2 Nephi 3 tweet: L speaks 2 J. L from JofE. JofE prophesied of JS. JS will be like Moses & deliver Israel. JS to bring 4th BoM as a cry from the dust.

In 2 Nephi 3, Lehi recounts the words of Joseph of Egypt in which he prophesies of a latter-day seer, i.e. Joseph Smith:

A seer shall the Lord my God raise up, who shall be a choice seer unto the fruit of my loins. (2 Ne 3:6)

Joseph goes on to liken the latter-day seer to Moses, of whom he also prophesied:

And he shall be great like unto Moses, whom I have said I would raise up unto you, to deliver my people, O house of Israel. (2 Ne 3:9)

Taken together with 1 Ne 22:20–21 – a prophecy of Christ in which He is likened unto Moses – these prophecies outline three key figures in world history whom God would “raise up”. They stand as pillars upon which the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant is built. Long before Christ came Moses, establishing Judaism; then there was Christ Himself, establishing Christianity; and long after Christ came Joseph Smith, establishing Mormonism. An interesting succession of Abrahamic religions is laid out in these prophecies.

As in a few previous posts, rather than look at the text of any verse in too much detail, as this is probably the most explicit prophecy concerning Joseph Smith contained in the Book of Mormon, I thought I’d use this post to lay out some reflections on the latter-day seer.

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a grain of mustard. When it is planted it is less than all other seeds, yet it grows to be greater than all other herbs and birds nest in its branches (see Mark 4:30–32). On the face of it, Jesus seems to be saying that from small beginnings the kingdom of God will become great. But there is more to this parable than first meets the eye. Why use mustard? Why not make the point using an acorn and an oak tree? Why not symbolise the kingdom of God with a great tree like a cedar of Lebanon, used elsewhere in the Bible to symbolise greatness (see Ezek 31:3)? Why would Jesus use a shrub?

In fact, mustard is more like a weed, and a rather hazardous one as well. I think Jesus’ point is that the kingdom of God is not what you’re expecting. If you’re expecting something that’s grand and glorious by worldly measures you’re going to be disappointed, in fact you’re going to miss its coming by looking for something that it isn’t. Jesus was speaking to a tradition that equated greatness with the mighty kings and empires of Israel’s mythic past. That’s why Israel missed the kingdom when it came. And it’s why they missed the coming of the Messiah – the king – who revealed the kingdom. Furthermore, to the Palestinian peasant farmers to whom Jesus was speaking, the nesting birds of the parable would have been a threatening pest. Subversively, Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a wild and unruly shrub filled with annoying pests. Hardly what Jews struggling under the yoke of Roman rule were hoping for.

So what does this have to do with Joseph Smith? I think as Mormons, at times some of us may have been guilty of expecting a prophet of God to look the way the first-century Jews expected the kingdom of God to look – mighty and strong and practically flawless. At times we pay lip service to prophetic fallibility – we grant Joseph his lack of education, his youthful foibles, and perhaps some minor indiscretions. But we don’t imagine that can mean he would be guilty of egregious sin, that he could have had anger, lust or vengeful motivations lodging in his soul like bird-pests nesting in a mustard bush. Today, some speak about a crisis of faith. But I think the reality for many is that what they are experiencing is a crisis of expectations. Their expectations of how prophets and other leaders should act is unravelling and that can be a painful process. But by expecting or looking for the wrong type of prophet we may have missed what God is trying to teach us. If we have eyes to see, the unravelling of our expectations can reveal more of the character of God, of how He works through His prophets, and by extension how He can work with us. In his book Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller puts it this way:

While it is scary to think that God works through weak, partial, and limited mortals like us, the only thing scarier would be thinking that he doesn’t.

It’s a false dilemma to claim that either God works through flawless people or God doesn’t work at all. The gospel isn’t a celebration of God’s power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God’s willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren’t. To demand that church leaders, past or present, show us only a mask of angelic pseudo-perfection is to deny the gospel’s most basic claim: that God’s grace works through our weakness. We need prophets, not idols. Our prophets and leaders will not turn out to be who you want them to be. They are not, in fact, even what God might want them to be. But they are real and God really can, nonetheless, work through their imperfections to extend his perfect love.

Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to only like the same things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures certainly are as well. If, as the bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith’s clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s strong-armed experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith’s mental illness.1

As Miller suggests, it can be scary to accept this version of prophets – men who are more like mustard bushes than Lebanon cedars. But I think it’s scary for a different reason than perhaps Miller is suggesting. I think it’s scary because if God can move mountains using weak and flawed prophets, perhaps He expects to do the same through us. Perhaps it is more comfortable to imagine prophets are set apart from the rest of us, and that therefore God doesn’t expect of us what He expects of them. But if prophets are ordinary just like we are, maybe God is trying to tell us we can do what they do. Perhaps, as Marianne Williamson suggested (and made famous by Nelson Mandela), “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” In his seminal biography of Joseph Smith, Richard Bushman paints the following evocative image:

In a log schoolhouse on a hill in a forested countryside, plain people of little education and much zeal sit before him [Joseph Smith] on slab benches. He is one of them, an ordinary man among ordinary men. He speaks of his visions and their possibilities, trying to invest them with power and intelligence beyond his capacity to describe. They listen transfixed, puzzled, and sometimes fearful. . . . Can they break mountains and divide the seas? Can they put the armies of nations at defiance? Sometimes they are uncertain. Sometimes they burn with perfect certainty. They feel their lives are being elevated, their persons empowered. The concerns of farms, shops, and families drop away, and they dedicate their lives to the work.2

Truly, “praise to the man who communed with Jehovah.”

Next week’s reading: 2 Nephi 4–5

  1. Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon, pp. 47–48
  2. Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, pp. 161