Shortly after I posted part I, I came across a source that reminded me that the best tools for studying the scriptures are often the the questions we bring to them. I saw a link to Joseph M. Spencer’s An Other Testament: On Typology on someone’s Pinterest page. A testament expressed in typography, I thought, looking at the cover illustration of the title page of The Book of Mormon, type set, locked in place, and ready to press. How intriguing.
Title: An Other Testament: On Typology
Author: Joseph M Spencer
Publisher: Salt Press (now part of Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship)
Genre: Scripture Study
Year Published: 2012
Price: $18.95 or free PDF download
The blurb says The Book of Mormon organizes itself as a debate about the proper interpretation of scripture, which is clear to see once someone points it out, from the opening where Lehi receives the Lord’s word like Ezekiel did, to Mormon’s epistle addressing a doctrinal dispute. I look forward to reading it, especially because typological interpretation seems to me a much better way of looking at scripture than a metaphorical interpretation. With metaphors the metaphorical element displaces the literal element, scriptural stories become metaphors for spiritual principles, rather than actual events in the lives of actual people. But types are more like puns, which require both meanings present simultaneously to work, both the lives of people and the spiritual meanings that play out in their lives. Puns do not displace, which may by why (you may have noticed) the pun seems to be my fundamental unit of discourse.
But before I get to the book I saw on the Salt Press site that relates more directly to our discussion here, one more source on typology. In some missionary apartment I came across an issue of the September 1976 Ensign, with an article called “Daddy, Donna, and Nephi,” which I think I read because the author, Neal A Maxwell’s successor as Church Commissioner of Education, was one of my father’s old Freshman English students, Jeffrey R. Holland.
Title: Daddy, Donna and Nephi
Author: Jeffrey R. Holland
Publisher: Ensign, Sept. 1976
Brother Holland talked about a Family Home Evening lesson with his daughter, where they read I Nephi 1, then he made a rough outline
Dad: Let’s just put down on paper a little outline of this chapter. I think it would look something like this: a prophet prays has a vision sees heavenly messengers (apparently including Jesus) receives a book is rejected by most of the people
Now that’s a rough outline of the story you described in chapter 1. Does it look at all familiar to you?
Donna: I don’t believe so.
Dad: Think about it.
Donna: Well, it does sort of sound like Joseph Smith’s experience. Hey! It sounds a lot like Joseph Smith’s experience. That’s neat. Why is that, Daddy?
Dad: Terrific comments! It seems to me one possible answer to your question is that all prophets usually have some very similar experiences.
I’ve heard that last comment come back to me over and over in my class: Do we know anyone else who was cast into the pit? Any other prophets?
I like the idea that our lives play out in types and shadows of each other, that when Joseph was cast into the shadowed and miry pit he was not alone, not the only one, but there with Nephi, and Zeezrom and Alma ,and John the Baptist, and Daniel and Jeremiah and Samson and Joseph (list seems a little heavy on men) and even the Son of Man, who went deeper into the pit than any. I like the idea that the shadows and types we see in scripture are not metaphors, but real people’s reflected lives. I love the idea that shared experience is the basis of scriptural narrative, that our lives share in the types that played out in other people’s lives.
To return to saltpress.org, right above An Other Testament: On Typology I saw
Title: The Doctrine & Covenants Made Harder: Scripture Study Questions
Author: James E. Faulconer
Price: $12.95 or free PDF download
It’s a book of questions to accompany the 48 Gospel Doctrine lessons for 2013. I mentioned Faulconer’s opening paragraph to my Gospel Doctrine class to open the lesson on The Word of Wisdom. Faulconer says that when we feel the scriptures have nothing to say to us because we’ve read them so many times, they’ve become too easy. I said, “There was an issue of a scholarly journal completely devoted to the Word of Wisdom, and I thought, ‘What’s in the Word of Wisdom that you can write that much about?’ It had become too easy for me.”
The book reminded me once again of one of the very useful passages in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which I delved into repeatedly on my mission, courtesy of another missionary I was writing to (in a different mission, of course). Joseph said revelation comes in answer to questions and that he found it useful, pondering the revelations in the Bible, to imagine what question a particular revelation was an answer to. What did the prophet ask the Lord that was answered by this particular revelation?
One of the first lessons in the Doctrine & Covenants Gospel Doctrine class manual is about seeking revelation, so I discussed this principle of asking questions and gave an example. D&C 132 explicitly compares Joseph Smith to Abraham, and warns Joseph not to ask a particular question unless he’s prepared to live the answer. Thinking about that comparison one day I thought, ‘What question did Abraham ask the Lord that was answered, “Take thy son, Isaac, thine only son, to Mount Moriah and offer him on an altar’? Maybe the question was, ‘Father, how can you do it? How can you sacrifice your son?’
Not a casual question, not a just-curious question, but the kind of haunting question that could keep a thoughtful person (like Soren Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentius) awake at night, the kind of question you can’t keep silent, the kind of question that can’t be answered with reasons or appeals to reason, only through direct experience, intense, horrifying, direct experience, which told can become the basis for someone else’s vicarious experience to contemplate of a sleepless night. (And then, just Saturday other night, on Selected Shorts I heard Galina Vroman’s “Sarah’s Story.” Synchronicity.)
Another tool that can be useful for studying the Bible is Latter-day revelation, though I’m not thinking so much about Question and Answer revelations like D&C 113 as about using scriptures as counterbalancing opposites to each other. My father once told me that he didn’t believe the Lord commanded the Children of Israel to utterly destroy the people in Canaan as they entered the Promised Land. “I think they did that and then said the Lord commanded them.”
I was thinking about that when the Old Testament study year happened to coincide with the Bosnian genocide. (Which reminds me, I’m about 18 hours of 54 through Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. The Sarajevo chapters, relating and meditating upon the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and wife Sophie Chotek are well worth the read/listen.) I said the description of the entry into Canaan sounded a lot like the Bosnian genocide. The teacher affirmed that it was the Lord’s will. I affirmed the opposite, and that was the end of it, except the teacher’s “Umm, hmm,” which sounded like a verbal eyeroll.
I just cannot find a way to feel comfortable with the Book of Joshua. It is one of the most painful sections for me to read in the Bible, but not painful like I Nephi 4. Nephi’s slaying Laban is painful because I can feel Nephi’s pain, still raw even a lifetime afterwards. The entry into the Promised Land is painful because no one expresses the slightest pain at slaughtering men, women, children, babies and beasts.
So it occurred to me one day to ask, ‘Is there any place in the Book of Mormon where the Lord commands the slaughter of a population?’ No, and the only incident where the Spirit of the Lord commands a death is so traumatic the author can barely talk about it. Thus I find the scriptures useful as checks on each other, as ways to find–or not find–a second or third witness.
This would be a perfect transition to talking about the KJV and the 1981 LDS edition, but that will have to wait. In the mean time, what do you think?