Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: cryptozoology

OT Lesson 37 (Proto-Isaiah 2)

“Thou Hast Done Wonderful Things”

Isaiah 22; 24–26; 28–30

LDS manual: here


We’re still in the first of the three Isaiahs. If you want a representative chunk of Isaiah, chapter 34 wouldn’t be a bad bit to read. It’s got the main themes:

  • God is angry at the nations because they don’t love him enough

34:1 Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it.

  • He’s going to kill them.

34:2 For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.

  • There’s going to be lots of blood.

34:3 Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood.
34:4 And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree
34:5 For my sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment.
34:6 The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, it is made fat with fatness, and with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams: for the LORD hath a sacrifice in Bozrah, and a great slaughter in the land of Idumea.

  • And then the mythical animals come.

34:7 And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.

The immortality idea is also starting to bubble up:

26:19 Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.

Which is like saying: God’s going to take all the people he just killed and make them alive again. So no harm.

Main points from this lesson

Cherry-picking with Isaiah

When you look at it, Christianity has done something kind of amazing: it’s become incredibly popular by building itself onto an existing work, and it’s cobbled bits of that work together to assemble a rationale for its existence. It’s as if Wicked had managed to supplant The Wizard of Oz in popularity.

Lots of these bits are pulled from passages in Isaiah that were about something else. Here are some examples from the real lesson manual.

Isaiah 22:22. The Savior opens the door to Heavenly Father’s presence

22:20 And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah:
22:21 And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.
22:22 And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

The lesson manual says this is about Jesus. But Isaiah says it’s about his servant Eliakim. Who’s right? Well, both apparently. Isaiah thinks he’s talking about his servant Eliakim, but remember, he’s speaking in a kind of secret symbolic code that no one can understand unless they’re trying to interpret it in a Jesusy way. Once you understand Mormon doctrine, you can come around after the fact, cherry-pick bits of this and that, and understand that he’s totally talking about Jesus in a way that fits the story you’re trying to tell. Got it?

Or this one. It seems to be talking about taking a bunch of kings from other countries and throwing them in prison, but instead of hewing them to pieces before the Lord, or cutting off their noses, ears, and privates like you’d see in the rest of the OT, they’re going to get taught the Gospel because this is totally about spirit prison.

Isaiah 24:21–22. The Savior shows mercy for those in spirit prison.

24:21 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth.
24:22 And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited.

See? Visited. By Jesus! How is that not about Spirit Prison.

Okay, see if you can guess what this one is about.

27:1 In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.

Um, that’s one’s about Satan, I think. It’s probably how Jesus is going to defeat Satan at the Last Day. Yeah, totally.

See, Isaiah isn’t that hard.

There’s a very special prophecy about the Book of Mormon.

29:1 Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt! add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices.
29:2 Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be heaviness and sorrow: and it shall be unto me as Ariel.
29:3 And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee.
29:4 And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.

This scripture seems to be about a city called Ariel that God’s going to kill, but it’s actually about gold plates being buried in the ground. See, the Book of Mormon does have a ‘familiar’ sort of sound to it. It sounds kind of like the Bible. It has that same ‘spirit’ to it. So it has a ‘familiar spirit’. Heh.

But of course, familiar spirits in the Bible aren’t really a great thing. They’re always associated with witchcraft and necromancy. So this is an odd point to be making. Oh, well; not all the cherries you pick are winners.

Here’s another one. Anyone who’s sat in church for too long has heard the story of Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia University. Martin Harris took some of Joseph Smith’s drawings of the supposed characters that appeared on the supposed Gold Plates. According to Harris, Anthon said the characters were legit, and offered a certificate of authenticity. But when hearing that the plates were brought by an angel, Anthon tore the certificate up. Further, Anthon was supposed to have told Harris to bring the gold book for him to translate, and when told that a portion of it was sealed, Anthon allegedly said, “I cannot read a sealed book.”

All of this was supposed to have been foretold — in a manner that can only be described as oblique — by Isaiah.

29:11 And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
29:12 And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.

Let’s hear Professor Anthon’s side of the story, which was published in “History of Mormonism” by Howe.

Dear Sir — I received this morning your favor of the 9th instant, and lose no time in making a reply. The whole story about my having pronouncd the Mormonite inscription to be “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics” is perfectly false. Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax….
The farmer added, that he had been requested to contribute a sum of money towards the publication of the “golden book,” the contents of which would, as he had been assured, produce an entire change in the world and save it from ruin. So urgent had been these solicitations, that he intended selling his farm and handing over the amount received to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, however, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and, instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving, and he then took his leave carrying the paper with him.

This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived.

Ask: Whose story is probably closer to the truth?

For my part, I’m going with the learned professor. I think we’ve all known someone like Martin Harris — a serial believer who seems like an easy mark for con men. He’s the equivalent of that one friend who pays to see stage shows by mediums, and then gets mad when you tell them it’s probably bunk. Harris’s version of the episode has all the hallmarks of a story concocted during a cherry-picking expedition.

Line upon line

Any all-powerful god who knows the end from the beginning — and who has its plan together from the beginning — would be able to explain itself clearly, without having to resort to ambiguous piecemeal explanations or incremental modifications. Or periodic updates to cope with situations it didn’t foresee. And yet these are exactly what we see in the LDS Church.

In this lesson, we see a passage that is used to justify this practice:

28:10 For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
28:11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.
28:12 To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.
28:13 But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

This is a very convenient scripture. It allows for incremental rewriting of church doctrine. It also justifies concealing unappealing or embarrassing doctrines from members who aren’t “ready” for them.

Most of all, it allows church leaders to string members along. If we don’t know everything right now, if there aren’t convincing explanations for all the gaps and plot holes — don’t worry, Brother Midgley; everything will be revealed in the fulness of time. Line upon line!

It would make no sense for an all-knowing being to dole out information this way, but it makes a lot of sense for humans, who have problems with consistency and continuity.

Additional teaching ideas

Isaiah, the naked prophet

The real lesson manual ignores one of the more striking parts of Isaiah: he walks around naked and barefoot for three years.

20:1 In the year that Tartan came unto Ashdod, (when Sargon the king of Assyria sent him,) and fought against Ashdod, and took it;
20:2 At the same time spake the LORD by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot. And he did so, walking naked and barefoot.
20:3 And the LORD said, Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia;
20:4 So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.

Now this isn’t the first time someone has showed his prophetic… power by prophesying naked. Saul also did back in 1 Samuel, and all the people were, shall we say, mightily impressed.

The church has tried to tamp down the nudity aspect of this scripture, partly because it might detract from the decorum of the prophetic office, and part because that’s a mental image no one really wants. So we have this:

(14-32) Isaiah 20:2. What Was Meant by Isaiah Walking “Naked and Barefoot”?
“With the great importance attached to the clothing in the East, where the feelings upon this point are peculiarly sensitive and modest, a person was looked upon as stripped and naked if he had only taken off his upper garment. What Isaiah was directed to do, therefore, was simply opposed to common custom, and not to moral decency. He was to lay aside the dress of a mourner and preacher of repentance, and to have nothing on but his tunic (cetoneth); and in this, as well as barefooted, he was to show himself in public.” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 7:1:372.)

