When teaching Institute recently to a class of LDS students in our ward, I used the term ‘Latter-day Israel’ and met with a surprised silence: they had never heard the term. Yet, all of them were second generation members, born and raised in the church and thoroughly schooled in whatever the church had thrown at them, several had performed a mission and as university students (most of them) they had read their church books. Being a convert member now for almost 50 years, I suddenly realized how much the discourse on Israel had changed in the church. Maybe this is just a Dutch or European phenomenon, but neither do we produce our own lesson materials, nor do we produce our own gospel discourse, so I do not assume it is. In effect, this demise of the Latter-day Israel discourse highlights the changed notions on descent and race that Armand Mauss analyzed so well in All Abraham’s Children. We transformed from an ethnic church into a worldwide one, a process that is still ongoing: the ‘us’ is no longer based on descent.
Again – my dominant theme in this series of blogs on the Old Testament – we as LDS reflect older dynamics in salvation history. When reading the Old Testament we encounter the same question ‘Who is Israel’, but as it is couched in different terms, we do not recognize it easily, even though it is in fact a debate informing much of the Old Testament. In order to understand the debate we have to start from the notion, expounded in my last blogs, that two happenings produced the Old Testament, the split between Israel and Judah after Salomon, plus the major trauma of the Babylonian Exile. When the small band of Yehudi’s came back from Babylonian captivity, they found Samaria as a flourishing vassal state to Persia, and had to redefine their relationship with them. After all, Samaria was not a foreign state, they were a brother-population. They offered their help, also in the temple project. In a second remigration wave, Nehemiah, of royal descent, was appointed by Artaxerxes as governor of the small Judean vassal state; he first built the walls of Jerusalem and was later joined by Ezra, of priestly descent. For reasons that are not completely clear the two of them made the decision that the people from Samaria were not the true ‘sons of Jacob’, accusing the latter of idolatry, apostasy and religious syncretism. The Samaritan offer to help with the rebuilding of the Second Temple was consequently turned down, the reading of the Torah was initiated (that was new, the Torah as such did not exist before exile) and a major purification movement took place; all men-of-proper-descent who wanted to belong to the Second Temple community were even obliged to divorce their ‘foreign’ wives. Quite heavy-handed.
This way the problem of pre-exilic Israel was continued and intensified, the split between Judah and Israel. For Samaria was to all external measures populated by true Israelites, in fact the descendants of Joseph. They were Josephites, through Ephraim and Manasseh, and considered themselves true sons of Jacob. They had their own shrines of YHWH, kept the law of Moses, were monotheistic, kept their Sabbath strictly, circumcised the boys as they should, and refrained from making images. Nothing wrong there. They were the remnant of the old Northern Kingdom; the Assyrians had abducted a lot, especially from the other tribes, but Ephraim and Manasseh were still there. For our salvation history, that is the reason why Lehi and his group counted the same ancestors, Lehi from Ephraim and Ishmael through Manasseh. So after the abductions by the Assyrians there were in fact just a few tribes over from the original 12, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Judah with a smattering of Benjamin. The number of 12 had become mythical.
This is the rift that generated and informed a lot of text in the Old Testament. The clearest is this in the book of Numbers, one we have passed through in the recent Sunday School classes. We zoomed in on Balaam, with very good reason. But Numbers is a fascinating book anyway, if only because of all those numbers. Israel is counted over and again, and counting in the Old Testament is never a neutral activity: when David in 2 Samuel 24 holds a census, he is severely punished by the Lord through a plague that costs Israel 70.000 lives! Yet in Numbers Israel is counted seven times: in chapter 1 for military might, in 2 for temple arrangements, in 7 for temple gifts, in 10 for marching order, in 13 for delegates in the reconnaissance of the promised land, in 26 a general census again after a plague, and finally in 34 for the allotment of land. No other book in the bible is so besotted with numbers. The message, as always, is not in the actual numbers, as the figures of the total population of Israel are way out of the realm of the possible: 603.550 men at arms, meaning a total population of over 2 million people! In that desert? No way. So the message is elsewhere, and seems easy: seven times they counted twelve tribes (though the number of 12 is arrived at in varying ways). The book is a constant testimony that Israel had 12 tribes, a message hammered in seven times, another sacred number. Numbers shouts from its pages the subtext of the covenant, i.e. that Israel is one, twelve-in-one.
