Just some thoughts on the Book of Alma for gospel doctrine classes tomorrow and the next little while.

I got thinking about the population of Nephites and Mulekites and such when in discussing King Benjamin’s speech, the text notes that King Benjamin’s people had showed up  during a civil war, were a minority, and ended up in charge of a people whose language they could not understand.

When the speech is given he has to separate the people into two bodies — which fits the two groups still not speaking the same language.  When Alma takes over from King Mosiah as chief judge, the text remarks that they need to keep the judgeship in order to preserve their rights (there aren’t enough of them to do that otherwise).

Then later in the book of Alma it comes up that the descendants of the Priests of Noah > Total Number of “real” Nephites. Think of the implications. There could easily be only 2,000 to 3,000 total Nephites (rather than people that are part of the people they rule and are aligned with). Everyone else would be from the host populations and allied factions.

That means that the Nephites could be an insular elite that is only a faction or a part of an educated governing elite.

Now, the stripling warriors enter the matter.  Some facts about them.

First, they are basically a raw peasant levy of the kids of farmers without military experience. They are not even a green levy. (taking military grades from raw/untrained; green/unexperienced; etc.). Helaman doesn’t get any experienced troops or auxiliaries to stiffen his raw peasant levy with, it is just he and his stripling warriors.  When he has to make decisions with them there is no mention of his meeting with officers or anyone else.

He also knows that the fathers of these kids are a hair trigger away from a relapse into bloody violence as a way of life.

So you can see where he is for perspective. He is part of an insular elite, leading a raw peasant levy to support a war effort. When he consults about what to do, you don’t hear him talking about a conference with his officers or noncoms – just with the troops.

His only advantage is that his troops start with a high morale.

So, why isn’t it such a miracle when he leads them into battle and they are not slaughtered?  Seems like that is even a greater miracle than it looks, doesn’t it?

It is important to realize that battles of the type they are in (looking at battles in the ancient world not using professional military veterans) typically would last 15-20 minutes, until one side then breaks (that side would suffer a morale failure) and runs, the other pursues them and slaughters them.

In our story, the army pursuing him stops chasing him.  It turns out they are engaged with the army that was pon the other side them.  So the two armies are fully engaged when Helaman and his tripling warriors enter the battle. His troops hit the other side from the rear with surprise, apparently at a run. Nothing about the records we have of the warfare at that time indicates complicated orders of battle, reserves or formations. So he hits a battle where both sides are all in, and hits the enemy side from the back, with surprise.

The side he attacks morale fails and they flee. Helaman takes the lack of casualties for his command as a miracle, but it is actually very consistent with what happened in other battles with an attack from behind with surprise.

Coming back full circle though, the vignette, in context, reflects just how few “real” Nephites there are (vs. people on their side).  The same is true of the enemy elites and leaders. A large number of prisoners, when offered the chance to leave the military and become farmers, desert wholesale (well, they join the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, but what they really do is change side and become farmers).

It suddenly makes the Nephites and their presence go from a nation to one of several competing elites within a nation that identifies the factions as those on their side (with their name) and those on the other side (regardless of the actual identities).

I’m still mulling over the implications, but it is a dramatically different way to read that part of the Book of Mormon.