Sacrifice, Seerstones, and Scripture: On the Irreducible Weirdness of Other People

If I had the power to do such things, I would make a rule that anyone who wanted to write or speak about the Old Testament had to first read the entire Book of Leviticus three times in a modern translation. By my reckoning, this would take care of about 90% of the really stupid things that people say about our oldest standard work–nearly all of which comes from the starting assumption that the people of Ancient Israel were basically like us except without air conditioning.

This sort of thinking leads people to see the Old Testament as an infallible manual for modern religious living. When we see words like “priesthood” and “temple,” we imagine that they functioned in ancient society more or less–or at least within one order of magnitude–the way that they function for us today. A thorough understanding of the Hebrew temple cult, whose rituals are presented in excruciating detail in Leviticus, will quickly disabuse anyone of such a notion.

Yes, there are human universals, and we can learn things from ancient peoples and their literature. However, we have to pay attention to what is different in order to draw meaningful conclusions from what is similar. Jacob did not have family home evening with his twelve sons. Job’s comforters were not home teachers. And Jonah was not called to the Nineveh South Mission. Most people understand this at some level, but still we persist in suspecting that the people of other times and places were enough like us that we can draw meaningful spiritual cues from their behavior without going through the effort to account for their really very weird assumptions.

Other people are weird. Other times and places are weird. Even in our own time and place there are plenty of real weirdoes, but people who lived in the Ancient Near East 2500 years ago saw the world very differently than we are even capable of seeing it now. So (many of us are learning now) did people who lived in rural New York in the 1820s and 1830s. This culture was dominated by folk-magic beliefs: divining rods, astrology, alchemical transformation, and, apparently, seer stones–all of which, to people like me, are just bizarre.

This is another example of the (not insuperable) problem of all scripture and sacred narrative. The great value of scripture is that it provides continuity for a belief system by showing how God has interacted with human beings over a long period of time. The great problem with scripture is that divine interaction, like any other interaction, depends heavily on the understanding of the people receiving the communication–who filter the experience through assumptions that are always going to seem weird to people who do not share them.

Believing in a god who interacts directly with human beings is a non-rational faith proposition. One believes it or one does not. However, if one does choose to believe such a thing, it necessarily follows that the records of those interactions will reflect temporal, geographical, and cultural assumptions that we do not share. Knowing how to use scripture in our own spiritual life means understanding how to separate divine messages from the situational understanding of the people who received them–be they Ancient Israelites, Roman Jews, superstitious farmers, or Western Americans who came of age during the  Eisenhower administration.

And this dynamic will continue. Some day, most of the things that we believe today will be irreducibly, and even incomprehensibly weird to everybody in the world. If there are Latter-day Saints alive in 3015, they will almost certainly look back on our sacred narratives–conference talks, lesson manuals, proclamations, and the like–with utter amazement that anybody could think the way we do. And then they, too, will have to go through the long and laborious project of trying to figure out what God was really trying to say.

 

Comments

  1. And yet, the human experience is consistent enough that we can recognize, sympathize with, and find helpful the examples of ancient people. They may be weird, but they are still like us in many, many ways – maybe even most ways, when it comes right down to it. I suppose the trick is determining how consistent their experiences are with ours.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    Everything you write is brilliant.

    By the way, you don’t need to wait for 3015. I was reading an American history book to my 10-year-old this morning–covering the 1990s–and he was completely disgusted and offended by the pictures of the first iMacs with their smallish but hugely deep screens.

    (In case anyone needs a refresher: http://www.maclife.com/files/u58/imac-g3.jpg)

  3. Well said, Michael. I quite agree that devotional readings of scripture (which are important!) do well to reckon with the weirdness of the text first. I find that once Sunday School moves past the “call and response” model into discussing the weirdness of the text with an eye to finding new devotional readings, things start getting good. (That’s my MO when I teach, and I know I’m not alone.)

  4. “This culture was dominated by folk-magic beliefs: divining rods, astrology, alchemical transformation, and, apparently, seer stones…”

    Take me back to 1830!

  5. Michael, this is absolutely splendid. We Mormons have read so much into ancient scripture, even the Book of Mormon, that we simply assume the Church we belong to today is the same as the one Adam founded (even though there is no evidence that he did any such thing). The Church today isn’t even remotely similar to the Church I belonged to when I went on my mission in the 1970s. If we could get past our presentist perspective, we might realize that Joseph Smith “restored” a lot of things that never existed before.

