Monday, August 29, 2011

Mormonism and Ancient Israel

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes a lot of big claims. One of these claims is that it is a restoration of and welding link to many of the keys and beliefs held by ancient Israel from the days of Adam and onward. Just read this excerpt from D&C 128:18:
 . . . for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Pretty bold stuff, eh? In this, the dispensation of the fulness of times (which is a bold enough claim in the first place), we have many things that ancient Israel and the early Christians possessed that have been lost to the world. But not only that, we even have things they didn't! Additionally, we Latter-day Saints call ourselves children of Israel and claim that through us the restoration and gathering of the tribes of Israel will take place, and to a certain extent is already taking place through missionary work (see D&C 110:11 and the tenth Article of Faith).

Mormonism as an Ancient Faith

Yes, these claims are awfully bold, and probably absurd to many. But I say no Christian faith is complete without them. These claims give us the necessary link to ancient Israel and to the prophecies and teachings of the Bible, the lack of which leaves many Bible-believers wanting. I used to belong to a "mega-church" where there were light shows and rock concerts every Sunday morning. There was little to no ceremony or anything that made it feel like an ancient faith, as Christianity is. In fact, everything felt thoroughly modern, which was probably the point of it all. The church was supposed to make the modern person feel entirely comfortable. But, the fact remains that Christianity is an ancient religion, and therefore should not be entirely at home with our modern culture. Most of the ideas of Christianity extend to far before Christ lived on the earth. Looking to the teachings of Moses and even earlier prophets will lead you to the same things Christ taught. So it shouldn't be strange if a truly Christian church had many aspects that felt ancient or bizarre to modern people.

When I was investigating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this ancient aspect was something I came to notice. I realized that it had far more in common with ancient Israel than did any of the other churches I had attended. I also realized that it made sense for it to be this way if it was truly a restoration of ancient things as the Church claimed to be.

For the rest of this post, I'd like to make a list of practices and beliefs that we Latter-day Saints hold in common with ancient Israel that, to my knowledge, no other Christian Church does (at least not to the same extent). It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list, but merely one that comprises the things I began to notice as I was investigating the Church.