See, he was wearing a tunic, and that meant ‘naked’. It didn’t mean ‘naked’ for Adam and Eve, or for Job, or for a lot of other examples in the Bible. But I suppose words can mean more than one thing, and maybe Isaiah wasn’t walking around starkers for three years.

Still, I think the modern prophet shtick could use, if not more nudity, a bit more performance art.

What I’m noticing from today’s lesson is the fluid quality of words. Naked isn’t really naked. A unicorn isn’t a unicorn, and prison has a special meaning, once you know the story. And of course, steel isn’t steel and a horse isn’t a horse. With that in mind, it’s odd that an all-knowing being decided to use human language to get his massage across. Language is imprecise, it changes over time, and it requires imperfect translators for everyone to understand it. Errors and imperfections can be introduced through any of those things. A god would know a better way of communicating his message, and yet he doesn’t. We can therefore conclude that he wants his message to be misunderstood — as indeed it is; God is the author of so much confusion — or that he doesn’t exist and this religion thing is a human enterprise.

What does Isaiah get wrong?

Failed prophecy

19:23 In that day shall there be a highway out of Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians shall serve with the Assyrians.
19:24 In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land:

We’re not likely to see an Egypt-Israel-Assyria alliance in (these) the latter days, as Assyria no longer exists. (No, it’s not the same as Syria.)

Isaiah is unclear on how the moon works

30:26 Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the LORD bindeth up the breach of his people, and healeth the stroke of their wound.

Since moonlight is reflected from the sun, it’s not possible for the moon to be as bright as the sun. And if the sun appeared to be seven times as bright as it does, it would fry us to a crisp.

More animals that don’t exist

30:6 The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.

Wow! Flying snakes of fire! Do they breathe fire, or do they just have fire coming off of them? Cool either way. I bet they’d get on well with the unicorns.

OT Lesson 36 (Proto-Isaiah 1)

The Glory of Zion Will Be a Defense

Isaiah 1–6

LDS manual: here


Now we’re into Isaiah. Many people are accustomed to thinking of Isaiah as one person. These people may be in for a surprise, as the Book of Isaiah was written by three people (or groups of people) at different times. There was Proto-Isaiah in chapters 1–39; Deutero-Isaiah, in chapters 40–55; and Trito-Isaiah, a committee who wrote chapters 56–66.

How do we know Isaiah was three people? By the science of forensic linguistics, the basis of which is that language offers us choices. Everyone has their own way of speaking, their own verbal tics and habits. Do you say that you “start” to do something, or do you “begin” to do something? Do you write ‘Internet’ with a capital I, or not? These stylistic choices are largely outside of our control, and can be used to identify us by our writing.

In the same way, each of the three sections of Isaiah show different characteristics, as though different people wrote it. Proto-Isaiah says “The Lord, Yahweh of hosts”, “remnant”, and “to stretch out the hand”, whereas Deutero-Isaiah never does. He does, however, say “all flesh” and “chosen” a lot, which Proto-Isaiah never does.

The idea of Isaiah as three people writing at different times will come into play a couple of lessons down the road, where we’ll see that Joseph Smith and friends blithely placed Isaiah’s words onto Nephi’s plates, without realising that Nephi wouldn’t have had access to them.

For this lesson, we’re in the domain of the first Isaiah.

Main point from this lesson

How to understand Isaiah

A Gospel Doctrine lesson is likely to offer some tips for understanding Isaiah. That’s what I did anyway, when I taught this class in Sunday School. I had two tips that I was very proud of, and that I thought were rock-solid at the time. They were:

1. It’s difficult to understand what Isaiah is prophesying about until after it happens.
2. Isaiah’s prophecies can have multiple fulfilments, both temporally and spiritually.

No, I’m serious, those were the tips. I swear to Zeus, I said that to a room full of grownups and nobody laughed. They all just swallowed it down. I think someone might have taken notes. I should have been embarrassed, and the members should have been rolling their eyes. But no, everyone nodded sagely.

Here’s why I should have been embarrassed. A prediction needs to be specific in order to be any use. I mean, it’s not much of a prediction if you can’t tell what it refers to until after it happens, is it? There’s no point in predicting that (say) a war will happen, but not giving a specific time or place. Wars are always happening, and it would be easy to point to some war, and claim a fulfilment of prophecy. There’s no point in predicting it will rain, but at some indefinite point in the future, and then claiming fulfilment when it eventually rains. Seriously, what wouldn’t count as a fulfilment of prophesy using that principle? “The cat sneezed. Isaiah was right again!” You could drive a truck through that.

So on point 1, of course it’s easy to tie some event back to a vague and poetic prophesy by Isaiah after the fact. But this is meaningless. And point 2 — allowing for multiple targets — just makes it easier for the believer to claim a hit.

So now I have one tip for understanding Isaiah, and every other prophet: They’re all either con artists, or they’re people with real problems. The problem is that people believe them.

Additional teaching ideas


Isaiah 6 describes angels with wings. Six of ’em.

6:1 In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.
6:2 Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

Mormons really hate the idea of angels with wings. I suppose it’s because in the Mormon universe, angels are always human in origin. No wings on them.

There are two kinds of beings in heaven who are called angels: those who are spirits and those who have bodies of flesh and bone. Angels who are spirits have not yet obtained a body of flesh and bone, or they are spirits who have once had a mortal body and are awaiting resurrection. Angels who have bodies of flesh and bone have either been resurrected from the dead or translated.

But that wasn’t the view of the writer of Isaiah.

Funny story: I used to be Stake Music Director, and I directed the Stake choir. That was my favourite calling ever. I loved putting musical programmes together. I used to pick classical songs with lots of Latin, which got me in a bit of trouble sometimes. Members used to grizzle about it a bit, but the Stake Presidency had my back. They were cool guys, really.

For one musical fireside, I decided to have the choir and soloists doing musical numbers about the Atonement, but with relevant artwork projected on the wall. And for the Resurrection, I used The Resurrection (1873) by Carl Bloch.

And I got complaints. Why? You guessed it — angels with wings. Couldn’t believe it.

And it looks like the dear members in Dianella Stake aren’t the only ones who have a problem with this Bloch painting. When the painting was used for an Ensign cover, the wings got ‘Shopped out. Here’s the before and the after.

Ask: Can you spot the differences?

There’s more to this Photoshop job than just wings. Check out the shoulders.

Yep, they’ve covered the bare shoulders. Apparently, there’s a war on bare shoulders in the church these days. They’ve always preached about modesty, but this is something new, just in the last ten or twenty years or so. I don’t remember people haranguing little girls about their shoulders when I was growing up in the church. Call it hypermodesty.

Ask: People sometimes caution against sexualising children. In what way does a focus on modesty itself sexualise children?
Answer: By training children (especially girls) to be especially aware of their clothing and how they look, instead of allowing them just be kids, hypermodesty is actually training kids to think along sexual lines. Instead of preserving innocence, it removes it.

