Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.
I Have a Question03126_000_010
Why does the book of Moses end with Noah, giving us much valuable information but leaving out much of the history of the earth and the dispensation of Abraham?
Just after Moses received his call at the “burning bush,” but before he returned to lead Israel out of Egypt, the Lord appeared to him (see , dean of Religious Instruction, Brigham Young UniversityMoses 1:2) and gave him further information about the work he was to do (see Moses 1:6). Moses saw in vision “the worlds and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created” (Moses 1:8). In these manifestations Moses saw the earth in great detail and the innumerable concourses of people who would inhabit it. As a result, Moses asked God “why these things are so, and by what thou madest them?” (Moses 1:30). Note the two great facets of his inquiry:
1. Why do the world and its inhabitants exist?
2. How did God make them?
In response, God revealed several great principles about the “why” of creation before giving Moses some information about the “how.” Briefly, the Lord explained to Moses that the Creation was accomplished for His own purposes, which could not be comprehended fully by man. They are understood only by the wisdom residing in God. Worlds without number had been created by God through him whom we know as the Only Begotten Son; some worlds had passed away and some still exist. As some pass on, others come; and the process continues endlessly. The Lord then gave Moses a great summation of his overall purpose: “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).
Before responding in more detail to the second part of the inquiry of Moses—revealing to him the steps taken in creating this world—the Lord commanded him to write the revelation (see Moses 1:41). We have much of it now in the book of Genesis; and we are blessed with a restored version of it (see Moses 1:42) in Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Bible, the most informative early chapters of which are published in the Pearl of Great Price as the book of Moses.
The items the Lord gave Moses in outlining the great episodes after the Creation included: 1) Adam and Eve and their “fall” into this way of life; 2) the first revelation of the gospel of redemption and atonement; 3) Cain’s and Abel’s experience with temptations and choices; 4) Enoch’s great doctrinal sermons and their effect; 5) Noah’s mission to cry repentance before the baptism and renewal of the earth (Gen. 6:5; Moses 8:23–24); 6) Nimrod’s presumptuous project and the resultant confusion at Babel; 7) deterioration in the patriarchal line ten generations down from Shem’s time in the days of Terah, father of Abram; and 8) the eternal mission of Abram (later Abraham) and Sarah and their seed. Our book of Moses covers five of those great episodes.
This account was recorded in the words of the Lord to Moses. We do not know whether the Lord then made available to Moses some of the accounts previously written in the book of remembrance of Adam and others who wrote by inspiration (see Moses 6:5–6). We know that there were such writings which came into Abraham’s hand, to which he added his own accounts (see Abr. 1:28, 31).
In any case, the revelation and writing of Genesis gave to Moses (and to us) valuable background information concerning God’s project earth and its major accomplishments down to the time of Moses. Without such information Moses could not have known who the children of Israel were and how they got into bondage, why the Lord wanted them saved, what the mission of Israel was (as an extension of the call of Abraham), and how the mission should be implemented in Canaan and indeed eventually among all families of the earth (see Abr. 1:18–19; Abr. 2:6–11; Gen. 12:1–3).
The revelation in Moses 1 is thus an introduction to the revelations on creation provided in Genesis 1 and 2 [Gen. 1–2]. The next chapters provide an introduction to the call and mission of Abraham and his seed recorded in the rest of Genesis. Genesis is in turn an introduction to the remaining books of Moses—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The books of Moses are historically and doctrinally a base for a better understanding of the writings of later prophets and writers of the Old Testament. And the Old Testament, in turn, is very helpful to our understanding and appreciating the Book of Mormon, the New Testament, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. All of these scriptures help us know the nature and purpose of our life on earth.
To return to the question with which we began, it appears that we have been provided a selection of some of the first and most valuable revelations given to Moses. These were restored by revelation in this dispensation by Joseph Smith, in the process of his inspired revision of the Bible. In order that they would be conveniently available for the early Church members, they were published in the compilation called the Pearl of Great Price. These, along with the book of Abraham and other scriptures supplementing the Genesis material, prove adequate for most of our needs. The new LDS edition of the Bible makes additional material from the JST conveniently available to us. Short excerpts are printed in footnotes and longer passages are placed in an appendix at the end.
What laws governed the inheritance of birthright in the Old Testament?
Several customs and traditions of the Hebrews are related to this question, namely, patriarchal government, primogeniture, and polygyny. , director of teacher support, Church Educational System
The patriarchs in the Old Testament times usually governed their families directly—their wives, sons, unmarried daughters, families of the sons, and so on. When the father died, he was succeeded as head of the family by a son.
