Saturday, March 13, 2010

More Powerful than the Sword: Alma 31:4-5, the Instruction for King Merikare, and Ramesses the Great

A Middle Kingdom Egyptian wisdom text, Instruction for King Merikare, affords a parallel to Alma 31:4-5 and Helaman 6:37 in the motif of word as sword in which we see the force of persuasion, as opposed to the sword, in circumstances of political peril.

Alma launches a mission in the land of Antionum to reclaim members of the separatist Zoramite movement. The religious mission has profound political ramifications, for, like other Nephite religious and political separatists, the Zoramites were likely to make a military pact with the enemy:

Now the Nephites greatly feared that the Zoramites would enter into a correspondence with the Lamanites, and that it would be the means of great loss on the part of the Nephites.

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just---yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them---therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God (Alma 31:4-5).

Now Merikare: "Be an artist in speech, then you will be victorious. For behold: the sword-arm of a king is his tongue. Stronger is the word than all fighting."

Commenting on Merikare, Jan Assmann observes: "The kings of the Twelfth Dynasty understood the close links between politics and the instantiation of meaning. As Carl Schmitt, a leading authority on authoritarian government, puts it: 'No political system can last even as long as one generation on technical grounds or by the assertion of power alone. Central to politics is the idea, for there can be no politics without authority, and no authority without an ethos of persuasion,'" Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 118-9.

Pharaoh, says Jan Assmann, "reigned not by force but by the power of the word," 118. Alma, the first Chief Judge (or Presiding Jurist) of the Nephite polity (an office, constitutionally if not de facto, something like that of Iran's Supreme Leader, a vilayet al-faqih), exemplified such an ethos of persuasion and thereby set a precedent for the exercise of political authority in Nephite society.

Alma was, in fact, a warrior of the word, who resigned his presiding office in order to better exercise his powerful religio-political authority by "preach[ing] the word of God unto them, to stir them up. . .[and to] pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people [all social unrest leading to separatism both religious and political], seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony [in the juridical sense] against them" (Alma 4:19).

At a later date, the converted Lamanites also hunt and destroy the Gadianton Robbers by preaching--so Helaman 6:37 (Hugh Nibley loved this verse).

"For behold: the sword-arm of a king is his tongue. Stronger is the word than all fighting."

As evidence for the proverb, we turn to Alma as warrior--strong indeed but like to fail:

And it came to pass that Alma fought with Amlici with the sword, face to face; and they did contend mightily, one with another.

And it came to pass that Alma, being a man of God, being exercised with much faith, cried, saying: O Lord, have mercy and spare my life, that I may be an instrument in thy hands to save and preserve this people.

Now when Alma had said these words he contended again with Amlici; and he was strengthened, insomuch that he slew Amlici with the sword (Alma 2:29-31; see also 32-3; and Alma 3:22 for Alma's wound).

So Ramesses the Great: "At the moment of ultimate danger [in the Battle of Qadesh], Ramesses II prays to Amun:

My voice echoing in Thebes,
The moment I called to him, I found Amun came.

Amun intervenes in the battle by 'giving his hand' to the king and, at the last minute, saving him from death or captivity," Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 241.


Notes: See Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 441 n.1 for the reference to "Instruction for King Merikare," ed. Helck, Die Lehre fuer Koenigh Merikare (Wiesbaden, 1977), 17-8; for Carl Schmitt, see same page, note 3: Roemischer Katholizismus und Politische Form, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1925), 23.

Assmann, 241ff., dwells on the theme of finding, with emphasis on the verb for find (Egyptian gmj) in the Ancient Egyptian quest to find God by means of revelation. His comments reflect the words of the Book of Abraham: Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee (Abraham 2:12).

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