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Defending the Faith: May your new year begin better than Amalickiah's

Published: Thursday, Dec. 29 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

We're approaching the new year, and a new gospel doctrine curriculum year devoted to the Book of Mormon is almost upon us. So, with that flimsy justification, let's look at the transition, roughly 65 B.C., between two particular years among the Nephites.

Most readers are familiar with the wars that dominate the last portion of the book of Alma, and many know this story, in particular:

"And it came to pass that when the night had come, Teancum and his servant stole forth and went out by night, and went into the camp of Amalickiah; and behold, sleep had overpowered them because of their much fatigue, which was caused by the labors and heat of the day.

"And it came to pass that Teancum stole privily into the tent of the king, and put a javelin to his heart; and he did cause the death of the king immediately that he did not awake his servants.

"And he returned again privily to his own camp, and behold, his men were asleep, and he awoke them and told them all the things that he had done" (Alma 51:33-35).

Notice that the opposing armies are both soundly asleep, owing at least partially to the toll exacted from them by heavy exertions in hot, draining weather. But notice, too, when this story happens:

"And thus endeth the twenty and fifth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi; and thus endeth the days of Amalickiah" (Alma 51:37).

That is, Teancum killed Amalickiah on New Year's Eve, at the close of a very hot and fatiguing day.

What can we conclude from this? It's virtually certain either that the story didn't occur in upstate New York or the upper Midwest, or that the Nephites followed a different calendar than we do, or perhaps both.

Average December-January temperatures in Rochester, N.Y. — the nearest large city to Joseph Smith's Palmyra — range between 36 and 16 degrees Fahrenheit, accompanied by an average of two feet of snow per month. As I write, it's a relatively balmy 38 degrees in Rochester, and overcast.

In mid-April, when the first month of the Jewish calendar begins, high temperatures in Rochester average roughly 55 degrees, while the nights drop very nearly to freezing. But even that scarcely qualifies (at least in my California-born-and-raised book) as "hot."

Perhaps, of course, the sophisticated and cunning Joseph Smith tossed the notion of debilitating heat on New Year's Eve into his fictional "Nephite" yarn in order to give it the appearance of truth. But I'm skeptical. This little fact, I suspect, goes completely unnoticed by the overwhelming majority of Book of Mormon readers, and I doubt that Joseph Smith noticed it, either. And it's not the kind of thing that an untraveled, young, early-19th-century farmer with only a couple of months of schooling under his belt would likely have thought up. Instead, it sounds like the sort of curious minor detail that routinely appears in chronicles from exotic places and distant times. "The past is a foreign country," wrote the late British novelist L. P. Hartley. "They do things differently there."

But some constants persist. Waking up on New Year's Day to an unexpected disaster continues to be a bad thing:

"And now, it came to pass in the twenty and sixth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, behold, when the Lamanites awoke on the first morning of the first month, behold, they found Amalickiah was dead in his own tent; and they also saw that Teancum was ready to give them battle on that day" (Alma 52:1).

In fact, given the importance of ancient kings for guaranteeing prosperity, good harvests and the proper order of the cosmos, and given their central role in military conflicts (where they were very likely to be personally present on the battlefield), the sudden loss of a king at the beginning of the New Year could be psychologically traumatic and disorienting, if not lethal. Especially if an enemy army was poised to strike.

Think of the role of the king in chess, an ancient Near Eastern war game: The term "checkmate" derives from the Arabo-Persian phrase "Shah maat," which means "The king is dead." Checkmate ends the game, no matter how many pawns survive.

May your new year open more auspiciously, and may it grow even better thereafter.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org

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