I’ve stumbled in my consistency, and have ended up reading this passage on three or four different occasions, taking brief notes each time. There’s too much to write, as there always is, but I particularly feel it here.
The angel begins by reminding or interrogating or raising the covenants of the House of Israel. I’m not sure the angel’s intent. Is this pedagogical priming? Is it interrogation? Is it a test, with the angel serving as guardian or gate-keeper, not allowing Nephi to pass on to the next part of the vision until he’s proven his gnosis? Is it the divine teaching that incorporates Socrates’s great insight that knowledge begins with acknowledgment of ignorance? Do you remember the covenants, Nephi? Do you understand them? Whatever the angel’s intent, and whatever the content of Nephi’s answer, this vision is a deepening and expansion of Nephi’s vision of the covenants of the House of Israel. And this sets up a great contrast.
God uses whores or prostitutes in a number of places and for a number of different reasons in the scriptures. How is it being used here? What is a whore? There are a number of things that come to mind. First, whores require partners. One cannot be a whore without an equally false accomplice, someone else who dons an identical scarlet “A,” even if society turns its head and ignores that fact. Next, whores sell that which is sacred. They inappropriately convert or switch values. Not everything is quantificational or commensurable, but whores are willing to set up a market that levels distinct values, sets up an altar on which to sacrifice all other values in the favor of a value that is intrinsically instrumental and temporary. Third, whores actively entice their accomplices, seek to influence others to come and worship at the altar they’ve erected, urging them to betray their own covenants for that which is not an cannot be of equal value. [FN 1]
The whore, or the church of the devil, is first referred to as the mother of abominations. That is, that which gives birth to or generates abominations. But again, this isn’t auto-genesis; there is no virgin birth hinted at here; its being a mother of abominations requires a willing, paying partner. This point is emphasized when we think of the two together: this “church” (I’m ignoring the church part—what might it mean to call it a church?) is both a whore and a mother—as of course almost all whores are given a certain length of time. So once again, this willingness to subvert and commensurate incommensurate value is not only inappropriate, but gives rise to other evils. The love of money is the root of all evil.
As mother, what does this church give birth to? It’s also here called the mother of harlots. Not only is the role of this church enticing partners who are likewise willing to sell their covenants, but in doing so it brings about others who play the same role. I’m reminded of those who stood sneering in the great and spacious building; their blasphemy influenced others to make a pilgrimage to the building and join with those who earlier sneered at them. Misery loves company.
Driving home further this image of satanic copulation, the whore of all the earth sits upon many waters. I don’t believe I’ve ever pondered on this detail before. My unreflective mind assumed this to be a metaphor for continents on the ocean, reinforcing the next point that the dominion of this church was great, that the whore was a whore in all parts of the earth. But that’s not what the phrase says, is it? And my unreflective assumption now strikes me as naïve. This specific kind of sacrilegious sexuality is conducted with the earth itself, which gives rise to multiple meanings. Continuing to leverage this metaphor, the sitting is another reference to a sexual act, this time exploiting water as its means to sexual gratification.
Two conspicuous candidates for the meaning of the water, and hence the meaning of the whore’s actions here, come to mind. First is the political reality of unjust governments and people stealing, poisoning, or controlling water sources as a means of pursuing their political ends, and often as an act of war. This makes better sense to me for why this sitting on the waters is related to the small dominion of the church of the Lamb of God. It’s a violation of human rights conventions to politically exploit water in this way today, whether we’re discussing Israel dumping old rusty military vehicles into Palestinian water wells or Nestle wresting control of indigenous water sources and then selling that water at exorbitant prices back to the natives merely for profit. I can imagine this image and its meaning being even more potent for Lehi’s caravanning family in ancient Arabia. The whore cuts off and controls the water sources, squatting on them, denying access to them.
This blends well with the second meaning of water that comes to mind: the living waters. Here we return to the earlier discussion of the covenants of the House of God, that which was written and made plain when it first issued from the mouth of the Jew, but which has become corrupted. The living waters, the gospel, the covenants of God that bring peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come. What is our access to them? The whore sitting on many waters, such that the church of the Lamb of God has limited access to undefiled waters, which necessarily keeps its dominion small (even if it does stretch across the earth).
Again, thinking of this control and exploitation of water in sexual terms, as the sexual act of a whore, emphasizes not only the inappropriateness of the end, but the crassness of the means. Do not pervert that which is of sacred value; do not violate or sell your covenants for money.
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- There’s a fourth and important characteristic, one that’s also usually overlooked both by those who condemn and those who passionately advocate for whores: it’s rarely an occupation or role of choice; the whore is exploited, dominated, coerced, often made to suffer horrible abuse while completely innocent, and usually lives in miserable conditions. I’m not sure that this fact is illuminating in this passage, since recognition of this fact demands compassion and the whore here is—perhaps among others—the devil and consequently draws and merits the wrath of God.