the Book of Moses and the subjectivity of scripture
One of the more interesting passages of scripture produced by Joseph Smith Jr. is in Section 36 of the Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants (or the Book of Moses in the Latter-day Saint Pearl of Great Price):
And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residee of the people, and he wept, and Enoch bore record of it, saying, How is it the heavens weeps and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord, How is it that you can weep, seeing you are holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?
Although I foregrounded Community of Christ in my introduction to this passage, my knowledge and background are overwhelmingly Latter-day Saint. That is, I’m not terribly familiar with how this passage was understood or received among RLDS folks (or is received among Community of Christ folks), but I do know that the idea of a weeping God has made its mark in LDS thinking. Just over a decade ago, Terryl and Fiona Givens wrote a book called The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, which uses this passage as a starting point for not only a title but for a theological reflection on the nature of God. More recently, Russell Nelson used this passage as a prooftext for his argument that God is sad when people don’t complete Latter-day Saint sacraments. I personally think Nelson’s exegesis here is superficial to the point of being crummy, but that’s a post for another time—the point is that it’s clear that this passage has had a clear influence on contemporary Latter-day Saint thinkers, both within and outside the institutional church.
While I was at the Community of Christ World Conference about a week ago, I picked up a copy of Richard Howard’s Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development, which (as the title suggests) traces textual changes in Joseph Smith’s contributions to scritpure over time. I’d been meaning to get a copy of this book for a while and was pretty excited to start reading through it. It’s dry in parts, but there are also some really interesting passages, including one that relates to Section 36/The Book of Moses—and in a way that has implications for the way that Latter-day Saint (and any Community of Christ thinkers) interpret the passage.
In one part of the book, Howard traces this passage through four different sources: Two manuscripts that Smith worked on directly before his death in 1844 (with the help of Sidney Rigdon and John Whitmer), and two that are artifacts of preparing the so-called Inspired Version of the Bible for publication in 1867. In the earliest version of this passage, it is indeed God who weeps. However, in Smith’s revisions of this passage from a few years later, he edits it to read as follows:
And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the residue of the people & wept. He beheld and lo the heavens wept also & shed forth their tears as the rain upon the Mountains[.] And Enoch said unto the heavens how is it that thou canst weep seeing Thou art holy & from all eternity to all eternity[.]
Barring an interpretation where “the heavens” are a metaphorical representation of God, Smith’s quasi-final rendering of this passage does not include a God who weeps. At the end of the day, it was an 1867 RLDS committee that determined the final text based on their consideration of the two manuscripts that Smith had worked with more directly, and according to this 1986 article from the Latter-day Saint official periodical, the Book of Moses as it currently exists in the Latter-day Saint Pearl of Great Price is likely heavily based on the 1867 text.
There’s a dramatic irony that the 1878 LDS Pearl of Great Price was so dependent on committee decisions made by their theological rivals (which is certainly how the two denominations saw themselves in the late 19th century), but this isn’t really a “gotcha” post trying to draw attention to egg on the face of the LDS Church. Rather, it’s a compelling example of the subjectivity of scripture, as illustrated by (but certainly not limited to) the work of Joseph Smith, Jr. What should be the authoritative text when two source texts contradict each other? What do we do when a beloved passage may not be supported by the source text afterall? How much of scripture is the result of human processes rather than divine inspiration?
Whatever one thinks of the scripture that Smith produced, I think there’s considerable value in them for demonstrating the extent of these subjectivities. In writing about them, my point isn’t to suggest that they are lesser because of them but to remind believers that all scripture is subject to these subjectivities. Just because we don’t have notes from a committee that assembled the Pentateuch or drafts of the Pauline letters doesn’t mean that these ambiguities aren’t also present there. For Restorationist believers of a more fundamentalist bent, these familiar examples can help open minds to the idea that scripture is a lot squishier than most of us learned as kids.
- Terryl Givens
- Fiona Givens
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Book of Moses
- Pearl of Great Price
- Community of Christ
- Russell Nelson
- 2023 World Conference
- Richard Howard
- Joseph Smith Jr.
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