Posted by joespencer on April 16, 2013
I’m teaching the lesson on D&C 42 in Sunday School in a couple weeks, so I thought I’d work through some thoughts out loud here. Hopefully they’ll be of some interest to others.
Verses 18-29, those immediately preceding the actual introduction of the law of consecration, deal quite generally with the commandments: don’t kill (18-19), don’t steal (20), don’t lie (21), don’t commit adultery (22-26), don’t speak evil of others (27). Verse 28 wraps this material up with a kind of general statement: “Thou knowest my laws concerning these things are given in my scriptures; he that sinneth and repenteth not shall be cast out.” And then verse 29 ties obedience to love: “If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments.” All this is, for my purposes here, relatively straightforward—except maybe in one point: What all is included in “all my commandments”? Is the point in verse 29 to say that there’s more, that the list of sorts included in verses 18-27 is just a brief survey but that there’s something in excess of that survey? Might we hear in verse 29 a kind of echo of Matthew 19:16-22—the story of the wealthy young man who asked Jesus what he should do to have eternal life? As in verses 18-27 here, Jesus provides a brief survey of the commandments to be found in the scriptures. As in verse 28 here, the young man responds by saying that he’s known those commandments—as well as kept them from his youth. As in verse 29 here, the young man then asks what he still lacks, and Jesus goes to talk about the possibility of perfection. And what makes for perfection? What’s in excess of the commandments surveyed? “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). If the “all” of verse 29 here in D&C 42 follows the logic of the young man’s question, then it shouldn’t be surprising that verses 30-39 turn from a survey of the commandments generally to the law of consecration. If we, in our dispensation, would be (collectively) perfect, it’d seem that D&C 42:30-39 is the place to start. Let’s not go away from this text sorrowful, especially if we’re inclined to do so because we have great possessions.
That much by way of introduction and initial exhortation. Now what’s actually said in the law of consecration as it’s given us? I might note from the beginning that the passage to be dealt with here was pretty drastically changed by Joseph Smith (and others) between its initial reception (in 1831) and its canonization (in 1835). It isn’t difficult to see why. By the time the revelation saw general circulation in final form (in the 1835 first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants), the Missouri project for which the original revelation had been given had been aborted. The adjustments to the text were obviously meant to make the revelation relevant when Jackson County was out of the picture. I’ve done some work on the difference between the two versions of the text elsewhere, but here I’ll focus just on the text as presently constituted, especially since Jackson County remains, for the moment, out of the picture for us. For those interested in the original text, the earliest extent version can be viewed (with some helpful information about the revelation in general) here. The first actually published version of the revelation (in an early Church newspaper) can be seen here. The 1833 Book of Commandments version of the text can be seen here, and the 1835 version I’ve referred to can be seen here. The current text, of course, can be found here.
To the text, then, and I’ll tackle it verse by verse.
“And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.”
Note the “And” with which this verse begins. I take it this connects this verse to the one that precedes it: “If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments, and behold, thou wilt remember the poor.” If before we might have heard an echo of Matthew 19, here I wonder if I hear an echo of Mosiah 4. In his sermon, King Benjamin recounts the words of an angel concerning the coming Christ (Mosiah 3), to which words his people respond by “view[ing] themselves in their own carnal state,” falling to the earth and crying out for forgiveness (Mosiah 4:2). The result is a remarkable outpouring of the Spirit and a remission of sins. Benjamin then calls their attention anew, pleading with them not just to experience this sort of thing once, but to “remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and [their] own nothingness” (Mosiah 4:11). His claim is that if they do so, they “shall always rejoice” (Mosiah 4:12), instead of doing so only for a short time. And then he begins to explain the kinds of things that will flow from that constant remembrance—the kinds of things they will do: they’ll not injure one another, they’ll treat their children well, they’ll succor those who need succor, they’ll take care of the beggar, etc. Perhaps something similar is at work here in D&C 42:29-30. “If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments.” And then, if one does that sort of thing, here’s what will naturally result: “thou wilt remember the poor.” That the result in question is similar to the one Benjamin identifies—conversion leads directly to a disappearance of selfishness as one takes care of the poor—is suggestive. I suspect the parallel between the texts is real: if we actually love God (is that the same as recognizing God’s goodness and our own nothingness?), our hearts simply will turn to the poor.
