Alma Chapter 53
Alma 53, 56-58 Helaman and his two-thousand stripling warriors
1 And it came to pass that they did set guards over the prisoners of the Lamanites, and did compel them to go forth and bury their dead, yea, and also the dead of the Nephites who were slain; and Moroni placed men over them to guard them while they should perform their labors.
verse 1 Again, we learn that the prisoners of war were becoming sufficiently numerous that caring for them was becoming a serious problem for the Nephites, as it occupied too many men in the process. Every available man was needed for fighting. Apparently the best solution was to put their prisoners to work because it was easier to guard them while they were at their labor. Their work was mainly the conversion of Bountiful into a fortified city with ditches and breastworks of timbers.
2 And Moroni went to the city of Mulek with Lehi, and took command of the city and gave it unto Lehi. Now behold, this Lehi was a man who had been with Moroni in the more part of all his battles; and he was a man like unto Moroni, and they rejoiced in each other's safety; yea, they were beloved by each other, and also beloved by all the people of Nephi.
3 And it came to pass that after the Lamanites had finished burying their dead and also the dead of the Nephites, they were marched back into the land Bountiful; and Teancum, by the orders of Moroni, caused that they should commence laboring in digging a ditch round about the land, or the city, Bountiful.
4 And he caused that they should build a breastwork of timbers upon the inner bank of the ditch; and they cast up dirt out of the ditch against the breastwork of timbers; and thus they did cause the Lamanites to labor until they had encircled the city of Bountiful round about with a strong wall of timbers and earth, to an exceeding height.
5 And this city became an exceeding stronghold ever after; and in this city they did guard the prisoners of the Lamanites; yea, even within a wall which they had caused them to build with their own hands. Now Moroni was compelled to cause the Lamanites to labor, because it was easy to guard them while at their labor; and he desired all his forces when he should make an attack upon the Lamanites.
verse 5 Within the city of Bountiful there was a major prisoner-of-war camp which the prisoners themselves-the captive Lamanites-had been forced to secure.
6 And it came to pass that Moroni had thus gained a victory over one of the greatest of the armies of the Lamanites, and had obtained possession of the city of Mulek, which was one of the strongest holds of the Lamanites in the land of Nephi; and thus he had also built a stronghold to retain his prisoners.
verse 6 "the city of Mulek, which was one of the strongest holds of the Lamanites in the land of Nephi" The Lamanites had taken control of the Nephite city of Mulek and had effectively fortified it to the point where it was a veritable fortress for the Lamanites. This verse should not be interpreted as suggesting that the city of Mulek was located in the land of Nephi (Lamanite territory). Rather, it was one of the best fortified Nephite cities.
The "stronghold to retain his prisoners" was located, as evidenced by verse 5, in the city of Bountiful.
7 And it came to pass that he did no more attempt a battle with the Lamanites in that year, but he did employ his men in preparing for war, yea, and in making fortifications to guard against the Lamanites, yea, and also delivering their women and their children from famine and affliction, and providing food for their armies.
verse 7 "delivering their women and their children from famine and affliction, and providing food for their armies" It seems most likely that the antecedent for the pronoun their in this phrase is "his men." Though it is possible to read the verse so that the antecedent is "the Lamanites," we know that Moroni did not retain any Lamanite women or children as prisoners-see Alma 54:3.
8 And now it came to pass that the armies of the Lamanites, on the west sea, south, while in the absence of Moroni on account of some intrigue amongst the Nephites, which caused dissensions amongst them, had gained some ground over the Nephites, yea, insomuch that they had obtained possession of a number of their cities in that part of the land.
verse 8 "on account of some intrigue amongst the Nephites, which caused dissensions amongst them" Intrigue is a plot or scheme to accomplish some nefarious purpose by secret means. The intrigue here likely refers to the king-men's rising up in opposition to Pahoran and the Nephite government. It is obvious that Mormon views the conflict between the Nephites and Lamanites from a spiritual context. He makes no mention here of the superior military strength of the Lamanites in the "west sea, south" area. He attributes the Nephite set backs to the dissensions among the Nephites. Again, as we have mentioned previously, Mormon believed literally in the "promise/curse" of the Book of Mormon: The Lord was committed to defend his covenant people and protect them from being placed in bondage to any other people when they were righteous, but not under other circumstances (see the commentary for 2 Nephi 1:20 and the introductory commentary for Alma 43).
