Abraham, the legend

Right now in the Netherlands a man stands trial for the murder of former Health Secretary, Els Borst. The culprit has confessed, stating in his defence that God commanded him to kill dr. Borst as she was responsible for the new euthanasia laws. The immediate reaction of the Dutch public is that he is insane; also the court does not take his claim seriously. Now, such a claim in a murder case is rather new for the Netherlands, but in the USA this kind of delusion may sound familiar, like in attacks on abortion clinics. Claims on God’s command can be used for all purposes, also the most nefarious. The interpretation of a story’s message depends on who is telling it and what is the hidden agenda of the story teller.

In my earlier blog we were wondering about Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, our basic conundrum, and now let us view Abraham not as a historical person but as a legendary figure about whom tales are told. Who tells the tale in Genesis 22 and to what end? According to the Documentary Hypotheses, Genesis stems from four sources: the Elohist (E), the Jahwist (J), the Deuteronomist (D), and the youngest one (P), the Priestly source, which is postexilic. The general notion of multiple authorship of the Torah is almost standard these days, and does throw new light upon our Abraham problem. Abraham’s life is a mix of J and E texts, with occasional P chapters or insertions. D is absent in this episode. For instance, both J and E have a parallel story of Sara being defined as Abraham’s sister at a foreign court, one in Egypt, and the other with Abimelech, so this solves the puzzle why Abraham seemingly pulls off the strange gimmick twice. But our main issue is the notion of the test.

Abraham and Isaac, a favorite theme for painters

Abraham and Isaac, a favorite theme for painters

The individual sources come up with parallel tests for Abraham. The sacrifice story in Gen. 22 is a typical E tale, a source that originated probably from the Northern Kingdom, after the split of Salomon’s realm. One of the subtexts of the E part of Genesis is, as Nancy Jay has cogently analysed (Throughout your Generations forever, 1992), the notion of patrilineal descent. Theirs was a kingdom without a proper dynasty, that one was in Jerusalem. So E’s focus is on descent through the male line, and if anything confirms paternity it is sacrifice. There is indeed a surprising correlation between patrilineal descent and sacrifice (Nancy Jay’s pivotal discovery), and throughout Genesis and Exodus it is E who stresses sacrifice. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac fits well into that angle, in fact culminates it. Isaac is the son of Abraham and his half-sister Sara. E stresses this type of marriage, in fact a union which is much too close, even for a society used to marriage between children of brothers (FBD for anthropologists), a near-incest. Isaac traces his lineage through both his mother and his father, and that ambivalence has to be sorted out. And solved it is by the most flamboyant act possible: Abraham almost took the life of his son, and then through his personal relationship with Elohim gave him back his life. From the E point of view, the near-sacrifice is the ultimate sign of fatherhood, a spiritual rebirth without any woman involved. Isaac now was completely Abraham’s son, so it is fitting that in the story Sarah dies soon afterwards, far away in a different region (Gen. 22: 20-24 is an insertion by P). Through the intended sacrifice Abraham became the ultimate ancestor of a patrilineal descent system, a father of nations, a super father.

The J source is not concerned with paternity, but with frugality: Ishmael will generate a ‘multitude’ (16:10) (for E a nation is more than enough (21:13), another double story). The Davidic dynasty as such was secure in Jerusalem but it had succeeded Saul’s throne – from another tribe – and not by right of descent. The main focus for J is on numbers, on twelve sons like Jacob, a pattern repeated in Ishmael, Esau and Nahor, four times 12, symbolic multitudes. J’s tale is about nation building and his test of Abraham is not sacrificial at all, but the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here Abraham is tested through his loyalty to his brother’s son Lot, on his concern for whole cities, indeed located in the Southern Kingdom. He had already saved Lot and those very cities from their enemies (Gen 14); in Gen. 18 Abraham duly haggles with YHWH, as is his duty and prerogative, a barter that forms the core of his test in J: he has to stand up for his people and so he does. Here Abraham does not fail, but the cities fail against even his lowest standards. Abraham does save his nephew, but not Lot’s nameless wife, as she has no relationship with the main genealogy. Lot has a similar but minor test in which he saves a small town, Soar (Gen. 19: 22).

Lot and his daughters fleeing Sodom Matthaeus Merian 17th century

Lot and his daughters fleeing Sodom
Matthaeus Merian 17th century

What follows is an awkward story that is always left out in Sunday School. Lot’s daughters reasoned that since their fiancés had remained (and died) in Sodom, no other men were available in the region, so they made their father drunk, and slept with him to ‘guard his seed’. (19: 30-38). No man available means that there are no men around with the proper genealogical connections. Through this tale Lot becomes the apical ancestor of the Moabites and Ammonites, and again incest serves as a means for abundant procreation. But then, an origin tale of people which starts with incest is extremely common, almost standard, in comparative mythology.

It is in J that the covenant with Abraham has a clear and ambitious territorial side, the promised area stretching all over the present day Iraq and Syria (Gen. 15: 15). This forms, by the way, another problematic legacy in the hands of present-day fundamentalist Jews, who try to lay claim to territories way beyond their span of control. Abraham is food for fundamentalists.
P’s account is not about sacrifice, but about covenant. This source comes much later, during the Babylonian Exile, and the writers of P are concerned with the priestly line, tying any sacrificial story to that line, refusing to acknowledge earlier sacrifices by non-priests. Genesis 17 is pure P, with circumcision as the main sign of the covenant.

So we have three stories loosely woven into one legendary tale, each with its own message. For E Abraham is the ultimate male progenitor, the one who engendered his own son and appropriated female fertility. Abraham’s overdose of obedience is not the crucial message, but forms a means to establish his super-paternity, as the legendary father of nations. Abraham the nation builder is J’s concern, and his story is about rightful territorial inheritance; for him altars are claims on the ground, not sacrificial spots. P aims at establishing a personal covenant, not a collective or territorial one, but a corporal sign for males, and for males only. Wherever sacrifices are concerned, those should be expiatory ones, not the communal meals mentioned by E. For P patrilineal descent is only interesting in the priestly line, much later.

Thus three different stories are projected on the blank screen of Abraham, tales that entertain, puzzle and inspire but also contradict each other, but before else they are stories with a subtext, both theological and socio-political. However, that is not the end of it: we as LDS do have a fourth source, that I propose to call the S source, the one of Joseph Smith. We saw in the first blog that Joseph in the Book of Abraham gave Abraham an earlier history with human sacrifice, thus exerbacating the basic conundrum of the Isaac pseudo-sacrifice. But the text in the Pearl of Great Price gives Abraham another angle as well. Chapter 2 parallels the biblical wife-sister tale as told by J (Gen 12), but adds a completely different and crucial element: Abraham as a scientist-by-revelation, as an astronomer. It is in Egypt that Abraham gains knowledge about the material side of the heavens, and of the theological implications of that knowledge. He does so through his possession of the Urim and Tummim, meaning through his priestly functions, which harken back to Ur, the place where he was almost sacrificed. Where Gen. 14 has Abraham pay homage to Melchizedek, here the hero of the story comes into full force as king-priest. Facsimile 3 carries this new element to its completion, as Joseph interpreted this plate as Abraham teaching Pharaoh and his court. Sitting on the throne, decked out with symbols of power (Egypt’s double crown is read as priesthood and heavenly presidency) Abraham explains to them the principles of astronomy.
Of course, I know that neither the text nor the interpretation of the plates holds much Egyptological water, and that the Book of Abraham no longer can be considered as a valid translation of an old papyrus text, but that is not the issue. What we have here is another projection of a fourth major story onto the patriarchal screen: Abraham as priest and prophet, as the source of science in addition to global fatherhood. Thus, our modern values are projected onto Abraham, science, revelation, justice and wisdom; those elements are new, different from the for us rather non-moral tales of E, J and P, so in this way through the S source we pre-empt the old tales to our own benefit and theological purposes.

Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham

Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham

Abraham the legend, indeed. In anthropology we call a person like Abraham a culture hero, the legendary ancestor from whom all major cultural institutions stem, and with the S source Abraham comes into full force as a culture hero. What actually ‘happened in history’ is definitely not what the contradictory texts are regaling us on, as this is the stuff of legends, mythical tales about culture heroes. We do have to guard, however, against fundamentalist readings that misappropriate these tales, seeing them as actual history that supports their violent causes. Factual history as such is irretrievable and of secondary importance only, but the protagonists of old invite to be written into, to be used as screen for our theological and social projections, with the S source as a splendid example. These tales in the end concern ourselves, our own mores and morals, serving as litmus tests for the way we construct our relationship with the divine.

37 comments for “Abraham, the legend

  1. put some real paragraph breaks in man! yikes, I could hardly read this huge block of spaceless text.

  2. Thanks Walter, very interesting. How challenging do you find it there to make this more complex reading of the Old Testament familiar in Sunday School class?

  3. “Much of the genius in the Old Testament lies within its elegantly constructed literary puns, parallelisms, and conundrums. What should be obvious, but often goes unnoticed, is the fact that a literary construction, no matter how elegant and profound, is a literate one. All the expert wordplay found throughout the story of Jacob in the Genesis text reveals that official history has been recorded within the container of literary technique. This is all well and good, as long as one remembers that the story of Jacob hails from oral traditions. Oral traditions in the ancient world were not constructed by literary technique; they were patterned after cosmological insights and recorded by cosmogonic myths and rituals.” (Mythos and Cosmos, p. 336)

    The Bible was de-mythologized by the literate priests who wrote it down. The transition from oral tradition to literate tradition was the transition of trans-history (a story about universal truths) into literal history (a story about individual truth). The story of Abraham, as you so well point out, is a complex narrative with multiple authors writing from different perspectives. The oral tradition would reveal a cosmological imprint, and there is only a whisper of such a thing in the reference to Abraham’s seed numbering as many as the stars. In extra-canonical texts Abraham actually must make a heavenly journey through the stars in order to receive the covenant, and this is much closer to the liturgical-myth complex of oral culture.

    Alas, it is difficult to talk about any of this in Sunday School, which is where Joseph Smith would have discussed it, but not Joseph F. Smith.

    Thanks for the insights.

  4. Well said, worth rereading. Thank you. But I do wonder if Sunday School is the place for it. I’d like it to be.

  5. “From the E point of view, the near-sacrifice is the ultimate sign of fatherhood, a spiritual rebirth without any woman involved. Isaac now was completely Abraham’s son…” Is this the standard scholarly interpretation of E? (E being identified, of course, largely by what elements of the received text lend themselves to a unified interpretation.) It does not seem to work to purport that the story means Isaac was now completely Abraham’s son. This second giving of life was by the angel who stopped Abraham, not by Abraham at all, except on a metaphorical reading in which the angel is merely Abraham’s better self getting control of his abusive impulse. Without that metaphorical reading (which may not be E’s intent), it would seem that, instead, Isaac was now completely the “son” of the angel (or whoever sent the angel) and not Abraham. Does E necessarily lapse into either metaphor or a concept of spiritual sonship rather than establishing any clearly patrilineal line?

  6. Thanks for the comments. I agree it might not be an easy read, so I did put in some space. John, you are absolutely right: the transition from oral mythology to literate – and quite sophicsticated – text implies a major shift in thinking as well: from a tale (and a message) outside of time, to one purported to have happened at a certain time in a specific place. Read the work of Ong and Gpody on literacy. Exactly what extra-canonical texts are you referring to? There are of course a host of Talmudic commentaries on the Akedah, but which sources do you mean? Do you consider the S source as extra-canonical? For most scholars it would be, of course. Anyway, the S source is a brilliant text in itself, that fits in surprisingly well.
    This in Sunday School? Well, I try in my class, but to a limit only. The notion of Abraham failing the test went down quite well, but the paternity issue would be a little bit too much. That stuff should be in Institute – but it is not. Yes, Joseph would not have shirked from it, nor would Brigham actually, even if he was not the consummate theologian that Joseph was. I cannot see McConkie veer in this direction. But then, the Triple does still contain the pithy sentence that Moses wrote the Torah, quoting two verses which prove nothing of the kind. I hope the new version will rectify that.
    JR The paternity angle is not the standard scholarly interpretation, it is an important approach however among the anthropologists dabbling in the Old Testament, such as Mary Douglas, Nancy Jay (and myself). After all, we – meaning anthropologists – know how important descent issues are in these types of societies. It does not work on the minutiae of the story, but on the metamessage of the tale. It is Abraham’s relationship with God – and the angel is indistinguishable from God, after all we are not told either how God told Anraham to sacrifice his son – that makes Isaac/Ishmael almost die, and yet live on. The patriline itself is already clear, as the story is set inside an encompassing genealogy of ‘the population of the world-as-far-as-relevant’, the issue is the tug-of-war between the male and the female line, viewing the FBD marriage. The same theme is repeated, even much stronger, with the story of Jacob: whose son is he, his father’s or his mother’s.

  7. Walter, You wrote, “This in Sunday School? Well, I try in my class, but to a limit only. The notion of Abraham failing the test went down quite well…” I am curious about both your class and how you approached the notion of Abraham failing the test in an LDS Sunday School class. I have for some years declined to teach the lesson on the Akedah because I could not find a way to do it honestly without contradicting the received wisdom of the GAs on the subject. Perhaps there is an appropriate approach I have not discovered. While how to deal with the matter in Sunday School is tangential to your post, it might prove helpful to learn just what you did, if you care to respond on that subject. BTW, years ago in a European gospel doctrine class I was called a “heretic” for daring to suggest a thought contrary to the received wisdom of the GAs on another subject. I have had the impression that the range of Sunday School discussion in Europe has been narrower than in my non-Mormon corridor, but intermountain west American community.

  8. Hi Walter,

    Love Walter Ong. I have cited his work thoroughly.

    Extra-canonical sources that are quite late (late 2nd cent. BCE to first few centuries CE) listing some form of heavenly journey where Abraham receives the covenant would be Jubilees, Apocalypse of Abraham, and Biblical Antiquities by Psuedo-Philo to name a few off the top of my head. You can look up Traditions about the Life of Abraham by Gee and Hauglid for perhaps others. It is also critical to note that when Jacob receives the covenant of Abraham it is at the “Ladder of Heaven” where he sees the face of God. This is carry-over, I assert, of what would have been the original setting of the covenant.

