BYU Professor’s Mormonizing of the Old Testament

When I opened up my new issue of the BYU magazine, I immediately encountered a short article entitled “Ask the Expert: Hebrew School” that attracted my interest. The article was a brief discussion of several Hebrew names/terms by Donald Parry, a professor of Hebrew, accompanied by a rather large photo of him holding some Hebrew scrolls.

I was interested to see what Parry had to say, since he is a well-known Dead Sea Scrolls/Old Testament scholar who has published widely, and to find out why BYU magazine would devote space to what is generally regarded as an arcane and intellectually intimidating subject. Initially I was hopeful that Parry would use the opportunity to show how careful Hebrew study could deepen and expand one’s understanding of the Hebrew Bible. But unfortunately upon reading I was disappointed to discover that the article reflected a lack of rigor and familiarity with current biblical scholarship and a problematic eisegetical tendency to project modern Mormon theology back into the text of the Hebrew scriptures.

To summarize, the article consists of a brief discussion of a few names/terms, each of which are presented as though they have relevance to or provide support for LDS beliefs about God and Christ:

1) The name Yahweh Elohim (translated in the KJV as LORD God) is interpreted as meaning “he will cause gods to be” and is thought to show that “the Lord is a creator of gods or the idea that females and males in mortality can become like God in eternity.”

2) The socio-legal role of the Israelite go’el haddam (“Redeemer/Avenger of Blood”) is claimed to “point to Jesus Christ and his atonement.”

3) The use of the feminine form of dagah (fish) instead of the masculine form to describe the fish who gave new life to the prophet Jonah is said to be a “type and shadow of Jesus.”

So the basic problem with these interpretations is that Parry offers them as though they were scholarly and based on careful research (he is “the expert” in Hebrew after all) when they are actually highly idiosyncratic and have only a tenuous basis in modern study of the Hebrew Bible. Each of his interpretations can be easily shown to be dubious on historical grounds. Furthermore, his aim in writing the article does not seem to have been to encourage study of the Hebrew Bible as an endeavor worthy in itself or to demonstrate careful historical analysis and its implications for understanding scripture, but rather reflects an overriding concern to make the Old Testament more interesting and theologically relevant to a particular orthodox variety of modern Latter-day Saints.


Yahweh Elohim

Parry’s translation of Yahweh Elohim as “he will cause gods to be” is problematic on several fronts. First of all, it needs to be emphasized that this is a very rare form of designation for the biblical deity, appearing in every case in redactional or late textual contexts. The most famous of these is Genesis 2-3, where the general scholarly consensus is that it serves to bridge the transition from the Priestly usage of Elohim to usage of the name Yahweh and to underscore the identity of Elohim and Yahweh. This redactional evidence, as well as the independent usage of the names elsewhere, indicates that Yahweh Elohim is a compound name consisting of two originally distinct names/titles that came to be linked in certain textual/religious contexts at a late period in the development of the Hebrew Bible. It is not a sentence name. Yahweh is consistently used in Hebrew as a divine name referring to a singular concept of deity and so is Elohim. To explicate the name through a speculative exploration of possible literal meanings attached to the words Yahweh and Elohim as read sequentially while ignoring the overwhelming evidence that they were used in ancient Israel as independent names is methodologically flawed. As a compound name, Yahweh cannot be assumed to mean “he will cause to be” and Elohim does not mean “gods.”

Second, it is not clear at all that the name Yahweh even stems from the root HWH, “to be.” This is the etymology implied in Exodus 3:14, and many scholars have tentatively accepted it as a linguistic possibility. But it should be noted that the editorial and literary history of the passage on the revelation of the divine name is extremely complex (which almost certainly means literarily late in its present form), and that the second clause in v. 14 (“He said further…”), where the most explicit interpretation of the name Yahweh in terms of the root HWH is found, appears to be a redactional addition. The passage thus may not have originally been intended to identify Yahweh with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or to explain his name by means of the root HWH. The statement to Moses “I am who I am” seems intentionally vague and ambiguous, not necessarily an etymological explanation, and there are reasons to suspect that in the earliest version of the narrative God did not explicitly identify himself at this point beyond his connection to the ancestors. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that the original god of the Israelite exodus was El Shaddai (ie. the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and not Yahweh (e.g. Num 23:22), which lends further support to seeing 14b as a late clarification of the identity of Yahweh.

