“Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Wast Born” – Lesson 2 (Old Testament Manual)
Posted by joespencer on January 10, 2014
Well, it’s been far, far too long since I last posted here at Feast. And I think I might make a habit again this year of posting somewhat regularly. I was called some months ago as one of several Gospel Doctrine teachers in my ward, and that’s reason enough for me to turn my attention back to things here. I didn’t do any posts on the Doctrine and Covenants simply because the lessons in the manual aren’t conducive to the kind of posts I write. But I think I’d like to use the blog here to air thoughts as I work through material for my Old Testament lessons. As always, my notes aren’t much good for others, I suspect. I don’t mean to provide anything like a lesson plan, but only to work through some of the texts I’m wrestling with as I prepare to teach. I should also apologize that I probably won’t get these notes up with much time to spare before others will be teaching these lessons. I just haven’t the time this year to get these done much in advance of my own responsibilities to teach. And I’ll only be working through notes on the lessons I’ll be teaching (every other lesson during the year), for which I also apologize.
Okay, enough stalling. To work!
I’ll be frank from the outset that I find this lesson a bit frustrating. It seems to me that it forces the biblical text—in part by simply avoiding the biblical text and privileging the Books of Moses and Abraham—to tell the story of the plan of salvation in a way foreign to it. As we tell the story, we generally begin from the premortal existence as a kind of setting of the stage, and then we turn to the creation and its aftermath. Not only does the biblical text not do this, the Book of Moses doesn’t do this. We get our first glimpse of the premortal world only in Moses 4, and then it’s a pretty limited glimpse (I’ll say more about that further along). It’s only with the Book of Abraham, rather late in Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, that we get a scriptural text that gives us a story about premortal existence before it gives us a creation story. We’re clearly privileging the Abraham approach, and I find it difficult to shake the feeling that we’re privileging it rather unthoughtfully.
Those are my frustrations, but I’m happy to swallow them for the moment. The task here is to begin to think about the premortal existence. The lesson focuses principally on two texts: Abraham 3:21-28 and Moses 4:1-4. I’ll give my attention exclusively to these two texts. But rather than looking at how the two texts together give us a story we’re far too used to telling about things premortal, I want to look at how different the two accounts of the premortal are. Rather than reconciliation or fusion, let’s play with estrangement and distinction, and see what we can’t learn.
Although we tend to begin from the Book of Abraham version of things and then turn to the Book of Moses version of things—and I won’t deny that there’s a certain logic to that—I want to begin from the Book of Moses version and then turn to the Book of Moses. Moses 4 was given to Joseph Smith more than a decade before Abraham 3. The Book of Moses represents a much milder departure from what was familiar to early Latter-day Saints from the Bible than does the Book of Abraham. I think it’s probably helpful to begin there, then, and only then to look at how the Book of Abraham complicates the story.
A first point, then, that needs to be addressed is the fact that the Book of Moses’s quick peek at the premortal world comes four chapters into the story, and only after the creation story familiar from the Bible has been completely told. Remember how the Book of Moses opens. In Moses 1, we get a story entirely absent in the biblical text: the story of Moses’s experiences in “an exceedingly high mountain” (Moses 1:1), clearly related in certain ways to Moses’s complex experiences related in Exodus 32-34 but unmistakably distinct from and earlier than those experiences. Moses 1 serves as a kind of prologue to the creation, setting up the occasion on which Moses was first given to understand the creation he’d go on to record for posterity. Note, then, that Moses’s mountain-top encounters with God and Satan serve where we’d naturally place a story about the premortal realm. The Book of Moses doesn’t get to the premortal until later.
When does the Book of Moses introduce the premortal? Only after (but immediately after) the creation stories of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—these, though, altered in a host of fascinating ways we’ve got to skip over here. Moses 3 ends, just as Genesis 2, with the creation of Adam and Eve and the statement that they were “naked . . . and were not ashamed” (Moses 3:25). But where Genesis 3 opens with the subtle serpent, Moses 4 opens with an aside about Satan, who—according to the Book of Moses, but never mentioned in Genesis—”put it into the heart of the serpent . . . to beguile Eve” (Moses 4:6). Here the Book of Moses is clearly meant to fix a problem in the Genesis text, which never clarifies the role of Satan in the fall. And it does it not only by stating that Satan inspired the serpent, but also by making clear who Satan was. (In this regard, the opening of Moses 4 is very like 2 Nephi 2:17-18, Lehi’s aside in the middle of his fall story regarding Satan’s premortal origins.) It’s fascinating that it’s only here that Satan’s origin story is told in the Book of Moses. Satan has already been a major character in Moses 1 (and Moses 4:1 makes reference to that fact), but he’s only explained at this point. In other words, it would have been pretty easy to provide a bit of an account of the premortal back in Moses 1, but it’s only here that we get a glimpse. That’s important, I think.
