We sometimes read into a text things that are not there or extrapolate too much.
For example, James E. Talmage had the following to say:
“of course you are at liberty to believe that the removal of Enoch and his city from the earth because of the righteousness of the people meant the taking away of an actual piece or block of the rocky earth upon which the city stood;
but I find nothing in Scripture to warrant any such assumption. I understand that Enoch and his city as an expression means Enoch and his peopleThanks to Ben Spackman.
– who constituted Zion, which may be defined in this case as the pure in heart (see Moses 7:18, and compare 20, 23, 69) and these could have been taken in any of several ways, either through death permitted by the Lord, or by translation.”
For another discussion on extrapolation:
Check out, for example, Draper’s article on creation and allegory from FARMS. As for the people, if Joseph Smith says Noah visited him, I’m inclined to think Noah existed. But that doesn’t entail that Genesis is history any more than believing in George Washington entails accepting that he cut down a cherry tree or threw a silver dollar across the Potomac.
So Ben Spackman isn’t the only one warning against extrapolation from the texts about the events in Genesis.
With that in mind, some questions for our readers about the last few weeks in Sunday School:
- What did you think about what happened to the City of Enoch and do you agree with Talmage?
- What strange things have you heard that turned out to be supposition rather than scripture?
- How were Enoch and Noah taught in your lessons?
- Do you feel we extrapolate too much or misread scripture too often?
What did you think about what happened to the City of Enoch and do you agree with Talmage?
Don’t know. I certainly don’t think an Age of Ultron style of a city taken up is plausible. From a gospel perspective it is low value to spend much time on speculation.
What strange things have you heard that turned out to be supposition rather than scripture?
HF having sex with Mary to conceive Jesus. 3 kings. Isiah speaks about the second coming. Adam was first man. The list is extensive.
How were Enoch and Noah taught in your lessons?
Don’t know. I missed SS last Sunday.
Do you feel we extrapolate too much or misread scripture too often?
Yes. Definitely yes.
To me, the OT is irrelevant except as literature. I love Ecclesiastes and Job. Chucking the OT is obviously problematic on several fronts. Adam, Eve, and the serpent, and the temple ceremony. Tower of Babel and the Jaredites. Joseph Smith and Noah. PoGP in general. I don’t care about the city. Of Enoch. Why is the Church spending a yr on the OT?
Much of the OT deals with a vengeful god. Christ message is much more upbeat and relevant to today.
For me, the heart and soul of the OT is the prophetic literature along with the Psalms. All the rest (pre-history, so-called historical books, and apocalyptic books) make for discussions that range from boring to entertaining to deeply troubling. JS’s insertion of the Enoch story falls into the latter category.
I think mormons have a hard time accepting that the Old Testament is just a weird jumble of literature and history. We’re pretty used to Mormon’s very specific and intentional compiling and editing and his “And thus we see” interjections and try to apply the same kind of tools to reading the OT and it really doesn’t work. At least in my experience, but maybe the new curriculum is better. The last time we did Old Testament I taught primary, and the lessons the manual said the kids were supposed to learn from the readings almost never really fit the reading, and the kids honestly didn’t buy it.
Also, I don’t think I have ever heard that people thought the entire, physical city of Enoch was lifted up to heaven, just that everyone was translated, but I might have just blocked it out.
The Old Testament really should be avoided when it comes to topics for youth or primary lessons. It is full of stories about people who behaved like a group of lusty marionettes who have broken their strings and escaped to the local honky tonk. Lot and his daughters should never be held up as role models for today’s young people.
On the City of Enoch, it is a Joseph Smith extrapolation from a few select texts of the KJV and possibly the Apocrypha (Book of Sirach), which Joseph Smith likely had access to. A KJV+Apocrypha word search reveals mention of Enoch only 16 times: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/k/kjv/kjv-idx?type=simple&format=Long&q1=enoch&restrict=All&size=First+100. Gen. 4:17 mentions that Enoch built a city and Hebrews 11: 5 mentions that Enoch was translated and did not see death. Sirach 49:14 mentions that Enoch was taken from earth. Joseph Smith extrapolates from these verses to construct the Book of Moses.
