Mormonism and Old Testament Literalness

I’ve never taken the Book of Genesis literally.  I’ve always assumed its stories were ancient allegories for little-educated shephards.

This belief hit a snag, just before my Mormon mission, when I went through the Salt Lake Temple.  But even this experience didn’t change by personal beliefs about much of the Old Testament.

Yet the issue of how literal Mormons should take the Book of Genesis keeps coming up.  In a recent article by Bishop Gerald Causse in the August 2012 Ensign there is a discussion of Adam:

When I was 17, I began taking philosophy classes in high school.  One day the teacher said to the class, “Surely there isn’t anyone here who believes that Adam really existed!”  Then he scanned the class the room with the look of an inquisitor, ready to ponce on whoever dared admit to such a belief.  I was petrified!  However, my desire to be loyal to my faith was even stronger.  I glanced around to see that I was the only one of those 40 students to raise a hand.  The teacher, taken my surprise, changed the subject.

Is the implication here that being “loyal to” Mormonism requires stating a literal belief in Genesis?  I hope not.

But Mormon literalists still abound.  To quote Steven F. Robinson, an instructor at BYU and a literalist:  “. . . there is not a single verse of the Bible that Latter-day Saints do not accept,” and “We take the Scriptures to be literally true, and we hold symbolic, figurative or allegorical interpretations to a mininum . . .”

Another literalist Donald W. Perry in a 1998 article published in the Ensign stated that members are required to believe in a literal universal flood, a proposition that troubled many of his colleagues at BYU.  For example, there have been two articles, one in Sunstone and another in Dialogue, which point out serious problems with the Noachian flood story.

At first, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of the scholarly discussions of the Noachian flood.  I’ve never believed in a universal flood.  However, after some deliberation, for me, these studies are an important set in getting Mormons past Old Testament literalism.

Deemphasizing the Book of Genesis, however, will have a rocky road.  Take the tribulations of the two BYU professors who wrote one of the Noachian flood articles mentioned above and their earlier efforts to publish their investigations in the journal BYU Studies:

After some three years and about five major revisions to suit the editor, BYU Studies essentially accepted the article.  After yet another review by another panel, the article was rejected.

The authors viewed this perceived abandonment of scientific reality as “contrary to the spirit of LDS teachings on the subject.”

On a more positive note, world-class chemist Henry Eyring (father of current LDS Church official President Henry B. Eyring) made the following statement in a letter written in 1954:  “Probably one of the most difficult problems in reading the scriptures is to decide what is to be taken literally and what is fiction.”

We Mormons need to quit teaching, preaching, and pretending that Genesis is literal history.

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20 Responses to Mormonism and Old Testament Literalness

  1. shematwater says:

    There is only one problem with this. Joseph Smith, as recording in the Doctrine and Covenants, declared much of what is recorded in Genesis to be true.
    Speaking of Adam, he not only declares him to be a real and literal person, but to be the Archangel Michael, who will return and prophesied by Daniel (the Ancient of Days) to receive the keys of the Priesthood and give them to Christ (D&C 116: 1). Joseph F. Smith reiterates his position as the Father of All in D&C 138: 38. Much has been said by the prophets of this dispensation about Adam, and most of the account in Genesis has been affirmed and expanded.

    As to Noah, he is also spoken of in the Doctrine and Covenants, and the flood is declared to have actually happened (138: 9, 41). The flood is also spoken of by Peter in the New Testament as having actually happened (1 Peter 3: 18-20) and declares that only eight people survived the event. Even Christ spoke of this event as actually having happened (Joseph Smith Matthew 1: 41-42).

    My point is not to say that everything should be taken literal, but that one cannot simply declare something in Genesis to not be literal when modern revelation declares that it was. Doing so makes a large contradiction.

    Personally, I think the whole story of Adam’s rib is an analogy for weak minds. Brigham Young believed a great portion of the creation story was watered down for those of lesser faith. There have been prophets who have not taken it all literally. But those parts that they do take literally (especially when they all take it literally) should not be brushed away by man’s science.

  2. roger hansen says:

    The Noachian flood story doesn’t hold up, period. There was no universal flood. Apostle John A. Widtsoe understood that.

    If you believe in organic evolution, then where do Adam and Eve fit in?

    I agree that trying to merge evolutionary science and some Mormon doctrine is problematic. And we need to start looking at issues like: (1) no death before the fall; (2) no fall, no need for the atonement; (3) the brutal nature of organic evolution; etc. But if we don’t face up to these issues, Mormonism will continue to lose its educated younger members. There ARE contradictions and we need to deal with them.

