Moses Most Mormon

Paul Y. Hoskisson, ed. Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament. Salt Lake: Religious Studies Center, BYU, and Deseret Book, 2005.

Andrew C. Skinner. Prophets, Priests, and Kings: Old Testament Figures Who Symbolize Christ. Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 2005.

Mainstream Mormon publications on scripture studies follow a four-year calendar; after all, how large would the market be among rank-and-file Mormons for a book on the Old Testament in a year when the Sunday School reading is the Doctrine and Covenants or the Book of Mormon? Don’t most Mormons like to basically pretend that the Old Testament doesn’t even exist during the off years in the Sunday School calendar?

In keeping with this principle, Deseret Book late last year released two useful new volumes containing what might be described as the correlated view of the Old Testament. These books might be seen as useful for two reasons. First, they are clear and readable compilations of the ideas that most Latter-day Saints want to find in the Old Testament, and therefore can be helpful in terms of guiding readers to the components of the Hebrew Bible that best reflect specific Latter-day Saint ideas. Second, these books are a useful summary of what at least some mainstream Latter-day Saints want from the Hebrew Bible. As such, they can teach us quite a lot about Mormon scriptural culture and priorities.

Before I proceed with this review, let me first review my lack of special qualifications. I am not an expert in religious studies, the Bible, or any related field. I have no skills with Hebrew, and no familiarity with the various technical aspects of the Biblical text. I have read Richard E. Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible, as well as a couple of books about the Bible by Robert Alter. But that doesn’t even make me an educated consumer of Bible research. I am substantially more familiar with the history of debates over the interpretation of the Bible in the English-speaking world, and especially in the Americas. In other words, I have no qualifications for recommending for or against these books on the basis of their Old Testament content; I can tell you whether they read well and accomplish their purposes, and I will reflect on what makes those purposes distinctive.

Cover of Prophets, Priests, and Kings. Skinner’s book, Prophets, Priests, and Kings, is clearly useful Mormon devotional reading. In 138 pages of breezy and highly-readable prose, Skinner spells out extensive parallels between the lives of Old Testament figures (specifically, Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Boaz, Samuel, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Cyrus, Esther, Deborah, and Huldah) and the mission of Jesus Christ. These include the classic parallelisms: for example, Moses-as-lawgiver, Christ-as-lawgiver, or Isaac-as-sacrifice, Christ-as-sacrifice.

Some parallels seemed less persuasive to me. For example, Noah was said to be “perfect in his generation” (Moses 8:27), and Jesus was also sinless and perfect. Yet Mormons typically believe Jesus to have been the only person to have lived on this earth without sin; hence, we would be hesitant to read the statement about Noah as meaning that Noah was without sin as a foreshadowing of Christ. But Skinner seems to adopt that reading (pg. 23). Likewise, Skinner highlights (pg. 37) the seemingly somewhat dubious parallel between Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-7) and Isaac’s rather less triumphant travel to the place of his abortive sacrifice on a donkey (Genesis 22:3). One final example of a proposed parallel that I feel to reject: Skinner points out (pg. 49) that Joseph of Egypt was sold into slavery at the age of thirty (Genesis 41:43) and that Christ began his publis ministry at the age of thirty (Luke 3:23). So, important things happened to both men at the age of thirty? It is hard for me to see this overlap as terribly significant.

These quibbles notwithstanding, Skinner’s overall message is clear and skillfully articulated: the Old Testament is in effect an elaborate pre-enactment of Christ’s life and ministry. Not only did Old Testament prophets have contact with the same God that we worship today, they also taught the same message with the same emphases that we hear in general conference. For readers who feel that such a message would make the Old Testament more meaningful or accessible to them, I would wholeheartedly recommend Skinner’s book.

