Rethinking the OT Narrative

Christians expressed concerns about stories and divine commands in the Old Testament since early in Christian history. Setting aside Isaac and Abraham, things get so much worse with the conquest of Canaan and all the genocidal commands.

Christians have long attempted to make sense of the contrast of the significant difference between the divine commands in the OT and NT: “the schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24-27), allegory, Gnostics who said the OT God wasn’t the highest God but was the lower, problematic demiurge. I heard growing up that God gave the law as a result of the rebellion of the golden calf (sort of like DC 84:24-26 and Exodus 32:19 mixed together). I’ve heard the idea in Mormon circles of Jesus as Jehovah got a lot nicer after he lived on earth.

For me, there’s an easier explanation. These aren’t really descriptions of God but simply descriptions of how the writers (problematically) conceived of God, as I explained to my daughter a number of years ago.

As I blogged about quite a while ago, that daughter was ready to leave the church at age 8, telling us that she found the Genesis stories they were teaching her in Primary absurd and immoral. She specifically found the story Jacob tricking everyone to get the birthright totally absurd. I really felt caught off guard trying to think about how to respond, but do we really want to insist that’s how God operates?

That same daughter was also troubled some years later in seminary when they went into more depth on the OT. She really didn’t like all the smiting talk and was particularly horrified by the “steadying the arc” story. God really killed someone for trying to be helpful?

So my question is, do we really need to say this is how God operates when Jesus presents such a different picture? Isn’t this more of humans’ problematic notions than things that God really did? If historians and archeologists show that a whole lot of the main narratives elements didn’t happen, do we really want to hold onto stuff like the conquest of Canaan (I know in response to my last post, many said they were okay getting rid of the conquest, but I’m REALLY good with no Moses).

This isn’t to say that we can’t derive useful lessons from the narrative, but it DOES concern me that we often derive ones that don’t look very good to me like steadying the arc (we will be smitten for wanting to be helpful to the church, the metaphor says). I’m VERY concerned about what is going on in Gaza.

Jesus presented a higher law. Why do we need to go back to what he overturned, especially since so much of it isn’t historical or moral?

Yes, I know that we have a whole narrative based on the OT of how God has worked in history. Can we not rethink that narrative? Must we really insist on the dichotomy between accepting the OT God or having no God at all?

I do think there are other narratives we can consider. More on that in later posts.

32 comments for “Rethinking the OT Narrative

  1. Years ago when I was bishop, my ward was well aware that I was not sure that the OT was even remotely accurate/true let alone scripture that should be studied. I get that it all “points to Jesus” such as Abraham sacrificing his son on the same spot that God let His son get sacrificed etc…

    My theory about the OT is this…God had to be crazy strict with His kiddos until the atonement actually happened. Before that point, people were responsible for their own sins/salvation and probably not a good pass/fail happening with those who lived pre Jesus. I am guessing the spirit prison was overcrowded up to that point.

    After Jesus, God breathed a big sigh of relief, spirit prison gets almost cleaned out, and Jesus does away with the strictness of the law as it is not needed anymore.

    I am a simple guy with a simple mind, but this makes the OT make more sense to me. Almost believable! ;)

    Your daughter sounds a lot like me and my childhood. Maybe she will be a bishop some day!

  2. Rec, what do you make of the Book of Mormon, which quotes Jesus (immediately after his atoning sacrifice) describing how he has just drowned, buried, burned, and otherwise utterly and mercilessly destroyed the inhabitants of about 15 cities because of their abominations?

  3. I agree with Stephen that the OT problems with God ordering genocide isthat the “prophets” at that time were projecting their own wishes onto God. I don’t believe in infallibility in either ancient or modern prophets. The people in the OT did the best they knew how with their understanding of God. Just like our prophets today. They didn’t have a Bat Phone then and they don’t have one now.

    But that belief does bring up the problem about what our modern prophets are getting wrong, but helps to explain how denying blacks the priesthood and temple blessings came to be seen as doctrine.

