Obama, Joseph, and Interpretation

This is a guest post from Dialogue editorial board member Ethan Yorgason. Ethan is Professor of Geography at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea. He has also taught history and geography at BYU-Hawaii, and was winner of the MHA’s Best First Book Award for Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region.

He was something of a usurper. Though he wasn’t highly born, many people were quickly impressed by his wisdom. But he had detractors as well. Some of them threatened violence. Outside his real homeland he achieved power more quickly than anybody thought possible. His admirers marveled at his ability.

Once he gained the highest governmental power he would ever obtain, he went to work. He immediately instituted a huge tax increase. The people didn’t see any immediate benefit because, in fact, he hoarded the wealth within government. A financial crisis came. People from throughout the land came begging the government to help, just like he had anticipated. He insisted that the people sell off their belongings to the government in order to buy food. Then he went after their land, buying it all for the government (except for the lands of the cronies of the government, who got to keep their wealth and privileges). He instituted a mass redistribution of the population. After that he told the people that their land now belonged to the government. He distributed the means to labor to the people and told them that they would have to pay a substantial tax on everything they produced. And in the end the people honored him and called him their savior.

We all know who this is, don’t we? Joseph of Egypt, of course. Most of us claim attachment to the Abrahamic covenant through him, so of course we know this story. (Just in case you don’t, you might want to review Genesis 41: 29-49 and 47: 13-26 for some of the more political parts.)

BCC’s series at the beginning of the year on getting more out of Sunday school inspired me to read the Sunday School lesson scriptures more carefully than I ever have. I’ve truly been fascinated by what I’m learning. My branch just had the Sunday School lesson that included Joseph’s first tax increase (the rest of the story is in a part of the Old Testament that the lesson manual skips – I wish Old Testament was more than a year long in Sunday School).

As you might have surmised, I’ve also been reading too much about the Tea Parties and Glenn Beck. So one of the things that struck me about the last several chapters of Genesis is how much Joseph resembles (what I consider to be a certain kind of conservative fantasy about) Obama. That’s my overt political jab—feel free to jab back at me. But I’m really more concerned about something else: There are so many stories in the Old Testament that are difficult to interpret. For example, I don’t think either Obama supporters or critics within the church would be excited to claim this framing of Joseph’s story as something instructive for us. Yet I don’t really think the framing does much violence to the text in Genesis.

It may not be wise to bring up all these stories in Sunday School, but they certainly seem fair game for personal scripture study or for a forum like this. So, more than anything, I’d like to ask a question, especially as I’m sitting here in Korea without good access to church or scholarly works on the Old Testament beyond what the Internet provides: What are your interpretive strategies for reading stories in the Old Testament that defy easy interpretation — the ones we sometimes ignore?

It seems we have at least a few interpretive themes commonly used in church settings:

a) The manual or the General Authorities have the definitive interpretation. If those sources say something, then we have our answer, even if it seems like a rather tenuous reading of the text itself (for example, Isaac and Jacob going back to their ancestor’s home area seems much more like their fathers wanting them to marry cousins than establishing the importance of marrying within the covenant – I can explain why I come to this interpretation if you want).

b) The Gospel has always been the same. This is the “Adam and Abraham had the sacrament and baptism” argument. In ancient days, God’s leaders, at least, followed the same gospel we do today, the argument goes. So when something difficult to understand comes up, we start with the premise that God’s prophets understood the gospel as we do today and then try to work toward a satisfying interpretation. Of course this runs into trouble with a story like Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away – what happened to eternal families? In such cases, we sometimes use the next strategy.

c) We can’t judge their actions by our standards because their culture was so different from ours. While this allows us to accommodate many stories with a “Hmm . . . that’s interesting” response, it seems to beg the belief about an unchangeable God.

d) Prophets don’t do bad things. If something seems to put a prophet in a negative light (with no subsequent narrative of redemption or fall), we may often start with the assumption that what seems to be bad actually is not (Jacob finagling to get the birthright from Esau). We then proceed to explain though various means that the hero was actually in the right. Or if that’s not possible, we may assert that there’s not enough information in the story to tell the whole story, assuming that our hero will be vindicated once we know everything.

e) I’m sure some among us take the strategy (especially the earlier in the Old Testament you go) that these are a culture’s founding stories, not history. We should not necessarily expect them to be literally true (the flood and Noah’s ark always work as examples here). Yet aside from running into issues about whether the Old Testament is the word of God, this approach still doesn’t always provide much of a key to interpretation (what are we supposed to learn from the story of Judah laying with his widowed daughter-in-law who was playing the prostitute, then threatening to burn her and saving her only when he finds out that he was the one who lay with her?)

f) Identifying the purpose and audience of the scriptural text. I’ve heard this a bit, and I’d like to hear more. Who was the scripture originally written for, what might have been the objectives of the writer, what might have been the agenda of those who decided to preserve the text? In Genesis, for example, a basic agenda seems to be to explain the origin of places and peoples. With so many stories, the author draws such morals (essentially, “ . . . and this is how this people came to exist and inhabit the land they’re in,” or “ . . . so this is why this place has the name it does.”) But as Latter-day Saints we hardly ever point this out or ask such questions. Of course doing so brings up the questions of who really was the author of Genesis and under what conditions did it come to be authoritative among the Jews. That’s leading to a place many typically don’t want to go . . . critical biblical scholarship.

g) Throwing our hands up, saying we just don’t know what something means (maybe adding that we don’t need to know now), but expressing hope that some day we’ll understand it better.