How does all this compare to the Book of Abraham? Not unlike the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham opens with a series of experiences with the divine, experiences that led up to the prophet’s learning of the creation. Abraham’s stories are a bit less transcendent at first, however. Where Moses 1 recounts experiences on a mountain top, Abraham 1-3 recounts experiences on Pharaoh’s altar in Ur, on the road to and through Palestine, and at the borders of Egypt. It’s only as Abraham reaches the boundary of Egypt that something transcendent like Moses’s experience unfolds, but even then it’s apparently from wherever Abraham is sojourning (through the Urim and Thummim) rather than on a sacred mountain top. All those differences are important, but they result in a similar sort of vision: Abraham is given, like Moses, to see the creation. Also like Moses, that vision of the creation begins with a kind of insight into God’s works more generally. We have more detail with Abraham’s experience—with Moses we’re told only that he saw the earth and/or world and its inhabitants, but it’s not clear what that means—and it’s pretty heady stuff: Kolob and so on. (All this is pretty clearly meant to be related to Abraham’s experiences in Genesis 15, but again the occasion is supposed to be distinct—earlier than the biblical occasion.) As this complicated vision winds its way to a conclusion, though, Abraham is given to understand that there’s a kind of parity between God’s creations and uncreated spirits, since both are arranged in some kind of hierarchy: “These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all” (Abraham 3:19). And all this serves as a segue into the creation story Abraham has to tell, which beings with the spirits in their premortal condition.
Here in Abraham, then, the creation story is preceded by a story about the premortal. Also, the story about the premortal is far more robust than in Moses. Where in Moses that story is entirely focused on Satan—his origins and nature—in Abraham the story is focused first and foremost on all “the intelligences that were organized before the world was” (Abraham 3:22). Satan’s story is told, but very briefly and without any emphasis. Because the story of the premortal isn’t in the Book of Abraham meant to explain, after the fact, the existence and nature of a certain character who effectively interrupts the creation after its completion, but is instead meant to explain those who undertook the creation itself, it has a rather different place in the narrative, and a rather different focus. Here we’re being given to understand, not Satan, but those “noble and great ones” (Abraham 3:22) who “went down at the beginning,” those the Book of Abraham doesn’t hesitate to call “the Gods” (Abraham 4:1), to organize the earth.
Even just in terms of narrative placement, then, these two stories about the premortal existence are radically distinct—with different narrative purposes, different emphases, and different main characters. And that’s just the beginning of a whole host of important differences.
The Role of Christ
I’ve already emphasized the fact that Satan is the primary focus of the Moses story, while he’s only a minor element of the Abraham story. If there’s a primary figure in the Abraham story, it’s probably the Son—though there’s a host of ambiguities in the Abraham text that we tend to sweep under the rug. I’ll ignore those ambiguities for the moment and just assume that we’re indeed dealing with Christ where we tend to assume we’re dealing with Christ. So here’s a major difference between the two accounts: although Satan is present in the Abraham account, it’s Christ that’s standing in the spotlight; and although Christ is present in the Moses account, it’s Satan that’s standing in the spotlight. I want, then, to ask about the differences between the presentations of Christ in the two accounts. How do they differ? What role is Christ playing in the Moses account? What role is He playing in the Abraham account?
Here again I’ll begin with the Book of Moses. Christ is actually mentioned there often, though He’s not the central focus. He’s first introduced, fascinatingly, as a figure who helps Moses to identify Satan: “That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning” (Moses 4:1). God doesn’t identify Satan to Moses here by referring to the one who tempted him, or by referring to the one who claimed he was God’s son, or by referring to the one who ranted on the earth. He identifies Satan to Moses by referring to the one whom Moses commanded in the name of God’s “Only Begotten.” From the outset of the Moses account, Satan can’t be understood apart from his subjection to the Son. He’s first and foremost the one who has to submit when he’s commanded in the name of the Son. This same sort of role for Christ comes up in verse 3 as well: “because that Satan rebelled against me . . . by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down.” That’s most interesting. It’s not just Moses who commands Satan in the name of God’s Only Begotten. God Himself deals with Satan through the instrumentality of the Son. It’s not at all clear what “the power of mine Only Begotten” is. Is the idea that the Father had the Son do the dirty work of casting Satan out of heaven? Is the idea that the Son directed what Latter-day Saints call “the war in heaven”? Is the idea that the Father did the work, but did it somehow through or with the power of the Son? Or what? (This question is all the more poignant given the fact that verse 3 seems to distinguish between “mine own power” and “the power of mine Only Begotten.” How are we to understand that difference?)
