“Why didn’t I know about this?” She sounds angry.
“Um, it’s in a Primary manual,” I answer lamely.
I am teaching Relief Society, one of the those lessons about the Book of Mormon, and I’ve just finished telling the story of Mary Whitmer, witness to the golden plates. I’m a little surprised by her question and her tone: I don’t know her very well, but she strikes me as a quiet, salt-of-the-earth, faithful Saint. I have no good answer for why she hadn’t heard about this before. Why didn’t she know about it? I don’t know.
I am studying Exodus, slogging through the lengthy and repetitive description of the details of the construction of the tabernacle, when I come across this:
And he made the laver of brass, and the foot of it of brass, of the lookingglasses of the women assembling, which assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Exodus 38:8)
Turns out that “assembling” is something of a technical term, meaning that this is most likely a group of women in organized service. There is another reference to this women’s temple service group in 1 Samuel 2:22, where they are behaving just as badly as their male counterparts. But the point is that from these two enigmatic verses, we can conclude that there was some sort of formal, organized service of women at the (door of the) tabernacle. They did . . . something. We don’t know what. I’m intrigued. Somehow, I never noticed, or heard about, or read about, this verse or this women’s temple service.
Even more intriguing, the “lookingglass”–what we might call a mirror, although it would have been made of highly polished metal–was a common symbol in the Ancient Near East for womanhood. What, then, does it mean to say that these women who served at the tabernacle gave up their symbols of womanhood so that those items might be destroyed and reconstituted as part of the equipment used by men only in a place where the women were not permitted? Who were these women, and what did they do? What was their role? I don’t know.
Perhaps there is another reference to this female temple service in the New Testament:
36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)
Anna is described as a prophetess, her genealogy is given (which is very rare in the NT), and we learn that she never leaves the temple but serves God. Her story is obviously very important to Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus; notice how much background about her personal life is given. Is she of the same company of women as described in Exodus and 1 Samuel? I don’t know.
The First Presidency announced during the Christmas devotional that they were releasing a new series of videos about the life of Christ. I decided to check out the website. I thought “The Christ Child Is Presented at the Temple” looked interesting, so I clicked on its page. They put the scripture text below the video, so I could tell that this would include Anna’s story. I did a little internal happy dance, so glad that they had honored Luke’s narrative that included both a man and a woman rejoicing in the temple when presented with the Infant Christ. I clicked to watch the video, eagerly looking for Anna. As the seconds went by, I realized that, despite the text on the screen, Anna’s story would not be included in the video. Why did they leave her out? Why not include the prophetess’ statement of thanks for the promised Messiah? I don’t know.