Monday, March 28, 2011

Until Seventy Times Seven

When Peter asked the Christ, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" Jesus responded, "I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22). Peter, likely familiar with the rabbinical teaching that you must forgive an offender three times, undoubtedly thought himself generous in exceeding the prescribed conditions of forgiveness, but the Lord taught him that our forgiveness should be unlimited. The number 490 represents a limitless and unconditional forgiveness because, as we read in the Doctrine and Covenants: "I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men" (64:10). The message of Christ's reply to Peter--that we must forgive as frequently as we take offense--is clear, but the numerical terms in which he expressed that message are also symbolic and significant. 

Some weeks ago my brother, the esteemed Defender of Doctrine, forwarded the following thought in a family letter: "Growing up I often wondered what the significance of the Savior's injunction that we are to 'forgive 70 x 7' was. Does it mean that we keep a tally and when we get to 491 we're done? Not practical. If it means we are to forgive always--why those specific numbers? Here's an answer to that question that resonates with me. After the flood the descendants of Noah divided the earth into 70 parts--check out Genesis 10 if you want the 70 names. Thereafter 'THE WORLD' was thought of as comprising those 70 areas or divisions (gives new perspective on why the Quorum of the 70 is not the Quorum of the 80 too . . . ). Our reckoning of  time is a cycle of 7 repeating days. Hence, by teaching us we are to forgive 70x7 the Savior was really saying 'All the world, all the time.'"

The DoD's interpretation is compelling, and a little research suggests that it's based in fact. Now, to be sure, if you open up to the tenth chapter of Genesis, you won't find any statement indicating that the world was divided into 70 segments; instead you'll find a a genealogy of Noah's three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth. The Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament explains the connection between this genealogy and the a 70-part world: "According to the Jewish Midrash, there are seventy tribes, with as many different languages; but this number can only be arrived at by reckoning Nimrod among the Hamites, and not only placing Peleg among the Shemites, but taking his ancestors Salah and Eber to be names of separate tribes. By this we obtain for Japhet 14, for Ham 31, and for Shem 25, - in all 70 names. The Rabbins, on the other hand, reckon 14 Japhetic, 30 Hamitic, and 26 Semitic nations; whilst the fathers make 72 in all. But as these calculations are perfectly arbitrary, and the number 70 is nowhere given or hinted at, we can neither regard it as intended, nor discover in it 'the number of the divinely appointed varieties of the human race,' or 'of the cosmical development,' even if the seventy disciples (Luke 10:1) were meant to answer to the seventy nations whom the Jews supposed to exist upon the earth." To sum up: first-century rabbis contemporary with Christ certainly believed the world could be divided into 70 segments, whether or not we agree with the fuzzy math they employed in arriving at that conclusion--so the DoD's interpretation has the backing of the Midrash.

I love the DoD's "Forgive all the world, all the time" analysis, but as I was enjoying a seder feast last night, in anticipation of Passover, and while reviewing the stories of Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, it occurred to me that there was another, equally significant way to understand the Savior's "seventy times seven" injunction. It seems important to me that the Savior gives his "seventy times seven" response in answer to Peter's question about how often he ought to forgive his brother--and not, for instance, a neighbor, strangeror Samaritan. Those three clues--seventy, seven, and brother--suggest to me that the Savior was teaching Peter a lesson about the blessings of forgiveness and not just the conditions in which we are to extend it.

The greatest story of forgiveness in the Old Testament--all of scripture, as far as Peter was concerned--is that of Joseph in Egypt, whose brothers sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. As Joseph labored for Potiphar, as he sweltered in an Egyptian prison, he must have struggled with ill feelings toward his brothers. And when--at the beginning of seven year famine--his brothers turned up, wholly in his power, and begged for mercy, it must have been difficult to restrain the urge to recriminate. Indeed, it would appear that Joseph didn't wholly restrain his punitive instinct; he threw the ten brothers responsible for his ordeal into prison for three days (Genesis 42:17), and Simeon stayed there for months (Genesis 42:24). But, in the end, Joseph forgave his brothers and made them leaders in Egypt; when his father learned that Joseph was still alive, he moved to Egypt with Joseph's eleven brothers and their families, and "all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten" (Genesis 46:27). For those of you not familiar with old English standards of measurement, a score is twenty; threescore and ten is the another way of saying seventy

Because he forgave his brothers Joseph saved seventy of his family members from seven years' suffering, and probably from physical death; in other words, his forgiveness was worth an aggregate 490 years of life. This math, in and of itself, represents a significant reminder of the blessings that come from forgiveness. But Joseph's family were not just ordinary individuals; they eventually became the twelve tribes of Israel, the Lord's covenant people, and Joseph's act of forgiveness is a type and shadow of the spiritual salvation which Jesus Christ offers to all those born or adopted into the tribes of Israel through the forgiving and healing power of His Atonement.

