The JST, Moses, and the Flood in Seminary: How Much complexity?

I happened to sit in on an early morning Seminary class today, working on Moses 8. I haven’t been in a Seminary class since I graduated high school, which was… a while ago. But I noticed something that went completely uncommented on by the manual, that I could see.

Compare the two texts below. I’ve italicized the differences, and in both texts, I’ve bolded/replaced the explanatory/causal “for” with the clearer “because.”

KJV

6:6-7 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth,

 
and it grieved him at his heart.

And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air;

because it repenteth me that I have made them.

JST/Book of Moses

8:25-6 And it repented Noah, and his heart was pained that the Lord had made man on the earth,

and it grieved him at the heart.

And the Lord said: I will destroy man whom I have created, from the face of the earth, both man and beast, and the creeping things, and the fowls of the air;

because it repenteth Noah that I have created them, and that I have made them; and he hath called upon me; for they have sought his life.

These changes do several things. First, Noah, not the LORD, is the direct object of the strange English construction “it repenteth S.O.” This gets God out of repenting, kind of. (The Hebrew nicham means “to feel remorse, change one’s mind” not “to turn away from sin.” God can and does nicham in the Bible.) But the other effect is that the worldwide destroy-everything flood comes, because it “repenteth Noah” and humans have tried to kill him.

Doesn’t that strike anyone as, well, overkill? The JST, a reworking and commentary of sorts on the KJV, while trying to fix the archaic English problem of God repenting, gets us into an even bigger problem, with a God who kills everyone because… Noah feels sad and threatened.

I did not bring this up with the Seminary class. I’m new in the area, and would have needed to go through several layers to explain things, all of which would have been outside their norm, I think, like the nature of the JST, the nature of Moses, what we do and don’t know, the nature of the flood story in the Old Testament, etc. (See my commentary on the flood text and our typical quasi-fundamentalist reading of it.

But again, I haven’t really interacted with teenagers much since I was a teenager. Can seminary students understand and profit from that kind of discussion? Or are we still kind of on the level of “here’s a story, here’s what it means”? How much complexity can seminary students handle (which assumes a teacher prepared to teach it to them)?

I want Seminary to be like this, defthysgmglb7lmdwmpz

but my impression is it’s more like this.
nope

86 comments for “The JST, Moses, and the Flood in Seminary: How Much complexity?

  1. Those seminary students may be missionaries within a matter of *weeks* of having been seminary students. They deserve some tools for thinking through these issues; if seminary teachers don’t give them the tools, they are leaving their students woefully unprepared for what their investigators ask, for what they discover in their own future studies, for hostile junk they find on the Internet, etc.

    It doesn’t have to be a huge production. In this particular situation, I’d probably spend 20 seconds sayings something like: “This looks like a situation where Joseph Smith was correcting something that’s a problem in the KJV that isn’t a problem in the Hebrew text–remember the first week when we talked about the different kinds of JSTs? The thing you should take from this is that God doesn’t repent because God doesn’t sin, but that God does sometimes feel remorse or sadness for the actions of humans. Moving on . . .”

  2. My husband teaches seminary and often wonders the same thing. He wondered, for example, when talking about the flood how much to talk about a global flood/local flood. He reports that the reaction of his students to things like that – things he thinks might be a bit “controversial” or throw them for a bit of a loop – is zero. They have no reaction or interest. I encourage him to keep just casually mentioning things like that for the same reason Julie said – they don’t really care now, but when they are missionaries or adults and someone throws something at them, they’ll vaguely recall that their seminary teacher said something about it and it won’t give them a heart attack. But they don’t really engage with sticky issues.

  3. I think Gina raises a really important point: very few teens will care. But they also don’t know what they need to know in the future, so their (not) caring is not the best metric to use in determining what to teach them.

    When it comes to the flood, this is how I handle it with adults and teens: “Some people believe this was a universal flood because of reasons a, b, and c. Some believe it was local because of x, y, and z. I lean toward local myself. That said, this issue isn’t nearly as important as the symbolic teachings of the story–which apply whether the flood was local or universal–and include . . .”

    I have to admit that I lack sympathy for the people who, because of their unwillingness to spend what amounts to just a few moments of class time framing the issue this way, leave their students open to being blindsided in ten years when they become aware of these issues.

  4. Why must inaccuracy and oversimplification always be on the side of fundamentalism? It’s probably much more accurate to say there was no flood at all, than to say there was a global flood covering the earth–since any flood that existed would have been local, if at all.

    How much more complicated is the idea of a “local flood” to “global flood?” If teenagers don’t have the intellectual bandwidth to grasp such a simple idea, maybe we shouldn’t be graduating them from seminary (or high school!) and sending them into the world to be missionaries.

    Personally, I think the problem isn’t so much the capability of our seminary students, as the exceedingly low expectations we set for them.

  5. I suspect, especially with the Old Testament, most teachers don’t themselves have a good grasp on the issues, and are more-than-usually dependent on the manual. You can’t teach what you don’t know.

  6. Gee, the Flood doesn’t have a leg to stand on. We need to start being honest and not fundamentalist about it. There’s no physical evidence for it, and there is severe internal absurdity in the story. We need to start acknowledging this.

  7. Why? Because Mormons, like Evangelicals, (as I wrote here )

    when making generic assessments of [scripture], are strongly biased in favor of historical narrative and deeply suspicious of fictional genres like allegories, myths, legends, fables, and folktales. For many evangelicals, any hint of fiction in Job, Jonah, Daniel, 1 Kings, Acts, or in any parts of the Pentateuch or Gospels, would be theologically threatening, not only for the biblical book itself but for the Bible as a whole.- Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words.

    We’ve failed to really study scripture. We read it a lot, but not closely. We don’t know how. Moreover, sometimes learning scripture entails reading something *about* scripture, and not just scripture itself. Doesn’t matter how many times you read Jeremiah 1:11 in English, it’s just not going to make sense without Hebrew, a study note, or a commentary.

  8. The LDS church should move away from the flood as a historical event (and Adam and Eve and Noah and so forth as historical figures) in Gospel Doctrine first.

  9. Seminary generates a lot of frustration, but we’re not quite sure on whom to focus that frustration: Under-prepared volunteer teachers? Fundamentalist-leaning manuals? Uninterested students? The frustration is compounded, I think, by the fact that Institute classes, directed at college-age LDS youth, don’t do much more with the curriculum, and adult education in the Church doesn’t either (it actually seems to be a drop-off from what is directed at the teenagers). It’s like a college curriculum full of 99R courses.

    Ben’s comment seems spot on: “You can’t teach what you don’t know.” Perhaps that applies to the system as a whole, not just to most teachers. Take Institute and LDS adult education to a higher level and perhaps some of the Seminary frustration would dissipate.

  10. My wife and I were just talking last Sunday about how much you could accomplish with a group of students you knew you were going to have once a week for the next sixty years… And yet, I have a hard time pointing to anything much I’ve learned as a result of the church education programs since I was a teenager. I haven’t quite been able to unpack that yet.

  11. FGH, I’m trying to be productive here, and snarky comments made with fake email addresses are not really welcome.

    FYI, Evangelicals aren’t too dissimilar. Peter Enns got fired, John Walton’s taken lots of flack for his books, etc.

  12. I think Ben S. nailed it in his first comment, #5. My experience is that many members don’t even bother with the Old Testament. Their attitude seems to be, “I read the Book of Mormon. I don’t need other scriptures.” BTW I would like all our meetings to be like the Jack Black picture, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

  13. Well, if I was teaching the flood story…
    I would say that God flooded the whole earth. Leave out any hint of a local flood as it is definitely not part of our doctrine.

  14. For me, I’ve found the lessons that have a huge GIF 1 to GIF 2 disparity (i.e. my expectations of how mind-blowing something is versus its reception by the young men I teach) is how personally meaningful something is to me. I’ve started to realize that’s because the thing that is meaningful to me is meaningful for a reason: I had a question; I had a concern; I had a problem. And then when I learned – really deep down learned – the thing that helped with the question-concern-problem, it changed my way of thinking about it. I hope it will help the young men to deal with that issue easier in the future. But, largely because they have never really grappled with the particular question-concern-problem, I think it’s kind of a, “Meh, when do I get to go home” kind of experience.

