Ever been puzzled by the strange events in Alma 17-19 regarding the Nephite missionary Ammon, the dramatic battle scene at the Waters of Sebus, and the ways of King Lamoni and his people? Why was Lamoni so interested in bringing this Nephite enemy into his family or court? Why couldn’t the powerful Lamanite king deal with the raids of a band of thieves? Why had no armed guards been sent, and why did it not occur to his servants to fight and slay the thieves? Why did Lamoni execute his own servants when the flocks were scattered by these incompetent thieves who scattered rather than stole flocks? And why were family members of the thieves and even some of the thieves themselves hanging around the household of the king afterwards? Weren’t they afraid that they would be recognized and arrested? The story, inspiring as it is, doesn’t make a lot of sense to us given all the gaps that seem to be there.
Interestingly, a knowledge of Mesoamerican culture may help fill in the gaps and make the story more intelligible to us. So argues Brant Gardner in
“The Case for Historicity: Discerning the Book of Mormon’s Production Culture.” I recommend his article for many reasons, but I find the small section on Ammon and the Waters of Sebus especially interesting. Here are some of his thoughts:
Mesoamerican political tensions supply the missing content [in this story]. 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 Cop�n 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.[David Drew, The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 324.]
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 troops.
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.
This is one of those numerous little gems in the Book of Mormon where the text is “smarter” than any nineteenth-century forger could have been. In this case, what might look silly to a reader in 1830 or our day begins to make a lot more sense when we important new knowledge from the ancient world. The possibility of delicate intrigues between rival noble lineages in King Lamoni’s own court and extended family help explain much in Alma 17 and 18. Kudos to Ammon for being a much better wildcard than Lamoni expected, and kudos to Brant Gardner for the Mesoamerican insight.
117 thoughts on “Ammon and the Waters of Sebus: Mesoamerican Culture Fills in Some Book of Mormon Gaps”
One other interesting cultural point is that the "flocks" are never identified as a particular animal. The domesticated animals the spaniards found in Mesoamerica (along with dogs) were the domesticated turkey and the muscovy duck. "Flocks" may indicate a social animal, but one that will scatter. Though we don't know what the "flocks" were, in my mind I see Ammon & coworkers chasing something faster than a modern domesticated turkey but not as fast as a wild turkey either. In any case, it seems that we don't know what animal they were taking care of.
Also keep in mind who Ammon is, and where Lamanite culture is at this point.
Ammon is essentially a prince. Son of King Mosiah. When Lamoni learned this, it may be that he saw an opportunity to create a political alliance with Zarahemla with increased trade.
A rather progressive viewpoint for a “bloodthirsty savage.”
But keep in mind that the Lamanites, by the books of Mosiah and Alma are no longer really savage, or even particularly indolent. Certainly, they aren’t a bunch of violent hunter-gatherers.
By the reign of Mosiah and Noah, the Lamanites had already started to show signs of progressiveness. King Laman appears to have been something of a reformer who united competing factions, and started establishing trade and commerce among the different Lamanite communities – for the first time apparently.
Then you get the infusion of the “wicked priests of King Noah” into Lamanite culture. As much as the Book of Mormon criticizes these wicked priests, their arrival among the Lamanites appears to have sparked a rather extraordinary cultural advance of Lamanite society. Language and writing progressed, history was taught and learned, and probably new religious and political ideas as well. It was for good reason that Laman was so impressed with Amulon.
Basically, the Lamanites are making a rather landmark societal transformation at this time. They are open to new ideas, they are learning new things, they are reinventing themselves politically.
It is this volatile mix that Ammon and his brothers unwittingly walk into. Circumstances couldn’t have been better. Under previous generations of Lamanites, an enlightened and forward-looking king like Lamoni could not have existed.
Lamoni was already looking for new ideas, and new ways of doing things. He envisioned his people making some big advances. Ammon came at the perfect moment and handled himself with enough political shrewdness and restraint (unlike his brothers) that he was able to capitalize on this openness.
No one really pays much attention to the Lamanites as a people when they read the Book of Mormon, but I think the hints of their story present in the Book of Mormon are almost as interesting as that of the Nephites.
Thank you for passing this along!
Jeff: awesome post. Thanks!
Ammon came at the perfect moment and handled himself with enough political shrewdness and restraint (unlike his brothers) that he was able to capitalize on this openness.
