And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou? (1 Ne. 11:14)
The identity of the angel who appears to Nephi in the above verse is unclear. Is he the Holy Ghost, the yet-to-be-incarnated Jesus, or someone else entirely? I am not sure. However, I like to think he was the pre-mortal Rabbi Ben Bag Bag or some other Talmudic sage. Not only does the angel ask Nephi questions, the way these ancient rabbis did their students, gently encouraging them to think more deeply, but the questions he asks are particularly appropriate to rabbinic exploration of religious texts, including the Book of Mormon.
Behold, what desirest thou?
Few faith traditions revere questions as much as rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud itself is a kind of transcript of religious discussions, held long ago, and generally follow a question-answer-question format. The Passover service too for Jews customarily involves asking four basic questions as well as instructing those present on how to answer those questions so as to promote more advanced inquiry. Furthermore, Torah study sessions are frequently question-driven, where observant Jews engage Five Books of Moses almost like investigative reporters.
And this is only appropriate. According to the Mishnah, the earliest part of the Talmud, a person who is afraid to ask questions cannot learn Torah (Pirke Avot 2:5); such sacred knowledge is not amassed passively, simply by listening to others; it must be acquired by actively “asking and answering” questions (Pirke Avot 6:6). Like Nephi, rabbinic Jews, both ancient and modern, very much desire to behold the things which their Heavenly Father has included in the Scriptures and asking questions is the best and most fruitful way to do so (1 Ne. 11: 3)
Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?
Foundational to this approach is the traditional rabbinic belief that God, as the author of the Torah, wants to communicate with his children and has consequently packed these books full of spiritually significant information. As a result, traditional rabbinic Jews continually question their scriptures, not to debunk them or in any way to cast doubt upon their authority or accuracy, but to more fully understand and appreciate them. To these readers, questions are positive, productive tools. They are the picks and shovels necessary to unearth divine ore from the Scriptures, extracting precious messages from their pages that cannot be obtained by other, less diligent means. As Harry Austryn Wolfson, a noted Jewish scholar, writes, when a traditional rabbinic Jew approaches a scriptural passage or statement, he will proceed to raise a series of questions before he satisfies himself of having understood its full meaning. If the statement is not clear enough, he will ask, “What does the author intend to say here?” If it is too obvious, he will again ask, “It is too plain, why then expressly say it?” If it is a statement of fact or of a concrete instance, he will then ask, “What underlying principle does it involve?”
In this way, rabbinic readers, again like Nephi, start with a deep-seated belief in the Scriptures, a profound confidence that these books contain God-given treasures of knowledge and are therefore worthy of continual even perpetual study.
What desirest thou?
So fervent is this belief in the divinity of the Torah that traditional rabbinic readers consider everything about it significant—even elements that may seem tedious, repetitive, redundant, or contradictory. To them, these elements are not flaws, evidence of human meddling or corruption, but rather indications that something important lies under its surface, waiting patiently to be uncovered. As Wolfson writes:
Statements apparently contradictory to each other will be reconciled by the discovery of some subtle distinction, and statements apparently irrelevant to each other will be subtly analyzed into their ultimate elements and shown to contain some common underlying principle. The harmonization of apparent contradictions and the interlinking of apparent irrelevancies are two characteristic features of the Talmudic method of text study.
Rabbinic readers therefore, like Nephi, are not content merely to comprehend the basic stories in the Scriptures or their most obvious instructions. They want to “know the interpretation thereof,” to apprehend all that God is trying to teach them through these stories and instructions. These readers therefore frequently talk back to the scriptures, speaking to them “as man speaketh” (1 Ne. 11:11), often through a friend, asking questions, putting forth theories, examining their theories, and, once again, asking still more questions. To these readers, scripture study is not ultimately about finding the one right answer. As they see it, there are many right answers, valuable insights into life, the world, God, clustered like uncut gems into a single verse. As they see it, scripture study is more like a conversation, an ongoing dialogue between them and God, which not only reveals new meanings within the Scriptures but reinforces a deeper relationship with God, a relationship that connects them with God’s heart as well as his mind. And asking questions is the best way to keep that conversation going.
What beholdest thou?