    An inapt analogy might be the difference between someone recovering from the flu and someone getting a flu shot. When you have the flu, it consumes you. You want nothing else but for the flu to be gone. And when it’s gone, you feel incredible and profoundly grateful for just normal health. If you get a flu shot, you notice it and it helps, but because you didn’t go through the flu yourself, you just don’t appreciate the remedy that prevents it near as much.

  15. The flood is an interesting topic. What is even more curious is that many ancient cultures also talk about a massive flood. Examples would be the Gilgamesh and Sumerian flood myths.

  16. Rob, the Mormon Church has no “doctrine” regarding the flood. Even the ultra-orthodox folks at FairMormon readily concede that “The belief that the flood was either global or local does not constitute a critical part of Latter-day Saint theology.” Indeed, a large number of faithful Mormon scholars and scientists dismiss the notion that the flood covered the entire Earth. And for good reason.

    Ben S., I question whether high school kids could grasp this kind of complexity, but it may be worth a try. Though I, for one, believe much of the JST should be viewed with a skeptical eye. Barlow’s book, “Mormons and the Bible,” discusses in considerable detail many of the inconsistencies and discrepancies found in Joseph’s re-write.

  17. FAIR is hardly monolithic or ultra-orthodox in the sense of representing Joseph Fielding Smith/McConkie tradition. (You’d be surprised.) But they do defend the Church.

    We certainly have a long tradition of interpreting Genesis 6-9 a certain simplistic way. I’m not sure it rises to the level of doctrine; at least, I’m unaware of anyone else really getting revelation about it. But cultural tradition sometimes masquerades as doctrine in the church.

  18. “Fair” point, Ben. (Forgive the terrible pun—I always get a bit punchy on Friday afternoons. Practicing law will do that to you.)

  19. Ben (7) I think there’s an understandable presumption that historical seeming narratives are reasonably accurate. Honestly I don’t think the issue is allegory or so forth. Rather there’s that presumption of at least reasonable accuracy. Now I think there are reasons to be distrustful of the accuracy of the OT for a wide variety of reasons. I think we should qualify how OT writers viewed history as compared with 20th century history writing. Things like type settings, a tendency to use more universalist or hyperbolic language (still true in the mideast today)

    However appealing to myth/allegory just inherently seems problematic for understandable reasons when the text seems like narrative. At best we can say that when the OT was compiled during the centuries after the exile that the scribes edited from a variety of sources sometimes not paying attention to the nature of the source beyond its utility. Invoke that distinction between an inspired editor like Mormon and an uninspired one and I think we make the point. Especially if we raise the genres of pseudepigrapha and the like from that era. Throw in the pretty heavy textual skepticism of the OT by the Book of Mormon (missing texts, skepticism in 1 Nephi 13, etc.) and you’ll make more headway.

    I just think the pedagogy of raising allegory or fictions raises more problems than it solves unless one puts in that issue of who edited the text.

  20. FarSide, it’s been years since I’ve had time to volunteer with FAIR, but when I volunteered in the years following its origins there were very few McConkie type thinkers. Most seemed either the FARMS sort or a few more of the MHA types.

  21. Fair enough, but “narrative” isn’t a genre-determiner by itself. There’s plenty of fictional narrative as well as historical in the world. But we have to deal with literary issues (are Genesis 6-9 intended as a history or some other genre?) before we can evaluate its historical accuracy. Something is not “bad history” if it’s not intended as history in the first place.
    And that’s before we say “ok, now let’s try to determine the genre of an ancient text, in translation, from another culture.”

    I think there may be a historical, limited-flood text far behind G 6-9, but if so, it’s been pressed into use and expanded (for polemical anti-Mesopotamican purposes?) into a universal cosmological flood, that re-creates the world by returning it to its pre-creation watery/chaotic state (as in Gen. 1:2, the tehom from which everything is created.) Noah is the new Adam. This is tied very closely to the P creation account (Gen 1-2:4a), which I think is also non-historical and meant to teach certain things. I dislike the word “metaphor” or “non-literal” because I don’t think they fit at all, but “myth” carries far too much baggage with it. “Literal” is not synonymous with “historical.”

    Or, as Peter Enns says,

    Ancient Israelites, living in a world of already very ancient stories of a catastrophic deluge (likely occurring around 2900 BCE) that left ancient peoples scrambling for answers about why the gods would do such a thing, adapted that story to say something of theological significance for them by way of contrast with these other ancient stories. This is not to suggest, however, that the entire earth was actually, geologically, in space and time covered with water, nor does it even suggest that this story give us permanent, let alone primary, information about of God’s ‘character.’
    But it does suggest that this story had some significant religious value for its writers, and we ought to try to understand what that might be rather than capturing the story in a misleading slogan that will set up our children for a faith crisis once they get old enough to read the story for themselves or watch The History Channel and learn about the other ancient flood stories orNOVA and learn about geology and the age of the earth.

  22. I understand your point, Clark, but, at the end of the day, it is still apologetics, where the primary objective is to defend a position—to be precise, to defend an institution—instead of seeking the unvarnished truth.

    Some of Fair’s work is commendable, but I would no more rely upon their work when it comes to questions of historical or doctrinal accuracy/completeness than I would the church’s essays.

  23. Holy cow! I was literally making a comment on a previous post, and all of a sudden this new post appears, with 20+ comments!

    Ironically, my other comment might have fit in even better here. To summarize, I agree completely with Julie that difficulties and complexities need to be addressed in Seminary. The key is, we also need to model with them how to think through these kinds of questions. In my view that’s a primary purpose of Seminary. If it’s all about a spiritual uplift, they could tune into a Mormon Message every morning. If it’s all about socializing, there’s mutual night. But this seems to me to be the key thing that can’t be done as well elsewhere.

    My wife and I are early morning Seminary teachers and I’ve found previous blog posts by Ben (and Dave Banack and Michael Austin and others, as well as many other folks’ comments on their posts) to be invaluable at helping us get off the ground this year. The big problem is that the CES manual/resources are dramatically more abysmal than, say, the manual/resources we referenced in last year’s curriculum on Church history and the D&C. (I found those resources to be quite candid and nuanced.) But the OT manual is grossly oversimplified, and every takeaway from nearly every lesson seems to reduce to “disobey and bad things happen”. Furthermore, the manual/resources take it as absolute given that all the accounts are historical.

    So we’ve scrambled and utilized ideas from the aforementioned scholars/bloggers, as well as a number of books by both LDS and non-LDS scholars, and that’s helped. But man, has it ever been a massively increased effort as compared to last year. We’ve got great kids, so it’s all worth it. But how I wish the CES materials were even *slightly* better…

    Having said all that, I’ll generally concur with other commentators who suggest that the youth seem to be relatively non-plussed by these kinds of controversies. In general, I’ve found them to be easier going about learning/dealing with some of these issues than I would have expected (and moreso than their parents, oftentimes). (They did a terrific job last year with polygamy etc..) But I’d relate two qualifiers:

    – Some youth have a harder time with this than others. We definitely have some youth from more traditional/fundamentalist/conservative homes where it’s evident that the prevailing view is the (essentially unsupportable) documentary history view. So that means that one of the challenges in dealing with all this stuff in Seminary isn’t just the question of “how much complexity” to delve into… it’s the additional challenge of how to deal with heterogeneity among the students.

    – With respect to the parents, I’ve found that I feel compelled to send email updates to the parents to give a heads-up (or frame) how these things are being discussed in Seminary, so that they can anticipate additional questions etc from their children. Though unstated, one of my additional objectives in doing this is to actually get the material to the parents themselves.

  24. FarSide, I think good apologetics engages with all the unvarnished truth and tries to show how a particular interpretation is defensible and even plausible. Apologetics that hides controversies is bad apologetics in my view. Good apologetics should always be seeking truth and engaging fully with the facts. That apologetics has come to have a connotation of not doing that is very sad to my eyes.

    I think FAIR typically does good work, but some things such as their website definitely could be better. Often that’s just due to the time constraints on the volunteers. I wish I could volunteer more. Maybe once my kids are older.

