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BOM Lesson 15

Posted by Robert C. on April 22, 2008

BOM Lesson 15: Mosiah 1-3

I’m on vacation writing this, so it’s going to be more of a collection of notes than a finished piece of writing. Mainly, I’m going to be summarizing and responding to what Joe Spencer has written about Mosiah 2:23-24 on the wiki. Enjoy.

Other links

* Mosiah 2:23-24 commentary on the wiki (written by Joe Spencer)

* King Benjamin’s Speech: “That ye May Learn Wisdom”, edited by John Welch and Stephen Ricks (full book is available online!)

* Wiki links to other notes (incl. Jim F.’s)

Structure of Mosiah 2:21-25

Here’s one way to think about the structure of vv. 21-25:

A “him who has created you from the beginning” (v. 21)
B “and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath” (v. 21)
C “ye would be unprofitable servants” (v. 21)
D “all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments” (v. 22)
E “if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you” (v. 22)

A’ “he hath created you” (v. 23)
B’ “and granted unto you your lives” (v. 23)
C’ “ye are indebted unto him” (v. 23)
D’ “he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you” (v. 24)
E’ “and if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you” (v. 24)

C* “and ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever” (v. 24)

F “of what have ye to boast?” (v. 24)
F’ “can ye say aught of yourselves” (v. 25)

A” “ye were created of the dust of the earth” (v. 25)

Notice how the theme of indebtedness is repeated and extended, from being unprofitable servants (line C, v. 21), to becoming initially indebted (line C’, v. 23), to eternally indebted (line C*, v. 24). Also, in rewriting Joe’s structure this way, I wonder if the A’s & E’s and the B’s & D’s might be read chiastically, mirroring or paralleling each other so that creation & blessing and giving & commanding are linked. Hmmm….

Verse 23

“In the first place” and “secondly”

Joe’s done a nice job on the wiki discussing how the phrase “in the first place” is used in Alma 13:3, 5 and how the Garden of Eden discussion at the end of Alma 12 (esp. vv. 31-37) seems to be discussing a similar “first” and “second” set of issues. If we look at the “in the first place” of Mosiah 2:23, and the “secondly” of verse 24 in a similar way, then we might read verse 23 in terms of the creation and fall, whereas we might read verse 24 in terms of atonement and veil (or resurrection).

“Created you” and “granted unto you your lives”

Joe also has a nice discussion of these two phrases and how there is a notion of free agency implicit in them, how the grammar implies a separation from ourselves and our lives: “you” is the direct object of “created,” but the indirect object of “granted.”

The word “grant” is interesting for several reasons. “Grant” in verse 23 is parallel to “lending you breath” in verse 21. Joe highlights the contrasting connotations between these two terms, how a loan is something you must pay back whereas a grant is more like a gift that might entail certain expectations, but is not something that can be repaid in the same clear, definitive sense.

“Indebted unto him”

If there is a gift-like connotation to the term grant, how can debt be incurred? In what sense is a gift a gift if it imposes a debt on the receiver? This is a question I’m very interested in (i.e., please discuss!), and I’m planning to talk with Joe about this extensively, here and elsewhere. I’ve mentioned before—in the Sunday school posts for 1 Nephi 12-14 (lesson 4) and 2 Nephi 26-30 (lesson 10)—how I’m inclined to think about this in terms of a continuum (following John Milbank): at one pole is immediate exchange where what is exchanged is immediate and economically equivalent, whereas at the other pole is a gift where, although some a debt might be incurred, the repayment of that debt is infinitely delayed and there is no clear way of reducing the debt to definite, measurable terms (Milbank talks about this in terms of delay and non-identical exchange).

Anyway, I think that the debt incurred here should be thought in rather general terms, perhaps something like the parables about stewardship in the gospels—we are given our lives and we are expected to use our lives to build the Kingdom. Like all creditors, I think this kind of “lending” or “granting” can be thought as being benevolent, even if it is also economic. I think family relations are actually a good analogy for this kind of “economic giving” or “gift-like lending” where something is given that causes a kind of indebtedness, but an indebtedness that is not very specific. That is, as a family, everyone helps out as they can, without “keeping track” exactly of how much each person helps—but the fact that each person helps as they can draws us together in a kind of mutual bond (and notice, in finance, a bond is a form of debt).

Verse 24

I’ve only begun to really think about verse 24, so I’m going to simply take the verse as a whole rather than comment on the particular phrases by themselves. One big question I have is about a kind of tension that seems to underly this verse (a tension, by the way, that Joe interestingly links to Paul’s writings, esp. in Romans 7): if we are eternally indebted to law, in what sense is a “requirement” meaningful? That is, if we’re hopelessly indebted, what preserves hope? Or, alternatively, if we are hopelessly indebted and God keeps blessing us anyway (or at least never calls in payment on our debt), what incentive is there to keep “trying” to repay it? I think this way of framing the issues shows how intimately linked all of this is to how we understand the relationship of faith, grace, and works. And this is one of the reasons I find these verses so fascinating and rich. If God keeps us eternally indebted, then there is a sense in which it doesn’t matter whether we are repaying him or not—we have nothing to boast of either way. This radical breaking of any merit-based view of works seems to have radical consequences for how we think about our lives, our very selves, our relation to God, our status as God’s children/servants/slaves, etc. (all of which I think are implied by “subjectivity” which Joe uses on the wiki).

One (of the many) thoughts I’ve had on this is the way in which God “secondly” securing our debt for an eternal duration is that it keeps us eternally lacking in the sense that we must be eternally striving—never finished. If we could repay our debt to God and then be over and done with that debt, we would not continue to be in a very meaningful relationship with God (or, at least that’s what I’d argue). When I buy books from a third party on Amazon, there’s oftentimes a good chance that I’ll never have another interaction with that person in this life—and that’s fine, since I only really have an economic relation with this person. Economic relations aren’t bad, they’re just not the kind of relationship that God wants with us. By keeping us eternally indebted, we are eternally bound (again, surely related to the debt-word bond, though I don’t have time to double check the etymological history of this right now) to him. I hope this doesn’t come across as too trite or, worse, condescending, but I think it’s the same with my wife: I’m indebted (and astounded) that she agreed to marry me, but not only did she marry me, but she keeps doing things for me that make me more indebted, and I feel that I’ll never be able to catch up. But in some way that I don’t yet fully grasp (again, I’m hoping discussion below will help me at least attain a better understanding, even if such an understanding is never complete!), this feeling of debt does not have a despairing effect on me, nor does it cause me to calculate ways that I might exploit this lucky position I have found myself in; rather, it motivates me more than ever to serve her back as best I can….

8 Responses to “BOM Lesson 15”

  1. robf said

    Thanks Robert. Lots to think here about indebtedness. What does it mean for us to be eternal beings that are eternally indebted? Does our indebtedness go back before the fall (“in the first place”) to another “first place” before this mortal life?

    I’m also starting to think about the term “prosper” as it occurs in these verses (and the OT covenants), and yesterday added a comment on the wiki about the Hebrew sakal–“to prosper” which doesn’t necessarily mean to gain physical comfort or wealth, but seems to deal with gaining wisdom and being able to handle complex situations. Interesting how we are repeatedly told to seek for wisdom rather than riches. Seems that prospering means something different for the Lord than in our popular culture.

  2. K Cryder said

    Robert,
    I like that you liken indebtedness to God to your wife—and not because i’m a wife and mother. As a wife and mother, I do ALOT for my family. I’m constantly going, sleep deprived, and working 24/7 —-which thing i do voluntarily and happily. I just want my family to be happy, healthy, and thriving in all areas of life and i gain so much satisfaction out of helping and nurturing them. The only time I don’t feel satisfied is when they occasionally take me for granted or act unappreciative. It is during those few moments that I might question,(to myself and sometimes verbally), “Why am I knocking myself out, doing all this to bless their lives if they don’t even care?” Followed shortly thereafter is a Hug or an “Im sorry” and I’m instantly recharged. I know that my husband and children could never do what I do and I never wish for that—only a little appreciation and a little help now and again (whether solicited or not). So, Because God is a Father I have to wonder if He ever feels the same. Happy to bless our lives, knowing that we could never repay Him—but does expect (and deserves) some gratitude and a little help (solicited and of our own free will).
    I’m thankful for your example because it helped me to go back to the simple beauty of the plan–the love of a Father for His children.

