In LDS theology, it’s quite common for leaders and teachers to use biblical examples of murder and genocide as example’s of the faithfulness of individuals in scripture. Scriptural stories such as Abraham’s attempted murder of his son, the Levites’ murders at Sinai, Nephi’s murder of Laban, or the Israelite’s genocidal campaign during the conquest of Palestine are constantly used as examples of how obedience to “god” is more important than the sixth commandment or teachings of Jesus.
These types of teaching are common among radicalized Islam and Christian fundamentalist sects and have served as the basis for numberless heinous acts of violence and brutality from the Mountain Meadows Massacre, to the Crusades and Inquisition to the current violence of Islamic Terrorism.
I believe it should be taught that all such teaching are based on distorted biblical theology. I think instead of properly viewing Old Testament violence as part of a “lower law” given to ancient Israel according to their own desires for wickedness, and done away with by Christ and the higher law of love and mercy— LDS have too often supported or even glorified the violence and brutality of the Old Testament as a way to promote obedience to religious authority at all costs.
Stories from the Old Testament should not be used to justify violent, archaic and conscionably wrong practices. The Old Covenant, according to most LDS and New Testament theology, was a lower law given to individuals too evil and selfish to live the higher law brought by Christ. Thus it is not to be followed by those professing Christ’s higher law.
D&C 84:23–27 teaches that because of the wickedness of the ancient Israelites, God took the Higher law away from them, and “in his wrath and anger” gave them a lower, preparatory gospel that they might actually be able to live. Christ echoes this same principle when he tells the Pharisees that certain dictates of the Mosaic law were given “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matt 19:8, Mark 10:5). David puts forward this same logic in Psalms 81:10–12, stating that because the ancient Israelites “would not harken to my voice”, “I gave them up to their own hearts lust: and they walked in their own counsels”. Stephan went as far as to say that “God turned, and gave [Israel] up to worship the hosts of heaven” after their sin at Sinai (Acts 7:42). Paul echos the same teaching saying that after Israel “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man”, God “gave them up to uncleanness though the lusts of their own hearts” (Romans 1:21–25).
The Book of Mormon states that because the ancient Jews were such a “stiffnecked”, “blind” and murdering people, God took “away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.” (Jacob 4:14)
Instead of glorifying Old Testament acts of violence, or using them as examples of righteousness, these acts should be seen as examples of how Old Testament prophets and people’s were given instructions to help them accomplish “their own heart’s lusts” (psalms 81:12). Instead of pretending that Old Testament Jews were blessed for their murders and genocide, we should look for ways that they were cursed.
Nephi’s Murder as a Curse
Nephi’s murder of Laban is a perfect example. If we are to hold to the historicity of this account, instead of using this murder of an unconscious man as an example of how Nephi was obedient, heroic, righteous and made the best choice, we should consider that “the Lord delivering Laban into [Nephi’s] hands” (1 Ne 3:29) was either an instruction from a lower angel (see D&C 76:86–88) or a test which Nephi failed.
Even though the text suggests Laban was a murderous thief who not only stole Nephi’s family property, but sent his servants to kill Nephi and his brothers, Nephi should have supposed that if his God was strong enough deliver Israel from the army of the Egyptians by miracles, he would be strong enough to deliver Nephi and the plates to the promised land in a way that did not require cold-blooded murder of a pathetic, wicked man as a sign of obedience. If God’s Justice called for the death of Laban, God could have accomplished this himself by illness or any one of many divine means. Does it not make more sense to teach that Nephi was being tested as to whether he would obey God’s law which says, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay?” (Deut 32:35, Romans 12:19, Mormon 3:15; 8:20, D&C 82: 23.) What does the following scripture say about Nephi’s murder or Israel’s genocidal takeover of the promised land?
5 But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; (Mormon 4:5)
Christ’s higher law given to deal with those who seek our lives is this: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5:38–39) Perhaps had Nephi passed this text he may have won the hearts of his brothers instead of simply exacerbating the already growing divide between them. A valid case can be made in the Book of Mormon text that continual warfare between the people of Nephi and the Lamanites was a curse or karmaic retribution that may have been avoided had Nephi been progressed enough to live the higher law and show an example of love to his brothers. Nephi murdered Laban and then his brother’s sought to murder him. Nephi’s murder is the start of long cycle of violence perpetuated in his posterity. Nephi goes to great lengths in his text to justify his killing of Laban, suggesting it was an act which constantly pricked his conscience. And it is certainly conceivable to imagine the destruction and curse which comes upon Nephi’s people as a result of the divide between him and his brothers, was a lesson which God used to try and show Nephi the fruits of the lower law of justice verses the higher law of mercy and love. Nephi’s focus on God’s justice instead of his mercy comes back to bite him as it proves the complete destruction of his seed.
