The vexed question of Book of Mormon geography

There’s been several more articles in the recurrent arguments over Book of Mormon geography. The Interpreter has posted a couple of articles arguing against the so-called “heartland” model (which locates Book of Mormon events in the American midwest and around the Great lakes) here and here and thus implicitly defending the old FARMs preferred model of Mesoamerica. This in turn seems to be a reaction to several books and a fairly prolific run of posts arguing for the heartland model here. And so the arguments continue.

Personally I’m an agnostic on Book of Mormon geography. I don’t know where it happened. And I think that where it happened is considerable less important than that it did: the reality of the Book of Mormon’s promises about the gathering of Israel and God’s intervention into history, or its witness of Christ, depends on the events within happening, but not so much on their geographical location. Though it’s also understandable why people get so involved in the question, because (at least as far as I can tell), many of those seeking to identify the location are aiming in some way to bolster that it did. But at the same time I’m not sure that the Lord’s going to let us find anything particularly conclusive on this subject yet, particularly since at present one purpose of the Book of Mormon is to ‘try [our] faith’ (3 Nephi 26:9).

In the meantime, I don’t find any of the models as presented completely convincing. The heartland model certainly has issues: I think it reads too much into things like D&C 125:3, or has geographical issues like the seas mentioned both east and west of the Nephite/Lamanite lands. But then I think the Mesoamerican model, while often pursued in a more professional manner, also has geographical issues (the placement of the seas, the narrow neck of land and so on) and I find the cultural case unconvincing. But then again, while I think they have problems, that doesn’t mean they might not be right. My biggest issue isn’t really anything to do with the actual models themselves but where people try to actually read the text of the Book of Mormon itself through their preferred (and unverified) lens. It’s that aspect that fuelled my rather negative reaction to the Journey of Faith 2 DVD (in three parts: 1 2 3), where the insistance on trying to see everything through a Mesoamerican lens led to easily avoidable mistakes like reading an explicit quotation of the Ten Commandments as a reference to Mesoamerican cosmology. I object to any model that leads to misreading scripture, but that’s really a case of people reading it in, rather than the model itself.

In any case, until a conclusive link is found for any model, I can’t help but think that many of these issues may be interesting, but they’re not as important as other matters. Yet – perhaps because of the perceived benefits of actually locating the scriptural scene – it’s definitely consumed a lot of attention. I don’t wish to dissuade any of those interested in the topic from researching it (who knows, after all, what the results will be). But I do think that means that discussions on the topic should really have an assumption of good faith, and avoid some of the accusations that can accompany this topic. And there are good examples of this: this article here, for example, deserves kudos for the author’s (J. Theodore Brandley) calm approach to his views,as does the Interpreter for their willingness to publish something at odds with their preferred approach and a couple of the commentators (such as Brant Gardner) for calmly engaging even where they disagree.

In the meantime, however, and as much as I find these topics interesting from time to time, I find my attention is attracted to other topics. From personal experience, I’ve found conclusive answers to matters of faith (such as the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon) come through revelation, rather than a firm geographical hypothesis. And beyond that question, I find I personally want to devote my time to questions I believe may well of be greater importance. The most vital questions about the Book of Mormon to my mind are not where but what: not where the book took place, but what it has to to teach us, what it has to say about what God is about to do, and what it has to say about what we should do.

The Adventures of Nephi son of Helaman

In my personal study I’ve be reading through the travails of Nephi son of Helaman (Helaman 7-11) lately, and really was just struck by the following points, and since it’s good to share:

1) Nephi is accused at one point of personal ambition, that he was seeking to make himself “a great man” (Helaman 9:16) and so had conspired for someone to murder the chief judge. What struck me on this read through is how this may well have seemed outwardly plausible to the people at the time, since Nephi himself had been chief judge (Helaman 3:37, 5:1-4). The circumstances of his abdication might have seemed particularly controversial, for while we learn from 5:4 that he was ‘weary’ of the judgment-seat and undertook to preach the Gospel as Alma had done earlier, the fact that this came in the wake of the Nephites losing half their territory (Helaman 4) and that Nephi appeared to lack political support (5:2-3) may have led many to think Nephi was seeking to reclaim an earlier position of power via other means. And perhaps we too need to be cautious about assuming what appear to be ‘obvious’ motives.

2) The attitude of the five who went to check on the chief judge following Nephi’s prophecy seems important. They didn’t believe Nephi was a prophet, but what I find significant is that they were willing to check and – should it turn out to be correct – expressed the willingness to then believe everything else he had taught (Helaman 9:2). It seemed an illustration of what Alma teaches in Alma 32:27, about how one could “experiment” upon the word and “exercise a particle of faith”. These five didn’t even necessarily “desire to believe”, but they were willing to go and look, and willing to believe all if what they checked was true.

