Creation from Chaos

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

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.