Scripture comes in its cultural packaging

Scripture comes in its cultural packaging

In 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, Paul expresses his frustration with the division amongst the Saints. He says:

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:13-17 NIV)

In other words, “I am so glad I didn’t baptize any of you guys! Except Crispus and Gaius. Oh yeah, and the house of Stephen. But outside of those guys, I can’t really remember who I baptized!”

In other words, God allowed Paul, a human being, to make statements regarding his human frailty or lack of remembering, and it is in our scripture. Did God know who Paul baptized? Of course he did. But God allowed Paul to express his point in the midst of the human condition or circumstance of his fallen mind. Welcome to scripture. Welcome to the messiness of scripture – something that shows that scripture can be both human and divine at the same time, what some scholars call a “God breathed” text. 1

The case of Symonds Ryder

Symonds Ryder’s grave marker. Note the spelling of the word “disciple”

Symonds Rider came to Ohio in 1814, living in the area when in 1831, he heard the testimony of Ezra Booth. Ezra Booth’s testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith so impressed Symonds that he sought an audience with the Prophet in Kirtland. He joined the Church in early June 1831. His ordination as an elder occurred on 6 June, and two days later he was called to the ministry in the place of Heman Basset (see D&C 52:37). His ministerial call was signed by the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. According to historian James B. Holm, “both in the letter he received and in the official commission to preach, however, his name was spelled R-i-d-e-r, instead of R-y-d-e-r. ..He thought if the ‘Spirit’ through which he had been called to preach could err in the matter of spelling his name, it might have erred in calling him to the ministry as well.” 2 Another historian claimed that when Joseph Smith “misspelled” Ryder’s first name Simon instead of Symonds, Ryder lost faith in him, feeling that if the Lord really did speak to Smith, he would spell his name “correctly.” 3

Church History is complicated, and sometimes we may simplify the reasons why others leave the church. In doing this, we may have a tendency to minimize the complex reasons why people lose faith today. I believe one of the many reasons people lose faith today is due to their expectations of scripture and leaders of the Church. The Church is both human and it is divine. When Ryder was confronted with the humanity of the Church, his spiritual experiences with divinity may have taken a back seat. Doubts grew. Suspicion of those in the church grew to a point where perhaps it influenced how he saw others in the church. Ryder’s commission with the misspelling of his name took place in June 1831 and may account for his not going to Missouri, but he did not leave the church until Ezra Booth’s return from traveling to Missouri and a short mission in September. In the meantime, Ryder became concerned about other developments. In a letter to A.S. Hayden he wrote:

“But when they [Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon] went to Missouri to lay the foundation of the splendid city of Zion, and also of the temple, they left their papers behind. This gave their new converts an opportunity to become acquainted with the internal arrangement of their church, which revealed to them the horrid fact that a plot was laid to take their property from them and place it under the control of Joseph Smith the prophet. This was too much for the Hiramites, and they left the Mormonites faster than they had ever joined them, and by fall the Mormon church in Hiram was a very lean concern.” 4

Symonds Ryder had questions about revelation, the fallibility of prophets, and property as it related to consecration. He expressed concerns that he may lose his property in his letter to A.S. Hayden. The issues of Symonds Ryder are complicated, but it is safe to say that his issue understanding the humanity and divinity of scriptures and prophets played a role in his loss of faith.

There are other places where we see this in scripture as we shall see!

God as a Mighty Warrior

One of the metaphors for God in scripture is God as the divine warrior. He is the one who is fighting on our behalf to bring deliverance, rescue, and salvation from the perils we face in life. This was how people in the Ancient Near East viewed their gods. To expect otherwise in the Biblical texts would be to expect something that these people would not understand. God speaks to man after the manner of his language, according to his understanding (see D&C 1:24). When Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry ground while pharaoh and company were destroyed in the Red Sea they sang a song of victory called the “The Song of Moses”, or “The Song of the Sea” which scholars today say may be the oldest piece of literature in the Bible. 5

They sang,

“I will sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
The horse and its rider
he has hurled into the sea.

