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MormanityThe Strength of Moses: What Was Nephi Alluding To?
by Jeff Lindsay
In "Burying Nahom, Part Two," I discussed some basic problems in the use of the Documentary Hypothesis, or, more generally, "higher criticism" of the Bible as a tool to dismiss Book of Mormon evidence from the Arabian Peninsula. Afterwards, I began considering in more detail some of the specific "impossible" content in the Book of Mormon that the anonymous writer "RT" had pointed to in a blog post at Patheos.com and will share a few thoughts from that process.
RT listed passages in the Book of Mormon that were allegedly impossible because they appeared to quote or rely upon sections of the Old Testament that modern scholars have identified as coming from the "priestly" source that supposedly wasn't written until long after Nephi's day, after the Exile. The primary fallacy, of course, is that very serious modern scholars like Richard Friedman have provided excellent evidence that Julius Wellhausen's original dating for P (the priestly source) was far too late, and that it was clearly written before the Exile, probably during Hezekiah's reign, leaving plenty of time for Nephi to gain access to such material.
Closer examination of RT's list is still worthwhile in evaluating his argument and in understanding the relationship between the various sources of the Old Testament and the contents of the Book of Mormon.
First, note that the presence of a story or theme that is linked to P does not mean that it did not exist in Hebrew records or oral traditions before P was composed, whenever that was. In fact, making up major story elements that were unknown to anyone in the intended audience would obviously lead to trouble in getting the story to stick. Friedman makes that point in his famous work, Who Wrote the Bible? Another highly respected scholar, Joel Baden, makes this point in The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 189:
This conclusion can be extrapolated over the entire priestly narrative. Where the priestly and nonpriestly stories diverge (and similarly where the J and E diverge), we may attribute the differences to the unique traditional bases on which the authors drew or to the unique renderings of common tradition among different schools and authors. Where the priestly and nonpriestly stories converge, we may attribute the similarities to the common elements of the tradition known to the authors. Only if it is imagined that the nonpriestly authors invented the entirety of the pentateuchal narrative out of whole cloth can it be argued that the similar narratives in P derive from non-P. If, on the other hand, we accept that J and E wrote their narratives on the basis of common Israelite traditions, then there is no reason to believe that P could not have done the same. The claim that P is a reaction to the nonpriestly text cannot be established on the grounds of its general plot outline, at least as long as we take seriously the insights of tradition criticism. The bulk of the argument for P as a reaction lies in its specific differences from non-P. Yet a striking number of these differences have no theological or ideological contents; they are simply differences in detail. The genealogy of Genesis 5 presents a variation on that of Genesis 4:17-26, but there is no obvious significance to the variation.
With that in mind, I began looking at RT's list of P problematic verse in the Book of Mormon. As mentioned in my previous post here at the Nauvoo Times, RT states that the "knowledge of P is reflected in 1 Ne 3:3 (Gen 46:8-27; Ex 6:14-25); 4:2 (Ex 14:21-22); 16:19-20 (Ex 16:2-3); 17:7-8 (Exodus 25:8-9); 17:14 (Ex 6:7-8); 17:20 (Ex 16:3); 17:26-27, 50 (Ex 14:21-22); 18:1-2 (Ex 35:30-33)."
First up is 1 Nephi 3:3, which supposedly draws upon priestly material in Gen. 46:8-27 and Ex 6:14-25. But already I'm puzzled at RT's approach. Nephi merely states that the brass plates contained "a genealogy of my forefathers." To claim that the brass plates contains the genealogy of Nephi's forefathers somehow requires P? Yes, the long genealogies listed in the OT were hypothesized by Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross, the professor and mentor of Richard Elliott Friedman, to come from a priestly source, a non-extant "Book of Generations" or "Book of Records" (see Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass., 1973)).
Even if one believes priestly sources were all created out of whole cloth after the Exile, the idea of having a written or oral genealogy of one's forefathers surely was not a late innovation in the Hebrew world that had to wait until the Exile.
That's not just my opinion, either. The astute reader will note that Joel Baden in the quoted paragraph above points to a pair of related genealogies, one priestly and one non-priestly, as an example of the differences in detail that occur between purported OT sources. A table of sources for Genesis and other books in the Pentateuch provided by ThreeJews.net is helpful in looking up sources. These tables compare assignments made by Richard E. Friedman's in The Bible With Sources Revealed (2003) and Samuel Driver's Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (9th ed., 1913).
