Grind upon the Face of the Poor


So as usual I’m beginning to read the assignment for next Sunday’s GD lesson. I’m in 2 Nephi 26 when I come to verse 20 (the verse is quite dense, so I’ve broken it into lines to make it easier to parse):

And the Gentiles are lifted up

in the pride of their eyes,

and have stumbled

because of the greatness of their stumbling block,

that they have built up many churches;

nevertheless, they put down the power and miracles of God,

and preach up unto themselves their own wisdom and their own learning,

that they may get gain

and grind upon the face of the poor.

What is the verse trying to say? The Gentiles have been lifted up in pride, and thus have stumbled. Accordingly they have built many churches. (Joseph seemed to view the multiplicity of churches as a problem, for there should be a unity among Christians: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.) They put down the power and miracles of God, but in contrast preach up their own wisdom and learning.To what end? That they may get gain, and “grind upon the faces of the poor.”

When I read that last line, I thought to myself “What the heck is that supposed to mean?”

Here’s a pro tip: When you stumble upon something like this in the BoM that looks oddly archaic, chances are good that it’s a borrowing from the KJV. I ran into this same phenomenon earlier in the chapter, in verse 15, where the following text appears: “yea, after the LORD God shall have camped against them round about, and shall have laid seige against them with a mount, and raised forts against them.” When I read “laid seige against them with a mount,” I thought “Huh?” But a quick search revealed this text was an adaptation of KJV Isaiah 29:3: “And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee.” It didn’t used to be quite so easy to figure these things out, but now in the age of Google it’s a snap.

So anyway, a quick search found that this grind upon the face of the poor business is indeed adapted from KJV Isaiah 3:15:

What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces,

and grind the faces of the poor?

saith the Lord GOD of hosts.

So now I was curious, what does “grind [upon] the face[s] of the poor” mean?

A good place to start is with the synonymously parallel expression. In the KJV that is “ye beat my people to pieces,” which is obviously metaphorical in a similar way to “grind the faces of the poor.” In the BoM the parallel line is “that they may get gain,” which perhaps reflects Nephi’s preference for avoiding the way the Jews taught [IE via such literary devices as metaphor] and going straight for the literalist jugular.

I think what particularly caught my attention was the verb grind; it was simply unclear to me how to take that verb in this context. Having a KJV precedent is a boon, of course, because now we can see what the underlying Hebrew word is supposed to be and mean. In this case the verb is tachan, which does indeed refer to grinding with a hand-mill or a millstone. Presumably the “face” is used by metonymy for the person. The image is rather like putting the poor in a blender and setting it to “high.”

I was curious how other translations have taken this, so I ran a check of the 50 or so English translations at the Bible Gateway. The vast majority use English “grind” just as the KJV does; the handful that try to make the image a little clearer typically say something like “rubbed in the dirt the faces of the poor.”

I was also curious how else the verb tachan was used in the Hebrew Bible. The most common meaning was the literal one, “to grind,” considered the work of women, often with millstones. It can also refer to grinding the teeth (the Arabic word for molar teeth is cognate with this Hebrew verb). The verb is also used to describe the figurative humiliation of Babylon.

The most interesting metaphoric use of the verb I found was in Job 31:9-10:

If mine heart have been deceived by a woman,

or if I have laid wait at my neighbour’s door;

10 Then let my wife grind [tachan] unto another,

and let others bow down upon her.

It’s hard to see in the KJV, but the imagery here is very likely sexual. Try for instance the NIV:

“If my heart has been enticed by a woman,
    or if I have lurked at my neighbor’s door,
10 then may my wife grind another man’s grain,
    and may other men sleep with her.

(This is an oath meant to affirm that he has not been sexually unfaithful to his wife.)

In my lesson last week, we talked about how Nephi “likened” the scriptures unto his own and his family’s situation, like a pesher. So let’s do a little likening ourselves–How do we grind  the faces of the poor? How do we beat the poor to pieces? In what ways do we seek to get gain at their expense? As a nation, as a church, as a community, as an individual? How can we best go about seeking to remedy our sins in this area? I’m sure Nibley would have some choice thoughts along these lines; what are yours?



  1. Lee Smith says:

    I suggest that thou fiddle-less with the shortcomings of Bro. Joseph’s knowledge of the Kings English, and that thou fiddle -more with serving those in-need round-about thy neighborhood.

