26 October 2006

The Weakness of the Book of Mormon

Those who attend Gospel Doctrine class are by now nearly through the Old Testament. To many this has been...chore, but hopefully it has also been enlightening. The Old Testament has so much to offer, not simply due to its length, but also to its complexity.

Here are a few characteristics of the Old Testament, some that make for truly superb study, others that that make it indecipherable, and some that do both:

  1. Complex Structure: most everyone loves a good chiasmus, especially when someone else works it out for you—and the Old Testament has chiasmi within chiasmi.
  2. Rhetorical Style: Hebrew poetry employed repetition, parallelism, grammar, and word-plays; western poetry is more about rhymes and meters. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of the "poems" in the Old Testament, and the emphasis they anticipate; are missed by most readers.
  3. Unidentified Redactors: much of the Old Testament was written, edited, and revised by unknown or unidentified authors. Were they wise, righteous, inspired, vengeful, manipulative, or perverse? One thing is probably certain: they were well educated.
  4. Oral Tradition: many of the stories and events were passed down orally from person to person until much later some scribe captured them in ink. The benefit: the stories were adapted to sound good to the ear, not just look good on papyrus.
  5. Culture Context: when we say "ancient" Hebrew, we often mean "very ancient." In the western United States, any building over fifty years old is considered ancient; go to Israel, however, and one hundred, five hundred, even one thousand years might still be considered recent. And throughout that history Israel sat in the center of the world: it knew Sumeria and the birth of Egypt, the long reign of Assyria and the relative flash of Babylonia, it neighbored Phoenicia and traded with the Greeks—and every page of the Old Testament is soaked in the richness of that history and changing culture.
  6. Birth of a Religion: we get to follow God’s continuing struggle to establish not only a nation, but a religion. The Israelites were really all converts—surrounded by other religions—and we learn line upon line as they struggle to learn the basics and the intricacies of God.

Certainly there is more, but the title of this post indicates that this is not what I wanted to talk about—so let’s move on.

Two Book of Mormon authors, Nephi and Moroni, lament what they call a "weakness" in writing:

"And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking...And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness." (2 Nephi 33:1,11)

"And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them. (Ether 12:23-24)

Many of us read that, then read one of our favorite verses (eg. 1 Nephi 3:7) and think, "What? They're just being modest!"

But if we remember to what they compared themselves (viz. the Old Testament), we see that they have a point. The Book of Mormon lacks much of what makes the Old Testament such a pleasure—and a challenge—to study:

  1. Structure: yes, the Book of Mormon has chiasmi, but they are not only rare, they are also simple. That is not to sat that they aren’t beautiful, but compared to Deuteronomy 11, chiasmi in the Book of Mormon are amateur. I don’t doubt that the Nephites were intelligent, I just think that Mormon tended to focus less on "the finer points of language" and more on "the finer points of swords."
  2. Language: whatever linguistic devices the Book of Mormon authors used in their reformed Egyptian was probably fairly basic, given that it was not their native language. In any case, much of it would be lost in translation to English and, unlike the Hebrew of the Old Testament, unavailable as source material for us today.
  3. Authorship: conspicuously, every word in the Book of Mormon can be attributed to a known author. There are a couple of cases when it is difficult to distinguish between two candidates (eg. when Moroni inserts his comments in Ether), but we always know the names of the two possibilities. Furthermore, it is always clear who kept the plates and who abridged what. (This point is not weakened if you insist that Joseph Smith influenced the wording in the translation process.)
  4. Permanent Medium: the Book of Mormon authors employ the complete opposite of oral tradition: they write their words in unchanging gold. Not paper that rots, stone that erodes, or iron that rusts—they use gold. As a result, there is no changing over the years the things that Nephi wrote; ie. even if he had wanted to, Helaman couldn’t have modified or edited something Nephi wrote in order to make it more beautiful or correlated.
  5. Unknown Culture: we know almost nothing about Nephite civilization and culture. I know that statement might upset many FARMS fans, but in comparison to the archeology in the Middle East, it is true. We can assume that certain aspects were similar to ancient Israelite culture, but even that is speculation: how many of us would claim that our families accurately and completely capture all aspects of our nation’s culture?
  6. Maintenance of a Religion: Nephi clearly had a deep understanding of his religion, and he effectively taught it too, as evidenced by his brother Jacob’s speeches and writings. Their focus, however, was on strengthening people in their faith, not to establish a novel religion.

