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Mosiah 23


Out of Bondage through Covenants

      Jarom -- Mosiah



Mosiah 23 Heading An account of Alma and the people of the Lord, who were driven into the wilderness (Nephite Record Keepers) [Illustration]: Nephite Record Keepers. Adapted from [Church Educational System, Book of Mormon Student Manual: Religion 121 and 122, 1989, p. 155]


Mosiah 23:3 They Fled Eight Days' Journey:


     According to David Lamb, Hebrew people attached special significance to individual numbers. Knowing the significance of the numbers serves as an emphasis for points which might otherwise go unnoticed. Alma's people fled from the armies of king Noah into the wilderness. They traveled eight days and established themselves in the land of Helam, which was "a very beautiful and pleasant land." The number eight is associated with "new beginnings" (Bullinger 1894:200). The "new beginnings" for the people of Alma was marked by a journey of eight days. [David Lamb, "What's in a Number?," in Recent Book of Mormon Developments, Vol. 2, p. 41]


Mosiah 23:4, 19 A Beautiful and Pleasant Land (Helam):


     Mormon notes that the land of Helam was "a beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water" (Mosiah 23:4). What kind of scenery would evoke such a phrase? The reader should note that similar words were used to describe the place of Mormon: "yea the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer" (Mosiah 18:30). [Joseph L. Allen, Personal Communication]


Mosiah 23:4 (Helam), a very beautiful land, a land of pure water (Illustration): Almolonga, Guatemala, Joseph Allen's proposed site of Helam. [Merrill Oaks, "Some Perspectives on Book of Mormon Geography, Slide #62]


Mosiah 23:4 (Helam), a very beautiful land, a land of pure water (Illustration): Scenes in the suggested land of Helam, "a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water," around Chalchitan, Guatemala. (Photos by Daniel Bates. Courtesy David A. Palmer and the Society for Early Historic Archaeology.) [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., p. 178]


Mosiah 23:6 The People Were Desirous That Alma Should Be Their King:


     According to Richard Bushman, details about government in the Book of Mormon make it possible to ask if the political forms in the book are genuinely ancient, or if they bear the marks of nineteenth century creation. Rather than illustrating the prevalent political attitudes in the United States after the American Revolution, the details of Book of Mormon political attitudes tend to have Old World precedents, particularly in the history of the Israelite nation. One good example is when "the people were desirous that Alma should be their king" (Mosiah 23:6). Biblical people too raised up kings among themselves, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The most famous instance was the anointing of Saul. There the Book of Mormon prototypes are laid down precisely. The people demanded a king of Samuel who tried to persuade them otherwise, warning them of the iniquities a king would practice on them, just as Alma (Mosiah 23:7-13) and Mosiah2 (Mosiah 29:4-36) warned their people (see 1 Samuel 8:1-22; 10:18-25; Deuteronomy 17:14). This basic plot was not singular to Saul either. Earlier, the Israelites had requested Gideon to be their king, and he had refused because "the Lord will rule over you" (Judges 8:22-23). [Richard Bushman, "The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution," in BYU Studies, Fall 1976, pp. 3, 18-19]


Mosiah 23:6 The people were desirous that Alma should be their king. But he said . . . it is not expedient that ye should have a king (Major Nephite Leaders) [Illustration]: The Major Leaders During Nephite History. [Church Educational System, Book of Mormon Student Manual: Religion 121 and 122, 1989, p. 160]


Mosiah 23:7 It Is Not Expedient That We Should Have a King:


     According to Avraham Gileadi, Alma's chiastically structured statement emphasizes human inequality as the reason his people should have no king:

     a. Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king;

           b. for thus saith the Lord:

                 c. Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another,

                 c' or one man shall not think himself above another;

           b' therefore I say unto you

     a' it is not expedient that ye should have a king.


     Alma nonetheless qualifies that statement. He says, "If it were possible that ye could always have just men to be your kings it would be well for you to have a king" (Mosiah 23:8). [Avraham Gileadi, The Last Days: Types and Shadows from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, p. 209]


Mosiah 23:10 After Much Tribulation:


     Alma1 uses the phrase "after much tribulation" (Mosiah 23:10) to describe his time of repentance after having fled from king Noah. How long did Alma's "sore repentance" last? According to the chronology in Appendix A, it could have been many months.