    Ancient oral culture was hierocentric and deeply tied (e.g. cognitively connected) to their oral cosmology (their “reference” book). The biblical story of Abraham was de-cosmologized (like every other biblical story) by the literate priests. One would suspect that the P source would leave hints and it would be interesting to do a study on cosmological fragments from the different sources in the Documentary Hypothesis. Alas, the subject was taboo for writing and probably much of it lost after the first temple period.

    Interesting that in the PGP book of Abraham cosmology is the central subject. The fact that such a “heavenly journey” was central to ancient Israelite practice might be revealed in the few fragments of it left. The book of Ezekiel is something closer to what the story of Abraham’s covenant probably originally looked like. Also, in Isaiah 6 the prophet Isaiah receives his heavenly mandate in the heavenly throne room, another image from the same tradition.

    I would argue that Abraham’s covenant came in the form of a vision of the heavenly journey where all the seed of Abraham was revealed. We get this exact scenario in the Enoch books (again very late). But please note that this is essentially the template of Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, where Nephi ascends on top of a mountain with an angel and is given a cosmic tour (albeit in a different setting, but all the elements are there from earlier oral traditions, such as a great river that divides the souls of the living from the dead, and a great tree from which one must eat or drink) and then is shown the seed of his posterity to the end of Nephite civilization and beyond. This is the covenant-vision par excellance, and it shows a rather remarkable “score” for Joseph Smith and the BOM.

    This awareness has always had me scratching my head when it comes to the biblical story of Abraham. Taken outside of a cosmic context and placed inside an etiological explanation of the origin of indigenous and competing tribes, the story’s cosmic significance is lost. Translating it to literal, individual history degrades the accounting into a series of justifications for the indefensible (laying your only son on the altar in the name of God). Then again, Abraham emerges from cultures that practiced human sacrifice and the standard explanation is that this pericope provides the basis for getting rid of human sacrifices in the Israelite cult.

    When you include the documentary analysis (as you just did) the story gets even more strained between competing voices recounting a founding story that has long since been purged from the myths (the cosmogonic stories of the temple cult) and rituals from which it haled. By the time the 6th or 5th century priests write it down the story has already been lost. Some would argue that this gives us all the permissions to interpret the text as freely as we want, but I must also admit that every time I have heard Abraham taught in SS it is taught as an example of strict obedience to God and his prophets. In the context of the killing, this kind of pastoral presentation has always made me cringe, despite its worthy intentions. And is why your suggestion that Abraham actually failed the test made me peak an eyebrow whilst simultaneously laughing with relief.

    I don’t have the answers, but I do know that these textual variations, subtleties, contexts, and historical variations require a great deal of thought and work to get through, and SS is not set up for it. You get 45 minutes at the most to cover several chapters, and this kind of framing will always reduce biblical stories into their most manageable and marketable message, which often has little or even nothing to do with the actual text. I am okay with this as long as we admit it. But we cannot admit to something we are not aware of. And there you have it. :)

  9. Indeed, John and JR Sunday School does not give the space for textual and contextual considerations. But I found that the basic quandary can well be raised: a story can mean more than one thing, and the standard obedience line is problematic here. Especially sisters wonder how God could have demanded such a thing – they feel with Sarah – so they question how Abraham was so certain it was really God who commanded a sacrifice and not an impostor, and more fundamentally whether a God who puts Abraham through this kind of ordeal is the same as the one we worship. And then the answer is ‘no’. Also, the Documentary Hypothesis goes down quite well, if one points out that the same can be done with the BoM. Third, the notion of Script as inherently inspirational and contradictory is well understood. With that, I think the groundwork is laid.
    John, thanks for the information on the extra-canonic sources. From an anthropological viewpoint I wonder whether the heavenly journey stories are not much younger than the more tribal ones that dominate Abrahams account. Real elaborated hiërocentrism is not something one finds in small scale societies, the ones I am most familiar with, but ‘rather in more established priesthood organisations. The very notion of the ‘hieros’ is a rather late development. If the notion of the Axial Age (cf. Japspers, Armstrong) carries real weight, it would fit in with this period, 800 – 300 BCE. The Axial Age is not only a question of ethical integration but also of the elaboration of heavens and their institutional relation with man. As I understand youThe appearance of Abrahamic visits to the heaven are found in later sources – including PGP, so I would hesitate to view them as old-and-original, and am more inclined to see these journeys as ideologies of the prophetic age.
    You call the heavenly journeys covenant visions, but they are also the call-visions, the visions that ratify the prophet as a prophet. This kind of tale abounds in shamanic religions, by the way.
    That would mean that the transformation of tales from oral to written text has different phases, one from oral to first writ, and then the integration of more oral traditions plus existing versions of writ into a canonical or extra-canonical text, and these phases then would generate different thought processes and theologies. Just a thought
    As for the absence of P in the story, yes a pity. But the very notion on non-priestly sacrifice would be hard to swallow for them, is my idea.

  10. A few things:

    1. I have always avoided bring up the Documentary Hypothesis in SS because I live in Utah County where frequently we are told that the purpose of SS is to feel the spirit and to stick to the lesson manual. To bring up the DH takes time and consideration. But your suggestion to show the same process in the BOM as a tie in is brilliant, and for the life of me I do not know why I just didn’t think of that before. This will make sense to my neighbors, and if its in the BOM it can be talked about (sort of) in SS.

    2. The heavenly journeys were used for multiple purposes, not just covenant making. They were also employed for astrology, the political order, founding a city or shrine, medicine, and even weather-controlling purposes.

    3. You elegantly point out that the transition from orality to literacy has different phases that echo and overlap. I could not agree more. This of course complicates a reconstruction of a text, especially when the oral sources are gone and all one can do is speculate with educated guesses.

    I am going to respond below to the notion of the hierocentric state and the dating of the astral journey. You are actually right in line with mainstream scholarship, but there are several complications which make the mainstream thought on the subject, in my view, problematic. However, this discussion is entirely tangential to your main blog post so I am putting it in its own box for people to skip (including you) if so desired.

    Thanks again.

  11. It’s not hard to bring up the Documentary Hypothesis if you don’t call it that and you simply first refer to Nephi talking about what was lost from the Bible. Throw in some snipes at uninspired scribes deciding how the Bible was put together and typically people are on your side.

    Regarding heavenly journeys it’s interesting looking at the evolution from texts like 1 Enoch (and what scholars postulate are the various texts out of which it was generated) with later merkabah mysticism and the like. How to take them is never clear. Especially since in the typical form they come from an era that was already Hellenized. Certainly in the common era the influence of hellenistic and gnostic conceptions seems clear. That means that in that setting though they probably were more an inner ascent unlike more literalistic takes on them. Again though one can always question whether earlier original material provided an useful source of texts for the more hellenized mystics.

  12. If we define the hierocentric state as a political order that models and reflects the cosmos, generally centered around a shrine or temple that is the omphalos or axis-mundi, then it is pretty easy to pin down when this model starts in our history books: with the first city states of Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium BCE. From scant documentary sources we do know that the ziggaruts were the organizing principle of the ancient NE city state, that a city could not be build without its temple, and that the temple cult was in effect the organization of the city-state. We also know that both the ziggurats and the cities themselves were built as models of the oral cosmos. The nomes in Egypt follow suit, as Eliade points out each nome reflected a heavenly region of the dead, and the Greek polis always was a model to the Greek cosmos. The Greeks did not invent their cosmic polis-they inherited it.

