Alma 13:3-5

Beginning with v. 3, Alma 13 gets very complex. Mind-bogglingly, annoyingly, tear-your-hair-out-in-frustration-with-Book-of-Mormon-grammar complex. Elements introduced in v. 3 keep popping up all throughout v. 3-8, but in different grammatical positions and in company with different concepts. It’s just really hard to keep track of what Alma is doing here.

(Which raises the question: why? Why is Alma struggling so much to make his point? We have a lot of his other sermons, and he’s a very clear, careful speaker. He’s not usually like this. Could it be because he’s speaking off the cuff, responding to Antionah’s unexpected question? But if so, why doesn’t he clean it up when transcribes it into his record? Maybe Amulek was off to the side taking down shorthand, and we’re getting the exact words? Or does the complexity come from the topic itself? Why is Alma 13 so darn difficult?)

I spent most of my time simply trudging through the language, figuring out the basic topography of Alma’s argument. This post will mostly try to hammer out the confusion and it will focus primarily on v. 3, since that’s the most dense verse of these three. So: onward!

At the end of v. 2, Alma had said that “those priests were ordained … in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.” At the beginning of v. 3, he promises to elucidate: “and this is the manner after which they were ordained.” He plans to outline for us exactly what this important typological “manner” is. From there, he launches into the dense, thick language that fills v. 3-7. By v. 8, he realizes that his audience desperately needs some clarification, so he says:

“Now they were ordained after this manner–being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and taking upon them the high priesthood of the holy order.” (v. 8)

For the reader who wants to know what this manner of ordination amounts to, v. 8 is the key. Alma says that it contains three elements:

1. Called
2. Ordained
3. Took upon them the priesthood

And from those clues, we can retroactively schematize some of the confusion of v. 3-7:

v. 3-5 = about the calling
v. 6 = about the ordination
v. 7 = about the priesthood more generally

So v. 3-5, then, are about the “calling” element of the manner of ordination. With that broad structure on the table, we can dive into some particulars, beginning with the first half of verse 3:

“And this is the manner after which they were ordained–being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works.”

Our problems begin with the word “being.” Rather than saying that “they were called and prepared,” he uses the gerund “being.” Part of the complexity of v. 3-7 is that it’s littered with gerunds, and that strings the reader along in a really confusing way. It sounds like he intends all of this to be parenthetical, like he’s trying to get to a different point, he just never gets there. (Perhaps we ought to read the end of v. 9 as an expression of frustration! “And thus it is! Amen!”) The main clause for v. 3 doesn’t come until over halfway through the verse: “they … are called with a holy calling.” So v. 3 is about the priests’ calling, as we anticipated from the clues in v. 8.

I actually don’t want to spend too much time trying to dig out the first half of v. 3, because I think Alma is going to distance himself from these ideas in a certain way. Notice how every single phrase in this first half has a corresponding parallel later in the verse:

“Being called” // “called with a holy calling”
“[The priests were] prepared” // “[The calling was] prepared with … a preparatory redemption”
“Foundation of the world” // (delayed until v. 7)
“According to the foreknowledge of God” // “according to a preparatory redemption”
“Foreknowledge of God” // (delayed until v. 7)
“Exceeding faith” // “exercising exceedingly great faith”
“Good works” // “left to choose good or evil … they having chosen good”

From this, I get the sense that, after saying the first half of v. 3, Alma realizes that he’s not being entirely accurate, and so he begins to flesh out and clarify each of these elements. For example, notice how v. 3 opens by describing the priests as “being called and prepared.” But Alma never again says that the priests were prepared; any time he talks about preparation later, he’s always talking about their calling (v. 3), or about redemption (v. 3), or about the Only Begotten Son (v. 5). He realized that it was inaccurate to say the priests were prepared, and corrected himself.

I think it’s best to read the first half of v. 3 loosely, as simply introducing the concepts upon which Alma will elaborate for the next several verses. Every single one of these first elements gets used again, gets clarified, re-contextualized, and developed.

So now on to some particulars:

“From the foundation of the world” (v. 3)

This phrase appears twenty-two times in the Book of Mormon, always referring to the atonement or the plan of redemption (see, for example, Alma 12:25, 30). We never get any indication of exactly when “the foundation of the world” is. I personally choose to read it as referring to the time of Adam and Eve, because that’s the foundation of human history as we know it (our “world”) and both the plan of redemption and the atonement are developed in response to Adam and Eve’s behavior in the Garden.

