Saturday, February 20, 2016

Scapegoats in the Book of Mormon

Recently, scholar Andrei Orlov* uploaded a paper to, entitled "The Curses of Azazel".  In this paper, Orlov uses the ancient document, Apocalypse of Abraham, to discuss the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, the Festival of Atonement.  His excellent article made me think of how such issues may also be found in the Book of Mormon. I will discuss it momentarily, after a brief introduction to the Festival of Yom Kippur and some other important issues to consider.

Yom Kippur
During Yom Kippur, the high priest performs very important functions. Among these ordinances, is entrance into the Holy of Holies (the only time during the year it is entered), sanctifies the instruments and Mercy Seat, and utters the sacred and ineffable name of God, "YHWH". As he enters the Holy of Holies, he wears a special priest garb, which includes a turban/mitre, a sash, and the robes.  On his robes are bells, which tinkle as he moves, so those waiting outside for him can listen in and ensure he is still alive. If the high priest enters unworthily, God would strike him dead, and the silence of the bells would tip off his assistants to pull his body out by the rope attached to him for such an event. On the turban, one finds the name of "YHWH". It is the unspeakable, ineffable name. Only the high priest knew the correct pronunciation. Some of his assistants would know portions of the pronunciation, but not all, so that at the death of the high priest, the assistants could each whisper their portion of the Name into the ear of the newly chosen high priest, allowing him alone to then know the full pronunciation.  The Name, as Orlov notes in his article, is extremely important. To have God's name was to have his power to create, destroy, or perform miracles. Orlov notes from several ancient texts of fallen angels, or Watchers, who found out the Name and misused its power on the earth, causing them to be rejected by God.
One of the other major events in Yom Kippur, is that of the two goats. Two goats are chosen and brought before the high priest. One will be the sacred sacrifice, given to God. For Christians, this represents the sacrifice of Jesus by his Father.  The other goat, known as the scapegoat, also has an important role to play.  The high priest, prior to dressing in his temple robes, pronounces the sins of the people. Laying both hands on the head of the goat, he transfers those sins from Israel to the goat. A crimson wool thread is placed on the head of the goat. The goat is then sent into the wilderness, although some ancient texts show that it is pushed off a cliff, where it dies in a wilderness area. Those who lead the goat to the wilderness/death, then are to wash their clothes and become clean again from touching that which is unclean. Tradition has it that the scarlet thread became white, once the scapegoat was dead.  Orlov suggests that this directly ties in with Isaiah's initial plea to Israel:
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;  Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isa 1:16-18)
With this ordinance, the nation of Israel is absolved of its sins once a year.  For early Christians, both goats represented different aspects of Christ's life: the sacrificial goat and the one who takes upon himself all the sins of the people.

Apocalypse of Abraham
Yet, for many ancient Jews, the scapegoat represented the devil or a fallen angel. Orlov notes in the Apocalypse of Abraham, a contest occurs between God's angel, Yahoel against the fallen angel Azazel. As with the high priest at Yom Kippur, Yahoel pronounces the sins of Azazel, curses him, and then sends him packing to the wasted lands of earth. Yahoel then puts upon Abraham holy garments and brings him up to heaven. Yahoel the heavenly priest, stands between Azazel and Abraham, and pronounces blessings and curses, as did the ancient high priest at Yom Kippur. Orlov also shows a variety of similar actions found in other ancient texts, including the Enoch literature.
As mentioned above, I started to ponder whether such could be found in the Book of Mormon. For example, the gathering King Benjamin commanded to teach his people and proclaim his son as king, is very reminiscent of the Festival of Booths.
But what about the scapegoat and the Festival of Yom Kippur? Orlov's article gave me a different method of looking.

