Initial Old Testament Thoughts
This year’s Sunday School program covers the Old Testament, something that both scares and excites me as one of my congregation’s adult Sunday School teacher. I’m excited to finally be able to do a deep dive on this section of our standard works, recognizing it’s among the more neglected books in our cannon. I’m scared because it’s a messy, difficult, mundane book filled with contradictions, difficult to accept stories, and a lot of minutiae. It’s the one part of our cannon I still have not read cover-to-cover. Excited because there exists thousands of years of thinking and writing on this inspired work of scripture. It has inspired three of our major global religious traditions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism and has attracted the attention of the best minds that have ever existed. The amount of scholarship and scrutiny this book has endured over the thousand of years of its existence speaks to its timelessness and influence. It’s a book worth careful study despite its difficulties. I look forward to it, trepidly.
Historical Context for Moses and Abraham
My religious tradition takes the Old Testament seriously, even if I, for the most part, have not. Soon after, Joseph Smith completed the translation of the Book of Mormon and organized the church, he began an effort to re-translating the Bible, starting first with the Old Testament. The Book of Moses that now sits within “The Pearl of Great Price” comes from this re-translation attempt, written sometime between June 1830 and February 1831. The book of Abraham has a more complicated history addressed by the church in on of their Gospel Topics Essays on the Book of Abraham. The short story is that in around 1835, Joseph Smith purchased a mummy that came with papryi scrolls. Joseph Smith was interested in the scrolls more than the mummy and attempted an inspired translation of them. Joseph Smith was not a scholar of any subject and had no knowledge of languages, so the translation process for Smith was more a revelatory experience. From this, the book of Abraham was produced, eventually published and eventually accepted as scripture.
Both the books of Moses and Abraham provide an expansion on the lives of these two Old Testament prophets from what we find in the Old Testament, providing theological teachings about the nature of God, our relationship to God, our purpose here on earth, the eternal nature of souls and our eventual destination after we pass on.
The scriptural content stand on its own whether one accepts Joseph Smith’s translations as literal events that actually happened or not. Regardless of where one comes down, although these passages of scripture deal with ancient prophets in an ancient text, the books of Moses and Abraham have only been made available with Joseph Smith’s introduction, so they were written for a modern audience. I think situating these experiences within the Moses and Abrahamic narratives is fruitful, the revelations come through Joseph Smith’s perspectives and biases. In that sense, they stand apart from the Old Testament.
Abraham 3 and Moses 1 have cover very similar ground. Both describe a visionary encounter between God and the prophet. The subject of each vision cover similar ground and hit on similar themes. Given that, I will proceed through both chapters together.
Abraham 3 provides a bizarre and esoteric astronomy lesson describing a sort of hierarchy of planets, orbits and stars, some being greater than others, the greatness determined by its proximity to God. The revelation identifies the governing star of the universe, Kolob, being the star nearest to God (verse 3), describes a hierarchy of of planets based on its orbits, determined by its proximity to God (verse 9). Now it’s important to note God’s purpose in this exchange is not to teach about astronomy but to teach about God. The book of Abraham is not a book about science, it’s a religious book meant to instill faith. Abraham is being prepared to enter Egypt, a civilization obsessed by the stars with beliefs connecting stars with gods, each having a relative hierarchy of importance. God’s intent here, then, is to find a way to connect with Egyptian thought and lead them to the God who gave them life.
Both Abraham 3 and Moses 1 describe a prophetic encounter with God before each prophet is about to embark on a mission with the Egyptians. Both visions are preparatory.
And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I ashow these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words.Abraham 3:15
And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the asimilitude of mine bOnly cBegotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the dSavior, for he is full of egrace and ftruth; but there is gno God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I hknow them all.Moses 1:6
We talk often of being present, to avoid allowing our past mistakes to consume us with regret, or possibilities of the future to consume us with worry. Total presence is the way Moses describes God here. “All things are present with me, for I know them all.”
The Lord is Greater than Us, Eternal and Endless
Among the points in these rich revelations is to evoke an awe inspiring reverence with the vastness of God, God’s creations, and our relative diminutive place within that.
And I saw the astars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;Abraham 3:2
And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am amore intelligent than they all.Abraham 3:19
And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof.Abraham 3:12
Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two aspirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are bgnolaum, or eternal.Abraham 3:18
And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the aworld upon which he was created; and Moses bbeheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly cmarveled and wondered.Moses 1:8
When God leaves Moses the first time, he was so overwhelmed he fell to the earth (verse 9) and wakes up after many hours to exlaim “I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” (verse 10).
