The Foreordination of Abraham

Foreordination of Abraham

Book of Abraham Insight #21

One of the most important doctrinal teachings in the Book of Abraham is that of the pre-mortal existence of humankind and the foreordination of many “noble and great ones” to be rulers on earth (Abraham 3:22–28). Abraham himself was singled out as one who was divinely preordained to a great mission:

Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. (vv. 22–23)

Since the Book of Abraham so clearly teaches the idea of a pre-mortal existence and the divine foreordination of rulers, the question might reasonably be asked whether these teachings find a plausible context in the ancient Near East.

In fact, scholars recognize that Near Eastern peoples believed in the divine foreordination of their kings (and in the case of the ancient Israelites, some of their prophets).1 As one scholar put it, “Divine election—the academic designation for the choosing of people by deity for position and opportunity in mortal life—is a claim that is well attested in ancient Near Eastern texts, including the Hebrew Bible.”2

For example, in a prologue to his famous collection of laws, the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi (circa 1810–1750 BC), depicted himself as being foreordained by the gods to rule:

When the august God Anu . . . and the god Enlil, lord of heaven and earth, who determines the destinies of the land, allotted supreme power over all the peoples to the god Marduk . . . [a]t that time, the gods Anu and Enlil, for the enhancement of the well-being of the people, named me by my name: Hammurabi, the pious prince, who venerates the gods, to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to rise like the sun-god Shamash over all mankind, to illuminate the land.3

The ancient Egyptians of Abraham’s day likewise believed their kings were divinely pre-elected to be rulers. One Egyptian text from Abraham’s time says of the pharaoh Senwosret I (circa 1950–1900 BC): “Men and women surpass exultation in him, now that he is king. He took possession [of kingship] in the egg; his face was toward it from before he was born. Those born with him are multiple, but he is a unique one of the god’s giving.”4 Additional texts from Abraham’s lifetime and many centuries afterwards point to this concept being both prevalent and long-lasting in Egyptian thought.5

Some ancient Egyptian monarchs even went so far as to claim that they were literal divine offspring. At her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, for example, the queen Hatshepsut (who reigned circa 1473–1458 BC) commissioned a series of reliefs depicting herself as the literal daughter of the god Amun-Re who could, accordingly, claim a divine birthright to rule Egypt. The reliefs begin with a depiction of what Egyptologists call a “council of the gods”6 where, in the midst of other important deities, Amun-Re foretells Hatshepsut’s reign, followed by scenes of her divine conception, birth, and ascendency to the throne.7

A facsimile reproduction of a relief from the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. In this scene, which has sadly suffered extensive damaged, the god Amun-Re (seated on the right) announces to the council of gods (standing on the left) that he has foreordained Hatshepsut to unite Egypt under her rule and has also given her dominion over foreign lands and peoples. Image from Naville (1897), Pl. XLVI.

Abraham appears to have not held any kingly titles in mortality yet was designated a “noble and great one” who was foreordained to be a “ruler” (Abraham 3:22–23). This must certainly at least have been true in a priesthood sense, and unlike the counterfeit priesthood of Pharaoh (Abraham 1:25–28), Abraham’s foreordination to the priesthood was legitimate and ratified through a covenant with God (Abraham 2:6–11).8  Thus, by drawing attention to his foreordained status, Abraham may have been demonstrating how the power and divine authority usually associated with earthly kings was more legitimately and eternally endowed upon worthy holders of the priesthood.

The Book of Abraham’s teachings about foreordination and divine election are therefore important for the eternal truths they preserve and ground the text in a plausible ancient context.

Further Reading

Stephen O. Smoot, “‘Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Was Born’: An Egyptian Context for the Election of Abraham,” forthcoming.

Dana M. Pike, “Formed in and Called from the Womb,” in To Seek the Law of the Lord: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 317–331.

Terryl Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2009), 9–20, 215–216.

Dana M. Pike “Before Jeremiah Was: Divine Election in the Ancient Near East,” in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 33–59.