On what happened to the City of Enoch, I place that in the category of objectively unverifiable/unfalsifiable, and therefore not worthy of any consideration as actually having been historical. I regard the Torah/Pentateuch in the same way I regard Hesiod’s Theogony, the Hindu Vedas, and ancient Chinese mythology: almost entirely myth, with barely anything that can be corroborated with the tools of modern archaeology. I’m interested in the stories for literary value and what they say about ancient cultural knowledge and thought, of which they carry tremendous value. But for historical value, I regard them as entirely useless, with the exception of the very little that be corroborated through digs and external evidence.
On Talmage, he is still a fundamentalist, but only slightly less fundamentalist in claiming that the it was just the people raptured up to the heavens and not actual soil or structures. So no I don’t agree with Talmage.
On supposition vs. scripture, I think that Mormon discourse tries its best to stick to scripture, but is often afraid to proclaim things as metaphorical. Its bent is fundamentalist/inerrantist/literalist.
I haven’t attended a Sunday School class in a long time, but when I did, the OT was assumed to be mostly historical, and even if people didn’t mention it outright, you were looked down upon if you suggested it was metaphorical or suggested that evolution was real and that human history dates back to 100,000 years+, etc.
Yes, Mormons often misread scripture. They are too invested in its historical value. They see modern archaeological research as a threat. They often refuse to acknowledge how the scriptures were transmitted, what the OT says about post-exilic Israelite culture, or even acknowledge that the Torah had several authors and editors and is a story informed by Israelite cultural knowledge of somewhere between 500BCE and 200BCE. Lastly, they only care about how the LDS leaders interpret the Torah, they could care less about how different Jewish groups or Christian groups interpret it, let alone secular Biblical scholars and archaeologists. Mormon explanations of the Torah are held hostage by 19th-century lore and myth. They are useless to me.
I tend to agree with the above comments. Our Church has “Mormonized” every scriptural character and story. Meaning, our specific version of Christian theology colors how we view these individuals and cultures, and we assume they were practicing their own form of Mormonism for their relative time and culture. It started with Joseph Smith’s attempt to make some cohesive narrative out of the scriptural record, his JST efforts on the Bible, as well as bringing uniquely Old Testament practices into the “restored gospel” (i.e. plural wives, tithing, temple building, etc.).
In doing this, we have compromised our ability to read the OT properly and in context. We cannot criticize or question certain parts. We have to accept the stories as historical because JS treated them as such and incorporated into the BoM, D&C, and PoGP. He even stated he had visions with these OT prophets.
It makes a meaningful study of ancient scripture that much more difficult. So I personally use the stories much like one would Aesop’s fables or myths that we can extract lessons from, but not push as literal or historical events. Heck, that’s kind of what I do with all modern scriptures and Church history too.
I remember a seminary teacher (from CES, not just a random person in the stake called to that position) once saying that the City of Enoch was physically taken upward, and that the people below could actually still sometimes see it in the clouds. And the reason that the Tower of Babel was built was that people were trying to reach the City of Enoch, which they could see. Not sure where he came up with that idea, but he presented it as fact.
I’ve got to chime in in support of the Old Testament. I’d prefer we spend more, not less time exploring this literary collection. It is actually my favorite book of scripture. Some dislike it because their sensibilities get challenged. Oh, well. It is not a literary collection for children. It requires the ability to use study Bibles, keep an open mind and accept ambiguity. It requires one to understand genre and context. But I have definitely found G-d within its pages. It is the platform from which we can reach out to a broad range of religions and connect to the rich mythologies of the world. It conveys social justice and the rule of law in an ancient setting. The Torah was quoted extensively by the Founding Fathers and Civil Rights’ leaders. No true student of human culture should avoid frequent explorations into the Old Testament.
A donkey (a.k.a. an “ass”) speaks in the Old Testament. Come on.
Old man, you probably couldn’t tell by the way I called it a “weird jumble of history or literature” but I really love the Old Testament as well, and I think God is in its pages, I just think we do a terrible, superficial job of studying it, and cutting Sunday School to 20 weeks a year makes it worse. I also think that whoever wrote the old primary manual and identified cheating on a test as an “Esau behavior” either didn’t understand the story or just thinks kids are stupid.
