Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book of Mormon Lesson 22 “Have Ye Received His Image in Your Countenances" Alma 5–7

Book of Mormon Lesson 22 “Have Ye Received His Image in Your Countenances"   
Alma 5–7 

Alma 5 

The etymology of Nephihah  and Alma 

Alma has given up the judgment seat as chief judge, handing it over to another faithful Nephite named, Nephihah.  The name Nephihah is likely a name conjugated from two words/names: "Nephi" and "ihah".  That Nephi is logically from the first main Nephite prophet is easy to see.   
According to Matthew Bowen, the name Nephi possibly comes from the Egyptian term "nfr" (in Lehi's time pronounced "NEH fee") meaning "good" or "goodness".  (Note: the Egyptian language was not understood at the time the Book of Mormon was written. That Joseph Smith could "guess" using a name that is tied to Reformed Egyptian such as Nephi, is quite amazing). 

The term "ihah"  is possibly a Nephite converted Hebrew name ending, such as "Jah" or "iah" (Elijah, Jeremiah) which are short for Jehovah.   So, combining the terms, the second chief judge's name would be "The goodness of Jehovah". 

Alma's own name is interesting in regards to archaeology.  For over a century after its publication, unbelievers scoffed that Joseph Smith would use the name "Alma" in the Book of Mormon.  First off, it is a Latin word for "soul".  Secondly, every American knew it was a common name used for women. The scoffing can now end.  The name Alma was found in the mid twentieth century in the Bar Kokhba letters, a series of documents hidden up in the Judean wilderness at the time of the second revolt (known as the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome about 135 AD).  In the letters, a man named Alma was involved in land transactions.  Since then, the name Alma was also found in the 4000 year old Ebla texts, 8 times in 6 documents.  These texts are Semitic (related to Akkadian) and clearly talk of men by that name.   

Here we see two evidences from names in the Book of Mormon where there were no known names available to Joseph Smith to use if such were a fraud.  In fact, there are about 40 names in the Book of Mormon that have since been found to be valid names from the Ancient Near East.  Statistically, that is highly unlikely to ever occur by chance. 

Alma's Discourse in Zarahemla 

Alma understands that Zarahemla has not fared well spiritually.  His preaching will try and reawaken in them the testimony they learned from their fathers.  Perhaps a key word one can use in regards to his discourse is "remember".   It is a concept that is very useful and important in a day when things become dated and old in Internet time.  There was a time when people were amazed at what computers could do for them, and that excitement would linger for more than just a few months until the new cool thing came out.  We have no recollection of history, because there are so many things propelling us quickly into the future without a chance to glance back to see what we have learned (or should have learned).  For example, we have seen what works and doesn't work in marriages and parenting.  We have thousands of years of experience, and many quality studies and books available on such ideas.  This being true, why do so many marriages fail and so many children end up dropping out of school or in prison?  Our current economic collapse and Great Recession occurred from issues that have occurred before in history: land speculation, over-extension of money, artificial bubbles created by government, etc.  So, why did it occur again?  Because people were solely focused on instant and future gains on their returns, rather than studying the past events to avoid major system failure. 

"have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your  fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his  mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye  sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell?" (Alma 5:6). 

For Alma, the system failure was in forgetting the history of King Noah, Amulon, the captivity of Limhi's people, Abinadi, and the Lord liberating his people once they repented and believed on Him once more. 

"Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep  sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of  darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the  everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them" (Alma 5:7). 

In their great punishment of slavery, they awoke to God, who then caused a mighty change of heart in them. With this change, they were then eligible to be rescued.  

"And again I ask, were the bands of death broken, and the chains of hell  which encircled them about, were they loosed? I say unto you, Yea, they  were loosed, and their souls did expand, and they did sing redeeming love. And I say unto you that they are saved" (Alma 5:9). 

Alma explained that Abinadi taught faith in Christ.  Alma's father believed the words of Abinadi, and "according to his faith there was a mighty change wrought in his heart. Behold I say unto you that this is all true" (Alma 5:12). 

As one trained in teaching, I have often looked at the teaching techniques used by different prophet in the scriptures.  Here, Alma uses a technique known as "Asking and Answering".  In asking questions about the past, it forces the listener to review in his/her mind the details and contents of that event.  In discussing several events in this way, Alma is able to tie them all together, and in doing so, show a pattern in the past that can benefit them now: sin leads to captivity and righteousness leads to liberty. 

Once again, in the Book of Mormon, we see the importance of faith - another key point taught by Alma in this discourse.  Without faith, people sin.  Once there is faith, a mighty change of heart may occur.   As with the people of King Benjamin,  

"...we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us; and also, we  know of their surety and truth, because of the Spirit of the Lord  Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts,  that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2). 

Here we see a pattern: when we do not believe enough in Christ to have a mighty change of heart, we drift towards sin, which eventually leads to captivity and destruction.  When we do exercise faith unto repentance, then the Holy Spirit may work the miracle of rebirth within us, making a new person of us.  And so we see Alma teach: 

"And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?" (Alma 5:14). 