  4. REC, “strict” is how the BoM refers to the Law, but I’d pushed back on a couple of things. First, in some ways, Jesus’s sermon on the mount was even MORE strict: no angers (5:22), no lust (5:28). That’s pretty strict.

    I’d argue that all the killing that’s commanded in the OT is indeed a sin (that doesn’t seem to controversial). So if God was trying to save people from sin, then I don’t think that commanding genocide makes such sense. Rather than “strict,” I’d argue that a lot of the injunctions were arbitrary and violent. I don’t believe that God commanded them, but that the OT writers thought he did.

    Allergy, notions of disasters as God’s vengeance was a pretty common pre-modern idea. I’d say it’s a little different that giving humans commands to kill, however.

    Anna, I’d say that a whole lot of those commands were written much later. However, I don’t view our church leadership as operating on the model of OT prophets.

  5. I recently encountered this quote from C.S. Lewis in the Givens’ book “All Things New” (a good book, by the way):

    “On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two….

    But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God’s answer might be ‘What is that to thee?’ The passage may not be ‘addressed to our (your or my) condition’ at all.”

    I think it’s worth bearing in mind that from God’s point of view, death is just a transfer from mortality to the spirit world. Destroy a whole city and no one’s even separated from their loved ones. So some humility is called for if we’re going to declare that a given action cannot possibly be good. And yet I think most of us will reach that conclusion in some cases. When we do, I whole-heartedly agree with C.S. Lewis that if we have to choose between believing in the goodness of God and believing in the accuracy of the Old Testament, go with the goodness of God.

  6. Stephen, when you write, “Why do we need to go back to what he overturned, especially since so much of it isn’t historical…” I’m reminded of one of my responses last time: the problem with treating scripture as ahistorical is that you rapidly move to treating it as dispensable.

    It’s true that there are other paths we can take with the OT, and various Christian denominations span the range from giving it no or minimal importance, to giving it very high importance. But we’ve already walked pretty far down the path of treating the OT as highly significant to essential, so you’d have to rewind church history to pre-1830 if you wanted to dispense with the OT. Aaronic and Melchizidech priesthood, central role of the Creation accounts, Books of Moses and Abraham, the exodus from Nauvoo and Zion’s Camp – all of it has direct OT antecedents. Not to mention how much of the Book of Mormon depends on the OT. If you want a viable new approach to the OT, probably the only option is something with strong support in the Book of Mormon.

    Besides, the OT has a lot of good things to teach. “Steadying the ark” is a nice shorthand for an irritating reflex better avoided. Obedience really is better than sacrifice. And many others. If you want to teach them as the stories people in exile needed to make the principles comprehensible, I won’t object too strenuously. But the principles are important! Also, I don’t think the NT can be understood without the OT – toss out the Law, and there’s soon no need for an Atonement.

  7. While I can’t justify everything that’s written in the Old Testament, I think we moderns need to remember that there are things that are worse than death.

    Also, as some have already suggested, the modern canon sheds important light on the God of the Old Testament. Enoch’s enounter with the “Weeping God” is an astonishing revelation about his true nature.

  8. Personally, as a cynic, I think that men throughout history have invoked God as a way to lend legitimacy to doing otherwise bad things.

    It’s understandable that the nomadic Hebrews came upon Canaan and wanted to take it. The only way to do that would be to murder all of the inhabitants, which would be immoral. Unless, of course, God conveniently gave them a special exception where the normal rules of morality are suspended.

    Nephi didn’t have to murder Laban, but then he saw that beautiful ornate sword. The hilt thereof WAS exceedingly fine, after all. What if God gave a special exception again to murder and Nephi happened to get some treasure by coincidence.

    Joseph Smith wrote in the Happiness Letter that God said that something that may be wrong in one circumstance may be right in another. A grown adult man trying to wed & bed a teenager (or an already-married woman) is understandable from a biological viewpoint, but abhorrent by modern moral standards. UNLESS… God gives one of his convenient morality passes again. How fortunate for Joseph!

    This pattern is not limited to Mormonism. I dare say the US Founders invoked special morality to kill natives and claim all this land from sea to shining sea. Manifest Destiny is a concept that men invented to give divine legitimacy to seizing what they wanted by force.