The LORD is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.

The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.

“Your right hand, O LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, O LORD,
shattered the enemy

In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.”
(Exodus 15:1-7)

In Deuteronomy 32 we read that God is a mighty warrior that will whet his sword with blood:

If I whet my glittering sword, and mine hand take hold on judgment; I will render vengeance to mine enemies, and will reward them that hate me. I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy. Rejoice, O ye nations, with his people: for he will avenge the blood of his servants, and will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people. (Deuteronomy 32:41-43)

God fights the Chaos Dragon in Ancient Near Eastern Texts (including the Bible)

In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)

For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.

Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers. (Psalms 74:12-15)

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein. (Psalms 104:24-26)

Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord?  (Job 41:1)

Sometimes the authors of the Hebrew Bible use the dragon as a symbol for certain nations, and one such nation personified as a dragon was Egypt:

In the tenth year, in the tenth month, in the twelfth day of the month, the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,

Son of man, set thy face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him, and against all Egypt:

Speak, and say, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself.

But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause the fish of thy rivers to stick unto thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers, and all the fish of thy rivers shall stick unto thy scales.

And I will leave thee thrown into the wilderness, thee and all the fish of thy rivers: thou shalt fall upon the open fields; thou shalt not be brought together, nor gathered: I have given thee for meat to the beasts of the field and to the fowls of the heaven.

And all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the Lord, because they have been a staff of a reed to the house of Israel.  (Ezekiel 29:1-6)

John Day, in his book “God’s Conflict with the Dragon and The Sea” discussed the ancient tradition that Baal (the storm god of the Canaanite pantheon) fought with the dragon and the sea. Day then showed how there were traditions of this happening in the Hebrew Bible, using Psalms 77 as an example of this tradition from Canaanite religion influencing the traditions about Yahweh.

Psalms 77:16-20 says:

The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.

The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: thine arrows also went abroad.

The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook.

Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.

Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Exodus 15 has some interesting things happening in the text, with God fighting the waters of the Sea as well as a reference to monolatry. From Exodus 15:8-11 we read the following:

And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.

The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.

Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?

Isaiah 30 refers to Rahab, or the dragon, identifying this dragon with Egypt:

Egypt’s promises are worthless! Therefore, I call her Rahab–the Harmless Dragon. (Isaiah 30:7, New Living Translation)

Even Egypt, whose help is vain and empty. Therefore, I have called her “Rahab who has been exterminated.” (Isaiah 30:7 New American Standard Bible)

Isaiah 51 discusses Rahab as well in Isaiah 51:9-11:

Awake, awake, arm of the Lord,
clothe yourself with strength!
Awake, as in days gone by,
as in generations of old.
Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,
who pierced that monster through?
Was it not you who dried up the sea,
the waters of the great deep,
who made a road in the depths of the sea
so that the redeemed might cross over?
Those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 51:9-11, NIV)

We see this imagery repeated again in Habakkuk:

Were you angry with the rivers, Lord?
Was your wrath against the streams?
Did you rage against the sea
when you rode your horses
and your chariots to victory?
You uncovered your bow,
you called for many arrows.
You split the earth with rivers;
the mountains saw you and writhed.
Torrents of water swept by;
the deep roared
and lifted its waves on high.
You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the great waters. (Habakkuk 3:8-10, 15, NIV)

How enemies were depicted in the Biblical Narrative and in the Ancient Near East

There are many accounts in the Bible where the enemies of Israel are depicted as strange creatures, part human and part beast. These representations of enemies were common in the writings of the Ancient Near East. Sometimes the enemies of Israel were referred to as Rephaim.

The Hebrew word Rephaim has two distinct meanings: first, in poetic literature it refers to departed spirits whose dwelling place was Sheol. It is a figurative description of the dead, similar to our concept of a ghost. The second meaning of Rephaim is “a mighty people with tall stature who lived in Canaan.”