Footnotes

 

1 Dana M. Pike “Before Jeremiah Was: Divine Election in the Ancient Near East,” in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 33–59; “Formed in and Called from the Womb,” in To Seek the Law of the Lord: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson and Daniel C. Peterson (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2017), 317–331.

2 Pike “Before Jeremiah Was,” 33.

3 Martha T. Roth, trans., Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, 2nd ed. (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1997), 76–77.

4 James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works of the Middle Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 87.

5 See for instance Wolfgang Helck, Die Lehre für König Merikare (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1977), 83–87; Adrian de Buck, “The Building Inscription of the Berlin Leather Roll,” Studia Aegyptiaca I, Analecta Orientalia 17 (1938): 54; Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions: Historical and Biographical (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), 2:284, 327, 356; Ramesside Inscriptions: Historical and Biographical (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977), 5:239; Robert K. Ritner, The Libyan Anarchy: Inscriptions from Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 477–478.

6 James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago, Il.: The University of Chicago Press, 1906), 2:78; Edouard Naville, The Temple of Deir el Bahari, Part II, Plates XXV.–LV.: The Ebony Shrine. Northern Half of the Middle Platform (London: The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1897), Pl. XLVI.

7 Naville, The Temple of Deir el Bahari, Part II, 12–18, pls. XLVI–LV; The Temple of Deir el Bahari, Part III, Plates LVI.–LXXXVI: End of Northern Half and Southern Half of the Middle Platform (London: The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1898), 1–9, Pls. LVI–LXVI.

8 See further John Gee, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 107–113.

The Importance of the First Vision in Latter-day Saint History

First Vision

Review of Steven C. Harper, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2019). 262 pp. + index. Print: $35.00. Ebook: $14.00.

Next year marks the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s First Vision—the vision that set him on the path to prophethood and the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saints around the world will celebrate this occasion in various ways. The 200-year anniversary of that remarkable vision is not merely a time for celebration, but also an opportunity to reflect on the importance the First Vision in how Latter-day Saints understand themselves and their faith, both now and historically.

This is where Steven C. Harper’s new book, First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins, published by Oxford University Press, comes into play. Harper (PhD in early American history from Lehigh University) reviews the history of the vision first in the memory of Joseph Smith, and then in the collective memory of the Latter-day Saints through generations. In doing so, he documents how the importance of the vision, and role it has played in Latter-day Saint theology, has changed over the last two hundred years.

As the subtitle indicates, Harper puts particular emphasis on memory throughout the book. In the first part of the book, Harper draws on the latest research in memory studies to better understand how Joseph Smith’s own memory, and circumstances in which he remembered, shaped each retelling of the surviving first-hand accounts of the First Vision.

In the second part (roughly half the book) Harper explores how the First Vision consolidated in the collective memory of early Latter-day Saints, with particular emphasis on those who played a key role in relating the vision to the Saints after Joseph Smith’s death. As Harper illustrates, it took some time—and required the considerable efforts of Orson Pratt, B. H. Roberts, Joseph F. Smith, and John A. Widtsoe—before the First Vision came to a place of prominence in the minds of Latter-day Saints. By the time the Church was celebrating its 100th anniversary, however, the First Vision came to play a central role in the Latter-day Saint story.

The canonization of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880, with Joseph Smith’s 1838/39 account of the First Vision in it, was naturally an important factor in how the Vision came to take center stage, but there were other factors as well. Before 1880, Orson Pratt relentlessly shared and re-shared the vision in various publications. Other first-generation Latter-day Saints in the mid– to late–19th century related their recollections of hearing Joseph Smith share the vision in the 1830s–40s, evidence that Joseph actually shared the vision more often than previously thought. Poetry, song, and artwork was created about the First Vision, and much more.

Harper also discusses how the discontinuation of plural marriage—something that had played a major role in how Latter-day Saints understood themselves—opened up the way for the First Vision to take on a more prominent role in Latter-day Saint identity. Joseph F. Smith, in particular, helped bring the First Vision front and center at this time in order to fill the void polygamy left behind.

