Briefly Jacob, with Deidre Green [MIPodcast #103]
This episode continues our special series on the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon. Deidre Green is author of the volume on the book of Jacob. Green presents Jacob as a vulnerable and empathic religious leader deeply concerned about issues of social justice. The prophet insists that religious and social life should not be separated into distinct spheres. His testimony of Jesus Christ is inseparable from his personal experiences of suffering, his compassion for those on the margins of society, and his concern for equality.
The authors of our Brief Theological Introductions are “seeking Christ in scripture by combining intellectual rigor and the disciple’s yearning for holiness.” Learn more at mi.byu.edu/brief.
Deidre Nicole Green is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. She earned a PhD in Religion from Claremont Graduate University, a Master of the Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School, and a Bachelor of the Arts in Philosophy from Brigham Young University. A specialist on Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Green is author of the book Works of Love in a World of Violence (Mohr Siebeck, 2016), with other publications appearing in The Journal of Religion, Hypatia, and Element: A Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
In this episode we continue our special series on the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon—a series of books which briefly…theologically…introduce the Book of Mormon! Next up is Jacob.
Deidre Green is the author of this volume. She is a postdoctoral research fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. She earned her PhD in Religion from Claremont Graduate University, a master’s in Religion from Yale Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Philosophy from Brigham Young University. You might remember her from episode 63 of the podcast. She’s back to talk about her new book Jacob: a brief theological introduction.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re interested in learning more about the new book series, check out mi.byu.edu/brief.
HODGES: Deidre Green, welcome once again to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
DEIDRE GREEN: Thank you, Blair. It’s good to be here.
HODGES: It’s good to have you back. This time we’re talking about your new book Jacob: a brief theological introduction. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s Brief Theological Introductions to the Book of Mormon series.
How did you arrive at Jacob? Did they ask you to do Jacob or did you volunteer for that one?
GREEN: When Spencer Fluhman approached and asked if I would be a part of this project, I immediately said that if he promised I could write on Jacob, I would commit to it. Otherwise, I’d have to think about it a little more. [laughs]
HODGES: Ah, so you knew right away what you wanted!
HODGES: Have you long loved Jacob, then?
GREEN: I would say that when I started teaching Book of Mormon at BYU in 2016 that I really came to see the book of Jacob in a new light, in a way that I felt was really relevant for the issues of our times, and especially the kinds of issues that college students and young adults are grappling with. I’ve gotten really passionate about it since then.
HODGES: Here’s what I love most about your book, too, as I was able to read it before the interview. You look closely at Jacob as a person, and then you talk about how his life—as far as we can understand it, his own life experiences—influenced his ministry. So Jacob’s not just a person communicating ideas. His ideas are informed by his life.
GREEN: Absolutely. I definitely see Jacob as a very special figure in the Book of Mormon who has had some unique experiences, a sort of different social position than some of the other leaders and authors in the Book of Mormon. And so he’s able to see human life from various perspectives, and he’s able to empathize with members of his society in ways that maybe other leaders aren’t quite as prone to do.
HODGES: And as you point out near the beginning of the book, the Book of Mormon doesn’t give a ton of specific detail about Jacob. Everything we know about Jacob comes from the Book of Mormon. Let’s talk about who he was as a person, as far as you can tell, what his life was like.
GREEN: Sure. Jacob is born to Sariah and Lehi after they’ve departed from Jerusalem. And he really brings our attention pretty often, or at least with quite a bit of emphasis, to the fact that he was born in the wilderness. That seems to be very definitive for who he is. And thinking about the significance of “wilderness” in the Hebrew Bible where, of course, it comes up a lot as well.
The wilderness is a liminal space—a space of change and uncertainty, but also a space of transformation. And it’s a space of vulnerability and I think that really influences Jacob’s perspective on the world, and also his affinity to God, right? It seems that God and Christ, as he understands him, are really kind of the stabilizing forces for him in his life.
HODGES: The word that you use for that is “vulnerability,” that Jacob is perhaps one of the most vulnerable figures in the Book of Mormon. He was born in this wilderness, it was dangerous. His brothers came from Jerusalem; they had a different experience growing up. He grew up on the road, really—
HODGES: —with a lot more danger, physical danger, a lot of uncertainty in the family.
You also talk about him wanting to be a protector as well, though. And this comes out of, perhaps, his experience of Nephi as his own protector.
GREEN: Yeah, so Lehi assures Jacob that Nephi will be a protector for Jacob and he seems to take a lot of solace from that. It seems to me that Jacob, in the absence of Nephi—after Nephi’s death—Jacob’s sense of vulnerability and his need for protection would heighten, it would increase and be amplified. And it seems probable that he would’ve been inclined to retreat more from Nephite society in that kind of situation.
