Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Was Lehi a Samaritan?

A few days ago I read an article entitled "Who Were the Samaritans?" on Interpreter that I thought was very interesting. It gave a basic outline of the Samaritans from their perspective and not from the perspective of the Jews and early Christians. The entire article is worth the read, but I will sum up the important points that are relevant to my current post.

I remember being taught in Seminary, Sunday School, Institute classes and in Religion classes at BYU that the Samaritans were descended from the people brought in by the Assyrians after they conquered the northern kingdom. What I had been taught was that the Assyrians carried away the remaining Israelites and brought in other conquered people and told them to worship the god of the land (meaning the Hebrew god). Thus the Samaritans, although they followed the Mosaic Law, were considered illegitimate and not true Israelites and thus were excluded from all official worship, rights, and privileges. They were therefore looked down upon by the time Jesus began his ministry. This negative view formed the basis of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and also Jesus teaching the woman at the well.

It's a nice neat picture and seems to be supported by history, and the Bible, until you hear the Samaritans' side of the story.

The Samaritans consider themselves to be pure descendants from Israel (yes I used the proper verb tense, the Samaritans are still around), and have a slightly different version of what happened. The split between the northern and southern kingdoms goes back to the time of the prophet Samuel and the high priest Eli, and the high priest Uzzi. ("huh? what? who in the world is Uzzi?", well that's the point, the Jews don't like to talk about him, so that is why you never heard his story.) If you read the Bible (that is the collection of books, prophecies, and histories kept by the Jews, emphasis on the Jew part) then you can read the story of how the high priest Eli wasn't such a great guy because he didn't do anything about his sons wickedness. God had to speak to the young boy Samuel at night to get him to tell Eli that he (Eli) had been rejected as high priest. Thus began the prophetic career of Samuel who would go on to be prophet and anoint Saul as king of Israel.

The part that you never hear, but is told by the Samaritans is that Eli actually wasn't the legitimate high priest, Uzzi was. But because Uzzi was only a young boy he could not act as high priest, but Eli wanted to take over the post. There was an intense debate regarding who should be the high priest. The tribe of Judah supported the usurper Eli while the other tribes supported Uzzi as the legitimate successor of Aaron. This started the general rift between the tribe of Judah and all the other tribes (as a side note, it would appear that this was the basis of the north-south split that would not break out until after king Solomon died). So each kingdom traced their priesthood authority back to what they considered to be the legitimate source, and each kept their own history, prophecies and revelations, but almost all of the history kept by the northern kingdom was lost when the Assyrians destroyed the capital Samaria. Thus the only surviving histories that we have are those kept by the Jews that may have been edited for political reasons (i.e. "We aren't going to tell their side of the story." and "We won't include the writings of these prophets in our scriptures because they are "Northern" prophets.").

So where does Lehi fit into all of this? If you recall, after Lehi's sons returned from Jerusalem with the brass plates, Lehi (or at least Nephi, according to how he told the story many years later) was surprised to learn that he was descended from Joseph. Apparently this was significant enough that Lehi decided to name his a son after Joseph. So why was this significant? If you recall from what was previously explained, in the social, political, and historical context that Lehi (and Nephi) came from this meant that they learned, perhaps for the first time, that they were not Jews. To them this may have been a real paradigm changer since they realized that they were actually part of the alternate history of the northern kingdom. If you carefully review all instances where Nephi refers to the Jews, you will find that Nephi never refers to himself or his descendants as Jews. They are referred to as a remnant of the house of Israel, but never Jews. In fact if you reread the verses where Nephi references the Jews you may get a sense that he considers them to be a separate people from him, his ancestors, and his descendants.

We learn later that Lehi was actually descended from Manasseh, which would put him, historically, as a member of the northern kingdom. It could be that Lehi's family fled Samaria (or some other place up north) when the northern kingdom was overthrown by the Assyrians, or they could have come later, we will never be sure. It seems that by the time it got to Lehi it may have been a little unclear which tribe he was descended from. But in any event, by being descended from Manasseh would mean that Lehi was technically part of the people who were considered to be, or would later be called Samaritans. We are not sure when the people who were the remnant of the northern kingdom were labeled as Samaritans, and based on the information provided in the article that I linked to at the very beginning the intense animosity between the Jews and Samaritans may not have come to fruition until after the Jews' return from their Babylonian captivity. Thus the kind of animosity that we find in the New Testament most likely grew in the 600 years that separated Lehi from New Testament times.