“7 O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord; but I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just…. 10 And when these things have passed away a speedy destruction cometh unto my people; for, notwithstanding the pains of my soul, I have seen it” (2 Ne 26:1–10)
Contrast Nephi’s story with that of Jesus and the people of Ammon, who chose the higher law of laying down their own lives instead of lifting the sword to defend themselves. As a result of these individual’s self-sacrifices, divides are healed and unified, while those who seek justice instead of mercy, tend to simply exacerbate growing divides.
In fact, note how ironic it is that the exact rationalization that Nephi received from the “Spirit” when directed to kill Laben that “it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief” (1 Nephi 4:13), is almost word-for-word the rationalization used by Caiaphas to kill Jesus. In John 11:40 it gives Caiaphas’ rationalizations saying, “then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’” (NIV John 11:49–50)
The Murder of the Levites & Conquest of Palestine (Genocide)
Take as another example the account of murder associated with the Golden Calf in Exodus 32. After coming down from Mount Sinai with the law from God which commands Israel not to kill or to make and worship human-conceived gods, Moses finds his brother Aaron is already making the people an Egyptian calf idol to worship. The text then states, that Moses, in his anger, “threw the stone tablets to the ground, smashing them at the foot of the mountain”. After this he takes the calf they made “and burned it, then ground it into powder… and forces the people to drink it” (v. 20). Finally he commands his tribe of Levites to,
Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.” (Ex 32:27)
Moses was likely so angry because he had just finished pleading for mercy on behalf of his people to a Lord who was threatening to destroy them (Ex 32:11–14; Deut 9:9–14, Num 16:43). In his wrath, Moses’ commands Aaron and the Levites to mercilessly slaughter everyone involved in making the calf (even though Aaron and the Levites were apparently just as at fault for the episode), after which he ordains Aaron and the Levites to the “service of the Lord” because they “obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. [for which] Today you have earned a blessing.” (Exodus 32:29)
This story serves as a segue to the conquest of Palestine, wherein Israel’s “god” essentially “commands” his people to racially cleanse the land in a genocidal conquest for territory. (Deut 20:16–18; Deut 13:7–12; Num 31:17–21; Ezekiel 9:5–6 )
For those looking for a scriptural excuse to be violent, or for leaders looking for ways to teach unquestioning obedience, these violent murders and conquests can be used as examples of obedient, righteous desirable behavior. (As it is used by LDS Apostle Jeffery R Holland in #3 of this article for instance). But for those who subscribe to Christ’s higher law of mercy, there are more consistent explanations.
We’ve already gone over how Jacob 4:14, D&C 84:23–27, Matt 19:8, Mark 10:5, Romans 1:21–25, Acts 7:42 and other scriptures paint Old Testament acts which conflict with Christ’s higher law NOT as examples of righteousness, or obedience to a violent god who later “changes” because of Christ’s atonement, but as examples of an ancient people who rejected the higher law and were thus allowed to build for themselves a god largely of their own creation (a temple or idol fashioned by human hands. see Acts 17:24, Heb 9:11,24). Twice in the New Testament, God and His revelations are compared to a mirror (see 1 Cor 13:12, James 1:23) which somehow reflect only the “part” of God’s glory that we are currenly ready for according to our own desires for wickedness or righteousness (see also Jacob 4:14). Is it not likely that Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter the “promised land” as a symbolic gesture showing how they, like Israel itself, failed God’s tests and reflected their own wickedness and thirst for vengeance on God? In fact, the scriptures suggest that ONLY JESUS passed all of God’s tests— symbolized by the three temptations of Jesus for food, religious prestige and political power (Matt 4:1–11). Christ teaches the higher law by passing up ALL THREE OF THESE, choosing martyrdom before all worldly rewards.
Is it not possible that the God’s of human religion and the archetypes of religious scripture are mirrors which reveal what lies in our own human hearts more than the actual councils of an omnipresent superuniversal being?
Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac
In closing, consider John B. Newbrough’s version of the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Issac. Like the Book of Mormon it’s one of many of New England’s 17th century channeled spiritualist texts.
24/9.10. Now after Abraham and his people had returned to Jireh, his camp, and it was night, God said to Abraham: Be steadfast, and show your people so that they may understand my words.
