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.
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