Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Joseph the Amusing Teller of Tall Tales: Lucy Mack Smith's Puzzling Statement in Perspective

One of the pillars of disbelief for critics of the Book of Mormon is the notion that Joseph Smith was well known as an imaginative story teller. He was allegedly telling wild stories about the ancient peoples of the Americas years before be began the "translation" of the Book of Mormon -- that pretty much is all we need to know to explain the origins of the Book of Mormon.

This mischief begins with a puzzling statement from Lucy Mack Smith that is endlessly used and abused by Book of Mormon critics, and often accepted at face value by Latter-day Saints. But there are enough oddities in her account and a lack of support from Joseph's peers for her statement, as we discuss below, that a little more skepticism might be healthy. It is hardly the kind of evidence that one can hang one's hat on. Here is the statement from her 1853 autobiography:
From this time forth [after the initial visits from Moroni], Joseph continued to receive instructions from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening, for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same. I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth, all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons, and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, who had never read the Bible through in his life: he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study. We were now confirmed in the opinion that God was about to bring to light something upon which we could stay our minds, or that would give us a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation and the redemption of the human family. This caused us greatly to rejoice, the sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house, and tranquillity reigned in our midst. [p.85] During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them. [emphasis added]
This is used not only by Book of Mormon critics to suggest that Joseph's story telling skills were remarkable and predated the production of the Book of Mormon, but is also used by some factions within Mormonism who claim that Joseph of course knew all about the details of Nephite civilization and where they were located, so various statements inferring a North American setting must be taken as prophetic certainty, in sharp contrast to what the record really shows about Joseph's evolving views on where the Book of Mormon scenes in the Americas might have taken place.

The abuse of Lucy's quote includes episodes when some critics misuse her statement to imply that Joseph had long been interested in the ancient Americas and was telling stories of life in ancient America before he encountered Moroni and the gold plates. Lucy's statement in context clearly indicates that the occasionally "amusing recitals" were usually quite serious and inspiring, and only began after Joseph was introduced to the Book of Mormon by Moroni, not before. But the way the statement has been edited by the Tanners has caused some confusion in readers. Below is a passage from Mormonism–Shadow or Reality? by Gerald and Sandra Tanner, p. 81, as discussed in a fascinating report by Robert Vukich in "An Incident Concerning Page 81 of Mormonism–Shadow or Reality?" from the 2000 FAIRMormon Conference:
The fact that Joseph Smith had a great interest in the ancient inhabitants of the land prior to his “translation” of the Book of Mormon is no secret to those who have read the History of Joseph Smith by his Mother. Mrs. Smith said: “I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth–all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, …During our evening conversations, JOSEPH would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ANCIENT INHABITANTS of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with EASE, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 1954 Edition, pages 82-83)
Lucy's statement in context is the voice of a witness seeing a miracle taking place through Joseph's encounter with Moroni and the Book of Mormon, but the serious and inspiring flavor of her statement becomes a focus on amusing tales from an entertaining story teller who was skilled at making stuff up, thus explaining away Book of Mormon origins as the work of Joseph's imagination. As edited and presented, that's not exactly true to what Lucy's statement really indicates.

Vukich shares his correspondence with the Tanners as he questions their motives and accuracy in their editing of Lucy Mack Smith's quote. It is an interesting exchange that reminds us that some critics in spite of their proclaimed commitment to truth and accuracy might take a few shortcuts that can be questioned. 

The abuse of Lucy Mack Smith's statement to turn the Book of Mormon into the easily explained fruit of an entertaining story teller has been replayed in many forms. A recent example is in a seemingly scholarly work that is unable to get past the author's personal biases to confront the Book of Mormon seriously. The work is Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies in the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), as reviewed by Kevin Christensen in "Playing to an Audience: A Review of Revelatory Events," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 28 (2018): 65-114. Christensen offers some significant analysis regarding Lucy Mack Smith's statement that should be considered the next time someone rattles it off as if it helped explain the origins of the Book of Mormon, or as if it takes away from the miracle of what Joseph dictated from a hat while housed in the information vacuum of Harmony, Pennsylvania (a village that essentially no longer exists and wasn't much in Joseph's day wither), without the aid of manuscripts, a Bible, reference materials, or a technical advisory team scouting the world for Hebraisms, maps of Arabia, details about the ancient Americas, etc.