Jacob and Sherem
In the book of Jacob, we read about one potential Yom Kippur experience.  Jacob even uses terminology that is used the Apocalypse of Abraham, such as the importance of clean and unclean garments.
...wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day. (Jacob 1:19)

Now, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob, according to the responsibility which I am under to God, to magnify mine office with soberness, and that I might rid my garments of your sins, I come up into the temple this day that I might declare unto you the word of God. (Jacob 2:2)
In this second quote, Jacob is at the temple. He is wearing the garment of the holy priesthood, and is focused on ensuring his own garments remain clean, that they will remain white/spotless, and not be found red/crimson with sin. As high priest, he declares the sins of the people (pride, greed, polygamy, and mistreating their families). Interestingly, he notes the goodness of the Lamanite husbands, in comparison to Nephite men, who were taking extra wives and concubines. Jacob, the high priest, stands between the Nephite and Lamanite goats, and judges them, as Yahoel did of Azazel and Abraham.
Interestingly, the Nephite sin of polygamy is similar to one of the major sins the Watchers or fallen angels were accused of: sexual transgression. The Watchers sought to have children through human wives and concubines - leading to the corruption of all the earth and the destruction by the great Flood in Noah's day. As with the fallen Nephites, these angels sought to corrupt God's plan of procreation in order to promote their own purpose.
In addition, Jacob shares a fascinating story of the first anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon, Sherem (Jacob 7).
As with Azazel and other ancient stories of fallen angels and Watchers, Sherem seeks to use special skills and knowledge to meet his goals and purposes, while overthrowing God's plan and high priest. He plans to bring all followers of Christ over to his own personalized religion, putting himself up as a replacement for the high priest. Jacob notes that Sherem is "learned" with a "perfect knowledge of the language", skilled at flattery, and sought to "over throw the doctrine of Christ". Sherem was so good at persuasion, he thought he could convince Jacob, the high priest (and reminiscent of Abraham) of the errors of his faith.
As with the priestly angel Yahoel, Jacob uses his knowledge of God's word and his own spiritual experience and power to resolve the situation. He pronounces Sherem's sins and places a curse upon him, just as the ancient high priest of Israel would declare the sins and curse the scapegoat. Upon receiving the curse, Sherem is struck down, a symbolic toss from the cliff, where he shortly confesses his own sins, fears he has committed the unpardonable sin (as the scapegoat carrying all of Israel's sins), and dies.

In Alma 14, we come across the first anti-Christ that Alma will deal with. Nehor also uses flattering words to convince people to believe in his teachings. Survival of the fittest is the focus of Nehor's doctrine. In preaching, he ends up slaying Gideon, who preaches the doctrine of Christ.
It is now Alma, the high priest, who must contend in this Yom Kippur event. As with Jacob, he also speaks of the importance of spotless garments.
And may the Lord bless you, and keep your garments spotless, that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out. (Alma 7:25)
Here, Alma brings up Abraham, the hero of Orlov's paper. Once Yahoel casts Azazel down, Abraham is brought up to heaven and given a holy, spotless and white garment.
I say unto you, ye will know at that day that ye cannot be saved; for there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins. And now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness? Behold, what will these things testify against you? (Alma 5:21-22)
In this instance, Christ becomes a holy symbol for the scapegoat, rescuing all those who will allow Jesus to purify their garments of stains (crimson, scarlet). Those with stained garments on the last day, will experience what it is to be their very own scapegoat, taking upon themselves all their own sins and stains before the Great High Priest.
Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb. (Alma 13:11)
In Alma 13, the prophet talks about the pre-existent and holy calling of high priest. This seems as an important prologue to the following chapter, where Alma will face Nehor, and make him the scapegoat for his people at that time.
Again, Alma pronounces the sins of Nehor and those who follow him. He establishes God's existence and righteousness.  Because of his sin (murder), Nehor is cursed or condemned to death. His "ignominious death" is carried out on top of a high mountain. To me, this suggests a few methods of death. Perhaps as with some Mayan practices,, Nehor is sacrificed to the gods/God. He may have been cast into a volcano. Or, as with the scapegoat of Israel, he may have been cast off a cliff to his death.

