Do prophets make mistakes? When prophets speak do they always speak the word of God? These are important questions facing Latter-day Saints who encounter examples of prophetic error in Mormon history, policy, and scripture.
In recent years, these challenging theological questions have been addressed by LDS scholars, several of whom have hoped to present a way for Latter-day Saints to accept the implications of critical historical and scriptural analysis while still retaining belief in the authority of Mormon prophets. These efforts have led to a variety of significant scholarly essays and books that have drawn considerable attention in the emerging field of Mormon Studies.
But not everyone sees these efforts as a positive contribution to LDS discourse. The rise of scholarly approaches to prophets and revelation in serious academic studies has caused some to worry that these efforts might prove harmful to the Latter-day Saint community. Recently, this concern led to a lengthy three part-essay written by Duane Boyce titled, “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?”
For Boyce, the answer to his question is an absolute, “Yes, the quality of thought regarding prophets and revelation is deteriorating in LDS scholarly discourse.” And this, of course, should concern the faithful profoundly. To illustrate his point that LDS scholars are failing to produce quality work about prophets, Boyce presents a lengthy critique of recent ideas presented by several Mormon scholars, including Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, and Grant Hardy—three individuals who have made substantial contributions to the intellectual growth of Mormon studies, and who have also tried to help fellow believers make sense of obvious mistakes committed by prophets of God.
I found Boyce’s analysis offensive on a number of levels. I do not believe it is healthy for fellow Church members to establish protective borders of perceived orthodoxy that qualify as acceptable views on the topic of prophets and revelation. Scholars such as Givens, Mason, and Hardy approach these matters as both believers and serious scholars. If the way that they make sense of prophets and revelation is different from the more traditional approach that Boyce prefers this doesn’t make their approach a dark, deteriorating shadow that looms over the hearts and minds of the faithful.
I believe that a healthy spiritual approach would encourage the pursuit of a variety of ways in which a believer might thoughtfully engage these issues. There is simply no need to use the type of inflammatory language Boyce adopts in an effort to establish proper religious boundaries of intellectual orthodoxy. Moreover, I believe that a distinction should be made between a spiritual critique versus an intellectual one. I would have more respect for Boyce’s attempt if he had actually acknowledged that it was primarily a critique of religious orthodoxy. At least then it would be an honest attack. Instead, Boyce presents a criticism based in religious belief and pretends that he is making an actual scholarly critique. Then he accuses Givens, Mason, and Hardy of being intellectually flawed AND religiously unorthodox. I find this fundamentally dishonest.
I recognize, however, that my view simply reflects my own preference and opinion. Others are of course free to disagree and follow Boyce’s lead. So instead, I would like to focus on what I saw as clearly incorrect in Boyce’s reading and interpretation of biblical material. My critique in this short space must be representative, not exhaustive, so I have chosen three examples to illustrate the problems with Boyce’s textual readings. I believe that these errors are so egregious they should lead the editors of Interpreter to seriously reconsider what seems to be an effort to produce a high quantity of apologetic writing at the expense of high quality. Boyce’s essay needed the eyes of a peer reviewer well versed in biblical studies.
To begin, let’s consider one of Boyce’s primary criticisms of Grant Hardy’s book Understanding the Book of Mormon. Boyce objects to Hardy’s insightful readings into Nephi’s weaknesses and biases. In his essay, Boyce argues that Hardy is incorrect in arguing that Lehi’s tree reminded Nephi of the tree of life in Eden. Instead, Boyce suggests that the tree reminded Nephi of the tree of life discussed in Revelation 22:1-17. Indeed, Boyce goes so far as to argue that “it is easy to imagine Nephi’s referring to the tree he sees as the ‘tree of life,’ independent of the tree in the Garden of Eden.”