But instead, I see him as turning outwards and having this beautiful ministry and especially one that is attentive to the other vulnerable people within Nephite society. He seems to have a real empathy for them.
HODGES: You draw out things about his biography that suggest that he could even be sort of an introvert that then was given this calling that required him to come out of himself a little bit, which was probably difficult for him.
GREEN: Yeah, I image that it was. And of course, Jacob is kind of always making references to his own anxiety. He notes that he is sometimes anxious over his level of anxiety—[laughter] anticipating the anxiety he will experience. And so yeah, he does seem like someone who would be more reticent to give strong sermons to people who have gone astray, or to advocate for people on the margins. And yet, he does that in such a profound and moving way.
HODGES: So you have vulnerability, you have him as a protector, and then you have him as a teacher, which is something that Nephi calls him to do—kind of gives him this role that he’s supposed to fulfill.
Do you think it’s significant that he’s named Jacob? This is the first of the family that’s named after a Hebrew Bible figure.
GREEN: Right, exactly. So Lehi and Sariah, for whatever reason, name the two children born in the wilderness after major figures in the book of Genesis—Jacob and Joseph. And I do think that there is a lot of substance to that.
I think Jacob, whose name alludes to the Old Testament patriarch who became the father of the twelve tribes, is very interested in the idea of gathering, the idea of reconciliation. And I think his own life experience, with his own family, really kind of tears him apart. He knows what it’s like to live at odds with your own kin. And it seems that he’s very interested in reconciling and helping the Nephites appreciate the Lamanites who, of course, are their own family, but those that they’ve been split off from.
HODGES: The other thing you mention about Jacob is that he’s really melancholy. There’s a sorrow to his book, especially in the conclusion where he seems so sad. But he’s still a prophetic figure at the same time. I think this is an important reminder that there’s nothing inherently sinful about sorrow. There’s nothing sinful about being sad.
GREEN: Absolutely. And I would argue that in Jacob’s case, it seems to really shape the way he sees God and reality and society and actually helps attune him to certain features of human life that might be missed by someone who wasn’t so prone to that sort of emotionality.
HODGES: I think you only see it sometimes from Nephi in the previous books. He has a lament that he delivers at one point, but Nephi is very much the courageous, you know, “pick yourself up and dust yourself off, let’s keep going” kind of a guy.
GREEN: Exactly. And I think something that is so beautiful about Jacob is that, we’ve talked about vulnerability, but he’s very easily affected by others.
You know, I note that when we first really hear about Joseph and Jacob in First Nephi, we hear that they’re sorrowful because their mother is sad over her older sons’ behavior and they’re affected because they’re physically dependent on her. And there seems to be this kind of pervasive tendency with Jacob that he’s very much affected by the decisions of other people. But I think this is part of what helps us to appreciate a more social view of reality in general—of sin and redemption. And I think Jacob really brings this to the floor in a way that Nephi and Lehi haven’t yet done.
HODGES: So that’s chapter one. It basically talks about how Jacob’s life is going to inform the rest of his book—his ministry, the sermons that we get from Jacob. And then in chapter two, “Suffering with Christ”, we get to learn more about Jacob’s relationship to Christ. To do that, you go back to Second Nephi chapter 2, where we see Jacob’s father, Lehi, addressing him in a blessing and saying that God will “consecrate your afflictions for your gain.” Talk about that kind of consecration.
GREEN: I’m indebted to George Handley, actually, a couple of years ago watching him teach a Book of Mormon here on campus, and talking about this verse and saying that even though the verse itself just talks about Jacob’s sufferings being consecrated for his own gain, that if we take the notion of consecration seriously, then we need to believe that Jacob’s suffering is consecrated for others’ gain as well.
And so, in sort of a more contemporary Latter-day Saint notion of consecration, I understand that there are multiple parts. And one part of consecration is that others receive the goods or property or what have you that others are willing to share and consecrate.
I really believe that we’re indebted to Jacob. That his sufferings are consecrated because they help us to see the gospel in a new light, and that we have to do our part in consecration, which is to receive the gift that he’s offering. And we do that by reading very carefully and attentively his text and appreciating all the sort of ins and outs and complexity of it, that we might otherwise just kind of skim over and miss.
HODGES: I’ve seen you write elsewhere about a possible danger that arises when we talk about suffering in this way, in a redemptive way. What are some of the problems with believing that suffering can be inherently good or kind of raising it up as a great thing to experience?
GREEN: I mean, my sense is that suffering is not something that we should sort of seek after for its own sake, and that we shouldn’t necessarily see suffering as inherently good, right? But that suffering can be used towards our good, depending on our own agentic response.
HODGES: Agentic, “as agents” you mean?