Once, when I was a BYU student, I was talking with my very religious, very Christian friend from high school and I said something about how Noah was the same person as the angel Gabriel, which I had been taught somewhere and accepted as fact. She looked at me like I was crazy. I had no idea that wasn’t a universally accepted thing.
I appreciate your views and experience. I completely agree that we (as a church) have never taken the Old Testament seriously enough to identify how to best teach elements of it to the kids. If primary instruction is all they receive, we end up creating fundamentalists. Which explains my ward’s Gospel Doctrine class!
The ass was likely a better conversationalist than many people I know! I’ve long since accepted that folklore, tribal perspectives and rich mythologies are part of the Old Testament world. Now I am NOT saying that God couldn’t speak through the mouth of an ass (the story certainly brings some high council talks I’ve heard) but I believe that it is much more likely a bit of creative storytelling…. we are reading ancient stories…. Authorship and audience needs to be considered.
I agree with @Counselor that we impose so much onto the Old Testament that we completely misread it. I am reading it fresh this year and discarding all the Mormon / Christian baggage (because the Old Testament isn’t really “Christian”) and really just taking the text at face value. (That doesn’t mean I take the text as historically true. It means I look at it as text and then the historical context, genre, etc. etc.). That also means I am ignoring the Pearl of Great Price (which is very, very heavily overrepresented so far in CFM) and the JST (I’m reading Alter’s translation anyway). So I don’t have an opinion on Enoch!
I also agree with @Old Man and Mily. I’ve said before that I find the OT valuable (and actually have a post coming about Abram and Sarai next week) if approached in the right way. To prepare I’ve read and listened to a lot of resources – Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Bell’s What is the Bible, Enns’ The Bible for Normal People podcast, Mackie’s Exploring My Strange Bible podcast, etc. These resources give historical context and overarching themes that have really helped me get value from the Old Testament.
Agree it’s not children’s stories, but I’ve used it as an opportunity to introduce my kids to genre, literary criticism, art, feminism, ancient history, allegory, and other critical interpretations of the bible, etc. I don’t know that it’s necessarily been a particularly spiritual study for them, but I think it’s sharpening their critical thinking skills. We could do that with other literature for sure, but it’s been a fun vehicle so far.
They are learning that scripture is really about people’s perceptions of God, not God, and that is helping them I think develop their *own* perception of God based on their *own* experience.
The Old Testament is my favorite book of scripture too. It’s messy, the flaws of everyone, even (especially) the “good” people are so obvious that it makes for very real discussions and plenty of reflection. There is complexity, ambiguity, there are wonderful examples of cultural assumptions intersecting with faith, which sometimes results in good things but often results in big, unfortunate problems. Many of the authors are incredibly sophisticated, from theological, philosophical, and literary lenses. It’s the book of scripture I read and think “Yeah, these people are just like us.” (IE total train wrecks who every so often manage moments of startling beauty and goodness).
It is clearly (to my mind and the available evidence I am aware of) rarely a history, and to read it as such misses the point and the deeper, more important truths the book has to offer about who we are as a human family, where and how we go off the rails, and what can speak to our better angels. I love it so, so much.
Yes, of -course- we misread scripture. All the time, as a people but also as individuals. With the possible exception of the D&C, we’re all so far removed from the cultural norms, language, life experience of the writers and readers of these texts, that from a certain perspective, ALL readings are going to be misreadings but multiply that by a factor of a bajillion when you approach a text like the Hebrew Bible, the work of a many minds and cultures over centuries, with the express purpose of forcing it to confirm what you already happen to believe. Yeah. That never goes well.
There is also a myth of Enoch in masonic legend, which may possibly have played into Joseph’s creations, although I’m not very familiar with it and it may not have much overlap with the narrative in Moses. But interestingly the legend does involve a hidden vault within a mountain in which sacred relics are kept . . . hmmmm (beard-stroking emoji)
A Letter From the CES:
Neither intrepretation or extrapolation of scriptures is allowed, unless correlated by the Church Educational System. It is important for us to maintain control narratives that support our belief systems, and to change any narratives that might diffuse from them. We employ a full-time, paid clergy at your expense to do so. To avoid excommunication, we advise you to read scripture by the most literal, narrow interpretation. To assist you with this, we have published “Come Follow Me” manuals to link institutional belief systems–headlined in bold–to text in the scriptures. We recognize that context is more relevant when it upholds one of our belief systems, so we focus on this. By reading the bold print, followed by our tutorial about how you should think and feel about it (we suggest questions for you to “ponderize,” so that you don’t have to worry about your own thoughts and feelings)–you will come to feel satisfied, even if you learned nothing at all.