So why else may all this have been significant? I find it interesting that God was so particular that Lehi send his sons back to Jerusalem to get the records from Laban. Were there not any other scriptures lying about Jerusalem that were easier to get? Or perhaps they had to go get that particular set which, because it is implied that Lehi and Laban were somehow related, were the scriptures kept by the Samaritans living in Jerusalem, and thus had a slightly different set of prophetic writings, including NeumZenos, Zenock and Ezias (for wild speculations as to who Ezias was read my ramblings here, perhaps my conclusions in that post are extremely interesting considering the current topic). Something interesting to consider.

So in the end, was Lehi a Samaritan? Well, in the sense that we tend to think of Samaritans, no he wasn't. But he was a descendant of Manasseh, which would make him one of  the people of northern kingdom. Those people would eventually become the Samaritans that we know from the New Testament, and that are still around today. So strictly speaking we can't call Lehi a Samaritan, but based on the writings of Nephi, it would seem that we can't call them Jews either, and that I think is something to think about.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stories from My Mission: "You need to repent!"

I won't say where this story happened so that I can preserve the identity of those involved.

In my mission there was a senior couple, the Elder and Sister Wilcox, who were serving as missionaries. Shortly after they arrived Elder Wilcox was asked to serve as a counselor in the Mission Presidency. This meant that he would travel to the various District Conferences (like Stake Conferences) where the Mission President was unable to attend (we had about 15 districts in our mission). It was during one of these conferences that I was asked to accompany Elder Wilcox in an interview. He was not very proficient in Spanish and needed someone to translate for him.

The man Elder Wilcox was going to interview was someone who had been a member for many years but recently had been disfellowshipped. The purpose of the interview was to sort out the problems and to see if the man could return to full fellowship in the Church.

The interview began as a simple fact finding procedure, "So what is your story? When you were disfellowshipped by the District Presidency what were the reasons they told you? What have you done about it?" etc. According to this man's version of events, he was disfellowshipped for having a general disagreement with the local church leaders. Basically what it came down to was they, the church leaders, didn't like him, and he didn't like them so they told him that he couldn't use his priesthood and that he couldn't hold a calling.

Since I was only there as an interpreter and a facilitator I didn't have any say in the matter, and I will refrain from making any statement about who was right other than what Elder Wilcox ultimately decided.

To back up his case he said that he was a good man who did many good things. He said that he took care of his children, even those who were not strictly his children. He mentioned that before he met his wife she had worked as a prostitute and had three children from that. When he married her he took those children as his own and raised them accordingly. He was even sealed to them in the temple (which in this part of Argentina, to have a family like that who had been to the temple was very rare). He used this and other examples to make the case that he was a good man who tried to live within the covenants and commandments.

He then made the case that the District President was not so holy (they were neighbors). He related an experience where he said that he saw the District President beat one of his children in a rather harsh manner. He said that his being disfellowshipped was simply a result of the District President projecting his own sins and failing on him.

After listening to all of this, and after I made sure that Elder Wilcox had understood everything that had been said, Elder Wilcox paused, bowed his head as if in prayer or contemplation for a moment. Then he raised his head, looked the man in the eye and in flawless Spanish told the man, "You need to repent! The problem here is that you have not forgiven your wife! That is what you need to repent of!"

The man was rather taken back, because up until now this had all been about the dispute between him and the District President, but the thought that the real problem was one between this man and his wife had never occurred to him.

Elder Wilcox continued on and explained, "You have never forgiven your wife for the things she did before she met you. You said that she worked as a prostitute before she met you, and you said that you married her anyway. You said that you brought her to church, along with her children who were born of her prostitution, and that this made you a good man. She has been baptized, she has gone to the temple and wears the holy garment."

"The Lord has forgiven her her sins and remembers them no more. But you still remember them and you still think of her being defined by her past sins. You should not have mentioned them or even brought them up. You will not be forgiven until you humble yourself and never speak of her past sins any more. She has given them up, and the Lord has accepted her repentance. Now you need to accept her change of life."