At the very least, we have an indication that the priesthood order was established in conjunction with the plan of redemption, and that it is integral to that plan.

“According to the foreknowledge of God” (v. 3)

This is a tricky phrase. Mormons love to use this to point to preexistence and foreordination, but I don’t think that’s how it should be read. I think this is an instance of Alma not being clear, and needing to elucidate later on. Notice how he abandons this phrase until v. 7, where he says that God prepared “this high priesthood … according of his foreknowledge of all things.” If we read v. 3 without the clarification from v. 7, it sounds like Alma is saying that priests’ particular calling/preparation is according to God’s foreknowledge (particular people are called as priests because God foreknew that they’d be righteous, or something). But v. 7 indicates that he meant to be more general–the priesthood is what’s established according to God’s foreknowledge. God’s foreknowledge, in this case, meant knowing that priesthood would be integral to the plan of redemption, so he set it up in the beginning, ahead of time.

“On account of their exceeding faith and good works” (v. 3)

I’m struck by the way this parallels Alma 12:30, where “God conversed with men … according to their faith and repentance and their holy works.” The picture I’m getting is that the priesthood is an earthly institution that mirrors the pattern of God’s communication with us. God sends angels to communicate with men, letting them know about the plan of redemption. God also ordains priests to serve a similar function–they’re messengers, but this time teach commandments rather than the plan of redemption. The priesthood order is an organization that’s patterned after what God is doing with angels.

What’s interesting about this, too, is that priests play a sort of double role. If they’re parallel to the angels in their capacity as God’s messengers, they’re also still human. The priests here parallel the men in 12:30 who exercise “faith and … holy works.” Priests are liminal figures–part of mankind, but also part of the heavenly council. Like the angels, priests are those who can cross between realms.

“In the first place being left to choose good or evil” (v. 3)

With this, Alma launches into the second half of v. 3; he begins his clarifications. The first thing he wants to clarify is how these priests could perform their “good works.”

This idea of being “left to choose” echoes Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it also connects up with Alma 12:31, where mankind is left in a “state to act … whether to do evil or to do good.” These priests are clearly in the situation of mortality introduced by Adam and Eve’s fall.

“That holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.” (v. 3)

First: what do we mean by a “preparatory redemption?” I see two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) options, the first based on how Alma uses these words elsewhere, and the second based on their own internal logic.

1) “Preparatory redemption” refers to the plan of redemption

That is, the priesthood was put in place at the same time as the plan of redemption, implying that the priesthood is an integral part of that plan–it’s crucial to helping mankind return to God’s presence.

In its favor, this reading obviously resonates with the phrase “from the foundation of the world” earlier in v. 3. In addition, “redemption” for Alma always refers to God’s plan.

What complicates this is the word “preparatory.” It shows up only four times in the entire Book of Mormon, always in Alma’s writings, and its very first instance is in this discourse–Alma 12:26. Alma always uses it to refer to mortality, more or less equivalent to the other common expression, “probationary state.” In this verse, it sounds like Alma is combining two of his unique vocabulary terms–“preparatory” and “redemption”–and it just ends up being a little bit awkward.

On this reading, “preparatory redemption” simply means “the plan of redemption,” but it’s labeled as “preparatory” because the plan of redemption is how mankind is prepared to enter God’s rest. The redemption is how what Alma previously called a “probationary state” can be seen as “preparatory”; it’s the how of preparing mankind.

2) “Preparatory redemption” refers to some sort of ordinance

That is, it refers to something that prefigures eventual redemption; it offers redemption of a sort, but only in a preparatory way.

This reading is supported by the fact that we’re talking about priests, here, and priests play a role in performing ritual.

For example, we might consider the example of sin offerings in the Hebrew Bible. By offering a sacrificial animal, an individual/community’s guilt was cleansed, and they were redeemed. Another example might be our sacrament–we’re told that, as we renew our baptismal covenants, our sins are washed away again. It functions as a preparatory redemption–we’re redeemed in part, as a prefiguration of our eventual, final redemption.