(By this point I fear that most readers will have either stopped reading this post due to lost interest or are close to leaving due to being offended by my critique of the Book of Mormon. To the former I say, "The winning numbers for tomorrow’s lottery are 4-3-6-9-7." To the latter, I say, "Read on.")

The Book of Mormon authors who worried so much about their weak writing were promised by the Lord that it would be made strong:

"And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them...." (2 Nephi 33:4)
"Behold, I will show unto the Gentiles their weakness....

"And I, Moroni, having heard these words, was comforted, and said: O Lord, thy righteous will be done, for I know that thou workest unto the children of men according to their faith." (Ether 12:28-29)

I can imagine that Nephi and Moroni might have pictured the Lord rewriting and embellishing their words to make them more like the Old Testament, but what actually happened is even more profound: the past weaknesses of the Book of Mormon are actually its strengths today. We struggle through the Old Testament because:

  1. We don’t "do" chiasmus, so any that exist in the Book of Mormon go undiscovered by most readers. We do "do" climax-resolution-explanation, and that ("thus we see") is how the Book of Mormon is written.
  2. We don’t "get" Hebrew. We "get" English, and we tend to prefer "straight talk." With a limited language and limited time and space in which to write, the Nephites played right into our strength. Mormon, a military man, must have thought and wrote like a military man, not like a poet, philosopher, or intellectual.
  3. We want sources and trust authority. One result of Nephite recordkeeping is that every word is attributable to someone we identify as being a prophet (except for a few cases when the person writes very little or even admits their unworthiness; eg. Omni).
  4. We don’t read aloud. We each have our own set of scriptures—something unimaginable even a few hundred years ago—and we read to ourselves. So we don’t really need or want our scriptures to read like a sermon; we just want them to be readable.
  5. We have trouble defining our own culture, let alone relating to someone else’s. The benefit of an obscure and barely referenced Nephite culture is that we get to—sometimes have to—ignore it.
  6. Here’s where the Old Testament would have an advantage over the Book of Mormon in our day: the Old Testament is a story of conversion—and what better story to give to an investigator. But that storyline is often missed, not only because of the complexities mentioned above, but because members and most investigators already know the general Judeo-Christian story, we read the Old Testament not as a conversion story but as an illustration of stubbornness and ignorance. The Book of Mormon, in contrast, is addressed to Nephites who had some understanding of God but needed to repent and draw closer to him—which is exactly the message members and investigators need as well.

In summary, I love the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, but in some ways for different reasons. Imagine our missionaries around the world handing people the first ten books of the Old Testament to read as an introduction to our faith. I think it would be a disaster. In contrast, the Book of Mormon, thanks to its weaknesses, is actually pretty easy to follow and makes a very clear statement: "that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL God, manifesting himself unto all nations."


24 October 2006

God as a Woman (Isaiah 49:15)

The Bible likens the Lord to many different things in order to illustrate his relationship with us. In those comparisons, the Lord is usually represented in a masculine form: bridegroom, king, husband, warrior, father, tradesman. (Each of these is used often enough that I don't feel that they need citations.)

As far as I know, there are only two* scriptures that cast the Lord in a feminine form:

"Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee." (Isaiah 49:15)
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37)
Nevermind any speculation on what this might mean concerning the nature of God, Heavenly Mother, etc. I want to point out three things:

  1. In both cases, the relationship is Mother:Child, with the Lord in the dominant role.
  2. Both use very tender imagery, but illustrate two different aspects of our relationship with God.
  3. The comparisons are beautiful.


* The following is an addition after posting made in response to Julie M. Smith's comment:

Deuteronomy 32:11:
"As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings:"
The problem with this example is that the eagle in many translations is neuter; ie. "its wings" instead of "her wings." (My Israeli friend confirms that the Hebrew reads as either "him" or "it.") Perhaps KJV translators erroneously assumed that an eagle hen is abandoned by the cock and alone must care for the young?

Deuteronomy 32:18:
"Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee."
I read this as a masculine reference. Compare Isaiah 51:1-2, where Abraham is a rock and Sarah is a quarry.

Job 38:29:
"Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?"
Thanks for the addition.

Psalms 22:9-10:
"But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly."
The way I read this verse, the speaker (David?) is referring to his actual mother, not comparing God to a woman. He is saying, "I have had faith in you since the day I was born."

Psalms 91:4:
"He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler."
This is an example of God as a bird, but not as a hen. It reads "his feathers."

Isaiah 42:14:
"I have long time holden my peace; I have been still, and refrained myself: now will I cry like a travailing woman; I will destroy and devour at once."
Good example. Thanks!