OT Lesson 25 (Psalms)

“Create in Me a Clean Heart”


LDS manual: here


Since we’ve just finished with David, the anonymous body of church correlators has decided to take us into the Psalms. Good idea, faceless men; the Psalms are usually associated with David, and they’re a little lighter than the stuff we’ve been reading, so it’s a nice diversion.

There are a lot of Psalms. To be specific, 150 of them. And I read them all. Well, I admit I pskimmed a few of them. They swing pretty sharply between ‘dreary’ and ‘violently bloodthirsty’. Steve Wells has made it easy with the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (which I link to in every lesson) by highlighting all the crazy bits.

The Psalms are essentially song lyrics, which makes it funny when people try to build major points of doctrine onto them. I don’t like to read too much into the Psalms, so I’ve ignored a lot of the silly stuff, like inconsequential contradictions and so forth.

In the last lesson, I compared David to a rock star, but which rock star? I’d say Justin Bieber. I don’t like to pile on the Bieber hate because I think it’s a bit of a cheap laugh, but consider: First of all, the themes in Psalms are kind of monotonous. Second, I have doubts about whether David actually wrote this stuff. The main difference between King David and Justin Bieber is that Bieber only has the potential to become a psychopathic killer, whereas David is said to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Bieber was just alleged to have spat on them (but maybe not). I think he peed in a bucket once. Hardly Old Testamental.

King David: worse than Bieber.

Here’s my quick rundown of some of the themes in Psalms.

Slavery: still A-OK

Reading the Psalms gave me a lot of Messiah flashbacks, since the text of Handel’s oratorio draws so heavily from them. So for example, the text of Tenor aria “Thou Shalt Break Them” comes from Psalms 2:9.

But what’s the previous verse? Why, it’s about how to own people.

2:8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
2:9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

There are lots of scriptures asking God to smash enemies, or even doing the job yourself — all with divine approval, of course.

18:40 Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me.
18:41 They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the LORD, but he answered them not.
18:42 Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in the streets.
18:43 Thou hast delivered me from the strivings of the people; and thou hast made me the head of the heathen: a people whom I have not known shall serve me.

21:9 Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the LORD shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them.
21:10 Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth, and their seed from among the children of men.

34:16 The face of the LORD is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

50:22 Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.

55:15 Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.

58:10 The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.

69:23 Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake.
69:24 Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them.
69:25 Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.

110:6 He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.

140:10 Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again.

144:1 Blessed be the LORD my strength which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:

The American right-wing singled out Barack Obama for a special prayer from Psalms:

109:8 Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

But did they read the next few verses?

109:9 Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
109:10 Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
109:11 Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.
109:12 Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.
109:13 Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

109:20 Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.
109:21 But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name’s sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.

That’s pretty ugly stuff. “Kill my enemy, but be nice to me, God, because we have a special relationship, okay?”

Mythical animals

Lots of cryptozoology in Psalms, starting with — yes — skipping trees. With a special appearance from a unicorn.

29:5 The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.
29:6 He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.

Hey, did you see those skipping trees? They were skipping just like a unicorn.

Like the time my sister came to visit in Australia, and I told her to watch out for the drop-bears. And she said, “How big is a drop-bear?” and I said, “About as big as a jackalope.”

Don’t forget the dragons.

44:19 Though thou hast sore broken us in the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death.

74:13 Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.
74:14 Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

91:13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.

148:7 Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:

Another unicorn.

92:10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.

Wow, anointing the horn. I didn’t think we were going to get to that until the Song of Solomon.

God will beat David’s children if they disobey

89:30 If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments;
89:31 If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments;
89:32 Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.

Unscientific things

Remember the firmament? That imaginary ceiling that holds back the rain? It’s a great example of God’s handiwork. Along with the unicorns.

19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.

The earth is held up by pillars.

75:3 The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved: I bear up the pillars of it. Selah.

And it doesn’t move.

93:1 The LORD reigneth, he is clothed with majesty; the LORD is clothed with strength, wherewith he hath girded himself: the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.

And yet it moves.

In addition, the heavens are stretched out like a curtain.

104:1 Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
104:2 Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
104:3 Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
104:4 Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
104:5 Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
104:6 Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.

There are some interesting scriptures that suggest that the Hebrews weren’t really considering the afterlife as a concept yet.

115:17 The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.

This scripture about how great children are…

127:3 Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
127:4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
127:5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

…has been picked up and used as inspiration for the Quiverfull movement, a very damaging movement seemingly created to keep women popping out as many babies as possible.

And finally, this scripture has gotten a lot of press.

137:9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

I don’t know if I have a problem with this one. Some people say “OMG the Bible says it’s OK to bash children against rocks,”

and I don’t think it does. It seems to me that this is a song lyric, and it’s just a really dark one. Maybe David was going through a black metal phase. I’m okay with that. Not with bashing children against rocks, though, obviously.

Main points from this lesson

Praising the Lord

In Psalms, it’s all about praising God and giving glory to his name. This is the kind of thing we’d expect from a somewhat insecure deity who’s trying to get himself established in a pantheon that’s already kind of full.

29:1 Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength.
29:2 Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.

86:12 I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart: and I will glorify thy name for evermore.

Now I like praise more than anyone. It feels good when people give me attention and approval. But at the same time, I realise that this taps into something about me that’s not very good. It’s like when I have a need for praise, it’s because of some kind of emptiness in myself. There’s a hole there that I want other people to fill with approval. At times when I’m feeling the healthiest in myself, I don’t have that need. I can get approval from myself.

And I’m just a human, not a perfect all-knowing being. So I have to ask: why would a god need or desire praise from anyone else? If he’s so awesome, doesn’t he know that? And why would he desire praise from us, his creations? What kind of narcissistic egomaniac would he have to be to require praise from these insects? Why would we need to tell him “Good job, God. You’re so great” for eternity?

A perfect being lacks nothing and needs nothing, including praise. As Friedrich Nietzsche said:

“I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.”

Prophecies about Jesus

David was having a rough time for some of those Psalms. He was being chased around by Saul, living from cave to cave, and generally having a bad time of it. But some of the Psalms about David’s sufferings have been picked up and retooled as prophecies about Jesus. For example:

22:16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
22:17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
22:18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

And so on. The real manual gives a lot more examples, and says:

• Jesus Christ is the only person whose birth, life, death, and resurrection were prophesied before his birth. Why do you think such detailed prophecies were given about the Savior’s life?

I think the answer is simple: Because his life was rewritten after the fact to match prophecies. How much more obvious an explanation could there be?

So many Christians have said to me: There were hundreds of prophecies in the Bible that Jesus fulfilled. And I always say, “You mean a prediction in that book… was fulfilled… later on in the same book?” That’s so not amazing.

Additional ideas for teaching

Calling atheists fools

A couple of Psalms say that atheists are fools.

14:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.

53:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.

This seems to me to be just an excuse to call atheists fools, without dealing with their arguments.