Well, not just to turn to the poor: remember the poor. It’s an important phrase. It might be a bit of a shock to learn that this phrase, “remember the poor,” appears only twice in scripture. Twice! No more! It appears here in D&C 42:30, obviously. It appears elsewhere only in Galatians 2:10. And that should get us thinking about the possibility that there’s an intended connection. What’s going on in Galatians 2:10? There Paul is recounting in his own words what took place at the Jerusalem council reported in Acts 15, during which it was decided what should be done about the conversion of the Gentiles. In verse 10, with his reference to remembering the poor, Paul is talking about the request from Jerusalem that he begin what is usually called simply, “the collection,” a gathering together of resources from the Gentiles that would be used for the Israelite poor in Jerusalem. As several texts in his letters make clear, Paul understood the collection to be symbolic of the Gentiles’ recognition of the “Jews first, and also the Gentiles” relationship that had been established in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets: the Gentiles’ contributions to Israel was to be a fulfillment of the prophets’ anticipations of all (Gentile) nations gathering with Israel in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, bringing their wealth to lay before the feet of the chosen people. When Paul speaks of remembering the poor, he has these prophetic traditions and their ultimately fulfillment in mind. And there’s reason to think that D&C 42:30 is alluding to the same things. Note that it’s not only the brief instance of “remember the poor” that suggests this connection, it’s also the straightforward statement of D&C 42:39 that confirms it. I’ll say more about that verse later, but notice what it says, as a kind of conclusion to what the Lord says about the law of consecration: “For it shall come to pass, that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.” That’s reason enough to take this link seriously.
Next in this verse we get actual talk of consecration: “and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them.” What should we understand by the word “consecrate”? The word appears most often in scripture to have reference to ordinances through which something—most commonly a priest—is made sacred, which would certainly seem to be the most literal meaning of the English word. But perhaps these references are less important than the one—the only one—elsewhere in scripture where riches are said to be consecrated: Micah 4:13 (quoted, significantly, in 3 Nephi 20:19). Significantly, the Hebrew word used in that passage is distinct from the Hebrew words used in other Old Testament references to consecration, suggesting that the consecration of riches may itself be a different matter. Where other references to consecration use words indeed referring to rendering something sacred, the word translated as “consecrate” in Micah 4:13 is kharam, the word used elsewhere in the Old Testament to refer to something on which a divine ban has been placed. The word indicates an act by which something is removed from ordinary use, rendering it unsubstitutable. The word is often used to refer to those things captured in holy war that were not to be distributed as booty, but were to be destroyed. What is consecrated is thus, it seems, what is subtracted from every economy (the underlying principle of which is exchange and therefore substitutability), what cannot be circulated in ordinary use, what cannot therefore be in any sense owned. Hence, to consecrate property is precisely to render it improper, to dis-own it, as it were, so that it can’t function in a circulating economy. The point, it seems, behind using the word “consecrate” is to keep what’s happening here in D&C 42 from being a mere economic program, a transfer of property from one person (wealthier) to another (poorer). It’s instead to be understood as a troubling of economy, a transformation of the idea of property as such, and a reworking of the notion of use.
What’s just been said might help to qualify “for their support” and “that which thou hast to impart unto them.” While we might naturally read these two phrases as references to a simple transfer, an imparting of certain properties to those would use them for their support, the idea of consecration complicates things in an important way. It’s clear that the act of consecration is meant somehow to result in the support of the poor—and apparently, as we’ve already seen, most specifically the poor of the house of Israel, but we’ll be coming back to that. But it’s not clear that the way that support is effected is through a direct transfer of property. At any rate, we’re not told simply to remember the poor by imparting property unto them, but to remember the poor by consecrating what property we have to impart unto them. It’s as if we’re to take what we might have simply imparted to the poor through a transfer of ownership, and we’re to do something different with it—something that will still result in the poor’s being fully supported, but something that nonetheless can’t be regarded as a simple transfer of property. What might in a secular context be a simple handing over of things must here take the shape of a consecration, a putting out of play, a de-economizing. And that’s something we’ve got to think about carefully.
