Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Grab that Rod of Iron!

I recently followed a suggestion to view a set of pages relating to Women in the LDS (Mormon) church. Once there I was treated to a concept salad of directives and confusing history. I tarried a bit at the suggestion that the Hellenistic influences on the Middle East caused some sort of moral decay; there is something smelly in that bit of revisionist history. However, as with most Mormon writings, there was a skew metaphysical code permeating each narrative that made unsdertanding the point(s) unescesarily difficult. I thought I would parse out at least one today. Today I will make an attempt at deciphering what is meant –in the LDS theological code- by the “Rod of Iron” (note the capitalization).

The only place a rod of iron is described in what most people recognize as the bible is in the disturbing Psalm 2. There the rod of iron device is rather unambiguously described as a cudgel.

“You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” –Psalm 2:9(NIV)


Presumably the Iron Age authors of the Bible would have seen a rod of iron as being the ultimate cudgel for bashing in skulls; a wooden or bronze cudgel would not provide as authoritarian a skull cracking as that newfangled iron stuff. Before wading into LDS writing today I thought this most obvious of iron rod imagery would have been, aside from euphemisms, the beginning and ending of the subject.

  Joseph Smith (founder of the LDS church) did add a bit about them into revelations (12).

“And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up unto God and his throne.” Revelations 12:4 (JST)


The “JST” in the attribution to the above quote denotes the “Joseph Smith Translation” as the source. This is not a standard translation as there appears to have never been source material from which the material was “translated”. The whole idea of magical translations from material only provided in magical form is an interesting story, but I won’t be going into that here. What I would like to point out is that there is distinct similarity between the use of “rod of iron” in Psalm 2 and the bit Joseph Smith added to revelations. The rod of iron is a crude weapon wielded by a ruler. This makes sense as iron would have been somewhat precious at the time the bible was written, and so an iron cudgel might have been a weapon befitting a king.

The way the LDS literature I had stumbled across was repeatedly using the term “Rod of Iron” suggested it was not the biblical cudgel. The “Rod of Iron” kept showing up in variations of the directive to “hold fast to the Rod of Iron”. “Holding fast” is not what I immediately picture doing with a heavy metal baton unless I was being directed to be the person swinging it about and bashing heads with it. When I replaced the term like “hold fast to the Rod of Iron” with “bash some heads” the writing did not make more sense, and I suspected that the LDS “Rod of Iron” was very different from the Iron Age iron cudgel. I "held fast" to the slim hope that the "Rod of Iron" was being used as the euphemism it should occupy in its natural state, but it was not that either.

I would discover that the most accurate description of the Mormon “Rod of Iron” would be “Magic Handrail”. This does not sound like a very Iron Age idea, and since it apparently came from the first book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon it is not an Iron Age idea. Let me describe to you how I discovered the magic Handrail "translation".

The following is the 8th chapter of the first book of Nephi from the Book of Mormon. Reading the Book of Mormon can cause drowsiness. Mark Twain even called it “Chloroform in Print”. Do not attempt to read the Book of Mormon while driving or operating heavy machinery.

1 Nephi 8:2 And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.

[The wilderness is mentioned so many times, and in so many ways, that it might be worth looking at]
1 Nephi 8:3 And behold, because of the thing which I have seen, I have reason to rejoice in the Lord because of Nephi and also of Sam; for I have reason to suppose that they, and also many of their seed, will be saved.

