Book of Mormon Notes– How deep can you dig?

2010, February 25

“Book of Mormon: Ammon and the Waters of Sebus” by grego

Book of Mormon: Ammon and the Waters of Sebus

(c) 2008-9

Brant Gardner has written:

“The account of Ammon at the waters of Sebus is both well-known and entirely misunderstood. If we strip the story of its faith-inspiring aspects it becomes nearly nonsensical. Allow me to retell the story in a way that highlights its anomalous aspects.

Ammon, a traditional enemy, volunteers to be a servant for a Lamanite king. Instead of killing or jailing this enemy, the king immediately offers one of his daughters in marriage.

The Lamanite king has an ongoing problem with his flocks at the waters of Sebus. Several times a band of men has scattered the flocks. (See Alma 17:28.) In spite of the repeated scatterings, it never occurs to the king to send armed guards to protect them. He could have done so, because in the aftermath of these events, he suggests that armies could protect Ammon (Alma 18:21). Strangely enough, however, they couldn’t protect the flocks.

Mormon indicates that it is thieves who are after the flocks, but they pick a particularly
difficult target. The text specifically mentions that the flocks “scattered . . . insomuch that they fled many ways” (Alma 17:27).

Ammon suggests that the he and servants round up the flocks. It does not appear that this has ever occurred to anyone before. That they were successful (Alma 17:32) confirms that the so-called thieves did not get anything for their effort. We must assume that other servants could have gathered the flocks. However, they preferred to lose their lives rather than track down the errant animals.

Apparently only after the flocks are scattered do the servants give Ammon the bad news: “Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men.” (Alma 17:28). First the king offers him a daughter, then he sends Ammon into a situation where it is virtually certain he will be executed.

Ammon seems to be the only one to whom it occurred to fight back. Just as the king never supplied armed guards, there is no record of any other servant resisting. None of Ammmon’s companion servants joined in the fight.

In the spiritual aftermath, the king and queen are lying as though dead. When the servant Abish gathers people to see the miracle, several of those who come are relatives of those who scattered the flocks, including the brother of a man who was slain. (Alma 19:21-22) The text doesn’t tell us why the king lives among thieves.

Of course the spiritual message is the same in spite of all of these oddities. However, in a historical document we expect that the actions of the participants in the events would make some kind of sense. This is where the lack of cultural context for this tale becomes dramatically obvious. Everything that we ought to know to fill in these blanks of nonsense is missing. The motivations and reasons are not clearly explained as they would be in a science fiction story that attempted to create an unusual situation. This story is either the result of a very poor writer, or of unexplained cultural context.

Mesoamerican political tensions supply the missing content. Maya kings balanced their own power base against competing lineages. The translated texts tell of some instances that appear to indicate a change in the power balance, with a new lineage assuming the throne and creating a new dynasty. Historian David Drew describes the problem for the Maya kings:

Increasingly recognized today . . . is the likelihood of a constant, dynamic tension
between the ruler, along with the family group, the royal lineage that surrounded him,
and other powerful and long-established lineages within a city state. The centralizing
success of royal dynasties almost certainly obscures the extent to which kings
depended upon and negotiated with other political factions. For each dynasty of the
Classic period had in earlier centuries been merely one among many such
patrilineages or kin-groups. It is impossible to know with any precision how ruling
lines established themselves at the end of the Preclassic period—as war-leaders,
perhaps, or as mediators in local disputes. However they came by their authority,
they could only have maintained it through consent and co-operation, despite the
impression of absolute power that their monuments create. From the eighth century,
at Copán in particular, there is some evidence of the negotiation that must have gone
on behind the scenes. There is little reason to believe that this kind of jostling was not
seen in earlier centuries too. (Drew, David. The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.)

All aspects of the story of Ammon at the waters of Sebus make perfect sense
against the backdrop of a Mesoamerican king struggling with competition from a
powerful rival lineage. Note that when the king is discussing the incident with
Ammon he asks: “tell me by what power ye slew and smote off the arms of my
brethren that scattered my flocks” (Alma 18:20, emphasis added) While it is
possible that the phrase “my brethren” is extremely generic, it would be very unusual
to presume robbers as “brothers” of a King, and equally as unusual to include
anyone outside of the city as one’s “brothers.” These thieves really are “brethren”, and that is the whole reason for the trouble. Now let me retell the story against the backdrop of political tensions with Lamoni’s “brethren.”

