Welcome to the third week of the reading club for Adam Miller’s Future Mormon. For general links related to the book along with links for all the chapter discussions please go to our overview page. We’ll be trying to discuss a chapter each week. Please don’t hesitate to give your thoughts on the chapter. We’re hoping for a good thoroughgoing critical engagement with the text. Such criticisms aren’t treating the text as bad or flawed so much as trying to engage with the ideas Adam brings up. Hopefully people will push back on such criticism as that’s when we tend to all learn the most.
Future Mormon Chapter 3: Reading Signs or Repeating Symptoms – Reading Jacob 7
Every sign that reveals Christ reveals him by touching the wound that we were working to conceal.
Adam starts off talking about units of repetition in both language but more importantly social interaction. It’s complex to explain and Adam does a good job in a short space. Specialized patterns of behavior get used so much that we use them without paying attention to them. We say, “thank you,” to the waiter without really thinking about anything much at all. We say it because that’s the repetitive behavior. To the degree people participate in these repetitive patterns they become invisible — not people just hidden in the repetition. Adam brings up the psychoanalysis theory of transference to explain this and says within religion it is sin.
Upon turning to the narrative of Jacob and Sherem he suggests this problem of transference is behind their interaction. The story is put into a dualism of good and evil with Jacob representing God and Sherem representing the devil. To Adam, Jacob is primarily concerned with defending doctrine rather than acting in a Christ-like fashion. He notes that Sherem has to find Jacob while Jacob apparently was avoiding the meeting (Jac 7:3). To Adam, Sherem seems sincere and worried that Jacob is perverting the Law of Moses. That is, contra Jacob’s presentation, to Sherem it is Sherem who is defending God. Sherem is struck down by God and then Jacob disappears again. Jacob finds Sherem’s sign-seeking disingenuous and see Sherem as hopeless. However Jacob is wrong and after the sign, Sherem repents and confesses Christ leading to a mass conversion (7:21-3) Instead of crediting Sherem though, Jacob to Adam is taking the credit by saying it was because Jacob requested the sign – while still referring to Sherem as wicked.
Adam sees Sherem’s treatment as quite unfair and sees Jacob as acting quite unChristlike. To Adam something about Sherem sets Jacob off. After the Sherem narrative Jacob gives his famous existential soliloquy (7:26) talking about “mourning out our days.” This tribulation is both the loss of Jerusalem Jacob never got to see and the hate of his brothers. Laman and Lemuel come to represent the people of Jerusalem. That is they represent the defenders of the tradition Jacob had to leave. In Adam’s eyes Sherem represents this same defense of tradition and thus is caught up in that repetitive pattern of understanding the leaving of Jerusalem. Rather than see Sherem as a person Jacob can only see the pattern.
To Adam both Sherem and Jacob are skilled with words and able to mirror back what others hope to see. This isn’t just flattery in a straightforward sense but this psychoanalytical sense of transference. Each of them have to repeat pre-established patterns. For Jacob it is the conflict with Laman and Lemuel. For Sherem, Adam postulates some kind of apostasy from the Law as the problem.
Prophecy is the solution as Adam sees it. To Jacob all prophecy and all of the law points to Christ. Interpreting 2 Ne 25:24-7, Adam says that “the law must be kept and its structures preserved, but they must be kept in such a way that they become ‘dead unto us.’ When this happens the spell is broken.” When we don’t do this in Sin, the law takes a life of its own and instead of the law becoming dead we become dead. So this notion of transference or repetition where something that is alive disappears becomes key to understand Jacob’s sin. “Every sign that reveals Christ reveals him by touching the wound that we were working to conceal.”
When God smites Sherem the standard reading is to take it as a sign for Sherem. Adam instead thinks it’s a sign for Jacob. Up to that point Jacob never saw Sherem. He only saw Laman and Lemuel. With the sign of the miracle, the pattern is broken and Jacob can see Sherem and his brothers for the first time as real people.
I have to confess this was a very hard chapter to deal with. On the one hand there is something so insightful and so true in Adam’s analysis. Further it plays directly to Adam’s strength of seeing key theological points in close readings of short narratives of scripture. On the other hand, while Adam’s views are so remarkably close to my own, this chapter also points to a key difference. I’m tremendously skeptical of psychoanalysis. It is something I just have little sympathy for. That said, I also love the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that Paul Ricouer developed. It’s undeniable that both Marx and Freud, two figures I have strong feelings about, deeply influenced Ricouer’s hermeneutics along with Nietzsche. (I’m much more positive towards Nietzsche)
This chapter is a classic suspicious reading of a well known narrative. Were I to teach Ricouer at BYU I’d certainly require reading of this chapter. I’d love to hear the discussion of students responding to Adam after reading the relevant essays out of The Conflict of Interpretations.
