Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 31

by | Aug. 11, 2004

Sunday School

Richard Dilworth Rust on the Purpose of the War Chapters in the Book of Mormon:

"We are as the army of Helaman . . . "

Why does the Book of Mormon, especially the book of Alma, contain so many accounts of war, and what use are they for us? An initial response to this is that what we sometimes call the "war chapters" have much less to do with war than with deliverance from war or with destruction. Indeed, if we think of the Book of Mormon as containing military history, it is the strangest military history ever written: The largest battle in the first 570 years is covered in a couple of sentences, while conflicts in which no Nephites lost their lives are given pages (see, for example, the sentence-length account in Helaman 4:5 of the Lamanites obtaining possession of all the Nephite lands up to the land Bountiful; see also Alma 62:38, which dismisses a great battle in one sentence).

If we understand that the Book of Mormon was written for our day, then we realize that the material in it regarding war is also for our day. From this perspective, we understand why certain things are emphasized and why some are not (such as the extensive battles mentioned above). Knowing that the book was designed for us, we are challenged to see why the Lord inspired Mormon to include the "war chapters" as essential to our survival in the world today.

Looking through time to our day, the prophet Nephi wrote concerning a war, possibly physical but even more so spiritual, facing saints in the latter days: "I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few; . . . [and] the great mother of abominations did gather together multitudes upon the face of all the earth, among all the nations of the Gentiles, to fight against the Lamb of God. . . . And [the saints] were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory" (1 Nephi 14:12-14).1 He also quotes Isaiah: "All the nations that fight against Zion, and that distress her, shall be as a dream of a night vision" (2 Nephi 27:3).

Speaking recently about this same war, President Benson declared:

I testify that as the forces of evil increase under Lucifer's leadership and as the forces of good increase under the leadership of Jesus Christ, there will be growing battles between the two until the final confrontation. As the issues become clearer and more obvious, all mankind will eventually be required to align themselves either for the kingdom of God or for the kingdom of the devil. As these conflicts rage, either secretly or openly, the righteous will be tested. God's wrath will soon shake the nations of the earth and will be poured out on the wicked without measure. . . . But God will provide strength for the righteous and the means of escape; and eventually and finally truth will triumph.2

If the Book of Mormon is a guide to help us in this conflict, what does it tell us?

While it does not tell us much about matters such as kinds of warriors and battle lines, it does give us, in considerable detail, accounts of the exercise of faith—with the story of the sons of Helaman being a primary example of this. It shows inspired stratagems, the Lord's protection, and the great warrior-prophets' direction. At least on three occasions, the Nephites won when someone (or a whole army) went over the wall of a Lamanite-held city. Each time, it is understood, as in Alma 62:50, that "the Lord had delivered them out of the hands of their enemies." It demonstrates how the Lord protected or helped the few in the face of the enemy's much greater numbers. In the conflict in which the Amlicites joined the Lamanites, emphasis is on them "being as numerous almost, as it were, as the sands of the sea." Nevertheless, we are told "the Nephites being strengthened by the hand of the Lord, having prayed mightily to him that he would deliver them out of the hands of their enemies, therefore the Lord did hear their cries, and did strengthen them, and the Lamanites and the Amlicites did fall before them" (Alma 2:27-28). This pattern of a small group of Nephites overcoming or escaping from an innumerable host is found throughout the book.

For the Lamanites especially, it shows the folly of war and even more the need to leave behind wicked leaders. The pattern is found in Alma 62:29: "All the prisoners of the Lamanites did join the people of Ammon, and did begin to labor exceedingly, tilling the ground, raising all manner of grain, and flocks and herds of every kind."

On the other hand, Alma sees iniquity bringing on the destruction of the people (see, e.g., Alma 4:11). Shown time and again is the relationship between the degree of spiritual righteousness and the vulnerability of the people to warfare. Indeed, in several places success or failure in battle is directly attributed to righteousness or wickedness. In this respect, the promise/curse of the Book of Mormon, which every major prophet in the book repeats, is given special relevance to the audience Moroni is addressing: "This is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God. And it is not until the fulness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off" (Ether 2:10).

