Reading Moses 1 as an invitation to greater ecological awareness

In June of 1830 Joseph Smith recorded a strange revelation proffering the beginnings of a stunning cosmology. Smith was working on a project he referred to as his “translation of Scriptures,” whereby he read through the biblical text and recorded suggested changes, adaptations, and additions to the text, some thought to be original to the ancient documents, others understood to be inspired expansions lost to time. Some Mormon scholars have compared Smith’s new scripture to “midrashic commentary, much like the targumin…and pesharim “attested amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls.”1 One of the longest of such additions audaciously serves as a sort of new preface to the Hebrew scripture, expanding upon on the traditional Genesis narrative, now part of the official Mormon canon of scripture (try to avoid the tendency to skip the verses even though you’ve read them before):

The words of God, which he spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain. And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence. And God spake unto Moses, saying:

“Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name…And, behold, thou art my son; wherefore look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease….And now, behold, this one thing I show unto thee, Moses, my son, for thou art in the world…”

And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered. And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.

And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”…
And it came to pass that Moses called upon God, saying, “Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?”…

And the Lord God said unto Moses, “For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me. And by the word of my power, have I created them, which is mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth. And worlds without number have I created…And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many. But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.”

And it came to pass that Moses spake unto the Lord, saying, “Be merciful unto thy servant, O God, and tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens,” …

And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying, “The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words. For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1)

With this revelation, Smith offered a cosmological expansion to perhaps the most enduring foundational narrative of humanity’s brief life. Moses is called up in vision and shown the ever-expanding works of God. Struck by the sheer immensity of it, he collapses to the dust, overcome by his insignificance in the face of such majesty. While this salutary vertigo humbles the prophet, the fulfillment of his experience occurs when he is raised from the dust and named a son of God—a God whose work and glory is the choreography of a cosmological dance wide enough to house expanding galaxies and tiny enough to include a solitary seer wandering in the wilderness.

I’m particularly struck by the evident dual purpose this Mormon scripture fulfills, a purpose which resonates with the view offered by Catholic theologian F. Leron Shults: “Christians interpret their religious experience as a being called into right relation with [God]. As lovers of wisdom, philosophers and scientists are also interested in the rational order(ing) of the universe that informs and holds all things together.”2 After witnessing the wonders of God’s creation, Moses learned of his right relation with God. Paramount to his new understanding is the familial integration of the entire created order, Moses included.

I haven’t experienced a vision akin to the one described in Smith’s revelation, but my growing familiarity with God’s ongoing creation has and continues to reshape my relationship to God, other humans, and the entire created order. The sciences and religions share a common impulse for understanding the world and our place within it. When reflecting on such a massive subject I feel like Moses; I’m ready to fall to the earth. But I also appreciate the way the Moses narrative presents elements which can be likened to that the classic model of understanding God via the “two books.” First, the book of God’s revelation, and second, God’s actual created order: nature, people, stuff and things. God delivers his word to Moses, yes, but he also grants Moses something like the perspective we all can presently and partially see through the lens of the nearest telescope. Making use of these two books, not interpreting the latter only through the former, or vice versa, seems the proper if incredibly complicated way to proceed in terms of gaining a better understanding of worlds which God is even now creating all around us.

In other words, Moses’s relationship with God in this scripture is not simply individualistic, but is tied to an expansive cosmology. He sees other planets, other humans, and also the particles of the earth on which he lives–a planet abundant with life and death–which informs him of his place in God’s ever expanding plans. His salvation is not internal and individualistic, but is connected here to his fellow creatures and even the planet itself–an observation which I believe can serve as a call to greater ecological awareness. I’ve experienced a similar rush of connectivity at the top of mountains, the location of Moses’s vision in Moses 1.

Footnotes:

1. See Kevin L. Barney, “Isaiah Interwoven,” FARMS Review 15:1, pp. 353-402. For more on Smith’s translation project see also Robert J. Matthews, “Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST),” in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), and Kevin L. Barney, “The Joseph Smith Translation and Ancient Texts of the Bible,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought 19/3 (1986): 85—102.

2. F. Leron Shults, “Trinitarian Faith Seeking Understanding,” in Philip Clayton, Zachary Simpson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 500.