    Did the earth really stand still? Was Jonah really swollowed by a large fish? Did Jacob really wrestle with God? Did Moses really part the Red Sea? Did Noah really live for 1000 years? Did Lots’ wife really turn into a pillar of salt? Did God really destroy Sodom and Gomorrah?

    • shematwater says:

      I have never been one for arguing science and religion, but this is how I feel. If God said it was true, I am going to take his word over any mortal scientist, and doing so is not going to hurt me in any way.

      The Noachian flood story holds up because God has said that it happened, and thus it happened. I don’t care what scientists say, and I am perfectly fine with simply stating that it was a divine act, outside of our sciences ability to explain.

      As for evolution, I see no problem, simply because I reject the entire concept. Evolution is a false idea that the learned of the world want everyone to accept so they can perade their own education around. It does contradict the truth as revealed by God to man, and thus cannot be true.

      As to your list of questions
      1. I am not sure where you read this in Genesis. I remember the Sun standing still in Joshua, but that was simply the Earth remaining stationary in its orbit, and yes it happened.
      2. Yes, Jonah was swallowed by a large fish, but most likely was inhaled, as he would have needed the oxigen in its lunges to servive (think whale here).
      3. Yes, meaning that he had an engaging discussion, or wrestled in words.
      4. Yes, as is attested to several times in almost all the scriptures.
      5. No one actually lived 1000 years, but yes, before the flood the life spans of people were much greater.
      6. Something happened to her that can be rightly described as a pillar of salt. Is this literal or just best description, I don’t know. But something did indeed happen to her.
      7. Yes.

  3. Allen says:

    Scriptures says that Adam was the first man, but it doesn’t say first of what. Those passages have been interpreted to mean that Adam was the first man (as in human) to exist. Yet, science has good evidence of humans living prior to the time of Adam. I personally believe he was the first man to make covenants with God but not the first man to exist. We can’t say that God said this or that. All we can say is that early manuscripts give words that can be interpreted in more than one way.

    Concerning evolution. Genesis and the Book of Moses say that the earth became mortal after Adam and Eve made their decision to become mortal, that is, to die. Thus, the description of the creation, as given in scripture, is not a description of the creation of the mortal world. It is a description of the immortal but physical world that existed in the Garden of Eden. I see no conflict between Mormon doctrine and evolution. No conflict about the Fall. The problem is that scholars, including LDS authorities, have put evolution at the wrong point in a time-line of the earth, thus creating a conflict with science and religion.

  4. Allen says:

    It’s physically impossible for a small boat the size of the Ark to have contained the millions of birds and animals as described in the scriptures. Not only the animals themselves but food for them and the task of cleaning up the ark after the animals have eaten and “done their thing”. In addition, a world-wide flood that covered everything would take more than 2 billion cubic miles of water. That is more water than all of the oceans combined.

    Truth can not contradict itself. Truth in science must agree with truth in religion, and vice versa. Rather than clinging to interpretations of scripture that we’ve inherited from Europe, I think we must look for interpretations that minimize differences between science and religion. If we blindly follow European traditions in interpreting scripture and close our eyes to truth from science, we aren’t following the Mormon doctrine that we accept truth from all sources. In addition, we need to be sure that we place things in a proper prospective. We need to look to Jesus Christ and his teachings to help us govern our lives, since salvation, that is, forgiveness of sin, comes through Christ. As LDS General Authorities have said, the mission of the church is the salvation of God’s children. Understanding how the earth was created and functions is the domain of science. The General Authorities look to their calling as ministers of Christ and leave science to the scientists. The time will come when we understand how the earth was created, and we will find perfect harmony between the real meaning of the scriptures and science. That time has not yet come.

  5. shematwater says:

    God has declared that Adam was the first man. It is not an interpretation, but a statement made by the prophets. Joseph Smith himself stated this fact. Adam is known as the Ancient of Days because he was the first man, and father of all humans who have ever lived on this planet. Any belief contrary to this, regardless of what scientists may say, if a false belief and will be proven to be so.

    As to accepting truth from science, I am all for it, as long as it is true. However, that is not what is being advocated here. What is being advocated here is the rejection of reveal truths in favor of scientific theory, and this is something that should never be done.

