Common Scriptures in Review: “God Would Deliver Them”

Raybook of mormon, Mormon, scripture 10 Comments

Something I have mentioned before is that I believe many members don’t really understand what the Book of Mormon actually says about many things – just like few Christians really understand what the Bible actually says about many things. Much of my perspective on this issue stems from my belief that it is a natural reaction to accept what others say about topics with which we do not feel comfortable claiming to be experts. As long as the explanation we hear sounds good – as long as it makes sense to us – we often take it at face value and don’t examine it closely and critically. This is true especially when the one giving the interpretation is in some position of authority.

This is my first “Common Scriptures in Review” post – something to consider as an alternative reading to what many assume.

When I try to understand a scriptural verse or passage, I always stress first the need to parse what actually is said in the text in order to understand what we can assert as definitive. Only after that initial parsing do I then consider the entire context to see if there are possible implications or interpretations apart from whatever simply is a given. This is important to me, since it is very easy to read into stories things that simply aren’t there – that aren’t supported by the text in and of itself.

For example, in Alma 56:47-48, all we are told is that the Anti-Nephi-Lehite mothers “taught” their sons that “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” From what, we are not told. We only assume it was from physical death in war because of the situation that caused them to relate it to Helaman (war and their preservation in it). In other words, the immediate context surrounding the statement (war) influences the readers to assume this context fully defines what is said. (“You won’t die in war.”) However, given that we are not told from what God would deliver them, it is legitimate to look at the rest of the context and realize that there might be other, more comprehensive, legitimate meanings for “God would deliver them” – that their mothers’ words might have been valid even if some of them had died in battle.

They had been “taught” – not “told”. This might be a one time occurrence as they were leaving home for war, as is the standard assumption. However, it seems like these young men had been “taught” dedication and obedience and exactness all their lives. Individuals might change in an instant, but it is unlikely that an entire group of 2,000+ young men would become ultra-obedient and diligent overnight. It is much more likely that they had been “taught” all their lives that God would deliver them (from anything that might threaten their spiritual, eternal well-being) than that their mothers simply pulled them aside on the way out the door and promised them they wouldn’t be killed in war.

Remember, those mothers had seen many of their friends (and perhaps some fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and husbands) slaughtered by other Lamanites – killed in the act of calling upon God even though they “did not doubt”. Those mothers knew full well that God didn’t always deliver His people from physical death, but they were convinced that He could deliver them from their natural and fallen and sinful and lost state – from spiritual death. (Alma 24:27 – “thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.”)

Alma 53: 20-21 makes it obvious that these young men had been taught all their lives the reward for perfect faithfulness and obedience and dedication – the same reward their own “pioneers” had received, even those who had been killed for their faith and dedication and lack of doubt. I think it’s fairly safe to say, as a parent myself, that their mothers reiterated what they had been taught all their lives as they were heading off to war – that if they did not doubt and obeyed every command with exactness that “God would deliver them”, no matter the physical outcome.

There is another clue that this was not a one-time, war-specific statement. Remember, this was Helaman who was reporting about these young men. He was as close to them as any Nephite – ever. Yet, apparently, he did not know the specifics about what their mothers had taught them until they told him about it in the field of battle. He had been there when the parents had decided to fight; he was the one who had talked them out of it by invoking their sacred promise; he had been chosen as their sons’ military leader because they trusted him as a religious leader. He was intimately involved in the decision of their sons to fight in place of their parents. Perhaps “taught” simply can mean “told” – but I tend to believe that Helaman would have been there for the great send off when all the mothers collectively told all the sons that they would not die in battle – that he would have known about it and not have had to be told after the fact.

Having said all that, I do not discount the idea that the Lord might have promised the parents that He would preserve their sons in battle like He had preserved the sons of Mosiah on their missions – that it was couched in terms of, “You’ve sacrificed enough lives to follow me. I won’t require that you sacrifice your sons.” Even if that really is all it was, that’s enough for me, since it makes it an incredibly powerful story of the rewards of deep and difficult sacrifice and dedication.

Am I saying that this is the correct view of the statement, “God would deliver them”? No; I don’t know that. It might simply have been, “Stay valiant and none of you will be killed.” All I’m saying is that when you parse the text then consider the overall context, there is more than one possible meaning for that phrase (”God would deliver them.”) – and assuming it simply meant “they will not die in battle” actually cheapens what I believe is taught in this story.

Are there other legitimate interpretations of this statement? If we “do not doubt”, will God “deliver” us? If so, how – and from what? How do we reconcile this concept to our recent discussions of doubt and lack of certainty? Are there parallels with this statement that can apply to modern Mormonism in some real and unique way – ways to liken this unto ourselves?

Comments 10

  1. Excellent post. I think it’s great to parse as specifically as you’re doing here. You’re absolutely correct in that sometimes people will set themselves up by not studying the scriptures as carefully and as diligently as they should, but then hear someone else’s explanation or interpretation in Sunday school, assume that this is church doctrine, and later on it becomes a stumbling block to increasing their faith. Kinds like borrowed light I guess.

