Thursday, December 29, 2011

Women and the Priesthood


Some time ago one of my students asked me for my views on why women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not hold the priesthood. The Church has already addressed that issue at mormon.org with a quote from the late President Gordon B. Hinckley, but his answer is largely circular, saying, in essence, that "women do not hold the priesthood because God has said that women should not hold the priesthood." While President Hinckley's explanation may be true, it hardly addresses my student's desire for understanding as to why God has directed Church leaders not to ordain women to the priesthood.

Of course, having acknowledged the potentially frustrating circularity of this response, I should note that, according to the groundbreaking research of Robert Putnam and David Campbell in American Grace, female members of the Church are more satisfied with their relationship to the priesthood than women in any other American denomination. Putnam and Campbell find that approximately 36% of Mormons think that women's influence in religion is "just right"; evangelicals are the next most satisfied group, and only 15% of them think that women's influence in religion is "just right" (chart, p. 245). More than any other religious group Mormons are satisfied with women's religious roles--and Mormon women are actually more satisfied than men: “Mormon women are overwhelmingly opposed to women as (lay) priests, but Mormon men have more mixed views: 90 percent of Mormon women as compared to 52 percent of Mormon men. In short, Mormons, especially Mormon women, appear to be the only substantial holdouts against the growing and substantial consensus across the religious spectrum in favor of women playing a fuller role in church leadership” (244). Nine out of ten LDS women oppose female ordination to the priesthood, largely because they feel as though they already have a perfectly proportioned role--one that is 'just right'--in church governance.

These statistics suggest that 90% of my female readership (and 48% of my male readership!) may not be interested in what I am about to write, so I dedicate this post to the tithe of Mormon women who might still be interested in what I have to say. But before I can address the question of why Mormon women do not hold the priesthood you--and I--need to come to a mutual understanding as to what we mean by "the priesthood." In one of my favorite General Conference talks of recent memory, President Boyd K. Packer reiterated the standard Mormon definition for the priesthood: "Priesthood is the authority and the power which God has granted to men on earth to act for Him." That definition is wonderful, but it tends to be interpreted very narrowly. There are a multitude of activities which you and I--indeed all of God's children!--have both the divinely-given power and authority to undertake, on God's behalf, that fall outside the traditional definition of priesthood ordinances. 

We all have (or are entitled to have) both the power and authority to: exercise our faith through fasting and prayer on behalf of others with physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual needs; bear testimony that Jesus is the Christ; and (when married) conceive and raise children. All of God's children have both the power and the authority to act on His behalf in these matters when they are living in obedience to his commandments. Members of the Church do not, however, commonly refer to these activities as priesthood service, reserving the term priesthood service for ordinances such as anointing the sick and baptizing or for administering most organizational divisions of the church. The priesthood certainly embraces such functions, but it also encompasses many more activities that are not traditionally acknowledged under the umbrella of priesthood power and authority.

Our narrow application of the word priesthood imposes artificial limitations on an expansive scriptural concept. The Doctrine and Covenants reveals that the full name for the priesthood is "The Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God" (107:3), and the Book of Mormon helps us to understand the reason that the priesthood is known by that name. Alma explains that the priesthood is a "holy calling . . . prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son" (Alma 13:5). In other words, the priesthood constitutes a calling to live in remembrance of and, to the best of our limited capabilities, in imitation of the selfless service of our Savior, through the enabling power of his grace. There is nothing inherently masculine about living in remembrance and in imitation of the Savior, through the power of his grace; indeed, I have argued that mothers--who suffer physically in order to give life and then spend most of the rest of their lives giving selfless service so that their children might have life and have it more abundantly--most closely approximate Jesus Christ's salvific sacrifice. This priesthood calling, described by Alma, encompasses much more than the ordinances with which we traditionally identify the priesthood.

The point here is that I believe we are being somewhat disingenuous when we say that women are not allowed to hold the priesthood--that this is a moot question. To be sure, women are not ordained to priesthood offices, they do not officiate in its essential ordinances, and they do not hold keys of administration. I have no clear explanation as to why these limitations exist in mortality, but Elder Robert L. Backman reminds us that the eternal destiny of every righteous woman is "to become a queen and a priestess, and to inherit the fulness of the glory of God" ("Women and the Priesthood" in Priesthood [Deseret Book, 1981], p. 152). If it is the eternal destiny of women to become priestesses, I am fully persuaded that they have the opportunity to participate in priesthood callings such as those described by Alma during mortality, and that most faithful female members of the Church already do so--even if we do not normally designate their contributions as priesthood service. This is something that I believe most members of the Church intuitively understand--which is why most Mormons are satisfied with the ecclesiastical role of women.

In essence, we've been asking the wrong question. The question should not be, "Why don't women hold the priesthood?" but "Why don't we commonly recognize that the priesthood is greater than the sum total of its ordinances--that one need not be ordained a priest in order to act as a ministering angel?" (See Doctrine and Covenants 13). 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ayn Rand: The Most Important Person You Know Nothing About


In June 2010, when the Tea Party was still an emerging political force, I read a book that did more to help me understand that movement and late twentieth-century/early twenty-first century political and economic debate than years of news consumption and reading. The funny thing is, I didn't pick up Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made because I wanted to understand Ron Paul and the Libertarian movement, Alan Greenspan, or the Tea Party. I picked it up because I happen to love her most famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged (I don't really care for We, the Living or Anthem). Heller's title ostensibly refers to the fictional worlds that Rand created and lived in, but--as NPR recently suggested--the world in which we live is more and more a world made after the image of Ayn Rand.

Chances are that you've heard of Ayn Rand, notwithstanding the academy's scorn for her books. You've likely heard her name because her novels are tremendously popular. Heller writes,

"In a 1991 survey jointly sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, Americans named Atlas Shrugged the book that had most influenced their lives (second only to the Bible). When the Modern Library asked readers in 1998 to name the twentieth century's one hundred greatest books, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead were numbers one and two on the list; Anthem and We, the Living were numbers seven and eight, trumping The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and Ulysses" (xii).

Literary critics asked to list the hundred best books did not mention Rand's name. In other words, Rand is tremendously popular but her work is virtually ignored by those who profess to teach the most important and influential literature of the twentieth century. Why? That neglect (by largely liberal academics) likely stems from Rand's "Objectivist" philosophy which makes self interest (or answering and acting upon the question, "What is best for myself?") the most highest individual priority and social good. Objectivists, who followed her philosophy, even founded their own conservative political party:

"Her ideas roared and shouted within a new group of young right-wing libertarians who were disgusted with the economic policies of the Republican Party and determined to found a party of their own, which they called the Libertarian Party. In its 'Statement of Principles' it rejected 'the cult of the omnipotent state' and called for the restoration of each individual's right to exercise sole dominion over his own life. It recommended a speedy return to the gold standard and, when seeking its first presidential candidate in 1972, it chose Rand's erstwhile friend John Hospers. Its founders and members, many of whom were self-declared Objectivists, almost universally revered Rand as the guiding light and most courageous exponent of limited government and free markets" (Heller 383-83).

The Libertarian Party has yet to win a major electoral contest, but many of its cherished principles--especially the limitation of government power and the restoration of individual rights--have been adopted by the Tea Party, which is a large part of the reason that a Republican presidential candidate like Rick Perry, in an attempt to curry favor with the Tea Party, proposed abolishing three agencies of the federal government (go ahead and watch--you'll laugh!). The Tea Party, which is currently fighting for control of the Republican Party and waging an uncompromising fight against Democratic lawmakers, is a movement inspired by Rand's books and ideas--which makes her life something worth studying.

