Through a Glass, Darkly

“Why didn’t I know about this?” She sounds angry.

“Um, it’s in a Primary manual,” I answer lamely.

I am teaching Relief Society, one of the those lessons about the Book of Mormon, and I’ve just finished telling the story of Mary Whitmer, witness to the golden plates. I’m a little surprised by her question and her tone: I don’t know her very well, but she strikes me as a quiet, salt-of-the-earth, faithful Saint. I have no good answer for why she hadn’t heard about this before. Why didn’t she know about it? I don’t know.


I am studying Exodus, slogging through the lengthy and repetitive description of the details of the construction of the tabernacle, when I come across this:

And he made the laver of brass, and the foot of it of brass, of the lookingglasses of the women assembling, which assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Exodus 38:8)

Turns out that “assembling” is something of a technical term, meaning that this is most likely a group of women in organized service. There is another reference to this women’s temple service group in 1 Samuel 2:22, where they are behaving just as badly as their male counterparts. But the point is that from these two enigmatic verses, we can conclude that there was some sort of formal, organized service of women at the (door of the) tabernacle. They did . . . something. We don’t know what. I’m intrigued. Somehow, I never noticed, or heard about, or read about, this verse or this women’s temple service.

Even more intriguing, the “lookingglass”–what we might call a mirror, although it would have been made of highly polished metal–was a common symbol in the Ancient Near East for womanhood. What, then, does it mean to say that these women who served at the tabernacle gave up their symbols of womanhood so that those items might be destroyed and reconstituted as part of the equipment used by men only in a place where the women were not permitted? Who were these women, and what did they do? What was their role? I don’t know.


Perhaps there is another reference to this female temple service in the New Testament:

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

Anna is described as a prophetess, her genealogy is given (which is very rare in the NT), and we learn that she never leaves the temple but serves God. Her story is obviously very important to Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus; notice how much background about her personal life is given. Is she of the same company of women as described in Exodus and 1 Samuel? I don’t know.


The First Presidency announced during the Christmas devotional that they were releasing a new series of videos about the life of Christ. I decided to check out the website. I thought “The Christ Child Is Presented at the Temple” looked interesting, so I clicked on its page. They put the scripture text below the video, so I could tell that this would include Anna’s story. I did a little internal happy dance, so glad that they had honored Luke’s narrative that included both a man and a woman rejoicing in the temple when presented with the Infant Christ. I clicked to watch the video, eagerly looking for Anna. As the seconds went by, I realized that, despite the text on the screen, Anna’s story would not be included in the video. Why did they leave her out? Why not include the prophetess’ statement of thanks for the promised Messiah? I don’t know.

22 comments for “Through a Glass, Darkly

  1. Our superpower is being invisible despite being in plain view, everywhere and everywhen. But as my ward was assured from the pulpit last Sunday, leaders’ wives are the heroines of the Church.

  2. The Mary Whitmer story is featured in the Primary Course 5 lesson manual, which quotes from the Church History Institute Manual (Church History in the Fulness of Times). It is also mentioned in the February 2006 New Era, and in the Ensign in July 1992 and February 1989. There is a DVD at the Distribution Center that includes the Mary Whitmer story, dramatized.

    The new church videos can’t cover everything in the New Testament. The one shown at the Christmans Devotional omits the dreams received by Joseph, and the visit of Gabriel to Elizabeth’s Husband in the temple. Also there is no visit to Herod and no slaughter of babies in Bethlehem. In other words, no guy interest. But so what? The scriptures are right there.

    I would personally love to see the Church produce a full length movie based on the wars in the Book of Alma. It would be really inspirational and a tear-jerker, in a Dirty Dozen sort of way. An action film rated R for violence would really pull in all those inactive Aaronic Priesthood boys who think the Church is not relevant to their lives! “I didn’t know that Captain Moroni was such a kick-a** guy” they will declare. “How come no one told me about him?!” they will say, angrily. Maybe there’s a video game in there too! ;-)

  3. No “guy interest,” Raymond? It’s not like what’s missing is a joint baby shower for Elisabeth and Mary. And why do I get the feeling that if you were the videographer, the slaughter would be presented with all the blood and guts a boy could hope for … and that the mourning of Rachel for her children would still be omitted?

