Alma has divested himself of the judgeship to go on a mission of sorts, to his own people, and stir them up in the ways of remembrance. These three chapters were also individual units in the 1830, so let’s look at what they contain.
Alma 5– Preaching at Zarahemla, “according to Alma’s own record” (5:2) which Mormon apparently has in his possession. This discourse ends rather abruptly.
Alma 6– Summary of the aftermath of his preaching at Zarahemla, Alma’s regulating the church, and travel summary to the valley of Gideon.
Alma 7-Preaching at Gideon. This chapter is shorter, more positive, and ends more clearly than the Zarahemla sermon of chapter 5: “And now, may the peace of God rest upon you, and upon your houses and lands, and upon your flocks and herds, and all that you possess, your women and your children, according to your faith and good works, from this time forth and forever. And thus I have spoken. Amen.”
Some notes on Alma 5.
By my count, there are 42 rhetorical questions here. That’s a pretty heavy concentration in a chapter of 62 verses. What purpose do rhetorical questions serve? Why use them in such a high concentratio?
In preaching, Alma reminds them of their divine deliverance from bondage, both physical and spiritual.
- 5:4-6a spiritual bondage
- 5:6b-9 physical bondage
Remembering the good things God has done is both an important theme of the Book of Mormon (see here and here), and also part of the covenant pattern, where it forms part of the “historical prologue.” Being reminded of what God has done for us reminds us of our responsibilities as redeemed disciples in a covenant relationship.
Alma also invokes a good bit of “shepherd” language in Zarahemla. 25x in Alma 5 (esp. 5:37-41), he uses imagery of sheep and a shepherd as well as “the good shepherd” (which in the Bible is only found 2x, both in John 10:11-14, vs Zech 11:17 which speaks of a generic “worthless shepherd.”)
The Old Testament scriptures the Nephites might have had (although how widely they were known or understood will remain unanswerable) certainly refer to sheep and shepherds, both real and metaphorical. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel relate sheep to the people, and the earthly leaders to shepherds (esp. Jer. 23, Eze. 34, Isa 53:6, amont others.)
The metaphor of the “flock,” an everyday feature of Jewish life, pervades the OT (see commentary below; on shepherding imagery in the OT and John, see Nielsen 1999: 76–80). God himself was known as Israel’s Shepherd (e.g., Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Ps. 23:1; 28:9; 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; Isa. 40:11; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:11–31; see Thomson 1955), and his people are the “sheep of his pasture” (e.g., Ps. 74:1; 78:52; 79:13; 95:7; 100:3; Ezek. 34:31). Part of this imagery was also the notion of chief shepherd and assistant shepherds and of hired hands. David, who was a shepherd before he became king, became a prototype of God’s shepherd. Jesus saw himself as embodying the characteristics and expectations attached to this salvation-historical biblical figure as the Good Shepherd par excellence. – Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 462. (Amazon, Logos.)
However, there’s a cultural problem. The Nephites did not share the culture of their originating scriptures, much as we do not. Scripture referred to sheep and shepherds, but as far as we can tell, there were no sheep in the Americas. Either there’s a translation issue going on or sheep in the Americas remain undiscovered.
We’ve often read sheep back in, even when they’re not mentioned, like the story of Ammon and the flocks. We assume those flocks are sheep, but it never actually says so. Depending on where the Book of Mormon took place, there are certainly other kinds of animals that can be penned or herded, that exist in flocks. Although “shepherd” and “sheep” are related in English, in Hebrew “shepherd” means “to tend, to pasture, to protect as a shepherd.” Isa 40:11 (KJV) says “He shall feed (R-‘-H, verbal form) his flock like a shepherd (R-‘-H, noun form).”
In any case, it’s a useful reminder that there are often gaps of culture or knowledge between people and the scriptures they read whether today, or back then. (On which, this is an excellent, accessible, and thought-provoking read.)
- Alma 7:10- The criticitism about this verse is so old that Oliver Cowdery wrote a response “a friend of truth” in The Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in 1835. The charge is that the Book of Mormon claims Jesus was born in Jerusalem, but the Bible says he was born in Bethlehem. As Cowdery pointed out, this is misreading the Book of Mormon, which says Jesus would be born “at Jerusalem [not the city but] the land” of their ancestors. There have been numerous responses since then drawing on ancient Near Eastern texts like the Amarna Letters that speak of the “land of Jerusalem” which included the small villages within in its sphere… like Bethlehem. (Indeed, the Anchor Bible Dictionary article on “Judah” cites these, “Bethlehem existed in the Amarna Age, as ‘a town in the land of Jerusalem’ (EA 290).”) The Dead Sea Scrolls also refer to “the land of Jerusalem” in connection with Jeremiah (4Q385b/4QapocrJerc Frag. 16 Col. i). In any case, for Alma’s people hundreds of years removed from the Near East, specifying a tiny suburb of Jerusalem would be ridiculous. But Jerusalem, they knew.
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