    For instance, the prophets have said that Evolution is wrong, and yet there are those who stubbornly cling to this theory because they prefer to believe scientists above the appointed ministers of God.
    Also, in Doctrine and Covenants 78 (I believe) Joseph Smith records a question and answers session he had with God, in which Christ declares that the mortal existance of this planet (meaning from the time death entered our existence) has been only 6000 years; and yet there are those who prefer to take the word of scientists that say it is millions of years old, and thus deny the direct word of God.

    Science has given us many truths, and we should cling to these. But we should not assume that everything scientists claim, no matter how mainstream it is, is true, especially when it so completely contradicts the reveal truth from God.

  6. Allen says:

    Shematwater, if you’d like to discuss this further, please join me at my blog on science and Mormonism. I have pages that discuss the things you’ve mentioned.

  7. las artes says:

    Kurt Wise has a degree in palaeontology from Harvard University. He is one of a small group of academics who believe science supports a literal interpretation of the bible.

  8. cristina says:

    I have seen a flood take an entire city after less than an hour of heavy rain, here in the mountain region of Rio de Janeiro, and thousands of people died in consequence of that sudden flood.
    I don´t find it difficult at all to believe in the event, specially if you think that some of the highest mountains were formed relatively recently. Now, about Adam, if you think of an universe with infinite number of galaxies, and there are an infinite nunber of universes, I think that it would be quite arrogant to believe that we, in our tiny planet, are the only beings with some knowledge about genetic engeneering.

    • Allen says:

      According to scientists, Mt. Everest was formed 60 million years ago. I did a rough calculation of how much water would be required to cover a height of six miles and came up with 2 billion cubic miles. That’s more water than all of the oceans combined. I chose six miles to simplify my calculations and to cover Mt. Everest. Taking the Bible description of the flood as covering the whole world is problematic. Taking a less literal interpretation of the flood as a local flood makes more sense.

      • rogerdhansen says:

        Allen, besides the implausibility of a literal universal flood, there is also the issue of God intentionally destroying the “wicked.” For me, this concept is problematic, and not consistent with Christian concepts related to the nature God. This type of belief leads people to believe that the disasters associated with hurricane Katrina (or the flooding that Cristina talks about) were God driven. And I don’t believe that for a second.

        I remember just after Katrina, a husband and wife bore their testimonies that God was punishing the wicked. This made me very uncomfortable. But the member who gave the closing prayer, ask for a special blessing on the New Orleans area. The latter is somewhat closer to what I believe. While I don’t believe that Katrina was the punishment of a revengeful God, I also don’t believe that God would intercede for the good either.

        Part of my problem is that I don’t see God up in the heavens “stirring the pot.” And I don’t see him condemning people to die in natural or unnatural disasters. I prefer my God stand-offish but ultimately caring and compassionate. I’m not a man on a chess board, I’m a free agent. I think my beliefs are somewhat consistent with Process Theology.

        I haven’t explained this very well, but I hope you get the idea.

  9. gold account says:

    We’ll take up that challenge. We’ll begin with the phrase “evening and morning” in the creation account. The form of the Hebrew phrase “ereb boqer” that translates “evening and morning” appears only twice outside of Genesis 1. Those two places are Psalm 55:17 and Daniel 8:26. In Psalm 55:17, David claims he prays “evening and morning”—hardly an example of 24 hours. In Daniel 8:26 the King James Version translates literally “the vision of evening and morning” whereas all modern translations make it plural “vision of the evenings and mornings.” The KJV shows the similarity to the Genesis phrase (proving another connection between Genesis and prophecy, contrary to Kurt’s prior claims) and the modern translations shows agreement that “evening and morning” does not necessarily mean an ordinary 24-hour day. It can and does refer to a longer period of time.

  10. shematwater says:

    ALLEN
    Again, the prophets have declared otehrwise. Mt. Everest was not formed any earlier than the dividing of the continents, which happens four or five generations after the flood (in the days of Peleg, see Genesis 9). Before this time there were no mountains about the tree-line, which reduces the required volume considerably.
    Even considering this, we are talking about God, and He can do things that are beyond our science. I don’t know how He did it, but I do know that he did do it.

    GOLD
    You are quite right that the time periods spoken of in the Creation story are not necessarily 24 hours. We really don’t know how long they were, and it really doesn’t matter. The creation was completed before the Fall of Adam, and thus it was during a time when death and decay did not yet exist in the earth. The time period of the creation itself may have been millions of years by our reconning, as could be the case for the time that Adam spent in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. But since this time was spend in a state of immortality what real bearing could it have on the study of the mortal existence of the Earth.

