Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wrestling Before the Lord Continued

Continued from:

Here is a summary of the similarities between Jacob and Enos's wrestling:



Struggled and wrestled

Wrestled and struggled


Before God

All night, into the day

All day, into the night

Estranged brothers/nations (Jacob and Esau)

Estranged brothers/nations (Nephi/Laban)

Esau wanted to kill Jacob

Laman and Lemuel wanted to kill Nephi

Jacob fled into the wilderness to escape

Nephites fled into the wilderness to escape

Esau is a cunning hunter, with skill in the bow (Gen. 27:1-5)

Lamanites are hunters, with skill in the bow (Enos 1:20), Enos went to “hunt”

Records preserved and “sealed” up in an earthen vessel for a long time recording Esau’s loss of the birthright (Jasher 56:55-57).

Preserved and “sealed” records coming forth to convert the Lamanites.

Reconciliation with God and man

Reconciliation with God and man


“Thou shalt be blessed”

“Life is preserved”

“the Lord God would preserve a record”

Entered the promised land

Soul did “rest”

Seeing Esau like seeing the “face of God.”

Then shall he “see His [God’s] face”

“and thou wast pleased with me”

“see his face with pleasure”

Let me know if you can think of any that I missed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Summary of my Sperry Presentation, Wrestling Before the Lord

I will be presenting at the Sperry Symposium this year. A summary of my presentation follows:

Enos compared his experience of reconciliation with God to that of Jacob in the Old Testament. Why would Enos make this particular comparison and what lessons did he intend for us to learn from it? By better understanding the context of the Jacob story, particularly its intended lessons, we can better understand what Enos wanted us to learn from the comparison.

Although there are many unanswered questions in the Jacob story, the central theme is one of intense effort rewarded by blessings and reconciliation. Jacob’s entire life was a wrestle, and his story is one of intense effort, hardship, and eventual reward and reconciliation. He wrestled with his brother Esau from the womb. His name means supplanter (literally “heal catcher”). Jacob’s competition with his brother Esau continued into adolescence and involved the mess of pottage and Jacob’s famous deception of and blessing by his father. The competition was so bitter that Esau desired to end Jacob’s life. He had to flee his home and family to preserve his life. Jacob was deceived by Laban in the matter of his marriage. He was forced to serve him for fourteen years for his wives. Jacob returned home and wrestled with a mysterious messenger at the fords of Jabbok. He wrestled with this messenger all night long. Finally the messenger blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel because he had “prevailed.” Jacob then forded the river Jabbok and named the place Peniel (face of God). There he met Esau, who ran and “embraced” and kissed him and they wept. There they were reconciled and Jacob said, “if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.”

There are many unanswered questions that remain about Jacob’s story, especially regarding the nature of the messenger and Jacob’s wrestling. For example: who was the messenger, what is the nature of the wrestling, and what is the nature of the blessing given? The text intentionally leaves many of these questions unanswered, and we will not attempt to answer them all here. Nevertheless, the central message of the story is clear. Jacob’s entire life was a wrestle for the blessings of God. Wrestling is one of the most physically demanding activities, and the length of Jacob’s wrestle indicated the intense effort he expended in order to overcome and receive the promised blessings.

The effort of the first part of this story stands in opposition to the reconciliation that followed. In Gen 32 Jacob wrestled with a messenger, in Gen. 33 he embraced Esau, in Gen 32 he called the place Peniel (face of God) in Gen 33 he says that seeing the face of Esau is like seeing the face of God. The Hebrew word for “wrestle” is an intentional word play on the Hebrew word for “embrace” as Peniel forms a word play for seeing the face of God which followed. Thus Jacob’s intense effort (his wrestling) eventually resulted in reconciliation with his brother which is a type of his (and our) reconciliation with the Lord, the greatest of blessings offered in mortality. This teaches us that sometimes the greatest of the Lord’s blessings require intense effort on our part if we are to receive them. Furthermore, God will help us along our journey as he helped Jacob along his journey.