(Yes, some of them may not have been atheists in a modern sense. Also: where are the women?)

Atheists have some good questions:

  • What evidence is there for any supernatural being? 
  • Why does God refuse to provide convincing evidence for his existence? 
  • Is it even possible for a being with contradictory attributes (e.g. omnibenevolent, but allows evil) to exist? 

But it’s much easier for believers to avoid dealing with them, and call atheists ‘fools’ instead.

As an atheist, I have a rule I use: Attack the belief, not the person. I avoid saying that Christians are stupid. They’re not necessarily stupid; I wasn’t when I was a believer. But the ideas in Christianity itself are incredibly bad, so I attack them. People deserve respect; ideas don’t.

I guess my idea of attacking ideas and not people is sort of like the Christian idea of ‘loving the sinner but hating the sin.’ Which is strange, when you consider the psalm that says it’s okay to hate unbelievers. Perfectly.

139:21 Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
139:22 I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.


Language is funny. We talk about things in ways we know are untrue. We know the earth goes around the sun, but we still say the sun comes up. We know the heart pumps blood, but we still say it hurts or even breaks when we feel sad.

But for the ancient Hebrews, the kidneys were thought to have much the same job. The KJV word for kidneys was reins, from which we get the word renal.

7:9 Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins.

16:7 I will bless the LORD, who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons.

26:2 Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.

73:21 Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.

So the Bible writers were attributing feelings to lots of organs. I’m surprised they didn’t haul in the pancreas for some emotion or other. Perhaps ennui.

What’s interesting is that ancient Hebrews didn’t seem to understand the role of another organ that does some important stuff, too: the brain. Wouldn’t that have been a good idea for an all-knowing being: drop some hints that maybe the brain did something? There it is, just sitting up there. What does it do? Aren’t you curious? God could have popped in a scripture: My brain in my head meditateth upon the Lord in the night seasons, blah blah blah. That would have impressed people when they figured that out for themselves. But no, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to God. A missed opportunity.

Did Shakespeare leave an easter egg in Psalm 46?

Finally, a bit of Bible-Code fun that’s probably nonsense, but here it is.

The King James Version of the Bible was published in 1611, when Shakespeare was alive and putting out his plays. It’s been speculated that Shakespeare either worked on the KJV, and put a reference to himself in it — or alternatively, he was known to the translators, and they wished to honour him by slipping in a reference to him.

And the alleged clue is Psalm 46. If you count words, the 46th word from the top is shake, and the 46th word from the bottom (excluding the liturgical word selah) is spear.

46:1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
46:2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
46:3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
46:4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
46:5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
46:6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
46:7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
46:8 Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
46:9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
46:10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
46:11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Why 46? Because Shakespeare would have been 46 at the time of translation.

So is it true? Did Shakespeare leave us an easter egg? Well, probably not. Some people think so, but experts take a dim view of the story. But consider: It could be an instructive look at how our human brains try to find patterns in noisy data. We even try and shuffle the data to get the answer we want — like excluding the selah. If spear had come bang on word 46 even with the selah, you can bet we’d still accept it as a hit!

And this is nothing compared to the jiggery-pokery we see in the Bible Code. But that’s a whole ‘nother area, and it’s time to move on to the next meeting. So we’ll close. See you next time.

OT Lesson 16 (Genocide)

“I Cannot Go Beyond the Word of the Lord”

Numbers 22–24; 31:1–16

LDS manual: here


Let’s start with a bit of review, just to see where we are in the narrative.

God’s been on a particularly blood-thirsty tear lately. He’s already commanded the slaughter of the Amorites, kicking off the waves of genocide that will typify this part of the Old Testament. But he hasn’t just caused violence against outsiders; he’s also killed the men of Korah by swallowing them up in a great hole, and then killed those who questioned it.

Let’s just pause for a moment, and look at the purpose for this lesson in the real manual:

Purpose: To encourage class members to submit to God’s will without hesitation.

Ponder that for a moment. “Submit to God’s will without hesitation.” Perhaps because of what God’s going to do to you if you hesitate to submit.

I can’t help but think there’s some Stockholm syndrome at work here on the part of believers. What else could be going on in your mind when you worship a murderous jerk who’s got a hair-trigger and a reputation to protect? You hear stories in church every week about how he kills people who get in his way, and you know that unbelievers are going to cop it, but you just try to make sure it’s not you. You’ll be happy eternally in heaven, while others are going to be suffering, but it’s good and just that they’ll be suffering, and God wouldn’t make that happen unless it were the right thing. There’s got to be some numbness going on in the part of your brain that does empathy. There’s a brokenness.

Add in the fact that “submitting to God’s will” translates into “submitting to the will of leaders” and you’ve got a potentially toxic formula. Psychologically, it would be a lot healthier to tell this god to fuck off. Have nothing to do with him and his works of murder.

Ch. 22: Balaam was a prophet, but he was copping some flak from his boss, the Moabite king Balak. Balak had gotten the news about the Ammonite genocide, and wanted Balaam to curse Israel. But Elohim appeared to Balaam, and put a little heat on him. Balaam was no fool and saw which way his bread was buttered; He decided to bless them instead.

Now to the famous story: In the morning, Balaam saddles his ass (LOL semantic shift) and heads off to see the king. Standing in the way is an angel that only donkeys can see, apparently. Balaam thinks the donkey’s just being an ass. After three smotes, the donkey’s had enough, and complains to Balaam using human speech, asking why it’s getting beaten. Balaam takes this with equanimity, and has a bit of discourse with the animal.

This is, of course, not the first inter-species communication in the Bible; that would be the talking snake in the Garden.

Chs. 23 & 24: Balaam refuses to curse Israel, even when the king offers him a houseful of dosh. Instead, he predicts a win by Israel, in bloodthirsty terms:

23:24 Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion: he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.


24:8 God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones, and pierce them through with his arrows.

Ch. 25: God’s brand is threatened, so it’s time for more murders. He plans a plague…

25:3 And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel.
25:4 And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.
25:5 And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor.

But then someone puts a spear through a couple who are (one supposes) having sex. God thinks that’s pretty cool, so he calls off the plague.

25:6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
25:7 And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
25:8 And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.

The guy who committed the murders gets a special treat: the Priesthood! (Gee, all I had to do was turn twelve. It’s like God gives it to everyone these days.)

Didn’t this happen in one of the Friday the 13th films? I forget which one. No, wait, it was “Bay of Blood”. If you don’t like horror, don’t watch this link, but remember: it’s fine to throw a Bible with the exact same scene to children because it makes them more moral.

Brother Brigham felt that such a course would in some cases have salubrious effects.

Possible irksome question for those trapped in a real Gospel Doctrine class: Ask if this is a justification of body piercing.

Chs. 26, 27, 28, 29: God is going to show Moses all the land he’s giving to the Israelites, and then Moses will die. But not before some more burning lamb! Mmm… smell that sweet savour.

28:6 It is a continual burnt offering, which was ordained in mount Sinai for a sweet savour, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD.