I agree that Ammon handled himself admirably, but I’m not convinced that the “openness” was universal. The apostates brought lots of good ideas and progress to the Lamanites, but they were still apostates:
3 Now the Lamanites of themselves were sufficiently hardened, but the Amalekites and the Amulonites were still harder; therefore they did cause the Lamanites that they should harden their hearts, that they should wax strong in wickedness and their abominations.
There is no mention of apostate Nephites anywhere among Lamoni’s people. They are not hanging around Lamoni’s court, they have not asked Lamoni permission to build synagogues, etc. In contrast, Ammon’s brothers basically run into apostates right off the bat, and they’re not exactly interested in honest discourse.
5 Therefore, as Aaron entered into one of their synagogues to preach unto the people, and as he was speaking unto them, behold there arose an Amalekite and began to contend with him, saying: What is that thou hast testified? Hast thou seen an angel? Why do not angels appear unto us? Behold are not this people as good as thy people?
There were perhaps better ways to open up an area than walking into the apostates’ synagogues preaching to them first. On the other hand, sad experience shows that they would have ended up “Bible bashing” with apostates no matter who they tried to teach — those guys would have dropped everything to come and harass.
(those verses are from Alma 21 BTW)
True enough Ryan. I’m probably being too hard on Aaron and co.
I’ve just always found it interesting that while the Book of Mormon is pretty harsh on Amulon, “secular” history probably would have viewed him as an important progressive.
From the Brant Gardner exerpt:
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.
You know, I think Ammon somehow *did* manage to nose out the political situation.
Recall that, after the flocks are scattered the first time he suggests that they gather the flocks back together instead of fighting. Nobody could fault shepherds for gathering their scattered flocks, so that would be a politically neutral action. Then, when the marauders come back to scatter the flocks again, Ammon again keeps the other servants in a neutral position by leaving them to surround the flocks while he — alone — fights a couple dozen aggressors.
“secular” history probably would have viewed [Amulon] as an important progressive.
The apostates definitely brought ideas and progress with them, but it always struck me as a side effect of their real goals. They needed a strong economic structure to get filthy, stinking rich like they wanted to be (by taxation, not their own work, of course), and they needed a strong political structure to be able to unite the Lamanites for their planned conquest of the Nephites. Plus, sharing their knowledge would get them an “in” at every level of society, again giving them the power, praise and prosperity they craved.
They did manage to do a lot of good, in spite of themselves, but it’s difficult to say whether the secular good the apostates brought outweighed the spiritual damage they did.
When you factor in their hostile takeover of the Lamanite government and pouring the nation’s resources into an ultimately futile war of conquest, with ghastly casualty levels, I think their net contribution is definitely negative and the Book of Mormon is rightly harsh.
Just imagine what could have been if they brought only progress without the bad!
“The apostates definitely brought ideas and progress with them, but it always struck me as a side effect of their real goals. They needed a strong economic structure to get filthy, stinking rich like they wanted to be (by taxation, not their own work, of course), and they needed a strong political structure to be able to unite the Lamanites for their planned conquest of the Nephites. Plus, sharing their knowledge would get them an “in” at every level of society, again giving them the power, praise and prosperity they craved.”
Sounds like the economic history of Europe summarized in one neat paragraph.
Here is a video of Gardner discussing this topic at the 2004 FAIR conference.
Sounds like the economic history of Europe summarized in one neat paragraph.
Does the article:
* contain archaeological confirmation for the Nephite missionary Ammon?
* contain geographical confirmation for the Waters of Sebus?
* contain archaeological confirmation for King Lamoni?
I would have found an article on the locations of Mount Doom, Munchkinland, and the town of Bedrock more compelling.
Archaeological confirmations for biblical place names and people go back thousands of years. Can Mormons point to _even one solitary example_ from archaeology for _any_ New World place name or person mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
ARCHAEOLOGY: BIBLICAL ALLY OR ADVERSARY?
by Paul L. Maier
While archaeology is a powerful testimony to the accuracy of the Word of God, the same cannot be said for the Book of Mormon. Not only is there no archaeological
evidence for a language such as “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics,” there is no archaeological support for lands such as the “land of Moron,” which you find in Ether 7:6. Nor is there any archaeological evidence to buttress the notion that Jaredites, Nephites, Lamanites all migrated from Israel to the Americas. On the contrary, both
archaeology and anthropology demonstrate conclusively that the people and places that are
chronicled in the Book of Mormon are little more than the product of a fertile imagination.