In an imperiled world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is designed to prepare God's people for the second coming of the Savior and to warn the rest of the world to repent and to come unto Christ. The Book of Mormon is a distinctive witness to this. So what is the nature of the circumstances prior to the Second Coming? At that day Satan will "rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good" (2 Nephi 28:20). The Lord God shall cause a great division among the people comparable to the later division between the Nephites and the Lamanites in which "the true worshipers of Christ . . . were called Nephites . . .[and] they who rejected the gospel were called Lamanites" (4 Nephi 1:37-38). "The wicked will he destroy; and he will spare his people, yea, even if it so be that he must destroy the wicked by fire" (2 Nephi 30:10).

Who will fight the battles for the "true worshipers of Christ"? Ultimately, God: "I will show unto them that fight against my word and against my people, who are of the house of Israel, that I am God, and that I covenanted with Abraham that I would remember his seed forever" (2 Nephi 29:14).

What, then, does the Book of Mormon do concerning this latter-day warfare? It shows the fundamental nature of the battle and gives hope to the Lord's people. With accounts of the victories of small minorities against overwhelming odds (often with no lives of the righteous being lost) or of escapes from their enemies (as with the people of Lehi, Nephi, Mosiah, Alma the elder, and Limhi), it confirms the truth of President Benson's words to us, "God will provide strength for the righteous and the means of escape."


  1. Italics have been added to scriptures quoted in this chapter.
  2. Ezra Taft Benson, "I Testify,'' Ensign (November 1988): 87.

William J. Hamblin, Stephen D. Ricks, Warfare in the Book of Mormon, 29-32.

Thomas R. Valletta on Moroni and the Title of Liberty:

One of the many examples of Moroni's scriptural foundation in the covenants of God is his experience with the "title of liberty." In response to the dissension of Amalickiah and his proud followers, Captain Moroni followed ancient ritual and "rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children" (Alma 46:12). Hugh Nibley notes parallels of Moroni's action in "The Rule of Battle for the Sons of Light" of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which involves inscribing significant phrases on battle ensigns. This act also is reminiscent of the legendary Iranian Independence Flag of Kawe, which, according to Professor Nibley, involved the hanging of a leather apron upon a pole to rally the forces of liberty ("New Approaches" 92-95). After fastening the title of liberty on the end of a pole and dressing in his armor, Moroni "bowed to the earth, and he prayed mightily unto his God for the blessings of liberty to rest upon his brethren, so long as there should a band of Christians remain to possess the land" (Alma 46:13). He then declared, in a pointed reference to their faithfulness in keeping covenants: "Surely God shall not suffer that we, who are despised because we take upon us the name of Christ, shall be trodden down and destroyed, until we bring it upon us by our own transgressions" (v 18).

Moroni then "went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing" and cried aloud, "Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them" (vv 19-20). This rallied the faithful, who "came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments" (v 21).

While twentieth-century readers correctly view this moment as a time of great patriotism, it is important to note that any such feelings of the Nephites were founded in their covenants. The focus in the record is not upon an emotional flagwaving fervor, but upon the necessity of keeping covenants with the Lord in order to be preserved in the land. According to the record, "the covenant which they made," as they "cast their garments at the feet of Moroni," was: "We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression" (v 22).

Hugh Nibley has said "treading on one's garments while making a covenant" follows a "forgotten but peculiar old Jewish rite" ("Freemen" 335- 36), and Terrence Szink has found comparable rites in the ancient world (35- 45). He suggests that the oath of the Nephite army described in Alma 46:21- 22, is similar to a number of Near Eastern oaths that have two characteristics. First, they are self-execrative in nature: the party making the covenant or treaty takes upon himself a conditional curse, swearing that, if he fails to fulfill his part of the agreement, he is willing to endure a specified punishment. Second, they are accompanied by various rites that in some way symbolized the punishment to be inflicted. (36)

