In Rabbinic tradition, Noah is considered the lesser – if not the least – of the Patriarchs. Unlike fathers Abraham and Jacob, Noah did not argue with God. When faced with God’s declaration of the impending destruction of all life through the Flood, Noah was obedient and preached to the people, warning them of the imminence of God’s wrath. But he did not, like Abraham when contemplating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, attempt to persuade God to forgo such a drastic, horrific plan.
For the rabbis, then, part of righteousness comes from dialogue with God. Noah was righteous, yes. But the better part of valor – the proof of the truly great – is in challenging God; in wrestling like Jacob and the angel until we may claim our blessing (Genesis 32:24-32). Although we are to be obedient, we are not to be unquestioning. On the contrary, God wishes us to respond. No human question could upset the Divine; it is questions that bring us closer to Him.
The inherent rightness in questioning God is further illustrated in the life of Moses. When he becomes tired and overburdened by the demands of shepherding an entire people from Egypt to Canaan, he turns to God and complains at some length, even begging God to kill him. God suggests that he call counselors, leading to the first Council of the Seventy:
And Moses said unto the Lord, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? Have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? … I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness. And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them,; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. (Numbers 11:9-17, KJV, emphasis added.)
Asking questions is not an exclusively male prerogative either. When the children of Israel settled in the land of Canaan and began apportioning the land, they determined that it would be inherited patrilineally (from father to son) according to each tribe. This way the geographical tribal borders would stay intact throughout generations. Yet a man named Zelophehad had only daughters, and they became concerned about their ability to claim their family land given the lack of a male heir. They asked Moses, and Moses asked God. It was determined that the daughers of Zelophehad had an inheritance of their own in the land of Israel:
Then came the daughters of Zelophehad … of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Our father died in the wilderness…. and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father. And Moses brought their cause before the LORD. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying, The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. (Numbers 27:1 – 9, KJV)
This, then, is a God who demands obedience, yes – but also a persuadable God, a God who seeks relationality. It is not merely that we are allowed to ask, and it shall be given; knock, and it shall be opened (Matt 7:7) – it is that God wishes us to ask. It is the asking, as we Mormons teach, that led Joseph Smith to his role in the restoration of the modern Church.
It is for this reason that I am consistently surprised by the backlash against questioning and debating within Mormon subculture. Especially, it seems, when addressing issues relating to the role of women, gender roles generally, and the nature of the priesthood, there is a rather consistent overtone of orthodoxy that implies both that questions should not be asked, and that the righteous are those who are content with the status quo. I would argue, on the contrary, that within our tradition – within our very oldest traditions and up through the restoration – there is a constant, even urgent, demand to question, and to question consistently; to wrestle with our own angels until the morning (that is my favorite Genesis tale). I would argue further that it is not clear that because one person is all right with the status quo that means that everyone should be. On the contrary, the notion that questioning itself, or the feeling that some change is needed, is somehow apostate seems counter to nearly every one of our stories of origin.
- 12 June 2013