    So yeah, the Old Testament is full of stories written by men doing what men do.

  9. Stephen, if 3 Nephi is a misattribution of natural disasters to Jesus, it is quite an egregious misquote. It is a similar problem as a misquote in the OT commanding murder, only now it is NT Jesus. But why stop there? I can think of some lines in the D&C that I prefer to believe are misquotes of Jesus too. My point is that troubling scripture is not really a problem of ancient worldviews and cultures and translations and so forth, but one of prophetic (ancient and modern) failure. For me the only way forward is to exercise personal moral judgment to every pronouncement and choose to accept or reject, everything is on the table.

  10. Stephen,
    I am all for examining the OT by acknowledging different genres, looking at cultural perspectives, etc. because that is a “literal” approach to scripture that is comprehensible. The ancients (c. 1000 BCE and earlier) really did communicate in ways that differ from the way moderns communicated. We need to look at how the ancients would have read our earliest texts, not how a fundamentalist in the 20th or 21st century views them. This is hard work. The scriptures are not meant for 10 year-olds or even teens without acknowledging various issues. Splashing in the shallows of fundamentalist thinking does not engender or preserve faith.

    On the other hand, choosing to ignore issues and reject texts because they make us moderns uncomfortable and they don’t fit a strict definition of “historical” is the height of folly. I view parts of Genesis and Exodus as partly myth. I view Ruth, Job and Jonah as historical fiction. Does that mean I don’t value them? I take them more seriously because they are part of a cultural library that has influenced civilization and religious thought for centuries. Myths can have serious impact (just look at how modern myths like Star Wars, Marvel, etc. are celebrated in our own culture). I do not view the creation story and dialogue in the temple endowment as literal history. I see them as inspired myths designed to convey a message or hint at a sublime truth. As a mythology professor once told me, “ALL myths are TRUE.” What do you make of that? Can these ancient texts have meaning in a modern age? I think they can.

  11. And as far as Moses goes (or Noah, Abraham, Issac, Ishmael, Siddhartha Gautama, Zarathustra, Confucius, etc.) I believe there were individuals (perhaps with even those names), who were mythologically and artistically expanded to fulfill a spiritual yearning or tribal/nationalistic need. Many Latter-day Saints struggle with separating the man from the myth even when the man (such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young… or even Russell M. Nelson) is obviously a real, flawed human being and also a profound symbol of something beyond normal human experience.

  12. So just to be clear, I DID say that we can “derive useful lessons from the narrative.” And I also said in comments in my last post that one can get useful lessons from non-historical stories.

    The point I wanted to make with this post is that I don’t see the need to defend the historicity of OT aspects that scholars generally reject because I DO see so many of the morals of many of those stories as problematic. Like the genocidal conquest of Canaan. Do we really need that? I don’t think so.

    RLD, I like that quote. Again, I do not believe at all that God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide to conquer Canaan like the OT claims. And here’s the thing, the archeological evidence strongly indicates that no conquest like the OT described actually happened. This was a story invented later and a bad story, in my opinion.

    This quote from Ethan Allen’s 1784 REASON THE ONLY ORACLE OF MAN is pretty straight forward:
    “Nor is it compatible with reason to suppose, that God ever directed Moses or Joshua to extirpate the Canaanitish nations. ‘And we took all his cities at the same time, and utterly destroyed the men and the women, and the little ones of every city, we left none to remain,’ There is not any more propriety in ascribing the cruelties to God, than those that were perpetrated by the Spaniards against the Mexican and Peruvian Indians or natives of America. Every one who dares to exercise his reason, free from bias, will readily discern, that the inhumanities exercised towards the Canaanites and Amorites, Mexicans and Peruvians, were detestably wicked, and could not be approbated by God, or by rational good men. Undoubtedly avarice and domination were the causes of those unbounded cruelties.” (311-12).

  13. Jonathan, I do hope that a whole lot of the OT IS dispensable for the reasons I listed. Again, I am NOT saying that there isn’t useful stuff there, just that there’s a whole lot of bad stuff too. And bad things, things that are explicitly contrary to what Jesus taught, I don’t see the point of holding onto.

