A Mormon Homily for Rosh Hashanah

Leshana Tova Tikoseiv Vesichoseim Le’Alter LeChaim Tovim U’Leshalom — “May you be inscribed and sealed for a Good Year and for a Good and Peaceful Life”

On this Rosh Hashanah, I stumbled across this old post that I wrote five years ago at ABEV and sentimentally brushed it up for renewed reflection.

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The sons of mothers and fathers who prostrated themselves before a hostile army to be slaughtered at will for their religious beliefs (Alma 24:21) knew that there were worse things in this world than dying firm in their faith — for instance, breaking a solemn covenant to God (Alma 24:16) or, even worse, actually being one of the butchers before being “stung for the murders which they had committed” and joining up with those offering their necks to the sword (Alma 24:24-25; Alma 25:14). The sons and daughters of the latter inherited perhaps an even greater sense of humility from their mothers whose husbands had committed such atrocities and then repented, joining the Anti-Nephi-Lehis in “vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives” (Alma 24:18).

Theodicy rears its head in any study of Helaman’s army of 2,000 sons of those same Anti-Nephi-Lehis who had made the covenant to bury their weapons of war and “suffer death in the most aggravating and distressing manner which could be inflicted by their brethren, before they would take the sword or cimeter to smite them” (Alma 27:29). This episode of the Book of Mormon contains a profound homily on deliverance fitting for Rosh Hashanah.

I thank John W. Welch for the insight that Helaman’s decoy mission with his army of 2,000 Anti-Nephi-Lehis (Alma 56:30) occured during the High Holy Days of the Hebrew liturgical year (the High Holy Days are the first ten days of the seventh month, culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on the tenth day) — Helaman notes that the famous battle in which none of the 2,000 soldiers were killed took place on the third day of the seventh month (Alma 56:42). In fact, this means that the Lamanite army that had been in possession of the city Antiparah, which was the strongest Lamanite army in the occupying force (Alma 56:34), was in hot pursuit of Helaman’s little band (Alma 56:38) on the first day of the seventh month. The first day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:24) is the Biblical “day of blowing the horn” (Numbers 29:1) that is now known as the two-day Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “Day of Judgment” or “Day of Remembrance”.

Reflecting on the Rosh Hashanah setting of the deliverance of Helaman’s army of 2,000 from their enemies has enriched my understanding of this event.

Mormon, writing as editor of the various records that had come into his possession nearly 500 years after the events he is summarizing relating to this scene from the history of his people, noted that the Nephites had granted refuge to the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, among whom were the parents of Helaman’s 2,000 soldiers. They had also promised to protect them with Nephite armies in exchange for a tribute to cover the costs of such protection so that the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi, whom the Nephites called the people of Ammon, would never find themselves in a situation where they would feel obligated to break their solemn covenant to God to protect their families from Lamanite armies (Alma 27:21-26). Despite this arrangement, about a decade later the people of Ammon began to feel like they should assist in defending against invading Lamanite armies (Alma 53:13). Helaman and the Nephites convinced them not to do so in an effort to assist them in keeping the covenant they had made with God (Alma 53:14-15). Mormon explains, however, that the people of Ammon had many sons “who had not entered into a covenant that they would not take their weapons of war to defend themselves against their enemies; therefore they did assemble themselves together at this time, as many as were able to take up arms, and they called themselves Nephites” (Alma 53:16). Mormon proceeds to give the following well-known description of these sons:

17 And they entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea, to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives; yea, even they covenanted that they never would give up their liberty, but they would fight in all cases to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage.
18 Now behold, there were two thousand of those young men, who entered into this covenant and took their weapons of war to defend their country.
19 And now behold, as they never had hitherto been a disadvantage to the Nephites, they became now at this period of time also a great support; for they took their weapons of war, and they would that Helaman should be their leader.
20 And they were all young men, and they were exceedingly valiant for acourage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all — they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted.
21 Yea, they were men of truth and soberness, for they had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him. (Alma 53:17-21)

Later we find that Mormon’s description here was an accurate summary of Helaman’s own description in his epistle to Captain Moroni, which Mormon chose to include verbatim in the record he was creating on the Golden Plates (Alma 57:20-21; 27).[1]

The righteousness and purity of faith of the 2,000 Ammonites, together with the faith and teachings of their parents, contributed to their famous deliverance. With Helaman the High Priest as their chosen captain (Alma 53:19), the Ammonite soldiers were delivered from the reach of the pursuing Lamanite army on the actual day and night of Rosh Hashanah (Alma 56:38). The Holy Day timeframe of this deliverance is potentially meaningful considering that this Biblical Holy Day became a time to reflect on God’s Judgment and, by rabbinical times, was said to entail the heavenly opening of three books, one for the righteous, one for the wicked, and one for those granted time to repent during the ten High Holy Days preceding Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, therefore, the names of the righteous are recorded directly in the book of life and the righteous are thereby sealed to life. Helaman’s 2,000 soldiers certainly seemed to have been sealed to life on the first day of the seventh month as they outran the Lamanite army from the city of Antiparah.