There’s a first role Christ plays in the Book of Moses account. The more overt role, though, appears in verse 2. This follows on a description of Satan’s arrogant assertion before the Father: “I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind,” etc., in verse 1. Here’s what the text then says: “But, behold, my Beloved Son, which was my Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, said unto me—Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” Here we learn a bit about who the Son is supposed to be: He’s God’s “Beloved and Chosen from the beginning.” It’s not entirely clear what those names are supposed to teach us. Is it significant, for instance, that the word “Son” doesn’t appear after “Beloved” in “Beloved and Chosen”? That is, are we perhaps to understand that the “Beloved Son” was “Beloved” from the beginning, but not the “Son” from the beginning? Is that reading too much into the text? At least this much is clear, there was some kind of chosenness about Christ from quite early on, and that seems to indicate that there was something amiss about Satan’s confrontation described in verse 1. That Satan offered to be God’s son (or demanded it, perhaps) comes across by verse 2 as an attempt to usurp the position already obtained and held by Christ. And then it’s worth noting that Christ here comes into the story when He approaches God immediately after Satan’s offer/demand. And all He says is: “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever.” The first part of that almost sounds as if Christ is willing to let the Father choose Satan, should He desire it. But the second part clarifies the meaning. Since Satan ends his confrontation with “give me thine honor,” Christ’s “the glory be thine forever” seems to stand as a rebuke to Satan’s arrogance. The Son is reasserting His position, affirming His right to it because of His submission to the Father.
There’s much to learn in all that, but let me leave it a bit undeveloped so I can turn to Abraham. What do we find there?
The Abraham 3 passage begins with God standing “in the midst” of “the noble and great” spirits, those He planned to “make [His] rulers” (verses 22-23). And then we get this story: “And there was one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him . . .” (verse 24). We’ll get to what He says in a moment, but let’s make a note or two first. The traditional reading takes this figure “like unto God” to be Christ. The more I look at this passage, though, the more I’m inclined to think it’s best interpreted as Adam, whose other name (Michael) literally means “he who is like God.” But let me stick with the traditional interpretation for at least a moment here, seeing what role Christ plays here if indeed the one “like unto God” is the Son. Here’s what that figure proposes to the other “noble and great ones”: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep the second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (Abraham 3:24-26). There’s a lot going on in these words, but let’s just see what this sort of proposal would imply about Christ’s role in this story. If this figure is indeed the Son, then we have something rather different from the Moses account. In Moses, we get Christ as chosen from the beginning (but that noted only retroactively), and then we get Him countering Satan’s proposal with one of His own—namely, to follow the Father’s already-determined plan. Here in Abraham, though, we get no indication that Christ is chosen from the beginning, only that He’s “like unto God.” And we get no sense here that He’s countering Satan so much as taking on Himself to propose a plan. (Of course, one might suggest that He’s just communicating to others what God has already assigned to Him, but that’s something we bring to the text, not something the text presents to us.)
All that’s interesting, but, as I say, I’m increasingly convinced that we’re off base when we assume that the one “like unto God” is Christ or the Son. Interpretively, it seems more likely to me that we’re seeing Adam or Michael making a proposal. This seems all the clearer to me when, a few verses later, a figure clearly meant to be Christ is described not as one “like unto God,” but as one “like unto the Son of Man” (verse 27). I’m guessing that what we’ve got here is a kind of symmetry of the following kind: the human figure (Adam) is described as “like unto God,” while the divine figure (Christ) is described as “like unto the Son of Man.” The earthly has to be described as like the heavenly, and the heavenly has to be described as like the earthly. That’s what I’m guessing. And if that’s right, then Christ doesn’t really become a major character in the Abraham story until even later. Rather than being the Beloved and Chosen from the beginning, He comes into the story only once Adam has made a proposal regarding the nature of creation and its purposes. Maybe.