GREEN: Right. And so, I don’t see anywhere in the text, in reference to Jacob, that his suffering is encouraged or something that he should pursue. But rather, he’s promised that the suffering that he’s inadvertently experienced—not of his own choosing—he can now make a choice to use that suffering to other people’s benefit and his own.
And I think that’s a really beautiful example to all of us, that suffering is an inherent part of life and we don’t need to seek after it, but we can find ways to make it beneficial to others once we’ve experienced it.
HODGES: And you also write about how others need to get involved in that process as well. In fact, it seemed like you suggest that readers can help redeem Jacob’s suffering in the sense of making it meaningful, in the sense of learning from it.
GREEN: Exactly. I see that’s sort of a debt that we owe to Jacob, to not let the suffering he’s experienced to kind of be in vain. But rather, that we really learn the lessons that he has for us that are informed by his suffering.
And I really see this, actually, as a type the Atonement, right? We believe that Christ suffered for others, to redeem others. But if we don’t receive the gift, then that suffering—to a certain sense—could be seen as in vain. And so, I see it as a parallel.
HODGES: You spend a lot of time in this chapter focused on Jacob and the cross—the cross as a symbol in this chapter because Jacob himself directly invites people to “suffer the cross of Christ.” It’s an interesting way to put it because we typically think of Jesus suffering on the cross for us, but here Jacob’s inviting people to suffer the cross of Christ.
GREEN: I mean, it’s a very provocative and intriguing and enigmatic sort of passage. Again, this is a place where I think Jacob really wants us to slow down and think carefully and analyze what he is in fact calling us to do.
You know, it’s of course paired with this instruction to “view the death of Christ” and that can be multifaceted as well, of course. But I think that part of what we are to learn from viewing the cross is seeing that Christ remains in a particular type of relationship, both with God and with humanity, even in this most desperate and painful moment in which he feels abandoned by both. And I think there is something about that experience that we are asked to emulate; that we’re asked to emulate “right relation,” and remaining in a particular kind of loving relationship to God and other human beings, even in our darkest hours.
HODGES: Jacob’s inviting us to view Christ’s death—to not skip over that part. To not just think of the Easter morning resurrection glory, but to also really spend time at the cross.
GREEN: Well, I think what is so profound—again, not just thinking about the cross, but this other invitation to view his death, right—is that we have this period of time where there’s a lot of uncertainty. And we can’t just skip over to the resurrection. But recognizing that that absence of Christ, and that uncertainty, that waiting for the promised resurrection, is a very productive time in which we can choose to be faithful and acknowledge our own doubt and our own uncertainty.
There’s a lot of ambiguity there and I think it’s the ambiguity that our entire existence is marked by as mortals. And so I think there’s something profound about not making a human life or Christian faithfulness this sort of facile story with a happy ending, but recognizing that there’s lot of space in which we are consumed by doubt and uncertainty, but that we can choose to love and be faithful even while acknowledging that doubt.
HODGES: Something that I wrote down as I was reading through this section was that you reminded readers they’re not just supposed to skip from the cross right to the resurrection. There’s this in-between space. Here’s a quote from you.
You say, “By viewing the duration of Christ’s death, we witness and embrace loss that has not yet found resolution.”
There’s that in-between space, and some people don’t spend a lot of time there in their life of faith. I know people who don’t. But I also know people who spend a good deal of time in that space of uncertainty.
GREEN: I think that we need to be instructed by the way in which Christ’s death and resurrection happen. There’s a reason it doesn’t occur instantaneously, right? There isn’t an instantaneous resolution. And I think there’s a type there, or a prefiguring of what we all experience at various times in our life. And if this is the way that God chose to carry out the most important event in human history, then we ought to learn from that. That this is how God wants it to be. There needs to be this sort of empty, ambiguous spaces in our lives. And that there’s something productive for us in engaging those with authenticity.
HODGES: And not just in terms of personal development, but you point out in terms of connecting with other people. I think of the baptismal discussion in Mosiah 18 where it doesn’t say, “Hey you’re going to get baptized and then everybody’s gonna be happy and you’re cleansed from sin and we’re just gonna be great!” It says, “Mourn with those that mourn.” It doesn’t say, “Usher people through their mourning,” or “Help them just get over it.” The community is instructed to stay in the mourning. Mourn with them!
GREEN: Yes, I think there does have to be a way for us to find a healthy space where we aren’t sort of valorizing suffering or seeking after suffering, but recognizing that it’s an intrinsic part of our lives as human beings, and allowing it to be a space in which we can really connect with others and empathize with others and really become a whole community, as you just described.
HODGES: And Jacob, you say, is uniquely situated to teach this kind of lesson, this kind of—it’s almost like a communal participation in Christ’s atonement. Christ came down; he became embodied; he participated in the suffering so that he could understand and succor His people as the Book of Mormon says. Then we’re also supposed to view that and take away the same lessons so that we can then become Christlike in suffering with—having compassion, that’s what compassion actually means.
