed and uninterested in anything requiring that attention to be diverted from self. Accumulation and adornment become the prime concern. This practice is also a way of displaying wealth in a prideful manner, a manifestation of what has been called the "conspicuous consumption" of the rich, which leads to despising the poor as somehow inferior, a separation of people into "us" and "those kind of people." And when money and possessions become the chief marks of distinction in society, then the pursuit of money becomes the only action worthwhile. And if this pursuit requires the sacrifice of honesty, integrity, compassion, and all the other virtues, then so be it, for the love of money is indeed the root of all evil. Thus the wearing of costly apparel involves the soul as much as the body.
"fine silks" "fine-twined linen" More than a thousand years earlier the Jaredites also had "silks, and fine-twined linen" (Ether 10:24). However, when European conquerors arrived in the Americas, they found neither Old World silkworms nor flax. Critics have charged Joseph Smith with arbitrarily inserting into the Book of Mormon text the names of those two textiles, and they say that the presence of the two fibers cannot be substantiated by the cultural record for pre-Columbian America. In recent years, however, several fabrics that have been identified in ancient Mesoamerica deserve to be called "silk" and "linen." Please see the previous commentary for Alma 1:29. Additional commentary in the issue is provided here.
Normal usage today limits the term silk to the fabric made of thread exuded by the Japanese silkworm (actually the larva of an Asian moth, Bombyx mori). However, the term embraces meanings that extend beyond the Japanese reference. For instance, Aristotle and other classical Greek writers referred to "silk" in use in their world that had no entomological connection with the Far East. Two types of silkworm native to southeastern Europe yielded cocoons from which a fine thread comparable to Asian silk was obtained (W. T. M. Forbes, "The Silkworm of Aristotle," Classical Philology 25 : 22-26; and Gisela M. A. Tichter, "Silk in Greece," American Journal of Archaeology 33 : 27-33). Thus, a legitimate sense of the term silk is "a cloth having characteristics like Japanese silk," regardless of whether it originated from the Japanese insect.
Various fabrics in use among the inhabitants of Mexico and Central America when the Spaniards arrived were considered silk or its equivalent by the invaders. One of these fabrics was, indeed, made from cocoons that were gathered from trees in the wild in Mexico and spun into costly cloth. Although the insect involved is not the Japanese one, the procedure of gathering the fine thread is essentially the same as for Japanese silk (Irmgard W. Johnson, "Basketry and Textiles," in Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, ed. Ekholm and Bernal, 312). There were also a number of other silk-like fabrics reported by the Spaniards. In Yucatan, fiber from inside the pod of the ceiba tree, called kapok, was gathered and spun. Bishop Diego de Landa compared the resulting cloth to imported silk (Alfred M. Tozzer, ed., Landa's Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation, Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. 18 [Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1941], 201, 205), while Father Clavigero described it as "soft and delicate, and perhaps more so, than [Jananese] silk" (History of Mexico 1, trans. Charles Cullen [Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1817], 41). Silky fiber from the wild pineapple plant was also used to weave a fine textile. Moreover, a silk-like fabric was woven by the Aztecs from delicate rabbit hair. Even cotton cloth could be woven so fine that specimens excavated at Teotihuacan, in central Mexico, and dating the fourth century AD have been characterized as "exceedingly fine" and "of gossamer thinness" (William E. Safford, "Food Plants and Textiles of Ancient America," in Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Americanists [Washington, 1917], 17). These examples provide sufficient evidence that the Book of Mormon references to "silk" are plausible, even though Joseph Smith could not have known any of these historical facts on his own.
"Fine-twined linen" is mentioned three times and "fine linen" three more in the records of the Jaredites and Nephites (e.g., Mosiah 10:5). Yet the flax plant from which our familiar linen is made did not grow in America. On this count too the Book of Mormon has been charged with error. Again, please see the commentary for Alma 1:29. Again, I will add further commentary here.