Finally, all this is to be done through “a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.” There should be nothing surprising about this passage tying consecration to a covenant, and apparently to a most serious covenant. But there’s also a practical matter here: too many early Saints would consecrate their property, then demand it back when they apostatized. This part of the passage calls for a legal deed which disavows any consecrated property. There’s no reclamation of property after consecration, if one follows the order of things here laid out—legally, even. But let’s leave that as a minor point and turn to the next verse.
“And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.”
This verse opens with a phrase that makes a subtle but undeniable allusion: the coupling of “inasmuch as [ye do something] unto [someone]” formula with “ye will do it unto me” makes clear that there’s a link between this passage and Matthew 25:40: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Remember the context: Jesus is in the middle of the parable of the sheep and goats; the sheep are those who will have taken care of the poor, the naked, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, etc., without knowing that Christ was somehow represented in/by them. Here in D&C 42, ironically, the formula seems to mean something different. There’s still a link between doing something for the poor and similarly disadvantaged and doing something for the Lord, but the nature of that link seems different. In Matthew 25, the idea is that one does something for the Lord unknowingly by doing something for the disadvantaged. In D&C 42, the idea is that if one wants to do something for the disadvantaged, one should knowingly do it by establishing a certain relationship to the Lord. We’ve already seen this developing in verse 30: rather than taking up a too-simple economic relationship with the poor, the Saints are to consecrate, establishing a certain relationship to the Lord in their care for the poor. What this looks like, though, will have to become clear as the rest of the verse (and larger passage) unfolds.
The verse goes on to use a plural pronoun, “they,” which—unless we’ve got a bit of bad grammar here, which is not an impossibility, of course—would seem to refer back, not to “substance” (earlier in verse 31), but to “properties” (back in verse 30). What of those properties, then? “They shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors.” Note how explicit this is. The properties that one would impart to the poor are not to be imparted to the poor, at least not directly. Instead, they’re to be “laid before the bishop” in an act of consecration—of displacement of things from property relations. The bishop and his counselors, it seems, are a stand-in for the Lord, representative of Him in receiving consecrated properties. There are all kinds of reasons one might get nervous about that, but we’ll see why it’s important, I think. That there is some kind of earthly representative seems to be necessary, especially if we’re going to take the unbreakable-deed business of verse 30 seriously: without some kind of legal earthly entity to receive what’s consecrated (and to hold it as legal property, even though it’s no longer actual property within the context of the kingdom), it remains possible for those leaving the Church to reclaim their erstwhile properties, and so to cause all kinds of troubles. But let’s get on to verse 32 (leaving all the specifications about counselors out of our discussion).
“And it shall come to pass, that after they are laid before the bishop of my church, and after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church, that they cannot be taken from the church, agreeable to my commandments, every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration, as much as is sufficient for himself and family.”
Note how the first half of this verse deals anew with all this unbreakable-deed stuff. Not only are the properties in question “laid before the bishop of [the Lord's] church,” they have to be handed over with “testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of [the Lord's] church, that they cannot be taken from the church,” all that “agreeable to [the Lord's] commandments.” Here the emphasis is, again, clearly on ensuring that whatever has once been consecrated can’t be reclaimed from the Church, causing all kinds of problems. But I think that point is largely clear, and I don’t want to dwell on it. From the first part of the verse, I’m interested just in the repeated “afters.” After the act of consecration, and after the covenant and deed have been made so that there won’t be any trouble, something else happens. And that’s where we want to focus.
So what happens next? “Every man shall be made accountable unto [the Lord], a steward over his own property.” The language of “property” is carefully done here, it seems to me. Those consecrating have given over their excess properties, consecrated them to the Lord for the support of the poor. They retain their “own property,” of course, whatever they wouldn’t have been able to impart to the poor. But even here we’re being told that this “property” doesn’t really remain property. Or at least, if it does remain property at the legal level (it’s still called “property”), it doesn’t in the context of the Kingdom. One is no longer the owner of what property remains in their hands or under their control; one becomes “a steward over” it. Ownership, even of what one doesn’t give over for the support of the poor, gives way here to stewardship. And this is something we’ve got to think about most carefully. What does it mean to be a steward? And how does stewardship differ from ownership? How should we think about these two orders of things? These are questions we need to think about carefully.