Each of these tendencies (and I’m sure I’m forgetting others) has positives and negatives. Suffice it to say, we often mix and match rather indiscriminately. Maybe that’s not an entirely bad thing – it’s probably mostly unavoidable, but I welcome your thoughts on whether there might be a more coherent approach. I also welcome your ideas on: any tricky Old Testament stories that you’ve been able to make some sense out of; sources (whether produced by LDS or not) that have helped you make sense of difficult stories.

Thanks in advance.


  1. Kristine says:

    NB: I will ruthlessly (and gleefully) delete comments that get bogged down in politics and fail to engage the larger questions the post raises. Be sure to read the whole thing before you start commenting.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Just last night I was thinking about our lack of a systematic theology. Often we appear to take an existing policy or practice and then work backwards, extrapolating as we go.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I typically use something similar to letter “e”. The old testament has been through several millenia of recording and copying and maybe even alterations. I don’t take it as seriously as the BoM or D&C. I usually take the stories with a grain of salt and glean what lessons and truths I can from them.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful outline of various approaches.

    As I’ve been struggling to teach the OT in SS this year, I often find myself coming close to what you outline as “f” (and hopefully that doesn’t equal the grade my performance has deserved). I’ve also found myself cherry-picking parts of the lessons that—beyond just being the most comfortable for me to teach—seem most relevant for today’s message, and often skipping parts that don’t meet that criteria.

  5. It’s funny the author takes a political jab, invites readers in return to take a jab back and the first comment say, the politics can’t be discussed, but then apparently refuses to edit out the politics from the original post.

    Why not ask the author to edit their politics out of the post, which really has nothing to do with it other than a bit of political masturbation by the author? Did it feel nice to get that out? Just don’t do it too much Guest, you could go blind (to other view points of course)!

    Anyway, I like how the author tried to list the various ways we deal with “inconsistencies” we find in the scriptures. I usually read it with a combination of a, b, c, d, f, with an occasional dose of e or g. in there. I don’t think they are all mutually exclusive, but sometimes some combinations might be.

    I often try to remind ourselves that just because the scriptures are for our day, and also for our grand parents day, and also for our grand children day does not mean it was written in the way it was exactly for us.

    It would be a mind boggling task to try to write for any and all future audiences to try to interpret and understand for all circumstances. I think the GAs go through this as they prepare their talks for conference, knowing what they say will literally become as scripture. And even then they can’t say everything to everyone and can get nit picked to death in our watered down “I’m offended” day and age.

    So… on a case by case basis I ask myself, “having Faith in God first, what can I learn from this?” Sometimes it doesn’t appeal to me and I’m not so interested. But other times, we dig deeper because we feel something important is to be learned. And then the important aspect for me is to always try to see things through an eye of faith in God and his Son Jesus Christ.

  6. Apparently glenn Beck and the teaparties are one and the same. I don’t know enough about the former to say.

    In the least the OT is complicated…all that violence, tent spiking, sleeping with fathers and various other complexities are uncomfortable at best. Then we have Joseph…what a hero. He’s a victim (don’t we love a good victim?), he risks great consequence to run away from potipher’s wife (oh how virtuous), then he makes the prison blossom as a rose, and in a twist of fate ends up as second in command in Egypt. Power, money and authority based on his gifts of God (and undoubtable charisma and good looks -possibly confusing Joseph with Donnie Osmond here).

    I think we tend to gloss over the confusing parts of the OT SO freely-not just because of the “as far as they are translated correctly” caveat, but also because what does one do with all the weirdness? When there is so much ambiguity and things so contrary to our modern experience it is easy to add in our own interpretations (see!! see! Obama is just like Joseph! SEE!) Not that our interpretations are necessarily wrong, it’s just that the amibuity demands interpretation, and our knwoledge of the history of the text allows for further freedom in that interpretation.

    Perhaps the best lesson from the Bible is we are definitely a bunch of weird sinners and God loves us anyway…but sometimes his love looks a lot like a famine.

  7. Harold Bloom’s The Book of J provides a most insightful, creative way to look at Genesis.

  8. I have now a wonderful image in my head of Glenn Beck dressed as potipher’s wife…. thanks BCC

  9. I’ve always been interested in another comparison – between the taxes that Joseph and King Noah implemented – each passage indicates taxation of a fifth.


    Genesis 41:33-34
    33 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.
    34 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

    King Noah

    Mosiah 11:3
    3 And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth partpart of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth partpart of their fatlings; and also a fifth partpart of all their grain.

    But in looking at these passages, just as I was putting them down here – I wonder if King Noah’s tax was more comprehensive – because the verses seem to indicate he put a fifth part tax on every type of consumer product. The Genesis passage shows that Joseph advised Pharaoh to tax “a fifth part of the land” and I wonder if that only refers to agriculture or if it refers to all kinds of possessions and resources that are in the land. It’s hard to tell. From the way the story of Joseph is told, it seems that maybe he was just making sure that a high percentage of the ‘plenty’ of food was reserved to ward off the ravaging famine – though we might note that in the end of the story it didn’t matter because Joseph used the desperation of the famine to take control over all the land, in exchange for the food – turning Egypt into a feudal system with the king at the head and the people as serfs.

    Initially though, however braod the scope of the tax, it seems Joseph and King Noah were decreeing a flat tax.

  10. Interesting King Noah connection…of course what they used the taxes for is the difference there isn’t it. It does bring up the concept that a heavier tax may be needed at times and that a flat tax may be good or bad.

