The three voices of the Scriptures

May 31, 2014 | 11 comments
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I love the Old Testament, both as an anthropologist and as a Mormon. None of our other Standard Works has as many wonderful stories as the OT, and none raises as many questions as this longest and most complex of all Scriptures. Now that we plough our way through it in Sunday School, we noticed how hard these stories are, and even harder are the parts we skip. That has everything to do with the purpose of these tales, what I call their ‘voices’. Jonathan Green correctly reminded us in his blog that the ‘Why told’ question is more interesting than ‘What happened’. Pursuing this angle, I think we as Mormons could have a privileged understanding of the Scriptures, also of the Old Testament. The simple reason is that we have been and still are witness to the genesis of scripture, as one of the few denominations in Christendom. Our last instance was in 1978, for most of us still in living memory, but the coming about of the D&C is well recorded. Take for instance the Word of Wisdom: we know what it says, but we also know the circumstances that led to this revelation, and we recognize the 19th century in some of its details. Plus we know how this gentle advice became a binding rule. If we apply this insight that a revelation speaks with several voices to other Scriptures, we gain a lot of understanding. So let us listen to the three voices of the Old Testament.

A quite Mormon snack table

A quite Mormon snack table


The first voice is the message inside the story itself, the morals to the story: God’s actions with His people, something clear, sometimes highly questionable, most often puzzling. Why did Jericho have to be destroyed, why is an ‘independent woman’ saved? Why are the Amalekites not allowed to exist? Why could Moses not enter the promised land? (NB: there are two contradicting answers to the last one). The second voice is what we do with it, and that is amply borne out in the lesson manual: “What does it mean for us?’ Sometimes we think that these scriptures are written for us, but that is only the case with D&C (and that is over 1½ century ago as well), definitely not with the Bible.
What we miss and what I want to focus on here is the third voice, that of the authors and the editors, the ones who wrote the texts and composed the OT. The traditional idea that Moses wrote the first five books, the Pentateuch, is no longer tenable. Bible studies, done by faithful and diligent scholars, have borne that out, and my point here is that their viewpoint offers a window on puzzling stories that make them much more intelligible and meaningful; if we can put ourselves in the author’s shoes, the Scriptures speak with a clear voice. This third voice helps us to understand very old texts situated in a distant land, way in the past; and the ‘past is a foreign country’ anyway.
Group photo's are our present tool for identity: the Utrecht ward (Netherlands) in 1917

Group photo’s are our present tool for identity: the Utrecht ward (Netherlands) in 1917


The OT text is the result of many authors; just the Pentateuch originates between the 9th and the 5th century BC from at least four oral and scriptural traditions (the famous E, J, D and P designated by the Documentary Hypothesis). These authors all had their own agendas, religious and political, and once these are clear, their texts become much more understandable. The crucial era for the composition of most of the OT is the Babylonian Exile, 597-538 BC, after the razing of the First Temple (the one of Salomo) by the conquerors. This is the time the OT was composed, from texts inherited from either of the two Kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South, with new texts of exile, and new prophets. They had to cling to their religion because they had lost all else, and thus they collected and edited traditions into Scripture. For them, these Scriptures were the mainstay of their identity as covenant people, and as their successors we have to thank them for their inspired and intelligent work. So the first question one has to ask is: ‘What does this story mean for the people in Exile? What comfort could they derive from it? What message does it have for them?’ That is the third voice. Having lost everything, they had to explain why the Lord seemingly had forsaken them, how they would ever regain their land, and how they could retain their own identity in exile. When back in Jerusalem after 538 BC they continued this task.
A reunion of the Utrecht ward in 2007: history is our spring board for the future

A reunion of the Utrecht ward in 2007: history is our spring board for the future


