Dearest readers, in the spirit of our sporadic habit to report to you those of the various events, dramas, debates, debacles, and debaucheries of the wider inter net that particularly concern our shadowy council, we are pleased to report the greatest victory Ol’ Scratch over our lions and lambs yet, which is the return of the Danites, you heard me, Danites, those scoundrels, scallywags and murderers that once terrorized the trails but were thought to now be used only by saintly women to scare and scold their spawn on stormy nights.
Pretty neat when the lesson material lines up with current events, isn’t it? And I don’t mean David and Goliath, I mean the story that’s here as a foil to it, where Saul refuses to slaughter the Amalekites quite like he’s been told to. The prophet Samuel walks into the warcamp and hears something more than awed silence, which was not the plan, and Saul remonstrates, he justifies, he claims he was doing a good thing with the non-destroyed livestock.
And in a way, he’s right. Sacrifice is good. God loves sacrifice. He’s just not all the way right, which is worse than not right at all, because God doesn’t hate disobedience as much as he hates competition. We cannot set prior commandments of God up against current commandments of God. We can’t use some of the gospel to neutralize the rest.
Which brings us to the US-Mexico border. There’s a lot I could say, but I’ll leave that for others, as I fear this conversation is more light than heat. It is my sad duty to inform you that the progs are at it again, this time with the value of keeping all families together at all times, against the value of national sovereignty. They’ve done it before, set our values fighting each other like worms in a curse jar, and they’ll keep doing it just as long as we let them.
To obey is better than to sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. You can never be a true Christian if you do not understand that verse. You can’t give up values for other values on your own terms. We need sacrifice in this life but we’re not smart enough, we’re not experienced enough, we’re just not good enough to know what goes where. And some would tell you “err on the side that doesn’t separate families from their children.” That is good advice, if you have to err.
To obey is better than to sacrifice. David understood this. When he had to kill a man for the sake of his country, when he had to kill a man in single combat for the sake of his country, when he had to kill a man much bigger, stronger, meaner, faster, and more experienced than him, he didn’t rationalize, he didn’t pit the value of being alive for his country against the value of doing what his country needed right then, and we can too.
The word “honor” is in a weird place right now. Our culture’s managed to provide workarounds for many of the problems that honor was a life-and-death matter about in ages past, what with credit scores and police forensics and reporters trawling the social media accounts of political candidates. It’s a propaganda word we use to try to polish a personality, just another perfect head of hair or twinkle from the corner of the mouth. An “honor system” is when you take the exhilarating, risky decision to trust people to tell the truth. An “honor code” is when you take on the mantle of an authoritarian, the iron fist of the kings of old, to tell college kids to act like adults until very recently used to just act.
To many people, honor is an anachronism, a social technology for establishing trust that is no longer needed in an age when we don’t even trust nature and our senses without a peer-reviewed, replicated study to prove that dreams are in fact real. In some parts of the world, the credit systems we’ve developed to determine mathematically if a borrower is honest enough to pay back what is owed has been adapted to cover all aspects of life, and if the social credit system works over there you can look forward to a similar system being established here, outsourcing personal integrity to the guardian angels of a computer system, their silent notes taking stock of your character with a margin of error in the bottom quartile of the industry, and then nobody will need to get to know you to see if they should trust you.
Ancient Israel got to field-test the old EMP-proof version of honor. Our Gospel Doctrine lesson today divides the story of Samuel’s career into four things honored, or loved, or trusted. Eli’s sons honored themselves. Eli honored other people. Samuel honored the Lord. Israel honored the world. Continue reading “Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 21: Honor Is Not About You”
This is an odd story to find in the Old Testament, isn’t it? Or you might think so if you hadn’t read the emotional high notes when Jacob reunited with Esau and Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. The fast pace and gory action of Judges dies down, and the focus on great battles and important figures shifts to just one family.
Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon, Chilion. They’re just a family from Bethlehem, looking for food. We leave our homelands looking for work now, don’t we? A lot more than maybe we want to. Every American ward you go to outside of Utah you’ll find plenty of people from elsewhere, who felt called there, or who chased a job there, or who just wanted some land and it was cheap there. Nowadays I know more people from my hometown in Utah than in my hometown. It’s a lonely thing, for everyone to be around people they didn’t grow up with. And the book of Ruth is a lonely story.
Elimelech dies. No less a tragic story for being common. You might imagine Naomi would come to hate the place that killed her husband, but she stays, I’d imagine for her sons, as they take wives of the Moabites. This land becomes a land of joy and sorrow both.
Then the sorrow overthrows the joy. Her beloved Mahlon and her beloved Chilion die. Naomi alone is left of that family that left Bethlehem.