  11. StillConfused says:

    I like that Biblical stories resemble current events. Even though the results are a given, it is fun to watch it all play out.

  12. I also like the Joseph story and the other day I was seeing it as a type for Christ and his mission.

    I was first thinking about how easy it is to think poorly of Joseph’s brothers for their various iniquities. But the thought occurred to me that we are all sinners. It is because of our sins that Christ had to go through what he did.

    It was because of Joseph’s brothers sins that Joseph went through what he did.

    Both were blameless before God and man.
    Both suffered greatly.
    As a result of their suffering Joseph became a savior for Egypt and his family. As a result of his his life and death, Christ becomes a savior for us.

    I don’t know if the type follows exactly through each example, but it works pretty well I think.

  13. My take: OT writers (or editors) use narrative rather than explicit statements to convey ideas. So justice can be implied by the narrative, but not explicitly stated. Justice in the OT often takes cruel forms that affect future generations–just like life. That the sins of the fathers are paid by the children is unnervingly realistic: all we have to do is look around to see it happening often, which is a very strong argument against sin, by the way.
    Examples in the OT could be Jacob deceiving his father and taking advantage of his brother and later being deceived by his sons in the matter of Joseph’s disappearance. In this case, the narrator (or editors) may have implied a relationship between the things done to the Egyptian people by Joseph and the later things done to Joseph’s descendants by the Egyptians.

  14. Fletcher says:

    Let’s indulge in a fantasy where the US budget was balanced and there was no federal level borrowing of funds.

    If Obama came out and said that the government was going to raise taxes to the point where it would be increasing revenues to approximately 20% (a fifth) of GDP, and then storing those funds in an untouchable reserve for the next seven years, I might go along with it. Wait a second, wasn’t that supposed to be the idea behind Social Security?

    I think, moreover, that Pharaoh (and to a lesser extent, King Noah), can pull this off because of the assumed superstitious/religious authority that comes with the leadership position. Maybe changes in the tax code would not be so contentious if out federal leaders were anointed instead of elected.

    More to the OP’s original post, I would apply option E as well to the historical stories. The prophecies and revelations (e.g. Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc) are more suited for the backwards induction as the OP described.

  15. Britt, excellent point.

    The way Joseph and King Noah utilized those taxed resources was wildly different. Joseph’s use was appropriate and King Noah’s use was inappropriate.

    But to give the Joseph story a little more scrutiny – one thing I’ve wondered a bit about is why (ultimately) Joseph bought up the people and their land, basically taking advantage of their dire straits – rather than just giving them the food they needed. At a certain point, if the people are on the verge of starvation, why make them sign over everything they own? I almost wonder why that didn’t cause a rebellion – but maybe the people were too weak and worn out to cause problems(?).

    Genesis 47: 20-25
    20 And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine prevailed over them: so the land became Pharaoh’s.
    21 And as for the people, ahe removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof.
    22 Only the land of the priests bought he not; for the priests had a portion assigned them of Pharaoh, and did eat their portion which Pharaoh gave them: wherefore they sold not their lands.
    23 Then Joseph said unto the people, Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh: lo, here is seed for you, and ye shall sow the land.
    24 And it shall come to pass in the increase, that ye shall give the fifth part unto Pharaoh, and four parts shall be your own, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for them of your households, and for food for your little ones.
    25 And they said, Thou hast saved our lives: let us find grace in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.

    So we see here that Joseph is basically re-instating the fifth tax on the Egyptians – but it’s in a new feudal system where their lands and really, their bodies, belong to Pharaoh. They are now sharecroppers, perhaps permanently.

    I think Obama presents himself as more altruistic than that.

    It seems from what we read here that Joseph was a very hard bargainer and he did not give away anything for free, even to those who were desperately in need(?). Maybe there was a landless class that isn’t being mentioned here – but it seems that those who took part in the benefit of getting the food had to sign on to this sharecropping deal.

  16. Fletcher says:

    Please forgive my redundancy in 14.

  17. In my own study, I have moved through the options you’ve listed over time (and some I’ve not done so much yet).

    Sometimes when we teach, it feels like we think we’ll be the last Old Testmament course anyone will ever take, so we need to reveal the absolute perfect meaning of the text. I guess I’m not sure that’s so. Just as each reading of the scriptures brings new insights because of wherever I am at the reading, so different years of study and different instructors and different approaches bring new meaning (and hopefully clarity, though not always) over time.

    BTW — #5 — are all scriptures “for our day,” or is that just a Book of Mormon thing?

  18. Actually, there’s a part of that Joseph passage that has huge implications.

    Genesis 47:21
    21 And as for the people, he removed them to cities from one end of the borders of Egypt even to the other end thereof.

    As I understand it, in the process of purchasing all the land from all the people, Joseph uprooted all of the Egyptians and moved them away from the lands they had previously owned. I suppose he did this to make it clear that they were giving up their titles to their lands and to fully embed this change in the system and culture.

    The process of moving everyone around would be disruptive – and might prevent organizing and rebellion, as well.

    Joseph didn’t militarily conquer the Egyptians – but if this is correct, he may as well have done so. I believe this is similar to what the Assyrians did in their empire – the kind of activity that ‘scattered’ the people of Israel when they were carried out of their lands and transplanted them into new areas.

    I haven’t read commentaries on this verse – but it might be interesting what they have to say about it.