The Old Testament.Hoskisson’s Sperry Symposium collection is perhaps even more useful, although somewhat less univocal in message. Sound recordings of recent Sperry Symposium speeches are available online; Hoskisson for the most part reaches further back into the archives to retrieve papers that aren’t available anywhere on the internet. These include broad overview statements from Elders Russell M. Nelson and John M. Madsen, and from scholars such as Robert J. Matthews, Robert L. Millet, Jennifer C. Lane, and David Rolph Seely. Also selected are much more specific statements such as Gaye Strathearn’s paper on Abraham’s decision to deceive Pharoah by calling Sarah his sister rather than his wife; Hoskisson’s own paper on the proper Latter-day Saint reading of Isaiah 6; or Gary P. Gillum’s essay on, in effect, a single sentence from the book of Obadiah.

Clearly, there is substantial divergence among the papers in this volume in terms of form and focus. Are there any thematic unifiers among these diverse perspectives? One element that I find pervasive in the book is the message that the teachings of Old Testament prophets are identical to those of our modern leaders. Such a perspective seems to support the repeated tendency of these writers to pull interpretive glosses regarding Old Testament passages from the speeches and writings of Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and other documents of the Restoration. Such statements from our dispensation are typically treated as evidence of the highest caliber, sometimes even more important than the words of the Hebrew Bible. This presentational strategy has the effect of making the Old Testament seem accessible and familiar, situated as it becomes in a dense network of ideas and personalities as familiar to the modern reader as the most recent copy of the Ensign.

For Latter-day Saint readers who are interested in moving past Skinner’s friendly gloss on the Old Testament to something that brings many of the more difficult and alien-seeming components of the Hebrew Bible within reach, I would happily recommend Hoskisson’s edited volume. A nugget of particular worth, to me at least, is Hugh Nibley’s (pgs. 177-195) characteristically eccentric sermon against capitalism, and in favor of pacifism and utopianism, using Isaiah as a text. In this entire paper, Nibley presents only a single citation, to Milton V. Backman’s edition of the First Vision accounts. Yet he routinely references supposed academic consensus: “To diffuse this uncomfortable teaching, the doctors have converted it into a theological exercise for the schools” (180). What doctors? What schools? Nibley leaves that for us to discover on our own. Nonetheless, the passion of Nibley’s theological argument for what would now mostly be seen as a somewhat left-wing social, political, and economic stance is invigorating.

What, in my opinion, most unites the many essays in Hoskisson’s volume, as well as Skinner’s extended essay, is a fixed determination to bring the Old Testament world closer to the modern Mormon reader. While many will find this approach helpful, I find it rather problematic. Even a superficial reading of the Old Testament reveals a worldview quite unlike our modern perspective. My favorite example of this is Jacob’s trick in which he makes Laban’s flocks all give birth to striped or spotted offspring by making sure that they are looking at something striped when they mate.

In light of these major differences in worldview, I have some questions about the mainstream Mormon approach to the Old Testament as reflected in these two volumes. Does it really make sense to suppose that prophets teaching such different people would have expressed the same themes, ideas, and especially emphases that we hear today? Isn’t continuous revelation at least in part about God adapting His message of love, redemption, and sanctification to the needs of each place and time? Isn’t it clear that the people of the Old Testament were different enough that their needs are not our needs?

Finally, and in my view most importantly, wouldn’t it be more helpful to try to help a modern Mormon audience move closer to the ancient Hebrew worldview when reading the Old Testament, rather than trying to move the text closer to our current worldview? Wouldn’t this sort of cultural empathy be good practice for missionaries and church leaders interacting with Mormons from other parts of the world? Wouldn’t it increase our reverence for God to learn how carefully He adjusts His message to fit the specific culture and people he’s working with?

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you for these balanced and helpful reviews.

    In this sort of literature, I usually find worthwhile nuggets, just as you did, but the profoundly presentist perspective on everything in the OT is a serious limitation. My answer to your series of questions in your last paragraph would be “yes.”

  2. It seems to me that there are two strong tendencies at odds in the exegesis of LDS doctrine and that these divergent approaches have produced the “presentist” trend in these books that you cite. These tendencies are the insistence that all our doctrine fits within one eternal round and the assumption that the reason we need continuing revelation is because human needs and contexts change. The issue seems to be one of determining which elements are eternal and which are culture-specific. That these works may err on the side of caution (ie. calling most things eternal, because they might be) is probably just fine. You find the same battling trends in the constant citation of 1 Ne 19:23 as a guide to all LDS approaches to scripture.