In addition to the inherent weakness of using Ex 3:14 as support for deriving Yahweh from HWH, scholars have also noted other problems with this etymology, including a lack of knowledge over whether the name is originally West Semitic or South Semitic, the general absence of divine names based on causative verbal forms with the y prefix, and issues with the voweling of the name as preserved in various epigraphic sources. [1] Furthermore, the multiple abbreviated forms in which the name Yahweh is attested in inscriptions and the biblical text (yhw, yw, yh), some of which seem ignorant of an analysis of the name Yahweh as derived from the root HWH, as well as their consistent usage as regular divine names imply that the theonym was not conventionally understood as having any kind of a verbal nuance, but was simply a proper name of a well-known concept of deity.

Third, Yahweh does not seem to have originally been a creator deity. Rather, a range of biblical, epigraphic, and comparative evidence suggests that in ancient Israel that role belonged to El, the qoneh ha’aretz. Yahweh only becomes a creator deity in the course of the development of the biblical tradition through his conflation with El, which would mean that the name Yahweh likely did not originally having anything to do with creation. Additional support for this assumption is that the root HWH is never otherwise used in Hebrew to characterize an act of creation, and this despite the Bible’s large vocabulary for creation. The name Yahweh Sebaot has sometimes been interpreted in this way, but close examination of the textual/rhetorical and comparative context of the title indicates that it is better understood as a genitive epithet defining Yahweh as the heavenly warrior (Yahweh of the Heavenly Hosts). [2]

In sum, there is no evidence that ancient Israelites understood the name Yahweh Elohim to mean “he will cause gods to be” or “he will create gods.” And neither is there any support for the translation “Elohim will cause to be” or even that Yahweh was understood as having a causative verbal nuance, “he will cause to be.” Ex 3:14 itself seems to militate against the interpretation of Yahweh as causative HWH, since there the divine name ehyeh carries no object.


Redeemer/Avenger of Blood

At first glance, the subjective and devotional nature of seeing types of Christ in history would make it seem unnecessary to even comment on this interpretation of Hebrew. Who am I to restrict when or where it is possible to see something that reminds one of Jesus? But again, Parry seems to be doing more than just calling attention to something in the Old Testament that he personally finds edifying. He appears to be making the claim that his interpretation somehow stems from the Hebrew itself and therefore is historically originary in some sense or was intended by God to be understood in this way.

Parry’s argument is that the person of the Avenger of Blood foreshadows Christ because the Hebrew word behind the name is go’el, which can be translated as redeemer. As this word is used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to deity, he suggests that the role of the go’el haddam is an allusion to the divine redeemer who would eventually deliver all people through the atonement. However, this claim is problematic, as it is based on a rather superficial understanding of the Hebrew term go’el and actually serves to impede the process of grasping the immediate social-legal purpose that blood vengeance may have served in ancient Israel and how the institution would have been viewed by Israelites who lived within the culture.

To understand the meaning of Hebrew go’el haddam, it is necessary to recognize that the role was integral to the larger social-legal institution of the go’el in ancient Israel, which was essentially secular in nature and whose basic purpose was to protect and defend the interests of the kinship group. Growing out of a deep sense of family solidarity, the role of the go’el or redeemer was the responsibility to act on behalf of another closely related member of the group to restore something that was lost, disrupted, or prevented full personhood or participation in the community and was impossible for the latter to regain on his/her own. As a social-legal mechanism, redemption served to facilitate social justice and to protect the cohesion and continuity of the group in a decentralized and kinship-based society. The range of functions a redeemer could perform included the restoration of a relative’s property through payment of a debt, emancipation of a relative from slavery, ensuring that justice is served in a lawsuit regarding a relative, raising up an heir by a relative of the deceased through his widow, and avenging the blood of a relative through slaying his killer.

In the specific case of blood vengeance, when someone in the community was killed by another an immense blood-debt was immediately created. Something that was singularly valuable to the group had been lost and could not be replaced. As a consequence, an appropriate kinsman had a right and was duty-bound to redeem that blood by the payment of the killer’s life. By executing vengeance, the Avenger/Redeemer restored the blood of the dead to its proper state, healed a breach in the community’s identity, and provided a deterrent for those who would commit lethal violence against a member of the group.