When Jesus Christ instructed Peter to forgive his brother "until seventy times seven" he did instruct him to "forgive all the world, all the time"--but he also reminded him of the blessings that come from such an attitude of forgiveness. Every Israelite, including Peter, was a physical product of Joseph's exemplary act of forgiveness, and Christ "seventy times seven" may have been Christ's way of gently reminding Peter that he owed his very life to Joseph's willingness to forgive more than was required. You and I may or may not be physically indebted to Joseph, but we are all spiritually indebted to the Savior, whose ultimate act of forgiveness Joseph's clemency foreshadowed. The words "until seventy times seven" are an invitation to remember that fact and to act accordingly, with an eye to the blessings of forgiveness, which will persist and multiply--like the twelve tribes of Israel--long after we are dead. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Coffee, Carcinogens, and Collaboration

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don't drink coffee. We don't drink it because modern prophets have interpreted the scriptural prohibition on "hot drinks" in Doctrine and Covenants 89:9 as a ban on coffee and black tea; we don't need any other reasons. But if you're NOT a member of the Church, here are two good reasons to delete your daily stop at Starbucks from the itinerary: 


1) Coffee causes cancer. Okay, I'm exaggerating here. But while consumer safety advocates have warned for years that pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables could contain carcinogens, it turns out that "we ingest more carcinogens from a cup of coffee than from a year's worth of conventional produce." In fact of the 22 chemicals in a cup of coffee that have been subjected to animal cancer trials, 17 caused cancer, meaning that you ingest 10 milligrams of known carcinogens in every cup of coffee. "Uh, make mine a leukemia grande. I mean latte! Latte grande!"


2) Caffeine seems to make men dumber: a team of university researchers recently found that caffeine negatively affected male memory and problem solving in collaborative, stressful situations. Oddly enough, caffeine seemed to enhance women's performance in the same tasks, an outcome the researchers attributed to the typical woman's mutually supportive response to stress (tend and befriend) as compared to the typical male's response (fight or flight). I'm not sure that this study has a large enough sample size to be completely trustworthy, but if you're a man about to take the GRE, the LSAT, or make an important presentation--would you risk it?


The bottom line hasn't changed: we shouldn't drink coffee. But it's interesting--and, hopefully, faith-promoting--to think about the ways in which obedience to the Lord's law of health allows us to circumvent potential physical and mental difficulties.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Inspired Founding Mothers

You know that I love Eve, but the title of this post doesn't refer to her.

I've been thinking, recently, about the reverence in which members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. During his tenure as prophet, Ezra Taft Benson declared that "Our Father in Heaven planned the coming forth of the Founding Fathers and their form of government as the necessary great prologue leading to the restoration of the gospel." Those founding fathers included "delegates [to the Constitutional Convention, who] were the recipients of heavenly inspiration." The Founding Fathers were inspired during their lifetimes, and they have, in turn, inspired Church leaders from the grave.

As the president of the St. George Temple, immediately prior to assuming the prophetic mantle, Wilford Woodruff received a vision in which he saw many of the Founding Fathers, who demanded that he perform saving and exalting ordinances on their behalf: "Before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, 'You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God" (Discourses, 160). As the prophet, President Woodruff later explained that "those men who laid the foundation of this American government were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits . . . inspired of the Lord" (Conference Report, Apr. 1898, p. 89).

Because Church leaders have repeatedly identified the words of our Founding Fathers as "inspired," we frequently hear their words invoked in General Conference and other settings. The words of John Adams, for instance, have been quoted in conference addresses quite a few times. And yet, for all of the emphasis that we place on the words of men like Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others, we rarely hear anything at all about the women who stood by their sides, the mothers and wives, sisters and daughters, who stood with the Founding Fathers as equal partners (spiritually and intellectually, if not socially). Church leaders have never taught us from the pulpit in General Conference about inspired Founding Mothers any more than they've taught us about our Heavenly Mother, but we know much more about them and there is no reason we shouldn't benefit from their example and counsel.