When they finally faced the Lamanite army on the third day of the seventh month, it was their affirmative decision to do so and not because they had fallen prey to the Lamanite army:

42 But it came to pass that they did not pursue us far before they halted; and it was in the morning of the third day of the seventh month.
43 And now, whether they were overtaken by Antipus we knew not, but I said unto my men: Behold, we know not but they have halted for the purpose that we should come against them, that they might catch us in their snare;
44 Therefore what say ye, my sons, will ye go against them to battle?
45 And now I say unto you, my beloved brother Moroni, that never had I seen so great courage, nay, not amongst all the Nephites.
46 For as I had ever called them my sons (for they were all of them very young) even so they said unto me: Father, behold our God is with us, and he will not suffer that we should fall; then let us go forth; we would not slay our brethren if they would let us alone; therefore let us go, lest they should overpower the army of Antipus. (Alma 56:42-46)

It was up to Helaman to decide whether to take the young soldiers back to where the Lamanites were presumably confronting the Nephite army of Antipus. Helaman reported to Captain Moroni his reasoning for deciding to do so:

47 Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
48 And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.

The outcome is well known among Latter-day Saints, as it is a favorite story of primary children and adults alike. Helaman and his small force discovered that the Lamanites were about to defeat the army of Antipus. “For Antipus had fallen by the sword, and many of his leaders, because of their weariness, which was occasioned by the speed of their march — therefore the men of Antipus, being confused because of the fall of their leaders, began to give way before the Lamanites” (Alma 56:51). Helaman’s army attacked the Lamanites from behind by surprise, halting the Lamanites’ pursuit of Antipus’s army and rousing Antipus’s men to join with Helaman’s soldiers in surrounding and defeating the Lamanites (Alma 56:52-55). Most importantly, however, Helaman reported of his 2,000 soldiers that “there had not one soul of them fallen to the earth; yea, and they had fought as if with the strength of God; yea, never were men known to have fought with such miraculous strength; and with such mighty power did they fall upon the Lamanites, that they did frighten them; and for this cause did the Lamanites deliver themselves up as prisoners of war” (Alma 56:56).

In the aftermath of this battle, Nephite reinforcements arrived, including 60 more Ammonite soldiers for Helaman’s army (Alma 57:6). Once again, they faced a larger Lamanite army and were delivered from death at the hands of their enemies:

19 But behold, my little band of two thousand and sixty fought most desperately; yea, they were firm before the Lamanites, and did administer death unto all those who opposed them.
20 And as the remainder of our army were about to give way before the Lamanites, behold, those two thousand and sixty were firm and undaunted.
21 Yea, and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them; and I did remember the words which they said unto me that their mothers had taught them.
22 And now behold, it was these my sons, and those men who had been selected to convey the prisoners, to whom we owe this great victory; for it was they who did beat the Lamanites; therefore they were driven back to the city of Manti.
23 And we retained our city Cumeni, and were not all destroyed by the sword; nevertheless, we had suffered great loss.
24 And it came to pass that after the Lamanites had fled, I immediately gave orders that my men who had been wounded should be taken from among the dead, and caused that their wounds should be dressed.
25 And it came to pass that there were two hundred, out of my two thousand and sixty, who had fainted because of the loss of blood; nevertheless, according to the goodness of God, and to our great astonishment, and also the joy of our whole army, there was not one soul of them who did perish; yea, and neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds.
26 And now, their preservation was astonishing to our whole army, yea, that they should be spared while there was a thousand of our brethren who were slain. And we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe — that there was a just God, and whosoever did not doubt, that they should be preserved by his marvelous power.
27 Now this was the faith of these of whom I have spoken; they are young, and their minds are firm, and they do put their trust in God continually. (Alma 57:19-27)

In verse 21 Helaman reflects on the fact that the Ammonites’ faith was rooted in what they had said their mothers had taught them. Before Helaman had decided to give the order to rescue the army of Antipus back on the third day of the seventh month, they had told him that “they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them” (Alma 56:47). After telling Helaman what, specifically, their mothers had taught them (which Helaman does not record in detail) they reinforced this salient point by saying to Helaman that “We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 56:48). Helaman’s reaction was perhaps not too different than my own in reading this assertion: when the children of co-religionists who have delivered themselves up to be slaughtered for their beliefs say that they do not doubt that their parents knew that God would deliver them if they did not doubt, their perspective is worth listening to and learning from. This is true even though it is likely that Helaman was aware that the parents of some of his 2,000 soldiers had probably been butchered as a result of their desire to keep the covenant they had made with God.

We might benefit from asking what granted these women a sure knowledge of the deliverance of their sons, and why their sons would believe them. An oft-quoted scripture much earlier in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1:20, might provide a clue:

But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.