    The detailed heavenly-journey we find in various forms throughout the world is, by most scholarly accountings, a product of the Axial-Age, just as you have said. This is so because our written sources describing aspects of this cult-journey in various cultures all come from this period, especially between 800 BCE and 300 BCE, just as you have said.

    I find this hard to believe, however. In my view, the cultic heavenly journey was not invented in the Axial Age, but re-formulated in this period. Here is my reasoning:

    From the Pyramid Texts we know that Pharaoh went through a heavenly journey of some form to become an Osiris. There are scores of astronomical terms in these texts, and the while there are different modalities of the netherworld journey (with the sun bark, through the stars, in the caverns, etc.) from beginning to end the Egyptian journey of the dead in the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and later papyri was an astral escapade.

    But this only brings up that intractable problem of the origin of the race of the Pharaohs and their cosmovision. From the very first dynasty Egypt had a fully functioning religion with their journey of the dead, as well as a solar, lunar, and stellar calendar. This should tell us that this entire construct, albeit changing through time, descends from pre-history and is not an invention of Khufu or Ihmotep.

    Most recent scholarship shows many similarities with the henges in Brittany. Stonehenge, which was originally plotted at about the same time as the Great Pyramids, is now thought to be part of a larger landscape of sacred shrines and features and related to the journey of the dead. In other words Stonehenge, according to this view, was part of a great “landscape” in the other world where one journeyed to one’s final resting place. This should not surprise us, as in fact Newgrange, built at the same time as the earliest Mesopotamian city-states, and aligned to the rising winter solstice sun, is, by recent scholarship, a gateway to the land of the dead as well. There is no writing with these sites, and so we can only speculate how these builders envisioned this journey of the dead. When writing does encapsulate these ideas, it is an astral journey that is being described.

    This brings up the now scores of henges found throughout Europe and all dating to between 4600 to 4900 BCE and all with the same architectural framework: concentric ditches with palisades of wood enclosing a circular space with two or sometimes three openings. Celestial alignments have been found within these structures, such as at the famous Goseck Henge. Once again no writing, but the theories I have heard put forth say that these henges were either used for astronomy, rituals, or an economic market place. As if these things were exclusive.

    Mesopotamian temples were models of the cosmos, and the kings climbed their stairways in yearly rites. Is this not a reenactment of ascending through the heavenly spheres? The Epic of Gilgamesh is an astral journey, and while our best preserved written tradition of it comes from the 8th century BCE, written fragments go back to 2000 BCE with motifs such as Huwawa (Humbamba) and the Celestial Bull, both of which are associated with stars in the sky, as well as some form of underworld journey.

    I have yet to mention China, where cities and landscapes were only copies of heavenly regions, and where the Emperor was the steward of the heavenly realm who brought benevolent cosmic powers to earth through ritual re-enactments of parts of the heavens. This goes back to the 2nd millennium BCE, but again, it is probably much older and descended from the oral traditions.

    Without writing, all we have is circumstantial evidence, and with that I can go on and on. Take the shaman in the small tribal cultures. One of the principal duties of the shaman was to cross between the worlds and even guide the souls of the dead to the next world. Shaman’s often had cosmological maps drawn on gourds and drums and rock walls which aided them in their journeys. The Shaman’s of Europe are matched by the Miko’s of Japan, the guru’s of India, and the Medicine Men of Native America, all of which were especially “knowers of the way” that ran between the worlds.

    In fact, the link between sky and rite is implicit within oral cognition. And this is my biggest piece of circumstantial evidence. All oral cultures tie their rites and myths in with their cosmologies. When a certain star rises on the horizon that star announces the time for the right festival to be enacted and the right story to be told. In oral cultures, though, the relation between the star and rites and stories are taken literally, and whenever any fragment of oral cosmology has survived we find an echo of the heavenly journey being undertaken by the stewards of the tribal knowledge.

    What I can say is that even by the early 2nd millennium BCE whenever we find the establishment of a state or king there is cosmic imagery involved. Whenever a new land is occupied it must first be “cosmocized” by re-enacting a creation narrative and drama often in accordance with celestial cycles that mimic the heavenly journey re-enacted in later times.

    It is this very large edifice of circumstantial data which impels me to say that the heavenly journey of Ezekiel and Isaiah was not a later development, but a restatement of the earlier traditions. The fact that we have echoes of it in the Jacob narrative is highly suggestive. Of course, we could also admit that that echo was written in the 6th or 5th century and therefore cannot be reliably held as evidence, but then again, that is also true for all the stories in the OT.

    All of this centers around the temple tradition of the society. Whether the temple was a tent, or shrine, or tree, or rock, or cave, or stone structure, the temple is the center of the cosmos and is linked with the sky. What was Abraham’s temple tradition? What was his claim to rule? And how did he administer this claim? In oral societies, the claim to rule is always lined with a cosmology where the leader is shown to have stewardship over the heavenly powers. Abraham’s covenant would have been synonymous with some form of cosmic template that established a cosmic order on earth.

    We are so use to thinking of early, oral, agrarian or hunter-gatherer cultures as earth based and tribal in their thinking that we forget that in the ancient oral world the primary referent upon which meaning was laid was not writing but nature, and especially the great canopy of the sky. Ancient astrology, which dominated human thinking for thousands of years, is simply one developed strain of an oral cosmovision that is hoary with age.

    Well, sorry for the length. But I will stick with my assertion that the original Abrahamic covenant is actually nowhere found in our Old Testament account. It has been replaced by literate scribes within a literate container employing a rather brilliant literary technique but is completely separated from the actual basis of the covenant and one’s rite to even found a nation-state. For that, we would have to look to oral cosmology and ritual, most of which was never written down.

  13. You are right Clark. You cannot call it the DH. I have avoided it. But it seems quite easy to teach by showing BOM parallels, which for some reason just hadn’t occurred to me. Oi vey. Sometimes its hard to see the forest from the trees.

    The heavenly journey becomes mysticized by the gnostics. There is no doubt about that. And Hellenized in the mystery religions. And it is really interesting to read the Pagan Celsus criticize the earliest Christians, explaining that they too believed that in order to obtain salvation they had to journey through the seven planetary spheres or heavens.

    And then it all disappears. By the end of the fourth century CE at the death of the mystery religions Christianity appears to be utterly de-cosmologized. A few references from the earliest Church fathers has some interesting possibilities, and then whoosh, it’s gone.

    The Reformation de-ritualized Christianity. And so by the time we come along Christianity is so thoroughly de-cosmologized and de-ritualized that we are utterly clueless that such a religious modality is a very recent invention separated from almost all of religious history.

    And then Joseph Smith comes along, and what does he do? Well, besides writing several new books of scripture, he brings back cosmology and ritual in glorious spades! And the Christian world has been crying “heretic” ever since.

  14. John, at least as to the Lutheran (German and both American Lutheran churches I have some familiarity with) and as to the Swiss reformed church, and currently to a lesser extent the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, it seems incorrect to say that the “Reformation de-ritualized Christianity.” That is also not true of the Anglican/Episcopalian churches, but they often class themselves as catholic and so, perhaps, you would not include them as part of the “Reformation.” What have I missed?