Alma gets a second chance to deal with a scapegoat with Korihor. Again, flattery is the tool most used by Nephite anti-Christs. Alma testifies against Korihor, pronouncing the sins of him and his followers upon him. When pushed, Alma curses Korihor, who pleads to have the curse and sins removed from him. God and Alma do not remove the curse, but ensure it remains with Korihor, who is then sent out "into the wilderness", where he eventually is trampled to death by other wicked people (the Zoramites).

Here we find another possible layer of complexity within the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith would not have known about in his day. He would not have known how Yom Kippur and the scapegoat would apply to fallen beings, such as Azazel in the Apocalypse of Abraham, and how this ties in with the high priest and the holy garments.
As LDS, we can learn that the Book of Mormon is begging for us to study it on many different levels. It dares us to compare it with the best ancient texts from Israel, and see just what we can learn about the ancient Nephites and how it can apply to us today.

* Hat tip to David J. Larsen for introducing me to Orlov's great scholarly works.
Also posted at

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Reading Nephi Discussing John's Revelation

Coming up in the next few weeks in LDS Sunday School classes, we will be discussing the Book of Revelation. As a new member back in December 1975, I recall hearing many messages regarding the Last Days, using the apostle John's Revelation to figure out the tragedies and events of the Last Days.

Sadly, one way in which we miss out on what is found in Apocalypse is by looking at what it says on the surface, without using one of the best tools given us via the Restoration of the Gospel.

In 1 Nephi 8-15, we read of Lehi and Nephi's Vision of the Tree of Life. Near the end of Nephi's version, we find that he not only sees the Tree, the Life of Christ, and the destruction of his own people, but he sees the Revelation that John received that we find at the end of the New Testament.

While Nephi states he cannot write the things that John and he saw, we find that the Revelation of John is tied closely to Nephi's Vision of the Tree of Life.

Both visions discuss the darkness of the world (Lehi travels in it for hours), the pride of the world, the Great and Abominable Church, the Tree of Life, witness of Christ, are guided by angels, see great destructions, etc. Both see/hold a book (John swallows his) that is important to their mission and the future. There are many other similarities that I will not go into here.

The Vision of the Tree of Life is a form of endowment, where the initiate is led from the darkness of the world, to the light and joy of the Tree of Life, which is in the presence of God. John's Apocalypse is perhaps best understood as an endowment, as well. Consider the following verses in the Book of Revelation, which has temple concepts tied to them:
5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Rev 1:5-6)
7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. 7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God....
11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death...
17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. (Rev 2:7, 11, 17 )
5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels...
12 Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.,,
21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. (Rev 3:5, 12, 21)
In chapter 4, John has a Theophany (vision of God). John tells us:
1 After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.
2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
3 And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
4 And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. (Rev 4:1-4)
Compare this vision to the vision Lehi had in 1 Nephi chapter one:
8 And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. (1 Nephi 1:8)
As Lehi and Nephi see the mists of darkness, the great and spacious building that represented John's Babylon, the destruction of Babylon and the wicked, etc, we find John's details of the seven seals ties in nicely with the events seen by Nephi. In the end, John sees the New Jerusalem, and the Tree of Life as a key feature of the city:
1 And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
2 In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:1-2)
For Lehi and Nephi, the Tree of Life is THE key feature of their vision. We learn that it represents the Love of God, shed forth upon the children of men through the condescension of Christ and his Father.
In reading John's Revelation with this new lens, we are able to truly appreciate gift God has given us through his apostle, understood through Nephi's eyes.

--for more on the Book of Revelation, please read my Sunday School lesson blog posts on the two lessons here:
NT Lesson 45
NT Lesson 46

Friday, May 30, 2014

LDS Public Affairs posts statement on criticism and Women's Issues

Great article and letter by Michael Otterson, Managing Director of LDS Public Affairs regarding the Church's stance on women's issues, etc.  Posted at Millennial Star, where I often permablog.

Monday, March 31, 2014

OT#13 Bondage, Passover and Exodus

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #13:  Bondage, Passover and the Exodus
Exodus 1-14

You can read my previous post on this lesson here.