In response to Taves' excessive reliance on Luck Mack Smith's statement, Kevin Christensen offers the following analysis in his review:
There are some unexamined oddities about the Lucy Smith quote. Before I would take it as an interpretive foundation, I must consider that, even though a first-hand account, it is not an autograph account, and it is late, dating to an 1844 dictation in Nauvoo to the non-LDS, 24-year old Martha Jane Coray regarding events in Palmyra 1823 and then not published until 1853. That is, the quote is six years older than Joseph Smith’s official history from 1838, which Taves takes notable interest in dissecting and comparing with earlier sources. In her discussion of method and sources for Mormonism, she observes:
Apart from the 1825 agreement with Josiah Stowell and the 1826 court record, both of which are preserved in later versions, we have no real-time access to events until July 1828, when D&C 3 — the first real-time recorded revelation — opens a window in the wake of the loss of the first 116 pages of the manuscript. Chapter 1 thus opens with an in-depth analysis of D&C 3, read as a window on that moment rather than as it was interpreted and reinterpreted in later accounts. (21)
The Lucy Smith quote, aside from being a late account, rather than early and contemporary (not “real time access,” not a direct “window on the moment”), turns out to be notably odd and unique with respect to Joseph Smith, rather than well supported from a range of sources. Certainly much in Lucy’s biography is well supported, but let us recognize the anomaly here. Odd accounts do occur in history, yes, but the account raises questions that should be faced and mentioned before building one’s structure there. First of all, the Book of Mormon we have has no descriptions of people riding animals in over 500 pages that include several major migrations and 100 distinct wars. It provides no notably detailed descriptions of clothing (other than armor) and no detailed descriptions of the structure of later buildings. The most detail we get involves descriptions of fortifications with palisaded walls and ditches.

Then there is the unasked question as to why — if Joseph Smith as a youth was capable of this kind of detailed, immersive, evening-filling recital on the everyday particulars of Book of Mormon peoples and culture — do we have no further record anywhere of his performing the same service as an adult? Perhaps the closest circumstance on this topic involves the Zelph story on Zion’s Camp, but in that case the notable differences in the details recorded by the different people who reported it, even those writing close to the event, should give pause to a person trying to build an interpretive foundation on an isolated, late, anomalous account related to far longer and complex narrative than the Zelph gossip. It bears mentioning that if Joseph Smith had been telling stories about the Book of Mormon peoples, animals, clothing, and culture, such stories should have had an obvious influence on Abner Cole’s 1830 parody version, the Book of Pukei, which “tells in mocking fashion about the sorts of things that Joseph’s neighbors expected to find in the Book of Mormon.” Yet the most notable thing about the Book of Pukei is how utterly different it is from the actual Book of Mormon. The book Joseph Smith produced was emphatically not what his neighbors expected.

It is true the Book of Mormon does contain abundant details about “their religious worship” and their “modes of warfare,” but we have no other accounts of Joseph Smith’s filling anyone’s evening or afternoon with amusing or serious recitals on those topics either. Again, why not? This is not a frivolous question but one addressed to a foundation stone upon which Taves chooses to build.
The one notable discussion of ancient buildings from Joseph Smith comes as his surprised and delighted review of John Lloyd Stephen’s Incidents of Travels Central America as expressed in two articles in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo. I find Michael Coe’s report of Joseph Smith’s encounter with the Stephen’s book particularly telling:
In 1841 — after the Book of Mormon, actually — there was a publication in New York and London of a wonderful two volume work called Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens, an American diplomat, and his artist-companion, the British topographical artist Frederick Catherwood, with wonderful illustrations by Catherwood of the Maya ruins. This was the beginning of Maya archaeology, … and we who worked with the Maya civilization consider Stephens and Catherwood the kind of patron saints of the whole thing.
Well, Joseph Smith read these two volumes, and he was flabbergasted, because what he had dictated about the ancient his mind, these were the ancient cities that he was talking about. They weren’t in South America, as he originally thought; they were in Central America and neighboring Mexico.
It happens that there are over 500 passages with geographic details for the New World portions of the Book of Mormon, and they have a remarkable internal consistency. But they are not at all consistent with any location in South America, and more particularly, there is no way to fit the internal travel accounts required to a New York Cumorah and a Land South that includes South America. Coe doesn’t bother to explain how Joseph managed to describe in detail and at length something so very different than he originally imagined, or more accurately, what Coe imagines Joseph imagined. Taves avoids these issues the same way Coe does: by not exploring the Book of Mormon text or Joseph Smith’s history or believing Mormon scholarship in enough detail to encounter or generate such problems. In her account, the Book of Mormon is Biblical sounding, has a bit of distinctive language in chiasmus, and has a story of “shining stones” and divine rebuke she reads as analogous to Joseph Smith and the plates. But for purposes of her discussion, it can be defined simply as “large” and “complex,” just as The Big Book of AA is, and as Schucman’s A Course in Miracles is, and as a range of other automatic writings are. Personally, I find the superficiality of her approach to the Book of Mormon to be astonishing in a book that purports to authoritatively account for its existence. And this is true even considering the comment of another sympathetic Catholic scholar, Thomas O’Dea, who famously observed, “The Book of Mormon is not one of those books that one must read in order to have an opinion of it.” [references omitted]
Lucy's statement is an oddity. Certainly Joseph discussed things that he learned from revelation with his family, but there is no reason to believe that what he would encounter and dictate in the translation process was already part of a worked out collection of stories or from a manuscript he was already familiar with. Joseph the remarkable teller of Indian stories is not the Joseph that anyone seems to have known. After the Book of Mormon came out, he didn't tell such stories, either. From his sermons, we don't see evidence that he was all that familiar with Book of Mormon peoples and details. We don't see that in the statements of others closely associated with him. Lucy's lone statement long after the Book of Mormon was published does not form a solid foundation for understanding the origins of the Book of Mormon.

