I‘ll be adding my own bits which don’t overlap, and happen to be, well, on quasi-controversial topics.
First, on a general note, “wisdom” appears several times (2:17, 36; 4:6, 9, 27; 5:15). In the Old Testament, wisdom is a very specific technical term, referring to understanding how one should live a happy, successful life. We tend to think ALL scripture was written for that, but Wisdom Literature is a small part of scripture and one we usually ignore. (See my post here.) The author of a book on Old Testament Wisdom offers the loose definition that wisdom included knowledge of “specific ways to ensure personal well-being in everyday life, to make sense of extreme adversity and vexing anomalies, and to transmit this hard-earned knowledge so that successive generations will embody it.” If this is the kind of wisdom Benjamin has in mind (and it may not be), how does that change our understanding of his speech? Does it help make sense of Jacob’s quasi-sign-off, “O be wise; what can I say more?” (Jacob 6:12)
Mos. 4:16-20 Any time there’s discussion of money or beggars, we all tend to become very self-conscious about whatever our own financial status and how we treat others in terms of giving and support. These are complicated issues, and I think true disciples can probably differ in their views. I’ve always read Mosiah 4:16-20 in light of The Didache (pronounced did-dah-kay), which dates to the very early New Testament period, 1st or 2nd century.
The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles, or The Teaching of the (Twelve) Apostles, as it was known in ancient times, or simply the Didache (“The Teaching”), as it is usually known today, is a “handbook,” or manual of Christian ethical instruction and church order. Although the title was known from references to it by ancient writers, some of whom (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Didymus the Blind) used it as Scripture, no copy was known to exist until the 1873 recovery of a manuscript containing, among other things, a complete text of the Didache (published in 1883).- “Didache,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments.
I’m not suggesting Mosiah is quoting it or anything like that, nor that it is canonical or binding on Christian disciples. Rather, this early Christian understanding was, if you are capable, give to everyone who asks. As for the asker, beware asking without need. As the disciples might have said, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60) Didache 1:5 says,
To every man that asketh of thee give, and ask not back; for the Father desireth that gifts be given to all from His own bounties. Blessed is he that giveth according to the commandment; for he is guiltless. Woe to him that receiveth; for, if a man receiveth having need, he is guiltless; but he that hath no need shall give satisfaction why and wherefore he received; and being put in confinement he shall be examined concerning the deeds that he hath done, and he shall not come out thence until he hath given back the last farthing.
(Alternate modern English translation by Tony Jones)
Give to every one who asks you, and don’t ask for it back. The Father wants his blessings shared. Happy is the giver who lives according to this rule, for that one is guiltless. But the receiver must beware; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless, but if one receives not having need, he shall stand trial, answering why he received and for what use. If he is found guilty he shall not escape until he pays back the last penny.
Scripture details at least three (overlapping) ways in which humans can be said to be a son or daughter of God. This is the language of kinship, of family, and begetting. One thing that is very obvious from the passages and articles below is that the vast majority of these references are not “literal,” that is, biological.
- Covenantal – I discuss this at length under “redemption” in my recent BYU Studies article. The idea is that in the ancient Near East, people who made covenants with each other then used kinship terms (parent-child, son, daughter, brother-sister, etc.) to describe their covenantal relationship, because covenant implied duties of kinship. This is very obviously in play here in Mosiah 5:7,
“because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.”
Similarly, note that following the famous baptismal covenant passage in Mosiah 18:8-10, it is in keeping that covenant that Alma’s people “became the children of God.” (Mosiah 18:22)
- Royal/Adoptive– Kingship in the ancient Near East was often divine in some sense; the king was himself a deity, the son of deity, represented deity, or was established by deity, in some sense. Three passages in the Bible indicate that the Israelites also held a form of this divine kingship idea. First, Psalm 2:7, which is a royal psalm, perhaps addressed to or recited by the king upon being enthroned. Because the Israelite king is God’s son, the surrounding nations should watch themselves carefully. You might recognize some of these lines from Handel’s Messiah
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed [the king], saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. (NRSV)
The second passage uses very similar kinship/begetting language, about David and his impending kingship. 2Sa 7:14 “I will become a father to him, and he shall become a son for me” (my translation). And the third passage also speaks of the Israelite king, Psalm 89:19-20, 26-27
19“I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people.
