A few thoughts on Alma 17 (and 18)

The books of Mosiah and Alma have some of the most complex and fascinating narratives in the Book of Mormon. Little nuggets and insights crop up every time I read it. Here are a few, both old and recent, from reading Alma 17-18 a few days ago.

And as Ammon entered the land of Ishmael, the Lamanites took him, and bound him, as was their custom to bind all the Nephites who fell into their hands, and carry them before the king; and thus it was left to the pleasure of the king to slay them, or to retain them in captivity, or to cast them into prison, or to cast them out of his land, according to his will and pleasure.

And thus Ammon was carried before the king who was over the land of Ishmael; and his name was Lamoni; and he was a descendant of Ishamael.

And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people.

And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea, and perhaps until the day I die.

And it came to pass that king Lamoni was much pleased with Ammon, and caused that his bands should be loosed; and he would that Ammon should take one of his daughters to wife. (Alma 17:20-24)

For many years, this passage always bothered me a little. It seemed like a bit of an abrupt change to go from Ammon facing possible death to being offered the king’s daughter in marriage. It was also curious that king Lamoni asked Ammon if he planned to dwell among the Lamanites.

Then about 20 years ago, while teaching the Book of Mormon in Gospel Doctrine class, it struck me. Lamoni knew full well who Ammon was, namely a son of King Mosiah2 and in line for the combined Nephite/Mulekite throne. What’s more, Ammon appears to be the oldest son — see Mosiah 27:34 — and thus first in line for succession.

[Note that the plebiscite that selects Aaron as Mosiah2‘s successor (Mosiah 29:2) comes after all four sons have publicly apologized and sought to make amends for their actions (Mosiah 27:35) and after they privately announced to their father their intent to to preach to the Lamanites and have abdicated the throne (Mosiah 28:1-10). It may well be that Ammon, as the (apparent) oldest of Mosiah2‘s sons, may have been held more responsible by the general population, hence their preference for Aaron. It may also be that Ammon’s abdication was already known publicly — else why the plebiscite at all? — and this was Mosiah2‘s last effort at getting at least one of his sons to accept the throne.]

Given the steady stream of defections from the Nephites to the Lamanites, Lamoni probably knew about the wild antics of Alma2, Ammon and the other sons of Mosiah2; he also probably had heard of Mosiah2‘s dissolution of the Nephite monarchy. He may have concluded that one was related to the other (which to a certain extent it was — see Mosiah 29:9, 13-24) and that Ammon was actually in exile, either voluntary or forced (which, again, to a certain extent he was), hence the question as to whether it was Ammon’s “desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites”.

It also makes the offer of marriage clear: Lamoni is looking for a dynastic link with the Nephite monarchy. If Ammon marries his daughter, then if Ammon comes out of exile (as Lamoni supposes) and somehow regains the Nephite throne, Lamoni will have accomplished by marriage what the Lamanites have been trying to do for centuries by force, namely unite the two kingdoms into one. Even if Ammon himself doesn’t come out of exile, Lamoni could end up with a grandson with a valid claim to the Nephite/Mulekite throne, legitimizing an effort (political and/or military) to put that grandson on that throne.

However, Ammon declines the offer — and by so doing, signs his own death warrant (again, as Lamoni supposes). Without those family bonds to tie Ammon to him, Lamoni probably considers Ammon too much of a loose cannon to have wandering around his court indefinitely. Lamoni likely sees only four (not necessarily exclusive) outcomes, all undesirable:

  1. Ammon returns to Zarahemla with lots of inside information about the Lamanites, giving him an advantage in future conflicts;
  2. Ammon uses the land of Ishmael as a base for a coup against the Nephites to regain the throne, bringing the wrath of the Nephites down upon Lamoni’s kingdom;
  3. Ammon finds a way to usurp Lamoni’s own kingship.
  4. Ammon moves to one of the other Lamanite kingdoms and ends up marrying and/or in power there.

However, if Lamoni kills Ammon outright and without provocation, he is still likely to bring down Mosiah2‘s wrath upon him, exile or not. Since Ammon has offered his service to Lamoni, Lamoni puts Ammon in a position — taking the king’s flocks to the waters of Sebus — where Ammon is likely to be killed by the raiders there, or if he survives, can be (in Lamoni’s eyes) be justifiably put to death as Lamoni has already done with previous groups of servants who failed to protect the flocks.

Ammon, as we all know, survives the situation, and in a spectacular way. Lamoni now is faced with two facts: (1) Ammon appears to be supernaturally gifted in battle and indeed may be a god (the “Great Spirit”) himself; and (2) Ammon almost certainly knows that Lamoni set him up to be killed one way or the other. Hence, Lamoni is terrified of having Ammon come back into his presence and cannot bring himself to speak first when Ammon does so. When Ammon does finally get Lamoni to speak, Lamoni gives Ammon an unconditional offer of “whatsoever thou desirest of me”. Ammon “being wise, yet harmless” merely asks Lamoni to “hearken unto my words”.

And thus begins the preaching of the gospel among the Lamanites. ..bruce..

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