Several comparisons between Jacob's wrestling and temple imagery have been made. Some have suggested that Jacob did not wrestle at all, but actually "embraced" the mysterious messenger. Given the context and intended moral of the story, (effort preceding reconciliation) it seemed that the wrestling must have been more than a simple embrace. On the other hand, temple imagery can still be found in the story, perhaps made even more intense by the idea that this "wrestle" is resolved into an "embrace" which follows, and which represents the concepts of reconciliation, forgiveness, and atonement so beautifully.

In the Book of Mormon, Enos used many images from the Jacob story in his own account. He too “wrestled” “before God” (in Hebrew this would likely have literally read “to the face of God” or l-Peniel, a reference to the place where Jacob wrestled the messenger). His wrestle lasted all day and into the night as Jacob's lasted all night and into the day. Finally, he too was reconciled with God, finding forgiveness for his sins and personal assurance that his course in life was agreeable to God’s will. It was these themes of effort and reconciliation that Enos likely intended to convey through his comparison between his own experiences and the Jacob story.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Language of Symbolism Continued

Continued from: The Language of Symbolism

Another misconception about symbolism that I commonly see goes something like: “Your religion / churches / buildings / temples use symbols that were also used by pagans, so you are worshiping the devil.” I have already pointed out the most significant problem with this logic, namely that symbols have no inherent meaning outside their power to communicate ideas. As such, a symbol only means what the hearer thinks it means, and so, if its user doesn’t think it represents a Pagan idea, then for that user, it doesn’t. However, there is another important issue at work here, and that is that it is apparently standard operating procedure for God to use the images of the culture around His covenant people in order to teach them His eternal truths. One way to express this idea would be to say that God speaks to us “according to our own language and understanding” (see 2 Ne. 31:3; D&C 1:24).

Let me give several illustrative examples. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, God commanded Moses to construct an "ark." The Ark of the Covenant was basically a portable representation of the throne of God carried by the priests on poles (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Israelite "Ark of the Covenant"
The Egyptians of the time built very similar "portable shrines" and placed them in the holy of holies of their temples. These Egyptian shrines were carried on poles by priests like the ark; they were covered by cloths when carried, like the ark; and like the ark, they had a representation of the God's throne. Unlike the Israelite version, the Egyptian arks actually contained a statue of the deity (see Figure 2). The Egyptian versions were fashioned like boats, because the Egyptians believed that the sky was blue because it was made out of water. The idea was to represent the concept that the throne of the deity moves through the heavens, and that their god was a king of the heavens.
Figure 2: Egytpian parallels to the Ark of the Covenant

Both the similarities and the differences are important for understanding the symbols of the Ark of the Covenant. Since symbolism is a language, the right approach is to ask, "what would the Israelites, who just came out from Egypt understand by the symbolism of the Ark." Clearly, they would have recognized it as a portalbe throne for a king similar to those used in Egypt and Mesopotamia:
Figure 3: A Kings throne guarded by Cherubim from Messopotamia
Further, the Israelites would have understood the idea that God is a heavenly king. Since the throne was the seat of judgement for earthly kings, they would have understood the ark as a representation of the place of God's merciful judgment, and so it was called the "mercy seat."

There are many more instances where God used Pagan symbolism to teach His eternal truths to the Israelites. For example, the Temple of Solomon looks like many of the Pagan temples that surrounded it.

This drawing of the temple at Tainat could be accidentally confused with Solomon's if you don't look closely.

And there are many other examples, for example, this Pagan temple from Arabia:
And this one from Syria, which is perhaps the closest Solomonic Parallel [1]:

This "similarity" was not restricted to the architecture of the Israelite temples, but extended to their rituals as well. The Day of Atonement ritual has many similarities to Babylonian year rituals, complete with the goat killed and cast out (although the Babylonians only used a single goat, which they both killed and cast out) [2].