To compare Book of Mormon and Bible archeology is to compare apples to oranges. Observe the following from Professor Hamblin:
Answer me the following questions:
1. How can you show that “both
archaeology and anthropology demonstrate conclusively that the people and places that are
chronicled in the Book of Mormon are little more than the product of a fertile imagination”? I would like to see your evidence for this claim. As a matter of fact, I am dying to see it. My salvation even depends on it, does it not? Quick now, time is running short.
2. What is your response to the following on “reformed Egyptian”? http://americantestament.blogspot.com/2008/07/reformed-egyptian.html
3. How does archeology confirm that the biblical narrative contains the Word of God? The Iliad mentions a number of cities and locations that have been confirmed by archeology; should we therefore worship Zeus and the other Greek gods?
Inquiring minds want to know…
There’s no archeological evidence for the Hebrews being held slaves in Egypt, then released en masse. So I guess we need to delete all references to the Exodus, and therefore Moses from the Bible.
Those Egyptians were notorious record-keepers, and there’s just no record at all of the descendents of Jacob/Isaac/Abraham being in Egypt for 400 years.
And since Moses claimed authorship, or is attributed authorship of the first 5 books of the Bible, we need to throw out Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
And Jesus claimed to have fulfilled the law of Moses, and replaced the law of Moses with a higher law. And Jesus claimed to be the “I am” who gave the law to Moses. So if you throw out Moses, then you logically have to count out Jesus of Nazareth too.
Yup, there’s absolutely no archeological evidence that Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt.
By the way, there are 100’s maybe thousands, of pieces or instances of evidence in Latin-America supporting Book of Mormon claims.
Quetzalcoatl, the serpent God. And the legend of the white god who would return. The carving of the tree of life in the mountainside in Peru. The pallisades and forts indicating fortified cities, which weren’t discovered until many years after Joseph Smith was mocked for describing fortified cities. Paintings of two races of people, light and dark skinned. Statues around temples showing men wearing what looks suprisingly like Mormon temple clothes.
There there’s the certain carved stone, I forget what they call it, that by itself has about 100 similarities to things in the Book of Mormon.
Oh, and barley, don’t forget barley. They found a strain of barley in an archeological find that proves they had barley back then. This was after everyone said there was no barley in the Western Hemisphere until Europeans arrived, and that Joseph “got it wrong.” Well, the discovery of ancient barley shows that Joseph “got it right” after all.
So this whole “there’s no archeological evidence” claim is just balderdash. Yes, there is archeological evidence. Not of everything, but bit by bit, it is accumulating.
Then there are the funny names in the Book of Mormon that people thought were made up, because there was no record of them used anywhere in the world. But, then archeological finds in the OLD WORLD show that many of those weird names really ARE Hebrew names.
Then there’s the whole “books on metal plates”, which was unheard of. Then archeological finds in the OLD WORLD discover, ta da….., records on metal plates, stored in stone boxes even.
Then they discovered stone boxes in the Western Hemisphere too.
It just keeps adding up.
Any archaeologist can tell you that the amount of “evidence” that actually survives from ancient civilizations is incredibly small. You only get a fraction of what was actually going on at the time. Most such evidence is either lost or destroyed.
To try to make conclusions based on lack of evidence, particularly in matters of archeology, is completely misguided.
It is quite possible that the entirety of the Book of Mormon civilizations vanished without a trace. It’s happened to other civilizations, and could easily have happened here as well.
Not to mention…
If all it takes for you to accept the Book of Mormon is to find the word “Zarahemla” in some Central American ruin, then you are an incurable moron. Yet that seems to be what you are suggesting. “If only we had some Nephite artifacts, I could buy this story of yours, but alas, there aren’t any and I must believe you are all frauds!”
Really? That’s all it would take to win you over to Mormonism? Just a few corroborating archaeological finds?
Are you really that shallow?
“Nor is there any archaeological evidence to buttress the notion that Jaredites, Nephites, Lamanites all migrated from Israel to the Americas.”
I don’t believe it is claimed that Jaredites came from Israel but from the location of the Tower of Babel.
Funny these guys making statements but not having read or studied the Book of Mormon thoroughly yet.
Archaeological confirmations for biblical place names and people go back thousands of years eg. the Pilate Stone indicates Pontius Pilate [Pontius Pilatus] was the prefect of Judea.
Can Mormons point to _even one solitary example_ from archaeology for _any_ New World place name or person mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
If not, why not?
I posted the following at Mormon Mentality on June 13 (comment #19) but it is applicable here–maybe someone will know where I found it.