  15. Hi JR,

    You are right, and thank you for the clarification. I was meaning mainstream Protestant Christianity, of which Mormonism is a strain, culturally speaking. But the Lutherans do have their liturgy (didn’t know about the Swiss Reform church), though I think that the Episcopalian tradition seems rather wide, as I have encountered strains of it that do not seem to have much liturgy, but maybe that was an off Sunday.

    Last summer I spent a weekend with a Lutheran minister who was married to a Presbyterian Minister and they both oversaw a small community church. One week it was Lutheran. The next week it was Presbyterian. I attended during the latter service and there was no ritual. But I can tell you that this lovely couple argued about liturgy a couple of times, in a very endearing way, but the Lutheran insisted that Christianity without its liturgy was an empty shell. Of course the spouse disagreed. But it was a fun and informative view to watch these two discuss religion. For one it was liturgically based. For the other it was scripturally (text) based.

  16. Having said that JR, the truth of the matter is the ritual in the Christian sects that still have it remains de-cosmologized. Early Christianity replaced the cosmos of the mysteries with the cosmos of the cross, which was couched in mystery terminology but repackaged as an inner salvation of the soul in very individualistic terms.

    I believe S. Angus in his book “Mystery Religions” talks about this transition and how the mystery of the cosmic cross replaced all the cosmological modalities of the surrounding cults. The differences between these cosmovisions are enormous, for the earlier cults still held to a very robust heavenly “landscape” through which the soul journeyed (we get echoes of this by the way in Dante’s Divine Comedy). The Christian cosmos became deeply interiorized and wed to the notion of personal salvation through a personal redeemer. The mystery religions had the idea of salvation, but no redeemer. Dionysus was a judge and a guide of souls. Jesus was an intercessor and an atoner of suffering.

    I believe that such a steeply interiorized and personal theology is largely the result of literacy. The oral cults held public festivals and public rituals. The cult gods were a divine clan, and the priests belonged to a divine assembly. Oral religion is entirely communal. Salvation in these cults was also communal, in that the journey of the dead required guides and priests and initiations. Often there was some form of ancestor cult involved as well.

    Salvation in orthodox Christianity on the other hand is very individual and requires only the grace of Christ. This idea of salvation does not belong to oral cultures, but only to literate ones. This is another reason why I think that the Abrahamic covenant would be couched in an oral modality in cultic and cosmographic terms. Abraham was no doubt literate, but he lived in an oral world.

  17. Well the idea that the heavenly ascents are gnosticized and then mythicized is one theory (dating originally to Scholem back in the 40’s as I recall) but not the only one. The question of how to place gnostic and platonic development seems very muddled to my eyes as an admitted outsider to the field. The problem is that there’s such a paucity of texts prior to 100 BC and almost nothing before 200 BC. So scholars are really arguing from either silence or hypothetical strains in later texts for the most part. (With some exceptions of course) How much of the Hebrew notion of heaven arises from the Babylonian exile, how much develops after the return, and how much is affected by later or broader trends just isn’t clear.

    Regarding Christianity being de-cosmologized I think it’s a bit more tricky than that. However most movements in that direction tend to come more from platonists rather than other movements. And they tend to get stamped down upon reasonably quickly. In the Jewish tradition of course things get a bit messier. Again though the typical history of that follows Scholem who see the movement as basically gnosticized and then mysticized with the later mystic texts of the 6th century or 12th century being more play that sounds nearly anthropomorphized and cosmologized but it typically taken mystically. However I’ll confess that distinction always seemed blurry to me. Unsurprisingly in recent decades some (admittedly often biased towards certain contemporary Jewish religious traditions) have pushed back and the general Scholem narrative.

    Again with Protestantism I think it’s a bit blurrier as well, as Joseph’s own environment shows. While formal Protestantism – especially certain strains like the Puritans – were extremely anti-ritual and textualist there always were folk traditions and folk “magic.” I honestly don’t think the folk traditions can be separated from Protestantism easily anymore than all the regional folk traditions can be separated from Catholicism in southern Europe. It’s just that because of particular intellectual trends in Protestantism people did make such an artificial separation.

    With regard to Joseph I think the focus on cosmology and ritual was a problem to certain strains of Protestantism. (“Angels in an age of railways?”) However there really were much broader patterns at work. Say what you will of pentecostalism and related movements, but there’s a certain ritual nature to it all even if it isn’t formalized ritual the way the mass or the Mormon endowment is. Likewise these more populist folk aspects were there as the context for the origins of Mormonism and persisted along with Mormonism – arguably spending quite a bit of time of cosmology, apocalyptism and so forth. (Indeed the popularity of “rapture” cosmology among Evangelicals is a great example of this)

    Don’t get me wrong. Mormonism differed in its development from Evangelicalism and the charismatic movement in American protestantism even if it shares certain roots. Bringing masonic like rituals into Mormonism and then transforming them through something like an Adam or Everyman medieval play in many ways gets Mormonism back to the roots before Augustine. Further Joseph’s fairly early blurring the line between Judaism and Christianity seems remarkable given a lot of recent looks at 1st century Christianity. (N. T. Wright in particular) Even if doubters take it as out of Joseph’s creativity, it certainly seems like a creative way to move back to a lot of these trends in late antiquity before Christianity was set and when things seemed more blurry in at least some traditions like the gnostics.

  18. Clark and JR

    Nearly every sect of religion has some form of ritual, no matter how small, and perhaps, as Clark points out, in the peripheries with folk tradition as opposed the “official” practice. When I said de-ritualized I did not mean that absolutely no rituals were being performed. Ultimately, the primary metaphor of religious grace in modern Protestant theology is the Christian atonement, His suffering, and his cross. We participate in this complex through the Eucharist, which is fairly common spread in some form amongst most Christian sects.

    But modern Christianity, even of the Catholic sort, is orthodoxic and not orthopraxic, and it works out of texts and papal bolls and correlation of texts as opposed to primary rituals. The root of the word ritual is rita and ritu, from the root ri, meaning to fit, to join, to fix and also to “move fitly on the path or the path followed by going.” Ritu referred to the circular season and their associated rites while rita referred to ritual correctness, including facing the proper directions of the founded world. (Worth, Thomas 24). Ritual is the proper movement that repeats on the ground the season cycle that occurs in the sky. From there the meaning of the words have been altered to now mean anything anyone habitually repeats.

    Orthopraxy is a very ritual-rich cult form that seeks in various ways to repreat the cosmogony. Orthodoxy is a very text-rich library form that seeks to navigate ways to reinforce the collective truth of the clan.

    I am sure you can probably find some general exceptions to what I have said, but still this assessment works for most historical Christians….

  19. I definitely think the distinction works as a rule of thumb. And I fully agree that in the modern era (say Luther onward) there’s been a focus on textualism among Protestants. Even those who follow a more high church tradition. At the same time the issue of repetition is significant. It reminds me of one of my favorite Kafka quotes:

    “Leop­ards break in­to the tem­ple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; it keeps hap­pen­ing; in the end, it can be cal­cu­lat­ed in ad­vance and is in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual.”

