Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 22: Not All Good Things Are Good All The Time

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.

We don’t.

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.

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 21: Honor Is Not About You

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”

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 19: What Are Tales For?

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.

Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 18: Joshua at the Banks of the Jordan

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.

Gospel Doctrine Lesson 17: The Subtle Art of Not Forgetting

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.

Gospel Doctrine Lesson 16: Look, A Talking Donkey!

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.

Continue reading “Gospel Doctrine Lesson 16: Look, A Talking Donkey!”