Unfortunately, Boyce’s argument shows a lack of understanding of Revelation 22. The tree of life vision in Revelation is not, as Boyce assumes, “independent” from the tree in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the vision in Revelation 22 is directly dependent upon the tree of life in Eden. Here is a modern translation of the opening vision that provides the focus for Boyce’s analysis:
“He showed me a river of living water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the center of the main street of the city. On each side of the river there were trees of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, each yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And ‘the curse of war’ will no longer exist. The throne of God and the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:1-4). (1)
John’s vision is not simply a “tree of life” vision in the way Boyce assumes. Granted, the King James Bible that Boyce relies upon refers to “the tree of life” in verse 2, but as illustrated in this more recent translation, John’s vision was actually a vision of multiple trees—not a single “tree of life” like Nephi saw. The noun xulon in the Greek text is a collective noun referring to numerous trees found along both banks of the river. (2)
The imagery in Revelation was probably influenced by Ezekiel 47:12, which refers to multiple trees on either side of the river with leaves that do not wither, and which bear fresh fruit every month because they are watered by the stream from the temple/Eden. Contrary to Boyce’s King James reading, this makes the actual vision depicted in Revelation 22 quite different from the one described by Nephi in the Book of Mormon of a single “tree of life.”
More importantly, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem with trees of life and a river of living water are specifically modeled on traditional Jewish conceptions of Eden, including the throne of God, the river, and the tree of life. Therefore, the vision in Revelation 22 is not, as Boyce maintains, independent from Eden. The two are one and the same. The river of living water in John’s vision is meant to be understood as the very river flowing out of Eden mentioned in Genesis 2:10. And the trees of life are a reflection of the tree of life that stood in the Garden of Eden.
Textually, the imagery in Revelation 22 draws upon Genesis 2-3 and Ezekiel 47:1-12. In his account, Ezekiel gives emphasis to the fact that this river flowing from the throne of God is a temple river that flowed east, just like the river flowing out of Eden described in Genesis 2:10. Thus, Boyce is wrong to separate the tree of life in Eden from the trees of life in Revelation 22. They are not, as he maintains, “independent.” Yet even if Boyce was correct that Nephi’s vision of the tree of life was dependent upon John’s vision in Revelation 22 and not the Eden story, Nephi would have naturally connected the trees of life in John’s vision with the tree of life in Genesis—i.e. the way that they are supposed to be read contextually.
But that’s not all. In his analysis, Boyce takes issue with Hardy’s proposal that by linking the tree in his father’s vision with the tree of life in Eden, protected from the unrighteous, Nephi thought about his own tree in the same exclusionary, protective terms. In other words, Boyce disagrees with Hardy’s reading that Nephi focused upon judgment and the separation of the wicked from the righteous.
Thus, by linking Nephi’s tree with the tree of life in Revelation, Boyce attempts to counter Hardy’s reading, suggesting that the tree of life in Revelation represents “spiritual abundance and glory,” not exclusion. But this shows a lack of consideration of the fact that Revelation 22 presents a vision of a celestialized Eden, a new Jerusalem, and in John’s vision its trees are only available to the righteous who are able to see God and live (v. 4).(3)
In sum, Boyce incorrectly suggests that Nephi’s vision in the Book of Mormon draws upon Revelation 22 rather than Genesis 2-3. Boyce is wrong to argue that the tree of life in Revelation and the tree of life in Nephi’s vision are independent from the tree of life in Eden. And he is wrong to argue that the vision in Revelation would not conceptually exclude the wicked in the way Nephi interprets the tree in the Book of Mormon.
I’ll now turn to another example of Boyce’s problematic use of biblical texts. In part three of his essay, Boyce takes Givens to task for his analysis of Genesis 12:10-20, which depicts Abram lying to the Egyptians about his beautiful wife Sarai. The account is important to Givens’ thesis that inspired prophets of God sometimes make mistakes. In challenging Givens, Boyce draws upon the version of this same story presented in Abraham 2:21-25. This account changes the biblical version by presenting the Lord himself commanding Abram to lie about his wife for purposes of self-preservation. “Givens does not mention this account, much less address the complication it raises for his claim,” writes Boyce, “namely: if it is morally wrong for Abraham to practice deception, then what are we to make of an account in which the Lord tells Abraham to lie?”
