Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why these strange stories? -- Joshua 1:8

They wept for thirty days when Moses died, and I am surprised that they found it in themselves to stop. Yes, they'd complained about him. Yes, various attempts had been made, in fits of panic, to assassinate him and go back to Egypt, begging to be slaves again. But in clearer moments, who really doubted Moses? He had staked all their lives on his visions and revelations, again and again, and emerged victorious. He had performed great miracles. He had done what no other prophet in Israel would do for a long, long time and spoken with God face-to-face.

And now he was dead.

And his people? They were stranded in a desert, camped on a hill from which they could view God's impossible promise of a sacred land. For a leader, they had Joshua, a man whose resume was decent enough, but who they were ready to follow mostly because Moses had "laid his hands upon him." (Deut. 34: 9)

How might Joshua have felt in the period just after Moses' death? Was this man, who never doubted Moses, tempted to doubt himself?

The Biblical account implies that he did, because in four verses of admonition (Josh. 1: 6-9), the Lord tells Joshua three times to "be strong and of good courage." Nestled in the injunction to confidence is also this piece of advice:

"This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success."

I love that image: "this book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth"--possibly mostly because I naturally talk a lot, but also because since the days of Moses, strength in the Judeo-Christian tradition has been drawn primarily from our commitment to sacred texts, and our ability to hold them in our mouths and minds, day and night, as a means of living according to their injunctions and ideals.

In an essay, soon to be published in a special issue of Mormon Artist magazine, I discuss the problems of maintaining such memory by sheer repetition, the tendency of the rote to remove itself from our active consciousness. The kinds of discourse and meditation the Lord calls for in Joshua 1:8, I believe, involve finding new ways to think about foundational truths as a means of keeping them alive and active enough in us to be applied in a productive way. Repentance, after all, is hardly a rote process: it demands a certain level of self-awareness that demands that we connect our knowledge, not simply repeat it.

This is perhaps why Jews, for thousands of years, have been interested in Biblical commentary. It's not, I think, out of a desire to add anything to what God has said; it's because the sages have recognized the importance of connecting ideas, of giving fresh perspectives on existing passages and principles, of keeping revelation alive with attention.

The midrashim were a particular form of attention given to Biblical text that focused less on exact interpretation than on providing accompanying information or perspectives. Midrashim aren't necessarily supposed to be authoritative or definitive, they're a way of getting the student to engage with the text in new ways that reach toward deeper, and more broadly applicable, understanding.

In the vague spirit of that tradition, I'd like to begin offering some of my thoughts on scriptures and gospel living. I am, by no means, under the illusion that my ideas are authoritative or even correct, but if they're interesting enough to keep me and a few of you meditating on the scriptures, giving us more to talk about so we hold the law in our mouths, then I will consider these works a success.


  1. "the tendency of the rote to remove itself from our active consciousness" this is a problem that has plagued religions of all kinds, I think. How do you get people to live on Monday what they heard and repeated on Sunday (or Saturday, or whichever day is that day of the week)?

    Malachi 3: 16

    Highlights the importance of speaking often with one another about the teachings of the Lord.

    (Malachi says "the name of the Lord" but I think the two, teachings and name, are closely related enough for the reference to work.)

  2. James:
    This is an eloquent post and I'm happy to see it going "viral". Your insightful response is a perfect example of who Mormons are - smart, talented, caring, thoughtful, and unique human beings - who deserve respect. Despite all the intellectual elitists out there who desperately hope to promote their own agenda through creative fantasies and half-truths, nothing they ever lodge against the LDS faith holds muster. They never say anything new or meaningful. We've been bashed a million times before, and we expect it to continue. But, we will continue to not only survive, but thrive.

    I didn't read Mr. Ian Williams op ed - but, I've read plenty like it. Perhaps we should simply thank him. He's opened up another door to discuss Mormonism, and is helping keep us in the general consciousness. (But, that certainly doesn't mean we should not defend ourselves and raise intelligent counter-argument). Thanks to the marvels of the internet, Latter-day Saints have never enjoyed so much global attention before. The reality of the situation is that for every handful who chooses to cling to hatred, bigotry, and myopic sentiments, there are plenty of others who wisely pause and take a second look. They discover the refreshing joyful "realism" of Mormonism, a meaning for their life, and a comforting link to God.

    I am thrilled to discover your Blog, and proud of the impact you are making as a fellow representative of Jesus Christ raising a voice. Onward and upward!
    - MoSop (

  3. Very well written and insightful just found your blog and can't wait to read more :)



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