So I get a call from the ward mission leader last Sunday (a good friend of mine) asking me to teach the Gospel Essentials lesson this Sunday on the captioned topic (out of the old Gospel Principles manual). He normally teaches the class, but he simply had no idea how to approach this material, and so he punted to me. I was hesitant to do it, explaining that this is not exactly my favorite subject, but I finally caved, so I will be teaching the class come Sunday.
After reading the lesson in the manual, I reread my favorite sources on this topic, which both conveniently appear in the Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): Armand L. Mauss, “In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race” and Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse.”
After a healthy dose of British Israelism and Anglo-Saxon Triumphalism, “believing blood,” physical purging of Gentile blood upon conversion, the overlay of the Preexistence, tribal hierarchies, the curse of Cain/Canaan, variant justifications for continued lineage assignments in Patriarchal Blessings, the “racialist residue” that continues in the Church yet today, Orson Pratt’s universalism and later modifications of his stance v. Brigham Young’s lineage primacy and later modifications of his stance; the early ascendancy of lineage primacy due to Brigham’s position and the later asendancy of universalism in the wake of the 1978 revelation and missionary success in many different areas of the world, et cetera et cetera, I pretty much had a headache.
I consider myself to be a universalist, and I don’t really understand what the role of Israelite descent is supposed to be beyond Paul’s spiritual take that the true Christian is of Israel.
I used to be a big believer in adoption, reasoning that it is unlikely that someone like me (7/8 British and 1/8 Danish) is really descended from Joseph of Egypt. So I figure I must have been adopted into that lineage. But now I have a different take. It seems to me that if Joseph had a posterity that continues yet today, then I almost certainly am indeed literally a descendant of Joseph, just as my PB says. But then, so is probably almost everyone on the planet. I’m also a descendant of Reuben and Simeon and every other tribe, too. Since they lived almost 4,000 years ago, the old Mormon idea that we can somehow distinguish tribal descent now strikes me as hopelessly naive. That’s just the way population dynamics work over so long a period of time. So while I am indeed descended of Joseph, so is everyone else, whether Gentile or not, so what really is the point to all of this?
Well, so much for my kvetching over the paradox between an understanding of the importance of tribal descent and more mainstream Christian universalism in Mormon thought.
My immediate problem is how to approach this lesson material. Here is my tentative plan: I will write on the board “The Gathering of Israel.” I will then say that the scriptures and we today use this expression in different senses, sometimes more literally and other times more allegorically, and so we need to understand the possibilities. To do this, first we must figure out what we mean by “Israel” and then figure out what we mean by various gatherings (and their predecessor scatterings).
So at this point I plan on taking a walking tour through sacred history, starting with Father Abraham, Jacob and his new covenant name, “Israel,” his Twelve sons, slavery in Egypt and redemption under Moses, Joshua and the settling of Palestine by tribal allotment, the substitution of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh to make up for Levi’s presence among them all, the epic period of the Judges, the United Monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon, the revolt of the northern tribes under Rehoboam and the establishment of the divided kingdom, the Assyrian conquest and the “lost” tribes, the Babylonian captivity (and Lehite exodus) and return under Cyrus, the beginning of enmity with the Samaritans, Alexander the Great and then the Seleucid Kingdom and Jewish revolt, the conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC by Pompey, the ministry of the Savior and birth of Christianity, another Jewish revolt and the Roman destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Diaspora with a capital “D,” the rise of Zionism in the 19th century, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel in 1948, and conflict in the region ever since.
With all of this on the board and in mind, we will then examine different senses of the concept of Israel (personal, familial, tribal, a loose confederation of tribes, a united kingdom, a divided kingdom, a modern nation, a spiritual metaphor), and we will also examine various scatterings and various gatherings.
While these various things are possibilities when reading the scriptures, I will then express my view that when we in the church speak of the gathering of Israel in contemporary terms we are speaking metaphorically of missionary work, that it is not a question of race or physical lineage or geographic location, but simply of a willingness to believe and to enter into covenants and become a part of Christ’s church, thereby becoming a part of “Israel.”
I am open to other suggestions for how to approach this, and also rebuttals of the value of continued lineage primacy theology in the Church. How would you teach this lesson if you were assigned to do so?