Saturday, October 06, 2007

The word "only" as used in the scriptures

Modern scriptures for the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints keep the King James Version style of ancient Biblical scripture in their latter-day scripture.  This can make understanding passages difficult sometimes.  By understanding a few writing habits used by prophets, several oft-quoted scriptural passages can be better understood.  In this post I discuss one of these: the use of the word "only".

Let me first propose that often the word "only" can and should be substituted with the word "except".  Let me give you some examples of where this will seem obvious if you think about it a bit:

Alma 38

  9 And now, my son, I have told you this that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn of me that there is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only [except] in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness.

D&C 89

  5 That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only [except] in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.

D&C 104

  71 And there shall not any part of it be used, or taken out of the treasury, only [except] by the voice and common consent of the order.

D&C 121

  41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only [except] by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

I hope these few examples demonstrate that sometimes a point is made in the negative, and then followed by the word "only" and a provision for a single allowed scenario.  In modern English we use the word "except" in these instances.  In fact a keyword search for the phrases "only by" and "only in" in the scriptures shows that when the word is found in this pattern, it always uses the "except" meaning. (At least in all the scriptures I could check out).

There is one instance in scripture that is similar to the foregoing examples, but I recently met someone who interpreted the word "only" in the scripture to mean its usual literal meaning (which would end up meaning almost the opposite of what I believe was the intended interpretation).  It comes from the Word of Wisdom:

D&C 89

  12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;

  13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only [except] in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

Consider the meaning of verse 13 if you interpret the word "only" the way we typically use it today: that we should not only eat the flesh of beasts in times of winter, cold and famine but in other times as well.  But since this followed the negative-only-allowance pattern if we replace "only" with "except", we see that we should not eat the flesh of beasts except in times of winter, cold or famine.

As further confirmation that this "except" word was the intended meaning of verse 13, consider the two verses that follow it:

  14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;

  15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

This time the word "only" is not preceded by a negative phrase, and we keep the word "only" there. Since it is a grammatically simple sentence it is easy to see that God intends us to only eat the meat of beasts in famine or excess of hunger. 

As a side note, I think members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could live this commandment more faithfully than many of us do.  I enjoy my meat as well as the next Mormon, but I'm trying to be better.  I did have a friend who had done his research on the culture where people had the longest average lifespan.  The only unique thing in that culture that he could attribute the longer lifespan to was their dietary habit of eating a small portion of meat only once per year.

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