Hello, my name is Gideon
This past week in Come Follow Me, covering Mosiah 29 through Alma 4, we read about the death of one of my favorite Book of Mormon heroes. No, not Alma the Elder. No, not King Mosiah. No, definitely not Nehor. I'm talking about the penitent patriot, Gideon. He doesn't get quite the same name recognition as other heroes, but I still think he's really cool.
Gideon, the soldier
The name Gideon is Hebrew. It comes from the verb that means to "he who cuts down." The most famous Gideon in history was the Israelite Judge Gideon, a man of righteousness in the Old Testament who led a miraculous battle against the enemy Midianites and helped reclaim Israel from apostasy.
Like the Old Testament Gideon, the Gideon of the Book of Mormon also entered the scene during a time of apostasy. And like his Old World counterpart, the New World Gideon was a military leader. However, the Nephite Gideon initially fought against righteousness.
Gideon enters the scene in Mosiah 19, which begins by telling us that the wicked King Noah's army had returned from their fruitless pursuit of the righteous people of Alma. It tells us that the king had cut the military budget substantially, so the army was operating at reduced capacity. When they returned, contention erupted among the people of King Noah and a movement arose to dethrone and kill the wicked king.
The Book of Mormon doesn't say exactly why there was an uprising against the king, but the four preceding verses give us some hints. The king had reduced the army substantially even though they were all living in violent Lamanite territory. The Lamanites had already shown aggressive signs and demonstrated the weakness of their army, but the king had done nothing about it, even though he was bringing in plenty of taxes. Then, he sent the army out to capture and/or kill their peaceful neighbors. I don't think it is too hard to imagine the reasons for the unrest.
Gideon, the rebel
The text also doesn't say exactly how Gideon fits into everything before he entered the scene, but based on the context of the preceding verses, it sounds like Gideon was probably one of King Noah's soldiers.
Based on the text, it sounds like Gideon was part of the Nephite army that was sent to capture the people of Alma: after telling of the return of the army, it says "there was a man among them whose name was Gideon." And when Gideon confronts the king, he obviously has access to him, and Noah seems to know him. Whatever the reason and whatever his station, the "strong" Gideon was now an "enemy of the king."
A fight ensued, and Noah fled for his life to the top of a tower he had built years before. Gideon pursued him and was about to kill him when they saw Lamanites marching into their land. The king pled for his life under the guise of love for his people. Grudgingly, Gideon let the king live so he could unify and direct the people during the Lamanite attack. The king sounded the alarm. There was no time to martial the army (it was too small to repel the Lamanites, anyway). King Noah probably knew that the Lamanites were coming specifically for him. So he led the flight of retreat.
However, the people were not fast enough. The Lamanites descended on the rear of the exodus and started to slaughter the people. Panicked, Noah ordered the men to leave their women and children to die and run after him into the wilderness. Some men followed him, but others chose to remain behind to die with their families. We know that Gideon disobeyed and chose to stay behind, as well as one of King Noah's own sons, Limhi.
The people sent their women to the front of the battle to plead their cause, which softened the hearts of the Lamanite army. Instead of becoming extinct, the Lamanites would just occupy their land, practically enslave them, and demand they deliver up king Noah to them. Limhi, Noah's son who stayed behind, was chosen by the people to be the new king in Noah's absence. He knew his father was a wicked man, but he didn't want to kill him. Gideon, however, had other plans. He sent his own secret operatives into the wilderness to find King Noah. They returned with the men who had followed Noah and the news that they had burned him alive in the wilderness.
Gideon, the righteous captain
At some point, Gideon was appointed "the king's captain." I don't know what that means, exactly, but it sounds like perhaps Gideon was put in charge of the few remaining Nephite armed forces. And it wouldn't be long before they would need those armed forces. When the priests of king Noah abducted some of the Lamanites' daughters and absconded back into the wilderness, The Lamanites thought the Nephites had done it. They came down with the fire and fury of fatherhood to wipe out the Nephites.
The Nephite army was meager, but they scraped together all they had and managed to drive back the Lamanite army during the first battle. Among the dead Lamanites, they found the king of the Lamanites wounded. The Lamanite king told them the reason he felt justified in attacking. King Limhi was incensed that his people would do such a thing and was about to start smashing in doors looking for the Lamanite daughters among his own people.
But Gideon stood before the king and pled the cause of the people. It was Gideon who had finally pieced together what had actually happened. He reminding Limhi of the pervert priests of his father and attributing the kidnapping of the Lamanite girls to them. It is at this moment that we hear the first real words of contrition after Abindai's death. Gideon rhetorically asked:
Are not the words of Abinadi fulfilled, which he prophesied against us—and all this because we would not hearken unto the words of the Lord, and turn from our iniquities?
So as a military leader, what was Gideon's recommendation? Surrender:
Except the king doth pacify them towards us we must perish… Let us pacify the king, and we fulfil the oath which we have made unto him; for it is better that we should be in bondage than that we should lose our lives.
