“By Faith All Things Are Fulfilled”
This lesson contains one of the crown jewels of the Book of Mormon–the sublime verse on weakness and strength in 12:27. There are other gems worthy of study, discussion, and application in this chapter. We have the idea that we can be the angels whom God uses to answer prayers, and Moroni comments on how God speaks to us within our language and limitations (12:39; cf. 2 Ne. 31:3), and of course his treatise on faith.
We also have the story of another civilizational collapse: through generations of political intrigue, captivity and war the Jaredites destroy themselves. Other points include the New Jerusalem in Ether 13 and once again the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible.
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You can find my Lesson Notes here.
A few of the resources mentioned in the Lesson:
The Conference talks are linked in the Lesson Notes.
Terryl and Fiona Givens’ groundbreaking book The God Who Weeps
Brené Brown’s TED talk , her site, and On Being interview.
Jewel’s Hands video
RadioLab’s piece about why we help each other, The Good Show
One Time Donation:
Thanks as always to James Estrada of Oak Street Audio for his hard work in postproduction.
1) We have in these chapters a phrase that comes up again and again through many of the Jaredite generations: “dwelt/brought/served in captivity” (15 times in Ether): what does this mean? Is this akin to Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews, the Palestinian state vis-à-vis the state of Israel, or something far more nefarious, such as the children of Israel as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, or African slaves in early America? The KJV doesn’t ever use the term “slavery”, preferring instead “bondage” or “captivity”. Modern translations, however, use the term, particularly as it applied to the Exodus story, and in the New Testament when it is clear that the author of the texts are speaking of slaves within the Roman empire. Of course, delivering the captives is a powerful narrative in the Hebrew Bible (is it the over-arching narrative?), and later transmuted to the Christian narrative with salvation theology, but it permeates the Book of Mormon and D&C as well, particularly in sections where the author is trying to cover long periods without much detail. When all these kings in the book of Ether that are living their lives with the people supporting their rule, are they living as vassal states to a larger kingdom, as not-officially-recognized entities cordoned off from the ruling people, as slaves to the ruling people, or something else? But more importantly, perhaps, how is the theme of deliverance treated here in Ether? Is it emphasized at all? Just how miraculous is God’s deliverance manifest in these stories in the lives of individuals, and if that isn’t the emphasis, why include this at all? Does the text of these chapters favor or challenge an historical reading (iow, does the seeming lack of craft in constructing the narrative lend credence to an ancient authorship, or indeed is this even a question that can have an answer)?
2) Ether 7:9: Reference to steel swords. Ether 9:17-19: references to silk, linen, cattle, oxen, cows, sheep, swine, goats, horses, asses, elephants. Ether 10:23-26: references to brass, iron, silks, linen, plows. These are by no means the only references in the Book of Mormon to many of these anachronistic references to metallurgy, culture, and agriculture among pre-Columbian inhabitants of the American continents, but they seem to appear in concentrated form here in these chapters. And these references are largely to the same things as found in other BoM references (steel, iron, brass, silk, linen, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, asses) and in the same combinations. How much of this is likely Joseph Smith’s (mis)reading of an ancient text (with references coming from multiple authors/editors in the text, but which marks of civilization and technological advancement are simply not supported by the archeological record)? This is where apologists get really creative in misapplying postmodern literary critical techniques to claim that steel isn’t really steel, and horses aren’t horses (they’re tapirs!), and fall back on the silly (but technically true) adage that “lack of evidence is not evidence of lack”. But at what point do the multiple references and complete dearth of virtually any scientific evidence to specific technologies simply destroy the credibility of the text as we have it insofar as it purports to be an historical document? When do we question the meaning of the words of our text and when can’t we? When the text tells us that Jesus visits the people in Bountiful, was it really Jesus, or some other person (or deity or alien life form or ghost or robot or collective delusion)? When the text reports Jesus saying that if you don’t believe and obey you will be “damned” (3 Ne. 11:34), does it really mean that Jesus really meant that you will be “saved”, but that “damned” doesn’t really mean “damned”, especially in light of Joseph Smith’s later, more universalistic theological assertions? When the Jaredites build boats, did they actually build magic spaceships or a wormhole that took them across the globe? When it says “I, Mormon”, “I, Moroni”, or “I, Nephi” in the book, does it really mean “I, Joseph Smith”? Or if the text is historical as the Church claims, how do we know that Mormon or Moroni or Nephi are telling us the truth and not just inventing or embellishing stories to make them more exciting? Sorry for the snark, but I’m trying to communicate what I see as the absurdity of the mental gymnastics used by the apologists to accommodate wildly anachronistic references within the Book of Mormon in hopes of preserving the “integrity” of the text as an historical document. In so doing, they completely undermine any systematic epistemology that could actually bring meaning, and are shown simply to cherry-pick proof texts that only reinforce previously-held theological assertions. Ugh. It is true that historical texts with multiple authors, compiled over the course of millennia are messy beasts: the Bible is a prime example of this fact. This Book of Mormon messiness is something else entirely, likely stemming from the “translation” process, where vivid imagination yielded texts that simply are not accurate portrayals of people in history. And given this lack of historicity, the authority of the document in regard to theological or ecclesiastical matters is greatly diminished. Thoughts?