24/9.11. And while they were still praying before the altar, God withdrew from Abraham, and allowed the evil angels, who had followed them from Sodom and Gomorrah, to draw near the altar. And one of the angels clothed himself in a great light, and, adorned with sparkling gems and a crown, he appeared, so all the multitude of people could look upon him.
24/9.12. Abraham said: Who are you? And the spirit said: I am your God, ruler of heaven and earth! Abraham said: I am your servant; what may I do for you? And the spirit said: You shall take your only son, Isaac, and your hosts who were with you at Sodom and Gomorrah, and go with me where I will lead you, for I have a great work for you.
24/9.13. Abraham said: I will do whatever you put upon me to do.
24/9.14. So in the morning Abraham and his son Isaac, and the hosts who had been with Abraham to Sodom and Gomorrah, assembled together. And Abraham spoke, saying: Where to, O God?
24/9.15. The spirit answered, saying: Take sticks and a firebrand (torch) and come to the summit of the hill over there, for you shall restore the rites of burnt offerings. || Abraham told the people what God had said, so they began, and Isaac carried the bundle of willows, such as basket-makers use, saying: This will light the large pieces; but what will you burn for an offering, O father? And Abraham said: God will provide.
24/9.16. And when they ascended to the place, Abraham gathered logs and heaped them up, and Isaac placed the willows.
24/9.17. Then the spirit spoke, saying: What shall a man love above all things in the world? And Abraham said: God. And the spirit said: For which reason you shall offer your only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. And it shall be testimony before your people that you will obey God even to the sacrifice of your own flesh and kin.
24/9.18. Abraham said: Show me that you are God, so that I may not err; for I have been commanded not to kill!
24/9.19. And the spirit departed away from Abraham, perceiving that he knew the higher law. And Isaac was grieved at heart, for he desired to witness what a sacrifice was. And the people, seeing a ram near at hand, went and caught it, and slaughtered it, and sprinkled the blood on the sacrifice, and they lit the fire, roasted the flesh, then took it and gave it to the poor.
24/9.20. And Abraham called the place Jehovah-Jireh, and they returned to the camp; and Abraham, being moved by God, spoke before the people.
24/10.1. Abraham said: This testimony I declare to you, regarding which, your own brethren are witnesses, that even the chosen of God can be deceived by evil angels; for they can take any name and form; and, having no fear of God before them, declare falsehood for truth and darkness for light.
24/10.2. And also, as you have seen, the evilest of cities, even as well as the purest, may be the abiding place of angels.
24/10.3. For which reason you shall not seek signs and miracles, for these may be from evil spirits, even though they show their bodies or converse learnedly. It is not in the power of man to know by words and signs, or by oaths or promises, what is truth.
24/10.4. But the Father has created one thing besides, which is His Own Light. For which reason be believing toward men and angels; and when they teach you according to Jehovah, which is life to all, and happiness to all, without sacrifice to any, they are holy.
24/10.5. If man or angel says: Visit the sick, and administer to the distressed, || follow his advice, for it is of the Father.
24/10.6. But if man or angel says: Do this, and you shall have profit, or glory, or applause, || do not obey him, for he advises for yourself and not for the brotherhood of man. He is not of God.
24/10.7. For spirits will come disguised as your fathers and mothers who are dead, professing love and profit to you. Do not believe them, except when they teach you to sacrifice self for the good of others.
24/10.8. The wicked in heart, having profited in herds, and in gold and silver, say: Behold, God has blessed me! But I say to you, they are cursed, and not of God. Has he gathered you together here because you were rich? You were slaves, and in poverty; sick, and in bondage. And he came and delivered you. Be like him, and he will abide with you.
24/10.9. If a man comes to you, saying: Behold, this is my coat; give it to me! You shall say: Prove yourself as to who you are. But if a man comes to you, saying: Your herd has gone astray; you shall not say to him: Prove yourself as to who you are. But go, and see after your herd.
24/10.10. If a spirit says: Behold, I am your father, say to him: It is well; what do you want? And when he answers you, consider if his words are of God, which are for the glory of the Creator. And if his words are not of God, you shall challenge him to prove himself.
24/10.11. As God is captain of heaven and earth to all righteous souls, so is there a satan who is captain over evil spirits.
24/10.12. And to the extent that the kings’ peoples do not have faith in the Father, so do their souls fall prey to satan and his hosts.
24/10.13. Yet, neither shall man flatter himself by saying: Behold, I have joined the Believers; my soul shall escape hell. || For in that day and hour God may be putting him to the test, to see if his heart is for good works and holiness. || For, because you profess God, you are doubly bound to practice godliness in your behavior toward men and angels. (Oahspe 24/9:10 – 10:13)