When I was about twelve I decided to read the Bible all the way through, and I did, except for a few chapters of Leviticus that bored me beyond my capacity to endure. I learned pretty quickly that there was a lot of stuff in the Old Testament besides the usual stories I'd heard eight billion times. If I recall correctly, the first time I thought "What the $#@%?" was during Genesis 19. This is not an obscure chapter. It includes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but I never had and still never have heard the parts before and after discussed in Sunday school. At the beginning of the chapter, Lot invites a couple of angels or holy men to have dinner and spend the night at his house.
4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter:
5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know [have sex with] them.
6 And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him,
7 And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.
8 Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known [had sex with] man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.
Lot doesn't exactly sound like a contender for Father of the Year. Fortunately, the would-be gang-rapers aren't interested in his daughters, and it becomes moot when the angels smite them with blindness so his family can escape before the city is destroyed by a meteor. He flees with them, his wife gets salty about leaving their home behind, and his daughters have their revenge.
31 And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old, and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth:
32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.
33 And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.
34 And it came to pass on the morrow, that the firstborn said unto the younger, Behold, I lay yesternight with my father: let us make him drink wine this night also; and go thou in, and lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.
35 And they made their father drink wine that night also: and the younger arose, and lay with him; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.
36 Thus were both the daughters of Lot with child by their father.
Biblical scholars now believe that "wine" should have been translated as "margarita", because it sounds like Lot was wasted away again in Margaritaville, searching for his lost pillar of salt. Eh? Anyway, you can imagine that by the end of this chapter, twelve-year-old me was like
Muslim apologists have suggested a few creative and possibly legitimate interpretations of the first passage that don't actually involve Lot offering up his daughters to be gang-raped. So far as I can tell, the Christian approach to the passage, besides ignoring it, is that yes, Lot did offer up his daughters to be gang-raped, but this action was simply wrong and unjustified, even though neither God nor the author of the text shows the slightest hint of disapproval. Here's one area where Joseph Smith's revision of the Bible comes to the rescue. In his version of Genesis 19, the mob demands to have sex with the angels and Lot's daughters, and Lot refuses on both counts. (And the number of angels is three, not two, because that matters for some reason.) So maybe that's what really happened, or maybe the Muslim apologists are right but Joseph Smith figured that was too complicated to try to explain. He also interpolated that Lot's daughters "dealt wickedly" and "did wickedly" when they raped their drunk father to get themselves pregnant, removing any ambiguity as to whether the Bible endorses that sort of behavior.
If only that were the only issue. To modern readers, the Old Testament is full of weird and disturbing stuff that requires a lot of contextual knowledge that most people don't have in order to be of any value whatsoever. In my experience, instead of providing that contextual knowledge, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and most of its members - like most Christians in general - go out of their way to cherry-pick around the stuff in question and pretend the authors and characters of the Old Testament were just like us. Yet the Church exhorts people to study the scriptures, including the Old Testament, without so much as warning them about what they'll find. That sounds like a recipe for atheism to me. Third-party sources, including some by Latter-day Saints, are of course available to make sense of these things, but I sure think the Church should take a more proactive role in explaining one of its own canonical texts that it wants everyone to read.
It doesn't help that the Church's curriculum writers lean conservative and anti-intellectual. Of course, it does help them with their assignment to dumb the curriculum down so it can be translated into dozens of languages with relative ease and used by used by a convert of two weeks to teach a class, but it has its obvious drawbacks. And my faith in them was shaken a little more last year when the Come Follow Me manual for the Book of Mormon included a racially insensitive quote from Joseph Fielding Smith about dark skin. It was, admittedly, pretty tame compared to most of the things he said about dark skin, but I still find it concerning that the curriculum writers didn't realize it would be a problem. And the Old Testament institute manual that hasn't been updated in forty-one years devotes quite a bit of space to quoting a Seventh-day Adventist anti-evolution tract. Based on these facts, I half-expected that the Come Follow Me Old Testament manual, in addition to continuing to cherry-pick around the weird and disturbing stuff, would strongly denounce evolution even though the Church has quietly but unmistakably moved away from ever doing that in the last decade or two.
The manual is already out, so instead of paying attention in Elders' Quorum one week, I skimmed through it (specifically the one for individuals and families because I'm an individual and/or family). This was by no means a thorough reading, but here are a few things of which I took notice.
An introduction called "Thoughts to Keep in Mind: Reading the Old Testament" gets off to a promising start. It says, "These writings come from an ancient culture that can seem foreign and sometimes strange or even uncomfortable. And yet in these writings we see people having experiences that seem familiar, and we recognize gospel themes that witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ and His gospel." Vague, but a most useful and necessary warning. It continues, "If you wonder whether you and your family can find personal meaning in the Old Testament this year, keep in mind that Lehi and Sariah's family did. Nephi shared stories about Moses and teachings from Isaiah when his brothers needed encouragement or correction or perspective." I'm not sure this is a good comparison when Nephi was at best a century removed from Isaiah, immersed in a similar cultural background to the Old Testament writers, and not dependent on a seventeenth-century English translation of their writings.