    Ben, I agree we have to engage with the genres. I think the bigger problem is that “history” is a pretty nebulous and broad category. Even in recent history. (Read British histories from the early 19th century about the “papist countries” and one quickly realizes how our 20th century histories are unusual.) I agree that in particular Genesis is trickier for a variety of reasons. Again looking at our endowment ceremony which largely draws on Gen 1 – 2 is helpful. Especially if the original settings were themselves semi-ritualized quotations of other sources. (Much like the endowment draws on masonry, Genesis, and other sources)

    The problem though of authorship seems important in order to understand genre. I think there will just inherently be an understandable bias against faithful use of history in a way that seems historic.

    Your other point is important too since of course texts are understood in light of other texts. A great way to explain this is to ask how 19th and 20th century readers read Genesis 1 – 2 in light of scientific histories. How did this affect how people read those texts? Could the same thing have happened in the ancient world when the peers of the Israelites had these other sorts of texts, sometimes dealing with similar themes or narratives? That is push the deconstructive reading and how that would affect uninspired or even inspired editors and compilers. (Especially if the original sources were oral)

    Again, I think just diving into genre is the backwards way to approach this pedagogically with most Mormons.

  25. Tenacious D for the win!

    Actually, I think it’s a good practice to at least throw the idea of differing interpretations out there, as Julie recommended. Too often people seem completely flabbergasted when another idea or interpretation is introduced, either on a mission or later. I think introducing a few different viewpoints for them to consider is a good thing, so long as the seminary teacher handles it with a light touch.

  26. Whoops typos such that I said the exact opposite of what I meant. That third paragraph from the end should read:

    The problem though of authorship seems important in order to understand genre. I think there will just inherently be an understandable bias against faithful use of history in a way that seems fictional.

    Put an other way, a big problem is that quotations by many texts quotes them in a way that seems to only make sense if they are history. Lehi in 2 Ne 2 in his use of Gen 2 seems a great example. I think there is a presumption that all these pseudepigraphal writings from 200 BCE – 300 CE were just a well understood genre. I’m still far from convinced that’s how most people saw them. I think people crouched their texts in these terms precisely because many *would* misread them as a kind of history. Likewise I think other stories such as Romulus and Remus among the Romans, even if they originally were myth, were eventually read as history.

    This is why the question of authorship – especially those quoting, paraphrasing, or editing – matters a great deal. A myth quoted as history no longer is myth. I just think we err if we assume these questions of genre are just an issue with 20th century Evangelicals. The compilation of the OT involved scribes who were likely dealing with the same issues and the communities of a few centuries later likely had different views.

    The fundamental issue, as I see it, is the semiotics of quotations.

  27. J Town

    Having read all the responses I think I like yours the best. I think I would limit the amount of different interpretations though.

    As others have mentioned often in the church we can hit stumbling blocks because we weren’t taught to think about other alternative explanations for things like the flood.

    I think the key from the comments is to not delve into long explanations of the various interpretations / explanations of the flood but to find a manner in which to explain that other interpretations / explanations may be plausible.

    I can say from my seminary days (graduated HS 2002) I was half awake most of the time. I don’t think I wouldn’t matter immensely if the teacher had told me back then that their are alternative flood explanations.

    To put it simply I believe the phrase goes something like “leave the door open”. I think doors should be left opened in order to foster more thought.

  28. I was once asked to sub for the 12-13 yo Sunday School class back when I was serving as the second counselor in the SS presidency. Since it was spur of the moment and I didn’t know what lesson they were on, I decided to teach them about one of my favorite stories: Galileo and the Catholic church. I taught them how we should use reason to figure out answers to questions about history and nature. I taught them about how the scriptures were written by other human beings and shouldn’t be treated as literal. They were attentive the whole time and seemed to even enjoy the lesson. These weren’t hard-to-digest concepts for them at all. I think that the youth are ready for the so-called “meat” of the gospel at much earlier ages than people often think they are. Let’s show them the contradictions. Let’s show them that many truth claims don’t square with what can be ascertained through science. Let’s not think that we need to brainwash them to believe in the pernicious ideas of infallibilism and hero worship.

    Furthermore, I don’t think that we need to exert too much mental energy towards the idea that many of the OT stories are fictitious, mythical, and not literal (and I don’t want to engage in any semantic quibbles over what should be fairly understandable words). It is quite obvious that they are, even if they contain some elements of actual truth (a guy named Noah who went around preaching gloom and doom may have really existed), which is of course impossible to verify.

  29. I agree with those who believe that we should openly discuss these issues with our students. Up until last year I taught world history to high school sophomores in Utah. LDS Teens are quite able to address the issues which arise in reading ancient and classical documents. I believe that the same holds true for scripture. They loved comparing cultures and in my class read excerpts from Gilgamesh and the Nag Hammadi texts. They readily discerned that accounts do not have to be fully historical to carry great cultural meaning and importance. Many students are studying a foreign language and readily identify the problems inherent with translation. Let’s not underestimate these kids. I think we do them a great disservice if we teach down to them and hinder their intellectual and spiritual development.

  30. I agree with Old Man that we underestimate the youth. Julie Smith mentioned giving them tools. I agree. But what kind of tools are we giving students when we’re telling them what to think in 20 seconds and then end our framing or comments with, “. . . moving on.” We’re closing down the discussion before they have time to even absorb it. It’s not a pastoral lesson or sermon designed to give them touchy feelings. Why can’t we throw them for a loop? Allow them to practice being thrown for a loop in the safety of the classroom before they experience it in the mission field or later.

    Also, I don’t know why we still use the KJV. The word “repent” in the KJV always throws everyone of a loop because we instinctively connect that word the idea of “sin”. Of course God doesn’t sin. God forbid changing it to Noah in the JST. What a mess.

    In the NT the word repent also comes from the Greek verb “metanoein” which means change of mind, change of outlook, to think over. I did know about the Hebrew meaning for repent was “nicham” and that it meant to feel remorse. I find that fascinating and why I think ALL members need to learn a better way of addressing and thinking about the word “repent”.

  31. It’s possible that the seminary students aren’t freaking out because they don’t know what the church’s stance is on such things. That’s kind of why they’re in seminary, to learn what the doctrine is.

  32. Julie, I really like your approach in 3, of giving students both points of views and the rationales for both. Sometimes I don’t think we give young people enough credit. I feel that’s the problem with most of the current manuals—for adults, too, I might add, since I teach Gospel Doctrine, and the Church’s manuals for that are atrocious, too. We don’t have to give the youth all our well-thought-out conclusions, as hard as that might seem.

    If we simply give them all the evidence, they will come to the obvious conclusion on their own. Plus, we’re going to teach our students something false eventually. It’s inevitable that every new generation finds something their foreparents were incorrect about. Some of the Biblical scholarship we now accept is just flat out wrong, and we have no way of knowing what part. That’s just life.

    But with your approach, Julie, even if we don’t present all the different viewpoints on everything, we can give them enough options so that when something comes up that we didn’t talk about, they don’t feel betrayed or deceived, since they will already have learned that there is more than one side to everything.

    I also think it helps when we teach them about human nature. I love giving lesson on the Liahona, because it so clearly gives a lesson on how all of us are: we all hate checking the spindles every day, so we don’t, and because of it, tend to just keep going in the same direction we went the day before. If our youth understand that, and understand that church leaders are people, and not infallible (a whole other lesson), then when a person comes across something that seems wrong to him or her, he can just easily say, “maybe I’m the first person I know to check the spindles here, but Julie explained how the process works with the flood, or with understanding Hebrew words, so I’ll just do the same thing.”

    We will still have youth, and maybe still a lot of them, leave the church because they think we are heading in the wrong direction: that is inevitable. But there will be a lot less people leaving because they feel deceived and betrayed about polygamy or seer stones or things like that.

    That’s just my two cents.

    Blue Ridge Mormon, I think this helps solve the problem about different views among the students, too. If one disagrees, you don’t have to tell them they’re wrong (which I think is just about the worst thing you can do to a class participant at any age—I feel getting students to engage, which, as has been noted, can be so difficult, is usually far more important than being right, even if they seem obviously misinformed about things). You can encourage them, and turn it into a testimony experience, where they explain what they believe and why. This will probably make them feel better, and if you’re not committed to selling your students on either view, they still have all the options to choose from, and most will go with the one that makes the most sense. And you can even compliment the students and her parents on how she was able to bear her testimony in front of all her peers, which can help placate them, too.

  33. One last bit on “repent” in the Old Testament. Probably the clearest english example of it meaning “to regret, feel bad, change one’s mind” is Psalm 110:4, “the LORD has sworn and will not repent: you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

    Sidenote, Psalm 110 is the most quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament.