But I’ll leave verse 32 at that. We might think a bit about the emphasis on family—perhaps better would be “household,” since we tend to think of family far too narrowly today—and especially about what it implies, but I’ll leave that for another occasion.
“And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants. Therefore, the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council of the church, and the bishop and his council.”
I think I’ll let these verses speak for themselves. The idea is clear enough: after an initial consecration that ensures that all in Zion have sufficient for their needs and purposes, whatever hasn’t been needed or used is to be kept in a storehouse to take care of anything that may come along—first for “the poor and the needy.” There are a few interesting details that come into the story here, like the sudden introduction into the story of the high council, etc. But these are details I’m not terribly interested in working on here. I’ll leave them for another time and turn to what comes next.
“And for the purpose of purchasing lands for the public benefit of the church, and building houses of worship, and building up of the New Jerusalem which is hereafter to be revealed.”
Here we’re still dealing with what the excess funds kept in the storehouse are to be used for. Verses 33-34 emphasis the way those resources are to be used first and foremost for the poor. Now, though, we get an additional point: they’re also to be used for corporate endeavors: purchasing land for the Church, building houses of worship, and building up the New Jerusalem itself. There’s perhaps a way in which this point is obvious, but there’s another in which it’s not so obvious. Why shouldn’t individuals or households simply get together to build houses of worship? Or why shouldn’t individuals be asked to purchase lands for the Church? Or why should everyone’s efforts together serve to build up the New Jerusalem? After all, such largely individual initiative is how we get a good deal of the work of the Church done today—though we also draw on the general Church funds to do much or even most of it. The practical, obvious response is that if all have indeed consecrated all they have that is in excess of what they need, they won’t have any left over to use for these sorts of corporate projects, so the resources would have to come from the storehouse. But I wonder if there isn’t more to think about here than just that.
Part of what has to be thought about here is the tension between the private and the public, between the proper and the common. The transformation of ownership into stewardship is itself a certain way of undoing the idea of the proper (of property), but it’s not clear to what extent the shift to stewardship foregrounds the common. In becoming a steward, especially if the consecration that renders one a steward is a consecration to God, one isn’t so much directed to other people and so to the common as one is directed to God. Is it only in these kinds of corporate efforts—public lands, public buildings, the construction of the New Jerusalem—that the common comes to play a role in things? This seems to me to be on the right track. And if so, it suggests to me that the Lord in D&C 42 is providing an alternative to what might be regarded as the most obvious way to rupture the selfishness associated with ownership. Let me see if I can’t make this clear.
Rather naturally, I think, we want to think that the best way out of selfishness is to begin to focus (if not to begin to be forced to focus) on others. Similarly, when we think of alternatives to self-centered systems of ownership, we begin by thinking about corporate ownership, ways of holding things in common. The Lord here suggests that there’s an intermittent step, one that might be taken to be necessary to a full dispossession of things, as well as necessary to render possible any real having-in-common. What’s that step? Consecration, a certain directedness to God. I’m tempted sorely to get extremely philosophical here—I’m sure I’m already being far too philosophical for most people’s tastes!—but I’ll try to forebear. I hear the Lord implicitly suggesting here that the only way to keep other-directedness from ultimately being rooted in some kind of selfishness is to have it built on a consecration to God. Indeed, how else are we to understand the very first gesture we looked at in this post: what you would’ve given to the poor shouldn’t be given to the poor (at least not directly), but should instead be consecrated to the Lord. Is the problem that there’s a danger in direct giving that the once-wealthy remain benefactors and the once-poor remain beneficiaries? Or is the problem that there’s a danger in individual initiative that only the wealthy or once-wealthy are viewed as actually providing the collective with means? I suspect it’s something like this that’s at the root of the Lord’s words here.
So consecration results in at least three things by this point in the revelation: (1) excess property is consecrated to the Lord (through the bishop), who ensures that all who have insufficient are outfitted; (2) whatever property is retained by a household—as well as whatever property is given to a household that was in need—becomes a matter of stewardship rather than ownership; (3) whatever is still in excess is kept for future assistance for the poor, as well as for projects common to those living in consecration. Every household in the community remains focused first and foremost on God, bound to Him by covenant, and focused on whatever work He would have done. What all that aims at becomes clear only in the next verses.
