Sunday, August 02, 2020

Book Review: Jacob - a brief theological introduction

Book Review: Jacob - a brief theological introduction, by Deidre Nicole Green. Published by Maxwell Institute.

This is the third book in a series that is covering each of the books in the Book of Mormon. The series is an attempt to share basic, but key, theological ideas with the average Latter-day Saint reader. My first two reviews can be found here: 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi.

Diedre Nicole Green earned a PhD in Religion at Claremont Graduate University, Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from BYU.


The Book of Jacob fills less than 19 pages of the Book of Mormon. So how can one write a 120 page book on so little, and provide so much to think about? That is one of the strengths of studying theology - the study of God. It is easy to skim quickly through this short book, and get a little understanding of what is going on. Green shows us how the various, seemingly disparate, teachings and events in the Book of Jacob and his previous teachings and experiences all connect.

The book is divided into 6 chapters:

1. Who is Jacob?
2. Suffering with Christ
3. Jacob's Social View of the Sacred
4. The Temple Sermon
5. The Love of God and the Allegory of the Olive Tree
6. Final Thoughts

From Green's book, we find Jacob is a very intense and caring person. His experiences in the wilderness, being taught by Lehi and Nephi, and terrorized by Laman and Lemuel on board the ship, have made him introspective and concerned for the exploited. Since Lehi taught him in 2 Nephi 2 about the atonement and importance of agency, we find that both concepts are deeply embedded in the entire book of Jacob.

While the book does speak of social justice, it focuses not on governmental nor political social justice or the social justice warriors of our day, but of a higher and more spiritual form of social justice, as experienced and taught by Jacob. Jacob experienced poverty, suffering, and struggles in the wilderness.

"Jacob knows firsthand that the unforeseen consequences of sin do not remain localized but surge outward in every direction. This gives the reader an early glimpse of Jacob's sensitivity to the systemic implications of sin: unjust actions lead to suffering that ripples outward with innumerable aftershocks." (pp 10-11)

He has experienced it in his own life. Just how deeply did Laman and Lemuel's sins and violence affect the young Jacob? What did he feel when his mother was too sick on board the ship to nourish him? What was it like to go through a physical storm, while inner turmoil bubbled over as he saw his protector Nephi helplessly tied to the mast? How much hunger had Jacob experienced in crossing the wilderness? Green helps us to understand how Jacob developed such an empathy as we see he has in his writings. She shows how Jacob used his own suffering to empathize with those now suffering.

"Any suffering can be wasted, but it is clear  that neither Jacob nor the God he worships does so. Instead, both allow Jacob's unique life experience to fully inform his theology and ministry." (pp 19-20)

For me, the usual Sunday School discussions on pride and chastity, as Jacob berates the men for their sins, often focuses on the sins or on the men. Sometimes there is even some kind of defense given for Brigham Young's style of polygamy. Green clearly shows that Jacob is focused on the feelings of the poor and the wives and children - the victims. She helps us to see how the actions of the proud are gravely affecting the nation as a whole.

Jacob reminds us that we are to seek the interest of those around us. Green calls it "neighbor love."  The proud seek riches to spend on themselves - often expressed in the Book of Mormon by the luxurious clothing the wealthy wear. For Jacob, one is to first seek God, and only after that to seek riches to benefit the poor. For us in the United States and elsewhere with very comfortable lives today, the points Green makes here hit home. Jacob is saying we must use our agency to bless others. We are not to infringe upon others' agency.

"What is labeled by Jacob as 'abominable' is not specifically the state of having riches or even the action of seeking after them. What he emphasizes as problematic is imposing human standards of worth and ascribing to riches a sign of divine favor and superior standing. Mistakenly viewing riches as indivative of divine approbation amounts to a form of self-deception that justifies withoulding material goods from those who have not. In order to stay in right relation with God, one must retain an understanding of one's own nothingness and equality with every other juman being regardless of the wealth one has amassed; in order to stay in right relation with all human beings, one must consecrate one's material goods so that the inherent equality of humanity is reflected in everyone's material lives, regarldess of who 'earned' what. One must empty oneself of a false sense of self-sufficiency to see that one has been provided for by God...." (p73)

Nephi saw the Brass Plates as the key to retaining a remembrance of the covenants of Israel. Here, however, the Nephite men were using the scriptures to justify their sins. David and Solomon had wives and concubines, so it must be okay to do it. Jacob gives little quarter to polygamy: only when God commands it. He focuses on the tender hearts of the wives and children, insisting that there is no justification one can find in the scriptures.

The term "concubine" usually means a slave-wife. That the Nephites were beginning to enslave others (probably other groups that already dwelt upon the land) is apparent from Jacob's phrasing. Green again discusses the importance of agency to Jacob. When we abuse others (sexually, physically, emotionally), we are infringing upon their agency. We prevent them from finding God and from having hope and peace in God. We cause suffering. Nephite men imposed their will upon others, so that they could benefit in their pride and wealth.

