Alma Chapter 49
1 And now it came to pass in the eleventh month of the nineteenth year, on the tenth day of the month, the armies of the Lamanites were seen approaching towards the land of Ammonihah.
verse 1 We have discussed previously the consistent pattern of the timing of the wars fought in the Book of Mormon and the relationship of the Nephite calendar with our own calendar. Please review this material before continuing. It is found in the commentary for Alma 16:1.
You will recall that Ammonihah was the apostate Nephite city destroyed by a Lamanite army in about 81 BC, after its inhabitants had rejected the preaching of Alma and Amulek. The dead remained unburied for a time, and because of the resulting stench, the city came to be called the "desolation of Nehors."
2 And behold, the city had been rebuilt, and Moroni had stationed an army by the borders of the city, and they had cast up dirt around about to shield them from the arrows and the stones of the Lamanites; for behold, they fought with stones and with arrows.
verse 2 "They had cast up dirt round about" For a discussion of the probable nature of these Nephite earthen fortifications, see the commentary on Alma 49:18, below.
3 Behold, I said that the city of Ammonihah had been rebuilt. I say unto you, yea, that it was in part rebuilt; and because the Lamanites had destroyed it once because of the iniquity of the people, they supposed that it would again become an easy prey for them.
verse 3 "they supposed that it would again become an easy prey for them" We will learn that the invading Lamanites were in for a nasty surprise.
4 But behold, how great was their disappointment; for behold, the Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect, neither could they come upon them save it was by their place of entrance.
verse 4 "the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect" The Lamanites were prevented from effectively using their stones and arrows as weapons.
We are not surprised by the Lamanites' casting their stones, and this was likely done using a sling. The sling was spun in a circle over the warrior's head before one side of the leather holder was released to allow the projectile to sail toward its mark. But casting their arrows?? Surely Joseph Smith knew that Indians shot their arrows, but he could hardly have known anything about casting them. A primary war weapon among Mesoamerican peoples was the spear-thrower, or atlatl (the name of the device in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs). If the reader has an interest, see illustrations and discussion in Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, 131-32. See also William J. Hamblin, "The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Ricks and Hamblin, 365-99, especially 388-89. This device consisted of an eighteen-inch long carved stick with a groove down one side and a notch at the end. A spear or arrow was laid in the notch with its blunt end against the notch. The warrior would then grasp the throwing stick or atlatl at the end away from the notch and cast the arrow using the stick as an extension of his arm for greater casting power. As the warrior launched the arrow, the arrow would separate from the groove and the last point of contact between the arrow and the atlatl was the notch. It is plausible to suppose that the Lamanites in the day of Moroni used atlatls to throw their arrows.
John Tvedtnes has pointed out that this expression could also stem from use of the Hebrew root YRH, which means "to throw." When that word is applied to arrows in Bible usage, the English translation is "to shoot," even though the Hebrew literally reads "to throw" (see, for example, 1 Samuel 20:20; 1 Samuel 20:36-37).
"their place of entrance" An important part of the strategic defense system which Moroni had created was the concept of the "place of entrance." This was the only access to the inside of the city, and it was well defended. For help in understanding this concept, see the commentary for Alma 49:18.
5 Now at this time the chief captains of the Lamanites were astonished exceedingly, because of the wisdom of the Nephites in preparing their places of security.
verse 5 "their places of security" What is the nature of this defensive fortification that results in "places of security"? This is the so-called trench and palisade structure discussed in the commentary for verse 18.
6 Now the leaders of the Lamanites had supposed, because of the greatness of their numbers, yea, they supposed that they should be privileged to come upon them as they had hitherto done; yea, and they had also prepared themselves with shields, and with breastplates; and they had also prepared themselves with garments of skins, yea, very thick garments to cover their nakedness.
verse 6 "they had also prepared themselves with shields, and with breastplates . . . and with garments of skins" Obviously the Lamanites had copied the armor they had seen the Nephites wearing. Previously the armor of non-Nephite peoples had been inferior to that of the Nephites (see Alma 3:5; Alma 43:19-37). See the discussion of armor in the Book of Mormon in the commentary for Mosiah 21:7.
7 And being thus prepared they supposed that they should easily overpower and subject their brethren to the yoke of bondage, or slay and massacre them according to their pleasure.
8 But behold, to their uttermost astonishment, they were prepared for them, in a manner which never had been known among the children of Lehi. Now they were prepared for the Lamanites, to battle after the manner of the instructions of Moroni.
verse 8 "they were prepared for them" The Nephites were prepared to engage the attacking Lamanites. The "children of Lehi" would include all the Book of Mormon peoples.
9 And it came to pass that the Lamanites, or the Amalickiahites, were exceedingly astonished at their manner of preparation for war.
