Moses as a Key to Theology

April 4, 2004 | 8 comments
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We tend to think of theology in discursive terms—as a collection of ideas or propositions. When we talk about the development of theology we are apt to trace the history of abstractions such as faith, hope, love, priesthood. With Joseph Smith, I’ve come to believe it is much more enlightening to attend first to characters and to the plots, language, discussions that collect around them. Again and again these characters inhabit stories that preview and explore situations very like those facing Joseph and the community of faith gathering around him. Following key characters thus becomes a tool for tracing developments in early Mormon history. Viewed within this context. Moses becomes a key to Mormon theology (or at least a prime exemplar of what I’m talking about).

Moses is a particularly interesting character because he is a relative constant in the texts dictated by Joseph—present in the Book of Mormon in 1829 and still an inhabitant of key discussions in Nauvoo over a decade later. (Unlike Enoch, for example, who has a spectacular but relatively self-contained presence in Joseph’s dictations.) The Book of Mormon sets Joseph up as “a Moses” (2 Nephi 3). Tracking the continuities and transformations associated with this Moses/Joseph doubling provides a distinctive angle of view onto the development of early Mormon theology and practice.

In the Book of Mormon passage dictated in 1829 that sets up the parallel between Moses and Joseph, Moses is evoked as the seer with a rod (as Mosiah and other Book of Mormon seers use and pass down the seer stones and other sacred artifacts). In 1829 Joseph similarly uses a seer stone to dictate the Book of Mormon and its environing revelations. In 1830, Joseph, no longer using the seer stone, dictates the story of Moses’s vision of God and his call to write the Bible (Moses 1). This prologue to the New Translation again explicitly points to the parallel between Moses and Joseph. And in the September 1830 conference, Joseph is singled out as the only one to “receive commandments and revelations in this church . . . for he receiveth them even as Moses” (D&C 28). In 1831, the parallel to Moses is used in evoking Joseph as president of the church. In 1832, the story of Moses within the New Translation and in its environing revelations is used as the basis for explorations of the high priesthood. In Kirtland, Moses is among the visitors during the dedication of the temple. His story continues its importance in Nauvoo, where it enables Joseph to explore further the rituals to be associated with the temple there.

Certainly there are explicitly discursive elaborations of doctrines in Joseph’s texts. I am not trying to minimize his contributions on this front . But my continuing studies of Joseph’s work convince me that distinctive Mormon doctrines almost always arise out of innovations and transformations that appear first in narrative contexts associated with the sacred characters of Joseph’s revelations and translations. Doctrines that do not seem continuous or related when tracked on the basis of logic or argument reveal themselves as much more so when traced along the thread of character and narrative.

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8 Responses to Moses as a Key to Theology

  1. Nate Oman on April 4, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Mom: We’ve talked about this before, and I am glad that you posted about it. (Please, please, please finish your book so I can read it!) I am curious if you have identified any figures other than Moses who have a similar continuity. Jesus, I suppose, would be a big one. Any others? Michael?

  2. Susan on April 5, 2004 at 1:08 am

    Nate,
    You’re right that Jesus is the only character that has the continuity and staying power in Joseph’s narrative that Moses does. Other characters tend to come and go, serving a very important function in the moment (again, Enoch is an important example here, John an example in the 1829-1830 time frame) but not recurring in the variety of contexts that Moses does.

    The June 1830 narrative of Moses being called to write the Bible is very interesting for the way it brings the Moses/ Jesus stories together. Moses is portrayed as a version of Jesus. He too confronts Satan in the wilderness and vanquishes him. The God figure sets Moses up as a parallel to his Son. (And what adds a very intriguing dimension to this narrative is that Satan tries to appear to Moses as a Jesus figure; he keeps insisting that he is the Son.) In the 1830 texts, you begin to see the Son and the Father appearing as more easily distinguished personages. (In the Book of Mormon the figure of God insists consisently on the oneness of God, Father and Son, focuses on creation, but speaks most consistently in the persona of Jesus. It is the Jesus person who speaks in the 1829 revelations and in the initial March 1830 revelation. The prologue to the New Translation is interesting because it is the Father persona who speaks to Moses (explicitly dramatized in a way that is quite distinctive in Joseph’s texts to that point); Jesus/the Son is missing from the prologue but everywhere present as the topic of pretty much all conversations in the prologue.

    In other words, it is useful to consider the character of God in Joseph’s dictations (and as it turns out the increasingly differentiated characters in the Godhood–and eventually others in the cast of heaven). I think this narrative attention to the cast of heaven can get at some of the distinctive structures that have caused so much discussion, for example, around the nature of God as portrayed in the Book of Mormon. In this sense the prologue is interesting because you begin to see a real family feud coming into view–a family plot for the story of heaven. What Mormons do so distinctively.

  3. Clark Goble on April 5, 2004 at 2:55 am

    What about Abraham? It seems Joseph is focused in on him through a rather long period as well.

  4. Susan on April 5, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Clark,
    It’s true that Abraham is a very important character. However, he doesn’t have the same kind of recurring and transforming quality that Moses does. He certainly has an important appearance in the Book of Mormon but more because of Melchizedek than because of any focus on Abraham as a character. Eventually he becomes the focus of what I think of as biology and family matters–inheritance of the priesthood and of course polygamy. For that reason the women in Abraham’s life, especially Sarai (Sarah), become characters in Joseph’s texts in a way the women in Moses’s life don’t. The extensive transformations of the story of Abraham and Sarah that appear in the Book of Abraham were for the most part dictated in 1842. (I can put in a plug here for my essay on this subject that appeared in Bryan Waterman’s collection of essays on Joseph Smith, “Your Wife is a Fair Woman to Look Upon. . . . .”) In his work on the New Translation in the early 1830s, Joseph made extensive additions and changes to the Moses story. However, he made only a few passing changes to the Abraham story.