Green explains that our suffering can benefit us. Jacob understood the atonement of Christ as a very painful and difficult task. In suffering, we can begin to understand the struggles Jesus went through. We become one through suffering with Christ, and we become one with each other. She explains:

"...we cannot fully understand ourselves as human beings apart from our relation to God, knowledge of the divine and knowledge of the self are inseparable....Jacob's hortatory insistence that followers suffer Christ's cross, which entails experiencing the needs and vulnerabilities of all." (p 23-24)

As with Jacob, we learn empathy through suffering. We learn to be one with God and man as we share in suffering. It is a universal experience that is embodied in Christ. Green notes that "all need the atonement as much as anyone else." (p 26)

To make our suffering of value, we must allow it to teach us to love, neighbor love. Green writes,

"Jacob teaches that love is not an unruly, uncontrolled or elusive feeling; instead, it is the result of decision. On Jacob's account, every sin in Nephite society results from the failure to see all human beings as equals.The prevention of sin, therefore, requires one to make a mental commitment, to view all others as equals and to give them their due." (pp 37-38)

Speaking of the Lamanites, Jacob notes that those without scripture were following the commandment of having one wife and loving their families, while the Nephite men were using scripture to justify their sins against others in society. In this case, the women, children and Lamanites become the righteous example that needs to be considered equal to the Nephites.

Green treats Sherem, skin color, the temple covenant and other points from such interesting perspective as well. Sherem unwittingly becomes Jacob's ally in professing Christ. The temple covenant promotes equality and consecration.

Sadly, as Jacob notes and Green explains, many "want to be misled." (p 85)  Jacob said that the Jews in Jerusalem "looked beyond the mark" and now sees his Nephites doing the same thing as they justify their sins using scripture. God wishes to bring us fully unto Christ, but will allow us to be led in other directions, as he will not force away our agency. We see this in the example of the Lost 116 Pages, where God allowed Joseph Smith and Martin Harris to be misled by their own desires.

An important discussion Green has is concerning the difference between "chastity" and "sexual agency." When a woman is molested or raped, she has not lost her chastity. As long as she keeps her covenants, her chastity is always intact. What has happened is that the man has forced himself upon her, taking away her sexual agency, to choose for herself. For Jacob, agency is extremely important, as his father, Lehi, impressed it upon his young mind decades before.

"That this respect for another's agency is an inextricable component of love cannot be emphasized enough. For anyone whose agency has been compromised in the name of  'love' or 'desire,' for those who have had their bodies commandeered and exploited, for those who have been forced to 'receive love' and 'give love' against their will, there is solace in knowing that God does not demand or even ask that of us. Moreover, for those who have had the experience of having their agency compromised in any way by another, including in traumatic experiences, enacting agency positively to enter into relationship with God can be healing and empowering." (p 92)

In regards to Zenos' Allegory of the Olive Tree, Green notes that it can be interpreted on various levels. The covenant of Israel and the Nephite trek into the wilderness are easily seen as one such level. Often we view it from the human/tree level.  Green looks at it from the stance of God and Christ, tirelessly seeking to reclaim their loved ones. She explains that God always seeks a relationship with his children, but

"This relationship is not inevitable but ont he divine side remains perpetually available. Collapsing the space between God and a person, Jacob images the God relationship itself as one that brings the two face-to-face." (pp 97-98)

The allegory explains the lengths and depths God will go to save his children in a loving relationship. He digs, prunes, fertilizes, and works long and endless hours, always ready to try again and give one more chance. It further explains to us the atonement of Christ:

"...far from a trite or superficial notion, the scope of the atonement must be cast, encompassing the breadth and depth of human suffering and sin." (p 98)

Green further explains that the atonement must deal with every human disaster: personal sin, structural sin, suffering, oppression, genocide, mass trauma.

"As Jacob variously engages his listeners and readers to turn toward atonement, he is not merely seeking to show how it can cover some minor imperfection or impropriety. Much more expansively, he endeavors to uncover how the atonement can heal and redeem experiences of suffering and evil that remain nearly unfathomable to the finite minds of human beings. It is fitting that Jacob introduces the term 'infinite atonement' to the Book of Mormon, since he is the one who has seen with his own eyes not only Christ but also the depths that Christ's atoning work must plumb." (p 99)

Finally, the allegory shows us that "God is vulnerable to the world" as he desperately seeks to save his vineyard. He also becomes vulnerable as he depends upon humans and others to bring about his great work. Again, agency is key here. God does not force the trees to produce good fruit. Instead, he provides every opportunity for them to thrive and turn to him.

As you can see, I found Green's treatment on Jacob to be an amazing experience. It showed me that Jacob was careful in choosing these experiences and teachings from his life, in order to explain key gospel concepts: agency, sin, atonement, covenant. Jacob ached inside, as he saw his people sin, and was willing to anything necessary to shake their sins from his garments. In the stories regarding the poor, polygamy, Sherem, and the vineyard, Green points out that God demands us to use agency wisely, to treat each others with neighbor love, and that God works tirelessly to save. We get a deeper appreciation of our own suffering and the depths of Christ's atonement.

I will never read the tiny book of Jacob in the same light again. Suddenly, it has much more texture and meaning, thanks to Green's excellent treatment of the text.

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