10 Now, if king Amalickiah had come down out of the land of Nephi, at the head of his army, perhaps he would have caused the Lamanites to have attacked the Nephites at the city of Ammonihah; for behold, he did care not for the blood of his people.
verse 10 An attack against the well-fortified city of Ammonihah would have been futile and worse, even suicidal. The Lamanite chief captains quickly realized that. The Lamanites realized it was useless and unfair to send their ill-prepared soldiers against the city. Yet, if Ammonihah himself had been leading the Lamanite army, since he "did care not for the blood of his people," he would have ordered an all-out attack.
11 But behold, Amalickiah did not come down himself to battle. And behold, his chief captains durst not attack the Nephites at the city of Ammonihah, for Moroni had altered the management of affairs among the Nephites, insomuch that the Lamanites were disappointed in their places of retreat and they could not come upon them.
verse 11 "the Lamanites were disappointed in their places of retreat and they could not come upon them" The Lamanites were frustrated and embarrassed over their utter failure to find a way to attack the effective fortress which the Nephites had built for themselves at Ammonihah. The phrase "their places of retreat" seem to refer to the fortifications of the Nephite city of Ammonihah. The phrase "they could not come upon them" refers to the fact that the Lamanites could not find a plausible way to attack the Nephites.
12 Therefore they retreated into the wilderness, and took their camp and marched towards the land of Noah, supposing that to be the next best place for them to come against the Nephites.
verse 12 The Lamanite chief captains, hoping to save face, hastily marched toward the town of Noah expecting it to be undefended. Then, before realizing that Noah also had been heavily fortified, the chief captains took an ill-advised oath that they would destroy the city.
13 For they knew not that Moroni had fortified, or had built forts of security, for every city in all the land round about; therefore, they marched forward to the land of Noah with a firm determination; yea, their chief captains came forward and took an oath that they would destroy the people of that city.
14 But behold, to their astonishment, the city of Noah, which had hitherto been a weak place, had now, by the means of Moroni, become strong, yea, even to exceed the strength of the city Ammonihah.
15 And now, behold, this was wisdom in Moroni; for he had supposed that they would be frightened at the city Ammonihah; and as the city of Noah had hitherto been the weakest part of the land, therefore they would march thither to battle; and thus it was according to his desires.
16 And behold, Moroni had appointed Lehi to be chief captain over the men of that city; and it was that same Lehi who fought with the Lamanites in the valley on the east of the river Sidon.
verse 16 Moroni had accurately predicted the scenario and had anticipated that the city of Noah would be attacked. Thus he had placed there one of his best captains, the battle-tested Lehi.
"Lehi who fought with the Lamanites in the valley on the east of the river Sidon" The reference here is to the battle of Moroni's army with that of the Nephite dissenter Zerahemnah detailed in Alma 43-44.
17 And now behold it came to pass, that when the Lamanites had found that Lehi commanded the city they were again disappointed, for they feared Lehi exceedingly; nevertheless their chief captains had sworn with an oath to attack the city; therefore, they brought up their armies.
18 Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security by any other way save by the entrance, because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about, save it were by the entrance.
verse 18 "highness of the bank . . . and the depth of the ditch" Dr. F. Richard Hauck has suggested a plausible structure for these fortifications based upon his archeological investigations in the highlands of central Guatemala ("Ancient Fortifications and the Land of Manti" This People, summer 1994, 46-55). If we were to cut a cross section of this defensive barrier or "ridge of earth," an attacker would encounter, as he attacked the fortified city, an uphill slope leading to a trench. The trench was perhaps seven to ten feet deep and twelve feet wide with an outer sloping wall and an inner vertical wall. On the uphill side of this trench was a palisade of vertical timbers topped by "pickets" or sharp objects which made scaling the timber wall difficult. The vertical distance from the top of the inside embankment to the bottom of the ditch has been found by archaeologist David L. Webster to average 11 meters or about 35 feet, not counting any wooden palisade!
In another article, earthen embankment fortifications found in the area near Tikal in southern Mexico are described: "A trench is the most prominent feature of the earthworks. . . It had a continuous raised embankment along the south side . . . The earthworks extended a total of 9.5 kilometers. . . . The four-meter width of the trench posed an obstacle few Maya could have crossed by jumping. . . Over almost its entire length, outsiders would have had to run uphill to approach the trench, and they would have had to jump upwards, as well as across the trench, to get into the embankment which abutted the south lip. . . . That the trench was impassable is suggested by the fact that at four or five widely separated points along its length we found what appeared to causeways, placed there in order to cross it. At each of these there was an equivalent gap in the embankment. . . . The trench had been cut into limestone bedrock to a depth of three meters and that in its original state the walls of the trench had been nearly vertical. Clearly, anyone who might have fallen into it would have had some difficulty getting out" ("Defensive Earthworks at Tikal," Dennis E. Puleston and Donald W. Callender, Jr., Expedition [Spring 1967], 40-48). Please see the illustration, Trench and Palisade.