How to respond here though.
I’d originally hoped to have this chapter of the reading club up Thursday but instead I keep rewriting this section. Do I focus on Adam’s reading of Sherem and look at the marginalized elements? That is, do to Adam’s reading what Adam did to Jacob’s? Or do I instead skip the text and move to the conclusion that drives Adam’s thoughts. That key theological reading Adam takes out of Romans regarding how we become dead to the Law? There’s so much to discuss on either one.
Let me start with the ending and work backwards, since I think it’s Adam’s conclusion that he thinks is hidden (repressed?) in Jacob’s narrative that drives Adam’s reading.
First, does repetition of the law make the law dead to us? In the sense that repetition leads to unconscious behavior certainly it becomes invisible to us. Consider a common suburban phenomena. You drive to work. As you drive you are paying attention to many things. Maybe you’re talking with your spouse. Maybe you’re listening to a podcast. Each of the repetitive patterns for driving a car disappear from your consciousness. You’re still doing them but they are invisible. Maybe you have the experience I’ve had many times. You’re driving, having a great conversation and suddenly you realize you weren’t driving to where you were suppose to go, but to where you usually go.  You’ve fallen into the trap of repetition.
The question is though, should we describe what is hidden as dead? That is at a crucial point Adam is reading withdrawal from consciousness as either repression or death. Is that legitimate? I think there’s something going on here that isn’t quite kosher as we discuss the law. The problem is that in that withdrawal while driving I often find myself going to the wrong place. That’s because as the patterns of behavior withdraw they hide what is crucial to their success – that consciousness of context. Some days I want to go to work. Some times I want to go to the mall. Sometimes I want to go to my favorite restaurant. In the withdrawal their ability to function fails.
Let’s turn back to Adam. If in following the law in a repetitive fashion it withdraws, it’s not dead. It’s still practiced. Yet instead of being practiced in a correct way it is being practiced in a blind way. Christ is not revealed in such repetition but rather the very concern with context and particularity is lost. Indeed turning a suspicious eye to Adam’s reading we see this with his take on Jacob. Jacob in repeating the law missing Christ. It is when the application take a particular form that for Adam Christ is revealed. But this revelation isn’t due to Christ being revealed as the law withdraws. Quite the contrary it is when Jacob finally pays attention to the law that the particularities happen in such a way that the law can work.
A way to see this is to turn back to our example of the phenomena of driving. At that moment when you suddenly realize you aren’t paying attention to your driving that you are able to make the driving function properly. It’s at that moment of breakdown that you can suddenly see driving as important. As you are able to once again see the driving you can take hold of it and use it to go where you need to.
Law is the same way.
Let me now turn back to the narrative itself. There are many ways we could approach it. We could first off ask where on earth Sherem comes from. Jacob isn’t that old so the descendants of Lehi could be that numerous. The Lamanites have already left. There are hints that the Nephites may have merged with other groups. The narrative starts with the mysterious “there came a man among the people of Nephi.” This is probably the second most mysterious appearance in the Book of Mormon with only Abinadi beating Sherem out.
I’ve discussed here before the deuteronomist tradition at the time of Lehi in Jerusalem. A common, if hard to prove, interpretation of 1 Nephi is that Lehi was opposed to many of the deuteronomist reforms of Josiah. Many see the conflicts of Nephi and Lehi with Laman and Lemuel a conflict between a more northern tribe interpretation of the Law with the deuteronomist tradition in Jerusalem. They see many things that the Lehites might see as testifying of Christ as being eliminated by the deuteronomist tradition. This is, of course, complex. The ultimate point though is whether Lehi is reacting to reforms in Jerusalem or whether Laman is reacting reforms by Nephi there is a conflict that divides the settlers. While we typically assume Laman and Lemuel simply leave the law behind entirely, it’s not clear they have. They may just have left behind Nephi and Jacob’s reform of the law.
It’s into this setting that Adam places Sherem. To Adam Sherem is something like a deuteronomist reformer seeking to restore true religion to the Nephites. For all we know he comes from that portion of the Lamanites who haven’t fully merged with the local culture but have kept some semblance of the law. (This is after all only a few decades after the Lehites have arrived in America)
The obvious type scene for Adam’s reading is Jonah. Jonah is sent to Nineveh to preach repentance. He doesn’t want to go and, according the narrative in our Old Testament, gets miraculous transported there against his will by God. In Nineveh he prophesies the downfall of the city, fully expecting it to be destroyed. Much to his surprise the people repent and the city is saved. This angers Jonah and the Lord justifiably rebukes him for wanting the destruction and not the repentance.
