36 And it came to pass that the Lamanites promised unto Alma and his brethren, that if they would show them the way which led to the land of Nephi that they would grant unto them their lives and their liberty.
38 And the remainder of them went to the land of Nephi; and a part of them returned to the land of Helam, and also brought with them the wives and the children of the guards who had been left in the land.
39 And the king of the Lamanites had granted unto Amulon that he should be a king and a ruler over his people, who were in the land of Helam; nevertheless he should have no power to do anything contrary to the will of the king of the Lamanites. (Mosiah 23:36-39)
In these verses the Lamanites promise Alma and his people their lives and liberty in return for guidance on the way back to the land of Nephi, but then they break their promise. They set guards over the Nephites, bring the families of the guards, and set Amulon as king and ruler over the Nephites. (I’m sure that at the news of Amulon’s promotion over them, there was a collective gasp of dismay from Alma and his people.)
The broken promise of the Lamanites sounds like perfidious treachery, but I realized today that quite likely the feeling of betrayal may have arisen from different expectations about how that promise was to be kept.
To be specific, the promise was “life” and “liberty.” The Lamanites didn’t kill the Nephites, so they kept the “life” part of the promise. The promise of “liberty” is more problematic.
I don’t know if we can make the snap judgment that the Lamanites made that promise with the intent of breaking it deliberately. Judging from Lamanites’ previous care to keep the promise of “life” with Limhi’s people (when they drove them like dumb beasts when they were angry with them instead of killing them), it seems that the Lamanites took their promises more seriously than we often think. So the problem may have arisen from different definitions of “liberty.”
I’m sure that Alma and his people interpreted “liberty” to mean “no Lamanites staying in our land and no interference from Lamanites.” The Lamanites seem to have interpreted “liberty” to mean “making your own decisions and having your own people [Nephites] in charge, as long as it is in the scope of Lamanite empire.” The Lamanites seem to have thought that guarding the Nephites need not interfere with Nephite liberty and “liberty” didn’t include the option of escaping to live somewhere else.
What can we learn from this (assuming that my speculations are not off in left field)? I think this can teach us about the importance of understanding what the Lord means when we make covenants with Him. We need to understand the terms used and the spirit of the promises because it would be tragic if our view was different from His about how those promises should be kept. It would be sad if we were to find out after death that when we thought we were keeping our promises His view was that we were breaking them. I think this is why in Sunday School we often discuss definitions of words, so that we can make sure that we understand the meaning and the scope of the promises we make.