3) Can someone with more knowledge than me speak to this idea of secret combinations? These oaths of secrecy used to hide murderous acts for power and gain are particularly prevalent in the Book of Mormon, and are the source of blame for the downfall of two great civilizations. The narrators of the text are always reluctant to mention them for fear of having them be revived again in future generations, only to be the cause of another great destruction. Alma tells his son Helaman to make sure to not let them get out into the open. The text links the combinations to the devil, and to Cain, as their ultimate author. These references in the Book of Mormon seem to suggest that these oaths had specific wordings or phraseologies invoked that had special power, and that those magic words were what was being kept from the people by the prophets, kings, chief judges, and editors so they could not be used again. Does anyone else get that sense about the secret combinations? What do you think about the concept of special language that has salvific and/or damning power? Is this in line with the way God and Jesus use language in other scripture? The only other place in Mormonism where I see emphasis on specific wordings are in ordinances and rituals (baptism, gift of holy ghost, sacrament, blessing sick and afflicted, ordinations, washing and anointing, endowment, sealing, etc.) and in the closing of prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Do we really believe that certain words have to be said in certain orders for them to engage spiritual cosmic powers? Do we really believe that corresponding to saving power of the words in ordinances or in the name of Jesus, there exists an opposite, destructive power in other words of cursing, collusion, and in the name of Satan? IOW, is it the words themselves that matter, or rather the sentiments behind them? And what happens when the words change (c.f. wine to water in sacrament prayer, changes to endowment covenants, etc.)? Finally, might there be some boogeymen in Joseph’s lived experiences with regard to the power of magic words and phrases which could cause great harm or organizations perceived as capable of possibly causing the overthrow of the American government in his day?
4) Ether 10:2: How does one “build up a righteous kingdom”? The Book of Mormon usually couples such a phrase with “walking in the ways of the Lord”. Is righteousness exclusively connected with worshiping the right God in the right way?
5) Ether 12:4: Hope as anchor. This was ripped from Hebrews 6:19, but whereas Hebrews 6:19 was about hoping for a better world here on Earth in mortality, Ether 12:4 is about hoping for a world to come in Heaven at God’s right hand. It seems every time the Book of Mormon uses New Testament verbiage, it misinterprets or reinterprets the NT author’s original intent of placing salvation mostly as a way of accessing the abundant life *now*, and places the focus on a life with God *after* death. What gives?
6) Ether 12 is an echo (perhaps a Joseph Smith midrash?) of Hebrews 11. Is there a substantial difference in the treatment of faith in Ether 12:6 vs. Hebrews 11:1? It seems to me that the focus in Hebrews 11 is about how the gift of faith sustains a person or people through intense trials or causes miracles to occur; Ether 12:6 seems to indicate that trials precede the gift of faith. These may not be mutually exclusive propositions (and indeed the examples of faith given in vv. 7-19 are all about people enduring trials through their faith, not of people who gained faith only by being tried), but what is the connection between faith and struggle?
