“Encounter in Ammonihah,” Ensign, Apr. 1977, 25
What is it to be blessed?
Why does our loving, powerful Father allow some innocent children and women to suffer an unjust and anguishing death?
Can man obtain God’s power to control the elements and perform miracles? Can man know when and how to use that power?
In what ways do men use and misuse laws in their dealings with each other? In what ways can human civilization keep people from reality and truth? What happens to people living in a world of their own creation when they are confronted with higher realities? What are my own realities?
These questions, typical of some asked today by people contemplating man’s relationship with God and with other men, were also faced by Amulek and Zeezrom, two men living in Ammonihah in 82 B.C. To me, their story suggests some powerful answers. The story is rich. If you have time for only one or the other, read the scriptural account in Alma 8–15 rather than this scant discussion of it.
Amulek and Zeezrom lived in a city with a diverse population. A large portion of the people were descendants of Nephi, Zoram, Sam, Jacob, Joseph, Nephi’s sisters, and others who had separated themselves from the Lamanites five hundred years earlier. (2 Ne. 5:6.) Also living among the Nephites in Ammonihah in 82 B.C. were some of the people of Zarahemla—Mulekites who forty years earlier outnumbered the Nephites and could still be distinguished from them. (Omni 1:19; Mosiah 25:2, 4.) Descendants of the priests of Noah and daughters of the Lamanites were another segment of the population. (Mosiah 25:12.) It is entirely possible that full-blooded Lamanites were also in Ammonihah at this time: missionary work by the sons of Mosiah had instigated friendly relations between some Lamanites and Nephites, and Ammonihah was apparently close to the border between Nephite and Lamanite land. (See Alma 23:18. For location of Ammonihah, see Alma 8:3, 6; Alma 22:28; Alma 25:2.) The diversity of peoples in Ammonihah was great enough that when Amulek introduced himself to Alma, he first identified himself by saying, “I am a Nephite.” (Alma 8:20.)
When Alma came to Ammonihah to preach, apparently some of these diverse peoples were still righteous. (Alma 10:22–23.) But most of the people had abandoned the ways of God to follow leaders who were “after the order and faith of Nehor,” committed to personal gain at the expense of love for fellowmen, for truth, or for God. (Alma 14:16, 18; Alma 10:32; Alma 11:20; Alma 15:15.)
Nehor, who loved costly apparel and riches, had preached ten years earlier that priests and teachers should be supported by the people, and that all mankind would be saved and have eternal life without any need for obedience or repentance. (Alma 1; Alma 15:15.) After his execution for the murder of Gideon, Nehor’s followers went forth preaching false doctrine for the sake of their own riches and honor. (Alma 1:15–16.) Some of those followers, led by Amlici, fought for power over the people; and after their defeat, Amlicite survivors scattered to the wilderness in the area of Ammonihah. (Alma 2; Alma 8:3, 6.)
Presumably for gain of personal riches and power, the people of Ammonihah planned to destroy the liberty of the Nephites. (Alma 8:17.) We are told that this same seeking for riches was evident in the life of Zeezrom (Alma 10:31–32); of Amulek we are told that he was of “no small reputation” and had “acquired much riches.”
Before Amulek met the angel and Alma, he had apparently given little attention to the things of God. When he preached with Alma to the people, he began by identifying himself in the terms they valued. He established his genealogy and then continued:
“And behold, I am also a man of no small reputation among all those who know me; yea, and behold, I have many kindreds and friends, and I have also acquired much riches by the hand of my industry.
“Nevertheless, after all this, I never have known much of the ways of the Lord, and his mysteries and marvelous power. I said I never had known much of these things; but behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power; yea, even in the preservation of the lives of this people.
“Nevertheless, I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know.” (Alma 10:4–6.)
For Amulek, it seems that reputation and riches had become the important realities, the things he knew. (What are my own realities?)
For Zeezrom also, personal gain had become the object of life and the badge of identity. With cunning and skill, he manipulated words and thereby people. His talk clouded reality rather than casting light on it. (See his confrontation with Amulek, Alma 11:26–46, wherein he twists Amulek’s words in an attempt to distort his message.) Debate and argument, for him and for his people, were means not of discovering truth but of exhibiting personal skill. Indeed, truth seemed to be altogether ignored, and debate was only a matter of wits, rules, and trickery—a dangerous game with rich prizes for the winner. (Do we see such game-playing today?)