When the man heard this he was left almost speechless. He said that no one had ever told him that. He didn't realize that his perception of his wife was having such a profound impact on him and how he viewed others. In a moment his entire demeanor changed. Whereas before he seemed to be inflated with pride and wounded pride as having been disfellowshipped, be was now immensely humble and contrite. It was as if in a moment all his pride was stripped away from him. He promised that he would forgive his wife, and that he would never again mention her past sins. The issue between him and the District President was not even mentioned again. Due to the force of the Spirit that accompanied Elder Wilcox's admonition he had experienced a sudden and dramatic change of heart.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stories from My Mission: The Butcher Fist Bump

I thought I should share a some what shorter and lighter story after my last two.

In my first area of Bella Vista there were many things that I had to learn about Argentina. One of the minor things that I had to pick up was how butchers greeted people. Because they work with meat their hands are usually covered in meat juices, and everyone else's hands are well, covered in who knows what. So butchers don't shake hands. What they do instead is extend their hand in a fist are you are expected to grab their forearm just above the wrist and "shake" their hand.

The first time I met a butcher and he extended his closed fist to me I had no idea what I was supposed to do. So I did the only thing I could think of, I gave him a fist bump. My companion, Elder Tenny, busted up laughing and the butcher was very confused, and I had no idea what was going on. Elder Tenny thankfully took the time to explain to the butcher what I had done and to explain to me the proper way of "shaking hands" with a butcher. I still think my way is better.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Stories from My Mission: The things you don't tell your parents about. (Part 1)

I will go ahead and label this post "Part 1" since there were many things that happened to me on my mission that I, um, just didn't write home about. Not because I had done anything wrong, but there were just the little things that happened that I never told them because I really didn't want to make my parents worry about me. I have no idea how many of these stories I have. I did tell my parents some of my big stories, like being bitten by a dog, breaking my rib, or being robbed on the street, but there were all the other little stories that I didn't bother to write them about.

In my fourth area in the city of Eldorado I had one companion, Elder Caballero, who I was with for one transfer (before I was "emergency transferred" out of the area during a normal transfer, but that is another story. Wait, I don't think I ever told my parents about that one... I told them about my first emergency transfer that brought me to Eldorado, but I don't think I ever told them about why I had to leave Eldorado...oops. Anyway back to my normal story.) So, Elder Caballero was a very outspoken Paraguayan who always made it clear what he thought about things. In Paraguay they speak both Spanish and Guarani so he was obviously fluent in both. I on the other hand only knew how to say 5 or 6 words in Guarani, and two of them were "jagua piru" which means "skinny dog", so in other words, I knew nothing in Guarani. In the city of Eldorado about a third of the people were Paraguayans, and thus there were a lot of people who spoke Guarani.

One day after returning from a mission conference in Posadas, we were getting off the bus and my companion bumped into a woman as he was walking down the aisle of the bus. He turned towards her and said, "Excuse me." and then moved on and didn't think any more about what had happened. We were walking down the street about 2 hours later when a man approached us. All of the talking that happened next happened in Guarani so I didn't understand a word of it, but I could understand the man's tone. My companion explained afterwards what he had said.

We almost walked right past each other on the street but at the last moment the man turned and planted himself in front of my companion. He pointed his finger at my companion's chest and asked him if he was the one who had disrespected the woman on the bus. My companion was at first confused, but the man said that he remembered seeing my companion step on the woman's foot on the bus earlier. My companion said he was unaware of the fact that he had stepped on her foot but he said he was sorry about it. The man was not placated and continued to accuse him harshly with his finger now pointed directly at my companions face.

It was at this point that I noticed the ring on the man's finger. It was, shall we say, bone white and had a swastika carved into it. There was something about the man that was very unsettling. He continued to accuse my companion of "disrespecting" the woman and my companion continued to apologize profusely. The man was insisting that my companion would have to do something to satisfy her "wounded honor", and the general implication was that it would somehow involve a knife. My companion, Elder Caballero, who I had seen stand up to toughs on the street, listened to him talk big and would let nothing diminish his honor was obviously disturbed by the man's accusations and was trying to apologize and placate the man as best he could.

Eventually the man was satisfied with what ever my companion told him and with a parting warning he walked off. After the man left Elder Caballero explained to me what the man had said. My companion also told be about how in Paraguay someone's honor is a very serious thing, and to violate someone's honor could provoke serious consequences. My companion knew people who had been knifed over wounded honor (for example, my companion's full last name was Caballero-Ruiz Dias, but he only went by Caballero since another family in Paraguay had a blood feud with the Ruiz Dias family). So for my companion when the man accused him of dishonoring the woman on the bus, this was a very serious thing, especially considering the man's, um, shall we say, choice in jewelry. We were both a little shaken by the experience.