Exodus as a Creation Story

In discussing the Creation previously, I've detailed how we actually get several Creation stories in the Bible, including the two in Genesis 1 and 2.  Isaiah, the Psalmist and others make mention of the ancient Sumerian Creation story, where God must subdue Chaos, which is represented by a great sea dragon, Leviathan or Rahab.

In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isa 17:1)

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? (Isa 51:9)

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.
 Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. (Psalm 74:13-14)

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
 And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev 12:7-9)
In the Genesis story, Chaos is represented by Darkness and the Waters of the Great Deep.  When the power of God passes over the Chaos, it is transformed into Order: Light and Land.

For the story of the Exodus, we begin a new Creation.  The Egyptian world is a land of Chaos.  There are many gods, each fighting for its spot in the pecking order.  The Egyptians thrive, not because of the land, but because of the River.  Without the Nile River bringing water and nutrients in the annual flood, there would have been no Egypt, no dynasties of Pharaohs, nothing.  The people depended on the chaotic nature of the River (flooding in spring, lower at other times) to provide for themselves.

As God creates a new people, he takes them through the Creation myth. The Ten Plagues show the Chaos that Egypt brought upon itself by Pharaoh's fighting God and Moses in their Creation story. Turning the Nile River into blood is poetic, as it suggests the blood of Leviathan being poured out as God slays him in battle.  As animals are created in Genesis 1 and 2, God destroys the cattle and flocks of the Egyptians, and replacing them with the chaos of frogs, locusts and flies.

The Darkness of Chaos is represented by the days of darkness cast upon the land of Egypt. Only God is able to bring the sun's light again in a new birth of Creation.  As the firstborn males of Egypt die, the way is opened for the firstborn of Israel to depart to their new land.

Of course, Egypt's military dragons were not yet done.  They also had to be defeated in the depths of the sea.  Only God's new Creation is allowed to come forth on the other side of the darkness and floods.  The Land of Promise was still far in the future, but sacred places were to be visited and created along the way.

OT #12 Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction

Gospel Doctrine lesson #12, Fruitful in the Land of My Affliction
Genesis 40-45

My previous post on this lesson can be found here.

Promised Lands/Promised Peoples

The Book of Genesis is all about a promised people. Adam, Eve and their righteous children (Abel, Seth) were a promised people, while Cain was cast out.  Enoch and Zion were chosen, while the giants and wicked were rejected of God.  Noah was chosen to escape the destruction of the Flood, and his tiny ark became the promised land of safety.

Abraham was chosen to become the beginnings of the Promised People.  His new land of promise was filled with Canaanites and others, who worshiped other gods.  His son (Isaac), and son's son (Jacob) would get wives out of the former familial lands of Haran.

For Joseph, Egypt was the land of his affliction, but a fruitful place that would care for Israel and many others during a time when they were cut off from the Promised Land.  Egypt would frequently become the temporary oasis for the Chosen People. Once removed from the land of Canaan for drought, famine or other reason, Egypt usually becomes the place of worldly safety.  Two millennia later, Joseph and Mary would escape into the land of Egypt and sojourn there for a time with their fugitive child, Jesus.

The concepts of Promised Lands and Promised Peoples are important for Latter-day Saints.  We believe that we are building a modern Zion people.  The center of Zion will one day be in Missouri, with thousands of Stakes to strengthen it.

Interestingly, Joseph Smith moved the Saints to Missouri, but they were driven out.  First Nauvoo, and then later, Utah, became the "temporary" Egyptian desert sanctuary for modern Israel.  As the children of Israel would spend centuries in Egypt, so Mormons would spend the last century and a half waiting to return to build a new Zion.  During that time, Mormons have excelled in business, politics, and many other ventures of American modern society.  Some continue walking the path that God set for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; while today there are many others who have become cultural Mormons, who no longer believe in the spiritual, but solely enjoy the social aspects.