  5. travis on April 5, 2004 at 1:09 pm
  6. Nate Oman on April 5, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    I am curious as to your dating of the Abraham stories to 1842. There are accounts of a translation of the Papyri being read in Kirtland, several years earlier, although none of the Book of Abraham was published until Nauvoo. How do you nail down the 1842 date for Abraham?

  7. Ethesis on April 5, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    I’m going to repost a comment of mine, more or less:

    Moses 1:29

    And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof.

    — each land is a different “earth” in terms of its story

    Moses 1:35

    But only an account of this “earth”, and the inhabitants thereof give I unto you. [emphasis added].

    I’d take these texts to say that when God gave the creation story to Moses, purely figurative as far as man was concerned, he also gave him only the story of one of many lands.

    Or not.

    But it is worth a reading of the text in context.

    —————-

    BTW, the story of Moses is the story of who is man, why is God mindful of him in spite of the size of eternity and is a very clear Enoch text.

  8. Restoring Lost Comments on November 25, 2004 at 10:49 pm

    [Restoring Comments Inadvertently Lost in the WP transfer] :

    In thinking of Abraham I’m thinking of how wide his discussion of Abraham is. For instance it appears that he was important way back in the 1830’s when the notion of polygamy first came up. It also was tied to his notion of Abrahamic test. Clearly whether the Book of Abraham was finished translated or not, it was on his mind very early and influenced him.
    However I really ought to check dates to see exactly how common and how widespread it is. I do think Abraham is at least as important as Moses though.
    Comment by: clarkgoble at April 5, 2004 03:28 PM

    *****

    Nate,
    I’ll post more about the dating of the Abraham content when I get back to Seattle. I talk about the dating in my article in the Waterman book. The details of what exactly was done in Kirtland is escaping me now. I know the section where Abraham presents Sarah as his sister dates to 1842.
    Comment by: Susan at April 5, 2004 05:00 PM

    *****

    Clark,
    I want to make clear that I’m not making any claim about the relative importance of the two characters. I’m just saying that Moses has a continuing quality (and an explicit doubling with Joseph) that is striking and not always recognized. Abraham is a character whose importance in Smith’s thinking cannot be understated–especially for thinking about inheritance and marriage (polygamy).
    Comment by: Susan at April 5, 2004 05:04 PM

    *****

    OK, I think I understand. I just think that things like the Patriarchal Priesthood and perhaps even the evolution of priesthood and politcs makes Joseph see Abraham as a person as the archetype of Patriarchal Order. (i.e. Abraham becomes the ideal image for Mormons – and other figures such as Enoch, Melchezedek, and others are subsumed in the Abraham figure)
    I do agree on the importance of Moses though – especially as a literary figure. Naturalistic critics will see the common Mosaic imagery in the Book of Mormon as evidence of the place of Moses. So don’t think I’m disagreeing with you there. (Although ironically it is Brigham Young, not Joseph, who is considered the Mormon Moses)
    I suspect the problem with Abaraham is that the more explicit appealing to him isn’t quite as pronounced in certain phases. But I think Joseph in certain ways saw himself as the head patriarch. And of course that notion of patriarchal images becomes much more prevalent with time. By the time of Utah it is very prounced. At least as much as the Moses imagery is. I suspect that if one wanted, one could write a history of the church in terms of the tension between the poles of Abraham and Moses. With the former being more a family order and the later being more our notion of priesthood and colonizing.
    Comment by: clarkgoble at April 5, 2004 07:25 PM

    *****

    Susan, I haven’t commented on this thread because I don’t have anything very smart to say about it, but I wanted to thank you for the post and join Nate in hoping you’ll finish your book soon.
    Intuitively, the idea that Mormonism works better as narrative than as theological system makes sense to me, and is very appealing. I’ve always thought I felt that way just because I like stories better than logical development (much to Nate’s occasional consternation!), but perhaps, as you suggest, this way of thinking is also faithful to the internal logic of JS’s thought.
    Comment by: Kristine at April 6, 2004 02:07 PM

    *****

    Nate,
    I did check on the dates for Book of Abraham. Apparently Abraham 1-2:18 was translated in Kirtland in the fall/winter timeframe of 1835-36. This content was published in the first installmentof the Times and Seasons that had Joseph as the editor (the March 1 1842 edition). Joseph’s diary suggests that he translated and revised the second installment (Abraham 2:19-5:21, for the March 15 edition) on 8-9 March after the first installment went to press. The 1842 date for the second installment also seems to be confirmed by surviving manuscript evidence. This actually means that the key part of the Abraham story that was probably dictated in 1842 was the part dealing with Abraham disguising his wife as his sister. (Again, I shamelessly plug my essay that discusses this passage, “The Lord Said, Thy Wife Is a Very Fair Woman to Look Upon”: The Book of Abraham, Secrets, and Lying for the Lord,” in The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith, ed. Bryan Waterman, Signature, 1999.)
    Comment by: Susan at April 7, 2004 04:11 PM