    I think this too would create problems for the comparison with Obama – since the president has not attempted anything as radical as this in our country.

  19. SLO Sapo says:

    “If Obama came out and said that the government was going to raise taxes to the point where it would be increasing revenues to approximately 20% (a fifth) of GDP, and then storing those funds in an untouchable reserve for the next seven years, I might go along with it. Wait a second, wasn’t that supposed to be the idea behind Social Security?”

    No. At least for retirement, SS payments to current retirees have always been paid out of taxes collected on the wages of current workers.

  20. nat kelly says:

    You asked,

    ” I also welcome your ideas on: any tricky Old Testament stories that you’ve been able to make some sense out of”

    The last RS I was able to attend, the teacher decided to tackle the question of the talking snake in Eden. She used a strategy you didn’t mention above, using other biblical accounts as models to explain a story that doesn’t quite make sense.

    And she used the story of Balaam’s talking ass. That animal talked. So animals can talk.

    Therefore, the talking snake was real.

    Personally, I’m more inclined to option E, as others have mentioned. Not so many cartwheels involved.

    britt, #6,
    “Perhaps the best lesson from the Bible is we are definitely a bunch of weird sinners and God loves us anyway…but sometimes his love looks a lot like a famine.”

    Loved this!

  21. Molly Bennion says:

    Without apology, I lean to “f.” For instance, in danithew’s example of Gen 47:21, the Jewish Study Bible suggests the possibility of a variant translation meaning Joseph enslaved the Egyptians. Verse 23, “…I have bought you this day and your land for Pharoah…” supports that idea. If I really wanted a more precise understanding, I’d also have to look at historical records and interpretations, if any, and they would likely be unsatisfactory too. Still, “f” and the search for all possible clues, including the imprecise guesses of others, seems to grant the text the respect it deserves. Furthermore, as a GD or RS teacher, I have found my classes delighted to have additional information and fully capable of understanding its tentative nature and placing it in proper context within the Gospel.

  22. looking for a name says:

    I prefer f, because I feel like it enable me to use a-e. However, as a lifelong member I have been trained extensively in a, b, and d and often feel like I am utterly unequipped to approach things any other way. It’s a slow, arduous path.

  23. Another strategy used, and mentioned by #3 is that the scriptures have been changed by “the interpolations of men” so some of those stories that seem horrifying or off-putting to us may be corrupt people who have put such stories in as stumbling blocks or they have in translation changed the meaning of the story to read as it does now. Whatever their motivations, the meaning and truth of the story is effectively lost in translation.

    I have heard this one used before, and used often. So I’ll submit this as h).

    G above is the one that I used most often. I tell myself that I know the basics of what I need to know, I’m doing the basics of what I need to be doing and everything beyond that is an intellectual free-for-all. I have fun speculating, pondering and searching for alternate or additional meaning, but I try to keep myself grounded in the basics and holding myself to those, I keep an intellectual distance from what may come up.

  24. 15-I have wondered if Joseph’s little changes in tax law and mass migration-if that is what is was-was great preparation for slavery-of his own people….ooops

  25. SLO,

    You’re right. I stretched the SS analogy. But the premise was the same by setting up a separate account on the books for a specific expenditure, in that SS taxes got set aside for the express purpose of paying SS benefits. In that light, there is more of a solid comparison.

  26. britt (24)

    I have wondered the same thing. I would venture to guess that, had not Joseph been in Egypt at the time to save (and eventually enslave) his family, the covenant people (apart from Joseph) would have died in the famine. I don’t know for sure, but I think that would have thrown a wrench into a bunch of the promises made to Abraham.

  27. 24 / 26 — I have also thought about the connection between Joseph in Egypt and Moses’ role there. One message I’ve taken from that broad story arc is that it is difficult to see the plan of God unfold in a generation or two. Often it takes much longer to realize His designs (to the extent He may have them). Such a view may inform the way we think about relatively temporary adversity.

  28. Heh, I like the turn this taking. I hope Glen Beck isn’t reading! The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children even down to the third and fourth generation. Joseph unjustly taxes the Egyptians and his descendants get enslaved in return.

    // I’m actually not grinding this political axe and claiming these were sins, which were repaid… but I do think it’s reasonable to see a link between the people who were driven away from Egypt and perhaps the new Pharaoh which eventually came into power and enslaved the Jews. It would also tend to make good sense, considering the Jews (and we’re no different) often seemed to be getting punished (or not protected) after periods of unrighteousness. Not saying Joseph wasn’t righteous…

  29. Whatever we might think of Joseph turning Egypt into a feudal state, we should also remember that he saved the lives of the Egyptians and also the lives of many in the region.

    Actually, this is why I enjoy Bible study so much. It takes you down these roads. I had a glimmer of the thought here and there – but this is the first time I’ve considered the possibility that Joseph added to the oppressive nature of Egypt.

    I would only add that I suspect in comparison to other rulers of the time, Joseph was an enlightened and merciful leader. But now I have something to really think about.

  30. Chris-I always saw the sin as selling their own brother as a slave that led to their children’s children being slaves. I’ve always wondered also what would have happened if Joseph could have stepped down and gone back with his brothers, taking his natural place as brother number 11 (but still a spiritual leader).

    I like the thought that it takes the LONG view to figure out the whole plan.

    Fletcher God seems to figure out how to keep His promises despite us.

