Putting popular versions of it aside for a moment, when considering the story of “Helaman and his stripling warriors” there exists an explicit theology behind the relationship these young Ammonites had with Helaman that accounts for their miraculous deliverance in battle in the face of such tremendous odds. The first clue to this is that Helaman called them his “sons,” while they called him “father” (Alma 56:10, 44, 46). Those familial terms were well known to express the covenant relationship that existed between emperors and their vassal kings in the ancient Near East. On this pattern, Moses and the Hebrew prophets modeled God’s covenant relationship with Israel’s kings and the relationship Israel’s kings had with their people (cf. 1 Samuel 24:11-16; 2 Samuel 7:14; 2 Kings 16:7; Isaiah 63:8, 16).
Under the terms of such covenants, if a vassal king (the “son”) kept the law of the emperor (the “father”), then the emperor was bound by the terms of the covenant to protect both the vassal king and those over whom the vassal ruled. At the same time, the vassal king himself served as a “father” to those over whom he ruled and they, in turn, comprised his “sons.” In the theology of the prophets, an entire hierarchy of father–son relationships thus extended all the way from the Most High God down to the lowest telestial person; and, in an antipodal sense, even to the “sons” of Perdition.
As a person progressed or “ascended” from one level of this spiritual hierarchy to the next, he qualified as a “son” of his “father” on the next spiritual level when he kept the law of his “father” on that level. This law constituted the terms of the covenant and grew more stringent or refined as one ascended. We thus have the concept of “higher” and “lesser” laws that qualify a person for higher or lower kingdoms.
Helaman says of his army of two thousand Ammonites, “I had ever called them my sons,” his explanation being that “they were all of them very young” (Alma 56:46). These statements imply that he had a long-standing relationship with the sons of the Ammonites, perhaps as their teacher and instructor, much as the disciples of Old Testament prophets were called “sons of the prophets,” while the prophets were referred to as “father” (2 Kings 2:3–15; 4:1, 38; 13:14; Amos 2:11).
But the Ammonites’ youthfulness was certainly not the only consideration. They were also young spiritually and hadn’t yet endured the rigors of life that would qualify them as “sons” of God in the fullest covenantal sense of the term. The battles they were about to fight would prove them “exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity” (Alma 53:20).
In the end, through the most unrelenting and adverse circumstances, which they willingly endured, the young Ammonites proved to be “men of truth and soberness,” who were “true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted” (Alma 53:20–21). In the course of defending the liberty of the land, and the trials of their faith that this opportunity afforded them, they graduated from being Helaman’s young and inexperienced “sons” to “men” in their own right (ibid.), who themselves kept the law of God (Alma 58:40).
A second clue to the theology behind their miraculous deliverance is that when they “entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites” (Alma 53:17), they appointed Helaman as their leader (Alma 53:19) and were diligent to “obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness” (Alma 57:21). Though they had never before fought, “they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives” (Alma 56:47).
These actions and this mind-set accord with the covenantal principle that if the people of a vassal king keep the law of the vassal, and the vassal keeps the law of the emperor, then the emperor is bound by the terms of the covenant to protect both the vassal and his people. Translated into practical terms, in any covenant relationship God has that follows this pattern—whether with Helaman or with anyone who is anointed a spiritual king and a priest in the house of Israel—that meant that if the sons of Helaman would keep his law, and Helaman kept God’s law, then God was bound by the terms of his covenant with Helaman (who was a “high priest,” Alma 46:6) to protect both Helaman and his sons.
This covenant theology was so ingrained in Hebrew thought, and so widely practiced by Book of Mormon peoples, that those who were party to it had implicit faith that its protection clause would, in fact, operate even under the most extreme of circumstances. Helaman remarks, “They did not doubt God would deliver them” (Alma 56:47), and “even according to their faith it was done unto them” (Alma 57:21). He adds, “And we do justly ascribe [their deliverance] to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they had been taught to believe” (Alma 57:26).
Within such a tightly formulated covenant framework, moreover, every one of Helaman’s sons wasn’t just preserved alive—whilst all around them men were slain—they were additionally empowered to fight “as with the strength of God” (Alma 56:56) and to “administer death unto all those who opposed them” (Alma 57:19).
Though there exist many scriptural and non-scriptural instances of this phenomenon of divine protection, including the sons of Mosiah’s perilous mission among the Lamanites, the example of Helaman and his stripling warriors is preeminent in a military context. It stands out as an illustrious type of “celestial” commanders of “terrestrial” armies who will defend the liberty of this land in the last days according to the prophetic pattern the Book of Mormon provides.
*See Chapter 8, “An Infinite Atonement;” and Chapter 18, “The Father and the Son.”
*For a fuller explanation of covenant theology—from its ancient Near Eastern roots through the Old Testament and Book of Mormon to covenant relationships in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ—see “Priesthood, Patriarchy, and Proxy Salvation,” The Last Days, 175–261; and Isaiah Decoded, 169–219, 263–320.