Why were the People of Ammon Exempted from Military Duty?

February 13, 2017
KnoWhy #274
Batalla del Rio Sidon by Jorge Cocco
Batalla del Rio Sidon by Jorge Cocco
"And we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies."
Alma 27:24

The know

The Book of Mormon absolutely decries murder, bloodshed, and aggressive warfare whenever possible. One of the most remarkable accounts of conscious objection is that of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, also called Ammonites. They were so profoundly converted to the gospel of peace that they promised God, as a part of their covenant of repentance, that they would never “use weapons again for the shedding of man’s blood” (Alma 24:18).1

After many Ammonites were killed, rather than break their promise, the Nephites took these war refugees in and gave them the Land of Jershon as a refuge from their enemies. The Nephite Prophet Alma even granted them an exemption from the normal requirement that all able-bodied men had to serve in the military, and the Nephites as a people agreed to “set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon” (Alma 27:23).2

Legal scholar John W. Welch has suggested that the specific terms of this notable exemption from military duty may have been grounded in ancient Israelite law and its traditional interpretation. He had several reasons for this assertion:

1. Absolute Military Duty Only Applied to Fighting Enemies

The legal requirement in Deuteronomy 20:1–2 speaks only of going out to battle “against thine enemies.” Later Jewish Rabbis interpreted enemies to be of a completely different tribe or people, and explicitly stated that the tribes of Israel should not fight against their brethren, for example, “not Judah against Simeon or Simeon against Benjamin.”3 As Welch noted, “A similar understanding may be reflected in the Ammonites’ refusal to ‘take up arms against their brethren,’” the Lamanites (Alma 24:6, 18; 27:23).4

The Anti-Nephi-Lehis Burying Their Swords by Del Parson

The Anti-Nephi-Lehis Burying Their Swords by Del Parson

2. Serious Transgressions Could Render Soldiers Unfit for Battle

Deuteronomy 20:8 provided a military exemption for those who were “fearful and fainthearted.” As Welch has explained, “Since everyone going into battle was likely ‘fearful and fainthearted,’ the exemption undoubtedly had a narrower meaning in actual practice; otherwise nearly everyone would have been exempt. Indeed, as the Talmud clarifies, this expression in Deuteronomy ‘alludes to one who is afraid because of the transgressions he had committed.’”5

This is strikingly similar to the stated reason why the people of Ammon were afraid to take up arms. The Book of Mormon reports that they “never did look upon death with any degree of terror” (Alma 27:28), but that they did “fear to take up arms against their brethren lest they should commit sin” (v. 23).6 They did this, in large part, because they knew that having been forgiven once of their serious past sins, it would be even harder for them to be forgiven of repeated transgressions (see Alma 24:10).

3. Exemptions Were Sometimes Removed in Dire Circumstances

Welch also noted that the Jewish rabbis “limited the exemption for the fearful and fainthearted to voluntary exploits of the king. In a compulsory war of national defense, however, even the fainthearted were obligated to go into battle.”7 With this in mind, it is notable that the people of Ammon contemplated breaking their oath when their protectors, the Nephites, were on the brink of losing a major defensive military conflict (see Alma 53:13).

This moral dilemma, and perhaps the uncertainty concerning the legal option to fight, was ultimately settled when the prophet and high priest Helaman persuaded the Ammonite men to keep the “oath which they had made” (Alma 53:15), although they willingly allowed their young sons to serve, who had not made that oath several years before.

Soldiers supplying provisions to active troops by Jody Livingston

Soldiers supplying provisions to active troops by Jody Livingston

4. Exempted Soldiers Still had to Supply Provisions to the Active Troops

In addition, rabbinical writings suggested that those who had been exempted from the actual fighting still held a legal obligation to “furnish water and food and repair the roads.”8 In other words, they were to support and provide necessities in the rear.9 This is notable, considering that the Nephites exempted the people of Ammon from combative military duty on the stated “condition that they will give us [the Nephites] a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies” (Alma 27:24).  

After developing these points, Welch concluded, “The rare exemption granted to the Ammonites was logical, religiously motivated, and consistent with ancient Israelite law, as embedded in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, which placed a high civic obligation on all citizens to contribute, as appropriate, to the defense of their country, their God, their religion, and their people.”10

The Why

Recognizing that this notable military exemption is consistent with several aspects of ancient Israelite legal statutes and practices can deeply enrich a reader’s understanding of this important narrative.

In several instances in the Old Testament, Israel’s solders were divinely protected when facing much larger or more experienced enemy forces.11 For example, the Lord had Gideon take steps to deliberately reduce Israel’s fighting force to a small contingent of courageous soldiers. Yet with this small force they were able to easily conquer a much larger Midianite army (see Judges 7). It seems that the legal provisions for military exemptions found in Deuteronomy were designed to teach a universal principle: ultimately, military success does not depend on the number of soldiers or munitions, but on how righteously and courageously people follow the will of God and keep their covenants.

Anti-Nephi-Lehis burying their weapons of war. Artist unknown.

Anti-Nephi-Lehis burying their weapons of war. Artist unknown.

The moral dilemma faced by the Ammonite fathers is also instructive. If an exemption from military duty could be legally overridden by a dire threat to their new nation’s safety, as demonstrated in Welch’s third point, then the people of Ammon may have been unsure what moral obligation held the highest priority. Were they to hold to their former covenant to not take up arms? Or did a growing legal obligation to defend their nation in its dire circumstances supersede their former oath?12 Elder Richard G. Scott called this a “critical moment of their spiritual lives.”13 And they chose wisely, under very difficult circumstances.

The world today is filled with moral dilemmas of a similar nature. The message of the Book of Mormon is that following the prophet and keeping one’s covenants with the Lord are always transcending moral imperatives. Elder Scott taught, “Their wise priesthood leader, Helaman, knew that breaking a covenant with the Lord is never justified.”14 This is true, even if such conduct would in other circumstances be legally justified or morally correct.15

Because the people of Ammon heeded Helaman and faithfully kept their covenant, the Lord provided an inspired, though unexpected, solution to their dilemma. Over two thousand Ammonite sons would fight instead of their fathers, despite that these sons “never had fought” (Alma 56:47) and were “very young” (v. 46).16

Elder Scott explained,

Though the sons fought in fierce battles where all received at least some injury, not one life was lost. The young men proved to be a vital boost to the weary Nephite army. They were faithful and spiritually stronger when they returned home. Their families were blessed, protected, and strengthened. In our day, countless students of the Book of Mormon have been edified by the example of these pure and righteous sons.17

This inspiring scriptural account demonstrates many things. First, it shows that prophets have a divine capacity and calling to understand and define covenantal obligations. It also depicts how faith, sacrifice, and obedience to covenants are keys to truly solving life’s dilemmas—especially when there seems to be no good options or when one is faced with two competing ethical pressures. The Book of Mormon can help “awaken you to a sense of your duty to God” (Alma 7:22), and as President Thomas S. Monson has taught, “The old adage is ever true: ‘Do your duty, that is best; leave unto the Lord the rest.’”18

Further Reading

Duane Boyce, “The Ammonites Were Not Pacifists,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 20 (2016): 293–313.

Richard G. Scott, “Personal Strength through the Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, November 2013, 81–84, online at lds.org.

John W. Welch, “A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 357–361.

John W. Welch, “Exemption from Military Duty,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 189–192.