Mosiah 23:13 That Ye Trust No Man to Be a King over You:


     When he refused to be king, Alma1 advised his followers in the land of Helam to "trust no man to be a king over you" (Mosiah 23:13). One has to wonder how these words might have affected the people who followed Alma once they entered the land of Zarahemla. Were the beliefs of Alma and Alma's followers influential in ending kingship and in bringing on the Reign of Judges in the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 29:41)? [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 23:19, 20 They Began to Prosper Exceedingly . . . They Built a City, Which They Called the City of Helam:


      The people of Alma1 named their city "Helam" (Mosiah 23:20), apparently in honor of "one of the first" of Alma's baptisms (Mosiah 18:12). How many years would it take to "prosper exceedingly" and to "build a city" (Mosiah 23:19-20)? How many people did it take to make a Nephite city? When Alma's group fled from the waters of Mormon, "they were in number about four hundred and fifty souls" (Mosiah 18:35). Yet, here we have mention of a city. Looking at the chronology chart, it is possible that Alma's group had lived between 15 and 30 years at Helam by this time. Would this be enough time for sufficient growth in order to call the place a city?

     According to John Sorenson, the term "city" appears to have had a definite, formal meaning among the Nephites and was not tied directly to the number of a settlement's inhabitants. The Hebrew word translated as "city" had the fundamental meaning of "temple center." A city in Book of Mormon terminology had to have a certain authoritative status, but it didn't have to be metropolis-sized or even contain any given number of people. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., pp. 158-159] Thus, a temple might have lent enough authority to a given location for it to be called a "city."

     Ammon, either on his initial 40-day trip to the land of Nephi with his 15 companions or on his flight to the land of Zarahemla with Limhi's people, never encountered Alma's group in the land of Helam. Thus, the city of Helam was perhaps somewhat away from those routes.


Mosiah 23:19 Helam:


     According to Hugh Nibley, the meaning of "Helam" (Mosiah 23:19) is prosperity and hope. . . . Helam means "to become suitable, to be well established." You could name a land Helam if it was a new colony. The word "Helam" also means "to be healthy, to recuperate, to restore, to revive a place, to prosper." A better name you couldn't give to a new settlement than prosperity, or restoration, or health, or revival, or suitability, or happy land. Helam was a good name, a name of good omen. [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 2, p. 154] [See the commentary on Mosiah 18:12]


Mosiah 23:19 Helam:


     According to Joseph Allen, the village of Almolonga is located just a few miles south of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. It is a beautiful community that is called the horticulture capital of Central America. The natural hot springs that flow from the mountains make the valley green throughout the year and are reminiscent of Alma's statement that the land of Helam was "a very beautiful and pleasant land, a land of pure water" (Mosiah 23:4). Alma and his followers lived there for 25 years, from 145 B.C. to 120 B.C. The distance from Lake Atitlan to Almolonga is about 65 miles. The travel time from the waters of Mormon to the land of Helam was eight days. A native Guatemalan can walk from Lake Atitlan to Almolonga in three days; however, the scripture states that Alma's group took their flocks and carried their grain, which suggests that the travel time would be lengthened to eight days. The land between Lake Atitlan and Almolonga certainly meets the requirements for a wilderness. The natives of Guatemala farm on the sides and the tops of the mountains. In the summer, the mountains are a spectacular green, and in the autumn, the mountains look like gold with the ripened wheat, barley, and corn blowing in the cool breeze. As the year moves along, the picture is presented of a giant, hand-embroidered, patched quilt as it manifests a variety of colors. [Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, p. 293]


Mosiah 23:19 Helam:


     According to John Sorenson, the geographical arrangement that seems the most logical puts the land of Helam in the well-watered Rio Blanco Valley, and the Valley of Alma around Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Beyond that point, travelers bound northward and westward, like the Lamanite army chasing Alma, clearly pass a threshold--a literal watershed--separating the highlands that look back toward the Valley of Guatemala (Nephi) from terrain that starts to drop toward the Grijalva River drainage of Chiapas, Mexico (Zarahemla). A different geographical arrangement could also serve. That two places are suitable for the land of Helam warns us that we may not have our other sites for Book of Mormon events pinned down with absolute finality; but all we seek at this time is at least one plausible setting. Later, accumulated information may allow a definitive judgment. The alternative puts Helam around Malacatancito, where an archaeological site of Nephite age lies adjacent to the origin of the Rio San Juan as it "gushes out of an opening in the base of the Cuchumatanes Mountains." This might be the "pure water" that impressed Alma. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., p. 180]

