Why did Mormon use so much valuable space on the plates to record military intrigue and battle strategy?
Defending against Evil92901_000_005
The morning was dark and cold, the children were half-asleep, and our reading in the Book of Mormon seemed endless. We were mired somewhere in the last half of the book of Alma and, frankly, we weren’t getting much out of it.
Whenever we got into those detailed accounts of the wars between the Nephites and the Lamanites, our enthusiasm for daily scripture study waned. Mormon’s extensive treatment of the subject of war, though informative and even inspiring at times, just did not seem to apply to us personally. Even in the remote event that our family was charged with planning the defensive strategy against an enemy invasion, of what value would the knowledge of pre-Columbian defenses be in an age of nuclear weapons?
And so, as the sleepy voices droned on, my mind began to wander. Why? Why did Mormon include so much detail about the wars? With all the wonderful spiritual events that must have taken place, why would he use so much valuable space on the plates to record military intrigue and battle strategy?
The day’s reading session finally ended, but my search for an answer had just begun. After a few weeks of research, I learned that others had suggested a number of reasons for the war accounts in the Book of Mormon. Among them were verification of Lehi’s prophecies concerning the conditions for occupying the promised land; 1 warnings about the painful futility of war; 2 provision of a background against which to understand Book of Mormon teachings and messages; 3 and expressions of Mormon’s personal interest in military matters. 4
These explanations were all supported by solid reasoning, yet I wanted something more—something compelling enough to justify Mormon’s devoting nearly one-third of the Book of Mormon to the subject. We know that Mormon’s purpose was not merely to record the events of his day but to sift through hundreds of years of history, preserving only those things that would be of great worth to the people of the latter day. He, like other prophets, had seen our day and knew by revelation what our problems would be. (See Morm. 7:1; Morm. 8:35; 2 Ne. 25:8.) Because the records were so numerous that not even “a hundredth part” of the available writings could be included, Mormon had to be very selective in his abridgment. (Hel. 3:14.) If, under these circumstances, he felt the need to include so many war stories, I felt there must be greater value in them than I had recognized.
And so the question continued to nag at me. It wasn’t until several weeks later that I found what was, for me, a key to the answer I sought. A friend was sharing her concern that perhaps her children would not remain righteous with all the worldly influences around them. “I’m really scared,” she said. “It’s like a war out there.” As she spoke, my mind filled with the unlikely scene of her children lined up on the front lawn in fierce battle against the heavily armed forces of the adversary.
Then it hit me. That was it! This was the war that applied to me—not a war of swords and spears, but the eternal war for my soul and those of my family. Satan is waging an all-out war against truth and righteousness. His forces are everywhere, and we are involved in that war whether we like it or not. The danger is real, and the stakes are high. All around us we see the battle casualties, their lives ruined and their souls scarred. If we expect to avoid becoming casualties ourselves, we desperately need the Lord’s guidance—and there is no better place to find it than in that book of scripture prepared specifically for our day: the Book of Mormon!
In great excitement I opened the book of Alma and began to read the main war chapters again. But this time, instead of skimming through the various battle accounts, I thought of the Lamanites, who were wicked at the time of these battles, as representing the forces of evil, with Satan at their head, and the Nephites, who were generally righteous at that time, representing the Saints of our day, struggling to protect themselves and their families. Suddenly the battlefield was no longer remote in time and place. This battle was my battle! The family under siege was mine!
With this new insight, I found more than one hundred passages in the last twenty chapters of Alma alone that contain useful information about how Satan and his forces operate or that describe inspired strategies for defending ourselves against evil. Seemingly insignificant military details revealed valuable counsel when I simply asked the question “How does this apply to the war against evil today?”
Alma chapter 43 is a good example. The chapter opens with the Lamanites once again attacking the Nephites. Zarahemnah, their shrewd leader, had used apostate Nephites—Amalekites and Zoramites—as his chief captains because they were of “a more wicked and murderous disposition than the Lamanites.” (Alma 43:6.) He wanted them to stir up his people to anger against the Nephites so that he could “usurp great power over them, and also that he might gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage.” (Alma 43:8.) On the other hand, the Nephites did not desire power, but only to preserve their families, their rights, and their freedom to worship. They understood all too well what would happen if they fell into the hands of the opposition.
As the Lamanites came forth to attack, much to their dismay they saw that Moroni had prepared his people with protective armor. (See Alma 43:19–21.) This so frightened them that they withdrew into the wilderness. Moroni then sent spies to watch them and give advance warning of their plans. When the word came that the Lamanites were planning to attack the weaker part of the people in the land of Manti, Moroni sent men to the prophet Alma, seeking the word of the Lord as to how the Nephites could best defend themselves. (See Alma 43:22–23.)
