You’re a Mormon, right? What’s your tribal affiliation, your lineage? Ephraim, probably, right? It was on your patriarchal blessing? Ephraim? Me? It’s not on mine. Though I’m probably just Ephraim too.
I served my mission in Norway, and spent most of it way up north. For much of my time there, I was the northernmost missionary in the world, because in our apartment, my bed was north of my companion’s. We were in Tromsó Norway, an island city about the same latitude north as the northernmost tip of Alaska. The gulf stream warms the west coast of Norway, making life there, with cities and seaports and such, plausible. Still, it got cold. We kept our shampoo in the fridge so it wouldn’t freeze. We were north. And I loved it; loved the Northern Lights, loved the northern dialect, loved the one night we had two meters of snowfall.
Inland from Tromsó, which is to say, away from the warming gulf stream, it’s essentially tundra; too horrifically cold really to support human life. Which means, of course, that human beings live there; thrive in that climate, in fact. The people who live up there are the Sami people, the northernmost indigenous people of Europe. You may know them as Lapplanders. They follow the reindeer herds on their snowmobiles, though really their main profession is fishing. I knew some Sami on my mission, and found their culture fascinating.
I had a companion, though, who found the Sami fascinating for an entirely other reason. He thought for sure they were the lost ten tribes. Makes sense, right? The lost ten tribes of Israel, went “north” after the Assyrians deported and scattered them. Okay, 2700 years ago; still, they went somewhere, and occasionally someone will give a talk about it, how they’re still a discrete people, with prophets and scriptures and a culture. In a cave maybe, under the earth’s surface. OR (and this was the possibility that got my companion all fired up) maybe they were an indigenous culture. Up north. Living by themselves. Speaking their own language, following their own customs.
As it happened, our little Tromsó congregation had a Sami member, a young woman in the nursing program at the U of Tromsó (Go Polar Bears!). She hadn’t been a member for very long, and my companion was all on fire for her to get her patriarchal blessing. He was sure her lineage was going to be ‘Naphtali’ or something. Problem was, ‘getting a patriarchal blessing’ wasn’t easy. The only patriarch in Norway lived in Oslo, a bajillion miles away. She couldn’t afford to fly there, and there wasn’t a bus or train to Tromsó (there is now, but not back then). Sometimes, though, the patriarch would travel north to the city of Trondheim, which had a large and active branch. Northern members could arrange to meet him there. Getting from Tromsó to Trondheim required a two day boat trip, but my companion kept pestering our Sami member, telling her how great a patriarchal blessing was and how she really wouldn’t regret taking a week off work to get one. Finally he convinced her. She took the boat south, and came back to us all enthused. She’d loved her patriarchal blessing. The whole experience was totally worth it. It was a great spiritual blessing for her. She was so grateful.
What tribe was she from, asked my companion, finally. ‘Ephraim,’ she said. Why did he ask? He was crestfallen. She was Ephraim. Not, like, Dan or Asher or. . . Issachar. Just . . . Ephraim. Like everyone else.
When we Mormons are baptized into the Church, we’re also adopted into one of the tribes of Israel. That then becomes our lineage, and we become heirs to all the blessings promised to Abraham. So I was told, and so I was taught. But this is a doctrine we essentially never talk about. I suppose there’s the odd Sunday School lesson on the covenant of Abraham that gets into it a bit. But it’s essentially never mentioned from the pulpit. Certainly not in General Conference.
I think we don’t talk about it because it’s sort of a weirdly tribal doctrine anyway, feels anachronistic, has no real impact in our lives. And is maybe sort of borderline racist, or racialist? Doesn’t it feel like God likes some tribes more than others?
More than that, it doesn’t feel true anymore. I’m not saying it isn’t true, I’m saying it doesn’t feel true. There’s a lot of ‘chosen people’ talk in the Bible, which makes sense. Gods are often worshipped tribally. Yahweh is our God, the God of our tribe, the God that protects us and watches over us and sends us rain allowing for bountiful harvests as long as we obey him. But how much of the Old Testament is about the Children of Israel hedging their bets, offering sacrifices to the Gods (or gods) of other tribal peoples in the region? And that’s a bad thing, and you really really shouldn’t do it, and if you don’t watch out Elijah will ask God, Yahweh, to smite the priests of Baal. Which He will totally do.
That’s not a message we need anymore. I suppose you could say that we worship idols of our own, cars and fancy houses and big bank accounts and stock portfolios and our favorite sports teams. And we shouldn’t and lessons saying so are still apropos. Our needs today, though, are not the needs of a tribal desert people, living hand to mouth, enemies everywhere, desperate to establish an identity, one good drought away from catastrophe. We’re rich. We also have astonishing technological capabilities. The brotherhood of man isn’t just a stirring rhetorical trope; we can instantly see and communicate with people anywhere in the world. We’re drowning in information. We need less tribalism, not more. We need to take care of the poor among us, mostly those in Asia and Africa. It actually makes sense to put everyone in Ephraim; we need to think that way now, as all members of a single race, the human race. Talks about ‘the House of Israel’ or ‘the Abrahamic covenant’ just don’t resonate anymore, nor should they. I’m not saying those are doctrines we should discard. I’m saying those are doctrines we have, de facto, discarded. And I don’t miss them, and think we’re better off without them. Right?
Nearly forty years ago, I got my patriarchal blessing. I loved it. I still reread it from time to time. I still find it inspirational. But it doesn’t mention my lineage. I could get that fixed easily enough, but I’ve never bothered, because I just flat don’t care. I mean, it’s just Ephraim, right? Like everyone else’s. We’re all brothers and sisters, in other words. Yay for that.