One striking example of just such an oath from the Ancient Near East is the "so-called Hittite Soldiers' Oath" located at Boghazkoy in present-day Turkey. Dating back to the second millennium BC, "it contains a series of rituals in which an officer [presumably a priest] presents the participants with an object that, either through its destruction or by its very nature, represents the punishment for breaking the oath or for showing disrespect to the king" (37). Instead of clothing, the Hittite ritual employs wax and mutton fat. In one case they are thrown onto a flame with the explanation: "'Just as this wax melts, and just as the mutton fat dissolves, whoever breaks these oaths [shows disrespect to the king] of the Hatt [land], let [him] melt lik[e wax], let him dissolve like [mutton fat]!' [The me]n declare: 'So be it!'" (36- 7).

In another case the priest throws the wax and mutton fat on the ground and, according to the text: "they trample it under foot and he speaks as follows: 'Whoever breaks these oaths, even so let the Hatti people come and trample that man's town under foot'" (37). Szink's research offers several Biblical examples of oaths taken under circumstances similar to that of Moroni's faithful soldiers (eg Judges 19-21; 1 Sam 11).

The covenant renewal pattern of Captain Moroni's compatriots is more properly understood within the framework of ancient Israelite thought. Nephite social cohesion, like the "unity of the Israelite people and its relationship with God, was founded on covenant, and this covenant was in its original form a purely religious affair" (McCarthy, Old Testament Covenant 23). While most Latter-day Saints are familiar with covenants, few realize that anciently the covenant was the very foundation for government. Moroni's sentiment parallels ancient Israel's view that government was based upon covenants between God and his children, as well as between God's children. When Moroni rallies the forces, it is not to some partisan political cause but to the cause of their covenants with God.

Drawing upon ancient types and shadows, Moroni dramatically compares their current state of affairs with that of their covenantal lineage by declaring: "Behold, we are a remnant of the seed of Jacob; yea, we are a remnant of the seed of Joseph, whose coat was rent by his brethren into many pieces; yea, and now behold, let us remember to keep the commandments of God, or our garments shall be rent by our brethren and we be cast into prison, or be sold, or be slain" (v 23). With the recollection of an old world tradition, Moroni calls out to rally his forces: "Let us preserve our liberty as a remnant of Joseph" (v 24).

The appropriateness of this typology cannot be overstated. Joseph was historical proof that jealously and dissension could lead to bondage, but that faithfulness to covenants with God leads to preservation and liberty. Anciently, Joseph was a symbol of freedom and liberty. Midrashic commentators have considerable to say about the story of Joseph, and particularly his struggles with his brothers. One account has God telling the guilty brothers: "By your lives you sold Joseph into slavery, and therefore you will recite the tale of your own Egyptian bondage until the end of time" (Graves 253).

First-time readers of the Book of Mormon are often surprised at the number of references to "freedom" and "liberty." Actually, "freedom" appears 26 times in Alma, all between chapters 43 and 63. There are only three other direct references in the entire Book of Mormon. The term "liberty" or its derivative appears thirty-three times in these same Alma chapters, more than the rest of the Book of Mormon put together. Concerning the antiquity of these concepts, Hugh Nibley has noted that "the constant recurrence of the word liberty (kherut) in the Dead Sea Scrolls, to say nothing of the Bar Kochba coins, shows that it is entirely in order in Moroni's world" ("Bar- Kochba" 280).

Both "freedom" and "liberty" (Hebrew: deror and hopsi) have their Hebrew roots in emancipation from slavery. As is true of Joseph as an individual and Israel as a nation, freedom and liberty came because of making and keeping covenants with God. At Sinai God set Israel free, based upon obedience to his covenant. God taught Israel that freedom and liberty were not the result of their prowess, but the result of their trusting his power (compare Ex 23:20-25; Deut 5:6-6:2). Likewise, when they least trusted God, they found themselves enslaved by their enemies (eg Lev 26). The Book of Mormon contains the same construct. Moroni realized that freedom came from diligence and giving heed to the word of God, and not from Nephite cunning and military might.