In the rebirth of baptism, which Alma the younger clearly taught, we symbolically can imagine putting on a clean white garment. This has connotations (as we will see) with the temple endowment and our own personal theophany (being in the presence of God). Speaking to the sinners of Zarahemla, Alma teaches them that the wicked will have a horrifying experience at the judgment bar of God. They will stand before him in firty clothing, realizing they cannot hide their  filth from Him: 

"... there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified  until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of  whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his  people from their sins. And  now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall  stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness?" (Alma 5:21-22) 

LDS scholar Professor Hugh Nibley explained,  

Being  guilty of the blood and sins of your generation, you may not “have a  place to sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham, with Isaac, and  with Jacob, and also all the holy prophets, whose garments are cleansed  and are spotless, pure and white.” (Alma 5:24.) This is nothing less than the yeshivah, literally “sitting down” in the presence of God.    
Note  that there are two kinds of blood-stained garments here—the one showing  the blood and sins of this world, the other attesting (for Alma  expressly states that “these things testify”)  that Aaron and his sons have completed the sacrifice of the Lamb and  thus cleansed the people of their defilements, and their garments are  white. The blood that washes garments clean is not the blood that  defiles them, just as the serpent that healed the people in the  wilderness was not the serpent that killed. (See Num. 21:9.)

Alma teaches that we can either stain our garments with the sins of the world, or we can be like the temple priests, performing the annual cleansing sacrifice of the temple and the people, which removed spiritual stains from the garments of the priests.   The importance of sitting with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in God's presence is again, as noted in several of my lessons on the Book of Mormon, the most important key to the Book of Mormon. Its purpose is to teach us how to return into the presence of God, to have our own theophany, to experience God and be like him (even as the great Patriarchs are God-like).  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob symbolize the Godhead or Trinity: three divine beings who are one.   To sit down with them is to sit down in council with them, even as Nephi counseled with Lehi as "my father dwelt in a tent" that symbolized their mobile tabernacle or temple of God, and also as Isaiah counseled with the Lord and divine seraphim in Isaiah 6,  

" The names of the wicked shall not be mingled with the names of my people;  For the names of the righteous shall be written in the book of life, and unto them will I grant an inheritance at my right hand" (Alma 5:57-58).  

To sit down in the presence of God at his right hand is to stand with Christ on the right hand of God.  One becomes holy and divine through the atonement of Jesus Christ. 

Alma 7 

To the righteous people of Gideon, Alma does not need to focus on the basics of repentance and faith, and so goes into deeper detail regarding the life and ministry of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. 

"...behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and the Son of God cometh upon the face of the earth. 
And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God" (Alma 7:91-10). 

As with Nephi's vision of the Tree of Life, Alma chooses to begin with Christ's birth  and describe Mary in detail and by name.  For Mormons, we should consider this significant.  While we do not adore Mary to the level of traditional Catholics, we should also give her great works more consideration and appreciation than many Protestant religions do.   LDS believe that God is the father of Jesus Christ in his flesh, and he is.  Perhaps we should note more the involvement of the Holy Ghost  in that occurring, as well. 

The important thing to understand here is that Mary was considered a "precious and chosen vessel" or servant through whom God could perform the greatest miracle of all, the salvation of mankind by God becoming man himself. 

"And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. 
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose  the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him  their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according  to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities" (Alma 7:11-12). 

One thing many Christians do not understand is that the atonement does so much more than just cleanse us from sin and make us holy.  It also allows Jesus to take our pains and sicknesses upon himself.  He can succor us, because he has experienced our pain.  He also can heal us of our mental and emotional anguish. 

This is perhaps one of the key things about the atonement that we overlook.  Many people think that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, the atonement is all completed.  We will all resurrect and all may have our sins washed away is true, but we miss out on how the atonement is an on-going event.  People hurt. Now.  People experience tragedy and pain. Now.   People suffer with drug, alcohol, and sexual addictions now. People are traumatized by war, rape, violence. Now.  People feel lost, lonely, confused, embarrassed, sad, fearful. Now.  

It isn't enough to look back two thousand years and think Jesus did some things for me way back then, and now is quietly watching from his throne.  We need to know that Christ is the one constant in our lives. He actively looks upon us, understanding our pain, because he has already felt it in spades. He can then send down angels, the Holy Ghost, and miracles, to help ease the pain - even to comfort us as we heal.   He is the perfect physician, because he knows exactly what our maladies are, and how to cure them.  Sometimes the cure is quick. Sometimes he gently and carefully heals us so we do not die from the cure.   Often he will send someone to comfort and strengthen.  Always, we can find hope in His eternal promises that he will heal us entirely either now or in the next world, and the rewards we'll receive for having faith through our trials will be one hundred fold. 

Alma discusses the importance of keeping our bodies as temples, clean and holy.  In conjunction with this, he discusses returning into the presence of God, and the holy order of the priesthood (Alma 7:21-25).   Again he encourages them to sit with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the presence of God, having their garments cleansed of all iniquity.  Alma desires that the people of Gideon also have the hope that he instilled in the people of Zarahemla: to have a yeshiva or sitting down with God. 

As Alma asked a lot of questions, I'll end with some as well:    Do we have enough faith to cause a mighty change in our own hearts? Have we been reborn?  Are we ready to enter into the heavenly temple of God with clean garments and sit down with  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Godhead, and be like them? 

Bibliography 

"Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi's Name" by Matthew Bowen:  http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/insights/?vol=22&num=11&id=301 

The name Alma in Bar Kokhba letters and Ebla tablets: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=8&num=1&id=189&cat_id=454 


"The Atonement of Jesus Christ - part 3", Hugh Nibley: http://www.lds.org/ensign/1990/09/the-atonement-of-jesus-christ-part-3 

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