HODGES: We’re talking with Deidre Green. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. We’re talking with her about her new book Jacob: a brief theological introduction.
So, in your third chapter, Deidre, you argue that Jacob looks at sin as being societal and structural more than individual. Give people a sense of what you mean by that.
GREEN: I mean, I think we need to take Jacob’s preaching very seriously. He is really taking on these huge social ills, in terms of economic disparity and building a faulty theology to account for that disparity. He is talking about issues of gender, and disempowerment, and it’s these kinds of large societal issues that are the sin that the Nephites need to repent of.
And if that’s the case, then it seems redemption also needs to take place on a societal level. So I think Jacob is particularly aware of the fact that there really aren’t sort of “private sins” that we commit on our own that don’t affect anyone else. There are these large-scale reverberations of our sinful behaviors in ways that affect families and societies and even people we’ve never actually met.
HODGES: And that happened with Jacob. I mean, Jacob saw that right? You tie that directly to his own experience growing up and seeing how the behavior of some of his family affected other members of his family and then affected him as well. So he saw a system—he kind of got this little view of society on a micro scale and came to view sin because of that.
GREEN: Exactly. And I think that here, again, it’s really key to see it’s partly because of Jacob’s more marginal position within his family and his marginal reality, in terms of being born in the wilderness and in these less than ideal conditions, that allow him to really see this. Where a more powerful figure, like Nephi or Lehi, might have been less aware of them.
HODGES: You identify the root of Nephite sins throughout the Book of Mormon as being “the failure to regard all human beings as equal before God.” Where are you seeing that in the text?
GREEN: All over the place! Jacob tells us early on that he has seen the fate of his people. And actually, he tells us that is because of “faith and great anxiety.” Not two things we normally pair together, but it’s because of his concern for his people, his deep love for his people that affects him so personally, that he sees how things end up for the Nephites. Of course, that’s ultimately genocide at the hands of their ethnic enemies.
So I think Jacob is very attune to the fact that even the thought that “I am better than someone else, that I am intrinsically, inherently superior to anyone else on the planet,” is a sin in and of itself, largely because it can have these devastating consequences if we don’t cut if off at the level of thought.
Jacob is really the one who introduces in the Book of Mormon this theology that all flesh is of the dust. And he seems to want to continually [laughs] remind his people that they are nothing more than dust and God could return them to that state on a whim.
But there’s this really beautiful humility that informs, I think, Jacob’s entire life and his entire ministry that we need to recognize that we’re all equally, infinitely far from God and we really have no right to ever think that we’re more righteous or better than anyone else.
HODGES: You see this hit a crescendo in Jacob. So First and Second Nephi set the parameters for the book. I hadn’t noticed until reading your book just how pronounced it was, that Jacob really does turn the focus onto the society, inequality, looking at that as a problem. He knows that’s going to be the main problem.
And Nephi touches on it. You’ll see things. He talks about his vision of the last days; he sees inequality. That’s one of the biggest problems he sees in his vision of the future. But Jacob really ties it into this theology of everyone being equal. As you mentioned, “dust of the earth,” God’s universal love for humanity.
How do you see some of these things echoing later on in the Book of Mormon? What’s an example of some of Jacob’s main theological priorities echoing later on?
GREEN: Well, definitely this doctrine that human beings are dust. We see this develop in Helaman. We are told that human beings are even less than the dust, right? Because “the dust obeys God’s command” and human beings don’t. I think most members of the church are aware that King Benjamin talks about this.
But I feel like overall we miss the fact that there’s this very low view of human beings throughout the Book of Mormon. It is a very low theological anthropology, and I think that’s actually one of its most insistent messages to us. So I think it’s really beautiful how Jacob foregrounds that early on in the Book of Mormon. And I think it’s a challenge to us to see what an important doctrine that is.
I really think so much of the Book of Mormon is really an illustration of how badly things can go when we forget our inherent equality as human beings. And this doctrine of recognizing ourselves as being of the dust is a way to keep that pride in check.
HODGES: One of the biggest ways, I think, that [Jacob] fights against this Nephite pride and this Nephite prejudice is by finding exemplars that are unexpected. Particularly, Lamanites and particularly, Sherem. This is very interesting why you believe Jacob does this. Talk about this.
GREEN: One of the things that struck me most in really studying and writing this book was the fact that Jacob really never makes himself the moral exemplar for Nephite society. While he will remind the Nephites of things that they have known since Lehi was called out of Jerusalem—and should have remembered—he really doesn’t just resort to the commandments. He doesn’t just sort of rehearse commandments or the law, but what he does is ask them to look to the Lamanites to learn how to love and to learn how to live faithfully.