  3. Does it really make sense to suppose that prophets teaching such different people would have expressed the same themes, ideas, and especially emphases that we hear today? Isn’t continuous revelation at least in part about God adapting His message of love, redemption, and sanctification to the needs of each place and time?

    Human nature has not changed since the beginning of time. I see no contradiction in the idea of the early prophets emphasizing themes and ideas that we find familiar. Greed, lust, jealousy and selfishness were with us then and are with us now. The point of continuing revealation is to guide us through the things that do change, like knowledge. Jacob thought he could ensure that the animals brought forth spotted and stripped offspring by making them look at something so marked. I doubt there are many people today who would try such a thing. By the same token however, Jacob didn’t have to contend with cloning the animals. No these aren’t necessarily earth-shaking gospel problems but they help illustrate the fact that some of our questions have changed.

    Basically, God has gone from having to simply say “sex outside of marriage is against My Law” to “sex outside of marriage is against My Law, as is paying a woman to bear a child for you and your homosexual partner.” That’s why we continue to have prophets; yes they help spread His message of love but they also help clarify problems and points of the Law that we are supposed to follow.

  4. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thank you for this review.

  5. The current Sunstone has an article covering a modern small-scale version of adusting the past to fit the present. It discusses Joseph Smith and how the new Church movie and website in his honor have him endorsing ideas/doctrines that post-date him. I don’t know why we have to do this kind of thing.

  6. Hm, Jared, I’m not sure I see the connection here. While he might be exuberent and many jews might dissagree with him, Skinner’s concept of finding messianic themes or “types of christ” in mormon parlance, isn’t that out there, is it? It what most Christians do, no?

    I won’t disagree that there is a tremendous tendancy to remake averyone in our image, though after seeing carvings of John the baptist in tights and a tu-tu around his neck in France, I realized this wasn’t an uniquely Mormon thing.

  7. Jared, I agree with J. Stapley that current revisions of Mormon history are rather different from reading the ancient scriptures strictly in light of modern beliefs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that; it just seems to me that there’s a lot to be gained from also trying to read the texts with an eye to the original audience. By contrast, I think that efforts to reshape the Mormon past often have a tendency to destroy, rather than simply reuse, that past. So I think there’s an important difference in degree here.

    By the way, the Sunstone piece you mention is available online here. I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the historical interpretations put forward in this article. The clearest claim of anachronism involves the idea of familial, parents-to-children sealing. The author claims that this idea didn’t emerge until Wilford Woodruff’s revelation on the Law of Adoption in the late 19th century–and that, before that, Mormons had been sealed to church leaders instead of their parents. But in actual fact, that’s a misstatement of the doctrine and practice of the Law of Adoption. Only those whose parents weren’t faithful members of the church were sealed to church leaders. By Woodruff’s time, a clear majority of living sealings were to actual family members.

    Furthermore, it seems clear, to me at least, that Joseph Smith was very interested in themes of family. As Richard Bushman puts it on page 445 of his Joseph Smith biography, Smith positively “lusted for kin.”

    So I think that Olaiz’s piece may be guilty of a little bit of selective and revisionist history in its own right.

  8. Just to echo what JNS just noted, Joseph at King Follet’s funeral and speaking on the power of Elijah noted:

    Again the doctrin or sealing power of Elijah is as follows if you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be Crafty, the first thing you do go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself, & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory, & go ahead and not go back, but use a little Craftiness & seal all you can; & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven (WoJS pg. 131)

    Couldn’t resist the threadjack.

  9. Proud Daughter of Eve,

    The human nature/knowledge dichotomy that you point out is an interesting one. A potential complication, though, is that while the most basic (and base) of human motivations–selfishness, for example–may not change, our socialization may inform our expression of them to such an extent as to make us totally different creatures from our forebears, or from people of other cultures.