As the tribes of Israel would deal with changes in Egyptian politics (a pharaoh arose that knew not Joseph - Exodus 1), some would leave the teachings of Abraham in order to gain power and wealth within Egyptian life.  Why did it seem normal for Egyptians to slay all the male children in Israel, yet allow one of those boys to grow up in Pharaoh's household?  Was Moses the first/only one to be adopted? Or was there a long line of Israelite children who had been taken in by Egyptian women seeking children of their own, but wishing to retain their slim figures?  While Moses would lead Israel out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land of his fathers, what about those Israelites that remained behind?  Surely there were some that did not follow Moses, but preferred the fleshpots of Egypt?  Again, there would be others that would follow Moses, only to later wish to return to Egypt, its gods, and the annual crops grown along the Nile River.

In a world of constant pressure to worship the gods of Egypt (who provide fleshpots of food) or to worship the gods of Hollywood (who provide us sex, drugs and rock n roll), we will find that we cannot always stand with one foot in Zion and the other in the World.  Eventually, each of us must choose.  Will we be true followers of a modern day Moses, or a cultural Israel, who are happy while water pours out of rocks, manna falls from the sky, and the prophet is willing to share priesthood authority and power with them (Numbers 16)?  Will we make popular demands, and have golden calves built, because we do not believe the prophets (or God) are watching?

We already hear the clarion call to leave the corruption of the World/Babylon/Egypt behind and to "Come to Zion" ("Israel, Israel God is Calling", Hymn #7).  Today we are building a spiritual Zion in the midst of 3000 stakes and 170 temples.  Eighty-thousand missionaries seek out the lost of Israel, inviting them to spiritually become part of the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Soon, the call will come to build up the center of Zion, and a final call will be made to those who refuse to leave the fleshpots of Egypt, prior to the great and coming day of the Lord.

Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; (Isaiah 54:2)
Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. (Isaiah 33:20)

These are important issues that will be a key focus for most of the Old Testament lessons throughout the rest of 2014.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

OT #11 How Can I Do This Great Wickedness?

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #11:  How Can I Do This Great Wickedness?
Genesis 34, 37-39 (32-39)

See my previous post on this lesson, where I discuss the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs and the connection with the lesson. 

Here, I will discuss some of the key events that unfortunately are missed in the official lesson.

Wrestling with Man The story of Esau and Jacob begins with their struggles within their mother's womb.  At birth, they fought for which would be born first, with Jacob holding onto the ankle of Esau. 

Jacob (Supplanter) was a trickster.  He tricked Esau into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup (Gen 25).  Later, with his mother's guidance, he would trick Isaac into giving him the first son's blessing (Gen 27).  Esau's true nature is also revealed, as he then sought to slay his brother.  Jacob goes on the run, where he receives a theophany, seeing God on his throne at the top of a staircase (Jacob's ladder - Gen 28).  Jacob sets up the stone he used as a pillow as a pillar/altar, and naming it Beth-El or House of God.

Jacob spent about 21 years working for Laban. He originally worked 7 years to gain Rachel as his wife, only to have Laban trick him into serving several more years for wives and a herd of his own. During this time, Jacob, the trickster, learned that what you sow, so shall you reap.

Beginning in chapter 32, Jacob enters into the Promised Land, a land he has been promised, yet has not seen for decades.

 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim. (Gene 32:1-2)
 Mahanaim means "two camps". This is where Jacob would divide his people into two groups.

I have oxen, and asses, flocks, and menservants, and women servants: and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find grace in thy sight.
And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, We came to thy brother Esau, and also he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.
Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed: and he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and herds, and the camels, into two bands;
And said, If Esau come to the one company, and smite it, then the other company which is left shall escape. (Gene 32:5-8)
 One does not gather 400 men, except to come to battle. Sending several groups before him with gifts to assuage Esau, Jacob did not demand his birthright, but only to dwell peacefully in the land with his brother.  Bowing himself before his older twin, he showed himself not as the rightful lord and heir, but as a servant. Esau, seeing that Jacob did not desire to rule over him, softened his heart and the two were able to live peacefully, though separate, in the land of Abraham and Isaac.