3) The point at which Seantum, the brother and murderer of the chief judge, is accused is very interesting. Nephi tells them precisely what to say, and what Seantum’s replies and reactions will be (Helaman 9:26-36). The actual account of them doing so, however, simply states:

And it came to pass that they went and did, even according as Nephi had said unto them. And behold, the words which he had said were true; for according to the words he did deny; and also according to the words he did confess. (Helaman 9:37)

By giving Nephi’s prophetic instructions in detail, and then not actually giving an account of what happened other than to say it went like Nephi said, I think the passage emphasises the power and accuracy of prophetic fulfilment. It’s saying that Nephi’s prophecy was so accurate, there’s no need to retell it all over again.

4) Finally the section from Helaman 9:39 to 10:1 seems quite ironic. At least some believe Nephi is a prophet (9:40). Others even say “he is a god” (v.41). But amidst all the arguments, even those who claim to believe Nephi “went their ways” and leave Nephi “alone” (Helaman 10:1). That he feels “cast down” (v.3) is quite understandable – even those loudly proclaiming that Nephi is a prophet have wondered off rather than listening to him!

The Conductor of History

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing?

(Alma 37:45)

When reading the scriptures, types and typology are perhaps one of the most elusive but rewarding things we can discover. Particularly when reading those passages others might dismiss as simply “stories”, we should pay attention not only to what principles those stories might teach us, but also the ways that people, objects or events may be a ‘type’ that prophetically prefigures a future or eternal ‘antitype’. Thus ‘all things which have been given of God’, such as the Law of Moses or the bronze serpent of Moses typify Christ (2 Nephi 11:4, Alma 25:15, Alma 33:19). The Liahona not only guided Lehi and his family to the promised land, but serves as a type of ‘the words of Christ’ which can guide us ‘beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise’ (Alma 37:38-45).

A crucial thing about types is that these are not allegorical or symbolic readings, an artifact of either the writers or the reader. Rather the idea of types is founded on the conviction that – just as God can communicate directly through revelation – He can also reveal Himself and His works through everyday and historical events. Thus God on some level orchestrates these events so they may teach His intended messages, in some cases to audiences very far removed in space and time from the original events.

This idea of God orchestrating events to this level might be a trifle unsettling to Latter-day Saints, who obviously also have a conviction of human agency. Some might wonder how, even with God’s perfect foreknowledge of all things, God can be ultimately in charge of what happens. The idea of God as the ultimate ‘author’ of human history may appear to give insufficient acknowledgement that – unlike the fictional characters of an author who think, feel and act at the author’s whim – God has permitted us the power and ability to act for ourselves.

I was thinking about this when my mind lit upon an analogy that I feel fits better, that of God being the conductor of history. He, through His own choice, doesn’t control the musicians as puppets and we are not mere extensions of His will. But he knows us, and has past, present and future continually before His eyes. And thus, though he grants us agency, he remains in control of the final piece because he does dictate when and where we play.

“Choosing to be happy” and emotional integrity

I quite frequently run across the idea that happiness is a choice. In some sense this is very true. There’s definitely some choices that can prevent us from being happy, especially in the long term, for “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10). Our eternal happiness is dependent upon our ultimate choice, with “one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness’ (Alma 41:5), and ‘joy or remorse of conscience” being given to us “according to [our] desires” (Alma 29:5). It’s also true that from an eternal perspective we can “rejoice, and be exceedingly glad” even when we are persecuted and mistreated (Matthew 5:11-12) although it’s clear here this is talking in the sense of being fortunate in the knowledge that we are experiencing the same as the prophets and will be blessed like them, rather than actual emotional contentment from abuse. Likewise we can “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations [trials]” (James 1:2), providing we realise its talking of [i]being[/i] fortunate, and not necessarily [i]feeling[/i] overjoyed.

However, this notion of happiness being a choice often seems mixed up with other ideas. There’s the idea that our attitude alone can dictate our happiness, meaning our emotional state, and that positive thinking can guarantee happiness. There’s the belief that somehow God has promised us continuous happiness in this life. Related to both the above is the idea that we should always be feeling happy.

There are problems with all this. It is certainly the case that we need to keep perspective, count our blessings, and refrain from dwelling on our miseries. But the idea that a positive attitude alone is all that is necessary to guarantee continual emotional happiness is solipsistic, seeming to assume that there is nothing anyone else can do (even God), or that can happen to anyone else, that can affect our emotions. But this is untrue. Likewise, there are some emotional trials that positive thinking alone cannot fix, as Elder Holland points out regarding depression: “no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively”. If we believe that God has somehow promised continual emotional contentment in this life, then when the inevitable emotional disappointments happen we may think God has somehow failed us. Or, if we believe that our emotional state is always and readily under our control, we may believe that if we are feeling unhappy we have chosen to do so, and even that feeling unhappy is thereby a sin.