But this argument is based upon the importance of what really happened as oppossed to what the texts themselves represent. Ultimately, it’s irrelevant whether God did or did not tell Abraham to lie. Even if Abraham was a real person and God really commanded him to deceive the Egyptians, the Bible still supports Givens’ argument that prophets can be both inspired and make mistakes.
Boyce’s argument is problematic as an issue of methodology. When analyzing a text, each source should be read independently to determine its own unique context and meaning prior to engaging in cross exegetical analysis. (4) The biblical story is a stand-alone account with its own unique purposes and agendas, as is the account in the LDS Book of Abraham. Therefore, the two sources should be analyzed in their own context before attempting to harmonize them in the way Boyce treats the sources.
In the biblical version that Givens draws upon, the patriarch himself devises the deceitful plan, not God. This is clear not only in the account in Genesis 12, but from the related story in Genesis 20 where Abram (now Abraham) tells the same lie to King Abimelch of Gerar. In this account, God comes to Abimelech and tells the monarch in a dream, “You are to die because of the woman that you have taken, for she is a married woman” (v. 3). This of course raises the obvious question—if God could protect Abraham and Sarah from Abimelch through a dream then why not simply speak to him in the first place and warn him not to harass Abraham and Sarah? Why was there a need to lie?
Moreover, later in the story, Abraham makes it clear that he himself came up with the lie in order to preserve his life. There is no mention of God commanding Abraham to lie. “‘I thought,’ said Abraham, ‘surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife’” (v. 11). If God himself had commanded the patriarch to lie, Abraham would have certainly included that information. He would have said, “God commanded me,” rather than taking personal responsibility via the phrase, “I thought.”
This same story is reenacted with Isaac and Rebekah instead of Abraham and Sarah confronting Abimelech in Genesis 26:6-11. In none of these accounts of the biblical “wife-sister” motif do we find God commanding the Patriarch to lie. The initiative stems from the man himself. Again, what did or did not really happen is irrelevant to the message that these texts are presenting.
So even though the Book of Abraham takes a different approach to the story in Genesis 12, Givens is certainly justified to base his analysis of prophetic fallibility in accordance with the way the Bible presents the story. In the biblical version, Abram is weak. He fails to trust in God’s protection, leaves the promised land, and subjects his wife to the possibility of sexual victimization. This is an important message presented in the biblical account that Givens is right to draw attention to, notwithstanding the fact that the Book of Abraham tells the story differently. The biblical account, which Latter-day Saints accept as canonical, presents the patriarchs as inspired men of God, subject to human error.
As a final illustration of the types of problems encountered in Boyce’s reading of biblical texts, I would like to draw attention to his criticism of Givens’ and Mason’s reading of the Jonah story. Boyce takes issue with the fact that Givens and Mason use Jonah as an illustration of prophetic weakness. For Boyce, Jonah’s reluctance to accept God’s command is understandable since Assyria treated its enemies with great brutality. In part three of his essay he writes:
“But it might be wise to restrain our haste to criticize Jonah; Nineveh was. . . a country with a ruthless history stretching over centuries. . . This is how Assyria treated its adversaries — and this is the culture Jonah was commanded to visit and openly condemn.”
In his critique, Boyce acknowledges that the point of prophetic imperfection “is technically accurate, of course; [but] the problem is, it is hard to imagine anyone in the twenty-first century United States possessing the moral authority to make it.”
With this statement, Boyce reveals that he completely misunderstands the story of Jonah. The prophet Jonah was not afraid to condemn Nineveh because they were bloodthirsty and would have presumably subjected Jonah to a violent death. The account makes clear that Jonah wanted to die.
Not only did Jonah invite the sailors to throw him overboard, which would have surely under natural circumstances led to a violent death, Jonah specifically asked God to kill him two times. “Please, Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live,” he states in 4:3. Then again in 4:8: “He begged for death, saying, ‘I would rather die than live.’” Jonah wasn’t afraid to go to Nineveh and die. He longed for death because he didn’t want God to forgive the people of Nineveh. Instead, he was afraid that if he preached to them, the people might repent:
“O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (4:2)
It’s hard to understand how Boyce could completely miss this point stated explicitly in the text itself—Jonah refused the mission because he did not want God to forgive the people of Nineveh. He was weak and judgmental. The entire purpose of the story supports the readings that Givens and Mason provide— prophets make mistakes.
