Sunday, August 30, 2009

How are we to understand the word “astonished” in the scriptures?

One of the fun things that has been observed by John Bytheway in his book “Righteous Warriors” and in his Education Week talk* by the same title is that in Book of Mormon you see the use of the word “astonished” to denote surprise. You also see the phrase “exceedingly astonished” and “astonished beyond measure”. The reader, when he or she runs across these phrases, gets the sense of complete and total surprise, that something completely unexpected has happened.

However, I suspected that the word was not being used indiscriminately, but was being used to convey something either good or bad.

I looked “astonish” up in the Topical Guide, but it had very little in the way of references. Most from the Bible, and it had about two from the Book of Mormon, but I knew “astonish” is used far more than two times in the Book of Mormon. I looked in the Index and they didn’t have any entry at all. Finally, I went on the church’s website to the online scriptures and did a search for “astonish”, and I got 76 results. (Actually, there were more than 76 results, because they count multiple instances in the same chapter as one result.)

What I found was that in most cases, when people are astonished in the scriptures, it is not good. It’s bad.

This is different from our modern definition for astonish--“to surprise or impress greatly”-- which is neutral and even positive. But there happens to be a much older meaning for “astonish”. Evidently in the 16th century it conveyed a sense of being stunned, bewildered, and dismayed. That idea of being dismayed is the sense that “astonish” is used for most often in the Book of Mormon.

Let’s look at some examples.

Dismay at wickedness
12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;….
19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure. (Alma 31:12,19, emphasis added)
The Zoramite we-are-saved-while-everyone-else-is-damned-and-there-is-no-Christ prayers understandably caused great dismay with Alma and company.
And now it came to pass when Lachoneus received this epistle he was exceedingly astonished, because of the boldness of Giddianhi demanding the possession of the land of the Nephites, and also of threatening the people and avenging the wrongs of those that had received no wrong, save it were they had wronged themselves by dissenting away unto those wicked and abominable robbers. (3 Nephi 3:11)
We can note that Lachoneus was dismayed by Giddianhi’s demands and threats, but later we see that he is not frightened by them.

Dismay at a different reaction that hoped for
And now when Lamoni had rehearsed unto him all these things, behold, to his astonishment, his father was angry with him, and said: Lamoni, thou art going to deliver these Nephites, who are sons of a liar. Behold, he robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may rob us of our property. (Alma 20:13)
Undoubtedly Lamoni had hoped for a more favorable reaction from his father to his story.

Suddenly recognizing the hand of the Lord
And when they had all testified to the things which they had seen, and he had learned of the faithfulness of Ammon in preserving his flocks, and also of his great power in contending against those who sought to slay him, he was astonished exceedingly, and said: Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit who doth send such great punishments upon this people, because of their murders? (Alma 18:2, emphasis added)
It might be a little difficult to understand how Lamoni might have been dismayed by the faithfulness and power of Ammon, unless we surmise that Lamoni’s idea of the Great Spirit up to that point had probably been something like “If the Great Spirit doesn’t stop me, then whatever I do is right.” He thought Ammon was the Great Spirit come down to right wrongs, which suggested to him that he had somehow done wrong to kill his servants.
And when the multitude had witnessed that he spake these things as he [Sherem] was about to give up the ghost, they were astonished exceedingly; insomuch that the power of God came down upon them, and they were overcome that they fell to the earth. (Jacob 7:21, emphasis added)
Seeing Sherem deny the things he had taught and hearing him express his fear of having an “awful case” would certainly cause dismay in those who had believed him before.

Dismay at being wrong
And now behold, when they saw this they were astonished exceedingly, insomuch that they fell to the earth; for they had not believed the words which Nephi had spoken concerning the chief judge. (Helaman 9:4, emphasis added)
Dismay at seeming disaster
And they began to assemble themselves together unto the house of the king. And there came a multitude, and to their astonishment, they beheld the king, and the queen, and their servants prostrate upon the earth, and they all lay there as though they were dead; and they also saw Ammon, and behold, he was a Nephite. (Alma 19:18)
To all the Lamanites, it must have looked like there was some sort of deadly invisible force had run absolutely amok in the king’s house. Some sort of mysterious massacre.
And behold the people did gather themselves together unto the place of the judgment-seat—and behold, to their astonishment they saw those five men who had fallen to the earth. (Helaman 9:7)
Once again, at first glance it looks like some sort of massacre.