The word linen has a broad dictionary meaning in addition to the narrow meaning of cloth made from flax. A textile may be called linen if it has the characteristics of linen. Linen is prepared by soaking and pounding fibers from the flax or hemp plant until they congeal into a strong, solid sheet. In pre-Spanish America native peoples made two kinds of cloth by a similar process. The leaves of the ixtle, maguey, or agave plants were soaked and pounded in the same manner as flax was treated in Europe. The resulting thread and fabric, known as henequen, was the most commonly used cloth, especially among people of the lower economic classes in central Mexico. The Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz explicitly described this cloth as "like linen" (The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico [New York: Farrer, Straus, and Cudahy, 1956], 24). Another cloth made of vegetable fiber is bark cloth. The bark of the fig tree was stripped off in large sheets, then soaked, pounded, and dried until the matted material was soft. The resulting "cloth" feels a good deal like henequen or linen (see Johnson, "Basketry and Textiles," 312).
Joseph Smith had no way of knowing about the history of silk and linen, yet the record he translated, the Book of Mormon, turns out to agree with modern evidence that textiles with these labels were used in Mesoamerica.
"all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry" It is interesting to note that these people worked for their riches. They obtained them by their "industry." Though hard work and industry are positive virtues, the riches so obtained can still lead to being lifted up and proud.
7 Now this was the cause of much affliction to Alma, yea, and to many of the people whom Alma had consecrated to be teachers, and priests, and elders over the church; yea, many of them were sorely grieved for the wickedness which they saw had begun to be among their people.
verse 7 "Teachers" and "priests" have been mentioned previously in the Book of Mormon, but this verse is the first mention of the "elders." Previously the terms "teachers" and "priests" have referred largely to the function of those called to labor (see the commentary for 2 Nephi 5:26). In this verse, however, it is clear that all three terms refer to offices within the church, indeed, offices in the Melchizedek priesthood.
8 For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.
verse 8 "they began to be scornful, one towards another" An individual who is "lifted up in the pride of [his] eyes" and who has "set [his] heart upon riches and upon the vain things of the world" is inevitably "scornful" towards others. Such a person sees others as competitors rather than brothers and sisters. Rather than being naturally inclined to lift and assist others and revel with them in their successes, he is wont to tear down and undermine them and then exult in their failures. C. S. Lewis wrote: "Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man" (Mere Christianity, 109).
9 And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.
10 And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.
verse 10 If the Spirit withdraws from the church because of the wickedness within the church, then it is virtually impossible for the church to successfully discharge its responsibility to proclaim the gospel to others and encourage them in their conversion. Thus for those seeking for truth who might have wished to be baptized, the "wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block."
11 And it came to pass in the commencement of the ninth year, Alma saw the wickedness of the church, and he saw also that the example of the church began to lead those who were unbelievers on from one piece of iniquity to another, thus bringing on the destruction of the people.
verse 11 The church, lacking the Spirit of God, had deteriorated to the point where some unbelievers who looked to the church for an example were only taught greater wickedness.
12 Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.
verse 12 How important is it to impart of one's substance to the poor and needy? It is a central and vital doctrine in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The reader may wish to review Mosiah 4:26 wherein king Benjamin places this doctrine in its proper perspective.
13 Now this was a great cause for lamentations among the people, while others were abasing themselves, succoring those who stood in need of their succor, such as imparting their substance to the poor and the needy, feeding the hungry, and suffering all manner of afflictions, for Christ's sake, who should come according to the spirit of prophecy;
verse 13 "Now this was a great cause for lamentations among the people" There were many factors which might well have produced lamentations and suffering among the people. These included the "contentions," "strife," "malice," "persecutions," and the ignoring of the needy.
Yet in the midst of all this suffering, there were those who were still willing to succor the needy and endure the persecutions heaped upon them for their steadfast beliefs.
14 Looking forward to that day, thus retaining a remission of their sins; being filled with great joy because of the resurrection of the dead, according to the will and power and deliverance of Jesus Christ from the bands of death.
verse 14 It seems clear that even though the Savior would not be born for another eighty or so years, the faithful members of the church in Alma's day had a good understanding of the concepts of atonement and resurrection. They had learned of these concepts from their scriptures and from their contemporary prophets.
