Updated: Jul 11, 2022
I found myself a little put off by the glaringly-inaccurate aspects of the Biblical creation account this week. I read three versions -- in Genesis, Moses and Abraham -- and I was struck by the improbability of plants being created and filling the earth before the creation of the sun. Much worse were the repeated references to a "firmament" that divided the waters above (in the heavens) from the waters below (on the Earth). I wondered at Moses' and Abraham's receiving such an erroneous picture by revelation, and also at the errors not being corrected in Joseph Smith's inspired translation of both prophets' accounts.
As I pondered, I found myself considering the possibility that the Lord was deliberately revealing something important about revelation when He didn't tidy up the accounts for modern readers. I've been considering three questions and coming to answers that increase my sense of being grounded in reality while also strengthening my trust in God.
My first question:
How do I reconcile the assurance that God does not lie with His inclusion of untrue details in His revelations to prophets?
I need the assurance that God does not lie. I need to trust Him. I believe that mistrust of God is perhaps the most devastating effect of the fall and the root cause of all evil. When the Brother of Jared discovered he trusted the Lord completely, enough to commit to believe whatever the Lord told him, without first having to know what that was, he was redeemed from the fall. He declared, "I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie" and the Lord replied, "Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you" (Ether 3:12-13).
Trusting God is redemptive. That's why the scriptures keep promising salvation to those who believe in Christ (see for example 2 Nephi 2:9, Acts 16:31). That doesn't mean that all we have to do is believe, but rather that if we really believe, if we truly and fully trust Him, we will fully follow Him.
So, does God's revealing a creation story that contains false details mean that the Brother of Jared was wrong and God can lie?
No. It just means that there's some nuance that's important to understand about communication between a perfect, omniscient God and His mortal, fallible, and greatly limited children.
Webster's 1828 defines a lie as "a falsehood uttered for the purpose of deception; an intentional violation of truth." That is not what happened here. The Lord did not introduce the notion of a heavenly ocean above the earth and a transparent barrier that holds it up to give us the sky. This was a common misperception of ancient peoples, so common, in fact, that it appears in a multitude of cultural traditions, including Japanese, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Navajo, Buryat, and Chukchi.
What God did instead was He communicated to His prophets that He was the Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them, and He did it within a framework they understood. According to Nephi, this is His pattern: "For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding" (2 Nephi 31:3).
This makes sense to me. If God had to speak to us in language that was always strictly accurate, if He had to provide a mind-blowing astronomy lesson before He could tell us about our creation, we would be deluged by information for which we weren’t ready and we would miss the vital bits that could help us get ready. If, before He could explain the creation to Abraham, He had to say, “everybody is wrong about that firmament and the celestial sea and the heavens are actually mostly empty space and granted you have no way of discerning this counter-intuitive truth but you are just going to need to trust me, because in several thousand years, when science has progressed far enough, your descendants are going to be able to verify that it’s true” the point of the conversation may well have been lost on Abraham. And who would have believed what he had to say? So speaking to us is in our flawed and inaccurate language and framework is neither deception nor a violation of truth. It is how God leads us out of delusion and toward truth.
My second question:
What does God's pattern of speaking to us according to our understanding mean about revelation today?
I have personal experience with this. When my first marriage began to falter, I received a priesthood blessing that promised me the Lord would preserve my marriage. It might yet take on water but it wouldn’t fail. With that assurance, I was able to continue giving my all to a floundering partnership, to keep loving when my natural inclination would have been to cringe. If I hadn’t known that mine was an eternal family and we would make it through, I would have been much more of a wreck than I was. And then, months after leaving for safety reasons while still believing that my husband and I would eventually be reconciled, I started to realize that I didn’t want the kind of partnership my estranged husband could offer. Then, I got new direction to both heart and mind — it was time to file for divorce.
I have struggled to understand how the Lord could promise me that He would preserve my marriage, only to have it fall apart so spectacularly, and then to get His direction to let it go. I can tell myself that the wording was inaccurate because it came through a mortal priesthood holder, but the thing is, I felt the promise and I understood it to be sure.
What I know is that I needed the message I got. It gave me hope and made it possible for me to keep loving. So He promised to preserve my marriage and He did keep it afloat until I was finally ready to let it go. On both occasions, I heard in my language and according to my understanding the very thing I needed to hear in order to go forward.
Is it possible that there are modern "firmament" references in the Lord’s words to latter-day prophets?
I think it logically follows that God, who changes not, continues to speak to His prophets today according to their language and unto their understanding. I think it’s probably safe to assume that means that modern conceptual errors continue to appear in latter-day revelation. I find this concept quite freeing. It means, for instance, that when historical records agree that Jesus was born in about the year 4 AD, I don't have to stake my testimony on the historians being wrong because D&C 20:1 describes the year 1830 as “one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh.” I can be comfortable with the possibility that the actual year of the Lord’s birth was not the point of the revelation and the Lord was speaking to Joseph according to Joseph’s understanding. This gives me permission to be unthreatened by new knowledge that is not 100% consistent with previous understanding. It‘s okay. The restoration is an ongoing process and the Lord will get us there in His due time and when we’re ready.
How can I faithfully sustain the living prophet and apostles while believing there are probably firmament-style errors in their teachings?
I can do that by trusting God. He calls and guides His prophets and apostles and will correct firmament-style errors in His due time. I can pray for them and I can sustain them in a way that facilitates their receiving further revelation. If I have misgivings about a certain policy or teaching, if I think it might be a mistake, I can plead for the Lord to make His will known to His prophet. If I have a personal story that may have bearing on the issue, I can share it appropriately.
What I won’t do is campaign or try to tell my priesthood leaders what to do. That’s the Lord’s job. The voice the Brethren need to hear is His, not mine, and the more loudly other voices speak, the harder it can become to hear the Voice that is still and small.
Other things I will not do — I will not seek personal revelation to confirm any misgivings, to find out if the prophet is wrong. I think a deceiving spirit would see that as a wide-open invitation. And I won’t go around teaching some alternate doctrine.
It is possible to follow the prophet while disagreeing on a critical issue. A modern example of so doing was Hugh B. Brown. He was First Counsellor to President David O McKay through most of the 60s and he firmly believed that the priesthood restriction on Black men of African descent was a firmament-style error. He even tried unsuccessfully to change the policy in 1969. Yet he signed a December 1969 First Presidency letter that reaffirmed the policy while promising that it would some day be lifted. The letter also said:
“We join with those throughout the world who pray that all of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ may in the due time of the Lord become available to men of faith everywhere. Until that time comes we must trust in God, in his wisdom, and in his tender mercy.”
Elder Brown passed away in 1975, still praying for that day. It arrived three years later, in a manner so clearly of God that it united all of the Brethren behind it.
To sum up, God is trustworthy. By contrast, mortals are fallen, misperceiving and stuck in error. Our loving Lord meets us where we are and leads us into more truth. He does that for all of us, and especially for prophets, whose calling is to bear witness of Him. So it’s okay that the scriptures reference erroneous concepts like the firmament. And it’s okay that there are still errors we may not perceive today. For me, what matters is that, so long as I trust God and follow His direction to me and to the prophet, I’ll be moving out of error and toward Him.