By the way, an important point overlooked by the Tanners and other critics in their use of Lucy mack Smith's (edited) statement is that Joseph's family believed him. They believed that this young man had seen an angel and been directed to ancient plates with a sacred record. Daniel Peterson underscores this important point from several angles on his post at Sic et Non, “Father and mother believed him; why should not the children?” He quotes, for example,  the 1875 testimony of Joseph’s younger brother, William Smith:
Joseph Smith, at the age of seventeen years, with the moral training he had received from strictly pious and religious parents, could not have conceived the idea in his mind of palming off a fabulous story, such as seeing angels, etc. . . .

There was not a single member of the family of sufficient age to know right from wrong but what had implicit confidence in the statements made by my brother Joseph concerning his vision and the knowledge he thereby obtained concerning the plates.
Father and mother believed him; why should not the children? I suppose if he had told crooked stories about other things, we might have doubted his word about the plates, but Joseph was a truthful boy. That father and mother believed his report and suffered persecution for that belief shows that he was truthful.

And again in 1884:
All believed it was true, father, mother, brothers and sisters. You can tell what a child is. Parents know whether their children are truthful or not. . . . Father knew his child was telling the truth.
 His parents knew. His family knew. And millions who give the Book of Mormon a chance have also come to know that Joseph was telling the truth.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Another Reversal: Why Is King David So Absent in Book of Mormon Discourse?

One of the many curious aspects of the Book of Mormon is the frequency with which arguments against it suffer "reversals" and, upon further investigation, actually become evidences in favor of the plausibility and antiquity of the text. Just a few examples include almost every aspect of Lehi's Trail (the River Laman, the "more fertile parts," the place Nahom and its eastward turn, and especially the place Bountiful), along with other issues such as "the land of Jerusalem" instead of Bethlehem Bountiful as the birthplace of Christ, the girl's name Alma for a man, the bad grammar of the dictated text, the very idea of writing on gold plates, the lack of barley in the New World, cities of cement, etc.

One recent attack on the Book of Mormon may be another example of a reversal. I have previously discussed a recent thesis from a young Bible scholar criticizing the Book of Mormon for its failure to emphasize King David and make heavy use of the Psalms. In reviewing that work recently, it struck me that his argument regarding David really makes a lot of sense from the perspective of a modern reader familiar with the Bible, whether it is a young theologian at a Baptist seminary or a young Joseph Smith in a society familiar with the Bible. In our modern environment and in Joseph Smith's, anyone familiar with the Bible should notice that kings in the Old Testament are routinely evaluated by comparison to King David. David was a big deal to the ancient Jews. Strangely, he gets almost no attention in the Book of Mormon, and even gets criticized rather than held up as a glorious example. Kevin Beshears at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary finds that to be powerful evidence against the Book of Mormon as an ancient Hebrew text, as he explains in detail in his thesis, "Davidic References in the Book of Mormon as Evidence Against its Historicity."

What Beshears overlooks is extensive, but one key gap is failure to recognize that in light of modern scholarship, there are good reasons why a group of Hebrews like Lehi's family with roots from the Northern Kingdom and the tribe of Joseph would not buy into the ruling paradigm among the Judeans regarding the greatness of David and the majesty of the so-called Davidic covenant, which allegedly guaranteed the Israelites that they would be safe and a king would remain on David's throne no matter how bad their behavior.

A basic problem in Beshears' work is assuming that there is a “typical” type of Bible text that should be found wherever we look in the Bible, when that is simply not the case. As mentioned above, a large number of books in both the Old and New Testament fail to mention David at all. Since some authors see the Davidic Covenant as central and all-important,[i] Beshears’ perspective is understandable. But there is not a uniform urge to turn to David and the Davidic covenant of an everlasting throne in Jerusalem, even in books like Daniel that look forward to the end days and the final victory of God. For example, the wisdom literature, a type of literature Beshears errantly claimed was absent in the Book of Mormon but in fact shows a strong influence, tends to ignore the Davidic covenant, as Daniel Peterson noted in his widely cited exploration of some aspects of wisdom traditions embedded in the Book of Mormon:
Biblical scholars recognize a genre of writing, found both in the canonical scriptures (e.g., Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon) and beyond the canon, that they term “wisdom literature.” Among the characteristics of this type of writing, not surprisingly, is the frequent use of the term wisdom. But also common to such literature, and very striking in texts from a Hebrew cultural background, is the absence of typically Israelite or Jewish themes, such as the promises to the patriarchs, the story of Moses and the exodus, the covenant at Sinai, and the divine promise to David. There is, however, a strong emphasis on the teaching of parents, and especially on the instruction of the father. [emphasis added][ii]
Since the wisdom-heavy founding documents of the Nephite people paid little attention to the Davidic covenant, it should not be a surprise to see other writers like Alma follow suit in their emphasis of similar themes (including the exodus, not normally emphasized in wisdom literature but obviously an important issue for Nephi and Lehi as they made a literal exodus to a promised land) and a lack of emphasis on the Davidic covenant. This is not to say that any Book of Mormon author wrote exclusively in the wisdom tradition, but there is a significant thread of wisdom influence in the book.