The logic, then, works similar to our own endowment, but I’m really hesitant to suggest that Alma actually has our endowment–or even anything close to it–in mind. He certainly might. It’s a possibility. But this can also be explained by other redemptive rituals/ordinances that we have concrete biblical examples of, and I’m too much of a bibliophile to want to look elsewhere. 🙂

I really like both possibilities, and I think both give us a lot to think about with priesthood. I’m particularly struck by the implications of Possibility #1–that the priesthood was established right alongside the plan of redemption, as a crucial component of it. The plan cannot move forward without priesthood.

“And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren. Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren;” (v. 4-5a)

In terms of complexity, v. 4-5a  seem pretty straightforward. Alma is here explaining more about why some are called as priests and others are not.

“Thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared” (v. 5b)

Just two brief notes on v. 5. First, on structure: Alma wants to clarify two things about this calling: it was a) prepared from the foundation of the world, and b) in and through the atonement.

“Prepared from the foundation of the world” echoes v. 3, reminding us that he didn’t actually mean to say that people were prepared, but that the calling of priest was what was. This lets us know that the priesthood isn’t necessarily a local phenomenon, but that a particular calling within it is. That is, if we want to call the priesthood “the power of God,” that’s not at all threatened by Alma 13. God’s power didn’t originate with the foundation of the world, only a particular calling did. (Of course, that’s a little unfair to Alma, who is using “from the foundation of the world” to emphasize the timelessness of the priesthood calling; cf. v. 7.)

Of course, among all this talk of the calling, Alma hasn’t yet explained what the calling amounts to; that clarification appears in v. 1 and 6: these priests are called to teach the commandments. That’s it. Not run the church, administer ordinances, heal the sick, perform miracles, or anything we associate with priesthood today. For Alma, priesthood was primarily about teaching commandments. I imagine that part of this comes from Abinadi, who we know was extremely formative for Alma’s father (Alma the Elder). Abinadi roundly criticizes Noah’s priests for not teaching the commandments according to the Law of Moses (see Mosiah 12:27-39; 13:11-26; 16:14-15). Furthermore, when Alma consciously performs his own priestly duty, it manifests as a preaching circuit to call people to repentance (see Alma 4:20; 5:44; 6:8; 8:4).

So much for Alma’s understanding of “calling.” The second half of his elucidation of this “manner after which they were ordained” (v. 3) will come in v. 6-9.



Filed under Alma 13

8 responses to “Alma 13:3-5

  1. I’m just barely into your post, but I wanted to at least get this short comment up this morning.

    I like how you used verse 8 to find a structure in verses 3-7. That was very helpful, and it makes sense of his return to explaining the “manner.”

    And I’ve also wondered why Alma gets so dense and complex here. Does it perform something rhetorically? How does it accomplish what he wants for this particular audience? We have a group who told him from the outset that he wasn’t an authority over them. How does getting really detailed and hard-to-follow here help or hinder his teaching to this group? Does it force them to slow down and pay attention? Is he drawing out this part to make it longer so it has more effect?

    Now, on to verses 3-5 specifically.

  2. General thought: As I’m reading through your work (great work Kim! Thanks so much!) I’m also noticing how the verb tenses change often. “were” “are” “have been” – all of this adds to the confusion of who and when and even what is being talked about! And as you mentioned, the gerunds make it feel free-floating too.


    1) “At the very least, we have an indication that the priesthood order was established in conjunction with the plan of redemption, and that it is integral to that plan.” I like it.

    2) “preparatory redemption for such” — in the context of Alma 13, I think I like reading this as simply “the redemption which was prepared” or the “prepared redemption.” Alma’s first point, then, is that there was a way prepared for redemption (this point answering Antionah’s argument from chapter 12), and then the second point is that the priesthood was an integral part of that plan, as you put it. The emphasis in “preparatory redemption” is simply that there was a plan from the beginning for redemption.

    Now, why the “for such”? He is saying that redemption is for those who choose good, I suppose? (The other reading of “preparatory redemption” of course might mean this “for such” would be read as “for the priests.”)