There’s a lot of weeping in this book. It’s a humble story that hits you in the heart. It’s good to read, in the midst of all the action, all the adventure, all the smiting and killing and God schooling Israel with the famine and the sword, it’s good to read about ordinary people who just couldn’t stand to see each other be lonely.
Naomi doesn’t want her daughters-in-law to care for an old woman all their lives, one with no prospects for them, returning in rags to the place she was born. Neither of them want to see the mother of their beloved husband wander off to die alone. And at the culmination of the story, we find that Boaz can’t allow Ruth, a woman with virtue as bright as the sinners of the book of Judges were dark, to linger in mourning.
Elimelech doesn’t come back. Mahlon and Chilion don’t come back. We never see Orpah again – I hope she was able to make a visit. Grief is woven into the structure of this short story, which makes it more thematically appropriate, I think, than many other stories in the Bible. Our world is broken. Sin and death reign. Hope is fleeting but it exists and blessed be the name of our God for that.
I don’t know why or how the book of Ruth survived the millennia to come to us. There are explanations, for sure, but I don’t think it would be any less great of a story if David and Christ didn’t trace their ancestry to this Moabite woman, if Spear Carrier C were the most illustrious descendant of Naomi and Ruth. It’s a reminder not only of the fallen nature of the world we live in, but that sometimes, despite that, good things happen.
When Latter-day Saints hear the phrase “the reign of the judges” we think of the Book of Mormon version, or the time period that takes up the bulk of the narrative, a time of unity for the Nephites under an ostensibly democratic form of government. There are profitable comparisons between that and the Old Testament reign of judges, where the heirs of Moses and Joshua ruled over an Israel at least as prone to pride cycles as the Nephites.1Pride cycles are better than just being wicked all the time. The unknown compilers of Judges were, like Mormon, interested in showing that Israel prospers when it obeys the Lord. I’m sure Mormon based some of his style in compiling Mosiah and Alma and Helaman from the version of Judges he had access to.
We don’t have much from the book of Judges, though by all accounts it seems to have some of the oldest, least-changed bits of the Old Testament. Nobody really had a reason to alter it. It is what it is. And what it is is stories. I’m normally against mining stories for basic one-sentence moral lessons, and I’m especially against that here. The Gospel Doctrine manual focuses on the stories of Gideon, Deborah, and Samson, and those stories do have some of the easiest morals to mine, but we shouldn’t let that mar our appreciation of them as stories. Gideon tests the Lord in a very suspenseful passage, we know people have died for this sort of thing, but when he’s been satisfied he’s completely true and faithful, and the winnowing of his army and his victory in the night are just good literature. Samson is prideful and haughty and a bit of a bully, so in a way we’re glad to see him fall, at the same time he manages to pull off a heroic comeback right at the end.
And even the stories in Judges that we don’t talk about, those frighteningly violent stories of Ehud and Eglon or the war with the Benjamites, what sort of value do you think those had for the Israelites? Sure, you could try to make Ehud into some sort of moral lesson, but his 80s action hero one-liner “I’ve got a message from God” before he blows away the Moabite king is a sure crowd-pleaser, along with his hapless servants so terrified of their king’s wrath they don’t even know he’s dead. The awful story of the Levite and his concubine and what happened after has enough sex and violence to satisfy today’s HBO crowd, and I’m sure some of that sentiment was around back then.
And Jephthah? I really don’t know. What were the Israelites thinking when they heard this? It’s the worst story in the Bible. What sort of lesson can you even take from it? Maybe it’s just been left in as a reminder that history is weird and vague and murky and we don’t know how these stories got here.
In any case, Samson, Gideon, and Deborah are good stories. I’m glad we get to focus on them at least once every four years.
You can’t conquer Canaan.
The other ten spies were absolutely correct. The Canaanites were too established, too numerous, too big to fight. A band of squabbling tribes that just spent forty years sleeping in tents didn’t have a chance against them. That’s the point. They haven’t had a chance since the firstborn of Egypt were sacrificed for their freedom. Seas and deserts and armies have been in front of them, each one more than enough for the (almost certainly less than five million strong) host of Israel. Yet here we are. The Jordan River.
Your ancestors lived here, Joshua. Were they better men than you? Will your name be spoken in the same hushed tones as theirs are? Will the trial that breaks the sons of Abraham happen on your watch? If you were Moses you would have been leading them already, but Moses is gone, and it’s up to the son of Nun to walk the last mile.
The lesson of a lifetime. You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you. Does the Lord tell Joshua every detail of the conquest of Canaan? Does he need to? A fearful man could know the Lord’s plan and still flub it. Believe me, it happens. Knowledge isn’t necessary. What is required is to be strong and of good courage, and to walk the Ark into the Jordan, and feel the water deepen around your ankles.