Unhappiness is not a sin

As said, it is important to retain perspective, be grateful to the Lord for our blessings (D&C 59:7) and be able to see his hand in all things (59:21). But ‘negative’ emotions will come, and these are not necessarily sins in themselves or the result of sins. Jacob (as I’ve mentioned before) speaks of ‘mourn[ing] out our days’, while Alma, leaving Ammonihah for the first time, was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because of the people’s failure to repent (Alma 8:14). Mormon even speaks of being “without hope” where his people were concerned (Mormon 5:2). None of the feelings of these men were sins.

Then there is the example of the Saviour himself, who was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The image we have of the Saviour may cause us to forget that he experienced the full gamut of emotions we do. Sure, he loved (Mark 10:21, John 11:5) and felt compassion (Matthew 20:34). But he was also felt anger (Mark 3:5, Mark 10:14), wept (John 11:35, Luke 19:41), felt amazement and anguish (Mark 14:33) and deep distress (Luke 12:50). It is difficult to imagine all these emotions coexisting with a permanent feeling of happiness. And in all this, if we have seen Him we “hath seen the Father” (John 14:9), for as we learn from Enoch’s vision even the God of heaven feels indignation, anger and weeps for His children (Moses 7:28-34).

Emotional honesty and “bridling” our passions

It is okay to experience times of unhappiness and disappointment. By so doing we walk in the path of many of the best people who have ever walked on this earth, including the Saviour himself. It’s part of the purpose of this life, to experience trials and be tested, and the path of discipleship, as President Monson has stated, involves following the Saviour along paths such as those of disappointment and pain. And it’s important to be able to admit when we are, even just to ourselves. As Elder Cook quoted (also from the October 2014 General Conference) “‘How could it not make you feel worse to spend part of your time pretending to be happier than you are'”? Pretending to be happy is not going to make us be happy.

That sort of pretending can hurt us more than we realise. Sure, sometimes we must simply grit our teeth and persevere. But sometimes unhappiness and emotional discomfort, like physical pain, can teach us that there’s something we should change, about ourselves or our circumstances. Sometimes its right and proper to seek help from others. At other times, they are simply part of the coin of love, when we feel the distress of those we care about. In this way we can perhaps begin to understand in the smallest way how our Lord God feels.

Denying these feelings any place cuts us off from that. It can deprive us of the power we can gain from an emotional integrity, where we can admit to ourselves and God how we are truely feeling, and honestly lay those feelings at his feet (I have long been impressed by the honesty of the Psalmists, something I feel we can only benefit from in our prayers). Furthermore, as a friend pointed out to me last year, we are not asked to suppress or eliminate our emotions. Rather the scriptural instruction is to “bridle” our “passions” (Alma 38:12): a bridle does not kill a horse or stop it in its tracks, rather it allows us to steer it, to turn its strength and power to our advantage.

We are not promised continual happiness in this world. While “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25), we must also taste misery so we might have joy (v.23) and “in this world your joy is not full” (D&C 101:36). A fulness of joy awaits us in the next life (D&C 93:33). What Christ does offer us, however, is peace (John 14:27), peace that will not preserve us from all sadness and heartache, but which can help us endure them. And – as I have very much experienced this past year – even amongst deep sadness we can have supernal moments of joy.

Revisiting Deuteronomy #3: Deuteronomy in 1-2 Nephi

Please see the earlier posts for a description of what on earth I’m talking about, and specific criticisms of the argument that Laman and Lemuel were ‘Deuteronomists’, the hypothetical movement behind the reforms of King Josiah and which were inextricably involved in the composition and/or redaction of both Deuteronomy and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ (Joshua-1 Kings). Said ‘Deuteronomists’ also being – according to those who’ve advanced the theory – persecutors of such prophets as Jeremiah and Lehi.

In this section, I really wanted to address, albeit briefly, comments that Neal Rappleye made about the use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi. As Rappleye admits, ‘one such potential counter-argument to the thesis I have sketched above is the positive use of Deuteronomy by Nephi and Lehi themselves’.

Deuteronomy and Nephi

Unfortunately, while Rappleye goes on to state that he ‘will attempt to deal with one significant example of this’, he really doesn’t. Indeed, he doesn’t really provide a good description of the supposed example (an apparent connection between Lehi’s dying words in 2 Nephi 1-4 to the final address of Moses in Deuteronomy). He contents himself by quoting Reynolds claim that he has identified such parallels, but then moves swiftly to trying to explain it away.

