Why You Should Be Difficult

“I’m mad at Jacob,” I snarl to my husband.

“Jacob who?” he asks.

“Jacob in the Book of Mormon!”

He backs away slowly, as if from a dangerous, wounded animal.

Despite the lack of invitation, I spew on:  “So Jacob 2?  The big ‘no polygamy for you!’ smackdown?  He spends eleven verses–eleven verses!–going on and on about how he hates having to give this talk–all about the delicate sensibilities of the women.  What–he thinks they are a bunch of over-corseted Victorians who are going to faint if he talks about S-E-X in front of them?  Lemme tell you, there isn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t want the prophet to flay her husband if he were engaged in some extracurriculars!  When he finally got around to giving the dang talk, the women were probably cheering so loudly that the men didn’t hear the end of the chapter.  And so I’m mad at Jacob for completely misunderstanding the desires of the female half of his audience.”

Adequately vented, I go to sleep.


The next day, I read Jacob 2 again, with a fixed determination to find more evidence of Jacob’s ignorance.

I get stuck on Jacob 2:4:  “For behold, as yet, ye have been obedient unto the word of the Lord, which I have given unto you.”


Huh.  Apparently the men are not physically violating their marriage covenants yet.  Must think more about this.


The next day I read Jacob again.  This time I notice Jacob 1:15:  “And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.”

I notice that what they were doing at this point was not having many wives, but desiring many wives.



The next day, I poke around in the General Conference Scripture Citation Index and find this from Elder Oaks:

“The main focus of Jacob’s great sermon was not with evil acts completed, but with evil acts contemplated.”

So now I’m thinking that Jacob’s eleven verses of please-don’t-make-me-say-this isn’t what I thought it was.  Most/all of the women do not know what their husbands are planning, and most/all of the husbands haven’t actually done anything yet.  But Jacob knows.  And when he gives this talk (to what is, remember, a fairly small community only one generation removed from Lehi’s small family), the proverbial excrement is going to hit the fan.  Jacob doesn’t think that talking about polygamy-already-practiced will break the women’s hearts; he thinks that letting the women know what their husbands are planning to do will break their hearts.  I think he is right.



This is not the most profound realization in the history of scripture interpretation.  It isn’t the specifics of this incident that I want to talk about.  It’s the process.  I never would have figured this out save two things:  (1) repeated rereadings of the text, which I’ve written about before and (2) being a difficult reader.  Whenever I do “how to study the scriptures” firesides or talks, I suggest that, for at least one of your multiple passes through a given text, you read like the 14-year-old sitting in the back of the room with his cap on backwards and his arms crossed over his chest.  Read like you are a cynic, read like you doubt everything, read like you aren’t gonna believe anything unless someone proves it to you, read with all of your completely unacceptable questions voiced.

If I’d gone all Molly Mormon on this passage (“Why, Jacob was a Prophet, so if he said it, it must be <hushed whisper> holy and right.”), I never would have figured out what was going on.  I had to allow my initial misunderstanding and grump to fester.  Not untreated festering, mind you–I treated it with multiple encounters with the text.  But I didn’t ignore it or deny it or pretend like I understood something that I didn’t.  And because I was mad, I was hunting.  And because I was hunting, I found the resolution for my grump, and now understand the text much better, I think. Now I am fascinated by Jacob’s extreme level of [appropriate] concern for the [actual] sensibilities of his female readers (especially given the fact that the OT green-lights polygamy).    But that’s a topic for another post.




20 comments for “Why You Should Be Difficult

  1. March 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    That’s a good specific story.

    I don’t like the contrast to “Molly Mormons,” however. That sounds like how the Zoramites read scriptures.

    Reading like a cynical 14-year old is less helpful if you are turning to scripture for solace or even as an invitation to the Holy Ghost, something Jacob would have understood well.

  2. Kevin Barney
    March 26, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Julie, your weekly GD posts have been a life saver for me as a GD teacher, and I love your “difficult reading.” You’re not afraid to call the text out, which is much more helpful than overly delicate tiptoeing would be. I appreciate it very much.

  3. Ray
    March 26, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    Julie, in all my times reading those chapters, I had not picked up the point you make in this post – and I preach careful reading, outside-the-traditional-interpretation-box thinking and envisioning the stories from multiple perspectives all the time. Even with all of that, I completely missed this one.

    Thank you! What a wonderful insight into the actual passages – AND a very important point about looking at scripture through the skeptic’s eyes.

  4. Jax
    March 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks for the good post. It clarifies Jacob’s words and there purpose and at the same time walks us through the repentence/perfecting process (the change of heart from one unrighteous understanding to a better one) AND it shows me/us another great example of why constant scripture study is so important.