Rand is Russian--she grew up in the turbulent years following the Russian Revolution and preceding World War II. Her family was extremely poor--they celebrated special occasions by eating "cakes made of potato peelings, carrot greens, coffee grounds, and acorns" (Heller 46). Rand moved to Chicago and then Hollywood, scraping her way to success by writing screenplays and then novels. Rand is, in this sense, a self-made woman (notwithstanding the aid and sacrifice of family members)--an admirable all-American story.

But if Rand's success in pulling herself up by her bootstraps is admirable, other aspects of her life are less so. Despite her insistence that Objectivism--and everything in her life--was governed by impeccable logic, she was extremely superstitious and believed in different forms of the supernatural:

"One night Rand spilled salt on a restaurant table and surprised the Hills by throwing a pinch of it over her left shoulder, an ancient rite to blind the devil. Most uncharacteristically, Hill also observed her in the role of witness to a UFO. One Saturday afternoon, Rand greeted the Hills by beckoning Ruth upstairs, into the immense master bedroom, where tall glass windows lined a wall to the left of the bed. 'Do you see those junipers?' she asked, pointing to a row of twelve-foot bushes about half an acre from the house. 'A UFO came by there last night.' Stunned, Hill asked for details. 'It was hovering just above the junipers and flying in slow motion,' she said. It was round and its outer edges were lighted, she continued, and it made no sound. By the time she woke [her husband] Frank and led him to the window, it had moved out of sight' (Heller 608).

In addition to these apparent lapses in logical thought, Rand was conducted her personal life without regard to widely held standards of morality. Rand was addicted to amphetamines  for most of her working life and was militantly anti-religious (which may have something to do with the Tea Party's ambivalence towards moral issues). During her married life she indulged in an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a married man twenty-five years her junior. Rand demanded complete obedience from Branden and anyone else who claimed to be an Objectivist. Branden wrote that Rand's inner circle all had to accept the following "implicit premises" transmitted to students of Objectivism:

  • Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
  • Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
  • Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moreal, or appropriate to man's life on earth.
  • Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and her work, the measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position that one takes regarding her and her work. (Heller 302)
Rand presided over a sort of cult that revered her person; perhaps the best annecdote to make this point is one concerning her eventual "intellectual heir" and the man who founded and currently heads the Ayn Rand Institute: Leonard Peikoff. A member of Rand's 1970s inner circle reported that "Sometimes she would wipe the floor with [Peikoff]. You'd think he had threatened to kill her. I finally said, 'How can you let her do that?' He said, 'I would let her step on my face if she wanted'" (Heller 385). 

The champion of individual liberties seemed--at least in these instance--to have had little respect for the liberties of Branden (who didn't want to sleep with her but felt compelled to do so) and Peikoff. This inconsistency also applied to her financial principles. The champion of a free market and capitalism's potential to make all prosperous, Rand kept her money in a savings bank all her life; she never invested it. 

Heller's biography is one of the best I've ever read--and it chronicles the life of a woman who continues to dramatically shape American political debates, despite the fact that most people who invoke her name or her novels know little if anything about her. Few know that Alan Greenspan spent every Saturday night, from 8 PM to 4 or 5 AM Sunday morning, over the course of years listening to Rand speak. You want to understand Greenspan's ideological origins? Learn about Ayn Rand. You want to understand the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party? Learn about Ayn Rand. You want to understand John Boehner's politics? Learn about Ayn Rand. For these reasons, and many others, Rand's life is one worth understanding, and her novels are worth the reading. 

Even if you, like most of the academics who have ignored her novels, disagree with her ultra-conservative principles, you should learn about Ayn Rand. As Sun Tzu taught, the first principle of war is to "know your enemy." 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Patience, the Indispensable Virtue


Courage is a glamorous virtue. We celebrate biblical heroes like Deborah and David--men and women of action who defied the odds and came off conquerors. Other virtues, if not exactly glamorous, are at least associated with marvelous blessings. We all want to have the faith of Mahonri Moriancumer, who moved mountains; the wisdom of Solomon, who confounded liars and the learned; and the purity of Enoch, who took a whole city to heaven. Courage, faith, wisdom, purity: these are among the most attractive, desirable virtues. Patience is not.

I know what you are thinking. You want to be more patient. But why? What great blessing will attend your patience? Patience will not move mountains, no one will collect your patience into proverbs, and patience probably will not inspire the Lord to translate you ahead of time. After all, if you have learned to wait patiently, why would he prioritize your return? Job's name is synonymous with the virtue of patience, but I know no one who aspires to weeks of scraping painful boils with potshards while listening to the philosophical banter of 'friends.' Nobody aches for a chance to demonstrate patience. Face it--the only reason we wish for patience in the first place is because we want to forget the frustration of waiting impatiently, of wondering when that email will arrive, when we'll get a raise, when our trials will be over, when that better time in life will come. We do not wish for patience so much as we wish for temporary amnesia, the ability to forget our dissatisfactions for a time.

As a virtue patience "is despised and rejected of men" and "hath . . . no beauty that we should desire" it (Isaiah 53:3, 2). But here's the thing: patiencethe willingness to delay gratification and to accept affliction or annoyance as an essential component of progressionis the very essence of godliness. Thus, we are to "continue in patience until [we] are perfected" (Doctrine and Covenants 67:13). But if patience is an underrated virtue, so too is impatience an underrated sin because impatiencethe unwillingness to delay gratification or accept affliction and annoyance as an essential component of progressionis the defining characteristic of Satan.

We commonly speak of Satan's rebellion as a sin of pride. The late Ezra Taft Benson explained that "In the premortal council, it was pride that felled Lucifer, 'a son of the morning.'" In support of that claim President Benson cites 2 Nephi 24:12-15, but those verses say nothing of pride. Rather, they paraphrase Lucifer's ambitions: "I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High" (2 Nephi 24:13-14). From my admittedly limited perspective, there is nothing particularly prideful about Satan's desire; to be sure, he wants to be co-equal with God ("I will sit also . . . [and] will be like the Most High"), but that hardly seems inappropriate. If we really believe that God's primary goal is "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39) and that the faithful will receive "all that my Father hath" (Doctrine & Covenants 84:38), then Satan's desire hardly seem blasphemous. He did not want anything that the Father is unwilling to give. The problem was not what he desired but when he wanted it and how he intended to acquire it. Satan wanted to receive exaltation and godhood immediately without enduring any of the afflictions or annoyances that would make him more like God; he was impatient.

As a counterpoint to Satan, consider the example of our elder brother, Jesus Christ. This most righteous, most faithful, most intelligent of God's progeny agreed to spend his pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal existence helping you and I--mere spirit children with divine learning disabilities, as compared to the incomparable Christ--to acquire that which he already possessed. Imagine a brilliant math professor at MIT condescending to teach a group of first grade schoolchildren addition and then remaining with those children for years, teaching them every successive mathematical concept until they were finally able to discuss non-commutative algebra and homotopy theory with the professor on an equal basis. Such a process, repeatedly delivering lessons so basic that you know them by heart, lovingly correcting students' rudimentary errors with encouragement, and respectfully answering their ignorant questions day in and day out for years, is an apt description of the Savior's mission as he labors selflessly at the incredibly slow and personal work of tutoring, redeeming, and perfecting as many of us as will remain in his "class." He waited patiently in the pre-mortal existence until the meridian of time to receive a body. During the thirty years before his mortal ministry commenced, he "waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come" (JST Matthew 3:24). As a post-mortal being, he has voluntarily delayed--or perhaps permanently given up--the perfecting of his body so that every one of God's children may "[b]ehold the wounds which pierced my side, and also the prints of the nails in my hands and feet" (Doctrine & Covenants 6:37). In patience, as in all other things, Jesus Christ is our perfect example.

