The Lord Redeems His Covenant Children
Alma 1 -- Alma 44
Alma 6 (Nephite Cultural, Political, and Geographical Overview):
Brant Gardner writes that in chapter 6 of the book of Alma, Alma begins a tour of different cities. It is clear from the text that these are cities that have some type of relationship with Zarahemla, and it is equally clear that the relationship dos not require that those cities have exactly the same religion as Zarahemla. Nevertheless, these are Nephite cities, and we should understand the difference between these Nephite cities that are related to but somewhat independent of Zarahemla, and Lamanite cities which have no relationship to Zarahemla whatsoever.
The interrelationships of the cities in the Book of Mormon may be best elucidated by comparison to the developing political regions in the Maya region during the same time period. The earliest settlements were separate villages, but during the time period of the early Book of Mormon (600-300 B.C.) these villages began to increase in size and to dominate certain surrounding territory. By the time of Alma's journey in the Book of Mormon, archaeology finds that there were certain sites that were considered "central sites" with other villages and areas looking to that central site for leadership.24
Recent years have seen great strides in the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphs, and one of the types of glyphs is known as an "Emblem Glyph." This was originally thought to be the name of a city, but the discovery of different kings in different cities using the same Emblem Glyph suggests that this glyph designated the polity rather than the city.25 (Note* Anthropologists use the term "polity" to describe a group of cities bound together in some manner to form a larger political entity.)
This appears to be the situation described in the Book of Mormon. Zarahemla is both a place and a land (Omni 1:12; Mosiah 1:1; Alma 2:15). Clearly under the political influence of Zarahemla are other cities that have some relationship to Zarahemla, but which are also fairly independent, as will be seen in Alma's journeys.
This interrelationship among cities will be key to understanding Nephite history for the remainder of the Book of Mormon. The particular issues that arise in the Book of Mormon will stem from a very different means of association than modern readers are used to. We must remember that there is no police force, and no standing army. There is nothing that requires the acquiescence of the outlying cities to the "center site." Ross Hassig explains how this loose association played out in the later Aztec political field:
The effectiveness of a political system also depends on its goals: the perceived costs of compliance must not outweigh the perceived benefits unless the dominant polity is, in fact, prepared to exercise force on its own behalf. For example, if the dominant polity has a goal of keeping the populace of the subordinate polity from rebelling, it may exert power by demanding that the people be repressed by their own leaders. Regardless of their own sentiments, the leaders will do so (using their own force) if they perceive that such repression will forestall the dominant polity's use of force, perhaps in the form of a punitive invasion. In short, as long as the subordinate polity perceives the benefits as greater than the costs, it will generally comply with the desires of the dominant polity. The very real limitations of such a political system arise from different perceptions of the power of the dominant polity. As the costs to the subordinates rise, the benefits decline, and compliance becomes increasingly unreliable.26
According to this polity model, Zarahemla is a center place, with dependent areas, including cities. There is nothing that forces these cities to remain under Zarahemla's influence, and breaches of the relationship may come at any time, since the cities really are independent. However, while there is a benefit from their association (for defense or economics, for example) the dependent cities will behave according to the will of the center. When differences arise, the center place must find some way to exert its positive influence. For the Aztecs, that response was always military. For Alma in Zarahemla, the response was not military, but a missionary journey. Rather than attempting to force the various cities back into alliance with might of arms, Alma will attempt the same thing through the might of spirit. [Brant Gardner, "Book of Mormon Commentary," http://www.highfiber.com/ ~nahualli/LDStopics/Alma/Alma6.htm, pp. 1-3]
Alma 6:4 And Thus They Began to Establish the Order of the Church:
In Alma 6:4 Mormon notes: "And thus they began to establish the order of the church in the city of Zarahemla." In the previous verses, Mormon has noted two basic actions that might define what it means to "establish the order of the church": (1) In Alma 6:1 we find that "he ordained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church." (2) In Alma 6:2 we find that those who repented were baptized and received into the church. (3) In Alma 6:3 we find that those of the church who did not repent were not numbered among those of the righteous.
For Mormon to specifically identify these actions might imply that these were some specific areas that had been in disorder. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]
According to McConkie and Millet, the order of the Church is maintained and manifest through ordinances and ordinations. One does not capriciously lay claim to authority or priesthood office, nor can one receive the ordinances of salvation without properly complying with commandments and appropriate procedures governing their performance. [Joseph F. McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3, p. 47]
Alma 6:6 The Children of God:
In Alma 6:6 Mormon notes that "the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft." According to McConkie and Millet, because both Adam and Eve rightfully claim God as their Father, and because we descend from them, we are spoken of in the scriptures as the "children of God" (Moses 6:8). In this instance of Alma 6:6, however, reference is to baptized members of the Church, those who by covenant have been born again and thereby have been received into the family of Jesus Christ (see Mosiah 5:1-7). [Joseph F. McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3, p. 47]
Alma 6:7 The Valley of Gideon:
When Alma departed from the church in the city of Zarahemla, he "went over upon the east of the river Sidon, into the valley of Gideon" (Alma 6:7). The reader should note that Alma went "over" "into" a "valley" (which the Amlicite battle infers might have been somewhat above Zarahemla but not quite as much as the land of Minon--Alma 2:24). In Alma 8:1, we find that Alma apparently returned to Zarahemla without any mention of any populated areas in between the valley of Gideon and the city of Zarahemla. Thus there might not have been any other populated place on the east of the river and in that direction; or if there was one, Alma apparently did not feel compelled to mention his visit there. The reader should note that while the phrase "he went over" might refer to elevation, it might also refer to a body of water. For example, we find in Alma 2:15 that the river Sidon ran "by" the land of Zarahemla on it's east side. Thus, Alma apparently could have gone over the river in order to reach the valley of Gideon. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]
Alma 6:7 The City of Gideon:
In Alma 6:7 mention is first made of a "city" of Gideon, whereas in the account of the Amlicite war only a "valley of Gideon" was referred to. The Amlicite war was in the 5th year and we are now in the 9th year. That means that perhaps within a time period of about 4 years a city had developed. On the other hand, there might have always been a city there in the valley of Gideon and such a fact had just not been mentioned in relating the story of the Amlicite war. Whatever the case, this city or valley of Gideon was probably the location where Gideon and some of the people that came with Limhi settled after their flight from the land of Lehi-Nephi. [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes] [See Alma 1:8 and Alma 8:7]
Alma 6:7 Alma's Mission to Gideon, Melek and Ammonihah (th-10th year
Alma 6:8 The Holy Order By Which He Was Called:
[See the commentary on Alma 5:44]