Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Some Jewish Commentary on Genesis 1

Let there be light.

If you haven't yet done so, I'd recommend you pick up a copy of Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, produced by the Jewish Publication Society and used in conservative Jewish synagogue worship. The commentary includes rabbinic interpretation(s) of the text of the Torah as well as modern critical notes.

Here are a few of the critical notes by Nahum M. Sarna on Genesis 1.

  • Concerning the verb bara in Genesis 1:1 – "The Hebrew stem of the word translated as 'create' (ברא) is used in the Bible only for divine creativity. . . . The verb never means 'to create out of nothing.'"
  • Concerning the Hebrew word tehom in Genesis 1:2 – "The Hebrew word for 'the deep' (t'hom) refers to the subterranean waters that ancient humans believed were beneath the earth. The text says nothing about how or when this body of water came into existence. In Proverbs (8:22–24) it is one of God's creations. The word is related etymologically to Tiamat, the maritime goddess in the Babylonian creation story. In all of the ancient Near Eastern creation stories, the primal element is water. To the ancients, the formless nature of water seemed to represent a state of affairs before chaos was transformed to order."
  • Concerning the Hebrew phrase tohu wa-bohu – "The Hebrew for this phrase (tohu wa-vohu) means 'desert waste.' The point of the narrative is the idea of order that results from divine intent. There is no suggestion here that God made the world out of nothing, which is a much later conception."
  • Concerning the presence of the Tanninim ("sea monsters") in Genesis 1:21 – "Both the Hebrew word for these creatures (tannin) and the word 'Leviathan' appear in Canaanite myths from the ancient city of Ugarit, as the name of a dragon god from earliest times who assisted Yam (god of the sea) in a battle against Baal (Canaanite god of fertility). Fragments of an Israelite version of this myth are present in several biblical poetic texts in which the forces of evil in this world are figuratively identified with 'Tannin,' the embodiment of the chaos that God had vanquished in earliest times. By stating that they were part of God's creation, the narrative deprives them of divinity."
  • Concerning the plurals in Genesis 1:26–27 – "The extraordinary use of the first person plural here evokes the image of a heavenly court in which God is surrounded by an angelic multitude. This is the Israelite version of the assemblies of pagan deities prevalent in the mythologies of the ancient world."
So, according to at least one authoritative Jewish commentary on Genesis 1, the biblical creation account includes the divine council, God fashioning order out of preexisting chaos, and the absence of creation ex nihilo.

No wonder I've always had a strong affinity for conservative Judaism.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Parable of the Ignoramus in the Pharmacy

The medieval Jewish philosopher and poet Judah ha-Levi, writing in his Kitab al Khazari, put forth a certain parable to explain the dangers of unauthorized or unqualified agents trying to dispense knowledge and wisdom.
He is like an ignoramus who enters the surgery of a physician famous for the curative power of his medicines. The physician is not at home, but people come for medicines. The fool dispenses them out of the jars, knowing nothing of the contents, nor how much should be given to each person. Thus he kills with the very medicine which should have cured them. Should he by chance have effected a cure with one of the drugs, the people will turn to him and say that he helped them, till they discover that he deceived them, or they seek other advice, and cling to this without noticing that the real cure was effected by the skill of the learned physician who prepared the medicines and explained the proper manner in which they were to be administered. (1.79)
Judah ha-Levi in this case was talking about those who aren't qualified to impart the heavenly truths of the Torah, and so seek alternate methods (e.g. astrology, "magic," etc.) to do so. These unqualified agents, though they put on a good show, are "in reality ignorant of that which [they] should do, how much, in which way, by what means, in which place, by whom, in which manner, and many other details, the enumeration of which would lead too far."

Applying this parable to our own day, I can think of some very specific people on the Internet right now that are killing people spiritually through a similar kind of malpractice. Calling themselves doctors, they claim to be competent enough to turn to for help when a patient has a struggling testimony, when in reality they are truly ignorant of not only the medicine, but also how to properly administer it.

(There are also those Kevorkianesque malcontents who exult in the death of the patient, and are more than happy to help others in their spiritual suicide.)

On the one hand, I kind of feel bad for these pseudo-physicians, since, after all, they are ignoramuses who don't know any better. On the other hand, I know that many qualified experts have tried to correct their ignorance, only to be met with sneering retorts. So my sympathy for them only goes so far.