We are God’s Children, Also Eternal and Can be Partakers of God’s Goodness, Grace and Abundance
And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: I will amultiply thee, and thy bseed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the cnumber of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.Abraham 3:14
Both Abraham and Moses are referred endearingly as God’s son (Moses 1:4, Abraham 3:12, 19)
God spends time to discuss stars as a setup to discuss intelligences, the eternal nature and potential of human life.
And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast achosen before thou wast born.Abraham 3:23
Our souls existed as intelligences “before the world was” (Abraham 3:22) and each of us were chosen before our birth. There’s something intuitively true about this idea. Each of feels like we have a calling, a life’s work. We each seem to have our own unique aptitude and circumstance that spans beyond our life’s circumstances. We’re born with gifts, it’s our job to discover this calling and to do our best with what we have.
When Moses is delivered from the temptation of Satan, God promises him glory and power.
And calling upon the name of God, he beheld his aglory again, for it was upon him; and he heard a bvoice, saying: Blessed art thou, Moses, for I, the Almighty, have cchosen thee, and thou shalt be made stronger than many dwaters; for they shall obey thy ecommand as if thou wert fGod.Moses 3:25
The True Temptation is to Forget God’s Light and Our Own potential
In Moses’ revelation, Moses’ interaction of God is followed by an interaction with Satan. The contrast is instructive. First of all, in Satan’s temptation, Moses is referred to as a son of man and desire of Satan is to become Moses’ object of worship.
And it came to pass that when Moses had said these words, behold, aSatan came btempting him, saying: Moses, son of man, worship me.Moses 3:12, 19
And now, when Moses had said these words, aSatan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the bOnly Begotten, worship me.
In this encounter, Satan denies Moses’ familial relationship with God and attempts to redirect Moses focus from God. This is not an encounter I can see I’ve personally have had literally, but I’m wondering if my own temptations can’t be summed up similarly. Where I forget myself, my potential and my connection with God and my purpose is and my action, rather than getting wrapped up in God’s purposes are centered elsewhere – in my own neurosis or in an attempt to win favor, adulation, or acceptance in other earthbound sources, whether a religious figure or someone else with power that I admire and want to get near.
Moses response to Satan’s demands are to recognize Satan’s limitation because he was able to compare this encounter with the encounter he had with God. “But I can look upon thee in the natural man” (verse 14), “Where is thy glory?” (verse 15). But it took work and repeated effort for Moses to resist and reject Satan. Three times, with increasing effort Moses tries before he succeeds, culminating in verse 20:
And it came to pass that Moses began to afear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of bhell. Nevertheless, ccalling upon God, he received dstrength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of eglory.Moses 1:20
It’s interesting to describe hell as bitter, resentful, jealous. In this sense, when our focus is on God, perhaps the temptation that causes such bitterness falls away.
The Purpose of God’s Creation, Our Purpose
Abraham concludes with the creation story.
In verse 24, God does not create the worlds from nothing. “we will take of these materials and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell.” For the purpose of our growth.
And they who akeep their first bestate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second cestate shall have dglory added upon their heads for ever and ever.Abraham 3:26
To keep our “second estate”, to meet the obligations of our life on this earth, it’s our job to receive God’s glory and as we receive the glory, we receive more, “grace for grace” “for ever and ever”.
In Moses second revelation, God gives Moses a vision of infinity.
And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and abeheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, bdiscerning it by the cSpirit of God.Moses 1:27
After beholding all of God’s creation, Moses asks why (verse 30) and God responds coyly, “For mine own purpose have I made these things (verse 31).
First how, “by the word of my power” (verse 32). They are innumerable, but “all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them (verse 35).
Finally, God answers the question in verse 39:
What can we learn from these experiences of Abraham and Moses? In what ways have we/can we have this type of experience with the expansiveness of God and our nothingness by comparison?
How can we experience are familial and intimate relationship with God as our Heavenly Father? Can we have that same feeling God’s children? How do these experiences (both reverential awe at the infinite and intimate connection with God) work in tension? When have we experienced each of these?
What sort of temptations have we or can we experience that can shake us from this relationaship and awe of God? How have we been asked to worship something other than God? Can all temptations be summarized in this way? Have we felt the bitterness of hell and what sort of lessons does that teach us? How can we learn to resist and endure through difficult experiences?
What is our eternal purpose? How can we discover it? How can we get this same sort of call that both Abraham and Moses receive?