     Clate Mask points out that not only is John Sorenson's information concerning Malacatancito incorrect, but that the correct information might lead to some new perspectives on the land of Helam and the head of the river Sidon. According to Mask, "there are hundreds of areas with springs of pure water, (several with Preclassic ruins nearby) that could be Helam, but there is only ONE headwater so unique at its origin that it is on the modern highway map of the country of Guatemala (Mapa Turistico, Instituto Guatemalteco De Turismo, Guatemala, Guatemala, 1994). It is prominently labeled "Nacimiento del Rio San Juan" (the birth, source or HEAD of the San Juan River). It is so noteworthy . . . because the water gushes straight up out from the base of a mountain in a rather unusual way [which way is significant to Mayan religious beliefs]. The head of the river Sidon is mentioned five times in the Book of Mormon. Are they the same landmark? The Rio San Juan is a tributary of the Usumacinta River--Jakeman and Hauck's proposed river Sidon [and not a tributary of the Grijalva river--Sorenson's river Sidon]. [Clate Mask, "10 Criteria or 206 Mini-Tests," pp. 12-14, 1996]


Mosiah 23:19 Helam (Illustration): The location of Malacatancito and the location of the "Nacimiento del Rio San Juan (the birth, source, or HEAD of the San Juan River. [Clate Mask, "10 Criteria or 206 Mini-Tests," pp. 12-14, 1996]


Mosiah 23:23 They Were Brought into Bondage:


     What was the purpose behind Mormon's account of Alma's group being "brought into bondage" (Mosiah 23:23) when Mormon had already chronicled the story of how they had fled the wickedness of king Noah and had been baptized in the waters of Mormon? Perhaps chronology can help us with an explanation. First, the bondage came upon all of the people of Noah because of a prophetic promise given by Abinadi (Mosiah 12:2). The true lesson, however, emerges by comparing the length of the bondage imposed on Alma's repentant and faithful group with that of the bondage imposed on the people of Limhi. According to the chronology in Appendix A, while Limhi's bondage lasted about 18 years, the people of Alma were only in bondage about one 1 year. Additionally, in Mosiah 24:13-14 the Lord said to Alma, "Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage. I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions." [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 23:23-24 None Could Deliver Them But the Lord Their God:


     Gary Sturgess notes that in the writings of Alma, the miraculous deliverance of his people is attributed to the Lord:

           For behold, I will show unto you that they were brought into bondage, and none could deliver them but the Lord their God, yea, even the God of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob.

           And it came to pass that he did deliver them, and he did show forth his mighty power unto them, and great were their rejoicings. (Mosiah 23-24)


     It is clear that this was written to fulfill the prophecy of Abinadi in Mosiah 11:23-25: "And it shall come to pass that except this people repent and turn unto the Lord their God, they shall be brought into bondage; and none shall deliver them, except it be the Lord the Almighty God" (Mosiah 11;23). [Gary L. Sturgess, "The Book of Mosiah: Thoughts about Its Structure, Purposes, Themes, and Authorship," in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Fall 1995, p. 125]


Mosiah 23:25: Tilling the Land Round About:


     Alma’s people were "tilling the land round about" (Mosiah 23:25) when the Lamanites appeared. This statement explains the layout of the Nephite lands. Apparently, the city was a place of refuge, and farming was done outside the city.

     According to John Sorenson, the Mesoamerican settlement unit that logically fits what the Book of Mormon calls a "land" (centered on a single city) consisted of that area inhabited by all the people who gathered to a central temple center for worship, trade, and civil administration. In lowland Maya country we know that a journey of one day to or from the center was the usual radius of a local land, and the scale was probably much the same elsewhere. (That single-day radius agrees with what we saw in the case of Benjamin's assembly at Zarahemla.) [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., p. 159]


Mosiah 23:30,35 Lost in the Wilderness for Many Days:


     What conditions might have contributed to a Lamanite army becoming "lost in the wilderness for many days" (Mosiah 23:25)? According to John Sorenson, and assuming a Mesoamerican setting, once in the Guatemalan interior, experienced travelers in times past stuck to a couple of established routes where reliable watering points were to be found. Journeys in those uplands were especially tricky because the streams cut precipitous chasms. McBryde vividly describes the problem: "The immensely deep canyons are often so sharp that the unwary traveler is likely to come upon them most unexpectedly. The white buildings of a village, gleaming in the bright sunlight beyond the pines, may appear to be only a mile or two away, seemingly just ahead. Yet, another hundred yards will reveal that the nearer trees stand upon the brink of a narrow abyss." Consequently, movements in highland Guatemala (the general land of Nephi) must be limited to a few sure routes or the traveler gets in trouble. Throughout the area trails tend to stay at the less eroded, high, rolling elevations; the main route still goes near the continental divide. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., p. 167]


