Seeking Smooth Things

This is a guest post by Reid Litchfield.


The Pesher Nahum scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q169) makes cryptic references to a group called ‘The Seekers of Smooth Things’. The theories about who these people were have some fascinating implications for the Church today.

I enjoy biblical history and have recently been studying the transitional period between the Maccabean Revolt and its resulting Hasmonean Dynasty and the Roman takeover of Judea. Over the course of this study, I encountered a quizzical group known as The Seekers of Smooth Things. The story of this obscure sect of Judaism, and their relevance to us today, begs to be told. But first, some background [1.When possible, I have tried to use numismatics to provide faces to the names in this post.] . . .

The Transition from Persian to Greek Rule

Following the death of Alexander the Great [2.Alexander III of Macedon. This coin minted by Lysimachos is thought to have one of the most accurate likenesses of Alexander the Great

Alexander III of Macedon. This coin, minted by Lysimachos, is thought to be one of the most accurate likenesses of Alexander the Great. There was a tendency for the successors of Alexander the Great to portray themselves as looking like Alexander in an attempt to legitimize their rule. As a result, stylistically many of the obverse images on the coins of the Ptolemies and Seleucids are similar to the this coin in style and appearance.], his vast kingdom was divided up among his generals, with Ptolemy [3.PtolemyPtolemy I Soter (305 – 282 BC)] taking Egypt and Seleucus [4.Seleucus I NicatorSeleucus 1 Nicator (306-281 BC)] taking Syria. Judea found itself in the middle of territorial battles between these two quarreling Greek armies. Ultimately Judah was conquered by the Seleucids, but the Jews continued to be unapologetically Jewish in their customs and religion. This proved to be very problematic for their new Greek masters.

In an attempt to control and more completely pacify the Jews in the Seleucid Kingdom, king Antiochus IV [5.Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC)Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC)] made the worship of the God of the Jews punishable by death. He flooded Judea and Palestine with Greek culture and Greek religious practices. He even went so far as to dedicate the temple in Jerusalem to Olympian Zeus in 167 BC. Many of the Jews were perfectly willing to adopt Greek customs and religion in exchange for the favors offered by Antiochus. It seems that Greek religious observance was a whole lot more convenient to them than Jewish religious observance.

But not all Jews were so willing to adopt new ways and walk away from the worship of Jehovah. Mattathias was a country priest and the patriarch of the Hasmonean family. In an act of defiance, he killed a Jew that was about to make a sacrifice to a Greek god (1 Maccabees 2:15-25). Mattathias and his five sons then fled into the wilderness and started a popular uprising against the Seleucids. This movement, known as the Maccabean [6. This revolt is named after the third son of Mattathias, Judas Maccabeus. Judas was given the surname Maccabeus, which means hammer or sledgehammer because of his fierceness in battle. Mattathias appointed him as his successor in leading the revolt against the Seleucids.] Revolt, eventually displaced the Seleucids and put the Hasmonean family on the throne and in the office of High Priest at the temple.

Once securely in power, the Hasmoneans rapidly degenerated into the same kind of wickedness that prompted the Maccabean uprising in the first place. Predictably, a pious sect of Jews rose up in rebellion against Alexander Jannaeus [7.Alexander Jannaeus did not mint coins with his image on them due to the Torah's ban on graven images. He is most famous for this coin, called a prutah, or 'widow's mite'.

Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) did not mint coins with his image on them due to the Torah’s ban on graven images. He is most famous for this coin, called a prutah, or ‘widow’s mite’.], a particularly evil Hasmonean king. These rebellious Jews, who later came to be know as Pharisees, were so desperate to overthrow the Hasmoneans that they sought the assistance of Demetrius III Eucaerus [8.

Demetrius III Eucaerus (95-88 BC)

Demetrius III Eucaerus (95-88 BC)], the Seleucid king. Ultimately, Alexander Jannaeus prevailed. The details of his cruel vengeance on the Pharisees were described by Flavius Josephus:

he [Alexander Jannaeus] brought them [the Pharisees] to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13:380)

There is a corroborating account of this incident found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Pesher Nahum scroll (4Q169). 4Q169 was written by a rival sect of Jews known as Essenes. This scroll describes how the Jews sought the assistance of Demetrius of Greece but were defeated by Alexander and then crucified. However 4Q169 uses code names for many of the key characters. Alexander Jannaeus is called the furious young lion; the rebellious Jews are referred to pejoratively as the Seekers of Smooth Things.