Now here’s my suspicious reading. Does Jacob know the narrative of Jonah?
If he does, what is he saying about himself? Adam is reading behind the narrative, but of course the narrative comes from Jacob. So if Jacob presents himself in a problematic way, is it Jacob hiding from what he is doing or is it Jacob showcasing what he is doing? If Jacob sees himself as Jonah, how does that affect how we see Jacob? First off, quite the contrary to Adam’s reading of Jacob as caught in a pattern he can’t stop repeating, we see Jacob showing himself as afraid to repeat a pattern he is all too conscious of. The key portion is of course God intervening. If Jacob is Jonah, doesn’t that mean Jacob fears wanting punishment unrighteously? (The way Jonah wanted Ninevah to be punished) Isn’t he recognizing that he can’t judge? There’s a certain moment of undecidability with this suspicion of the place of Jonah.
That’s not the only suspicion we can raise though. Indeed while Jonah purports to transpire during the mid 7th century with the reign of Jeroboam II most scholars date it to the 4th century after the exile. That’s not to say a proto-narrative didn’t exist on the brass plates. Perhaps we should be suspicious of assuming Jacob is writing with Jonah in mind though. Fortunately Jonah isn’t the only type scene that fits. First we should establish what we mean by a type scene. It’s a form of Hebrew narrative rather like the pattern Adam discusses but without the psycho-analytic baggage. The classic discussion of type scenes is Robert Alter in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. Quoting Alter:
Since biblical narrative characteristically catches its protagonists only at the critical and revealing points in their lives, the biblical type-scene occurs not in the rituals of daily existence but at the crucial junctures in the lives of the heroes. . . . Some of the most commonly repeated biblical type-scenes I have been able to identify are the following: the annunciation . . . of the birth of the hero to his barren mother; the encounter with the future betrothed at a well; the epiphany in the field; the initiatory trial; danger in the desert and the discovery of a well or other source of sustenance; the testament of the dying hero. (Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 51.)
Characteristic of such settings is that they frequently don’t take into consideration the inner space of the protagonist. The key part of such type scenes usually are dialog that push the narrative through questions.
The type scene most relevant to Jacob 7 is the prophetic concealment pattern we find in Exodus 3-4; Exodus 32-34; 1 Samuel 28; 1 Kings 18-19; Deuteronomy 31-32; and Numbers 11-12 in various ways. Without going through all the elements this type scene has an emphasis on the prophet being concealed in various ways, much as Adam notes Sherem can’t find Jacob initially. It takes place during a period of crisis and is often associated with a theophany. The type scene always begins with a crisis of the covenant and its resolution depends upon divine to human communication. Typically the type scene involves either explicit rival prophets such as with Elijah and the priests of Baal or implied rivals. There’s often discussion of a successor or assistant to the prophet. In many of the accounts, the prophet dies at the end or announces his immanent end.
The focus is always the covenant and the revelation of the covenant rather than the personal life or narrative of the prophet. The concealment of the prophet can represent the displeasure of God or the nature of God’s revelation (such as when prophets veil themselves before God). “…nevertheless. When Israel turns away from God, the prophets of God withdraw. Before they return, they must be fortified by a theophany, a dialogue with God, and a renewed sense ofmission. The concealment and silence of the prophet mean two things together: the fear of God warranted by the theophany and a withdrawal from prophetic speech at a moment of crisis. In the type scene sketched here, the silence of the theophany and the silence of the prophet’s withdrawal are inseparable.” (Britt, 58)
Note how many of these are in Jacob 7. We have Jacob’s concealment at the beginning, the rival prophet in Sherem, and even at the end the announcement of a successor (Enos) and the announcement of Jacob’s death. In particular Elijah parallels Jacob very closely as do the accounts of Moses in Exodus 32-34 and Deuteronomy 32-34. Interestingly scholars often claim that both those accounts are dependent upon the narrative that ended up in 1 Kings 18-19 with Elijah. I confess I find Deuteronomy the most interesting both because one can read Sherem as a deuteronomist opposing Nephi’s reforms and because of the irony of Jacob taking the role of Moses for such a person. It’s worth reading Moses in Deut 32:46, since it gets at what the conflict is really about between Sherem and Jacob.
Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life: and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land, whither ye go over Jordan to possess it.
This isn’t all. All of Deut 32 seems to echo through the encounter between Sherem and Jacob. But not in the way I think Adam takes it. The conflict is over who is God. Both Sherem and Jacob can read these passages thinking how it applies. (Emphasis mine)
They provoked him to jealousy with strange gods, with abominations provoked they him to anger.