Ch. 30: Any vow a woman makes has to be okayed by her husband or her father.

Ch. 31: The Midianite massacre: see below.

Chs. 32 and 33: Aaron dies. God tells Moses that they have to conquer people and destroy their religions, or else…

33:55 But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.
33:56 Moreover it shall come to pass, that I shall do unto you, as I thought to do unto them.

Ask: If you were the supreme being of the universe, would you be a little more secure in your supremacy? Wouldn’t you think you could ease up on the brand dominance? After all, since you knew everything, you’d know that other gods were non-existent. Yet, Elohim doesn’t seem to know this. He acts like he’s the number-two dog. It seems likely, then, that at this point that’s what he was.

Main points for this lesson

Balaam, unlike modern LDS prophets, rejected the profit

You can say what you like about Balaam’s state of mind, talking to donkeys and all, but what you have to admire is his refusal to say what the king wants. Balak offers him loads of dough if he’ll curse Israel, but he won’t.

Compare this to modern so-called prophets, who are willing to tone down unpleasant doctrines if it keeps people coming in. In 1988, when church leaders were mulling about changing some of the stranger and more off-putting parts of the endowment session, they sent around a survey to thousands of Latter-day Saints.

Discussion at Mormon Curtain | Exmormon | LDS-Mormon | MormonThink

We don’t have access to the results of the survey, but we do know that the penalties — in which temple attendees would mime their own murder in various grisly ways — disappeared in the 1990 revision.

We’ve seen the same pattern more recently: tone down the anti-gay rhetoric when it doesn’t fly, adapt doctrines about race that are distasteful, and do whatever it takes to keep the bottom line from being affected.

So Balaam certainly had more integrity than prophets today. Too bad he doesn’t survive past chapter 31.

The Midianite genocide

God commands the wholesale slaughter of the Midianites. First, they kill the men — including boys.

31:7 And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.

They take captives, burn the cities, and take the booty.

31:9 And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
31:10 And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
31:11 And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.

But Moses is pissed, because they didn’t kill the women.

31:14 And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
31:15 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
31:16 Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.

So they kill all the male children, and all the non-virgin women.

31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

The female children become sexual slaves, or at best, victims of forced marriages.

31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Verse 34 counts 32,000 women.

For as long as I’ve been an atheist, people have asked me where I get my morals from — even wondered how someone could be moral without religion. And religion is often recommended as a way of instilling ‘good moral values’.

This one lesson, all by itself, obliterates any claim that the Christian god is a moral being. Not only is he not the source of all morality, he’s not even a moral being. There are not many moral decisions that are easier to make than “Is genocide okay?” The Bible gets that wrong. And if it gets such an easy question wrong, how is it going to do on the hard ones?

Naturally, Christians have many explanations for why Old Testament genocide is actually fine. Christians of many denominations have cheerfully explained to me that God commanded it, and that means it’s just fine by them. Here’s what happened when I brought the issue up with a couple of very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Here are some of the arguments apologists offer for this repugnant deity:

  • The Midianites were bad people! They sacrificed their children to Molech.

There’s some disagreement as to the extent and the origin of child sacrifice in Canaan, but it’s hardly a remedy for child sacrifice if one kills every available male child. I find it highly likely that just as Bible writers demonised the Moabites as the result of incest, they demonised the Canaanites as child murderers. This allows a community to externalise their enemies as subhuman ‘others’, at which point you can do as you like to them.

  • ‘Destroy’ doesn’t mean ‘entirely eradicate’.

This is a case of redefining words, a favourite apologetics tactic. If the Israelites didn’t wipe out tribes person for person, it was contrary to the commands of Jehovah, and that’s the real problem here.

  • It was better than other cultures at the time.

This is an odd argument. Is God a transcendent being, outside of space and time, presenting an unambiguous and absolute moral code? Or is he not? This line of reasoning reminds me that sometimes if you push a religious absolutist, they inexplicably turn into a moral relativist. They have to. There’s no other way to justify this slaughter.

  • God gets to judge. Everything he commands is right, and he made us, so he gets to decide what to do with us. I’m just going to keep believing, and trust that he knows all.

This is chicken shit. It’s moral abnegation. If someone takes this view, they’re trying to feel okay about something that strikes a normal person as deeply wrong. They are in the process of removing the part of themselves that feels compassion, and replacing it with submission. To say, as in the title of this lesson, “I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord” is really a form of moral cowardice.

I had an experience when preparing for this Godless Doctrine lesson.

I’ve always been kind of haunted by a sense that I wouldn’t have handled moral controversies in the church very well. I’ve never had the chance to be tested in a big way though; I was too young for the ‘Race and the Priesthood’ issue, and I was out of the church by Prop 8. So would I have passed the test? Or would I have sung myself to sleep, convinced that the church was right, no matter what?

Well, when preparing for this lesson, I found something. I went through my old Sunday School notes on the computer, and found the file for this lesson when I taught it in Gospel Doctrine so long ago. And I noticed this sentence:

Does anyone else have a problem with the genocide besides me?

And then I remembered how I agonised over this issue as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. I really didn’t have an answer for it, and it really bothered me. Usually I was good at coming up with rationales, but this one was so obviously wrong.

So this was the question I dropped right in the middle of the lesson.

Does anyone else have a problem with the genocide besides me?

It caused the class to shift uncomfortably in their uncomfortable seats. A few people volunteered that, yes, they did. Others offered weak explanations. One RM ventured that the winners write history, which I suppose is true in this case. In the lesson, I left it as unresolved.

So when I read that entry in my lesson plan, I felt relieved. I almost cried, in fact. No, I hadn’t left the church over this issue, but it was a crack in my Mormonness. I knew the Bible was wrong on this issue, and in time I would find more things wrong. The religion had not dulled my sense of what a normal person would see as right. I felt like I was not ‘utterly cast off’.

The other thing I noticed from my lesson notes is that we used to do a whole lesson on Leviticus, but it’s been cut from the current manual. Obviously they didn’t do any of the bits I talked about in the previous lesson.

Additional ideas for teaching

‘Revelation’ can come by petition

The ‘Ordain Women’ movement has been on my mind and in the news lately. Again this year, women asked to be admitted to the Priesthood Session of General Conference, and again they were turned away.

The response to ‘Ordain Women’ from many Mormon men has been a colossal ‘harrumph!’ Why, those women think they can counsel the Lord. They think that revelation comes through them, and not through the prophet. And so on.

I don’t think Mormon women need the priesthood; they need atheism. But things would certainly be better for many Mormon women if they were taken seriously on an administrative level, on an equal footing in the priesthood.

So it was interesting to see this story where women petitioned Moses for property rights for daughters.

27:1 Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
27:2 And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying,
27:3 Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons.
27:4 Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father.

And God says “Oh, that’s a good idea; I hadn’t thought of that.”

27:5 And Moses brought their cause before the LORD.
27:6 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
27:7 The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.
27:8 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter.

Actually, Mormons should be able to think of lots of cases where a revelation has come because someone asked a question. This is one of the earlier cases that worked to the benefit of women.