  6. Well said. And, lest we forget–as so many modern speakers and writers (I am looking at you, General Authorities) usually do–context is essential to interpretation. Much of scripture, of any era is heavily-laden with context and cannot be simply or accurately be taken out of it.

  7. Well said. Travel can also often unmask the cultural assumptions that we employ to make sense of our world. You’ve already done 10 things this morning that someone across the world would find disgusting, rude or inexplicable.

  8. OK. Fine. Maybe I shouldn’t have done a reading of the Good Samaritan last night and made a comparison between him and the 21st C. Compassionate Service leader while talking with you. I’ve learned my lesson, Brother-Doctor Austin.

  9. hope_for_things says:

    I totally love your observations projecting back onto the OT, and completely agree. My question lies in the future, where does this take us in a church culture that privileges literal simplistic thinking? Can we ever get enough momentum around metaphorical and contextual approaches to religious experience to move the boat out of the black and white model that is taught almost exclusively in general conference? Until then, isn’t it just a case of the minority bloggernacle Mormonism, vs. majority rule Sunday Mormonism?

  10. I only counted seven, but point taken, Mathew.

  11. Oh come on, Michael! Everyone knows that the young womens president in the Zarahemla 2nd Ward was just as concerned with her mia maids’ clothing choices as the young women’s president in any decent Provo ward! And, of course temple worship in the ancient Hebrew temples was essentially the same as what we do now in the endowment! (It’s only the media that wants to make us think it was a gore-fest full of animal blood, thick smoke, music, dancing, shouting, incense, incantations, and singing. Not so! It was “reverent” just like the temple today!)

  12. I think that every time I read the scriptures, particularly the Old and New Testament. The parables, for example, are such gold mines and I love them but I’ll never know what it meant to the Jews at that time hearing them. Most likely, they got something out of it that I never will!

  13. “to move the boat out of the black and white model that is taught almost exclusively in general conference” — hope_for_things: the boat is not the shore.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    As I think I mentioned you really don’t need to look at the early 19th century. Lots of rural communities in the United States have culture radically different from mainstream assumptions yet oddly mixed in with contemporary cosmopolitan culture. Southern Idaho is a good example but I’ve seen the same thing in Louisiana, southern Alberta and more. People for whom dowsing for water to drill a well is combined with the latest technology of well drilling, pipes and water treatment.

    The problem is that those in fairly homogenized suburban environments just don’t encounter these other clusters of belief. The same thing holds true for inner cities which have a very different culture that by and large suburbia is ignorant of. It’s not just the 1830’s that are alien but large pockets within our own culture. They survive despite the push from capitalism and TV towards homogeneity.

  15. Excellent. Scripture and doctrine is shaped by the culture it’s received in, sometimes by God, sometimes by those who receive it. This, however, is much trickier- “Knowing how to use scripture in our own spiritual life means understanding how to separate divine messages from the situational understanding of the people who received them”

    It’s easy to look back on ancient cultures and see them as weird, but what yardstick do we have for separating the divine message from the cultural, other than our own unconscious cultural assumptions? It’s going to be a flawed process, with different people falling down on different sides of the question.

  16. FWIW, I’ve written on this before (e.g. here ), my paper at BYU’s New Testament conference was on this topic, and I have a chapter on it in my forthcoming book . It’s something I’m actively wrestling with, and I love to read other takes on it.

  17. Kipling was right: “Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart.”

    All the rest is simply scenery.

  18. Which modern Old Testament translation would you recommend?

  19. I don’t know about Michael, but I have a discussion of recommended translations here.

  20. Mark, in order of preference: 1) Robert Alter’s translation of the Pentateuch; 2) The Jewish Publication Society’s (JSP) Tanakh; and 3) The Oxford Study Bible edition of the Revised English Bible.

  21. I second what Mark Crane says. I love the Old Testament (weird doesn’t begin to describe the ancient Israelites), and what irritates me is the (in my experience) vast number of members who think because they read the Book of Mormon, they don’t need to study the other books of scripture. The character of God is revealed in each of the Standard Works. If life eternal is to know God and Jesus Christ, I want to explore all the resources available that acquaint us with them.