We explained what happened to our branch president. He was concerned but there was nothing he could do. We told our zone leader and mentioned it to the Elders in the mission office, they filed it away behind all the robbings, and kidnappings that happened in my mission (we averaged about one companionship per year was kidnapped/held hostage and robbed per year, which doesn't include all the street muggings at knife/gun point which happened every two or three months or so...something else I never mentioned to my parents...). Since there really wasn't much we could do we just chose to ignore it. Fortunately we never saw that man again.

Stories from My Mission: "She is in the twilight of her day of grace."

This story is perhaps a little more sensitive than most. Do not judge any of the people involved too harshly. The true nature of this story can only be understood if you have a truly eternal perspective of the nature of our existence, and of eternal progression. Also realize that what I write here is only a small part of what happened, thus be mindful of that when deciding whether the actions of everyone involved were justified or not. Some times I wonder about whether or not some of my actions were correct or not.

I will not say where or when this happened and I will try to keep it as anonymous as possible.

Sometime after arriving in my new area I met the family, which consisted of the mother, two daughters and a son. The two younger children, a boy and a girl, were already members of the Church but I only recall seeing them attend church a few times while I was in the area. I never found out anything about the father. The home situation was shall we say, less than ideal. The mother had health and mental issues which meant that she could not work very much, the eldest daughter had previously worked as a prostitute and had been forced to stop working due to her getting pregnant (and had been unwilling to get an abortion).

From what I could gather the family had been meeting off and on with the missionaries for about 5 or 6 years. The two youngest children had been baptized about a year before I got to the area, but the oldest daughter had not been baptized due to her profession, and the mother, well, that is the point of this story.

With my first companion we made a few visits to the family, but it was not until my second companion was in the area that things started to change. We were meeting more with the oldest daughter, partly because she was coming to the realization that her choice of profession was not a very good one and was making an honest effort to change, partly for her own sake but also because she realized that she didn't want her own child to grow up like her and viewed the Church as the best way of protecting her unborn child.

Every time we visited the mother would insist on telling us that she knew the Book of Mormon was the word of God and that Joseph Smith was his prophet, but when ever we asked her to come to church he answers would be evasive and inconsistent. We encouraged, prodded, cajoled, joked, exhorted and commanded, but she never came to church. Try as we might we couldn't get her to make the effort to come to sacrament meeting. She kept telling us that she knew she needed to get baptized and she even informed us that if she could get baptized then there were some things about her life that could get fixed.

There never was any indication that there were any major sins (i.e. prostitution, drugs, tobacco, alcohol, murder etc.) that prevented the mother from getting baptized so we were a bit baffled as to why she would never come to church. There always seemed to be some excuse (i.e. it rained, it was hot/cold, she was sick, her legs hurt, they had to go visit their cousin etc.).

During all of this I felt the need to keep visiting them. It was not a strong feeling or an impulsive feeling, just a gentle feeling that I should keep stopping by. All this came to a head when my third companion got to the area. Of my three companions in the area my second companion had the greatest rapport with the family. My third companion, not so much. After just a few weeks my companion was getting impatient with them and began making comments about how we shouldn't waste any more time visiting them. But I had seen how desperately the mother and daughter had wanted to change their lives and I just wanted to be there when they finally decided to take the first step.

I visited the family a few times with my new companion but I he was getting more and more impatient with them and with me. Things fell apart one night when we went to visit them and my companion insisted that we have some members there with us (getting members to help us out was not the easiest thing on my mission). This meant that we were late getting there and when we did arrive something about the family was very off. The eldest daughter was upset with us because we were late and yelled at us (with two Aaronic priesthood boys aged 14 and 16 who were with us, the only ones we could find on short notice).

After the yelling stopped the mother came out and was visibly upset with us, and while she spoke to us from her front porch she became more and more incoherent at some point she went back into her house, but didn't get very far when she was overcome by some type of epileptic seizure. I saw her start to seize up and I sprang into action. I dashed through the front door and with the help of her oldest daughter we got her sitting in a chair. Her convulsions were not very violent, but she was unable to speak. My companion, who had wanted nothing to do with the family, stayed outside even refusing to set foot in the house, even when I asked him to come help me give her a blessing. Because my companion was refusing to come in and I was unsure what to do I went ahead and placed my hands on her head and gave her a blessing.