    A prime example of this phenomenon is illustrated in “The Great Divorce”. CS Lewis’s view here seems to be that selfishness does not merely isolate us; it is in fact our own urge toward self-isolation. We desire solitude–complete solitude, in the end–so that we can have our own way. We wish to be left alone and autonomous. As in his other works, the author suggests that God wishes us to overcome this manifestation of the natural person in our characters.

    But that urge toward social isolation seems to me to be culturally determined, very much a British trait. In Venezuela, by contrast, there is no concept of solitude as something that could possibly be desireable to anyone. It is assumed that all people want to be constantly immersed in the society of many friends and a large family. Those who are alone are assumed to be truly miserable. As for autonomy–well, I’ve never heard a Venezuelan express any wish for it. In such a culture, a selfish person would disregard the feelings and needs of others in order to ensure companionship, rather than to ensure isolation.

    Two such opposite understandings of basic social needs will necessarily lead to different expressions of the basic underlying fault. As such, God may very well need to address the same basic problem with our nature through teachings or commandments which are to all appearance radically different.
    A prime example

  10. That Noah reference to perfection is highly relevant to JSJ’s eschatology. In an AAR paper for this fall, I argue that a sacerdotal genealogy replaced the Great Chain of Being in JSJ’s divine taxonomy, and the amount of offspring or the comprehensiveness of one’s genealogical reach is perhaps the defining attribute of celestial power. The fact that Noah was the father of all living humanity meant that, like Adam, he was perfect in his generation. I suspect this is what JSJ meant in his Fall 1839 sermon on Priesthood: “The Priesthood was first given to Adam: he obtained the first Presidency & held the Keys of it, from generation to Generation; he obtained it in the creation before the world was formed as in Gen. 1, 26:28,-he had dominion given him over every living Creature. He is Michael, the Archangel, spoken of in the Scriptures,-Then to Noah who is Gabriel, he stands next in authority to Adam in the Priesthood; he was called of God to this office & was the Father of all living in his day, & To him was given the Dominion.”
    (Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, compiled and edited by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, p.8; emphasis added). I suspect this is also how JSJ understood the reference in Moses to Noah’s perfection.

    In that sense, as an all-encompassing ancestor/progenitor, Noah’s perfection is similar to Jesus’s perfection as the ancestor of our saved souls.

  11. re: your closing questions, that’s one reason that I have loved to read Friedman and would also recommend Kugel’s popularizing books. They (problematically for many Mormons) do not presuppose that Biblical Hebrews worshiped as Evangelical Christians or contemporary Latter-day Saints, but they give a clearer sense for how the Hebrews struggled with many of the big issues of humanity, and their novels views have refreshed my own.

    If it were important to me to make this fit within Mormon pseudo-dispensationalism, I would probably suggest that much of Hebrew history was lived in some version of an apostasy and that they were not always perfectly receptive to the Gospel light. As is, I think I am more of a true dispensationalist and am comfortable with the idea that God was working with the Hebrews just as he works with us, whether they had achieved the “fulness” or not.

  12. re: 5, 7, 8, Sunstone has graciously agreed to publish my brief response to Olaiz’s review essay. The reported anachronism of sealing is one of the areas where I think he has misunderstood the issue. I am with JNS/JS/Dick Bushman on the “lust for kin” in JSJ’s life and ouevre. I think it’s hard to miss that thread in his tapestry.

  13. SMB, that makes alot of sense (#10) and really does tie alot together…good stuff.

  14. Jared E. says:

    I ask the following questions knowing that there are those who post here who know much more about the scriptures than me. I know this thread may be overly simplistic, so please help me to see the difficulties I am glossing over.

    Lets assume a person basically accepts the Documentary Hypothesis, the existence of Q as a source document for the synoptic gospels, and John being written sometime after the synoptic gospels. Each of these three views date the writing of their respective scriptures later than and assign authorship to persons other than what traditionalists generally assert.

    If the Documentary Hypothesis is accepted then Moses did not, in fact, write the Pentateuch. The five books would have been written by a number of others, who were most likely not prophets and were definitely Hebrew, with a Hebrew world view.