Several more noteworthy factors may contribute to the relative lack of interest in David among Nephite writers. Lehi was not a Jew from David’s tribe of Judah, but was descended from the tribe of Joseph, probably with roots in the northern kingdom, where there was less respect for descendants of David on the throne in Jerusalem. More importantly, Lehi may not have accepted some aspects of Josiah’s reforms that began in 622 B.C. These “Deuteronomist” reforms, triggered by the “discovery” of a book of the law in the temple, believed to be the source of our Book of Deuteronomy, sought to impose centralized worship in Jerusalem and may have introduced the concept of the David covenant — the idea that God would always keep a king descended from David on the throne of Jerusalem, no matter how bad those kings might be. Josiah’s reforms were actually violent, causing many priests to be killed and sacred relics from the temple to be forcefully destroyed.

Non-LDS scholar Margaret Barker argues that Josiah’s reforms were largely destroying many of the things in the old Jewish faith, including the idea of the temple as the place where the presence of God could be encountered, the idea of visions and angels that minister to prophets, and the wisdom tradition.[iii] She argues that the reformers, the Deuteronomists, took out much in early Jewish faith during their violent purges. Barker also points to many ways in which the writings of Nephi comply with results of her own research about pre-exilic Jewish religion.[iv] Although LDS scholars disagree with her assessment of Josiah,[v] if she is right, then Lehi the man of visions, the seeker of wisdom, would naturally be at odds with the Deuteronomists and their scribes, who shaped a great deal of the Bible.

Modern scholarship on the origins of the Bible, including the theories related to the Documentary Hypothesis, provides some related insights that can help us understand the significance of the David Covenant that Beshears expects the Book of Mormon to emphasize. In Richard Elliot Friedman’s famous Who Wrote the Bible?, the mystery behind the centralization of worship and the Davidic covenant is unraveled in several intriguing steps.[vi]

There is a mystery here, for in spite of the strict command in Deuteronomy to centralize worship in Jerusalem, we find David, Saul, Solomon, and Samuel making sacrifices in other places as if they had no awareness of this fundamental command attributed to Moses. This and other issues have led multiple scholars to conclude that the long-lost book of the law that was mysteriously found in the temple during Josiah’s reign was in fact composed at that time, being written by someone close to Josiah. And textual and thematic evidence also suggests that the author or school that produced Deuteronomy also produced the following six books: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. The Davidic covenant given in 2 Samuel 7 was part of that effort. This comes from the Deuteronomists, and not from the other sources proposed for the Bible in the various versions of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The Davidic covenant only makes sense if it was written before the exile, when the confident Jews felt the holy city of Jerusalem could never fall. Lehi, warned of Jerusalem’s destruction, obviously did not see things that way.

An interesting thing about the Deuteronomists, according to Friedman, is how much emphasis they gave to David. In their writings, every king is evaluated by comparison to David. But that emphasis stops after Josiah, possibly because the bulk of the Deuteronomists writings (most of seven books in all) were done in that day, with only minor additions required to cover the tragic fall of Judah and the last four disastrous kings following Josiah. Friedman explains:
That is not the only thing that changes after the story of Josiah. King David figures in a fundamental way in the Deuteronomistic history. Half of the book of 1 Samuel, all of the book of 2 Samuel, and the first chapters of 1 Kings deal with his life. The majority of the kings who come after him are compared to him. The historian states explicitly, several times, that because of David’s merit even a bad king of Judah cannot lose the throne for the family. Especially among the last few kings down to the time of Josiah, the historian reminds us of David. He compares Josiah himself to David, saying, “We went in all the path of David his father.” … Altogether the name David occurs about five hundred times in the Deuteronomistic history. Then, in the story of the last four kings, it stops. The text does not compare these kings to David. It does not refer to the Davidic covenant, let alone explain why it does not save the throne now the way it did in the reigns of Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijam, and Jehoram. It does not mention David at all.

Thus two common, crucial matters in the Deuteronomistic history — centralization and David — disappear after the Josiah section.[vii]
Friedman explains that caution is needed in applying arguments from silence, but here the silence is deafening. When every king is compared to David, and then suddenly the last four kings are not, and when centralization is viewed as essential up to Josiah and then suddenly is not, “we have evidence of a real break and a change of perspective that are connected to that king.”[viii]

While there are some details in the Documentary Hypothesis that can easily be questioned, especially the dating for various sources, the possibility of multiple versions of documents and competing agendas influencing the Bible is actually consistent with information we obtain from the Book of Mormon, not only in terms of how ancient sources were pulled together, but in terms of its report of loss and change that would occur in the records of the Jews.