    Your comment offends me. I’m used to ignoring Jax’s comments, but I expect better from you.

    (Memo to T&S: Is the annoying password pasting a permanent feature, or something that will go away when you fully restore your website? Sometimes the comment won’t go through; even when I copy-and-paste, the system insists that I click back and try again, multiple times. You really have to seriously want to comment to go through this.)

  4. I didn’t know about Anna actually. It’s very regretful they missed it… This video project is definitely an area of church production where we should have heavy women involvement.

  5. Great and thoughtful post. I think that gentle, frequent feedback from committed LDS of both sexes may help people see beyond the cultural contexts they’ve inherited.

  6. I was intrigued by the title of this post, which borrows from the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The footnote to “glass” points to “2 Cor. 3:18; James 1:23 (22–27). TG Veil.” The footnote to Darkly is “GR obscurely, enigmatically.” Perhaps another way of phrasing Paul’s testimony to the Corinthians could be: “For now we see through a veil, enigmatically.” Although we see things imperfectly, and many things are invisible to us as mortals, God sees and knows all (Alma 18:32). The nearer we come unto God, the clearer is our view.

  7. I was similarly bothered when they played the clip of the Annunciation during the First Presidency devotional and left out the Magnificat. One of the most powerful (and lengthy) orations by a woman in scripture, one that is part of the scriptural story being portrayed, and we don’t put it in? It makes me want to yell “C’mon!” in my best Gob Bluth voice.

  8. Thanks for this, Julie. I agree that I am disturbed when we are shown no role models of women who actually existed.

    When I taught the 12-13 year olds the Prophets of the church manual, I also included a woman from the same time period, either a wife, sister, or RS president who was a strong, accomplished woman to serve as a role model.

    Of the young women in that class with whom I have kept in touch through the years, all have served missions. Not just due to my class, of course–we have a high rate of female missionary service where we live.

  9. Julie,
    Very thoughtful. I would like the Church to do more work on the importance of women. Sadly, there is little in scripture on women. The new RS manual is a step in the right direction, but still doesn’t capture all it should regarding the strength of women. Perhaps it needed input from you, Alison Smith and a few others?

    What I would like to see is more works about faithful women of all ages. Imagine a novel written about Anna. We briefly know about her one moment in the temple, but nothing else. With imagination, research on ancient concepts, and womanly wisdom, I think it would benefit the Church to have such inspired novels come forth.

  10. “I think that gentle, frequent feedback from committed LDS of both sexes may help people see beyond the cultural contexts they’ve inherited.”


    Why do we have to continue to baby them on these things? It is friggin’ 2011 and it is still amazing that we see productions coming out of the COB that have a plethora of white smiling faces or all males in a patriarchal set-up. Ancient life was just as diverse and varied as it is today with the Roman, Egyptian and Israelite cultures having people from all walks of life.

    We need to be more demanding. These church employees may have grown up in a white-bread, male-dominated isolated mountain west culture but they need to snap out of the ignorance when they are producing things for a world-wide audience. You don’t see the Catholic productions all showing smiling priests or all Italians.

  11. “You don’t see the Catholic productions all showing smiling priests or all Italians.”

    I don’t ever remember seeing any Catholic productions…

  12. “The new church videos can’t cover everything in the New Testament.”

    Yeah, but there are so very few women in scripture that it wouldn’t be hard to cover that small number of instances of females, just so everyone knows they did exist.

  13. I am guessing they left her out because they didn’t know the narrative she would say, and having her rejoice with all those passing by would have a different, less reverent and intense feel than what it looks like they are going for. (Hmm, that brings up more questions . . . )

    Still, it does hurt a little bit. Just another small reminder. It reminds me of when my brother went to the temple for the first time and said, “But where is Heavenly Mother?”

