REVIEW: Jacob: A Brief Theological Introduction, Deidre Nicole Green
Deidre Green’s Jacob: A Brief Theological Introduction is another standout addition to the series, grounded in a productive and insightful choice that leads to some profound engagement with the text. The book is straightforwardly written, occasionally a little too straightforwardly for my tastes, giving the reader a clear sense of what Green is seeing in the text.
Green opens her engagement with the theology of the Book of Jacob by digging into what sort of person Jacob was, following in the footsteps of Grant Hardy (and I’m sure others). Green clarifies that “Although it would be impossible to offer a full reconstruction of Jacob, I offer inferences and educated guesses based on my own careful analysis” (8). The move here is that essentially, to understand what it is that Jacob wants us to derive from his preaching, we have to understand who Jacob is. Most of us can likely relate to this argument, given the ways that we constantly interpret words or phrases based upon the speaker.
One of the things that Green draws our attention to is Jacob’s anxiety. She notes that “Jacob’s many references to his own anxiety account for half of all the references to anxiety found in the Book of Mormon” (10). Jacob, in Green’s telling, is riddled with anxiety, constantly fretting over his own salvation and the salvation of his people. Green ties Jacob’s anxiety to his push for social justice and concern over the marginalized among his people. I would love to read more work that strives to interpret Jacob (and other scriptural figures) as people, doing some textually supported speculation about them to get more out of their writings. I’m also interested in the usage of “anxiety” in 19th-century America and how that compares to our usage today, given the abundance of its presence in Jacob’s record.
Green also spends a fair bit of time exploring the ways that Jacob uses the ‘other’ and the ‘enemy’ as an exemplar, specifically talking about Sherem and the Lamanites. This is one of the most powerful ideas in the book. She writes that “Rather than proving his spiritual authority by discounting Sherem, Jacob does so by helping Sherem to recollect and reaffirm the truth he already knows” (49). Not only does Jacob give full space to Sherem’s words in his record, but he uses Sherem to bear witness of the truth. Jacob sits with and engages with Sherem’s ideas until they have reached an understanding, and Jacob demonstrates his spiritual authority in this listening and affirmation. What would my engagement with others look like if I followed a similar model? If I sat with and engaged with people to recollect and reaffirm truths, rather than discounting their beliefs and arguments?
For Green, these questions then guide Jacob to interact with the Lamanites in a way that elevates them, using them as an example of how to properly treat women and children. Green states that “In lifting up the Lamanites as a vision of godly society and in allowing Sherem to function as a second witness of Christ along with himself, Jacob demonstrates that setting relationships right with God, self, and the neighbor often requires social reversals” (57). Here, the emphasis is drawn to relationships. Jacob illustrates that a key part of being a true disciple is to set our relationships right with others and that to fully make that happen, we will likely need to upend our current social structures. Again, powerful ideas here that I need to think through how I can implement them in my own life.
To close, there are a couple of insights from Green’s reading of Jacob 5 that I found quite provocative. Like many folks, I’ve appreciated the themes and messages of Jacob 5, but often struggled to actually go through with a thorough, attentive reading of it. Green’s reading has pushed me to revisit the text to see it in the new light that she casts on it. The first insight is about God’s vulnerability. Green argues that “Moreover, God further becomes vulnerable by displaying a dependence on others for the fulfillment of covenant, including individuals who must respond to God’s salvific efforts and the servant and laborers who work together to carry out God’s efforts” (102). I LOVE this. I’m all about a God that is dependent on us to bring His/Her/Their work and glory to pass and I think framing that as vulnerability is fascinating (and provocative in how it then reframes what sort of relationships with one another we should be striving for here on Earth—namely that interdependence is necessary and essential and DIVINE).
Building from this insight, and echoing what seems to be at least one lesson from Enoch’s vision of a God who weeps, Green says, “The moving language Jacob draws upon suggests that the process of atonement is designed to heal God’s broken heart over separation from creation as much as it is designed to heal the broken hearts of human beings over separation from God and one another” (103). I had never thought of that before and am enamored with this idea. Love love love the idea of God being broken hearted and needing healing as much as we do over our separation from one another. Powerful stuff, that, again, casts a new light on suffering and sin and atonement, which is powerful.
As I finished Deidre Green’s Jacob: A Brief Theological Introduction, I found myself wanting more. All the insights and readings that Green offers felt like they are barely scratching the surface of what they mean for my lived faith. And that, I suppose, is part of the point. The volumes in the series are not meant to be the end of the process, but only the beginning—introductions, as the titles suggest. Here, the introduction has got my mind and heart whirring, striving to integrate these insights into my daily life. If that’s not enough of a recommendation, I don’t know what is.