Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. – Deuteronomy 4:2
I thought of blogging on the LDS concept of atonement during Yom Kippur week, but given the centrality of Jesus to any such discussion, I decided to defer to Jewish sensibilities and focus on the Torah instead. My inspiration for this essay came via an email from a Jewish reader who wanted to know in what way modern LDS prophets contribute to Torah interpretation. It’s one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, and it allows me to highlight one significant way in which Jews and Mormons approach scripture from different perspectives.
When reading the Bible, I use a standard Hebrew text and the English-language King James Version (KJV), which is the official Bible of the LDS Church and many Protestant churches. The LDS edition of the KJV, in turn, contains many excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible. Joseph Smith was the first modern Mormon prophet, and he spent years working on the JST (also called the Inspired Version) in order to clarify certain doctrines and offer interesting inspired insights into scripture. The JST was incomplete at the time of his Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. While the JST is not the official Bible of the LDS Church, the translation does offer many interesting biblical insights for Mormons. Here are a few well-known passages in the Torah that are interpreted differently by Mormons:
1) The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In traditional translations of the Book of Exodus (or Shemot, if you prefer), we read that on many occasions God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t let the Israelites leave Egypt, then punished Pharaoh with additional plagues for his stubbornness. By way of contrast, in the JST every mention of the divine hardening of the pharaonic heart is changed to “and Pharaoh hardened his heart.” As a result, Mormons believe that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each plague, making his punishments more just according to our view of a fair God. Whether Mormons have an even more negative image of the biblical Pharaoh than Jews as a result of this JST insight would be an interesting topic for Jewish-LDS discussion groups.
2) Lot’s bizarre proposal to the men of Sodom. In the traditional rendering of the 18th chapter of Genesis, Abraham’s nephew Lot plays host to two (the JST says three) angels in Sodom. The wicked men of the town encircle Lot’s house and demand that he produce his guests so that they can “know” them in a carnal way. A gracious host but terrible father, Lot pleads with the men to have his two virgin daughters instead of the men. In the JST’s version of Lot’s speech to the men of Sodom, he comes off as a protective father who had no intention of betraying his daughters: “Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes; For God will not justify his servant in this thing.”
3) Noah’s selfishness. In Genesis we read that God decided to destroy all flesh on the earth, so He called on a just, righteous man named Noah to build an ark for himself and his family so that they could survive the flood. There is no mention in the Torah of Noah’s efforts to warn others of the dangers to come. In the JST, Mormons read that Noah and his sons “prophesied, and taught the things of God” and “called upon the children of men that they should repent,” all while their lives were being threatened. We also read in the JST that it repented Noah, not the Lord (as stated in Genesis 6:6), that man had been created on the earth.
4) Alas, the JST was published too late for the residents of colonial Salem, but Mormons believe that it was murderers, not witches, who deserved the death penalty as required in Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” changed in the JST to “Thou shalt not suffer a murderer to live”).
5) While most Mormons would probably join with Jewish thinkers like Dennis Prager in praising the Torah requirement that true justice requires that the poor not be privileged in their disputes (Exodus 23:3 – “Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause”), the JST substitutes “wicked” for “poor” in this verse, clarifying for Mormons the need to prevent the wicked from prevailing. I’m sure that Jews would agree with this sentiment, if not with the change itself.
Mormons believe that the Hebrew Bible is God’s word as far as it has been translated correctly and preserved throughout the centuries, and we view the Torah as an inspired spiritual and secular history of ancient Israel. In addition, like the ancient Israelites, we rely on modern-day prophets to interpret scriptures authoritatively for us. As the Jewish world begins the reading of the Torah once again this month, I wish all of my Jewish readers a chatimah tova in the book of life for the coming year.
I will be making presentations on Mormonism in Los Angeles at Sinai Temple (dialogue with Rabbi David Wolpe, Oct 18th @ 7:30 p.m.) and Temple Isaiah (dialogue with Rabbi Zoë Klein, Oct 24th @ 6:00 p.m.). The public is invited.