The LDS Inverse Old Testament, Part 4: Ezra to Ezekiel
This post covers a huge chunk of the Inverse Bible. This is because the actual Sunday School Bible covers so very little over the same spread of books. The regular Sunday School Bible continues to show preference for stories and narrative as opposed to the poetry and prophecy of the Hebrew Bible, so the Inverse Bible is full of complicated theological reasoning (in Job), poetic structure (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), and prophecy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). In a way this is understandable: the average reader tends to have their eyes glaze over if they ever encounter most of this material. Separated from the historical, eastern context it is difficult for most western readers to engage with these texts and most Latter-day Saint Sunday Schools are boring enough.
There are two downsides to skipping so much material, however. The first is the missed opportunity for collaborative exploration. Judaism, for instance, has a very strong tradition of discussion and argument over the foundational texts. And ancient eastern prophecy tends to use strong figurative images which means that many multiple viewpoints can be held on their contents. Early Mormonism used to have a similar culture of exploration, even if it sometimes led to conflict. In 1843, Pelatiah Brown was called before the Nauvoo High Council because they disagreed with his reading of Revelation 5:8. In response, Joseph Smith put an end to the issue, saying something like “[I] never thought it was right to [call] up a man for erring in doctrine... [I] want the liberty of believing as I please, [it] feels so good. [It] don't prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (William Clayton's Report of the General Conference of the Church, 8 April 1843). Joseph then proceeded to explore his own conclusions on the same text. There used to be room in Mormonism for such exploration. Covering these difficult texts in a Sunday School setting would almost demand such exploration.
The second downside is that, once again, by only covering texts like a stone skipping across the surface of the water we emerge without an accurate understanding of the texts in question. I can think of few texts that suffer as strongly from this approach as Ecclesiastes and Job, both of which are present nearly in their entirety in the Inverse Bible.
Job, especially, is omitted. Instead, preference is given to the narrative frame of the story beginning with the downfall of Job and all he possesses and ending with the final verses where Job regains all he once had. The interim is almost entirely skipped, and possibly with good reason. Mormons are quite fond of the “Pride Cycle” of the Book of Mormon, where righteousness is rewarded with blessings, which causes pride, which results in punishment, which causes humility and righteousness, which is rewarded with blessings, and so on. The Book of Job takes this view and analyzes it directly. In the characters of Job, his wife, and his friends various points of view on the justice of God in light of the evil of the world are approached. Sunday School only focuses in the barest details on the arguments of Job's friends, who argue that his current troubles must be the result of sin, and Job's response that he knows he is righteous. The lessons ignore entirely, however, that Job hates his life so much that he wishes to die, and that he views God as being unjust. Job doesn't follow his wife's urging to “curse God and die” but he doesn't shy away from accusing God of acting unfairly towards him. The famous exclamation of “I know that my Redeemer lives” is not a statement about a later messiah or an atonement, but rather is an expression of Job's faith that eventually God will redeem him from his current troubles (the next part about how “in my flesh I shall see God” is actually very difficult to translate and could just as easily mean “without my flesh I shall see God”). And the lesson entirely ignores the arguments of Elihu, who argues that both Job and his friends have everything wrong and that God cannot be limited to human concepts of “justice” and “morality” and that it is wickedness to try and confine God to these human ideals. I find the exclusion interesting as Elihu's arguments are probably the most logical response to the hypothetical of a suffering righteous human (which is why many scholars view Elihu as a later addition to the parable). Finally, God responds to Job by comparing the extent of Job's wisdom and Job's accomplishments with that of God. Basically, God's repose amounts to “Am I being unjust in punishing you Job even though you are righteous? I'm not going to answer that; I'm God, and I'm incredible!”