15 And now it came to pass that Alma, having seen the afflictions of the humble followers of God, and the persecutions which were heaped upon them by the remainder of his people, and seeing all their inequality, began to be very sorrowful; nevertheless the Spirit of the Lord did not fail him.
verse 15 "the Spirit of the Lord did not fail him" Alma had undoubtedly prayed for divine guidance as he desired to know how he might best serve the Lord in helping to cleanse the church. The "Spirit of the Lord did not fail him," and the answer came. What was that answer? We will read of it in verses 16-18. Alma is inspired to resign his job as chief judge or governor of the people that he might spend his full time in his priestly labors. He knew that bringing people to repentance would require all his time and effort serving in his role as high priest.
16 And he selected a wise man who was among the elders of the church, and gave him power according to the voice of the people, that he might have power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given, and to put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people.
verse 16 "he selected a wise man . . . and gave him power according to the voice of the people" The Nephite's governmental system did not allow Alma to appoint his own successor. A new chief judge could only be elected by popular vote. It is likely that Alma recommended his successor to the people and then asked for their ratification.
"that he might have power to enact laws . . . and to put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people" We also are reminded of the extensive power of the office of chief judge or governor. He had both legislative and judicial functions.
17 Now this man's name was Nephihah, and he was appointed chief judge; and he sat in the judgment-seat to judge and to govern the people.
verse 17 "Nephihah" The "hah" ending is common in proper names and in the names of cities in the Book of Mormon. Consider, for example, Moronihah and Ammonihah. "Hah" means something like "house of" or "place of." Presumably a man who bears such a name likely is of a family which is associated with that place.
Apparently, the "hah" ending performs the same function as the Hebrew word "beth" and means "house of" or "place of." Examples in Hebrew include Bethel, meaning the place of God and Bethlehem, meaning the house of bread. Other Hebrew examples include Bethany, Bethsaida, Bethphage, and Bethabara.
Interestingly, the "ha" ending is also common in the Mayan language and implies the same meaning-house or place of. Examples of Mayan places include Xelha, Balamha, Altunha, and Pulsiha. As we might expect, a Mayan who bore one of these names was likely of a family who were associated with that place.
18 Now Alma did not grant unto him the office of being high priest over the church, but he retained the office of high priest unto himself; but he delivered the judgment-seat unto Nephihah.
19 And this he did that he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.
verse 19 Never again would a Nephite serve as both spiritual and secular leader of his people. The secular office of chief judge will continue almost to the end of Nephite civilization. The high priest will preside over all religious affairs until the coming of Christ. Then, after the coming of Christ, the office of high priest will disappear, and priesthood functions will be performed by the disciples or the "elders of the church" (Moroni 3:1).
"seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them" One of the grand themes of the entire book of Alma is that the preaching of the word of God in pure testimony is mightier than politics or the sword in establishing peace and goodness among a people.
Alma realized that the solution to the wickedness within the church was for the members to either sincerely repent or to be removed from the church. In either case the church would be cleansed. This basic solution is as applicable today in the church as it was in Alma's day. Alma's approach was to bear "pure testimony" before the sinners, or, as the text states "against the sinners." In this way he could then stand aside and allow the Spirit of God to try to touch the souls of his hearers. He could then challenge them to know their position. If they were receptive to the Spirit and accepted his testimony, they would remain in the church. If they did not, they were excommunicated, and the church was thus cleansed.
Regarding the concept of "pure testimony," Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet have taught: "The Holy Ghost is the converter, and the gospel teacher must never forget this. He or she must never seek to usurp the role of the Spirit nor upstage him . . .. The person who bears pure testimony never seeks for cheap substitutes for the Spirit. He never relies upon methodologies which might confuse sentimentality with spirituality, emotional display with edification. . . . He 'tries the virtue of the word of God' (Alma 31:5), trusts in the power of the scriptures and the words of the prophets to penetrate to the heart of his listeners, and bears witness of his message with sincerity and with soberness" (The Holy Ghost, 119-20).
Alma will spend the remainder of his life in laboring, bearing "pure testimony" to bring his people to repentance, and regulating the affairs of the church.
20 And thus in the commencement of the ninth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, Alma delivered up the judgment-seat to Nephihah, and confined himself wholly to the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to the testimony of the word, according to the spirit of revelation and prophecy.
verse 20 For about eight years, Alma had functioned as both high priest and chief judge. It is also likely that he held the position of chief captain of the Nephite army (Alma 2:16). Perhaps, then, he really split his chief judgeship into three separate offices-chief judge, high priest, and chief captain.