Relying on the Lord’s word, Moroni devised a strategy to head off the Lamanites. Attacking them in both the front and rear, the Nephites initially prevailed in the fierce battle. The Lamanites, however, fought on, spurred by their apostate captains, who would not retreat. (See Alma 43:43–44). The Nephites continued to fight valiantly, but in time the overwhelming numbers of the Lamanites began to wear them down. As the exhausted Nephites were about to flee, Moroni went among them, reminding them of that for which they were fighting. Buoyed up by his inspired words, they turned with renewed determination upon the opposition, crying with one voice unto the Lord for their freedom. (See Alma 43:50.) Once more they were able to stand with power against the opposition, and eventually they emerged triumphant.
On the surface, this chapter seems to be only a historical account of a typical ancient American battle. However, by looking at it also as a “type and shadow” of the eternal war between good and evil, we can glean much to guide our lives today. We see that, similar to enemy forces in Nephite times, Satan and his followers use apostates to lead attacks against the Church today. Zarahemnah’s evil plotting reminds us that Satan’s plan is to usurp power over men and bring them into bondage. Like the Nephites, we must fight this evil, for if Satan is allowed to prevail, our precious rights to life and liberty will be lost.
As the Nephite armies prepared, we prepare for that spiritual battle by putting on “the whole armour of God,” which will enable us to “stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Eph. 6:11.) Satan has a difficult time conquering an individual protected by this armor. Like the opposition leaders, Satan will usually focus his attack on our weakest parts, hoping for a major attack on our souls after our defenses crumble.
Not unlike the Nephite spies, modern prophets and the scriptures can give us advance warning of the plans of the evil one. If we follow the Lord’s counsel through his prophet, as did Moroni, we too can know how, when, and where to best defend ourselves. The gospel gives us the “battle strategy,” and the Church provides the necessary structure for setting up our defenses and defeating the enemy with minimum casualties.
As did the faithful Nephites, we battle not for money or power but to save our families, worship God, and do our duty. The fight is long and tiring, for Satan’s forces are strong, but when the future looks hopeless, we can be rallied by reminders of the cause for which we are fighting. If we unite and turn to the Lord for help, we can prevail against the evils of the world.
This chapter is just a beginning. Other battles offer more insights. For example, when seen as symbolic, the wicked Amalickiah shows us that Satan gains support for his causes by using flattery and promises of power (see Alma 46:5), by using whatever devious means necessary to gain power (see Alma 47), and by not caring whom he hurts in the process (see Alma 49:10). The Lamanite attack on the city of Ammonihah reminds us that, like an enemy army, Satan will quietly try to dig down our defenses when he is not allowed direct access to our hearts. (See Alma 49:22.)
We learn, too, that failure to keep God’s commandments leads to destruction. If we are faithful, we will be delivered not only from political but also from spiritual destruction. (See Alma 50:21–22.) Moroni’s seemingly harsh treatment of dissenters parallels the vigor with which we must overcome even small areas of rebellion in our lives before they gather strength and do real damage. (See Alma 50:25–36; Alma 46:30–35; Alma 51:20.) It is heartening to consider ways in which we may fortify ourselves and our families against the forces of Satan by preparing our homes to defend ourselves against the onslaughts of evil. (See Alma 49:4–12.)
Seeing that Satan will attack our weak spots, we need to be particularly vigilant to prevent him from gaining access to us. (See Alma 49:13–15.) We would be wise to follow Moroni’s defense strategies and never cease our efforts to fortify ourselves, even when the attack does not seem imminent. (See Alma 50:1; Alma 53:7; Alma 62:42.) We gain great hope when we see what protection the two thousand sons of Helaman were afforded because of the faith of their mothers and because of their own exactness in keeping “every word of command.” (Alma 57:21.)
Moroni himself sets an example of the kind of warriors we must be: “strong and … mighty,” with “perfect understanding,” “firm in the faith of Christ,” and willing to “labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety” of our fellowmen. What a strong defense we would then marshal against evil, for “if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would [be] shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.” (Alma 48:11–13, 17.)
The Lord has not left us defenseless against Satan’s powerful forces. Nevertheless, we must search out and obey the counsel he has given us. As Moroni wrote to Pahoran, “Do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?” (Alma 60:21.)
No longer am I tempted to skip the war stories in the Book of Mormon or daydream my way through them. If I am to successfully defend my family in the great war with evil, I want to take advantage of every word of counsel from the Lord’s “combat manual” for the latter days—the Book of Mormon.
R. Douglas Phillips, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, p. 18.
Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988, pp. 291–92.
John W. Welch, “Why Study Warfare in the Book of Mormon?” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William Hamblin, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1990, pp. 3–24.
See Phillips, p. 18, and Nibley, p. 293.