Quick and Powerful

And so another Labor Day comes, bringing the end to summer.  May the next summer bring more jobs to those who need them, and some recovery to the household income of those who do have jobs

Now, back to the BoM. I have been wandering around in the BoM looking, from the perspective of a reader of the NT, at how the BoM uses the biblical text. Those who’ve been around for a bit know that sometimes there’s no change and sometimes there’s some significant change, usually in a fashion that makes the idea in the NT “friendlier” to a modern reader. Here we have a case in which new wine has definitely been poured into an old wineskin — and in a timely fashion, too, as Helaman 1-5 was the GD lesson on Sunday.

When the author of Hebrews wanted to exhort his readers to get with the gospel program, among other things he pointed out that the word of God is not something that can be fooled, or fooled with:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:12-13 NRS)

And here it is in the KJV, which is closer to the text of the BoM. Note in particular the standout phrase “quick and powerful:”

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do. (Heb 4:12-13 KJV)

The basic image is that of a two-edged sword. Now we moderns don’t use swords, two-edged or otherwise, unless we’re in a real bind. And in fact, I’d be surprised if all that many folks who read this blog have ever seen a real, serious, two-edged sword outside of a museum. So you can bet that when the BoM uses this verse, the sword business is changed:

Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, like a light saber…

Haha, no, that’s not it! If it were, it would be quite amazing. But here it is:

Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked — And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out. (Hel 3:29-30)

See, all that sword business is gone! But even more interesting is the matter of by whom this “quick and powerful” word of God is used, and the identity of its target. In the NT, it’s the means by which God determines the kind of folks we are. We’re judged against the word of God, and its power to discern the character of the human heart is metaphorically portrayed by the ability to separate soul and spirit or joint and marrow.   In the BoM, the word of God has not lost any of its power to puncture pretensions or rend rationalizations.  However,  we use it ourselves to judge the thoughts and intents of other people, and in particular those who would exhort us to do some thing or make some choice in their favor.  In short, it’s one of God’s gifts to his children, to enable them to separate serious discussion from empty, deceptive rhetoric, which the BoM always associates with the devil.

And gracious me, it’s Labor Day and the beginning of  open BS Season  the end of the quadrennial American political season! Every four years, too, at just about this same time of the year. Heh.

Black and White

As I have casually wandered around the BoM this summer looking at how it uses the NT, I have noted instances in which it “clarifies” NT ideas, instances in which it “de-complicates” NT ideas, and instances in which it completely changes the meaning. In this post, I’d like to point out an instance in which an NT idea is “updated” so that it speaks more openly to modern issues.

Perhaps the most radically egalitarian statement in the NT is Paul’s affirmation to the Galatians that they have no need of the Law of Moses because of their faith in Christ. Christians are “baptized into Christ” and have “put on” Christ, and in light of this event all the old distinctions are rendered void (Gal 3:26-29):

For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Most importantly, Christ was the seed promised to Abraham, so those who are Christ’s are heirs of Abraham’s promise, with no exceptions. But to drive home the point, Paul listed three major distinctions: Jews/Greeks, bond/free and male/female. These divisions were “live” in Paul’s day, of course, but with the exception of gender they are now more or less moribund.

So in 2 Nephi, Nephi makes a similar point with very similar language but notice how the divisions are changed:

For [the Lord] doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.

The Jew/Greek distinction is missing because it is replaced by a racial distinction, the heathen get their own mention, and the Jews are paired off against the Gentiles. This last pair, in particular, highlights the promised eschatological unity of God’s covenant people in the Last Days.

Gall of Bitterness

This expression, which seems pretty strange to moderns, is used a surprising number of times in the BoM. In this post, however, I want to compare how it is used in Alma the Younger’s angelophany (Alma 36) and the story of Simon’s interaction with Peter and John in Acts 8. The interesting thing about it is that although the exact same phrase is used in both stories, I think it expresses quite different emotional states.


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Seal You His

Closing out the fifth chapter of Mosiah is an exhortation to righteous living followed by the promise of being sealed to/by God (Mos 5:15):

Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life, through the wisdom, and power, and justice, and mercy of him who created all things, in heaven and in earth, who is God above all. Amen.

And in fact, you can also get sealed by the devil (Alma 34:35).

The idea of a person being sealed by God is pretty straightforward from a theological perspective. It indicates that God has marked him or her as his “property,” that is, the person so designated will be protected and preserved for the eschatological reward. To be sealed by the devil, then, is to become his property and to be destined to the sort of a reward he gives.

Now there is an interesting little blurb right here, in something called Insight, in which the author suggests that the cultural background for this idea is First Temple:

While use of the term to seal to mean “to mark as one’s property, and secure from danger” was known in Joseph Smith’s day, it was not usually used of persons. What, then, are we to make of the expression “seal you his” in the Book of Mormon? Hebrew seals from before the Babylonian exile (and thus in use during Lehi’s time) provide helpful insight. Many of those seals contain a formulaic inscription reading “belonging to,” followed by the owner’s name. To seal a document or an object, a person would wrap string or twine around it, place a daub of mud on the knot, and press the seal into the mud. Affixing this sort of seal marked the object as the possession of the person in whose name it was sealed.

It is this cultural milieu that underlies the seemingly peculiar usage in the Book of Mormon and clarifies its meaning: our actions allow either Christ or the devil to place his seal on us to indicate to whom we belong.