    If the gospels were in fact written, not by apostles, but by later followers of the Apostles, it seems reasonable to me that they would have set down the life of Christ in a vindicating way, i .e. in a way which would correspond to the history written by the Hebrew authors of the Pentateuch.

    If the above is assumed, then what we have is Mormons imposing a presentist perspective on the New Testament church, which was imposing a presentist perspective on the Pentateuch, which was written by Hebrews who were (most likely) presenting the life of Moses from a number of different presentist perspectives. What is a person to do with this? How is a person ever really able to feel like they actually know what a certain scripture means? How is it possible to take seriously books such as the one being reviewed in this post?

  15. Elisabeth says:

    You are an excellent writer, RT – thank you for this review. I need to check these books out – given I have no idea what Ronan is talking about in his post about Abraham and the “bees”.

  16. I got more of a response out of my little comment than I expected. I’m glad though because I’ve gained from them.

    I certainly don’t think it’s bad to read past scripture in light of the present. However I do think that differences in perspective are important to keep in mind, otherwise we can end up trying to defend things that don’t need defending. An example might be how some people, believing that since the gospel (broadly used) is always the same, feel a need to come up with excuses for why the ancients drank wine. I don’t think any excuse is needed because I view the particular application of the principles of the Word of Wisdom as being specific for our time. Another example might be the usage of the names Elohim and Jehovah. If it was imprecise in the 19th century (something many are not aware of) should we expect it to be precise–in the way defined by Joseph F. Smith–in ancient scriptures?

    Certain scriptures were difficult for me to harmonize or understand until I realized that the ancients probably just didn’t know some things we know, or just had a different perspective.

  17. Let me restate: Just as I think there is value in seeing the restoration as a process of development and unfolding, I also think there is value in seeing the larger picture of God’s dealings with man as a process of development and unfolding. Homogenizing either level may be useful for some purposes, but can also create problems. Am I off base?

  18. Elisabeth (#15) and Julie (#4), you’re certainly welcome! And, Elisabeth, I appreciate the praise but doubt that I really deserve it.

    Jared, my personal preference in terms of reading the scriptures is to adopt an interpretive framework like the one you suggest in comment #17. But the truth of the matter is that — as with any important text — the scriptures have come to mean more than they may have originally meant. Reading the Old Testament without allowing Christian parallels strips it of a lot of its traditional power for our community. But reading it for those parallels and also for its meaning to its original (intended?) audience seems to be a viable solution, preserving the accumulated Christian meanings while also recovering the evidence of God’s dealings with a very different people in a very different time. The lack of this second approach — not the presense of the first — is, in my view, the biggest weakness in the approach to the Old Testament represented by the two generally useful books I reviewed above.

    I’m not sure that the same kind of “dual-track” reading of Mormon history is equally viable. With the scriptures, what’s involved is a sort of symbolic overloading of a shared evidence base. With our relatively recent history, we’re really dealing with competing projects in terms of defining the relevant base of evidence. So I think there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn.

  19. JNS, thanks for these thoughtful reviews. Personally, I’d go one step further than you (in #18 and your original post) and say that the existence of these books can be unintentionally dangerous in terms of feeding a tendency to proof-text.

    But I also am left wondering how one can approach OT paradigms in, say, a way that would be appropriate for a Sunday school class, and not just anthropological. Perhaps by looking for the universal themes, even though they might be taught in radically different ways? For example, regarding respect for God’s laws and covenants: in OT times, this meant annihilating an entire people if they unrighteously occupied a promised land, whereas today this means excommunicating members who break certain covenants.

    My example here is purposely a stretch in application. I think there are obvious dangers in misinterpreting scripture when trying to understand the universal themes (a.k.a. applying the scriptures to our day). To take my example, what is the safeguard against interpreting the annihalations in the OT to justify something like early American settlers killing off Native Americans?

