The lesson of pity that Nienna teaches in the Silmarillion is a lesson that applies with equal force to the image of God weeping in Enoch’s vision.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about the visions of Enoch in Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible. Part I discusses the historical context of the New Translation and the narrative context of the visions of Enoch. Part II discusses the importance of the visions of Enoch to early Mormonism. Part III reviews the debate about God’s omnipotence that Enoch’s vision of the weeping god has inspired. Part IV introduced Nienna, the weeping goddess of Tolkien’s Silmarillion. This one explores the comparison between Nienna and Enoch’s weeping god.
What can Nienna Teach us About the Weeping God of Enoch’s Vision?
The image of Nienna weeping for the wounds of the earth echoes Enoch’s vision of the God who weeps for the wickedness of mankind (Moses 7:28), and incidentally, of the earth herself mourning for the “wickedness” and “filth” that is upon her (v.48).
But the major difference between the two is that while Nienna is a goddess and a creator, she is nevertheless subordinate to the supreme creator, Iluvatar, while Enoch’s weeping God is himself the “God of heaven” and is not portrayed as being subject to any other God. This difference means that with Nienna there is no issue of the problem of evil. Because she is not portrayed as all-powerful, she cannot be held responsible for permitting evil, or for failing to intervene in the world. Her weeping for the evil of the world does not need to be reconciled with omnipotence, because he doesn’t purport to be omnipotent. Accordingly, an attempt to find some meaning of her portrayal as a weeping deity is not sidetracked by a discussion about divine sovereignty, and the problem of evil. By considering the lessons of Nienna in the Silmarillion, we can identify additional possibilities as to what Enoch’s weeping God means beyond the implications on the sovereignty debate. This post is my attempt to draw those lessons out, and apply them to the weeping God of Enoch’s vision.
Pity, Hope, Patience
The most salient point about Nienna’s tears in the text is their repeated connection to pity. In the first place, we are told that Nienna “does not weep for herself.” The Silmarillion 25 (Christopher Tolkien, ed., Houghton Mifflin 2d ed. 2001) (1977). That is, her sorrow is born out of pity for the sorrows of others. We are explicitly told that “those that hearken to her learn pity.” Id. And we are given an explicit example of one who learned such pity from her in Olorin/Gandalf, and by extension, given his role in the later epic, and his repeated emphasis on pity, we are taught something of the importance of pity–and of Nienna’s role as a practitioner and teacher of pity–in Tolkien’s world.
But it is not just pity that Nienna teaches. We are also told explicitly that those who learn pity from her also learn “endurance in hope” and patience. Id. It might seem a paradox to suggest a connection between sorrow and hope, but perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that one who suffers vicariously for others, out of pity for their suffering, can also take comfort in the fact that he does not suffer alone, but is simply one of a community of sufferers: those who “are willing to mourn with those that mourn,” to use Alma’s phrase. Mosiah 18:9. Likewise, suffering vicariously for others might teach patience because it puts one’s own sorrow into perspective: one who learns pity for the suffering of others learns that his own suffering is but a drop in the ocean of human suffering, and may, perhaps, be able to bear his own burdens with patience.
Nienna’s pity takes an extreme form in her willingness to forgive even Melkor, and to “aid his prayer” for forgiveness. The Silmarillion at 65. We might read this as a cautionary example of the limitation of pity. Were it not for Nienna’s pity, this line of thought goes, perhaps evil would have been banished forever from the world. This utilitarian argument, however, assumes that the possibility that evil may have been banished from the world would be sufficient to justify failure to extend forgiveness. It ignores the possibility that to extend forgiveness may simply be the right thing to do, even when the petitioner is insincere. It ignores the possibility that the act of extending forgiveness to an insincere petitioner could itself be the catalyst that invokes a sincere change of heart, as it was for the armies that fell upon the people of Ammon (Alma 24:23-25). After all, as the apostle Paul taught, Jesus died for us “while we were yet sinners.” And while he ultimately saves us from our sins rather than “in our sins,” in Alma’s words (Alma 11:37), he nevertheless extends the gospel to us while we are still “in our sins” and opens the way to become free of our sins through faith in him. Pity can make us vulnerable to hurt from those that insincerely repent, but it can also be a helper to repentance, which, given that the worth of souls is great, is often worth it, especially given that undeserved suffering is redemptive. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Suffering and Faith” 77 Christian Century 5:10 (27 April 1960).
The lessons of pity, hope, and patience that Nienna teaches seem also to apply remarkably well to Enoch’s weeping God. In fact, it seems that a major effect of the vision on Enoch himself, who is, after all, the protagonist of the Enoch tale, is to teach him pity for the misery and torment of his enemies. The vision portrays a progression on Enoch’s part.