  34. thanks for the link, Ben S. and thanks for the discussion on the complexities. I’m enjoying learning from the input from everyone here. very helpful.

  35. Ben S., I didn’t realize you were “The Monk”. Amazing what you can learn. athena, as for the issue of “repent”, there’s a fascinating treatment (which I’m sure Ben S. is familiar with) from the late David Noel Freedman’s AB volume on Amos (with Francis I. Anderson) pp. 639-679 and reprinted in Divine Commitment and Human Obligation: Selected Writings of David Noel Freedman, Vol. 1 Ancient Israelite History and Religion, ed. John R. Huddleston, Eerdmans, 1997 pp. 409-446. The Summary (pp. 439-446) seems to be the most helpful for the general reader. “The principal finding is that the repentence of God is an important aspect of his character and his behavior; it is mentioned frequently enough to warrant careful study.” the vast majority of cases are that God “repents” (i.e., “reversing a decision to do either harm or good, and that the change of mind may be a spontaneous action resulting from observing and reacting to a variety of situations in the world”.) It doesn’t appear to have the connotation of sin that we generally associate with the word. Perhaps, in the words of an immortal film, “I do not thin’ that word means what you thin’ it means” (referring to the use of “inconceivable”.

  36. awesome. thanks Terry H. and i think you must have posted the same time i posted my second post, Ben S, so thanks again for the information!

  37. Terry, this this becomes significant theologically since the traditional conception of God of the creeds is that God is not subject to real change. Opposed to this are the movements in theology in the 20th century such as process theology where God is maximally changed. While I think there are elements of open theism or process theology that are a bit problematic to Mormons, I do think moving away from greek absolutism in our theology is quite significant and much more in keeping with these Hebrew elements of the OT.

  38. One should consider that all the pics of Noah as Santa in a Bedouin outfit are totally off. The civilization of Noah was one that was highly advanced – the Book of Jasher suggests that the main cause for the destruction of earth was that mankind had messed up the creation through the misuse of bio-technology. Nothing else makes sense – people have been sinful from day one. Why would God destroy the center of civilization, perhaps millions of people unless something far more drastic had occurred? Also, Jesus said He would return when earth was as in the days of Noah. Since Jesus has not returned yet we can suppose that it will be when our technology catches up to that era. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFd2C24DTjo

  39. Thanks, Clark. I’ll look at that a little farther. Freedman was the long-time editor of the Anchor Bible. I believe he wrote or co-wrote many of the volumes on the later prophets (The Twelve) from the Hebrew Bible. His impact on modern biblical scholarship cannot over-stated and there are points like this that I agree with you are important from a theological (not just a scholarly or a historical) aspect.

  40. I should note that I don’t know how much influence in practice among US sects open theism or process theology have had. Among a certain academic class they definitely have had an influence. However especially among more conservative groups (southern baptists, Evangelicals in general) it seems like the impassibility of God is quite important.

  41. Clark. I don’t know about the general populations of those “conservative” groups, but their scholars (especially the younger ones) are more open to wider biblical interpretations. The reason I say this is that more and more frequently, there are citations from Margaret Barker, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, and even Donald Parry and certain FARMS and MI publications on the ancient temple. These scholars don’t seem to be the type to ignore something like Freedman did above.

  42. Interesting. I wonder on the dynamics of that as for a while it seemed like there was a kind of backlash to a lot of these ideas. It’s not something I really have followed for a long time. But I do know there’s been quite a bit of reconsideration of focus and theology among Evangelical. Some of it quite controversial (such as some movements on pre-marital sex) I’d love to know if Calvinism still has the influence that it’s had the past 30 years.

  43. Simple question:

    Aren’t we as Mormons sort of locked into a literal worldwide flood because of the teaching that Adam and his antediluvian descendants down to Methuselah (grandfather of Noah) quite literally lived and gathered at Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri, USA?

    DC 107:53-56, DC 117:8

    Speculation:

    I have read the FAIR article that attempts to make ambiguous the once ubiquitous LDS teachings of Midwestern US location for the Garden of Eden. Much of that sounds to me like weasel words (and actually tends to persuade me in the opposite direction intended.) But most of those arguments would seem to fall flat when put up against the scriptures in the DC about where these 10 Biblical patriarchs lived after the expulsion from the garden up until near the flood.

    The DC seems clear that Adam-ondi-Ahman is where the patriarchs gathered and that it is in Missouri. The LDS church maintains a nice visitor’s center there (several times larger and nicer than my home). Although it is not among the most visited church history sites, it has a fair amount of traffic. I do believe the tour guides and missionaries serving there would be surprised to hear that it is only an allegorical site and we must give the Prophet Joseph Smith another mulligan.

    It would appear that many BCC bloggers have been there and recently believe it is not an allegorical site. http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/05/24/at-adam-ondi-ahman/

    Duel Flood theory:

    Perhaps we could postulate two local floods at the same time. The valley of the Mississippi flooded extensively at the same time as the flood in the Middle East. Noah and his family on the Ark floated down the river and near the site of present day New Orleans and out to sea; from there to be guided across the Atlantic and through the Strait of Gibraltar (9 miles wide) when they were put into a deep sleep failing to notice the shore and ultimately around and between the islands and peninsulas of the future Roman empire to arrive in Palestine. I will hazard a guess that if accepted, upon closer inspection this fairy tale would create yet another larger archeological can of worms but since I am not an archeologist I really don’t know.

    A Stab towards Useful Information:

    It appears to me that few are aware of the well-supported theory that a real flood happened in the Middle East that fits nicely with Biblical chronology (about 3000 BC if I remember correctly). At least no mention of it has been made here so far. The Black sea was once a smaller inland fresh water sea and several hundred feet below sea level. As the last ice age ended and the oceans gradually rose, the day came when, (probably helped by a severe rainstorm) the water broke through the narrows of Bosporus and in a matter of hours the waters of the Mediterranean Sea rushed into the Black Sea and its level rose up hundreds of feet. Little high ground was within reach by horseback or on foot and numerous cities on the shores of the sea were quickly wiped out. Their ruins remain under the waters of the Black Sea and thus of interest to the much besmirched Underwater Archeologist. The evidence of this is also preserved in the depths of the Black sea in that the deepest waters remain fresh to this day, indicating it once had to be an inland freshwater sea. The National Geographic society wrote an extensive article and made a movie about this called In Quest of Noah’s Flood. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/blacksea/ax/frame.html

    Here is an example of how reliable is the Biblical narrative. Probably partially based on some real historical events with a load of interpretation and creativity. As for the DC teachings of Adam-ondi-Ahman, something less than this.

    Tentative Conclusion:

    It seems to me that if we are to make this very clear concrete statement in modern scripture about a very simple concept into an allegory then EVERYTHING is on the table. Golden plates could be plastic or granite and plates could be spheres of gravel. We don’t even have the frankly embarrassing partial support now afforded the Biblical flood story. We don’t really believe in anything, except being tossed to and fro by every wind of scientific or historical discovery. Not just the first, but the only remaining principle of heaven is obedience to prophets.

  44. Mike- Prophets largely echo the assumptions and worldview of their time and culture. Those views are embedded and fossilized in scripture written by the inspired prophets.

    The alternative to “it’s all history” isn’t allegory; it’s recognizing the nature of revelation, prophets, and scripture. I’m fine with some kind of local flood. But as I said above (comment 22)-

    I think there may be a historical, limited-flood text far behind G 6-9, but if so, it’s been pressed into use and expanded (for polemical anti-Mesopotamican purposes?) into a universal cosmological flood, that re-creates the world by returning it to its pre-creation watery/chaotic state (as in Gen. 1:2, the tehom from which everything is created.) Noah is the new Adam. This is tied very closely to the P creation account (Gen 1-2:4a), which I think is also non-historical and meant to teach certain things. I dislike the word “metaphor” or “non-literal” because I don’t think they fit at all, but “myth” carries far too much baggage with it. “Literal” is not synonymous with “historical.”

    I don’t think there’s any way to read the flood story as written as anything other than a global flood. But the fact that it’s written in scripture or that later prophets refer to that scripture through their own cultural lenses doesn’t automatically render it (or their comments) “history.” I suspect a lot of people are uncomfortable with that. I’m actually quite a conservative and traditional Mormon, but these are questions I’ve been wrestling with and reading about for 15 years, not something I can really get people comfortable with in a 5-second soundbite.