“That my covenant people may be gathered in one in that day when I shall come to my temple. And this I do for the salvation of my people.”
This verse opens with a reference to the Lord’s “covenant people.” How is this to be understood? We’re too quick today to think simply of members of the Church, perhaps in part because—thanks to our patriarchal blessings, etc.—we recognize our belonging to Israel. For a moment, though, let’s hear in “covenant people” simply Israel regardless of our own belonging to that category. The emphasis, it seems clear, is on Israel. And how would members of the Church have understood such a reference in 1831 when this revelation was received? Few if any of them as yet identified themselves with Israel (that would come later), and they wouldn’t immediately have thought of the Jews either. They would have heard in it a reference to the prophecies and promises of the Hebrew prophets, and those specifically as they are clarified by the Book of Mormon. The early Saints would have heard in this talk of the “covenant people” a reference to the Lamanites, and then to the scattered of Israel more generally. The purpose of using common funds to build the New Jerusalem in their view—and it’s a view we should take seriously—would have been to redeem downtrodden, overlooked Israel. The common purpose here isn’t to provide a city for the primarily European Saints, but to provide a city and a refuge for the scattered of Israel. (Among the reasons Jackson County would be declared the place for the New Jerusalem was the fact that the American government was relocating Native Americans to that area. Remember that it was referred to in early revelations as “among the Lamanites.”)
What, though, about the covenant people? They’re to be “gathered in one.” There’s much that could be said about this: about the oneness involved, about the notion of the gathering, and about how all that fits into the prophets’ words. I’ll leave that off here, though, to focus on the reference to the temple. This gathering in one has to precede “that day when [the Lord] shall come to [His] temple.” This is rather obviously a reference to Malachi 3-4. (Note that this phrase, “come to my/his temple” appears in only five places in scripture: Malachi 3:1, the quotation of Malachi 3:1 in 3 Nephi 24:1, the clear reference to Malachi 3:1 in D&C 36:8, the still clearer reference to Malachi 3:1 in D&C 133:2, and this passage in D&C 42.) What’s going on in Malachi 3-4, a text heavily emphasized in the Restoration? It discusses a time when the Lord will come, suddenly, to His temple, surprising the apostate priesthood but redeeming Israel at the same time. What the Lord announces here in D&C 42, then, is that He needs a temple to be built and a gathering of Israel to take place before Malachi’s prophecy is completely fulfilled. (It isn’t clear what’s to be done with the suggestion of an apostate priesthood, etc., in this allusion, so I’ll leave that as an open question.) The chief point, it seems, is that the focus is on the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. That’ll become key in verse 39 again, and in a still more important way, I think.
At any rate, all this is “for the salvation of [the Lord's] people.” Here again we have a specification that the directedness of the Saints is to be elsewhere and otherwise than both self and, even, other. The Saints aren’t to seek their own, nor are they just to watch out for the good of their neighbors. They’re being caught up in something much larger, much grander—the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, the building of a New Jerusalem for the gathering of the Lord’s covenant people, the preparation of the world for the end of history. Whatever is held in common is not held in common so that there’s a perfect economic system, a kind of “divinely orchestrated state communism” as it’s sometimes said. It’s held in common so that it’s possible to set the stage for a work that overturns every earthly expectation. That becomes, I think, even clearer in verse 39. But we’ve got to turn, briefly, to verses 37 and 38 first.
“And it shall come to pass, that he that sinneth and repenteth not shall be cast out of the church, and shall not receive again that which he has consecrated unto the poor and the needy of my church, or in other words, unto me—For inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these, ye do it unto me.”
Here, rather obviously, the focus returns to the question of the “covenant” and “deed” that “cannot be broken” (in verse 30). Property can’t be reclaimed once it’s been consecrated. And note that we get again an allusion to—or rather, this time, a direct quotation of—Matthew 25:40. These two verses bring us back to that theme, but only more clearly, more directly. But since we’ve dealt with these themes, I want to turn to verse 39 and finish off this (far-too-long) post.
“For it shall come to pass, that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled; for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.”
Here all talk of the covenant and of the prophets is made perfectly clear, and here the law of consecration as originally given to the Saints comes to a kind of fruition. This verse deserves close attention. I’ll take it line by line.