In the third part of the book, Harper discusses developments from the mid–20th century to now, focusing on developments that have contested how the First Vision is remembered in Latter-day Saint collective memory, and how the Church and its members have responded to these challenges. Harper reviews how criticisms of the First Vision’s authenticity from Fawn Brodie and Wesley Walters galvanized Latter-day Saint historians to do pioneering research into the historical context of the vision.

The publication of additional accounts of the First Vision from Joseph Smith, long since forgotten by Latter-day Saints, also come into play during this period, with critics arguing that the differences in these accounts prove the story is false while believing scholars have seen them as additional evidence of the vision, undermining the critics’ case that it was simply made up later in Joseph’s life.

Disputes over how to interpret the historical record continue to this day, and Harper discusses how most recently the Church itself has embraced these additional accounts and incorporated them into it’s own narrative, as seen, for example, in new history Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.

Harper manages to cover all of this while keeping the book concise and readable for interested laypersons. Individual chapters are also short, often less than ten pages, so it doesn’t feel like a huge time commitment to sit down and read.

As the 200th anniversary of the First Vision approaches, those interested in better understanding what that vision has meant to Latter-day Saints over these last two centuries will benefit from reading First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins.

Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths

Ancient Near Eastern Creation Myths

Book of Abraham Insight #20

The Book of Abraham’s creation account (Abraham 4–5) shares an obvious relationship with the biblical creation account in Genesis (Genesis 1–2). However, it also shares common features with creation myths from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Turning to the Egyptian evidence, “the order of the creation process in the Book of Abraham is similar to that provided in Coffin Text 80, a text that appears in copies dating from about two hundred years before Abraham down to Abraham’s time, and is the only lengthy creation text we know of from that time.”1

This text begins with a depiction of a primordial chaos (“the Abyss, in darkness and in gloom”2), which, like the Book of Abraham, clearly rules out a depiction of creation ex nihilo or out of nothing. In this account

the creator was “one who lit up the sky after the darkness.” The creator discusses the time when “I could not find a place to stand or to sit, before Heliopolis was founded so that I could be in it, before reeds were tied on which I could sit, before I made heaven so that it could be over my head . . . before the divine council existed.” Then the creator “begat the eldest of his spirits . . . when he separated earth from heaven,” and then he “made grain.” Various animals are given life: falcons, jackals, pigs, hippopotami, men, crocodiles, and fish “according to the command of” the creator “so that I may lead them to live with my mouth, which is life in their nostrils. I guided my breath into their throats.” The account has a number of other details, but it discusses similar topics in a similar order to the Book of Abraham.3

Considering that Abraham was directed to declare his teachings about astronomy and Creation to the Egyptians (Abraham 3:15), it is favorable for the Book of Abraham’s ancient authenticity that “the accounts are close enough for ancient Egyptians to find something in the Book of Abraham that would provide familiar echoes to their own accounts.”4

Additionally, “there are . . . parallels between the Book of Abraham and contemporary Mesopotamian creation accounts,” although these parallels are more general and in some cases only cursory.5

One such account, the myth of the gods Enki and Ninmah, “refers to the ‘day when heaven [was separated] from earth,’ and it follows with a discussion of the creation of humans by mixing the blood of a God with the clay from which humans were made. . . . [It also depicts] the separation of heaven and earth before the making of mortals.”6 This text also directly mentions of the primeval chaos, aligning with the Book of Abraham in rejecting creation ex nihilo.7

Other Mesopotamian creation myths also portray the separation of heaven and earth and the creation of humans in the same general order as the Book of Abraham, although the purpose behind why humans were created are different in these accounts.8

Another interesting similarity between the Book of Abraham’s Creation account and ancient Mesopotamian creation myths is that “the creation of man is connected with the sacrifice of a god” in these texts.9 This is seen in one myth where gods are slaughtered and from their blood is fashioned humankind,10 as well as the myth of Atrahasis, in which humans are created from the flesh and blood of the sacrificed god Weila mixed with clay.11