The Genesis table shows that Genesis 4:17-26 is attributed to J (the "Yahwist" source, clearly a pre-exilic source) by both scholars, while the genealogy in Genesis 5 is almost entirely priestly (listed as P by Driver and as from the Book of Records, a priestly source, by Friedman). So if the genealogical information in Genesis 4 can be found in a non-priestly source, what is the basis for claiming that 1 Nephi 3:3 shows impossible knowledge of P in the Book of Mormon through its mention of genealogy on the plates of brass?
The second item on the list is less of a stretch. 1 Nephi 4:2 definitely refers to the Exodus, which has a lot of priestly source influence. Here are Nephi's words to his brethren:
Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.
RT writes that 1 Nephi 4:2 as well as 1 Nephi 17:26-27, 50 draws upon priestly material in Ex. 14:21-22. The Exodus table at ThreeJews.net, however, shows that the part about crossing the "dry ground" in Ex. 14:21b (the language used in both of the accused passages of 1 Nephi) comes from the J source, according to both scholars. The other parts of Ex. 14:21-22 are assigned to P. But this does not mean that the other sources are unaware of the crossing of the Red Sea.
Also, Nephi's use of "strong" to describe Moses is interesting, and made me wonder what he was quoting exactly, for the way Nephi uses the word "strong" struck me as a deliberate allusion to something, but what? To use the word that way implies his audience would recognize the aspect of "strength" or being "strong" in the story of Moses, but where? I'll return to this issue later.
Continuing with RT's list of incriminating priestly passages in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 16:19-20 is said to draw upon Ex 16:2-3, and 1 Nephi 17:20 is said to be related to Ex. 16:3. The murmuring of some family members in the wilderness and the desire to have stayed back in the comfort of Jerusalem has a parallel to the murmuring of the Israelites in Ex. 16:2-3, which is assigned to a priestly source.
Again, because the version of an incident in the Torah has been taken from P does not mean that knowledge of it was absent in J or E, nor does it mean that the story was unknown to the Israelites before any of these documents were composed in final form. The parallel, possibly intended, does not require a unique priestly source. Some language is similar, which may be due to Nephi or may be partly influenced by the translation process in which KJV phrasing appears to be deliberately and frequently used when it fits (yes, sometimes even New Testament wording, too).
As for the basic issue of complaining sorely on a difficult journey, these things happen. It is difficult to conceive of any long journey across a desert that would be free of tribulation and whining from some, just as few Latter-day Saint families can drive from, say, Salt Lake to Phoenix without some bouts of overly dramatic whining.
1 Nephi 17:7-8, where the Lord shows Nephi how to make his ship, is said to draw upon Exodus 25:8-9, where the Lord shows Moses the "pattern of the tabernacle." There may be an allusion here, but it's not necessary. In any case, the tabernacle was an ancient physical reality, according to important investigative work from Richard Elliott Friedman discussed in his famous Who Wrote the Bible?, and not a late priestly invention.
For even more dramatic evidence of the ancient origins and physical reality of the Tabernacle, read about Joshua Berman's original discoveries and his inspiring perspective in his "Was There an Exodus?" published in Mosaic Magazine, March 2, 2015, with criticism and responses from other Bible scholars also posted on that page. I'll write about this in more detail soon, but it's one of those sources that we would do well to ponder and remember.
Yes, the priestly source does focus on the intricate details of how the Tabernacle was to be made, but the idea of an inspired or revealed tabernacle was not a late invention, and especially not a post-exilic invention. And real or not, Nephi being shown how to make the ship does not require knowledge of Exodus 25.
Next on the list, 1 Nephi 17:14 supposedly draws upon Ex 6:7-8, both using the phrase "deliver from destruction" and "bring you out". This may be Nephi drawing upon a P source, or a related E source, or it may be an artifact of the Book of Mormon translation, where there is a strong tendency to translate related concepts into KJV language. But again, since P probably predates the Exile, it's not necessarily a problem.
Finally, 1 Nephi 18:1-2 is said to be linked to Ex 35:30-33. The instructions to Nephi on how to create "curious workmanship" in timber for the building of the ship is supposed to be related to the "curious works" in gold, silver, and brass that an inspired Israelite created. Something of a stretch, perhaps, and not the kind of thing that requires an ancient priestly source. "Curious workmanship" to described skilled work is a well attested term in Early Modern English and while related to "curious works" in the Bible, can plausibly appear in the English translation without requiring Nephi to have been using a P source. It's an acceptable old-fashioned way to say that something was done skillfully, and that's a pretty universal concept.
