Limiting Revelation: The LDS Concept of Stewardship

Bored in Vernalaccountability, Mormon, stewardship 15 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #15

A scripture in the Doctrine & Covenants encourages us to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”  But I’ve noticed that there is a concept that is widespread in the LDS Church which tends to limit our engagement in good causes and even, on occasion, the righteous seeking of revelation.  This is the idea of stewardship.

When I was a young mother living in Hawaii, an elderly neighbor invited me and another ward member over to her house for lunch.  While we were there, she presented us with a proposal.  She had noticed there were many needs in our ward and in our immediate neighborhood, and she suggested that we get together on Friday mornings to pray.  She hoped that we might also be able to help with some of the needs in a tangible way, but the main focus was to be on prayer and petitioning the Lord for divine assistance.  I thought this was a great idea and was excited to be a part of it.  We did this for about a year until our family moved away.  But a damper was put on the project the first Friday morning we started, for the other woman who had been invited had declined to join us.  She told my elderly neighbor that she felt uncomfortable praying for others in our ward, since we were not part of the Relief Society Presidency, and it wasn’t our stewardship so to do.

This idea is presented in the OT SS Manual along with the story in Numbers 12.  First, let us examine the scripture passage.  Moses marries a Cushite woman, and Miriam and Aaron are perturbed.  We don’t know exactly why.  Moses’ wife Zipporah was the daughter of a Midianite, so either she had died and Moses remarried, or the Cushite woman was a second wife.  There is no evidence that the Lord had commanded the Hebrews not to marry women from other nations, as he did later when they moved into the land of Canaan.  If he gave this command earlier it may have been the reason for his siblings’ objection.  In any case, the next verse gives a clue that because of this marriage a challenge to Moses’ authority as a prophet was involved. “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses?” they asked.  “Hath he not spoken also by us?”

The Lord HAD spoken to Miriam and Aaron in the past.  He spoke to the people through Aaron in Exodus 4:30; He spoke to Aaron in Exodus 12:1; Miriam herself spoke words inspired by God in Exodus 15:21.  But when they challenged Moses, they were reprimanded.  The Lord called all three of them together, came down in a pillar of the cloud, and rebuked Miriam and Aaron for their affront. Then he afflicted Miriam with leprosy.

<feminist rant> Why was Miriam punished and not Aaron?  Some say that she was the instigator because she was named first. But it seems clear by the use of the plural form “we” throughout the passage, that both were equally involved.  Aaron confesses “we have done foolishly, and… we have sinned.”  I find it appalling that Miriam was made to bear the sole punishment for this transgression.  One commentary explains: “Had he [Aaron] been smitten with the leprosy, his sacred character must have greatly suffered, and perhaps the priesthood itself have fallen into contempt.”    There seems to have been one ancient tradition that taught Aaron was also struck with leprosy. According to that tradition, the Torah does not explicitly mention Aaron’s punishment out of respect for the office of the high priest. Instead, Aaron’s punishment was edited out of the record but remembered nonetheless. Rabbi Yehudah warned that “Anyone who says that Aaron was also smitten with leprosy will have to give an account [in heaven]. When God has concealed the matter concerning Aaron [how dare we reveal it?]”

Our SS lesson engages the story of Miriam and Aaron by asking the question:  What are the limits to our right to receive revelation?

The LDS concept of stewardship involves the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.  Bishops are said to have stewardship over the people in their wards, and fathers over their families.  If we have stewardship over a group of people, we may receive revelation regarding how to manage those under our care.  But we are cautioned that the revelation does not extend to those outside our sphere of influence.  The manual includes the following quotation:

  • Elder James E. Faust said: “The prophets, seers, and revelators have had and still have the responsibility and privilege of receiving and declaring the word of God for the world. Individual members, parents, and leaders have the right to receive revelation for their own responsibility but have no duty nor right to declare the word of God beyond the limits of their own responsibility” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1989, 9; or Ensign, Nov. 1989, 8).

As I read the manual, I wondered if the story of Miriam and Aaron really had much to do with the modern concept of stewardship.  Do you think it is a stretch to equate Miriam and Aaron’s questioning of Moses’ authority with members’ right to “declare the word of God?”  Do you think this might discourage members without leadership callings to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause,” and “bring to pass much righteousness?”

Comments 15

  1. I’m only a little confused by your post. Was the intent of praying in Hawaii to pray for members of your ward, or to seek revelation on their behalf?

    I remember Elder Eyring’s talking about praying in the morning to know who he could help that day, and then reporting back in his evening prayer about how he’d done it.