    (Of course, I may be wrong? )

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    This post isn’t about shortcomings in Joseph’s knowledge of English; it’s about trying to figure out an archaism that he borrowed from the KJV. Whether you focus on the KJV passage or the BoM passage, the issue of what it is supposed to mean is present in both.

  3. I think a more modern way to say it might be, “continue to screw over those who poor, those in desperate circumstances, for the sake of personal gain”

    Screw / grind, same same. A common evil from the start of humanity I’d think, taking advantage of the weak and those in hard circumstances to selfish ends.

  4. *who are poor

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I like your modern paraphrase, Steve. I agree it’s a pretty good cultural translation to today.

  6. “Face” our outward appearance. It is how we express ourselves to other people. Although a modern phrase, “saving face” is all about preserving dignity. Perhaps “grinding the face of the poor” is all about removing from the poor the ability to express who they are to others. It is removing all their dignity, grinding their dignity into tiny pieces.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I like it, Todd. The indignities that come with being poor are legion.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Attacking the prosperity gospel whether the Evangelical version or the secularized Gordon Gekko form so popular in business departments.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    BTW – while I know Mel Gibson’s Apocalypco is hardly a terribly good source for reading the Book of Mormon the class divisions there were fascinating to me. When I first saw the film it was hard for me not to think of these passages from the Book of Mormon & Isaiah.

    It’s worth noting that how the poor were treated both in Roman/Israeli culture and apparently in mesoAmerican culture is almost alien to us. Literally the poor were very much abused than we can conceive of today. There was no significant market economy and those doing subsistent work were slaves or near slaves. (A process that continued in Europe with serfs) Most of the ancient economy was (at least according to M I Finley) largely tied to status. The poor had no status.

    The focus on class & status that is so key in both the Book of Mormon and these Isaiah passages is fascinating. While our economy and culture really is quite client to this, it is interesting to think about the place of class and status in our own culture.

  10. Living in Alaska, I see a lot of this in way Alaska Native populations are treated, especially by members of many churches, including Mormons. I am willing to take swing at it from a place that may be a little less comfortable for Mormon sensibilities, whether conservative or liberal. (I have come to be against LDS missionaries being allowed into Native villages, for a number of reasons.)

    …..And they did continue to screw over those without the privilege of money, or delightsome skin color, and did take away the language, culture and knowledge that did give them an identity to know themselves. They did steal away the ways and lands that allowed their ancestors to support themselves, as they used their gospels and churches to take away the lands and the spirituality that had been their birthright, they did lead them unto despair, and a desire to blot out their existence through suicide, drug use, and all manner of erasure, until the disease of a capitalist and expansionist system did take away their very souls.

  11. Fellow Chicagoan says:

    Nice post. I have always thought that if you “grind the faces of the poor”, you are making their faces indistinguishable from one another. The poor lose there individual identities and become dehumanized in a way. When I see a poor person on the street, do I see them as a unique individual and child of God or do I see them as just another poor person without an individual identity?

  12. Mark N. says:

    Two words: Ferguson, Missouri.

  13. A class of people without faces (identities) would be seen as drones.

  14. Lew Scannon says:

    Um, how about supporting supply-side economics?

  15. This always gets interrupted as those corrupt churches that pass around collection plates to pay the clergy, unlike us that have non-paid clergy. While this has a form of applying it to us and seems to just cast judgments on others without causing us to look inward. So how do we turn that corner and cast that beam out of are own eye?

  16. Dog Pface says:

    Thought #1 -The prosperity gospel also exists in our church. Sacrifice and you’ll be blessed.

    Thought#2- Was the story of the widow and her mites more about the system that would drive her to give everything to the temple? Is not the traditional interpretation used as justification to have the poor ‘tithed’ ? Do not these funds go toward that Spanish and Italian marble in the temples? Do not they pay for church employees who are better off (insurance, $, retirement) than the poor are?

  17. The most disturbing trend in society today is contempt for the poor. They’re fat and lazy and only want free handouts and are the root of all that is wrong with the world today. Much has been said of Flint, Michigan, but the fact that government officials provided themselves with bottled water a year before letting the public know there was any danger speaks volumes.

    While in Virginia I worked as an financial analyst for one of the nation’s leading affordable housing companies. Much of our funding was in the form of affordable housing tax credits (LIHTC). Occasionally I was confronted with examples of the stereotype of intergenerational poverty, but more often I saw that the funds were used to retrofit a condemned school in a small community for elderly housing, or for resident services programs that offered after-school programs for working parents or resume assistance for unemployed residents. I also saw the people who didn’t qualify and fell through the cracks of the social safety net. I’m not saying our social safety net couldn’t benefit from reform, but we can’t do it right unless we have empathy and want to help those most in need.