    Yes, I understand that the Book of Mormon and NT do draw in the OT considerably. But I’d argue they do so in a way to give us something better. I think we can think of those scriptures as using the OT as the cultural milieu that they were working with. But the point is to point to Jesus who taught a higher law and spent so much time overturning past teachings.

    And while there are certainly are good aphorisms in the OT, I don’t care for “don’t steady the arc” for the reasons I listed. “Obedience is better than sacrifice” may be a nice saying if totally divorced for the context it was given. The context is utterly horrible as “wicked” Saul defied the genocidal order. So in that case, obedience wasn’t a good thing at all, but highly immoral.

    You are right that we’ve tended to be wedded to the OT, but I don’t think theirs anything wrong with proposing that we rethink that. And feeling a theological need to reject the scholarship that calls a lot of its historicity into question (I know your views are more nuanced than that, but we do have a tendency to hold onto biblical literalism) because of theological “need” strikes me as misguided.

  14. Davek, again, we don’t have evidence that such a conquest happened. Good point about problems in other scriptures, as Allergy points out as well. I figured that focussing on the OT would make things a little “cleaner” than trying to tackle the entire canon. That is a tricky topic, and I do think that it can be nice to be grounded in important wisdom from the past that scripture represents. Realizing that scripture may not be perfect can make things messy.

    Old Man, again, I acknowledge the value of non-historical stories, but I do think the attributes a culture ascribes to their Gods and heroes tell us a lot about the values of that culture. I don’t think we need to accept all the OT’s values even if many are worthwhile.

  15. Davek
    I don’t think you are being cynical at all, I think you are being reasonable. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment.

    Stephen – “derive useful lessons from the narrative.” Similarly to Davek, I agree with you that we can derive useful lessons, but many of those are seeing just how horrible humans can be in the name of God. I believe the commandment “Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain” has nothing to do with using his name as some linguistic pejorative and everything to do with using God’s name for “Vain purposes”. Vain purposes are much of what Davek describes as invoking God’s name for personal gain. I think the New Testament could be read as a critique of organized religion and how it somehow always devolves into its lowest forms.

  16. I know that I would really like it for God to provide revelation to correct the historical record. He doesn’t seem to be too interested in doing that though, and I ponder over why that is.

  17. Focusing on the Old Testament keeps things a little “cleaner” because no one has a testimony that the historical books of the Old Testament are accurate. As jader3rd points out, God doesn’t seem to be too interested. It’s not important to our salvation.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, most active members do have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, so of course talking about them will be very different. For most of us that implies that Joseph Smith is a reliable narrator of his own experiences. We don’t necessarily agree with all of his interpretations of those experiences. Joseph assumed a hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon with the Lamanites as the sole ancestors of the Native Americans, but the text he translated doesn’t really support that and many (most?) members now disagree. Similarly, the fact that Joseph reported being visited by Moses in the Kirtland Temple is an important data point about Old Testament history, but what Joseph assumed about the past of the man he met is not terribly important.

    Seems to me that how much faith (trust) we have in Joseph Smith as a prophet of God is going to be the key to this entire conversation. I fear it’s going to rapidly reach the point of agreeing to disagree, with one person’s “theological needs” that ought to be abandoned being another’s “things I know by revelation.” I’m not sure how much light that’s going to shed. But for better or worse I’d suggest moving on to the heart of the matter.

  18. Stephen, to come at the issue from a different angle, how different is what you’re proposing from what we’re already doing in the OT Come Follow Me curriculum? It seems like the focus there is on the OT as a precursor to the NT (and to a lesser extent the Book of Mormon), along with mostly the inspiring stories of moral exemplars (and some stories of negative exemplars). If you were designing the curriculum, would you do anything differently, except perhaps choose different stories and incidents to focus on? The modest role that history plays in the OT curriculum does make it easy for a lot of approaches to historicity to co-exist in Sunday School.

