Alma’s Cry for Salvation

Matthew L. Bowen

Matthew L. Bowen, "Alma's Cry for Salvation," Religious Educator 24, no. 2 (2023): 40–49.

Matthew L. Bowen ( is an associate professor of Religious Education at BYU–Hawaii. He holds a PhD in biblical studies (CUA).

the angel appearing before AlmaLike Alma, we can come to know that "there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ... whereby man can be saved." Remembering the Savior (modified), by Kevin Keele. Courtesy of Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Keywords: Book of Mormon, chiasm, psalms


Arguably the single greatest textual discovery in the Book of Mormon is John W. Welch’s discovery of a chiasm—a literary and rhetorical figure in which words and concepts are presented in a certain order and then presented again in reverse order—spanning the entirety of Alma 36.[1] Although alternative models of this chapter and refinements for Welch’s chiastic model have been proposed,[2] these still see Alma’s remembering and crying out to Jesus Christ as the χ (chi), or structural turning point, of the chiasm:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried [compare Hebrew ʾăšawwēaʿ] within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. (Alma 36:17–18)

In this short study, I endeavor to show that the language of Alma’s cry for help consciously resembles similar cries for help in the Psalms and, in particular, the cry for help in Psalm 18:4–6 [MT 5–7]. A comparison of Alma’s language in Alma 36:17–18 with the language used in Psalm 18:4–6 suggests that Alma understands the name “Jesus” (Hebrew yĕhôšûaʿ or yēšûaʿ) as being synonymous with divine salvation. In other words, Alma “cries” for salvation from his sins by invoking the name that denotes divine salvation by using a paronomasia—a wordplay involving terms from similar-sounding but unrelated roots. The paronomasia emphasizes Jesus as the source of salvation that comes in response to Alma’s cry for divine help. Using language that echoes the Psalms, Jonah’s Psalm (Jonah 2), and Lehi’s dream, Alma helps his sons and modern readers fathom the depths of his spiritual agony, his need for the salvation from sin that only comes through Jesus Christ, and the relief that comes from crying to the Lord in faith.

A Note on Book of Mormon Language and the Language of Alma 36

Moroni states that the plates of Mormon (comprising everything from Mosiah 1 through Moroni 10) were “written . . . in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Mormon 9:32). This statement indicates that Mormon and Moroni used Egyptian characters to write a Nephite-language record, a language that began as Hebrew (the spoken language of Lehi’s and Ishmael’s families) and changed over time.

Moroni then states, “And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record” (Mormon 9:33). This statement suggests the possibility that the Nephite language continued to be written in Hebrew to the end. It is reasonable then that Alma’s “commandments” to his three sons (Alma 36–42), which Mormon includes in his record with minimal editorial interference, were originally recorded in Nephite Hebrew.

For purposes of my thesis, I will proceed under the assumption that Alma’s counsel to Helaman was originally given and recorded in a form of Nephite Hebrew, regardless of the language Mormon may have used to include this material in his record. If this is the case, Hebrew language and literary considerations in this text would be particularly germane. I wish to emphasize that since the precise nature of the script and language used by Mormon and Moroni on the plates of Mormon is presently unknown, the Hebrew language connections presented here must ultimately remain at least somewhat tentative.

“I Cried Within My Heart”: Alma 36:17–18, Psalm 18:4–6, and the Name Jesus

Alma’s familiarity with and use of the Psalms is evident at several points. John Hilton has noted some of these in a recent study.[3] For example, Alma’s use of the phrase “pure heart and clean hands” (Alma 5:19) is clearly an adaptation of Psalm 24:4.[4] Psalm 95 constitutes an important part of Alma’s speech at Ammonihah, a detail that Grant Hardy has also previously noted.[5]

A comparison between the language of Alma 36:17–18 and the language of Psalm 18:4–6 [MT 5–7] reveals significant terminological parallels between the two passages, enough to suggest the textual dependency of Alma’s account upon the more ancient Psalm 18:

Alma 36:17–18Psalm 18:4–6 [MT 5–7]
And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried [ʾăšawwēaʿ] within my heart: O Jesus [yĕhôšûaʿ or yēšûaʿ], thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. (Alma 36:17–18)The sorrows of death [cords of death] compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid. The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried [ʾăšawwēaʿ] unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry [wĕšawʿātî] came before him, even into his ears.

