Sunday, October 18, 2015

2 Samuel 6:6-7 "and God smote him there for error"

And when they came to Nachon’s threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it.
And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.

In 2 Samuel chapter 6, David got the bright idea to move the ark of the covenant to his city. He knew that the ark has been in times past a harbinger of great blessings. But neither David nor any of the others he involved in his plan bothered to consider the strict guidelines the Lord had established for transporting the ark. Uzzah was one appointed to help with the move. Unfortunately when the ark shook and Uzzah put forth to steady the ark, the Lord struck him dead for touching the ark.

In our modern era this episode is often cited as an example that people without authority shouldn't seek to "steady the ark" or direct how the Church is moving. D&C 85 started this line of thinking, but it's still taught regularly. Take for example this quote from the Old Testament Institute Student Manual:

“Uzzah’s offence consisted in the fact that he had touched the ark with profane feelings, although with good intentions, namely to prevent its rolling over and falling from the cart. Touching the ark, the throne of the divine glory and visible pledge of the invisible presence of the Lord, was a violation of the majesty of the holy God. ‘Uzzah was therefore a type of all who with good intentions, humanly speaking, yet with unsanctified minds, interfere in the affairs of the kingdom of God, from the notion that they are in danger, and with the hope of saving them.’"(Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 2:2:333.)

The quote above is then followed by this commentary:

"In modern revelation, the Lord made reference to this incident to teach that very principle (see D&C 85:8). The Lord is in His heavens and does not need the help of men to defend His kingdom. Yet in our own time we see those who fear the ark is tottering and presume to steady its course. We hear of those who are sure that women are not being treated fairly in the Church, of those who would extend some unauthorized blessing to those not yet ready, or of those who would change the established doctrines of the Church. Are these not ark-steadiers? The best intentions do not justify such interference with the Lord’s plan."

Taking away this lesson from the story of Uzzah is not inappropriate. However I'm afraid that we get so caught up in this one meaning that we miss other, perhaps more important, implications in the story.

Lesson 1--We are responsible for our own salvation
Uzzah's first mistake was not touching the ark. He should never have agreed to David's plan for moving the ark in the first place. We don't know for sure whether or not Uzzah was familiar with the law regarding ark transportation. If he wasn't, then his first mistake was not studying and seeking out God's will in the matter before acting. If he was aware of the strict commands regarding the ark but chose to move the ark anyway, then his first mistake was not standing up to David. (If this were the case, perhaps his first error was actually giving into vanity, for surely being asked to play such an important role in the king's festivities was a great honor.) If our leaders tell us to do something we know we shouldn't, we should be strong enough to express dissent. We can do this politely, but we need to do it.

I find it interesting that this scripture says, "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error." Here the italics are not emphasis; here they mean this word is not in the original text. The italics means the translator using context has added this word to clarify what was missing from the text. From the context, it is very likely the author meant "his error". But what if the author actually meant "their error"? I'm not a Hebrew scholar. Perhaps there's no way that this could be read from the text. But given David's reaction, I think all there that day felt reprimanded.

Lesson 2--Our actions affect other people
It was David's plan to move the ark that resulted in Uzzah's death. It was not David's fault alone, that Uzzah died (see lesson 1). But David certainly bore some of the blame. And it is apparent from the text that Uzzah's death affected David. He took it personally. We see this in the second attempt at bringing the ark to his home. This time he orders the Levites only to move the ark. Speaking to them he says, because they did not move it the first time, "the Lord our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order" (1 Chron 15:13 emphasis added).

When we approach the scriptures we need to be careful not to assume we know the message they have to teach us, lest we miss other important truths.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

1 Samuel 15:22 "better than sacrifice"

And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.

Part of me just wants to take this scripture out of context; that is after all what so many in the church, myself included, have done over the years. But I'll resist this urge for a few minutes. Here's a brief contextual summary.

God, after His initial displeasure with Saul for not waiting on Him (1 Samuel 13), gives the king a second chance to show his devotion. Saul is commanded to destroy the Amalekites for their wickedness. The order specifically was to spare no living thing. Saul starts out well, but in the end, he lets the king of the Amalekites live and then Saul's army keeps the best of the Amalekite livestock. And Saul goes along with them. When Samuel questions him on why they did not destroy every living thing as commanded, Saul explains that "the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal."

Then Samuel delivers this oft quoted scripture, "to obey is better than to sacrifice."

My general comments on the scripture in context are:
1.) Saul's sin here was very similar to his offense two chapters earlier. He worried more about the opinions of the people he was supposed to be leading than what his God thought. Am I guilty of this? Or perhaps more correctly, how am I guilty of this? Do I sometimes align my thinking to my perception of what my friends believe? My leaders? My boss? My Facebook feed? Do I worry about how others will view my dress or behavior? (Don't we all do this to some extent? Is this always bad?) I definitely need to do a better job worrying first about what God thinks before considering how my actions look to others.

2.) Saul seems to have rationalized his folly, such that he convinced himself he had completed God's ask of him. I know I am guilty of this, but I'm not going to list all the ways on a public blog. ;)

As I started this post I mentioned that I wanted to take this verse out of context because that's just what you do with this scripture. According to the LDS Scripture Citation Index, this scripture has been cited 28 times in General Conference (since 1942), Journal of Discourses, and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  I can't tell for certain, but this appears to be significantly above average; it seems most Old Testament cited scriptures have been used 2 to 4 times. (This verse is certainly no "stone cut without hands" (Daniel 2:44), quoted some 291 times though surprisingly not since 2008 and more interestingly its use is clearly waning).