  19. Why would Joseph Smith be the key to this conversation?

    If you wanted to know what God wanted or needed you to believe about the Old and New Testament and the scriptures I think the standard Mormon answer would be that Joseph Smith and the rest of the modern church prophets were the mechanism for revealing what God needed the world to know. But it can’t be that simple because there are so many things that they taught about those scriptures and people that I don’t believe and it seems like many of you don’t either including:

    1. Earth was created 6000ish years ago – D&C 77
    2. Literal Adam and Eve – BoM, D&C, book of Abraham, Moses, temple, and so many talks and other writings
    3. No death before the fall – Brigham Young to For sure McConkie and probably Benson.
    4. Literal fall – all the earth fell with Adam and Eve. So many leaders taught this was like a truly physical thing that changed the nature of earth and human bodies.
    5. Noah and the Flood – certainly most of the leaders taught this was a whole earth catastrophe
    6. Tower of Babel – Book of Mormon many of the leaders of the church
    7. Adam God – Brigham loved this idea. Most hated it but taught in the temple and at conference during his life.
    8. All the Old Testament characters were actual real people and that was the history.
    9. Egyptus and Ham as founders od Egypt – Book of Moses. All of the Canaanite nonsense for why the priesthood was withheld. This was taught all the way into the 80s.
    10. All native Americans = lamanites. Like it or not most early church leaders including Joseph taught this. Not some small portion of a limited geography.
    11. Jehovah – Jesus. This is really only since Talmadge. Joseph and Brigham or early leaders didn’t teach this.

    Maybe you do believe all of that, but I doubt it. I think many and most members believe the current leaders more than Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and the current doctrine is a cafeteria line of pieces of early church teachings and modern ones that aren’t so crazy.

    It’s seems like the choice is not that simple as believe it if Joseph and the recent prophets taught it. It seems like they didn’t know really what god wanted either so you are free to believe whatever you want.

  20. Jader, I take the command in DC 88:79 to study “things which have been” as a command to study history. That fact that it was a command to study, not simply to have the prophet simply dispense answers from God to mean that what we learn through that study has value. In other words, we can gain knowledge about the historicity of the OT through scholarship. We often get the idea that all knowledge comes through church leaders and I don’t think that’s how it works.

    Jonathan, no doubt our current curriculum is part of a long heritage of Christian Sunday school teaching the OT while attempting to focus on what’s deemed “the good stuff” and editing out the problems. As I noted in my previous answer, most members come away from all our instruction with the assumption that our leaders want us to accept not only OT historicity but also the standard Christian narrative of (sorry if this is unnuanced ) “mean OT God who then gets nice and moral after Jesus is born.”

    Again, scholarship calls a lot of that narrative into question and it’s not my understanding that our current curriculum does much to address that.

    Plus I’ve heard so many Christians say they felt lied to by their Sunday school teachers whenever such Christian undertake to read the OT on their own. “My teachers never taught me …” quite a long list. That is, simply leading out “the bad stuff” with no explanation that there is “bad stuff” can create a lot of it’s own questions: what did God REALLY do and what did he not really do?

    I do recognize that our leaders may feel caught between a rock and a hard place on not being sure how to deal with this issue, but it’s an issue nonetheless. Was for my kids.

    Brian, yes, changing teachings is kind of the first thing one learns when studying any aspect of church history. Not to shocking to those who’ve been doing it for a while. Yes, I’m aware that it’s not a standard topic for Gospel Doctrine, but it certainly has been for the 20 or so years the bloggernacle has been around. Lots of us a pretty comfortable with it.

    RLD, yes we’ll get to more topics in due time.

  21. And yes, I understand that we Mormons have more theological explanation for editing portions of the OT out of our instruction than fundamentalist Protestants like “mistranslation,” the JST etc. But I’ve not seen leaders embracing declarations like the one I quoted from Ethan Allen. I’d say the standard theological position of our church is that what the OT attributes to God is generally legit (with a few fixes from the JST). And that leaves a whole lot more things to “edit out” that we don’t have official statements on (something like, “no God didn’t really command the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites.” We have no such official statement). So we put a whole lot of the “edited out” material into something of a gray area: objectionable, but not “officially” rejected (like the JST changes or President Kimball taping Song of Solomon shut. But no official rejection of so many other things).