    ROGER
    After you last statement I fid myself wondering what denomination you belong to. Not that it matters, I am jsut curious.
    The vengeful God is in perfect harmony with all the doctrine of the LDS church, though I do understand some difficulty with it when considered through the doctrine of the rest of Christianity.
    God destroyed the wicked at the time of the Flood not as a punishment to them, or at least not entirely. He did it so that he did not have to send anymore of His spirit children to be born into such gross wickedness. It was not exactly a punishment of the wicked on earth, but a mercy for those not yet born.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      The tree line is typically at about 10,000 feet. There is not enough water on the Earth to get anywhere close to the tree line. Apostle Widtsoe, who was also a great scientist, understood this. As do most of the earth and biological scientists at BYU. There is just no evidence anywhere of universal flood, and it seems likely that the Book of Genesis is highly influenced by Babylonian mythology. If you believe in a universal flood that’s fine, but your posistion is increasingly an isolated one.

      As for my religion, I was raised Mormon (5th generation, I think), but I’m pretty much agnostic at the moment. Since the 1960s, the LDS Church has taken a turn that I’m uncomfortable with (for example, the book “Mormon Doctrine”). I relate to the basic instructions of Christ and some of the metaphysical speculations of Joseph Smith. But the institutionalizations of religion are difficult for the this skeptic to understand.

      • shematwater says:

        Teh treeline may be at 10,000 feet, but this is just a simple measurement. I do not know how high the land reached before the flood, all I know is that it was no higher than this. It could have been much less.
        However, these calculations mean nothing to me. God is God, and thus he could have done it. That is the real point that I make, and the one that I have always maintained, and will always maintain. God declares that this is what happened, and I will take his word over the words of mortal, falible men any day. I couldn’t care less what scientists say if it is in direct contradiction with the revealed word of God.

        As to the relationship between Genesis and Babylonian Myth, I agree that it is there, but I think people are seeing it backwards. It is not Genesis that was influenced by Babylon, but Babylon that was influenced by Genesis; or more accurately, they both attempt to describe the same time period, but Genesis is a true account revealed by God, and Babylonian Myth is how that truth was corrupted by apostate groups. The same can be said of Egyptian Myth, as well as Greek and Norse, and most every other mythology that exists. They are corruptions of truth, and thus mimic in certain ways the truth as revealed in the scriptures.

  11. rogerdhansen says:

    Shem, one of the beauties of Mormonism is that conceptually it and science are compatible. But for this compatibility to bear fruit, literal interpretations of Genesis need to take a back seat. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, etc. need to be viewed as characters in myths, metaphors, whatever. This is something that President Eyre’s father understood, and I’m sure it is something that President Eyre understands. If you believe in Genesis literalism that’s fine, just don’t try to make it a Mormon requirement.

    • shematwater says:

      LDS doctrine will always be consistant with true science.
      As to literalism, it is not me making it that way, but the prophets who have guided this church from the beginning.
      The New Testament speaks of the events in Genesis as though they actually happened.
      In the revelations found in the Doctrine and Covenants these people and the events of Genesis are spoken of as having actually happened. We have an account of how old each of the ancient patriarchs were when they were ordained to the Priesthood, and a line of Authority from Moses back to Adam.
      Brigham Young declared that the Flood was the baptism of the Earth, and thus it has to hae been a complete submersion of the planet.

      I am not merely saying that the Genesis account is literal because it is in the scriptures. I say this because all the other scriptures declare that these events literally happened. To deny their literalness is to deny all the scriptures and thus cannot be done and still claim to be in harmony with the doctrines of the church.
      Now, if you want to discuss the creation that is an entirely different thing. We know very little about it, and thus much is left to interpretation. Brigham Young did not believe in the literalness of the taking of the rib from Adam, and I have to agree. The creation is a mystery that has been consealed from man to be revealed after the second coming.
      However, the creation is the only part in Genesis that is not confirmed to be real by other scriptures and propehts.

  12. rogerdhansen says:

    Bill Nye (Science Guy) in a video titled “Creationism Is Not Appropriate for Children” that has gone viral makes the following statement: “And I say to the grownups if you wana deny evolution and live in your . . . world that’s entirely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine. But don’t make you kids do it, because we need them; we need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. . . . we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

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