Wrestling with God
While the strategy to soften Esau's heart with herds and presents and humility, Jacob's main test would happen the night before he met his brother.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.
 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.
 And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. (Gene 32:24-31)
 While some modern prophets have speculated that Jacob was actually wrestling a mortal man, the context is clear that Jacob believed himself to be wrestling God.  How could Jacob wrestle the Lord, who was then without a body of flesh and bone?  There are a few possibilities.

First, the Lord can take upon himself many appearances.  To Moses, he appeared as a burning bush and a pillar of fire.  To the brother of Jared, he appeared as he would in the flesh.  In fact, the Lord was able to touch the stones prepared by the brother of Jared and cause them to shine (Ether 3).  Is a spirit able to touch stone?  So, it is possible that the Lord used a temporary body of flesh, or even just his body of spirit, as spirit is also made of matter (D&C 131:7).  Who knows if a spirit can touch or be touched under certain circumstances?

The other possibility is that through the Law of Divine Investiture, a translated being stood in the place of the Lord.   As I've noted elsewhere, 11Q Melchizedek, a Dead Sea Scroll fragment, tells us:  “Melchizedek is El (God)!”  and “Melchizedek is Yahweh (Jehovah).”  It is possible that Enoch or Melchizedek, both having been translated with their cities, could have stood in the place of God.

The ancient Hebrews believed that for God to create the world, he first had to wrestle and defeat Chaos.  Chaos included the dark, the waters, and a great sea serpent (Leviathan or Rahab).  In defeating Chaos, God showed himself capable and worthy to be God of the world, and more so: God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  With Job, we shall see that the Lord engages in a contest with other sons of God, including the Adversary (Satan), using Job as the centerpiece of the challenge.  Here, in Jacob's darkest hour, after years of humbling servitude, toil, and struggles, he finds he can only return to the Promised Land by first going through his brother, whom he shamed and tricked decades before.  To defeat God in wrestling meant Jacob could also defeat Esau.

No battle is without cost.  For Jacob, it was damaging his thigh.  Yet, he prevailed, and asked for the NAME of God.  Anciently, the NAME was imbued with great power.  If one had the secret NAME of God, one could prevail upon him to remain with you constantly.  This was something that God was not willing to reveal.  Instead, God gave Jacob a new NAME, which included the name of God "EL" in it.  He was no longer Jacob, but Israel (Persevered with God).  One who could persevere with God could overcome any obstacle.  With this new name, he was no longer the Supplanter/Trickster (Jacob), but a new and powerful man of wisdom and courage and righteousness.  He was ready to return into the Promised Land and into the presence of the Lord.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

OT #10: Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #10:  Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

You can read my previous blog post regarding this lesson here:

Today, Mormon Christians focus on two key portions of Abraham's promised covenant: the birthright and the eternal covenant of marriage.  Many hold it a bit of personal pride to be "born in the covenant" of the temple sealing. 

In my last blog post on this topic, I discussed several traditions tied to Abraham and Jacob in connection with the garment of Adam, the birthright, etc. 

Here I would ask us a few questions to ask ourselves:

Have you sold your birthright for a mess of pottage?  Do we choose to live the type of life Esau did, which may put us in a position to barter away our birthright?  Do we choose addictions, entertainment, power or wealth in exchange for our divine birthright?  Do we prize our relationship with God, as sons and daughters, or do we seek to be adopted out to another deity or being?

For Abraham, he became the divine son of Jehovah, AFTER receiving the covenant and then showing himself faithful through many trials and demands.  He would not see the promise fulfilled in his day, as the promised land would primarily remain in Canaanite hands for centuries.  He would allow himself to be sacrificed, risk losing his wife to Pharaoh, and to sacrifice his own son, in order to keep the covenant intact.

