The Gospel Doctrine lesson 31 manual objective is to “To help class members see how the Nephites’ attitudes and actions in times of war can serve as a pattern for dealing with our earthly conflicts and the battle against Satan.”
To juxtapose the actions of war with the desire to protect family and loved ones.
Alma 43 and 44 are part of the Book of Mormon’s famous “war chapters,” the end of Alma that seems to many readers to be mired in the strategic and gory details of long-term conflict. While I have known some who are intrigued by the actual military strategy or are inspired by Moroni’s leadership skills, I have certainly spent most of my years of Book of Mormon study puzzled why so much of that precious scripture is devoted to butchery. This puzzlement may be more profound among women – it’s more of a stretch for women to “liken the scriptures unto themselves” here than most any other place in scripture – but I have generally found it to be gender agnostic, meaning men too find the violence to be incongruous with the Prince of Peace’s universal message.
The whole thing seems so, well, male. Male military leaders lead armies of men who kill each other in brutal and torturous ways. The “work of death” (chapter 44, v. 20) feels instinctively antagonistic to women’s work of creation; it’s the work of destroying the very beings that women create. And yet, in rereading these chapters in preparation for this lesson, it struck me that these might be among the Book of Mormon chapters that most emphasize women’s influence and presence in that ancient community.
The feminine is not present in the violence itself; we have no accounts of female captains at Moroni’s side or young women joining their stripling brothers in this fight. However, in his work of editing Alma’s account, Mormon works hard to make sure the reader is understanding why this work of death is happening. And it is in this why where the women dwell.
We are first told in Chapter 43 that the Nephites fought the Lamanites “to support their lands and their houses, and their wives and their children, that they might preserve them from the hands of their enemies….” Later, we learn that the Nephites “fought like dragons” because “they were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church.” In justifying the Nephites’ behavior even more, Mormon tells us, “The Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed.” (chapter 43, v 47)
So it seems Mormon’s goal to make sure the readers know that the gruesome actions he’s describing were motivated by a desire to defend wives, children and families. It feels here like a welcome antidote to the sacrifice of Ammonihahite women and children in Alma 14; instead of being tossed aside in the work of death, women are instead here positioned as being worthy of protection at all cost.
We may have our own modern responses to the work of death being done in the name of protecting women. I know that doesn’t sit right with me; I like to think today the men and women would be working together to preserve and protect their communities – their children, their elderly, their institutions and family unions. But we are still working to move out of the “protectionist” stance that defined gender relations since the Victorian era, so this image of being protected by our men may still have resonance for some. Regardless of our contemporary views, though, the Book of Mormon seems to make clear that war – justified, purposeful war as defined by the Nephites – is deeply intertwined with the existence and preservation of loved ones. It’s not just a man’s game after all. As with many parts of the Book of Mormon, I look forward to one day hearing the other side of the story, the women’s side. What were they doing while this work of death was happening? Did they appreciate being protected? But was that a passive stance for them, or were they actively involved in Captain Moroni’s campaign? Did they fly the title of liberty themselves, as it had been created in their names? With both the blame or the righteousness of the war seemingly falling on their shoulders, what did they think? I look forward to one day knowing.