We often speak of faith, hope, and charity as the three essential, Christ-like virtues, but patience is a prerequisite to each of these desirable attributes. King Benjamin taught that when we exercise faith and obey God's commandments He "doth immediately bless [us]" (Mosiah 2:24), but despite the immediacy of God's response, we rarely--if ever--recognize those blessings right away because God desires to "prove you all, as I did Abraham" (Doctrine and Covenants 132:51), who waited twenty-four years for Isaac's birth to fulfill God's promise. Faith is predicated on a willingness to wait patiently for things "not seen" to become visible (Hebrews 11:1). Thus Alma teaches in his parable of the seed that faith grows as we "nourish the word . . . with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof" (Alma 32:41). Without patience faith is fruitless; as Jesus taught in the parable of the sower, "he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for [just] a [short] while" (Matthew 13:20-21).

Dieter F. Uchtdorf defined hope as an "abiding trust that the Lord will fulfill His promise to us," and hope, like faith, is a product of patience. Adam and Eve trusted that Jesus Christ would come to crush the serpent's head, but that hope was grounded from the beginning in an understanding that salvation would only arrive "in the meridian of time" (Moses 6:57). Thus hope in Jesus Christ was, from the beginning, an exercise in patience, a hope in some far off futurity. Since the mortal ministry of Jesus hope has required an equal amount of patience as we wait for his Second Coming, the day and hour of which "no man knoweth" (Doctrine and Covenants 49:7). As Paul teaches, "if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it" (Romans 8:25), and we "through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4). Hope is patience in practice.

Charity, like faith and hope, is likewise grounded in patience. Paul and Mormon both begin their famous descriptions of charity with the words, "Charity suffereth long" (1 Corinthians 13:4; Moroni 7:45). The key word in this description is long; anyone can put up with and even love another human being for an hour, a day, a six week mission transfer. Charity is a patient love that embraces others, despite their flaws, for eternity. Faith, hope, and charity are the idealized virtues we celebrate, but none of them are possible without patience. The Lord commands us in the Doctrine and Covenants to "have patience, faith, hope, charity," and the order of those virtues is significant (6:19). Charity might be "the greatest of these," but patience is the virtue that must be acquired before faith, hope, and charity can be attained (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Patience is the indispensable virtue not only because it is the basis for faith, hope, and charity, but also because impatience is one of the only trials that every single member of God's family will confront. For the most part God allows his children to face different challenges in life; in one of my favorite General Conference quotes of all time President Packer explained that "Some are tested by poor health, some by a body that is deformed or homely. Others are tested by handsome and healthy bodies; some by the passion of youth; others by the erosions of age. Some suffer disappointment in marriage, family problems; others live in poverty and obscurity. Some (perhaps this is the hardest test) find ease and luxury. All are part of the test, and there is more equality in this testing than sometimes we suspect." One of the reasons there might be more equality in these disparate challenges than we suspect is because everyone--whether rich or poor, sick or healthy, young or old--must cope with trials of impatience. Surely some ancient monk struggled to curb his impatience while combing through handwritten copies of the Bible for a verse whose reference he couldn't quite remember. Today in my Sunday School class I listened to a woman complain that when she attempted to search for a scripture online, her internet browser didn't load fast enough. Both of these individuals, despite their vastly different circumstances, struggled with patience because patience is relative. There is ALWAYS something about which we could be impatient because patience and impatience are states of mind, not circumstances. You may not know whether you will struggle with trials of health or homeliness, with challenges of penury or prosperity, but every one of us can bank on the fact that life will try our patience. Tests of patience are part of every mortal experience, and for that reason patience is an indispensable virtue, the virtue that no one can afford to be without.

The apostle Paul compared mortality to a race, but our lives are more marathon than hundred-meter dash. Accordingly, Paul instructed us to "run with patience the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1). It is not enough to perform a single good deed and then "dream of your mansion above"; only by "patient continuance in well doing" will our search "for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life" be rewarded (Romans 2:7). It is not enough to forgive the faults of others one time or even seven times; we must "have patience with" (Matthew 18:26, 29) our fellow men and forgive "until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22) or our Father in Heaven will deliver us "to the tormentors" (Matthew 18:34-35). For this reason the Savior taught that "In your patience possess ye your souls" (Luke 21:19). Patience will preserve us from damnation and prepare us for perfection; thus we must "continue in patience until ye are perfected" and "let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (James 1:4) so that we can add "to patience godliness" (2 Peter 1:6).

Patience is an indispensable key to exaltation, but it is also, I would argue, the attribute most important to our temporal progress and happiness. Speaking to his Latter-day Saints, the Lord taught that for those who bear affliction "patiently, your reward shall be doubled" (Doctrine and Covenants 98:26). This principle--that patience is rewarded with a double portion--reminds me of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment

in which children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow and told that they could either eat the marshmallow immediately or wait until an adult returned, at which point they would receive a second marshmallow, doubling their reward. Children who were able to exercise patience and wait for the second marshmallow grew up to be significantly more successful; they had higher SAT scores and lower rates of social recidivism. If patience is correlated with intelligence, it is also correlated with good health; a new study links impatience to obesity, suggesting that exercising patience will save your soul, boost your grades, and trim your waistline, all at the same time. Now THAT'S what I call an indispensable virtue.

Oh--and congratulations; if you made it to the end of this post, you're probably already righteous, skinny, and smart because you're certainly patient.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chiasmus and the JST in Hebrews

Using the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is problematic, at least in part, because Joseph Smith never completed the project. Robert Matthews, the late professor of religion at Brigham Young University, made the JST his life's work and concluded "that the work of revision was an on-going process that was never quite completed, and that, had the Prophet lived longer, he might have revised many more passages." What makes the work of interpretation more difficult is the fact that Joseph Smith's revisions frequently overlapped; when he revised the same biblical passage multiple times, early revisions were overwritten with new language. Matthews explains that "where there are multiple manuscripts of the same chapters, the later manuscript is more extensive and contains additional revisions over the earlier."

There are places, accordingly, where I struggle to make sense of the Joseph Smith Translation--or where I feel that some truth contained in the language of the King James Version of the Bible has been lost in his revisions, perhaps because that passage required further clarification and revelation. I'm more willing to accept those passages, however, because other changes in the JST clearly restore something missing the in original text. One such passage shows up in the first chapter of Hebrews, where the Joseph Smith translation of verses six and seven restores the clarity of Paul's chiasmus.

In Hebrews Paul uses the Old Testament to testify that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised by the prophets, and he opens his epistle to the Jews with a chiasmus (verses 5-14) that centers around two messianic psalms:

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, [JST: And let all the angels of God worship him, who maketh his ministers as a flame of fire. And of the angels he saith, Angels are ministering spirits.]


But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. (Quoting Psalms 45:6)


Thou hast loved righteousness, and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows (Quoting Psalms 45:7)


And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands (Quoting Psalms 102:25)


They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. (Quoting Psalms 102:26-27)


But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? 


The chiasmus contains three major movements:

RED--Rhetorical questions demonstrating that the Son is higher than the angels, who are ministering spirits;
BLUE--Verses from the Psalms explaining that the Son's mission and character are eternal and unchanging;
GREEN--Verses from the Psalms stating that the Son qualified himself for his salvific role in the pre-existence (in the first verse, he was anointed for his redemptive mission because he "loved righteousness and hated iniquity"; in the second, he created the earth "in the beginning).

Paul's purpose here is to remind Jews of what they already believe regarding the Messiah so that he can demonstrate to them that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. To that end, he quotes from the Psalms and writes in chiasmus, a form of Hebrew poetry. Joseph Smith's translation contributes to that chiasmus in a small way by restoring the description of angels as "ministering spirits" to verse seven of the King James Translation, which corresponds to the "ministering spirits" in verse 14. I seriously doubt that Joseph Smith understood that changing verse seven would restore an ancient Hebrew poetic form that he probably didn't know existed, but his revision restores unity to Paul's chiasmus.

