I read this interesting exchange between the Israelites, Moses, and the Lord this morning on my scripture study. It involved at heart what I would call a “democratic” rebellion against Moses as the representative of the Lord, and it had some pretty harsh consequences (I just include excerpts here, but a few people get swallowed up by the earth, a few hundred are scorched to death by fire, and over ten thousand die in a plague). Here’s the basic exchange:
The people confronted Moses:
Now Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi…confronted Moses. They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?…
“Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us? It is clear you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come!”
“You Levites have gone too far!... Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? He has allowed you to approach him, and all your brother Levites with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well! Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against the Lord. What is Aaron that you rail against him?”
The Lord threatens to kill everyone:
“Get away from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.”
Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, put fire on it from the altar and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them. For wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” So Aaron took it as Moses had ordered, and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people.
The harshness and swift response the Lord deals isn’t out of place in the Old Testament, but I don’t want to focus on that here. Rather, I wanted to focus on the dual role Moses plays here, and the different tone he takes in different contexts. When responding to the people’s rebellion, he represents the Lord, expresses condemnation for their actions, and is more a symbol of justice. But when he is alone or speaking to the Lord, he acts much differently, apparently being more understanding of his people, and representing mercy. In this case, he makes atonement for his people saving them from a much greater destruction, and becomes a representation of mercy. It reminded me of the discussion of this dual role of prophets in Abraham Heschel’s treatise The Prophets:
The prophet is not only a censurer and accuser, but also a defender and consoler. Indeed, the attitude he takes to the tension that obtains between God and the people is characterized by a dichotomy. In the presence of God he takes the part of the people. In the presence of the people he takes the part of God.
This dual aspect, I feel, is definitely present in Mormonism, but I feel we more often represent the top-down approach rather than the bottom-up approach. Take, for example, this quote from a talk by Lynn G. Robbins entitled “Which Way Do You Face?” He is actually referring to the intermediary role of the Seventy between the prophets and the people rather than that of the prophet himself:
“Which way do you face?” President Boyd K. Packer surprised me with this puzzling question while we were traveling together on my very first assignment as a new Seventy. Without an explanation to put the question in context, I was baffled. “A Seventy,” he continued, “does not represent the people to the prophet but the prophet to the people. Never forget which way you face!” It was a powerful lesson.
This comes, of course, from the fear of the spread of the notion that the Church is a democracy. And yes. As Mormons, we acknowledge the central role of prophets, and we sustain them as representatives of God. But while the flow of information may be one way, the flow of love is two-directional.
I think we could benefit from emphasizing this a little more in our discourse. As I said, it is there. I think of the Prophet Joseph Smith petitioning the Lord in Liberty Jail:
How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?
I think of Spencer W. Kimball and the Twelve petitioning the Lord on behalf of the black members of the Church. And I think of the reminders in conference of how much the Lord’s prophet loves us. Recalling these examples makes me almost retract my statement that we don’t hear this enough. But I think it is something profound that, to me, makes the role of the prophet all the more profound.
Image: Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem by Rembrandt