Actually, I feel the most sorry for those who have been duped by these charlatans. I also feel very sorry for their families and friends. As with actual medical malpractice, the kind of spiritual malpractice we see on the Internet today affects not just the injured patient, but his or her loved ones as well. The reason I feel sorry for them is because the actual learned physicians who have prepared medicine in the proper manner and are skilled to administer it are accessible. Sure, it will take time and effort and the right doctors to heal you (and it will also probably cost you more money), but then again, which method is better: checking out WebMD for an afternoon to see if you have cancer and how to treat it, or going to an actual hospital staffed with competent and qualified physicians who have the right medical instruments, training, and years of expertise?

If you wouldn't put your physical health in the hands of a pretender, why would you do so with your spiritual health?

Ha-Levi concludes his parable this way.
Like unto the patients duped by the ignoramus, so were men, with few exceptions, before the time of Moses. They were deceived by astrological and physical rules, wandered from law to law, from god to god, or adopted a plurality at the same time. They forgot their guide and master, and regarded their false gods as helping causes, whilst they are in reality damaging causes, according to their construction and arrangement.
So too in our day we see people regarding the false gods of the Internet as helping causes, when really they are carcinogenic pathogens.

The remedy for all of this, of course, is to seek proper medical treatment. Here is one such qualified physician you should turn to. Here is another. And here is a third. Here are the prescriptions they would likely recommend. Unlike the many quacks on the Internet who ignorantly (or willfully) dispense death, these physicians (just three of many) actually know their medicine, and how to administer it to make you healthy again.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Frohe Weihnachten!

Merry Christmas to everyone!
For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. . . . And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name. – Benjamin, circa 124 BC (Mosiah 3:5, 8–9)

From Austria – "Der Heiland ist Geboren."

Der Heiland ist geboren,
freu dich, o Christenheit,
sonst wär'n wir gar verloren
in alle Ewigkeit.

Freut euch von Herzen, ihr Christen all',
kommt her zum Kindlein in den Stall,
freut euch von Herzen, ihr Christen all',
kommt her zum Kindlein in dem Stall.

Ein Kindlein auserkoren,
freu dich, du Christenheit!
Sonst wär'n wir gar verloren
in alle Ewigkeit!

Die Engel lieblich singen,
freu dich, du Christenheit;
tun gute Botschaft bringen,
verkündigen große Freud’!

Der Gnadenbrunn tut fließen,
freu dich, du Christenheit!
Tut all’ das Kindlein grüßen!
Kommt her zu ihm mit Freud’!

From Friedrich Heinrich Ranke (1798–1876) – "Tochter Zion, freue dich!"

Tochter Zion, freue dich!
Jauchze laut, Jerusalem!
Sieh, dein König kommt zu dir!
Ja, er kommt, der Friedensfürst.
Tochter Zion, freue dich!
Jauchze laut, Jerusalem!

Hosianna, Davids Sohn,
sei gesegnet deinem Volk!
Gründe nun dein ew’ges Reich.
Hosianna in der Höh’.
Hosianna, Davids Sohn,
sei gesegnet deinem Volk!

Hosianna, Davids Sohn,
sei gegrüßet, König mild!
Ewig steht dein Friedensthron,
du, des ew’gen Vaters Kind.
Hosianna, Davids Sohn,
sei gegrüßet, König mild!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Bloggerati

For a few years now I have been kicking around a particular neologism in my correspondences with some of my friends and acquaintances. Although I am apparently not the first to use this term (see here and here), I do believe I am the first to use it in a Mormon "bloggernacle" context. I can also say that I came up with this term independently, and have just discovered this evening that it pre-dates my own usage. (I guess I'm not as clever as I thought I was.)

In any event, the word I like to use is bloggerati. My friend Neal Rappleye used it well in his most recent blog post (albeit with a variant spelling). Below is my own definition of the term, which I am posting here for any future reference.
Bloggerati, Blog•er•a•ti // plural and collective noun - A portmanteau of "blogger" and "literati." (1) Bloggers (typically who subscribe to a progressive ideology) who assume moral and/or intellectual superiority over others by virtue of their blogging activities; (2) Mormon bloggers (usually, though not exclusively, associated with the "bloggernacle") who exhibit the characteristics of (1) above, esp. disdain for Church policies, doctrines and leaders that are considered out-of-touch, outdated, naïve, too conservative, too fundamentalist, too simplistic, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, "apologetic," etc.; (3) Bloggers who exhibit the characteristics of (1) and (2) above and whose contribution to public discourse is limited primarily to their blogs. (4) The collective of Mormon bloggers who fit (2) above. "Many bloggerati are complaining that the Church's new policy on women wearing pants is repressive." "The bloggerati was outraged over Elder Boyd K. Packer's remarks on homosexulaity at General Conference."
In the past I have used bloggerati as a singular noun, but I think now is the time to standardize the term as a plural and collective noun. 

