LDS Perspectives interviewed me about my book on Genesis 1, which is still in progress.
The beginning of the Old Testament is challenging for a number of reasons. It’s foreign, it’s inconsistent (two creation stories?), it interfaces with history and science in uncomfortable and controversial ways (evolution, “giants”/”sons of god” marrying “daughters of men,” the flood, etc.)
And then for Mormons, add in the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple, which parallel these chapters. Now if you open your Old Testament teacher’s manual, how much background, explanation, or guidance do you really get with any of this stuff?
I want to make sure, upfront, that we understand about genre. Listen to my podcast here, watch my Sperry Symposium presentation here (jump to minute 42 if you just want genre stuff.) We default to the assumption that all scripture is history, but that’s not a valid assumption for the reasons I explain. Devout Christians like C.S. Lewis were just fine with God using “myth” (properly understood) in scripture (also here). Moreover, history and history-writing itself are quite complicated. See my posts here, here, and here.
Genesis, non-LDS perspectives
First, I’d recommend my post on 10 Books for Getting a Handle on the Early Chapters of Genesis. And second, my post yesterday about Mormons and evolution has a lot of non-LDS interpretive recommendations I’d put here, so just look at that instead. But if you’re looking for a traditional commentary, I’d go with
- Peter Enns, Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Constroversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible This is less of a chapter-by-chapter commentary and more of a guide, a framework.
- John Walton, NIV Application Commentary Walton writes about both the ancient context and modern application.
- Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary- Genesis The format of this is Hebrew/JPS English, with commentary underneath. Sarna, a Rabbi with a PhD in Semitics, comments from both the scholarly ancient Near Eastern perspective and Rabbinic/Jewish perspective.
Genesis, LDS stuff
- The new Fleeing the Garden: Reading Genesis 2-3 I have an article in there on how Adam and Eve came to be translated as proper names there, since they shouldn’t be. Rather, a better translation is “Human” and “Life.” Translating them as such renders the story of the fall much more archetypal. Also did a fire translation.
- David Bokovoy’s Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis- Deuteronomy
Podcasts- LDS Perspectives is killing it, and not just because of my stuff on Genre in the Bible and Genesis 1.
- Upcoming podcast with retired BYU Assyriologist/Religion Prof. Paul Hoskisson on Symbolism and the Food.
- Philip Barlow and Cory Crawford‘s podcasts both dovetail with Bokovoy’s book above. These ideas can be new and challenging to LDS, but they are discussions we need to be having, I think. We don’t necessarily all need to agree, but we do need to read carefully, think critically, and talk about scripture charitably, when we do disagree.
Book of Moses/JST
The Book of Moses is the Joseph Smith Translation to the early chapters of Genesis. So, what is the JST? Well, it’s lots of things in fact. Significantly, conservative LDS scholars and BYU employees have argued that we can’t simply assume the JST is pure textual restoration. It’s prophetic commentary, modern updating, and a variety of things including (rarely, in my opinion) textual restoration. You can see my views in print in the JST section of my article on Bible translations. Below is some recent and groundbreaking work on Moses and the JST.
- Thom Wayment discusses how Joseph Smith apparently utilized Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentary in the JST.
- We know that Joseph Smith sometimes translated the same passage different ways, or preached on it using KJV language after having translated it differently (BYU Studies). This against strongly suggests that the JST is not a simple divine dictation restoring lost or manipulated text.
- Based on her forthcoming commentary on Mark, Julie Smith identifies five kinds of JST changes and motivations.
- Avram Shannon in BYU Studies on “Mormons and Midrash: On the Composition of Expansive Interpretation in Genesis Rabbah and the Book of Moses“
- Tod Harris, the Church’s project manager and senior linguist over scripture translation support writes about the JST here, comparing the kinds of changes Joseph Smith made to those of Meister Eckhart.
- If you download the WordCruncher app, you can get free access to a bunch of LDS books, including the JST electronic library with original manuscripts, pictures, etc. See here. It includes this book (online) with a history of the Book of Moses.
- There’s also a slew of older Ensign articles (some of which are outdated, at least in their framing), but try Robert Matthews, “How we Got the Book of Moses“
The Book of Abraham is particularly complex and complicated. For a short overview, see this book online. It is widely understood, though the details are disputed, that the English text of the Book of Abraham post-dates Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew. On that topic, BYU’s Matt Grey has been doing some fantastic work, summarized in this podcast and this paper presentation. Also see John Gee on the BOA papyri, in this podcast. Gee is probably the best known LDS scholar working on the Book of Abraham, and is eminently qualified. He recently published An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. I haven’t read it yet, and anticipate (as with every book and scholarly argument) points of agreement and disagreement, but that it’s also worth reading.