The question is why this message had to be broadcast so loudly. Here the blessings by Balaam give a clue: he mentions two names, Jacob and Israel, which could be read as synonyms, but not exactly are. The reference is Jacob’s blessings of his sons, especially those of Judah and Joseph, texts that are also important in LDS theology, Genesis 49:22: Joseph as a fruitful bough with branches running over the wall. I remember well the missionaries citing this verse to me, now 50 years ago! Balaam uses the same words but with a twist: all blessings of Judah and Joseph now pertain to the whole of Israel, the undivided sons of Jacob. The hidden message beneath the counting is the unity of Israel, which in the 6-5th century means: Judah and Joseph are one. Set within the situation of return sketched above, the relevance of this message becomes clear: it is a hidden protest against the exclusivity of Nehemiah and Ezra. They are the ones who divide a people that should be – for had been – one.
Speaking is the community of scholars known as the priestly editors, P in the DH, which spanned priests from Samaria and from Judah, who must have been one scholarly community, not happy at all with the situation. Their school had been supremely important in fashioning the Pentateuch as we know it; in Numbers they handled a J (Yahwist) history, but in such a way that their editorial agenda shone through: ‘We were one! We should be one.’ Samaria considered itself as a faithful Israelite community and with good reason, they probably were. When snubbed by Ezra, the Samaritans built (or enlarged) their own temple, on Mount Gerizim near Shechem, a place that already enjoyed a long sacred history rivaling that of Jerusalem. How deep the rivalry between the two places of worship was, is testified by the destruction of Gerizim by the Maccabean dynasty in the 2nd century BC; the voice of Gerizim had to be muted, and was silenced, attested by the almost complete absence of the place in the New Testament. Almost complete, because indirectly Jesus acknowledges the special position of the area. In John 4 Jesus is at this holy place, and it is here that he, referring to the mountain (vs 21), for the first time announces his messiah-hood. To a Samaritan woman, at the Gerizim! The name itself is carefully edited away. How many have heard of Gerizim today?
So the Book of Numbers contains a subtly worded protest against the exclusivist policy of Ezra, against the narrow definition of who belonged to the covenant. It would be none other than Jesus who broke open this fundamentalist definition between ‘us’ and the ‘other’ inside the sons of Jacob – the parable of the Good Samaritan has a deep history – later extrapolated by Paul who would extend the realm of salvation way beyond this ethnic boundary.
As LDS we went through the same process, defining ourselves first as Latter-day Israel, but then mainly through Ephraim. So we in a way defined ourselves as Samaritans, the ‘other Israel’, with another sacred place, another Zion. Shunned by the Christians of Jerusalem orientation, we have developed our own Gerizim, our temple. Our fellow Christians found their temple in the Script, and focused on Jerusalem, while we built a rival to the city of David. Though we did and do count ourselves as fellow Christians, this was often to no avail, and we keep hankering after ‘their’ recognition. Against exclusivist official definitions of who was the ‘proper son of Jacob’, the priestly editors tried to unify the sons of Jacob in joint worship, trying to expand the covenant to the widest possible circle. We have done the same in our own short history: starting out with the notion of “Latter-day Israel’, centering on Ephraim, we widened the circle to non-Europeans for whom this putative ancestry (or adoption) carried little meaning. I know that African converts are often irked by notion of belonging to the tribe of Ephraim, as they have already a tribe! So this discourse has gone, like I noticed in my Institute class, lingering on as a survival in patriarchal blessings. But it is hardly ever mentioned and for good reason, descent belongs to a different period.
The third voice, again, is highly informative. Ultimately the Priestly School failed in its quest against the dominant rulers, despite the great theological and literary skills these scholars brought to their cause, for the fundamentalists of the Ezra persuasion would win out for the time being. I think we see the same tension is present again, between the accommodators and exclusivists, a dynamic playing out right in front of us. Probably we need both; the priestly community produced a major part of the Pentateuch, while the exclusivists did preserve the cult, rebuilt the temple, read the Torah – as largely produced by their opponents! – and defined and perpetuated Judaism up to the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. From the first, the liberals, the inspiration, from the second, the orthodox, the continuity.