In the Book of Abraham this [connection with sacrifice] is mentioned obliquely: “The Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first” (Abraham 3:27). Latter-day Saints connect this with other accounts of the preexistence to equate the one “like unto the Son of Man” with the premortal Jesus and the other with Lucifer (see Moses 4:1–4) and that the creation of man was dependent on the Son of God being willing to offer himself as an atonement for humans. The parallel, however, is with Latter-day Saint interpretation of the Book of Abraham and not the text of the Book of Abraham as we currently have it. That might be different if we had the full Book of Abraham.12

These parallels between the Book of Abraham’s Creation account and ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths serve nicely in situating the text in a plausible ancient Near Eastern context in Abraham’s day.

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Creation,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 129–142.

Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

Footnotes

 

1 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 132. On Coffin Text 80 in general, see Jan Assmann, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, trans. David Lorton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 177–182.

2 R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, Volume I: Spells 1–354 (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1973), 83.

3 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 132–133. Additional translations of this text can be found in Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, 83–87; James P. Allen, “From Coffin Texts Spell 80,” in The Context of Scripture, Volume I: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 11–14.

4 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 133.

5 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 133.

6 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 133, citing W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013), 334–337.

7 Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths, 335.

8 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 134. “Though the explicit purpose of life between the two accounts is similar, for the Babylonians, the purpose of life was to do heavy labor for the benefit of the gods so that the gods would no longer have to work. In the Book of Abraham, life is a test to ‘prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them’ (Abraham 3:25). Such a test may include serving God or their fellowman and might involve hard work, but it may also involve many other things—and it involves more than simply being a slave to take over menial tasks. The Book of Abraham promises rewards for obedience which are missing from the Babylonian text.”

9 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 136.

10 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 134; cf. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths, 355.

11 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 134, citing W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-ḫasīs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 58.

12 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 136.

Creation from Chaos

Kolob

Book of Abraham Insight #19

Creedal Christianity teaches that God created the universe ex nihilo or out of nothing. As explained by one scholar,

The most widely accepted theistic explanation of initial creation is the theory that God created the universe from absolutely nothing. . . . Most major theologians in Christian history—for example, Irenaeus, Augustine, Catherine of Sienna, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Karl Barth, and Paul Tilich—believed that God initially created the universe from absolutely nothing. . . . [M]any influential Christians throughout history have affirmed the theory.1

By contrast, Joseph Smith taught that God created the universe ex materia or out of pre-existing matter. “[T]he learned men who are preaching salvation say, that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing,” the Prophet acknowledged in a sermon on April 7, 1844. “The word create [in Genesis 1:1] came from the word baurau [bārā]; it does not mean so; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos; chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory.”2 

This teaching is also found in the Book of Abraham,3 and the Prophet’s later teachings about Creation may well indeed have been influenced by Abraham’s record and his study of Hebrew related to the translation thereof.4

According to the Book of Abraham, there was one in the pre-mortal council “like unto God” who proclaimed: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abraham 3:24). In the next chapter, the text says that the Gods (the members of the heavenly council) “organized and formed the heavens and the earth” as opposed to creating the earth (Abraham 4:1). The verbs organize and form are used throughout the Book of Abraham’s Creation account instead of create, clearly indicating some kind of divine activity or fashioning of material as opposed to creating all matter ex nihilo.