  45. Mike (47) Aren’t we as Mormons sort of locked into a literal worldwide flood because of the teaching that Adam and his antediluvian descendants down to Methuselah (grandfather of Noah) quite literally lived and gathered at Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri, USA?

    I don’t think so. The traditional sort of reading of this isn’t what some call “literal”[1] but what Nibley calls spectator. That is, like Ben notes, the prophets are writing from their perspective. Without a knowledge of science when they see a big flood they assume it’s everywhere while they don’t necessarily have that information.

    Regarding FARMS and Joseph’s statements about Adam, I think a lot of the sources are more ambiguous. For instance there’s fairly convincing evidence that the altar Joseph said was a Laminate (i.e. Indian) altar but that prior to that Adam lived there. I have no problem with a literal Adam being case out of the garden into Missouri. (Missouri honestly doesn’t seem particularly worst than any other location although perhaps Sinai is a more lone and dreary wilderness) Joseph said Noah lived in North Carolina as I recall. So it’s easy to speculate that he was warned of a flood that was a massive hurricane in the Carolinas a few thousand years ago amongst fairly primitive peoples. Building the ark was probably amazing because the indigenous peoples just didn’t do that sort of thing. The ark is then in the hurricane, the local population is drowned (and anyone whose been in even a minor hurricane can imagine what a once in a thousand year hurricane would be like), Noah opens the windows days later in the middle of the ocean and assumes everything is underwater. The hurricane pushed him with divine aid into one of the wind routes that pushed him through the Mediterranean and he ends up somewhere that his descendants can run into pre-existing Semetic peoples.

    There’s something that just uses what the individuals could see and how they’d interpret it from their perspective and information basis yet does so in both a literal and historic way. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but if it’s possible to interpret it in that sort of fashion why not?

    As for the ages, assume Adam and Eve when cast out of the garden are genetically similar to the pre-Adamites in the area who are descendants of the people who came over from Sibera via the land-bridge. (i.e. what archaeology tells us was the case around 12,000 – 10,000 years ago) Yet while similar they aren’t identical. Say their telomeres don’t shorten at the same rate as ours today yet somehow also don’t have the propensity towards cancer that’d normally produce. As they reproduce sex and genetics rule and those capabilities which might be a recessive gene are lost. Telemere shortening reduces to what most of us humans have (since clearly that is selected for evolutionarily as we all mostly have the same rate). So after a few generations Adam’s descendants are pretty much like everyone else.

    Adam is our first father and head of the patriarchal order and we’ll all have to give priesthood keys back until Christ presents them to Adam at Adam-ondi-Ahman sometime in the future. We have a real Adam, a real fall, a real garden, a real Adam-ondi-Ahman with Darwin none the wiser.

  46. Ben, Mike makes a terrific point, and I don’t think you answered it satisfactorily. If prophets are largely echoing the assumptions and worldviews of their times and cultures, then what exactly are we to learn from them that we couldn’t learn from others of their times and cultures? What is the purpose of the prophets, then, or of the scriptures for that matter? Aren’t their views supposed to be more enlightened and reflect reality more than others in their times and cultures? Aren’t they supposed to be teaching us truth (and by truth I mean actual reality, not some esoteric meaning of truth)? I can understand saying that some of Genesis should be understood allegories, symbols, fiction to illustrate points, myths, lore, etc. (and I feel like I have my hands tied by using any of those words, because your tendency appears to be to problematize them). But in order to maintain the integrity of Mormon teachings about the Old Testament, it would appear that significant parts of it (including the seemingly incredible stories, concepts, and ideas) have to be understood as actual historical reality. By accepting the idea of a local flood, we must reject the idea of Adam literally living at Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri (which was preached by Joseph Smith himself and understood as literal by subsequent LDS leaders). And by so doing, it really seems that we are using our own reason for our own cognitive convenience to alter doctrines taught by LDS leaders. If we’re going to do that with Adam-ondi-Ahman, then why stop there? Why not just proclaim Genesis to be mostly make-believe stories (perhaps with only a sliver of historical reality) that are generally useless to human understanding of morality, human purpose, and well-being?

    My second observation: I understand some of your issues with categories and concepts such as “myth,” “historical,” “literal,” “allegory,” etc., and you make some good points, as do others who take issue with these words. In my discussions with you and my readings of your posts and comments, it appears that it is a common theme of yours to problematize these words. But if we can’t use these words, then how are we supposed to describe the Old Testament? Does it really need to be that hard? Are these words completely useless? If we problematize these words too much and take away their descriptive usefulness too much, we appear to be obfuscating matters more than actually trying to understand them, don’t we? In some ways your thinking about the Old Testament appears to be a dalliance with trends in postmodern thinking. And although I myself am partial to postmodernist thinkers and value some of their contributions to philosophy and literature, this thinking seems to be quite at odds with how LDS leaders want us to view the scriptures and Mormon doctrine.

  47. Within the assumptions and worldview we live in there is tons of space to call people to repentance, to expand our place ethically, and even to expand those worldview somewhat.

    Take a look at the last 20 years of general conference. What has been said that isn’t a part of the assumptions and worldview of our times and culture? Yet they have said a ton.

    I’m sure God could have revealed the laws of motion, chemistry, electromagnetism and the printing press to the apostles at Jesus’ time as well as revealing modern notions of abolitionism, civil rights, scientific inquiry and a lot more. Yet for whatever reasons that’s just not what’s important to God as he provides the probationary space to us. As Paul says, we see but through a glass darkly. That doesn’t mean we don’t see.

  48. Brad, you’re once again carrying my points far beyond where I do, e.g. reading my “largely” as “completely.” The sine qua non of revelation is a spark, a bit of divinity among the humanity, not the complete loss of humanity or human perspective of a prophet.

    Do you really think this statement is arguable- “prophets are largely echoing the assumptions and worldviews of their times and cultures”?

    “in order to maintain the integrity of Mormon teachings about the Old Testament, it would appear that significant parts of it (including the seemingly incredible stories, concepts, and ideas) have to be understood as actual historical reality.” Perhaps.

    If Paul and Nephi interpret the Old Testament through their own cultural lenses (and it’s quite obvious they do), why should Joseph Smith the prophet be any different? It’s still inspired; it’s just that inspiration does not mean Truth with a capital T the way you seem to want (and which would seem to violate the idea of line-upon-line, among other things.)

    “But if we can’t use these words, then how are we supposed to describe the Old Testament?” Neither the Old Testament nor Genesis is monolithic, and a single term can’t describe it, any more than you could gesture at the public library and describe it as “non-fiction.” It’s a long-collected, long-edited anthology with a variety of genres within it, which we can’t always recognize. Our modern assumption is to approach everything as modern history.

    “your thinking about the Old Testament appears to be a dalliance with trends in postmodern thinking.” If so, it’s not conscious. I’ve not really been exposed to any, and it’s not simply “relativism” either.

    “this thinking seems to be quite at odds with how LDS leaders want us to view the scriptures and Mormon doctrine.” Certainly. But do you think “how LDS leaders want us to view the scriptures and Mormon doctrine” is uniform, deeply founded on revelation and study and thought, and entirely unproblematic? I would say “no” to each of those, and I feel no qualms about my approach, which is not what you think it is. For example, I would say your second phrase here simply does not follow from the first (and does not reflect my views)- “Why not just proclaim Genesis to be mostly make-believe stories (perhaps with only a sliver of historical reality) that are generally useless to human understanding of morality, human purpose, and well-being?”

  49. In terms of description, I’m mostly frustrated with the false dichotomies I see like “literal/figurative.” If something doesn’t fit into the “literal/historical” category, it automatically becomes “figurative/metaphorical/symbolic.” That division doesn’t work with our modern genres; why should it work in ancient scripture?

  50. And ultimately, my concern with all this is to preserve the authority of scripture and prophets. I know that seems paradoxical at the moment, but believe me.

  51. Take a look at the last 20 years of general conference. What has been said that isn’t a part of the assumptions and worldview of our times and culture?

