Everything in the Book of Mormon pertaining to doctrine must be read in light of the avowed purpose of the book—to convince all who read it that “JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.” (Title page.) Despite its various authors and extended time-span, the book stands as a unit, a powerful, coherent witness to the divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The unity of the work comes largely from the fact that most of the book was assembled by one man, Mormon, and completed by his son. Moroni knew the importance of his father’s work both because of their relationship and because they received their instructions from the same source: Jesus Christ. (See Morm. 1:15; Ether 12:39.) In that section of the Book of Mormon not edited and organized by Mormon and Moroni (the first 132 pages), four-fifths comes from the hand of Nephi. And Nephi’s teachings seem to permeate the entire work, influencing the writings of later Nephite prophets. As the title page suggests, they preached the doctrine of Christ, which Nephi stated with power and clarity. (See 2 Ne. 31–32.)
This witness of Christ is the doctrinal context of the entire Book of Mormon. To divorce doctrinal passages from this context is to subvert the purpose of the work. This is, of course, a general rule for all scripture. In order to understand the meaning of any passage or verse it must be read in context. Yet too often we collect scriptures as a child collects rocks: they appear to be similar. This popular method of using the scriptures is called “proof-texting”—that is, using a verse or passage to prove a point, or to link a specific topic in one passage to other passages. This method is very useful, of course, but it suffers from over-use. When we limit our study of the scriptures to such a method we may miss important structural signposts that illuminate how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. It is not always possible to detect structural elements by reading the scriptures through chapter by chapter. This method gives us the “plot” sprinkled with a few familiar passages. Searching the scriptures requires more.
Ancient writing is extremely formal. Meaning was conveyed both by the words used and by the way they were presented—remember that few people in past centuries could even read. The structure the author used focused the attention of careful readers on the basic meaning of the passage. Thus, in ancient scripture the context and structure convey much of the intended meaning.
Interpretations of the famous “experiment” in Alma 32 occasionally fall victim to a lack of awareness of context and structure. We frequently see that passage cited simply as a method Alma is using to convert investigators to the gospel. But it seems to me that Alma intended more than that. The whole sermon becomes richer, more exciting—it gains added relevance for members of the Church—when we understand the context and structure of Alma’s words.
To understand the context—and therefore the content—of Alma’s use of the “experiment” we must ask several questions about the sermon as a whole (These questions can be helpful in understanding other passages as well.):
What is the nature of the audience Alma addresses?
What are the major themes of his sermon?
What kinds of imagery and metaphor does he employ to make his meaning clear to his audience?
What is the content of this imagery?
These last two questions are especially important because we might not understand the full import of Alma’s words unless we pay attention to his metaphors.
First, the context of the experiment. Alma chapter 31 describes the situation. Alma and his companions have come to preach the gospel to a group called the Zoramites, who were religious and political dissenters from the Nephites. (Alma 31:1–3.) But this missionary effort had more than one motive behind it. The Nephites feared the Zoramites would stir up the Lamanites against them. Rather than send soldiers, however, Alma went as a missionary because “the preaching of the word had a … more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them.” (Alma 31:5.)
The Zoramites had placed a high stand in their churches, the Rameumptom, from the top of which they offered prayers congratulating themselves on being God’s chosen people. Since they were far more concerned with the outward appearance of a person than with the condition of his soul, they had excluded the poor from their houses of worship. This was more serious for the poor than we might suppose, because the Zoramites apparently believed there was no other way to worship. (See Alma 32:5, 9–11; Alma 33:2.) After the weekly prayers were over, the people would return “to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand.” (Alma 31:23:)
Another evidence that this was no ordinary missionary journey is also found in the thirty-first chapter of Alma. The Zoramites “had had the word of God preached unto them” (Alma 31:8), but they had perverted the truth:
“They would not observe to keep the commandments of God. …
“Neither would they observe the performances of the church, to continue in prayer and supplication to God daily, that they might not enter into temptation.” (Alma 31:9–10.)
Alma, in what sounds much like a dedicatory prayer, reports to the Lord that “their souls are precious” and that “many” of the Zoramites “are our brethren.” (Alma 31:35.) It is clear that Alma’s sermon is directed largely to apostate members of the Church.
Among these people it is primarily the impoverished and dispossessed who listen and respond to Alma’s preaching. One addresses him and asks, in substance, “Behold, what shall [we] do?” (Alma 32:5.) Alma structures his entire sermon to reply to this question. Since these poor have been compelled to be humble, he can teach them. But he tells them it would be much better if they were not compelled, but desired to be humble. (Alma 32:13–16.) In verse 17, [Alma 32:17] Alma brings in a similar theme: many, he says, ask for a sign from heaven so they might “know of a surety.” But faith, born of a desire to believe, is the way to know of a surety. They must exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and, as we shall see, have patience before they can know of a surety. That these principles are the major themes of Alma’s sermon is directly stated by Amulek, who preaches to the poor Zoramites immediately after Alma finishes. Alma, he says, “hath exhorted you unto faith and to patience.” (Alma 34:3.) Thus, to understand what Alma is doing in his “experiment,” we must relate what he says to these two themes.