Overall, the links to priestly sources are not seriously compelling (perhaps the murmuring language is the best fit?), but are also not a problem, especially given the evidence from Friedman (also accepted generally by David Bokovoy) that P comes from the days of Hezekiah.
But what about the "strength" of Moses? A search for "strong" + "Moses" at Biblegateway.com reveals that the word strong is used with Moses to describe others, not him. The Pharaoh will use a strong hand, and he urges Joshua to be strong, but we don't get Moses identified as strong, though of course he had great divine power.
A search of "Moses" + "strength" has the same result: the sea is strong, Joshua is strong, but not Moses. In fact, Moses is getting on in years, and in Exodus 17 needs the physical support of two other men to hold his staff up in the air during a battle. I just don't picture him as physically strong as the Exodus begins, so I'm curious. Where did Nephi come up with the concept of Moses being strong?
In the midst of considering RT's critique, after asking myself this question about the strength of Moses, I read an old article by Noel Reynolds about the Book of Moses, the text Joseph created/received through revelation well after the Book of Mormon was translated. The issue of strength was not mentioned in Reynolds' article, but a valuable insight was given that pointed me to a possible albeit controversial answer.
In "The Brass Plates Version of Genesis," a chapter in By Study and Also by Faith (1990), Reynolds argues that the intricate relationship in language and themes between the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses can best be explained by having the material of the Book of Moses or something similar having been present on the Brass Plates. The dependence, he argues, can be seen to be one-way: the Book of Mormon appears to be relying upon content in the Book of Moses and not the other way around. I know, critics will scoff, but he gives some arguments that have merit, and I urge you to read his article and consider what he say.
If the Book of Moses were related to what is on the Brass Plates, then I think I've found a possible source for the strength of Moses. In Moses 1, after Moses encounters the Lord, he is left to his own "natural strength" (Moses 1:10) and is then visited by Satan who urges Moses to worship him. Moses refuses, Satan becomes angry, and Moses fears:
19 And now, when Moses had said these words, Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me.
20 And it came to pass that Moses began to fear exceedingly; and as he began to fear, he saw the bitterness of hell. Nevertheless, calling upon God, he received strength, and he commanded, saying: Depart from me, Satan, for this one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory.
21 And now Satan began to tremble, and the earth shook; and Moses received strength, and called upon God, saying: In the name of the Only Begotten, depart hence, Satan.
We have three references to strength and Moses in verses 10, 20, and 21 of this chapter. First, in his natural strength, he is able to be tempted by Satan. But he overcomes the temptations and power of Satan as he receives strength from the Lord (mentioned twice). This is what makes Moses strong. OK, this doesn't occur in the context of crossing the Red Sea, but it is preparatory for his ministry and work. Moses receives strength from the Lord, and therefore is "strong."
It gets more interesting in verse 25 of Moses 1:
25 And calling upon the name of God, he beheld his glory again, for it was upon him; and he heard a voice, saying: Blessed art thou, Moses, for I, the Almighty, have chosen thee, and thou shalt be made stronger than many waters; for they shall obey thy command as if thou wert God.
There it is. While Moses has just received strength from the Lord to overcome Satan, the Lord now tells him that in a future context involving water, he will be "made stronger than many waters." This refers, of course, to his later crossing of the Red Sea. There, Moses would be "strong," stronger than the waters of the Red Sea, as he led the Israelites across the waters to the promised land, as in 1 Nephi 4:2.
If Moses 1 is closely related to material on the brass plates, as Reynolds hypothesizes, then Nephi may have been alluding to that material when he urged his brethren to be strong like Moses. From the brass plates, it may be possible that Nephi would specifically refer to the strength of Moses in the context not only of resisting the temptations of Satan, but in crossing the Red Sea.
The possible relationship between the Book of Moses and 1 Nephi 4:2 seems interesting to me, but perhaps is wishful thinking on my part. On the other hand, perhaps it's one more issue to consider in weighing the documents behind the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the alleged weakness of Book of Mormon references to stories of Moses will turn out to be a strength.
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