The verb šāwaʿ, meaning “to cry out for help”[6] or “to call for help,”[7] occurs twenty-one times in the Hebrew Bible,[8] predominantly in Job and the Psalms but also in Psalm-influenced texts like Jonah 2 (sometimes called Jonah’s Psalm). The noun šawʿâ (“a cry for help,” “a call for help, a scream, a cry”) occurs eleven times in the Hebrew Bible, again primarily in the Psalms. This distribution of the noun and the verb highlights the intensity of the emotion inherent to šāwaʿ.

The aural and conceptual connection between crying for divine help (šāwaʿ) and divine salvation or rescuing (yāšaʿ) as a response can be seen in Psalm 72: “For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth [mĕšawwēaʿ]; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save [yôšiaʿ] the souls of the needy” (vv. 12–13). Jay Goldingay recognized the paronomasia involving these two verbs, noting that the verb šāwaʿ, describing the act of crying for divine help, “is neatly similar” to yāšaʿ, the verb describing divine salvation.[9] The prophet Habakkuk uses a similar paronomasia in Habakkuk 1:2: “O Lord, how long shall I cry [šiwwaʿtî], and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save [wĕlōʾ tôšîaʿ]!” The same connection can be seen in the psalmist’s declaration regarding his enemies: “They cried [yĕšawwĕʿû], but there was none to save [môšîaʿ] them” (Psalm 18:41; emphasis added).

Alma does something similar when recounting his cry for salvation. In this instance, however, the name Jesus itself—yĕhôšûaʿ or yēšûaʿ—serves as the yāšaʿ-based “salvation” term matching šāwaʿ. The name Jesus means “Jehovah is salvation” or “Jehovah will save.” We recall the angelic explanation of Jesus’s naming in Matthew 1:21: “And thou shalt call his name JESUS [Greek: Iēsoun for Hebrew/Aramaic yĕhôšûaʿ/yēšûaʿ]: for he shall save [Greek sōsei for Hebrew yôšiaʿ] his people from their sins” (emphasis added).

Similar Cries for Salvation in the Psalms and Jonah

Another cry for salvation in the Psalms, with language reminiscent of Psalm 18:4–6 and Alma 36:18–19, occurs in Psalm 30: “O Lord my God, I cried [šiwwaʿtî] unto thee, and thou hast healed me. O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave [min- šĕʾôl]: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit” (vv. 2–3). Psalm 40 describes a similar cry for salvation and reversal: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry [šawʿātî]. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings” (vv. 1–2).

Like these answered cries for healing and help, the experience described in Jonah’s Psalm also seems germane to Alma the Younger’s experience: “I cried [šiwwaʿtî] by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell [mibbeṭen šĕʾôl] cried I, and thou heardest my voice” (Jonah 2:2 [MT 3]). Jonah makes his cry for salvation even as he is being “compassed . . . about” (yĕsōbĕbēnî) by the floods and the waters (Jonah 2:3, 5 [MT 4, 6]), just as Alma makes his cry for salvation while being “encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18). Moreover, Alma’s “remember[ing] . . . concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ” (Alma 36:17) matches Jonah’s “remember[ing] the Lord”: “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple” (Jonah 2:7).

