Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon, “The Pioneer Tradition and the True Church” ch 12
In this chapter, Nibley discusses the concept of the Church fleeing into the wilderness. The Lord has always separated the righteous from the wicked. Either the righteous or wicked are moved from the other. Here are my thoughts on some of his statements.
“”The desert has always had two aspects, that of refuge and asylum on the one hand, and of trial and tribulation on the other; in both respects it is a place where God segregates and tests his people.”
This is an interesting dual purpose of the wilderness. Yet it is an important one. The harsh conditions force people to trust in the Lord. When Nephi’s bow broke in the wilderness, it meant life or death. Rebellion meant there was no progress, only death. Humble reliance on the Lord was necessary to survive.
But it also separated the group from the sins of the wicked, often found in the cities. Today, we are told by our prophets to turn our home into a safe place, an oasis in the spiritual desert of sin in civilization. We see some move into the city to be a part of the excitement, while others seek to move away, to get away from the rat race.
“Now the idea that this life is a pilgrimage through the desert did not originate with the Christians or even the Jews; it has been the religious memory of the human race from the earliest dispensations of the Gospel. The apocryphal writings are full of it, and the great antiquity of the tradition they report may be judged from Haldar’s study of the oldest known temple texts—those of the Sumerians. The religious activity of the Sumerians centered about a ritual drama that took place at the temples (built for that purpose) at the New Year, celebrating and dramatizing the creation of the world, the fall of man, the redemption and resurrection. The ritual drama began by depicting the original home of man as a Garden of Eden, “a beautiful place, adorned with greenery,” in which the hero, the father of the race, resided; next “the enemies enter the edin [for such the Sumerians called the place], destroying and carrying off the god to another place, also called edin.”4 Edin is thus the world before and also after its transformation, when it becomes a dark and dreary place: “We meet with a kind of ‘exodus’ into the desert as an equivalent to thedescensus ad inferos,” in which man becomes a homeless wanderer in a land of desolation,5 a place not to be confused, however, with the underworld or place of the dead.”
Nibley explains that man becomes an outcast from the evils of civilization (the world). The ancient temple rites of various civilizations (he shows the Sumerian temple/Year rite as an example) display the ancient pattern of the Life cycle. We begin in a pristine place, fall from it, and must find our way back, represented by resurrection and returning into the presence of God. Today, this is perhaps the most important concept we learn in modern LDS temples. As Nibley notes, Eden/Edin is the world where we begin and where we hope to end up. It is an eternal round, which forcefully casts us into the wilderness to wander until we find our way back.
In discussing the Arabs/Bedouins of the desert, Nibley states the desert wanderers learn to be like brothers, with their own code of living.
“Arabs can hardly be blamed for thinking that robbery is the normal form of human economy and making themselves masters of the craft.”
I’m not sure if I fully agree with his sentiments in this sentence, however I recognize the different world view we see in the Arab world. In my Graduate studies in history, I studied the Arab/Israeli conflict, particularly the 1972 Yom Kippur war. I was then in the Air Force, stationed next to Air University, where the Air Force has advanced training for American and foreign officers. In studying the Yom Kippur war, I used papers written by Israeli and Arab officers, some who served in the war. The Israeli papers regarding the war were technical. They discussed strategy and tactics, how Israel was surprised by the invasion, but how they were able to overcome and win. Meanwhile, every Arab officer wrote about the great war they fought with Allah on their side. They spoke of their disgust for Israel, and how they almost won the war, except for the treachery of Israel in using greater technology against them.
This difference in world view is as Nibley notes:
“If the outside world forces itself upon them, the outside world must pay the price; for they know that the only hope of preserving their integrity is to avoid contact with the outside world altogether, even at the risk of appearing morbidly anti-social.”
I’m wondering how Nibley would have phrased that last part in today’s world of Al Qaeda, beheadings, etc.? Still, we see that many Arabs today have that same “morbidly anti-social” attitude against the West and Israel, who (to them) represent the evils of the city/civilization. I must note that while Nibley seems to justify the Arab desert way of thinking, it is not the way Lehi acted or thought in the desert.
“Just as pious Christians have always looked for “letters from heaven” and willingly accepted forgeries when the real article has failed to appear, so Christian communities in every century have made determined attempts to get back to the ways of the wilderness and the wandering, and not hesitated to produce by artificial means the conditions and surroundings necessary to put themselves in a situation resembling that of Israel in the desert of the Exodus.”
Nibley shows that many Jews and Christians have sought to return to the old ways, escaping into the wilderness. The Qumran people, the Rechabites, John the Baptist, ascetic monks, and others have fled the world for desolate places. As the desert disappeared, monasteries were built as deserts within the cities themselves. Over the centuries, Jews have made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Christians to the Holy Land, and Muslims to Mecca. Even today, the LDS Church’s missionary work is based on sending their young sons and daughters on a pilgrimage out into the wilderness of the world to preach the gospel, and call others out of the wicked world. For the LDS, temples are our places of escape from the evils of the world today.