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.

Link: God’s law or man’s law

Daniel Peterson has posted a perceptive article on his blog here, discussing the issue of ‘higher loyalties’, which is well worth reading. A really key point is:

But it appears plain to me that this principle applies far beyond Christianity, and even far beyond religion itself.

There should be an absolute moral basis, an ethical fundamental, something bedrock, by which we make our decisions and on which we carry out our actions. But that absolute cannot simply be the State — even if the particular state in question happens to be, on the whole, a pretty good one.

In other words, I cannot say “My country, right or wrong.” (For the interesting history of that phrase, and some needed nuance, see here.) It’s conceivable, though I hope very unlikely, that my country could someday go so grossly wrong that it would cease to be my country, that I would be unable to remain loyal to it.

For Christians in general (and Latter-day Saints in particular), I really feel that when we read the counsel to obey legal authorities in Paul and Peter (and in the 12th Article of Faith), we really should also remember the 3rd and 6th chapters of Daniel, or the example in Acts that Daniel Peterson cites. Yes, we should seek to obey the law of the land, but if it crosses a line it can’t – morally or theologically – continue to command our uncritical obedience.

The things that are written

I originally wrote much of the below as an article for another site but, as it seems they have decided not to pick it up, I am hereby publishing it anyway. With the passing of Elder Packer, this seems somewhat appropriate considering his love of the written word of God.

At the time I wrote it, there had been a lot of arguments among LDS circles online as to the ‘historicity’ of scripture, meaning the extent to which the events recorded in scripture actually happened. At the time, these had attracted some heated arguments, which is understandable because they end up carrying a lot of implications. Whether certain events happened is of vital importance to our faith. For example, whether the resurrection of Christ happened is not just a historical question of interest only to those who wonder at the disposition of the Saviour’s body, but is an event that has consequences for the future destiny of our bodies and souls. As Paul states, ‘if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Christ’s resurrection didn’t happen, then neither does ours.

But as important as these issues are, I noticed that there seemed to have been some other basic issues involved that escaped (and continue to escape) notice. The really big issue is what we mean by the very terms scripture and inspiration. What we mean when we say that certain books are ‘the word of God’ (8th Article of Faith) shapes our whole approach to scripture and how we read it. And this is not an academic question, but one with potentially eternal consequences. Yet some of those debating historicity appear to have used these terms without realising that others held very different, and incompatible, definitions for them. Thus one individual, who argued that the question of historicity could be separated from the spiritual worth of the scriptures, stated:

The historicity of scripture is not a matter of faith. It is an issue of critical analysis and academic inquiry. On the other hand, the inspiration of scripture, meaning its ability to assist readers access divinity, can never be a matter of critical analysis and academic inquiry. Instead, much like beauty, inspiration is found in the eye of the beholder.¹

What should be noticed here is how inspiration has been redefined as a reader-centred activity. The inspiration of a given book is to be weighed by the extent to which the reader is able to find something helpful in it (and ‘access divinity’ is a particularly woolly expression of this). But this is not a universal view. Crime and Punishment and Lord of the Rings have had a powerful effect on my life, and led me to be a better person, but I would not define them as scripture. Nor is it likely that the other participants in these discussions shared this definition of inspiration. The implications of this view follow rapidly: inspiration ‘is found in the eye of the beholder’. The suggestion is that it is what the reader does, and not an objective quality in the book itself, that makes a book scripture.

This view is not new. Liberal Protestant theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith made a similar argument in his book What is Scripture?. Claiming that ‘scripture is a human activity’ (although being careful to clarify that this isn’t a statement about authorship), Smith argues that it is the relationship between a text and a community that makes a text scripture (p.1, 17-21). Thus ‘scriptures are not texts’, because their scriptural status is not dependent upon anything innate to a work, but is rather conferred upon it by the reader treating the text in a certain way. This idea has been very influential in academia, particularly for those who wish to divorce the possible value of a text from the question of its origin.

Yet despite its influence, Smith’s approach and his focus on the reader suffers from a number of drawbacks. He appears to hold that merely because a work is referred to as scripture in an academic sense it must also be scripture in a theological sense, conflating the sociological with the supernatural. He also devalues the content of the text in favour of a vague sense of the ‘holy’ (p.230-235). Overt meanings are ‘superseded’ in favour of something ‘transcendent’ (shades here of ‘accessing divinity’) that Smith believes cannot even be articulated, the feeling of which takes priority over all other forms of engagement with scripture, including actually reading it. Thus, compared to the feelings of the reader or even non-reader, the content is ultimately left rather superfluous, a very unsatisfactory position. And the very idea that it is what the reader does that makes scripture scripture seems ill-fitting with statements from Latter-day scripture that appear to teach the opposite, such as Doctrine and Covenants 68:4 where it is inspiration from the Holy Ghost that makes something scripture, an innate quality that makes something scripture from the start.