    What I really want to know is why the lookingglass story is not in Daughters of My Kingdom. If an important part of the book is to tell us how women have been organized for service since ancient times, why not use a clear example like this? The only examples they talked about were the women feeding and housing Jesus and His Apostles. The book said that they served temporally and received spiritually. It talks about how women in Nauvoo sewed shirts and did other stuff to serve the men working on the temple. How does this lookingglass story fit with that narrative? Does it?

    Likely it wasn’t used because not enough is known about it or what they were doing. But still. It’s another little reminder.

  14. Julie, thanks for pointing out the references in Exodus and 1 Samuel. I tend to skim those details about the tabernacle, but there are some good reasons for slogging too. I’d forgotten about those references even though they’re highlighted in my paper Bible. Guess it’s time to mark all the references to women in my eBible.

  15. I was dismayed recently when I caught the new Church video dramatization of Josiah and the book of the Law–Huldah was gone. The title “prophetess” weirds people out, I guess, and that explains both Huldah and Anna being omitted, while other women might be safe enough to include. Like Rolf I noticed the omission of the Magnificat in the new Christmas video. Overall I liked the video, and you could say that much was left out of the story (that they weren’t picking on Mary in particular), but it was an unfortunate omission in that it lent a non-scriptural air of passiveness and melancholy to Mary. And I’m also bugged by the omission of any discussion of Abigail in the OT Sunday School lessons–is the problem that she’s a *female* type of the Messiah? She’s so humble and remarkable that I can’t think of any other reason to leave her out completely.

  16. I’m curious what some of the objectives of the videos are. They must in part be done with the desire for easy translation. And perhaps by leaving bits out of the story (extended segments of text which would have to be rendered vocally) it would refer to and make it fit within an extended reading of the scriptures rather than a replacement.

    Of course, it’s not an excuse for always overlooking the rarely present scriptural female roles anyway… This scripture certainly did get two females roles in, so complaining about a lack of 3rd/4th is a bit much. Of course, if women were present in every story, it wouldn’t be an issue. I think because the sporadic inclusion of women in the scriptures makes it jarring when one isn’t included.

  17. I had a similar experience last year when I got interested in Moses’ mother (can’t remember why). I did a tiny bit of research and realized she has a name (Jochebed, Yocheved) and that we do know some things about her. The name thing really got to me, though. I walked around for several days wondering, how did I not know her name? We tell the story of Moses being put in the Nile by his mother and being watched over by his sister, we even name his sister (Miriam), we talk about the pharoah’s daughter adopting him and Miriam bringing the mother to the palace to nurse him, and yet we never, ever use her name. At least, I had never heard it.

    I think there are actually a plethora of women in the scriptures and in our church history. Even the story of Abraham and Isaac is really a lot about Sarah — and Hagar. If first-born paternity was all-mportant, wouldn’t Ishmael be the patriarch in our gospel lineage? Instead, it’s the second born son, first of the “real” wife, so Sarah’s motherhood is just as important as Abraham’s paternity.

    I love the Mary Whitmer story, and as someone commented, the Fourth Witness movie available at DB is well worth a look. (I think it’s sold in an anthology dvd.)

    Recently I became saddened again that we don’t have a Follow the Prophet verse for Deborah. She was amazing. It strikes me that as a type of Christ she perhaps symbolizes the second coming of the Messiah, with the physical deliverance of His people.

    It all becomes horribly urgent when I think of my daughters, who I try to expose at every turn to the women in the scriptures and the female side of things, and yet, at FHE this week, my almost-11 year old, said, wait, there’s a Mother in Heaven? *head desk*

  18. I just looked at the video link in the OP and found that there are longer versions of some (all?) of the scenes in the Nativity video from the Christmas Devotional. In the full version of Mary’s visit to Elisabeth, the Magnificat is included, and the actress does a lovely job with it–moving and natural. So color me less cranky :)

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