In Tents #30 Some Tools for Studying Scripture, part II

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, 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?

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4 Responses to In Tents #30 Some Tools for Studying Scripture, part II

  1. C. M. Malm says:

    Considering how frequently people use “religion” to justify doing whatever it is they want to do, both in the modern world and in the historical past, it makes a tremendous amount of sense that people did so in the scriptural past.

    I think something we forget (or attempt to gloss over) is the fact that God’s will is usually transmitted through the medium of fallible human beings who have literally “fallen” physical brains and have been conditioned by the cultural constructs of the societies they’ve grown up in. This is what God has to work with! If you consider that, it becomes less surprising that even the best, wisest, and probably inspired men in history didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) absorb and transmit more than a fraction of “God’s truth.”

    I take Joseph Smith’s assertion that God “will yet reveal many great and important things” very seriously. But human beings take a long time to process and adapt to new ideas. The reaction we see among members when our modern-day prophets tell us things that rattle our comfortable world even a tiny bit….well, it’s a useful illustration of the problem.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Celia, thanks for your comment. Sorry to take so long to reply. I often get comments that require more thought than I have time to give, so I have a lot of comments still to respond to.

      Back when General Conference was broadcast to stake centers outside the Mormon corridor over phone lines, and the Priesthood session was at 8PM (later changed to 6 to accommodate people in the Eastern time zone), I was sitting in the Kingston, New York chapel one April Saturday night listening to the susserations of Pres. Kimball’s refrain, “Don’t shoot the little birds that dwell on leaf and tree.” (Actually, the primary song he was quoting from his youth says, “Don’t kill the little birds that sing on bush and tree.”) It was near midnight, so I was dozing–since missionaries are supposed to be in bed by 10:30. I sat straight up. Wait a minute, did he just say he had seen the Savior? He did:

      “I know that God lives. I know that Jesus Christ lives,” said John Taylor, my predecessor, “for I have seen him.” I bear this testimony to you brethren in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. (, which has accompanying video.)

      But that wasn’t what got people talking. Maybe a week later I heard that the Church’s Public Communications office had issued a statement that Pres. Kimball had not intended to dictate hunting policy in the State of Utah. That may have been the first time I had an inkling that some of the more conservative members of the Church might feel the same dissonance at some statements of Church leaders that the more liberal members feel.

      Looking this up I note that in October 1978 Conference, in one of the general sessions, Pres. Kimball responded to the pushback, quoting a verse from the song again, saying he had quoted it to the young men six months earlier, and adding four verses Joseph Fielding Smith had written befriending animals in the Wasatch Mountains.

      I was home from my mission by then and in the Priesthood session Pres. Romney was laboring with a narrowed field of vision, apparently two words, which he would read them from the teleprompter, refocus on the next two words and read them. A deacon in the row ahead of us turned to his father and said, “Dad, is that man senile?” I saw tears in my father’s eyes.

      I’m not saying this to point fingers. All of us have areas where we feel tension between our identities as LDS and our identities in other groups, or where our heritage from other belief systems trumps what we learn in the Gospel.

      I was hometeaching a few months ago and I mentioned that electrifying quote from Orson F. Whitney in Richard H. Winkel’s October 2006 Conference talk.

      “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain.”

      As I recall, Elder Winkel’s quoting the statement also resulted in a clarification, so I went onto the Church’s website a few years ago to see if anyone else had quoted it (searching on the keyword tentacles). Elder Winkel was a latecomer. Boyd K. Packer quoted it in April 1992, James E. Faust in April 2003, Thomas S. Monson in October 1979, Robert D. Hales in April 1999 and April 2004, Gordon B. Hinckley (I don’t know when because the programmers have changed the way the site shows search results, and it doesn’t currently show Pres. Hinckley’s citation) and Henry B. Eyring quoted it more recently.

      Anyway, I mentioned how many others had quoted Elder Whitney and my neighbor said, “I don’t know, Harlow. There has to be some kind of punishment.” And I thought, “Why would you refuse comfort relating to your son when it was offered?” I sidestepped his objection by saying I had read Elder Whitney’s original (from the April 1929 General Conference) and came across another comment about the power of God’s love and mercy:

      “You parents of the wilful and the wayward! Don’t give them up. Don’t cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours—long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them. They have but strayed in ignorance from the Path of Right, and God is merciful to ignorance. Only the fulness of knowledge brings the fulness of accountability. Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend.”

      I find those words profoundly moving, and I wonder why we don’t quote them more, as John K Carmack did in his Feb 1977 Ensign article, “When Children Go Astray”

      I suspect we have an emotional or rhetorical attachment to the idea of punishment and damnation that is more powerful than our rhetorical attachment to the idea of mercy and grace and forgiveness. A week or two ago I was listening to the BYU devotional on KBYUFM and the speaker said we need to learn to accept forgiveness once we’ve asked for it. He said it is as if we hand the Savior a package containing our sins. “Please, take these away from me,” but then say, “Can I have that package back? I haven’t suffered enough.”

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    I think you and your father are right about Joshua (the book, if not the man). Everything about the judges, beginning with Joshua, running through Samson and on into Samuel, seems hyperbolic, from walking dry-shod through the bed of the Jordan to blowing down the walls of Jericho with shofars. Outside of the fact that I find it hard to believe in a god who would order the mass slaughter of an entire town, I find it ironic that a church founded by a prophet who taught that the Bible was incorrect in many places, and tried to correct it more than once, now seems hell-bent on becoming biblical literalists whilst at the same time not talking about all the unsavory goings-on in the Old Testament. We seem to have lost our sense that the scriptures should provide a second witness, or deny one. I grew up in a church that was willing to consider the garden and the flood metaphors, not literal actings-out of divine intention from a God who was a small-minded, petty tyrant who would gladly kill his creations, or order them to kill one another. And I think we make a great mistake in conflating our separate and different accounts of events in different books, like the Creation in Genesis, Moses and Abraham, or trying to harmonize the stories of the gospels in studying the New Testament. We seem in a rush to obliterate anything that might indicate any contradictions between texts or within a text.

    I agree with C. M. Malm that we should eagerly await the many great and important revelations pertaining to the kingdom of God; but I also share his fear that we may never be ready, if we can’t learn to read and understand the differences amongst the texts we already have.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Well said, Dennis — although I think the “church you grew up in” may have been a function of your particular ward. I remember an awful lot of scriptural literalists from my own growing up. And I don’t think I’m that much younger than you are…

      I had a very interesting experience earlier today on re-reading Genesis 1 and 2, for the first time in a while, and having the whole thing unfold to me as a statement primarily poetic and philosophical (as opposed to historical, a la biblical literalist interpretations, or archetypal a la Nibley). I’m hoping to write that up sometime soon, partly so that I’ll have a record of one of those dazzling mental reinterpretations that opens up to one from time to time in even the most familiar texts…

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