Dismay at preparation
36 But Ammon stood forth and began to cast stones at them with his sling; yea, with mighty power he did sling stones amongst them; and thus he slew a certain number of them insomuch that they began to be astonished at his power; nevertheless they were angry because of the slain of their brethren, and they were determined that he should fall; therefore, seeing that they could not hit him with their stones, they came forth with clubs to slay him.
37 But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword; for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword, insomuch that they began to be astonished, and began to flee before him; yea, and they were not few in number; and he caused them to flee by the strength of his arm. (Alma 17:36-37, emphasis added)
It’s easy to see how the Lamanites would be dismayed at not being able to overpower Ammon, when it was all of them to only one of him.
8 But behold, to their uttermost astonishment, they were prepared for them, in a manner which never had been known among the children of Lehi. Now they were prepared for the Lamanites, to battle after the manner of the instructions of Moroni.
9 And it came to pass that the Lamanites, or the Amalickiahites, were exceedingly astonished at their manner of preparation for war. (Alma 49:8-9)
But behold, to their astonishment, the city of Noah, which had hitherto been a weak place, had now, by the means of Moroni, become strong, yea, even to exceed the strength of the city Ammonihah. (Alma 49:14)
23 And it came to pass that on the morrow they returned into the camp of the Nephites in great haste, being greatly astonished, and struck with much fear, saying:
24 Behold, we followed the camp of the Amlicites, and to our great astonishment, in the land of Minon, above the land of Zarahemla, in the course of the land of Nephi, we saw a numerous host of the Lamanites; and behold, the Amlicites have joined them; (Alma 2:23-24)
Prophecies fulfilled
15 And it came to pass that the words which came unto Nephi were fulfilled, according as they had been spoken; for behold, at the going down of the sun there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came….
17 And they began to know that the Son of God must shortly appear; yea, in fine, all the people upon the face of the whole earth from the west to the east, both in the land north and in the land south, were so exceedingly astonished that they fell to the earth. (3 Nephi 1:15-17)
Stopped by an angel
18 And now Alma and those that were with him fell again to the earth, for great was their astonishment; for with their own eyes they had beheld an angel of the Lord; and his voice was as thunder, which shook the earth; and they knew that there was nothing save the power of God that could shake the earth and cause it to tremble as though it would part asunder.
19 And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father. (Mosiah 27:18-19)
Dismayed by words
And they [the priests of Noah] began to question him [Abinadi], that they might cross him, that thereby they might have wherewith to accuse him; but he answered them boldly, and withstood all their questions, yea, to their astonishment; for he did withstand them in all their questions, and did confound them in all their words. (Mosiah 12:19)
And now, when Amulek had spoken these words the people began to be astonished, seeing there was amore than one witness who testified of the things whereof they were accused, and also of the things which were to come, according to the spirit of prophecy which was in them. (Alma 10:12)
And it came to pass that Zeezrom was astonished at the words which had been spoken; and he also knew concerning the blindness of the minds, which he had caused among the people by his lying words; and his soul began to be harrowed up under a consciousness of his own guilt; yea, he began to be encircled about by the pains of hell. (Alma 14:6)
And I will also grant unto thee that thy brethren may be cast out of prison, and thou and thy brethren may come unto me, in my kingdom; for I shall greatly desire to see thee. For the king was greatly astonished at the words which he had spoken, and also at the words which had been spoken by his son Lamoni, therefore he was desirous to learn them. (Alma 20:27, emphasis added)
Lamoni’s father would have been greatly dismayed by the Ammon’s words about being cast off for murdering an innocent man. It is likely that Lamoni’s father had the blood of innocent men on his hands already and hadn’t thought anything of it until Ammon’s words.
Therefore they did speak unto the great astonishment of the Lamanites, to the convincing them, insomuch that there were eight thousand of the Lamanites who were in the land of Zarahemla and round about baptized unto repentance, and were convinced of the wickedness of the traditions of their fathers. (Helaman 5:19, emphasis added)
The doctrine that no unclean thing can enter into the kingdom of God is probably one of the most dismaying ideas ever.
1 And now behold, it came to pass that all the people of the land did hear these sayings, and did witness of it. And after these sayings there was silence in the land for the space of many hours;
2 For so great was the astonishment of the people that they did cease lamenting and howling for the loss of their kindred which had been slain; therefore there was silence in all the land for the space of many hours. (3 Nephi 10:1-2)
Detected in a crime
And he shall stand with fear, and wist not what to say. And behold, he shall deny unto you; and he shall make as if he were astonished; nevertheless, he shall declare unto you that he is innocent. (Helaman 9:30)
And it came to pass that thus passed away the *ninety and fifth year also, and the people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen— (3 Nephi 2:1)
That is an interesting verse. It suggests that one of the functions of signs and wonders is to astonish (dismay) people so that they become willing to repent.

