One of the most striking features of the Bible is its division into Old and New Testaments, which present not only substantially different sets of religious beliefs and practices, but very different portrayals of God. The God of the Old Testament is a judgmental, jealous, and vengeful God, who destroys sinners without remorse, whether of his own people, the Hebrews, or even entire nations such as those of Canaan. God’s love and compassion are also visible in the Old Testament, but the harsher side is displayed quite dramatically. This judgmental conception of God is reflected not only in descriptions of God himself and his behavior, but also in the attitudes and behavior of his prophets and of his chosen people. There is quite a contrast with Christ in the New Testament, who is gentle with sinners and teaches that we should love our enemies, bless those that curse us, and turn the other cheek when others treat us badly.
Christians explain the major differences between the Old and New Testaments as partly a reflection of the fact that the Law of Moses was offered to prepare the Hebrews for the new law, which was delivered by Christ. This account explains the differences in worship practices and in behavioral commandments, but it does not explain the different portrayals of God. I suggest that part of the difference we are seeing is precisely the difference in perspective between a people who are hearing and receiving the new law from Christ (in the New Testament era), and one that does not understand this message and is not ready to receive it (in the Old Testament era).
The Book of Mormon, by contrast, describes a group of Hebrews long before the time of Christ, living under the Law of Moses, but with a full understanding that their salvation was ultimately to be made possible by Christ, and not by the Mosaic sacrifices and practices. In 1 Nephi chapter 1, about 600 B.C., Lehi sees Christ and his twelve apostles in a vision. In 1 Nephi 11 Lehi’s son Nephi sees a vision of Mary, of Christ’s birth and ministry, of his apostles, and of his crucifixion. Nephi also sees the risen Christ visiting his own descendants in the New World. Moreover, all of this is presented as an exposition of the love of God, as symbolized by the tree of life (1 Nephi 11:21-22). From the beginning, then, the descendants of Lehi have a detailed awareness of the purpose of the Law of Moses and its true fulfillment in Christ, and they understand Christ and his ministry fundamentally as a manifestation of God’s love.
It is a step in the right direction, then, to think of the Book of Mormon as a retelling of the story of the House of Israel from the theological perspective of the New Testament. One of the most important elements of this different perspective is the conception of God as fundamentally loving and compassionate, and not only toward his chosen people, but toward all human beings, the sinners as well as the righteous. This perspective is also reflected in the radically different actions of his people, and the attitudes of the prophets.
As they return to the promised land of Canaan, for instance, God tells the Israelites to destroy whole nations, man, woman, and child, and even destroy the animals. They are restrained in their march, sparing certain peoples for a time, only because at first there are not enough of the Hebrews to occupy all of the land. By contrast, Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon repeatedly insists that he takes up arms against the Lamanites strictly in self-defense, and would gladly live in peace with them if they would only stop attacking. When the Lamanites are ready to admit defeat, he is happy to let them go if they will only abandon their weapons and promise not to fight against the Nephites again (Alma 44, 48). Captain Moroni seems to reflect the longsuffering love even for one’s enemy that is central to New Testament teaching.
The harshness of the Old Testament is reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of the prophets as well. When a captain comes to bring Elijah before the king, Elijah says, “If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty,” and it happens (2 Kings 1:10). He repeats the stunt with the next captain and his fifty, until the third captain comes crawling on his knees. Abinadi in the Book of Mormon similarly comes out of the wilderness to call his own king to repentance. Yet Abinadi confirms his own prophetic role with a different kind of fire, the fire in which he himself is burned to death, at the king’s order.
When Jonah sees the people of Nineveh repenting, he complains to God that they are not being destroyed as he had predicted they would be. Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah, by contrast, “could not bear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thought that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble” (Mosiah 28: 3). In this spirit they go to preach among their enemies the Lamanites, risking death and enduring imprisonment, and are prepared to live out their lives there in the hope of leading a few souls to Christ. In contrast with Elijah and Jonah, then, Abinadi and the sons of Mosiah reflect a willingness to sacrifice themselves to save the wicked that is reminiscent of Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross. Where Moses threatens Pharaoh with plagues to prove God’s power, Ammon proves God’s power by saving the king’s flocks from thieves, and has to be fetched from the stables to receive the king’s thanks.
God is quite strict with his own people as well, in the Old Testament. When the Hebrews balk at the prospect of fighting with the inhabitants of Canaan, God forces them to wander in the desert until all of that generation have died. Along the way, a number of people are killed for unfaithfulness, stoned, swallowed up in the earth, or at least smitten with leprosy.
In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel are constantly rebelling and questioning Nephi’s and Lehi’s prophetic role, but are treated quite gently. On one occasion, an angel appears and scolds them. On another, Nephi shocks them. On another, he simply slips free of their bonds after they have left him to die. When they question Lehi’s vision of the tree of life, Nephi invites them to seek their own witness from God. When they tie him to the mast of their ship, a storm blows up and threatens the ship, but no one is actually harmed. Laman and Lemuel enter the promised land with the rest of the family. In his treatment of Laman and Lemuel, then, the God of the Book of Mormon reflects an attitude like that of Christ toward the woman taken in adultery, when he says, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go, and sin no more.”
There is substantial support, then, for this idea that the Book of Mormon retells the story of the House of Israel, with a New Testament conception of God that emphasizes much more strongly his love and mercy. The cases I have given are a small sampling, but to the extent that they are representative, there is a pattern of significant contrast.
It seems to me, however, that this characterization does not fully capture the differences between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. Mormons embrace a view of God as compassionate and loving, like traditional Christians, but unlike traditional Christians*, Mormons believe that God feels deeply both joy at human righteousness and grief at their wickedness. Far from celebrating the destruction of the wicked, he mourns them, as necessary as their destruction may be. Thus while the New Testament portrays God in a much more loving and less wrathful manner than does the Old Testament, the Mormon conception of God’s love goes farther still.