Finally, the phrase “I cried [šiwwaʿtî] by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord” (Jonah 2:2) is matched by Jonah’s subsequent declaration: “Salvation is of the Lord [yĕšûʿātâ lyhwh]” (Jonah 2:9). Albert Kamp writes, “The iconic similarity between [šāwaʿ] and [yāšaʿ] and their ‘opposite’ connotations of asking for help and the receipt of rescue, appeal to a form of inner reversal by Jonah. From a question his prayer develops into a statement of fact.”[10] The meaning of Jonah’s assertion that “salvation is of the Lord” or “salvation belongs to the Lord” is clear: Jehovah is the source of all salvation. Thus, “he alone is in a position to reverse Jonah’s miserable situation.”[11]

Alma reiterates the same point when he recounts to his son Shiblon an abbreviated version of his cry for salvation. Alma learned personally that Jesus was the source of the relief he sought from his sins—his personal Savior who would respond to his cry for salvation. He also learned that Jesus is the only hope of salvation for the human family:

And it came to pass that I was three days and three nights in the most bitter pain and anguish of soul; and never, until I did cry out unto the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, did I receive a remission of my sins. But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul.

And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness. (Alma 38:8–9; emphasis added)

painting of jonah on the beach of ninevahJonah was, for "three days and three nights," in the "belly of hell." Alma, also for "three days and three nights," was "encircled about by the everlasting chains of death." Alma's description of his three-day experience in terms of "death" further draws his experience into close parallel with that of Jonah. Jonah on the Beach of Nineveh, by Daniel A. Lewis. Courtesy of Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Jonah was, for “three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17; Matthew 12:40), in the “belly of hell” (that is, the belly of Sheol [šĕʾôl], Jonah 1:17, 2:2) or “the world of spirits.”[12] Alma, also for “three days and three nights” (Alma 36:10, 16; 38:8), was “encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18) and “in the most bitter pain” (Alma 38:8). Alma’s description of this three-day experience in terms of “death” (Hebrew māwet/môt, corresponding to Mot, the Levantine personification of death) further draws his experience into close parallel with that of Jonah. Death and hell—Mot and Sheol—are often personified and paired in the Hebrew Bible.[13] Nephi’s brother Jacob specifically describes this pairing as “monster[s]” that Jesus Christ’s Atonement defeats (see 2 Nephi 9:10–22, 26).[14]

In Psalm 116, the psalmist recounts divine deliverance similar to what Alma experienced: “I love the Lord, because he hath heard my voice and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live. The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord; O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul” (vv. 1–4). Alma, like the psalmist, very literally “called . . . upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:4) and experienced what Nephi called “the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). Other prophets, like Moses (see Moses 1:12–25) and Joseph Smith (see Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17), also became powerful witnesses of the Atonement of Jesus Christ by experiencing divine deliverance from Satan and the powers of darkness.

Additional Insight for Religious Educators: Alma the Younger and Lehi’s Dream

One question that sometimes arises for religious educators is, “What hope of salvation is there for those who stray from the covenant path?” Alma the Younger has answered that question for us himself in his conversion account. As the son of Alma the Elder, the high priest of the Church, Alma the Younger had been taught the gospel in his youth. He had likely commenced in the covenant path before he “wander[ed] in strange roads” (compare 1 Nephi 8:32) and ultimately fought against the Church and his father’s work, as the denizens of the great and spacious building did in Lehi’s dream (compare 1 Nephi 8:26–28; Mosiah 27:8–10; Alma 36:6).

Regarding Lehi’s dream, Lehi’s prayer for mercy (“I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies” [1 Nephi 8:8]) finds a ready similarity in Alma’s words, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:18). Daniel Belnap has noted that Alma directly alludes to Lehi’s dream when he recalls: “I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy . . . concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” (Alma 36:17–18).[15] Alma’s mind “ca[tching] hold upon [the] thought” of Jesus Christ—that is, upon the Word which darkness cannot comprehend, grasp, or understand[16]—and crying out to Jesus represents the point in his spiritual journey where he catches hold of the iron rod and commences again in the covenant path, exercising faith in Jesus Christ and taking the first step of repentance.