  22. Mark Crane, You can’t go wrong with Ben S or Michael’s list but I think the Jewish Study Bible (from Oxford) 2d Edition would be #1. Then the two volumes of Everett Fox, then Alter (who hasn’t yet done the prophets.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Tina, I don’t think we can or should neglect the Old Testament if only because so much of the rest rests upon a projection of the Old Testament. That said, I think it fair to be deeply suspicious of the text of the Old Testament. If only because of Nephi’s vision which makes a big word/text distinction and notes missing texts. However the Book of Mormon largely follows our KJV Old Testament with expansions in a few places.

    The second reason to be skeptical is because of the more secular scholarly view of the composition of the Old Testament. I know many members look down their nose at the Documentary Hypothesis. However even if it’s pushed in the details with a confidence perhaps unwarranted, in the big picture there are tons of reasons to think something like it is correct. Even apologists use the idea to explain certain features of the Book of Mormon tied to the Josiah reforms. The very idea of compiling a final text from pieces of books should be familiar to us given that’s exactly what Mormon did. However since Mormons don’t think the scribes in the post-exilic period were inspired prophets, we should assume lots of problems during this editing process that we don’t see with Mormon. (That is I think we should be open to the types of biases during Mormon’s editing, just that we think there’s an inspired perspective behind how he distorts the underlying texts – we don’t have that with the scribes compiling the Old Testament)

    Given all this I’m honestly continually surprised that many members want to read the Old Testament the way we read the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. Not speaking of you – just my observations from Sunday School over the years. I think we should be reading the Old Testament with a hermeneutics of suspicion.

  24. “If there are Latter-day Saints alive in 3015, they will almost certainly look back on our sacred narratives–conference talks, lesson manuals, proclamations, and the like–with utter amazement that anybody could think the way we do.”

    You don’t have to wait until 3015. There are plenty of Latter-day Saints today (including moi) who are baffled and amazed by some of the stuff they hear from the pulpit and read in lesson manuals, to wit: Elder Nelson’s rumination on the Big Bang theory, President Benson’s affection for the John Birch Society, Elder McConkie’s race-based justification for the priesthood ban, the fanciful notion that the Priesthood will arrive on the scene, at the last minute, with its sewing kit, to fix the Constitution while it hangs by a thread, etc., etc.

    If we have found a way to make peace with our contemporary silliness, a simple ol’ seer stone should be a walk in the park.

  25. And yet in 3015 people will still be reading Michael Austin for insight and wisdom I’ll be bound.

  26. “Oh come on, Michael! Everyone knows that the young women’s president in the Zarahemla 2nd Ward was just as concerned with her mia maids’ clothing choices as the young women’s president in any decent Provo ward.”

    John, you just don’t get it, do you? The Young Women’s FIRST COUNSELOR in the Zarahemla 2nd Ward would have been worried about the mia maid’s clothing choices. The Young Women’s President would have been busy teaching the Laurels about appropriate physical intimacy.

    Or don’t you believe that the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever?

  27. See http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/psalms-at-midnight/

    Similar thought, but in a tone of reverence and awe.

  28. Maxine H. says:

    “…rural New York in the 1820s and 1830s. This culture was dominated by folk-magic beliefs: divining rods, astrology, alchemical transformation, and, apparently, seer stones–all of which, to people like me, are just bizarre.”

    Speak for yourself, I seek alchemical transformation every day. ;-)

    “The great value of scripture is that it provides continuity for a belief system by showing how God has interacted with human beings over a long period of time. The great problem with scripture is that divine interaction, like any other interaction, depends heavily on the understanding of the people receiving the communication–who filter the experience through assumptions …. Knowing how to use scripture in our own spiritual life means understanding how to separate divine messages from the situational understanding of the people who received them.”

    Amen, exactly. I raised similar points in Latter-day Dissent.

  29. What was the Ancient Israelites position on scouting? BSA affiliated or a unique program?

  30. For what it’s worth, if you’d like to see a more modern understanding of how someone else viewed the use of seerstones, you might want to check out “Fools Crow: Wisdom and Power”. It’s about the last great Holy Man of the Lakota Sioux. He died in the 1990’s. You will find a great many similarities between the things his God revealed to him, and the things we LDS believe God revealed to Joseph. It just so happens he was also given seer stones to aid in his job of curing people and helping them on their spiritual quests.

    You will also see some startling resemblance to a daily ritual Fools Crow was taught that reminds me very much of the progression of the Temple in the kinds of signs he offers up and why he offers them.