There are problems with his explanation however. He begins by trying to make the claim that Lehi was not completely opposed to the reforms, and that opposing the ideology of the ‘Deuteronomists’ does not mean the same thing as opposing the book of Deuteronomy, or even Josiah. It is gratifying that Rappleye seems reluctant to throw Deuteronomy or Josiah under the bus. Unfortunately, as discussed in the last post, the supposed ideology of the hypothetical ‘Deuteronomists’ is in fact a work of reconstruction from Deuteronomy and the DH, and so their ‘ideology’ as far as is thought is inextricably connected to those books. And that reconstruction is based on the idea that those books are in fact the works of the ‘Deuteronomists’. Rappleye does not appear to share this view, apparently feeling that Deuteronomy precedes the reforms, but then the need for the existence of a school of ‘Deuteronomists’ becomes distinctly less pressing. It is likewise unclear how – if he was implementing their ideas – Josiah is likewise not to be implicated in the ideology of a group charged with suppressing vital parts of the Gospel (visions and messianic ideas) and which is charged with persecuting prophets to do it. When the most that Rappleye can allow is that Lehi saw the putative composers of the DH (as Rappleye recognises), a significant chunk of the Old Testament, as no more inspired than modern LDS may see the Protestant reformers, how can that not ultimately lead to said books, as well as potentially Deuteronomy itself (one of the books most quoted by the Saviour), being regarded as somehow less than scriptural? Unrepentant prophet-killers are not usually regarded as reliable composers or editors of scripture.

And, as much as Rappleye appears determined to avoid making that mistake, it does seem to colour his ideas of why Lehi and Nephi might make use of Deuteronomy, which appear to be nothing more in his eyes than attempts to appeal to Laman and Lemuel. Allusions to Moses are because ‘Lehi knew that Laman and Lemuel held Moses in high regard, and thus sought to use him as an archetype for his own calling.’ Stating that Lehi and Nephi were ‘certainly […] not anti-Moses’ hardly seems sufficient to capture their own attitude to someone who they considered a Prophet of God. It is Nephi, after all, who keeps mentioning Moses, not Laman and Lemuel.

As I mentioned when last discussing this topic several years ago, it is important to recognise that Nephi accepts the book of Deuteronomy as authoritative scripture. Nephi describes the plates of brass as containing ‘the five books of Moses’ (1 Nephi 5:11, my emphasis). He patterns his whole narrative according to that of the Exodus (and since Laman and Lemuel were never readers of the small plates, it wasn’t to impress them). The prominent and oft quoted refrain in the Book of Mormon that ‘inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper’ (1 Nephi 2:20) and its converse is certainly in keeping with Deuteronomistic themes. Finally Nephi explicitly quotes from Deuteronomy: In 1 Nephi 22:20 quoting Deuteronomy 18:15-19 and 2 Nephi 11:3 quoting Deuteronomy 19:15. In the former case he’s even quoting Deuteronomy for messianic purposes, one of the very ideas supposedly suppressed by the Deuteronomists (at least as asserted by Christensen). 1 and 2 Nephi do not justify any attitude that regards Deuteronomy as less than the word of God, something in keeping with the Book of Mormon’s whole approach to the Bible in which it aims to support and confirm it (e.g. in Mormon 7:9, and discussed somewhat more here). The Book of Mormon holds that the Bible is true, and contains the revelations of God. An approach that ultimately entails regarding large portions of the Bible with suspicion is not only inconsistent with what the Book of Mormon teaches about the Bible, it is also unsustainable. And yet it seems few who have played with these ideas have confronted these important consequences: that of losing scripture, a process that can rapidly deprive one of other scripture too (2 Nephi 28:29-30). If such ideas are wrong – and I believe they are and that I’ve shown significant problems with them – they can also carry a heavy price.

A final note

This last item does not perhaps contain the same importance as some of the other items I’ve addressed in the last couple of posts. The implications of believing that some of the practices suppressed by Josiah (and condemned by Jeremiah) were correct, or in regarding Deuteronomy or any of the books from Joshua to 2 Kings as having come from dubious hands, seem to me to be the most significant and problematic consequences for anyone embracing the proposed paradigm in full. But while this last point is not quite as vital, it is perhaps illustrative of some of the pitfalls in reading the Book of Mormon that this approach entails.

Right at the end of his article, Neal Rappleye suggests that, although Laman and Lemuel were wrong and Lehi and Nephi were true prophets, that ‘the contrast between Lehi and Nephi on one hand, and Laman and Lemuel on the other, no longer stands as the stark and obvious difference between good and evil’. ‘Instead’, he argues ‘it represents two competing religious ideologies’. This he feels ‘isn’t too different from our own world today’, and help us to understand how Laman and Lemuel could feel ‘that the indignation they directed at their father and brother was justified’.