Unfortunately, women are put back in their place in chapter 30, when God says that any vow they make has to be approved by their husband (or father).


This is the first Bible verse where unicorns are mentioned —  the first of nine times in the Bible. With nine mentions, this is something to deal with.

23:22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.

So did the biblical unicorn exist? Come on down to the Unicorn Museum and find out!

Oh sure, we could explain the biblical unicorn away by saying it’s a fictional beast, like God or Satan.

But the folks at Answers in Genesis think that since it’s in the Bible, it’s totes real.

The Bible describes unicorns skipping like calves (Psalm 29:6), traveling like bullocks, and bleeding when they die (Isaiah 34:7).

It might be extinct now:

The absence of a unicorn in the modern world should not cause us to doubt its past existence. (Think of the dodo bird. It does not exist today, but we do not doubt that it existed in the past.).

or it might have described a real animal.

The elasmotherium, an extinct giant rhinoceros, provides another possibility for the unicorn’s identity. The elasmotherium’s 33-inch-long skull has a huge bony protuberance on the frontal bone consistent with the support structure for a massive horn.

This post shows two of the biggest tricks that apologists use when confronted with something foolish in their scripture:

1) Appeal to ignorance: Just because you can’t find a unicorn doesn’t mean it’s not real!

I suppose there might have been unicorns and they might have pooped Lucky Charms,

but with no evidence — no photos, no sightings, no bones, no scat — there’s no reason to believe in them. The same thing goes for leprechauns, genies, or gods.

2) Redefine words until they mean what you want. A unicorn can be a rhinoceros, and a horse can be a tapir.

Isn’t it nice to know that apologists are pretty much the same everywhere you go?

OT Lesson 10 (Eternal families)

Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

Genesis 24–29

Links to the reading in the SAB: Genesis 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
LDS manual: here


This lesson is about Abraham’s son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Strangely, Jacob’s story is almost a complete rehash of Abraham’s story, in fine detail.

You can read my great summary, or you can watch this video. (Language, casual misogyny, unpleasant depictions of birth.)

Ch. 25: Isaac has two sons, Esau (hairy guy) and Jacob (smooth guy). Esau is starving, so Jacob convinces him to sell his birthright.

Ch. 26: Isaac goes to Abimalech, king of the Philistines, and tells him that his wife Rebekah is his sister. Abimalech believes him, even though father Abraham told him the exact same lie. Won’t he ever learn?

Ch. 27: When Isaac is old, Jacob manages to trick his father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Jehovah approves because he loves a good prank.

Ch. 29: Laban sells his daughter Rachel to Jacob for seven years of indentured servitude. But Laban pulls the ol’ switcheroo on the wedding night, and it’s the older daughter Leah in the sack instead. If Jacob wants Rachel, he’ll have to work another seven years. Since honesty isn’t really Jacob’s thing, I think he’s going to fit right into this family.

Again as with Abraham, there’s polygamous conflict when Rachel turns out barren. The whole thing turns into a baby-making competition, as housemaids are pulled into the action. Hilarity ensues.

What’s the theme for this lesson? I would have thought ‘honesty in your dealings’ was a good candidate, but no; everyone in this story lies like a rug, and they’re all doing fine. Instead, it’s ‘the importance of marrying people who think like you do’. Which for Jacob is… actually very fitting, yes.

Main points from this lesson

Marriage ‘in the covenant’ is intended to create ‘ideological bubbles’.

From the real lesson manual:

• Both Isaac and Jacob were instructed by their fathers to marry women of their own faith. Esau brought sorrow to his parents by marrying wives who did not believe in the God of Abraham. Why is it important to marry a person of our own faith?

Ask: Good question, manual. Why would the church think it’s important for Mormons to marry each other?

Short answer: When Mormons marry each other, it affords the opportunity to create ideological bubbles.

I remember being in the Mormon Bubble. It was great. It consisted of my family, the people at church, and pretty much everyone I knew. Inside the Bubble, it was soft and gentle. Everyone affirmed the group’s beliefs, told you how wonderful the Church was, and how wonderful your life was — but only if you were Inside the Bubble.

Sometimes ideas would get in from Outside the Bubble, but there were ways to cope with that. We were encouraged to evaluate external information against the principles we’d learned in the Bubble, which were considered the only reliable principles.

Then I went on a mission, and that was a real bubble. After the mission, I went to BYU, and that was an even bigger bubble! BYU exists to get young Latter-day Saints together so they’ll marry each other, and form their own bubbles. Eventually, you settle into a ward and join your bubble into a bigger church bubble. The church hopes that by doing so, you’ll be in that bubble for the rest of your life.

Purveyors of delusion have found it very useful to construct ideological bubbles. Religious communities rely on them. It’s why we see fundamentalist religions out in rural areas. Sometimes a religious leader will even move the entire group to a foreign country where it’s easier to control the information.

Here’s a primer on religious bubbles, but with a special focus on the Mormon Bubble.

Bubbles are fragile. Believing in things that aren’t real puts you in a tenuous position. To believe in a delusion is to construct an alternative to reality.

In order to seem plausible, delusional beliefs must be handled specially, in communities that are trained to treat the beliefs deferentially and uncritically. Those in the community may also take offence as a way of protecting the belief, or refusing to examine it themselves.

Essentially, religions are support groups for reality deniers.

True beliefs do not need bubbles to exist. Truth isn’t harmed by reality, but delusions sure are. And because reality is available to everyone all the time, it’s easy for delusions to get knocked down. Which is why religion hasn’t done well on the Internet, with its free flow of information.

Here’s a Facebook post by a bubble advocate. It’s Kim Clark, the president of BYU-Idaho, and he thinks ideological bubbles are a fine thing. This post is an elaborate justification for living in a bubble, and I think this is highly instructive.

Here’s the text from the post.

I often have heard students talk about the “bubble”… referring to BYU-Idaho, the campus, and maybe even Rexburg. They have in mind the fact that there is a different feeling on this campus than they find in what they call “the real world”, a different Spirit, and that they feel protected here, surrounded by people who share their faith. Let me share with you a couple of thoughts about what I have heard:

1) The nickname “bubble” has a negative connotation and seems to indicate that what is inside of it is not real. As President John Groberg taught us about the temple, the real world — the world that will endure forever when everything in the mortal world is gone — is actually what you feel and experience inside the “bubble” — Zion, the Holy Ghost, the Kingdom of God.

Ask: How does he justify living in a bubble?
Answer: He has flipped the situation, and now believes that the universe we live in is not real, and the Mormon universe is. His acceptance of the alternate reality is complete.

2) You are a big part of what you feel inside the “bubble”. It really is the faith and devotion and goodness of the people who study and work here that makes the difference.

3) You can take it with you — you can make your own powerful, protective, enduring, eternal “bubble” in your own home and you should. You can build your own little Zion, first in your heart and then in your home, and then in your wards and stakes.

Ask: Why would it be useful to the Church to have its members in a bubble of their own creation?
Answer: You don’t have to monitor your members if the members monitor themselves, and the family can be utilised for this purpose.

