Interestingly, a knowledge of Mesoamerican culture may help fill in the gaps and make the story more intelligible to us. So argues Brant Gardner in
"The Case for Historicity: Discerning the Book of Mormon's Production Culture." I recommend his article for many reasons, but I find the small section on Ammon and the Waters of Sebus especially interesting. Here are some of his thoughts:
Mesoamerican political tensions supply the missing content [in this story]. Maya kings balanced their own power base against competing lineages. The translated texts tell of some instances that appear to indicate a change in the power balance, with a new lineage assuming the throne and creating a new dynasty. Historian David Drew describes the problem for the Maya kings:This is one of those numerous little gems in the Book of Mormon where the text is "smarter" than any nineteenth-century forger could have been. In this case, what might look silly to a reader in 1830 or our day begins to make a lot more sense when we important new knowledge from the ancient world. The possibility of delicate intrigues between rival noble lineages in King Lamoni's own court and extended family help explain much in Alma 17 and 18. Kudos to Ammon for being a much better wildcard than Lamoni expected, and kudos to Brant Gardner for the Mesoamerican insight.Increasingly recognized today...is the likelihood of a constant, dynamic tension between the ruler, along with the family group, the royal lineage that surrounded him, and other powerful and long-established lineages within a city state. The centralizing success of royal dynasties almost certainly obscures the extent to which kings depended upon and negotiated with other political factions. For each dynasty of the Classic period had in earlier centuries been merely one among many such patrilineages or kin-groups. It is impossible to know with any precision how ruling lines established themselves at the end of the Preclassic period--as war-leaders, perhaps, or as mediators in local disputes. However they came by their authority, they could only have maintained it through consent and co-operation, despite the impression of absolute power that their monuments create. From the eighth century, at Cop�n in particular, there is some evidence of the negotiation that must have gone on behind the scenes. There is little reason to believe that this kind of jostling was not seen in earlier centuries too.[David Drew, The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 324.]All aspects of the story of Ammon at the waters of Sebus make perfect sense against the backdrop of a Mesoamerican king struggling with competition from a powerful rival lineage. Note that when the king is discussing the incident with Ammon he asks: "tell me by what power ye slew and smote off the arms of my brethren that scattered my flocks" (Alma 18:20, emphasis added). While it is possible that the phrase "my brethren" is extremely generic, it would be very unusual to presume robbers as "brothers" of a king, and equally as unusual to include anyone outside of the city as one's "brothers." These thieves really are "brethren," and that is the whole reason for the trouble. Now let me retell the story against the backdrop of political tensions with Lamoni's "brethren."
Ammon comes before the king and asks to be a servant. Ammon is a Nephite and therefore not only an outsider but an enemy. The king offers to make him family by marrying one of his daughters. If Ammon had accepted, he would also have accepted rule by the new family and therefore be under the king's control. By refusing, Ammon continues to be an outsider and therefore potentially uncontrollable. The king decides to place Ammon in a position where this condition of being outside the city's political intrigues might be advantageous: He sends him to water the flocks at Sebus.
The dumb thieves who don't get much from their raids are actually getting everything they want. Key to understanding the story is that whatever ruse was employed to allow the fiction that they were robbers, the reality was that they were well-known to the servants and to the king. They were members of the rival lineage who were attempting to alter the balance of power. By scattering the king's flocks they were embarrassing the king and therefore diminishing his appearance of total control. Because the rival lineage was sufficiently powerful, the king could not move against them directly without creating civil war. Therefore, the king could not send armed guards. If he killed the members of the competing lineage it would break whatever illusion of cooperation there was and instigate civil disorder. The guards cannot defend themselves for the same reason that the king could not send troops.
The king could not, however, allow the situation to completely embarrass him. Therefore the fiction of thievery is either created or allowed to remain. Because something had to be done to restore the king's honor in the situation, the guards are punished for their "failure." The king places the failure on the guards and executes them to demonstrate that he is still controlling the situation.
Along comes Ammon, who is an outsider to the political intrigue. Ammon is not a member of either lineage and as an outsider would be unaware of the identities of these "brethren" thieves or the delicate political situation; he is a wildcard in a high-stakes game. The king deliberately puts him into a situation where it is possible--even probable--that he will use his sword, where all other servants have held theirs. It is quite possible that the king expected Ammon to do some damage, but ultimately fail to protect the flocks. From the king's perspective, any damage that Ammon did would improve the king's standing in the political impasse by gaining more revenge without the political cost--because it was done by an outsider.
When Abish finds many relatives of the robbers as well as the brother of the slain "thief" close by, we have our confirmation that this is a delicate political dance. Only if the family is part of the royal court would so many relatives of outlaws be that close to the home compound of a king. That a family of a thief is that close to the king tells us that the thieves were also that close. The thieves at the waters of Sebus were not from another city. They were not miscreants ostracized from this city. They were of a family that was sufficiently prestigious that it spent time in close proximity to the king. It had to be a competing royal lineage.
This reinterpretation of the events against a Mesoamerican cultural background creates sense from the near nonsense of the contextless account. Our analysis of Book of Mormon politics tells us that not only do the structural elements trace more firmly to a Mesoamerican context, but that the Mesoamerican context provides needed information that fills in the gaps between the assumed understanding of the writer and the reader.