    I like chicagoan’s comment: we see them as “other” and not individuals.

  18. @Carey BINGO! I live in Happy Valley. This is SPOT ON. I can’t even deal (sorry, but I love that phrase) with the bigotry and contempt towards those in harder times.
    We have no problems using state provided services while we are “poor college students who CHOSE to have 3 babies while Dad’s in school and mom stays home” but LOOK OUT, that single divorced Mom of 3, who is struggling to pay rent and needs food stamps after her situation took a hard left turn.

    It honestly makes me very frustrated and dare I say angry when I try to attend Sunday School and are confronted with attitudes like this on a weekly basis.
    Just once I wish we could have a lesson about how our apathy is indirectly or directly affecting the Syrian Refugees, or if we really wanted to take a long hard look at ourselves, at how our actions impact our fellow Hispanic Members, Natives, disabled among us, etc.
    I just don’t think that all is well in Zion and we do best when we bury our heads in the sand.

    This was a very timely post, thank you to the OP. I need to reflect again on my resolution this year to do better at serving, most especially to those that need it the most.

  19. pconnornc says:

    I tend to think that with deeper scrutiny all of us have a measure of repentance to do here if we truly ask “Is it I?” When reading the scriptures about wimples and crisping pins, I always insert “nikes” and “iPods” into the list to help remind us where our focus should be ;-)

  20. Thanks for an interesting post. This verse from Isaiah comes to mind whenever I drive through a low income part of town and notice the businesses. Without fail there are bingo halls, places pushing lottery tickets, title and cash advance loans places and “bad credit” car and furniture dealerships. That is only the legal legitimate businesses I can see. All such businesses businesses disproportionately take advantage of the poor. Anyone who gambles or uses these high interest rate business is sure to be kept broke. In many if not most case the poor see using these services as normal do not understand that there are better alternatives. Such establishments take advantage of ignorance an all-to-human tendency for immediate gratification. Sure ultimately people have a choice to patronize these businesses, but ultimately they encourage the poor to make choices that imprison.

  21. Grinding as at a mill… to pressure, extort, extract, remove every last drop of profit/goods/usefulness from a person/thing.

    How do we do this? Hopefully we don’t do it personally, though I bet some of us (me?) do it unintentionally and unaware to individuals. But we all do it on a societal level. Banking, compound interest on debt, designed inflation, gov’t fees, police fines, licenses,

    It is illegal for people to keep themselves alive without paying for it. They can’t just pull fish out of a river/lake without paying for a license. They can’t just use an unused piece of ground to plant some seeds. They can’t sleep in places we don’t want to see them… they have to “move along”, leave, exist somewhere else. We basically REQUIRE them to participate in our corrupt (and mostly immoral) culture of monetary acquisition in order to survive or get ANY modicum of respect.

    They can’t drive their car to get to a job without paying for a license, mandated insurance, yearly fees for registration (this is like a yearly tithing settlement, but it is a “productivity settlement” You have to prove every year that you’ve productive enough in society that you get the privilege of traveling still).

    The above kind of list could continue for a long time…

    But even if someone were to find a perfectly acceptable life in a hand built shack on the side of a river from which they catch their daily food (or pick from some wild fruit trees), find heat from the trees, and did nothing but sit happily and live… how would you view that person?

    Lazy? Wasted life? Useless?

    I bet this person does more to follow the prophetic counsel to “provide for THEMSELF” than most of us… we depend on the store to provide our food/clothing/supplies, the city to provide our water/trash removal/sewer, the utilities to provide our heat/energy, etc (Paying someone to provide it for us does NOT equal providing it for ourselves).

  22. Dehumanizing poor people is certainly one way this has deep spiritual meaning. This is done in many ways in our society, many of them are subtle and hard to notice. My favorites are the tax requirements for living, especially property tax on paid off housing, mandatory filing of income tax forms, even if no tax is owed, Obamacare tax if you do not waste $1000/month on insurance, etc. Pop culture has many dehumanization aspects. We soak up all of these influences and pass on many of them unless we specifically reject them.
    One of the biggest that I see is the reduced number of young people that want to work in trades that require getting dirty, long hours outside, etc. Many people blame laziness of young people, but there are other cultural influences also.

  23. DID YOU KNOW that they “eye of the needle” was the colloquial name for a certain gate into the city of Jerusalem that was a LITTLE BIT SNUG???

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