At present there is nothing Archaeological that proves the Book Of Mormon. The antis put out that the only things that Archaeology verifies are horses, steel, city names, et. al.; however, it also studies the culture. There are evidences of things Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known, or guessed. I saved the following on March 15, 2008, and in my sloppiness failed to cite the source and author. I “remember” that it was from an article in FAIR, or FARMS (something like that–-I feel like a real dummy):
The Book of Mormon is full of ancient Near Eastern and Mesoamerican cultural details. I will mention one more item in closing because it impressed on me how hard it is to pay attention to subtleties in the book. Recall the incredible story of Ammon teaching King Lamoni. Ammon’s deeds in defending Lamoni’s property gained him audience before this dumbfounded monarch, and Ammon had to break the protracted silence of this meeting by voicing the King’s thoughts, which only deepened the King’s wonderment, and perhaps his fear, all of which led to the following dialog in Alma 18:
24. And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
25. And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.
26. And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
27. And he said, Yea.
28. And Ammon said: This is God. And Ammon said unto him again: Believest thou that this Great Spirit, who is God, created all things which are in heaven and in the earth?
29. And he said: Yea, I believe that he created all things which are in the earth; but I do not know the heavens.
30. And Ammon said unto to him: The heavens is a place where God dwells and all his holy angels.
31. And king Lamoni said: Is it above the earth?
32. And Ammon said: Yea, and he looketh down upon all the children of men ….
We’ve all read or heard this dozens of times. Have you ever thought that this was an incredibly bone-headed question for Lamoni to ask? That thought finally penetrated my thick skull a decade ago. Can you imagine asking a preacher whether the heavens are above the earth? I can’t. This dialog is beyond my cultural understanding. What is going on? I submit to you that the question makes sense in a Mesoamerican setting in which most of the gods resided under the earth. In this brief dialog between a Nephite Prince and a Lamanite King, we are given a precious glimpse into Lamanite beliefs. A small thing, perhaps, but in terms of correspondences, it surpasses Nibley’s famous bulls-eyes in The Book of Mormon and is a lunar landing – a 240,000 mile long-shot that hit the spot perfectly, succinctly, silently, and effortlessly. The Book of Mormon has hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such gems tucked away in its narrative. We wish you happy hunting for other gems and invite you all to read and enjoy the book. It is an ancient book, its history is intriguing, and its message of Christ is true and redeeming.
The same arguments have been used against Biblical Archaeological studies in the past. One thing that makes it easier to find Archaeological evidences for the Bible is the continuous settlement of many of the places, with the same names, so that it is known where to look; another is that that work has been going on for hundreds of years–give Book Of Mormon Archaeology another hundred years and then compare what has been found. Until then comparisons between them can’t fairly be done. It’s similar to comparing Artur Rubinstein’s piano skills at the height of his career, with someone just starting out of college. Rubinstein’s playing had a lot of problems in his 20s and there were a lot of justifiable complaints, which were overcome after years of hard work. When that first find is discovered, a lot of people will have a lot of obligations to fulfill–which now they hope are forever safe from having to be fulfilled. Only time will tell.
“Can Mormons point to _even one solitary example_ from archaeology for _any_ New World place name or person mentioned in the Book of Mormon? Even one. If not, why not?”
As I already mentioned, it doesn’t matter in the first place David.
But as a Mormon, no I can’t.
Firstly, because we don’t know where it happened. The book itself doesn’t say. So we have no clue where to look. Whereas Biblical scholars have known EXACTLY where to look for evidence for centuries.
Secondly, because the Bible took place in one of the most heavily documented and best archaeologically-preserved locales in the entire world – the dry and arid Middle East.
The Book of Mormon is believed by many to have taken place in more of a jungle climate. In the jungle, stuff rots out, rusts away, and generally vanishes without a trace. South and Central America are some of the worst documented areas in the world where we know advanced civilizations existed. The record doesn’t exist because it all rotted or deteriorated in the climate and surroundings.
Even if there was a freaking massive civilization down there, it’s easily possible there would be nothing to find. Zilch, nadda.
And this is not unusual in the field of archeology.
Third, the civilizations in the Book of Mormon were wiped out with no continuity of record for us to trace.
Comparing the Bible with the Book of Mormon as far as archeology is just plain stupid. They are utterly different archaeological and historical problems. You can’t solve one using the methods of the other. It’s dumb to even make the comparison.
"If not, why not?"
Did you read the link I provided? That explains why. Furthermore, Brant Gardner's new excellent commentary series on the Book of Mormon "Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon" also splendidly details and documents the relationship between archaeology and the Book of Mormon.