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Judges: Second Genesis

The logical epilogue to the Pentateuch should be the book of Joshua, but I’m going to skip over that to the book of Judges.  Sure, Joshua perfectly closes out the Exodus like html tags, with a lesser parting of water for the Israelites to cross over on dry ground (Joshua 3:14-17), and Joshua’s encounter with the Lord outside Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15) corresponds to Moses and the burning bush.  Judges, however, is the book I would argue has the most similarity to the books of Moses, particularly Genesis.  Since both books depict a lawless period, one before the Law was given, the other at a time when it has been largely abandoned, I could go so far as to say Judges could have originated as an alternative to Genesis, so much so that I would call it “Genesis Gone Wrong.”

Specifically, Judges appears to call to mind the accounts of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18 and 19.  Just as the angels visited the Patriarch Abram near the great trees of Mamre, the angel of the Lord comes to Gideon under an oak in Ophrah (Judges 6:11).  Both Abram and Gideon use the phrase “If I have found favor in your eyes” (Genesis 18:3, Judges 6:17) before offering him a sacrificially acceptable meal.  Lastly, just as Abram tests God’s patience by repeatedly begging him to spare Sodom with increasingly fewer conditions, so Gideon increasingly raises the conditions of his testing, practically quoting Abram in the process (“Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request.” Judges 6:39).  From there the parallels diverge, Gideon goes on to defeat Midian while the hospitality narrative that follows immediately in Genesis doesn’t appear until later in the book of Judges.

Before that, however, we do resume with parallels to the sons of Abraham.  Similar to Ishmael, the son of a foreign bondwoman driven out of his home, Jephthah the son of a prostitute is driven away by his brothers (Judges 11:1-3).  In contrast to Isaac, however, Jephthah vows to offer a burnt offering to YHWH and tragically follows this sacrifice through with his own daughter (Judges 11:30-39); sadly, there is no deus ex machina or ram caught in the thicket here.

The parallels are then interrupted by the account of Samson, but resume again in Chapter 19, which corresponds to the same chapter of Genesis.  Here we find a hospitality narrative that seems to bridge the differences between Lot in Sodom and Baucis and Philemon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While this story lacks the two gods, it contains similarities to Ovid not found in Genesis.  Although the pair of angels effortlessly find Lot and thus a place to stay, the Levite and his concubine in Judges are not so fortunate.  Like Ovid’s Zeus and Apollo (“a thousand houses they approached looking for rest, a thousand houses were locked and bolted.  But one received them.” Metamorphoses Book VIII), they sit in the city square but nobody will take them in for the night, except for an old man.  What happens next is nearly verbatim from the Genesis story, some wicked men of the city surround the house and demand to sexually violate the visitor.  Like Lot, the owner offers the mob his virgin daughter, but the men wouldn’t listen.  Unlike Lot, however, the Levite does send out his concubine, who is then horribly raped to death.

Even though in the narrative’s chronology the Law has already been given, the Judges seem completely unaware of it.  Ironically, the Patriarchs precede the giving of the Law yet the inhabitants of Genesis seem to follow it intuitively.  While much of the same questionable morality like human sacrifice permeates both books, apologists have a much easier time addressing these moral lapses in Genesis than in Judges.  Divine intervention in the binding of Isaac makes for good Sunday school material, while the difficult story of Jephthah is rarely mentioned in church, if at all.

Although not a “lawbook” like the other four books in the Torah, when weighed against the parallels of the Judges it becomes clear why Genesis is still very much a book of the Law.  The book of Judges is as lawless as the judges themselves, and they seem to only teach us by bad example.  Obviously the Samaritans ignored everything after the Pentateuch, but curiously the Jewish scholars seem to have forgotten most of them except Samson in their subsequent literature, like the Talmud.  This trend continues not just into the New Testament (except for a passing reference in Hebrews 11:32), but also into every other faith tradition that borrowed heavily from the Patriarchs, from Islam to Baha’i and Mormonism.  I think that’s a great loss for them, as the book of Judges serves as an interpretive key of sorts to some of the difficult passages of Genesis.  The sex-obsessed Talmudic interpretation of Sodom and Gomorrah which is so prevalent today, for instance, isn’t quite as convincing when read through the lens of the Levite and his concubine.