LDS proponents of these ideas appear to have appealed to idea of the fallibility of human beings, and the admission in the Book of Mormon that it may contain ‘the mistakes of men’ (Book of Mormon Title page). It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon does not teach that scripture must be completely without any kind of error. But its depiction of the process of receiving and recording scripture goes far beyond this. A closer look is warranted.
 
 

The receiving and recording of Scripture in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is particularly vocal about the process of its own creation, far more so than the Bible. We do not know the identity of the author(s) of Joshua to 2 Kings for instance (the putative “Deuteronomistic historian”, first theorized by Martin Noth as the author of the whole unit, remains nameless and conjectural), but we are left in little doubt throughout the Book of Mormon as to who is narrating at nearly every point. Likewise the Book of Mormon also describes the creation of the very medium upon which it is recorded, the chain of transmission for its major sources and the selection of material to be written in it (e.g. 1 Nephi 6, 1 Nephi 19:1-6, Words of Mormon 1:3-7, 3 Nephi 5:8-18 and many more). The Book of Mormon’s self-consciousness about its own composition thus offers valuable insights into the process of scriptural composition.

These details have been neglected in this discussion. While – understandably – some LDS scholars have been keen to apply the possible insights of biblical studies and related fields to the Book of Mormon, insufficient attention has been given to the way in which the Book of Mormon’s claims undermine many of the key assumptions that lie behind these ideas. Now someone could conceivably reject the Book of Mormon’s own account of itself (as those who reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon must), and yet seek to try and retain some measure of ‘spiritual value’ in the work. But in that case they could not claim to accept the Book of Mormon as inspired or as scripture in the same sense that the Book of Mormon itself uses those terms.

For the Book of Mormon makes very strong claims in these regards. As much as the making of the Book of Mormon, with its named individuals painstakingly placing words on actual metal plates and passing them down hand by hand, is very human, it is also very divine. As just a cursory look reveals, the making of the records is stated to be under divine command (1 Nephi 19:2-3, 3 Nephi 5:14), as is the selection of the contents (W. of M. 1:6-7, 3 Nephi 26:11-12). The preservation of the records is an act of divine power in fulfilment of promises by God (Enos 1:15-16, Mosiah 1:5, Alma 37:4). The authors claim prophetic foresight of their future audience (Mormon 8:34-35), and to have been given and be writing the very ‘words of Christ’, in some cases receiving instruction ‘face to face’ (2 Nephi 33:10, Ether 12:39). Thus the opening words of the Book of Mormon claim that it was ‘written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and revelation’ (Title Page).

Perhaps the most illustrative episode of how the human and divine interact in the composition of the Book of Mormon takes place in 3 Nephi 23, where the risen Christ inspects the records kept by Nephi. The Saviour spots that a prophecy of Samuel the Lamanite had been omitted and commands its inclusion (v.9-13). What is of interest here is that a human error has occurred – ‘it had not been written’ (v.12) – but the Saviour affirms that he had commanded Samuel to utter his prophecy (v.9), the disciples that it came true (v.10), and under the direction of risen Deity the mistake is corrected (v.13). Thus the very words of Samuel the Lamanite were inspired in that they were directly commanded by God, and – despite the involvement of fallible humans – the record-keeping process is likewise under divine supervision.

In all of this, there is no suggestion that the inspiration of scripture is to be found in what the reader does to it. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the Book of Mormon is keen to assert that many readers will get it wrong. ‘For the things which some men esteem to be of great worth, both to the body and the soul, others set at naught and trample under their feet’ says Nephi (1 Nephi 19:7), who elsewhere goes on to state that ‘there are many that harden their hearts against the holy spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore they cast many things which are written and esteem them as things of naught’ (2 Nephi 33:2). The worth of scripture is not assessed by the reader, but rather the standing of the reader by their receptiveness to scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30). Both Nephi and Moroni state that they will stand as witnesses at the final judgement that the Book of Mormon itself is true, regardless of the reader, ‘for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words at the last day’ (2 Nephi 33:11) and ‘ye shall know I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you’ (Moroni 10:27). Inspiration is certainly not in the eye of the beholder, for many beholders will get it wrong, and the Book of Mormon remains scripture whatever its readers make of it.