*adapted from the intro to some paper I once wrote

Comments

  1. ben orchard says:

    Interesting post, but I’m not sure that the title matches the actual subject. Oddly enough, I’ve been reading through Moses with my wife, and it’s led to some interesting discussion. What I’m struck by is that this is a powerful book of scripture–and it really changes how one sees the creation. It takes the earth from being a unique location and environment to being one world among many. That alone is a huge change.

  2. Ben, the title is a bit askew, I grant. You’re right that these verses are typically read to reflect on the “worlds without number,” which is fine. But at the same time I think they can be read to direct our attention to our local environments, as God tells Moses “I’m gonna speak directly to your circumstances on little ol’ blue marble.” In essence, Moses’s relationship with God in this scripture is tied to an expansive cosmology, yes. He sees other planets, but he is directed to see other humans and the particles of the earth on which he lives, a planet abundant with life and death, which informs him of his place in God’s ever expanding plans. His salvation is not internal and individualistic, but tied to his fellow creatures and even the planet itself, which I believe can serve as a call to greater ecological awareness. I’ve also experienced a similar rush of connectivity at the top of mountains, the location of Moses’s vision in Moses 1. Heck, I ought to add that right into the post. Done!

    Hat tip to Sam Brown for the “salutary vertigo” phrase, which I believe he snagged from another scholar.

  3. I should add, a bit cheesy but I always loved this song when I was a lad in Primary.

    “My Heavenly Father Loves Me,” Children’s Songbook, 228-29.

    1. Whenever I hear the song of a bird
    Or look at the blue, blue sky,
    Whenever I feel the rain on my face
    Or the wind as it rushes by,
    Whenever I touch a velvet rose
    Or walk by our lilac tree,
    I’m glad that I live in this beautiful world
    Heav’nly Father created for me.

    2. He gave me my eyes that I might see
    The color of butterfly wings.
    He gave me my ears that I might hear
    The magical sound of things.
    He gave me my life, my mind, my heart:
    I thank him rev’rently
    For all his creations, of which I’m a part.
    Yes, I know Heav’nly Father loves me.

    Words and music: Clara W. McMaster, 1904-1997.

  4. ben orchard says:

    I agree, it’s just that you hadn’t addressed that directly in your post. In terms of ecological awareness, I think it’s sad that people sometimes use the idea of Adam being given ‘dominion’ over the earth as a reason to say it’s alright to exploit nature irresponsibly. I think they are mistakenly confusing dominion and domination. (Both of which have very similar meanings, and are related to ‘domicile’. Hmmm…..) Either way, I see it as a call to take care of the whole earth like you would your own house (or, perhaps, the house of the Lord).

  5. Chris Kimball says:

    “For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.”

    See xkcd.com/1071/

    As the note there says, this is an exciting time.

  6. “Making use of these two books, not interpreting the latter only through the former, or vice versa, seems the proper if incredibly complicated way to proceed in terms of gaining a better understanding of worlds which God is even now creating all around us.”

    Very well said, Blair. That is exactly right. When we include all our sources of knowledge in a back and forth as you describe, we get a so much better view of both the physical world and the eternities. An ecology that includes the scriptures and the physicality of creation is exactly what’s called for. I loved this.

  7. JAT (#54) says:

    Great post.
    The scripture reminds me of a coincidental literary parallel (probably written whilst in improbability drive) by Douglas Adams. It makes me smile because it retells the scripture in the tone of a casual conversation. Enjoy.

    “Arthur Dent: The Earth!
    Slartibartfast: Well, the Earth Mark II, in fact. We’re making a copy from our original blueprints.
    Arthur Dent: Are you telling me you originally made the Earth?
    Slartibartfast: Oh, yes. Did you ever go to a place – I think it was called Norway?
    Arthur Dent: No. No, I didn’t.
    Slartibartfast: Pity. That was one of mine. Won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges.”

  8. JAT (#54) says:

    Also, as long as we’re on the subject of creation and in response to BHodges posted song, just the other day on FMH ‘Satsuki’ posted a beautiful thought about that primary song and creation http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2012/06/ask-mormon-girl-why-dont-we-talk-about-heavenly-mother/#comment-1202900

    Sing it the regular way first . . .