Ammon comes before the king and asks to be a servant. Ammon is a Nephite and
therefore not only an outsider but an enemy. The king offers to make him family by
marrying one of his daughters. If Ammon had accepted, he would also have
accepted rule by the new family and therefore be under the king’s control. By
refusing, Ammon continues to be an outsider and therefore potentially uncontrollable.
The king decides to place Ammon in a position where this condition of being outside
the city’s political intrigues might be advantageous. He sends him to water the flocks
at Sebus.

The dumb thieves who don’t get much from their raids are actually getting everything they want. Key to understanding the story is that whatever ruse was employed to allow the fiction that they were robbers, the reality was that they were well-known to the servants and to the king. They were members of the rival lineage who were attempting to alter the balance of power. By scattering the king’s flocks they were embarrassing the king and therefore diminishing his appearance of total control.

Because the rival lineage was sufficiently powerful, the king could not move against
them directly without creating civil war. Therefore, the king could not send armed
guards. If he killed the members of the competing lineage it would break whatever
illusion of cooperation there was and instigate civil disorder. The guards
cannot defend themselves for the same reason that the king could not send

The king could not, however, allow the situation to completely embarrass him.
Therefore the fiction of thievery is either created or allowed to remain. Because something had to be done to restore the king’s honor in the situation, the guards are punished for their “failure.” The king places the failure on the guards and executes them to demonstrate that he is still controlling the situation.

Along comes Ammon, who is an outsider to the political intrigue. Ammon is not a member of either lineage and as an outsider would be unaware of the identities of these “brethren” thieves or the delicate political situation. He is a wildcard in a high stakes game. The king deliberately puts him into a situation where it is possible—even probable—that he will use his sword, where all other servants have held theirs. It is quite possible that the king expected Ammon to do some damage, but ultimately fail to protect the flocks. From the king’s perspective, any damage that Ammon did would improve the king’s standing in the political impasse by gaining more revenge without the political cost–because it was done by an outsider.

When Abish finds many relatives of the robbers as well as the brother of the slain “thief” close by, we have our confirmation that this is a delicate political dance. Only if the family is part of the royal court would so many relatives of outlaws be that close to the home compound of a king. That a family of a thief is that close to the king tells us that the thieves were also that close. The thieves at the waters of Sebus were not from another city. They were not miscreants ostracized from this city. They were of a family that was sufficiently prestigious that it spent time in close proximity to the king. It had to be a competing royal lineage.

This reinterpretation of the events against a Mesoamerican cultural background
creates sense from the near nonsense of the contextless account. Our analysis of
Book of Mormon politics tells us that not only do the structural elements trace more firmly to a Mesoamerican context, but that the Mesoamerican context provides needed information that fills in the gaps between the assumed understanding of the writer and the reader.” (Brant Gardner, a talk given at the 2004 FAIR conference)

grego’s response:

Well, it seems long before Brant Gardner unraveled the great mystery here about the waters of Sebus, I got most of it from watching the video “Ammon, Missionary to the Lamanites”, one video of the “Animated Stories from the Book of Mormon” video series. It seems that Scott Orson Card pretty much “did the work”, long before 2004. Here are some other things to think about, that support this idea:

I think it safe to say that the king would send either his best, or his worst servants on this water-the-flocks mission. He probably sent the worst/ most expendable, which means they weren’t very up there in the social ladder. Besides, it seems that it could mean those who were part of the Laman/ Lemuel group, but who weren’t directly descended from them–perhaps servants, or other minors in the story, or “others”.

Perhaps king Lamoni killed the servants not because they couldn’t fight for him, but because they chose not to (a la “Ammon, Missionary to the Lamanites” says), perhaps not wanting to join sides in this friendly dispute of life and death; and to the king, “not for” = “against”—“you didn’t defend my sheep, but let my enemies take them” = “you’re a traitor, bye-bye”.

