Monday, August 9, 2010

"And it pleased the Lord": The Joseph Smith Translation, the Asherah, and the Kings of Judah

The Prophet Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Holy Bible shows us just how Latter-day Saints--as modern Israel--are to understand that sacred record.

Consider the notions forwarded by some over-zealous students about the religious practices of Ancient Israel, and especially those which concern the worship of the Asherah, or tree goddess, by several kings of Israel and Judah. According to the Holy Bible, it was the wicked kings who worshipped such goddesses and their symbols; the righteous kings destroyed them. Yet some contest the narrative and seek to turn the biblical condemnation of idolatry on its head: good becomes evil; evil, good. It's like making the witch in C.S. Lewis's classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the good guy. Proud Jadis, in The Magician's Nephew, now becomes the nurturing mother of Israel--quite a change from Mother of Abominations! What would Nephi say? Or C.S. Lewis?

Given the subtleties of scholarship, how grateful we ought to be for any light given us on the matter by the Prophet Joseph Smith. And there is light!

But first a word on how the Joseph Smith Translation lights that candle of Gospel understanding.

While we don't know everything about how the New Translation of the Holy Bible was effected, we are to see the Prophet and his scribes seated at a table and reading aloud, by turns, the entire Bible, book by book (or nearly so). As they read the Scriptures aloud, pure intelligence would flow.

And what is the New Translation of the Bible? It is not only the inspired additions to and corrections of the Bible which make up the New Translation; we also find the oft-repeated inspired affirmation that the remainder of the Authorised Version, itself translated from the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Received Text, as it stands, is Scripture. That Masoretic Text, a gift from the Jews, is the well-spring of all modern Bibles. In the original manuscripts of the New Translation, the Prophet records not only textual expansions and corrections, he also notes the correctness of much of the biblical text as received.

Even so, there remains room-and-to-spare for adjustments and expansion, including the expectation of new Books of John the Baptist and Enoch, and the full version of events on the Mount of Transfiguration, all of which the Doctrine and Covenants promises. And belief in, and confirmation of, the Bible, "as far as it is translated correctly," still gave the Prophet plenty of scope for additional translating, or elucidation through re-wording, as reflected in his Nauvoo letters and sermons and in the Book of Abraham. The Prophet even came to acknowledge the superiority of Luther's translations, as he also pressed on in his study of both Hebrew and Greek. And he prized his Hutter Polyglot. On the other hand, would-be translators and interpreters are not free to move the pieces around in any manner they may choose: the Prophet, in and through the New Translation, has set some bounds and limits to speculation. All of which, however, does not imply full understanding on anyone's part. How utterly changed our view of the world of the Bible or the Book of Mormon would be, could we but view the events in vision! Even so, the doctrinal and narrative framework set out by the Prophet Joseph in his vision--in his New Translation and in the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham--would yet hold.

Taken together, it is the both the changes in and approval of the Authorised English Version of both the Masoretic Text and the Received Text that alike constitute the miracle of the Prophet's New Translation. Recall how after lamenting the loss of plain and precious doctrines from the future Bible in the days of the gentiles, Nephi rounds off his prophecy about that Book with resounding praise for the Masoretic Text: "They shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive [note it well] from them?" (2 Nephi 29:4). While the Greek Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, a few of the biblical scrolls from the Dead Sea, and the Book of Mormon do indeed, here and there, show added text or variant readings that surely sometimes reflect a better text; it is the Masoretic Text that yet stands as the most complete and correct biblical record of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. I thank the Jews for this. While Latter-day Saints invite any correction to, or even inspired expansion of, Masoretic phraseology, the word of the Lord stands true: it is the Bible "which they receive from [the Jews]," in compass with the plain and precious insights of the Isaiah portions of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet's New Translation, that gets the present stamp of approval as God's word.

With that in mind, let us turn to 1 Kings 15:11-12 and begin with an inspired change or two (noted in italics):

And Asa did right in the eyes of the Lord, as he commanded David his father. And he took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his father had made, and it pleased the Lord.

We would do well to study with care what "pleased the Lord" then, and to recognize also that what pleased Him then yet pleases Him now, for the Lord, without ever changing, "delights" in purity of heart and purity of worship, and in our zeal to sustain both.

And now, to that which the Prophet, by the same spirit of revelation, left without prophetic change, [although some bracketed explanations might prove helpful]:

1 Kings 15:13

And also Maachah his mother, even her he removed from being queen [and "high priestess"], because she had made an idol in a grove [Heb. the Asherah tree or post]; and Asa destroyed her idol, and burnt it by the brook Kidron.

And--say we in accordance with the divine word--it pleased the Lord.