I don't always understand the inspiration behind Joseph Smith's inspired revisions probably, at least in part, because those revisions were never completed. But changes like this one--that clearly restore textual coherence in ways that Joseph Smith probably never realized--have led me to accept the JST as an inspired, if incomplete, addition to canonical scripture; they are yet another testimony of Joseph Smith's seership.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

"Covet to Prophesy"

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul encourages the saints at Corinth to prioritize the gift of prophecy above the gift of tongues: "desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue . . . no man understandeth him . . . But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification" (I Cor. 12:1-3). The gift of prophecy, in this context, is that described by John in the book of Revelation, where he explains that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10). God's messengers have always taught that this gift is one we should all be seeking for, and Moses exclaimed, "would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Num. 11:29).

Paul reiterates this impassioned exhortation of Moses, desiring that every saint in Corinth would testify of Christ: "I would that ye all . . . prophesied" (I Cor. 14:5). Then, having invited the saints to testify of Christ, Paul reminds them that the ultimate purpose of seeking for the spirit of prophecy is to warn and prepare their neighbors: "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (I Cor. 14:8). I love this metaphor, the notion that our testimonies ought to sound like a trumpet, and it's one that appears throughout the scriptures. Alma cries, "O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!" (Alma 29:1). The Lord commanded Oliver Cowdery that "at all times and in all places, he shall open his mouth and declare my gospel as with the voice of a trump, both day and night. And I will give him strength such as is not known among men" (D&C 24:12; see also 33:2, 36:1, and Isaiah 58:1). Having commanded Oliver Cowdrey to testify with the force of a trumpet, the Lord promises him strength "to go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded" (1 Ne. 3:7). That command and its accompanying promise still applies to missionaries today (D&C 42:6), and David O. McKay reminded us that every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a missionary.

I love Paul's comparison precisely because there is NOTHING uncertain about the sound of a trumpet, and there should be nothing uncertain about our testimonies as we trumpet them to others. The Jews of Corinth, who Paul preached to, would have been familiar with the commandments given to ancient Israel in Numbers. There God instructs the people that "if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies" (Num. 10:9). Blowing a trumpet in ancient Israel was a call to arms against the enemies of God, and Paul's call to prophesy similarly asks us to raise the voice of warning. When Israel blew their trumpets God promised to give them "strength unto the battle" (Ps. 18:39), and that promise still applies today. If we will open our mouths to testify with a certain sound, God will use our trumpet-like voices to bless those around us by "warn[ing] them to flee, or to prepare for war, according to their danger" (Alma 48:15). Our testimonies of Christ, our clarion calls of hope in the Atonement, may be the means by which someone else receives "strength unto the battle," but only if we--like Paul--"covet to prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:39).

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Does Victoria's Secret Have in Common . . .

. . . with the Ensign? Lingerie, apparently. I won't be holding my breath waiting for that article to be reprinted.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Asking Might Be Uncomfortable . . .

. . . but not asking could be worse. Time for another personal pornography interview with the ones you love; this could be the most important FHE you ever held.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 1


When Nephi copied out chapters from Isaiah, he did so "that whoso of my people shall see these words may lift up their hearts and rejoice" (2 Ne. 11:8). Isaiah's words prompt rejoicing, at least in part, because he testifies of Jesus Christ's willingness and ability to cleanse us from sin: "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (Isa. 1:18).

Modern revelation clarifies the meaning of Jesus Christ's invitation to reason with him: "And now come, saith the Lord, by the Spirit, unto the elders of his church, and let us reason together, that ye may understand; let us reason even as a man reasoneth one with another face to face. Now, when a man reasoneth he is understood of man , because he reasoneth as a man; even so will I, the Lord, reason with you that you may understand" (D&C 50:10-12). Reasoning with the Lord is not a process of convincing him that we are worthy or ready to be forgiven; he already understands our spiritual status perfectly. Rather, reasoning with Jesus Christ is a process by which we come to understand and accept his will. The Bible Dictionary explains that "prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them" (752-53).

Of course, (then) Elder Joseph Fielding Smith taught that this verse of Isaiah--contrary to popular interpretation--does not refer to an individual's relationship with the Lord but to Israel's collective covenant relationship with God: "This quotation from Isaiah is quite generally misunderstood. It is clear from a careful reading of this first chapter in Isaiah, that this remark had no reference to individuals at all, but to the House of Israel . . . So we see that this passage does not apply to individuals and individual sins" (Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:179-80). As previously noted, the opinions of apostles are not infallible, and this is one case where I'm going to have to disagree with Elder Smith. Not only do I think this verse applies to individuals, I'd be willing to wager a whole lot of bananas that Isaiah wrote it with reference to one individual in particular: Job.

After Job has lost everything and is struggling to maintain his faith in God, his three "friends," Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to persuade Job that he should acknowledge that he has brought God's judgments on himself through sin. Job responds with the lament that, "I am afraid of all my sorrows, I know that thou [God] wilt not hold me innocent. If I be wicked, why then labour I in vain? If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean; yet shalt thou [God] plunge me in the ditch, and mine own clothes shall abhor me. For he is not a man, as I am, that I should answer him [God], and we should come together in judgment" (Job 9:28-32). Compare Job's lamentation with these verses from Isaiah: "Wash youmake you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (Isa. 1:16-18). Four linguistic and thematic parallels tie the passages together, suggesting that Isaiah writes in response to Job, presenting his words as an answer to Job's complaint.

Recognizing Isaiah's interest in responding to Job provides insight on three fronts:

First, one of Isaiah's concerns is presenting an anthropomorphic God. Job is concerned that God "is not a man, as I am," so it would do no good to reason with him or "come together in judgment." Isaiah reassures Job and Job-like sufferers everywhere that Jesus Christ understands the mortal experience, our pains, sorrows, temptations, and physical ailments. This passage is one of the Bible's hidden gems that highlights the essential similarities between God and man.

Second, Job--who has lived a good life but suffered anyways--worries that God is unforgiving and capricious, more interested in finding a reason to condemn than a reason to forgive. Isaiah assures Job that he has God all wrong; Jesus Christ is searching for opportunities to forgive and forget our sins, not reasons to cling to them. Isaiah rejects the idea of a distant, powerful, willful Calvinist God; Job worries about a God of justice, but Isaiah promises a God of mercy.

Third, understanding that Isaiah responds to Job can also help to answer a scholarly debate about the date of Job. Most scholars suggest that Job is a book no older than the 4th century BC; since we know that Isaiah was written no later than the 7th century BC (so that Nephi could take it with him to the Americas), Job is also older than the 7th century BC. Of course, the same point might be made by Jacob, who paraphrases Job: "For I know that ye have searched much, many of you, to know of things to come; wherefore I know that ye know that our flesh must waste away and die; nevertheless, in our bodies we shall see God" (2 Ne. 9:4). Compare Jacob's reassurance with what is arguably the most famous verse in Job: "And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26). Jacob suggests that he--and many other Nephites--have internalized the promise of Job, which means that they certainly had access to his words. God promises that all things shall be established in the mouth of two or more witnesses, and these two prophets (Isaiah and Jacob) establish the antiquity of Job, as a book of scripture extant before the 7th century BC.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mild Drinks

There's a lot that I don't get about the gospel. Heck--there's a lot that I don't get about specific gospel principles, like the Word of Wisdom. For instance, I've always wondered how to interpret Doctrine and Covenants 89:17, where the Lord explains that "wheat [is] for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain." There's a lot that I don't understand just in this one verse--is wheat supposed to be the optimal feed for people and corn for cattle? This certainly can't be exclusionary, right? So why make the distinction at all? And what about rice?