Alma tells the Zoramites that they cannot know of a surety at once. An assurance comes only through the exercise of faith in those things which are true. (Alma 32:26–27, 21.) And how can they do that? First, they must “awake” and focus their minds on what they want to accomplish. They must be willing to try. In other words, they must exercise enough faith to consider that what Alma is telling them might be true, and they must work on this desire until they are willing to “give place” to his words.
This concept of “giving place” is crucial. It indicates an active concern, a conscious surrender, a willingness to do a bit of changing (indeed, a lot of changing) in one’s life and in one’s priorities. If a person will not “give place,” his attitude will prevent him from developing faith in the Lord.
The experiment itself can be divided into two distinct parts: the “Seed” (Alma 32:28–36), and the “Tree” (Alma 32:37–43). Rather than go through the text verse by verse, we shall touch on the elements and images that most clearly illuminate Alma’s basic themes: how the Zoramites can develop faith in Jesus Christ and how they must be patient until they can know of a surety.
1. Remember what Alma is symbolizing by the “seed”: “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed.” (Alma 32:28; italics added.) “The word” is used here to stand for the “word of God,” or, simply, the gospel. Alma went to the Zoramites thinking that “it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.” (Alma 31:5; see also Alma 32:1, 16, 22–23.)
2. Once we have given place to the word, or the seed, only we can cast it out. We cast it out by lack of faith, by an “unbelief” that comes as a result of resisting “the Spirit of the Lord.” (Alma 32:28.) As most of us know, this can be done either by inattention or by disobedience.
3. The seed will begin to sprout and will produce “discernible” effects. (Alma 32:35.) Every seed “bringeth forth unto its own likeness,” and when that seed is the word of God it brings forth an enlightenment of understanding and an expansion of the mind. (Alma 32:31, 34.) It will also begin “to be delicious” to us. (Alma 32:28.)
4. Alma uses some very unusual descriptive language. In verse 35 he speaks of tasting light. We do not normally talk of tasting light, any more than we speak of feeling words, a description Nephi uses. (1 Ne. 17:45.) But Alma is trying to describe an experience that simply cannot be explained in terms of our usual sensations. The reality of the Spirit’s confirmation passes beyond the bounds of ordinary description: it transcends our everyday world. As we are guided toward a goal we cannot reach on our own, we will be given feelings that we will recognize are not our usual feelings.
In the first section of the experiment Alma repeats his main point several times (repetition is crucial in an oral presentation): The experimenter knows that the seed is good because it has brought forth discernible signs of its goodness. However, this is not a “perfect knowledge,” or knowing “of a surety.” (Alma 32:28–30, 36; see also Alma 32:17, 21.) This is only the beginning of Alma’s answer to the Zoramites’ question, “What shall we do?” They must exercise their faith to the point that they know the goodness of the word of God.
Some of those following the process Alma is describing could run into real difficulty if they were content to stop at this point. When people are willing to commit this much of themselves to the gospel, they begin to have these rather overwhelming experiences Alma has described, feeling things they have never felt before. In their excitement about what is happening to them, they may think they now know “of a surety.” But Alma warns us not to stop here. We must not “lay aside” our faith; “for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.” (Alma 32:26.) The seed has not yet taken root, and falling away is a very real danger at this point. Hurt feelings, unfamiliar doctrines, inconvenient or frightening assignments, and the like may damage tender faith that is not yet firmly rooted. We may discover we’re not as committed as we thought we were, and we may doubt if we’re doing the right thing by investigating the gospel. In other words, we might experience the stirrings of faith, but we’ve not developed patience.
Alma’s experiment continues with what we will call the “tree” section. If we will “nourish” the tree “with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.” (Alma 32:37.) But if we neglect the tree (which seems to mean nourishing it inadequately or haphazardly or not at all) it will not take root and grow. This is not because the seed was not good, nor because the promised fruit is not desirable. Rather, it is because our ground is barren. Notice that the emphasis is constantly on our behavior: “if ye neglect the tree”; “ye pluck it up and cast it out”; “your ground is barren”; “ye will not nourish the tree”; “if ye will not nourish the word”; “ye can never pluck of the fruit.” (Alma 32:38–40; italics added.)
It is in this second section that Alma makes such effective use of ancient Nephite (and Hebrew) symbols and metaphors. In verse 40 Alma expands his image to identify the tree as the “tree of life.” We know that the tree of life is a basic symbol in the Bible, and in the Book of Mormon it has even greater power and clarity, beginning with Lehi’s and Nephi’s great vision of the tree and its fruit.
In Nephi’s account, Lehi describes the fruit of the tree in his vision as being “most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.” (1 Ne. 8:11.) Nephi adds his testimony that “the beauty [of the tree] was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.” It was “the tree which is precious above all.” (1 Ne. 11:8–9.) Later he speaks of “that tree of life, whose fruit is most precious and most desirable above all other fruits; yea, and it is the greatest of all the gifts of God.” (1 Ne. 15:36; see also D&C 14:7.)