Note that for the purposes of my definition of the term, bloggerati includes those who post comments on blogs and those who do podcasts.

(Posted in the satirical spirit of Ambrose Bierce.)

A Tribute to the Prophet Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith, Jr. – A seer, a translator, a prophet, and an apostle of Jesus Christ. (D&C 21:1)

Today is the 209th anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was born in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, on December 23, 1805.

It is only fitting that I say a few words about the Prophet on this day.

One of the more amazing opportunities I had on my mission was to serve in the area of the Prophet's birth for six months. I served at the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial and the surrounding area, proselyting for the Church and sharing with people the message of the Restoration.

At the site of Joseph Smith's birth there is a granite obelisk that proudly stands 38.5 feet in the air, one foot for each year of the Prophet's life. It was erected on December 23, 1905, exactly one century after the Prophet's birth.

Here is the inscription that is written on the monument.


In the Spring of the years of our Lord 1820 The Father and Son appeared to him in a glorious vision, called him by name and instructed him. Thereafter heavenly angels visited him and revealed the principles of the Gospel, restored the authority of the Holy Priesthood, and the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ in its fullness and perfection.

The engraved plates of the Book of Mormon were given him by the angel Moroni. These he translated by the gift and power of God. He organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the sixth day of April, 1830 with six members. He devoted his life to the establishment of this Church and sealed his testimony with his blood. In his ministry he was constantly supported by his brother Hyrum Smith, who suffered martyrdom with him.

Over a million converts to this testimony have been made throughout the world; and this monument has been erected in his honor to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of his birth by members of the Church which he organized. They love and revere him as a prophet of God, and call his name blessed forever and ever, Amen.

I add my testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I love and revere him as a prophet of God, and call his name blessed forever and ever.

The Joseph Smith Memorial in Sharon, Vermont. 

Finding God in Nature

Inside the Sacred Grove.

While serving as a missionary in New England, I heard it all the time: "Oh, I don't need organized religion. I can find God when I go in nature."

I would scoff to my companion after the encounter. "Really, you tree-hugging Vermonter hipster? You can find God in some trees?"

Being wrapped up in a highly regimental and hyper-focused missionary mindset and lifestyle that puts enormous weight on missionaries baptizing people, I had never stopped to consider something really important. Something from the very first pages of the Church's history.

Joseph Smith was a young man who was dissatisfied with "organized religion" and found God in nature.

Some of the most powerful words ever put to pen come from the Prophet's 1838 account of his history.

"During this time of great [religious] excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness," Joseph recalled. "[B]ut though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit."

Did you catch that? "Aloof." Joseph kept his distance from "these parities." The churches of his day offered no home for the budding prophet.

It's not like Joseph didn't want to be a part of things. "I felt some desire to be united with [the Methodists" he explained. Alexander Neibaur even related that the Prophet "wanted to feel & shout like the [r]est but could feel nothing."

Can you blame the kid for not sticking around with any of the churches of his day?

Well, eventually things took a serious turn.

"[S]o great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong."

Who hasn't felt like this before? In matters of religion. In dating and marriage. In politics. In how to raise a family. In what career to pursue. All of us, at one point or another, experience agnosticism about the course of our lives. It's part of our mortal experience.

"[H]ow to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know."

Joseph Smith was an agnostic. He had serious doubts about himself, his family, his religion, his life.

"My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant."

It's a good thing Joseph didn't have the Internet.

But in the middle of all of this, in the eye of this hurricane of doubt and disbelief, finally came the epiphany. Joseph had to ask himself some hard questions:

"In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?"

I'm deeply impressed with how thoughtful young Joseph was. His mother was too. "Joseph was less inclined to the study of books than any child we had, but much more given to reflection and deep study."

The Prophet knew how to ask the right questions. That's what led him to the grove (and his answer), and that's what led him to record scores of revelations over the course of his life.

After fighting his doubts, his misgivings, his uncertainty, his alienation with the churches of his day, Joseph finally made his resolution. "At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must . . . ask of God."

We know how the story ends.

Joseph found God in nature.