    The second possible reading of “preparatory redemption” that you lay out – that is, as an ordinance for the priests – seems less likely now that you have pointed out that God’s foreknowledge, etc., is probably talking about the priesthood generally rather than a specific person’s future. It seems, at the moment, that we need to pick between two paths. Either we are generally talking about the plan of redemption, and so the preparatory redemption refers to the plan, or, we are talking about the priests here, and so the preparatory redemption just refers to them. I’m favoring the first.

    Your examples of cleansing rituals are definitely one way to understand the words “preparatory redemption,” and likely would have been the direction I would have gone with the phrase alone. But in context, I think your first reading — as the redemption that was prepared — works better.

    (And I’m still ok with Alma having some sort of Endowment. 🙂 But what I mean by that is the specific, careful, sacred stuff that, as Brigham says, lets us pass by the angels. Just that stuff. I think our Endowment adds context that helps us, but that context is not necessary, as I understand it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Alma didn’t have any of that. I just mean the basic, sacred stuff. That seems to be something prepared from the foundation to me. But, I also wouldn’t be surprised if that’s something that Alma and others didn’t talk or write about about openly. So, I tend to assume that prophets have those ideas in their mind b/c they’ve experienced them, but, I’m okay if we don’t try to look for those ideas in Alma, because I also assume that prophets probably aren’t going to be talking openly about them.)

    3) This part of verse 4 stuck out to me: “while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds.” First, “Spirit of God.” If we were talking about the pre-mortal existence, why would it be the Spirit that would be rejected? Wouldn’t it be God Himself? Of course, we could look at the word “would” to suggest that once they got to earth they would reject the Spirit. I almost feel like it should be “would have rejected” if that is the case; some are not called to the priesthood from the beginning b/c they “would have” rejected the Spirit. ? I like the reading better that the priesthood was what was foreseen from the foundation of the world, not individual futures; I’m just noticing the complexities here were we to read it that other way. Second, I noticed the parallel language between the priests being called “on account” of good works, faith, etc., and others rejecting the Spirit “on account” of hardness of heart. Notice that this second group wasn’t rejected from the priesthood b/c of their hardness, but that they themselves rejected the Spirit. The point, I assume, is that God didn’t foreclose the possibility or predestine them to not have the priesthood. But rhetorically, the parallel with the priests is a bit awkward, then. God calls the priests to the priesthood because of their faith, but it isn’t that God doesn’t call others because of their unfaith. (Did that make sense? I think it’s interesting to use the “on account” to set up a parallel, and then not have the two parts exactly parallel.)

    4) I agree with you that Alma seems to see priesthood as primarily a question of teaching. No doubt, as you’ve pointed out, the Nephites lived the Law of Moses and so saw priests as having a ritual responsibility as well. But here in this discourse, priesthood is primarily and foundationally a question of teaching commandments. And I liked your point about Abinadi’s influence. (And, of course, we could play with the idea that the Law of Moses was seen as a way to teach about Christ, so even performing rituals was a way of fulfilling the responsibility to teach.)

    Thanks, Kim! You’ve certainly set me up well for the next post when we get to that point.

  3. I finally checked Skousen’s critical text project for Alma 13:1-5. The only thing I saw worth noting was that in verse 5, near the end, it originally read “which was prepared” rather than “who was prepared.” The which is ambiguous; it could refer to Christ or the Plan of Redemption.

    It was changed by Joseph Smith in his 1837 editing,

  4. Thanks for your responses, Karen! Sorry I’ve taken so long in replying. Sheesh. I can’t seem to get anything done quickly around here!

    Regarding the “preparatory redemption,” I also like Option #1 better. I want to offer a slight push-back to your comment, though, although it’s only a small one: I don’t think we can gloss it as “prepared redemption;” there’s a big difference between “prepared redemption” and “preparatory redemption,” and I think Alma chose the adjective for a reason. It’s not that the redemption is prepared, but that it prepares others, I think. That’s a distinction I don’t want to lose sight of. But, as I said, that’s a little thing.

    Like you, I found it really interesting that v. 3 ended with “for such.” I think the plainest grammatical meaning is that it refers to the priests, but I’m not quite certain what that implies. This morning I realized that v. 5 also uses the phrase “for such,” and in a roughly parallel construction; both verses talk about a “holy calling” that is “prepared.” The difference is that v. 3 makes it sounds like the “for such” is connected with “preparatory redemption,” while in v. 5 “for such” is connected with the “holy calling.” There’s a chance that v. 3 was intended to be read the same way as v. 5. I think I’m leaning in that direction, but it renders v. 3 just a little bit awkward, too. What do you think? I really can’t make up my mind about it.

