Moses, Moses, Moses

I have a friend who recently expressed some exasperation at the story of Moses.

Someone should explain to me how this story is a shining example of moral instruction. God decides to pit 2 brothers against each other then decides to punish a whole country with famine and disease. I guess the lesson is that physical punishment is the way to go if you need something done.

If half the world didn’t believe fervently in this, it would be a pretty cool story.

I spoke for Moses. After all, my name is Aaron.

I replied:

The story is one of deliverance. Moses petitioned Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery; Pharaoh refused.

The overarching lesson is that God can (and will) rescue his people. For me as a Mormon, it’s a powerful story foreshadowing of the mission of the Messiah.

My friend returned:

But shouldn’t God also be able to rescue his people less violently? We’re talking about the creator of the universe after all. Markedly, there was no need for him to kill the first born child of every Egyptian. Children do not inherit the sins of their fathers & they shouldn’t be punished for what their parents do.

It’s a powerful story, just not one where good and evil are clearly delineated in my opinion.

And I responded:

Perhaps God *could* have shaped it some other way. But perhaps there was a reason he shaped it *this* way. As creator of the universe, God is not obligated to give us all his purposes upon request (though he often does).

Certainly children do not inhe
rit the sins of their fathers, but children are, sometimes tragically, subject to the consequences of their parents’ choices.

As far as the delineation of good and evil goes, well, obscurity is one of the hallmarks of mortality. And that’s a good thing. It leads to investigation and, ultimately, clarity.

He countered:

I’ve never been satisfied with the answer that God knows better than us & has mysterious reasons for causing (or allowing) suffering. It gives his actions a free pass and stops us from questioning whether his guidelines are a way of thinking we should be following.

By the way if we’re going to have this discussion, I should let you know my worldview—I was a former Muslim & now I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe in much of anything.

So I wrote the following.

Thanks for the worldview disclaimer. You already know that I’m a Mormon, but I should let you know that I didn’t respond—and don’t plan on responding—to your posts in an effort to proselytize. Mormons get a bad rap for being pushy evangelists. Rather, I’m just going to share how I, personally, reconcile those concerns. Take it as you will.

I reframed your statements as questions for myself, as follows:

  1. How can I be—or, why am I—satisfied with the answer that God knows better and has mysterious reasons for causing/allowing suffering?
  2. Does it give his actions a free pass?
  3. Does it stop me from questioning his guidelines?

These are the questions I’ve been thinking about. I’ve pondered them before, but these are the types of questions that should be regularly reexamined.

1. How can I be—or, why am I—satisfied with the answer that God knows better and has mysterious reasons for causing/allowing suffering?

Easy answer: I have faith in God.

More complicated answer: Faith is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot in religion till it’s almost unrecognizable. When I say faith here, I mean a high degree of confidence. My faith in God rests on a couple basic points of knowledge.

  1. The idea that he actually exists.
  2. A correct idea of his character and attributes.

Joseph Smith discussed these items at length in his short work, “Lectures on Faith,” but I arrived at them myself somewhat independently.

a. I have an idea that God actually exists because I’ve seen evidences of his existence. I’ve seen a cause-effect pattern in the fulfillment of scriptural promises (if you keep x commandment, I will bless you in y way) and I’ve read the written testimony of prophetic witnesses in scripture. These alone wouldn’t suffice, though. An argument could be made of coincidence and fabrication, respectively. Ultimately, my knowledge of God is based on the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

The Holy Ghost (or the Holy Spirit, etc.) is another term that gets tossed around a lot and has become ambiguous. For brevity’s sake (which I already struggle with) I won’t explain the nature of the Holy Ghost, other than to say that he is a spirit-being whose mission is to testify of God via feelings and thoughts. In my prayers, in my studies, and in the general course of life, my conclusions about God have been affirmed by feelings and thoughts that I can ascribe solely to the Holy Ghost.

b. Through the evidences mentioned above, I’ve come to a knowledge that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and loving. This directly relates to that first question.

I know that God knows better because I have a knowledge that he is omniscient and that I am not. I don’t have to be omniscient myself to know that, by the way.