 

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Joseph Smith: Reformer?

Joseph Smith is a complicated personality to explain.  Despite numerous inconsistencies, the failure to identify definite ulterior motives for his claims and actions causes many Mormons to accept Joseph Smith’s account of his own life without question.  After all, why would somebody lie about being visited by an angel, or finding and translating a buried testament of Jesus Christ?  On the surface, these claims can seem too fantastic to be made up, and if critics are unable to convincingly present an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith, then the Mormon will never abandon the official church version (even when they know that to be not exactly historically accurate).

My own stance on explaining the complexity of Joseph Smith’s personality is the same as my view on the Book of Mormon itself.   I only need to present evidence of plagiarism or source material that would be unavailable to the book’s purported authors to disprove the Book of Mormon’s authorship claims, I do not have to be able to explain in every minute detail how Joseph Smith came across his source materials and authored his fiction.  Similarly, embarrassments like the Book of Abraham caught Joseph Smith red-handed in his lies, I don’t need to psychoanalyze him to know that this is deception.  Questions of “how” and “why” are irrelevant or secondary at most, all that really needs to be demonstrated is that the book and its author are frauds.

For instance, one likely source for the Book of Mormon that I recently stumbled upon is the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  This text is a pseudepigrapha of undetermined Judeo-Christian origin probably finalized in the 2nd century of the Christian Era.  Scholars are undecided on whether it was a Christian document or a Jewish document with later Christian interpolations, but all agree it is a forgery.  Possible influence on the Book of Mormon is loose, but its structure of the Patriarchs writing their testimony on their deathbeds is eerily similar to the last entries in the small plates of Nephi.  Some Mormon apologists have even attempted to cite similarities between the two as proof that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, apparently oblivious that this argument is essentially saying the Book of Mormon must be real because it resembles other known forgeries.  Of course, the standard Mormon response is to say that even though the Testaments were first translated into English in the 1820’s, Joseph Smith would have been unlikely to have had access to that information.  I counter that it’s impossible to conclude to any degree of certainty whether Joseph Smith could not have known something, but as long as it was a fact published within his lifetime, then it’s not impossible for him to have had some direct or indirect exposure to it.

I admit I can’t prove any solid ties to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Book of Mormon, but I bring it up to point out the flip side of the Mormon defense of Joseph Smith.  Why did this author and others in antiquity and throughout history write books and then attribute them to Biblical figures?  If an inability to explain why Smith would lie forces us to accept his word, then wouldn’t it force us to accept every other pseudepigrapha as well?  I doubt I can fully explain the motivations behind Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad either.  But if a Mormon is to give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt, then they must be willing to give these other false teachers the benefit as well, or prove without a doubt their falsity.

The Mormon resistance to admitting Joseph Smith as a fake is usually because they could only envision him in that role as a deliberate liar with evil intentions.  This is an unrealistic view that really isn’t typical of the false prophets that have walked the earth; the reality is that most of them have been psychologically complicated personalities known as pious frauds, not very different from Joseph Smith’s profile.  My theory is that self-proclaimed prophets–especially those closely tied to an existing religious tradition–emerge more out of a desire for reform than to deceive; the deception is merely an unavoidable side-effect of their reform methods.  Perhaps out of desperation when traditional reform methods have failed, such as the Bab’s frustration with the state of Islam in Iran.

While religions can often be reformed through conventional means, they also demonstrate a unique phenomenon of charismatic reform.  An example of conventional reform is the Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther.  His 95 Thesis were not intended as a new revelation or scripture, but rather as logical reasoning from within the framework of the accepted canon.  The resulting doctrine of sola scriptura is the apotheosis of rational reform, being a wholesale rejection of arbitrary authority like personal revelation.  On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation exemplified the opposite, weighing its claims, dogmas, and creeds on the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy, an office considered to be infallible by its followers.  While conventional reform is based on logic and reasoning accessible to any human being, charismatic reform is by fiat, and available to only a select body or individuals.  Conventional reform tactics are the prevailing trend in Western civilization, even permeating the secular arena, such as in the way Americans interpret and amend our own Constitution.