"Don’t expect the Old Testament to present a thorough and precise history of humankind. That’s not what the original authors and compilers were trying to create. Their larger concern was to teach something about God - about His plan for His children, about what it means to be His covenant people, and about how to find redemption when we don’t live up to our covenants. Sometimes they did it by relating historical events as they understood them - including stories from the lives of great prophets. Genesis is an example of this, as are books like Joshua, Judges, and 1 and 2 Kings. But other Old Testament writers did not aim to be historical at all. Instead, they taught through works of art like poetry and literature. The Psalms and the Proverbs fit in this category. And then there are the precious words of prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, who spoke the word of God to ancient Israel - and, through the miracle of the Bible, still speak to us today." Boom. Here the manual acknowledges that the Bible is not historically accurate in all respects and that its books are written in different genres altogether. Many people will be learning these concepts for the first time.
A note at the bottom of this introduction says, "These [first five] books, which are attributed to Moses, probably passed through the hands of numerous scribes and compilers over time. Still, the books of Moses are the inspired word of God, even though they are - like any work of God transmitted through mortals - subject to human imperfections (see Moses 1:41; Articles of Faith 1:8)." This is a short and sweet attempt at reconciling Moses' traditional authorship of the Pentateuch with the scholarly consensus that it has multiple authors. While church curriculum doesn't need to address every academic controversy or criticism in detail, it needs to engage with them instead of promoting a bubble of ignorance, and this is a good start.
Moving on, I was gratified by the lack of evolution-bashing. The manual remains as vague as possible about the methodology of creation. It says, "While there’s a lot we don’t know about exactly how the world was created, ponder what you learn about the Creation from what God has revealed in Genesis 1:1–25; Moses 2:1–25; and Abraham 4:1–25." I'm still going to nitpick a little because that's what I do. I would have said, "While there's a lot we don't know from the scriptures about exactly how the world was created..." (emphasis added) God has allowed us to learn a lot about how the world was created through the scientific method, and while this knowledge is beyond the scope of the manual, I kind of hate when we act like it doesn't exist and any speculation on the subject is equally valid. Just because the scriptures don't tell us how old the planet is or how its current diversity of species came to be doesn't mean those things are mysteries.
The manual does acknowledge at least one little controversy. "What does it mean that Adam was to 'rule over' Eve? This passage of scripture has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that a husband is justified in treating his wife unkindly." It kind of sidesteps the actual issue here - normal people in the twenty-first century are repulsed by the notion of husbands "ruling over" their wives at all, not just unkindly. A husband who "rules" benevolently, while of course preferable to an abusive one, is still an insult to any grown woman with a functioning brain. I think this is a more subtle example of the writers being out of touch. Within the memory of many people still living, the Church taught that while he should be kind and considerate and involve his wife in decision-making, a husband had final say because he held the priesthood and God had chosen him to preside in the home. His was the tiebreaker vote if the couple couldn't come to an agreement. I suspect that some of the manual writers still subscribe to this way of thinking on some level, and that while they would never use the wording "rule over" themselves, they can't bring themselves to denounce it either.
"In our day," the manual continues, "the Lord’s prophets have taught that while a husband should preside in the home in righteousness, he should see his wife as an equal partner (see “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” [ChurchofJesusChrist.org])." It gives no reason for the obvious discrepancy between this teaching and what the passage of scripture says. One cannot "rule over" an "equal partner," and the only reason one can "preside" over an equal partner is that we've redefined "preside" to no longer mean what the dictionary says it means or what we obviously meant when we said it fifty years ago. The only persuasive argument I've seen for this passage - supported by the original Hebrew and better translations - is that it isn't saying how marital relations should be, it's warning about how they will be in a fallen world. But then, since the passage itself has been used countless times to justify the very thing it warns against, it seems like God should have just not said anything.
In a note on the historical books of the Old Testament, the manual says, "When reading the Old Testament, as with any history, you’re likely to read about people doing or saying things that, to modern eyes, seem strange or even troubling. We should expect this - Old Testament writers saw the world from a perspective that was, in some ways, quite different from ours. Violence, ethnic relations, and the roles of women are just some of the issues that ancient writers might have seen differently than we do today." Like true historians or anthropologists, the manual writers don't assert that these views on violence, ethnic relations, and the roles of women were wrong, just different. That's fair. We want future generations to be patient and understanding with us too. And it's still a big deal - for many readers, this will be the first indication they've ever gotten that people in the scriptures were not just like us and didn't get their entire worldviews straight from the mind of God, let alone that the scriptures themselves contain unenlightened ideas we should reject.
The note also says, "Sometimes the passage may be like a puzzle piece that doesn’t look like it has a place among the other pieces you’ve already assembled. Trying to force the piece to fit isn’t the best approach. But neither is giving up on the entire puzzle. Instead, you may need to set the piece aside for now. As you learn more and put together more of the puzzle, you may be able to better see how the pieces fit together." I think the manual underestimates the number of pieces that don't appear to fit, but still, acknowledging them at all is a big and much-appreciated step. This manual isn't perfect but it is a breath of fresh air.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.