  22. Stephen Fleming – it’s not only that doctrine changes that I was commenting on. The argument made by multiple commenters is that what lds members should think about the Old Testament narrative and historicity is contingent on their faith in and the writings and life of Joseph Smith. For example Moses has to be real because Joseph Smith says so. You can’t rethink the god and story of the Old Testament without confronting that Joseph Smith and other founders and leaders believed and taught literalist and fundamentalist wrong ideas about the Old Testament that you are re-evaluating as the actual teaching and doctrine of god. I can’t see how to do that without also reevaluating the modern teachings and men. What other commenters are afraid of that this is the start of deconstructing your faith, which it was for me. I agree that the Old Testament is so much more interesting and even faith promoting to embrace it in context of modern scholarship, but that is in conflict with teachings of the leaders of the church which is why they don’t teach this approach in seminary or institute or Sunday school.

  23. I may come at the discussion from a different place from Stephen C or Jonathan but agree that it is time to get to “the heart of the matter.”

  24. Brian G,

    The list that you provide seems to be primarily about logistical questions regarding historical claims. I agree that our collective thinking has change over the years vis-a-vis those claims. Even so, I’m of the opinion that the details involved in how certain events actually played out are less important than the doctrinal elements (of said events) that inform us today. And in that light I believe that the prophets are rarely wrong — especially when offering counsel to their own generation — when they speak of what it is that we should be doing–as opposed to how we should think about things.

  25. If the question is how do we rethink the Old Testament, it seems like real prophets would have some insights.

    Instead the presidents of the LDS church have consistently been wrong about all of the things on that list. The earth is so much older than 6000 years. Humans did evolve so there was no Adam or Eve and the earth didn’t fall. No Garden of Eden in Missouri, no global flood, no tower of babel. How are these just logistical questions if the people that are supposed to be the prophets are wrong about them?

    It seems like the argument is building up to is simply:

    It doesn’t matter what you believe or what the prophets have said, just keep on staying in the church. Keep paying your tithing, praying, and doing your calling. The church is true. . .

    I just hoped there was something more than these primary answers. It isn’t enough eventually.

  26. Brain G,

    It’s true that some leaders have expressed strong opinions on these subjects. But we have to remember that they don’t carry the same weight as the canon–or any canonized statements issued by the leadership.

    That said, I think it’s useful to think about the salvific elements of those claims. What’s most important is that we recognize that God is the Creator and that we are fallen and therefore in need of redemption. Those basic doctrines have not changed nor have the accompanying doctrines that bring us into the gospel covenant–and those are the things that matter most.

    That (and that) said, there are different ways of thinking about the logistical questions that you pose–ways that may not have occurred to folks in earlier times for reasons that may have to do with less Biblical scholarship and scientific understanding and so forth as compared to what we know today.

    For my own part, I see no conflict between an old earth and the Garden of Eden. Nor does organic evolution pose any threat to the Biblical narrative in my mind. And the solution is very simple: Adam and Eve were moved to a new venue–when they fell–where death was the order of the day. And contrary to what some folks believe the scriptures do not support — at least not very well — a “no death before the fall” scenario on this particular planet.

    Re: The age of the earth: When “a 1000 years” is used in the Bible it typically means a lengthy period of time–and I have no problem applying that kind of interpretation to Section 77. Plus, the bit about the earth’s temporal continuance may have reference to it’s appointment as the home for the family of Adam and Eve when they received their “reckoning” as fallen beings.

    As far as the flood is concerned–just about every ancient culture has some sort of flood myth in it’s past. So something’s going on there. Now I don’t believe (personally) in a global flood. But I can certainly see how that kind of an idea can take on a mythical character of it’s own. The one thing I will say is that I’m open to the idea of the flood story being even more “goofy” than the way we typically interpret the Biblical narrative. To me it looks like a dissolution of creation followed by a new creation. And so the whole story could be a representational telling of an event that’s beyond our mortal experience.