People can indeed be sincerely wrong about a number of things (though sincerity, in and of itself, does not necessarily insulate one from the consequences), and its important to be able to recognise that. Yet this reading seems to so badly understate what happened with Laman and Lemuel. It’s not just that, as covered last post, they likely weren’t ‘Deuteronomists’ or particular pious (Nephi after all says they were ‘slow to remember the Lord’. 1 Nephi 17:45). But we’re talking about people who actually saw an angel (1 Nephi 3:29-30), and who heard the voice of the Lord (1 Nephi 16:39), who could not hear the ‘still small voice’ because they were ‘past feeling’, and so had God speak to them ‘like unto the voice of thunder’, and who still hardened their hearts (1 Nephi 17:45-46). It is likely that for a while there was a tension within them – for a while they do repent from time to time, after all – but they ultimately chose to become hardened. And the same can happen to us, no matter what spiritual experiences we’ve had or what things we’ve been through, if we harden our hearts. While there is a danger in being a sincere but deluded fanatic (Romans 10:2), it strikes me that Laman and Lemuel speak to a more basic problem we mortals face, that does ultimately mean a ‘stark’ choice between ‘good and evil’, the good and evil tugging at all our hearts. We should not underestimate our capacity for baseness should we succumb, nor the capacity for such mundane things as a desire for comfort, or murmuring, or jealously to drag us down. But at the same time – like Lehi and Nephi – if we humble ourselves, remember the Lord our God and keep his commandments we can be blessed more than we imagine and be blessed to be more than we imagine. And perhaps some of the best counsel on how to do that is to be found in the book of Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.
(Deuteronomy 6:4–8)

Revisiting Deuteronomy #2: Laman and Lemuel as supposed ‘Deuteronomists’

Having addressed some overall problems with Neal Rappleye’s article, I find there are also issues with Rappleye’s specific claims in regards to Laman and Lemuel. I address his claims as follows:

Claim 1) Laman and Lemuel and their murmuring was motivated by Lehi’s sacrifice

Rappleye suggests that Laman and Lemuel’s murmuring, which commences in 1 Nephi 2:11-12, was ‘evoked, or at least contributed to’, by a ‘perceived violation of Deuteronomic law’ – namely that Lehi’s sacrifices in 1 Nephi 2:7 violated the centralisation of sacrifice in one place as outlined by Deuteronomy 12. A problem with this argument is that their objections are outlined in 1 Nephi 2:11-12, and sacrifice is not given a place. Rather their big complaint is that they have been led out in the wilderness away from their possessions ‘to die in the wilderness’, because their father is ‘a visionary man’, meaning that they saw him as following ‘the foolish imaginations of his heart’.

Claim 2) Their opposition to ‘a visionary man’ was grounded in Deuteronomistic opposition to visions

Rappleye notes that:

According to Kevin Christensen, the Deuteronomist ideology rejected visions as a means of knowing the Lord’s will, and not only did Lehi receive visions, but some of the content of his visions specifically reflected old beliefs the Deuteronomists were trying to eradicate.

Unfortunately, as an example of some of the issues discussed above, Rappleye just assumes that Christensen is correct about this point. He then argues that:

Both John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper have noted that “visionary man” is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew הזח [sic] (ôzeh). Roper adds that the pejorative usage of “visionary man” by Laman and Lemuel was more than mere ridicule or name-calling — it was actually the strong accusation that he was a false prophet. Deuteronomists would have regarded a prophet like Lehi — who claimed to have seen the divine council and received the mysteries (see 1 Nephi 1:8–14) — as a false prophet. Thus Laman and Lemuel calling their father a “visionary man” would be a direct result of their acceptance of the Deuteronomistic interpretation of what a proper prophet should be. They were declaring that their father, by definition of seeing visions, should not be accepted as a true prophet.

There are severe problems with this argument.

First it should really be noted that in a sense the ‘Deuteronomists’ are imaginary. There is no record of them in the biblical writings. Rather scholars have suggested that Josiah’s reforms were motivated and carried out by a group that they called ‘Deuteronomists’, so-called because it is supposed that the ‘book of the law’ discovered not only was the book of Deuteronomy, but that it was largely written at that time. This is usually attributed to the work of a school rather than a single individual (one might cynically think because scholars seem to imagine the past filled with people much like themselves), hence ‘Deuteronomists’. This school and the book of Deuteronomy are likewise argued to have influenced the aforementioned ‘Deuteronomistic history’, which at the very least is held to have been significantly influenced by if not also part of this reforming programme.

This is an important point, because any views attributed to these ‘Deuteronomists’ is – and has to be due to lack of any other evidence – a reconstruction based on the principle concerns of the book of Deuteronomy and the books of the DH. Any discussion of what the ‘Deuteronomists’ did or did not think then cannot be separated from those books themselves, despite Rappleye’s apparent efforts.

Now the Book of Deuteronomy itself does warn against Prophets or dreamers of dreams who urge the worshipping of other Gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), but it also clearly makes room for true prophets (Deuteronomy 18:15), nor does there seem sufficient evidence that visions per se made one a false prophet.