In other words, Alma’s conversion experience, which begins with his catching hold on Jesus Christ as the Savior, represents a return to the iron rod. As religious educators, we can point our students, family members, and all Latter-day Saints to Alma the Younger as a scriptural example of one who let go of the iron rod and left the covenant path but later returned, grasped the rod anew, and ever after “labored without ceasing, that [he] might bring souls unto repentance; that [he] might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which [he] did taste” (Alma 36:24; see also vv. 25–26). Like his ancestor Lehi, Alma had “tasted” of the fruit of the tree of life (that is, “exceeding joy”) and beckoned others to do likewise (compare 1 Nephi 8:11–15).


The language and imagery of the Psalms, Jonah 2, and Lehi’s dream gave Alma the Younger a means of expressing an eternal truth that he learned through personal experience: Jesus is salvation in every sense, including salvation from the agony of personal alienation from God through sin. In the Hebrew words Alma chooses to use, we see the correspondence between a cry for help and salvation.

Alma came to know what his ancestor Nephi knew: “There is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ . . . whereby man can be saved” (2 Nephi 25:20; see also Mosiah 3:17; 5:8; and Acts 4:12). Alma returned to the covenant path and the iron rod when his mind “caught hold” on the Savior as the Word, and he cried out for salvation and subsequently “tasted” of the everlasting joy provided by the Atonement. His life changed forever, and his words continue to change lives, beckoning to us from the distant past to partake of Christ’s salvation.


[1] John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, no. 1 (1969): 69–84. See also Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 114–31.

[2] See Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2007), 320; Noel B. Reynolds, “Rethinking Alma 36,” in Give Ear to My Words: Text and Context of Alma 36–42, ed. Kerry Hull, Nicholas J. Frederick, and Hank R. Smith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 456; and the updated version of this same chapter, Reynolds, “Rethinking Alma 36,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 279–312 (especially p. 289).

[3] John Hilton III, “Old Testament Psalms in the Book of Mormon,” in Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament (2013 Sperry Symposium), ed. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Matthew J. Grey, and David Rolph Seely (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 291–311.

[4] Hilton, “Old Testament Psalms,” 295, 297.

[5] Grant Hardy, ed., The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (Urbana; Chicago; Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 288n1.

[6] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1906; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 1002.

[7] Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1443.

[8] Job 29:12; 30:20, 28; 35:9 (twice); 36:13, 38:41; Psalm 18:6, 41 [MT 7, 42]; 22:24; 28:2; 30:2; 31:22; 72:12; 88:13; 119:147; Lamentations 3:8; Jonah 2:2 (twice); Habakkuk 1:2 (twice).

[9] John Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 2: Psalms 42–89, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 390.

[10] Albert Kamp, Inner Worlds: A Cognitive Linguistic Approach to the Book of Jonah (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2004), 187.

[11] Kamp, Inner Worlds, 187.

[12] See Jay A. Parry and Donald W. Parry, Understanding Death and the Resurrection (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 167.

[13] See Isaiah 28:15, 17; Isaiah 38:18; Hosea 13:14; Psalm 6:5 [MT 6]; 49:14 [MT 15]; 89:48 [MT 49]; compare 1 Corinthians 15:55; Revelation 6:8; 20:13.

[14] See Daniel L. Belnap, “‘I Will Contend with Them That Contendeth with Thee’: The Divine Warrior in Jacob’s Speech of 2 Nephi 6–10,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 17, nos. 1–2 (2008): 20–39.

[15] Daniel L. Belnap, “‘Even as Our Father Lehi Saw’: Lehi’s Dream as Nephite Cultural Narrative,” in The Things Which My Father Saw: Approaches to Lehi’s Dream and Nephi’s Vision (2011 Sperry Symposium), ed. Daniel L. Belnap, Gaye Strathearn, and Stanley A. Johnson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 223; and Belnap, “‘There Arose A Mist of Darkness’: The Narrative of Lehi’s Dream in Christ’s Theophany,” in Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, ed. Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearn (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 92–93.

[16] Compare John 1:1–5. Christ is the Word and the Light that darkness cannot grasp or overcome (Greek katelaben).