So what are we to make of these similarities? If we were to take the approach taken by many critics of LDS temples, we would have to conclude that the Israelites were worshiping the devil. Clearly they are using pagan imagery, even "occult" imagery in their worship of God!

However, there could be many other explanations for the similarities between pagan traditions and the Israelite temples. A more balanced approach might see fragments of truth left over in the Pagan practices and worship, or one might see Satan imitating truth in the pagan traditions, or one might see God teaching the Israelites eternal truths using the symbolic language that they understood given their cultural contact with the pagans around them.

Symbolism is a language. As such, the definitions of its "words" depend on how the people being spoken too would view the image or symbol. The Israelites contact with the pagans which surrounded them would have given the symbolic "words" meaning, but the message, the way those words were combined to teach eternal truths was still inspired despite the pagan (and even "occult" whatever that might mean) nature of some of the individual elements.

Clearly the same sort of balanced approach should be applied when analyzing similarities between LDS temples and the religious and symbolic systems that surrounded Joseph Smith when the Endowment was revealed to him, or which surrounded Brigham Young when the design for the Salt Lake Temple was revealed to him.


[1] "The New 'Ain Dara Temple: Closest Solomonic Parallel," by John Monson, in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 [May/June 2000]. The article says that the 'Ain Dara temple "has far more in common with the Jerusalem Temple described in the Book of Kings than any other known building" (p. 20). Its archaeology dates it to the period just preceding (Phase 1) Solomon's Temple, contemporary with Solomon's Temple (Phase 2) and just after (Phase 3). It is far better preserved than Tainat, and "is the most significant parallel to Solomon's Temple ever discovered (p. 22).
[2] James L. Carroll "An Expanded View of the Israelite Scapegoat" in Temples and Ritual in Antiquity, presented by the BYU Religious Studies Center and SANE's Studia Antiqua, 2008.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Language of Symbolsm

I am always amused when people take the position: "you are actually worshipping the Devil, you don't know it, but you are doing it on accident, if you only knew what your own symbols meant, then you would understand that you are worshipping the Devil. I know YOU don't think that the symbols are about the Devil, but they are, and by using them you are actually accidentally worshipping the Devil." For one example of this ridiculous approach applied to the Mormons see:
The same page takes a similar approach with a lot of images/symbols for the monuments of many groups. Mormons typically respond to this sort of garbabe by pointing out instances where symbols like the pentagram have anciently been used to represent good things, not to represent evil, and that its modern use as a symbol of evil is relatively new (see here and here). For example the following is a great example of the pentagram (even with the point downward) used as a symbol of Christ. It is an icon of the transfiguration by Andrei Rublev in 1405, and now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral (in Moscow Kremlin):
However, such evidence makes no difference to people who see the Devil everywhere, because they just see any early Christian use of the pentagram as due to those early Christians having been deceived (much in the same way that they see Mormons as having been deceived). Thus any early Christians who might have used the pentagram were worshipping the Devil too. Thus Mormons and their critics tend to talk past each other on this issue.

The problem is that people don't understand that symbolism is a language, and the real question should not be "what does a symbol mean" but should be, "what does a symbol mean to those who used it when they used it." For example, a black cat symbolized witchcraft if you happen to have lived in Salem Mass..., on the other hand, if you lived in ancient Egypt, the black cat symbolized divinity.... This sort of confusion happens because symbolism is a language, with different vocabularies and different interpretations for different people at different times. You wouldn't expect all words to have the same meaning in Spanish that they do in English, so why should they in symbolism? So to accuse an English speaker of worshipping the Devil because of a confusion between the meaning of a word between English and Spanish would be silly. But when you begin to believe that Satan is behind it all, and that it is all some big conspiracy, then you believe that black cats mean witchcraft in Ancient Egypt too, and the Egyptians who saw black cats as symbols of divinity were just worshipping the devil, and didn't know it. After all, such people often think that all Pagans were worshipping the Devil (even when they didn't believe in him), so why not the Egyptians?