At first, fresh off of the experience of causing mountains and rivers to flee, and causing the enemies of the people of God to flee in fear into a new land come up from the sea, Enoch is a little scandalized that God would weep for the degenerates that were his and his people’s enemies. (Moses 7:28-31). And he draws the attention to God’s sovereignty as an argument against his weeping. Interestingly, God does not directly refute Enoch’s argument about his sovereignty. In fact, he arguably confirms it. (see vv. 32-34). But he then puts the focus away from himself, and onto those that will suffer because of wickedness. Like Nienna, in other words, he “does not weep for himself,” but for mankind, who are the workmanship of his own hands.
And after God teaches these points to Enoch, Enoch, like Olorin learning pity from Nienna, learns pity from God, and as a result, when God then speaks to him of the wickedness of the wicked, and of their resulting misery, it happened that “Enoch wept, and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity, and his bowels yearned and all eternity shook.” (v.41) And again, seeing the vision of the flood, Enoch “had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said to the heavens, ‘I will refuse to be comforted.’” (v. 44).
But he does not stop there. Enoch, applying the lessons of pity, then wept again, and prayed for mercy for mankind—the descendants of Noah. And ultimately, despite his rash declaration that he would “refuse to be comforted,” Enoch does appear to be comforted when, in response to his weeping and praying for mankind—his demonstration of pity for mankind, God “could not withhold” and makes his oath and covenant with Enoch and teaches Enoch about the millennial reunion of Zion and the New Jerusalem. (vv. 51-52). In other words, Enoch learned pity from seeing God weep for the suffering and the misery of the wicked, and that pity ultimately led him to hope. It is significant, I think, that the catalyst for God establishing his covenant with Enoch (which, as we looked at in Part II, is the covenant upon which the priesthood is founded), is Enoch learning pity for the wicked, which he learns from God’s tears.
Tears wash away sin and water new growth.
Nienna’s tears water the growth of the two trees which are the source of divine light in the world. They do so in at least two instances: first, she waters the soil in preparation for their appearance, The Silmarillion at 38, and second, she washes away the “defilements of ungoliant” and waters them in an attempt to heal them, which is ultimately unsuccessful, but is enough and keep the divine light alive long enough to preserve it in the world, id. at 79, 98. The image of Nienna’s tears falling on the hallowed mound of Ezellohar in both instances echoes the image uttered by Enoch when he asks God “How is it that the heavens weep, and shed their tears as rain upon the mountains?” (Moses 7:28). In Enoch’s vision, the image of the tears of heaven falling “as rain upon the mountains” suggests not just sorrow, but growth and verdance, and while it is not stated explicitly, the image of “rain upon the mountains” implicitly suggests that the tears of the heavens are not just in despair, but that the sorrow of heaven is ultimately a sustaining source of life and of new growth.
Incidentally, the idea of sorrow as necessary for new growth is also present elsewhere in Joseph Smith’s revision of Genesis. Following their transgression, God explicitly tells Adam and Eve that the consequence of such transgression will be “sorrow.” “In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,” he says to Eve (Moses 4:22). And to Adam, he says “cursed shall be the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (v. 23). But later, that sorrow leads to new growth and to joy: “Blessed be the name of God,” says Adam, “for because of my transgression my eyes are opened and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God” (Moses 5:10). Likewise, Eve “was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we should never have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth to all the obedient” (v. 11).
Enoch’s image of the tears of heaven as “rain upon the mountains” also foreshadows later chapters in Genesis describing the flood, where “all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered” and “the mountains were covered” (Genesis 7:19-20). Thus the flood, with its connection to the “tears of heaven” might correspond to the ability of Nienna’s tears to “wash away the defilements” of sin. The image of sin as pollution is not hard to see in Genesis, but is even more emphasized in Enoch’s vision where the earth herself is personified and laments the “filthiness” that is upon her (Moses 7:48). Just as Nienna’s tears wash away the filth of sin, so too the floods wash away sin in Genesis, and Enoch’s comparison of the tears of heaven to “rain upon the mountains” connects that image of cleansing water to divine sorrow and to the image of the weeping God. The trope of the flood as a baptism of the earth is commonplace, but thinking of the flood in light of Nienna’s life-giving tears raises the notion of baptism as an echo of God’s tears. Similar to how Isaiah said that that it is “by his stripes” that “we are healed,” (Isaiah 53:5; see also 1 Peter 2:24) thinking of baptism in this way is a vivid reminder that it is also by his tears that we are cleansed.
The lessons of Nienna—the importance of pity, the ability of sorrow and mourning to teach pity, patience, and endurance in hope, to heal and wash away the effects of sin, and to water our hearts in preparation for new growth—are lessons that seem to apply with equal force to the image of the weeping God from Enoch’s vision, as recorded in Joseph Smith’s biblical revision project.
Thus, to me, reading the tale of Enoch in light of the lessons of Nienna opens up new ways to understand the Enoch revelations in ways that were not obvious to me before, but which are, I believe, highly faithful to the text. Read in this light, the lesson of pity is the central keystone of the tale of Enoch, which is significant because the tale of Enoch is itself key to the most distinctive concepts of Mormonism. It is, I think, not a stretch to say that the lesson of pity is the principle upon which the priesthood depends, and that the lesson of pity is central to understanding the nature of God according to Mormonism.