Jacob sought the birthright and the covenant.  He was willing to flee his angry brother and to worship God in a foreign land to keep the birthright.  In beginning of his trek, he saw God on his distant throne.  On his triumphant, but risky, return, he saw and touched God. He wrestled the Lord, seeking the power of God's name. He received a blessing and a new name for himself.

Are we actively engaged in developing and maintaining the birthright and covenant?  Or are we happy to sit back and relax, smug in our knowledge that we've been born in the covenant, and convinced that it alone gives us the birthright we think we are owed simply because we exist.  The ancient Jews often thought the same way, and yet were destroyed on many occasions because of their slothful and sinful natures.

What are we doing with our birthright?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

OT #9: God will provide himself a Lamb

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #9: "God will provide Himself a Lamb".

My previous lesson on this is found here.

God commanding Nephi slay the drunken Laban. God making a bet with Satan (Adversary) in regards to Job.  Moses and Joshua commanded to utterly destroy cities of women and children. Such events bring up major ethical issues in regards to God and man.  Can God be considered good or great, and yet order or allow terrible things to occur?   Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac becomes a case study for us.

The Binding of Isaac
The Binding of Isaac is known as the "Akedah".  In Genesis 22, after Abraham caused Hagar and Ishmael to leave into the harsh desert, Abraham is called upon by God to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.  For centuries, Jews, Christians and others have pondered the story of the Akedah and how to make it sound politically correct in light of more modern concepts.

From the time of Moses, the Old Testament defines child sacrifice as an abomination before God (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1-8; Deuteronomy 12:31;18:10; 2 Kings 13:27; 16:3; 17:17, 31; 21:6; 23:10; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; Ezekiel 20:31; Micah 6:7; 2, Chronicles 28:3; 33:6),  However, Abraham preceded Moses by several centuries. Israel was not yet a people.  Abraham was Jehovah's first follower, and the promise of the nation God would one day rule over.  Abraham dwelt among pagans from Ur to the north, to Egypt in the south, he had to deal with the beliefs and customs of the nations and tribes around him.  Child sacrifice was common among several of these groups, including the Canaanites and Philistines.  It wasn't only acceptable, but expected to offer up one's first born to the deity.

Still, how can an ethical Jew or Christian of today work through the dilemma of the Binding?  Can God command people to do evil things against his own commandments and will?  The discussion of evil in the world is a very difficult one that has challenged the best of philosophers.

Some only see a happy ending in that it ends up only being a divine test, and that Abraham did not actually slay Isaac.  God never intended anything malicious, and so every one lives happily ever after.

Many Jews see the Akedah as a promise and importance of martyrdom.  The New Year festival of Rosh Hashanah includes a prayer on judgment day,

"Remember unto us, O Lord our God, the covenant and the loving-kindness and the oath which Thou swore unto Abraham our father on Mount Moriah; and consider the binding with which Abraham our father bound his son Isaac on the altar, how he suppressed his compassion in order to perform Thy will with a perfect heart. So may Thy compassion overbear Thine anger against us; in Thy great goodness may Thy great wrath turn aside from Thy people, Thy city, and Thine inheritance."
 The ram's horn, or shofar, is then sounded.  It is a reminder that Isaac was the lamb to be sacrificed and replaced by a ram.  Christians would see this as a symbol of the Father sacrificing Christ so that the blessings of Abraham could fall upon all mankind.

 Kierkegaard believed that God did intend for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  In this instance, it is a contest between the status quo of commandments and the dynamic of hearing God's voice.  We see a clash between Kierkegaard's discussion of the "ethical man", who would never break the commandments, and the "knight of faith", who realizes that sometimes God suspends ethics in accomplishing His work.