Isaiah 66:9:
"Shall I bring to the birth, and not cause to bring forth? saith the LORD: shall I cause to bring forth, and shut the womb? saith thy God."
I am intrigued by this one. Is the LORD giving birth or is he acting as midwife? The verse on its own reads as the former, but the context points to the latter. Either way, it is a female role.

Isaiah 66:13:
"As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem."
Beautiful! Thanks for the addition.


23 October 2006

Forcing Peace (Isaiah 2:4)

In the past, whenever I have read Isaiah 2:4, I have read it as a time when the Lord would live on this earth and "fix all its problems," specifically that he would bring about world peace:

"And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
As I read it this year, something stood out to me: the verse doesn't say anything about the Lord establishing peace. He will "judge" and he will "rebuke," but it is the people that will abandon war, thus ushering in a time of unprecedented peace.

(Of course, the Lord's judgments and reproofs will undoubtedly play an important role in bringing about the necessary changes of heart.)


17 October 2006

Abraham Part VII: A Strange Definition of Rest


"...finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me..."
We end how Abraham began—a phrase I have always found humorous. What could Abraham possibly mean by "greater...rest"? If we look at Abraham’s life, we see that this is both an understatement and a very strange definition.

As an understatement, we have to look at the context of the verse: Abraham has chosen to leave his father’s house in Ur and pursue a path that will lead him to Jehovah. If we remember that Abraham had narrowly escaped being sacrificed to his own father’s gods—a fate that apparently Abraham’s brother suffered—then we might say that for Abraham, things could only get easier. So "greater happiness and peace and rest" might simply mean "getting away from my filicidal dad."

But this is not how Abraham is thinking. First, he takes his father with him. Second, he is clearly not referring to getting away from a rotten former life but instead he is describing how he views the life that lay ahead. What I find so interesting is that Abraham makes this statement after living the post-Ur life; i.e. this is Abraham looking back over his life and calling it happy, peaceful, and restful.

A reminder of some of the events in Abraham’s life will show why this is noteworthy. During Abraham's life he:

• Flees from drought
• Wanders as a stranger in Canaan
• Fears he will be killed in Egypt
• Goes to battle against a huge army
• Sees his son-in-law’s family get nearly destroyed
• Goes without children until he is well over 60 years old
• Is told to sacrifice his own son
• Toils to make a living where he owns no land
• Expels one of his own sons from his household

Abraham’s life was filled with events that we would normally call hardships, trials, or challenges, yet he remembers the walk up the mount with Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael as "happy"; he looks back on the conflicts with Pharaoh, Abimelech, and the conquerors of Sodom and calls it "peace"; he recalls the miles and miles of travel, travel, travel in search of the land of his inheritance and he calls it "rest." Was Abraham crazy, or was he just blessed with wisdom to see the good in the bad he had experienced?

"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).
Incidentally, there is only one other verse in the scriptures that uses this combination of words (Alma 40: 12):

"And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow."

This concludes my series on Abraham 1:2. If you followed the series and liked the way it was published, please let me know. If you found it annoying (ie. you would have preferred to have it all at once) let me know as well. Thanks.


15 October 2006

Abraham Part VI: Defining the Priesthood


"...sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same..."
Abraham states what he desires, but it is not the same as what he seeks. This is not a foreign concept for those who have read Matthew 6:23:
"But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you."
In this manner, Abraham does not seek learning so that he can "possess a greater knowledge," he does not seek personal enrichment so that he can be a "greater follower of righteousness," and so on. In order to obtain the blessings he desires, he seeks the priesthood.

This gives us interesting insight into how Abraham viewed the priesthood and its effect on those who exercise it. If asked to define the priesthood, Abraham might agree with some of the answers we commonly hear: The power of God, An eternal principle, A form of government, An opportunity to serve. But this verse suggests that Abraham might give a different definition: The means by which God’s blessings are realized.

Thinking of the priesthood in this way brings new understanding to the promise made to Abraham in the following chapter (Abraham 2:9,11):
"And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations;

"And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal."