Hugh Nibley observed: "No matter how wicked the ferocious and depraved the Lamanites might be (and they were that!), no matter by how much they outnumbered the Nephites, . . . they were not the Nephite problem. They were merely kept there to remind the Nephites of their real problem which was [the obligation] to walk uprightly before the Lord" (Since Cumorah, 376).
9 And thus because of iniquity amongst themselves, yea, because of dissensions and intrigue among themselves they were placed in the most dangerous circumstances.
The great story of the stripling warriors or the sons of Helaman begins at this point. It is probably unnecessary to remind the reader of their origins, but in case a brief review would be helpful: In Alma 23 we were introduced to a group of Lamanites, actually direct descendants of Nephi's eldest brother Laman, who were converted through the missionary efforts of Ammon and the other sons of Mosiah. These righteous converts took upon themselves an oath to never again take up arms (Alma 23:7), and they called themselves the Anti-Nephi-Lehies (see the commentary on the possible meanings of this name in the commentary for Alma 23:17). In order to best protect these converts, who were committed to nonviolence, they were given the land of Jershon, and a Nephite army was charged with protecting them. They later became known as the people of Ammon (some authors have even referred to them as the "Ammonites"), and eventually they were removed to the land of Melek, a strategically-located area where the Nephites were better able to protect them.
10 And now behold, I have somewhat to say concerning the people of Ammon, who, in the beginning, were Lamanites; but by Ammon and his brethren, or rather by the power and word of God, they had been converted unto the Lord; and they had been brought down into the land of Zarahemla, and had ever since been protected by the Nephites.
11 And because of their oath they had been kept from taking up arms against their brethren; for they had taken an oath that they never would shed blood more; and according to their oath they would have perished; yea, they would have suffered themselves to have fallen into the hands of their brethren, had it not been for the pity and the exceeding love which Ammon and his brethren had had for them.
verse 11 "they never would shed blood more" Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines more as, "a second or another time; again."
12 And for this cause they were brought down into the land of Zarahemla; and they ever had been protected by the Nephites.
verse 12 "they ever had been protected" Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines ever as "at all times; always; continually.
13 But it came to pass that when they saw the danger, and the many afflictions and tribulations which the Nephites bore for them, they were moved with compassion and were desirous to take up arms in the defense of their country.
14 But behold, as they were about to take their weapons of war, they were overpowered by the persuasions of Helaman and his brethren, for they were about to break the oath which they had made.
15 And Helaman feared lest by so doing they should lose their souls; therefore all those who had entered into this covenant were compelled to behold their brethren wade through their afflictions, in their dangerous circumstances at this time.
verse 15 "all those who had entered into this covenant were compelled to behold their brethren wade through their afflictions" The pacifist people of Ammon could only sit and watch as their Nephite brethren struggled militarily to hold their own against Lamanite invaders.
Helaman will later give additional explanation for why he felt so strongly that the people of Ammon should not break their oath not to bear arms: "for I would not suffer them that they should break this covenant which they had made, supposing that God would strengthen us" (Alma 56:8). Helaman also obviously believed literally in the promise/curse (see the commentary for verse 8) which held that God would strengthen the Nephites if they remained faithful. He believed that God would strengthen the Nephite armies if the people of Ammon would remain true to their covenant.