In rabbinic law is the belief that God could never go against his own nature and command a murder. Some of these think Abraham was not clearly listening to God's command, and misheard him.  The Hebrew verb  alah (עלה) can mean "to ascend" or "to climb", as well as to offer a burnt offering (turn something into smoke).  Some believe that Abraham was to take Isaac to Mt Moriah to ascend the mountain and dedicate him to God in the same way Jacob saw angels ascending to heaven on a ladder/staircase. Along these lines, we read:

 In a later talmudic passage (Taanit 4a) it is stated explicitly that God never intended Abraham to kill his son any more than God wishes Baal worshippers to carry out human sacrifices. In a comment to Jeremiah's fierce castigation of the people for burning their sons in fire as burnt offerings for Baal 'which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind' ( Jeremiah 19:5), this passage elaborates: '"which I commanded not" refers to the sacrifice of the son of Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:27); "nor spoke it" refers to the daughter of Jephtah ( Judges 11:31); "neither came it into My mind" refers to the sacrifice of Isaac, son of Abraham'. Similarly, a rabbinic midrash (Genesis Rabbah 56:8) describes Abraham, after the angel had told him in the name of God to spare Isaac, puzzled by the contradictory statements: 'Recently Thou didst tell me (Genesis 21:12): "In Isaac shall seed be called to thee," and later Thou didst say (Genesis 22:5): "Take now thy son." And now Thou tellest me to stay my hand!' God is made to reply in the words of Psalm 79 verse 35: 'My covenant will I not profane, nor alter that which is gone out of My lips.' 'When I told thee: "Take thy son," I was not altering that which went out from My lips [i.e., the promise that Abraham would have descendants through Isaac]. I did not tell thee: "Slay him" but bring him up [i.e., take him to the mountain and make him ready to be sacrificed]. Thou didst bring him up. Now take him down again.' (The Problems of Akedah in Jewish Thought, Louis Jacobs,
  It is interesting to note that on the return from Moriah, we only see Abraham and his two servants, and not Isaac.  Some early rabbis suggested that Abraham indeed killed Isaac and left his body behind, only to be resurrected by God and to return later to his family.

How can God be considered a God of mercy and kindness when he allows wars, plagues, pestilence, natural disasters and famine to occur?  How can he be such a great God when he commanded Nephi to slay a drunk Laban, toyed with Job just to win a bet with the Adversary, or ordered Joshua to destroy all the Canaanites?  On the surface it seems like there is no good answer.  The truth is, there is no easy answer.  We see things from a mortal perspective, built upon limited knowledge of the universe and eternal things.  We do not understand eternity or how God works within a larger framework, where he explains,

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
 We do know that we all go through trying times in this life.  We all feel that God sometimes asks difficult things of us, and sometimes we feel abandoned. Even Jesus on the cross proclaimed, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  Yes, even Jesus had to descend below all things so that he could ascend above all things (D&C 88:6).  But we are given a promise:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
God has a purpose to life for us.   We learn through trials so that we may learn to be as He is.  God is not a static God of rote commandments, but a living and vibrant God.  He reveals himself daily through modern prophets, through the Holy Ghost to some, through the light of Christ to all, through science and other discoveries.  The ethics we have now evolved from cultures that today we would deem barbaric. Even in the United States, it took us over a century to overcome most of the barbarism of slavery - and then only after a tragic war and many false starts.

Perhaps it is not an issue of ethics, but, as Kierkegaard suggests, an issue of faith?  If one believes in continuing revelation and that the heavens are not silent today, then it is very possible that God could ask each of us to do something very difficult, even while society looks on disapproving of it.  Joseph Smith stated, "a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."  Joseph learned of this sacrifice through many things he was required to do: consecration, tithing, missions, plural marriage, and martyrdom.

In the scriptures and the temple, we learn about sacrifice, obedience to law, consecration and dedication to new commands of God.  Our sacrifices, as with Isaac's, are often not fully understood by us.  Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection are yet to be grasped by mankind, as well.  What we can finally do is believe that God has a divine purpose that we may not always understand.  There is evil in the world, and God will one day defeat it.  In Christ, we have a divine sacrifice that gives comfort and hope. Abraham and Isaac's willingness to be the Lord's servants is perhaps something we should all aspire to become.