The rent coat plays a particularly significant role in the comparison between Moroni's cause with that of Joseph's. Moroni reminds his people of the words of Jacob when "he saw that a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed" (Alma 46:24). Though this prophecy of Jacob is nowhere recorded in the Bible, support has been documented in several apocryphal stories. One such story, told by the renowned Moslem historian, Muhammad ibn-ibrahim ath-Tha'labi, is particularly relevant:

And when Joseph had made himself known unto them [his brethren] he asked them about his father, saying, "What did my father after [I left]?" They answered, "He lost his eyesight [from weeping]." Then he gave them his garment [qamis, long outer shirt]. According to ad-Dahak that garment was of the weave [pattern, design] of Paradise, and the breath [spirit, odor] of Paradise was in it, so that it never decayed or in any way deteriorated [and that was] a sign [omen]. And Joseph gave them that garment, and it was the very one that had belonged to Abraham, having already had a long history. And he said to them, "Go, take this garment of mine and place it upon the face of my father so he may have sight again, and return [to me] with all your families." And when they had put Egypt behind them and come to Canaan their father Jacob said, "Behold, I perceive the spirit [breath, odor] of Joseph, if you will not think me wandering in my mind and weak-headed from age." [for] he knew that upon all the earth there was no spirit [breath, odor] of Paradise save in that garment alone. And as-Sadi says that Judah said to Joseph, "It was I who took the garment bedaubed with blood to Jacob, and reported to him that the wolf had eaten Joseph; so give me this day thy garment that I might tell him that thou art living, that I might cause him to rejoice now as greatly as I caused him to sorrow then." And Ibn-Abbas says that Judah took the garment and went forth in great haste, panting with the exertion and anxiety . . . and when he brought the garment he laid it upon his face, so that his sight returned to him. And ad- Dahak says that his sight returned after blindness, and his strength after weakness, and youth after age, and joy after sorrow. [Then follows a dialogue between Jacob and the King of Death]. (Nibley An Approach 219-20).

In this account, we not only have the preserved remnant of the garment sent by Joseph to his father to show he was alive, and the torn one mingled with blood which Judah took to his father as evidence of Joseph's death, but we also have a tradition that the one preserved once belonged to Abraham. This peculiar garment had in it the "weave" and "breath" of Paradise. Here is evidence of what might be a symbolic use of garments to represent the covenants of the Lord. Israel traced their covenants with God back to Abraham (Ex 2:24; Lev 26:42; 2 Kgs 13:23; 1 Chron 16:16; Ps 105:9; Acts 3:25; 7:8). In this apocryphal story Joseph's garment, which once belonged to Abraham, is preserved just as the covenant (as well as the covenant people) is preserved through Joseph. The evidence of Paradise in the garment's "weave" and "breath" may reflect the "coats of skins" with which God clothed Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen 3:21).

Another story from the same Moslem source documents the garment's symbolism of the covenant. As Dr. Nibley paraphrases it: "Joseph's brethren bring his torn garment to their father as proof that he is dead, but Jacob after examining the garment ('and there were in the garment of Joseph three marks or tokens when they brought it to his father') declares that the way the cloth is torn shows him that their story is not true" (An Approach 218). Jacob prophesied: "Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself, while the remainder of the seed of Joseph shall perish, even as the remnant of his garment" (Alma 46:24). The rent garment symbolized the covenants of God to preserve a posterity unto Jacob and Joseph. While those of Joseph who reject the covenants through apostasy and dissension shall perish, God will preserve a remnant of the seed of Joseph (compare Ether 13:6). Moroni says it could very well be that "the remnant of the seed of Joseph, which shall perish as his garment, are those who have dissented from us." In fact, he forewarns, "it shall be ourselves if we do not stand fast in the faith of Christ" (Alma 46:27).

Monte S. Nyman, Charles D. Tate, Alma, the Testimony of the Word, 233-239.

John Bytheway on Amalickiah and Alma 46-47:

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