    Well, yes of course, much of what they’re saying reflects their time and culture, but a culture that emerged because of Joseph Smith and his teachings. Once you start saying that much of what Joseph Smith believed was a reflection of his time and culture, then your position begins to reflect more and more that of many atheist critics of Mormonism. Were Joseph Smith’s understandings of the temple ordinance merely a product of the culture of his time, namely Masonic cultural trends? The more you say, “yes,” the more you’re conceding that Joseph Smith’s alleged revelations weren’t really revelations at all, but ideas that involuntarily surfaced in his mind because of his surrounding environment, and that his understanding that God revealed to him what humans must do to be saved were nothing but illusions.

  52. “Once you start saying that much of what Joseph Smith believed was a reflection of his time and culture, then your position begins to reflect more and more that of many atheist critics of Mormonism.”

    A view is not wrong or right because of who holds it. I know that kind of suspicion, but it’s not applicable here. Many people who have become atheists or exmormons (neither mutually exclusive nor entirely overlapping categories) have done so because of the assumption that prophets and scripture reflect nothing more or less than the mind of God, and cannot reconcile that assumption with contradiction, change, or darker things in the Old Testament like genocide or (still in the New Testament) slavery.

    Again, you’re pushing beyond my claims. “Were Joseph Smith’s understandings of the temple ordinance merely a product of the culture of his time, namely Masonic cultural trends?” I would answer a firm “no” to that. I’m not the one saying “yes” here. Especially in your last lines, I strongly disagree with you.

  53. In other words, prophets’ minds go through exactly the same cultural osmosis and formation as their non-prophetic contemporaries while they grow up. That doesn’t mean they don’t receive revelation; nevertheless, that revelation is both adapted to their understanding and filtered through it.

    Edit to add: Revelation doesn’t undo that as much as work with and within it.

  54. Ben, “Do you really think this statement is arguable- “prophets are largely echoing the assumptions and worldviews of their times and cultures”?”

    Yes, it is arguable. My point is if you say that too much in the face of too many hard-to-reconcile teachings and ideas, then you undercut Mormonism and severely dilute the value of its teachings. And you’ve clearly stated that you’re trying to defend the LDS church’s claims to truth. I just don’t understand how sometimes.

    But do you think “how LDS leaders want us to view the scriptures and Mormon doctrine” is uniform, deeply founded on revelation and study and thought, and entirely unproblematic?

    The leader’s teachings on a great number of doctrines and their understandings of a number of scriptures are uniform. The leader’s teachings allow no wiggle room over the idea that Jesus actually resurrected or that Jesus actually visited the Americas after his mortal death. If you try to say that those pieces of doctrine were meant symbolically, then you are at variance with a core part of Mormon teaching. This goes for a whole host of other teachings.

    It’s still inspired; it’s just that inspiration does not mean Truth with a capital T the way you seem to want

    Perhaps you wouldn’t mind sharing how you view Paul’s, Nephi’s, and Joseph Smith’s understandings of the flood to be inspired if they are wrong about its global nature? And what I’m getting at here is how is inspiration (however you understand it to be) is significant at all if it doesn’t reflect truth with a capital T.

  55. “a great number of doctrines and their understandings of a number of scriptures” This is not the same as how to view and approach scripture as a whole.

    “The leader’s teachings allow no wiggle room over the idea that Jesus actually resurrected or that Jesus actually visited the Americas after his mortal death.” Who is saying this? I’m certainly not.

  56. Mormonism’s central differentiating claim (and one I agree with) is priesthood authority to carry out ordinances, not infallible historical-critical scriptural interpretation. The vast majority that comes from the pulpit represents tradition and practical preaching for changing behavior and building discipleship.

  57. That doesn’t mean they don’t receive revelation; nevertheless, that revelation is both adapted to their understanding and filtered through it.

    Is it at all possible to sift through that supposed cultural dirt and find the nuggets of actual revealed truth? The idea that a select few people are receiving privileged information from God is a huge claim. But if we can’t properly identify what exactly in the prophet’s words is God’s revelations about reality that only prophets could know about because God decided to communicate such information only to them, then what is the point of heeding the words of the prophets? It seems that we should be able to make a clear list of what are God’s words about reality and what isn’t.

  58. Paul and Nephi, to my recollection, don’t really mention the flood. But Nephi bluntly tells us he’s not giving us historical/contextual interpretation (1Ne 19:23) when he interprets Isaiah. (In that case, he’s aware of what he’s doing.) Our tradition today tends to conflate RE-interpretation with contextual interpretation; both are legitimate, provided you can recognize what you’re doing.

    “It seems that we should be able to make a clear list of what are God’s words about reality and what isn’t.” I disagree with this; it’s not how revelation works. (Have you watched my conference presentation yet?) Even if God appears and speaks directly to humans in their langage… he then has to use the limitations of their language and conceptions to be comprehensible.

    Let’s try something else. What do you make of the cosmology in Genesis 1, repeated in Moses and Abraham? A flat earth with a solid dome above, with waters above the dome and below the earth? This cosmology clearly reflects ancient Near Eastern views and assumptions. Moses and Abraham don’t generally modify it. So, prophets modern and ancient have given us a view of the world which is (generously put) inaccurate.

    What is your philosophy of revelation, prophets, and scripture that can account for something like that to be present in inspired material, in modern and ancient scripture? Do you accept Genesis 1 as an accurate representation of “reality”? Do you call it uninspired? Do you ask to filter out “the dirt” for “the nuggets”?

  59. Mormonism’s central differentiating claim (and one I agree with) is priesthood authority to carry out ordinances, not infallible historical-critical scriptural interpretation

    Why did Joseph Smith undertake a translation of the Bible? Why are parts of D&C (i.e., D&C 77) preoccupied with the correct interpretation of scripture? Why does Jesus, in the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 15:17-18), chide the people in the old world for not understanding what he meant by sheep not of this fold because of their “stiffneckedness and unbelief”? But truth claims are more important than the claims to priesthood authority to carry out ordinances, for the significance of the ordinances is predicated upon certain LDS claims to truth actually being true.

  60. “Paul and Nephi, to my recollection, don’t really mention the flood”

    OK, I misspoke. Their interpretations of the OT.

  61. “Why did Joseph Smith undertake a translation of the Bible?” On this, my views are in print from BYU’s Religious Studies Center, in a journal that goes out to S&I employees.

    I just don’t think “correct” means what you think it must inherently mean, implicitly “historically/scientifically accurate.”

  62. “prophets modern and ancient have given us a view of the world which is (generously put) inaccurate.”

    Indeed. So how exactly and why are drawing inspiration from that? I can see it in an aesthetic sense, much in the way that people derive inspiration from poetry and literature, where the meanings of texts can be in the eye of the beholder. But as I said, Mormonism doesn’t allow for wiggle room in interpreting a great number of scriptures. I think that Donald Perry’s and Ronald Millet’s postulations that there was a global flood are simply more consistent with LDS teachings across time.

    Do you accept Genesis 1 as an accurate representation of “reality”?

    I don’t know. It could be, I’m trying to inform myself through the words of the LDS church and others, such as yours. And I we are to take the LDS leaders as authorities, then we are sort of relying on them to tell us what is truth with a capital T and what can be understood differently. My understanding of the LDS church’s teachings is that they would have us believe that a good portion of Genesis is a reflection of reality, clearly mixed with some metaphor, symbolism, allegory, etc. I also feel uncomfortable with reality being in quotes. I don’t want to give up on the idea that reality exists outside our minds and that we can actually understand a part of it. To believe otherwise seems horribly cynical.

    PS, I haven’t watched your video yet. I’ll take the time to watch it as soon as I can, and let you know my reactions, if not in this thread, then another one.

  63. Also, I did a quick search on General Conference Corpus, which is a really handy tool if you haven’t come across it yet, of the word “reality.” The leaders use the term all of the time. I can’t see why LDS believers should be skeptical towards its usage. Just last conference, Elder Cook testified of the “reality of the Atonement.”

  64. “So how exactly and why are drawing inspiration from that?” Because it’s value was not in its scientific/historical accuracy! What it meant to the Israelites in Babylon was the key; they were the ones it was for. Scripture is an inspired artifact of historical circumstance.

    What they needed at that time and how it was expressed is not what we need, and we don’t understand its language anymore. I don’t mean Hebrew, I mean “what is it trying to say?”

