Institute Report: Genesis Week 2

I was gratified to see most of the class come back, but we’ll see if it happens again. Here’s the tentative syllabus for the next few weeks.

I was really apprehensive about today, for two reasons. First, the material in this lesson was largely groundwork for the next few weeks, and really shouldn’t stand on its own, because you don’t see the payoff. Time constrained me, though.  Second, this is some of the most tentative material I’m working with, and I’m hesitant about some of it. I’m still working it out in my own mind, but this seems to be the direction the evidence points in. Because of those two things, and the amount of material to cover, I’m not sure it all got presented in the clearest way, and I know at least one of the major arguments didn’t get presented.

Reverse summary: Next week, we’re going to start reading Genesis against other creation accounts, particularly the Babylonian Enuma Elish, to see the doctrinal arguments it made.  In order to build up to that, I presented three main points: 1) Whatever portion Moses may have written of Genesis 1 is now unrecoverable, and its current form dates to much later (likely around the Exile c.600 BCE). 2) The Book of Moses creation account neither proves Moses wrote our Genesis account nor is it an independent witness to an earlier version of Genesis 1. 3) The Book of Abraham Creation account also does not seem to be an independent witness to an ultimate pure creation account.

These three main points were prefaced with three principles.

Principle 1) Inspiration/revelation does not dictate form or genre (loosely defined). I take as a given that the scriptures are inspired. We find in them differing forms: from poetry and songs, to narratives, geneaologies, legal material, building instructions, letters, sermons, etc., and virtually none of this material is “historical” in a modern sense. (Our modern assumptions about “history” are very recent, and they are not the same assumptions the scriptural authors labored under.)  In other words, inspired material can take various forms. Of particular interest (and as an easy intro), let’s look at parables. These take a realistic narrative form, but the most interesting aspect is that they are non-historical. That is, if a certain man did not actually go down to Jericho, was not in fact robbed and beaten, then ignored by an actual priest and an actual levite, then helped by a real Samaritan, is the parable false? I haven’t met anyone yet willing to answer yes to that question, and Israelites/Jews likely would agree. What this means is we have an inspired kind of non-historical scripture, in which historical questions are irrelevant to the validity of the “doctrine.” (The 1st Presidency unofficially expressed this view with regards to Jonah and Job 100 years ago.)

Many times in the Church we use “true” when we really mean “historical” and that can cause problems. Typically, the very next question I get has to do with the Book of Mormon, as if I’ve created a slippery slope, but it’s not true; judgements on the necessity of history should be a question of genre, not disbelief, and understanding that scripture is an anthology of different kinds. Each book of scripture and subsections must be evaluated separately. See my argument here.

Principle 2) Prophets routinely reapply, reinterpret, and recontextualize the past. While this is found throughout the Bible and early Christianity and Judaism, the paradigm example for Mormons is 1 Nephi 19:23, in which  Nephi flatly tells us he is about to reinterpret Isaiah and apply it to a new context.  “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”  When students have trouble grasping this point, the following dialogue often helps.

“Allowing for a little Semitic hyperbole, were ‘all scriptures’ written for or about the Nephites? Was Leviticus written with the Nephites in mind? Psalms? Jeremiah? And yet, Nephi says he likened all of them to his people. That suggests he recognizes and is telling us that he’s applying them in ways they hadn’t been written for, that Isaiah’s primary topic in those chapters was not Nephi’s people.”

Elder McConkie approved of this principle, that later interpreters often are re-interpreting, giving new meaning to something old;  Nephi “gave, not a literal, but an inspired and interpreting translation. And in many instances his words give either a new or greatly expanded meaning to the original prophetic word.” He also mentions Moroni “improv[ing] on” Malachi and New Testament authors reinterpreting or retranslating Old Testament passages. (“Keys to Understanding the Bible” in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie, 290-291. Emphasis mine.)