  31. (23)
    I’m guessing that the reason that the OP author didn’t include the tactic that you labeled as H) was because he was defining “a few interpretive themes commonly used in church settings”
    That approach is not an interpretive theme, as much as an avoidance tactic.
    Once you plead the eighth (article of faith), you tend to forfeit the ability to learn any more about the passage in question.

  32. chris (#5) I didn’t say politics couldn’t be discussed, only that I didn’t want to get bogged down in them. And I don’t think the politics are as irrelevant as you suggest–we regularly read current political situations into the scriptures (which is why I hate it that election years coincide with the Book of Mormon curriculum in Sunday School).

  33. Peter LLC says:

    election years coincide with the Book of Mormon curriculum in Sunday School

    All part of the divine plan.

  34. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    King Noah’s use of the taxation money included a form of an economic stimulus package.

    He put people to work rebuilding the temple and built a tower (for homeland security). He built many spacious and elegant buildings, his palace being just one of those. He also caused vineyards to be planted around. He caused buildings and a great tower to be built in the land of Shilom.

    Some people say that the private life of political leaders shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny, which if that is the case, the verses describing his moral behavior and wine-bibbing could be overlooked. As far as the taxation money to be used to promote his laziness and idolatry, I would think more information would be necessary to judge him there. It’s not like we have an over-abundance of political leaders after the cloth of King Benjamin who labor in the fields in this day and age. That is the standard against which he is being judged in the BofM.

  35. I don’t have much time, but I wanted to share my thoughts before I forget them, so I’m skipping over the comments. (I’ll read them later, though.) Just pointing this out in case I accidentally parrot what someone has said!

    Concerning the example of why Isaac and Jacob were sent to their cousins for wives, I strongly object to the idea that they were marrying within the covenant for the simple fact that, until all of Jacob’s sons married and had children, there is no record of a covenant people as we understand it today. I think they went to their cousins because a) nomadic people practice endogamy (a possible extension of xenophobia) and b) both Rebekah and Rachel & Leah were willing to accept and enter into the covenant.


    To the topic at hand, I have struggled this year teaching the Old Testament because my class consists of 10- and 11-year-olds. When we discuss the practices that seem… odd… to us, we tend to follow a “it was a different time, a different culture, and things weren’t the same as they are now, but what can we learn from this?” approach. This is usually followed up with a “remember that the Bible, especially the early books, are giving us a snapshot of what the authors considered the most important, key elements of the story” discussion. Hence the reason we hear about the boys, but not the girls. (With the exception of Dinah, who is really just in there so we can understand how Simeon and Levi went all crazy when their sister was raped and then married to the rapist. It is their fault that the Hivites and the Perizzites hated the Israelites. It also gives us the phrase, “Should he deal with our sister as a harlot?” which is oh so useful!)

    So, the summary of how we teach these stories is, “Don’t try to understand them with a 21st Century viewpoint, but do try to find lessons that apply to a 21st Century people.”

  36. “it seems to beg the belief about an unchangeable God.”

    Or at least one (mis)understanding of what it means to be “unchangeable.”

    I’m a big fan of “c” since it invites contextual questioning, looking at times back then, instead of the (common?) assumption that Israelites shared our culture, worldview, and knowledge. I like Alex’s restatement of this, “Don’t try to understand them with a 21st Century viewpoint, but do try to find lessons that apply to a 21st Century people.”

    A,b, and d all have some problematic implicit assumptions and unstated definitions that really need to be made explicit.

    E is essentially a contextual/genre issue again. I thought the T&S post and comments on Genesis and genre were fruitful, as an example. http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2010/02/genesis-and-genre/

  37. Latter-day Guy says:

    About the only thing I like better than an inappropriately political SS discussion (Teancum + RNC = FUN! And in the interests of full disclosure, I’m a radical moderate) is a really, terrifyingly uncomfortable F&T meeting.

    As far as general interpretive styles, I favor “f” with a hefty dose of “e” and eschew “d” altogether. Consequently, I generally read a book during Sunday School and consider it the lesser of two evils, but enjoy commenting if a) I actually know something about the text in question, and b) I can do so without causing offense or consternation.

  38. These days there is a lot of condescension towards the Old Testament.

    I feel the Old Testament is more appropriate for our times than we want to admit.

    Read closely, from what I know of things, it represents God’s nature and human nature (for good and bad) quite accurately.

    If we think we are better or more civilized than the people we read about in those books – we probably are just in denial.

  39. Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments. Kristine, I’d be interested to know whether you’ve been deleting comments (& if so how many).

    I think agree with the attitude I believe Kristine is working toward. Politics is out there. There’s no particular reason to avoid certain issues that might have political application, but there’s also good reason to want to avoid getting bogged down in it when it takes us away from our better modes of discussion and obscures other issues that are also important. I don’t disagree that it can be debated which side of the fence my original post sits on. I’d like to think that the inclusion of politics in my original post was more about pointing to the fact that there’s some similar interpretive issues at work in trying to understand contemporary politics as in trying to understand the Old Testament – at the least, we’re often strongly inclined to be favorably or negatively inclined toward certain people before any real actions are taken. A little more charity and carefulness in all types of interpretation would probably be a good thing. That said, I have my politics just like everyone else, and I can’t really see why I should avoid mentioning them.