I also once found God in nature. In fact, I found the same God in the same place where Joseph found him. I didn't see a vision, but it was an undeniable experience nonetheless. It was last year as I visited the same grove of trees where Joseph had his vision. As I listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's recording of "Joseph Smith's First Prayer," contemplating and meditating on the significance of the First Vision, I was overcome with the spirit. I was moved to tears. My mind was enlightened and my soul elevated, and I felt the spirit bear witness that Joseph's vision was a reality. I felt the presence of the divine in that sacred place, made hallow by what happened "on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty."

So I apologize to those whom I scoffed at on my mission. I was insensitive to mock you for finding God in nature. I found God in nature, and so did Joseph Smith.

Oh, how lovely was the morning!
Radiant beamed the sun above.
Bees were humming, sweet birds singing,
Music ringing thru the grove,
When within the shady woodland
Joseph sought the God of love,
When within the shady woodland
Joseph sought the God of love.

Humbly kneeling, sweet appealing--
'Twas the boy's first uttered prayer--
When the pow'rs of sin assailing
Filled his soul with deep despair;
But undaunted, still he trusted
In his Heav'nly Father's care.

Suddenly a light descended,
Brighter far than noonday sun,
And a shining, glorious pillar
O'er him fell, around him shone,
While appeared two heav'nly beings,
God the Father and the Son.

"Joseph, this is my Beloved;
Hear him!" Oh, how sweet the word!
Joseph's humble prayer was answered,
And he listened to the Lord.
Oh, what rapture filled his bosom,
For he saw the living God.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Some December Miscellany

A few items to ponder:


This article from Evangelical commentator Brandan Robertson. As a Mormon I can get behind what Robertson says here.

A money quote:
Being a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong journey towards conforming ourselves to the image and way of life that Jesus taught.
 And this:
The problem is that a faith that is rooted in the Scripture alone is not sustainable. It will dry up and wither on the vine. While the Bible is an important and authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice, it isn't the foundation or center of our faith- Jesus is. . . . He is the living Word that we can ask anything to and expect, in faith, to receive and answer. Sometimes he will speak through Scripture. Other times he will speak through our friends and family. Other times he will find unique and special ways to reveal himself to us.
All I would add is that He also speaks through living prophets.

And this:
Jesus says those who don't obey will have no part in his Kingdom.
Neat stuff.


This video clip from the beloved 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which perfectly captures the essence of living in a Provo YSA ward. See especially the last part from 3:04–3:16.


This video.


This quote by Ronald Hendel:
These poems [Deuteronomy 32:8 and Joshua 5:11] evoke the family, tribal, and village settings of oral traditions of the ancient past. The stories of Genesis are derived from these ancient traditions transmitted through generations, recounted by fathers, elders, travelers, and bards who were the authoritative voices of tradition. (The Book of Genesis: A Biography [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013], 25–26.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Peterson and Hamblin v. Park: Round Two!

Visual approximation of Hamblin and Park having a "discussion."
Ben Park has responded to Bill Hamblin and Dan Peterson's critiques of his article at the Times and Seasons blog (here).

Bill has also posted responses from Grant Hardy and "Smallaxe" at his blog (here and here), as well as his own follow-up comments (here).

Leaving aside the comments from the peanut gallery, I actually appreciate that, for the most part, the conversation has been civil. Those accusing Dan and Bill of being nasty or mean or uncivil are, in my own opinion, out to lunch. I haven't seen anything nasty of uncivil from them. They've been adamant in their critiques, but that's not the nearly the same as being uncivil.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Peterson and Hamblin v. Park: Round One!

The Internet (or at least the Mormon part of it) is in something of a tizzy over some posts by Dan Peterson and Bill Hamblin critiquing Benjamin Park's recent essay in the new volume of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.

You can read Dan and Bill's posts here, here, and here. Be sure also to read the comments left on Dan's blog.

The controversy essentially revolves around whether Park's comments reflect a shifting away from the importance of the Book of Mormon's historicity on the part of the Maxwell Institute.

For what it's worth, I've made my own views on the importance of the Book of Mormon's historicity very clear.

I largely agree with Bill Hamblin's point that "there are seven clear statements in Park’s paper . . . which I believe only make sense with the assumption that the Book of Mormon is a nineteenth century document." Whether Park personally affirms the Book of Mormon's historicity or not (from this comment of his in 2013 he apparently does) is irrelevant to the implications of Park's statements in his latest publication, as pointed out by Hamblin.

In any event, if any non-Mormon reading my blog wants to know the kind of thing we Mormons tend to start flame wars on the Internet over, this is a good example.

If at all you find the above discussion wearisome, please view this delightful video for refreshment. It has to be the single greatest video I've seen in a long time. For some weird reason it just really speaks to my soul.