This may sound a little wimpy to our modern ears. We grew up hearing the tales of the American Revolution and Patrick Henry's famous words, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Yet it seems that Gideon, at least, had recognized by this point that their sufferings were the fulfillment of the word of the Lord and that they could not escape the punishments of God. Gideon (and through his counsel, Limhi) had come to accept their hopeless situation and wait on the Lord.
However, the people were not ready to accept their situation like Limhi and Gideon were. The seemed determined to learn their lesson the hard way. They had boasted just a few years before that fifty of their soldiers "could stand against thousands of the Lamanites?" They had told King Noah not to listen to the scary words of that bad man Abinadi: "We are strong, we shall not come into bondage, or be taken captive by our enemies!" They were a proud people and did not take well to the idea of losing their liberty. So, despite the better judgment of King Limhi and presumably Gideon, they tried to beat away the Lamanite occupation force.
I wonder how Gideon felt if he was at the head of the Nephite army in those battles as I suspect he was. I'd guess he felt a lot like Mormon did in the final days of the Nephites:
They gave me command again of their armies, for they looked upon me as though I could deliver them from their afflictions.
But behold, I was without hope, for I knew the judgments of the Lord which should come upon them; for they repented not of their iniquities, but did struggle for their lives without calling upon that Being who created them.
During their 25-ish years of bondage, they mounted three separate military campaigns (not including the two times where the Lamanites attacked them). Each time the Nephites went to battle, they were beaten, suffering tremendous losses.
Running low on men and facing total extinction, they were just about out of options. But maybe the Nephites in Zarahemla would help! King Limhi sent a secret expedition to Zarahemla, but that search party with the news that Zarahemla had been destroyed. So the people finally came around to what Gideon and Limhi had already accepted– that they just couldn't fight their way out of the judgments of God. They, too, humbled themselves and waited on the Lord.
Gideon, the deliver
At this point, the Lord saw that the people of Limhi were finally ready to be saved. It wasn't long before a man named Ammon (not the arm-chopping Ammon) showed up from the land of Zarahemla with directions back home. King Limhi called a council of his people to hear Ammon speak to them of the Nephite history they had missed, and of the righteous reigns of King Benjamin and the two Mosiahs. The people rejoiced to hear that there were still Nephites out there. To know that they were not alone. To know that in the land of Zarahemla there were authorized priesthood holders who could administer the ordinances of the Gospel to them. Now they just needed a way to get there.
Then, the faithful Gideon stood up before the people, knelt before King Limhi, and said, "I will be thy servant and deliver this people out of bondage… I will go according to thy command." Gideon's words are really beautiful. They echo back to the pre-mortal council in heaven when our own strong, faithful "King's Captain," our Savior Jesus Christ, stood before our Father and offered to be His servant to deliver us out of our spiritual bondage. I really love that about the Book of Mormon. You're reading what sounds like history and all of a sudden you see the Savior in the words.
It was Gideon that architected, then executed the plan to escape from the Lamanites and reunite with their relatives in Zarahemla. He was a national hero. I would imagine that the people of Limhi viewed him much the same way as we today view George Washington or John Adams– "an instrument in the hands of God in delivering the people of Limhi out of bondage."
Gideon the martyr
Fast forward a few more years to Alma 1 and we get to meet a scuzz-ball named Nehor. Although he never names Christ in his teachings, his doctrine is as anti-Christ as they come. He spoke flattering half-truths and gained quite a following. People were lining up to pay him money to tell them how they were so wonderful and didn't need to strive for righteousness. Everything was going great for him… until he met Gideon.
Nehor was teaching the same religious philosophies as King Noah: "that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people," and that the people should "for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life."
Gideon knew firsthand what the results are of living the Nehor lifestyle. Nehor was preaching the same theology Gideon and the rest of King Noah's people had been living at the time of Abinadi. Gideon knew exactly what kind of destruction awaited those who followed that corrupt lifestyle and he would have none of it. Gideon was no longer a soldier at 80+ years old– he was now an ordained teacher in the Church of God. So he fought back with the word of God– the word which has "a more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else."
Nehor didn't stand a chance. Gideon, armed with the scriptures and priesthood authority, completely destroyed him. Not being able to compete with something more powerful than a sword, Nehor resorted to the sword itself. Enraged, he murdered the elderly Gideon. Gideon, "he who cuts down," had cut down the false doctrines of Nehor and was himself cut down for his valiant testimony of God.
How the story of Gideon hits close to home for me
At this point, I think of my own grandfather. One evening at the age of 79, at his home in Arizona, he went to his backyard to pick grapefruit for the next morning's breakfast. When eh stepped out of his house, 3 drugged-up boys in their late teens/early twenties showed up, forced him into his truck, forced him to drive into the desert at gunpoint, marched him out of the truck, and brutally murdered him. It took several days for the police to find his body. My family was devastated. I was 8 years old at the time. My grandpa was a hero to me. He was a sealer in the Temple.