  5. March 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    Julie, this is fantastic. Thank you for this.

  6. Sonny
    March 26, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Fantastic, Julie. And I love the story of your epiphany (of sorts).

  7. anita
    March 26, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    love it. realizing that jacob was speaking to his nieces, granddaughters, etc about his own grandsons and nephews really brings home how personal it was for him.

  8. March 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Hoh. Dang. I just taught this last week. I love Jacob and these chapters got me through some tough periods of my life, and I thought I knew what he was saying. So I taught that and therefore the reading was narrow. I’ve never had a quarrel with Jacob, couldn’t even imagine doing so. I’ll have to cultivate an ability to fight with nice people more often. ;)

  9. March 26, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Thanks Julie, really enjoyed the perspective.

  10. March 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Love this post. So many of us (myself included) turn away grumpy and don’t return for the potential resolution. I’m glad you did

  11. Stephanie
    March 26, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Three things I love about this post:

    1. The dangerous, wounded animal scene after reading scriptures or some other church materials has been repeated many times in my house.

    2. Your insight into the situation IS profound.

    3. Sometimes I need to read the same passages over and over again until I “get” what I am looking for, but I don’t always have the patience because I want to get it “done”. I wonder how much I miss (that leaves me frustrated) because I am impatient.

  12. March 27, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Julie, great post. In my blogging regarding BoM lessons, I noted that it is very likely that the Nephites had already absorbed other native peoples (how else does Nephi build a temple like Solomon’s with only a handful of people?).

    It is very possible that the peoples they absorbed were polygamists. The native practice of polygamy would then be what led the actual descendants of Lehi to seek justification via the scriptures to practice it themselves.

  13. Ben S.
    March 27, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Excellent stuff Julie. Brant Gardner has a very interesting read on this, but I don’t recall it well enough to (mis) represent it publicly.

  14. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    March 27, 2012 at 9:48 am

    This is an example of God giving knowledge to a prophet about the message people need to hear, even if they don’t know they need it. A good point as we approach General Conference.

  15. Christy S
    March 27, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Julie, thanks. Powerful.

  16. March 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I really like this too. I appreciate a fellow “difficult reader” (especially one who’s a lot smarter than I am), which is another reason I appreciate your BMGD posts.

    Still haven’t figured out, however, how to reconcile the “David’s many wives and concubines was an abomination before the Lord” according to Jacob and the D&C 132 “God gave David those wives” view. But I’m still letting it fester. (Though I admit I prefer Jacobs view over D&C 132).

  17. March 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Awesome stuff.

    I’m not completely convinced that “desiring” excludes acting on those desires, but your interpretation is one I never considered. Thanks for detailing your struggle with this.

    Perhaps you can write another post for those prone to being difficult readers, guiding them to, at least once in a while, reading the scriptures without cynicism. :)

  18. Dean
    March 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I have had many “difficult” students in gospel classes over the years. Often they ask fantastic questions. As a teacher I think, “wow, that is challenging.” I have often enjoyed searching for answers for such questions.

    However, my experience is that most of those students who ask those really insightful “difficult” questions have had no desire to find or look for an answer. That has been very disappointing to me. Great “difficult” question, really challenging, and little desire to find an answer.

    I like the hard questions, but I think the greater quality is the sincere desire to know and understand.

  19. Dean
    March 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Sooo, Julie. I have a question. How do *you* have and keep both qualities? Ask the difficult, cynical, disruptive (great) questions and also have the sincere desire to keep looking at the text day after day to find an answer?

    And, what happens when you can’t find an answer? (for weeks? or years?)

  20. April 4, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Thanks, Julie, for this chance to peek in on your reading experience. I didn’t read your grumpiness as cynicism but rather as turbulence — the former implying resistance that might hamper learning, I think, with the latter, to me, implying only movement. Even if violent or unsettling, that turbulence ultimately brought you to a new place of understanding.

    Dean, some “difficult” students may indeed not be interested in answers, but I suspect that if they were just trouble makers, they probably wouldn’t keep coming. I think teachers need to be willing to leave things open, even messy and unresolved, when we truly don’t have the answers. A dear Jewish friend says that Torah study at her synagogue can be downright raucous, as they read through and discuss various midrashes from across the centuries, and that it often ends with all kinds of questions hanging, threads left flying.

    There is a strong and valuable impetus to make things edifying and uplifting in our classes, but I think we sometimes have a narrow understanding of how that might be achieved. Knowing that things are complex or troubling doesn’t have to endanger testimonies. Ideally, as Julie has shown, it could lead to greater light and knowledge.

    Maybe we would have fewer crises of faith if we talked more openly about the things that trouble us and the ways we support our faith in the process of working through them.

    Thanks again, Julie.

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