About a month ago I sat in Gospel Doctrine class listening to the popular Bible story about Samson – you know, the strong dude with the long hair. The teacher posed the following question: “From where did Samson get his strength?” Of course there was the usual silence from the class, so the teacher went ahead and answered his own question: “He got his strength from keeping his covenants**.” This aspect of the story is a way for us Mormons to apply the scriptures to our day – strength in keeping our covenants. The teacher then detailed some of the covenants that Samson kept. One was very interesting – the covenant not to be around dead people. A hand shot up and a brother suggested that this was probably due to dead bodies being associated with disease. Another hand shot up and a sister told the class that this particular covenant is seen throughout the Bible time period. An idea popped into my head, so I raised my hand also. I said something along these lines:
When Jesus taught the parable of the Good Samaritan, he knew about this covenant regarding dead people. The people he was teaching also knew of the covenant. Maybe this is one of the reasons Jesus includes a priest in his story – a man bound by this covenant – who passes by the half-dead man on the side of the road. Why does the holy man not stop to help? Well, perhaps because he assumed the man was dead. He was bound to keep the covenant to not be around dead people, and so he passed him by. He kept his covenants.
Some other comments were made about keeping covenants, but I could see the wheels turning in some people’s faces. More and more comments were made about always keeping covenants and the power that is associated with it. I wanted to drive my point home so I raised my hand one more time:
The crazy thing about Jesus and the story of the Good Samaritan is that it appears that Jesus is teaching us to do the moral thing even if it means breaking a few rules on the way. Who is the hero of the story? The holy man that keeps his covenants and passes the half-dead guy on the road? Heavens no! The hero of the story is the Good Samaritan.
Sometimes as Mormons – and humans – we get caught up in checklists. We get caught up in keeping all the rules and staying as far away from breaking the rules as possible. Remember that story in our Sunday School lessons about the guy that wanted to hire the best driver for his coach and horses? The first driver goes up the hill with great speed and gets as close to the edge as possible. The second driver goes up the hill even faster and gets even closer to the edge. The third guy goes slow and stays as far away from the edge as possible. The man then hires the third driver. The moral of the story: be safe and stay away from the edge. While discussing this story with my friend Brent Beal, he came up with an alternative ending. As I remember he said, “It ends badly for the man because some bandits come to rob the coach, but since he hired the slowest, safest driver, he is unable to escape the bandits.” Ha!
I feel like there is value in learning from those that came before us. There is value in following rules. I’m not suggesting that we go crazy and live every moment of our lives on the edge. What I’m saying is it’s most important to do what is morally correct. Be kind. Love one another. Religion, covenants, and/or theology should never trump love. Let’s slow down on our checklists, especially if someone on the side of the road needs help. OR and this is just a suggestion – break away from the monastery to wrestle, you know -lucha libre, to raise money for the orphans.
The word use of “covenants” mentioned by the teacher were not quite accurate. Instead of wasting time explaining what the term covenants meant in ancient Israel to the class and THEN going into my point I made above in the essay, I just used the language that was being used. Also not to tangle up the smoothness of the essay, I didn’t want to expound on the part of the essay either. But as comments started coming in, I see that this was going to be necessary. So my good friend and biblical scholar Colby Townsend helped me out with this portion.
Here are his words-
Excursus on Covenants:
In ancient Israel a covenant (“Heb. ‘berit’, related to the Akkadian ‘birth’, “clasp” or “fetter”) is a contractual agreement which “implies first and foremost the notion of “imposition,” “liability,” or “obligation,” as might be learned from the “bond” etymology,” similar to that of the Akkadian ‘birtu’ above (see Weinfeld, “berith,” in Botterweck and Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1975), 2:255). We learn from Ps. 111:9 and Judg. 2:20 that the covenant in ancient Israel was commanded, and therefore imposed upon the ancient Israelites by Yahweh. Weinfeld goes on in his essay on the ancient Israelite covenant to say that that ‘berit’ is synonymous with law and commandment (cf. Deut. 4:13; 33:9; Isa. 24:5). The ‘berit’ itself was the beginning of the relationship of Yahweh with his chosen people Israel (again the covenant here is imposed), and, although this covenant did encompass all of the commandments, laws, and prohibitions, these laws would not be considered “covenants” by themselves. Although covenant did not mean, as is commonly argued, in ancient Israel “a mutual agreement or contract between two parties” (because the covenant was not mutual but imposed, no matter how open the subservient party is to the agreement), but that does not mean it could not be used this way in later history by other religious groups. In Mormonism we often take the interpretation argued against by Weinfeld above that we enter a mutual agreement with God, where each party knows and understands the terms of the covenant, with both parties fulfilling their respective parts of the covenant. A more in depth review of our covenants, found in the scriptures and those given orally, might be called for, but this is how the term covenant is generally accepted.
For Mormonism, there are covenants of baptism, “obligations of faithfulness, magnifying one’s calling, sacrifice, obedience, righteousness, chastity, and consecration” (see “Covenants” in Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:332). Each of the different rules found under these covenants would not be considered covenants in and of themselves, but are instead parts of those covenants and therefore fall under the banner of those covenants. To take from Paul’s example, the Priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan “kept their covenants” whether they rescued the beaten man or not, but they would have broken the prohibition against contact with dead human corpses. If they had decided to help the man they would have been unclean for seven days, having to go through a purification process that included becoming purified with the ashes of a red cow, mixed into water and sprinkled onto the man by someone who is pure. This would have to happen once on the third day, and then a second time on the seventh day. If either of these days were missed the man “remains impure; his impurity endures within him” (see Baruch Levine, Numbers 1-20 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 459). According to Levine, “This type of impurity was regarded by the priests of biblical Israel as the most severe of all. It was the urgent need to eliminate such impurity from the Israelite areas of settlement that gave rise to the complex regulations and rituals of Numbers 19” (Levine, Numbers 1-20, 457). These prohibitions were not unique to the priest or Levite (two completely separate offices in ancient Israelite society), but were also imposed upon the Samaritan. This prohibitions were important for all Israel, no matter who the Israelite was or where she lived. We have inherited a very unfortunate view of Samaritans through the traditions of first century Judaism, as showcased strongly in the New Testament. The Samaritans are viewed as something similar to the opposite of being Israelite or Jewish. While they were definitely not Jewish, the Samaritans were very much Israelites.
After the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel(!) by the Assyrians around 722 BCE, only about a fifth of the estimated population of the northern kingdom were actually deported (see Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 221). The Assyrians then established Samaria as a capital of the surrounding area, and the remaining Israelites continued living in the area, and subsequently mixed with the Assyrians.
Later, the returning Jews from Babylon felt that the Samaritans were no longer Israelites because they had mixed with Assyrians, and over the centuries viewed them with increasing disdain, although these Israelites continued to worship Yahweh under the direction of the Torah of Moses. The Samaritans have always viewed the Pentateuch as a holy and binding text upon the religious life of their community. Although they have a text that is in many ways different (called the Samaritan Pentateuch), a review of Numbers 19 reveals that there is no major difference between that of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Massoretic Text, or anything that would have been normative in ancient Jewish circles. These prohibitions against contact with dead corpses were binding on the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, and if one was to step outside of these prohibitions and come into contact with a dead corpse they would have only broken their covenant if they did not go through the seven day purification process, which would end in that person being cut off from Israel (see Num. 19:13).