    I’m glad you had comments on the Spirit in v. 4, too. The way you talked about it reminded me of receiving/rejecting messengers. In this case, the Spirit functions as a messenger, and because the unfaithful won’t receive the Spirit, they’re not admitted into the larger order/logic of messengers generally. If you can’t receive this messenger, you’re not prepared to be part of that council. Maybe?

    And thanks so much for checking Skousen! I was going to ask you to do that, but then I forgot. I’ll be curious to see what he says as we go forward, too.

  5. About your question of why Alma 13 is so difficult to work with:

    Do we want to play around with the idea that Mormon is doing some editorial work here? Some parts of Alma 13 seem to feel like parenthetical asides or footnotes. Could it be that Mormon has lots of discourses by Alma, and he’s adding in phrases from other of Alma’s discourses that didn’t make it into his record, in hopes to capture the whole of Alma’s thought on the subject of priesthood? What do you think?

    This is what made me think of that. Some scholars have found verse 16 so awkwardly positioned that they think it was supposed to be earlier in the chapter, but Mormon messed up and put it where it is (he forgot earlier and just added it when he remembered, etc.). I see the point, and of course we’ll get to that particular question when we get there, but seeing how much verse 16 steps back from the story made me ask questions about editing generally. It could be that 16 is out of place, or, that it was like that in Alma’s discourse, or, as a third option, it could be that Mormon is adding clarification so that the story of Melchizedek fits in with what Alma has been saying so far. That idea made me think about the possibility that Mormon is trying to clarify by adding extra notes to Alma’s work (perhaps taken from Alma himself, even), and that’s why it loses the flow that we see elsewhere in Alma’s discourses.

    A fun idea, anyway. 🙂

    • It is a fun idea, Karen!

      But I really, really hope it isn’t true. That’s just a little too much “fun” for me. Ha! Then we’d have to add more complexity to what’s going on! 🙂

      I guess I have two responses, one obvious, and the other useless:
      1.) We have no way of knowing
      2.) To me, it just doesn’t sound like Mormon. It doesn’t feel like his editorial work. We’d expect him to do some clarifying. Or to throw in some “thus we see” conclusions. And he does have precedent for including discourses wholesale elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, especially regarding Alma. And the phenomenon with v. 16 I think is probably evidence of wholesale copying; it doesn’t make enough sense to me as an editorial imposition.

      So I suspect it’s not likely that there’s much of Mormon’s hand in this. But it does raise another question, then: amidst all this confusion, why doesn’t Mormon step in to offer some clarification? Is he as confused as we are? Or did he have enough familiarity with Nephite priesthood theology to understand what Alma was trying to say?

      Stated another way: if we don’t see Mormon’s editorial presence positively, we can certainly see its absence–he doesn’t cut Alma off after chapter 12. He sees enough importance in this part to let it keep going.

      So, in sum: I really hope Mormon wasn’t adding clarifying notes to Alma, because as far as I can tell, he failed miserably!

  6. Yes, that was the implied joke in what I was saying — whoa, if Mormon is “clarifying” the text he failed miserably! 🙂

    I think it is a good question to ask why he doesn’t clarify more. Or maybe he trimmed down Alma’s other discourses, but didn’t trim this one down? Or maybe, of course, like we’ve already said, this could just be a topic Alma is more nervous about so he is searching for a way to explain things carefully.

    Joe sees Moroni 7 as a direct commentary on what is our Alma 13. That may me think that by Mormon’s time, there may have been some standard ways of explaining Priesthood, and so perhaps Mormon feels like that interpretation needs to be clearer in Alma than it already is. Is that making sense? Sometimes I see some of Joseph Smith’s edits to the Bible that way. By adding a few words to Paul, it brings out an answer about doctrine though it makes Paul’s actual discourse harder to understand.

    All fun possibilities. But, honestly, I think we are making good progress on Alma 13 and by the end, I’m guessing we’ll stop asking why it’s so difficult and we’ll finally see what Alma is up to. 🙂

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