Alma’s description of the fruit uses many of these phrases. His words are also similar to New Testament descriptions of Christ, and they might come from the common Hebrew background the Jews and Nephites shared. Alma speaks of the tree as a “tree springing up unto everlasting life.” (Alma 32:41.) We may be more familiar with language in the Bible that speaks of a “well of water,” which symbolizes the word of God, “springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14.) It would seem that Alma is mixing his metaphors. I see it, rather, as a kind of synthesis, and the key is in Nephi’s account of his vision. He speaks of the rod of iron, or word of God, “which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.” (1 Ne. 11:25.) After nearly 600 years such a blending of symbols might have been common.
In verse 42 Alma tells us that the fruit of the carefully nourished tree is “most precious, … sweet above all that is sweet, and … white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure.” His language is strikingly similar to that used by Lehi and Nephi, cited above. But then Alma tells us, “Ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.” (Alma 32:42.) The most familiar context for these phrases occurs in the Gospel of John, and when Christ used them to refer to himself the Jews should have understood what he was talking about. (See John 6:35.) They came from the Old Testament and were part of Jewish scripture, scripture which was probably a part of the Brass Plates the Nephites took with them when they left Jerusalem. (See Isa. 49:9–10; Isa. 55:1–2; Prov. 9:2–5. Compare 1 Ne. 21:10; 2 Ne. 9:50; John 6:25–35; John 7:37–38; also John 4:7–15.)
These images, as we know, refer to Jesus Christ. He is the bread. He is the water. When we eat of this bread and drink of this water we will hunger not, neither shall we thirst. And the tree from which comes the fruit also symbolizes Christ. In Nephi’s vision he is given to know that the tree of life represents the “love of God.” And he is told to “look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world.” (1 Ne. 11:25–27.)
That Alma is focusing his sermon on Jesus Christ (keep in mind the purpose of the Book of Mormon) is made clear in chapter 33. He cites three major witnesses to the divinity of Jesus Christ: Zenos, Zenock, and Moses. He must do this because the Zoramites seem not to understand all he has told them. (Alma 33:1.) The testimony of these prophets is that Jesus is the Christ, and that we must look to Christ to be saved. (See, for example, Alma 33:19.) He says, “Now behold, my brethren, I would ask if ye have read the scriptures? If ye have, how can ye disbelieve on the Son of God?” (Alma 33:14.)
We must turn back and pick up Alma’s second major theme. Those who follow the process Alma describes will not partake of the fruit at once. They must exercise patience. We must nourish the tree by our “faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof”; it is because of our diligence, faith, and patience that the roots will take hold in us; we shall reap the rewards of our faith, diligence, patience, and “long-suffering” when we partake of the fruit of the tree. (Alma 32:41–43; italics added.) “Patience” is a word not used too often in the Book of Mormon, but in this scripture it occupies the place of another very familiar Book of Mormon phrase: “enduring to the end.” We recognize that Alma is saying what Nephi says, what Jacob says, what King Benjamin says, what Mormon later says. And that recognition comes from our own awareness that the gospel doesn’t change, although the means of expression might.
The Zoramites want to “know of a surety.” Alma is telling them that before they can know they must have faith and exercise patience. They cannot pluck the fruit of the tree immediately. This is also his message to us: his experiment describes what our experience inside the Church must be. Each of us must go through Alma’s experiment whether baptized at the age of eight or later. The promises we find throughout all scripture are implicit in his experiment. He is not using those potent images and metaphors lightly.
The summary of the experiment comes not at the end of chapter 32, but at the end of chapter 33. Alma says:
“And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then [keep in mind the patience and long-suffering] may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son.” Then he adds the reference to the original question of the Zoramites: “What shall we do?” “And even all this can ye do if ye will.” (Alma 33:23; italics added.)
The promise implicit in Alma’s experiment is not unique in the least. There are many other references to the same promise. (See 2 Ne. 32:4–6; D&C 88:68; D&C 93:1; see also “The Light of Christ,” President Marion G. Romney, Ensign, May 1977, p. 43.) While Alma does not use the name of Christ as he describes his experiment, his whole sermon focuses on Christ, testifies of Christ, and describes the process through which we might come to believe in him and draw near to him. Both the structure of his sermon and the adroit use he makes of image and metaphor indicate the goal of the experiment. And he reinforces his testimony by citing the witness of earlier prophets who testified of the divinity of Christ.
Alma tells the Zoramites what they must do to know of a surety. And in telling them he tells us as well. His themes resonate and reverberate with the doctrines prophets have preached from the beginning to our own day. We must follow the steps of his experiment if we are to taste of the fruit of the tree of life. If we have patience in our faith, if we endure to the end, we will partake of the “joy of the Son.” The final words of Alma’s sermon speak to us directly: “and even all this can ye do if ye will.” (Alma 33:23; italics added.)