However, the specific claim that חֹזֵה (spelled incorrectly though transliterated correctly as ôzeh in the article – I suspect the spelling got accidentally inverted when published on the Interpreter website) is to always be taken as a pejorative charge referring to a false prophet seems difficult to square with use of the term in the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ itself. Thus in 1 Samuel 3:1, we find the statement that ‘the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision’, the word used for ‘vision’ here (חָזֹון) being based on the same root as חֹזֵה. As for the term חֹזֵה itself, it finds use in 2 Samuel 24:11, where we learn that ‘the word of the Lord came unto the prophet Gad, David’s seer (חֹזֵה)’. Here it is clearly not being used in any pejorative sense, and certainly not in the meaning of a false prophet. Whatever Laman and Lemuel meant by ‘a visionary man’ (and the example mentioned above seems to smack more of scepticism than pious indignation), it doesn’t seem to match that of the writer(s) of the DH.

Claim 3) Their belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem derived from the ‘Deuteronomists’

In all fairness, there does indeed appear to be a strong link between Laman and Lemuel and Jerusalem. They indeed do not believe Jerusalem can be destroyed (1 Nephi 2:13), assert the righteousness of the people there (1 Nephi 17:22) and are compared to the people there by Nephi (1 Nephi 17:44). My own research into 1 Nephi 20//Isaiah 48 has been likewise suggestive of this link (see v.2, where the textual differences in the Book of Mormon version have those who ‘call themselves of the holy city, but they do not stay themselves on the God of Israel’). And likewise it seems many in Jerusalem believed it was inviolable, so much so that Jeremiah had to contend with false prophets promising deliverance (Jeremiah 28).

The mistake is to attribute this to the ‘Deuteronomists’ or to Josiah’s reforms. A prominent theme both of Deuteronomy and the DH are the blessings and cursings attached to covenantal obedience, including foreshadowing the scattering of Israel (Deuteronomy 28). And if the ‘book of the law’ was indeed Deuteronomy, Josiah’s reaction to rend his clothes is consistent with a message that promises rather the opposite of inviolability (2 Kings 22:11). Claims that ‘in the Deuteronomist history, Josiah “is depicted as a second David” and “touted as the ideal Davidic king”’ fail to spot the rather obvious point that, in the very same ‘Deuteronomistic history’, Josiah’s reward is to be spared seeing the inevitable destruction that is to come upon Jerusalem by dying first (2 Kings 22:16-20, 23:26-27).

Thus neither Deuteronomy nor the DH teach the inviolability of Jerusalem, nor does Josiah react as one who does either. Regrettably what seems to be the case is that Rappleye (and Christensen, as I covered before), simply conflate Josiah’s reign and its reform movement with Josiah’s successors. This is despite the fact that – unlike Josiah – nearly every one of Josiah’s successors including Zedekiah is mentioned as doing ‘evil in the sight of the Lord’ (2 Kings 23:32, 24:9, 24:19 – again in a record supposed to have been composed by the ‘Deuteronomists’). There is no reason to suppose any supporters of Josiah’s reforms were in power or the ‘gatekeepers of Jewish orthodoxy’ as is assumed.

Claim 4) Their attempts to murder Nephi were motivated by the law

With the points addressed above, the idea that Laman and Lemuel’s attempts at murdering their brother were motivated by the belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem and death sentence to false prophets seem to fall short. Lest it need to be addressed, however, 1 Nephi 16:37-38 explains their motivation for at least one attempt, and while they claim Nephi has deceived them by his “cunning arts”, their primary concern is not to strike him down out of some outraged piety but out of the the belief that he will usurp power over them.

Claim 5) Nephi’s allusions to Joseph reflect on the Deuteronomistic antagonism towards wisdom traditions, of which Joseph is supposedly an example.

I believe it to be entirely likely that their are allusions to the story of Joseph in 1 Nephi. The suggestion that the ‘Deuteronomists’ felt some special aversion to him and to ‘wisdom traditions’ is simply asserted by reference to Christensen, without reproducing Christensen’s arguments. I have already briefly addressed some of Christensen’s arguments on this topic, and found these arguments severely flawed.

Claim 6) Laman and Lemuel are ‘Deuteronomists’ because of their ‘veneration’ of the law

Rappleye then makes the startling claim that Laman and Lemuel are to be seen as ‘Deuteronomists’ because of their ‘veneration’ of the law. He makes this claim based on their statement in 1 Nephi 17:22:

And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.

This however is questionable.

Firstly it should be noted that a key objection of theirs is ‘our father hath judged them’, a complaint that should sound rather familiar in the modern age. Whether Laman and Lemuel’s assessment as to righteousness is to be taken as entirely accurate or disinterested, and whether they are really reliable on the question of the law of Moses should be questioned, but particularly so for the fact that they do not rebut their father’s charges against the people of Jerusalem, but complain that he levelled any at all.