However the Bible was composed, there is strong evidence that references to David and the Davidic covenant are highly nonuniform in the Bible, and are most concentrated in the documents that are considered to be most influenced by the Deuteronomists. Seeing Lehi as an adherent to the old visionary ways opposed by the Deuteronomists can also help us understand why he might not have bought the new agenda of centralization and the new emphasis on the confident claims of those touting a David covenant that would keep the throne safe, no matter what. The Book of Mormon’s relative silence on David, though not as silent as many other legitimate biblical books, is consistent with the view based largely on Barker’s work that 1 Nephi accurately portrays the complex religious differences and tensions present in pre-exilic Jerusalem, with some groups not accepting the new reforms and possibly not accepting a new emphasis on security through the Davidic covenant.

Jon Levenson’s review of modern scholarship on the problem of the Davidic Covenant reminds us that its presence and influence in the scriptures is not as broad as some seem to assume:
The dynastic Davidic Covenant is of another character. There are only a handful of passages that show awareness of it, and the only two that set it out in any detail at all are those we have already discussed, 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89…. Several considerations, however, militate against the idea that this indicates that the Davidic Covenant commanded the same degree of public awareness and loyalty as the Sinaitic. First, we must notice that Abraham himself was the object of far less attention in the history of the tradition than was Moses. For Abraham, for example, we have nothing even remotely resembling Elijah’s rehearsal of Moses’ pilgrimage to Sinai/Horeb (1 Kings 19) or the great pseudonymous Mosaic address that has come to be called Deuteronomy. The second point to bear in mind is that the expansion of the empire is not quite the same thing as the Davidic Covenant. In certain Israelite circles, by no means small or ephemeral, kingship came to be as important as we know it was elsewhere in the ancient Near East. But to say that kingship was central and even that in Judah it happened to be held almost always by a Davidide is very different from the assertion that the Davidic Covenant, with all it entails, was a central concern. The truth is that most glorifications of David or his reign do not mention a covenant. In fact, the only reference to an “eternal covenant” with David in the books of Samuel is in the so-called “Latter Words of David” (2 Sam 23:1–7), and it is by no means certain that even this obscure reference (v. 5) signifies the dynastic commitment of 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89. In short, kingship and the Davidic dynasty were not synonymous.[ix]
He also explains that in the daily and religious life of an Israelite, the issue of the Davidic covenant was minor compared to the covenant at Sinai:
Even in the religious consciousness of an Israelite for whom kingship was of central importance, the entitlement of the House of David could remain peripheral. That is why, despite the presence of a great quantity of material bearing on royal theology, the specific covenant with David is expounded in clear form so very rarely. Not all royal theology was Davidic, and not all Davidic theology was covenantal. The average Israelite could probably live his life without giving any more attention to the Davidic Covenant than the average American gives to the 25th amendment to the Constitution, which also at- tempts to regulate the matter of succession to the most important office in the land. The same cannot be said of the Sinaitic Covenant. Therefore, it is wrong to assume, as Bright, for example, does, that emphasis on one must have been at the expense of the other, just as it is wrong to assume, with all the scholars I term “integrationists,” that the dynastic oracle of 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 rests upon an acute consciousness of the Sinaitic Covenant. It appears that the importance of the Davidic-messianic material in subsequent Judaism and especially in Christianity has led scholars to exaggerate its importance (relative to the Sinaitic material) in the Hebrew Bible, even to the extent of their imagining that the two covenants must have been in some kind of constant conversation, either harmonious or discordant.[x]
As for the centralization of worship that Josiah imposed, Lehi and Nephi obviously had no qualms with ritual worship outside of Jerusalem, even to the point of building a temple in the New World, just as Jews at Elephantine in Egypt did.[xi] In fact, Lehi was so at odds with the reigning religious establishment in Jerusalem that his life was in danger. His “apostasy” might have included rejecting some aspects of Josiah’s reforms that began just a few decades before his exodus. Again, what we find in the writings of Nephi makes a good deal of sense in the context of pre-exilic Israel, based on still-tentative research from Margaret Barker and others.[xii]

Joseph Smith could have known none of this. If he were making up the Book of Mormon based on average familiarity with the Bible in his day, or even above average graduate-student level familiarity with the Bible in our day, it is indeed reasonable that we would expect him to pick up on the extensive mentions of David, most of which occur in Deuteronomistic writings, and to then imitate that in the Book of Mormon. Praising King David and comparing good and bad kings to him would be the natural thing to do for a Bible-sponge imitating all things biblical.

Beshears’ puzzlement about David in the Book of Mormon is understandable. It is only through deeper understanding of the complexities behind that statistics on David’s name that we realize the Bible is highly nonuniform regarding David, that there are reasons for sudden changes in the text regarding David, and that there may be good reasons why ancient faithful Hebrews from the tribe of Joseph, ill at ease with the southern Kingdom Jews and their recent violent religious reforms, might not follow suit with the Deuteronomistic writings and their constant awe for David. Those Hebrews, clinging to the old ways of prophecy, revelation, temple worship, and wisdom literature, would respect David as a great but fallen king, and could be frank about his disobedience without betraying their Hebrew roots. They could appreciate the parallels between the young righteous David and Nephi, and could name a land after David, but had no need to make David a touchstone of their faith.

