The Exodus and the Book of Mormon

I recently came across a blog of Zelph, who is struggling with some tough issues in Mormonism.  I also posted a comment in The Milk Ceiling about the Exodus.  I thought I would address some of these issues.

Too often, I think we have a concrete view of religion.  Either something is true, or it is not.  When we learn things that don’t conform to the ways we believe they should, we lose testimony.  This is true of all religions.

To put it in terms of science, many of us are familiar with the basics of gravity.  We understand the basic laws of motion (known as Newtonian Physics, named after Sir Isaac Newton.)  However, when things behave in ways we don’t understand, new methods of understanding need to be developed.  Albert Einstein came up with some laws of motion regarding particles that do not follow the laws of Newtonian Physics, and particles instead follow Quantum Physics.

I think religion in general needs to get more sophisticated in its analysis.  I really enjoy an old series that used to be on A&E television, called “Mysteries of the Bible.”  In these 45 minute long documentaries, the producers discuss archeaological and theological perspectives on the Bible.  They do not shy away from controversy, but generally try to promote that the Bible is generally reliable.

The Exodus is one such example.  By using the numbers listed in the Bible, there were 700,000 to 1,000,000 Israelites that would have travelled from Egypt through the Red Sea.  Rabbi David Wolpe, who is frequently interviewed on the Mysteries of the Bible series,  in 2001 created an international uproar when he said the Exodus didn’t happen the way the bible says.  There is absolutely no archaeological evidence of the exodus.  Given the large group of people, there should be some sort of evidence–they would have at minimum left trash along the way, if not camp sites.

National Geographic recently showed a special on the Exodus, and listed no less than at least 13 theories on the possible route traveled by the Israelites for the Exodus.   There are theories about volcanoes helping part the Red Sea, underwater land bridges, great winds, but no archaeological evidence.  Personally, one of my favorite videos about this subject is “The Exodus Revealed” by Questar Entertainment.  They make a case for an underwater land bridge in the Gulf of Aqaba (in the Red Sea), and may have found some Egyptian chariot wheels underwater.  Unfortunately, they were not given permission to take any of this round-wheel shaped coral to fully test their theory.  They also make a case that Mount Sanai, where Moses recieved the 10 commandments, is actually located in Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi government has a fenced off area, called Jebel-Musa (meaning “Mount of Moses”) and will not allow any one to access the site.

This lack of evidence reminds me of the Book of Mormon archeaological problems.  Many people think Joseph copied parts of the Bible, copied a book called “View of the Hebrews”, or a myriad of other explanations to discredit the Book of Mormon.  I find all of these theories intriguing.  Zelph mentioned that Joseph copied the mistranslations of the King James Bible into the Book of Mormon.  This is certainly a thought-provoking problem.  But to me, this is where we only need to learn more.

Just because there is no evidence of the Exodus or the BoM, does that mean it didn’t happen?

Sodom and Gomorrah were thought to be mythical cities, until scientists recently discovered them.  The Gospel of Judas was thought to be lost, until it turned up in a safety deposit box in New York within the last 10 years.  We’re just one discovery away from proving the Exodus, or the Book of Mormon really happened.  However, even if evidence is found, that is not the end of the dilemma.

For example, the city of Jericho has been located.  It appears walls did fall, and the city was also burned.  Carbon dating shows the city to be dated roughly 400 years differently than mentioned in the Bible.  It lies in an area prone to earthquakes.  Perhaps the Isrealites got lucky, and marched around the city 7 times, and the walls fell down by an earthquake, or perhaps God did it.  Does this prove or disprove the Bible?  It all depends on your point of view.

To me, Jericho proves the Bible, but the Bible is not infallible.  I think the Book of Mormon is not infallible either.  I think this whole notion of “It’s 100% true or 100% false” to be a bad line of logic.  To go back to my earlier physics logic, particles follow quantum physics, while most everything else follows Newtonian physics.  Newtonian physics isn’t 100% right or 100% wrong.  We need to be more sophisticated in our views of scripture, and allow for human errors to creep into scripture.  Jericho existed, and perhaps there is an explanation for why it dates improperly according to the Biblical record.


6 comments on “The Exodus and the Book of Mormon

  1. It seems to me that Mormonism actually changes and adapts a great deal as time goes by. But within the church there is the notion that truth is eternal and never changing. And so when something does change, like blacks and the priesthood for example, it makes you wonder what else is not an eternal practice. I think if more people would accept the mutability of truth or at least practice, we would be better off. After all, what is the point having ongoing revelation if there is nothing new to be revealed or no changes to be made? Sometimes I think the church has changed so much that the religion I live is related to that of my communal polygamist ancestors in name only. I don’t really have a problem with change. I do however have a problem with seeing the changes and feeling completely out in left field because others don’t or won’t acknowledge them.

  2. Nice to get a shout-out.

    I think that what has been most difficult is that we are taught growing up in the church that it is 100% true, and everything in the BoM and the Bible are 100% literal.

    I have said before that a lack of evidence does not prove something never existed. I am open to the possibility that the BoM happened, but we are faced with the problem that so far there is no evidence to support it.

    I understand that the Bible faces similar criticisms, but I know very little on the subject.

    I think that having a black and white view will only lead to disappointment. My wife has always had a more “liberal” view of Mormonism and oddly enough, the challenging things don’t seem to bother her too much, or not as much as me.

    It almost seems that the “it’s either 100% true or it’s 100% false” will only set people up for failure.