Lehi’s charges, for that matter, are rather serious, ‘for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations’ (1 Nephi 1:19). Nor does the Lord’s statement to Jeremiah that the people ‘have forsaken my law which I have set before them’ (Jeremiah 9:13) suggest the people were venerating or obeying the law of Moses. And repeatedly throughout Jeremiah we find specific instances of wickedness and idolatry, including precisely of the sort condemned in Deuteronomy (e.g. Jeremiah 7:17-31, Jeremiah 19:1-5, see Deuteronomy 12:31). The idea that that the people were still swept up in Josiah’s reforms and full of enthusiasm for the law as outlined in Deuteronomy is flatly contradicted by Jeremiah, which records the persistence of idolatry and other violations of that law. This appears to have been ignored because of the conflation of Josiah’s reforms with the reign of his successors; Jeremiah indicates that the reforms didn’t take and were rejected by the people and the wicked kings that followed Josiah, but the proffered paradigm must insist in the face of evidence that somehow the reformers were still in charge, and all the idolatry recorded by Jeremiah (and Ezekiel) had actually been successfully repressed.

Moreover the Book of Mormon itself provides us with scenarios where people claim some sort of adherence to the law, even while violating it. Abinadi was faced with priests who claimed to teach the law of Moses (Mosiah 12:28), but forcibly points out their failure to teach and keep the ten commandments (Mosiah 12:37, 13:25-26). He furthermore appears to distinguish between these ‘commandments’ (12:33, 13:11) and what he terms a  ‘law of performances and ordinances’ intended to keep people ‘in remembrance of God and their duty towards him’ (Mosiah 13:30) that is a type of things to come. Likewise Jeremiah appears to indicate that the people of Jerusalem placed a lot of confidence in their offerings and sacrifices, but had failed to obey the Lord (Jeremiah 7.21-24). This idea, that compunction in ritual sacrifice and ceremonial law could excuse failure to keep the more basic commandments, may well be on the minds of Laman and Lemuel. It is certainly not, however, to be found in Deuteronomy or the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, for indeed as the latter states: ‘Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’ (1 Samuel 15:22).

Assessment of claims

Thus on inspection, each of Rappleye’s points appear lacking. The text of the Book of Mormon does not appear to offer particular support to his claims. Nor, for that matter, does the biblical text support many of the claims made for the supposed ‘Deuteronomists’. The likely beliefs of the reform movement seem misrepresented, as does the situation following the death of Josiah. The latter in particular carries significant implications. Thus, according to the Barker/Christensen paradigm, Josiah’s reforms suppressed idolatry, including offerings to the Queen of Heaven which are supposed to be a genuine (and thus true) part of this ‘Temple theology’. Yet Jeremiah records that idolatry persisted, and has the Lord stating that such idolatry, including offerings to the Queen of Heaven, are part of the very reason for the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (Jeremiah 7:19-20, Jeremiah 44:2-9). Arguments that Josiah’s suppression of such offerings in the Temple were purging something genuine risk siding with those men and women who rejected Jeremiah’s words, and argued that they should keep worshipping the Queen of Heaven (Jeremiah 44:15-19), an argument the Lord was not impressed with:

…Hear the word of the Lord, all Judah that are in the land of Egypt:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, saying; Ye and your wives have both spoken with your mouths, and fulfilled with your hand, saying, We will surely perform our vows that we have vowed, to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her: ye will surely accomplish your vows, and surely perform your vows.
Therefore hear ye the word of the Lord, all Judah that dwell in the land of Egypt; Behold, I have sworn by my great name, saith the Lord, that my name shall no more be named in the mouth of any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt, saying, The Lord God liveth.
Behold, I will watch over them for evil, and not for good: and all the men of Judah that are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by the famine, until there be an end of them.
(Jeremiah 44:24–27)

Revisiting Deuteronomy #1

There are two subjects that have tended to animate me on this blog. The first is the scriptures: particularly on the ways that Latter-day Saints should approach them. The second is that ideas have consequences, often important ones, and that it is vital to understand the important consequences of ideas and not be distracted by those details that are merely interesting.

This is why, from time to time, I turn my attention to approaches to the scriptures (among Latter-day Saint scholars and members) that seem inconsistent with what the scriptures, and particularly the Book of Mormon, actually teach. An example of this would be the neglect of the Old Testament, something that, as I have shown, sits at odds with the Saviour himself and ancient Prophets say we should be doing, and that deprives us knowledge not only of what that scripture has to teach us, but of the New Testament and the Book of Mormon also. It’s also why I feel the “so what?” question is so vital, both in our study of the scriptures – asking ourselves what we should do in response to what we have just read – and in asking what what accepting certain ideas may inevitably entail.

