A doctrine Mormons probably still believe in, but we never talk about

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.

 

9 thoughts on “A doctrine Mormons probably still believe in, but we never talk about

  1. sammythesm

    I tend to think the tribal designation is more about assuming the responsibilities given to the house of Israel including specific responsibilities given to the tribe of Ephraim to share the gospel. The whole adoption thing. I also find little interest/feeling toward the idea that there are 10 tribes who have preserved their spiritual identity under the earth somewhere. That’s just crazy talk. My understanding is that Israel being scattered means a truly lost 10 tribes — not just misplaced or displaced — but truly lost in both identity and location, both spiritually and physically.

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  2. Cameron H

    Now just you watch, Eric – one of these days you’ll get a letter from Church HQ recognizing the oversight and informing you that you are of the tribe of Zebulun. You’re practically asking for it.

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  3. Kirk Strickland

    In a book written by my sister-in-law, she documents blessings declaring lineages from 10 of the12 tribes: grahttp://www.amazon.com/The-Power-Your-Patriarchal-Blessing/dp/1932898751#productDescription_secondary_view_div_1436596312140

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  4. S

    Hi, oeddie! Always nice to meet a fellow Hufflepuff!

    When I taught this in Sunday School, someone said, “Wait. So, if you’re born in the House of Israel, you get Abrahamic blessings… and if you aren’t born in it, you get adopted in, and you get blessings… so, what’s the difference?”

    My reply was, “This is a ‘heads I win, tails you loose’ type of proposition,” and that made everyone laugh AND ended the discussion.

    However, I do think that taking tribes seriously doesn’t have to be racist any more than studying genealogy has to be classist. I mean, sure, plenty of people DO take things that way, but I can find them as horrifying and wrong as they find me strange and poorly discriminating.

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  5. Alex KZ

    Dan Dan Dan
    My patriarchal blessing states that I am from the tribe of Dan. At the time I lived in one of the most conservative parts of Orange County, California. Due to my birth in Iran, many church members, much like your companion, were excited to know about my tribe designation. When I told them Dan, many backed off since apparently one of our church leaders in the 50s wrote a book (no longer available) and made it clear that anti-Christ would be from the tribe of Dan. Many members changed their attitude towards me and let me tell you it was not nice the way some spoke to me.

    My 16 year old son recently received his Patriarchal blessing and was sure he’d be a Dan too saying his father is one. I made sure no one in our new stake knows about my being Dan. The blessing was given and my son was declared an Ephraim just like the rest of the Mormons. He was disappointed.

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  6. Tim

    Many members of the church are from Ephraim and Manasseh because those two tribes have the sacred responsibility to bring forth the gospel in the latter-days. Don’t let that stop you from thinking the lost tribes are lost for good, it in fact means quite the opposite. My grandfather is a Patriarch in Russia, and he has actually given a blessing to someone from every single tribe. I guess your companion should have looked a bit farther West to prove his theory. 🙂 Although I cannot claim to have met someone from every tribe, as my Grandfather has, I have met members here in Utah and on my mission from Ephraim, Manasseh, Naphtali, Judah and Dan. Don’t forget that the church has millions of members, there are literally millions of people out there that have received their patriarchal blessings that you have never met. The tribes are being found and they will continue to be found until the Savior comes again. I hope this helps a little bit!

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  7. Anneke

    My husband and most of the rest of his Hispanic family and friends are Manasseh. I’m not sure what the meaning of that “tribe” being so widely distinct from Ephraim is, other than maybe reinforcing the idea that they’re descended from Lehi, which makes the connection to the Book of Mormon feel more real to a lot of Latino saints. So … it’s not quite the whole Church being Ephraim yet.

    I also had a friend whose mother was Jewish and whose family had converted to the LDS Church. He said about half of his siblings were told they were Judah and half were Ephraim.

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