I mentioned above that the role of the go’el was essentially secular in nature, by which I meant that it arose out of the social and political conditions of ancient Israel and that its aim was fundamentally to address certain issues that threatened the material well-being and survival of the community. But this is not to say that redemption as it was practiced was in fact secular or that religious and cultural views did not inform or shape it, for they clearly did. All of the redeemer’s functions were seen as sanctioned and encouraged by deity, who was believed to be the ultimate source and authoritative principle behind the community’s social obligations. The religious aspect of the institution is further seen in the fact that the terminology of the go’el could be metaphorically applied to Yahweh, who as the divine kinsman was seen as Israel’s protector, the one who redeemed them from bondage and distress and executed vengeance against their enemies.

Yet even though the practice of kin-based redemption was integrated into Israel’s religious system and worldview, it would be a mistake to read any deep intrinsic theological significance to the usage of the term go’el as the means by which Israel expressed its communally felt social obligations. The Hebrew word simply did not have the same theological baggage that “redeemer” does for contemporary English speaking Christians and Latter-day Saints. Its basic meaning was “to buy or take back, to protect or restore.” The go’el was a social-legal role in the same sense that an elder, legal advocate, judge, and king were social-legal roles. Just as these other social-legal roles had an impact in the way Israelites conceptualized and talked about their deities, so did the institution of the go’el.

In sum, it is hard to see how the role of the go’el haddam could possibly point to Christ in the way Parry suggests. Even if the Israelite institution of the go’el conceived more broadly eventually had a decisive role in contributing to the development of the mythology of the New Testament Jesus, there is still nothing that directly ties the go’el haddam to the LDS/Christian understanding of Christ beyond the fact that the same two words used in the name, redeemer and blood, are prominently associated in Christian tradition with the saving acts of Jesus. But this is poor philology. The go’el hadam was merely the Hebrew name for the executioner of the ancient Israelite blood feud and as such was not really any different from those who carried out blood feuds anywhere else in the ancient world. His was a grisly business, one that reflected an archaic tribalistic worldview far removed from the ethics of the New Testament Jesus.

Moreover, there is no evidence whatsoever that ancient Israelites themselves believed that the Avenger of Blood foreshadowed any kind of a future divine redeemer, which raises questions about the theological appropriateness of identifying types and shadows in the Old Testament of later salvation history: What would be God’s intent in establishing a law/custom whose purpose was at least in part to foreshadow the redemption of Jesus Christ when no one at that time understood it as such? What kind of foreshadowing is this that can only be recognized long after the fact by those who no longer belong to the culture in question? I think the answer is that it is not really foreshadowing at all but is rather an ideological imposition on the text in the interest of buttressing certain contemporary theological perspectives.


Feminine Dagah

The use of the feminine form of the Hebrew word for fish, dagah, in the book of Jonah is also claimed to be a type and shadow of Jesus. Parry’s logic basically takes the following form:

1. The book of Jonah contains several types and shadows of Jesus.

2. The word used for the great fish that swallowed Jonah is distinctive in that it is marked as feminine.

3. There are many female animals in the scriptures that typify Jesus Christ, in part because of their life giving qualities.

4. Therefore, the female dagah that gave Jonah new life is a type of Christ.

There is little to recommend this interpretation as a viable means of explaining the function of the feminine form of dagah in Jonah 2:1. Aside from the fact that Parry has not demonstrated that female animals have some close symbolic association to Christ (more so than male animals?), his understanding of the fish as a life-giving symbol fails at a basic level of reading the text and indeed seems to reflect little interest in trying to appreciate the literary function of the fish in the context of the narrative.

One need not read the episode about Jonah’s being swallowed by a “great fish” very carefully to encounter an immediate problem with Parry’s interpretation of the fish as a symbol of the atonement. And this is that the feminine form dagah only appears once among four references to the fish in the narrative (the other three are marked as masculine, 1:17, 2:10) and that this instance is found prior to Jonah’s song of thanksgiving toward the beginning of Jonah’s journey within the belly of the fish and is not associated with Jonah’s return to dry land at all. The sequence of references to Hebrew dag actually underscores that the fish is seen for the most part as masculine in nature, masculine at the very beginning when God appoints the great fish to swallow Jonah, then feminine during the prophet’s three-day journey into the depths of the sea, and finally masculine again when Yahweh commands the fish to regurgitate him. In other words, the fish is depicted as feminine exclusively during the death-threatening phase of the episode when Jonah is on his way to Sheol and has for all practical purposes died; during the phase when Jonah is brought back to life and restored to safety the fish is explicitly marked as masculine! Thus at a rather superficial level and plain-sense reading of the narrative, the interpretation of the feminine form of Hebrew dagah as a life-giving symbol would seem to be excluded.

