Alma 29

Well between a bunch of different things (not least trying to finish my PhD thesis), the series of posts I was doing on my personal reading of the Book of Mormon sputtered out, and so my own reading is now completely out of sync with where I left the posts. I can’t commit to any regular posts until I’ve actually submitted my thesis, but I guess what I can do is the occasional post from time to time as something captures my mind. Eventually I’ll do something on every chapter, I guess it just won’t be in any chronological order.

Anyhoo, I was motivated to write this post by something I ran into while reading Alma 29, a fairly well known chapter. In this chapter, Alma the younger famously writes:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

However, he then goes on to state:

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

(Alma 29:3)

What caught my attention this time round, however, was that the verses that follow to explain this reasoning (i.e. that this desire is incorrect)… don’t at first glance seem to explain this:

I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.
Yea, and I know that good and evil have come before all men; he that knoweth not good from evil is blameless; but he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires, whether he desireth good or evil, life or death, joy or remorse of conscience.

(Alma 29:4–5)

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to explain things. Why is Alma’s desire a sin, if God grants men according to their desires? And what relevance is this whole thing about the choice between good and evil coming before all? Why is Alma’s desire wrong?

It was while reading this and thinking it over that the realisation came that Alma’s desire isn’t an abstract one. To return to the first couple of verses again:

O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people!
Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with the voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth.

(Alma 29:1–2)

Compare with the following account of Alma’s earlier life:

And now it came to pass that while he was going about to destroy the church of God, for he did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the church, and to lead astray the people of the Lord, contrary to the commandments of God, or even the king—
11 And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood;

(Mosiah 27:10–11)

Or his own description of his experience to his son Helaman:

For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

(Alma 36:6–7)

Alma’s not talking about some abstract desire to be some repentance declaring angel: he’s using the very words used (including by himself) to describe the angel’s visit to him. His desire is that he could do for other people what that angel did for him: what some people might superficially think of as making them repent.

Hence Alma’s explanation as to why this is wrong. It’s not just that it’s wanting to do more than what God desires. It’s also unnecessary. God has provided that good and evil come before all, that all will ultimately be fairly tested (even if some of that is after this life), and grants unto all according to their desires for good and evil. For some, that might include an angelic visit. But God makes ample provision for everyone, without the need for universal angelic visits, as Alma goes on to explain:

Now, seeing that I know these things, why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?
Why should I desire that I were an angel, that I could speak unto all the ends of the earth?
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

(Alma 29:6–8)

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2 Nephi 2

2 Nephi 2 has been one of my favourite chapters of scripture for several decades now (and I really feel old saying that). There is always so much in it, and more to be found.

While reading today, the early verses stuck out to me:

Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.

Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men.

2 Nephi 2:2-3

Verse 2 really needs no elaboration; it just seems a precious promise that Jacob’s (and hopefully our) afflictions can be consecrated by God for our gain, that he can turn evil into good.

In verse 3 I was struck more than usual by the line that ‘I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer’. It’s an invaluable reminder that – while full redemption comes only to those ‘who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit’ (v.7) – it is by Christ’s righteousness, and not our own, that we our saved. Indeed it clarifies that later offering: ‘by the law no flesh is justified’ (v.5), so we cannot simply offer up our deeds on our own merits. Rather we offer up ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and all ‘they that believe in him shall be saved’ (v.9).

Minor notes:

There really is so much in this chapter: from the importance of meaningful opposites and consequences (vv.10-13); the concept of ‘things to act’ and ‘things to be acted upon’ (v.14, and which are we? Are we choosing, or are we being acted upon by outside forces or our own passions?); being ‘enticed by the one or the other’ (v.16); the fall (vv.15-25); the necessity of knowing misery to know joy (v.24); the choice that is before each of us (v.27) and so much more.

Job, Jacob, the problem of evil and the “end of history”

The Interpreter has posted an interesting article on Jacob and the problem of evil, here.