Why is there no temple recommend question about being a racist?
“Now I am NOT saying that God couldn’t speak through the mouth of an ass (the story certainly brings some high council talks I’ve heard).”
Old Man, I needed that chuckle. Thank you.
Is that letter /s?
It comes across as refreshingly honest.
I was taught Enoch was literal, and the scientific evidence was that if you look at maps of Pangea there’s still a hole in the Gulf of Mexico, so that’s where Enoch’s city was! Total proof by science. This would be early 2000’s CES.
Throughout the 1990s in California I don’t recall ever being taught the Bible could be anything but literal (subject to being “translated correctly”- which more applied to laws/rules than stories). Even BYU in the early 2000s the religion courses all emphasized historical scripture. It was an English department course “The Bible as Literature” that first started tiptoeing towards any element of man-made, intentional storytelling instead of straight transcription of the word of God.
The quote “these could have been taken in any of several ways, either through death permitted by the Lord” brings to mind Jonestown and I find it unsettling.
I must add that what Ben Spackman is trying to do is of tremendous value. He is trying to help believing LDS people see metaphor in the OT more than they traditionally have by invoking the teachings of earlier leaders, such as Talmage, towards this aim. He is also attempting to completely restructure the LDS OT curriculum and convince leaders to strike out earlier fundamentalist interpretations that persist in the curriculum to this day. He has a strong Bible studies background and incredible knowledge of the OT. Of course, I don’t fully agree with his interpretations of the OT. But I know darn well were he to interpret the OT in a more secular framework, as I do, that he would be immediately cast aside by church leaders and carry no impact whatsoever. He walks a fine line. I hope that he has some success in his endeavors. I don’t know if he is seeking full-time employment at BYU in the religious studies department, but if he is, I hope that BYU will hire him, thus affording him higher status in the LDS believing community. For he possesses the patience, LDS standing, and ability to actually get through to the Brad Wilcoxes of this world. I, on the other hand, would be immediately dismissed as Korihor (actually a BOM hero and victim of an oppressive religious government that does not live by its supposed laws if you read the text carefully) by the CES and BYU religion department types.
@John W, agree re: Spackman. I rely on almost entirely non-LDS resources for my OT study except for him (and he largely relies on the same other sources that I have been looking at too). Hard to imagine he won’t eventually go the way of Bokovoy who was attempting something similar, but who knows. Certainly wish him the best.
I taught the adults last week and I made sure we read all of the Bible verses in the footnotes while we were discussing Enoch’s vision of the Second Coming.
Maybe instead of doing away with OT yearlong study, the Church could offer alternative classes?
As a convert in childhood, I was always excited by the Enoch story, which kindled in me a passion for social justice and the task of building a Zion society. I thought my church congregation would be my workshop.
So I don’t really understand the antipathy that some here seem to have in relation to the concept, although I have never taken it literally.
I’m interested what might be so indigestible about the story, which I continue to find inspiring. I like talking about it, and thinking about it. I find it useful, if currently disappointing.
I agree with the various comments on the Old Testament. Once you let go of any delusions of historicity and look at as literature, as well as the intellectual/cultural history of its creation, it reveals itself as a valuable book about human nature, and in places, insights into the nature of God. (To be honest, Mormons should love the OT because it portrays a god who is constantly changing his mind). In terms of strange things: Even as a child, I wondered how Adam and Eve ended up in Missouri. I heard two explanations from various adults: 1) the garden of Eden was in Missouri the whole time or 2) the continents were squished together at the time, so it was a hop skip and a jump to Missouri. I’ve noticed you no longer hear much about the whole Adam-Missouri thing anymore in the church. I wonder why.
“What did you think about what happened to the City of Enoch and do you agree with Talmage?”
I agree with Talmage–that the people themselves were caught up by the powers of heaven — like those who were converted after the city was taken up — and not the land itself.
“Why is there no temple recommend question about being a racist?”
Perhaps because none of us would be found worthy.