    And then sing it like this:

    Whenever I hear the song of a bird or look at the blue, blue sky,
    Whenever I feel the rain on my face or the wind as it rushes by,
    Whenever I touch a velvet rose or walk by our lilac tree,
    I’m glad that I live in this beautiful world Heavenly Mother created for me.

    She gave me my eyes that I might see the color of butterfly wings.
    She gave me my ears that I might hear the magical sound of things.
    She gave me my life, my mind, my heart: I thank her reverently
    For all her creations, of which I’m a part.

    A third verse could be sung with “They” and “Heavenly Parents”

  9. I like that you feel the emphasis should be not on Moses’ nothingness, but that individually he is nothing unless connected to the rest of creation. And that creation is certainly something special.

  10. I love your website , your style and vibe are great.
    check mine out and follow me back if you like!
    Necessary news center

  11. And this line:

    And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works

    There’s so much speculation to be had from that. Is there an Only Begotten/Savior for each earth, or one for all earths?

  12. ben orchard says:

    Actually, there’s a line in there that makes me think one for all earths. I’m too lazy to look it up though.

  13. it's a series of tubes says:

    There’s so much speculation to be had from that. Is there an Only Begotten/Savior for each earth, or one for all earths?

    D&C 76:43 appears to address this question fairly directly.

  14. What strikes me most is that in spite of the immensity of creation, and the countless inhabitants in it, that the Lord is speaking to Moses and Moses alone.

  15. I’m also interested in Moses’ sudden apprehension of himself as nothing. In his time, of course, the idea that earth is a speck in an immensity would have been quite new. For us, it is a perspective that we are born into. This does not seem to me to be the exact same thing as King Benjamin’s admonition to recall our nothingness. It is interesting that God, immediately thereafter, gives Moses an idea of why it is that he is certainly not nothing – even as only himself. He is a son – in way that every part of creation, and, importantly, every person, is not. His value lies in what he himself is, that is, what he himself is and will be, even if placed in a completely different environment.

  16. gatoraidemomma says:

    The Lord also said to “multiply and replenish the earth.” That might refer to procreating human life, but to refresh what we use, renew, restore this earth we live on.

  17. There is so much to unpack in the Book of Moses. I am glad to see it getting more attention.

  18. Charles Garten says:

    Following the principle of the last shall be first and the fist shall be last, we Latter-Day Saints seek to replace our first carnal nature with that of the divine by seeking the Father’s will while denying our own. It is this carnality–the natural man–that is nothing.

    Moses had just been exposed to the glory of God and been in his presence. He was then left to himself on the lone and dreay world to contemplate the experience. It was in this frame of mind that the prophet had the realization that man is indeed nothing. It was like comparing a match to the sun.

    However, unlike the match, Moses also learned that he was a son of God, made in His image. As such, he had the potential to be exalted with God and partake of the diviine nature through the Atonement and through grace. In this way, we become much more than nothing, but only through Christ.

  19. Charles Garten says:

    Jesus Christ is certainly the Savior of all of Heavenly Father’s children. Under the direction of the Father, Christ created all things, including the aforementioned worlds without number. He not only created all things, he saved all things as well and sustains all things by the word of his power.

  20. Charles, those are interesting (if correlated) comments about the narrative, but what interests me here is a different though not mutually exclusive way of focusing on the role that God’s overall creation (this world and other worlds) plays in Moses’s encounter with deity.

  21. Charles Garten says:

    I suppose I responding more to posts by FHL and Thomas Parkin than anything else.

    As to the narrative, it seems important that we take into account the fact the this earth is where the Son accomplished His vicarious work of salvation for all of creation. When seen in this light, Moses is more than a solitary seer wondering in the desert. Rather, God chooses to reveal and restore to him many of the same things He revealed to Abraham–including the cosmology and Moses’ and man’s place in it.

    What’s interesting to me is that the cosmological revelation is quickly narrowed to our Earth alone, indicating a hierarchy of knowledge on a need-to-know basis. Therefore, we need to know about our planetary home and the reasons for it’s creation.

    As to ecology, we also need to care for the earth. To replenish means to fully or perfectly supply. Since we are stewards and not owners here, we will be held to account for our management of all the resources we are given. However, I think it equally irresponsible to leave things in their wild state as to pollute or degrade the environment. After all, it was only the one who buried his talent in the earth that lost his inheritance.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,694 other followers