At any rate, let’s say something about Christ as He appears in the last part of the Abraham text. Once the plan is proposed, whoever proposes it, we get this: “And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him” (Abraham 3:27-28). Here again we get a kind of reversal or inversion of the Moses story. Rather than Satan being the one who makes a proposal, which Christ then counters with His own, we have Christ making a proposal (“Here am I, send me”), which Satan then counters with his own (“Here am I, send me”). Where in Moses it seems that Christ is the second speaker and God says something like “I will send the second,” here Christ is the first speaking and God says “I will send the first.” Moreover, we get no sense in the Abraham text that one of the two figures is proposing some kind of rebellion, or is proposing to problematize agency, and we get no sense that the other figure means to support God’s original plan. Instead, we get the sense that the two speakers are on the same level. The difference between them emerges not because one accords with God’s plan and the other doesn’t, but because one is chosen over the other, and the other throws a fit: “And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate.” Satan’s rebellion comes in response to God’s choice between two apparent equals, not because he seems to think there’s something wrong with the plan itself—which is suggested in the Moses account.
We’ve got, then, a rather different understanding of Christ in the Abraham story. Of course, the story is sketchy, and perhaps we should fill in all kinds of speculative detail, and perhaps we should do so by drawing on Moses, as we usually do. But I think it’s important to notice how differently these two texts tell this story.
On Isaiah 6
A third point of comparison I’d like to take up is how each of these two texts relates to Isaiah 6. Hopefully that text is familiar enough: Isaiah’s in the temple when the veil is suddenly parted and he sees God—something that fills him with dread until a seraph cleanses his lips with a coal from the altar. Purified, Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord asking His angelic council whom he might send to accomplish what turns out to be a dreadful task: preaching to an intentionally hardened people. Isaiah, though, having joined the angelic throng, offers his services: hineni shalakhni, “Here am I, send me” (Isaiah 6:8). It’s a beautiful response. The first part echoes Abraham’s obedient responsiveness to God, his consistent “Here am I” which is clearly meant to contrast, in the Genesis narrative, with Adam’s hiding at the voice of the Lord. The second part anticipates the apostolic order of the Christian era, since “apostle” means “sent one” (the Greek translation of Isaiah 6:8 uses a form of the word “apostle” for Isaiah’s “send me”). Isaiah is the figure of redeemed humanity: cleansed and attuned to God’s voice, he not only presents himself faithfully and responsively before the Lord, he also asks to be given the work of preaching and angelic ministry.
Why is all of this relevant? Because Isaiah’s “Here am I, send me” was entirely unique to Isaiah in scripture (apart from its partial echoes and partial anticipations, of course) until Joseph Smith provided the world with Moses 4 and Abraham 3. In both of these texts, “Here am I, send me” appears, and in both cases it’s a key feature of premortal events. (Note that it doesn’t appear anywhere else in Restoration scripture either: only in these two narratives.) It’s quite appropriate that Isaiah’s words are to be found in the stories of the premortal council, since it’s precisely in God’s angelic council that Isaiah uses the words, and it’s precisely when the Lord’s determining His purposes regarding the earth that Isaiah uses the words. It’s as if we’re given to understand that this is the right and key response to God’s call in His council. So let’s take a look at how this “Here am I, send me” business functions in our two texts.
Beginning, once more, with Moses, we find the following: “That Satan . . . came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). The first appearance of the phrase in the scriptures of the Restoration is profoundly ironic. It’s found on the lips not of the obedient and faithful, as with Isaiah, but on the lips of the rebellious devil. “Here am I, send me” here becomes a gesture of arrogance. It’s not here an expression of a willing acceptance of a troubling—even paradoxical—assignment, but precisely a rejection of that sort of thing. Isaiah’s “Here am I, send me” is marked by a certain willing trust in God’s intentions even though they seems terribly odd. Satan, however, offers his “Here am I, send me” apparently only because he’s clearly convinced that God’s plan will fail. The muted-but-still-present tone of humility and subjection is thus at best ironic. How can “send me” be coupled with Satan’s constant repetition of “I,” with his arrogant assurance that “surely” he “will do it,” and especially with his demand for God’s “honor”? At any rate, Satan’s “here am I” has an entirely different tone than Isaiah’s does. Where Isaiah’s echoes Abraham in its unflinching faithfulness, its willingness to stand before God, Satan’s seems to be demanding God’s uninterested attention. Satan’s “here am I” isn’t responsive so much as interruptive, it seems.