7) Ether 12/Hebrews 11: Also interesting, both the author of Hebrews and Moroni seem to reclaim religious history for Christianity: in Hebrews, Christ’s death and resurrection is interpreted as fulfillment of prophecy and symbolic of temple worship and sacrifice as practiced under the Law of Moses. In Heb. 11:26, the author of Hebrews even goes so far as to suggest that Moses “considered abuse suffered for the Christ [or the Messiah] to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward.” Moroni also interprets all faith as needing to be centered in Christ to find actualization. Indeed this seemed to be a favorite doctrine of Joseph Smith, who wished to reinterpret all of human history into a divine drama leading up to and culminating in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Joseph Smith later claimed that even Adam knew of Jesus, and understood the sacrifices he was to offer as a figure of the final sacrifice of Jesus. This viewpoint isn’t uncommon among Christians: we see efforts to legitimate Jesus by reading prophecy of him into scripture in the Hebrew Bible all over the New Testament. But these New Testament references (including most prominently the Gospel of Matthew and the Epistle to the Hebrews) are post-Easter reflections and recontextualizations, not pre-Easter revelations and theological expositions of mature Christian theology. Here is where the Book of Mormon becomes problematic: from Nephi in 600 BCE to Ether in c. 800-400 BCE, to the brother of Jared in 2200 BCE, these texts claim that the doctrine of Christ was known, understood, and followed by many millions of people before Jesus was even born. And yet, there are no archeological evidences for such claims. None. Anywhere in the world. These bold claims just do not stand up to close scrutiny. Whereas there seems to be no problem interpreting Jesus as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy about a messiah who would come to make things right again, it is quite another thing to assert that pre-Christ people had a fully-developed faith and understanding of Jesus even before Jesus was born. It not only defies logic and stretches our ability to give the text the benefit of the doubt, but it also raises serious questions about the specificity of predestination, at least in regard to Jesus. Taken to the logical end, Jesus’ actions were less a choice and more a destiny, thereby negating one of the keys of salvation theologies: the conscious exercise of agency on behalf of other humans. And lest some simply say “oh well God knew that Jesus would succeed, and but Jesus still had to choose to ‘take the cup’”, the assertions made in these verses in Ether and throughout the Book of Mormon show individuals laying hold of faith in Jesus’ atonement and using his name to effectuate salvatory and redemptory acts, even before the atonement was wrought. A mystery? Maybe. Impossible? Probably, especially if one is to also proclaim agency as the key to the plan of salvation, and predestination to be a false doctrine. Is there any way to support the Book of Mormon claim that there were vast numbers of people who knew of and believed in Jesus before he was born, or is this something that must be taken “on faith” (that is, belief *in* something despite its lack of logic, observable evidence, etc.)?
8) Ether 12:24: Another tease about powerful words that aren’t included in the Book. Moroni laments at the paucity of power in his own words, referencing the powerful words of the brother of Jared’s writings(!) , claiming that “the things which he wrote were mighty even as [Jesus is], unto the overpowering of man to read them.” Well why didn’t Moroni just include the brother of Jared’s words verbatim instead of making a go at it himself, then lamenting that his words aren’t that good, then praising how awesome these other words are, then not including them so that others could appreciate and benefit from those awesome words? It really is getting silly that every time something could be amazing in the Book of Mormon, the narrator cuts us off and says something like “we don’t have room to include any more”, or “it was too amazing to write down”, or “the Lord commanded that we not write these words”, or “the Lord commanded us to write these words, then seal them up so no one can read them”, or “the Lord commanded others to write these words, I read them and let me tell you they are awesome, but I suck at writing so I’m not going to write them for you the reader”. This isn’t really a question as much as an observation, and probably a stale one at that. Sorry.
9) Ether 12:27 is a pretty powerful verse. It has a lot of dependent clauses that I think could be excluded, but the kernel that “humility begets strength” resonates. When we are conscious of our own faults and failings, and are teachable and willing to work at improving ourselves, we can see improvements. This holds true physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. That humility and meekness is not easily attained, however. I also love how in v. 36 Moroni prays to Jesus that He will accord people in the future grace so as to be capable of having charity for one another. That charity is key for both having humility and helping others who have become humble and meek in order to grow. It seems that Moroni is saying that we’re all in this together, and we can make something great and good and beautiful and godly, or we can do the opposite. The keys are humility and charity. (It is too bad that in v.37 Jesus absolves Moroni of his concern, redirecting the focus back on his own individual salvation and works!)
10) Ether 13:4: How did Ether talk of the New Jerusalem if the old Jerusalem hadn’t even been founded by people of the Abrahamic covenant by the time the Jaredites had left the old world after the Tower of Babel? Is this Moroni using verbiage from the New Testament book of Revelation (c.f. Rev. 3:12; 212) after having those words somehow commuted to him through revelation or a visitation from the undead John the Revelator? Is this Joseph Smith using a familiar phrase from the NT to retrospectively claim prophecy for Ether ca. 500-800 years before the author of Revelation would commit them to parchment, and ca. 1000 years before Moroni would engrave them on plates? Any way you slice it, this is another anachronism in that Moroni claims that Ether knew of the New Jerusalem. It would have possibly been fine for him to talk about it, but to put the words into the mouth of someone for whom the “old Jerusalem” has no meaning, significance, or resonance just doesn’t make sense. The whole of Ether 13 is filled with imagery from the book of Revelation (earth passes away, new heaven and new earth, saints made white through blood of lamb, etc.) The narrative has Moroni lifting these prophecies and phrases from “Ether’s writings”, after which he is constrained to not reveal the new, juicy stuff we haven’t already heard. In some ways, there are striking parallels of experience in that these fantastic, symbolic reveries about a magnificent city of God with only righteous people in it are shared by three hermit prophets (Ether in the cave; Moroni on the lamb; John in exile on the island of Patmos). All three are lonely, yearning for communion with other sympathetic souls. Their hope is that they can one day rejoin a community of followers of Jesus, but their pessimism is that this won’t be possible without a huge *parousia* and divine reordering of society. Is the New Jerusalem really a place and an event in time? Or is it to be an attitude, a goal, a vision that cannot be completely attained, but for which we strive together to enact or embody? And is it focused on here and now, not sometime in the future?
