An excerpt from Grant Hardy’s interview with Stephen O. Smoot on the LDS Perspectives podcast. Download or read the transcript here. Read a sample chapter from the Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon, which Hardy edited, below.
Stephen O. Smoot (LDS Perspectives): You’ve been studying the Book of Mormon for a very long time. I’m curious to hear if you gained any new insights into the Book of Mormon from your work on this study edition.
Grant Hardy: I’m not sure that we have really done as much as we can with this text as far as trying to read it and understand it in clear ways. We should be better readers of the Book of Mormon. In some ways, we’re too Protestant when we read the Book of Mormon. Protestants are great readers of the Bible, partly because of sola scriptura. They take it very seriously. Part of that Protestant heritage that we have is a focus on historicity, on the historical-critical method. Those are important and significant, and I’ve gained a lot from that.
But I have really been enjoying Jewish readings in the past few years, particularly from Conservative Judaism. There’s an acknowledgment and awareness and certainly an expertise with language and with the historical-critical method. But that’s oftentimes combined with a deep faith and a sense of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, as scripture, as something that has God’s word for us today and what that might mean. That’s where I think we should go.
Let me give you an example, and maybe it will fit with some of what we’re talking about.
Maybe my favorite book in the whole world—aside from scripture—is something called the Etz Hayim, which is a Torah commentary done by Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly. It has the Torah in Hebrew and in English, and then it has not one, but two commentaries— actually three commentaries—this is just the way Jews do stuff. It’s so awesome.
Smoot: No lack for commentary there. Yeah.
Hardy: There’s one commentary that talks about the words in the historical context and tries to make sense of it that way—the peshat. Then there’s something called the derash, which is more of an application to it. Let me give you an example of how this works.
In Exodus 40:14–15 God is speaking to Moses after he anoints Aaron as a priest. It says, “You shall bring his sons also and put tunics on them and anoint them as you anointed their father that they may serve me as priests, and their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout all generations to come.”
Okay. Sort of a nice thing. The commentary on the phrase “as you anointed their father” from the derash, written by Harold Kushner, is just great. It says:
“When Moses anointed Aaron as High Priest, he had no reason to be jealous of Aaron. Moses’s role was at least as prominent as Aaron’s. When Moses was called on to anoint Aaron’s sons to follow him as priests, however, God was concerned that Moses might be jealous. Moses would never see his own son succeed in his role as leader. Therefore, God commands Moses to show his greatness of character and his love for his brother by anointing Aaron’s sons in the same wholehearted fashion as he had anointed their father. We show true love when we can rejoice in the good fortune of another even though it’s an experience that we ourselves will never know.”
That’s a lovely thing to say, but when I apply that to my own experience, stories come, right? The Book of Mormon is about stories, and we live our life through stories.
We have a daughter whom we love dearly who was inactive for several years. Sort of went a different way for a while and then miraculously came back into activity. She met the man she would marry and got married in the temple. While she was preparing for that, she took out her endowments. That was in North Carolina. Heather and I at the time were in Utah where I was actually teaching this workshop at the Maxwell Institute [in 2015, experimenting with a preliminary draft of the new study edition]. So, we’re out there for six weeks or something and couldn’t be with her when she took out her endowments.
We have a family friend who is middle-aged, was never married, and doesn’t have children. She is a friend of the family, a friend of [our daughter] Liza’s, and she had been a temple worker. She said, “I’ll be Liza’s escort.” And that worked out actually really well all the way around. Afterwards she talked to us and said, “You don’t know how much that means to me because I will never have a daughter. Being able to be part of your daughter’s life in this way was such a lovely experience. It’s something that means a lot to me.”
I think in our church—no, I know in our church, we care a lot about families, right? It’s central to what we do. Sometimes maybe we care too much about families. It borders on family idolatry, right? It’s like you have to have the perfect Mormon family. But Mormonism offers more than just individual families or even clans. It offers a broader community.
I think maybe my favorite chapter in the Book of Mormon is Mosiah 18 where it talks about baptism. There’s a community that’s being set up there that covenants to bear each other’s burdens, to comfort those in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of Christ. I think wards can be families; they can be communities as well as families can.
When I read the Book of Mormon, I don’t see families all over it. There are certainly father and son relationships, but there aren’t families because they’re not enough women, right? It’s hard to get our own ideas of, “Oh, this is what a family should be like. This is what a marriage should be like. This is from the Book of Mormon.” The Book of Mormon isn’t really about that. It doesn’t deny that, but it’s about a different community that’s perhaps broader.
That’s a really important lesson to me at this time, and I think—when I interact with other Latter-day Saints who are trying to be disciples of Christ, but for whom sometimes the ideal doesn’t always work out—that’s a real challenge. Covenants matter certainly. Ordinances matter. Doctrine matters. But if we are not a community who treat each other as disciples of Jesus Christ, then we don’t have much claim; we don’t have much credibility. I get those things when I read the Book of Mormon, and it challenges me to be better.
And that’s what I like about the Book of Mormon.
[Slightly modified excerpt from 41:20–47:08]
From the Maxwell Institute Study Edition (download here)mi-study-edition-bom-mosiah-18