I'm not surprised that Jeremiah is ignored: his viewpoint often seems excessively vindictive and violent to a modern, western audience. The study of Ezekiel is also limited, too. If it wasn't for the desperate attempts to interpret his vision of the stick of Joseph and the stick of Judah as the Book of Mormon and the Bible I'd doubt they'd focus much on the book. People have found it to be confusing and insane for over two thousand years. I do find it surprising that the LDS Sunday School focuses on Ezekiel's description of the war of Gog and Magog as though it applies to the future, and their interpretation of a spring of fresh water emerging from the restored Jerusalem Temple “healing” the waters of the Dead Sea is surprisingly literal when it makes just as much sense when read figuratively (Ezekiel is all about having the “proper” people in charge of the Temple, so when the Temple is restored to what it should be, the blessings will flow into the Israelite people who have become dead and stagnant).
Finally, I'm a little surprised that the ends of Ezra and Nehemiah are ignored. Abraham's wishes for Isaac to not marry a Canaanite were not skipped over, but were rather transformed into a lesson on the importance of marriage within the covenant. Ezra's cleansing the Israelites of their foreign wives would seem to fit right in alongside this approach. Perhaps when the story involves putting away existing wives—-and children!—-it becomes a bit harder to spin it as a positive thing. The LDS Church is so focused on the importance of families, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they'd prefer to ignore that one of the righteous leaders in the Bible actively encourages his people to break up their existing families along racial lines.
Notable Verses and Pericopes
- Ezra asks God for forgiveness for his people who have intermarried with non-Israelites (Ezra 9)
- Ezra demands that the Israelites put away their non-Israelite wives and children to regain God's favor (Ezra 10:1-12)
- Nehemiah plucks off the hair of people who intermarried with non-Israelites (Nehemiah 13:23-27)
- Entire Book of Job is approached in a non-contextual way; the arguments of Elihu are completely ignored
Even in the midst of killing children, Pharaoh, and various kings, God's mercy endureth forever (Psalm 136:10-26)
Happy shall he be, who dashes the little ones of the Babylonians against the stones (Psalm 137:9)
Praise ye the Lord by singing a new song, playing instruments, and using your swords to execute judgment upon kings and nobles. Praise ye the Lord. (Psalms 149:1-9)
Threaten yourself with a knife if you have trouble eating (Proverbs 23:2)
Be nice to your enemies because it causes them mental pain (Proverbs 25:21-22)
Beer and wine are for helping those who are suffering (Proverbs 31:6)
All the dead go to the same place (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
God will destroy the leviathan, the dragon that is in the sea, and this in no way echoes earlier Mesopotamian creation myths involving a divine battle between the king of the gods and the primordial sea of chaos (Isaiah 27:1)
There was no god formed before God and there will be no god formed after him (Isaiah 43:10)
Why are your clothes so red? Because he has trodden the wine-press alone and it is the blood of his foes that he trampled in his fury as he crushed the nations (Isaiah 63:2-6)
Because the men of Anathoth seek the life of Jeremiah, God announces that he will kill their sons and daughters (Jeremiah 11:22-23)
Even if God's favorite prophets somehow pleaded for mercy for the people, God would cast those prophets out of his sight rather than show mercy (Jeremiah 15:1)
Jerusalem is destroyed because people carried stuff around on Saturdays (Jeremiah 17:21-27)
The Prophet of God requests that God kill the loved ones of people who don't listen to him with famine and sword (Jeremiah 18:21-23)
God brings evil on the city called by his name and calls for a sword upon everyone on the earth (Jeremiah 25:29)
God is able to replace a collection of lost scriptures and even puts in new material as he does so; the lost scriptures are only a single scroll, however, not anywhere near 116 pages long, so it's no big deal (Jeremiah 36:22-32)
God will curse any of those soldiers who holds back from slaughtering the Moabites (Jeremiah 48:10)
Israel is God's battle ax that he will use to destroy kingdoms such as Babylon (just ignore the fact that Babylon kicks their butt in the next chapter) (Jeremiah 51:20-26)
The Book of Jeremiah was written to be thrown into a river (Jeremiah 51:60-64)
Ezekiel begins his ministry by seriously tripping out and sees wheels within wheels and bizarre creatures (Ezekiel 1:1-28)
Wicked yet efficient Israelites create dual-purpose idols and sex toys (Ezekiel 16:17)