Lost (and Found) Tribes

In high school, my best friend’s dad had a joke. Whenever we’d get together with our Jewish friend, Amy, he’d pop into the room and quip, “So, Amy, how does it feel to live in the only place in the world where you’re the Gentile?”

Of course, that place was Utah; Amy was surrounded by Mormons.

Growing up Mormon, you’re taught that you are modern-day Israel. God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are fulfilled in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of Christ’s true church through the prophet Joseph Smith. By accepting baptism into the Mormon faith, you are adopted into the House of Israel and lay claim to all the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. Later in life, you receive a blessing at the hands of one of the church’s specially-ordained patriarchs, and your precise tribal lineage is declared to you. When I was 18, I received my blessing: I am of the Tribe of Ephraim, like my mother and father before me.

In one of my classes this past week, we did some reading on the history of ancient Israel. One article, “Introduction to the History of Israel,” by J. Maxwell Miller, had a couple of lines that took hold of me and wouldn’t let me go: “The name Israel probably referred originally to a group of loosely associated clans and tribes whose settlement was concentrated in the central hill country north of Jerusalem; Judah was a separate group that settled in the southern country south of Jerusalem.” And again, “Political organization would have been rather loose among the early ‘Israelite’ tribes and clans, centered in the clans and villages with authority vested in the clan and village elders.”

This is not exactly what I had envisioned.

In Mormonism, you are taught that the hierarchy that governs the LDS church is divinely mandated and more or less resembles the way God has structured his work since the dawn of time. The structure, which is published twice a year in the monthly church magazine, The Ensign, is a highly ordered organizational chart with multiple management tiers of (mostly) white men in suits and ties. At the very top of the chart sits the president and prophet of the church—a modern-day Moses.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of the leaders of the Mormon church as anything like Moses. (Heck, it’s been a while since I’ve had much confidence that an ancient prophet named Moses even actually existed.)  But images, particularly the religious images you absorb as a child, stick with you. I did not know that I had an image of 12 Efficiently Organized and Tightly Structured Tribes of Israel stuck in my head until that article shocked me out of it.

I realized: I have carried this organizational chart around with me as the default image of God’s people for years. It was my image of ancient Israel; it was my image of the church. It’s still there, rattling around, trying to figure out what to do and where to go now that it’s been challenged.

Of course, it’s not just my Mormon background fueling this. It’s my American context, too. I live in one of the most powerful nations in history with the military capacity to destroy the planet multiple times over and an economy that boasts 16% of the entire world’s wealth. I have no idea what a society of loosely associated clans and tribes would look like or feel like. I have been brought up in a world that is dominated—both politically and religiously—by large, centralized institutions claiming cosmic powers. It feels a little embarrassing to admit it, but I don’t know that it ever really occurred to me that there were other ways to imagine it.

But I’m curious now. I can’t get it out of my head. What if, in our calling to be God’s people, we aren’t organized like a powerful global empire or a complex corporate org chart? What if it’s more like a village? What if it’s like gathering around the campfire after a hard day’s work, swapping stories and breaking bread? What if it’s like a community garden, or a local bakery, or a neighborhood action group, or a babysitting co-op, or a book club, or a town meeting like in Gilmore girls?

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What if it’s like a Body—eyes and ears and feet and hands and lungs and heart—where every part is necessary and contributes vitally to the functioning of the whole?

(I guess there are some other images after all.)

I think what really struck me in all of this is just how deeply our culture, language, political systems, images, and experiences shape the way we think of God and the world. These influences shaped our predecessors in faith, and they will shape those who come after us. Each generation wrestles with new (and old) questions and seeks new (and old) ways to make sense of it all in the midst of shifting contexts. It’s not a neat, tidy, and ultra-organized process. It’s messy. The way people are: complicated, ambiguous, sinful, redeemed, creative, beloved.

And who knows, maybe that’s what God was getting at all along. You could understand it if God had called an empire or a multinational corporation to be God’s chosen people. That’s about what you’d expect. But a loosely associated society of clans and tribes with little political power and a history of domination by foreign regimes? That changes things.

There is something both terrifying and comforting about this realization. Terrifying because it’s not what I always thought it was and it’s hard to recalibrate. But comforting because maybe, perhaps, God will see fit to choose me–complicated, ambiguous, sinful, redeemed, creative, beloved as I am–despite my weakness and misunderstanding.

And if God could choose Israel, and if God could choose me, maybe there’s hope that God will choose all of us.

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