This lesson focuses on a large portion of the mission of the sons of King Mosiah. We see from Mosiah 27-28 that after their miraculous conversion, the sons of Mosiah sought to redeem themselves by preaching the gospel and seeking to restore those they led away from the fold, back to Christ. After preaching to the Nephites, they sought to preach to the Lamanites that dwelt in the land of Nephi. The Lord promised King Mosiah to preserve his sons and bring them much success in their labor.
“Men of a Sound Understanding”
Fourteen years after beginning their mission, Alma came across them as they returned home. It was a great reunion for all of them. We are told,
“Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God. But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God” (Alma 17:2-3).This is an oft quoted scripture in LDS Sunday Schools for discussing the importance of scripture study, fasting and prayer. However, while we note it frequently, perhaps we do not liken it unto ourselves or ponder enough regarding it.
We get a chain of causation that occurs here. We find out that they “waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth.” This occurred because they were “men of a sound understanding.” What does it mean to have sound understanding? The word “sound” means “reliable”, “competent”, “reasonable”, “sensible”. Their perspective of things were reasonable and valid. Compare that with who they were in their rebellious period, and we can distinguish between those of sound and unsound understanding. A person can at one time be unsound, but then become enlightened, so that their understanding becomes sensible.
In order to be sensible, or have common sense, they had to expand their knowledge and ability beyond the basic senses, which had earlier led them down unsound paths. They found that the “knowledge of the truth”, and particularly spiritual, did not come from the things of man. A spiritual person’s tools are different than that of an astronomer, but he still requires tools to in order to find the truths of God. He must search the scriptures “diligently.” This means quantity AND quality of study. If we read the scriptures in the same way every time, we will not learn new things from it. To become a gospel scholar requires a pattern of ever getting closer to the roots of not just the story-line, but each word. A child may enjoy the war stories in the Book of Mormon, but the true student seeks to understand the teachings on as many valid levels as one can. You do not just skim rocks across the ocean of spiritual knowledge. You must plumb the depths to fully understand the doctrines of the gospel.
For example, it is proper to teach a child that tithing means one dime out of a dollar. But to continually teach only that concept to an adult is to skim across the water, never broaching the deeper waters. But what if a person were to approach tithing from various angles? How does tithing relate to the Law of Consecration? What is the relationship between the Atonement of Christ and paying tithes? If tithing is a Terrestrial Law, why are we only commanded to live it right now?
For us to become sound in our understanding, requires pondering and prayer. It means we must break down chapters into verses, and verses into phrases. We must ask why a certain word or phrase was used in a certain instance. Do we truly understand what the writer was trying to convey, or are we only applying it to our own personal need?
It seems that revelation and prophecy are the outcome for much prayer and fasting. For LDS, we fast as a Church once per month, in order to provide for the poor and needy. However, it seems that Ammon and his brethren fasted much more often. They seem to have fasted, in order to gain a better understanding of the scriptures and truth. Fasting and prayer seem to have opened their minds to the mysteries of godliness. To accomplish a fast, must a person always do what we would call an “official” fast, where we abstain from all food and drink for 24 hours? Or can we adjust some of our fasts? Is it fasting if we choose to go without a meal once a day for several days? What if one stops eating for a day, but continues to drink water? Is that a fast?
I would suggest that these can indeed be fasts, if they are entered into with prayer and purpose. Moses and Jesus fasted for 40 days (the scriptures do not tell whether they drank water or not). During the month-long spiritual journey called, Ramadan, Muslims eat before dawn and after sun-set, having no food during the day (water is allowed). How many Christians put such effort into fasting and prayer during an entire year? One stake president noted to me once that the Lord always provides answers to him when he fasts for three days straight.
Simply put, why do Christians, and specifically Latter-day Saints, not receive more personal revelation, which leads to a sound mind and a knowledge of the truth? They do not fast and pray intensely and frequently, in conjunction with an in-depth study of the scriptures.
Two Missionary Methods
During their mission, Ammon and his brothers split up to preach to various Lamanite towns. The Lamanites are set up similar to the ancient Mayan society, with vassal kings underneath a sovereign king. Ammon and Aaron visit different areas under vassal kings/brothers. Their methods are different, and so are the outcomes for both.
Ammon came into the land and presented himself to the king. When asked how long he would be staying, Ammon pleased King Lamoni by stating he may stay his entire life among them. Lamoni offered him one of his daughters to wife, perhaps hoping to improve his prestige in having a Nephite son-in-law, or as Brant Gardner notes, to have someone he can use as an outsider from the Mayan customs that restricted the king from directly using his power around other powerful clan members.
Ammon chooses to be a servant of the king, instead. This would allow Ammon to serve and teach, without being hindered by the politics of the royal family. Because of his diligence as a servant, the Lord was able to provide opportunities for Ammon to teach the gospel to those around him, after first prepared their hearts to listen. Ammon would convert the household of Lamoni, and later most of the people in the land of Ishmael.