Ask: When you find someone who is an advocate of ideological bubbles, what are they telling you?
Answer: They know their beliefs can’t compete with reality.

Ask: How can we stay out of ideological bubbles?
Possible answers:

  • By being willing to update and change our minds when new knowledge and evidence comes along.
  • By engaging honestly and openly with sincere and intelligent people who hold different views.

I’ve formed a book club with Christians, atheists, and a few undecideds. We’re working our way through one Christian book and one atheist book. If I’m wrong about my ideas, I know I’ll hear about it from them. So far, a lot of arguments, but nothing conclusive.

The doctrine of eternal families means the LDS Church owns your family

If someone were to ask me what the most evil LDS doctrine was, I wouldn’t hesitate a second in saying, “Eternal families”.

The church pretends to have to power to reunite families after death. That sounds like a great promise, but it didn’t sound so good to Stephen Fry on his trip through Temple Square.

Ask: How does Fry explain the appeal of this doctrine? Who is it especially meant to appeal to, and why?

The idea of “being with” one’s family for eternity falls apart for anyone who thinks about it for five minutes. How exactly is this meant to work? I love my family, and we always have a great time on our extended visits, but after a couple of weeks, we’re all glad to go away again and return to our own ways and routines. Being available for eternity seems grindingly tedious, even for family members who get along. What if there’s conflict? What if there’s a family member who loves you, but whom you detest? It wouldn’t be very heavenly for you if they’re always around, so would there be some way to block them? That might not be very heavenly for them. The whole idea raises so many problems, I can scarcely believe no one seems to mention them.

But there’s a much more sinister side.

Read this quote from the real Gospel Doctrine manual.

President Gordon B. Hinckley told of a family who joined the Church in Australia and then sold all their possessions so they could travel to New Zealand and be sealed as a family. The father of this family said: “We could not afford to come [to the temple]. Our worldly possessions consisted of an old car, our furniture, and our dishes. I said to my family, ‘We cannot afford not to go. If the Lord will give me strength, I can work and earn enough for another car and furniture and dishes, but if I should lose these my loved ones, I would be poor indeed in both life and in eternity’ ”.

Ask: What did this man think would happen if he didn’t engage in farcical temple ceremonies, a prerequisite of which is paying ten percent of his income to the church?
Answer: He thought he would lose his family. Consider this.

Ask: What do we call it when someone threatens you with the loss of your family if you don’t do what they say (including paying them)?
Possible answers: Kidnapping, extortion, holding to ransom.

This doctrine is vile. It is emotional hostage taking. A normal person should be disgusted by it.

This doctrine plays out in ways that are destructive to the working of a healthy married relationship, and to the development of a person.

From the real lesson manual:

• After two people have been married in the temple, what must they do to ensure they have a truly eternal marriage?

What, indeed.

They both have to stay in the church and keep all the church’s rules (again, including paying buckets of money for the rest of their lives). But if one partner stops believing in the Mormon religion — or in other words, recognises they’ve been conned — then they’re the bad one. Supposedly, they’re the one throwing the relationship into disarray, jeopardising their eternal future together, and so forth.

A Mormon friend of mine once confided in me. He’d thought thoughts that couldn’t be unthought, and now he was uncertain that there was a god. I congratulated him, offered support, and suggested some online communities where he could talk to people in the same situation.

Finally, desperate to get his struggle off his chest — out of a very human wish to be known by those we’re closest to — he told his wife about what he was going through. She didn’t take the news well.

Over the next year or so, he was hauled in for meetings with the bishop, chided for his lack of belief, and systematically bullied back into the Church, because that was the cost of his relationship with his family.

The former Mormon in me can empathise with his wife. Here you think you know someone, you have the same goals, and then your partner explains that they don’t share your heretofore shared values. That must throw you into a tailspin.

Or at least, it would, if your relationship were based on the church, and not on each other. It would, if your relationship is predicated on always believing the same things.

I still don’t know what’s going on for my friend; he doesn’t write me anymore. If he’s happy participating in and enriching that — here’s a loaded word, but I promise I’ll only use it when I think it’s deserved — cult, then that’s fine. It’s his life, not mine. But I hope that he and his wife can finally get to a place where he’s accepted and valued as himself, and not just as a role.

How can a couple make it? There are a few ways this can play out.

  • The believing partner might follow the deconverted one out.

These are the happiest stories.

  • The deconverted partner can stay in the church, but under deep cover.

You can participate in church, and keep going to keep the peace. (Hello, reader.)

I don’t blame anyone for taking this course, but it seems to me the least desirable option, and the one most destructive to one’s integrity. Is this the kind of relationship where your views can be respected? Or will your disbelief in nonsense be taken as evidence that you’re in league with Satan? Believers can have a hard time with negotiation and compromise when they see it as giving in to the Evil One.

  • One stays in, one stays out, and they work it out in an atmosphere of respect.

This one is a tough row to hoe. The LDS Church doesn’t make it easy for disbelieving spouses. Because of its emphasis on having a ‘righteous priesthood holder’ at the head of the family, it’s difficult not to feel like damaged goods. There are a thousand unintended insults. “Yeah, they’re a great person even though they’re not a member.”

There’s a photo of me at my son’s baptism, before I was out publicly. There’s my son, dressed in white. There’s a friend my age, also dressed in white. And then there’s me in a dark suit (obviously not doing any baptising that day), trying to smile. I’m sure that suit was the talk of the ward.

Free advice to those who have deconverted

Place the relationship before deconverting your partner.
Both partners have to recognise in themselves the tendency for evangelism.

I happen to think this is less of a problem for ex-Mos. Yes, there are some preachy ex-Mos out there, but I think this tendency is mitigated by a few factors:

  • Latent guilt
  • An aggressive church culture that thinks nothing of treating a non-believing spouse as second-best
  • A recognition that your partner won’t be punished in the eternities for believing the wrong thing.

Resist the tendency to feel like you’re damaged or diminished.
You got the right answer. You are now able be moral in a way you never could be when you were getting your moral choices handed to you — and frankly, that morality was often terribly immoral.

Develop boundaries and differentiation
You don’t have to believe the same things or have the same goals. You married a person, and not a role. Or if you did marry a role, now’s your chance to forge a new deal with your partner as a person. See if you meant it the first time, when you said you’d stick it out. You get a second chance to choose your partner.

Divorce is not the worst thing, and keeping it together may have too high a price.

Live a good moral life as an unbeliever, as you define it.

What’s been your experience, and how is it going? What advice would you give? Please leave a comment; I’d love to hear what you think.

Additional ideas for teaching

The church still teaches against interracial marriage.

Since we’re talking about dubious morality, here’s a quote that appears in the LDS Church’s Aaronic Priesthood Manual, both in print and online.

We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question” (“Marriage and Divorce,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1977], p. 144).

Is this an organisation that has any business telling anyone who to marry?

No camels.