To be fair, this apparent bias reflects the fact that we have far fewer published records documenting the lives and words of Revolutionary-era women than we do Revolutionary-era men. But I also suspect that the patriarchal culture of the Church has inadvertently overshadowed the contributions of women like Abigail Adams by shining the light of inspiration so brightly on her husband and his companions. Elder G. Homer Durham did once reference a letter written by Abigail Adams that calls for inspired mothers and wives, but he also framed that letter in terms of Abigail's relationship to John: "In 1775 John Adams, designing a new nation in Philadelphia, wrote his wife Abigail of his concern for the nation's future leadership. She replied, 'If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, . . . we should have learned women."

Our ecclesiastical emphasis on Founding Fathers obscures the fact that our unsung Founding Mothers were, by and large, more obedient to the commandments of God (Franklin was an open adulterer, and Jefferson's sexual exploits with his slave, Sally Hemmings, have been a matter of public record for more than a century) and more diligent in their worship. I would suggest that for most of these women their behavior qualified them to receive visitations of the Holy Ghost far more frequently than their philandering husbands. To paraphrase President Spencer W. Kimball, "It has been said that many of the great [founders] were perverts or moral degenerates. In spite of their immorality they became great and celebrated [statesmen]. What could be the result if discovery were made of equal talent in [wo]men who were clean and free from the vices and thus entitled to revelation?"

As just one example of the way in which a Founding Mother who was clean and free from vice received eternally significant inspiration, let me share an excerpt from a letter written by Abigail Adams to her niece, Lucy Cranch Greenleaf, on August 27, 1785:

"Why may we not suppose, that, the higher our attainments in knowledge and virtue are here on earth, the more nearly we assimilate ourselves to that order of beings who now rank above us in the world of spirits? We are told in scripture, that there are different kinds of glory, and that one star differeth from another. Why should not those who have distinguished themselves by superior excellence over their fellow-mortals continue to preserve their rank when admitted to the kingdom of the just? Though the estimation of worth may be very different in the view of the righteous Judge of the world from that which vain man esteems such on earth, yet we may rest assured that justice will be strictly administered to us.

"But whither has my imagination wandered? Very distant from my thoughts when I first took my pen."

In this passage, Abigail Adams anticipatorily summarizes the doctrines that Joseph Smith would publicly reveal in the Doctrine and Covenants more than fifty years later: "Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:18-19). Adams also seems to intuitively understand that the heavens include a number of kingdoms, referencing the same Bible verse (1 Corinthians 15:41) that missionaries around the world use today in explaining the three degrees of heavenly glory to investigators.

It also seems significant to me that Abigail Adams recognizes the words she has just written have come from outside herself--that she recognized an influence (even if she did attribute it to her "imagination") which prompted her to write about something other than she originally intended. I would suggest that in this letter we have evidence that she was as or more inspired than her husband.

Our Founding Mothers, like our Founding Fathers, were inspired! Having recognized that fact, we ought to treat their surviving words in the same way that prophets have directed us to treat the words of their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers--with the careful scrutiny due the lives and letters of those valiant spirits our Heavenly Father entrusted with preparing the way for a restoration of the gospel.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Washed, Anointed, and Clothed

Some months ago, I suggested that Jesus Christ's resurrection was a priesthood ordinance, and one that he received at the hands of the Father. What I did not say then is that all priesthood ordinances point back to the Atonement: 