All this is fascinating. And then it’s all the more fascinating that the phrase doesn’t make a second appearance in the Moses text. When Christ offers His counter-proposal in the next verse, He doesn’t use Isaiah’s words: “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). Christ isn’t here being responsive to God; He’s countering Satan, and so there’s no need for Him to echo Abraham. If we were to get a “Here am I, send me” from Christ, it would presumably have come before Satan’s rebellion. But Moses tells us no such story. For Moses, the borrowing from Isaiah is only undertaken by Satan, and that in a horrible way. Uncleansed, in arrogance, Satan performs a kind of witch’s sabbath parody of Isaiah’s sacramental experience in the divine council. The Book of Moses leaves us thus a bit unsettled on the whole affair.
Very different, again, is the Book of Abraham. There it’s only after the proposed plan has been laid out that we get any echoes of Isaiah—after, that is, the one “like unto God” (who I’m taking to be Adam or Michael) has proposed going down to make an earth. In response to the proposed plan, the Lord asks the very question He asks in Isaiah 6: “Whom shall I send?” (Abraham 3:27). Actually, the question is slightly different, and that may be important. Isaiah 6:8 gives us “Whom shall I send?” But it also gives us “And who will go for us?” That second question is of importance for at least the following reason: the plural first person suggests that the whole council of the gods is to be represented by the sent one. The double question of Isaiah 6 is reduced to a single question here: “Whom shall I send?” We get only an indication that the Lord wants to know whom to send. Still, the heavy presence of a whole council of gods in Abraham may be quite relevant. At any rate, it’s worth noting that the fact that we actually have a question from the Lord in Abraham 3 is significant. In Moses, we simply have Satan showing up, responding to nothing with his “Here am I, send me,” attempting to arrogate to himself a position of authority. In Abraham, however, we have a full proposal of a plan, and then we have the Lord asking a question that deserves and calls for a response.
Then we get the following: “And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first” (Abraham 3:27). This is a very different sort of thing, no? We get two responses, one from someone “like unto the Son of Man,” and one simply from “another.” But both say exactly the same thing: “Here am I, send me.” Each echoes Isaiah’s words exactly. What’s odd when the text is compared with Isaiah 6 is simply that there are two responses rather than one. Is the second supposed to be a kind of parodic echo, a superfluous offer? Or are both offers supposed to be on something like equal grounds? Why is it that we’re told that one’s “like unto the Son of Man,” while the other is reported to us only as the voice of “another”? At any rate, there’s nothing in the actual responses that helps us to differentiate the two. They bear exactly the same form and content, and they seem to offer exactly the same thing. Gone entirely is the suggestion that the second “Here am I, send me” is unresponsive and interruptive, that it transforms the “Here am I” into an arrogant demand for attention, that it makes of the “send me” a gesture of rebellion and attempt at usurpation. Here the “Here am I, send me” seems to be a kind of simple offer, a willingness on the part of two different people among the “noble and great ones” to do God’s work. It would seem that it’s only when the one is chosen that the other rebels and causes real trouble.
Interestingly, we tend to find a great deal of passion and humility in Christ’s “Here am I, send me” here. That’s largely unjustified. If we can find any of that, it seems we’d be able to find it as much in Satan’s “Here am I, send me” as well, since there’s little to differentiate the two. And there’s no further note of how Christ offers Himself. Here we have no talk of God’s will being done, of the glory being the Father’s, or any such thing. We have the simple self-offering that can be found in Isaiah as well. If anything, the “Here am I, send me” of Abraham 3 is less submissive than that of Isaiah 6, simply because the plan is laid out in Abraham 3 beforehand; Isaiah offers himself without having heard what will turn out to be a deeply troubling plan. It’s only laid out for Isaiah after he’s offered himself. So here again Isaiah 6 is taken up—in certain ways now more closely to the biblical text, but in other ways still distant or distant in distinct ways.
Where do these thoughts leave us? I’m not entirely sure. I should be clear that I do think the Moses and Abraham stories can be productively reconciled—intertwined even. I don’t think there’s any particularly wrong with suggesting that the two narratives are giving us to understand different aspects of a single coherent story. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth looking carefully at these tensions between the two texts in order to help us raise questions about how they might shed rather different light on things premortal. How should we think about these two glimpses of something extra-earthly? That’s a question we need to think about much further.