    At the very least, I can accept that it is possible that the BoM can be “inspired fiction” for lack of a better term. I believe that the BoM helps people in their lives, but that doesn’t make it a historically accurate account.

  3. Sanford–excellent points. I think many in the church prefer that things do not change. They want stability. But ongoing revelation is the opposite of stability. It is interesting to me that there are so many Mormon offshoots (like FLDS among others) that want to return to the original teachings of Joseph Smith.

    Zelph, I agree that this “100% true or 100% false” does set up people for disillusionment. That is why I reject that “false doctrine”, even when Pres Hinckley recently pronounced it in conference. (But I still love Pres Hinckley, and still think he was a prophet–the best of my lifetime.)

    We need to get more sophisticated in the gospel. Many of us are familiar with the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and then ‘fessing up about it. While this is a great story for children, whether or not it is true, we learn as adults the value of the story, and that there is no need to quibble about whether it is true. I think the same sophistication applies to the scriptures, whether referring to the Bible, Book of Mormon, or even Book of Abraham.

    I’ve done a lot of research on the Bible, and plan to post more topics in the future. Some of these inconsistencies can be just as unsettling as problems with mormon scripture, but that doesn’t diminish their value in teaching correct principles.

  4. Heretic, Sanford, Zelph: I agree with this line of reasoning. I think too frequently, we as Church members become comfortable with our current understanding of scripture and doctrine and begin to “harden” that understanding and feel that our individual interpretation has become eternal doctrine.

    I recently gave my take on this (see here:
    http://meditatingonmormonism.blogspot.com/2008/04/teaching-bread-of-life-sermon.html ), positing that true teaching and learning only comes when we are forced into discomfort and unease. Even the still small voice does violence–it pierces and penetrates. The Lord teaches by calling us and His call intends to draw us out of our security/apathy/comfort and into a relationship of dependence on Him. This violent shifting of world-view is too often frowned-upon in Church contexts.

    I’m curious, Heretic, as to what kind of sophistication you would suggest. Finding ways to present such discomfort in a way that we as Church members welcome is certainly a difficulty many encounter. In the above post on my blog, I make one suggestion, but I’m always interested in expanding my thoughts.

    Anyway–thanks for your insightful post.


  5. Matt, EXCELLENT POST!!! I highly recommend others follow your link.

    You said, Finding ways to present such discomfort in a way that we as Church members welcome is certainly a difficulty many encounter.

    Very true. How do we teach sophistication to church members? I don’t know. This is really a problem with sociology, of which I am not an expert.

    The problem is that Jesus was revolutionary, Joseph was too, so was Muhammed, Buddha, and others. Let’s talk about Joseph Smith for a moment.

    Joseph shook people out of their comfort level as you suggest. He encouraged others to do so as well. The problem resulted when church members began to have revelations that challenged Joseph’s authority. So, authority immediately became an issue. Of course Joseph, and most followers, felt that Joseph’s revelations were the best, and rejected others. (Of course, you can read about this in D&C, or also get an interesting perspective in Rough Stone Rolling.)

    So, in order for chaos not to rule the day, there needs to be some standardization. Dr Armand Mauss gives some excellent analysis about this subject in http://sunstoneblog.com/2005/09/30/sunstonepodcast-002-the-mormon-struggle-with-assimilation-an-interview-with-armand-mauss/

    (Ok, now you know I’m a real heretic because I am recommending Sunstone.) 🙂

    There is no easy answer. An organization needs to exercise some control over its organization, in order to prevent chaos. Church leaders need to keep people from spouting false doctrine, just as Joseph did. One only needs look at the Lafferty brothers for an example of people who took revelation to unhealthy levels.

    So, for me, it has been easier to discuss these issues on the internet, with like-minded individuals. I really don’t think these topics are necessarily good church material, but there is a big part of me that wishes we could talk about these things at church.

    I think in that podcast (you can download it through iTunes), John Dehlin suggested having an advanced Gospel Doctrine class. I think that is a wonderful idea. The problem arises when church leadership gets concerned that the class wanders into forbidden territory. However, I think that with the proper manuals, an advanced study of the gospel is possible.

    Or, we can continue to find interesting things on the internet, cable tv, etc, like most of us on the bloggernacle do.

  6. The tension inherent between authority and independent thinking does pose challenges. Striking an organizational balance between the two has been an ongoing process. I turn my mind to President Packer’s talk last October about the access we have as members of the Church being the same as the access General Authorities have to revelation. The difference only concerns the sphere of teaching. This talk struck me in part because it seems to make space for the tension you mentioned. Although General Authorities teach the entire church, we as members teach on our own level–and most importantly, we seek learning directly from the Spirit. This “democratizing” thrust was similarly reinforced by the current First Presidency in one of their first letters to the Church wherein they asked members to turn to local leaders for questions of doctrine (which, if unanswered, can be sent ‘up the chain of command’). The leaders of the Church seem to recognize the importance of balancing their ultimate authority on doctrine with our individual ability (and right) to seek out and learn it on our own.

    Long story short, I think the need to teach sophistication only arises gradually after we address the need for authenticity in individual spiritual experiences (see Elder Bednar’s talk a few weeks back about “meaningful prayer”).

    I also would enjoy seeing more instruction about how to delve deeply into scripture so that we can feel the world-view-shifting violence that the Lord’s call brings as we find the revolutionary–even in the familiar.

    Thanks again–this is an enjoyable discussion.


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