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MormanityThe Book of Mormon: A Voice from the Dust
by Jeff Lindsay
Recently at the Nauvoo Times, I discussed the theme of dust in the Book of Mormon and pointed to scholarship from Walter Brueggemann who found that in the Bible, dust is often loaded with rich associations (Walter Brueggemann, "From Dust to Kingship," Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. 84, no. 1, 1972).
Dust is a symbol of God's creative work (we are made from the dust). To rise from the dust is to keep God's covenant, to come out of darkness and obscurity, to gain life, to become enthroned, to be resurrected, to be exalted, and to enter into the presence of God. To return to the dust or fall to the dust is to die, to be destroyed, to break the covenant, and to be cast out of the presence of God.
There is a rich complex of motifs associated with dust that we can gleam from Brueggemann's work and related scholarship, and these motifs can add much insight to the Book of Mormon, which describes itself as a voice that whispers to us "out of the dust" (2 Nephi 26:16, cf. Moroni 10:27).
Recognizing the relationship between dust and kingship or enthronement helps us better understand several passages of scripture, such as Lehi's speech in 2 Nephi 1 and its relationship to Nephi's rightful role as Lehi's successor and king over his people, as I previously discussed. It adds further meaning to King Benjamin's farewell speech, where he names Mosiah as the new king.
In Mosiah 2:25-26, he invokes the theme of dust to humbly remind his people that he is no better than they are, and that he is about to return to the dust himself:
25. And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.
26. And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust. And ye behold that I am old, and am about to yield up this mortal frame to its mother earth.
After his speech, his people express willingness to enter into a covenant with God in Mosiah 4:1-2 as they make a reference to dust, apparently both in the sense of humility and with a reference to God's creative work. This occurs after they fall to the earth:
1. And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude, and behold they had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them.
2. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.
They fall to the earth and view themselves as less than the dust, but through the covenant and the power of the Atonement they will arise and receive mercy and purification, thus rising from the dust and finding joy. This is juxtaposed with Christ's creative work and His condescension to the earth.
At the end of the Book of Mormon, Moroni quotes the dust-laden passage of Isaiah 52:1-2 ("arise from the dust") that is used by Lehi in his speech in 2 Nephi 1, a fitting closure in light of Lehi's early words. Here is Moroni 10:30-31:
And again I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing.
And awake, and arise from the dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.
This is a call to enter into a covenant relationship with the Redeemer, to acquire every gift that he offers, reminding us of Lehi's plea to his children to "arise from the dust" and, in parallel to putting on the armor of righteousness that Lehi spoke off (contrasted with the chains Satan offers), Moroni asks us to put on our beautiful garments, garments that are a symbol of our covenants with the Father. These garments may well refer to the robes and garments of the Temple, where we lay hold of every good gift and learn to cast out Satan and reject his evil gifts. Satan's gifts, like his chains, are those of darkness, or rather, the "obscurity" that Lehi urged his wayward sons to flea. Moroni calls us to come forth out of obscurity and arise from the dust as we keep our covenants with God and receive the grace and gifts God offers those who some unto Christ.
Moroni's closing call to "awake and arise from the dust" is preceded by what appears to be a Hebraic word pair, the pairing of "dead" and "dust." In Moroni 10:27, Moroni describes what will happen at the bar of God, when the Lord will refer to the witness of the Book of Mormon:
…and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?
This word pair is explained by Kevin Barney in "Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 4, no. 2 (1995): 15-81 (the PDF is available from the Maxwell Institute via the shortcut http://tinyurl.com/dustref1):
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.
Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust ('aphar):
for thy dew is as the dew of herbs,
and the earth shall cast out the dead (repha'im). (Isaiah 26: 19)
The Hebrew repha'im, though always translated "dead" or "deceased" in the King James Version. properly refers to the shades or ghosts (manes) living in Sheol who, though devoid of blood and therefore weak, continue to possess powers of mind (such as memory). The parallelism of Isaiah 26: 19 suggests that the word dead in Moroni 10:27 may answer to the Hebrew repha'im; this is interesting in light of the representation of the "dead" of Moroni 10:27 as crying out and speaking from the dust, which is consistent with a proper understanding of repha'im.
Moroni's use of the dust/dead word pair from the Hebrew scriptures is consistent with the ancient Near Eastern complex of dust-related themes and sets the stage for his dust-related appeal in vs. 31 and his closing sentence in vs. 34 that refers to the time when his spirit and body will reunite and be brought forth to meet us before God on at the time of judgment.
Christ's use of Isaiah 52:1-2 in 3 Nephi 20 strengthens the dust-related themes in the Book of Mormon. Christ cites Is. 52:1-3, with verse 3 extending the "arise from the dust" passage with a reference to redemption "without money" for those who have sold themselves "for naught," and then skips forward to vv. 6-7 of Is. 52, using covenant language from verse 6 ("my people shall know my name" and "shall know that I am he that doth speak," where "know" probably is related to the Hebrew word yada with covenant implications). Verse 7 (3 Nephi 20:40) reminds us of Abinadi's discourse on the message of salvation and the beauty of the feet upon the mountains of those who proclaim the Gospel, ending the message of Messianic triumph: "Thy God reigneth!" This is done as Christ stands at the temple in Bountiful, the symbol of Mount Zion and the cosmic mountain, after He has had His divine feet touched and undoubtedly washed by the tears of His people as they witnessed the marks in His hands and feet. He has risen from the dust, bringing triumph over dust, death, and the chains of hell. How beautiful upon the mountains, too, were His feet at Bountiful.
The relationship between dust and enthronement also adds poignancy to the scene in which Christ washes the dust from the feet of His disciples. The King of Heaven kneeling to wash the dust off the feet of His disciples is a remarkable incident highlighting the depths of Christ's humility and condescension, and the ultimate goal of His loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing work: to help us arise from the dust that we might stand in His presence, washed, cleansed by His Atonement, adorned in robes of righteousness, that we might have endless joy as we serve and praise God in His kingdom.
There is much more to explore on this topic. Next time we may take up the theme of Abinadi's somewhat puzzling speech given in response to an even more puzzling question from Noah's wicked priests, and show how an understanding of dust-related motifs among the Nephites helps us better appreciate what was happening.
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