We cannot overlook the fact that the mothers of other Nephite soldiers, for instance those in Antipus’s army, were also likely praying for the deliverance of their sons, and yet many of them died. The 2,060 Ammonites, however, represented an exceptional case of unwavering faith and, notably, exact obedience to the commandments of the Lord and the words of Helaman, the prophet/High Priest. They also had come to know that their mothers knew that God would deliver them if they had faith and did not doubt that they would be delivered. It is reasonable to conclude that Helaman reports the remarkable experience and deliverance of his 2,060 soldiers — and Mormon includes it in such detail in the Book of Mormon — as a realized ideal that has the potential of teaching all people that which the Ammonites had learned from their exceptional parents.

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On Rosh Hashanah we hope to be inscribed and sealed up in the Book of Life. Examples of exact obedience like Helaman’s youthful warriors are inspiring in this desire. We all fall short and are allotted a space to repent and become righteous, a grace period symbolized in the ancient Jewish tradition by the ten High Holy Days commencing with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement or Day of Judgment. To add the Christian gloss, “there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead” (Alma 12:24). During this time, we can experience a mighty change of heart so that we begin to “sing the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26), if we open ourselves to this possibility. Through Christ’s grace, we can become righteous so that, for us, the culmination of the High Holy Days is a Day of Atonement — rather than one of Judgment — in which our names are found inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

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[1] It also seems reasonable to guess that Mormon’s description of Helaman’s 2,000 soldiers is not without a trace of envy considering Mormon’s own position as the general of an army that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the righteousness, faith, and courage of the 2,000 Ammonites. Would the Nephite civilization have collapsed in Mormon’s time if the people and their soldiers had shared the characteristics of the 2,000 Ammonites? Earlier, in his parting prophecy an aged Alma the Younger implied that it would not but that such an outcome would be the result of their having become the opposite of what the Ammonites represented:

Behold, I perceive that this very people, the Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them, shall dwindle in unbelief.
11 Yea, and then shall they see wars and pestilences, yea, famines and bloodshed, even until the people of Nephi shall become extinct –
12 Yea, and this because they shall dwindle in unbelief and fall into the works of darkness, and lasciviousness, and all manner of iniquities; yea, I say unto you, that because they shall sin against so great light and knowledge, yea, I say unto you, that from that day, even the fourth generation shall not all pass away before this great iniquity shall come.
13 And when that great day cometh, behold, the time very soon cometh that those who are now, or the seed of those who are now numbered among the people of Nephi, shall no more be numbered among the people of Nephi.
14 But whosoever remaineth, and is not destroyed in that great and dreadful day, shall be numbered among the Lamanites, and shall become like unto them, all, save it be a few who shall be called the disciples of the Lord; and them shall the Lamanites pursue even until they shall become extinct. And now, because of iniquity, this prophecy shall be fulfilled. (Alma 45:10-14)

Compiling the records 400 years after Christ’s visit to his people, Mormon was certainly aware that Alma’s prophecy was fulfilled and realized that his own son Moroni, a disciple of Christ, would be pursued by the Lamanites as part of their (Nehor-inspired?) campaign to kill all disciples of Christ. Although Alma’s prophecy has been fulfilled with regard to the Nephites, there is reason to believe that the curse that he communicated on behalf of the Lord remains in full effect: “Thus saith the Lord God—Cursed shall be the land, yea, this land, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, unto destruction, which do wickedly, when they are fully ripe; and as I have said so shall it be; for this is the cursing and the blessing of God upon the land, for the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (Alma 45:16). Whether this curse pertains only to the lands of Central America that were inhabited by the descendants of Lehi or to the entire Western Hemisphere is perhaps somewhat unclear, but it is worth noting the content of this warning nonetheless.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    This is a really interesting reading, John. Thanks. I really know very little about ancient religion in general, and I really liked this idea of a probationary period.

  2. Meldrum the Less says:

    Personally, I’d rather be the ones doing the smiting and getting stung by remorse for many murders, than the ones suffering death in the most aggravating and distressing manner.

    I have wondered why early Mormons did not follow the example of other movements like the Quakers and the Anabaptists (Amish and Mennonite) by adopting a radical and literal approach to New Testament (Matt 5) pacificism. I think the idea was afloat and some of these BoM passages quoted above would resonate with the people in these faiths and provide justification for it. These religious movements appear to me to be further “out there” and more vulnerable to persecution that us. Yet they seem to have survived well enough with less violence inflicted upon them than we had inflicted upon us, at least in the 19th century.

    I inquired of a Mennonite friend what they thought the rest of the world was supposed to do when Hitler invaded Poland, France, etc. Were we to just let him take over the world and enslave us all? This Mennonite friend thought that if enough people had enough faith God would have taken care of Hitler himself.

    Does the current crisis in Syria justify use of force by criteria in these passages or as outlined in the DC? I don’t think so.

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