Again, I'm profoundly aware of my ignorance. And the bit about "mild drinks" made from barley has always confused me. The only "mild drink" made from barley that I know of is beer--and prophetic counsel forbids alcohol. But when I read about this study claiming that non-alcoholic beer boosts the immune system and this study claiming that non-alcoholic beer prevents cancer, I had to wonder--is the Doctrine and Covenants encouraging us to consume O'Douls?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Ok, so you didn't ask for a post on the semantics of reception. But, I've written one, and now you get to decide whether or not to receive--read? internalize? act on?--it.

During his post-resurrection minister Jesus Christ appeared to his apostles behind closed doors, "where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). After giving them verbal instructions, "he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost" (John 20:22).  This injunction to receive is one that Jesus Christ adapted to multiple occasions. When Pharisees asked him whether it was "lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause" (Matt. 19:3) Jesus responded with the admonition that marriage is be a permanent institution, not a coupling of convenience:

"Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:4-6).

Jesus rejected divorce and remarriage "except it be for fornication" (19:9), and his disciples--not the Pharisees!--observed that "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (19:10). The Savior responded by teaching that "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (19:11-12). The object or ideal we are to receive in this last sentence is not wholly clear, but I like to think that "it" refers to the doctrine of marriage he's just explained--or, indeed, to a spouse "received" in the spirit of that doctrine.

Certainly Orson Pratt used that language to describe his own marriage; in 1835, he "baptized Sarah Marinda Bates, near Sacketts Harbor, whom I received in marriage upwards of one year after." Christ's biblical commandment to "receive" is preserved in the saving and exalting ordinances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in directives to receive the Holy Ghost or to receive a spouse. But what does such a directive entail?

English language speakers generally use the verb "receive" in a passive sense that involves little or no action on the recipient's part. Students receive grades from teachers (whether they like it or not); murder victims might receive a blow to the head; and family members might receive news of a loved one's passing. To receive, in these instances, requires no action on the part of the recipient. But receiving the Holy Ghost--or receiving a spouse in marriage--requires action, not inert passivity. When, in the game of football, a wide receiver stretches out his hands to catch a pass from the quarterback, he must act aggressively in order to receive:


So too with individuals who wish to receive the Holy Ghost or a spouse; reception requires action. Elder Bednar made this point with reference to promptings from the Holy Ghost, exhorting us to open a pathway into our heart. Quoting from Nephi, Elder Bednar taught that " 'When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth [the message] unto the hearts of the children of men' (2 Ne. 33:1). Please notice how the power of the Spirit carries the message unto but not necessarily into the heart. A teacher can explain, demonstrate, persuade, and testify, and do so with great spiritual power and effectiveness. Ultimately, however, the content of a message and the witness of the Holy Ghost penetrate into the heart only if a receiver allows them to enter."

Receiving the witness of the Holy Ghost is a matter of (actively) preparing a pathway into our hearts and a place within our hearts where he can dwell. If we wish to obey Jesus' injunction to "Receive the Holy Ghost," we would do well to imitate the example of a Shunammite woman described in the Bible. This woman of faith, having seen the prophet Elisha pass by her house regularly said to her husband, "I perceive that this is an holy man of God, which passeth by us continually. Let us make a little chamber, I pray thee, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be, when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither" (2 Kgs. 4:9-10). This faithful woman was not content with allowing Elisha to visit when he knocked on her door; desiring his uplifting and edifying presence in her house on a regular basis, she made her home into a place that was ready to receive the prophet at any moment, a space whose comforts might entice this man of God into visiting her more regularly.

If we want the Holy Ghost to dwell with us, we can't wait for Him to knock on the door, then sweep our dirt under the rug and run around the house searching for a place where He could sit comfortably; rather, we must make our hearts into homes where He always will feel welcome. Only when the Holy Ghost is able to touch our hearts at every hour of the day, as Elisha was able to visit the Shunammite couple whenever he pleased, will we be in full compliance with Christ's commandment to "Receive the Holy Ghost."

The same logic, of course, applies to the work of receiving a spouse. After many wedding ceremonies today, the newly married couple will gather to greet their friends and family for the first time as husband and wife at a wedding reception. This idea of a wedding reception is actually derived from the practice of astrology; according to the Oxford English Dictionary [GATED], the word reception was first used to describe "two planets being received into the other's house, exaltation, or other dignity." A nineteenth-century astrology text cited in the OED explains that "Reception is when two planets are mutually posited in each other's essential dignities." I love this definition, which applies beautifully to the need for a husband and wife to actively receive one another in marriage.

To be posited in the essential dignities of another is to comprehend the worth of that individual and to position those dignities or worthy attributes at the center of your relationship, to privilege the dignity and worthiness of that spouse above all else. In other words, to "receive" a spouse or be "in reception" of a spouse is to center your relationship on the divine (Remember the word's origins in the stars!) worth of your spouse, to recognize him or her as a child of God and to base your relationship on that fact.

Other scriptures provide additional insight as to what it might mean to appropriately receive a spouse. I personally treasure the counsel given to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants as they worked together in a close partnership to advance the kingdom: "Admonish [Joseph Smith] in his faults, and also receive admonition of him" (6:19). Surely this counsel should also apply to husbands and wives who have covenanted to receive a spouse in marriage. After all, a wife who has centered her marriage around the essential dignities of her husband will likely find little to admonish him for, and a husband who recognizes the essential dignities of his wife would be willing to receive her admonitions in a spirit of meekness.

Every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has covenanted to receive the Holy Ghost, and every couple who has been sealed by the priesthood in a temple of God ought to receive his or her spouse in the manner of Oliver Pratt. To receive is not merely to passively accept but to actively prepare a place for, to entice and welcome, to dwell on the dignity and worth of the individual being received, and to welcome admonition from that companion. I find it significant that we have been commanded to enter into the same type of relationship with our spouse that we engage in with a member of the godhead; keep that in mind when next you head to a wedding "reception."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 22

At the end of chapter twenty-two, Isaiah speaks of a steward, Eliakim, in Messianic terms as the savior of Judah:

"And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father's house. And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father's house, the offspring and the issue, all vessels of small quantity, from the vessels of cups, even to all the vessels of flagons" (22:21-24).

This beautiful metaphor describes the Savior as a source of strength that will support all of the trials and tribulations of his covenant people; he will carry burdens both large (flagons) and small (cups). He can carry those burdens because he, unlike us, is able to support them--he is "in a sure place." The word sure here is a translation of the Hebrew verb 'aman, and with this word Isaiah seems to be drawing a distinction between Christ's ability to bear our burdens and the inability of (even great) mortal men. When Moses was confronted by the complaints of Israel in the wilderness he, in turn, complained to the Lord:

"Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? . . . I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me" (Num. 11:12, 14).

Moses cannot bear the burden (massa'; Num. 11:11) that Christ will bear (massa'; Isa. 22:25). He cannot act as a "nursing father," which is another translation of 'aman. But Christ--who has "conceived all this people" is "able to bear all this people alone." He is our foster-father (another possible translation of 'aman) who adopts us into his family, who carries and nourishes us like a nurse: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26); "as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the [W]ord, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious" (1 Pet. 2:2-3). Christ is 'aman--or, perhaps, as Joseph Smith transliterated, Ahman.

In the Journal of Discourses Orson Pratt recorded "one revelation that this people are not generally acquainted with. I think it has never been published, but probably it will in the Church History. It is given in questions and answers. The first question is, 'What is the name of God in the pure language?' The answer says, 'Ahman'" (2:342). Of course, while that particular revelation may not have been included in the Doctrine and Covenants, its substance was; Christ refers to himself in the Doctrine and Covenants as "your Redeemer, even the Son Ahman" or Son of God (78:20). It seems quite likely to me that the Hebrew verb 'aman (which, like Ahman, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Egyptian name for God, Amon)--a word that describes a nourishing father--is a linguistic descendant for "the name of God in the pure language."