While the New Testament Christ is generally gentle and kind, even toward sinners, we see a harsh side when he says that those who do not believe in him will be damned. Christ seems vengeful in predicting that in the destruction that follows his death, not one stone will be left upon another.
In the Book of Mormon, an even more dramatic destruction of the wicked ensues among the descendants of Lehi at the time of Christ’s death. Yet immediately afterward, Christ speaks to the people in the darkness: “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings . . . and ye would not [and] how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me . . .” This image of the hen gathering her chickens appears in the New Testament (Matthew 23:37), but only a few lines before, Christ has called the Pharisees a generation of vipers. In this case one has the impression that Christ’s primary point is to emphasize that the Jews have lost their chance for mercy, rather than to express regret. In the Book of Mormon, however, it is clear that he is pleading still with those who were not destroyed, that they will repent and turn to him (3 Nephi 9:13), and affirming that this merciful invitation will remain open through the future. He is eager to see the wicked change their ways (3 Nephi 10:3-7), and he seems to be lamenting at length the loss of those who have fallen, as he describes their destruction: “O ye people of these great cities, who have fallen . . .” (3 Nephi 10:4). The very choice of words in describing these people as “fallen” seems to emphasize not God’s power in destroying them, but his sorrow at their destruction. This is another example, typical of the many ways in which the Book of Mormon directly redeploys motifs from the Bible, casting them in a very different light.
One of the most vivid portrayals of God’s compassion is in Moses 7, in the Pearl of Great Price. There Enoch sees the wickedness of the people before the flood, and sees God weeping over them. For good reason this passage has been a focal point for discussions of the distinctiveness of the Mormon understanding of God, for instance in Eugene England’s essay on “The Weeping God of Mormonism” and Terryl and Fiona Givens’s book, The God Who Weeps. Yet as we see here, the Book of Mormon portrays God’s compassion with very much the same poignancy and depth, in multiple passages.
We see another, similarly vivid portrayal of God’s compassion in the parable of the olive trees, in Jacob 5. When he sees that his vineyard has been taken over by wild fruit, the master of the vineyard says:
what could I have done more in my vineyard? Have I slackened mine hand, that I have not nourished it? Nay, I have nourished it, and I have digged about it, and I have pruned it, and I have dunged it; and I have stretched forth mine hand almost all the day long, and the end draweth nigh. And it grieveth me that I should hew down all the trees of my vineyard, and cast them into the fire that they should be burned. Who is it that has corrupted my vineyard?
Again, the purging of the vineyard is presented as a necessary thing, but an occasion for grief over the loss of the branches and trees that are to be burned, and over their unrealized potential for good.
The contrast between a God who triumphs over the wicked and one who mourns over them shows also in the overall form of the narrative in the two books. The climax of the Bible is the resurrection, further preaching, and ascension of Christ. The letters of Paul and others read almost like an epilogue to this. The overall narrative is one of triumph. This theme of triumph is reiterated in the closing book, Revelation, which ends with a vision of heaven, God victorious on his throne, the tree of life, and the saints and angels singing God’s praises around him.
The Book of Mormon, by contrast, finishes with a scene of complete earthly destruction. Mormon fights alongside his people until they are all killed, and only his son Moroni is left to finish and bury the record. The same overall narrative is recapitulated in the Book of Ether, as another nation founded by a great prophet with a unique vision of Christ ultimately is destroyed by war. The gospel remains, and is to be unearthed with the Book of Mormon, but for the time being, the overwhelming impression is of grief. While the Nephites, like the Jaredites, are destroyed because they have fallen into wickedness, Mormon and Moroni find no joy in this, no sense of triumph. In fact, even after Mormon has been forbidden to preach to them, he goes back to lead them in battle because he cannot bear to see them simply driven helpless before the overwhelming numbers of the Lamanites. Mormon would rather die with his people, wicked though they be, than stand by as an idle witness. This is the compassion of God which we see transmitted to his prophets in the Book of Mormon.
It is also, of course, the kind of compassion we see in the Incarnation, the compassion Christ shows in living among us, and then allowing us to mock, spit upon, flog, and crucify him. There could hardly be a more vivid expression of God’s compassion, and that of his Son, than these events, recorded in the Gospels. Yet it seems to me that we have not always seen or appreciated their full meaning based only on the account in the New Testament.
The Book of Mormon thus vividly presents, in numerous ways, a view of God as profoundly compassionate. This conception of God is reflected not only in depictions of God himself, but in the attitudes and behaviors of his prophets and of his chosen people. It is also thoroughly reflected in the theology of the Book of Mormon, including a radically revised conception of God’s judgment at the last day. I’ll return to that on another occasion.
Ultimately the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon, D&C, and Pearl of Great Price all describe the same God, and his relationship with his children. Presumably the differences in the aspects of God that come through in them are partly a simple result of different circumstances. God deals with his people in light of their situation and their spiritual state, and the more receptive and obedient they are, the more he is able to bless them and reveal himself to them. At the same time, different people will recognize different things about God in the same events, depending on their level of spiritual attunement. In this light the record of the Nephites, who through much of their history include a substantial body of sincere believers in Christ, offers an especially complete picture of the character of God, including his matchless love, tenderness, and compassion.
*I am confident that many traditional Christians in the pews imagine God’s compassion in a way not very different from the way it is portrayed in the Book of Mormon and in Moses 7. For most of the past 2000 years, though, official Catholic and Protestant teaching has been clearly committed to the idea that God is without passions, and that his pure happiness cannot be tarnished by human foolishness.
(This post is based on a talk I gave at Utah State University in 2012)