  65. This is actually a great exchange between Ben S. and Brad L. Well done, both of you.

    To move things forward, I’d recommend Ben hear the “spirit” of Brad’s questions/observations, which are actually relatively astute. So take comment 59 – I don’t think Brad is literally suggesting that Ben has said these things, specifically (and that’s how you respond, Ben). Rather, I think Brad is extrapolating to other things beyond the topical scope of this post (Noah and the flood), that might also be seen as problematic, in the same way. And I hear Brad’s question as: where do we start and stop seeing things as historical or not? Which is a great question without an easy answer. In my view, it’s not as easily dispensed with as Ben might think. (It’s not as simple as simply observing that “it’s more complicated than that,” as some sort of conversation stopper…)

    So let’s assume that Ben’s position that “literal vs figurative” isn’t a simple binary is something that we all agree with. In other words, OF COURSE prophets (like any other historical figure) filter things through their own understanding of the world. And therefore, scriptural accounts don’t reduce to simply being either 100% literal, or 100% figurative. We all get that, and acknowledging as much helps us understand that “it’s complicated”. It’s an astute observation on Ben’s part, and while it might not help us see the glass any less darkly, it helps us recognize that glass isn’t as transsparent as we thought it was.

    But I think Brad’s questions are still good ones. Given a more ‘problemetized’ or complex understanding of all this, what are the implications for some of the more foundational, clearly-intended-to-be-historical claims made in scripture? I think that is a perfectly legitimate thing to grapple with, and precisely the kind of thing that T&S does at its best.

  66. I put quotes around “reality” because scientific description is not the only kind of way to express truth or describe reality. Quoting Sparks (again?), Jesus’ preferred mode of teaching was fiction, and no one disputes that. This is not a subtle dig at the Book of Mormon (I’m a historicist) or the resurrection or anything like that. But scripture (remember my library analogy ) can contain “fiction” and still be true and inspired.

    If we want to (imprecisely) call Genesis 1 “fiction” why is that inherently problematic? Is it only because of conflicts with (some) tradition?

    Also, you don’t know if there is a solid dome overhead? Obviously, I’m asking these questions to push your conceptions and definitions.

  67. “where do we start and stop seeing things as historical or not” That’s a good restate comment, BRM. (Nice initials.) For me, especially with the Old Testament, you have to ask the literary/genre question before you can figure out if the historical questions even apply, as I’ve laid out here , among other places.
    If a given text was not intended to be in the historical genre, then it’s wresting the scriptures to read it or defend it as such (e.g. Jonah, see my lengthy views at the links here. )

    The problem is, ancient revelation wasn’t meant for us, but its contemporaries. They needed revelation to their problems and their questions, and they often got it. But their culture, their problems, and their questions are not necessarily ours, even though we now read and appropriate them in their secondary mode of revelation, namely, writing. So when it comes to ancient scripture, at least, it’s complicated because the average English reader doesn’t have access to the linguistic, cultural, contextual milieu of that revelation, and don’t understand ancient genres very well. (This is why scholars are necessary , not that God wants scripture to be hard, or that he wants specialists, but people need training to be able to recover what scripture meant in context. As I said above, it’s fine not to have or do contextual interpretation, as long as we understand what it is we *are* doing.

  68. So, my non-historical view of Jonah is not based on “liberalism” or “disbelief” as much as a close reading and study, leading me to the conclusion that Jonah’s author wasn’t writing history in the first place. Whales swallowing people are irrelevant to the question.

    Church tradition, which largely inherited a historicist view, has used Jonah to preach behavior, as most of our preaching tends to do. Again, to quote the FP from 1910, what mattered was not whether Jonah was historical, but whether “the doctrine” was correct. What’s the doctrine in Jonah? God loves the Assyrians just as much as the Jews, and that’s easily applicable to us and true, even if it never happened.

  69. I know most people can’t do what I do, because they don’t have the time or desire or background. What I would like to see in the general church is a greater awareness of the genre issues and that historicity is not a hill to die on with every single text. Certainly it’s important, even vital for some things, but not everything. A greater focus on what the doctrine is than whether X happened.

  70. Ben – yep. “historicity is not a hill to die on with every single text.”

    And again: I continue to weigh in here as a fan of your writing and thinking “amen” to statements like these. Yes, and yes.

    Nevertheless – – and this was the point of my comment in #69 – – the GENERAL issue of when and how to unpack historicity, and when we SHOULD care about it, and how we can assess even foundational claims, is an interesting question. This is how I hear Brad L’s questions and comments, as asking us to think about that.

    In other words: where do we go from here? Is every analysis of every “plot point” of ancient scripture just a one-off? And how do we conceive of what it means to have faith in certain scriptural stories, when the historicity – understanding that it may not be the most important question, but it can be A question that arises – is indeterminate?

    For instance, my own study and reasoning etc might lead me to certain conclusions about certain stories: that there wasn’t literally a global flood that covered the top of Mt Everest, or that Jonah didn’t literally get swallowed by a whale, or that 8.7 million species weren’t all crammed onto one seafaring vessel by Noah – – and what’s more (hat tip to Ben), the question of historicity in these stories isn’t even the key question. I get that. Understanding genre is important to help us understand that point.

    But it does raise the uncomfortable point of how to think about OTHER stories. Especially ones from Joseph Smith’s canon, which didn’t go through generations of revising and oral tradition. In other words, it’s interesting to consider things like Adam Ondi Ahman etc. – how should we think about that?

    And the problem with reasoning through unique answers to each particular story or account, is that it starts to seem a bit ad hoc. And again, that’s the way I take Brad’s question here: how to deal with questions like these in a way that doesn’t just look (at a distance) like ad-hoc, apologetic rationalizing?

    Don’t misunderstand: I also acknowledge that it’s not “all or nothing”, but it also seems problematic to see every individual story as independent. The nuanced reality lies somewhere in between. My main point is that there’s some value in grappling with these kinds of questions, speaking as a seminary-teaching IMWTBM (In Many Ways True Blue Mormon).

  71. I am surprized and don’t know whether to feel guilty or good for stirring up all of this. I hope Ben and Brad and all the rest are friends who are not angry at each other, just expressing different complex opinions.

    I am a simpleton compared to many bloggers here. After all of this fascinating analysis, conclusions need to be made. (Side issue, why don’t intelligent people like Ben and Brad write our lesson manuals? I might not be quite such a simpleton who is bored silly at church; perhaps confused or overwhelmed but that would be preferable.)

    It appears to me that a literal worldwide flood is not a tentable position without denying too much science. We don’t have to accept any science but where does that lead? Is that where we are going or want to be?

    I don’t see a reasonable way to put Noah in Missouri (or North Carolina).

    I think that Joseph Smith got this one wrong indicating Adam-ondi-Ahman was literally where these 10 patriarchs gathered, which is in the DC. For whatever reason.

    How much weight to give this? Coupled with other similar problems? Not the first nor last time the Prophet got it wrong.

    Where do we go from here? That is the question for me.

    ***

    For example, a son with a mission call admitted to having unprotected sex with a girl. Off the Mormon reservation this is not a big deal. Confess, pray and promise not to do it again. (Use protection next time, da***it if you can’t control yourself.) But within the LDS community, this is the sin next to murder per a literal interpretation of Alma’s words and probably a dozen other scriptures and hundreds if not thousands of sermons. It becomes an extreme burden of guilt and embarassment and in an unintended way a violation of his constitutional rights of clerical confidentiality. (The boy is an athlete and a dreamboat and not very studious with a gorgeous girlfriend and he was supposed to be in the MTC last month. Everyone knows exactly why, more or less).

    Yet Corianton was sent back into the mission field after taking up with a prostitute which is worse than in a somewhat committed juvenile relationship, and this transgression pales in comparison to Joseph Smith’s sexual history if taken at face value. Some of the consequences of this moral infraction are far less now than when the scriptures were given centuries before effective contraceptives and antibiotics. A case could be made for modification. If we can’t take what our church leaders say seriously on verifiable questions, how can we let them ruin the lives of our wayward youth over other traditional interpretations with extreme ramifications?

    This example might be a false or stretched analogy. But when you see the boy suffer and worry he might be close to suicidal and you know he is never going to serve the mission and unlikely (statistically) not remain very active in the church long-term and probably not marry in the temple, etc. You just might wonder; if they were wrong about Adam-ondi-Ahman and X and Y and Z, they just might be going overboard on this chastity problem too. (Or any one of a dozen other issues, pick the one bothering you the most).