The first reference to the Rephaim is Genesis 14:5, when the Rephaim, Zuzim and Emim people were defeated in a battle with Kedorlaomer and his allies. When the Israelites first approached the Promised Land after the Exodus from Egypt, they were afraid to enter the land because it was filled with “giants” (the word used in Numbers 13:33 is Nephilim), the sons of Anak. Giants were widely scattered through Canaan, but were known by different local names, including Rephaim, Zuzim, Emim, and Anakim. Deuteronomy 2:20–21 says the Rephaim were strong and tall, like the Anakites. Og, king of Bashan, was described as the last of the Rephaim in his land (Deuteronomy 3:11), and his bed was thirteen feet long and six feet wide.

The Septuagint uses the Greek words gigas and titanes (the source of the English titan) to translate these and other verses, so the ancient Jews certainly considered them to be giants. They are described generally as being between 7 and 10 feet tall and are called “mighty men.” The Egyptians wrote about giants who lived in the land of Canaan, and the folklore of other nations is full of such references. The peoples of the ancient Near East accepted the presence of giants in their literature, and the Bible presents them as enemies who were destroyed either by the judgment of God or in battle with men. 6

The idea of people existing outside the bounds of order is part of the cognitive environment of the ancient world. In Assyrian and Babylonian literature, the word used to describe them is ERIN-man-da, or Umman-manda. In the Babylonian Cuthaean Legend of Naram-Suen, the Umman-manda are depicted as birdlike, subhuman monsters, the offspring of the chaos monster Tiamat. Besides their appearance and destructive tendencies, they also exhibit deviant behavior.

Assyrian descriptions of the Umman-manda include a disdain for treaties and a habit of breaking oaths. Additionally, A Sumerian document called the Marriage of Martu describes liminal peoples as follows:

“Their hands are destructive and their features are those of monkeys; he is one who eats what Nanna (a goddess) forbids and does not show reverence. They never stop roaming about…; they are an abomination to the god’s dwellings. Their ideas are confused; they cause only disturbance. He is clothed in sack-leather… lives in a tent, exposed to wind and rain, and cannot properly recite prayers. He lives in the mountains, and ignores the places of the gods, digs up truffles in the foothills, does not know how to bend the knee, and eats raw flesh. He has no house during his life, and when he dies he will not be carried to a burial place.” 7

I cannot help but compare the way that the description of the enemies in “The Marriage of Martu” relates to the ways that the Nephites describe their enemies in the Book of Mormon, another Ancient Near East document. See Mosiah 9:12, 2 Nephi 5:24, Alma 3:5, 43:20 for a comparison.


  1. Gregory Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2, Fortress Press, 2017.
  2. James B. Holm, ed., Portage Heritage (Portage, Ohio: The Portage County Historical Society, 1957), p. 171.
  3. Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants, p. 256-259.
  4. Symonds Ryder, “Letter to A. S. Hayden,” February 1, 1868, cited in Hayden, Early History of the Disciples, p. 220-221.
  5. Learn with Torah, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver, p. 137. See also: The Jewish Study Bible, p. 127. It says: The language and style of the poem (The Song of the Sea) are archaic and share many features with Ugaritic poetry in the Late Bronze Age, suggesting that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible. Richard Friedman, in his excellent work The Bible With Sources Revealed on page 144 writes, “This poem, known as the Song of the Sea (or the Song of Miriam), is an independent, old composition, possibly the oldest composition in the Hebrew Bible.
  6. Karel Van Der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter Van Der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible.
  7. Marriage of Martu, lines 127-41. See also: John Walton, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, p. 138-139.

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives:
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2 Responses to Scripture comes in its cultural packaging

  1. Pingback: The Messiness of Scripture | LDS Scripture Teachings

  2. Pingback: Resheph – God of War, Pestilence, and the Underworld in the Hebrew Bible | LDS Scripture Teachings

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