I don’t think its possible to hear a descriptor like the Seekers of Smooth Things and not have your curiosity roused. As already implied, it is generally (though not universally) felt that this refers to the Pharisees. The modern perspective portrays Pharisees as ultra-conservative adherents to the Law of Moses. However, in the first and second century BC they were viewed by some as being far too liberal. This was certainly the view of the Qumran Community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Were we to speak Biblical Hebrew, we might recognize the nickname The Seekers of Smooth Things as a clever pun.

“Seekers of smooth things” is a pun in Hebrew: dorshei hachalakot instead of a title the Pharisees perhaps used for themselves: dorshei hahalachot, seekers of the way to keep Torah. (source)

The Essenes felt the Pharisees had perverted the true worship of Jehovah. Though they claimed to be in search for the right way to follow the Law, the Essenes felt The Seekers of Smooth Things had really taken the easy way. As a result, there were not many tears shed in Qumran when 800 Pharisees and their families were destroyed by Alexander. Rather, the atrocities of Alexander were viewed more as divine retribution for those that had corrupted the proper worship of Jehovah.

Modern Parallels

For me, history is fascinating, but even more so when I find some parallel that can be relevant to the world I live in today. Jehovah did not make it easy for the Jews anciently to worship him. Similarly, in the modern LDS church we find ourselves surrounded by a world that is increasingly Greek in its customs and beliefs. It’s not getting any easier to be faithful. The appeal of compromise and taking an easier way is ever-present for Church members. As was seen with the Hellenized Jews of the 2nd century BC, many progressive Mormons seem all too ready to compromise on tenets of the faith that have been historically non-negotiable. It is troubling and schismatic.

I’m certainly not advocating a Maccabean approach to progressives, where we rise up like Mattathias and destroy them in righteous indignation. The isolationist tendencies of the Essenes at Qumran is probably not that productive either. I would propose that Mormons be unapologetically Mormon in the way they live. The Church should not be shamed into compromising on fundamental doctrines that are increasingly unpopular, just because our world is desperately seeking after smooth things.

We assert to the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored in its fulness through the Prophet Joseph Smith; that Jesus Christ directs this church through living prophets. Furthermore, we individually experience the comfort, joy and peace that the gospel brings. Why then is it so tempting to apologize to the world when church leadership refuses to be Hellenized? Why are we so easily shamed by the scoffing of the world (1 Nephi 8:28), when we are not guilty–except of offending Satan and being unwilling to compromise when questions have been settled by living apostles and prophets?

Though Isaiah was prophesying about Israel’s impending destruction for rejecting God’s prophets, he might also have been warning the church today:

. . . this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord:

Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:

Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us. (Isaiah 30:9-11) [9. If ever a passage in scripture needs some help with punctuation, this has to be it.]

Isaiah foretold the destruction of Israel for rejecting the prophets and seers: they wanted to hear ‘smooth things’ more than they wanted to hear ‘right things’. As a result, Assyria was unleashed, and the Northern Kingdom was overthrown. I fear that many in the church today could meet a similar fate, figuratively speaking.

It is an article of our faith that:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. (Articles of Faith 1:11)

We must not deprive others of their rights to worship as they see fit. Likewise we must not surrender our privileges to the voice of popular opinion. I am inspired by the defiant words of Mattathias when he was commanded by the king’s official to sacrifice to the gods of Greece:

Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments:

Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.

God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances (1 Maccabees 2:19-21).

Though the Apocryphal writings in the Books of the Maccabees are not canonized scripture, the words of Mattathias ring true, and are certainly words to live by. If only I could be so resolute as Mattathias!

It has never been easy to be faithful to God in any age of history, and we should not expect an easy time of it today. Those that are faithful are inevitably noticed and are made to suffer for it. Part of the process that qualifies us to inherit eternal life is to endure the shame of the world (2 Nephi 9:18;Jacob 1:8). We must seek God’s approval, not man’s approval (John 12;43; Galatians 1:10; D&C 3:7). It requires that we seek right things, not smooth things.

14 thoughts on “Seeking Smooth Things

  1. Reid, this is a great post. I agree with the image you portray that the world is being “Hellenized.” It happened in Jesus’ time, and it is happening again today.

  2. Really excellent post. I don’t want to get hung up on a detail, but do you know how exactly the Essene community thought the Pharisees were being too liberal? I’m curious.

  3. Wow! I love this post! The “seekers of smooth things” remind me of what Elder Holland said a few Conferences back about people wanting a god that does not even get in the boat (hence he can’t rock it). This also goes along with another blog post I read this morning about the notion that there is a right and wrong side of history. I choose the Lord’s side of anything. That will be the right side, every time.