    It seems when we seek revelation for ourselves to know how we should serve, there’s no issue with that. And we should encourage it (though I get your concern that in practice we don’t teach that much). But to me that is different than my seeking revelation on what my neighbor should do with his kids.

  2. Of course this goes into the difference between inspiration and revelation. Divine guidance and inspiration can lead us to be ministering angels for other people, whether they know it or not and even whether they know us or we know them or not. Revelation is just that, “to reveal” something new or something previously hidden. There’s certainly nothing wrong with your ward’s prayer meetings because doesn’t that go along with the longtime commandment to pray for our fellow men?

    I had a discussion about the SS lesson with a friend of mine who is well-versed in the Old Testament, and his explanation of Numbers 12 is that Miriam and Aaron were attempting to usurp Moses’s position and try to lead the people back to Egypt. Unfortunately, in the actual SS class we got the usual tripe of “Never criticize or disagree with church leaders.” That is not what the lesson was teaching. I disagree with what general authorities, even President Monson, say all the time, but I don’t resort to personal attacks. Doing so helps me ask the questions that I need to find answers and grow stronger for.

    Moses’s wedding the Cushite woman may have also been a political maneuver by Egypt back when Moses was living in the court and may not have been his choice. It might not even have been something he wanted and Miriam and Aaron (his own sister and brother no less!) might even have been looking for some “dirt” to accuse him of being a false leader.

  3. The Jewish Study Bible says the word translated as “spoke” in Num 12:1 is a feminine gender verb in Hebrew. This would indicate that Miriam was the main culprit in speaking against Moses. But I still find it weasely to let Aaron completely off the hook.

  4. Aaron was the Teflon man of his time. BTW, the Cushite woman was Moses’ third wife. I believe he married an Egyptian woman prior to “his conversion.”

  5. Paul, #1: Mainly it was just praying, though sometimes we sought revelation for ourselves to know how/who we could help. I just feel that some members go overboard on the “stewardship” issue. If someone doesn’t fall under our direct line of authority we have a built-in excuse not to have anything to do with him or her.

    Dave, #2: I can’t stand when these intricate and fascinating OT stories are boiled down into a quick platitude such as “we shouldn’t overstep our stewardship,” or “never criticize Church leaders.” I don’t know that the lesson manual gives us much more to go on as regards this particular story. It would be nice if we were able to engage with this stories on a bit deeper level in our SS classes. That’s why I like to bring up the controversial aspects, at least it gets us thinking about what the story could mean.

    CC #3: The language aspect of this story is fascinating. Here’s one exposition I found:

    VaTidaber Miriam veAharon beMoshe – And Miriam and Aharon spoke regarding Moshe
    This passage is problematic, from a grammatical perspective as well as a plot perspective.

    First, the grammar: “VaTidaber” means “And she spoke.” Presumably, this “she” is Miriam. However, Aharon is listed as well! Here are the possible readings:

    1. If Miriam and Aharon spoke, it should have said “VaYidabru,” “And they spoke.”
    2. If only Miriam spoke, it should have said “VaTidaber Miriam,” “And Miriam spoke,” without mentioning Aharon!
    3. If Miriam spoke to Aharon, it should have said “VaTidaber Miriam LeAharon,” “And Miriam spoke to Aharon.”

    This problem is exacerbated by 12:2, in which we are told “VaYomru,” “And they spoke,” indicating that both Miriam and Aharon are involved in the slander of Moshe.

    That is the grammatical problem. The plot problem is part of the same issue – how great was Aharon’s involvement?

    Since Aaron confessed to being party to the sin, it is odd that nothing is said about a punishment for him, even if Miriam WAS the instigator. I think it’s fun to speculate about why.

  6. I think there is much to be said about praying for others as a start to the day. Whether God directly intervenes in their problems or not is beyond my comprehension, but it does change our own attitudes. We look for ways to help others.

    I may not be as good as this in prayer as I ought to be, but there is a very similar Buddhist practice which has helped me a lot – loving-kindness meditation. In this, you feel love for yourself, for a loved one, for someone more neutral, for someone for whom you have negative feelings, and eventually your heart opens up to the neighborhood, region and world. On mornings when I do this, my heart is truly changed. I look at the people around me much differently. I am much more inclined to look for the good in people and for ways I can help them. It truly can change the world.

  7. A few corrections are needed to what I said in #4. The wife spoken of is Tzipporah the Midianite (haKushit in the Hebrew). So this is not a new wife, like I thought but the same wife. Tradition also holds that Moses was a ruler in Ethiopia and married an Ethiopian princess. I guess that is why it appears in the KJV as Ethiopian.