For Aaron, we find that he directly preaches to the people in their synagogues and homes. He is not the servant, but the teacher. Unfortunately for him, no one asked him to be their teacher. Aaron would spend most of his time arguing with Lamanite priests over doctrine and teachings, with the contention in such debates hardening the hearts of the people. Aaron would convert no one with this method, and find himself cast into prison, along with several other missionaries.
After being released from prison, however, we see that Aaron is a quick learner. In going to see the sovereign King of the Lamanites, Aaron enters and offers to be his servant. Yet, this does not happen, because Ammon has already prepared the way and the heart of the Lamanite king to hear the gospel message.
And so we learn from these two missionaries that there is more success in missionary work, when we first offer ourselves as servants, and then become the teacher when the person’s heart has been prepared to listen to the gospel message.
Present Arms! The ancient Middle Eastern method of counting coup.
What kind of animals did Ammon and the servants of Lamoni watch over? Did you guess sheep? Let’s look at what the scripture actually tells us:
“Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites….Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon…” (Alma 17:25-27).
Nowhere does the story specify the kind of animal it was, but only calls them “flocks”. Anciently, there is no evidence of sheep being domesticated by Mesoamericans. Ancient Mayans did have flocks of turkeys and perhaps of deer, so it may be the flocks are very different from the famous Arnold Friberg painting of Ammon and the flocks (with sheep). Again, for us to gain a sound understanding of the scriptures, we have to not question the scriptural text, but our interpretation of it, to ensure we are not adding to it things that may not be correct.
There are many morbid jokes that go along with Ammon defending the flocks by cutting the arms off of the attackers. “Do you need a hand?”, “The servants grabbed an armful”, “Ammon beat a handful of attackers”, etc.
We can perhaps imagine him cutting off those arms, but why would the servants of Lamoni then gather up the arms and take them to the king? Wouldn’t such seem odd, and out of place in such a story? It might, if there wasn’t evidence of this being an ancient Middle Eastern custom!
In 1918, World War I was raging. The war spread over much of the Middle East, where General George Allenby was in charge of the British army, battling in a region known as Megiddo. The enemy was holed up in a very secure location, and would be difficult to defeat by any normal methods. However, General Allenby was an avid student of archaeology, and had read an ancient papyri regarding Pharaoh Thutmose III fighting a battle in the same area 3500 years before and in similar circumstances. Thutmose chose a daring attack up a steep ravine, believing it would not be well guarded. Thutmose III described his victory in a papyri entitled, the Battle of Megiddo. General Allenby easily conquered his German and Arab enemies by following Thutmose’s strategy.
What does this have to do with Ammon and severed hands being brought to Lamoni? In winning his victory, Thutmose noted that his men brought spoils to him, which included the following:
“Then were captured their horses, their chariots of gold and silver were made spoil, their champions lay stretched out like fishes on the ground. The victorious army of his majesty went around counting their portions. Behold, there was captured the tent of that wretched foe [in] which was [his] son [ … ]. The whole army made jubilee, giving praise to Amon for the victory which he had granted to his son on [this day, giving praise] to his majesty, exalting his victories. They brought up the booty which they had taken, consisting of hands, of living prisoners, of horses, chariots of gold and silver…. 340 living prisoners; 83 hands; 2,041 mares; 191 foals; 6 stallions; a chariot, wrought with gold, its pole of gold, belonging to that foe; a beautiful chariot, wrought with gold, belonging to the chief of [Megiddo]”
Here, the soldiers collected 83 hands to present to the Pharaoh, as evidence of the number slain among the enemy. Lamoni’s servants brought the hands as evidence of a great battle, as well.
Equally interesting is the Egyptian army “giving praise to Amon (the main Egyptian god) for the victory he had granted to his son (Pharaoh).” In the Book of Mormon, we find Lamoni and his servants praising Ammon as “Rabbanah” (great king) and “Great Spirit” (God). Incidentally, Egyptian hieroglyphics were not understood at the time the Book of Mormon was written. In fact, in 1829 when Joseph Smith translated the golden plates to English, the French scholar Champollion was just beginning to learn how to understand and translate Egyptian characters.
So, to have the Book of Mormon contain an ancient story that resembles the Battle of Megiddo with particulars such as cut off hands as a method of official counting of dead, and praising Amon/Ammon, is highly unlikely as a “coincidence.”
The Conversions of Lamoni and His Father as an endowment
Lamoni and his father, the sovereign king of the Lamanites in the land of Nephi, have similar conversion stories. A prophet/missionary comes to them, offering to be a servant. Both have a remarkable experience that causes them to want to hear the message these prophets give. For both Lamoni and his father, it is Ammon’s example that causes both to want to know more. While Ammon converts the land of Ishmael, in the case of Lamoni’s father, Ammon’s elder brother, Aaron, symbolizes Ammon as servant-messenger and hears from him.
As we learn in the temples today, both kings learn the gospel from the Creation and the time of Adam, through the prophets and apostles, until they come to their own time (Alma 18, 22) . The rebellion of Laman and Lemuel represents the fall of the Lamanites from the fullness of the gospel, with the redemption of Christ and the prophetic message representing a restoration to those who are caught in the anguish of the temporal and spiritual deaths awaiting all mankind. Both kings are convinced of their own sin, and the need to be purified in Christ.