20 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him;
26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
Here, God is described as the king’s father, and the king “becomes” God’s firstborn.
- Adoptive/Inheritive- The setting of this one is quite different, but uses the language of divine adoption and kingship used in #2. It also overlaps a bit in function with #1. This idea (as I understand it) characterizes salvation in Greco-roman terms. People in the house could be children of the house, or house slaves. The contrast is drawn between slavery (slaves to sin) and children (no longer slaves to sin, but redeemed). It then draws from that metaphor, that if we are children and not slaves, then we inherit what the parent has. In other words, this metaphor characterizes salvation as inheritance in a parent-child relatinship.
2Co 6:18 “I will be your father, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” [Note the future tense here.]
Revelation 21:7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. [This is actually using the language of 2Sa 7:14, but generalized to men and women, thus “my children” instead of “my son.]
Romans 8:15-17 …you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!,” it is that very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. [Note the explicit language of adoption.]
All of these use father-child parental language, language of begetting, and yet none of it is literal. It’s clear in these senses that before being the king, before covenant making or redemption, they/we are not “children of God” in those senses (cf. John 1:12). Corinthians and Revelation both use the future tense, i.e. becoming sons and daughters of God is yet in the future, in some sense.
The common idea that everyone is a literal spirit-child of God (and prior to that we existed as intelligence or intelligences) is actually one that does not have strong support in scripture or Joseph Smith’s teachings. It’s hard to square with the Book of Abraham, in fact, which says that spirits “have no beginning… they are eternal” (Abr 3:18). Moreover, Joseph Smith himself, in a famous discourse republished in The Ensign, used “spirit” interchangeably with “intelligence” and said God couldn’t create it/them.
God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all….Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it.
This idea of “intelligence”>”spirit body”>”physical body” is sometimes called “tripartite existentialism,” and has given rise to secondary problematic ideas, (I am not making this up) such as the necessity of women becoming spiritually “pregnant” in the celestial kingdom, in order to bear/transform these spirit children from their “intelligence” state.
I won’t post more on this, but Jonathan Stapley, a respected independent LDS history scholar (he has a PhD in Food Science/Chemistry, but is on the editorial board of the Journal of Mormon History) has written about it here, with a follow-up here, and about spirit birth here. For more reading on this, see
- Charles Harrel’s This is My Doctrine p. 208-11, (reviews here, here, and here by a historian, here by James Faulconer)
- Brian Hales, “‘A Continuation of the Seeds’ Joseph Smith and Spirit Birth” in Journal of Mormon History 38:4 (2012), 105-130.
- I’m told William Smith talks about it a good bit in his forthcoming volume on Joseph Smith’s funeral sermons.
In short, there are lots of questions on this. While I’m quite uncomfortable with the lack of grounding of tripartite existentialism and its implications, as well as the strengh of thoughtless tradition, I’m happy to assert that we are children of God without specifying. And since “literal” now sometimes means “figurative,” (see here seriously, here humorously) maybe we shouldn’t use that term so casually in regards to this traditional doctrine.
Having said that, I want to close with something I feel deeply. I’ve often quoted Mosiah 4:8-10 as a kind of personal testimony. Like Nephi (1Ne 11:17), I don’t understand everything (though I have lots of the questions!), but I know God loves his children. This is something I tend to invoke when discussing complex material, like the problems with the flood or whatnot. Regardless of other things, and rewriting Mosiah a bit to be in the 1st person, it’s almost like a personal creed.
8 And [that] is the means whereby salvation cometh. And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there any conditions whereby man can be saved except the conditions which [Benjamin] has told [us].
9 [I] Believe in God; [I] believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; [I] believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; [I] believe that [humans and me in particular] do not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.
10 And again,[I] believe that [I] must repent of [my] sins and forsake them, and humble [myself] before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive [me]; and now, [since I] believe all these things[, I will] do them.
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