I think it has some thought-provoking ideas, but also had some reactions to its comments on Job, its application of Zeno’s allegory of the Olive Tree (Jacob 5) to the problem of evil, and particularly its application of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis to the allegory which I feel sits at odds with what the allegory is actually talking about. So I ended up commenting, and as often happens the comment grew rather larger than I was expecting, so I’ve reproduced my main comments on it below:

1) I don’t think that Job 42 merely has an intimidated Job accept what has happened as unfathomable mystery. He admits his previous lack of knowledge (“Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” v.3), but his following statement that “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee” (v.5) suggests that his direct experience of seeing God has taught him something that could not be put into words, and it is the seeing that has given him peace. It may remain an unfathomable mystery to the reader, but not, I believe, to Job.

2) Regarding the Allegory of the Olive Tree, there seems to be a bit of a conflation of different evils and different goods here. The issue of the corruption of the fruit can only refer to Human evils (the only sort that can really be addressed with reference to agency), but not to others, such as those that Job experienced. Likewise that God is doing everything to produce good fruit isn’t the same as ensuring that only good things “enter the lives of his children”; after all, what theodicy in many cases boils down to is the question of why bad things (including many things not caused by any human agency) happen to good people. The distinction between these can be illustrated by the very fact of the poor ground mentioned in this article: the branches planted in the poor and the poorer spot of ground bear good fruit (Jacob 5:21-23), while that planted in a good spot of ground bears wild and tame fruit (v.25). There’s a difference between trying to get people to do good things and ensuring that good things happen to people, and it seems this distinction could be better elaborated. Human agency didn’t pick the poor spot of ground, and many the evils we experience in this life are not directly due to any human agency. God *does* permit many of those sorts of evils, but he also knows what he is doing, hence ‘counsel me not, I knew it was a poor spot of ground’ (Jacob 5:22).

3) I think the equation of what is happening to the tree with Fukuyama’s “End of history” thesis and democratic capitalist states is mistaken:

A) Firstly, in Zenos’ allegory the balance between the root and top is not presented as a spontaneous development of the tree (that is to develop all kinds of fruit, *all* of them bad (v.32) – it is the deliberate result of the those pruning the tree following divine direction to ensure the bad is cleared away as the good grows (v.65-66). Verse 73 records their actions and verse 74 the final results, which are not part of the overall conditions of the current dispensation but rather the millennial state (v.76). There is certain nothing in the allegory that demands this “must be attributed to a change in human consciousness and social practice”, particularly since it is describing a process of divine judgment and the gathering of Israel (a central concern of the Book of Mormon).

B) As Bushman points out in “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution”, the equality Mosiah is talking about in Mosiah 29 is moral accountability (Mosiah 29:30-32,34), as seen by the conclusion of that very verse 38: “and every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins”, rather than a posited “open access state”.

C) The picture painted by the Book of Mormon and other scripture certainly doesn’t seem to depict the “end of history”, least of all the picture implied here of a gradual spread of democratic capitalism marking time till the second coming inaugurates a new order. The Book of Mormon (and the allegory in Jacob 5) is centred upon the dramatic divine intervention that will gather Israel and bring judgment upon its oppressors *prior* to the Second Coming (indeed, when the Book of Mormon talks of restoration, it is mostly talking of the restoration of Israel, not the Church). Certainly at least one competing social system will emerge prior to the Second Coming – namely Zion itself. And it is divine power, not “societal commitment”, that will protect the saints.

D) The “end of history” has had rough treatment at the hands of history in the last few decades, and frankly shows every sign of having it rougher yet. *Democratic* capitalism is not expanding, but has been retreating in the face of rival models. If people in previous ages have apostatized from the Gospel, after all, it seems somewhat unlikely that they cannot “apostatize” from democratic capitalism. And it appears to be a big assumption that any “firm societal commitment to mutual recognition and toleration of even unpopular beliefs and practices” will continue. In the West, every sign seems to point in the opposite direction.

I guess as a final comment (that didn’t end up in my comment on the article) I just want to add to that final point (I’d originally began only planning to mention the Job bit!). The allegory in Jacob 5 does depict an “end of history”, it’s just not the end of history Francis Fukuyama talked about: it’s about the gathering of Israel and the cleansing the vineyard, and concludes with the millennial state and mention of the final judgment and the burning preceding the new heaven and new earth. Its scope is far grander than democratic capitalism or any other mortal and perishable social set-up.