Once again, it seems we have a reversal. A terrible blunder in the Book of Mormon, one that anybody well-schooled in the Bible ought to have avoided, turns out to be just the kind of thing that makes sense for a text from the ancient world with the added complexity of having been written by people derived from the Northern Kingdom and came from the traditions that were being overthrown by the Deuteronomists before and as Lehi escaped Jerusalem.  The role of David in the Book of Mormon is a subtle evidence that it is indeed an ancient text, not a modern forgery.


[i] Michael A. Grisanti, “The Davidic Covenant,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, 10/2 (Fall 1999) 233–250.

[ii] Daniel C. Peterson, "Nephi and His Asherah," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25, 80–81, quotation at 23; http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/jbms/9/2/S00003-50be458eb2b313Peterson.pdf.

[iii] Margaret Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?“ in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. Jo Ann H. Seely, David Rolph Seely, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2004) 521–42; http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1081&index=16. See also Neal Rappleye, “The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 87–99; http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-deuteronomist-reforms-and-lehis-family-dynamics-a-social-context-for-the-rebellions-of-laman-and-lemuel/ as well as Kevin Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 449–522; http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1081&index=15 and Kevin Christensen, “Prophets and Kings in Lehi’s Jerusalem and Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 177–93; http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/prophets-and-kings-in-lehis-jerusalem-and-margaret-barkers-temple-theology/.

[iv] Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John S. Welch (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press: 2006), Kindle edition. See also Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” BYU Studies 44/4 (2005): 69–82; https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/joseph-smith-and-preexilic-israelite-religion.

[v] For examples of scholars who view Josiah positively, see William J. Hamblin, “Vindicating Josiah,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 4 (2013): 165–176; http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/vindicating-josiah/; and David Rolph Seely and Jo Ann H. Seely, “Lehi and Jeremiah: Prophets Priests and Patriarchs” in John W. Welch and David Rolph Seely and Ann H. Seely, eds., Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem (Provo, UT: FARMS 2004), 357–80; http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1081&index=12.

[vi] Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper Collins, 1997, originally published 1987), 91–124.

[vii] Ibid., 115.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Jon D. Levenson, “The Davidic Covenant and its Modern Interpreters,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41/2 (April 1979): 205–19, citation at 216–7; http://www.jstor.org/stable/43714665.

[x] Ibid., 217–8.

[xi] Jared W. Ludlow, “A Tale of Three Communities: Jerusalem, Elephantine, and Lehi-Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/2 (2007): 28–41, 95; http://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol16/iss2/5. See also Jeff Lindsay, “Lessons from the Elephantine Papyri Regarding Book of Mormon Names and Nephi's Temple,” JeffLindsay.com, May 22, 2004; http://www.jefflindsay.com/bme20.shtml.

[xii] Margaret Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?”; Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion”; and Kevin Christensen, “Prophets and Kings in Lehi’s Jerusalem.”

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Ignore Complexity: A Broad Look at a Basic Book of Mormon Issue

The more complex a machine is, the more beautiful and awe-inspiring it can be. Great Swiss watches, though far beyond my budget, inspire me with their craft and brilliance. In my mission in Switzerland, I often enjoyed looking at them through shop windows. How can so much be so reliably and accurately executed in so little space? They are modern marvels.

The machinery of a cell is even more inspiring, with the endless array of machines within the machine that build, transport, repair, verify, and disassemble to keep the intricate gears of life rolling in mind-numbing order. Then the products of the numerous differentiated cells of the human body leave me simply overwhelmed. Just looking at any of the minute mechanisms within, such as the complex of about 25 proteins in the plasma of our blood that can self-assemble on demand to form blood clots. Cooler and more practical than the Transformer robots of modern movies.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon is something else to consider. It is complex in much the same way that the Bible is, for it reveals many different sources and authors that have been brought together to tell a grand story. We should respect the complexity of Bible origins clarified through the scholarship related to the Documentary Hypothesis, regardless of how accurate the specific conclusions and dating of the individual sources may be. If the Bible as we have it today had been lost for centuries and were to be regenerated by a single man stepping forward with what he claimed was a legitimate Bible text, the complexity of that document would be difficult to explain as a modern fraud. Even if all we had to work with were an English translation such as the KJV text, we could see the evidence of many different source documents and different voices that gave us a complex text.

A great overview of the issue of complexity in the Book of Mormon comes from this recent video at Book of Mormon Central:

The Book of Mormon is much like the Bible in this regard. It has complex origins with many writers from across a broad period of time, documents from multiple sets of plates, with many different genres and styles of writing, and distinct voices in spite of a unifying English language style. The deep intertextuality, the consistent geography, the stories within stories that remain consistent, the clean and consistent details about sources, the abundant Hebraisms and ancient poetical elements, all demand much more respect than it has received from the world.

The complexity of the Book of Mormon would demand respect if it had been a lifelong project with many careful revisions over a period of years, but what can we say when we consider that this massive and complex book was dictated over about 70 days by an unschooled farm boy not reading from some scholar's manuscript, but dictating words orally at a breakneck pace while staring in a hat? This is a miracle that remains unexplained in spite of all the efforts of critics to find potential sources, maps, scholars, anything that could help. Yet it was created in an information vacuum far from a library and, again, simply dictated to scribes by a man without a manuscript or even a Bible to quote from when dealing with Bible-relevant passages.

