This past Sunday, a youth speaker was asked to give a talk on the Be One youth event given by President Nelson. As asked by the President of the Church, I had also been participating in the social media fast that week, but I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the entire broadcast. My interest was piqued when she mentioned the talk by Sister Nelson on the gathering of Israel. To illustrate the reality of the gathering of Israel, Sister Nelson shared an experience from her visit to Russia:
While President Nelson met with priesthood leaders, I had the privilege of meeting with nearly 100 of our sisters. I love our Russian sisters. They are spectacular! When I stepped to the pulpit to speak, I found myself saying something I’d never anticipated. I said to the women: “I’d like to get to know you by lineage. Please stand as the tribe of Israel that represents the lineage declared in your patriarchal blessing is spoken.”
“Benjamin?” A couple of women stood. “Dan?” A couple more. “Reuben?” A few more stood. “Naphtali?” More stood. As the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were announced—from Asher to Zebulun—and as the women stood, we were all amazed with what we were witnessing, feeling, and learning. How many of the twelve tribes of Israel do you think were represented in that small gathering of fewer than 100 women on that Saturday in Moscow? Eleven! Eleven of the twelve tribes of Israel were represented in that one room! The only tribe missing was that of Levi. I was astonished. It was a spiritually moving moment for me.
I haven’t paid much attention to my own lineage assigned through my patriarchal blessing, but this time, this talk was like a little snag that caught my mind. I had just been reading Planet Narnia in which C. S. Lewis tried to capture the essence of each planet in the Ptolemaic universe and used it as a symbol of the divine character. I thought perhaps that the twelve tribes of Israel could also be used as such a system of symbols. I have read the Old Testament before, but I felt like the references to the individual tribes was rather scanty. Admittedly out of laziness (I tell myself I don’t want to reinvent the wheel) I looked to see if there were any books with the intent of fleshing out the character of the twelve tribes. This one was one of two that I settled on. The book starts out with a premise that I felt nicely aligned with the unique aspect of LDS liturgy, the designation of lineage:
I am positive that at some point, each of us will be able to identify with one or more of the tribes I talk about. We will find ourselves in a situation similar to a particular tribe and say, “Hey, I know what Judah must have felt!” Or we will say, “I’m just going through what Reuben went through.”
The book was written by a pastor in India, and he wrote the book based upon a series of sermons he gave on the Twelve Tribes. The book is mostly devotional in nature, and in this respect I found the book a little wanting. To focus on the positives, the book is an excellent summary of the scriptural references to each of the Twelve Tribes, which is one aspect I was looking for. He also includes an alternate translation of the Bible, The Message, that helps clarify some of the more seemingly arcane passages. But I would have appreciated a historian’s touch to some of the passages that would move beyond the blind this-is-how-we-can-apply-it-directly-to-our-lives approach. I mean, some of the stories of the twelve tribes are pretty gruesome. Judah accidentally sleeps with his daughter-in-law when he mistakes her for a prostitute, and when a Phinehas, a Levite, catches a fellow priest defiling the temple by having intercourse with a woman, he puts a spear through them both while they are in the very act. The convenient little lesson from this episode applied directly to your modern day life is: “Once again it was a Levite who did not hesitate to stand up for God.” From this horrific scene, a convenient gospel principle tied with a bow. I think this ultimately does damage to the application when we fail to engage with the historical complexity, and just try to mine the strip mine the scriptures for inspirational tidbits.
Additionally, the devotional nature of the book began to feel sickly sweet to me: not a lot of spiritual substance, something that a firm rock that you could build yourself on. It is mostly formulae of the pattern “If you do this, then God will bless you”– and most of the blessings he mentions are money just falling into his lap just when he needed it His list of to-dos at the end of each chapter are all alliterative (e.g. meditate, maintain, manifest, master, model). He develops a persecution complex too whenever someone seems to oppose his righteous quest to convert all of India (“People have tried constantly to sabotage my life and ministry, but God has always been there, protecting, providing, and proving his faithfulness.“) The majority of his examples are from his time as a minister, which in and of themselves are amazing: setting out to found his own congregation in a new area with only a few rupees to spare. But each example is a miracle of gigantic proportions: we couldn’t pay the cement guy, so we wrote him a check for 40,000 even though we couldn’t pay for it, and a new family came and joined our congregation that day, and happened to donate 40,000 rupees (another story includes him miraculously finding a way to circumnavigate the law of cutting down mango trees so they could build their new church building). It equates to the Mormon tithing miracle stories where a source of money comes after they sacrifice by choosing to pay their tithing. This approach to me ultimately reduces God to a vending machine of sorts, and doesn’t help those who are wrestling like Job did. It reminded me of another talk on Sunday when a brother said, ‘I’m sorry, I just have to say it: I live the gospel selfishly because I want the blessings. I know that if I keep the commandments, the Lord will bless me.” This is a good first step, and if it brings someone to the gospel, I am glad. But it doesn’t feel like the water from which if we drink we will never thirst again.
I did like his attempts to capture the essence or quality of the Twelve Tribes, which I will summarize as:
Reuben: Instability and two-mindedness
Simeon: Anger and capriciousness
Levi: Courageous and uncompromising
Judah: Repentant and responsible
Zebulun: Acceptance and cooperation
Issachar: Idleness and wasted potential
Dan: Crafty and unprincipled
Gad: Trusting and victorious
Asher: Confidence in God, blessedness
Naphtali: Gentleness, words of blessing
Joseph: Dependence on God, blessedness
Benjamin: Hardheadedness, refuge
It was a good start on the topic of the Twelve Tribes, and I hope I can find a few more thorough sources eventually to help flesh out some more ideas.