    Not only that, he also builds structures for the purpose of divine communication…they are made to represent the womb of the earth, and the connection between this world and the other.

    Of course, there are many differences, perhaps one important one is that while he has seer stones, revelation, the capacity to visit with the Father God, and the Son God, etc….he never seems to have been commissioned to establish a church or a religion. He was merely to use the gifts given to him of God in order to serve his people.

    Reading that book brought in me a profound respect for the fact that God really does speak to each people according to their own language. Fools Crow won’t use identical language, but the themes will be quite similar. And seeing how God taught him to use these seer stones gave me great insight into what Joseph might have thought of them as well.

    It was especially nice reading an account from someone that was alive recently, someone who has multiple witnesses still alive today, to testify and witness of the miracle he did in the name and by the power of his God.

  31. As a newly called Gospel Doctrine teacher (two lessons), an adult convert who did not attend seminary, a non college graduate, so no institute classes, do you have any idea how inadequate this OP and comments make me feel? I can barely do the “call and response method” of teaching out of the manual you all find so poorly designed. What would you suggest? At this point I would be most grateful for a seerstone or some such weird help.

  32. John F. that made me laugh. I actually just read the Hyrum Andrus lecture on the Holy Order and had my mind blown at the idea that there was no church(!) at all in the early Nephite culture. Whoa. I mean, the more I think about it, it makes total sense (he says there was no need – all gospel teaching, etc. was happening in the home and other support provided through extended family structures) and it helps me understand the whole “the church only exists to strengthen the family” rhetoric, but yeah, weird.

  33. This is such a well-written theology of revelation I can hardly tand it:

    Believing in a god who interacts directly with human beings is a non-rational faith proposition. One believes it or one does not. However, if one does choose to believe such a thing, it necessarily follows that the records of those interactions will reflect temporal, geographical, and cultural assumptions that we do not share. Knowing how to use scripture in our own spiritual life means understanding how to separate divine messages from the situational understanding of the people who received them–be they Ancient Israelites, Roman Jews, superstitious farmers, or Western Americans who came of age during the Eisenhower administration.

  34. Ann (3 comments up) — Please don’t mind us or let anybody make you feel that way. The manuals provide an adequate starting point and are designed to give inexperienced teachers something to lean on while they learn what they’re doing. If you’ve read the assigned scripture block a few times during the week, and you’ve thought how YOU would answer the questions if another teacher asked them, then your lesson will be fine.

    When you’re ready to try something more, my suggestion is to first work on the questions you ask — make sure they aren’t just reading comprehension questions (and then what happened? and then what did he say?) but instead prompt people to think — to wake up and think and therefore to feel and do. Something like James Faulkner’s “The New Testament Made Harder” can be a real help, because it provides long lists of potential questions for each Gospel Doctrine lesson. Questions that make you think a moment before answering, that make you really wonder what God meant, or how you would react, or why Jesus said such-and-such, questions that don’t call for obvious, easily recited data, can really perk up a lesson.

  35. Ardis — right on. And when in doubt, focus on the words of the text (not the manual) and let that inspire you.

  36. Thank you so much, Ardis and Steve. Your help is most appreciated, especially in asking questions. I’ve never liked the “reading comprehension questions” and would never answer as the answer is obvious and what’s the point? I will look up James Faulkner’s book. I am excited about this calling and determined to succeed, but I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed right now.

  37. You know what I find hilarious? That you take the O.T. and reincorporate all the harsh rules and penalties into Mormonism, tying obedience to commandments to an individual’s salvation. Have the LDS ignored the N.T. completely? Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy and removed the Law by dying for our sins. There is no more working for salvation – only believing. One can hardly get through the books of John and Romans without noticing these things. Yet, Mormons continue to believe that obeying rules and working “works” will earn their way to the Father. Wow, the pressure that must bring! Moroni tells us that we must deny ourselves of ALL ungodliess to be saved (Moroni 10:32). Let me remind you that only JESUS did that. D&C 82:7 reminds us that if you repent of a sin and yet sin again, all your former sins return! Hey, that doesn’t seem fair! I’ll stop rambling now and close with this: don’t try to follow a bunch of laws and rules to earn your salvation. Jesus saves you from all your sins (Romans 4:5) and that, friends, brings great comfort.