When we take into account the literary context of the fish-swallowing and the meaning and purpose of the book of Jonah as a whole, Parry’s interpretation of the fish becomes even more problematic. As biblical scholars have generally concluded, the book of Jonah is an artfully constructed narrative and in terms of genre is something close to a parable or didactic novel. Irony and humor, as well as religious and mythological allusions, are everywhere apparent, while the aim of the story seems to have been to criticize certain ethnocentric religious attitudes that were then current in the social and cultural context of the author through the construction and negative portrayal of the figure of Jonah.

In the narrative the figure of Jonah is an anti-hero, an object of satire that allowed the author to drive home his didactic message. The story opens with God giving Jonah a command to go preach to the people of Nineveh, but contrary to what the reader would expect, the prophet “flees” from the presence of Yahweh to go to Tarshish, a place far away and known from elsewhere in the biblical tradition to be on the periphery of Yahweh’s sovereignty. The depiction of Jonah “fleeing” and the repeated references to “from before the presence of Yahweh” highlight the prophet’s anomalous and unacceptable prophetic behavior. The narrative then describes how he goes down to the port of Joppa, down into a ship, and then down into the innermost parts of the ship to sleep an extraordinarily deep sleep. James Ackerman has convincingly argued that the downward motion and references to sleep in the dark belly of the ship are evocative and hint that Jonah is not only moving away from Yahweh, but is actually moving toward death and the domain of Sheol in his search for a place that is secure and free from the demands of his God. [3]

Jonah’s wayward actions result in God sending a mighty storm to bring the prophet to his senses, but again the narrative portrays him as oblivious to his true state, self-centered, and self-righteous. When the sailors desperately try to save the ship, Jonah is fast asleep in a cocoon of spiritual insensitivity. Even when the captain awakes him and entreats him to call upon his God to save himself and the crew, Jonah fails to do anything to ameliorate the situation and only admits to his fault when the crew discovers it through alternative divinatory means. When questioned about his background, he admits to being a Hebrew, a worshiper of the only God of Heaven who created the sea and dry land, which is doubly ironic because the language implies that he belongs to a special class of people near to the only God of Heaven, and since he is running away from this God by traveling on the seas the deity created and naturally controls.

After being swallowed by a “great fish,” Jonah offers a song of thanksgiving that God has heard his prayer, redeemed him from death, and loves him especially because of his worship of the true God (in contradistinction to pagan Gentiles who worship idols), when in actuality the narrative context suggests that he is only drawing nearer to permanent residence in the netherworld. This humorously ironic state of affairs is indicated by various aspects of the narrative’s language: the fish is said to BL’ (“to swallow”) the prophet, a verb which is a frequently used in the Bible to describe the dangerously voracious appetite of Sheol; the language of “three days and three nights” is indicative of the time needed to transition completely to the world of the dead; and the “great fish” is reminiscent of the chaos monster (Leviathan, Tannin) who lived in the sea and was conceptually linked with the powers of death and destruction, but which had been demythologized by some biblical authors into sea creatures (e.g., Gen 1:3). The song of Jonah is itself chock full of references and allusions to Sheol, chaos, and Jonah’s apparent entrance into the world of the dead, including references to the “belly of Sheol,” “the deep,” “the heart of the seas,” “the roots of the mountains,” “the bars” of the city of the dead, and “the Pit.” The striking incongruity is that while Jonah believes that these are all things that God has already saved him from, the reader recognizes that this expectation on the part of the prophet is false. What is happening is actually the reverse. Jonah shows no sign of having repented from spurning his prophetic commission. His only thought is to return to the temple where he can worship Yahweh in blissful ethnocentric isolation; he is still as stubborn and narrow-minded as ever. His psalm of thanksgiving is thus ridiculously premature. Jonah is in reality only a hairbreadth away from annihilation.

Miraculously, Jonah is saved from his watery demise. God instructs the fish and the fish regurgitates him onto dry land. But it is important to recognize that this deliverance is not a result of any true repentance on his part. There is nothing in the narrative that would suggest that Jonah’s character has been fundamentally transformed through his near death experience. Rather, as Ackerman suggests, it seems that at the end of his psalm Jonah stumbles upon a line that relates to hesed and sounds the key theme of the entire story: ‘deliverance is YHWH’s.’ Structurally and thematically, this parallels the last statement in the storm scene: ‘…according as you have pleased, so have you done.’ YHWH will rephrase this idea one more time in chap. 4 to make sure that we all get that point…. Jonah, almost by accident, hit the key phrase–and paradoxically he is belched forth from his false sense of secure deliverance into a potentially real deliverance to be sought in resuming his mission.”[4] God gracefully saves the prophet because he sees that there may yet be a chance, if this self-centered and spiritually obtuse devotee of Yahweh takes his own words seriously, to help him see the light.