    In fact I’ve been wrestling with precisely this question: why so many of us (myself included) can’t seem to leave politics out of our gospel interpretations. They seem so important to us that we just can’t let go of them. Crazy theory warning: Apologies Kristine, if this is leading somewhere you hoped not to go, but it seems to me there’s at least a couple things going on. First, Mormonism encourages us to apply the gospel to our lives and in our societies. Though we have our caveats about politics, when politics seems to be the biggest thing going on in society, I think it’s no surprise that we’ll become more political in our gospel interpretations. Second, politics differs from the gospel in that, to some ways of thinking, the former can be said to be a more personal part of our identity. With the gospel, it’s a kind of take-it-or-leave-it proposition, at least in theory. It’s a complete package we’re asked to accept. Our testimony doesn’t require us to have given full intellectual backing to everything we say we believe. But our political views, we feel—perhaps mistakenly, are really who we are as an individual, reasoning human agent. We’ve acquired our politics through careful study and consideration. We’ve looked at various sides of issues. We’ve figured out how to square our gospel beliefs with these views. In other words, theoretically we may understand that belief in the gospel should take precedence over what may be mistaken politics of the moment, but viscerally we feel that our political views are the perfect expression of who we are as reasoning Latter-day Saints.

    So to a couple of specific points: I’m not quite saying that Beck and the Tea Parties are the same thing, though I indeed thing they are pretty similar in some ways. They’re particularly similar in that both seem to allow for (though I would never say that they’re reducible to) a certain (what I regard to be an overwrought, personalized, paranoid) reading of Obama and the Democratic Party agenda more generally. (I won’t deny for a second that certain elements on the Left have done similar things in the past.)

    For my part, I like the addition of interpretive trend h (#23). In some ways it goes along in practice with trend g, but it’s not reducible to that. I also think that comments such as 26 & 27 are pointing to another interpretive strategy – our old friend teleology, or (crudely put) the idea that things had to work out this way to make God’s larger plan work out. Another strategy with pluses and minuses. #28 gives us a very important point to consider that gets us thinking about when/why we choose certain interpretive strategies. For my part, I just don’t know what to do with the idea that the sins of the fathers are being visited upon the heads of the children. It seems so fundamentally against our beliefs today. But maybe I should reconsider.

    Again thanks to all who have commented.

  40. #34 Wow, that’s a stretch. Some stories need no a)-f) to draw safe conclusions. King Noah’s being a grade-A loser is surely one of them.

    Drawing conclusions about modern tax policy based on his despicable life; not so straightforward. The story of King Noah drive me fiscally conservative. King Benjamin’s counterbalance gives me hope that centralized power might just work. Neither tells me who to vote for…

  41. I think this was kind of alluded to in some of the posts already, but not specifically…so I’ll add my thought.

    I think one strategy used sometimes is the Article of Faith#8 reference:
    We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; …

    this leaves the door open sometimes to pick and choose different strategies at different parts of the bible that fit our understanding best, especially where Book of Mormon teachings present “additional light and knowledge” on the subject.

    I find it challenging sometimes that there can be such emphasis and meaning placed on one word in a scripture during a lesson, and all the footnotes with that word, and the Hebrew or Greek meaning of that word…and then at other times entire verses or sections are disregarded as “it might not have been translated correctly”.

  42. So between Joseph and King Noah we can say heavy taxes lead to captivity?

  43. oh I and love the poor king Noah tribute-misunderstood man who’s biographers cared too much for his private life and didn’t see the value in his social programs

  44. I really like the Jewish Study Bible for Old Testament stuff. I also tend to look at what the Oxford Annotated and NET bible say about a passage. Then at least I have a small slice of the history of translation and interpretation for a given passage.

  45. King Noah was clearly very good at sponsoring building projects but a miserable failure in regards to Homeland Security. The tower wasn’t a bad step – but recruitment and proper deployment of troops suffered greatly under his watch:

    Mosiah 11:17
    And king Noah sent guards round about the land to keep them off; but he did not send a sufficient number, and the Lamanites came upon them and killed them, and drove many of their flocks out of the land; thus the Lamanites began to destroy them, and to exercise their hatred upon them.

    Mosiah 19:2
    And now behold, the forces of the king were small, having been reduced, and there began to be a division among the remainder of the people.

  46. #39 Ethan (and others) — on sins of the fathers…there is little doubt that decisions that parents make will affect their children, some for good and some for ill. That my parents agreed to hear missionary discussions allowed me also to hear the gospel and be baptized. Now it’s true I might have heard the gospel some other way had they not made that choice, but that they did had an impact on me.

    Similarly, the decision of some of my children to leave the church will no doubt have an impact on their children (if and when they have them).

    Even the decision of a parent to move from one area to another (for instance to immigrate to a new country) may have a detrimental or positive effect on a child, and that impact could well be felt for generations to come.

    It’s not necessarily about sins, but it might include the impact of broken covenants.

  47. For all we know captivity is one of those ways we are “loved”. It did wonders for Joseph after all.

    homeland security…now if we could only tie some wicked king to no child left behind…hmm

  48. Kristine says:

    Ethan–I haven’t deleted any comments, to my happy surprise. I hope my ferocious warning didn’t stifle the discussion too much.