    I wish I had the discipline to do such close reading as this on a regular basis. Posts like this are definitely one reason why I hang out here.

  2. These are some great insights, Ray. I think the concept of deliverance and the receipt of blessings is too often grossly oversimplified into irrational terms. One of the best talks I’ve heard on the subject is “But if not,” by Dennis E. Simmons. I highly recommend it, and think It sheds some much needed light on the topic of what is reasonable to expect from the Lord.

  3. I agree that people unknowingly allow interpretations to become the standard, when in fact it isn’t so. I often think of this when people quote Malachi on tithing — that paying tithing will open the windows of heaven and blessing will pour out. I’ve heard that commonly interpreted to mean that you will never have financial problems if you pay tithing. And also observe people thinking that they are righteous because they had financial success.

    Malachi never really says what the blessings will be. I felt devastated in the past when I tried to pay a full orthodox 10% tithe and shortly thereafter (around 9-11) lost my job and all my tangible possessions due to lack of replacement work. Why didn’t it work like divine unemployment insurance for me? 🙂 I’m not saying I was not blessed for paying tithing. I just didn’t get what I expected, which was money.

  4. It always helps with the Bible that we can go back to Hebrew and Greek to aid us in parsing and contextualizing our study — though that isn’t the “be all and end all” in making a case for a certain interpretation over another. Yet it’s a tremendous resource. We also know a bit more about cultural contexts, which also can significantly help inform. Since I’m not a biblical infallibility believer of a neotraditionalist-fundamentalist bent I enjoy having these other aids to interpreting and parsing. But in the end do I exercise belief based on these useful supports? Certainly, the honest Christian must still appeal on some level to spiritual meaningfulness. And for many lay Christians this is predominantly that to which they will appeal.

    With the Book of Mormon I think parsing can become more specious. After all, in order to reconcile anachronisms, we are told the Book of Mormon represents more of a revelatory process than a literal translation. So what cultural context can we look to for information? What is ancient and what is new? What original language source have we to reference? Can we rely on language norms of Joseph Smith’s day to inform interpretation? How about Protestant, Restorationist or Second Great Awakening religious macro and microcultures? Do we strictly have to rely on internal evidences for support? How about comments of LDS authorities or scholars through the years? How do we know on which basis to trust which?

    So I admire and applaud your parsing nature, Ray. Reflecting on what denotative or connotative inflections, say, words like “taught” or “told” could really mean may help us find individual application, deeper insight, creative new perspectives, or thoughtful alternatives. Even given that spiritual meaningfulness is a shared commonality between most traditional Christians and LDS believers toward what they consider is Holy Writ, how do we best weigh accuracy or merit of varied Book of Mormon interpretations that may be drawn from the text?

  5. Arrived early and sitting in an office after hours typing when I should be preparing for Bishops’ Training meeting in a few minutes: Now there’s irony.

    JfQ, I think that’s one reason why it is important to parse even a little more carefully when dealing with the Book of Mormon – that we explicitly DON’T have other linguistic tools to use and can rely ONLY on the words themselves as **primary text**. Even the words of modern propehts are secondary text – important and insightful, but subject to assumption, nonetheless.

    Whether one believes in the translation of a literal, historical record (as I do) or an inspired fiction revelation, all we can do is analyze what actually is written and consider why that particular word or phrase or narrative was included – when it is stated that not 1/100th part actually was recorded. So, I parse.

  6. Ray,

    Excellent post. Every Mormon should read the scriptures critically and come their own determination of meaning. Isn’t this how we “liken the scriptures unto [our]selves?

    Unfortunately, Mormon society places such emphasis on “following the brethren” that we think it’s enough to just be content with agreeing with what they say about the scriptures, rather than studying it out in our own minds.

  7. Prep done; 5 minutes available. 🙂

    #3 (Valoel) – The tithing verses of Malachi are ones I might have discussed in a different post. That one always bugs me. Fire insurance is one thing (and I’m not sold completely on that as it is stated sometimes in isolation), but finanical insurance is quite another. I feel I have gained tremendously by paying tithing, but I also have experienced extended unemployment twice and lost pretty much everything in the process. Having access to the Church’s assistance is wonderful (and a direct blessing of faithful contributions over the years), but misquoting those verses makes me twitch just a bit.

  8. Valoel — I pay tithing because it seems to make God pleased. I’m afraid I don’t expect anything else from paying it. Too late for the destroying angel to pass me by, already got nailed there.

    Ray — I liked this, we talked about it in Sunday School today.

    I will note that in the actual battle, the results are on par with similar historical examples. Heavily armored troops catch lightly armored and engaged troops from the rear, inflicting greatly disproportionate casualties and sometimes taking no casualties in return is something with historical precedents.

    But the we don’t hear about the king again after he led his people out to apply non-violence in the conflict. And the Nephites encourage them to flee to safety and give them a place to live, they don’t stay where they were and expect to be preserved.

    Sometimes all we can hope for is for God to bring us home.

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