Both have similar conversions:
“And it came to pass that after he had said all these things, and expounded them to the king (Lamoni), that the king believed all his words.
And he began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people.
And now, when he had said this, he fell unto the earth, as if he were dead” (Alma 18:40-42).
“ And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the (sovereign) king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.
But Aaron said unto him: If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest.
And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying: O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day. And now when the king had said these words, he was struck as if he were dead” (Alma 22:15-18).
Once taught everything concerning the Creation, the Fall, the Redemption, and the future gifts of God, both kings bowed and prayed fervently for their own sins. In praying for their sins, both fell down, as if they were dead. We can presume they were at least in a coma, if not having passed into the Spirit World in a Near Death Experience (NDE, cf Alma 36). In falling into a form of death, both passed through the veil of life, and into the realm of the spirits.
We do not learn much of what the sovereign king of the Lamanites experienced, but know that when he stood again, he immediately ministered to his entire house until they were converted. However, with Lamoni, we do get a more detailed experience. As both kings are dead, their queens become very involved in the events going on. Imagine being the wife of Lamoni, when he raised up, the first words he would speak:
“ And it came to pass that he arose, according to the words of Ammon; and as he arose, he stretched forth his hand unto the woman, and said: Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou.
For as sure as thou livest, behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth, and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name. Now, when he had said these words, his heart was swollen within him, and he sunk again with joy; and the queen also sunk down, being overpowered by the Spirit.” (Alma 18:12-13).
Joseph Spencer has blogged on the experiences of the queen and Abish in this account, and I highly recommend a close reading.
Here, Lamoni sees (as did Nephi) that Christ would be born of a woman, and blesses his wife for also being a woman like Mary. Then, in passing through the veil, the worldly king sees the heavenly king, Jesus Christ. With this experience, Lamoni, his wife, his servants, and Ammon all pass beyond the veil, “being overpowered by the Spirit.” They have returned back into the Lord’s presence.
As we can see, there is a lot going on in these few chapters. In truth, this blog post has just scratched the surface. Hopefully it has given some new insights in reading these events.
For all people seeking spiritual truth, we can follow the pattern given here: first, seek and study the gospel truths. Second, pray intensely to know the truth. In doing this, we must be ready, even as the Lamanite King, to give up our worldly kingdom, power, and wealth, in order to be redeemed and know God. We were told in Alma 17 that Ammon and his brethren were men of “sound understanding”, knowing the truth, filled with prophecy and revelation, and spoke with power and authority of God. We see how intense searching can bring people, not only to belief and repentance, but to experience the presence of God and His redemptive grace.
As the LDS apostle, Elder Bruce R. McConkie once wrote:
“We have yet to gain that full knowledge and understanding of the doctrines of salvation and the mysteries of the kingdom that were possessed by many of the ancient Saints. O that we knew what Enoch and his people knew! Or that we had the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, as did certain of the Jaredites and Nephites! How can we ever gain these added truths until we believe in full what the Lord has already given us in the Book of Mormon, in the Doctrine and Covenants, and in the inspired changes made by Joseph Smith in the Bible? ….
“We have yet to attain that degree of obedience and personal righteousness which will give us faith like the ancients: faith to multiply miracles, move mountains, and put at defiance the armies of nations; faith to quench the violence of fire, divide seas and stop the mouths of lions; faith to break every band and to stand in the presence of God. Faith comes in degrees. Until we gain faith to heal the sick, how can we ever expect to move mountains and divide seas?
“We have yet to receive such an outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord in our lives that we shall all see eye to eye in all things, that every man will esteem his brother as himself, that there will be no poor among us, and that all men seeing our good works will be led to glorify our Father who is in heaven. Until we live the law of tithing how can we expect to live the law of consecration? As long as we disagree as to the simple and easy doctrines of salvation, how can we ever have unity on the complex and endless truths yet to be revealed?
“We have yet to perfect our souls, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, and to walk in the light as God is in the light, so that if this were a day of translation we would be prepared to join Enoch and his city in heavenly realms. How many among us are now prepared to entertain angels, to see the face of the Lord, to go where God and Christ are and be like them?” (Bruce R. McConkie, “This Final Glorious Gospel Dispensation,” Ensign, Apr. 1980, 21).
Brant Gardner discusses how Ammon’s story fits in with the ancient Mayan political structure, and actually makes better sense when placed in a Mayan setting: http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2004-fair-conference/2004-the-case-for-historicity-discerning-the-book-of-mormons-production-culture
The Battle of Megiddo: http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/the_battle_of_megiddo.htm
Joseph Spencer awesome articles on Abish and the Queen, and how to understand their conversion story in conjunction with the Book of Mormon: http://whatjoesworkingon.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/a-series-of-posts-on-abish-at-fmh/
Bruce R. McConkie, “This Final Glorious Gospel Dispensation,” Ensign, Apr. 1980: http://www.lds.org/ensign/1980/04/this-final-glorious-gospel-dispensation?lang=eng