    (I love the internet, where I can be scary. IRL, I’m short, dumpy, and completely unthreatening :))

  49. I’ll leave the politics alone.
    I will offer that I have found when I step back from the blow by blow plot line of the Old Testament I am often able to see an applicable lesson for my own life, perhaps a warning on a common character flaw, or a statement on human behavior.
    I have found that doing so is really not that hard, but does require me to look beyond the basics of the story, and then I find there is purpose in having it included in my religious study.
    For instance, Esau was impatient. He was impatient with his food, impatient with marriage, etc. His impatience caused him to sell something incredibly valuable for an immediate physical hunger and need. Do I have impatience and physical hungers in my life that cause me to treat my inheritance casually?
    So, for me, that is how it works.
    I’m generally not a fan of outside commentaries or the musings of instructors or fellow class members. I find that the spirit can offer more clarity if I am willing to step back from what seems horrifying or bizarre and read the whole story and ponder through the question, “What significance does this have today? How does this instruct me in my daily growth spiritually?” That personal application has much more depth and meaning than a cultural commentary ever could.

  50. 20% tax? Bring back King Noah! (I live in europe.) I think any comparison between Obama and Joseph is flawed. By raising taxes Joseph sought to get the people through future potentially devastating times. If Obama raises taxes to fund social programs that will not get America through future potentially devastating times, because the biggest threat to present day America is debt, not famine or healthcare. If taxes are not used to pay down debt Obama’s strategy is one of further expenditure, whereas Joseph’s strategy was one of prudence and preparation.

  51. The story of Joseph in Egypt’s tax shows a scriptural example where taxation was justified and socially beneficial. I have encountered some Mormons claiming that you can’t find a scriptural example of this nature.

    The story of King Noah is a good contrast with Joseph in Egypt on the point of taxation, not least because the 1/5 tax is also mentioned. We can perhaps even assume that Noah and his priests were attempting to usurp the scriptural example of Joseph in Egypt’s tax to justify the taxes they were imposes. The differences, however, are obvious. Primarily, King Noah taxed the people to support his idolatrous and lazy lifestyle and to build monuments and palaces to himself and his priestly aristocracy. This makes him more comparable to the Pharaoh of Moses’ time. King Noah’s taxes, motivations and actions do not resemble Joseph in Egypt’s in any meaningful sense.

    The story of King Noah’s taxes also does not provide a meaningful comparison to taxation in a modern representative democracy. The differences should be obvious but, surprisingly, apparently need to be spelled out too often as we hear more and more instances of Mormons invoking King Noah in discussions about taxation in our constitutional republic. These differences include that King Noah’s taxes were implemented by a tyrannical despot in a theocratic absolutist monarchy to personally enrich himself and his priestly aristocracy (including through expensive palaces and monuments built for his own pleasure) at the rest of the people’s expense and efforts. Obviously, taxes in a modern constitutional republic founded on the principles of representative democracy in the context of universal adult sufferage and the protection of fundamental and natural rights operate based on different principles entirely. For one thing, the taxes, which are agreed through the democratic process (meaning, yes, that there will always be a minority opposed to such taxes but that seems a weak reason to jettison democracy as our best hope for self-determination and governing ourselves) fund socially beneficial programs that are meant to benefit all or most of society equitably, whether that is through the common defense, appropriate regulation of interstate commerce to prevent market or labor abuse, or in our increasingly aware and sensitive society, provision for the less fortunate in terms of minimal levels of sustenance and health care, etc.

  52. Peter LLC says:

    20% tax? Bring back King Noah! (I live in europe.)

    But not in the Canary Islands, I presume?

  53. john f.
    “…or in our increasingly aware and sensitive society, provision for the less fortunate in terms of minimal levels of sustenance and health care, etc”

    and don’t forget free lunch, err I mean vacations.

  54. The story of King Noah’s taxes also does not provide a meaningful comparison to taxation in a modern representative democracy.

    I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. Abuse of a taxation system under one form of government or under another form of government still has similar effects. As long as there is a thorough discussion and differences are noted – the story of King Noah could still could potentially be an interesting part of any discussion on the subject of taxation.

  55. One huge obstacle would be the totalitarian nature of King Noah’s taxes verses democratically instituted taxes. This doesn’t even touch on the uses of the revenues but rather the method of imposing the taxes.

  56. John, I don’t want to get bogged down in an argument over this too much. Mainly because I don’t completely disagree with you that there are major differences that need to be accounted for and the differences we have in our perspectives might not be that serious.

    I’m just trying to say that high taxes under one kind of regime and another kind of government still have the same base effect of taking money out of the pockets of the people. Maybe getting to select representatives would alleviate the pain of the problem somewhat. I’m not sure how much.

    Certainly I would agree that King Noah was ruling by decree, since he is a monarch. I think the use of the word totalitarian or totalitarianism might be stretching things a bit.

    I associate totalitarianism with a government that has completely permeated its society – to such a degree that more than two people would have trouble meeting without fear of being spied upon. Yes, Noah had spies – but he also seemed inept at preventing people from proselitizing or leaving his mini-state (i.e. Alma) or from organizing against him (Gideon).

    I also associate totalitarianism with a unique kind of ruthlessness on the part of a ruler. Noah was almost willing to let Abinadi go … something a Stalin or a Saddam Hussein would not have permitted. Leaders like that wouldn’t have dickered around or had discussions with an Abinadi – they would have shipped him off or made him disappear.

    For the sake of comparison with another Book of Mormon figure – if Amalickiah had been able to rule for longer than he did – I suspect he would have done his utmost to create a totalitarian state. I wouldn’t deny that King Noah was ambitious – but I think he lacked that kind of vicious intellect and utter dedication to crafting a state in his own image. He seems to me to be more of a ‘party all the time’ ruler who leaves a lot of the governor duties to others.

  57. Rigel Hawthorne says:


    So the conclusion is that better funding of military and less funding of public projects would have better served the Noah regime. Agreed!

