Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Book of Mormon "Pride Cycle" and Deuteronomy 8

President Ezra Taft Benson has been a strong influence upon the membership of the Church with respect to appreciation for the Book of Mormon. His enthusiasm for this book of scripture is encouraging and inspiring, and this enthusiasm is apparent in a number of his conference talks. One of his conference talks seems to have permeated Mormon consciousness more than others though and that is his talk, "Beware of Pride."  This particular talk is memorable for its emphasis upon the evils of pride and its cure, humility, and the dissemination of this talk seems to have found its way into just about every discussion regarding the so-called Book of Mormon "pride cycle" (correlated materialsbooks, sacrament talks, etc.). The "pride cycle" is a repeating pattern within the Book of Mormon, wherein, a humble community becomes faithful, is blessed with prosperity by the Lord, begins to develop pride, which culminates in being destroyed once their pride sufficiently separates them from the Lord. Their "destruction" may come in various forms, including war, bondage, famine, or other devastating effects upon the community that humbles them.

This pattern seems to be outlined quite clearly in Deuteronomy 8. Biblical scholar Rob Barrett elaborates upon this topic below. He addresses more than the pride cycle in the commentary below, but all of the elements are there:
Deuteronomy's basic theological pattern is almost fully exhibited in chapter 8. YHWH has rescued Israel from Egyptian slavery, makes nonnegotiable demands for obedience, and promises overflowing blessing in the land. But Israel runs the very real risk of failing to meet YHWH's expectations, resulting in YHWH's destroying them. The sermon labors to avoid this fate by pressing Moses' interpretation of Israel's past onto the reader. Reading communities of every age are to reexperience eating from YHWH's miraculous provision in the wilderness and then to live responsively.
The structure of the sermon is difficult, leading to suggestions of a complex compositional history and to chiastic analyses of the material. Despite the complexity, as it stands the sermon displays a clear logic, without significant tensions. Yet this does not mean that the message is simple. There are important and even troubling gaps in its demanding message. The sermon voices a dire warning, with life-and-death consequences, but critical details about both the danger and the remedy are lacking. But this difficult "incompleteness" allows the sermon to be recontextualized. By giving only the general shape of the threat that Israel faces, a wide variety of particular threats are encompassed, all of which bear a family resemblance, but with non specified explicitly. Its message rises above any single setting and raises the specter of unfaithfulness to YHWH over a wide variety of circumstances, demanding continual interpretation and vigilance.
The sermon begins with Moses' demand of Israel: obey "the entire commandment that I am commanding you today" (8:1). But what does this mean? As discussed above, the term "entire commandment" is strikingly singular when Deuteronomy is filled with so many different commands. The difficulty of the term is revealed by translators' efforts to interpret it for modern English readers. The NRSV renders it literally ("this entire commandment"); the NIV and NASB choose plurals ("every command," "all the commandments'); and the NJPS uses opaque English by means of capitalization ("all the Instruction"). The Hebrew text of the sermon reflects ambivalence about the distinction, choosing and expanded plural in verse 11 ("his commandments and his judgments and his statutes"), retaining two different traditions in verse 2 (written: "his commandment"; oral: "his commandments"), and a plural in verse 6 that could be rendered singular with adjusted vowel pointing ("commandment(s) of YHWH your God"). YHWH's requirement upon Israel is also expressed metaphorically as "to walk in his ways" (v. 6) and in high imagery as "liv[ing] by . . . everything proceeding out of the mouth of YHWH" (v. 3). In verse 19 the key offense of disloyalty appears: to "follow after other gods and serve them and bow down to them." Once again, there rises into the foreground the obligation to remain loyal to YHWH alone, and the necessity of living according to the wide array of instructions that flow out of YHWH's mouth lies not far behind. Loyalty is determinative, but it finds expression in every aspect of the lives of individuals and communities.
Verses 7-10 detail a properly functioning relationship between YHWH and Israel. YHWH is bringing Israel into a wondrously special land. There will be no scarcity of life's necessities there. Verse 12-13 expand on Israel's prosperity with the luxuries of fine houses, large flocks, and precious metals. Israel will eat, be satisfied, and--most important--bless YHWH, their provider (v. 10). Acknowledging YHWH signals the danger point. Here is where everything can fall apart. Paradoxically, YHWH's blessing tempts Israel to forget YHWH amid the blessings (vv. 11-14), thus suffering YHWH's curse (v. 20). The Talmud warns, "Filled stomachs are a type of evil," and indeed, Moses connects filled stomachs to utter destruction. But why is prosperity a problem? The very grammar of the multiplying material goods in verse 13 suggests an answer: Israel's things multiply with no explicit agent. "All that you have will multiply." Prosperity does not bear the identifying stamp of its source. There is no "gift from YHWH" label; Israel just prospers. Of course, the land is no magical place. Crops and herds do not care for themselves. Ore must be mined and processed. Gold and silver multiply through entrepreneurial trading, Israel does the same things as any other nation, but alongside this ordinary life, Israel experiences the peculiar blessing of YHWH's care for their well-being. Israel's unique relationship with YHWH leads to the requirement that they explicitly connect this positive life to YHWH.