The verse opens with “for it shall come to pass.” It’s a phrase that appears often on the lips of the Hebrew prophets (twenty-five times, for instance, in the Book of Isaiah), something that is all too appropriate given what’s going to be said in the course of this verse. It’s important to note how this phrase marks a kind of transition from what’s been going on in the verses preceding it. Just as the phrase “and it came to pass” consistently marks narrative progression in the Book of Mormon, such that transitions from non-narrative material to narrative material are always marked by the phrase, here we see a transition of sorts happening from what might be called “legal” material (Joseph Smith described section 42 as embracing the law of the Church) to narrative material—albeit a projected narrative, a narrative that will take place. Projected narrative: that’s the sort of discourse one gets from the prophets. The point here is to note that shift in tone. In verses 30-38, we’ve had instruction to the Saints regarding what is to be done; in verse 39, we get a kind of conclusion to that instruction by turning to a word of prophecy, of projected narrative. That it opens with “for” suggests that we’re now getting a kind of justification for all the policies that have been laid out.
What’ll come to pass? Apparently the following: “that which I spake by the mouths of my prophets shall be fulfilled.” There’s something curious about this projection. The prophets, we’ve seen, often speak by saying “it shall come to pass.” Here we’re being given a kind of prophecy—“it shall come to pass”—that the prophecies of the prophets will be fulfilled. This is a kind of meta-prophecy, a prophecy regarding prophecy: the Lord prophesies that prophecies will be fulfilled. The point here, it seems, is more to confirm the validity of ancient prophecy than to add to that collection. The Lord wants it simply to be known that what the prophets announced—indeed, what the Lord Himself spoke by the mouths of the prophets—still holds, still will be fulfilled. If we return to the importance of the “for” that opens this verse, we now see that it’s the eventual fulfillment of the prophets’ words that motivates the legal material provided in the preceding verses. Why bother to set up this whole law of consecration and stewardship? Because it will have something to do with the fulfillment of the ancient prophets. Those ancient prophecies are still relevant and moving toward fulfillment, and their relevance is to be found in the law just given: those prophets had an eye on what would happen through the law of consecration.
Were the ancient prophets so interested in a non-oppressive economic order still to come? Well, actually, the answer is rather straightforwardly: yes. At least, the answer is positive if we’re focused on the poor being redeemed from oppression. It’s less clear—here as well as in the prophets’ writings themselves—that they were particularly interested in an economic order of any sort. But as it turns out, neither is the law of consecration as laid out so far an economic order. As we’ve seen, it’s a kind of disruption of every economic order, a de-economizing of economy. And so it probably shouldn’t surprise us that the next part of the verse doesn’t look to a kind of economic order. We get something rather different, actually: “for I will consecrate of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.” That is apparently the fulfillment of all the prophets, the thing they looked forward to. And we can find it throughout the prophets’ writings: they collectively looked to a day when all the world—the Gentiles—would gather about Israel to worship the Lord, the God of Israel, and they prophesied that the Gentiles would at that time bring their riches to Israel, to ensure that Israel was fully redeemed from its downtrodden state.
But we’ve only begun to make sense of this culminating phrase of the Lord’s outline of the law of consecration. Let’s take it more slowly, piece by piece.
“I will consecrate…” This would seem to be a direct echo of Micah 4:13, already discussed above a bit. Here are verses 11-13 from Micah 4: “Now also many nations are gathered against thee, that say, Let her be defiled, and let our eye look upon Zion. But they know not the thoughts of the LORD, neither understand they his counsel: for he shall gather them as the sheaves into the floor. Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion: for I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thy hoofs brass: and thou shalt beat in pieces many people: and I will consecrate their gain unto the LORD, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth.” Notice what’s going on here. Many nations (literally: Gentiles) are gathered against Israel, hoping to defile her, but God overturns all such plans and instead gives Israel to conquer—and spoil—her enemies. And so someone, apparently not the Lord (since this person refers to the Lord in the third person), says: “I will consecrate their gain unto the LORD, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth.” The Lord intervenes and gives Israel to conquer the Gentiles, and then those conquering offer up all that they take in devotion to the Lord, putting it out of economic play. There’s an echo of this passage here in D&C 42, but with a kind of reversal. Rather than Israel announcing that they will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles to the Lord, we have the Lord announcing that He will consecrate the riches of the Gentiles to Israel. That’s most interesting.