    I could go on–but that’s an example of how I deal with those kinds of questions. There’s lots of wiggle room for logistical details–not so much for core doctrine.

    Take care, brother.

  27. Sorry if I was overly curt in my last response, Brian. “Why stay in the church?” is a big topic of course, and for me the answer isn’t in our leaders’ special knowledge. I do believe in inspiration, but also our leaders’ fallibility. I think they can be wrong about plenty of things, just like I can.

    I know that we do tend to push what I’d call “the quasi-infallibility and near omniscience” of our leaders, but in my experience, the way we tend to talk about them is incorrect. For me, however, that doesn’t mean the church doesn’t have any value for all the reasons I laid out in previous posts. And I will state again: we are a very good church, and being part of it is highly worthwhile, I’d say.

    And we are a very good church, in my opinion, because of what Joseph Smith put together and because of the dedication of those who came after. Lots and lots of reasons to stay, I believe, but for me “the quasi-infallibility and near omniscience” of our leaders isn’t the reason.

    I’d say the reasons for staying are our church’s principles, not “the quasi-infallibility and near omniscience” of our leaders.

    And just to reiterate, saying that our leaders are not “quasi-infallible and near omniscient” doesn’t mean they are really good leaders, very dedicated, and really worth listening to. They are all those things. It’s a good organization to be a part of and I’ll just reiterate my view in the Erasmus’s line to Luther: “I shall therefore stick with this church until I see a better one.” Hope that isn’t smug, but it’s how I feel.

  28. The questions of this post and the last one are related – what does god want us to believe about the scriptures? Your answer to that question for the Old Testament is to rethink much of the narrative and to contextualize it as myth and origin stories for the nation of Israel and not as literal history and prophetic literal descriptions of God.

    I agree with that approach and most of your conclusions about the Old Testament. My question to you is not why stay in the church. You have and want to stay. I am not even interested in telling you not to stay. My question is more related to the topic of both posts. For both the OP author and commenters, how do you balance rethinking the scriptures when that is in conflict with the leaders of the church and what they have taught?

    Joseph Smith and the canon of scriptures from D&C, Book of Mormon, Moses, Abraham all push for a much more literal reading of those texts including as I listed above young earth, global flood, Adam and Eve, Moses, Abraham, Noah, Egyptus, etc. way more writing’s and conference talks as well.

    Ignore the fact that I have disclosed that I have left. I felt like I have needed to be open with that in my comments but I am afraid that is distracting. Yes for me the only way to resolve this conflict was to step away because my beliefs increasingly were in conflict with the teachings of the leaders of the church but you want to stay and so either have a different answer or are ok with the conflict

    I just can’t see in a Mormon context though that this conflict can be ignored – if you want to rethink and reevaluate the Old Testament history or depiction of God as a member and leader of the church there is a pile of evidence that this is in conflict with the teachings of the founders and presidents of the church. Maybe you can ignore that better than I could and I think you have the right and the church is better having people who can and do have divergent views. But that conflict is there.

    I have had this debate with Rosalyn Welch a number of times as she is a personal friend and with her role at the Maxwell Institute she thinks a lot about this. She sees a lot of value in wrestling with the intellectual and spiritual conflict. Many of the recent publications from her and the Maxwell Institute are in this vein.

  29. Yes, I understand that my idea diverge, Brian. I’ll try to give a little summary of my views, but will post more on this later. I see God working in history, Christianity, and Mormonism. Yet in ways that differ from our standard narratives. I’m good with accepting scholarship and scholarly consensus. I don’t feel the need to hold to our traditional narratives.

    I know that brings up the question of “what do we hold to then?” which is legit. For me, it’s my spiritual experiences and my own scholarly findings. This is a little complicated, but I argued in my dissertation and am arguing in the revision that Christian Platonism had a huge influence of Joseph Smith and the creation of Mormonism. I see Greek philosophy including Platonism having a major influence on Jesus and the rise of Christianity. I see Jesus’s teaching jelling better with Greek philosophy than with the OT. I think Joseph Smith was aware of some version of that. See the video I sent you.