Now, there are some other cases where it seems that this dismay in the meaning of “astonish” does not make sense because the circumstances seem more positive. However, this is when we find that there are deeper psychological currents that are rising to the surface, and people coming to grips with inner failings they hadn’t known existed.
And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness. (1 Nephi 16:10)
Why would Lehi be dismayed by the appearance of the Liahona? If we look at the context of this verse we see why. A little before the above verse, it says that Lehi had fulfilled all the Lord’s commandments thus far. Perhaps Lehi felt that he could live in peace where he was from now on. But no, the Lord has more for Lehi to do—he is told to take his family into the wilderness the next day, and just in case Lehi thinks he was imagining it, the Lord leaves Lehi a tangible gift of guidance. There’s nothing for it but to obey.
And now it came to pass that as Alma was journeying from the land of Gideon southward, away to the land of Manti, behold, to his astonishment, he met with the sons of Mosiah journeying towards the land of Zarahemla. (Alma 17:1)
Why should Alma be dismayed at meeting his buddies again after 14 years? Well, think about it; he’s meeting them at the head of a crowd of Lamanites. No way of just knowing whether they were friendly or not. (With Lamanites, likely it was always safer to assume they were enemies first.) Maybe it looked like his old friends had got together a Lamanite faction to invade the Nephite lands and take over. It is once he starts asking questions that he finds out his buddies are still in the Lord and that the Lamanites with them are converted people.
And when he saw that Ammon had no desire to destroy him, and when he also saw the great love he had for his son Lamoni, he was astonished exceedingly, and said: Because this is all that thou hast desired, that I would release thy brethren, and suffer that my son Lamoni should retain his kingdom, behold, I will grant unto you that my son may retain his kingdom from this time and forever; and I will govern him no more— (Alma 20:26, emphasis added)
Why would Lamoni’s father be dismayed to find that Ammon didn’t want to kill him and that Ammon really cared about Lamoni? Because it was taking all of his deep-seated prejudices about Nephites and turning them upside down, which meant Lamoni’s father had been wrong all along. And not just sort of wrong, but totally and completely dead wrong. Being wrong is hard for any of us to take, but it’s got to be even harder for a powerful king to discover he has been so mistaken for so long.
25 And it came to pass that there were two hundred, out of my two thousand and sixty, who had fainted because of the loss of blood; nevertheless, according to the goodness of God, and to our great astonishment, and also the joy of our whole army, there was not one soul of them who did perish; yea, and neither was there one soul among them who had not received many wounds.
26 And now, their preservation was astonishing to our whole army, yea, that they should be spared while there was a thousand of our brethren who were slain. And we do justly ascribe it to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe—that there was a just God, and whosoever did not doubt, that they should be preserved by his marvelous power. (Alma 57:25-26)
Why should the preservation of the stripling warriors cause dismay among the Nephite army? This one was a poser for me. Maybe.. maybe the stripling warriors had been completely underestimated and looked down upon by the rest of the Nephite army. (“Those little whippersnappers, they’re still wet behind the ears; what good are they ever going to do us in a battle?”) Maybe the Nephite army thought the stripling warriors would suffer the greatest casualties due to their youth and inexperience. And then to find out after battle that none of the stripling warriors had died (though all wounded multiple times) and instead a thousand of the Nephites had died? Humiliating! They would have to realize how powerful faith in God truly was.
And when Alma had said these words, Zeezrom leaped upon his feet, and began to walk; and this was done to the great astonishment of all the people; and the knowledge of this went forth throughout all the land of Sidom. (Alma 15:11)
Why might Zeezrom’s miraculous healing cause dismay? Perhaps the people had pidgeon-holed Zeezrom as an unbeliever and thought his feverish torment a fitting punishment and rejoiced to hear of it. (Perhaps a number of the people were refugees from Ammonihah and knew that Zeezrom had been instrumental in hardening hearts to have the righteous women and children burned.) Hearing of Zeezrom’s miraculous healing would cause dismay if they didn’t want him to be healed. Hopefully it also impressed the lesson upon them that the Lord’s mercy is for EVERYONE that repents.
And so great was the prosperity of the church, and so many the blessings which were poured out upon the people, that even the high priests and the teachers were themselves astonished beyond measure. (Helaman 3:25)
Why would many blessings cause dismay among high priests and teachers in the church? Sometimes church leaders are so intimately aware with the weaknesses of their people that it can begin to seem to them as if there’s no way for their people to rise above the level at which they struggle so desperately. Then when the miracles of the Lord’s tender mercies occur, and a huge jump in progress happens, the leaders can feel dismay at their own lack of faith. They are humbled.

Conclusion: The word “astonished” can be interpreted as “dismayed” in the Book of Mormon.

*If you want see John Bytheway’s Education Week talk “Righteous Warriors: Lessons from the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon” (which is very entertaining and enlightening), you can find it here. I recommend it for a good Family Home Evening.


Anonymous said...

I'm astonished I've been misunderstanding the word this whole time :)

Great post, thanks!

Michaela Stephens said...

I know! Makes one pause, doesn't it?