Principle 3) The Gospel may be simple, but everything else is complex. One can debate the first half of this phrase, but it’s a concession added to a general warning that as our studies into scripture, history, and doctrine become deeper and more mature, we should not expect utter harmony and simplicity, any more than we should expect upper level studies of physics, literature or history to be simple. As one of my BYU mentors used to say, “you can have it all or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.” The readings from my Standard Packet are useful here.


Those principles assumed (or bracketed for further discussion later), let’s look at Moses, Abraham, and Genesis.

1) The Book of Moses.

Using our parallel JPS/KJV/Moses/Abraham handout from last week, I asked about differences between the KJV and Moses texts. The first thing to know is that there ARE differences, with the Temple account as well. We’ll talk about theological diversity later.

We found a 3rd-person to 1st-person switch (“And God said” > “And I, God, said”), and some small additions. At least for Genesis 1, then, there is little difference. The Book of Moses is the JST to Genesis 1, and most people assume that means the JST is pure textual restoration; in other words, we expect that Moses wrote the text in the Book of Moses, then the Apostasy and “not being translated correctly” happened, resulting in our presumably messed-up KJV text. However, that’s a highly problematic assertion. Robert Matthews and other conservative, BYU-associated JST scholars don’t think JST is pure textual restoration. Moreover, several other things seem to weigh against the Book of Moses creation account  being the original and the KJV the derivative version.

First is the process. When writing the JST, Joseph didn’t start with a blank slate. He started with an open KJV, and then (simplifying here) added and removed from it. In Matthews’ words, the JST “was not a simple, mechanical recording of divine dictum, but rather a study-­and-­thought process accompanied and prompted by revelation from the Lord.” At least twice, Joseph would retranslate a passage and get a different translation. Similarly, we have passages in which the Book of Mormon and the KJV agree, but the JST changes the text. Again according to Matthews, Joseph at one time declared the JST finished and ready to publish, but apparently kept working. “Although the translation of the early chapters of Genesis was initially revealed and recorded between June 1830 and February 1831, it is clear that the Prophet Joseph Smith continued to revise and modify this material until his death in 1844.” (My emphasis.) The process makes it difficult to regard BMoses as an ultimate corrected original, as much as inspired prophetic thinking about the text.

This goes to the purpose of the JST. Joseph was commanded to retranslate the Bible, but I’m convinced God’s purpose was not that he wanted Joseph to give us an Ultimate Corrected-Text Bible. Rather, I think this command was meant to drive Joseph back into the scriptures to study and ask questions. Many of our distinctive doctrines and practices come directly from the process of Joseph working on the translation, asking a question based on a passage, and getting a long revelation in return: D&C 76 (three degrees of glory), and 132 (eternal marriage/plural marriage) are prime examples from D&C, as are baptism for the dead.

Second, Joseph Smith told us how he understand the original version of Genesis 1 to read, and it doesn’t match the BMoses. (Here I borrow from David B., whose original argument is no longer online. David is soon defending his Hebrew Bible PhD at Brandeis, was a hired Institute instructor in Boston, FAIR presenter, FARMS writer.)

Towards the end of his ministry, the Prophet Joseph declared that prior to the days of uninspired tampering, the earliest version of Genesis 1:1 read: “The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods” (Teachings, 348).
Now, if we consider Moses 2:1 in light of this teaching, a verse which would, if the Book of Moses contained a restored original text, reproduce the earliest version of Genesis 1:1, we gain the following insight:

“And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven, and this earth; write the words which I speak. I am the Beginning and the End, the Almighty God; by mine Only Begotten I created these things; yea, in the beginning I created the heaven, and the earth upon which thou standest” (Moses 2:1)

And there we have it. No mention of heads, or of gods, or even of councils. Moses 2:1 revises Genesis 1:1 to simply read as a first person divine narrative. So clearly even if we ignore the implications of biblical scholarship and simply rely upon the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith himself, when it comes to the Book of Moses, the JST does not restore an original text.

In other words, I’m happy to assert that the Moses creation account is inspired and I love the doctrine it gives us, but its inspiration doesn’t imply it is either ultimately “correct” or the original restoration of the KJV text (by which I mean, the Hebrew behind the English translation.)  I also limit this in scope to the creation account parallels, somewhat like the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. There may well be general dependence on the KJV text/wording for similar sections, but that doesn’t imply lack of inspiration or imply that the whole text is dependent on the KJV.