And I think it’s a profound moment in scripture and something that should absolutely inform our way of living today. That here, the Nephites who are so self-assured of their righteousness and denigrate the Lamanites for so many reasons—including the fact that they regard them as these sort of paradigmatic apostates, right? They pride themselves on their proximity to scripture—
HODGES: Right, like “We have the records; they went off on their own”—Yeah.
GREEN: Right and their continued faithfulness. And here Jacob says the only way you can live your covenants, the only way you can live faithfully, is to look to these people that you despise, that you think have nothing to teach you. They’re the ones that will ultimately save you.
It is a beautiful way to illustrate for us today that we need to be open to learning how to live “Christianly,” to live faithfully from everyone. Everyone bears the image of God and has the ability to teach us something about how to keep our own covenants better. If we arrogantly think we are the only ones who know what it is to live in the way that Christ has asked us to, we actually sever ourselves from the very means by which we could actually fulfill our covenants to do that.
HODGES: Then the particular example of Sherem. He becomes an example of a prophetic figure to you. He has a showdown with Jacob! [laughter] What do you make of this back and forth?
GREEN: It’s such an incredible passage of scripture. And I’ll say that, actually, in writing this book, I was most impressed with how complex this text is and how nuanced it is. I had never appreciated, before writing this book, what really is going on in Jacob 7. There’s a lot to unpack there.
What I see in terms of making Sherem a teacher is that even though Jacob knows that Sherem has deceived himself, and is now trying to deceive others in denying that Christ is the fulfillment of the Mosaic law, through this encounter he asks that God’s will be done rather than his own. And through that Jacob is surprised at the outcome. Sherem acts differently than Jacob predicts and he actually ends up bearing testimony of Christ. As I note in the book, technically he’s the last person in the Book of Jacob to bear witness of Christ. Jacob actually seems to have the humility to give Sherem the last word. And if we pay attention, we also see that it’s Sherem’s testimony rather than Jacob’s that seems to have the power to reconvert these wayward Nephites.
I think there’s something—I’m sure there are many things that are very profound that we can learn from that, but it’s this dialogical interaction between Jacob and Sherem that’s the only thing that fulfills God’s desire and Jacob’s desire for the Nephites.
And again, we really need to think about how it is that people become converted and reconverted, and again, that really anyone can serve that purpose if it’s God’s will.
HODGES: That’s Deidre Green. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow here at the Maxwell Institute. She earned her PhD in religion from Claremont Graduate University. She’s also got a degree in religion from Yale Divinity School and earned her Bachelors in Philosophy here at Brigham Young University. We’re talking about her book Jacob: a brief theological introduction. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series. You can learn more about this series at mi.byu.edu/brief.
Deidre, in chapter four you move onto some of the other main themes of Jacob’s preaching. You call this the temple sermon. Is that just because that’s where it takes place?
GREEN: Uh, yeah. I guess that’s why. [laughter]
HODGES: That’s a bad question. I’ll leave that in though, to let people know that sometimes I miss the boat.
GREEN: Or just for comic relief.
HODGES: Yeah, let me put it this way. What are examples of some of the other main themes you see coming out in Jacob’s preaching that you cover in this chapter?
GREEN: So, he’s worried any form of inequality. He’s realizing how far reaching the effects can be. He’s worried about the way the Nephites have sort of arrogated this superior status to themselves based on the fact that they have more means than others, and the way they theologize a sense of divine privilege around that.
HODGES: Is it as though their way of living made them better off, kind of a thing? Like, “Hey, we keep the commandments and therefore we have more material goods, and we’re better off than them and they’re off doing their own thing”?
GREEN: Yeah. It definitely seems to be the case that they want to ascribe a lot of meaning to this economic difference. And Jacob is really upset by this. He sees this as deeply problematic. He seems to say, “Look, your social standing, or your economic standing really doesn’t give you the right to think that you’re better than someone else. It doesn’t have all the meaning and weight that you want to put to it. Then he goes further by saying the only reason anyone is justified in seeking for riches is so they can make their neighbors rich, not themselves.
And I think, again, it’s really profound in guiding us to this view that we all have a God-given equality as human beings and that the only justification for amassing wealth is to reflect that God-given equality in our material resources.
Of course, we see that theme come up again and again in the Book of Mormon. It’s fascinating that we often proof-text the Book of Mormon to kind of justify a sense that we’re entitled to wealth or that wealth signifies a spiritual superiority, when actually I would say the bulk of the Book of Mormon is trying to point us in the direction of creating economic equality based on the theological premise that we are all equal as human beings.
HODGES: Do you think there wass any “back in my day” stuff going on here? [laughter] Jacob came through rough times and now they’re settled and things are going well, so it gives him a different perspective to look on this. “If you keep the commandments, you’ll prosper in the land.” He is watching that happen and maybe seeing some of the underside of that.