“…of the riches of those who embrace my gospel among the Gentiles…” There is here, I think, a reference Isaiah 61:6, though it may not appear so. The phrase “the riches of the Gentiles” comes from Isaiah 61:6. It doesn’t exactly appear here, but it does appear in the original version of this revelation. It was only with Joseph Smith’s (and others’) edits for the 1835 version of the text that “those who embrace my gospel among” was added. There was a clear reference to Isaiah 61:6 in the original, and I think we ought to see it still here. Why is that important? Well, I personally find it fascinating at the very least because it’s that very phrase (though translated as “the wealth of the nations”) that Adam Smith borrowed from Isaiah 61:6 for the title of his obviously-important book on the nature of economy. The Lord, speaking to a rather different Smith, uses the same passage, but with a remarkably different aim: not to outline the generalizable laws of the secular economy, but to point to the economic (or really de-economizing) ramifications of the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles. What the Lord intends to consecrate to Israel is specifically what the Gentiles have amassed.
But that’s only to get started with this passage. What’s to be done with the addition: “those who embrace my gospel among”? Is the point just to suggest that there’s only a part of the Gentiles who will embrace the gospel, while all of Israel will eventually be saved, as Paul claims in Romans 11? Is the point perhaps to clarify that the riches of the Gentiles aren’t to be taken by force but are rather to be given freely? Might the point be to make clear that the Gentiles in general have no particular obligation to Israel, but those among them who genuinely embrace the gospel will feel such an obligation? Is the point to indicate that those who feel no responsibility for redeeming Israel haven’t really embraced the gospel? Or what else? I hope it’s clear that there’s a fair bit of ambiguity about this passage. Let me leave that ambiguity as it is, and turn to the next part of the verse.
“…unto the poor of my people who are of the house of Israel.” Here as in the previous bit we have an addition for the 1835 edition that makes a difference. The original revelation was lacking “the poor of.” So let’s leave that off for a moment in order to see what seems originally to have been at work in this verse. The riches of the Gentiles shall be consecrated, by the Lord, unto His people, namely, those who are of the house of Israel. Here again it’s clear that the prophets are being echoed. They foresaw a day in which the wealth of all nations would be brought to Israel, to help to redeem her and to enrich her as she led the way in the worship of the true God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But all this we’ve already outlined. What’s curious about this last part of verse 39 is the addition, for the 1835 edition, of “the poor of.” How are we to think about that? Well, in light of all that’s been said about the poor generally in this text, it’s not hard to start thinking about how the principal aim of redeeming Israel is to take care of those who are poor among them. That’s not a terrible place to start, of course, since one of the chief aims of consecration is to ensure that the poor are watched over. In light of this it’d seem that the point is to make sure that the poor not only of the Church, but also of all Israel, regardless of their relation to the Church, are taken care of. Part of the point, it seems, is to say that the general funds of the Church should be used to build up Israel, regardless of whether they’re prepared yet to embrace the gospel. There’s much to think about there.
But there’s more that might be said here. It’s interesting to note that “the poor” was among the names the early Christian Church gave to itself, and there’s good evidence that name was one they drew from Judaism generally. There’s evidence, in other words, that Israel itself constitutes “the poor.” Some scholars have argued that something like this has to be heard behind Paul’s talk of “remembering the poor,” discussed above: the point was not for Paul just to gather funds that could be used to feed the poor in Jerusalem, but to gather funds that would be handed over to “the poor,” Israel, the Jews quite generally. Paul understood his purpose in gathering up “the collection,” on this account, less to be a question just of ensuring that all the poor were taken care of, and more to be a question of fulfilling the words of the prophets concerning the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles. He was gathering the Gentiles into the gospel, and then clarifying for them that they were a part of prophetic anticipation, and they should therefore begin to use their wealth—whatever they had in excess—to redeem Israel itself. That D&C 42:30-39 opens with an allusion, already discussed above, to Paul’s task of gathering up such funds suggests that the law of consecration and stewardship is the modern parallel to what Paul felt himself obliged to do. That’s something we ought to be thinking about more often, it seems to me.
And I’ll leave off these notes here. They’re rough—and far too long—but hopefully they’re helpful to some who are working through this text.
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