    If JS and subsequent church leaders had biblical assumptions that have since been called into question, that is pretty normal. Again, I think JS gave us a different foundation even if he assumed that many biblical figures existed who may not have. Again, see that video I sent you. I’ll talk more about that here later.

  30. The Church doesn’t have a Gospel Topics essay on Old Testament historicity, but it does have one on “Organic Evolution” that’s relevant. Brian G, I suspect you already know the information it contains, but you might be interested in how its presented and that it’s being presented that way by the Church. (

    The bottom line is that the Church has no position on the topic, but the essay describes some of the history involved: apostles and prophets on both sides, Heber J. Grant recommending Church leaders leave it to the scientists, Joseph Fielding Smith obviously not taking that advice, etc. But all along there was agreement on key truths, in particular our divine nature and heritage.

    The clear implication is that the Lord wasn’t giving clear guidance on this topic, Church leaders were trying to figure it out as best they could, they were teaching according to their understanding, just because a Church leader teaches something does not make it binding doctrine of the Church, and sometimes Church leaders are wrong. I’d say that describes Old Testament historicity as well. None of this is new doctrine, but it is new that the Church is willing to talk about it openly. And it’s not just this essay–Saints isn’t afraid to describe Church leaders making mistakes and disagreeing either.

    Of course this leads to the vexed question of how to identify actual Church doctrine, which is a lot easier to deal with in practice than in theory. The only test that seems to work in all circumstances is J. Reuben Clark’s: the way you can tell if someone is speaking when moved upon by the Holy Ghost is to be moved upon by the Holy Ghost yourself. But I do think the Church has deliberately raised the bar in recent years for considering something doctrine.

    So I disagree with most of the items on your list, Brian G, but don’t see that as a problem. Yes, that means I think a lot of Church leaders were wrong about some things. But there’s a core of gospel doctrine I do believe and consider far more important, and I think it’s pretty much in line with what most members would identify as core doctrines. Meanwhile, I believe all those leaders were guided by the Lord on other issues, and value their wisdom even when it’s not revelation.

    On the other hand there’s a big difference between saying someone is wrong and saying someone is a liar. I think Joseph Smith was wrong when he assumed a hemispheric model for the Book of Mormon. But if I say Moses didn’t exist so Joseph couldn’t have seen him in the Kirtland Temple, it seems to me that that’s calling Joseph a liar. Some people in this thread would embrace that. I don’t think Stephen would, so I’m curious how he would describe it.

  31. I agree with much of the content of this article. All books, even scriptures, are written through the cultural lens of the people that wrote them.

    For example, Alma 62:38 says that the Nephites, “did slay them [the Lamanites] with a great slaughter, and did drive them out of the land”
    and then it goes on to say that many peoples’ hearts were hardened and softened, but “there was once more peace established among the people of Nephi”

    Perhaps if it had been written by some of the authors of the Old Testament the same verse could say,

    “and they did smite them in the strength of the LORD, and did cut them into pieces, and their cries ascended, even unto the LORD, but he did not hear them, nor had mercy, until the Nephites were avenged upon their enemies and their blood was spilled upon the earth”

    Of course, this is a bit exaggerated but there really are many ways to tell the same story depending on your own lens of the events. Same battle, different stories.

  32. It occurs to me that at the Second Coming, Christ comes dressed in red, not white. He and the destroying angels vanquish all wickedness. The tares are people and they burn. It is a great and terrible day. He tells half the church, who are there waiting for Him, to depart because they never really knew Him–no mercy is shown. These are decent dedicated members who spent their lives doing all His good works in His name so they are shocked at His response. Imagine being one of them. It’s a terrifying scripture. The Atonement isn’t covering them because their hearts lack charity. He’s not being the Christ like Jesus we think of in the NT. I’m a softie. Okay so, now they know they have some repenting to do. I’ll bet they are really ready to change so why not save them and let them learn after? But no, He leaves them behind with the wicked which doesn’t seem very fair to me. I expect (I hope) after they are destroyed they can repent and get it right but He sure doesn’t save them initially.

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