GREEN: I think certainly Jacob is a different figure because he is born into poverty and insecurity, right?
HODGES: He is a refugee, yeah.
GREEN: I mean, unlike his older brothers who lived the good life and were murmuring and complaining, wanting to go back to Jerusalem, where they had it so good, he’s never known that kind of comfort and security. So I think it’s why he doesn’t seem to have any sense of entitlement, and he seems to have zero tolerance for it in others [laughs]. But yeah, I think there’s a reason he is the first to bring this issue to our attention.
HODGES: I think he has that refugee mentality of seeing the need for equality and the dangers that happen when that’s not the priority of everybody. I think your book does a good job of bringing that out.
GREEN: Thanks. I think Jacob is really focused on getting his people and future readers out of anything that puts them in a space of spiritual complacency. And I think that he sees how these faulty ways of thinking about one’s own accomplishments or one’s own merit keeps this people from progressing and keeps people from progressing as a society and as a Christian community.
HODGES: One of the things you’re doing in this chapter, as well, is you’re inviting your readers to pay really close attention to the words that are being used and the context that they’re being used in. I bring this up particularly in regard to discussions of chastity.
So Jacob has some really pointed things to say to the Nephites about this. He directly addresses inequalities they have introduced into their systems of marriage and relationships. And if you’re not careful while reading this text you get the sense that the Book of Mormon is saying, for example, that women can “lose” their chastity because of the actions of men. You challenge that reading. Talk about that.
GREEN: Right. I think if we look closely to what Jacob is saying about women’s chastity in his temple sermon, we have to take seriously the fact that he is talking about sexual agency rather than chastity itself.
The context is that he’s talking about women’s chastity, but he’s calling the Nephite men to repentance, right? And so he gives us a lot of language that makes it clear he is worried about the way in which women are being forced and constrained to act in ways that are against their will. And so it really seems to be more an issue of agency and the fact that the Nephite men are not actually taking away women’s chastity, but that they are taking away their sexual agency.
Again, this is an issue that grows out of not seeing every other person as your equal, and not seeing others as someone who needs to have their agency and choice respected. That seems to be the larger problem. I see this as a pattern in Jacob’s preaching, that he often uses language that kind of fits more oppressive or patriarchal societies, but if we look closely at how the argument goes, it seems he’s actually making a much deeper, stronger sort of argument.
Of course, we have many places in scripture where we’re told that God speaks to us in our own language and according to our understanding. What I think is one of the profound lessons we can learn from that—and from what Jacob is doing—is that if we don’t expand our language, if we don’t expand our conceptual framework, we actually limit the ways in which God can speak to us. And I think there’s a profound lesson here.
Again, going back to this idea that the Nephites had to look to the Lamanites to learn how to live righteously, that we need to be in dialogue with other people’s ways of thinking, with other ideas. And that as we expand our sort of language and our conceptual framework, we also expand the ways in which God can communicate to us.
HODGES: What you show, what you demonstrate, I think, is a faithful grappling with the Book of Mormon, especially in places where it says something that grates against modern sensibilities or even value systems, on a number of issues—gender and other issues like that. And you demonstrate how readers can engage faithfully with the text in ways that stay with it, but also take a new look, and challenge even some of the assumptions.
Some of Jacob’s sermon packs in problematic assumptions to you, and that could be because he’s speaking to his audience and needs to kind of appeal to them—you say that’s a good rhetorical strategy. Or it could be because he, living in that time period, had the same kind of blind spots.
But, one thing I love about the Book of Mormon is that the book itself invites readers to read it critically that way. It says, “We’ve made mistakes and you should be grateful when you see those, because you can be wiser than we were.”
GREEN: Absolutely. And I mean, I think going back to how Jesus himself taught and how he described His own teaching, right, is that he spoke in a way so that people who weren’t willing to sort of do the work, to see the deeper meaning, would kind of miss it.
There’s something very charitable about not giving people more than they’re ready to be accountable for. And of course, the Book of Mormon is really self-concerned with the issue of charity, and concerned that we read it charitably.
HODGES: Yes, I think multiple authors are saying things like, “I hope they don’t laugh at this.”
GREEN: Exactly. And so, I think the Book of Mormon affords the possibility of being sort of brushed off or dismissed as antiquated. But I actually think if we’ll really grapple with it and do the work that charity requires, right—we’re taught in the Book of Mormon itself that charity is something we receive as a gift when we pray with “all the energy of heart.” And so there are much deeper meanings that are much more relevant for the twenty-first century, but it requires us to take that sort of charitable reading, a sort of energetic and invested way of reading.