The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob seems to have recognized this connection between Ahman, the name of God, and the Hebrew aman. Before his first sermon (on Isaiah!) Jacob tells the Nephite people "I will read you the words of Isaiah . . . that ye may learn and glorify the name of your God" (2 Ne. 6:4). He proceeds to quote two verses from Isaiah (49:22-23), including the promise that "kings shall be thy nursing fathers [aman]" (2 Ne. 6:7). In the Hebrew from which he was reading on the brass plates, this verse of Isaiah would have answered Jacob's promise to teach the Nephites "the name of your God," as he explained the nurturing nature of a Heavenly Father (aman/Ahman) who would gather scattered Israel together again.

When we read Isaiah 22:23, then, we might do so in the following manner: "And I will fasten him [Christ] as a nail in Ahman's place." Christ is the nail that bears us (all those vessels) up, that keeps us in the proximity of Ahman, in a manner analogous to the way in which a servant was bound to his master by a nail thrust through his ear into the doorpost of his master's house (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15:17). No one else, not even Moses, was strong enough to take Christ's place as the nail; mere mortal men, Ezekiel explains, are like a flexible vine: "Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon?" (Ez. 15:3).

Only by accepting Jesus Christ as the Nail in a sure ('aman, Ahman, foster father, nourishing) place can we be saved; we must give ourselves up to his mercy and strength as a vessel and burden that we cannot bear alone.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Golden Plates in the New World

So I've just been doing a little reading in Christopher Columbus's letters. On his second voyage to the Caribbean Columbus took along Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician who wrote a letter describing the voyage to his hometown of Seville. Chanca--like everyone else who traveled to the New World--spends a lot of time talking about gold, and I was struck by the way in which he describes native practices of shaping the metal:

"At the time of their departure [the explorers'], he [Guacamari, the native chief] gave to each of them a jewel of gold, to each according as each seemed to merit. This gold they fashion in very thin plates" (Jane 56).

Chanca's phrase is Spanish is actually, "Este oro facian en fojas muy delgadas," which could also be translated, "this gold they fashion in very thin pages." In other words, among this group of Native Americans on the island of Hispaniola, all gold was first shaped into very thin sheets that Chanca thought resembled the pages of a book. The gold might subsequently be reshaped into masks or jewelry, but first it was formed into thin plates. I'm sure that someone at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship has already made this connection, but it seems worthwhile to point out that Native peoples living in the Americas regularly fashioned their gold into thin sheets or pages centuries before Joseph Smith saw the gold plates given him by Moroni.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Temples and the Tree of Life

A few weeks ago, while I was in Boston for a conference, Daddy Monk--who's a sealer in the Boston Temple--asked me whether I knew of any connection between the temple and the tree of life. He was interested, at least in part, because the Boston Temple is decorated on the interior with a tree of life motif; all of the woodwork represents that theme. I didn't have my sources with me on my trip, but since I'm home and since today is Father's Day, now seems like an appropriate time to answer his question. I love you Daddy Monk!

Temples and the Tree of Life

The first point that needs to be made is that temples have always been thought of as a representation of the garden of Eden. As Lawrence Stager explains, "the Temple of Solomon--indeed, the Temple Mount and all Jerusalem--was a symbol as well as a reality, a mythopoeic realization of heaven on earth, Paradise, the Garden of Eden" (BAR 26:03). The apocryphal Book of Jubilees also bears testament to the truth "that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies" (8:19), a place similarly sacred to the temple. In order to make the link between temple and Eden clear Solomon decorated his temple--like the Boston temple--with a garden motif. In Solomon's Temple David Seely and William Hamblin note that "Solomon's Temple was profusely decorated with floral motifs" (12): "And the cedar of the house within was carved with knops and open flowers: all was cedar; there was no stone seen" (1 Kings 6:18; see also 29-35). The entire interior of Solomon's Temple, in other words, was carved and decorated to resemble a garden. 

Other verbal parallels link these two spaces where God dwelt with man. Seely and Hamblin write that "The same Hebrew word, hithallek, used to describe God 'walking to and fro' in the Garden, also describes his divine presence in the Tabernacle (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14). The same word God used when he commanded Adam and Eve to 'work' in the Garden--avodah--is used to describe the 'service' of the Tabernacle performed by the priesthood. The precious onyx stones mentioned in Eden decorated the Tabernacle and were worn on the shoulders of the high priest (Exodus 25:7; 28:9, 20)" (13-14). The temple is, for all intents and purposes, meant to be a second Eden.

Just as the garden of Eden contained a tree of life, so too did the temples designed by Jehovah contain a symbolic tree; Seely and Hamblin write that "the lampstand (menorah) is described as a tree--which in time became associated with the Tree of Life" (12). Moses describes this lampstand in Exodus, when he records Jehovah's instructions regarding the temple: "And thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold . . . and six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side: three bowls made lke unto almonds, with a knop and a flower in one branch; and three bowls made like almonds in the other branch, with a knop and a flower: so in the six branches that come out of the candlestick" (Exodus 25:31-33). This candlestick or lampstand was designed in the shape of an almond tree, and that symbolic almond tree which lit up the Tabernacle and then the temple came to represent the tree of life. 

That an almond tree came to represent the tree of life is highly significant; the almond tree, in the Old Testament, is a symbol of the priesthood. When Moses and Aaron face a potential rebellion among the twelve tribes the Lord instructs Moses to "speak unto the children of Israel, and take of every one of them a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to the house of the their fathers twelve rods: write thou every man's name upon his rod" (Num. 17:2). So Moses gathers twelve rods, one from each of the tribes, writes the name of each tribe on the rods, and "laid up the rods before the LORD in the tabernacle of witness. And it came to pass, that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds" (Num. 17:7-8). Aaron's rod, the rod of Levi, the rod representing the only tribe that holds the priesthood--bloomed with almonds. The link between almonds and priesthood is reconfirmed in Jeremiah--when, after the Lord announces that "before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee" (Jer. 1:5), he helps Jeremiah recognize his priesthood stewardship by showing him "a rod of an almond tree" (Jer. 1:11). 

Recognizing the almond tree's priesthood significance is crucial because it suggests that the tree of life--both in the temple and in Eden--is a representation of the priesthood. The priesthood is the source of life (and, as the menorah attests, light). A lampstand in the temple that represents both light and (the tree of) life would have been the symbolic, Old Testament equivalent of these verses in the Doctrine and Covenants describing the priesthood: "And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space--the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God" (88:11-13). 

Today we no longer light temples with menorah (although many chandeliers in various temples have seven bulbs; check it out!)--and most temples, Boston notwithstanding, no longer employ obvious portrayals of the tree of life. But the idea that the menorah and the tree of life represent--the priesthood that is the light and life of the world--IS still present in temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and for that we should be grateful. 

I'm off for an almond snack before bed; good night!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Unique Religious Experience? Why?

A week or so ago I had occasion to teach my students about an amazing conversion experience. We read the account of a relatively young person who was quite anxious about the state of his soul. In the midst of this anxiety, he began praying, but was overcome by darkness and pain during an attack by Satan. Eventually, however, the skies seemed to open, revealing her Savior behind the dark clouds that had obscured him.

Wait, what’s that you say? You think I’m talking about Joseph Smith?



Oh, right—you were probably remembering this account in Smith’s History:

“. . . amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. . . . I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the Sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Of course, I can—in retrospect—see how you might have thought that I was describing the first vision of Joseph Smith (especially since I used masculine pronouns to describe my unknown convert). But I was actually talking about a woman named Harriet Ruggles Gold Boudinot (whose letters you can read in this fascinating collection by Theresa Strouth Gaul).