And down the walls tumble. The sons of Abraham are once more established in righteousness, in freedom, in the fear of the Lord. And Joshua stands before the ashes of Jericho, before the booty of Canaan, the fields they did not plant and the houses they did not build and the slaves they did not hire, and he asks his folk to make the decision he already made, before ever the sword of the exile rang in these cities of giants – Who will you serve?
And they tried to remember, and they nearly did, and when the long-promised Messiah came to that oft-conquered land he did not bear the name of Abraham the father or Moses the liberator or Aaron or David or Solomon. The name on the tablet on the bottom of the living-water river is Jesus, Yeshua, Joshua, the name of a man who faced an impossible task but was strong and of good courage.
I’ve got a pet peeve about gospel discussions where we sagely shake our heads at how ridiculous the people in these scripture stories are. We look at the pride cycle, at Laman and Lemuel seeing an angel and immediately rebelling, at the Israelites complaining about all that manna they get to eat. We imagine that we, enlightened Latter-day Saints who are capable of fasting once a month when we remember it and sacrificing a Saturday for a temple trip now and then, would do better in those situations.
I don’t mean to call modern Saints weak, or even, for many of us, particularly untested. I mean to suggest that the scriptures are meant for us to self-insert as the forgetful ones. It’s not normal to remember. This selective amnesia we read about is the default – as we find when we remember those commandments that are hard for us, that we haven’t taken from burdens to habits to blessings yet. Imagine the Saints of the future reading about you, and the commandments you haven’t kept, and gently chuckling as they think about poor so-and-so, who forgot.
The Ancient Israel we read about in Deuteronomy this week isn’t some tribe of losers God is leading along to show off his power to save even the bumblers – if it were, he’d be the butt of the joke. This Israel is God’s A-team, a nation of righteous supermen pruned by divine eugenics from the most righteous man to walk the Earth, and they still are so forgetful they need God to make special reminder headbands for them. The Exodus was a series of events based on shocking fear of God into the children of Israel so hard their great-grandkids would still be punch-drunk. There were many in that Host more righteous than you.
But they were men, not gods, and they lost their privileges, and they lost their faith, and they lost their promised land. As you could yours, and your grandchildren could leave the church and their children could grow up not knowing what a Mormon is. Hell is before us all.
The story of Alma the Younger is not about how powerful angels are in developing one’s testimony. It’s about how amazing Alma was for keeping his, even after an angel visited him, and the struggle he made even for that. And that struggle is available to you.
You can remember. You can carve this law in your heart. Hell does not have to prevail. Just don’t imagine you can get away from Babylon at a walking pace.
Last week we left the Children of Israel absolutely face-wrecking the Amorites, man they gave them a canonically legendary curbstomp and gave us some important lessons on sustaining our leaders and looking to God to boot. This week we’re changing focus from the rampaging Israelite horde to their victims.
The camera pulled back at the end of the Amorite war in Numbers 21, sort of the literary version of a camera rolling over burned villages and an artfully placed abandoned doll, and now we zoom in on the Moabites, who are sore afraid, as they should be.1in 22:4 we find that Christians ACTUALLY BELIEVE cows eat grass by licking it; science has proved that cows bite grass, checkmate theists
Balak, king of the Moabites, summons his soothsayer Balaam, who may have been a righteous priesthood holdout like Jethro, though they do bring him silver to cross his palm.2Maybe the rewards of divination were just viewed as payment, some sort of tithing? Maybe details were embellished or added by someone who thought it’d be obvious they treat a prophet like a fortune-teller? Maybe the Lord just worked through soothsayers at this place and time? Balak is being a good king, providing for the welfare of Moab and not relying on the arm of the flesh, but preserving Moab is not the Lord’s plan right now.
The scene: A comfortable suburban ranch house. Two missionaries are present, with a callow priest tagging along, and they’re excited because they have finally met the non-member husband of the less-active sister they’ve been visiting.
HUSBAND: I know you’ve got your lesson you want to teach me, and I want to listen, but before you get going would you mind answering some questions I have about the Mormons?
MISSIONARY 1: Absolutely. Just fire away.
HUSBAND: Why do you believe Jesus and Satan are brothers?
WIFE: (nervous glance)
MISSIONARY 2: (deep breath)
HUSBAND: …and that is what it says and either the Bible or Joe Smith is a liar-
MISSIONARY 2: …same thing. They’re the same thing, read it again in your Bible…
MISSIONARY 1: Calm down, guys, calm down, the question was…
WIFE: (sips coffee)
MISSIONARY 2: (incoherent rage babbling)
MISSIONARY 1: He is sorry, we are really sorry-
HUSBAND: You’re just like the last set.
WIFE: Sorry, boys, I think he just needs a little more time-
The bible bash is a mystery. Why is it so easy to get sucked in? Why don’t our points ever seem to make a dent? How can they move on so blithely from point to point, another anti-Mormon factoid up their sleeve for when you pull out a verse that proves the last one inconsequential?
