Not long ago I under took a study of the word "vessel" in the scriptures. For sometime I had been impressed by the scripture (which is repeated four times in the standard works) which says,
"Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord." (Isa. 52:11)
"And then shall a cry go forth: Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch not that which is unclean; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." (3 Ne. 20:41)
"And go ye out from among the wicked. Save yourselves. Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord. Even so. Amen." (D&C 38:42)
"Go ye out from Babylon. Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." (D&C 133:5)
I was intrigued by that word "vessel". I looked it up in the 1828 Websters Dictionary as saw that it was defined as:
- A cask or utensil for holding liquors and other things;
- In anatomy any tube or canal in which blood or other humors are contained or secreted-arteries, lymphs, spermatics, etc;
- In physiology of plants, a canal or tube in which sap is contained;
- A ship.
As I studied the use of the word "vessel" in the scriptures I found that there are three main ways in which the word is used. The first was to refer to the vessels (bowls, cups, spoons, etc) that were used in the ancient tabernacle and in Solomon's temple, the second was to refer to a sailing ship (Ether 2:12), and the third was to refer to the human body, specifically in the context of sexual purity.
The vessels of the tabernacle and temple were stored in the Holy Place on top of the table of shewbread (which can be translated as the "table of presence"). This table held loaves of bread which literally stood before God, seeing as they were placed before the veil that separated the holy place from the holy of hollies, where God dwelt. The bread sat on the table all week until the Sabbath when it was eaten by the priests and replaced with new bread. The table of shewbread also had four rings on its sides in which were inserted two staves (poles). The tabernacle was portable and the poles were used by the Levites to carry the table when the children of Israel were traveling in the wilderness. The ark of the covenant, the altar of sacrifice and the altar of incense were also carried by the priests in the same fashion (see Exodus 37).
In addition the table of shewbread also contained many vessels, which were described as God's "dishes and his spoons, his bowls, and his covers to cover withal (Exod. 31:16)." That final phrase "covers to cover withal" can also be translated as "jugs used for pouring libations", a libation being a ritual pouring out of a liquid (usually oil or wine) as an offering. The vessels were made of pure gold and they were dedicated to the Lord, only to be used seen by the priest and used for His purposes. The table of shew bread in Solomon's temple contained more than 5,400 vessels of gold and silver (Ezra 1:6-7) and the weight (and thus worth) of them was unweighable because it was so great (1 Kgs. 7:45-51).
As I studied the history of the table of shewbread I was struck by the apparent similarities it has to our modern day sacrament. Today, once a week on the Sabbath, we also offer up bread in remembrance of Christ's body and pour out water, in numerous vessels, in remembrance of His blood. Like in ancient times these emblems are still carried, or born, by those who hold the Aaronic priesthood. Though unlike in the temple of old, today all who are worthy-- not just the priests-- may eat of the offering and make sacred covenants to take the name of God upon them.
This is why the scripture " Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord" is often used to remind the men who use the priesthood to bless and administer the sacrament that they must be morally clean and worthy to handle those sacred emblems. They are, like the ancient priests of old, administering from the vessels of the Lord.
Yet the phrase "be ye clean who bear the vessels of the Lord" goes even deeper than that. There are numerous examples throughout the scriptures in which the human body is referred to a vessel, specifically in reference to remaining sexually pure. For example, in 1 Thess. 4:4 Paul admonishes the saints to be sexually pure and abstain from every fornication. Then he instructs, "Everyone of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor." Afterward he continues by telling them that they should not have "lust of concupiscence", concupiscence coming from the root of "concubine" and meaning to have a strong sexual appetite.
Another one of the most interesting uses of the word "vessel" is in 1 Sam. 21:5 when David and his men, starving after a long flight from Saul, approach the priest Ahimelech and ask him for food. Ahimelch has no bread to give them except for the shewbread, which is only to be eaten by priests. Even so, Ahimelech tells them that he will allow them to eat it if, "the young men have kept themselves at least from women." David responds by telling him that all the men have been at least three days without being sexually intimate with women. He says, "The vessels of the young men are holy", after which the priest allows David and his men to eat the holy bread.
These examples are so interesting to me, because not only do they refer to the body a vessel, but they are specifically referring to the sexual organs as being holy vessels. Think back to the definition of the word vessel, it is a cask, a tube, a canal for carrying something, specifically a liquid.
There are many parts of our bodies that can be considered vessels (veins, heart, lymph, etc) but there are only a few organs in both men and women that possess God-like abilities. The life giving organs in both men and women meet the definition of a "vessel". In men their vessel stores and then pours out life giving liquid while the female vessel receives, and then contains, the liquid. Furthermore, a woman's body takes this liquid and creates from it a new human life, a body that will grow and develop within her. The womb becomes the ultimate vessel, carrying the potential of continuing life.
Despite our scientific advances much of what happens within the womb, within that vessel, is still mysterious to us. This is because the womb is a sacred vessel, and even if it never bears a child, it is still a place a place where God's power dwells and the potential for new life resides. Any woman who has ever shed her blood each month has that power within her; she is a testament to the continuation of life. Alma bears testimony of this when he calls Mary, the mother of Christ, " a precious and chosen vessel" before she has even born the Christ child (Alma 7:10). The womb of every woman is a precious and chosen vessel, even if it never has the opportunity to be filled.
I recently read a summary of a talk Elder Dallin H. Oaks gave at a recent regional conference. Here is what the author related:
"He [Elder Oaks] first compared the vessels of the Lord to the emblems of the sacrament. He reminded the young men in the Aaronic Priesthood that they have a special responsibility to stay clean, physically and morally, in order to handle those sacred vessels. What I heard next surprised me just a bit... What he said was that just as young men have the potential to bear the emblems of the sacrament (and later officiate in other priesthood ordinances), and therefore the vessels of the Lord, so young women have the potential to bear children – vessels which will bear the spirit children of God. And for that reason, young men and young women are both bound by the counsel in Section 38, namely to be clean in order to bear the vessels of the Lord.
It is so beautiful to me that Elder Oaks specifically refers to administering the sacrament (which is allows to be re-born into eternal life through Christ) as being similar to bearing children (which allows us to be born into mortal life.) Both men and women have important stewardships on this earth, and while they are different, they both are working towards the same goal, "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." (Moses 1:39)
It is fascinating to me to think about the womb and the male and female sexual organs as being vessels of the Lord. This is especially meaningful for those who have made covenants in the temple because it means that our bodies are really not our own. They are promised to God and when we use our power in God's work we become His holy vessels, places in which God pours out His power and works miracles. We literally carry God's work forward on the earth as we bear forth in our bodies His power, His priesthood, His children, His authority, His truth, His testimony.
Each and every one of us bears the vessels of the Lord.
Be ye clean.