I don't know what I was expecting, perhaps something miraculous, but instead she got worse. Again with the help of her daughter we were able to carry her into her room and lay her down on her bed. After a while her condition improved and she motioned to us to get a Book of Mormon that she kept on her bedside table. She took it and held it close to her chest and when she did that she seemed to calm down a bit more. After a while she was able to speak again and told me that when she gets bad she uses the Book of Mormon to calm her fits. She said that only the word of God could cure her of her ailment.

After making sure that she would be fine I exited the house and rejoined my companion, who had been standing outside, along with the two young men who were looking very awkward. As we walked away I told the two boys that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to talk about what had happened. I told them that it was OK to tell their parents but no one else. My companion didn't say anything until we got home. I don't remember what he said exactly but one thing he said was that he would never return to visit that house. This put me in a predicament because I suddenly felt a stronger need to visit them again to resolve some things that came up. Not knowing what to do I contacted my zone leader to see what he had to say. He agreed to come to the area so that he and I could visit with the family so that he could make an assessment of the situation.

Approximately a week later my zone leader came to our area and I went with him to visit the family. He spoke to the mother and all the children. He asked about their desires to get baptized, or whether those who were baptized would come to church. There were no dramatics or apparent problems. He couldn't figure out why the mother wouldn't come to church, the eldest daughter on the other hand was about 7 months pregnant at that point and had a hard time making it all the way to church. After meeting with them he said that he didn't find anything majorly wrong with them, except for the fact that the mother who had spent 6 years meeting with the missionaries had never come to church, despite her insistence on knowing that it was true, and that it would help her.

Shortly after this the mother did make the trek all the way to church, but only after the meetings were all done and the only person there was the branch president and his one counselor. She came asking the branch president for a blessing and he obliged. Because I was not present at the time what happened next was told to me by the branch president. In the middle of giving her a blessing she entered into one of her fits. The branch president said that when this happened he felt something wrong with her, beyond the obvious medical or mental issues, and was given to know by the Spirit that she was possessed by an evil spirit. So right then and there he exorcised the evil spirit from her. She calmed down significantly after he did that.

After this happened he met with me and we discussed everything that had happened. After much discussion he decided to go with me, and me alone because my companion refused to go, to visit the family because both he and I felt it necessary. It was in this meeting that the branch president told me something about the mother that I had not known previously. Before meeting the missionaries and coming in contact with the Church the mother, but not any of her children, had attended a certain Assembly of God church in the city. This particular denomination was known by the missionaries, due to the number of run-ins that we had with its members and pastors. There seemed to be at least one of this particular strand of Pentecostal church in every area that I lived in and no one seemed to every have anything good to say about them.

While this church was affiliated with the Assemblies of God movement that started in the US in the early 1900's, the particular sub-denomination that the mother attended was of a variety that had started independently in Brazil. They were known for being more extreme in their displays of "being filled with the spirit" and "speaking in tongues" than all the other Assemblies of God churches. The branch president told me that he had heard very bad things about that church and that most of the people who had spent any amount of time there end up being very messed up. That is apparently what happened to the mother, and somewhere along the way she had become possessed.

Shortly after this I went with the branch president to visit the family so that he could make an assessment about how the two children who were members of the Church were doing and to get an idea of what the eldest daughter was like, and to meet with the mother again. We both knew that we needed to go. So I left my companion with another priesthood holder (he was still upset that I was going to visit the family) and went with the branch president to meet the family.

I had been thinking a great deal about what had been going on and I was wondering why I felt the need to keep visiting the family. While meeting the family with the branch president was uneventful as we left we were talking about the situation and wondering what to do. That is when I received the key insight about the whole situation and shared it with the branch president. I didn't have the proper words to say it in Spanish so I had to first ask the branch president for the proper word. What I told him was, "She is in the twilight of her day of grace." When I said this he turned and looked back at their house as we walked away and paused, nodded and expressed regret that we had to see this.

What we both realized is that the mother had been given many, many opportunities to accept the truth. But she had made conscious decisions that resulted in many of her problems. Because she continued to refuse to come to church, despite all her experiences, she was quickly approaching the end of her day of grace when she would have no more opportunities to accept Jesus Christ. Not in this life or the next. This was her last chance, and the reason why I was prompted to be there (along with the branch president after my companion refused to go) was to bear witness of the twilight of her day of grace. She never did come to church. He two youngest did start coming again after I left, but she never did.