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Author and Finisher

Tucked away near the end of the BoM is a description of Christ as “the author and finisher of their faith” (Mor 6:4). A very similar appellation is also applied to Christ in Heb 12:1-2a as it is found in the KJV, although the details of the immediate context are very different. This looks to be a standard way of employing such Christological “nuggets:” much of the “punch” of the NT use remains while the NT co-text is dropped in favor of a more straightforward presentation.

In context, the BoM description of Christ as the “author and finisher” is within a chapter that seems composed almost entirely of biblical allusions strung together to create what we might call the LDS lifestyle narrative: faith, repentance, baptism, membership, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline and church meetings. (It’s a bit of a fusion of Luke and Paul, I think.) Anyway, describing how new converts must continue in the path they have chosen, Moroni writes (Mor 6:4):

And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.

Now let’s have a look at how the author of Hebrews uses it in Heb 12:1-2a:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith…

If readers can penetrate the imagery, the import of the co-text in Hebrews is similar to that of Moroni. The picture is that of a footrace in a Greco-Roman stadium and the racer is a Christian convert. The “great cloud of witnesses” gathered to watch the race is the faithful of Hebrews 11 such as Abel, Enoch, Noah Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joseph, etc. For 1st century converts who might have experienced some sort of persecution, the invitation was to see themselves not as victims of the powerful, but as the focus of the encouraging attention of godly men and women of Israel’s mythic past.


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The Gender of “Church” in the BoM

I still have a “church” itch as the idea is found in the BoM. So below, in no particular order, are some observations and thoughts as they stand now:

Gendered imagery in the Bible illustrating the relationship between God (or Christ) and his people, represented by Israel, Jerusalem or the Church, is pretty common. In Revelation alone, there are multiple striking images such as the Cosmic Woman of Revelation 12, the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17) or the “Bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21.

The BoM is different. The GA Church is female, but of the naughty type and highly disfavored for it. Instead, the church/people of God is/are defined by what they think, that is, they share a set of beliefs with God. It’s a rational rather than an emotional relationship; right now it seems like two guys who’ve decided to hang out together. God is the dominant partner.

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Willing to Submit in All Things

One the more striking passages from the BoM is the natural man pericope in Mosiah 3. Perhaps I shall have more to say on the central idea of the natural man, later. In the meantime, I wish to focus on the correctives to this fallen state. Three things are recommended:

  • yield to the Holy Spirit
  • put off the natural man and become a saint
  • become as a child, willing to submit to all things

It is this third prescriptive statement that interests me here. The idea of a male “submitting” has some interesting connotations, although the natural father-son relationship seems to be foremost. This idea is not limited to the BoM, in fact, it seems to allude, or perhaps adumbrate, an interesting little argument in Hebrews. But to get started, here’s the natural man verse with the third qualification highlighted (Mos 3:19):

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticing of the Holy Spirit, and puts off the natural man and becomes a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becomes as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord sees fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Most of us grew up so steeped in the LDS tradition of God as a loving father that we are actually numb to the implications except that we expect that God will give us what we need. However, God was not always known as a father-figure to individual believers, and so the author the Hebrews wishes to show his readers that such a relationship has consequences…


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The Joy of the Saints

The Book of Enos opens like this: “ Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.” Although Enos never really tells us what this “joy of the saints” might be, it seems to me that the entire story functions as an illustration of John 16:22, a verse in one of the stories in which Jesus explains his upcoming departure to his disciples:

And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.

The essential element is, I think, not the source of joy but the nature of this joy: it cannot be taken from the disciples. So although they are about to see Jesus crucified, experience his second departure, and suffer themselves, their joy remains.  Why? Christ’s promises and the joy they engender cannot be taken from the disciples because they are anchored in his own eternal life – which no one can take.

How does this play out in the BoM? While Enos tells us that he was satisfied by the promises he obtained from God regarding his people, he does not otherwise describe a happy life. He makes no mention of a family, and his son Jarom does not distinguish himself. The interaction between the Nephites and the Lamanites seems to have been fruitless, and his experience of teaching his own people brings down this bitter description (Enos 23):

And there was nothing save it was exceeding harshness, preaching and prophesying of wars, and contentions, and destructions, and continually reminding them of death, and the duration of eternity, and the judgments and the power of God, and all these things — stirring them up continually to keep them in the fear of the Lord. I say there was nothing short of these things, and exceedingly great plainness of speech, would keep them from going down speedily to destruction. And after this manner do I write concerning them.

But no one could take his joy from him, and so it is that at the end of his story he can write about joy, like this (Enos 26-27):

And I saw that I must soon go down to my grave, having been wrought upon by the power of God that I must preach and prophesy unto this people, and declare the word according to the truth which is in Christ. And I have declared it in all my days, and have rejoiced in it above that of the world.

And I soon go to the place of my rest, which is with my Redeemer; for I know that in him I shall rest. And I rejoice in the day when my mortal shall put on immortality, and shall stand before him; then shall I see his face with pleasure, and he will say unto me: Come unto me, ye blessed, there is a place prepared for you in the mansions of my Father. Amen.

And that is how the joy of the saints plays out in life: preaching the promises in confident expectation of a warm welcome by the One who makes those promises sure through his own eternal existence.