The scriptures have rather unflattering things to say about arms of flesh. When the Kingdom of Judah was invaded by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib, Hezekiah rallies his people to battle with his own version of a St. Crispin’s Day Speech:
Be strong and of good courage. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him; for there is one greater with us than with him. With him is an arm of flesh; but with us is the LORD our God, to help us and to fight our battles. (2 Chronicles 32:7-8; quoted text from the NRSV, KJV here)
A second passage in the Old Testament likewise invokes the concept of an arm of flesh. In the first stanza of a poem about God’s justice and the human heart, Jeremiah offers a curse against those who trust in mortal power. (In the following NRSV text, “strength” is used where the KJV uses “arm.” The meaning seems to be similar in either case.)
Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. (Jeremiah 17:5-6; KVJ here.)
Setting aside Jeremiah’s evident prophecy about the eventual settlement of Tooele, Utah, the message in these texts seems quite explicit. We’re forbidden to trust human beings for our protection from mortal danger–or, making a standard Christian generalizing move, for our ultimate salvation.
A similar context is invoked in the first use of the “arm of flesh” motif in distinctively Mormon scripture. Nephi, in the course of reflecting on his own sins and his personal need for redemption and atonement, exclaims:
O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way–but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy. O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm. (2 Nephi 4: 33-34
Nephi’s statement gramatically recapitulates both Old Testament phrases regarding the arm of flesh; it also fits substantively with these Old World prophetic statements. Nephi, after all, speaks in a context where he is invoking God’s protection from both mortal danger and sin. Both the literal, military defense against foes that was the context for Hezekiah’s speech and the spiritual, salvific generalization of protection against sin are implied in Nephi’s speech.
However, the other two uses of the “arm of flesh” theme in distinctively Mormon scripture produce a new application for the phrase. In Nephi’s closing sermon to his 19th-century audience, we find the following text:
Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough! For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost. (2 Nephi 28:29-31)
Here, for the first time in scripture, the idea of trust in the arm of flesh is related to theological and intellectual beliefs. Rather than involving physical protection from aggressive humans or spiritual protection from sin and the devil, avoiding trust in the arm of flesh in Nephi’s quote here offers protection from belief in false doctrines. This scriptural innovation recurs in the text of Doctrine and Covenants Section 1:
Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; and also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—but that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; that faith also might increase in the earth; that mine everlasting covenant might be established; that the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers. (D&C 1: 17-23)
A quick internet search will likely be sufficient to convince most readers that this usage of the “arm of flesh” motif in connection with reliance on human ideas is now in widespread usage even outside of Mormonism. Nor was it unheard of in early 19th-century American religion. For example, in 1825, Joshua Lawrence published his religious pamphet, “THE AMERICAN TELESCOPE, BY A CLODHOPPER, OF NORTH CAROLINA.” (See the full text here.) In the context of a discussion of how best to conduct missionary work, Lawrence makes the following statement:
I do not think myself guilty of a breach of religious charity, in saying, that these polishing machines, lately established for qualifying young men to preach, are of the devil, and from high-minded men, who want to maintain their cause by human strength, and an arm of flesh. These high-minded doctors seem, indeed, to me, like some men, who dislike their Maker’s work, in making the handsome and elegant horse. Say some, his ears are too long–they must be cropt;–say others, his tail hangs too much down,–he must be nicked before he can please us: and to work they go, to better the Creator’s work, or to make a horse to their own liking. Just so with our learned doctors: after God has converted and called a poor young man to the ministry, and furnished him with every needful qualification, and directed him to go and preach his gospel, it will not answer–he does not please the doctors–he does not speak grammar, nor is he eloquent enough to command the respect of the people. He is not even polite in his manners, and does not know how to conduct himself properly in genteel company. He must be altered before he will answer for a preacher, or be able to please the people, and obtain a salary. Thus the proud and high minded of this world, have, in all ages, set at naught God’s ministers, and have heaped up to themselves teachers, having itching ears, who have sounded forth their own praise, and had an eye to the purse.
Here, as in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, the idea of the arm of flesh is used to refer to relying on human ideas–and specifically human academic training–in the place of direct inspiration or revelation from God. Other similar usages of the “arm of flesh” motif can be found, starting in roughly the 17th century. As always with such results, finding a relatively modern interpretation of such a phrase in our scriptures confirms what they themselves say: that they were written with a modern audience in mind and phrased to maximize that audience’s comprehension. (2 Nephi 31:3, D&C 1:24)
So, it is clear that, in our dispensation, we are warned against trusting other humans for our ideas about God–unless we have confidence that those ideas are given by the Holy Ghost. Yet for a long time, I was guilty of exactly that practice. The earliest instance that I can remember came when I was about thirteen years old and someone pointed out to me that the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of horses, metallurgy, crops, and so forth had really very little support in the archaeological record. What was my reaction?
I reasoned that, if the archaeological record really conflicted with the Book of Mormon–if there wasn’t a clear and compelling answer to this question–then Mormonism was too stupid for any intelligent person to believe. But I knew from personal experience that intelligent people did hold the Mormon faith. Therefore, by logical syllogism, it must be true that someone had a clear and compelling answer to the objection. In effect, I trusted that other humans must have an answer, placing my faith in their rather fleshy metaphorical arms. Instead, our scriptures insist that I should have turned to God directly for an answer.
One mode of revelation is discussed in our Latter-day scriptures in Doctrine and Covenants Section 9. This section involves Oliver Cowdrey’s attempt to translate a portion of the Book of Mormon and as such has a rather complex history; it may in fact refer to the correct mode of revelation using a divining rod, an implement that was specified as Cowdrey’s particular revelatory gift in the 1833 Book of Commandments. In any case, this murky history notwithstanding, the discussion in Section 9 has subsequently been generalized and applied to all members or investigators of the church. The most specific advice about how to obtain God’s answer to a question is as follows:
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. (D&C 9: 7-8)
Here, the instructions on how to obtain an answer directly from the Lord–and avoid relying on the arm of flesh–are clear. We must first make a great deal of intellectual effort before any revelation will be forthcoming. Specifically, we are instructed to study the matter out. Clearly, critical study is incompatible with reliance on intellectual authority; no decision to believe that someone must have the answer can be accepted. Furthermore, it would seem to me that studying the matter out must include opening our minds to the possibility that the answer is other than what we initially believe it to be. Only after a full and careful weighing of the best evidence in favor of the different possibilities–only after doing our best to study the matter using the full intellectual capacity and judgment of our minds–will the Lord speak to our hearts.
Ironically, then, if we are to avoid the condemnations given to those who rely on the arm of flesh, it would seem that we have to begin by doing exactly the kind of independent intellectual work sometimes condemned as relying on the arm of flesh. The crucial difference is that we must understand that work as the first–rather than the only–step in reaching a conclusion.