2) The Book of Abraham

Again on the comparative handout, we note that the Book of Abraham creation account (hereafter simply “Abraham”) diverges sharply from places where Moses and the KJV agree. Students noticed several of these. Loosely speaking, Abraham was published in 1842, while Moses dates to early 1830s. Between those two, Joseph Smith studied Hebrew (1835-6), which turns out to be hugely relevant. When we look at differences between Abraham and KJV/Moses, they often match Joseph Smith’s Hebrew grammar and lexicon, which we have. In reduced form, Abraham – JS’ Hebrew= KJV/Book of Moses. This suggests, again, that KJV English forms the base, but this time Joseph is reading in and interpolating his understanding of Genesis 1 in Hebrew over whatever was the Book of Abraham. I’ve collected numerous examples, some of which require explanation that I lack the time to type up in sufficient detail. Here’s a sampling.

Abraham 4:1 Students noticed that we have a plurality of gods here. The Hebrew reads ‘elohim (that’s a long vowel at the end, sounds more like “FEMA” than “him”), Moses and Genesis have “God,” Abraham “the gods.” Joseph Smith had learned about pluralization in his Hebrew.

“I once asked a learned Jew, “If the Hebrew language compels us to render all words ending in heim [-im] in the plural, why not render the first Eloheim plural?” He replied, “That is the rule with few exceptions; but in this case it would ruin the Bible.” He acknowledged I was right….In the very beginning the Bible shows there is a plurality of Gods beyond the power of refutation. It is a great subject I am dwelling on. The word Eloheim ought to be in the plural all the way through—Gods.” (June 16, 1844) History of the Church Volume 6, p. 476

Abraham 4:2 Originally read in Times&Seasons “faces” of the water, while the KJV/Moses reads “face of the water.” The Hebrew ‘al-peney has been understood as a plural, just as Seixas translates it in his grammar. (panim “face” is plural in form, but always translated as singular. Hebrew idiom.) BAca gets harmonized in 1888 to singular “face.”

Abraham 4:4 (Very abbreviated discussion) “”they divided the light (or caused it to be divided)” Here the text appears to follow Seixas by translating hibdil as causative when in fact it’s the basic non-causative verb.  Hiphil verbs tend to be causative, but sometimes we have idiomatic verbs that don’t appear in the Qal/pa’al/g-stem, like this one, and should not be translated causatively. Seixas several times contrasts the (not really) causative hibdil “causing to divide” with the (non-existent) Qal badal. I know it’s tough to follow the argument without knowing any Hebrew grammar, but this one really stands out.

Abraham 4:6 Moses+KJV “firmament” but Abraham “expanse” as a translation of raqiya’. Seixas’ several times translates this word as “expanse.” This example carries over into the facsimiles, where Fac. 2 #4 has the explanation “raukeeyang, signifying expanse or firmament over our heads, but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens, answering to the Hebrew word Shaumahyeem.” Of note here and elsewhere in the facsimiles is the amount of Hebrew used, which all follows the minority pronunciation of Josiah Seixas. Raukeeyang (raqiya’), gnolaum (‘olam), shaumahyeem, all are Hebrew words given using Seixas Sephardic pronounciation/transliteration scheme. (Qamets= au, ‘ayin= gn/ng, etc.)

The kicker? The Hebrew language did not exist in Abraham’s day. He certainly didn’t speak or write in it, so its presence (short of Joseph Smith reading it in) is difficult to account for. (Kevin Barney has a good paper that would account for it, though that’s not the thrust of his paper.)