    It’s hard for me to see why having members study the OT is more beneficial than studying other more obviously edifiying material. Sure, I think there are many things to be learned in contemplating the radical differences in culture and God’s dealings with his people in our day vs. OT times but, to counterbalance my criticism above, I think the books you review represent an attempt to help the average member make some sort of sense of what is, for most members, a very baffling and confusing book that Mormons have nonetheless accepted as canonical scripture….

  20. Jared E. #14, you say:

    How is a person ever really able to feel like they actually know what a certain scripture means? How is it possible to take seriously books such as the one being reviewed in this post?

    These are excellent and important questions, and I think it’s praiseworthy to face up to them directly. With respect to your first question, it’s a classic. The problem of deciding meanings for scriptural texts is as old as the scriptures; the dress-clothes word for this is hermeneutics. One available solution is to decide that all interpretations of the scriptures are always provisional; they will stand until we find a new interpretation that makes better sense of them in light of other scriptures and our own experience of God. This approach accounts for the fact that we imperfectly understand the original intended meaning of the text, and also for the possibility that the text’s original intended meaning is in some respects flawed. Other solutions are, of course, available, but I’ve found this one to be enough to get on with.

    On your second question, I think it’s possible to take these kinds of books seriously because they do a genuine service for their intended audience. People who want help in developing an interpretation of the Old Testament that fits as closely as possible with the normative late-20th-to-early-21st-century, active, U.S. Mormon experience of God will find important tools for meeting that (in my view, legitimate) goal in the pages of these books. You may not be a part of that intended audience; then these books are not for you, which is obviously fine. (Although Deseret Book will be sad about the lost revenue.)

    Robert #19, I understand your concerns and can see reasons why it might be reasonable to argue that studying the Old Testament is less useful for many people than other possible subjects. Selfishly, I’m glad we study the Old Testament; I like the reminder to look at it every so often. I find much of the book off-putting, and the genocide troubling to say the least. But there are moments in the text that feel profoundly resonant with my experience of God. Because of those moments of connection, I am left to wrestle with the troubling and off-putting material. I can’t make sense of it as actions of God, and I find it hard to understand how people who could think God would act that way could nonetheless have genuine relationships with Him; yet the tender moments in the text testify that they do. Working with this set of contradictions and puzzles seems to have spiritual rewards for me. I find God in the contradictions; they remind me that His ways are not my ways, and they push me to turn away from my own limited understanding and toward Him. So, again, I’m glad we read the Old Testament, your legitimate concerns notwithstanding.

  21. JNS (#20): Your thoughtful response brought to mind the following:

    I’m teaching the OT to 12-14 year-olds in my ward during Sunday school. I always try to prepare some sort of “moral to the story” in each class. But I’m always surprised at how engrossed the students get listening to OT stories (as opposed to my moralizing), and how unfased they are by the ambiguities and moral atrocities in these stories. When talking to an adult member, he got defensive when I mentioned that Moses was forbidden from entering the promised land in Num 20:12 for a rebellious act—”Moses was a righteous prophet,” they counter, “surely you’re misinterpreting this.” The kids’ reaction, in contrast, was unfettered by such hang-ups—”yeah everyone’s human, including prophets” they frankly declared.

    I often think these kids are closer than I am to truly grasping the significance of these OT stories….

  22. Amri Brown says:

    If only we could be more like teenagers…

    I like the idea of using scriptures to understand your own life and the way that Mormons do that sometimes is really helpful. I think it becomes detrimental when we put ourselves at the center of the universe, and make all cultures leading to our own. Like OT Jews were on their way to being like Mormons. We’re very Western, very American and even western American. And that makes us pretty different from OT Israelites in Egypt.

  23. In my meager understanding of this deep topic, I agree with Jared. I’m bothered by attempts to make scripture real. No offense to any authors, but I don’t enjoy those fictionalized stories of the Bible.

    On another hand, so much of the bible is open to interpretation, that I completely keep my own counsel.

  24. In lieu of my most recent discovery, Noah and the Ark came to Meso America. They colonized Meso America bringing with them the culture of Ancient Egypt circa 3000 BC. This puts a proper perspective on Joseph Smith’s work.

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