Because the Atonement is the means by which we are brought back into God’s presence, it “is no coincidence that all of the essential ordinances of the Church symbolize the Atonement” (Nelson, "The Atonement," 4). When we are baptized we are lowered beneath the water’s surface in imitation of Christ’s death, and we rise from the depths as he rose from the grave. When we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, we are blessed with the constant companionship of a member of the Godhead—that gift is made possible only because Jesus Christ voluntarily hung on the cross at Calvary in utter solitude, bereft of His Father’s supporting spirit when he needed it most. “[B]ecause Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so” (Holland, "None Were With Him," 88); we always have access to the Holy Ghost’s comforting reminders. When we partake of the sacrament, we eat the bread and drink the water as symbolic reminders of His body and blood, which He sacrificed for us. If you glance quickly at the sacrament trays lying under the white cloth that covers them, you might even be reminded of Christ’s death as he lay in the garden tomb wrapped in white grave-clothes. When we are given priesthood blessings or anointed in the temple, a drop of consecrated olive oil is placed on the crown of our heads so that we might remember our Savior’s experience in the olive press of Gethsemane; that olive oil is a reminder of the blood that was driven from his pores as he was crushed by the sins of the world. As we receive our endowment and sealing ordinances in the temple, we are reminded of other aspects of the Atonement. We remember the nails that pierced His hands. We remember his agony as He hung on the cross with his arms outstretched toward heaven. We remember his suffering in Gethsemane as he prayed three times, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” We imagine, as we enter the Celestial Room that symbolically represents heaven, what it would be like to be at one with God again, to be “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” There are no aspects of the saving and exalting ordinances that do not remind us of Christ’s Atonement, because without the Atonement there would be no such ordinances. The Atonement is the Alpha and Omega of salvation, the beginning and the end of our journey back to God’s presence. 


To that long list of priesthood ordinances which point back to the Atonement, I'd like to add three more, which the Old Testament groups together: washing, anointing, and clothing in the "holy garments [of] the priest" (Exodus 31:10). We learn that before Aaron and his sons--representative priesthood holders in Israel--could enter the tabernacle and, likewise, before subsequent generations of priests could enter the temple, they needed to be washed, clothed in special apparel, and anointed: "And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and wash them with water. And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments, and anoint him, and sanctify him" (Exodus 40:12-13). These priesthood ordinances, like all others, anticipate and foreshadow the Atonement of Jesus Christ.


When the Savior had finished his work on the earth and overcome the power of the destroyer, Satan, "he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost" (John 19:30). Two disciples, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, then retrieved His body from the cross to prepare it for burial. They "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes . . . then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury" (John 19:39-40). John clearly tells us that the Savior, like Aaron and his sons, was anointed with myrrh, one of the principal components in the "holy anointing oil" (Exodus 30:23-25), and clothed in what Mark terms "fine linen" (15:46) reminiscent of the "coats of fine linen" which, with "a mitre of fine linen, and goodly bonnets of fine linen, and linen breeches of fine twined linen, and a girdle of fine twined linen," constituted the priestly dress of Aaron and his sons (Exodus 39:27-29). 


Neither John nor any of the other evangelists say anything about the Savior being washed by those who prepared his body for burial, but common sense dictates that Joseph and Nicodemus would not have bought such expensive embalming salves only to smear them on over the grime that had accumulated on Christ's body throughout the various stages of the Atonement--as, for example, he "fell on his face" in the dirt of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39). More to the point, Jesus prophesied that his disciples would wash and anoint his body in preparation for burial. 


All four of the evangelists record the story of a woman (sometimes identified as Mary, sometimes as a prostitute) who anoints Christ's feet with the contents of "an alabaster box of very precious ointment" (Matthew 26:7). When his disciples (or, sometimes, the Pharisees) object, Christ replies that "she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying" (Mark 14:8). The Joseph Smith Translation of John's version of events clarifies, explaining that "she hath preserved this ointment until now, that she might anoint me in token of my burial" (John 13:7). The woman's actions anticipate that which would be done at the actual burial of Christ--and Luke informs us that those actions included a preparatory washing that took place before the anointing; Christ explains to the onlookers that  "thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head" (Luke 7:44). 


In preparation for his return to the physical presence of his Father in that heavenly temple seen in vision by Isaiah (6:1), Ezekiel (40-44), and others, Jesus Christ was washed, anointed, and clothed by his disciples. They prepared his body for a glorious resurrection and ascent to the heavens in the same way that Aaron and his sons received priesthood ordinances preparatory to their entering into the house of the Lord and his physical presence (the "glory of the Lord," which regularly "filled the Lord's house" [2 Chronicles 7:2]).


All priesthood ordinances point us back to the Atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ, because His great and holy sacrifice is the operative power which makes those ordinances efficacious. Aaron might not have recognized that he was acting as a type of Christ when he prepared to enter the tabernacle, but we can--and we should.