Honoring Scriptural Villains
Sitting around a campfire with other Mormon feminists until the early hours of the morning this last weekend, I realized how deep the conversation gets late at night when the embers glow crimson. It reminded me of testimony meetings around the campfire at girl’s camp. Late at night we would share deeply of our stories and listen to each other, crying with love and understanding. A powerful bond is created through the telling of stories. I used to feel that bond with the heroes in the scriptures as I read their stories. But lately, especially as I have thought more about scriptural villains, I have found a lack of depth to the scriptures. I write my post today in honor of scriptural villains who did not get the chance to tell their own stories.
First up are two of the most familiar villains known to our Mormon family: Laman and Lemuel. We know them as the murmuring older brothers to the ever-faithful, ever-perfect Nephi. They were riotess, godless men who abused their younger brother, gave their parents grey hair, and created an entire civilization of wicked people who fought against the civilization created by Nephi and his righteous brothers. That is their story…or at least the story we know, written from the perspective of a younger brother. I wonder what kind of story my brothers would write about me. What kind of story would my enemies write about me? Would it align with my own story about myself? I can answer that with an emphatic “NO!”
Add to the mix the fact that Nephi was painstakingly engraving this story on plates. If I was going to that much effort to tell my story, with the intent that it would be around for future generations everywhere to read, I would make every effort possible to make myself look good, even if that meant making my enemies look worse than they really were. In effect, I as an imperfect human would not have the capacity to tell another person’s story accurately. It would only be my story from my perspective. So what we have is not so much Laman and Lemuel’s story, but Nephi’s story about them. And for over a century, we as members of the church have condemned these complex human beings based on a simple story that is missing millions of pieces of information, as well as multiple perspectives.
I spent my life condemning these characters that I barely know. But now I honor them for their humanness. I have compassion for them and I know that I can’t judge them based on the little information I have. They may not have had the faith (nor the arrogance) of the hero Nephi. But they had the courage to live their own story instead of living within Nephi’s story of them. They broke away from family and tribe to live authentically according to the dictates of their own consciences. They had the courage to be the villains in Nephi’s story of them. I know how hard that is. I have also had to become okay with being the villain in other people’s stories and not to let that affect my own story about myself. I know people talk about me. I know they are still perpetuating a story about me as an apostate who needs to be avoided because my ideas are dangerous. That is their story and I can’t do anything about it, but live my own story that doesn’t involve apostasy or dangerous ideas.
The other scriptural villain that I love is the lesser-known Noadiah, the false prophetess. One of the reasons she is my favorite is because this is all we know about her: “My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat, according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear.” Nehemiah 6:14. After reading that a few years ago, I closed my eyes and wondered, if only one line was written about me and my life, what would it be? It would depend on who wrote that one line of course. If it were my current bishop, I imagine that he would write, “Jenny was a strong and faithful member of the Church until she got into things she shouldn’t have online and fell down the slippery slope to apostasy.” And just like that, in one line, I would go down in history as a villain, an enemy to God. I crave more information about Noadiah. Nehemiah wrote his memoir as if he was doing the work of God in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. We don’t know many details about how or why Noadiah tried to thwart him. We only know that from Nehemiah’s point of view, he was right and she was wrong. He was with God and she was against God. And in the span of history, he had the power because he had the pen. So now people of our generation, taking the Bible to be the word of God, caste Noadiah as a false prophetess.
I wonder if Noadiah was fighting for something that was beyond her lifetime. Did Nehemiah’s anger come from a power struggle because of his status and authority? Was Noadiah a threat because she knew she was not inferior to men and she refused to be subjugated by their authority? Ultimately, I think Nehemiah’s issue with Noadiah could probably be boiled down to the fact that he wasn’t willing to listen to a difference of opinion. He thought he knew God’s way and that was all he needed. Anyone who opposed that was an enemy. Not much has really changed in human nature since then.
I wish I could sit up late, watching the glowing embers of a fire, feeling the night breeze on my face, as Noadiah and I discuss her life and what she fought for. I want to understand her disagreement with Nehemiah on a deeper level. I don’t even care if I would disagree with her. I just want to hear her story of herself. I want to know what made her a false prophetess. I want my people to stop seeing the world in black and white. I want us to stop making flat characters of complex human beings. I want the Mormon church to be like those late evening testimony meetings at girl’s camp, as we shared our stories and discovered the depths of each other’s souls. We condemn the villains in our scriptures, we condemn the villains in our present church. But if we could sit down and talk to all villains past and present, we might discover that the only real villain is our condemnation of people before we truly and deeply know them.