The easy answer is: you didn’t testify and you brought the spirit of the Devil. This is true, but I think we can dive a little deeper into this subject, and draw on some examples from scripture to guide the tone and direction of our discourse and ministry.
What is conversation for?
The worst takeaway a member or missionary or member missionary can bring from a bash is the urge to store up better scriptures to bring out the next time someone has those questions. This is because the questions an experienced non-Mormon bible-basher has are not actually what we would call “questions.”
What’s the point of a question? To get an answer, right? That’s what conversation is, we talk to each other, we trade information, we might disagree on some things but we see where each other is coming from and we walk away with something to think about. This is attractive for the Latter-day Saints, as we believe in all truth, no matter the source, and so you might just learn something from whatever encounter.
This is not what your interlocutor is asking the questions for. He intends to shame you. He wants you to feel stupid for believing, and I want to make one thing absolutely clear: that is a completely legitimate use of questions.
The problem, and what makes a bash far more painful than it needs to be, is when there’s a mismatch between your expectations of the conversation. Verbal sparring is a time-honored tradition, but when you walk into a spar expecting an exchange of knowledge that works toward a consensus nobody’s coming out happy.
Bear down in pure testimony (but keep those pearls out of the pigpen)
The astute missionary will sidestep the bash – will see it coming, will get out of the way, will defuse the situation, will leave with a testimony and a prayer. Sometimes that works – but sometimes they’re not ready to hear the still, small voice. Sometimes there are people around them that desperately need to see them cut down a peg. Sometimes they need to be humbled before they’ll open their ears.
There are places for polite rebuttals. There are places for mockery and scorn. 1 Kings 18 is one of those places. Can you imagine Elijah treating that like a friendly chat? “So you can plainly see that their, the priests of Ba’al’s, rituals failed to bring the fire from Heaven that was promised, which means that for whatever reason Ba’al has no power here. The logical course of action is to return to the worship of YHWH…”
It wasn’t time for reasoned arguments. It was time for slaughter. Sometimes that happens too.
Always testify – but weave your testimony in with context-meaningful communication. Elijah’s testimony wasn’t polite, but you can’t deny its effectiveness. The gentle, sweet declaration of belief is best saved for those who can hear it.
Bible-bashing without the Bible
The stereotype we’ve been discussing in this article is a mainstream Christian of some sort, most likely a Protestant of a non-denominational or Baptist sect. He is ubiquitous, found most often in the southern United States but drawn by some sort of basher clairvoyance to missionaries all over the world, and all over the world missionaries keep stroking his wolf-skin to try to pull out the sheep they’re sure is underneath.
There’s another kind of basher out there, all the way on the other side of the spectrum, with the sheep on the outside and the wolf on the inside. This kind will still use conversation as a weapon, use words as a bludgeon, but they’ll try to be more Mormon than you are. They want to reach an understanding, they want you to ask questions, and they’re even harder to deal with because when you take them at face value absolutely everything that works on them makes you feel like a jerk.
Of course wolves in sheepskin are polite. That’s the entire point of the wool. They’ll try to use the Gospel to teach their own twisted truths, which they frame as common decency, just the sort of thing all moral people should believe. They don’t even have the decency to try to back it up with scripture. And this weekend they are trying to change Church policy through demonstrations. All in the name of, you know, what’s right. What Jesus would probably do, assuming His moral standards, as they always do, perfectly match up with those found in Western nations in the early 21st century.
Don’t accept their framing
When you try to prove the Church is true from (or at least isn’t disproved by) the Bible, you are accepting the Bible as a source of legitimacy, setting aside the role of the Spirit in conversion, and have lost the debate.
The same thing can happen when you try to answer the gentle, polite, bright-eyed contentions of those people who just can’t wrap their heads around a God who would risk being called sexist; if you try to prove that, as a matter of fact, God as Mormonism teaches isn’t sexist, you’ve bought into lack of sexism as a source of legitimacy and have lost the debate.
It doesn’t feel like you’re letting them set the pace. Not at first. Then it’s an hour and a half into a half-hour lesson and you haven’t even got past God is our Heavenly Father yet. Don’t let them do that. Stick to what you know – that God’s law is eternal, that your testimony is rooted in a witness of the Spirit, that Russell M. Nelson is an inspired prophet – and make them come to you.
When they say the Bible says God is a spirit don’t pull out a verse that says He isn’t, testify that Joseph Smith saw Heavenly Father in the flesh. When they try to “start a conversation” about when we can expect gay temple marriage don’t nitpick the legitimacy of OD2 and the Proclamation, mock them out loud. Call everyone over to look at this ridiculous wolf in that shabby sheep coat. Ask if their god is asleep, or on a journey. Let them prance and shout and cut themselves.
Maybe all they need is one sharp shock.