“What does it mean that Alma’s people returned again to Zarahemla?” Ensign, Aug. 1992, 60–61
Donald A. Cazier, Church Educational System coordinator, Athens, Georgia. To better understand this intriguing question and its possible answers, it may be helpful to review the highlights of a confusing period of Nephite history.
The early Nephites lived in the land of Nephi. They eventually became so wicked that the Lord warned Mosiah1 to lead a righteous group of people into the wilderness. They reached Zarahemla in due time and merged with the Mulekite civilization. Zeniff later led a group of Nephites from Zarahemla back to the land of Nephi. By then their homeland was under Lamanite control. The Lamanite king granted them permission to settle there but intended to subjugate the unsuspecting Nephites.
Zeniff was succeeded on the throne by his son Noah, who ordered the death of the prophet Abinadi and drove newly converted Alma and his followers into hiding. Noah was eventually overthrown and executed by his own people. His son Limhi inherited the throne but soon found himself and his people in bondage to the Lamanites.
During Limhi’s reign, a search party from Zarahemla, headed by Ammon, discovered their long-separated brethren. With Ammon’s help, Limhi’s people escaped their captors and rejoined the main Nephite body in Zarahemla. At the same time (about 120 B.C.), Alma and his followers similarly were enslaved by the Lamanites and then freed through divine intervention. They joined Limhi’s people and the other Nephites in Zarahemla, which was now ruled by Mosiah2, Mosiah’s grandson. To celebrate the arrival of the two groups, Mosiah2 assembled his people for a public reading of the records of Zeniff and Alma, “from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time they returned again.” (Mosiah 25:6.)
However, because about eighty years had presumably elapsed since Zeniff’s group left Zarahemla until Alma’s group arrived there, it seems at first glance improbable that Alma could have been part of Zeniff’s original colonizing expedition, especially since Alma was not born until about 173 B.C. (see Mosiah 29:45–46), or some twenty-seven years after the supposed date of Zeniff’s departure. How, then, could Alma be said to have returned to a place he had apparently never been?
Although we may not know how Mormon would have reconciled this apparent inconsistency in the scriptural record, it is possible to identify at least two plausible explanations that are consistent with known facts.
A first possibility is that the phrase “Alma and his brethren” includes the group’s ancestors as well as all who were ever part of the colonization effort. It is likely that Alma would have included in his history some mention of Zeniff’s exodus from Zarahemla, even if he had not been part of it, since Alma was such a meticulous record keeper. (See Mosiah 17:4.) So in that collective sense, the passage poses no problem. We should be no more bothered by such usage than we are by Genesis 48:21, where Jacob assures Joseph, “God shall be with you, and bring you again unto the land of your fathers,” despite the fact that Joseph himself would be long dead by that time, and it would be his posterity who would be brought “again” into a land where they had never been. [Gen. 48:21]
A second possibility is that Alma and other members of his group did originally come from the land of Zarahemla. If the events that Amaleki recorded in the book of Omni are chronological, then Zeniff’s group left during the early years of Benjamin’s reign. Because Limhi’s group returned soon after Benjamin’s death, the time between the two events may have been no longer than the length of Benjamin’s reign.
Benjamin’s son and successor, Mosiah2, presumably the oldest son, began to rule in 124 B.C., “in the thirtieth year of his age.” (Mosiah 6:4.) If Benjamin was no older than thirty when his first son was born, and no younger than nineteen when he became king, his reign—and therefore the absence of the Zeniff-Limhi group—would not have exceeded forty years. Thus, unless Amaleki’s account of Zeniff’s departure in the closing verses of Omni is an afterthought rather than a chronological account, Alma could easily have been part of Zeniff’s group.
Further support for this possibility is seen in the fact that only three time intervals, totaling twenty-six years, are specified from the time of Zeniff’s departure until Limhi’s and Alma’s return. (See Mosiah 10:3; Mosiah 12:1; Mosiah 19:29.) Other events of unspecified duration could easily have fit into another ten to twenty years. Since Alma was fifty-two years old shortly before his escape to Zarahemla, he and some of his associates could well have been part of Zeniff’s “considerable number” (Omni 1:29), including women and children, who originally left the land of Zarahemla to recolonize their homeland. (See Mosiah 7:2; Mosiah 29:46.) Also, the Nephites’ persistent curiosity about the fate of their compatriots suggests a concern for those who may have been living rather than the more academic interest in their descendants one might expect if eighty years had passed since the departure.
It may not be possible to know how Mormon would have responded to the puzzling language of Mosiah 25:6, but with these plausible explanations, we should neither be troubled by the passage nor feel a need to spend excessive amounts of time trying to determine which explanation is the most probable.