    Also, there is some disagreement among the Rabbis concerning this incident. In one case, Rabbi Akiba believes that Aaron was given leprosy as well because of the phrase
    “And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them;” Numbers 12:9. Even if Aaron’s punishment is not specific like Miriam, the Lord’s anger kindled against them does not single her out. Other Rabbis argue that he was not punished.

  8. Jeff, there seem to be multiple points of view on this in the Rabbinic Jewish world, and *all* are considered valid. But I don’t agree that Zipporah was a Cushite, even if the term is given some latitude. I agree with the following analysis:

    Genesis 25:1-3 shows that Midian was one of the six sons born unto Abraham by his third wife, Keturah. Thus, Zipporah was “Abrahamic”, who was “Shemitic” (i.e., descended of Noah’s son Shem, per Genesis 10:1; 11:11-27). But the “Ethiopian woman” (“Cushite woman” in the Hebrew) descended of Cush, who was “Hamitic” (i.e., descended of Noah’s son Ham, per Genesis 10:1,6). Indeed, Zipporah, being of Noah’s son, Shem, could not be the “Ethiopian woman” who was of Ham (Shem’s brother).

    Also, the timing of Moses’ marriage to the Ethiopian woman can be determined by Numbers 33:1-49,17 and 11:35 with 12:16 which “surrounds” the story about Moses marrying the Ethiopian woman in Numbers 12:1-15. This is clearly much later than the time when Moses married Zipporah in Exodus 2:15,22.

    Therefore, the Shemitic/Abrahamic Midianitess Zipporah could not possibly be the Hamitic/non-Abrahamic “Ethiopian woman”.

    Does this make it more clear?

  9. Aaron as the Teflon man, that is an interesting observation. The same seems to apply when he made the golden calf. People were slain for worshiping it, but it does not appear much happened to him for making it.

  10. The concept of stewardship that I’ve been taught since I was a young man is: “Stewardship is the response of My people to the ministry of My Son”. It isn’t about anything BUT being anxiously engaged in the best causes I can find with my time, money, and gifts.

  11. BiV, I am greatly impressed with your knowledge of Hebrew! Wow, I’d like to learn that someday.

    I really like your take on this story, because I have always wondered why Aaron seemed to get off scott free. Also, I think that we act like the priest and jew who walk by, leaving the Samaritan to help when “someone doesn’t fall under our direct line of authority we have a built-in excuse not to have anything to do with him or her.” I am guilty of this, but we should be better people and help all people.

  12. Maybe Aaron and Miriam were upset because Moses had just restored the law of polygamy! (And that would explain why Miriam was more upset that Aaron…)

    On a more serious note relevant to the OP, I believe that an individual can receive revelation on just about anything. The concept of stewardship simply limits who we can share it with. I know of many righteous friends and neighbors have received inspiration about: who the new bishop will be, how to address a neighbor’s hidden need, or even events concerning the Second Coming. HOWEVER, they are limited in sharing that information (e.g. It’s not the man’s stewardship to tell his neighbor he will be the new bishop; that’s the Stake President’s job. Or in the last case, to tell the prophet or even his neighbors about what events will occur in the Last Days.) Like Mary, we’re to treasure these things in out hearts. Those who don’t lose the gift…

  13. Post

    Maybe Aaron and Miriam were upset because Moses had just restored the law of polygamy! (And that would explain why Miriam was more upset that Aaron…)
    Yes, Clark, I think that’s rather a good exegesis of Numbers 12…

  14. I know this post is rather old but I came across it and felt like I wanted to comment.  I think that what is being said is that we can not receive revelation about what someone else who is not a part of our stewardship should do .  As an extreme example, if we knew of a family that was struggling financially we would not receive revelation that they should move to some other state to make their situation better.  However that does not limit the revelation that we could receive about ways WE might help them (such as giving them food or clothing or letting them know about a job opportunity).  Heavenly Father blesses people ALL the time through the actions of others.  He inspires (or gives revelation to)  people to do something or say something to someone and it is exactly what that person needed.  So I believe that what you and that elderly sister were doing was awesome!  You were not praying to tell others what God wanted THEM to do, you were praying to find out what YOU could do to be an instrument in his hands, ie: being anxiously engaged in good causes and bringing about much righteousness.  Also we can ALWAYS pray for others who are in need there is no limitation on that.  The limitation is simply that we can not tell someone outside of our stewardship what God wants them to do, in other words, declare the word of God for them.

    1. Solope, thank you for posting that, I happened to come across this in looking for stuff about inspiration and revelation and hey, it happened to be just what I needed to read. So thank you!

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