But my understanding (and C.S.Lewis's understanding too) is that you can't worship the Devil on accident. Any good intentioned worship of the Devil IS worship of Christ, and any bad intentioned worship of Christ IS worship of the Devil (see CS Lewis' conclusion to the Narnia series, "The Last Battle" for his take on this idea). On this point I must agree with Lewis. Thus, Mormons are only worshipping the Devil with their pentagrams IF that is what THEY think the pentagram means... because they can't be "accidentally" worshipping the devil, it doesn't work that way. All that is good comes from Christ, and all that is evil comes from the Devil (see Moroni 7:5-19).


1. symbolism is flexible,

2. symbolism's meaning is only defined in the context of what someone, sometime thought it meant,


3. worship of God or the Devil must be intentional, some hidden meaning behind symbols can't cause you to somehow accidentally worship the Devil.

To be continued.....

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sacred Silence, Temple Types, a Changing World, and Big Love

I hate to bring this (Big Love) up again, but I believe that the world's response to this is telling. For those of you who don't know what happened, HBO's TV show, "Big Love" portrayed the LDS Endowment in one of their episodes, which started a large controversy on the web, and greatly offended many members of the LDS Church.

Many of them can't understand what we are so upset about the portrayal of the endowment. One person said in effect: "there are many more offensive parts to the show than this, so why all the commotion? The show openly mocks Church leaders... why don't Mormons care about that, but are so upset about the Endowment? ... after all, they portrayed the endowment with 'reverence' and 'respect.'" It was those last two words that I found so interesting. One member responded to this line of reasoning: "that is like saying that you slept with my wife, but you treated her with all the reverence and respect that she deserved." Clearly these people are talking past each other, and as a community, we seem to no longer share a common vocabulary/understanding with which to communicate these ideas effectively. Especially lacking is a common understanding of the ideas of sacred silence and sacred space.

There was a time when the world would have understand this idea of sacred silence. What makes something sacred? When evaluating the ancient world's use of the sacred, things/places/time are usually sacralized by exclusion and inclusion, you exclude the unclean, and you include sacred events that happened on/near the place/time/object, as well as sacred acts (such as dedication rituals) performed over/near/on the place/time/object. This concept has been largely forgotten I think. Especially by most Western Christian churches. Most of them have sacred rituals, but portraying them would not be offensive if they were done with "respect" or "reverence." What
Baptist would complain about a tv show portraying their sacrament or baptism rituals? Because the world has forgotten sacralization through exclusion by sacred silence, they no longer understand us, since we are one of the very few religions that still practices this once common ancient tradition.

I thought this non-member's analysis was telling, he was one of the very few non-members that really got it I thought:

It was fascinating to listen to a non-member (and fan of the show) respectfully come to grips with the use of the sacred for entertainment, and with the ideas of sacred silence that he doesn't share, but that he finally came to understand because of the issues raised by the show. As is almost always the case, these things tend to end up doing more good than harm. This seems to be the case yet again.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Rough Stone Rolling Review

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I originally wrote this as a response to someone else's review. I think that it would also make a good review in its own right, so I am also posting it here. First, let me briefly review the content of the review I was responding to. Their review said that they didn't like the book because they felt that it was "digging up dirt" on the prophet, and they quoted several of the brethren saying that this would be a bad idea. They pointed out that they believed that Joseph was a "hero" and that by portraying Joseph as a man and not as a hero, the book was un-faithful to Joseph. The following was my response to those thoughts:

I have spoken to Richard Bushman about his book at a symposium about helping people who's faith has been damaged by anti-Mormon propaganda. I believe that his purpose wasn't to "dig up dirt" on the prophet to show that he was "human." I agree with all the quotes he gave that implied that such an approach isn't usually a good course. However, since we are living in a world where many other people are digging up such "dirt" it isn't healthy for the enemies of the prophet to be the only ones talking about the difficult questions. When that happens, people lose their testimonies. We need good people who can honestly say, "ya, I know that about Joseph, and I believe he is a prophet anyway." From what Bushman said at the symposium, I believe that this was his motivation and purpose, and I believe that he did a good job. If you already have questions about Joseph, then this is a great resource to find answers to your questions. Sticking our collective heads in the sand is not helpful for anyone's testimony. I believe that Richard Bushman and his book, have saved the testimonies of many many people, many of them people I know.