How does such clock-like precision in the text arise from chance mutterings from a hat unless what was happening is what Joseph and his witnesses said: a marvelous work and a wonder from God, divinely aiding Joseph in delivering the translation of an ancient text almost as complex as the Bible?

Sunday, April 08, 2018

When Engineers Err: My Favorite Story from General Conference

Listening to General Conference has been a profound pleasure for us over here in China, where this weekend one week after conference is designated as Conference Sunday to solve the time zone problem as we play the recorded sessions. This has been one of my favorite Conferences ever with so much to learn and rejoice over. So positive, so encouraging, so international, so inspiring. I'd like to share a story that I especially enjoyed, one that made me wish it had been published more widely years ago. It involves the terrible time of the Korean War which took away too much from my own father, yet was a time of numerous miracles that helped him develop his own testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in spite of the repeated horror and trauma he faced.

Ensign Frank Blair
The story also involves engineers, in this case the engineer of a ship, and reminds us that even highly trained experts make severe mistakes (even some of us chemical engineers are fallible, I've been told). It further teaches the power of meek leadership, in this case a ship's captain who would humbly ask the young temporary chaplain of his ship to pray in a time of emergency, and then later had the daring meekness to accept the prayerful recommendation that his LDS chaplain offered. It made the difference of life and death for the many men on board.

The story is shared by Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy in "Take the Holy Spirit as Your Guide" given Sunday afternoon. The story was told with the permission of Ensign Frank Blair, who was present at the Conference session as it was told.
Brothers and sisters, it is an extraordinary privilege to “have … the Holy Spirit for [our] guide,” as demonstrated by the following experience.

During the Korean War, Ensign Frank Blair served on a troop transport ship stationed in Japan. The ship wasn’t large enough to have a formal chaplain, so the captain asked Brother Blair to be the ship’s informal chaplain, having observed that the young man was a person of faith and principle, highly respected by the whole crew.
Ensign Blair

Ensign Blair wrote: “Our ship was caught in a huge typhoon. The waves were about 45 feet [14 m] high. I was on watch … during which time one of our three engines stopped working and a crack in the centerline of the ship was reported. We had two remaining engines, one of which was only functioning at half power. We were in serious trouble.”

Ensign Blair finished his watch and was getting into bed when the captain knocked on his door. He asked, “Would you please pray for this ship?” Of course, Ensign Blair agreed to do so.

At that point, Ensign Blair could have simply prayed, “Heavenly Father, please bless our ship and keep us safe,” and then gone to bed. Instead, he prayed to know if there was something he could do to help ensure the safety of the ship. In response to Brother Blair’s prayer, the Holy Ghost prompted him to go to the bridge, speak with the captain, and learn more. He found that the captain was trying to determine how fast to run the ship’s remaining engines. Ensign Blair returned to his cabin to pray again.

He prayed, “What can I do to help address the problem with the engines?”

In response, the Holy Ghost whispered that he needed to walk around the ship and observe to gather more information. He again returned to the captain and asked for permission to walk around the deck. Then, with a lifeline tied around his waist, he went out into the storm.

Standing on the stern, he observed the giant propellers as they came out of the water when the ship crested a wave. Only one was working fully, and it was spinning very fast. After these observations, Ensign Blair once again prayed. The clear answer he received was that the remaining good engine was under too much strain and needed to be slowed down. So he returned to the captain and made that recommendation. The captain was surprised, telling him that the ship’s engineer had just suggested the opposite—that they increase the speed of the good engine in order to outrun the storm. Nevertheless, the captain chose to follow Ensign Blair’s suggestion and slowed the engine down. By dawn the ship was safely in calm waters.

Only two hours later, the good engine stopped working altogether. With half power in the remaining engine, the ship was able to limp into port.

The captain said to Ensign Blair, “If we had not slowed that engine when we did, we would have lost it in the middle of the storm.”

Without that engine, there would have been no way to steer. The ship would have overturned and been sunk. The captain thanked the young LDS officer and said he believed that following Ensign Blair’s spiritual impressions had saved the ship and its crew.

Now, this story is quite dramatic. While we may be unlikely to face such dire circumstances, this story contains important guidelines about how we can receive the Spirit’s guidance more frequently.

First, when it comes to revelation, we must properly tune our receiver to heaven’s frequency. Ensign Blair was living a clean and faithful life. Had he not been obedient, he would not have had the spiritual confidence necessary to pray as he did for the safety of his ship and to receive such specific guidance. We must each be making the effort to align our lives with God’s commandments in order to be directed by Him.

Sometimes we can’t hear heaven’s signal because we are not worthy. Repentance and obedience are the way to achieve clear communication again. The Old Testament word for repent means “to turn” or “turn around.” When you feel far from God, you need only make the decision to turn from sin and face the Savior, where you will find Him waiting for you, His arms outstretched. He is eager to guide you, and you are just one prayer away from receiving that guidance again.