    Mormonsim today, especially following correlation, does not seem to me to be one of these religions that gives general plattitudes with enormous room for interpretation and great tolerance for variability. Quite the opposite. It seems to be pretty much- the leaders tell us what to do (and think?) and we say, yes sir and do it. That has its advantages, but when leaders are given as much near absolute power as we give ours, they need to be right most all of the time. And when they are not why do we still give or expect they have the power and control?

    The original question: How much complexity to give this in seminary? When possibly half or more of the students are going to run up hard against some of the teachings of the church within a few short years…
    I think 75 comments later we remain far from answering that question. Not to my satisfaction anyway.

  72. “this is the sin next to murder per a literal interpretation of Alma’s words.” I think we and our leaders tend to seize on scriptures that seem to support a point we want to make, to ground our homiletics in the authority of scripture. We put scripture to uses that it isn’t entirely designed for.
    While I’m all for the law of chastity, I agree with Mike Ash that Alma doesn’t quite seem to say what we think he says.

  73. Mike, I’m not angry at Ben. We’re just having a spirited discussion. If anything, he doesn’t seem to be interpreting my questions and rebuttals as affronts, but as challenges that help him better articulate his ideas. I see his responses in the same light. I think this discussion is especially important, because a lot of LDS people have questions about what we’re supposed to believe and profess, especially about the seemingly hard-to-believe doctrines, and especially about the OT. Ben has a lot of great ideas, I just don’t fully understand how he squares them with LDS doctrine and what past LDS leaders have said (I guess there is a lot of squaring to be done, it isn’t that easy to do without undercutting many past statements that have deeply influenced LDS thinking). I think that Ben would be a great candidate to write OT manuals for church education. You should think of that, Ben, if you haven’t already. I couldn’t write manuals.

  74. I put quotes around “reality” because scientific description is not the only kind of way to express truth or describe reality.

    Of course, there are many perceptions of reality, but there is only one reality. And I don’t want to give up on this reality with a capital R 1) actually existing, and 2) people being able to correctly perceive it.

  75. “I think that Ben would be a great candidate to write OT manuals for church education. You should think of that, Ben, if you haven’t already.” It’s not exactly something one applies for or makes a living at. You *can* apply to teach Seminary, but that’s not for me.

    I do know someone similar to me in some ways who was contributing to the manuals. S/he would send in a section, and the reply would come back, “this is great stuff!… but it’ll never make it through correlation.” (I know of at least one significant occasion where correlation rejected something strongly as false doctrine, only to be overruled by the President of the Church.) So there’s clearly some institutional resistance, which I think largely comes from lack of exposure and/or an unmerited elevation of tradition like here . I say that because I know several Bishops and Stake Presidents who are largely appreciative of what I do, but take someone like Peter Enns of Kenton Sparks: Evangelical, committed to inerrancy (properly defined), but has no trouble with myth and such in scripture.

  76. I do appreciate being forced to write clearly. In my book, I’m trying to reach those who still hold to the views of Elder McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith, so I have to justify everything from the beginning and write in way I can’t be misunderstood. It’s hard. My ambition is to use Genesis 1 (which is a challenging text) to help shift views of the nature of revelation, prophets, scripture, and interpretation towards a believing, realistic view. I believe that better equips people to handle “friction,” whether in church policy, history, personal interaction, or other things. (And this has long been a theme of my posts here at Times&Seasons and at the Scribe as well.

  77. And the problem with reasoning through unique answers to each particular story or account, is that it starts to seem a bit ad hoc. And again, that’s the way I take Brad’s question here: how to deal with questions like these in a way that doesn’t just look (at a distance) like ad-hoc, apologetic rationalizing?

    I think the point is that there are many justifiable readings. So long as a reading isn’t implausible we find the range of possible meanings. In a certain sense which one seems *most* likely depends upon our assumptions. So to a certain degree they’re all ad hoc. At best we can say that many readings are problematic.

  78. Where is the line between the actual “historical event” and the “symbolic story” that teaches us a principle that our mortal minds cannot comprehend? Way back in the day, I asked Hugh Nibley that question. He said, (to the best of my recollection) that that is really the question. Somewhere, there’s a line and its our job to try to find (or at least recognize it). Frankly, there isn’t a direct answer to that question (or at least it may vary for each of us). For example, I personally believe there’s a literal Adam and Eve, and a “Fall” and an “Atonement” for that matter. Now, exactly what is meant by that, is where it gets fuzzy for me (although I can navigate it personally). My key is in Alma 13 and Alma 34 (along with many other scriptures, but those are the primary for me. Alma 13:16 says that “Now these ordinances [i.e. (1) temple ordinances of “higher priesthood [Melchizedek? D&C 84-18-20]” AND (2) lower “law of Moses”, particularly the Yom Kippur] were given after this manner that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being (2) a type of his order, or it being (1) his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins that they might enter into the rest of the Lord.” 34:15, after the previous verses describing the “great and last sacrifice”, “And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” Similar metaphors in my mind. They present something we can exercise our faith in, which is kind of the same as “look forward to”. It is our “faith unto repentance” that activates the healing and cleansing power of the atonement in our lives, and that “means” are the “ordinances” of the priesthood (higher and lower) and the “great and last sacrifice itself” or possibly a story (i.e. the Garden and the Cross, which literally happened, but in which it is the mental picture of that provides our mortal minds the framework which enables us to believe it or, at least, to have the necessary faith. Much too complicated for a short comment, but its a start.

    Ben S. I happen to know one of Elder McConkie’s sons very well and I think its fair to say that his understanding and appreciation of the Old Testament was far more nuanced than we generally give him credit for. Of all the standard works, the Old Testament was the most difficult for him because we don’t have a text with as strong a providence or reliable text as we did the others.

  79. I think Terry that for some things it’ll always be a guess. Contra Ben, I’m not sure we can discount Genesis as simply being a non-historical genre for a variety of reasons. However I am typically deeply suspicious of the historical accuracy of the Old Testament for other reasons. Ideally we could say God would reveal such questions to you. However I’ll confess that having prayed about many sections, God doesn’t particularly seem to care whether I know what did or didn’t happen and is more concerned about general lessons. And frankly I get a lot more religiously out of the New Testament, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. The portions of the Old Testament I do focus on are usually Isaiah or a few other books. (Which isn’t a knock of the Torah proper – just that it’s not something I focus on often)

    It’s interesting that McConkie seems to have a view similar to my own. I’m not surprised by that, but it does make me feel a little better.

  80. “his understanding and appreciation of the Old Testament was far more nuanced than we generally give him credit for.” That may be. But his public speaking and writing, his literalist influence (and that of his father in law), especially in shaping how we approach scripture as monolithic, entirely consistent, and so on, has really had a negative effect on us, I think. I know he had other sides, as I wrote way back here, on his great sense of humor.

    For Clark and others, I read the recent publication Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters . I’ve read the editor’s blog (Charles Halton), and own or have read books by the three contributors. Sparks, IMO, made very strong arguments and demolished objections to his own views, and Peter Enns felt the same way, taking apart Hoffmeier’s objections to Sparks.
    Notably, all are Evangelicals with strong commitments to the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy (as I understand it.) “Disbelief” is not a factor in Sparks and Enns viewing the early chapters as being large non-historical.

  81. The problem for Mormons is much more Joseph’s comments on Adam and even Noah. While the literary genre isn’t history, we find the use of Adam as perhaps more problematic in a way Evangelicals don’t have to address.

  82. I agree.
    When Joseph says certain people visited and spoke with him, I tend to believe him.

    But when he speaks about the past, I think the same kinds of things that apply to Paul and Nephi apply to Joseph; his statements, even when canonized (as theirs are), do not necessarily represent a divine documentary crystal-ball view into the past (although they can) as much as expression of a received cultural view put to inspired purpose. This is not too different in kind (although it is in scope) than Joseph’s speaking of Paul as the author of Hebrews, discussed here.

    IOW, we tend to assume that whatever Joseph says is revelatory, and whatever is revelatory is historical. I think those assumptions need defending, not just asserting. I don’t see a strong warrant for them. Scripture rarely speaks journalistically of the past or the future.

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