This is perhaps a necessary prelude as I revisit a topic I covered a few years ago, in response to an article just published on the Interpreter website. Neal Rappleye has just published an article reading Laman and Lemuel as ‘Deuteronomists’, which – as some will remember if I have any readers with long memories – draws upon the argument I addressed here. This was the argument (begun by Margaret Barker, and elaborated on by people such as Kevin Christensen) that Josiah’s reform really represented the suppression of an earlier – and true – ‘temple theology’, suppressing worship of a female consort to the Lord, concepts of visions and revelations and messianic ideas. It further postulates that Lehi, Nephi and prophets such as Jeremiah were, at least in part, in opposition to such reforms and were even persecuted by the architects of said reform, the ‘Deuteronomists’, so named as they are held by biblical studies to have had a hand in composing the book of Deuteronomy (usually identified as ‘the book of the law’ found in the Temple in 2 Kings 22:8-10) and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’, namely the books from Joshua to 2 Kings. In doing so, they altered things that passed through their hands to suppress older ideas and bolster their own.

I find severe problems with such ideas, and said so when I last addressed the topic. I believe the historical reconstruction is false, founded as it is on a highly speculative method involving sources in some cases dating over a millennia later (such as the Babylonian Talmud). I believe (and my earlier post aims to show) that it mischaracterises Josiah’s reform movement, as well as the teachings of Deuteronomy. As I likewise aimed to show, I believe it is also inconsistent with what we learn from such sources as Jeremiah, who is misread into supporting practices both he and Josiah opposed. And I believe it is inconsistent with the use in the Book of Mormon of Deuteronomy in particular, as well as (as I briefly address here and here) what the Book of Mormon actually claims happened to the Bible.

However, I also object to what appear to be the inevitable implications of these ideas, and am to some degree astounded that the proponents of such ideas appear to have given so little thought to these implications. That the ‘Queen of Heaven’ was worshipped by ancient Israelites is well known: it’s outright stated in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:17-20), and archaeology appears to confirm this. But the implication of ideas such as those such as Christensen is that such practices were true and valid, despite Lord’s condemnation in Jeremiah (Christensen, as I point out, misreads Jeremiah and fails to recognise this), something that – if true – would have significant implications for LDS practices today, and if false significant consequences for the soul of someone trying to following the idea all the way through. Likewise the apparent attributing of the book of Deuteronomy and the ‘Deuteronomistic history’ to a group associated by Christensen with killing prophets, inevitably impugns the scriptural status of books quoted by the Saviour himself.

It’s against this backdrop that I turn to Rappleye’s work, of which I can’t help but be inevitably critical. However, trying to focus primarily on his argument, rather than the background he has assumed, I find the article has several key weaknesses. I outline some general problems with the article below, and then will address problems in his specific arguments in two following posts.

Uncritical use of secondary sources

One rather serious issue with Rappleye’s work – particularly in view of the problems with the whole paradigm at hand – is that Rappleye quite frequently appears to use the mere invocation of secondary sources as proof of the point he is trying to make. Part of this is unavoidable, as the basis of his article is that he is attempting to use ‘the social context surrounding the Deuteronomistic reforms, as reconstructed by Margaret Barker’. However, there is little indication that he recognises that Barker’s ideas are hardly uncontested. The closest (aside from a reference that some scholars regard it ‘as idiosyncratic’) is the following:

The many scholarly attempts at reconstructing the full nature and extent of these reforms often differ in details. Barker laments, “We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No original versions of the actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval that was not forgotten.”

The problem can be seen in the way he passes over the issues over the nature of the reform, to accepting Barker’s rather more specific claims of uncertainty of what Josiah purged and why, implicitly accepting a Barker model of suppressed texts. The problem is clear: were someone to state that it is was unclear who David Richards had attacked, and why, the natural assumption would be that I had attacked somebody. The idea that key texts were purged may well be attractive to Latter-day Saints, but it should be noted, as I have mentioned before, that the Book of Mormon does not have the removal of any plain and precious things from biblical writings until after the scriptures have passed into the hands of the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13:25-28).

When it comes to some of the details, however, of the supposed ‘Deuteronomists’, Rappleye’s tendency to cite other scholars as if that were a conclusive argument is particularly glaring, particularly where it is based on apparent suppositions. Thus Lehi ‘may not have been in complete agreement with Josiah’s reforms’, something which is readily taken as granted based on Brent Gardner’s speculation. Very rapidly in the next paragraph we find that Lehi’s persecutors ‘were likely supporters of the reform’, and that ‘the gate-keepers of Jewish “orthodoxy” just prior to the exile were the Deuteronomists’. Much of this is not argued or demonstrated – rather Rappleye often simply references or quotes Gardner, Christensen, Barker and few others, as if they had conclusively demonstrated their cases. This would be a problem anyway, but it’s particularly a problem here because they have not. And not only is this a far too uncritical a use of these secondary sources, but it leads to supposition being built on supposition. The argument rapidly resembles an intellectual house of cards. I’m not opposed to speculation per se, so long as it is clearly labelled as such when resting on such slender threads. But this heaping of speculation upon speculation seems unwise when the conclusions reached appear to carry such significant consequences.