13 October 2006

Abraham Part V: Commandments as Rewards

...continued from Part IV:

4) Abraham understands the purpose of commandments: Many people mistakenly think that a relationship with God should progress in the same way as a relationship with parents; ie. in childhood there are numerous rules to follow, but as one grows older and proves oneself more responsible, fewer and fewer rules are imposed as they eventually become unnecessary. Abraham, however, desires to more "instructions." Rather than view commandments as restrictions, Abraham sees them as rewards for good behavior.
Adam and Eve exemplify this pattern (Moses 5:1-11):

"And it came to pass that after I, the Lord God, had driven them out, that Adam began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, as I the Lord had commanded him. And Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him. And Adam knew his wife, and she bare unto him sons and daughters, and they began to multiply and to replenish the earth."
They were obedient to the commandments they had been given (Moses 4:22, 25, 28) and then pray to God:
"And Adam and Eve, his wife, called upon the name of the Lord..."
And what did they pray for? We do not know, but we see how they were rewarded for their obedience:
"...And he gave unto them commandments..."
Once again, Adam and Eve were obedient:
"...that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord."
And how were they rewarded this time? With knowledge:
"And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam…saying: This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth."
...and more commandments:
"Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore."
Which ultimately leads to the greatest (in my opinion; because it was without precedent) moment of revelation in human history:
"And in that day the Holy Ghost fell upon Adam...saying: I am the Only Begotten of the Father from the beginning, henceforth and forever, that as thou hast fallen thou mayest be redeemed, and all mankind, even as many as will.

"And in that day Adam blessed God and was filled, and began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.

"And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient."


11 October 2006

Abraham Part IV: Order One of Everything

...continued from Part III:

3) Abraham is ambitious: or some may say, "audacious." Abraham—without qualification (stipulation)—wants to be "a father of many nations" and "a prince of peace." Several questions come to mind, none of which I have answers to: Was this the standard dream for men in ancient times, or was Abraham really thinking big? Was Abraham the exception, or should all of us ask for truly great rewards? What does Abraham mean by "prince of peace"? Was Abraham promised this before or because he desired it?

Alma 29:3 seems relevant:

"But behold, I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me."


06 October 2006

Abraham Part III: Obedience & Righteousness

...continued from Part II:

2) Abraham seems repetitive (again): he wants to be a "follower of righteousness" and also “to keep the commandments”. This may not seem repetitive until one tries to define “righteousness”—which must include some mention of keeping the commandments. The difference between the two can be explained by Matthew 24:45-46:

“Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.”
...and D&C 58:26:
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”
Abraham sees the difference between patiently serving by one’s actions (keeping the commandments) and taking the initiative to serve with one’s whole heart, mind, and body (following righteousness).


05 October 2006

Abraham Part II: Depth & Breadth of Knowledge

...continued from Part I:

Abraham tells us, in reverse order, what he desired, how he went about obtaining it, and what it brought him:


"…desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God…"
There are several interesting points here:

1) Abraham seems repetitive: he mentions "great knowledge" and then "greater knowledge." The difference Abraham saw between these two gifts is possibly explained in D&C 42:61:
"If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal."
In other words, Abraham wanted to understand what was already understood by the prophets of God and the sages of the world, but he also wanted to extend his understanding beyond what was already known. (We see in Chapter 3-5 some of the fulfillment of this wish.)


04 October 2006

Abraham Part I: Desired -> Sought -> Found

The Book of Abraham begins with a personal statement from the patriarch himself. In a single verse, Abraham teaches an incredible amount:

“And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.”
The verse could be broken into three parts: what Abraham desired, what he sought, and what he found. What is the relationship of these three terms? I have hinted at my answer in the title of this post. “Desire” implies craving, yearning, or wishing, but does not necessitate any action on the desirer’s part to obtain the object of his attention. “Seeking” means that action is being taken to reach the goal. Finally, “found” means that the efforts were successful. Abraham tells us, in reverse order, what he desired, how he went about obtaining it, and what it brought him.

continue to Part II...

Over the next several days, I will post the remainder of my thoughts on this verse. Please feel free to jump ahead of me in your comments; if I don't want to discuss something "early" I will say so.

If this format seems a bit "Moggetish" (a la Faith-Promoting Rumor), that's not entirely accidental. Which is not to say that it was intentional or that it remotely approaches what Mogget would publish.


01 October 2006

Apologies (during upgrading)

I am upgrading my blog and as a consequence there will be some nuisances (in addition to those regularly encountered) here:

1. Visitors will notice a number of changes that may leave them momentarily disoriented---please use the buddy system during this time.

2. Users of Mormon Archipelago (MA) will notice many of my old posts showing up. This happens because that site looks for newly published posts, but does not distinguish between updated and totally new posts. So if I make a spelling correction on an old post, it shows up on MA as a new post. Again, my apologies to the users of MA and the bloggers with whom I share the lowly "barely-if-ever-frequented blogs" box.