More generally, the Book of Abraham is known for its shift to a plural, “the gods.” On that, see Stephen Smoot’s podcast on the Divine Council, and the back-and-forth between David Bokovoy and Michael Heiser. Heiser writes a critique, Bokovoy responds, Heiser summarizes graciously.
I wrote a little bit about Kolob here, another thing the Book of Abraham is known for.
Lastly, below I post the introductory text from Section 2 of my book.
For Latter-day Saints, any discussion of the early chapters of Genesis is complicated by the existence of the parallel creation accounts found in the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple. A full exploration of these accounts is further complicated by temple covenants of narrow non-disclosure, which is expanded by most LDS into a culture of near-silence. Close attention to these creation accounts raises a number of related questions: if they are all revelatory, why don’t they all agree? Why are they different? What is the relationship between them? Don’t Moses, Abraham, and the Temple supersede Genesis? If so, why focus on Genesis?
In this second part of the book, I examine these accounts. Although much scholarship exists on Abraham and Moses individually, examining them together with (vaguely and respectfully) the Temple account and how they are different will prove fruitful in explaining why they are different. Moreover, understanding the nature of the Book of Moses and Joseph Smith Translation are the key in unlocking most of these questions.
In producing the JST, Joseph Smith was highly attuned to problems in the biblical text— contradictions, inconsistencies, seams, “bumps,” as well as italicized text in the KJV. Many of the changes he made modified such passages. The very first chapters of the Bible offered a massive bump, which I term the Double Creation Problem. That is, Genesis 1-2:4 offers one creation account, but then Genesis 2:4 seems to start over and create everything again. They are back-to-back creation stories.
Joseph Smith went at this problem in what would become a stereotypically Mormon way, one which also echoes ancient prophetic, interpretive patterns. The JST was “not a simple, mechanical recording of divine dictum, but rather a study-and-thought process accompanied and prompted by revelation from the Lord” (per Robert J. Matthews). Joseph provided one solution to the Double Creation Problem by embedding new prophetic knowledge (premortal existence) into a reworked text of Genesis, the Book of Moses, which is formally the JST to Genesis. After several more years of revelation as well as studying Hebrew, he provided a slightly different solution in the Book of Abraham, again embedding new prophetic knowledge and reworking the text in a JST-like process. Still apparently wrestling with this problem through study and thought accompanied by revelation, the Temple account resolved the Double Creation Problem in a way distinctly different from, but based on his previous work in Moses and Abraham. The trajectory of Moses and Abraham point to the Temple.
To be clear, I am examining merely one facet of the creation portion of Moses, Abraham, and the temple. I do not think Joseph’s wrestling with the Double-Creation Problem fully accounts for these texts and rituals, but is an important and unrecognized aspect of them. Moreover, framing the Moses, Abraham, and Temple creation accounts as outgrowth of Joseph’s JST mindset and prophetic problem solving greatly reduces the problems that come from assuming they are merely English translations of fully independent ancient revelations to Moses and Abraham. Framing it this way shows what he was doing, namely, solving a textual problem by applying new doctrinal knowledge, not serving as prophetic typewriter for three identical copies of the same ancient revelation.
I begin by examining more fully the Double-Creation Problem, the nature and process of the JST, the nature of Moses, Abraham, and the Temple accounts, and their potential solutions to the Double Creation problem.
I conclude that section with this summary.
Likely prompted by the command to translate the Bible, and confronted with the Double-Creation Problem found at its beginning, Joseph Smith progressively transformed Genesis 1. From a narrowly-focused, non-scientific ancient Near Eastern account (see Part 3), it became Moses, then Abraham, in the process revealing truths about premortal existence, the council in heaven, and others. The culmination of this progressive transformation was the temple. Therein, Joseph definitively solved the problem of double-creation, simultaneously rendering Genesis into its most modern and scientifically-compatible form while providing the structure and narrative for a ritual of covenant making, priestly initiation, and royal coronation. Such is the modern Mormon interpretive life of Genesis 1, but its ancient Near Eastern biography remains to be told, in section 3 “The Ancient Context of Genesis 1”
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