Mosiah 23:31 Land of Amulon:


     The land of Amulon (Mosiah 23:31) was probably away from the other routes that had been taken from Lehi-Nephi (neither Alma's group nor Limhi's group ran into it). The land of Amulon could not have been close to Lehi-Nephi, for neither the Amulonites nor Lamanites knew the exact way back to the capital. The land of Amulon was probably in a somewhat northerly direction from Lehi-Nephi, for Alma's group in the land of Helam was only 13 days away from the land of Zarahemla (instead of a little more than 21 days), and the Lamanites (possibly directed by the priests of Amulon) were trying to return to the land of Shemlon near the local land of Nephi. This could mean that the land of Amulon was farther away from Lehi-Nephi or the land of Shemlon (and somewhat closer to the land of Zarahemla) than the land of Helam was. [Adapted from John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, p. 227] [For other factors involved in the location of the land of Amulon, refer back to the commentary on Mosiah 21:21]


Mosiah 23:31 A Place Which They Called Amulon . . . the Land of Amulon:


     Hugh Pinnock writes that a common element in Hebrew poetry is the use of word pairs. The word pair place . . . land is attested in these two simple alternates from the Bible:

     (A) Am I now come up without the Lord against this place

           (B) to destroy it?

     (A) The Lord said to me, Go up against this land,

           (B) and destroy it. (2 Kings 18:25)


     The word pair place . . . land is also found in the Book of Mormon: "they had found those priests of king Noah, in a place which they called Amulon; and they had begun to possess the land of Amulon (Mosiah 23:31). [Hugh W. Pinnock, Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon, FARMS, 1999, pp. 52-54]


Mosiah 23:33 Wives . . . Husbands:


     The priests of Noah abandoned their homes and families in an effort to avoid death at the hands of an invading Lamanite army (see Mosiah 19:9-223). According to Kent Brown, two years later (see Mosiah 19:29), the priests crept back to the outskirts of their former colony and, presumably in order to stay alive, "carried off [fellow colonists'] grain and many of their precious things," coming "by night," which made their thievery potentially a capital crime (Mosiah 21:21).174 It was while they were in the neighboring wilderness that they stumbled upon "a place in Shemlon where the daughters of the Lamanites did gather themselves" (Mosiah 20:1). After discovering "the daughters of the Lamanites, they laid and watched them; And when there but few of them gathered together to dance, they came forth out of their secret places and took them and carried them into the wilderness" (Mosiah 20:4-5).

     The sudden disappearance of the young women led to an immediate rupture in the treaty--a suzerain-vassal relationship between Lamanite overlords and the subject Nephite colony, then under the leadership of Limhi--a rupture that brought military reprisal against the Nephites (see Mosiah 20:6-11).175 The Lamanite king and his people suspected that the Nephites were responsible for the wrong.176 When both parties grasped that it was the renegade priests who had kidnapped these young women (see Mosiah 20:17-19, 23-24), they set out to discover the whereabouts of the priests and their captives in order to punish the priests, without success.177 When a disoriented Lamanite army accidentally located them many months later, the priests craftily escaped punishment by obliging their "wives" to intercede on their behalf, thereafter easing themselves into Lamanite society, even taking positions of responsibility (see Mosiah 23:30--24:1, 4).178

     A number of legal and social issues stem from the narrative. the most important is the fact that, at the end of this series of events, the women are called "wives" and the priests "husbands" (Mosiah 23:33-34) The terms are most significant, for they establish the legal framework for the outcome of the story. Perhaps just as important is the observation that the editor of the account, Mormon, has accepted the terminology of his source. Plainly, by so doing he demonstrates that in his culture--although he lived much later--the women were thought of as legally married. Additionally, one might wonder about the legal status of the priests' previous wives whom they had abandoned.

     The terminology not only interprets the outcome of the situation but also invites us to enter the world of the Old Testament where laws deal rather extensively with marriage, including that of a master to a captive woman. Clear evidence also exists for laws dealing with abandoned wives and children in such a circumstance.179 A number of elements in the account can be understood best in light of either the Mosaic code or Old Testament events that established legal norms.180

     1. The Lamanite women were illegally taken: the priests "took them and carried them away" (Mosiah 20:5; cf. Mosiah 20:15:23).181 Subsequently they were considered "stolen" (Mosiah 20:18; 21:20-21).182 Of particular note, according to the Mosaic code is the assumption that these Lamanite girls were "married" without the "consent" of their parents, particularly of the fathers, and that "there [was] a complete break with her family."183

           A . Marriages were allowed between Israelite males and foreign women whose city, lying at a distance "very far off," had been sacked by an Israelite army (Deuteronomy 20:15, see Deuteronomy 20:10-15). but of course, the Lamanite daughters were not foreigners, which made things worse.