Commonalities Between Ancient Israelites & Mormons
  • Temple Worship. This is perhaps the most obvious similarity. Both groups believe in building Houses of the Lord in order to worship Him in a sanctified place that is separate from the world. Both groups make sacred covenants and perform sacred ordinances in said temples. In both peoples' temples, there are different areas representing differing levels of sanctity and which only certain priesthood types can enter. Both groups see temple worship as a highlight of their religious activity and often make long pilgrimages to be there.
  • Ritualistic Worship. This goes hand-in-hand with temple worship, but I thought I'd make the distinction anyway. In addition to personal prayer, both groups use ritual as one way to worship God. For Latter-day Saints, the ritualistic/symbolic nature of the temple and the sacrament come to mind, as well as the practice of anointing with oil and laying on of hands. And, obviously, there are things such as animal sacrifice and many aspects of the law of Moses and temple worship on the ancient Israel side.
  • Use of Sacred Clothing. Part of the worship of God in both groups involves the donning of sacred clothing in association with their temple worship.
  • God as Our Heavenly Father. Both groups seem to view God as the literal Father of our spirits. Now, I know not all agree on this one, but my own studies have led me to this conclusion. Numbers 16:22 and 27:16 both reference our Father as "God of the spirits of all flesh." And Malachi asks, "Have we not all one father?" (Mal. 2:10). The clearest evidence comes from Jesus's quoting of Psalms 82:6, which states, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High." When the accusation of blasphemy reached Jesus for calling Himself the Son of God, he answered, "Is it not written in your law, I said, ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?" (John 10:34-36). The meaning is clear: if the scriptures call us all gods, and children of the most High God, then it is not blasphemy for Jesus to call Himself the Son of God.
  • Heavenly Mother. The LDS Church's "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," declares that every human being is a "beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents." Reason tells us in the Church that if there exists a Father in Heaven, then there must be a Heavenly Mother. Even so, we know little about the subject, and are taught only to pray to our Heavenly Father. Many gawk at this belief, but modern scholarship is making us more and more sure that the ancient Israelites believed the same thing. See
  • The Divine Council. LDS theology references a divine council in Heaven consisting of the premortal spirit children of El Elyon (translated the Most High God), among whom was the firstborn, Jehovah, or Jesus Christ. This divine council in heaven was responsible for the creation, thus the plural "ours" and "us's" in the Genesis creation account. Modern scholarship is finding that this appears to be exactly what the ancient Israelites believed as well. See, this Wikipedia article, and this excellent post on Mormanity.
  • The Corporeality of God. If we (and ancient Israel) believe that we are literal offspring of heavenly parents, and that, as the Bible says, we are made in His image, then the logical conclusion is that God has a physical body, albeit a glorified, perfected body. In the Hellenized world of today, this belief is considered absurd. But it's right at home in an ancient faith.
  • Polygamous Heritage. The LDS Church's history with polygamy continues to be one of its most controversial aspects, among members and non-members alike. One of the things that hit me as I was investigating the Church was that whether I joined the Church or not, I already had a polygamous heritage as a Christian. A reading of the Old Testament reveals that nearly every major figure in ancient Israel was a polygamist: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc. In the case of David we even have 2 Samuel 12:8 saying that God, through the prophet Nathan, gave to David his wives, and would have given him more if it were not enough for him. In addition, the Bible claims Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. So, as a Christian, I already had to deal with polygamy as a practice at least not condemned by God. And as can be seen on this Christian web site, Christians and Latter-day Saints even seem to give the same reasons for why polygamy may have been practiced by its foundational members–1) to care for the large number of women and 2) to produce a large population quickly. But regardless of how you explain it–like it or not, polygamy is not only a Mormon problem. The only difference appears to be that Latter-day Saint polygamy occurred more recently, and therefore is more fresh in the public mind.
  • "A Peculiar People." I don't imagine our critics will disagree with this one. Let's face it, Mormons are an unusual people. In making our baptismal and temple covenants, we agree to separate ourselves from many of the world's pleasures and devote our lives to serving Christ and living according to His standards. This often places us at odds with many worldly practices and ideas. Others who do not understand Latter-day Saint beliefs tend to see us as "odd." It was the same with ancient Israel. Deuteronomy chapter 14 states, "For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth" (v. 2).
  • Health Laws. In both Latter-day Saint and ancient Israelite belief, the Lord has given a code of health whereby to live. In both cases, adherents believe abiding by the code will bring physical and spiritual blessings. However, the Israelite code of health was part of the Law of Moses. Therefore, Latter-day Saints do not adhere to that code because we believe the Law of Moses was fulfilled at Christ's coming. Our health code, "The Word of Wisdom," seems to be more about avoiding the snares of addiction, thus we avoid addictive substances such as coffee, tea, alcohol, and drugs.
  • Gathering of Israel. The gathering of Israel is a major theme in the Old Testament (see The Lord reassured the ancient Israelites that even though they were being scattered then, at a future date He would gather them all together again. Yet, in much of modern Christianity, this idea is all but ignored. I do not remember ever hearing of the Lord restoring ancient Israel in my days as a Protestant. So what comes of all the ancient prophecy? Well, Latter-day Saints do believe in the literal gathering of Israel, and believe that it is now underway. We believe the keys to this gathering were given to the Church by Moses in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836 (D&C 110:11). It is even one of our Articles of Faith.
Anyway, these are just a few of the major similarities. You may have noticed that the beliefs and practices of Latter-day Saints that are most often criticized are those shared with the ancient Israelites. At least, that is what I came to notice. It just goes to show that this religion is no modern-day concoction. In fact, it struggles to defend its ancient beliefs in a thoroughly modern world in which, if modern, this religion should feel most comfortable.

P.S. For more information on this topic and a truly fascinating read, read the essay by Methodist preacher and Cambridge-educated theologian/Bible scholar Margaret Barker entitled "What Did King Josiah Reform?"

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