As did Asa, so Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah, the more righteous of the kings of Judah. Each cleansed and repaired the holy Temple; each destroyed the idols placed in the House of the Lord by apostate fathers and apostate mothers; each destroyed that Isabel, Mother of Abominations and Mystery of Iniquity, planted by apostates in the Temple of God, as if it was God: "Who opposeth and exalteth [her]self above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that [s]he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing [her]self that [s]he is God" (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

We turn next to Chronicles. 2 Chronicles 34:16, in the New Translation, shows an inspired change in idiom only, though the change reflects Ancient Near Eastern conceptions about the king and his "word" as an all but concrete sacred object to be held inviolate, that is, not to be tampered with but fulfilled to the letter. The verse further evidences, by what remains unchanged, that the Prophet authoritatively confirms the biblical account about Josiah's cleansing of the Temple, discovery of the sacred Book of the Law, and destruction of the Asherah: again, that sacrilegious tree or post placed in God's sanctuary as symbol of the Mother of Abominations--the Great and Abominable Church of the devil, as Nephi would say.

King Josiah has commissioned three officials to preside over the repairs of the House:

Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land, and the house, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, and Maaseiah, the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz the recorder, to repair the house of the LORD his God (KJV 2 Chronicles 34:8).

During the repairs, Hilkiah, the priest, discovers "a book of the law of the Lord, given by Moses" and commits it to Shaphan:

And Shaphan carried the book to the king, and brought the word of the king back again, saying, All that was committed to thy servants, they do (JST 2 Chronicles 34:16).

And--we repeat the inspired affirmation--it pleased the Lord. The wording in the New Translation resounds with cultural depth and gives an understanding of royal commissions, the royal word of command. We see the difference in cultural nuance, when we compare the New Translation with the Authorized Version:

And Shaphan carried the book to the king, and brought the king word back again, saying, All that was committed to thy servants, they do it (KJV 2 Chronicles 34:16).

The Prophet Joseph brought the word of the Scriptures, the word of righteous kings and prophets and judges, even the word of the Lord, back again--and we also sing of how he "brought the Priesthood back again."

And in light of the New Translation--or, for that matter, any translation of the holy writ--I would question the wisdom of following the lead of modern, agenda-striped students on the theme of the Asherah.

For example, consider the implications of associating the symbolism of Asherah and her tree, as some students eagerly do (though intending no harm), with Nephi's vision of the Tree of Life as symbolic of God's eternal love manifest in blessed Mary and her Child.

That the motif of lady-and-tree belongs to the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Kulturkreis has never been in dispute. And given the biological and metaphorical likenesses between woman and tree--the slender willow, the delicately flowering cherry, the perfumed orange--the whole matter must be sufficiently rooted in the human psyche to blossom into correspondences everywhere. A look at the work of Mircea Eliade or Stith Thompson would set things straight (Motif-index of folk-literature).

The idea that the language of Nephi, a lad steeped in the story of Eve and Eden, refers back to apostate Asherah rather than being a reflection of his own cultivated awareness of deeply rooted literary themes, as in the Proverbs and the Song of Songs, is both counter-intuitive and the stuff on which Robert Graves's "white goddess" is made.

Now to the Holy Bible.

To misread the Bible on the worship of the Asherah or of the Queen of Heaven (in Jeremiah 44) is both to misconceive and to misconstrue the Book's very storyline and plot. Whether we choose to accept Scripture, the Bible has its own assumptions about itself. Among these is that Deuteronomy 16:21 (KJV and JST), though penned long before the monarchy came into being, defines just what an Asherah then was and just what an Asherah will be throughout Israelite history--and the plot never varies: "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of trees [Heb. an Asherah] near unto the altar [Temple] of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make thee." King Josiah, in a scene foreshadowing King Messiah's cleansing of the Temple--the role of all righteous kings--"brought out the grove [Asherah] from the house of the Lord, without Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the children of the people [the former adherents of apostate worship]" (2 Kings 23:6, KJV and JST).

One can argue against the Bible's self-assumptions, including the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy, but to do so is to engage in higher criticism, or to follow faddish agenda and archaeological sensationalism, or to rewrite its hard drive (take your pick).

Some will doubtless say we exaggerate concerns; they will say that by espousing sensationalist scholarship, they do not contemplate a merger, only a dalliance. But what of those poor souls who draw back from intellectual dalliance, as a child shrinks from the fire? Being but children, though we reach for the truth, we mistrust the stranger. However goddesses go or sophisticates parade, "always, always, we'll walk in the light."

Yes, Saints continue to reach for the truth of all things. We read and we ponder; we raid library shelves to learn what we can from the best books; we may even study Scripture in Dutch or Hebrew or French or English; but we never lay aside our childlike confidence in the words of the prophets and kings. We trust the keenness of their vision. "Who hath believed our report?" We believe their report.

How abundantly we thank God for a Prophet who, while restoring lost words and threads of biblical text and teachings, also gives us the Bible anew, even the Masoretic Text--including blessed Deuteronomy!--as a true record of Ancient Israel. And thank the Jews for it, for their great role "in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles" (2 Nephi 29:4; see also 1 Nephi 5:11; 19:23; Moses 1:41).

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