  4. Nice. So many of the practices and philosophies that prevail today were found among the Greeks. Even the skewing of doctrine in the Christian church, ie. triune god, can be traced to Hellenistic influence.

  5. Adam G
    The sect in Qumran were a relatively small group of Zadokite priests (most scholars think they were Essenes) who secluded themselves from the rest of Jewish society. They felt that the rites of the Temple in Jerusalem had been corrupted. They considered themselves the rightful officiators at the Temple and therefore were heavily focused on maintaining a the high level of ritual purity needed to officiate in the rites of Temple. They took a very literal approach to the worship of Jehovah. The Essenes perceived the Pharisees as too liberal because they included the Oral Law (Talmud and Mishradim) with the Written Law (Torah). Interestingly enough, the Sadducees also rejected the Oral Law.

  6. In addition, the Dead Sea Scrolls also speak of the Wicked Priest, which many scholars today believe was Alexander Jannaeus, for taking upon himself not only the kingship, but also the role of high priest. The Wicked Priest was the evil opposite of the Teacher of Righteousness. While the Wicked Priest had a semblance of godliness (he was a priest, after all), he twisted and contorted the Law of Moses, even changing the day for the Sabbath to fit his own whims. The Teacher of Righteousness, however, was a forerunner of the Messiah, whom the Essenes looked forward to.
    Today, we see that many would replace our LDS Teacher of Righteousness, our prophet, with a contemporary and modern Wicked Priest (or priestess, as the case may be).

  7. Wouldn’t we consider the Essenes apostates as well, sort of like the FLDS? (I know the analogy is imperfect.) It certainly appears that Christ did not go to them for disciples. We need to be careful about what we value. There have been many who preached an “unapologetic” Mormonism, and they preached themselves right out of the Church.

  8. DD
    Orthodoxy has always been an ‘eye of the beholder’ kind of thing. FLDS call themselves orthodox and mainstream LDS apostate . . . and vice versa. The Essenes, along with everybody else at this time in history, were doing their best in a world of apostasy. The situation could be compared to people trying to follow God in the Middle Ages in Europe (or god-fearing Christians doing their best in America prior to the Restoration). It’s pretty clear from our enlightened perspective that the Essenes got it wrong. For instance, they believed there would be two Messiahs. Their obsession with ritual cleansing, predestination, and exclusive access to salvation are at complete odds with the message of Jesus Christ. Likewise the Pharisees, Sadducees and Hellenized Jews also got it wrong. I guess my main point is that we should resist external pressure to become ‘Hellenized Mormons’ for the sake of expediency–especially since we have the benefits of legitimate Priesthood authority and all the ordinances of the gospel.

  9. Many scholars believe that John the Baptist was probably raised in the Qumran community, as many of his preachings and doings fit in well with the Essene teachings. Jesus did make some statements that would have been condemning of some of their beliefs, but he only came out directly and fiercely against the Pharisees and Sadduccees, which means he may not have been too far away from the Essene views. Remember, Jesus began a Jewish movement, not full blown Christianity, which was a new movement began by the apostle Paul amongst the Gentiles.

  10. rameumptom – thanks for your insights.

    I’ve also seen theories about John’s exposure to the Qumran community and possible involvement with this movement. Though from a priestly family, John rejected mainstream Jewish life and lived in the Judean desert. It can be argued that John’s performance of baptisms was similar to the ritual cleansing that was such a big part of the Qumran community. However, only unblemished males were considered candidates for full participation in the Qumran movement–and then only after successfully completing a series of rites of initiation. John invited everyone to repent and be baptized. It seems to me that by the time his ministry was in high gear, he rejected the isolationist tendencies of Qumran and took up a more evangelical and inclusive approach to saving souls.

  11. Thanks for the information, rameumptom and Reid. So, the Essenes were only a little apostate. Still, they did not accept Christ. Still, there have been many that decided that the 1P and Q12 were not unapologetic enough. There were murmurers when polygamy was abandoned. Concerns were raised in 1978 about extending the priesthood to all worthy males. More recently, I have heard those who disagreed with supporting non-discrimination laws for LGBT persons or supporting immigration reform.

    While Mattathias’ words are stirring, they include an attitude that concerns me if taken too far. We are not called to reject our laws or government, even if we do not agree, at least at this time. Those who adopt a too unapologetic attitude will possibly find themselves watching the Church go one direction while they insist on going another. Plenty of splinter groups have formed because the Church was “too soft.”

    I realize there is a careful balance. We cannot be too unapologetic or too obsequious to society. We can continue to gain understanding from our priesthood leaders, as I am sure most of those reading this already do.

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