[And here one has to ask “Saved From What or How?”. Eventually all the offspring of Nephi and Sam will be exterminated, but that occurs later in the book. Did I mention that there might be spoilers in this discussion?]
1 Nephi 8:4 But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you; for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.
[More wilderness, but at least it was not “Dark and Stormy”]
1 Nephi 8:5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
[So the dream opens. A dark dystopian landscape becomes visible. A lone figure of a man in a white robe walks up and silently stands before Mr. Lehi. I should also point out that “And it came to pass” is one of the most common phrases in the Book of Mormon.]
1 Nephi 8:6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
[So the fellow in the robe is not mute, and there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
[I thought we had already established that it was a dark and dreary location, and there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:8 And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.
[Apparently the dark and dreary place is large and spacious enough to walk for hours in it. The “according to the multitude of his tender mercies” is also code, but I won’t be going into that here.]
1 Nephi 8:9 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
[Is it a dark and dreary field, or are we just done with the darkness now? And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
[I understand that Lehi is describing a tree full of nice fruit, and the fruit was probably welcome after all the hours walking through the dark and dreary wilderness, but the wording has me picturing a bunch of apricots with little faces singing “eat me please” in chorus. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
[So they are NOT apricots, or if they are they are mutant white apricots that look like an overexposed picture. Lots of whiteness, and this is weird and trippy, and there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:12 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
[Best fruit ever]
1 Nephi 8:13 And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.
[So he had been walking for hours in this dark and dreary wilderness with some guy in a white robe, but the family is probably around here someplace. And –oh look!- there is a river right here beside the white fruit tree.]
1 Nephi 8:14 And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go.
[So the river is coming out of the ground just a few meters up stream, and –Look!- there is half the family all confused as to where they are and how they got there.
1 Nephi 8:15 And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit.
[Did he already mention that he thought the white fruit was good? And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:16 And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also.
[He yelled to them and they came over and had some white fruit. You are probably wondering where the Rod of Iron is. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:17 And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them.
[So the rest of the family should come over and have some really great white fruit. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:18 And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit.
[So, what’s up with Laman and Lemuel? Oh, perhaps this is a parable. Maybe they should call it “The parable of two guys who wouldn’t come have white fruit even though they were asked to”? And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
[So here is the Rod of Iron, finally.]
1 Nephi 8:20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
[Here the narrative takes on a new feel. Ever had anyone tell you that two things were “exactly the same only different”? Presumably half the family already walked this path the few meters from the head of the river. Also… where did this fountain come from? Is the fountain also the head of the river? And if the large and spacious field had been a world was it now some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland?]
1 Nephi 8:21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
[And not the place is crowded. Where did all the people come from? Where did the dude in the white robe go? Lehi just saw the tree and walked up to it without even noticing there was a path, so why are people so interested in this Rod of Iron path?]
1 Nephi 8:22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
[Forgive me if I digress, but the narrative has jumped the tracks a bit here. It reads like someone was recounting a story, and then went out to get lunch or a few beers, and then came back to writing the story but forgot where they were. Now we have crowds of people pushing along a straight and narrow path beside a fountain and a river. The path needs a handrail, and leads up to a tree that was previously in a big field. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
[So, now it is dark again, but Lehi can see people getting lost because those people can’t see because of this “great mist of darkness”. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
[Here the handrail image is better developed. I really am not a fan of the fact that it is too dark for anyone to see anything see, but that Lehi can see everything so clearly. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
[Doesn’t it feel like it should be getting rather crowded around the tree by this point in the story?]
1 Nephi 8:26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
[And now a building floating in the air]
1 Nephi 8:27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
[The people in the building can see through the darkness too. Apparently one can also see into the building, and it is close enough to make out the expressions on people’s faces. How exactly does one not notice a giant floating glass building full of well-dressed people making fun of you. I’ve heard of people dreaming about going for a job interview, and realizing they forgot to put their pants on once the interview started; some kind of anxiety dream unless the dream interview starts going better for lack of pants. Coming to realize that you are being followed by a giant floating building full of well-dressed people mocking you is a more unique type of anxiety dream; would it be worse if the mocking people wore no pants?]
1 Nephi 8:28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
[Forbidden paths sounds interesting]
1 Nephi 8:29 And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.
[why, because they were even more trippy than these?]
1 Nephi 8:30 But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.
[So…lets focus on the handrail. Hold onto the handrail in order to make it to the tree. This summary of the dream adds the detail that people fell down once they made it to the tree.]
1 Nephi 8:31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
[Let us also mention multitudes trying to get into the big building. They are apparently feeling their way to the building, because it is dark maybe, but once in the building they can see like Lehi?]
1 Nephi 8:32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
[“Strange roads” sounds cool. There is that fountain again, and now it is filled with dead bodies.]
1 Nephi 8:33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
[Yes, the people who make it into the strange building do get special sight. I am glad he cleared that up.]
1 Nephi 8:34 These are the words of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away.And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, said my father.
[I am not sure how he knew that the two boys didn’t get some fruit while he wasn’t looking. It sounds very confusing.]
1 Nephi 8:36 And it came to pass after my father had spoken all the words of his dream or vision, which were many, he said unto us, because of these things which he saw in a vision, he exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel; yea, he feared lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord.
[You think this stuff is trippy? You should have heard the really crazy stuff Nephi didn’t write down!]
1 Nephi 8:37 And he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words, that perhaps the Lord would be merciful to them, and not cast them off; yea, my father did preach unto them.
[As a parent myself I can assure you that it is very difficult to get your kids to listen well when you start your lecturing them with a trippy story about impossible and poorly described hallucinations. However, picture this from the point of view of the kids. Lehi has just related a story about fountains full of dead bodies, magic white fruit and some guy in a matching white dress, a huge floating party in a glass building, all sorts of strange perceptions and darkness’s, and a magic handrail that should be fixated on. Then he wants to know why the boys didn’t eat white fruit in the dream. I’m sure he looked at them with wild bloodshot eyes, and with spittle foam flacking his words demanded that the white fruit was “The best fruit ever”. I don’t know what I would do when he demanded to know why I did not eat the fruit in his dream. I hope I would have said that I was eating the fruit while he was distracted by that well-dressed party goer who had forgotten their pants.]
1 Nephi 8:38 And after he had preached unto them, and also prophesied unto them of many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord; and he did cease speaking unto them.
[It is good that he eventually stopped talking to them. I’m sure everyone suggested that he take a nice long nap and sleep off the whatever it was.]

If you don’t think that bit was well developed enough to make for a good and lasting metaphor, then you are not alone. In order to clear things up Joseph spells out what the metaphor is in the 11th chapter of the first book of Nephi:

1 Nephi 11:25 And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.
[This is confusing as I thought people were drowning in the fountain!?! And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
Later still in the first book of Nephi (chapter 15) the two boys who were confused by Lehi’s story (and who wouldn’t be?) ask Nephi what that story was all about. Nephi searches in his bag of tricks, and says the whole thing was metaphorical. As to the Rod of Iron:

1 Nephi 15:23 And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?
1 Nephi 15:24 And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.
[Fiery darts – Great mists of darkness…. Whatever]

And that, my dear readers, is rather typical of trying to decode Mormon theology. If only there was a consistent narrative that one could grasp onto, like a magic handrail perhaps, in order to guide one to the desired meaning of a particular story in the Book of Mormon. I know there are many who will argue that the living prophet and revelation through faith can guide one, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this entire post is all about decoding a strange coded metaphor whose repeated use clouded my ability to read the supposedly guiding writings. These poorly-worded Book of Mormon stories are actually used recursively to decrease the ability to understand what is being said. I am tempted to believe that this cacophony of dissonant understanding is actually a tool meant to distract believers from accidentally realizing that there is very little to understand in most of LDS theology.





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