Something I have mentioned before is that I believe many members don’t really understand what the Book of Mormon actually says about many things – just like few Christians really understand what the Bible actually says about many things. Much of my perspective on this issue stems from my belief that it is a natural reaction to accept what others say about topics with which we do not feel comfortable claiming to be experts. As long as the explanation we hear sounds good – as long as it makes sense to us – we often take it at face value and don’t examine it closely and critically. This is true especially when the one giving the interpretation is in some position of authority.
This is my first “Common Scriptures in Review” post – something to consider as an alternative reading to what many assume.
When I try to understand a scriptural verse or passage, I always stress first the need to parse what actually is said in the text in order to understand what we can assert as definitive. Only after that initial parsing do I then consider the entire context to see if there are possible implications or interpretations apart from whatever simply is a given. This is important to me, since it is very easy to read into stories things that simply aren’t there – that aren’t supported by the text in and of itself.
For example, in Alma 56:47-48, all we are told is that the Anti-Nephi-Lehite mothers “taught” their sons that “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” From what, we are not told. We only assume it was from physical death in war because of the situation that caused them to relate it to Helaman (war and their preservation in it). In other words, the immediate context surrounding the statement (war) influences the readers to assume this context fully defines what is said. (“You won’t die in war.”) However, given that we are not told from what God would deliver them, it is legitimate to look at the rest of the context and realize that there might be other, more comprehensive, legitimate meanings for “God would deliver them” – that their mothers’ words might have been valid even if some of them had died in battle.
They had been “taught” – not “told”. This might be a one time occurrence as they were leaving home for war, as is the standard assumption. However, it seems like these young men had been “taught” dedication and obedience and exactness all their lives. Individuals might change in an instant, but it is unlikely that an entire group of 2,000+ young men would become ultra-obedient and diligent overnight. It is much more likely that they had been “taught” all their lives that God would deliver them (from anything that might threaten their spiritual, eternal well-being) than that their mothers simply pulled them aside on the way out the door and promised them they wouldn’t be killed in war.
Remember, those mothers had seen many of their friends (and perhaps some fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and husbands) slaughtered by other Lamanites – killed in the act of calling upon God even though they “did not doubt”. Those mothers knew full well that God didn’t always deliver His people from physical death, but they were convinced that He could deliver them from their natural and fallen and sinful and lost state – from spiritual death. (Alma 24:27 – “thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.”)
Alma 53: 20-21 makes it obvious that these young men had been taught all their lives the reward for perfect faithfulness and obedience and dedication – the same reward their own “pioneers” had received, even those who had been killed for their faith and dedication and lack of doubt. I think it’s fairly safe to say, as a parent myself, that their mothers reiterated what they had been taught all their lives as they were heading off to war – that if they did not doubt and obeyed every command with exactness that “God would deliver them”, no matter the physical outcome.
There is another clue that this was not a one-time, war-specific statement. Remember, this was Helaman who was reporting about these young men. He was as close to them as any Nephite – ever. Yet, apparently, he did not know the specifics about what their mothers had taught them until they told him about it in the field of battle. He had been there when the parents had decided to fight; he was the one who had talked them out of it by invoking their sacred promise; he had been chosen as their sons’ military leader because they trusted him as a religious leader. He was intimately involved in the decision of their sons to fight in place of their parents. Perhaps “taught” simply can mean “told” – but I tend to believe that Helaman would have been there for the great send off when all the mothers collectively told all the sons that they would not die in battle – that he would have known about it and not have had to be told after the fact.
Having said all that, I do not discount the idea that the Lord might have promised the parents that He would preserve their sons in battle like He had preserved the sons of Mosiah on their missions – that it was couched in terms of, “You’ve sacrificed enough lives to follow me. I won’t require that you sacrifice your sons.” Even if that really is all it was, that’s enough for me, since it makes it an incredibly powerful story of the rewards of deep and difficult sacrifice and dedication.
Am I saying that this is the correct view of the statement, “God would deliver them”? No; I don’t know that. It might simply have been, “Stay valiant and none of you will be killed.” All I’m saying is that when you parse the text then consider the overall context, there is more than one possible meaning for that phrase (”God would deliver them.”) – and assuming it simply meant “they will not die in battle” actually cheapens what I believe is taught in this story.
Are there other legitimate interpretations of this statement? If we “do not doubt”, will God “deliver” us? If so, how – and from what? How do we reconcile this concept to our recent discussions of doubt and lack of certainty? Are there parallels with this statement that can apply to modern Mormonism in some real and unique way – ways to liken this unto ourselves?