In such debates, neither Zeezrom nor his associates ignored the just laws established by King Mosiah ten years earlier. (See Mosiah 29.) Rather, they used and misused the laws in order to gain their riches. (Is it easier to deceive oneself and others if it seems to be done according to law?)
“They received their wages according to their employ, therefore, they did stir up the people to riotings, and all manner of disturbances and wickedness, that they might have more employ, that they might get money according to the suits which were brought before them.” (Alma 11:20.)
The people, like the lawyers, knew the law and used their own interpretation of it to suit their purposes. When Alma first tried to teach them, they challenged his jurisdiction over them. They were not so interested in what he had to say as they were in trying to establish that he had no right to say it to them:
“Behold, we know that thou art Alma; and we know that thou art high priest over the church which thou hast established in many parts of the land, according to your tradition; and we are not of thy church, and we do not believe in such foolish traditions.
“And now we know that because we are not of thy church we know that thou hast no power over us; and thou hast delivered up the judgment-seat unto Nephihah; therefore thou art not the chief judge over us.” (Alma 8:11–12.)
When Alma preached in Ammonihah a second time, the people challenged the validity of his testimony because he was only one witness, and their law (based on Mosaic law) required at least two:
“Who art thou? Suppose ye that we shall believe the testimony of one man, although he should preach unto us that the earth should pass away?” (Alma 9:2.)
They were not so interested in knowing whether the earth would pass away as they were in knowing whether the man who warned them did so by their own rules. And if there was a God, they would hold even him to their own understanding of rules:
“Who is God, that sendeth no more authority than one man among his people, to declare unto them the truth of such great and marvelous things?” (Alma 9:6.).
Zeezrom and his people were so occupied with rules and laws of their own interpretation that they had forgotten the principles for which the rules were established—although, as Alma suggested, they could remember if they would. They dealt with absolute truth as though no such thing really existed. (See Alma 9:13–14; Alma 10:25.) They no longer looked beyond their own culture, the world of their own understanding.
Both Amulek and Zeezrom were going about their usual business in the usual way when unexpected confrontations with truth and reality took them beyond Ammonihah—and beyond themselves.
Amulek had his confrontation while “journeying to see a very near kindred”: he met an angel who told him to go home and “feed a prophet of the Lord.” Amulek tells us, “I obeyed the voice of the angel, and returned towards my house.” (Alma 10:7–8.) He met Alma and took him to his home.
Amulek was promised, and believed, that he would be blessed for his obedience. The angel said of Alma, “He shall bless thee and thy house; and the blessing of the Lord shall rest upon thee and thy house.” (Alma 10:7.) That Amulek believed is demonstrated by his words to Alma: “Thou wilt be a blessing unto me and my house.” (Alma 8:20.) We are told that after eating bread at the house of Amulek, Alma “blessed Amulek and his house,” saying, “Amulek, … thou art blessed.” (Alma 8:22, 26.) Later, Amulek testified to the people of Ammonihah, “He hath blessed mine house, he hath blessed me, and my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk; yea, even all my kindred hath he blessed, and the blessing of the Lord hath rested upon us.” (Alma 10:11; all italics in paragraph added.)
Amulek, this blessed man, thereafter lost all his possessions; he was rejected by his friends, his father, and his kindred; he was scorned, smitten, insulted, imprisoned, bitten, spat upon, stripped naked, and given no food or water for many days. These experiences are not what we generally think of as blessings. In what ways was Amulek blessed?
To me, it is blessed to be free of bondage to possessions and peer pressures, to food and comfort.
To me, it is blessed to know truth, to be free from the limitations of ignorance and false perception.
To me, it is blessed to receive power from God, and direction from the Spirit in using it. Amulek received this power and direction after developing enough faith to consecrate himself and all he had to God’s work.
To me, it seems more blessed to temporarily lose friends or family, even by fiery anguish, than to give them a lifetime of deceptive comfort and possibly lose them in eternity.
To me, it is blessed to love as Amulek loved. He loved his neighbors, his kin, and the people of Ammonihah enough to preach repentance to them, even though he knew many would reject him. He loved God enough to trust him. He loved Zeezrom, who helped cause his suffering and loss, enough to go to him immediately when he was asked to help cure him. He loved himself enough to commit himself and all he possessed to the ways of God.
I find Amulek’s blessings great, but not easily come by. They involved effort and sacrifice and pain. So did the Savior’s. And so do ours.