HODGES: Let’s talk about chapter five now. This is about the love of God and the allegory of the olive trees. So your book covers the single longest chapter in the Book of Mormon. It’s an allegory about these olive trees in the vineyard. And the chapter heading that we have currently in the Book of Mormon says that it’s about the scattering and gathering of Israel, which works. But you also invite us to think about it being much more than that.
GREEN: I definitely take most scripture, and certainly this allegory, as being a text that I would call “multivalent,” right? So there are various, numerous ways in which we can read it. And I think that, again, as I was just mentioning about Jesus’s way of teaching, right, there are multiple levels of reading this text.
And so, while I certainly don’t deny that it’s on one level about the scattering and gathering of Israel, I think there’s so much more. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has talked about at the end of the day, the most important issue of Jacob 5 is the Atonement of Christ. And so we can think about reconciliation and atonement as something, in this text, that’s operating both on individual and societal levels.
HODGES: What are some things that you find the text teaches about God’s love? This is a story about gardening, basically. [laughter] Horticulture or, I don’t know. But it’s about God’s love.
GREEN: I see it as one more testimony of the relentlessness of God’s love. The inexhaustibility of God’s love. Here we see this figure who has all these, sort of, wayward trees that aren’t flourishing in the way that they might. And God just refuses to lose them. God will try everything, right?
And I see this text just giving us the sense that God is innovative, right? That God is willing to try new things that seem very unlikely, to work out of this sort of emotional desperation, this unwillingness to just let the vineyard be corrupt and destroy itself, essentially.
And here we see that God is interdependent—God works with others.
And God also brings these two very disparate sorts of creation, right—We have these wild trees and these natural trees, and they have to come together in some new way in order to survive and flourish.
And again, I think this has resonances with what Jacob is doing—in making the Lamanites the example of monogamous, faithful living and making Sherem this final testifier of Christ within his text—that there’s no way for the Nephites to become who God wants them to be when they stay as a sort of enclosed and self-righteous system. God understands that it’s the intermingling of difference that will bring God’s purposes to fulfillment and consummation.
HODGES: I have to say, I really appreciate how you organized the book that way. Because you tell us about Jacob, you tell us about the main themes that he’s preaching about, and then you tell us how this huge allegory fits right into everything that you’ve talked about in really beautiful ways. It’s really well done. I’m really excited for people to be able to dig in and see this book in a new way.
I want to talk about your concluding thoughts about Jacob. Jacob, the book itself, ends on a sad note. He talks about how “we lived out our days and our days became like a dream to us.” And I don’t think the word “nightmare” existed back then, but it doesn’t seem like he meant like, “Life could be a dream!” Like, he’s basically saying, “We mourned out our days.” And that the end of this book is less about triumph—this is a quote from you—it’s “less about triumph and uncertainty and more about choosing to remain a witness amidst devastation and doubt.”
GREEN: Yes, we see Jacob resume his typical melancholic stance here at the end.
I would say in addition to melancholy, it seems like there’s a sort of deep ambivalence here. There’s a deep sort of sense that he’s exhausted himself [laughs] in trying to teach the truth to his people and trying to get them to live in the way that God wants them to. And he seems really spent here at the end. And he also seems like he’s not quite sure what his life’s ministry will amount to.
So, there’s a lot of doubt here that I think that most people can sympathize and empathize with. We have a sense that we try to live faithfully and do great things, but we can never be finally responsible for the consequences of our lives. Again, coming full circle to this idea of consecration, and Jacob makes plain here that it’s kind of up to other people to fulfill the meaning of his ministry.
HODGES: And so he lives out his days, his days were “like a dream.” He mourns out his days and then the book concludes with the word “adieu.” It’s the only time this French word—this French farewell—appears in the book. It’s a strange moment for English readers, and you find a lot of significance in it.
GREEN: Absolutely. I mean, the first thing we need to note is the parallel between Sherem’s dying breath and Jacob’s dying breath. Sherem is terrified to death and see God and he says, you know, “I don’t know that this confession can save me, but I—”
HODGES: Yes, he confessed Christ, basically—
GREEN: “—but I confess to God,” right? And he uses that term “to God” which is, of course, the most literal translation of “adieu.” And so we see this parallel between Sherem and Jacob, that they lay their lives before God. They don’t know the final meaning.
Of course, they don’t do it in the exact same way. Sherem is terrified for the fate of his soul, because of his way of living—his sort of self-deceptive way of living. And Jacob is more fearful about what’s going to happen to the Nephites in his absence. He doesn’t show us that he has any lack of confidence about his righteousness or his standing before God, and yet his concern is for the people that he leaves behind. And it seems that in this sort of ambiguity and uncertainty of what his life will mean and what his readers will do with his testimony and with his preaching and instruction, that he, too, is in this position of just needing to lay his life down before God.