We often have the tendency to assume that the people of Ammon were pacifists. One author has questioned this conclusion (see Duane Boyce's article "Were the Ammonites Pacifists?" in Journal of the Book of Mormon and other Restoration Scripture, volume 18, number 1, 2009, 33-47). Brother Boyce defines pacifism as "the opposition to all war, including war of self-defense, on moral grounds" (Ibid., 33). By this definition participation in and support of all war is not permissible. Brother Boyce concludes that the people of Ammon were not really pacifists for the following reasons: (1) When they accepted the gospel and repented of their sins, they were not repenting of having fought wars in defense of their country. Rather, they repented of banditry, plunder, and murder of Nephites that had been motivated by hatred of those Nephites. (2) While the people of Ammon were living in the land of Jershon, they did not object to the Nephites' waging war against attacking Lamanites. (3) They did reach a point where they were willing to take up arms again to assist the Nephites in defending their liberty. (4) They did not object to their sons' entering the war against the Lamanites.
verses 16-19 We will learn that a total of 2,060 stripling warriors will fight against the Lamanites (see Alma 57:6). Incredibly, though all of them will be wounded, none will die (see Alma 57:25). We may wish to contrast this with the youth of the Church today. As they fight against the world and Satan, some seventy-five percent of them will die spiritually.
There are clues in these verses to the success of the sons of Helaman. For example, they were self motivated-fighting for the Nephite cause was their idea (verse 16); they entered into a covenant and they bound themselves to the cause (verse 17); and they picked a righteous leader and followed him with exactness (verse 19; see also Alma 57:21; Alma 58:40). Others of their secrets may be found in later chapters. For example, they followed the advice of their mothers and stayed true to their heritage (Alma 56:47). These same keys to the success of the stripling warriors may well apply to the youth of the Church today.
16 But behold, it came to pass they had many sons, who had not entered into a covenant that they would not take their weapons of war to defend themselves against their enemies; therefore they did assemble themselves together at this time, as many as were able to take up arms, and they called themselves Nephites.
verse 16 "they called themselves Nephites" It is notable that even though this group of young men were the children of Lamanites, the "Anti-Nephi-Lehies," they chose to call themselves "Nephites."
17 And they entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea, to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives; yea, even they covenanted that they never would give up their liberty, but they would fight in all cases to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage.
18 Now behold, there were two thousand of those young men, who entered into this covenant and took their weapons of war to defend their country.
19 And now behold, as they never had hitherto been a disadvantage to the Nephites, they became now at this period of time also a great support; for they took their weapons of war, and they would that Helaman should be their leader.
verse 19 "they never had hitherto been a disadvantage to the Nephites" Not only had these 2,000 young men never been a problem to the Nephites, they now had an opportunity to be a great help to the Nephites. One might well ask: Of what real "support" could these 2,000 young untrained recruits be to the Nephite army since they had no experience in battle? It will become obvious in the two following verses that Mormon regarded their principle strength as being spiritual and not military. They were obviously mighty in spiritual strength.
20 And they were all young men, and they were exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all-they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted.
21 Yea, they were men of truth and soberness, for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him.
verses 20-21 The protection which these young men will receive in battle is attributed directly to their righteousness. See the material on "holy wars" in the commentary for Alma 46:22.
22 And now it came to pass that Helaman did march at the head of his two thousand stripling soldiers, to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea.
verse 22 The term stripling means an adolescent or one who is just passing from boyhood into manhood; a lad.
"to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea" Repeated, careful readings of the Book of Mormon text suggests that the terms "east sea" (or "sea east") and "west sea" (or "sea west") are likely designated names rather than ones that give local directions. This is similar to the North Sea's present name, which names a sea south of Scandinavia and west of central Europe. Perhaps the Nephite historians derived the east sea and west sea names from the names the Mulekites gave the ocean they had just crossed when they first came to America (presumably first landing somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico) and from the name Lehi's colony gave the Pacific Ocean that they had crossed (consistent with Helaman 6:10). Therefore, the seas' names could have a correct directional meaning in only a few locations. As one moves about in Mesoamerica, the names west sea and east sea would lose all directional meaning. This concept helps when we read in this particular verse that "Helaman did march at the head of his two thousand stripling soldiers, to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea." We understand this to mean that he marched south to the borders of the Nephite lands by the Pacific Ocean (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, "A Correlation of the Sidon River and the Lands of Manti and Zarahemla with the Southern End of the Rio Grijalva," 45).
23 And thus ended the twenty and eighth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi.