Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 40: “Temple Work and Family History” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on August 18, 2011

I’ve struggled with what to say about this lesson. I’ve decided to primarily refer readers to Joe’s excellent and related post post, “Elijah and the Restoration of the Sealing Keys” (Lesson 26 in the Joseph Smith manual). First, however, I will offer a passages of commentary by Walter Brueggemann on Malachi 4:5-6, which I see as the scriptural backbone of this lesson.

As a lifelong member of the Church, I’ve heard Malachi 4:5-6 frequently quoted, but I’ve never understood the importance that (other) Christians have attached to this verse, as the concluding words of the Old Testament.

To summarize one Christian point of view, I’m going to simply quote from Walter Brueggemann at some length (An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, p. 259-260):

It is plausible that [Malachi] 4:1-3 provided a conclusion to the book of Malachi in some stage of transmission. To that conclusion, however, were added two additional notations, the interrelationship of which is particularly telling:

1. In 4:4, focus is upon “the Torah of Moses” from Mount Sinai, thus a theme already noted in 2:5-7.

2. In 4:5-6 focus is upon Elijah and, therefore, the prophetic tradition. . . .

This threefold conclusion to the book of Malachi—and to the Book of the Twelve—is of immense interest and importance. The first conclusion (4:1-3) posits a profound contrast between the wicked and the righteous. . . . The second (4:4) and third (4:5-6) conclusions taken together draw into unity the Torah of Moses and the prophetic tradition represented by Elijah, thus “the law and the prophets.” Whereas the Torah asserts the requirement of obedience . . . the prophets invite hope for YHWH’s future effected by this human agent, the messenger. . . .

The conclusion of the Prophetic Canon in Malachi 4:5-6 thus ends in hope. . . . As such, this hope becomes a grounding for emerging Judaism that anticipates restoration of temple, city, and people. . . . [T]he completed Torah is short of arrival and lives in anticipation of YHWH’s promises yet to be enacted [cf. Deut 34:1-12]. In parallel fashion, the prophetic canon also ends short of arrival and lives in anticipation of YHWH’s promises yet to be enacted. In this way both “the law and the prophets” are deeply rooted, but end in hope that still awaits fruition.

. . . [I]t is crucial for Christian faith that this text in Malachi 4:5-6 not only concludes the Latter Prophets, but in Christian reading concludes the entire canon of the Old Testament. Thus the Christian Old Testament—in a way very different from the Hebrew Bible—ends in prophetic hope. This ending made it relatively easy to make connections to the Jesus movement and its harbringer, John the Baptist. . . .

Mormonism seems to recast Malachi’s concluding words in important and very interesting ways. The question, then, is how?

In an effort to address that question, I highly recommend Joe’s superb, albeit fairly lengthy, post that I linked to in my first paragraph.

Joe begins with an account of how surprising and staggering the visit of Elijah was to Joseph, and how this basically inaugurated Joseph’s Nauvoo period. In light of this point that Joe makes, I thought the following statement by Bruegemann in his concluding paragraph regarding Malachi was particularly interesting, especially because of the way it emphasizes “openness” and surprise (which are, I think, central to understanding the role of prophetic revelation vis-a-vis the written law—and scripture—and thus the essence of the Restoration itself):

The openness left by the expectation of the prophetic canon surely requires no single one-on-one match between expectation and fruition, a single match too much insisted upon in conventional authoritarian and triumphalist interpretation. Rather, the openness of the promissory tradition easily permits the awareness that God’s promises admit of more than fruition, an openness congruent with the claim that this God generates futures well beyond all of our designed and controlled categories. That of course is the theological significance of promise: the promise permits open futures that exist only upon God’s initiative. Thus the promissory conclusion to the canon is a rhetorical feature, but a rhetorical offer that has profound theological significance. Such a promissory openness tells against every interpretive attempt to reduce, control, capture, or domesticate the future that always belongs only to God, and is given in God’s mercy and generosity. (p. 261)

I like the implicit idea here of seeking God by studying the past—including both the past of our own ancestors and the past as contained in our scriptural canon—in a way that is open to a new understanding of history, which in turn effects a new understanding of our present and future. This, it seems, to me, is the essence of Malachi’s message, and its importance to the Restoration: a prophetic admonition that we need to focus our present efforts on culling the best from our Adamic, Abrahamic, Israelite, Christian and Mormon past, and work toward constructing (and being surprised by) the best possible future that God can bless us with.

This effort, of course, entails that we further study, and express thanks, for the blessings of the Priesthood and the temple, as well as for the Church and scripture more generally—blessings which are frequently forgotten in the bustle of everyday living, which we too easily let crowd out our attention toward things of more eternal import….

2 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 40: “Temple Work and Family History” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. Karl D. said

    Robert,

    I think you want the title to read “Lesson 40” not “Lesson 30.”

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