  3. JennyW said

    Robert, this was very helpful. Thank you. I thought your discussion of indebtedness in terms of the family relationship brought out some interesting points. This “mutual bond” created within the family seems related to the specific form of kingship that Benjamin describes earlier in the chapter. Benjamin describes kingship as a relationship that is not founded on economics (he emphasizes that he hasn’t sought money or taxes) but rather on service, a service designed not to be paid back to Benjamin himself, but to be replicated out in service toward each other (v. 18). The closest his people can come to “paying” Benjamin back is not payment, but recognition of him and his service—they may thank him (v. 19). His kingship, then, is designed to bind himself to his people as they become like him in action by serving one another and acknowledge their bond to him as they thank him. This example of earthly kingship, service, and indebtedness underlies the discussion of man’s relationship to God in the verses that follow.

    Regarding the discussion of being eternally indebted, I especially liked your comments on the “radical breaking of any merit-based view of works.” I think it’s easier in some ways to think that I can pay back God,, at least in part, if I just work hard enough (do enough visiting teaching, go to the temple enough, etc.) because holding such a view allows me to see myself as “good”—a good worker, a team player, etc. It’s harder to see things as they really are here in these verses: I can’t pay back God no matter what I do, or don’t do. This view is harder because it allows me to see myself as I am, in the infinitude of my falleness. It’s much easier to think of myself as a good worker than as fallen and in need.

    Freeing my works from an economic relationship changes them, although I’m not certain into what. Given Benjamin’s discussion of kingship, though, I’m tempted to say that it changes them into praise. I don’t work to pay God, I work to praise.

    Another view might be works as repayment shifting into works as refinement. To become like God, to become kings and queens, we must learn kingship, which is another way of saying we must reconfigure our understanding of who we serve and why we serve them. God serves us not to pay us, but in order to forge a familial bond. We serve God not to repay him, but to recognize Him as God, to forge our own familial bonds so that we may become like Him. I’m still playing around with these ideas, but perhaps I might leave it there for now. Thanks for all the good questions.

  4. RuthS said

    robf, it is interesting that you think that gifts don’t come with any expectation of a return. I ran across a statement by Tacitus some time ago and stuck it up where I can see it. It says, “Good turns are pleasing only in so far as they seem repayable; much beyond that we repay with hatred not gratitude.” The fact that the greeting card industry does so well at Christmas time is a testament to the truthfulness of this statement.

    The desire to give back and stay even in terms of gift giving and greeting card sending seems to be a part of human nature. It must have something to do with place holding and status in a community. It is virtually impossible to send a card or gift and not receive something in return. So I think the problem Benjamin could be addressing is not the economic relationships as such as much as he is the pride of those who think they can get even with God by paying him back for their blessings. I don’t think he is saying God perceives any indebtedness. It is they who perceive the indebtedness. So looking at it through their eyes they will be eternally in God’s debt because they will never by on the same level as he is in terms of eternal progression.

    While they cannot resurrect themselves, we are told that those who do not accept Christ and repent will have to suffer for their own sins, doing anything of that magnitude is pretty much out of the question.

  5. RuthS said

    Ok, Robf didn’t say anything about gift giving. Sorry about that. Robert kind of mentioned it when I have understood him correctly.

  6. robf said

    Anthropologically, its quite possible that the small non-stratified society of “king” Benjamin was actually a big-man system or small incipient chiefdom governed by an economy of reciprocal gift giving (think potlatches, New Guinea pig feasts, the Kula Ring, etc.). I’ll have to reread these chapters again with this in mind…more later.

  7. Robert C. said

    Great comments, all—thanks.

    My wife asked me a good stumper question I thought I’d add to the discussion: if God is “breaking” any notion of an economic relation with him, as I’ve roughly been reading Mosiah 2:23-24, why is it that Mosiah talks about God blessing us each time we obey in rather economic terms, or in terms that seem to preserve an economic mindset? Why wouldn’t God bless us, say, more randomly rather than blessing us each time we are obedient, and in such explicitly economic terms (cf. “immediately” and “paid you” in v. 24)? I think there’s something very important going on here, that God doesn’t just break from an economic relation with us, but that he breaks our economic relation by over-filling (ful-filling? saturating?) his economic obligation to us—or something.. Hmmm…..

  8. BrianJ said

    Robert—I’m trying to follow this on the road, as you know. I like how you answer your wife’s “stumper question.” By totally over-doing his side of the economics, God makes it very clear that we have no way to keep up with him in the quid pro quo. (Romans 4:4)

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