    As far as the laziness allegations, I don’t argue that they are untrue, but as to being despicable, I don’t know that it is worse than paying to staff Air Force One and deploy airport security and delay airport functions while a hollywood hairstylist is called to give a haircut to a US President as was done with a past US president, just to name an example.

    It was despicable of King Noah to silence the free speech of one who publicly denounced his morality. Anyone see a modern parallel there?

  58. I meant to say absolutist.

  59. Rigel,

    And President Bush delayed air traffic to needless land on an aircraft carrier. And President Obama took a helicopter ride and delayed traffic to take his wife on a date. They all do something someone will find objectionable.

    Although really, I’ll support you or anyone that says we need to have more regulations in place to make the lives of our “public servants” less cushy. I’m a little tired of seeing Congress, regardless of party wanting to control the people. The people should put a little control on our leaders. If they don’t like it, they don’t need to run for office. We don’t aspire to our callings in the church, because for the most part they suck on paper (but are incredibly rewarding if you’re fortunate).

    I’d be happy to have a system of incentives where people didn’t really aspire to be in political leadership, but did it because it was the right thing, they were the right person for the job, and were willing to make the sacrafice.

  60. Peter LLC says:

    I’m just trying to say that high taxes under one kind of regime and another kind of government still have the same base effect of taking money out of the pockets of the people. Maybe getting to select representatives would alleviate the pain of the problem somewhat. I’m not sure how much.

    Are you saying that you are not sure if there is any such thing as a legitimate government?

  61. It was despicable of King Noah to silence the free speech of one who publicly denounced his morality. Anyone see a modern parallel there?

    Yes. Consider yourself banned.

  62. #57 So a goal of Abinadi’s prophetic mission to King Noah was to provide latter-day folk an object lesson about the first amendment of the U.S. constitution? That even tops your previous comment about King Noah’s underrated public works projects.

  63. I think a very strong case can be made that under the rudimentary governmental systems that existed in the Book of Mormon, even in the theocratic hereditary judgeship that existed after the law reforms of King Mosiah, speech constituted an act even if “the law could have no power on any man for his beliefs” (Alma 1:17).

  64. I’ll bite Peter. I’m not committed to this… but

    I do have reservations about “legitimacy” or “justness” of any form of government I grow up in, whether it be the US or the Law of Consecration, where I’m basically required to be burden with all the rules, taxes, policies, from the outset with no ability to change them.

    Yes, I can launch a one man crusade and after devoting my whole life to the cause I might effect some change. Most likely not.

    Implied consent, as it relates to democracy sounds good, but it’s a bit tricky. This does not mean I’m a yahoo who thinks all government is bad, church organization is evil, etc.

    I think any form of government could be much more legitimate if people first had the opportunity to “opt-in”. Opt-in, as it relates to something as trivial as an email subscription is much more legitimate than automatically signing someone up and telling them their free to opt-out. How that works in practice? I dunno.

    But I’m not sure how legitimate it is for future generations to be required to pay for consumption which was purchase and used up long before they arrived on the scene, but now have to pay the bill. As a nation we are literally time-shifting our consumption and production. We’re trading future production, much of which will not come from us, for current consumption. I’m not even talking about capital investments, etc. A lot of future value is being consumed in the present for consumptions sake.

    We’re not taxing ourselves (well we are too) we’re taxing future generations that don’t have a say.

    But we’ve got their implied consent I guess.

  65. I take great exception to comment #48. Having met Kristine in real life, I bear my testimony that she is of perfect height, dazzlingly gorgeous and completely intimidating in both talent and intellect. Fear her and tread carefully, all ye commenters.

  66. Also, her hair seems to change color inexplicably, which adds to her aura of confusing beauty.

  67. She’s certainly not short.

  68. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Ok Cort,

    Here I go again. Is it correct to consider the program of Joseph and Pharoah as a program of taxation at all? Didn’t Pharoah technically OWN all the land of Egypt? So wasn’t the fifth part taken up from his own investment return rather than from the individual employees of his enterprise? Wasn’t the difference for the seven years is that the fifth part of the grain was stored instead of sold or traded, thus decreasing Pharoah’s working capital for 5 years? Actually, as the years were plenteous the earth brought forth by “handfuls” and “without number”, then his working capital was likely unchanged during the seven years, permitting the work force to receive their same wages and income during the seven years. Does it say anywhere that a firth part of the worker’s wages were garnished for 5 years?

    So, back to the opening statements:

    “He immediately instituted a huge tax increase. ”

    Since the fields were absurdly productive, everyone likely had more than usual AND managed to save.

    “The people didn’t see any immediate benefit because, in fact, he hoarded the wealth within government.”

    As there was more than enough, the people were likely to see the benefit in putting away some for the future, ideally setting up their own food storage programs in their homes.

    “A financial crisis came. People from throughout the land came begging the government to help, just like he had anticipated. He insisted that the people sell off their belongings to the government in order to buy food. ”

    The needs of Pharoah’s people were attended to before the needs of other countries. Joseph sold to them, but likely at a much better rate than if they had to go outside of their own government. Were does it say that they had to sell off their belongings? Perhaps each was only assessed what they could reasonably pay.

    I’m writing this while doing other things, so I could be missing something. Hopefully will have a chance to read and look for errors in my analysis later.

  69. Kristine says:

    Steve (67)–not compared to you, at least ;)

  70. Steve Evans says:

    Thine smileys do pierce me like arrows to my truncated trunk!

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