However, this conversational responsibility it not the readers’ alone. According to the Talmudic rabbis, it is also God’s; and for this reason God has placed kotzim or “thorns” in the Torah, oddities designed to snag their readers’ attention, to pull them close, to hold on to them, and to encourage them to examine the Torah more closely, more carefully. Just as the angel invites Nephi to look again into his father’s vision and see what else he can see, rabbinic readers see the Torah itself as challenging them to read and reread it, paying close attention to their feelings and thoughts as they do so. To them, every impression, however slight, is worthy of serious inquiry. As Wolfson continues:
And similarly every other phenomenon about the text becomes a matter of investigation. Why does the author use one word rather than another? What need was there for the mentioning of a specific instance as an illustration? Do certain authorities differ or not? If they do, why do they differ?
For instance, readers of the Book of Mormon might feel confused as to why the angel asks Nephi what he desires, and does so twice. After all, he is an angel of God. Shouldn’t a being sent directly from God’s presence already know what Nephi desires? And why does the angel repeat the word “thou” in each of his ten questions? Is he accentuating it? Is he somehow using this pronoun to effectively reach out beyond Nephi, to readers, asking them to consider what they desire and to think about what that means?
Knowest thou the condescension of God?
Such questions would have undoubtedly pleased these Talmudic rabbis. Indeed, many of them had had similar concerns about God’s question to Adam. As they saw it, “Where art thou?” was not an indication that God did not really know where Adam was. It was a plea for readers of this story to consider where they stood relative to God and his commandments.
However these rabbis would not have been content merely to congratulate Book of Mormon readers for coming up such questions or to pat them on the back for the answers these questions imply. They would have admonished them to “go and study” and would have encouraged them to ask more questions concerning how the word “desire” is used elsewhere in the Book of Mormon in an effort to discover how this idea is developed or refined. For instance, how does the angel’s inquiry connect to Alma’s admonition to “exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe” (Alma 32:27)? Is Alma building upon this question? Is he connecting the angel’s question to faith? And why does Mormon ascribe so many of the difficulties as well as the blessings the Book of Mormon people experienced as coming to them “according to their desires” (Alma 9:20; 21:22; 22:34; etc.)? Are one’s desires determinative or merely influential? And is their impact, whatever it is, limited this life or does it extend to the next life, as Alma later seems to say (Alma 29:5)?
Again, for the Talmudic rabbis scripture study is more relational than informational. As they saw it, the ultimate aim of continually questioning the Scriptures is to worship God, to connect with him, to come close to him, to learn from him and to appreciate him, all the while knowing that they could never know all that he knows or appreciate him fully. These rabbis, like Nephi, knew well that God “loveth his children” but nevertheless understood that they will never “know the meaning of all things” (1 Ne. 11:17). And for this reason, when they encountered “that which [they have] not understood,” they considered it wisdom to openly, freely, without embarrassment, admit their ignorance, seeing this ignorance as an opportunity to talk to God using the Scriptures, to ask him questions through them, and to receive answers through them as well (Pirke Avot 5:10). As the renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”
Knowest thou the meaning of the book?
Perhaps asking spiritually provocative questions is more than simply the way Nephi’s angel speaks. Perhaps it is an essential part of what Nephi calls the “tongue of angels,” the language one uses to find out “all things what [she or he] should do” (2 Ne. 32: 2-3). After all, didn’t Nephi liken this angelic language to “feasting upon the word” (2 Ne. 31:20)? And doesn’t such a phrase imply more than simply sampling the Scriptures or consuming them quickly? Doesn’t it involve savoring each event, relishing its presentation, delighting in all of its possible meanings, and chewing carefully its every delicious word and phrase? And isn’t asking questions an important, even irreplaceable way of gaining such a comprehensive appreciation? I think it is. And I think the Talmudic rabbis would have joined with Nephi in explaining to those who do not partake of this sumptuous scriptural repast that they do so “because [they] ask not, neither do [they] knock” (2 Ne. 32:4). As Rabbi Ben Bag Bag told his students long ago, “Turn” the Torah over and over, constantly challenging it, repeatedly questioning it, and continually finding answers within it (Pirke Avot 5:25). What more could an angel say about the Scriptures?