  20. This is an illuminating discussion, even if we are skirting Abraham somewhat. Three issues are at stake, I think.
    First the role and importance of cosmology in religions. I can see John’s point on an old – and maybe foundational – cosmology based on Fertile Crescent early civilizations, in fact on city states with elaborated and elaborating priesthoods. That can be based in oral roots of shamanic experiences in that area. After all, shamanic religion of some type is the oldest form of religion in the world. On the other hand, cosmology is not central to most oral religions that we have met in the world, they usually are more earthy, Diesseitig, and not Jenseitig, (for those who speak the celestial language, Uchtdorf speaking), this world, not the other one. The argument on the primacy of cosmology sounds too much Eliade to be acceptable these days.
    Also, what cosmology actually implies is highly variable. Shamanic tales tell about the three worlds linked by a centrral axis (there Eliade was right) like a tree and the shaman’s journey through upper- and underworld. (Tilt it 90 degrees and you have the Lord of the Rings geography). But there it usually stops. In the African indigenous religions that I have studied – which are not shamanic but communal – cosmology is quite straightforward, also layered, but they earth-oriented, not cosmos-oriented. Myths also are about ‘Now’, not about premordial times. (NB This holds also for the Dogon of Mali). Their rituals are not recreations of cosmology but have a completely different character.

    This brings in the second point, which is missing from the discussions (and from Abrahamic tales): if religion is ‘about’ anything it is about healing. Shamans are healers, and their cosmic travels are to retrieve souls in order to heal clients. That discussion was brought in about the henges: Stonehenge now is seen as a place of healing. Now what comes first, healing or the explanation of heavens, is an open question, but my money is on healing. Healing individuals, healing collective issues.

    Third, the place ritual. If there is no ritual, there is no religion. All religions ‘do’ something, even if it is just come together and speak about the Word. Healing is ritual, shamanic journeys are part of a ritual, and the temples exist by virtue of rituals. So do the priests. Including our GA. Doctrine, any doctrine, is a later development, based upon Writ, Orthopraxy is the norm in religions: one has to do the rituals on time (seasons, often) and correctly (but there is always leeway). Orthodoxy is a late development and is, – coming back to Abraham – quite Abrahamic. It was Abraham’s aborted sacrifice that substituted ritual practice (sacrifice) to a doctrinal principle, obedience to the correct deity Our test is similar: a tension between rituals and doctrine in which each religion has to find its balance.

  21. Walter, it was I that careened us off course with a discussion of oral cosmology. I apologize. We should get back on subject. You and I will have a fundamental disagreement on the nature of oral tribal constructs. I think most of current scholarship states the case as you have asserted it, so it is I that must make the uphill climb. Still, over the past decade I have now collected scores of examples from ancient cultures around the globe, tribal or more advanced, early and late, showing a rich cosmology underwriting the nature rituals and social ethos of oral cultures. Of course, most of the information we want is gone, and so much of how we interpret what is left over is predicated upon our own suppositions and prejudices of history. So I have staked out some ground and will defend it. But somewhere else than here.

    Your posting is provocative; you assert that the different sources of the DH have projected their own concerns onto the narrative landscape, in essence creating their own story of Abraham for their own purposes. While this assertion would probably make many LDS uncomfortable, it turns out not only to be correct, but the exact same thing we do in SS. We re-craft the story, often without reading the text mind you (only proof-texting the text) in order to create a moral ethos that supports our worldview, historical or otherwise.

    So here are my questions for you.

    Could you briefly explain the relation between sacrifice and patrilineal descent? This backs up your assertion, I assume, for your particular take on the E source, which shows Abraham as the protos patros, the ultimate or first father. I do not see this in E, and it sounds suspiciously like the projection of gender studies. So if you feel like indulging me, please explore that theme a little more.

    Despite the separate sources of E, J, D, and P, they have been comingled to form a sort of hyper text that served the worldview of the final editors who put the text in place as we have it. (Do you believe this?) The stories in Genesis follow a rather remarkable narrative arc that interplay with one another. For example, the imagery in the creation pericope is matched in the narrative of the flood, which in turn is echoed in the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here we have the archaic “world-age” cosmology of creation and destruction through water (flood) and fire (Gomorrah).

    These stories are immediately followed by a brief accounting of the Tower of Babel, which essentially was the establishment of the city-state and their temple that reached to heaven. It is overthrown, the languages are confounded, AND IT IS IN THIS CONTEXT that the character of Abram appears. Suddenly God brings heaven down to earth (opposite the tower motif) to a man in the plains (opposite the city motif) and promises him unmatched land and posterity (which was the very thing Babel was after). It is a grand reversal, but this time entirely on the terms of God to man, though as the Abram story plays out we discover that man has a lot to say and barter with this God.

    Abram is founding a nation state, but unlike the cosmology of the Mesopotamian cities, Abam’s nation-state seems to be entirely rooted in the covenant with Yahweh. Do you think that this is only derived from the P source?

    Finally, if you were in SS and not teaching the lesson, give me in a few sentences how you would suggest to your fellow LDS friends that Abraham actually failed the test with Isaac. Simplified for the SS setting. That is a conversation I would like to hear.

    Thanks Again.

  22. This comment is more related to Walter’s first post on Abraham, but I didn’t have a chance to join the discussion on that one. It got me thinking about Nephi’s killing Laban. As I read that story the last time I found myself questioning the idea that the best God could do for the situation was to provide a drunken Laban in a dark alley and that it really was necessary for Nephi to kill him. Did Nephi accurately discern the origins of his ideas and thinking, or, as Walter has suggested of Abraham, did he confuse his own thoughts and cultural beliefs with inspiration? Did Nephi pass his test or not? Do you know of anyone who has addressed this?

  23. Steven

    By the laws of the land Laban’s life was forfeit. Nepal’s action was both legal and moral, though Nephi struggled with the brutality of the deed. Abraham also struggled with the brutality of what he was asked to do, and we could argue the cultural norms as to the legal and moral context of his culture. Child sacrifice is outside of my box and I cannot figure how anyone ever thought it to be moral. Ever.

  24. John, Some who undoubtedly know more than I about the legal system of Nephi’s time and culture (an extraordinarily easy standard to meet) seem to reject the conclusion that Nephi’s action was legal even though they agree that Laban’s life was forfeit under that legal system as described by others. The rejection is based on the alleged usurpation by Nephi of the roles of judge and executioner after the fact rather than in the heat of Laban’s theft and threatened violence. It is not difficult to grasp the possibility that the action was legal under the laws of the land at the time. After all, the Church generally does not accept the law of the land as defining what is moral either affirmatively or negatively. The morality of Nephi’s action is more difficult for some. Why do you believe it to have been moral? From the individualistic norm of our society at least, it is unacceptable to some that Nephi should kill someone in a drunken stupor, steal his clothing, and obtain the plates by dishonesty, so that an entire nation “would not dwindle in unbelief”. It doesn’t help that that nation did ultimately dwindle in unbelief, despite those actions.

    In the received story, Abraham struggled with more than the brutality of what he was asked to do. Arguably within the culture of his time, human sacrifice to appease the god(s) so that they would bless the land with fruitfulness might be said to show that it was better that one man should die than that an entire nation should succumb to famine.

    Is there a way to provide a brief explanation of the morality of Nephi’s action that might satisfy those moderns who do not, as yet, see it as moral?