Nor, for that matter, are inspiration and revelation as shown within the Book of Mormon about something wholly other, ‘transcendent’ or completely beyond nature. Nephi is guided to food (1 Nephi 16:23-30), is directed to ore and given instructions on how to build a ship (1 Nephi 17:8-10) and his family led to an actual place. Alma the Elder is informed of his pursuers (Mosiah 23:24) while his son receives revelation on the location of an army (Alma 43:24). Above all, the risen Christ in 3 Nephi is not some spectre, but has an actual body, and a full crowd ‘did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet’ (3 Nephi 11:15). And these revelations and divine encounters are paradigmatic, ‘for he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as times to come’ (1 Nephi 10:19). Thus revelation in the Book of Mormon has content, beyond the vaguely ‘transcendent’, sometimes involving things in the material world, and while such accounts can have symbolic meanings too (as the Book of Mormon itself applies to the Liahona in Alma 37:43-46) the reality of these revelations is intended to serve both as a demonstration and a model for what should be happening in the lives of its readers.

While the Book of Mormon is more explicit about its own creation than it is about the Bible (and has the advantage of its translation being ‘by the power and gift of God’, Title Page), it does not hesitate to make similar claims about the Bible. Isaiah saw the redeemer (2 Nephi 11:2) and according to the risen Saviour all his words will be fulfilled (3 Nephi 23:3); Malachi was given his words by the Father (3 Nephi 24:1). Like the Book of Mormon itself, Isaiah is seen as writing towards future audiences, for it is particularly in ‘the last days’ that people shall understand his prophecies (2 Nephi 25:7-8, a claim that conflicts with the assumptions about the “intended” or “contemporary” audience). The Book of Mormon aims not to challenge the Bible, but to ‘establish the truth’ of it (1 Nephi 13:39-40); it ‘is written for the intent that ye may believe that’ (Mormon 7:9). The difficulty with the Bible as described in the Book of Mormon is that ‘plain and precious things’ have been removed (1 Nephi 13:28), not that the remainder has been corrupted (attempts to suggest Jacob 4:14 to imply more thoroughgoing changes fail to note that the verse is referring to God’s actions relative to scripture, not man’s). According to the Book of Mormon the Bible is incomplete, but is true and inspired by God in the same sense that it talks about itself. Any approach to the scriptures which preserves the former but marginalises the latter runs into severe difficulties with the Book of Mormon’s own claims, including that the two shall ‘grow together’ (2 Nephi 3:12).

Finally, too much can be made of those passages in the Book of Mormon that make allowance for human weakness. Most couple the admission with warnings to ‘condemn not the things of God’ (Title Page, see also Mormon 8:12, Mormon 8:17 and Mormon 9:31), suggesting that the sight of human involvement should not cloud the view of the divine hand in both the book’s composition and compilation. Certain passages make allowance for error but without requiring it, as Mormon 8:17 does with ‘but behold, we know of no fault’, though other passages do concede ‘imperfections’ (Mormon 8:12). However, when we examine examples where allowance is made for specific sorts of flaws, these flaws have a more limited scope than it seems some have assumed.

Thus although Nephi admits the possibility of error in his selection of the sacred in 1 Nephi 19:6, his warning in verse 7 that men fail to recognise and ‘trample’ the sacred turns this passage more into a warning that readers may fail to acknowledge and obey the voice of God. 3 Nephi 8:2’s dating of the death of Christ appears to acknowledge the possibility of error with its caveat that ‘if there was no mistake made by this man [meaning Nephi son of Nephi] in the reckoning of our time’, but this is a minor matter of chronology, the exact dating of the death and resurrection being minor matters of no consequence compared to its actually occurring. Similarly, Moroni laments that the ‘Gentiles’ will mock ‘the placing of our words’ (Ether 12:23-25) and states that some ‘imperfections’ are due to their choice of language for: ‘if we could have written in Hebrew, behold ye would have no imperfection in our record’ (Mormon 9:32-33). He is thus speaking of syntax and grammar, again comparatively minor matters. There is no suggestion in this that there are any doctrinal errors or mistakes in the Book of Mormon’s teaching. Just because the Book of Mormon does not support inerrancy (the idea that scripture must be without any error, no matter how minor in its grammar or mathematics) does not mean that it automatically provides justification for some theory of errancy where its divine message is inseparably corrupted with the ideas of men. It certainly doesn’t support the idea that the message is so blended that the divine elements can only be sifted out by professional scholars relying on human learning.

In conclusion, the Book of Mormon does not cooperate with Cantwell Smith’s conception of scripture. It makes its demands on the reader (whom, on occasion, it addresses directly) on the basis of the innate qualities it claims for itself, as a work that was written, compiled, transmitted and translated by divine means, regardless of the readers’ reactions. Revelation and inspiration are considered to be objective phenomena that contain content. While the Book of Mormon makes allowance for minor human error it also fiercely maintains the truth and divinity of its message, and its consequent authority over its readers, so much so that it will be an issue at the final judgement.