Scholars now recognize that the ancient cultures of Egypt, Syria-Canaan, and Mesopotamia did not seem to countenance ideas of creation ex nihilo but rather envisioned creation as the emergence of an ordered cosmos out of pre-existing chaos. This pre-ordered chaos is often personified as a primordial cosmic ocean or as a primeval cosmic combat between gods in ancient Near Eastern creation myths.5 For instance, in ancient Egyptian mythology, the earth first emerged as a primeval hillock springing out of a preexisting, chaotic, and unorganized primordial ocean called Nun.6 In the Mesopotamian myth known today as Enuma Elish (from the opening lines of the text meaning “when on high” in ancient Akkadian), the evil goddess Tiamat is defeated in battle by the god Marduk and her body is split in half to form the cosmos.7

Although not obvious from reading the King James translation, Creation is similarly imagined in the Bible as order emerging from a state of disorder. As the eminent biblical scholar Marc Zvi Brettler has noted:

The opposite of structure is chaos, and it is thus appropriate that [Genesis] 1:1–2 describe primeval chaos—a world that is ‘unformed and void,’ containing darkness and a mysterious wind. This story does not describe creation out of nothing (Latin: creatio ex nihilo). Primeval stuff already exists in verses 1–2, and the text shows no concern for how it originated. Rather, it is a[n account] about how God alone structured primordial matter into a highly organized world.8

This may hold significance for the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the Gods “ordering” the elements of the cosmos, which “obey” when so commanded (Abraham 4:7, 9–12, 18, 21, 25). This language “conjures [imagery] typical of the Near Eastern creation mythology . . . . of kingly dominion establishing order over a previously chaotic cosmos.”9

So while the Book of Abraham’s teachings about Creation might be out of place in the typical Christian thinking of Joseph Smith’s day, they are not out of place in the world of the ancient Near East.

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Creation,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 129–142.

Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

Kevin Barney, “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1,” BYU Studies 39, no. 3 (2000): 107–124.

Footnotes

 

1 Thomas Jay Oord, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: An Introduction,” in Theologies of Creation: Creatio Ex Nihilo and Its New Rivals, ed. Thomas Jay Oord (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 2.

2 “Conference Minutes,” Times and Seasons 5, no. 15 (August 15, 1844): 615. For the reports of this sermon, see Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by William Clayton, 16; Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, 18; Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Willard Richards, 68; Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff, 136.

3 See the overview in Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

4 Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew appears very likely to have influenced his translation of the Book of Abraham, including the decision to render the verbs in these verses as organize and form. The lexicon utilized by Joseph as he studied Hebrew in Kirtland, Ohio defines the verb bārā as “to form, make, create,” although not “organize.” Josiah W. Gibbs, Manual Hebrew and English Lexicon (New Haven, Conn: Hezekiah Howe, 1832), 36. As recognized by one scholar, however, it is “doubtful” that Joseph got his teaching of creation ex materia from his study of Hebrew alone. Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (Summer 1968): 52. The extent to which Joseph’s study of Hebrew influenced his later teachings and translations thus remains open to discussion. For a recent perspective, see Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 249–302.

5 For representative scholarly overviews of this topic, consult Robert A. Oden, Jr., “Cosmology, Cosmology,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 1:1162–1171, esp. 1164–1165; Shalom M. Paul, “Creation and Cosmogony in the Bible,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed. (Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007), 5:273–275; Abraham Winitzer, “Chaos. I. Ancient Near East,” in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, ed. Constance M. Furey et al. (Berlin: De Guyter, 2012), 4:1158–1159. See also generally John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 179–195; Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), esp. 23–121.

6 Günter Burkard, “Vorstellungen vom Kosmos—Die Weltgebäude,” in Ägypten: Die Welt der Pharaonen, ed. Regine Schulz and Matthias Seidel (Germany: Könemann, 1997), 447. See also Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 172–173; Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 117–118.

7 “The Epic of Creation” in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, rev ed., trans. Stepheanie Dalley (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 228–277; “Enuma Elish – The Babylonian Epic of Creation – Full Text,” online at www.ancient.eu; Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Battle Between Marduk and Tiamat,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, no. 1 (1968): 104–108; Mary K. Wakeman, God’s Battle with the Monster: A Study in Biblical Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 16–24.