She was most famous for her interracial marriage to the Cherokee Elias Boudinot, but her deathbed conversion experience should, I think, be of interest to every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

“In the evening her greatest distress commenced. I thought the last struggle had come, and, added to her bodily suffering, there seemed to pass over her mind a desponding cloud. In the agony of her distress she was heard to exclaim, ‘Lord have mercy upon me—my friends, pray for me! Oh, it is terrible to have even one doubt or one cloud!’ She would occasionally say, ‘Patience! patience!’ A friend told her to look to the Saviour, he would not leave her nor forsake her. ‘You feel that you can trust him, and believe that he will do all things right?’ ‘Yes, [188] yes.’ She afterwards, the next day, told Mr. N. that at these times of extreme bodily pain and suffering, Satan, the great adversary of her soul, was trying to take advantage of her weakness, by suggesting doubts and fears, but she had been enabled to look to the Saviour, and that all the clouds which oppressed her were removed—that there was then a clear sky between her and her Saviour. This was but a few hours before she died, and but a short time before she became unable to speak.
            “Early in the morning of the last day, 14th, after the most distressing night she had had, she requested a number of her friends to come to her bed. Upon my inquiring how she did, she said, ‘I am in great distress, (meaning bodily distress,) I hope this is the last night I shall spend in the world—then, how sweet will be the conqueror’s song!’ I inquired whether her darkness was removed. ‘Yes.’” (187-88)

It should be clear that the conversion narratives of Joseph Smith and Harriet Boudinot have a lot in common. Why does it matter that we recognize their commonalities? Too often in Latter-day Saint culture, we promote a culture of exceptionalism even though we have a lot in common with other Protestant religious movements of the nineteenth-century. Recognizing what we have in common—restoring the religious context in which Joseph Smith experienced and wrote about his first vision—can help us to see what it is about the Latter-day Saint tradition that is truly unique.

Joseph thought of his vision as a conversion experience, which is why it resembles Harriet’s so much; but you’ll notice a few important differences—A) Joseph actually saw two beings, God the Father and Jesus Christ. B) Those figures were embodied. Those two facts are the key, distinguishing characteristics of Joseph’s vision—the things that differentiated it from many of the competing religious claims of the time. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mormon Position on Immigration Reform

Stop what you're doing. Go read THIS really important statement just released by the Church.

Now that you're back, let me note that the position advocated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, I would argue, substantially the same position that I articulated a few months ago with one important difference: while the Church supports policies that would allow illegal immigrants to remain within the country permanently, it is not necessarily committed to providing a path to citizenship (which is how I had interpreted its earlier, more vague statement regarding the Utah Compact--and, I should note, this still seems the prevailing sentiment, even if the Church is willing to compromise on it).

The bottom line--and I'm talking to you, Publius Sakharov--is that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned that any state legislation that only contains enforcement provisions is likely to fall short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God" because the "bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God." To quote myself, "we ought to see immigration reform and legislation as an opportunity to reach out to and bless those of our neighbors who are suffering, and Church members should be able to respond articulately when others raise objections to comprehensive immigration reform; it's part of being a good neighbor."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Notes on the KJV: Saving Face, or Can't Buy Me Grace

In his talk at Ohio State University’s conference on “The King James Bible and Its Cultural Afterlife,” David Richter pointed out several glaring inaccuries in the KJV translation. However, the more interesting aspect of his presentation—at least to me—was his work detailing the Hebrew word play lost in this (and, frankly, every other) English translation.

The trouble with translating Hebrew is that the language has a VERY limited vocabulary. Because there are so few Hebrew lexemes, every word carries multiple significations; the language uses variations of the same word to represent many different ideas. For this reason, reading Hebrew is more an art of interpretation than a science of translation/substitution. (Incidentally, during the conference one speaker pointed out that the ambiguity of Hebrew is so significant that some scholars wonder whether it was originally intended to be a spoken language. Can you imagine listening to someone speak and wondering which of five meanings each of his words carried? On the other hand, maybe that’s an argument for orality; body language and social context might have made it much easier to understand.) English has almost the exact opposite problem—there are so many words that the language allows you to say precisely what you want to say in almost wholly unambiguous terms. As a result, translating Hebrew into English always means stripping ambiguity and multiple meanings from the text in exchange for one clear statement.

Richter’s example of this principle in Genesis sheds some light on the conclusion of the Jacob-Esau story. As Jacob makes his return to Edom, he sees [MXNH] or “God’s host” of angels preparing the way (Gen. 32:2). Remembering that when he left Edom fourteen plus years ago Esau wanted to kill him, Jacob decides to divide his caravan into “two bands” [plural of MXNH] (32:7); then, if [MXNH] “one company” (32:8) is smitten, the other will escape. He hopes to find “grace” [XN] (32:5) in Esau’s sight, so he sends “a present” [MNXH] (32:13) of goods to Esau. The wordplay of the Hebrew here is that Jacob’s hoping for grace [XN] for his company [MXNH], but he sends a payoff [the NX in MNXH], which is the inverse of grace [XN]; he’s trying to BUY grace, that which cannot be bought.

Esau recognizes Jacob’s shiftiness when they two finally get together; he asks, “What meanest thou by all this drove [MXNH] which I met? And [Jacob] said, These are to find grace [XN] in the sight of my lord. And Esau said, I have enough [yesh li rav], my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself” (Gen. 33:8-9). Esau rejects Jacob’s attempt to purchase his forgiveness, to sanctify the stealing of his blessing. Jacob hears Esau and, perhaps offended by his brother’s refusal to forgive, rubs Esau’s face in his subordinate circumstances: “Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee”—I’ve brought you the equivalent of the birthright and blessing I stole; it’s just as good!—“because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough [yes li kol]” (Gen. 33:11). You’ll see that the English spoken by Esau and Jacob is identical: “I have enough.” But the Hebrew is NOT the same. Esau’s words mean, “I have plenty”; Jacob’s mean “I have it all.” In the end, after Jacob’s reminded Esau that he has taken EVERYTHING, he agrees to take Jacob’s bribe; Jacob is allowed to buy grace [XN] with a present [mNXh].

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jonathan and David: Three Takes

The story of David and Jonathan--their friendship and loyalty in the face of danger and almost certain death has inspired men and women for millennia. A seventeenth-century poet and distant ancestor of mine, Anne Bradstreet, commemorated their love and mutual respect in these words, spoken by David:

"O lovely Jonathan! how wast thou slain?
In places high, full low thou didst remain
Distrest for thee I am, dear Jonathan,
Thy love was wonderfull, surpassing man,
Exceeding all the love that's Feminine,
So pleasant hast thou been, dear brother mine."

Recently, I learned of another prominent early American figure who idealized the friendship between David and Jonathan, calling on that bond as a way to sanctify one of his own friendships. When John Adams was studying law under the tutelage of Colonel James Putnam, he met another young lawyer named Jonathan Sewall. As lawyers Adams and Sewall rode the Massachusetts circuit together, traveling with a judge from one small town to another, bringing justice--or at least legal closure--to the people. Sewall and Adams frequently shared a room and sometimes a bed on these trips; there was no Marriott waiting for them in eighteenth-century Charlestown. As a result of their constant companionship, the two men grew very close; Adams recalled that "he always called me John, and I him Jonathan, and often said to him, 'I wish my name were David.'" Adams loved Sewall as a brother and friend--but he recorded this story in order to make the point that he loved his country more than anything else in the world. Sewall, you see, was a Tory, a man loyal to King George the Third.

