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:
9 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:
9 “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?