Camels as a means of transportation abound in the Old Testament. When Abraham sends a servant to look for a bride for his son Isaac, that servant chooses Rebecca. And why? Because of her kindness in offering to water the camels. That’s just one of dozens of camel cameos in the Bible, mostly in the book of Genesis, but scholars have long suspected that those camel caravans are a literary anachronism. And now more evidence from two Israeli archaeologists. Their radio carbon technology dated the earliest known remains of domesticated camels. And yes, they came along after the time of Abraham.

Camels? Oh, well, clearly they meant tapirs.

This is new research, and it may be overturned by more information. But isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just the Book of Mormon that has anachronism issues?

The Bible gets genetics wrong

It also has genetics issues. Laban promises Jacob all the striped and spotted goats, so how does Jacob make as many of them as possible? By having the goats look at striped sticks while mating. Yep, that will do it.

OT Lesson 5 (Cain)

“If Thou Doest Well, Thou Shalt Be Accepted”

Moses 5–7; (Genesis 4–6)

Links to the reading in the SAB: Genesis 4, Genesis 5, Genesis 6
LDS manual: here


Okay, so for this lesson, we’re kind of taking a deep breath before we move on to the Flood, which is going to be a really full-on lesson. But this one sets up Cain (evil murdering skeptic) against Enoch (righteous city builder who mysteriously disappears). It’s the kind of lesson where you look at the manual, and you think, how am I going to get an interesting lesson out of that? Which is too bad, because there’s actually some interesting stuff here if we do some digging. Ready?

Main points for this lesson

It’s bad to have a skeptical attitude about God

From the real lesson manual:

Adam and Eve hoped their son Cain would follow the Lord as they did. But Cain “hearkened not” to his parents and the Lord and asked, “Who is the Lord that I should know him?” (Moses 5:16). What does this question show about Cain’s attitude toward God?

It shows that he had a healthy sense of skepticism. If you must worship someone, you should ask what they’re like, and find out what you’re getting into. But apparently the God of the Bible demands uncritical worship. That makes more sense when we find out more about his murders later on in the Old Testament; this is not the kind of being you’d worship out of admiration, though perhaps out of fear.

Beliefs about Cain

Cain is supposed to have committed the first murder when he killed his brother Abel. It’s charmingly retold with Legos in The Brick Testament.

Cain is still alive

Cain, as a mythic evil dude, has naturally inspired a lot of folklore. In the Mormon imagination, he’s become something like Bigfoot. An early apostle, David Patten, claimed to have seen him.

“As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me. He walked along beside me for about two miles. His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair … I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and traveled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he had earnestly sought death during his sojourn upon the earth, but that he could not die, and his mission was to destroy the souls of men. About the time he expressed himself thus, I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence, and he immediately departed out of my sight.”

Other more modern Cain stories are detailed here, some as late as 1998. Come on, folks, there must be some more recent ones.

Also: journal article on this topic.

Ask: What can we learn about the story of Cain?
Answer: We humans seem to like building myths about big hairy guys that don’t exist.

The whole Cain story reminds me of anomalous big cats (ABCs). Even in places where big cats aren’t native, people seem to have grown these stories of ABCs roaming around. There’s the Nottingham lion, the Fen Tiger, the Lincolnshire Lynx, and scores of others. People claim to have seen them — and yet there’s never a body, no scat, and no clear photographic evidence, even with camera phones in everyone’s pockets. It’s one of the things about human brains: we sometimes see patterns where none exist, especially if we’re expecting to see them.

This is just as true for religious experience as it is for big cats or Bigfoots. Think what happens in the LDS discussions: missionaries prime the subjects to have a subjective “spiritual experience”, and they read a long list of feelings that someone might have. The appearance of any of those feelings will then be taken as evidence that a magical spirit being is confirming whatever the missionaries are saying. It’s hokey, but as suggestible as our brains are, it’s not surprising that it works well enough and often enough to keep the LDS Church in new members.

Ask: Are stories about Cain kind of like the opposite of Three Nephite stories?
Answer: Yeah, kinda. Next question.

Ask: How did Cain survive the flood?
Answer: Oh, that? He managed to survive by clinging onto the Ark, like a big hairy barnacle.

But a lot more on the Flood next week.

What’s the deal with people living 800 years?

The Book of Moses (as well as Genesis) gives a list of improbable lifespans, including Adam (930 years), Seth (912 years), and Enos (905 years). What’s the deal?

Well, this one is fairly straightforward: it’s a longevity myth. People used to make kings’ ages up.

“My favourite king was so awesome, he ruled for 10,000 years!”
“Oh, yeah? Well my favourite king was twice as awesome, and he reigned for 20,000 years!”

Read selections from Wikipedia’s page on longevity myths. Here are some good ones:

The Sumerian king Alalngar was supposed to have ruled for 36,000 years
The Persian emperor Zahhak apparently ruled for 1000 years
The Taoist saint Peng Zu lived for 800 years
And there are more examples from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

It’s not just people in antiquity who believe this stuff; it seems some New Agers today believe in the existence of Babaji, who is centuries old.

Longevity myths are another recurring theme in human belief and hero worship.

Activity for people trapped in real Gospel Doctrine classes: Tell the class about other longevity myths. Time how long it takes for them to commit the special pleading fallacy (“but that’s different!”).

The “seed of Cain” were black.

The Church’s statement on ‘Race and the Priesthood‘ is something of a landmark. Thankfully, it repudiates racism among its members.

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse…. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

It also lists a few things members have believed in the past. Here’s one:

According to one view, which had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s, blacks descended from the same lineage as the biblical Cain, who slew his brother Abel. Those who accepted this view believed that God’s “curse” on Cain was the mark of a dark skin.

Ask: Where might Latter-day Saints have gotten this idea?
Read: Moses 7:22

22 And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.

So the Book of Moses, one of the Standard Works, promulgates the idea that people of colour are descended from Cain. And because they “had not place among them”, it might have provided support for segregation.

The LDS Church has been busy trying to clean up its record and get some distance from its worst folk doctrines. But one of the most surprising things I’ve found out since taking on this blog is that the source of these ‘folk doctrines’ is actually the Standard Works themselves. It’s all in there.

In other words, if they’re throwing things under the bus, they’re going to need a bigger bus.

Additional ideas for study

Sons of God, daughters of men

Read: Genesis 6:1–4

There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

In some religious traditions, the ‘sons of God‘ are supposed to be angels that went to earth and had sex with women, who subsequently gave birth to giants. If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are pygmies and dwarfs?

Yup — this is a real creationist cartoon showing a 15-foot-tall Adam. (Humans can’t get that big; if they did, they’d be very weak and slow. If you were twice as tall, you’d have eight times the mass, but only four times the strength.)

But in Mormon scripture? Joseph Smith wrote the ‘sons of God’ into the narrative as normal people. This is one of the great missed opportunities in scripture. He should have written giants. It wouldn’t have been the most implausible thing he came up with.

Read: Moses 8:21 for Smith’s normal boring explanation of this scripture.
Ask: How crap is that? Could have been freaking giants, man.