Alma 18:3 is interesting, because the king’s servants say “…he cannot be slain by the enemies of the king”—not “*our* enemies”; also, “we know that he is a friend to the king”—showing the loyalty not to the Lamanites or the Ishmaelites or the king’s kingdom or group, but to the leader. Because of this and the previous episodes, it also is clear these are not just ordinary robbers out for a pillage, but the king’s enemies.

Note that this robbery takes place right before the big Lamanite king’s feast:
Alma 20:8 And it came to pass that as Ammon and Lamoni were journeying thither, they met the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land.
9 And behold, the father of Lamoni said unto him: Why did ye not come to the feast on that great day when I made a feast unto my sons, and unto my people?

King Lamoni’s father is the king of all the Lamanites; that puts him in a very good position, and I wonder what family, even if powerful, would dare go against that…? King Lamoni’s brother becomes king (name changed to Anti-Nephi-Lehi) when his father steps down. So, these robbers et. al. would not have to worry just about Lamoni, but his father, too.

Another supporting part in this story is that Lamoni says that the king of Middoni is “a friend unto [Lamoni]”; which means ruling lesser (perhaps like vassal) kings *aren’t* all in the family, and often might even be among non-friends. If Lamoni’s father has sons, where are they all? One becomes king after his father, the other is a king (Lamoni); then what? How come there might be lower non-friendly kings under Lamoni’s father? Think along the lines of a big king and minor kings–vying for position and rank under the big king? Who will “move up” in power? And if that king is Lamoni’s friend, which king isn’t?

Alma 19:20-21
17 …by making known unto the people what had happened among them… therefore she (Abish) ran forth from house to house, making it known unto the people.
18 And they began to assemble themselves together unto the house of the king. And there came a multitude…
19 And now the people began to murmur among themselves; some saying that it was a great evil that had come upon them, or upon the king and his house, because he had suffered that the Nephite should remain in the land.
20 But others rebuked them, saying: The king hath brought this evil upon his house, because he slew his servants who had had their flocks scattered at the waters of Sebus.
21 And they were also rebuked by those men who had stood at the waters of Sebus and scattered the flocks which belonged to the king, for they were angry with Ammon because of the number which he had slain of their brethren at the waters of Sebus, while defending the flocks of the king.
22 Now, one of them, whose brother had been slain with the sword of Ammon, being exceedingly angry with Ammon, drew his sword and went forth that he might let it fall upon Ammon, to slay him; and as he lifted the sword to smite him, behold, he fell dead.

First, Abish doesn’t just tell everyone in the royal compound; in fact, there is no mention of a royal compound, she just “ran forth from house to house, making it known unto the people”.

There are no guards or servants–they’re all on the floor with the king and queen–so what will happen?

Three groups of people complaining are mentioned, the latter two being:
–those who blame the king for killing his servants (their families?), and
–those mad at Ammon for killing the robbers, “their brethren[,] at the waters of Sebus” (their families?).

Ammon killed seven, and wounded many others; and yet, there were still many that escaped unhurt. That’s a lot of enemies to be hanging around.

Alma 19:31 And [Lamoni] immediately, seeing the contention among his people, went forth and began to rebuke them, and to teach them the words which he had heard from the mouth of Ammon; and as many as heard his words believed, and were converted unto the Lord.
32 But there were many among them who would not hear his words; therefore they went their way.

Who were those “many”? I imagine most would have been the competing families, who had little respect for the king and his words.

Alma 20:5 Therefore, if this is the case, I would that ye should go in and see my husband, for he has been laid upon his bed for the space of two days and two nights; and some say that he is not dead, but others say that he is dead and that he stinketh, and that he ought to be placed in the sepulchre; but as for myself, to me he doth not stink.

Here, it seems that there are people up there that are trying to get rid of king Lamoni.
Who thought he stunk and needed to be buried?

And a question:
Alma 20:14 Now the father of Lamoni commanded him that he should slay Ammon with the sword. And he also commanded him that he should not go to the land of Middoni, but that he should return with him to the land of Ishmael.
15 But Lamoni said unto him: I will not slay Ammon, neither will I return to the land of Ishmael, but I go to the land of Middoni that I may release the brethren of Ammon, for I know that they are just men and holy prophets of the true God.

What were they going to do in the land of Ishmael?

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