Second, Ensign Blair did not just ask the Lord to solve his problem. He asked what he could do to be part of the solution. Likewise we might ask, “Lord, what do I need to do to be part of the solution?” Instead of just listing our problems in prayer and asking the Lord to solve them, we ought to be seeking more proactive ways of receiving the Lord’s help and committing to act according to the Spirit’s guidance.

There is a third important lesson in Ensign Blair’s story. Could he have prayed with such calm assurance if he had not received guidance from the Spirit on previous occasions? The arrival of a typhoon is no time to dust off the gift of the Holy Ghost and figure out how to use it. This young man was clearly following a pattern he had used many times before, including as a full-time missionary. We need the Holy Spirit as our guide in calm waters so His voice will be unmistakable to us in the fiercest storm.
Prayers followed by action, seeking to do what we can and striving to learn what we can do, can be vastly more likely to bring results, even miraculous results, than merely uttering a wish. This will be increasingly important for all of us in the Church's new emphasis of ministering rather than the old and often ineffective home teaching and visiting teaching programs. May we be more anxious to seek revelation on what we can do, how we can help, and who we can help, in our quest to live a Christian life rich in personal revelation.

One part of the story not emphasized in the talk deserves further attention. The real hero here may well have been the non-LDS captain. He first cared enough about the things of God to appoint a temporary chaplain when none was provided or seemingly needed. He then had the faith to turn to a young LDS man who knew how to pray and humbly ask for his prayers as the ship faced potential disaster. And then he had the courage, the faith, the daring meekness and undoubtedly the sensitivity to the Spirit to respect what his young chaplain told him, which was exactly the opposite of what his trained engineer was recommending. Wow. How many leaders of any faith would be able to make that call.

If any of you know the name of the man who was the captain, I'd love to share his name to publicly praise a leader for such courage and meekness. There are two heroes and many lessons in this powerful story.

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Hope of the Resurrection: Renewed Awareness from Two Painful Experiences in One Day

On the Wednesday before Easter (March 28), two shocking events gave me renewed reason to ponder the power and reality of Christ's victory over death. That day was perhaps my most painful day in China. After so many years of calm, safety, and peace in the haven of Shanghai, I had a double jolt of the sorrow that happens even in happy places.

That morning, I got to the beautiful office building where I work about 15 minutes earlier than needed, so I stood in the sunshine and began reading my favorite book on a spectacular spring day. What a great day to be alive and to delve into the text of my favorite sci-fi writer, Jiang Bo and his Heart of the Milky Way trilogy. 

Almost as soon as I began reading, there was a loud bang at about 8:20 that sounded like something big and heavy had crashed into a window. Then a woman screamed and ran right in front of me. Was she hurt? She seemed fine and soon stopped running to take out her cell phone and make a call. What was the problem? There was some commotion among some of the staff at the entrance to the building, so something was up.

I took a few steps and saw something horrific: A man had jumped from our very tall office building, apparently out of a window he had managed to open on the 23rd floor, a corner office that probably was an executive office. I think this might have been an executive from a hot high-tech startup that I know is on that floor.

The man was obviously dead. He had first hit the outwardly sloping glass of the lobby at the ground floor and a glancing angle, but from what I could see was probably in bad shape before ever hitting the pavement just milliseconds later. I'll spare the details. So troubling -- mostly because of the sorrow to know that a relatively young man was in such pain that he gave up completely. I wish I could have helped, or that someone could have helped him have the courage to go on. But obviously not easy. I am so sorry for him and his family and friends.

A few hours later while I was still coping with that tragedy, one of our dear friends, a family of farmers in a tiny village of Jiangxi Province whose lives are interconnected with ours, sent me an even more horrific image of their dear son, their eldest of two (the younger son is the one I know best and may have mentioned here before, the one we have tried to help with some surgical needs). He had been murdered in Guangzhou and his bloated body had been dragged out of a river or canal. Such anguish. The mother is devastated and can hardly move. The father arrived there today to work with local police. We will go visit the mother and younger son in distant Jiangxi Province on Saturday. So overwhelming, so painful. We feel helpless but will try to comfort.

Some of you have already provided help for that family with the PayPal donation button at the left. They have serious needs again (not just because of the father's recently operated brain cancer), so donations will be focused on them for a while.

The unnecessary death of a stranger caused pain enough, but the murder of a young man we spent time with last year was just heartbreaking. Both tragedies encountered on the same day. There are things I need to learn and to do in response to this double jolt. But what? Your ideas are welcome.

The story took an even more painful twist  few days later when the father told me that the police in Guangzhou told him that it was not a murder, but a suicide. The father said that his son had been unable to earn enough to survive but did not want to disappoint his parents by asking for help, and so had given up. Believing that the death was a suicide (I'm not convinced the police know that for sure) seems to have further magnified the pain of the family. Devastating. The natural tendency for loved ones to blame themselves in the wake of a suicide is in full swing, I'm afraid.

(Much of this experience was previously shared on my Facebook page. Thanks to the many people who have given me inspired counsel and support in coping with these issues. There is much that I need to learn from this.)