So that there would be no disputation as to which son would succeed the father, the practice of primogeniture, or the law of the firstborn, developed. (Prime means “first”; geniture has to do with birth.) Upon the death of the father, the firstborn (eldest) son became the new head of the family. As this was his right because of the order of his birth, he was referred to as the birthright son (see Gen. 43:33). The birthright son was entitled to a double portion (that is, twice as much as any other son) of the father’s inheritance—one portion as a son, the second portion as the new head responsible for the family (see Gen. 48:22; Deut. 21:17), including the care of his mother and unmarried sisters. As firstborn son, under the Aaronic order, he also held the right of presiding over the family. (See also the “Bible Dictionary” in the new LDS edition of the King James Bible, pp. 625, 675.)
When the father had only one wife, there was no question as to who the birthright son would be. However, in those days the Lord permitted some of his patriarchs to have more than one wife (polygyny). Thus the father might have several “firstborn” sons, possibly one from each of his wives. The question then naturally arose as to which firstborn son of which wife would become the head of the entire family upon the death of the father. Custom and tradition indicated that the first wife should have precedence over the other wives; thus it was determined that the firstborn son of the first wife would be the birthright son as long as he proved worthy. Only in case of unworthiness or death would the birthright go to the firstborn son of the second wife. No second-born sons were considered for the birthright unless all firstborn sons proved to be unworthy.
An understanding of these customs helps one to understand the following episodes in the Bible concerning the “right to rule” among the patriarchs.
Isaac and Ishmael
The Bible lists three wives for Abraham: Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah. Hagar, the second wife, was the first to have a son, Ishmael. Ishmael was thus the birthright son of Abraham as long as the first wife (Sarah) did not have a son. When Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Isaac held the birthright because he was the firstborn son of the first wife.
Jacob and Esau
The Bible lists Rebekah as the only wife for Isaac, and from that marriage came twin sons: Esau, the firstborn, and Jacob. As the firstborn son of the first wife, Esau was the birthright son according to the practice of primogeniture. However, Esau proved to be unworthy of the birthright because he did not marry within the covenant group as desired by his father and mother (see Gen. 26:34–35). Also, Esau, at least temporarily, lost his desire for the birthright and sold it to Jacob for some “bread and pottage of lentils” (see Gen. 25:29–34; Heb. 12:16). Jacob, the second-born son, then became the birthright son of Isaac. Even before the twins were born, the Lord informed Rebekah: “Two nations are in thy womb … and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23). This fact should be kept in mind to understand why Rebekah wanted her husband, Isaac, to give the greater blessing to Jacob.
Joseph and Reuben
Jacob, also known as Israel, married at least four wives in the following order: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. From these wives Jacob had twelve sons (listed in the order of their birth, with the name of the mother in parentheses): (1) Reuben (Leah), (2) Simeon (Leah), (3) Levi (Leah), (4) Judah (Leah), (5) Dan (Bilhah), (6) Naphtali (Bilhah), (7) Gad (Zilpah), (8) Asher (Zilpah), (9) Issachar (Leah), (10) Zebulun (Leah), (11) Joseph (Rachel), and (12) Benjamin (Rachel).
As the firstborn son of the first wife, Reuben was the birthright son. When Reuben proved to be unworthy by committing adultery with Bilhah (see Gen. 35:21–22; Gen. 49:3–4), the birthright went to the firstborn son of the second wife—Joseph, the son of Rachel (see 1 Chr. 5:1). Although Joseph was the eleventh-born son in order of birth, he was second in line for the birthright because he was the firstborn son of the second wife. Jacob had a special coat made for Joseph so that the other brothers would recognize Joseph’s right to preside over the family upon his father’s death.
Ephraim and Manasseh
As far as the Bible indicates, Joseph had only one wife, Asenath, and they had only two sons: Manasseh, the firstborn, and Ephraim (see Gen. 41:50–52). When Joseph brought his two sons to their grandfather Jacob for a father’s (or patriarchal) blessing, it is obvious that Joseph expected Manasseh to receive the greater blessing, and it “displeased” Joseph when Jacob “set Ephraim before Manasseh” and gave the greater blessing to the younger brother (Gen. 48:17–20). Neither the Bible nor modern scripture explains specifically why Jacob departed from the usual practice of primogeniture, but the Joseph Smith Translation (JST, Gen. 48:5–11) and the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 133:32–34) indicate that Jacob was directed by the Lord in giving the greater blessing to Ephraim. Thus Ephraim received the birthright of Joseph, and Joseph received the birthright of Jacob (Israel). In a sense, then, Ephraim is the birthright son of Israel, as confirmed by the Lord through his prophet Jeremiah: “I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (Jer. 31:9).
What is Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, and how can it help me to understand the Old Testament?
Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible (identified in our Church literature as JST) can help us to better understand not only the Old Testament but also the New Testament. We learn from the Book of Mormon that many plain and precious things were taken from the Bible before it was distributed throughout the nations of the earth (see , chairman, Department of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University1 Ne. 13). However, 1 Nephi 13:39 [1 Ne. 13:39] says that “other books” would make known again many of the plain and precious things that had been removed (see also Moses 1:40–41). The JST would be one of these other books.
There are many passages in the JST that clarify the Old Testament, such as those dealing with the nature of God, the creation of the earth, the antiquity of the gospel, the fall of Satan, events in the lives of Cain and Abel, the origin of the law of Moses, and the ministries of Adam, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, and Abraham. Because the JST gives us additional historical and doctrinal information, we are also able to more fully appreciate what is meant by such terms as “the restoration of all things” and “the dispensation of the fulness of times.”
The book of Moses, currently published as a part of the Pearl of Great Price, is a small excerpt from the JST. When we consider the great benefit that we receive from the book of Moses alone, we can appreciate better the tremendous benefit the entire JST has been and will be to the Church.
Joseph Smith began the translation in June 1830 and by July 1833 had gone through the Old and New Testaments. Although we have no detailed record of the Prophet’s translating procedure, the manuscripts themselves indicate that as the Prophet read from the King James text, he dictated corrections, revisions, and additions to a scribe. After the initial “completion” in 1833, the Prophet and his scribes continued to make additional revisions and prepare a manuscript for the press until his death in June 1844. Excerpts of the JST were used in the Lectures on Faith and also were frequently printed in the early Church periodicals.
The Prophet intended to publish the entire JST but was prevented from doing so by a lack of money and time and by frequent persecution. Even so, he obtained spiritual benefit from the translation experience, and much of the knowledge that was revealed to him while translating is included in his public teachings. Also, many parts of the Doctrine and Covenants contain information that came to Joseph Smith as a result of the translation (for example, D&C 76,D&C 77, D&C 86, and D&C 91). Furthermore, the Pearl of Great Price contains two excerpts from the JST. These are published as the book of Moses and the Writings of Joseph Smith (Matthew 24) [JS—M 1]. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints now has the JST manuscript; they obtained a copyright, and they published the entire translation in 1867.
In order to fully appreciate Joseph Smith’s work in translating the Bible, we have to look at its historical setting. The Church was small in June 1830, when the translation was begun, and the number of doctrinal revelations was relatively few. It was during his careful translation of the Old and New Testaments that many great revelations and spiritual experiences were given to the Prophet that unfolded the gospel plan in this dispensation. Consequently, most of the doctrinal revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received between June 1830 and July 1833, while Joseph Smith was translating the Bible. The fact that there is a new translation of the Bible says much about the need for revelation and how revelation comes to a prophet. It also reveals plainly that the canon of scripture is not full.
Likewise, the procedure speaks eloquently for the personal value of studying the scriptures. The Prophet turned to the scriptures and to the Lord for inspiration and testified that he received it. It was a growing spiritual experience for him (see D&C 45:60–61). Is that not an example of great worth to us all and a pattern for study and prayer?
There is yet another dimension. The initial need in 1830–33 was for new revelation and instruction to Joseph Smith in introducing this dispensation and building up the Church. The JST played a marvelous role in this. From Joseph Smith’s day until the present, it has been giving thousands of readers understanding, insight, and comprehension concerning the gospel and its history upon the earth.
But what of the future? This is a day of great discovery and expansion of knowledge of ancient things. The JST makes some very specific statements about Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, John the Baptist, and Jesus that are not known to be written in any other document. It may well be that these things in the future will testify in a different way to the divine calling of Joseph Smith. Archaeological discoveries that confirm some of the unique historical aspects of the JST could introduce a new role for the book. It may be that apocryphal and archaeological sources will yet corroborate the details of the JST and therefore help testify of the Restoration to an unbelieving world.
Since God is all-powerful, couldn’t he have freed the Israelites from Egyptian bondage without sending all those plagues?
Of course he could have, but he wanted to do more than just free the children of Israel. The plagues were more than just a dramatic way to convince the pharaoh to let the Israelites go—they were to teach the pharaoh, as well as all men, that the God of Israel is the sole God of this earth, that he is all-powerful, that he is sovereign over all, that “there is none like me in all the earth” ( , Jewish convert; special instructor, Brigham Young University; gospel doctrine teacher, Edgemont Ninth Ward, Provo, UtahEx. 9:14), “that my name may be declared throughout all the earth” (Ex. 9:16).
The plagues were also to be a special sign to the people of Israel—to help them remember God throughout all their generations, “that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son’s son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the Lord” (Ex. 10:2, see also Ps. 78:43–53; Ps. 105:25–36).
In the days of the exodus from Egypt, only the children of Israel believed in the one true and living God whose power extended over the whole earth. Other people made gods of the sun, the moon, the sea, the wind, the mountains, the rivers, the woods, fire, and other forces and elements of nature, as well as considering certain animals sacred. The plagues were a divine protest against this idolatry: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord” (Ex. 12:12).