The fact that this verse from Samuel gets so much airtime definitely adds to its perceived importance. Even biblical prophets quoted this scripture. When they did, however they often changed it. The most famous version is probably Hosea 6:6 in which the Lord says, "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." In case you're curious, Hosea's verse per the LDS Scripture Citation Index has been cited only 4 times even though this was the verse likely quoted by Jesus when answering the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 (cited 6 times).

Juxtaposing these two versions of scripture raises some interesting questions. How are obedience and mercy related? How are they different? And how does "knowledge of God" fit in?

The root of obey is to hear but hearing is not enough; obedience requires action. It requires us to hear the Lord when He speaks to us and then to act on His requests.

Regarding mercy, Little Kittel writes, "In the LXX [the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible] éleos [or mercy] is mostly used for hesed... This denotes an attitude arising out of mutual relationship, e.g., between relatives, host and guests, masters and servants, those in a covenant relation. It is an act rather than a disposition with trust as the basis and loyalty as the appropriate attitude." We often think of mercy as merely an emotion, compassion for those around us, but mercy is much more than just a feeling. True mercy requires us to see and feel our relationship with both the Lord and with those around us and then to act on this relationship.

Obedience to God should turn our heart towards God. As we hear His word and act on it, we begin to see more clearly our relationship to Him; we begin to know God better which in turn makes us the type of person who acts with compassion for those around us. Obedience then is a means to making us more like our Heavenly Father.

Our latter-day preference for the Samuel's "obedience over sacrifice" instead of Hosea's "desired mercy" causes me to fear we have made obedience an end in and of itself, not a means to an end. I wonder if we more concerned with keeping the law (or pharisaical regulation) that we forget to let the law change us. Obsessing over the length of our shorts, the color of our shirt, or the number of earrings we wear, do we forget the reason the law was given in the first place?

Perhaps the best illustration of this tension between being strictly obedient and showing mercy is the parable of the good Samaritan. (I started to summarize it, but it's short and beautiful in its simplicity.)

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

I won't bother analyzing this parable. Others have done a better job than I could anyway. But reflecting on this, I have to ask myself, "Am more like a Levite than I care to admit?" As a people, are we Mormons becoming more Samaritan like or more priest like?

I'll end with my favorite version of the scripture that began this post, found in Micah 6:

Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil... ?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Monday, October 12, 2015

1Samuel 13 "the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart"

And Samuel said, What hast thou done? And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash;
Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the Lord: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering.

In my quest to answer the question, "What would the Lord have me do?" I naturally was drawn to the story of Saul. Here we see a man anointed by a prophet to be King. Saul actually begins to find some leadership skills following a military victory. But then sins in the Lord's eyes... twice. (Well twice that we know, perhaps more.)

The first, Samuel had told Saul that after seven days he would meet Saul and he offer a sacrifice. He would then instruct Saul how the Lord would have him fight his enemies. But when the Philistines encroached and Saul's army began to flee for safety, Saul feared he cannot wait any longer for Samuel. He took it upon himself to offer the sacrifice, hoping to muster the flagging fighters.

I had always thought that Saul's sin was trying to use Priesthood he didn't hold. This belief was reinforced by the following quote used in both the Old Testament Institute and Gospel Doctrine manuals. (So basically every four years we heard this quote.)

Elder James E. Talmadge taught that "growing impatient at Samuel’s delay, Saul prepared the burnt offering himself, forgetting that though he occupied the throne, wore the crown, and bore the scepter, these insignia of kingly power gave him no right to officiate even as a deacon in the Priesthood of God."

Given this quote it is obvious why I might think Saul's sin was officiating an ordinance he was not authorized to do. But perhaps this wasn't the case. Several commentaries on this chapter point out that the sacrifice could have been performed by an authorized Levite even though the record says Saul made the offering. Saul definitely authorized it, but is this really his great big sin?

If Saul's sin wasn't related to usurping authority, what was it? I think the lesson this Biblical author wants us to take away is that Saul feared man more than God. God would have us not worry about the opinions of man; He wants us to trust Him.

And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.
But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee.

It's easy to put ourselves in Saul's shoes. The Philistines were clearly a formidable enemy. He was losing men fast. And Saul was a man of action. I too am sometimes prone to act before thinking through a situation thoroughly.

How else am I like Saul? Do I worry about what man thinks, what my boss, my coworkers, my fellow Saints think, more than what God wants from me?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Genesis 22:1 "Behold, here am I"

I have taken a break from my regular studies to ponder this question "What does the Lord desire of me?" It's a reformulation of a question I was recently asked to ponder: "What does the Lord desire of us when there is a revealed doctrine, commandment, or church policy that we do not understand, or even disagree with?" Personally I prefer the rephrased version, not just because it is my own, but also I feel it is more open to any answer the Lord may inspire. In pondering this question, I have been looking at scripture stories where someone either followed or didn't follow specific commandments. This led me first to the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

In Genesis 22:1, the story begins:
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

I had never noticed this language before and was immediately reminded of the story of the preexistence. In Abraham 3, the Father lays out His plan of salvation and then asks, "Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me."

I believe the answer to "What does the Lord desire of me?" is ME. The Lord desires me to become someone ready to do whatever He asks. For father Abraham, his test started the moment God called him by name. Abraham recognized God's voice and responded with a willing attitude.

In this verse I also appreciate God calling Abraham by name. This life is an immensely personal proving ground. Although all there are similarities in the human experience, in the end each mortal journey is unique. Our Father in Heaven calls us individually wherever He finds us and asks us to make personal sacrifices that no one else could make. The question is, how will we respond?

James Faulconer in The Old Testament Made Harder: Scripture Study Questions writes that Abraham's response "means literally, 'See me here.' In Arabic even today a person answers a call with something similar--the equivalent of 'Ready'--and that is part of the import of this response."

When God personally calls to me, am I willing to answer, "Behold, here am I"?