Now, the Book of Abraham is extremely complex, and I don’t claim to have a firm grasp on most of it. (Short intro bibliography of the Pearl of Great Price.) The implications of this are limited in scope.  These things cannot prove the Book of Abraham is non-historical, whether in part or whole, and such is neither my purpose nor belief. What it strongly suggests is that a) Joseph Smith was doing what prophets have always done, participate in and give shape to the inspiration and revelation that comes through him and therefore b) we cannot simply assume that Abraham creation text represents a purer or earlier form of creation text that God independently gave to Abraham and then Moses. Rather, it seems to be the text of Genesis as adapted and interpreted by Joseph Smith, and embedded into the Abraham text. Here’s a handout summarizing this.

Again, I’m in the middle of researching the Moses and Abraham texts and history, and this is tentative stuff, and a few of the details I may have wrong. But I haven’t seen anyone putting out a better way to get a handle on these issues.

 So what about Genesis (or the Pentateuch) itself?

It was written down/edited long after Moses. How do we know? The text itself, mainly. First, the language of the text is the Hebrew of the 8th century, not early/archaic Hebrew.  Second, it’s all in the 3rd person, and contains accounts like Moses’ death. Third, it’s filled with updated/anachronistic people, like the Philistines (Genesis 26:1, they don’t arrive until significantly later) and the city of Dan (in Gen. 14:14, which won’t be named “Dan” until the tribe of Dan gets there, after Jacob, who comes at least 4 generations after Moses. It’s like the pioneers going to “Utah” which didn’t exist at the time they went.) Fourth, there are all kinds of phrases indicating that it was written by someone both in Israel ( since Moses did all this stuff “on the other side of the Jordan”) and much later, with time phrases indicating differences or continuity between Moses’ day and theirs (“still to this day”  “at that time, the Canaanite was in the land” but they’re not anymore). Here are some introductory articles; “Source Criticism” from the conservative but balanced Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch; John J. Collins section on Pentateuchal authorship from his Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, a college textbook; A summary article from Joseph Blenkinsopp  “The Documentary Hypothesis in TroubleBible Review, 1:04 (Winter 1985); and an old introductory handout I used for my Faith and Knowledge presentation years ago. If you’re trying to get a handle on source criticism from an LDS perspective, this is highly recommended.

In summary, it’s clear that Genesis has been heavily edited. By whom and for what purpose, at least with regards to Genesis 1? Answering that will also answer doctrinal questions to which the Israelites needed answers, one of our topics next week.

Random plugs: Phillip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (Oxford, new edition forthcoming), if you’re interested in how different Mormons have read the Bible at different times.

Homework for next week: Read the Genesis 1 handout with various translations (from the post last week), compare and contrast them.  Watch Galaxy Quest, as we’ll talk about genre and genre confusion.

10 comments for “Institute Report: Genesis Week 2

  1. Good stuff, Ben. Thanks for sharing. (I hope your class has some sense of how lucky they are to have access to this kind of a Church learning experience; it is unfortunately a rare thing.)

  2. Excellent, Ben. One thing of note regarding #2, prophets reinterpret scripture, is that for Nephi he reinterpreted it for his people, but only as he also knew the original interpretation of Isaiah, etc. From this, he could intelligently decide how to reinterpret it for his own people.

    Today, many Christians (including LDS) reinterpret scripture without any context. Often scripture is interpreted entirely in a way different than its original meaning, rather than applying an ancient concept onto a new people. So, we get a hodge-podge of beliefs that do not come near what the ancients were thinking. Nephi was consistent in first understanding the ancient way, and then applying it to his own people.

  3. Great post – especially how you problematize the JST as an ur-text. I’m constantly surprised at how many people still hold to that view. The treatment of Genesis 1 in the KFD is the ultimate rejoinder.

  4. Thanks for that Jared. I’m sure I’d seen that before, but in some ways, I’m reinventing the wheel. There’s one LDS article, for example, I’ve deliberately not gone back to reread since I started this project. I want to come to my own conclusions and make my own arguments.

  5. I, like others, have become seriously addicted to this series, and I anxiously await the next hit.

  6. Hey, I’m sure, it will be an interesting class, George and I really learn lots of new stuff, Thankx for the effort and time to prepare teach class… We do appreciated a whole lot…looking forward to read the next post, Thankx…

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