11) Ether 15:30: Did Coriantumr accidentally smite off the head of Shiz? Is this meant to communicate that even if Coriantumr didn’t want his prophecy to be the sole survivor of the final war to come to fruition, he couldn’t avoid its fulfillment?
Correction: in 10), it should read “Moroni on the lam” instead of “Moroni on the lamb”. 🙂
Ether 8: 20, 26
20 And now I, Moroni, do not write the manner of their oaths and combinations, for it hath been made known unto me that they are had among all people, and they are had among the Lamanites.
Why wont Moroni reveal these secret combinations if he knows them as he says? The strategy of not revealing them apparently has not worked as they are a continual plague on the people and the evil doers seem to have no problem finding out the secrets. What better way to expose and shine the light on these secrets so all can recognize them and not be deceived. He goes on to tell us that they will cause destruction and overthrow freedom but never tells us the obvious, what these secret combinations are that will cause this. But then in vs.26 he says he has written these things so evil will be done away.
“Wherefore, I, Moroni, am commanded to write these things that evil may be done away, and that the time may come that Satan may have no power upon the hearts of the children of men…”
What? He’s commanded to write these things but in vs. 20 does not write them. Exposing the manner of their oaths and secret combinations might have helped the people fight the gangsters. Verse 20 is in conflict with verse 26. Just one more example of the teasing the Book of Mormon does. I know stuff but I cant tell you.
During a difficult part of my life, while dealing with addictive and compulsive behaviors, I discovered Ether 12:27, and found it a great help in changing my life. I had read it many times, quoted it not a few, and liked it prior to that point, but I didn’t discover its meaning until I was in that place.
Before, it was a nice, kinda gauzey scripture about how God will make weak things strong, with the emphasis on the strength. But, when I looked at it more closely, I noticed there was much more to it than that.
“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.”
This seems counterintuitive. If we come to God, we won’t get a pat on the back, we will be shown our weakness. That doesn’t sound very pleasant.
“I give unto men weakness that they may be humble;”
This does not say that God gives us specific weaknesses — it says he gives us the state of being weak. I think this is the most misread part of the verse — I know I read it the other way for a long time.
He gives us this state of being weak to give us the opportunity to be humble. This implies that, without being inherently weak, we would not be able to be humble — very compatible with King Benjamin’s formulation that “the natural man is an enemy to God.” Out of the box, left to ourselves, we aren’t friends to God, but, because of this gift of weakness, we have a chance to be humble and rebuild our relationship with God.
“and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me;”
And if we humble ourselves before God, then, and only then, is his grace sufficient for us. God’s grace truly is amazing, but we have to prepare ourselves to receive it through this process of humbling ourselves before him if we are to receive it.
“for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them”
If we add faith in God (the first principle of the Gospel) to this humbleness before God, then he will make “weak things” become strong unto us. That’s the first time in the verse we have plural weak things, rather than the state of being weak. Might this mean that our individual weaknesses (in the sense of Dorcas Lane’s “one weakness”)? Or are other people in our lives “weak things?” I don’t know, but I think this part, for all that it’s the part people seem to notice in the verse, is the least important part of the formulation. We don’t need to understand in detail exactly what will be made strong, because the payload is more to be found in the previous clause.
If we humble ourselves before God, his grace is sufficient for us, and we also need to have faith in him. Humility is understanding our own lowness, and his greatness. Faith in him is trusting that he is there, that he loves us, that he wishes to help us and heal us, and that he will do so if we will allow him to. This became my plan for recovery, and, over a period of years, it helped me through quite a bit of healing and growth.
Thanks, Jared. I wish you were my Sunday School teacher!
Jared Anderson says:
Thanks Ben! Good to hear from you.