Just as his father told him that his sufferings would be consecrated, and just as Nephi consecrate him as a priest and teacher, Jacob continues that theme at the end, and he consecrates his life—even in the last breath—to God, and leaves himself and his record in the hands of God.
HODGES: That’s a great analysis. I’d never stopped to think about it more, I just thought, “Oh, it’s a fancy way of saying goodbye.” But no, it has this deeper meaning to it.
Before we go, I want to talk more broadly about theology in general. So, this series—brief theological introductions—brings a lot of difference voices together. People with different backgrounds, different academic training. And the idea is that the editors wanted to get people to really dig into the text, use the things that they’d been trained in—use their academic specialties—to find treasure in the Book of Mormon; to combine their academic training with their faith and to create something out of that. So how do you describe what it means to read “theologically,” to do a theological introduction? And how that might differ from a different kind of reading.
GREEN: I think the concern of theology is to see what doctrinally is at stake. What is it that the scripture provides that gives us a deeper understanding of the nature of God, of the nature of human life, and how we can live faithfully before God.
And so it’s going to maybe not get caught up in certain kinds of details and facts about the text, but then it’s going to recognize all sorts of facets of the text that normally are seen as insignificant.
As I was talking about Jacob in the beginning, you know, we noted that Jacob’s own way of living—his own unique sort of social standpoint—informs his entire ministry. And I see that as instructive for the way we read scripture and the way we do theology. And that’s to say that there’s no one privileged standpoint that is going to understand the text. It’s that we need multiple people with multiple types of bodies and multiple types of backgrounds and life experiences to recognize facets of the text that we can’t on our own.
And so I see this book on Jacob as not the definitive sort of reading of the book of Jacob, but rather just an offering, to say, “given my training and my background and what sort of things I tend to notice that others might overlook, here’s a reading of Jacob.” And I hope that it will stimulate lots of other readings that are wildly different! And that we can kind of collectively, as a faith community, come to see that our own redemption is dialogical, just as Jacob keeps pointing us towards—that we need to have many different perspectives and readings on the text to help us really become the sort of community and have the kind of truth that we all seek for.
HODGES: That’s why I really appreciate the name of the series, brief theological introductions. They’re short, they’re theological, and they’re just introductory. These are just one view, and it’s not the definitive view as you said. This is a way—one way—that one person, informed by a lot of other people, see what they see in the text. And an invitation to readers to then go and do similar work based on their own experiences and training and concerns and all of that.
GREEN: Exactly. Dialogue has to start somewhere. And I see my own book more as a sort of opening of conversation rather than a sort of definitive, one-sided statement.
HODGES: And I should say, too, it was interesting to go through your footnotes—and there aren’t a lot. We try to keep the footnotes pretty sparse—but to see you interacting with previous work that’s been done on the book of Jacob. Things that were published in Interpreter or old FARMS articles and things like this. You’re drawing on a body of scholarship that precedes you and you’re contributing to that ongoing discussion.
GREEN: Exactly. And I hope that this text really just invites more conversation and more perspective. And, you know, often, sometimes we recognize things we’ve never seen before when someone else gets it wrong. And so, you know, [laughs] possibly, my contribution is that it wakes someone else up!
HODGES: To do better?
HODGES: They’ll be wiser than you! [laughs] They’ll see the mistakes of Deidre and they will learn to be wiser!
GREEN: Exactly! See what I did wrong. Recognize what I got wrong and, you know, write something new.
HODGES: That’s good. Well, thank you Deidre. I really enjoyed this book. I can’t wait for people to read it. It’s called Jacob: a brief theological introduction.
Deidre Green joined us today. She’s a postdoctoral research fellow here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
Deidre, thank you so much for doing the interview.
GREEN: Thank you Blair.
HODGES: Coming up next in our series of interviews with authors of the brief theological introductions to the Book of Mormon series we’ll be hearing from Sharon Harris. She had the task of covering three books in the Book of Mormon in one volume, she calls them the “itty bitty books”—Enos, Jarom, and Omni.
Before we go let’s check out our review of the month, this one comes from “sep45.” A five-star review, and it says:
“I came across this podcast one year ago when I was looking for sources to supplement my New Testament reading. Now I have listened to nearly half of the episodes and have been inspired and uplifted from nearly every episode. I appreciate Blair Hodges interview style and questions, and Terryl Givens’s ‘Conversations’ as well.throughout. I have bought seven books from episodes that focused on them and look forward to reading and purchasing the Brief Theological Introductions of the Book of Mormon when it comes in print. Thank you for such an excellent source of scholarly insight!”
Thank you for taking the time to review, sep45, I appreciate that. Reviews help spread word about the show and they also warm my little heart and make me feel good. So keep them coming. If you love a piece of media, let the creators know. We’ll see you next time on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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