  25. The topic of Abraham leads into core gospel questions even more than I thought.
    First, John: the link between patrilineal descent and sacrifice is clear and unequivocal. That is the major contribution, in fact, of Nancy Jay’s work. It is much more than a projection of gender studies (though you might do gender studies short here). The standard sacrifice in oral religions (we call them imagistic these days) is a father who gathers his family, selects a nice sheep or goat, intones a prayer and dedication, kills the animal, pours the blood on his family altar, puts some foodstuff on the altar, libates and drinks some beer his wife or wives has brewn (this is Africa) and pronounces blessings. They then prepare a meal, which all eat together. (Now look at Isaac with jacob and Esau). See my “The Dancing Dead; Kapsiki religion”, OUP. This type of sacrifice can be repeated on higher social levels: the lineage, the clan, the village half, the whole village. This happens in almost all patrilineal societies and in no matrilineal societies, as the latter have completely different rituals. In patrilineal societies the sacrificial blood cleanses, and the menstrual blood pollutes. (Sounds familiar?) In societies with poth patr- and matriclans the patrilineal clans sacrifice, not the matri-groups.

    Almost all sacrifices in Genesis are in E, that is those sacrificies that are not done inside the temple, through the established priestly line. Abraham’s is the culmination, or maybe the short-cut sacrifice among these.

    Your second question is the whole Genesis story as one editorial whole, with a general P message. P has the last word in editing, but you might overrate the narratological integration of the whole book, I think. It still has the feel of a patchwork, with P doing the stitches, which nudge the stories in a certain direction, covenant surely, but on the other hand those scribes/editors were too reverent of the received texts and tales too change too much in them. If they would have done so, there would not be so many contradictions, doublures and open ends. Also the stories do not speak to each other. do not cite each other. But I agree with your general covenant theme.

    In Sunday School I would aim at raising questions more than giving answers: so I would spell out the quandary in Abraham’s story (anti human sacrifice, esp. through Book of Abraham), pro-family, contra earlier promises etc) point at A’s negotiating with the three messengers, point at Moses negotiating for the survival of his people, point at the possibility of ‘inspiration from the wrong source’ and then look at the story again. The prophetic and priesthood responsibility no. 1 is to stand before your people: even if obedience may be laudable, another reaction might have been better. I did, in fact, and people repsonded with : “I Always had a problem with this story’.

    Nephi’s killing of Laban, legal or not? Not legal, I think in that day and age (citizens killing each other, kinsmen killing each other, is nowhere legal) but a socially acceptable transgression of law. Like the stereotypical Texan shooting his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. Not legal, but forgiveable (so I have heard, bear with me). It was an act of revenge also (they were robbed and chased away) and as such also an escalation. Revenge is never legal and often socially acceptable. The comparison with sacrifice does not hold up: Laban was not given to the Lord, his blood was not cleansing etc. He stood in the way and had made his jural position weak by prior actions.

  26. “Almost all sacrifices in Genesis are in E, that is those sacrificies that are not done inside the temple, through the established priestly line.”

    Isn’t that one of the key arguments for what constitutes E in those passages? So I think this tells us less than it appears at first glance.

  27. Walter, not to get this string side-tracked from your excellent and fascinating discussion, but I take some issue with your comment “the sacrificial blood cleanses and the menstrual blood pollutes”. While that is the traditional interpretation, I have a different take on it and am preparing an article for publication to that effect. You have brought Nancy Jay into this discussion, and she will be mentioned in my work. I also use Nicole Ruane, Dorothea Erbele-Kuster, David Wright and many others. I agree that the sacrificial blood cleanses, but once it has done its work, is it not polluted? The sacrificial blood is poured on the altar and the sanctuary to cleanse them. The menstrual blood is polluted as it is discharged, but not when it first enters the womb. Its entire purpose is to cleanse the womb. The womb is the only place on earth (including the sanctuary) where life is created. One example that I believe backs this interpretation is that in Leviticus, the post-partum period of impurity for a woman bearing a female children is twice that of a male. There are two wombs involved that that birth, not one. Obviously, I intend to submit my arguments to scrutiny and criticism when they’re fleshed out. There is a modern version of this that is often overlooked, primarily because it is not openly discussed and that is the differences between the initiatory rite for men and women in the LDS Temple. They are different! In addition, there are differences in the conditional nature of the blessings as well as differences in the washing and anointing. (Hopefully, I haven’t said too much), but those who are familiar with the ordinance should be able to answer those questions and then apply that analysis to the treatment of such things in Leviticus.

    I’m glad you asked these questions of your class and that they responded admitting their “problems with the story”. The Aqedah should cause us problems for other reasons, primarily that all of us will have to go through some type of “Abrahamic sacrifice”. Elder Neal Maxwell said as much in an interview and pointed out that the nature of the sacrifice will be individualized to each.

    I agree that Laban’s death was not a sacrificial cleansing, but I agree with Jack Welch’s analysis (along with others).

  28. Nancy Jay’s works is a gender studies look at the ritual of sacrifice. Fair enough. I am interested in these connections and so I must read her book. Thanks for pointing it out. Most of what I have read regarding matriarchal societies, the transition to patriarchy, etc. is sheer speculation. Of course that is all we can do, and for most of recorded history societies were patriarchal to say the least, but if the assertion is that the sacrifice of Isaac via Abraham was to establish a patriarchal order over an earlier matriarchal one then we are back into the realm of sheer speculation.

    I did not say that the whole Genesis story is an integrated narratological book (but then again, depending on how you define that phrase, Genesis might as well be an integrated narratological book). There are separate stories that are stitched together, and it is the stitching that is interesting. Robert Altar shows just how “stitched” together the first half of Genesis is using his literary analysis. The stories of creation, flood, and fire are integrated and they do point to each other. The destruction of the Tower of Babel is yet another world destruction by wind (by late traditions). But the juxtapositions between stories are often “stitched” using motifs that tie separate stories into a unified philosophical and theological vision. It is quite brilliant really. So my pointing out how and when Abraham is introduced in the text is still relevant.

    I absolutely love your SS take on Abraham. I will use it in the future. And I will reference you. (Or maybe you don’t want me to, either way).

    I again disagree on the Nephi-Laban issue. Laban stole all of Nephi’s property and attempted to murder Nephi and his brothers. Nephi had done nothing except offer to purchase the plates. Both these crimes in the legal code of the day would lead to severe punishment including a death sentence. Laban’s life, by the law of the land, is forfeit.

    There is a difference between legal and moral. Often, in any society, the more complex and convoluted the legal system is the wider the chasm between law and morality. Law can become incredibly arbitrary, and as such, that which is legal is secondary to that which is moral. Nephi, in the end, would have no legal recourse in a system where Laban was connected with the rulers and judges and Nephi was not. Also, technically, it is also true that a person could not take the law into their own hands. As such, Nephi’s action was legally justified, but illegal in execution. I would state that his action however, is moral. Laban already attempted to murder him, and Nephi innately understood that Laban would probably chase them down in the wilderness now that he knows where Lehi is. It is a matter of self-survival of his entire family clan. I do not see Nephi’s action as revenge. If it were revenge than Nephi would not have shirked the killing. Nephi slays Laban out of moral necessity.

    Of course, people can disagree with this viewpoint. In such a difficult passage, like that of Abraham, discussion, doubt, and argument are necessary. In both these cases it is often taught in SS as principles of sheer obedience. It is good to wrestle with these stories and their moral, legal, and theological implications.

  29. “As such, Nephi’s action was legally justified, but illegal in execution. I would state that his action however, is moral. Laban already attempted to murder him, and Nephi innately understood that Laban would probably chase them down in the wilderness now that he knows where Lehi is. It is a matter of self-survival of his entire family clan.”