Through the plagues, God showed his power over all the principal gods that were worshipped in the Nile valley, discrediting them and their presumed power. The God of Israel showed himself to be God over life, health, property, elements, and agriculture. Through the plagues, every Egyptian god and every sign of the gods became a horror and a torment to the people. And every conceivable part of Egyptian existence was affected.
With the first plague (see Ex. 7:17–25) the Lord turned to blood the precious, life-giving water of the Nile, which the Egyptians deified and worshipped as the source of fertility in their desert country. “In this,” the Lord said, “thou shalt know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7:17). But it was more than just the water from the Nile that turned to blood—all water, whether in rivers, streams, pools, ponds, or vessels of wood or stone, turned to blood. As a result, all the fish, a principal source of food, died.
In the second plague (see Ex. 8:2–14) frogs, which were considered a divine sign of fruitfulness, became a horror by overrunning everything, including bedchambers, ovens, and kneading troughs.
The third plague (see Ex. 8:16–18) affected every man and beast with lice (or sand flies or gnats), proving that God’s finger could touch everyone, no matter who they were.
In the fourth plague (see Ex. 8:21–32) the fly or beetle—sacred emblem of the sun-god, Ra—became a torment by swarming the Egyptians and their possessions and ruining the land.
The fifth plague (see Ex. 9:1–7) brought a devastating murrain upon all the cattle in the field, killing many Egyptian animals including rams, sheep, goats, and bulls, which were worshipped as sacred.
The sixth plague (see Ex. 9:8–11) afflicted every Egyptian and all remaining beasts with painful boils, showing that Israel’s God even had power over personal health.
The seventh plague (see Ex. 9:18–26) was a hailstorm, accompanied by thunder and fire that destroyed every Egyptian man and beast that were in the field—broke every tree and every vine, and destroyed all flax (a staple product) and barley.
The eighth plague (see Ex. 10:4–19) was a horde of locusts—the land was darkened, and every remaining herb, fruit, or green thing was destroyed.
The ninth plague (see Ex. 10:21–23) was three days of darkness—probably an eclipse of the sun—that directly discredited the power of the Egyptian sun-god Ra. This darkness was so thick that it could actually be felt, and the people couldn’t see each other. But, as before, the Israelites were exempt: “all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings” (Ex. 10:23).
The tenth and last plague was the smiting of the firstborn of all Egyptians, man and beast (see Ex. 12:12, 23, 29–30). It made no difference if one was rich or poor, high-ranking or lowly, master or servant, “there was not a house [of the Egyptians] where there was not one dead” (Ex. 12:30). So powerful was Israel’s God that life itself was subject to him.
Through these ten plagues, every aspect of Egyptian life was touched directly or indirectly. Everything the Egyptians considered divine—either on earth or in heaven—had been discredited. It was obvious that these terrible plagues weren’t mere coincidence: Moses announced most of them before they happened, and Pharaoh pleaded with Moses to intreat God for relief. It was clear that while the Egyptians had suffered because of the plagues, the Israelites had been protected.
But most important, the Egyptian gods had been impotent in the battle with the God of Israel: not only were they unable to help the Egyptians or retaliate against the Israelites, but they, themselves, had been mocked, destroyed, or overpowered. Only the God of Israel could bring good or harm; only he was all-powerful.
But, of great importance to us, the plagues of God aren’t just history; they are also prophesied for the future. Just as God sent plagues before redeeming Israel from the physical bondage of Egyptian slavery, so will he again send plagues in the last days before Israel is redeemed from spiritual bondage. “Plagues shall go forth,” said the Lord, referring to the last days, “and they shall not be taken from the earth until I have completed my work” (D&C 84:97). At that time, “the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn … [and] be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God” (D&C 87:6). There will be bloodshed, the sword, famine, earthquakes, thunder, lightning, sore affliction, flies, maggots, pestilence, plague, vengeance, devouring fire, overflowing rain, great hailstones, brimstones (see D&C 29:18; D&C 87:6; D&C 97:26; Ezek. 38:22).
But here, again, God will not show his power just for the sake of showing power: he will send plagues worldwide in the last days for the same reasons he sent them anciently in Israel—that “all shall know me” (D&C 84:98).
The lesson to be learned from the plagues is that the earth is the Lord’s. God is the ruler of all nature: of water, land, living creatures, light, darkness, hail, wind, and fire. It is God who created “heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (D&C 133:39). The plagues that preceded the exodus and that will come in the latter days teach us and all mankind that God is supreme over all. “Thus will I magnify myself, and sanctify myself,” the Lord said; “and I will be known in the eyes of many nations, and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 38:23).