Moses' strategy for maintaining this connection is to press upon them the memory of life in the wilderness. The wilderness was the polar opposite of the land (vv. 15-16): fearful, thirsty, and filled with snakes, serpents, and scorpions instead of flocks and herds. But critically, YHWH was with Israel there. In these verses YHWH's presence is woven into the description of desert dangers; he was there at every turn. Life in the wilderness would seem to be impossible, but YHWH's miraculous provision was sufficient. It is exactly the unexpected survival for forty years that should impress future generations: this was indisputably YHWH's doing. There is no other explanation. The ambiguous experience of prosperity in the land--whence come these good things?--must be interpreted through the lens of YHWH's unambiguous provision in the desert.
Unfortunately, within the "blessed ordinariness"  of life in the land this reality is easily forgotten. In order to counter forgetfulness, Moses exhorts Israel: "Remember!" (v. 2). Moses expresses his recollection of the past in a succession of purpose clauses: "in order to humble you, to test you, to know what was in your heart" (v. 2). Israels' humbling, being forced into a submissive, bent posture, came not only from being unable to feed themselves, but also perhaps more form being fed (v. 3). Certainly the hungry welcome food. Receiving a handout, however, requires acknowledgement of the superiority of the giver. The gift shames the recipient, who can give nothing in return but thanks and an admission of inadequacy. Humiliation is not an end unto itself, though, but a "test." This test produces two outcomes. For Israel, the testing is "in the end to do you good" (v. 16). For YHWH, it is designed "to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments" (v. 2). Testing is a difficult concept, and Moberly carefully examines this passage to argue that YHWH is no dispassionate investigator, but uses testing "for a deepening of the encounter between God and people." Although a flat reading might experiment to fill a gap in his knowledge, the wilderness test actually illuminates YHWH's relationship with Israel and thereby strengthens that relationship. In particular, the humiliation of hungering and being fed causes Israel to know that a human lives not through food alone, but through everything that comes out of the mouth of YHWH (v. 3). Though some commentators identify the outflow of YHWH's mouth as his continuing providence, it is better within the context of Deuteronomy to interpret it as YHWH's commands.
YHWH wants to know, "Will you follow my commands?" But how did this test work in the wilderness? What commands were to be obeyed? Moses does not explain what YHWH was looking for, nor does YHWH ever announce the end of the wilderness test as he did when testing Abraham (Gen. 22:12). For Deuteronomy, the test of concern is not the one in Israel's past but in the ever-present today. As wilderness Israel learned "the way that YHWH your God has led you" (v. 2), today's Israel must respond to YHWH in the rich land. This is no right/wrong examination, or a simple demonstration of willingness to follow some rules, but the construction of a relationship of nonreductive dependence upon YHWH. In other words, Israel must live in conscious response to YHWH's blessing.
In its final movement, the sermon changes to a future perspective (relative to the setting on the plans of Moab) as it demands that Israel steel itself for the challenge of prosperity, for their hearts may become proud--literally, "rising up" (v. 14)--in contrast to the stooped-over humiliation of the wilderness. Such pride leads to forgetting YHWH and saying, "My strength and the might of my hand made this wealth for me" (v. 17). YHWH vanishes from Israel's thought as the self becomes the only point of reference. But Moses admonishes them to remember that YHWH is behind their ability to make wealth (v. 18). The ambiguities of prosperous life are deceptive. Humans can see only their own efforts and the results; the one who is providing the productive context is invisible. The purpose of the prosperity is also invisible. Gold does not reveal its goal, but YHWH has a goal: the establishment of a prosperous people in a prosperous land, a people in a unique relationship with him. Israel faces the temptation of replacing Deuteronomy's story with an opposing one: productivity comes from the self; productivity is for the self. Will Israel forget that the blessed life must remain tied to YHWH's interests?
Replacing focus on YHWH with focus on the self is unusual in Deuteronomy (though cf. 9:4), which is usually concerned with the problem of other gods. The sermon suddenly shifts to this primary anxiety in its closing summary (v. 19). The commonality between pride and apostasy is forgetting YHWH. YHWH and YHWH alone provides the context for prosperity and directs its purpose. The implied connection to other gods is that Israel might credit them with providing the nation's prosperity and therefore reckon that it is the other gods' favor that must be sought to continue that prosperity. YHWH will have none of this. Confusion  about this will cause YHWH to destroy Israel. As the earlier civilizations of Canaan disappeared, so will Israel (v. 20). Although the sermon ends on this point, when read together with the rest of the framework material, restoration after destruction is surely also in view (see, e.g., 4:27-31; 30:1-10). But as throughout Deuteronomy, Israel has no freedom to choose their gods. YHWH insists.1 

1 Rob Barrett, "The Book of Deuteronomy," A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch: Interpreting the Torah as Christian Scripture, eds. Richards S. Briggs and Joel N. Lohr (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 160-164

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