    It seems you have provided reasons why Laban’s death was legally justified, but not that Nephi’s bringing about that death. If I understand your theory of morality in this context correctly, it is that homicide, theft, and obtaining another’s property by deception, are moral if the killer/thief understands that it is probably a matter of his family clan’s survival [and implicitly, where the victim of the theft has previously stolen more than equivalent value from the family of theif in question]. This does not seem to be consistent with either scripture or traditional ethical theories, though it has been a long time since I read ethics with any degree of seriousness. I still do not see how one successfully deals with the question of morality of Nephi’s actions without a theory that whatever God, through the spirit, tells you to do is moral. That theory then invokes the question [for both the actor and an observer] how one knows that it was God who told you to do it. Maybe you have some moral principle in mind that I have not discerned from your comment.

  30. JR. If one’s family and clan is going to be killed by someone whose sole purpose of the violence is for political and personal power, then removing that person’s head is not only moral and ethical, but also scriptural. Biblically speaking, a man may take life in defense of his life, in defense of his family or nation, or through the exaction of the law in capital crimes. Nephi took Laban’s life with the first two justifications. While guilty of a capital crime, in normal circumstances Laban should have been prosecuted by the judges of the people.

    But what happens when circumstances are not normal? What happens when the judges will not judge righteously? Or if there is really no time even to determine what legal action is possible?

    If a man came to kill my wife and children I would kill him. I would consider it both moral and ethical, and quite frankly would not care what the law said. In truth, basic human rights trump laws. And the most basic human right is defense of one’s life and family.

    Further, in the day and culture of Nephi’s time I do not think you would get a person in the city, knowing all the facts, who would morally disagree with Nephi’s actions. They might semantically disagree, citing law and procedure, but in the end in that day and culture all would recognize the moral right of Nephi to defend his life and his family’s life, even by killing Laban.

  31. John Lundwall,

    I forgot to mention a recent book by Elizabeth W. Goldstein called “Impurity and Gender in the Hebrew Bible” as well as her contribution to “Current Issues in Priestly and Related Literature: The Legacy of Jacob Milgrom and Beyond”. Her article is titled, “Women and the Purification Offering: What Jacob Milgrom Contributed to the Intersection of Women’s Studies and Biblical Studies” that would be a little more on point to my comments and I think make excellent supplement to Jay’s work, particularly as to the Levitical treatment of women.

  32. John, Your reading of the story in which I failed to find a moral principle was that Laban “would probably chase them down in the wilderness now that he knows where Lehi is.” I find no evidence in the text that Laban knew where Lehi was and no evidence that Laban would persist in his failed attempt to get his servants to kill Nephi and his brothers [now that he seems to have had control of Lehi’s family wealth without killing]. But even if that were the case, “probably chase them down” did not seem to me a strong enough fear for life and family to justify invoking a defense of life and family moral principle.

    Now you have eliminated any uncertainty, by reading the story to include Nephi’s “family and clan is going to be killed [no “probably” about it] by someone whose sole purpose of the violence is for political and personal power.” That reading [again unsupported by the text, in my view, but possible because of the many things not included in the text] might support invoking a moral right to defend life and family quite without regard to the purpose of the threatened violence. But Nephi’s reported thoughts and behavior in considering whether to slay Laban do not suggest any present fear or any anticipation that his family and clan were going to be killed at Laban’s urging if he did not defend them by slaying Laban. Instead, not only was there no immediate threat to Nephi, but 1 Ne 4:11 has Nephi cogitating on Laban’s past attempt, the fact that Laban was a wicked person, and the fact that Laban had stolen the family’s property, all as if punishment were the justification and not defense. Verses 12 and 13 have Nephi directed by the Spirit to act for the Lord in slaying the wicked for the Lord’s “purposes,” the one of which that is mentioned it to prevent a nation from dwindling and perishing in unbelief. While there may have been unreported facts that would make possible a defense of life and family argument in favor of the morality of Nephi’s action, supporting a claim of morality apart from direction of the Spirit and the Lord’s partly disclosed purposes was not a concern of the story writer as we have received it. The text does not support a conclusion that Nephi took Laban’s life in defense of his own or his family’s, though that may be possible.

  33. i didn’t mean to sidetrack the discussion by bringing up Nephi and Laban. I wasn’t making a comparison between ritual child sacrifice and the killing of an adult, I was more interested in the issue of discernment and correct identification of our thoughts and ideas. In Walter’s first post on Abraham he states, “So, to conclude, another interpretation: Abraham should have refused to sacrifice his son. If it was a test, he failed it, as he should have recognized that the Lord never could have issued such a command. In the end the Lord saved him from his failure.” According to this line of thinking, the culture in which Abraham was immersed combined with human frailty and imperfection led him down the wrong path, thinking all the while that he was following a command of the Lord. I was wondering if it was possible that Nephi might be in the same boat. Specifically, did Nephi’s cultural background and imperfections lead him to interpret the scenario as Laban being delivered to him and the Spirit’s leading him to kill Laban. This is no indictment of anyone. Confucius said, “The hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat.” I don’t know what he meant by it, but I am wondering if there are things harder than that, namely, to receive inspiration that is contrary to our culture and personal beliefs and to discern the origins of our thoughts and feelings.

  34. Steven, To side track further: I’m not sure Confucius had anything to do with that quote. Maybe a Chinese scholar can tell us. In the meantime, see



    In at least the second of these you’ll see what some have thought was meant as well as an application to religious knowledge —

    In a 1931 book titled “Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History” by the comparative religion specialist Lewis Browne. The sharpest barb was aimed at a set of religious individuals called Gnostics:

    “Someone has said that a philosopher looking for the ultimate truth is like a blind man on a dark night searching in a subterranean cave for a black cat that is not there. Those Gnostics, however, were theologians rather than philosophers, and so—they found the cat!”

  35. Terry H. Much of the theology of blood might still have to be written, and surely that hidden discourse in elaborate rituals is subtle and flexible. I am speaking from the vantage point of religions where these sacrifices still are functional and crucial, religions which I know well first hand, and there the dictum holds, easily.
    The distinction what is E hinges on other things thatn the presence of sacrifice; the name of god is much more important. It is even stronger when one compares menstruation with another male prerogative: masks. : “Menstruation is the mask of the women”. That explanation might call for another post.

    Nephi’s killing of Laban: indeed, the distinction between moral and legal is far from easy, especially when confronted with a power figure who has done one wrong. The argument that Nephi’s act was not revenge since he took so much time in pondering, is a good one (even if revenge does illustrate the distinction between socially acceptable, moral and legal).
    The notion that an inspiration or revelation is truly remarkable when it induces action against the current cultural norms – especially beyond current norms – is strong and valid, and might well be a yardstick that we should use more.

  36. Walter. Thanks for your useful response. I’ll look at E more closely. As for that other post about masks, I’ll look into it while I’m waiting.

  37. Well, let us call it a day, and move to the third part of Abraham trilogy. At present I am working with a colleague on a book about African mask rituals, but we are still work in progress, so that mask-and-menstruation blog will have to wait a little. For now, the third vantage point on Abraham and the Aqedah is on my writing desk, and this is written from , I think, a rather new angle, but that is for all of you to judge.


Comments are closed.