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:
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.