I started out with the Word of Wisdom as an example of an embedded recent revelation, so I now take its OT parallel, Leviticus. This is the book most skipped in Sunday School, boring as we tend to find it with its many rules and detailed ritual prescriptions. But crucial as the WoW is for us, Leviticus was essential for the people in exile. It taught them what a proper Israelite was, by defining kosher food as a charter for self-definition. The food taboos of Leviticus, when read this way, give us an exact definition of a faithful son and daughter of Jacob: someone who kept to his own flock, ate food that the Lord had declared pure, and who belonged to a holy nation dedicated to YHWH. People are what they eat, so food is an apt instrument for group definition. Some of the food taboos might be simply a healthy advice, the main message is to underline the covenant, in a situation where losing oneself in the majority culture is much easier. (This is anthropological analysis of Leviticus was done by Mary Douglas, a famous British anthropologist.) In this way, the food proscriptions fit in well with the legal part of Leviticus, which indeed is very incomplete as law, but quite effective as reinforcement of what it is to be a Jew in Babylon: it stipulates just the differences with the much more elaborate law codes over there. Finally, the long pieces on the tabernacle are crucial as well: they described in great detail the ark and the tabernacle, not because they had to build them, but they had lost them, after the destruction of the temple. They had to make a holy shrine in words, and that is what they did. Leviticus is a beautiful book when read this way: how to be a faithful son and daughter of Jacob.
Our main link with the First Temple: the oxen

Our main link with the First Temple: the oxen


They had their rules, we have ours. Our own modest revelation of D&C 89 renders Leviticus understandable: the problem of Emma who had to wash all those spittoons in a smoke filled house, may seem rather mundane as a trigger and nowhere near as dramatic as the Exile, but out came a self-definition which still serves us well.

11 Responses to The three voices of the Scriptures

  1. Jettboy on May 31, 2014 at 8:56 am

    “The traditional idea that Moses wrote the first five books, the Pentateuch, is no longer tenable. Bible studies, done by faithful and diligent scholars, have borne that out,”

    Complete B.S. if you don’t believe a word such “scholars” say. They are not scientists and have no proof one way or another. Perhaps they make good arguments, but that is all they are as interpreters of the texts; not time travelers.

  2. Brian Larsen on May 31, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Interesting stuff, Walter. Too often, I think, discussions of the OT focus on those two voices; the first of which (the moral of the story) especially can be frustrating if not seen in light of the third voice (the intent of including these particular stories)–and the second voice (what it means for use) is greatly enhanced when considered in terms of not just morals, but community (the third voice).

  3. Brian Larsen on May 31, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Jettboy–you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater, my friend. So scientists have proof that it was Moses? Is that what your saying? I don’t think you buy that either.

  4. Nathan Whilk on May 31, 2014 at 10:16 am

    “So scientists have proof that it was Moses? Is that what your saying?”

    The propositions: “Scientists have proof it wasn’t Moses.” and “Scientists have proof it was Moses.” do not exhaust all possibilities.

  5. ji on May 31, 2014 at 10:24 am

    I appreciate your posting. I have always, since joining the church, seen the Word of Wisdom as being more for me than for my neighbor, as a principle that I choose to follow in acceptance of the Lord’s invitation. For me, it isn’t a health code.

  6. Walter van Beek on May 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Jettboy: ‘proving’ that somebody three thousand years ago wrote something or not, cannot be done, the notion of ‘proof’ in the sense of the hard sciences is nonsensical here. There are, however, a wide range of valid arguments why the Pentateuch is not the result of one author, but of several authors, stemming from different times and varying backgrounds. If you are interested I can give you titles where this is discussed at large, and not by people who want to destroy the Bible. The histroy of the composition of the OT is complicated, but also inspiring: a lot of inspired men have devoted their lives to recording and editing as well as they could, and the fact that we have the Old Testament is a historic miracle in itself.
    Brian: Yes, I think the interplay between the three voices is what we need; so for a relevant understanding the third voice is needed.