From this analysis of the narrative context, it is clear that at no point is the fish portrayed as a giver of life. On the contrary, the fish functions in the text as an agent of death, which is shown most conspicuously in the ironic contrast separating Jonah’s perception of reality from the reality of the narrative. In the reality of the narrative, the fish is a kind of death-dealing psychopomp sent by Yahweh, with mythological resonances to the chaos monster, from which Jonah happens to have been delivered through divine fiat.

So the natural question that this analysis raises is why the author of Jonah used that peculiar instance of the feminine form of dagah to describe the fish in the first place, in contrast with his more typical usage of the masculine dag. If nothing else in Parry’s analysis of the fish holds weight, he surely was not mistaken to recognize that this usage and especially the variation of genders may have signified something important to the author. Again, the answer seems to be found in the broader context of the story. Ackerman has insightfully noted that a central symbol system in the Jonah story is “the protagonist’s misguided attempts to avoid certain enclosures, which he perceives negatively, by searching for other shelters that he perceives as sources of security.” [5] At various points in the narrative Jonah finds or constructs these shelters (the ship, the fish, and the booth), and in each case the shelter, always marked as feminine, eventually turns out not to be the kind of protection that he expected. The language associated with these shelters suggest that they function as mini-temples or are symbols of cultic space (temples were often seen as feminine spaces in ancient Israel). In essence, the author seems to be implying that the temple worship of his own day may offer the illusion of security, but it is a false security that may keep one from understanding God correctly and living a life of hesed. Understood wrongly, the temple may actually facilitate a state of spiritual insensitivity, “leading to the inertia of deep sleep, bringing one to the portal of the city of Death.”


Conclusion

None of Parry’s interpretations of Hebrew hold up under a close scrutiny of what these terms may have meant in their original Israelite and Jewish cultural context, which is unfortunate. To be clear, I think Parry is well-intentioned in his attempts to try to make the Old Testament speak to present-day members of the Church. I have nothing against Parry as a person and respect him for his text-critical abilities and scholarly efforts in relation to the Dead Sea Scrolls. But as one interested in facilitating a greater understanding and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible in LDS culture, it is embarrassing to me that this kind of scriptural-linguistic-historical investigation is held up as exemplary and prominently featured in the BYU magazine. For it gives members the wrong idea about what scriptural-historical investigation entails and ultimately makes little contribution to BYU’s mission to develop Latter-day Saints who are interested in benefiting from the full scope of human knowledge and integrating it into their dynamic faith.

 

 

[1] E.g. Karel van der Toorn, “Yahweh,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 913-916; Josef Tropper, “Der Gottesname ‘Yahwa’,” Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001): 81-106.

[2] John Choi, “Resheph and YHWH Seba’ot,” Vetus Testamentum 54 (2004): 17-28.

[3] James Ackerman, “Satire and Symbolism in the Song of Jonah,” in Traditions in Transformation, 213-246.

[4] 226.

[5] 229.

  • Clark Goble

    It certainly would have been helpful had Perry provided arguments for his views.

    That said, I confess I’m skeptical of a lot of the reading of meaning into these passages. They seem to always argue from a paucity of historic data – usually evolutionary claims from centuries later. To me it’s safe to say we don’t know a lot at all.

  • RT

    “reading of meaning into these passages”

    Yes, I think that’s exactly what he’s doing.

    “To me it’s safe to say we don’t know a lot at all.”

    This is true, and it’s much of the reason why the enterprise of modern biblical study exists, to see what we can know about what these texts meant in their original authorial context, and what they have meant to later interpreters.

  • Kevin Barney

    When I read that in BYU Magazine I immediately had the same thought as your first one under Yahweh Elohim, that Yahweh was a stand alone name and not to be construed as a syntactical block in a sentence.

  • RT

    Thanks Kevin!

  • EFF

    “and a problematic eisegetical tendency to project modern Mormon theology back into the text of the Hebrew scriptures.”

    When you have a statement from the First Presidency saying that the best way to understand the Bible is through the prism of the Book of Mormon and modern revelation, you shouldn’t be surprised when a BYU religion professor advances questionable interpretations such as these.

    Thanks for your thoughts and analysis. They are much appreciated.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X