8 Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia, Penn: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 41. See also the comment by Hermann Spieckermann, “Creation: God and World,” in The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, ed. John Barton (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 275. “God’s creation as described at the beginning of the Bible is not a creative act out of nothing. The conception of creatio ex nihilo first came to the fore in Hellenistic Judaism (2 Macc. 7:28). After the heading of Gen. 1:1 comes a description of the world before God’s first deed, the generation of light. Three elements characterize the world at this time: tōhû wābōhû (formless and void), ḥōšek (darkness), and tĕhôm (the deep). Present in Mesopotamian myths and even Old Testament texts, this triad alludes to Chaos. The term tĕhôm betrays an inherent conception of Chaos.”

9 Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” 34.

The Divine Council

Divine Council

Book of Abraham Insight #18

One thing that differentiates the Book of Abraham’s account of the Creation from the biblical account in Genesis is that the Book of Abraham mentions plural “Gods” as the agents carrying out the Creation. “And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1). These Gods are mentioned thirty-two times in Abraham 4 and sixteen times in Abraham 5. Significantly, these Gods are said to have taken “counsel” amongst themselves during the Creation (Abraham 4:26; 5:2–3, 5).

This language of the Gods taking counsel amongst themselves in Abraham 4–5 appears to be a natural continuation of the description of the premortal council in heaven in Abraham 3:22–28. One of “rulers” in the pre-mortal council who was “like unto God” is depicted as saying, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (vv. 24–25). In this manner the council of Gods in Abraham 3 counseled with each other during the Creation in Abraham 4–5.

After the lifetime of Joseph Smith, archaeologists working in Egypt, Syria-Palestine, and Mesopotamia uncovered scores of texts written on papyrus, stone, and clay tablets. As these texts were translated, scholars and laypersons alike were surprised to discover creation myths that in many ways paralleled the biblical Creation account while differing in some significant ways.1

One way in which these creation myths were different from the Creation account in Genesis was the clear, stark portrayal of what came to be widely called the divine or heavenly council. In many of these myths, a group or family of gods or divinities work together in fashioning the components of the cosmos.2  Other times, the gods engage in divine battle over control of the cosmos.3  Whatever the specific case, almost universally these myths described multiple deities serving different roles or functions in the process of Creation.

With this extra-biblical material in mind, and with the discovery of superior manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that provided better readings of certain biblical passages,4  scholars returned to the Hebrew Bible and re-evaluated passages which appeared to acknowledge the presence of a divine plurality. Over time a general consensus has been reached that the Bible does indeed portray a multiplicity of gods, even if there remains individual scholarly disagreement over some of the finer details.5

A fragment containing Deuteronomy 32:8 (4QDeutj) from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unlike the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, which speaks of the “sons of Israel” in this verse, the variant preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls speaks of the “sons of God” and has been widely understood by scholars as a reference to God’s divine council.

In contrast to typical Jewish and Christian belief in Joseph Smith’s day, the Book of Abraham frankly depicts a plurality of Gods and even uses specific language (“took counsel amongst themselves”) that invokes the presence what is now widely recognized by scholars as the unquestionably ancient concept of the divine council.

The divine council as depicted in the Book of Abraham is composed of, at least:

    • “intelligences” and “noble and great ones” (Abraham 3:22)
    • “God” (v. 23)
    • “one . . . that was like unto God,” (v. 24) who was “like unto the Son of Man” (v. 27)
    • “another” who was “second” to the one who was “like unto God” (v. 27)

According to the Book of Abraham, then, God the Father did indeed work with a council, of which Jesus Christ and other “noble and great” pre-mortal intelligences or “souls”/“spirits” (v. 23) were members. The polytheistic divine councils of the ancient Near East might well be echoes of the conception of the divine council portrayed in the Book of Abraham. To be sure, while there are striking similarities between the Book of Abraham and other ancient texts that feature a divine council, there are also notable differences. What is important for the Book of Abraham is that the text broadly (and even in some specific instances of language) shares a similar ancient conception of a heavenly hierarchy or council of divine beings.6

While it is true that Joseph Smith learned from his Hebrew studies that the word for God (Elohim) in the Old Testament is technically a masculine plural noun,7  it does not seem likely that he would have learned about the divine council from his teacher, Joshua Seixas, as the two seemed to strongly disagree on the implications this held for the biblical view of God.8  In any case, with the exception of the Bible, the surviving ancient texts that overtly depict the divine council were unknown in the Prophet’s day.