When Sewall invited Adams for a walk in 1774, just before he was to leave for the First Continental Congress, Adams had to make a choice between his dearest friend and his country. On that walk, Sewall

"said 'that Great Britain was determined on her system; her power was irresistible and would certainly be destructive to me and to all those who should be severe in opposition to her designs.' I answered 'that I knew Great Britain was determined on her system, and that very determination determined me on mine' . . . The conversation . . . terminated in my saying to him, 'I see we must part, and with a bleeding heart I say, I fear forever; but you may depend upon it, this adieu is the sharpest thorn on which I ever sat my foot.'"

Bradstreet and Adams invoked the friendship of Jonathan and David because that relationship was such a powerful symbol of trust and friendship, but they were far from the first to do so. Ancient Jewish and Christian commentators have invoked the story of David and Jonathan for centuries--and even they were only following in a tradition begun by the Israelite prophet Amos. Writing just 300 years after David and Jonathan, Amos is famous in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for three verses. 

Two of those describe a period of apostasy that Latter-day Saints associate with the years between the death of the apostles and Christ's appearance to Joseph Smith in 1820: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of he Lord, and shall not find it" (8:11-12). The other verse emphasizes the importance of prophets--"Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (3:7)--and serves as a commentary on the relationship between Jonathan and David. 

Amos 3:7 clearly paraphrases the language of 1 Samuel, where David flees from the wrath of Saul and Jonathan promises to act as an advocate for David. David asks Jonathan, "what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life?" and Jonathan replies, "thou shalt not die: behold my father will do nothing either great or small, but that he will shew it me" (1 Sam. 20:1-2). The similar English language in these two verses is a product of similar Hebrew; both texts revolve around the same three Hebrew words: 'asah (will do) dabar (nothing) galah (but he will show/reveal). What can we learn by recognizing the connection between these two texts? 
  1. We can learn that Amos read 1 Samuel, that 1 Samuel was written before Amos. This point may seem obvious, but it's worth making, given the questions scholars have and ask about biblical chronology.
  2. We can learn something about the relationship between prophets and those that they preach to. By paraphrasing 1 Samuel 20:2, Amos suggests that prophets relate to those over whom they have stewardship in the same way that Jonathan related to David. In the Book of Mormon prophets are repeatedly accused of teaching the people "according to your own desires" in order to "keep them down even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labor of their hands" (Alma 30:27). Amos frames the relationship between prophet and people as a corollary of the relationship between Jonathan and David so that the people will know (paraphrasing 1 Samuel 18:1) "that the soul of a prophet is knit with the souls of the people, and a prophet loves them as his own soul." 
  3. We can learn something about the relationship between God and his prophets. Despite his love for David, Jonathan always remained true to Saul. He identified first and foremost as a son, remaining true to and present with Saul throughout his life. Jonathan loved David, but his first obligation was to Saul. The Father-Son relationship which Amos describes between God and his prophets reminds me of the progression made by Joseph Smith, who was first described by God as a "servant" (Doctrine & Covenants 5:1), then as a "friend" (D&C 84:63), and finally as a "son" (D&C 130:15). 
  4. We can learn something about the relationship between God and his people--especially as that relationship existed in Amos' time. The exchange between Jonathan and David reprized by Amos is one that takes place as Saul prepares to murder David; the exchange between Amos and Israel takes place as God prepares to scatter and 'destroy' Israel. Jonathan buys David time and space through his advocacy with Saul and timely warnings to David; Amos offers Israel the same chance, but if they refuse to hearken to his voice, they will be destroyed as surely as David would have been destroyed. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Great are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 45

In chapter forty-five, Isaiah develops and extends the temple imagery he introduced in chapter forty-four; the chapter division is a modern imposition on a seamless section of text. After rebuking Israel for corrupting the temple ordinances the Lord promises that Cyrus, a future king of Babylon, will help Israel to rebuild the temple (44:28), introducing this unborn leader as a type of all temple worshippers: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden [. . .] I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places [. . . for] I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee [. . . and] I girded thee” (45:1-5) Cyrus has been anointed and clothed, as Aaron and his sons were anointed and clothed preparatory to entering the temple, and he has received a new name signifying his entrance into covenants with the Lord, as Abraham and Sarah received new names (Genesis 17:5-7, 15).

After describing Cyrus’s entry into the temple’s holy place and holy of holies (its “secret places,” where he is to receive “hidden riches”), Isaiah launches into a description of the creation from God’s perspective: “I form the light, and create darkness . . . . Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring forth together; I the Lord have created it” (Isaiah 45:7-8).This first-person narrative of creation gives way to a series of seemingly unrelated questions. Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, seems to anticipate criticism in verses 9-10: “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? Or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? Or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth?” (Isaiah 45:9-10). The English language of these questions appears wholly unrelated to the theme of creation introduced after Cyrus’s initiation into the “secret places,” but the Hebrew suggests that these verses extend Isaiah’s interest in the creation.

The Hebrew word translated into English as “Maker” is the same used to describe Adam’s creation from the dust of the earth: “And the Lord God FORMED man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). When Isaiah warns Israel not to “strive” with the “Maker,” he’s referring to the Creator of Genesis. Later in that same verse, the Hebrew verb translated as “makest” is a word almost omnipresent in the Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1:7, 11, 12, 16, 25, 26, 31; 2:2, 3, 4, 18). So Isaiah’s admonition not to ask “What makest thou?” could be read as an injunction not to question the Lord’s purposes in creating the world. Why would we interrogate the Lord concerning the creation? Because, as Isaiah reminds us in verse 10, that creation resulted in Adam and Eve’s Fall, bringing pain and suffering into our lives. The Hebrew verb translated “begettest” is the same used by God to proclaim Eve’s curse: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt BRING FORTH children” (Genesis 3:16). And “brought forth” at the end of verse 10 carries with it a sense pain, suffering, and affliction in the Hebrew. These verses, in other words, seem to question the purpose of the creation and the necessity of a Fall which brought pain and suffering into the world.

After introducing Cyrus as a representative temple worshipper and giving a first person narrative of the creation, Isaiah warns Israel not to question God’s motivations in creating a world where the Fall could take place. He warns Israel not to judge rashly, but he also, in verses 11-19 explains that God would be more than happy to answer their questions concerning the Fall and its necessity. Isaiah frames this invitation to learn about the creation and Fall in the form of a chiastic poem:

A) Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me (11)
B) I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded (12)
C) I have raised him [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the Lord of hosts. (13)
D) Thus saith the Lord, The labour of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine: they shall come after thee; in chains they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God. (14)

E) Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour. (15)

D) They shall be ashamed, and also confounded, all of them: they shall go to confusion together that are makers of idols. (16)
C) But Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end. (17)
B) For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else (18)
A) I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain (19)

Most of these chiastic parallels are clear; the D) sections are the most difficult, but both verses describe idol worshippers in Egypt, Ethiopia, and elsewhere who will, Isaiah explains, eventually recognize the impotence of their idols. The poem begins and ends by inviting Israel to acquire knowledge, and specifically knowledge of the creation; those invitations belie the accusation by idolatrous peoples situated at the center of this chiasmus. The idolatrous complain that God “hidest thyself”; by bracketing this complaint with God’s open invitations to learn of Him, Isaiah demonstrates that God is anything but reclusive and unwilling to answer our questions. Isaiah ironically highlights the wrongheadedness of these complaints by situating them at the center of his poem, the one place that would have been least ‘hidden’ in the entire poem. 

God wants Israel to gain the “hidden riches” of knowledge available in the temple; he wants to explain the purposes of creation and the need for a Fall. Isaiah’s chiastic poem shows Israel just how open and inviting He is: He’s initiated a foreigner, Cyrus, into the temple’s “secret places,” as a sign that all are welcome to learn the mysteries of God.