As with all tragedies, we wondered how God could could let something so evil happen to someone so good. But I remember my mom pointing something out to comfort me at the time. She said:
Look at it this way: We know the kind of man Grandpa was. We have the Gospel. We know where Grandpa is. He has raised his kids and was towards the end of his life. Now imagine if he had not been outside when those teenagers came by. Do you really think they would have just gone home and done something else? Maybe they would have done the same thing to a young father. Or an entire family. And instead of devastating the lives of all of us who are comforted by the Gospel, they might have destroyed the lives of someone who wouldn't have that comfort.
When I think of what my mom said and how well my family has handled this devastating loss through the Gospel, then for a moment– just a moment– I actually feel a little… grateful? Or at least I feel more comfortable to not question the wisdom of God. The words of President Nelson come to my mind:
From an eternal perspective, death is only premature for those who are not prepared to meet God.
I apply my mother's words when I think of Gideon. If Nehor had not been allowed to kill Nehor, what might have happened? Well, we know he was already growing in popularity. We know that his philosophies would destroy many thousands of families and be a major competing religion among the Nephites. And all this even though his wicked ministry was cut short by his killing the national hero Gideon. All this even though his followers were forever branded "the order of the man that slew Gideon." Imagine how much worse Nehor's influence might have been if it had not been stopped by the martyrdom of Gideon.
Gideon the city
Gideon was killed by Nehor, but his legacy of faith and bravery did not. The valley where he was slain, as well as the nearby city and surrounding land, were named in his honor. And that honor continued for generations. It was in the valley of Gideon only a few years later that Alma chose to station his forces that were defending the Nephites from a new threat: Amlici and his kingmen followers.
Then, after giving up the military and political half of his career, Alma went around to correct false conceptions and iniquity that had crept into the Church. He had a lot of spiritual cleanup work to do in Zarahemla. But when he arrived in Gideon, he was happy to see that Church members in the land of Gideon were not in the "awful dilemma" of near apostasy that he'd seen in Zarahemla. So instead of pricking their conscience and "bearing down in pure testimony against them," Alma could bring some good news. In fact, it was in the righteous city of Gideon that Alma could bring the good news. The righteous inhabitants of Gideon were the first to hear Alma publicly talk about his revelations concerning the mortal ministry and salvation of Jesus Christ. At the end of his words (Alma 7), Alma bestowed what sounds like a model apostolic blessing.
A few years later, Alma would find even more joy there. It was in the land of Gideon that he stumbled into his old friends, the sons of Mosiah, returning from their missions to the Lamanites.
Oh, and remember the anti-Christ Korihor? When he came on the scene, he went to the converted Lamanites Jershon, but "they were more wise than many of the Nephites." Ammon's people bound him and carried him out of the land. So he went among the Nephites, who as we've seen, had a strong appetite for false doctrine and flattery. Korihor saw a lot of success among the main body of the Nephites. Except among the people of Gideon. Like the Ammonites, the people of Gideon would hear none of his blasphemies. They bound him and brought him before their high priest. When he heard the sacrilegious garbage Korihor was spewing, he chose to respond only with silence, tied him up, and sent him straight to Alma. The land of Gideon was the only Nephite land to reject Korihor and his doctrine wholesale.
Finally, consider the great Amalickiah-Lamanite war in the latter part of the book of Alma. Facing bloodthirsty Lamanites and Zoramite dissenters without and rebellious kingmen within, the Nephite government had to flee from the land of Zarahemla. Chief Judge Pahoran had to run for his life from the civil war that engulfed the capital city. To where did he flee? To Gideon, of course. Writing to Captain Moroni, Pahoran declared:
I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs.
As one of the last I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs.
The forces of Gideon, the last stronghold for freedom were enough to deter the kingmen from attacking long enough for Moroni to join his forces. The land of Gideon then became the rallying point for all the remaining patriot Nephites who valued liberty. It was from Gideon that the combined forces of Moroni and Pahoran marched back to the capital city of Zarahemla to "cleanse the inner vessel," and bring freedom and peace to the Nephite nation once again.
With that rich history of faith, righteousness, and freedom, it is telling how bad things got in 6 BC when Samuel the Lamanite stood atop the wall and proclaimed:
Wo be unto the city of Gideon, for the wickedness and abominations which are in her. Yea, and wo be unto all the cities which are in the land.
It's a good indicator. If even Gideon had succumbed to sin, the state of the Nephite nation was perilous, indeed.
Why does this matter today?
So why dedicate an entire article to Gideon? Well, when we talk about our favorite Book of Mormon heroes and I mention Gideon, people usually give me a blank stare. Which is sad, because as far as I can tell, he was something like a George Washington to the people of Limhi, and a national martyred hero to the rest of the Nephites for generations afterward. His legacy had a huge impact on the course of Nephite and Lamanite history, and I think he deserves some credit. But also as a reminder that even "minor characters" in the Book of Mormon really deserve our careful study and attention.
PS: If you want an even more in-depth study about this awesome Nephite warrior, the folks at Book of Mormon Central have a great article in their archive all about Gideon. I promise I only found it after I wrote my article :)