In contemplating the general experience of Amulek, I am stirred by an understanding of other blessings. To me, it is blessed to know a just God who does not intervene every time evil men choose to inflict suffering, so that men can be judged for what they are, not for what they might have become if God hadn’t intervened. Without freedom to be evil, or to be hurt by evil, there would be no freedom (see D&C 93:30); man would be a mere puppet with no identity—a piano to be played upon by God, in the words of my children. (I find it enlightening to read Mosiah 12:17; Mosiah 13:1–7; Mosiah 17:1, 13, 20; and then Alma 8:31; Alma 9:32–34; Alma 14:13, asking, “When does God intervene to prevent evil men from hurting the righteous?”)
Furthermore, I think we are mistaken when we speak of health and wealth and success as unquestionable blessings. For me, the real blessing lies in what we become from our experiences: health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure can bless us. Of course, most of us would prefer to be blessed by health and wealth and success—it usually seems easier that way. But Amulek, hearing reality and truth in the gospel, abandoned the many attractions of “success” and called himself blessed in losing wealth and security to serve man and God. I love Amulek for his commitment to truth in the face of many kinds of personal human pain.
When Amulek began to preach to the people, he was challenged by Zeezrom, one of Ammonihah’s most expert lawyers. (Alma 10:31.) Zeezrom, deaf to Alma’s call to repentance, saw in Amulek an adversary to be used for personal gain. He underestimated Amulek, however, and mistook his true adversary. (See Alma 12:3–6.)
In many ways, the two men came from a common cultural background, one in which riches, success, skill, and wit were very important. Each in the past had neglected the things of God. Each was aware of his observers. Each was debating for what he perceived to be the highest of rewards.
Although the two were well matched in ability and intensity, their resources were different. Zeezrom used a bag of tricks: traps and snares, premature commitments, leading questions, suppositions, omissions, subtly perverted quotes, semantic contradictions, calculated appeals to observers’ emotions. But Amulek responded to trickery with truth. He carefully gave answers that prevented the use Zeezrom intended to make of them—answers that taught his listeners those principles which Amulek wanted to teach them.
The debate ended when Amulek spoke of the resurrection and that final judgment when a man’s guilt will be evident both to himself and to God. Zeezrom, accustomed to deceit and pretense and to living by appearances, was convinced that both Amulek and God knew his very thoughts. He could no longer deceive even himself, and trembled with a knowledge of his guilt.
Unlike Ananias and Sapphira in Jerusalem a century later (see Acts 5), Zeezrom was not rendered lifeless by that knowledge. Neither did he join those neighbors who turned their guilt to anger against their accusers. Instead he repented. He inquired diligently, he confessed, and then he pled with the wicked for the sake of Alma and Amulek and their new converts. But Zeezrom learned he had helped to create a monster he could no longer control—his society:
“And they spit upon him, and cast him out from among them, and also all those who believed in the words which had been spoken by Alma and Amulek; and they cast them out, and sent men to cast stones at them.
“And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire, and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
“And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.” (Alma 14:7–9.)
Like Amulek, Zeezrom became a new man. Unlike Amulek, however, Zeezrom was so harrowed up by guilt that he became very ill. Cast out from Ammonihah, he lay at Sidom scorched with a burning fever, “his mind … exceeding sore because of his iniquities.” (Alma 15:3–5.) He believed in the Redeemer and his atonement and in all the words of Alma and Amulek. (Alma 15:6–9.) He knew that the Savior could heal and redeem him. In faith he sent for Alma and Amulek, who had the authority to heal in the name of Christ. Upon receiving an immediate healing from the Lord, Zeezrom leapt to his feet and walked. After his rebirth was furthered by baptism, he began to preach to the people.
Led by the Holy Spirit, Amulek and Zeezrom had abandoned wealth and pride to become “humble, meek, submissive, patient, full of love and all long-suffering.” (Alma 13:28.) And their conversions were not short-lived: we read of their preaching to the Zoramites eight years later, and Amulek’s words to Zeezrom were still being quoted by Nephite leaders fifty-two years after they were spoken in Ammonihah. (See Alma 31:6 and Hel. 5:10.)
These were not perfect men. But Amulek and Zeezrom, at great cost, made the changes in their lives to which baptism entitles us all. In our present time of profane “realities,” I pray we will, like them, escape our Ammonihahs.