The account even shows that there is a natural limitation to the prophetic word, which runs contrary to the way Boyce sees prophets and revelation. Jonah literally presents a false prophecy when he proclaims to the city: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (3:4). There is no condition to this prophecy. Jonah didn’t say, “Unless you repent, God will destroy this city in forty days.” He prophesied what he wanted to see happen. “This city will be destroyed in forty days.”
The account is clear. Jonah’s prophecy was influenced by his own feelings and biases. And in the end, his prophecy did not come to pass. It was a failed prophecy because prophets aren’t always perfect; they don’t always correctly ascertain the will of God.
This conception that prophetic inspiration is at times coupled with human error represents the very heart of Boyce’s concern. He takes issue with not only the way these scholars read Book of Mormon and biblical texts, but in the way they allow for what the book of Jonah tries to get its readers to realize—that prophets, no matter how inspired, are not perfect. When they proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord,” we should take seriously what they have to say, but at the same time remember that the word came through them and that none of us, including prophets, is a perfect vessel.
In his critique, Boyce disagrees with Given’s and Mason’s use of D&C 21:4-5 to argue that Church members must receive the prophetic word “in all patience and faith.” For Givens and Mason, the emphasis in this passage on the need for patience suggests that the prophet will not always be perfectly inspired. For Boyce, this reading proves “untenable,” since the Lord also states that we should receive that prophetic word “as if from mine own mouth.” In this criticism, Boyce may be correct. Mason and Givens may be reading more into the passage than is truly warranted in terms of prophetic weakness.
Boyce’s criticism receives support from another D&C passage, where God asserts, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). Yet this statement, often used by people who adhere to Boyce’s view of the prophetic word, is being stripped from its context. When the entire passage is cited, the famous scriptural phrase does not mean that the prophet’s voice is the exact same as God’s voice. Note the entire verse:
“What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”
When read in its entirety, the passage doesn’t declare that hearing the prophet’s voice is the same thing as hearing God’s voice. It is a promise that whether God’s word was spoken directly by God or his servants, God’s word shall be fulfilled. In other words, when, unlike Jonah, prophets truly speak the word of God, we can count on that word being fulfilled.
In this age of information accessibility where critical readings of LDS scripture, policy, and history are so easily accessible, I believe that it is important for LDS commentators to consider ways of addressing this information that creates a space for both faith and critical thinking. Boyce’s three-part Interpreter essay is clearly a step in the wrong direction.
- Translation by David E. Aune in Revelation 17-22. Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville:Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 1136.
- See, for example, the footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2179.
- See the commentary provided by J. Massyngberde Ford in Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1975). Ford draws upon the tree of life vision in 1 Enoch to show that in the apocalyptic view of which Revelation is a part, mortals were not permitted to touch the fruit until the great judgment and the fruit was only given to the righteous who qualified for immortality; see pgs. 338-339.
- Note Shemaryahu Talmon: “In dealing with the fundamental issues concerning the social and religious history of biblical Israel, scholars often revert to a comparison with external ‘parallels’ without the prerequisite definition of a methodology of procedure and before examining the phenomena under consideration in their innerbiblical context.”In contrast to this problematic paradigm, Talmon presented a helpful clarification on methodology. Talmon argued that “random comparison without reference to the general structure and profile of the overall scale of values and beliefs of the societies involved can only mar and distort.” In other words, according to the methodology proposed by Talmon, any feature of the Bible must first be investigated and interpreted in its own context prior to analysis in a larger setting. See Shemaryahu Talmon, Literary Studies in the Hebrew Bible: Form and Content Collected Studies (Jerusalem-Leiden: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University-E.J. Brill, 1993).