While Catholicism embraced charismatic reformists, other religions have built-in defenses against it.  Islam, for instance, strictly prohibits its adherents from claiming any divine revelation after the time of Muhammad.  Although they are often far from rational, juristic rulings or fatwas are really the only acceptable means of advancement available to Muslims.  Conventional reform in Islam, however, has been stunted due to the fact that Muslims consider these majority rulings to be infallible, and therefore irreversible.  Thus after a millennium, Islam was left behind by the modern world, and could advance no further.  But out of the school of one theological reformer Shayk Ahmad would come the Bab, who would break the boundaries his predecessors could not, simply by declaring himself a new prophet.  Overnight, theological innovation and social progress heretofore undreamed of in the Muslim world was effected.  The Bab’s movement would go through a succession crisis after his death, but would emerge as the Baha’i Faith and commence a new wave of women’s rights, racial equality, and religious tolerance.  Almost.  While charismatic reform can be a shortcut to progress, its fatal flaw is that it can usually go no further than the most advanced point of its prophet.  Although Baha’i views on gender equality surpassed those of Muhammad, yet Baha’i women are forever prevented from serving in the highest governing body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, just because Baha’u’llah failed to envision society becoming even more egalitarian than his own views.  Other rulings, like his ban on homosexuality, have been a legacy of frustration to dissenting Baha’is who could only hope for another charismatic reform after 1,000 years (the soonest that Bahai’s believe a new Manifestation of God would be revealed).

Returning to the subject of Joseph Smith, it must be pointed out that his theology developed in a Post-Revolutionary American Protestant climate that, while receptive to conventional reforms, frustrated many in its slow progress towards equality, especially in the recent failure to outlaw slavery in the Constitution.  Abolitionists were just one of many groups anticipating an overnight advancement.  While Mormonism has earned a reputation for its racist history, Joseph Smith is often unfairly castigated for views held by his successors, when in reality his own opinions were radically progressive for the pre-Civil War period.  I would go so far as to argue that Smith was assassinated not because he was a prophet, but because he was a pro-abolition prophet.  Following the LDS succession crisis, however, the church would be grounded in the racial doctrines of Brigham Young until cancelled out by another revelation in 1978.  Just as Baha’i gender equality remained locked in the revelations of the 19th century, so the LDS church was unable to reform itself through conventional means.  Of course, since Mormons didn’t have the impediment of having to wait another 1,000 years for a new prophet, there’s really no excuse for their lack of progress.

As for theological reforms, the Book of Mormon was not so much an innovation as it was an affirmation of folk-American Christian beliefs.  Smith sided with Protestants on infant baptism and, although he would later recant and try to edit it, provided proof-texts for a flawed Trinitarianism in his first edition. Ultimately, what we see is Joseph Smith attempting to circumvent the debate of conventional reform under the authority of a new divine revelation.  Since the Book of Mormon was the only LDS scripture in print at the time, we could reasonably speculate that Smith could have rationalized it as a necessary fraud if he thought he was merely resolving theological questions in favor of what he believed were in line with God’s views.  But as we’ve already seen, forging sacred texts to settle theological disputes is hardly a new development in history.

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Mormonism: The Other Brand X

In 1981, the Book of Mormon was printed in the edition currently in circulation today.  Under the radar of most non-Mormons, even its title was revised, to the now familiar “Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  This edition was to usher in a new public relations-driven mission which would effectively change the Latter-day Saint image and double the church’s size outside the U.S. in the next few decades.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been fond of the LDS church’s version of the Book of Mormon.  Although it has a plethora of useful cross-references and footnotes (usually, but I could write another entry on some of the references that are deliberately and suspiciously left uncited), its double-column format and tiny margins don’t leave enough space for my hands-on method of analysis.  That’s not surprising, really, most other religions I’ve encountered aren’t as accommodating with their sacred texts as I’m accustomed to with the Bible.  I just may have outgrown my wide margin NIV, but it looks like Zondervan discontinued that model anyway, in favor of an edition with a full blank page for note taking.  On the other end of the spectrum, Muslims discourage writing anything in the Qur’an, which I believe is a major impediment to Islamic scholarship.  Baha’i publications are serviceable but limited to a single edition of each, many times just a cherry-picked anthology.  The ISKCON edition of the Bhavagad Gita is useful in that it has Hindi, English, and Swami Prabhupada’s commentary for each verse, but it doesn’t leave much room  for anything but his concentrated focus.  The Bible has been subject to much more extensive critical analysis than any other sacred text on earth, yet even when other religions seem to promote study, their publications have confined parameters outside of which the faithful do not venture.