Of course there is a danger here, in missionary speak, we don't want to "raise" the concern in order to "resolve" the concern. If you leave a cow-pie alone, it scabs over, but if you repeatedly kick it, then it stinks forever. Therefore, there must be a balance. The real question is, did Richard Bushman hit that balance? I believe that the answer to that question depends on what you think the purpose of the book was.

If he was writing for the Church, or primarily for church members, I would agree with you that he missed the mark. On the other hand, "No Man Knows My History" (essentially an anti-Mormon book) has been the standard textbook in American History classes that deal with Joseph. If Richard was trying to write a balanced textbook to replace "No Man Knows My History" in such classes, one that non-members would accept and actually be willing to use as a replacement for their un-balanced current book, then he succeeded, and did so brilliantly! If he had instead shared his testimony, then they would not have been willing to use the book. He has a testimony, and shares it often, but in other places and for other audiences. It is all about who his intended audience was. Many non-members will now be getting a much more favourable view of the Prophet than they otherwise would have been getting.

He also succeeded brilliantly if his audience was members of the Church who have questions about Joseph raised by enemies of the Lord's Prophet. Many members are now getting their questions about the prophet answered by someone who can say "yes, that happened, but does that really mean that Joseph wasn't a prophet?" Often what happens instead is that someone with a question who asks for answer is given the a response from a well meaning but ignorant member that goes something like: "I have never heard that before! It must be a lie!" Usually this is followed by the questioner turning to the history, only to find out that it isn't a lie, and really did happen. Then our questioning member feels lied to not by enemies of the Church, but by the Church itself, and then they leave the Church. This just should not happen. As a teacher of the Gospel, the book has been remarkably helpful for me, and has helped me to be better prepared to answer my student's questions.

If Bushman had written another biography that praised all of Joseph's successes and ignored all the hard questions, (and we already have plenty of those) then the secular world would still be using "No Man Knows My History" and believers with questions about the first vision, seer-stones, treasure hunting, polygamy, and the restoration of the endowment, would still have no sympathetic source to go to. The enemies of the Church would again be the only people dealing with the hard questions. What a shame that would be!

In the end, the world is better off because Bushman wrote this biography. Bushman's purpose wasn't to "dig up dirt" on the prophet, but rather to point out that the "dirt" that has already been dug up really isn't as bad as people sometimes think. Once it is placed in its historical context, and once we see Joseph as a man, then the so called "dirt" isn't such a big deal, and we can get back to the work of thinking of Joseph as the Prophet of God, and the "Hero" that he was.

Information comes from bibliographies, certainty comes from the Spirit of God and in no other way. I know that Joseph was a prophet of God because the Spirit of God has told me that this is true. What I now have because of Brother Bushman's wonderful bibliography is more information about Joseph's life.

Some have suggested censuring people, and preventing them from writing such biographies, thinking that this will save testimonies, but I believe that Bushman's book will help more people's testimonies than it will hurt. Further, if you believe that Bushman got Joseph's life wrong then the answer is that we need more biographies being written, not less. The great thing about biographies, is that if you disagree with the conclusions of one, by all means, write your own. As someone who has written and published a bit about Church topics, I know how hard it can be to do a good job, make everyone happy, and say the right things for your intended audience without offending some other audience. Let's see if you can do a better job! If you can, I will be happy to give your biography a good review too :-)

View all my reviews.