Another part of the defensive layout of the city was the so-called "place of entrance" already mentioned. This likely consisted of a corridor flanked by the defensive ridges of earth and timber palisades. At the end of the corridor was the only entrance gate into the city. Those in the corridor, then, became easy prey for those manning the defensive ridges. Please view the illustration, Place of Entrance.
Hugh Nibley added: "In a good description of a typical Nephite fortification (Alma 49:17-20) we are told that elevation was an important element of defense, the enemy being forced to climb up to the fort [or city], which was surrounded by a high bank and a deep ditch; an important feature was the 'place of entrance' where assailants were let into a trap and there cut down by the swords and slings of the most expert fighters in the place (Alma 49:20)" (Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, volume 6, 418-19).
19 And thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way, by casting over stones and arrows at them.
verse 19 Whether these stones were thrown by hand or propelled by slings or by some other means is not clear. It is possible that the arrows were shot from a bow, though they could have been cast (see the commentary for verse 4).
20 Thus they were prepared, yea, a body of their strongest men, with their swords and their slings, to smite down all who should attempt to come into their place of security by the place of entrance; and thus were they prepared to defend themselves against the Lamanites.
21 And it came to pass that the captains of the Lamanites brought up their armies before the place of entrance, and began to contend with the Nephites, to get into their place of security; but behold, they were driven back from time to time, insomuch that they were slain with an immense slaughter.
verse 21 By now the Lamanite captains were becoming desperate. Remember, they had taken an oath to destroy the inhabitants of the city of Noah. It is obvious that their savage and repeated assaults on the Nephites impregnable gate had become suicidal, and eventually "their chief captains were all slain; yea, and more than a thousand of the Lamanites were slain" (verse 23).
22 Now when they found that they could not obtain power over the Nephites by the pass, they began to dig down their banks of earth that they might obtain a pass to their armies, that they might have an equal chance to fight; but behold, in these attempts they were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them; and instead of filling up their ditches by pulling down the banks of earth, they were filled up in a measure with their dead and wounded bodies.
verse 22 "they were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them" Again, see the commentary for Alma 49:4.
Apparently, the term "pass" here refers to the pathway down the "place of entrance." It was this skillfully engineered defensive fortification that was the main object of the Lamanite army. It was here they concentrated their attack. They apparently used some type of device to try to excavate or dig into the banks of earth in order to gain entrance into the city. As they engaged themselves in this project they were easy targets for the Nephite soldiers within the city.
23 Thus the Nephites had all power over their enemies; and thus the Lamanites did attempt to destroy the Nephites until their chief captains were all slain; yea, and more than a thousand of the Lamanites were slain; while, on the other hand, there was not a single soul of the Nephites which was slain.
24 There were about fifty who were wounded, who had been exposed to the arrows of the Lamanites through the pass, but they were shielded by their shields, and their breastplates, and their head-plates, insomuch that their wounds were upon their legs, many of which were very severe.
verse 24 "their wounds were upon their legs" It is likely the Nephites avoided any armor that might restrict their mobility. The Nephite battles were battles of movement, and leg armor would restrict their movement. They had to move freely and quickly to survive. The Book of Mormon describes head-plates and breastplates and arm shields but no leg armor. Thus, the Nephite soldiers were wounded almost solely on their exposed legs.
25 And it came to pass, that when the Lamanites saw that their chief captains were all slain they fled into the wilderness. And it came to pass that they returned to the land of Nephi, to inform their king, Amalickiah, who was a Nephite by birth, concerning their great loss.
26 And it came to pass that he was exceedingly angry with his people, because he had not obtained his desire over the Nephites; he had not subjected them to the yoke of bondage.
27 Yea, he was exceedingly wroth, and he did curse God, and also Moroni, swearing with an oath that he would drink his blood; and this because Moroni had kept the commandments of God in preparing for the safety of his people.
verse 27 Amalickiah had been thwarted at every turn by this man Moroni. Foiled yet again, Amalickiah plunges into a monstrous rage and swears an awful and wicked oath-to drink the blood of Moroni.
28 And it came to pass, that on the other hand, the people of Nephi did thank the Lord their God, because of his matchless power in delivering them from the hands of their enemies.
29 And thus ended the nineteenth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi.
30 Yea, and there was continual peace among them, and exceedingly great prosperity in the church because of their heed and diligence which they gave unto the word of God, which was declared unto them by Helaman, and Shiblon, and Corianton, and Ammon and his brethren, yea, and by all those who had been ordained by the holy order of God, being baptized unto repentance, and sent forth to preach among the people.
verse 30 "all those who had been ordained by the holy order of God" Again, we have reference to the Melchizedek priesthood.