On a recent visit to the local temple’s visitor’s center to ask some questions, I brought my own copy of the Book of Mormon that I use for research.  I had found a reader-friendly edition online which is exactly the same text, just in single-column paragraph form; it still doesn’t meet my needs, but the version that would doesn’t exist in print (I hope to change that someday).  Despite my having been flipping through this edition to read passages, and even using its fore edge to demonstrate my Biblical analog theory, after we’d been discussing for a half hour the sister interrupted me to inquire what book I was using.  She was noticeably surprised when I told her it was the Book of Mormon.

At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how foreign this was to them, and how much of an outsider it made me.  Go to most churches and (aside from pew Bibles) you’ll see people carrying diverse translations of the Bible in a wide range of editions from various publishers; it’s unusual for two people to have the exact same Bible by coincidence.  You couldn’t tell people in your church to turn to 1 Chronicles 1 and expect any of them to be on the same page number.  At the temple, however, one is surrounded by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, yet they still

the Book of Mormon's trademark look is instantly recognizable in any language

look uniform.  The text is different for each language, but the fonts and formats are all the same.  In fact, the primary differences in the versions carried by the missionaries and visiting Mormons seem to be symbols of status.  Only prospective converts ever use the cheap, free copies.  Initiated members have at the very least the hardcover edition, but more likely a “triple” combination (Book of Mormon+Doctrines & Coventants+Pearl of Great Price), and others a “quad” (the triple with the Bible).  The most well-to-do, of course, have the deluxe leather bound quad with their name engraved.  Even though the shape and size may vary, their configurations are homogenous, with identical typeset and printing common to all of them.  Every page is alike in every one of them, so that Ether chapter 8 is always on page 500.  Every English Book of Mormon was the same, except mine of course.

When the title was changed in the 80’s, the LDS church began a campaign to re-brand themselves and their sacred texts, so that Mormons now have a cultic loyalty to their brand that borders on fetishism.   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a corporate logo with worldwide recognition, displayed prominently on employee elder name tags, publications, and buildings.  The Book of Mormon is no longer a book in the traditional sense: words transmitted through a physical medium, that could exist hypothetically in print, in speech, or even in memory.  Instead, the Book of Mormon is a household name product, and its loyal customers refuse any generic facsimile, no matter that all the contents inside are the same.

Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who do this, of course.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are as fanatically loyal to their Awake! and Watchtower magazines, not to mention their own branded translation of the Bible.  Hare Krishnas visibly recoil if I mention the Gandhi or Vivekananda translations of the Bhagavad Gita.  Baha’i scriptures are published with a uniform trade dress in ersatz King James English, and even though none of the Bab’s major works have been translated or printed in full in any language (not even the original Arabic or Farsi), Baha’is I’ve encountered are hesitant if not reluctant to read unofficial, provisional or modernized translations available online because they are lacking the Universal House of Justice “stamp” of approval.  And while translations of the Qur’an are abundant in English, every self-respecting Muslim knows that the only real version is the standardized Arabic text.

They all seem to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity from their preferred brand, the same way I can flip through a bargain box of comic books and stop every time I see the DC comics logo while paying little attention to Marvel or other companies.  DC knew the power of their brand recognition, which is why they retained the DC “bullet” logo for nearly 30 years, only changing it for a major event; and why they’ve almost never altered the Superman logo, except for minor tweaks.  As a comic collector, I can completely understand the psychological propensity to want to accumulate a line of books of uniform design, which is essentially a cult, or religious following.  But preferring a religion isn’t like buying DC over Marvel or Coke over Pepsi; loyalty of this extent not only prevents the consumer from examining any alternatives, it also prevents them from any serious inquiry into their own faith.  Like a faithful customer who eats a certain food brand because that company tells them it’s good for them, but never independently researches a consumer report or outside nutritional information, these fetishists don’t approach their sacred books with the same critical questions that have long been standard to Biblical scholarship.

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