While the theological implications of the divine council remain to be fully explored and articulated,9  what can be said with a fair degree of reasonableness is that the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the divine council shares features present in other ancient Near Eastern texts, some of which date to Abraham’s day. This reinforces belief that the Book of Abraham is authentically ancient.

Further Reading

Stephen O. Smoot, “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.

David E. Bokovoy, “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 267–313.

Joseph F. McConkie, “Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986), 174–98.

Footnotes

 

1 For an accessible reproduction and discussion of some of the more prominent texts in this genre, as well as a bibliography, see Christopher B. Hays, Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 41–73. See also John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 179–199; Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011).

2 For instance, the ancient Egyptian nine gods of the Heliopolitan Ennead or the eight gods of the Hermapolitan Ogdoad as attested in Pyramid Texts 301, 446, 527, 600 and Coffin Texts 75–81, 107, 335, 714; or the family of the Canaanite god El and his consort Athirat from the Ugaritic texts. For Egyptian cosmogony, see generally Vincent Arieh Tobin, “Creation Myths,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ed. Donald A. Redford (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 2:469–472; for Ugaritic cosmology, see generally Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

3 For instance, the combat of the gods Marduk and Tiamat from Mesopotamia. On such, see “The Epic of Creation” in Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, rev ed., trans. Stepheanie Dalley (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 228–277.

4 For instance, the reading of Deuteronomy 32:7–9, 43–44 in 4QDeutj + 4QDeutq.

5 For a representative sampling of the extensive literature, see Gerald Cooke, “The Sons of (the) God(s),” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 35, no. 1 (1964): 22–47; E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature, Harvard Semitic Monographs 24 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980); S. B. Parker, “Council,” in in Dictionary of Deities and Demons of the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999), 204–208; “Sons of (the) God(s),” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons of the Bible, 794–800; Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism; Min Suc Kee, “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007): 259–273. For Latter-day Saint responses to this scholarship, see Daniel C. Peterson, “‘Ye Are Gods’: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witness to the Divine Nature of Humankind,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Daniel C. Peterson (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 471–594; Stephen O. Smoot, “The Divine Council in the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 155–180.

6 David E. Bokovoy, “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 267–313, esp. 272–279; see further Joseph F. McConkie, “Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils,” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986), 174–98.

7 On Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew, see Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 249–302.

8 Discourse, 16 June 1844–A, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, 2. It does not appear to have been within Seixas’ disposition to have encouraged a “polytheistic” theology in his student Joseph Smith, since the former was an Orthodox Jew who later “adopted the basic tenets of Unitarian [Christian] belief.” As such, “it is highly doubtful that [he] would have advanced a pantheistic or trinitarian interpretation of Gen. 1.” Shalom Goldman, “Joshua/James Seixas (1802-1874): Jewish Apostasy and Christian Hebraism in Early,” Jewish History 7, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 76, 82; cf. God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 194. Compare also the observation by Louis C. Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (Summer 1968): 52.

9 The Prophet Joseph Smith delivered a discourse in circa May 1841 where, referencing otherwise unknown or unpublished material from the Book of Abraham, he taught: “[An] everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organizations of the earth, and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth. These personages, according to Abraham’s record, are called: God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer, and God the third, the witness or Testator.” Discourse, circa May 1841, as Reported By Unknown Scribe–A, 1, spelling and punctuation standardized. On another occasion, the Prophet taught: “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, [and] the Holy Ghost a distinct personage and a Spirit. These three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.” Discourse, 16 June 1844–A, as Reported by Thomas Bullock, 1, spelling and punctuation standardized. The unity and separateness of the Godhead was obviously an important topic for the Prophet, and subsequent prophets have added to and clarified this subject with additional teachings.