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Jana Riess: Latter-day Saint Israel and the problem with President Nelson’s ‘let God prevail’

Church leader’s translation ignores the original story in which Jacob actively refuses to let God prevail. Still, the biblical patriarch’s struggle offers a lesson for all who wrestle with deity.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson speaks at the Sunday morning session of General Conference on Oct. 4, 2020.

As we get ready for General Conference to begin Saturday, I’m thinking about the charge that church President Russell M. Nelson gave Latter-day Saints in the October conference: to spend six months studying how “Israel” is used in the scriptures.

“As you study your scriptures during the next six months, I encourage you to make a list of all that the Lord has promised he will do for covenant Israel,” he said. “I think you will be astounded! Ponder these promises. Talk about them with your family and friends. Then live and watch for these promises to be fulfilled in your own life.”

If reading that charge just now gave you a sense of panic, because you totally forgot, LDS Living has helpfully broken it down for you into a six-week study plan, which began in late February. You could probably still use it to hit some highlights. It uses the six letters in the English transliteration of “Israel” as an acronym for six things the church wants us to remember heading into conference:

  • Immanuel.

  • Saved.

  • Rewarded.

  • Atoned.

  • Eternal.

  • Loved.

So, don’t panic. It’s not too late to start thinking about Israel. It’s a lifelong task. In fact, Nelson noted in the talk that he has spent more than 30 years since becoming an apostle in 1984 trying to understand the doctrine of the gathering of Israel.

Of the 800 messages that Nelson has given during those 36-plus years, he has mentioned Israel in 378 of them. It is clearly a keen interest: What does it mean to be part of Israel, and when will the gathering occur?

The leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said that one possible translation of “Israel” is “let God prevail,” which is the title of his talk and a theme I’m sure we will hear more about in the days to come. What the talk did not say is that there are many other, more common, translations of Israel that present a different point of view on what the word means. And those meanings are also highly relevant for people who are wrestling with God’s place in their lives and what it might look like to be part of a religious community.

So let’s look at where the word comes from.

“Israel” was the name of a person before it ever became the name of a people. It’s from a story in the Book of Genesis, when Jacob the trickster has a life-changing religious experience. Up to this point in Jacob’s story, I think it’s fair to say that he’s a pretty shady character. Almost half of Genesis is taken up with Jacob’s personal and family saga, and he’s not always the good guy. He cheats his older brother out of his birthright, tricks his father-in-law (after, in fairness, being tricked by his father-in-law), and can’t bring himself to love all his wives and concubines equally — a foreshadowing of the way he will later fail to love all 12 of his sons equally, to disastrous effect.

In all this domestic drama, Jacob has a mysterious experience of wrestling with “a man” at night, a man the story hints was an angel or even God himself. At first, the man seems bent on harming Jacob, and inflicts a hip injury on him. The man is intent on subduing Jacob, but Jacob is not having it. The two wrestle all night, until dawn is breaking and the stranger begs Jacob to let him go:

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

So he said to him, “What is your name?”

And he said, “Jacob.”

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (NRSV)

In the Genesis story, it’s not that Jacob lets God prevail, submitting demurely to God’s will. He fights God tooth and nail in the dark night of the soul, refusing to let go until he receives a blessing.

Various translations do different things with this passage, and it’s totally possible that “Let God prevail” is as good as any other when you’re looking at the Hebrew, which is complex. But the overall idea of translating “Israel” as “let God prevail” ignores the original story, in which Jacob actively refuses to let God prevail.

I don’t want to take this one phrase out of context from Nelson’s talk, even if the title is “Let God Prevail” and that’s obviously his main theme. His overall theme is about aligning ourselves with God’s purpose, and being willing to join with a community of other people who also want to align themselves with God’s purpose. That community is Israel, and we “gather” Israel whenever we participate in that effort.

“The Lord is gathering those who will choose to let God be the most important influence in their lives,” Nelson said.

I’m on board with that idea, but I’d like to see us expand our definition. “Israel” is not about perfect submission and simply letting God prevail — obey first, ask questions later or not at all. It’s about being people who are willing to wrestle. “Israel” includes the ones who struggle, the ones who in the beginning of their story are far from perfect or heroic, but who grow into something bigger than themselves — who grow into a nation.

It’s painful, and it marks them forever as they limp forward from that fight. But they continue striving.

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