I know that God is omnipotent because I’ve witnessed, again, through the evidences above, manifestations for his power, even miracles. As an aside, miracles are not magical; they are simply lower laws being superseded by higher ones.

I know that God loves all mankind, in all ages (evidences above). This means that what he does, he does with our best interests in mind—collectively and individually.

Knowing the character of God is essential to having faith in him. I can’t have confidence in a being that is all-knowing, but who doesn’t have the power to act upon his knowledge. Nor can I believe in a being who is all-powerful, yet is perpetually making mistakes. I cannot trust my hopes and abilities to a being who is all-knowing and all-powerful, yet doesn’t have my interests at heart.

However, knowing that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving, I can look at events like the account of Moses and trust that God’s judgment was wise and merciful. Yes, even for the Egyptians. Looking back through history, mass emancipations have been bloody affairs. Had this pattern held true for Egypt, they may have lost more cumulative life than they actually did. Further, Egyptian and Israelite soldiers may have been killed before they had time to repent, influencing the verdict of their final judgment. Children, on the other hand, are completely innocent in the eyes of God (Mormon, the Book of Mormon prophet after whom the book is named, had some beautiful things to say about this). Upon death, they are immediately exalted. Thus eternal, not just physical, lives are preserved. This, of course, does not justify man killing babies. Pharaoh was not justified in his execution order years before. Pharaoh was not omniscient, nor did he have power over life and death (though he claimed he did).

I’m not saying this was the reasoning behind the event; I only offer it as a possible mitigating consideration.

Another reason could be for that overarching lesson I mentioned, that God can (and will) rescue his people. The deliverance of the Israelites is symbolic of mankind’s deliverance from death and hell through the atonement of Jesus Christ. There are several layers to this symbolism, but ultimately, deliverance requires covenants and obedience, and includes, among other things, the death of God’s firstborn—Jesus Christ, who was completely innocent himself.

2. Does it give his actions a free pass?

Yes, in the end. Isaiah wrote, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” I don’t have a problem with that. When I was a two year old, I rightly gave my parents a free pass, too.

3. Does it stop me from questioning his guidelines?

No. I can question his guidelines all I want. In fact, God welcomes our questions. The whole Latter-day Saint experience began with a question. Joseph Smith wanted to know what God’s guidelines were—which church was really His—because he could see inconsistencies among the various interpretations of scripture. He read in James, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.” Joseph took that to heart, prayed, and in response, was visited by God and Jesus Christ, who told him that none of the existing churches were true. This vision was followed up by subsequent visions, and thus the LDS church came to be.

Everyone has agency. We’re free to choose what we think and what we do. God will not restrict our agency—it’s critical to his plan for us to grow in knowledge and experience. Pharaoh was free to release the Israelites. God didn’t “harden” Pharaoh’s heart; that’s a mistranslation. Pharaoh hardened his own heart. He was free to do that. He was not free from the consequences.

We are free to question. The real test comes in finding out which guidelines are truly God’s. Many have tried (successfully) to steal away those who would follow God by falsely claiming to be God or to be God’s spokesman. We must be allowed to question in order to discern truth.

This is kinda long for a message. Sorry about that. Life gets complicated.

And I just realized I probably didn’t even answer the first question very well, about God causing/allowing suffering.

Everyone has trials in life. Some people experience what seems more than their fair share of misery, pain, and sadness. If this lifetime were the sum of our existence, then this would truly be a tragedy.

However, our existence did not begin at birth, and will not end at death. We are eternal beings, and this period of mortality is but a sliver of our existence. All that is unfair about life will be made right through the atonement of Jesus Christ. He is the great healer of mankind, spiritually and physically.

2 thoughts on “Moses, Moses, Moses”

  1. Tom Brinton says:

    Great post, Aaron. These are big questions and I think you tackled them from a very tactful and understandable angle. Well done. Recommended reading on the subject: “All These Things Shall give Thee Experience” by Neal A Maxwell. I have been reading it recently and it has enlightened me greatly on God’s omniscience vs. our agency, as well as how trials are essential to the Plan of Happiness.

    1. Aaron says:

      Thanks! I’ll look into that book–agency has been very much on my mind as of late, and I’m a sucker for anything written by Neal A. Maxwell.

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