           B. If the girls were betrothed to be married, under Mosaic law the priests of Noah would be thought of as rapists. In such a situation, the men would be sentenced to die.184 In contrast, in the case of an unmarried virgin, biblical law holds that the rapist must pay a fine, marry the woman, and never divorce her (see Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Thus the decree of death to the priests, issued by both the Lamanite king and the Nephite ruler Limhi (see Mosiah 20:7, 16), strongly suggests that some of the young women were already betrothed to be married.185 186

           C. The Bible also speaks against "humiliating" a woman.187 188 189 According to this view, even though the Lamanite women were later reckoned as wives of the renegade priests, the route to their marriages was through defiled beds, thus humbling the women.190 191


     2. As a consequence of the taking of the Lamanite girls, the covenant treaty between the Lamanites and Nephites was immediately considered broken by the Lamanite king.

           A. According to Old Testament law, the breaking of an agreement between two parties led to whatever consequences were spelled out in the "curses" of the oaths--the classic example being the one between the Israelites, who were about to possess the promised land, and the Lord.192 As is plain from his response, the Lamanite king's promised that "his people should not slay" the people of Limhi (Mosiah 19:25) was reversed as one of the penalties for breaking the treaty and thus the Lamanite king sought "to destroy" the Nephite colony. In general, when a treaty has evidently been broken, the question is, "How flagrant must a violation be before the sovereign could legitimately muster his military forces and attack the recalcitrant vassal?"193


     3. When the Lamanite army came upon the new settlement founded by the priests and their wives, to all appearances the wives were willing to intercede for their husbands. There was no visibly abusive compulsion on the part of the former priests. As a result the priests were allowed to keep both their lives and their wives--a decision not subsequently overturned by the Lamanite king because, afterward, he appointed Amulon to serve as a regent king over the colony of alma, "his people" (Mosiah 23:39).      


     4. The offspring of these "wives" were numbered with the Lamanties and eventually involved in wars with the Nephites in the which many if not all were "destroyed."


 [S. Kent Brown, "Marriage and Treaty in the Book of Mormon," in The Disciple As Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, pp. 1-18]

     Note* So the marriages between the priests and the abducted women were perhaps recognized according to Mosaic law. But how? Had the priests of Noah conveniently instructed their "wives" in the Mosaic law? Had they implied to their "wives" that their only salvation with honor was to stay by them? Had they treated their wives decently? Did the wives stand up for their "husbands" because of their love for them? Were the "wives" impressed with the former "position" and "intellect" of their husbands. Were they impressed by how the priests of Noah could steal grain from Limhi's people and survive in the wilderness? What of the Lamanite women? or is that not the perspective of a Nephite record? What is the lesson to be taught here? Is it that no matter how great man's knowledge of the law, or misuse of the law in utilizing it to their advantage to enrich or spare their lives, ultimately they will lose their eternal lives and their offspring will be "destroyed"? There is a covenant lesson to be taught here but what are the details? [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]


Mosiah 23:34 Amulon and His Brethren:


     According to Kent Brown, in an obvious coloration from the Exodus story, Amulon is usually mentioned in the phrase "Amulon and his brethren" (Mosiah 23:34-35; 24:1; 25:12; Alma 25:4, 8; cf. Mosiah 24:4-5), who stand as substitutes for "Pharaoh and his people" whom God punishes;, even their children eventually being slain (see Exodus 12:29-30; Alma 25:4, 8). On the opposite side stands "Alma and his brethren" (Mosiah 23:35-37; 24:8, 15) or "Alma and his people" (Mosiah 24:12, 17-18, 20, 23), who recall "Moses and his people" whom the Lord delivers from bondage by leading them "into the wilderness," onto God's path, all preparations having been made the previous night (Exodus 12:1-13, 21-23; and Mosiah 24:18-20). (See David Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible, London: Faber and Faber, 1963, 73.)

     On the other hand, in a source with a decided Lamanite connection, Amulon and his followers are routinely called "Amulonites" (Alma 21:3-4; 23:14; and 24:1, 28-29). In one passage, one finds the phrase "the people of Amulon" (Alma 21:2), which seems to designate this group before it became well established. [S. Kent Brown, "Marriage and Treaty in the Book of Mormon" in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, p. 17]