They sacrificed unto devils, not to God; to gods whom they knew not, to new gods that came newly up, whom your fathers feared not.
Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee.
They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God;
they have provoked me to anger with their vanities:
and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants,
when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left.
And he shall say, Where are their gods, their rock in whom they trusted,
Which did eat the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their drink offerings?
let them rise up and help you, and be your protection.
Verses 36-38 echo for Moses the battle between Elijah and the priests of Baal over who was God. Jacob is not judging Sherem, but allowing God to judge. When Sherem asks for a sign, it is he, not Jacob who is asking for a repetition of Moses or Elijah. Jacob is not asking for sign. “What am I that I should tempt God to show unto thee a sign?” (14) He is echoing Moses in Deuteronomy 29. “Ye have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land. The great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles. Yet the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see , and ears to hear, unto this day.” (Deut 29:2-4) The focus of those who do not see the signs of God is that “they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt [or Jerusalem] for they went and served other gods, and worshipped them, gods whom they knew not, and whom he had not given them.” (25-26)
The conflict between Sherem and Jacob really isn’t about them. Rather it enframes a pattern that is there to allow the people to see the hand of the Lord. It is the breakdown that enables God’s grace to manifest. In this case giving Sherem the very sign he wanted following the very types he appealed to. What is revealed is the covenant.
Let me return to Adam’s analysis. What is the law in the law? When the law is repeated, what does that mean? Adam wants the sign to be the touching of the wound we have. In one sense that is true. However is it in the repetition of the law that it becomes dead? Or does it become dead because we have what the law points to in Christ? The conflict between Sherem and Jacob is over the repetition of the same thing. However Sherem’s repetition is a kind of negative. To return to my initial example, Sherem is like driving the car where driving disappears for us but we don’t keep in mind where we want to go. Jacob has the law withdraw too just as my car driving does. However Jacob while driving keeps his focus on where he is going. So driving (or for Jacob the law) withdraws and becomes invisible because he has Christ before him. This is the inverse of what Adam suggests and I think Adam gets it wrong by focusing on psychoanalytic transference rather than the more straightforward phenomenology of how things withdraw from me in my practices with them. Again, the common everydayness of driving a car illustrates well what is going on for Sherem. People who drive without paying attention tend to crash. The shock awakes them to what was going on. Sherem found something quite similar unfortunately.
1. I confess that many times while on a date with my wife I suddenly find myself near work rather than near the restaurant or theatre we were going to. I’m fairly confident that, as absent minded as I sometimes am during a good discussion, I’m not alone in doing this.
2. Without going down a tangent it’s worth asking where all the women the Nephites were treating as concubines came from in Jacob 2. Does that practice in Jacob 2 parallel what the priests of Noah do in Mosiah 20? For a good overview of the idea of there being others in the land the Nephites may have already started mixing with see Brant Gardner’s “A Social History of the Early Nephites.”
3. Again see that post from last year. Kevin Christensen’s “The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament” is worth reading too. The complexity comes out though in a point Adam raised in last week’s chapter. When Lehi has his vision in 1 Nephi 1 he’s oblivious to the obvious Christological symbols in the vision. This is true of Lehi’s vision of the tree of life too. It’s Nephi’s receiving that same vision that really opens up a Christ oriented rethinking of the law for the Nephites.
4. I’m here largely following “Prophetic Concealment in a Biblical Type Scene” by Brian Britt. He goes through many of the elements of the type scene. Even if you don’t fully buy his analysis, it’s worth comparing the texts I cited and comparing them to Jacob 7. There are some deep similarities.
5. The theophany element is somewhat missing in Jacob 7 except for Jacob’s insistence that he has had a theophany. “…for I truly had seen angels, and they had ministered unto me. And also, I had heard the voice of the Lord speaking unto me in very word, from time to time;” (5) This is important since Jacob says this is “manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost” (12) Effectively Sherem is asking for the theophany without being ready for it. And as Indiana Jones found out, that doesn’t work too well for the wicked.
6. A really weird component I don’t feel qualified to speak to is the use of the word “pass” that occurs in most of these examples especially during theophanies. So Ex 33:19 has “all my goodness pass before thee…” or 1 Kings 19:11 “behold the Lord passed by…” While that word occurs in Jacob’s existential angst in verse 26, it’s not God or the divine passing him by but their lives and time.
7. The Nephites of course saw themselves in the Exodus pattern. Nephi in particular makes abundant use of it. It’s hardly surprising that Jacob might too see himself as Moses with the new promised land a new covenant.