It is instructive in one passage where Moroni is anxious about his ‘weakness in writing’ how the Lord chooses to respond to his concerns. Amid the Lord’s reassurances, the Lord states that his ‘grace is sufficient for the meek’, meaning not Moroni, for the meek ‘shall take no advantage of your weakness’ (Ether 12:26, my emphasis). Rather, as he goes on to state, for those who recognise their weaknesses and humble themselves and have faith before God, the Lord’s grace will ‘make weak things becomes strong unto them’ (v.27). This has often been read as referring to our personal weaknesses (and surely the principle applies), but the ‘weak’ thing Moroni is asking for reassurance over are not personal faults, but the very book he is writing. It is as we the readers recognise our own weaknesses and humble ourselves that the Book of Mormon becomes strong to us. For as the Book of Mormon teaches elsewhere, ‘out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged’ (3 Nephi 27:25-26). At the end of all days, we are not going to be measuring scripture, but will be measured by it. If we take scripture seriously, as the word of God, we must begin to let scripture judge us.

 


¹ I’ve chosen to omit names, my usual practice for this blog at moments like this, primarily because I’m trying to make this about the ideas rather than something more personal.

Reasons to read the Old Testament #5

This series was first motivated by the far too many members I heard – including missionaries – express the opinion that they didn’t need to read the Old Testament. Every now and then, this opinion was couched as saying they didn’t need to, because they could read the Book of Mormon. This of course is a false dilemma.

It also represents a massive misunderstanding of the relationship the Book of Mormon has with the Old Testament. In short, while the Book of Mormon is one of the greatest aides to understanding the Bible, including the Old Testament, the reverse is also true. To neglect (or worse, to refuse to read) the Old Testament means to miss out on what some of the Book of Mormon is trying to say.

Critics have advanced the opinion that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has replaced the Bible or devalues it because of the Book of Mormon. That’s no excuse for members to adopt those ideas too; preferably we should take our theological hints from more legitimate sources. Others perhaps take the Book of Mormon’s statement that “plain and precious things” have been taken from the Bible to mean that they are unreliable, but this is a mistake. Firstly, it should be noted those plain and precious things were removed after the Bible passed into the hands of the Gentiles, so if anything, if stuff is missing it is missing from the New Testament (1 Nephi 13:25-28). Secondly, it does not say that what is left is unreliable; indeed one of the major purposes of the Book of Mormon is to show that the Bible is true (Mormon 7:9).

If parts of the pre-Christian Book of Mormon are plainer on some topics that’s not because of tampering in the Old Testament, but because the Nephites are “highly favoured” as exiles so that, as Alma states, things were “made known unto us in plain terms, that we may understand” (Alma 13:23). That the Old Testament is hard to understand on some topics is not the direct result of human action but ultimately God’s doing, for “for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it”. (Jacob 4:14) Yet just because it is hard to understand does not make it valuable, for those parts which are hard to understand “are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy” (2 Nephi 25:4), the Book of Mormon is quite clear about the dangers of rejecting any part of scripture (2 Nephi 28:29-30), and the Book of Mormon itself asserts the ultimate interdependence of itself and the Bible, that the two will “grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines and laying down of contentions, and establishing peace among the fruit of thy loins, and bringing them to the knowledge of their fathers in the latter days, and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord” (2 Nephi 3:12).

And you see this as you read it. Reading the Bible helps us understand the Book of Mormon, and reading the Book of Mormon helps us understand the Bible. The narrative of the Book of Mormon leaps into action in the first year of the reign of King Zedekiah, assuming you know who that is and why Jerusalem, Israel and the Prophets are all that important (1 Nephi 1:4). It frequently quotes and comments on biblical passages at length (e.g. 1 Nephi 20-21//Isaiah 48-49, Mosiah 14//Isaiah 53, and many others – 26 chapters worth!), both giving insight and highlighting many of those passages of most importance to us today. When teaching, Nephi, Lehi, Alma and others make frequent allusions and references to biblical events (the Exodus in 1 Nephi 17, the fall in 2 Nephi 2, Melchizedek in Alma 13 and many many others), and if you’re not familiar with these, you are going to miss something. Likewise a reader unfamiliar with the Old Testament is going to miss all the times they are drawn upon and interwoven into the text, and miss things like the allusions to Isaiah 29 in 1 Nephi 22, or Isaiah 5:1-4 in Jacob 5. The Book of Mormon even specifically mentions that it is leaving stuff out because they’re in the Old Testament (Ether 1:3-4); someone who refuses to touch the Old Testament simply isn’t going to know what the Book of Mormon expects them to know. I don’t imagine that, when the authors meet us on judgment day (2 Nephi 33:11, Moroni 10:27), they will be too impressed if we claim their book as a reason that we failed to read writings that they loved and expected us to read.