  7. Jettboy on June 1, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Walter, I’m not stupid. I’ve read the books and arguments. They are good arguments, and I’m not denying that. What I am saying is that there is no “proof” one way or another and therefore “no longer tenable” is hyperbolic and inaccurate. You are right Nathan Whilk that I don’t believe Scientists have proven Moses wrote the five books. I don’t particularly believe that myself or even consider it religiously necessary or doctrinal. There isn’t even scriptural statements in the books themselves that require that kind of assumption. What I am saying is that textualists and scholars are not the final word or authority on the Word of God. We should be VERY careful basing doctrinal, historical, or theological beliefs based on what they hypothesize.

  8. Walter van Beek on June 1, 2014 at 1:26 pm

    Jettboy; This is much clearer as for your position. The final authority of the Word of God is God Himself, but the texts I am talking about have passed through many hands, and gone through a lot of editing between whatever the actual Word of God was, and what reaches us in the texts. Those writers and editors often were inspired men, but just as often had their own agenda’s as well. Joseph Smith has been very outspoken on that one. Actually the texts themselves do require the notion of multiple authorship, viewing the many contradictions, anachronisms, reduplications, style changes, variations in Hebrew language etc. In my view that renders the single author notion ‘untenable’, but if you want to render that as ‘highly improbable’, that is fine with me.
    Your point about doctrine is well taken: I am not basing my beliefs and testimony in the Gospel on biblical commentaries of this scholarly kind, but on the inspiration by the Spirit. However, what I want to stress in this blog is that a proper historical reading of these Scriptures, i.e. listening to the third voice, offers a deeper insight in what they mean, solves quite some puzzles, and in the end strengthens the inspirational value of these stories. Whether Mozes wrote all the books or a series of authors, is not very relevant for my faith, but the insight gained by applying the scholarly insights helps me to listen better to the ‘third voice’ and thus gain insight in God’s acts in history.

  9. Wilfried on June 2, 2014 at 11:16 am

    A belated thanks, Walter. Last Sunday, in our HP lesson, a question was raised pertaining to Exodus 21, the chapter on slavery, a text rendered in the OT as commandment from on high. The usual concern from some readers: how is it possible that God ordered such rules?

    I wonder to what extent the “third voice” can give a satisfactory answer to members who believe in the divine origin of the Scriptures. It would be simple to say: the Hebrews had slaves, so there was a need to regulate the situation and the regulator drew authority by attributing the regulation to God. But for the faithful such explanation may undermine belief in the revelatory process as if most if not all revelations are human answers to (temporary) human needs. The comparison with the Word of Wisdom is interesting when it comes to identity-formation as you point out. But many other Biblical passages do not match that goal.

  10. Rachel Whipple on June 4, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Thank you, Walter. My children and I just finished reading the Pentateuch, so I read this post to them with our morning scripture study. They feel slightly better about slogging through Leviticus, but not enough to go back and read it in this new light.

  11. Walter van Beek on June 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Wilfried: The notion of third voice will not be easy or even acceptable for those who believe that all revelations are timeless and culture-free, but then these believers have a constant struggle with their conscience when reading the Old Testament – as well as some parts of the NT. The identity-formation factor does not always operate, of course, especially not in the law books. But the laws in the Pentateuch stem from exilic and post-exilic times, and are for a large part modeled on the main corpuses of law extant in the Middle-East halfway de first millennium BC, such as the Hammurabi code (which is older than any of the law codes in the bible). As I will argue in upcoming blogs on the OT, the law codes in the Pentateuch can be considered as inspired (no problem here) variations on these codes, i.e. variations that outlined how Israel was to be a holy nation among the nations, It is not a blueprint for the 21th century. Thus, among all the slave holding nations (everyone) Israel was to a gentle one, respecting the slave as someone having his/her own rights, not just property. That is inspired guidance, for then and there, not for here and now. And it is exactly the kind of inspired guidance we get: how to live righteously in this day and age, not how to reach utopia. For us the same holds: we have a religious agenda within the world.
    But I am afraid very literally minded brethren/sisters would still not be very happy.

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