Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Council of Gods, Part 2

Lehi was a prophet of the highest caliber in Ancient Israel and Nephi made sure that his record clearly demonstrated this. Lehi’s contemporary, Jeremiah had to deal with several pseudo-prophets who claimed to speak in the name of the Lord and contradicted Jeremiah’s own prophesies. It seems that Nephi, having lived in this climate where a prophet’s credentials were suspect felt the need to verify his own father’s legitimacy. Lehi was a visionary man and one night when he was lying in his bed he was “carried away”.

“And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day. And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament. And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read. And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord. And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.” (1 Nephi 1:8-13)

Here Lehi was called into the council of the gods to counsel with the gods. These gods in turn worshiped the head God as they were “in the attitude of singing and praising their God. Granted, the text here does not say “gods” but “angels”. However, I will argue that angels can themselves be understood as gods in the council of gods. Consider this psalm:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet” (Psalms 8:3-6).

When the psalmists said “a little lower than the angels” he actually says “me’at me’elohim” which means “less than the gods”. The Hebrew word for angels is “mal’akhim” while “elohim” is the word for gods. Perhaps it is not so incorrect of the English translators to use the word “angels” instead of “gods”. But whether mal’akhim or elohim, the angels with whom Lehi counseled were divine beings.

That Lehi had such an experience prior to his public ministry is important. As a prophet in Ancient Israel, an invitation to the council of gods was requisite. Jeremiah had many rivals. While Jeremiah warned Israel of impending destruction, others said “Ye shall have peace”. To these would-be prophets Jeremiah asked:

“For who hath stood in the counsel of the LORD, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it?... I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.” (Jeremiah 23:18-22)

Here the phrase “counsel of the LORD” is a translation of the Hebrew “sod Yahweh”. The word “sod” means both “counsel” and more especially “council”. Strong’s Dictionary defines it as “a session, i.e. company of persons (in close deliberation); by implication intimacy, consultation, a secret”. So the direct meaning of “sod” is a council, as in a group, but it is a more intimate and special group where important counsel is given. It is the kind of counsel a prophet receives.

Not only is prophet called to be such only by the convocation of the council of gods but Yahweh himself is also constrained to warn his people through this council before he does anything. The prophet Amos said:

“Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)

The word “secret” here is a translation of the same Hebrew word, “sod”. The verse could be translated this way:

“Surely the Lord, Yahweh will do nothing, unless he reveals his counsel/council to his servants the prophets.”

The basic idea here is that Yahweh will not work his wonders until he has called a prophet into his council to counsel him. And this pattern is seen several times. Consider the prophet Isaiah. He was called in a time of international threats similar to Jeremiah and Lehi. He too was caught into a heavenly council to stand before the presence of Yahweh.

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” (Isaiah 6:1-8)

This is a very interesting example of a divine council which bears a strong resemblance of Lehi’s own experience. Some things I find interesting here are the seraphim who present the Lord to Isaiah through their song of praise, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” The seraphim also present Isaiah to the Lord through purification. Then while sitting in council the Lord asks “Whom shall I send”? Isaiah as a participant in the council responds “Here am I; send me.” It is clear here that Isaiah and Yahweh are not the only ones in council. There are seraphim as well. Presumably, if Isaiah were the only one present, the Lord would not have to ask whom he should send. It has the feel of a formal meeting in which all the lines are previously written and in turn the participants give their prepared statements. But the council is important, the Lord must ask and the servant must offer himself. This is all very similar to what may be the most famous council of gods in Mormon theology, the premortal council.

The premortal council is recounted in Moses 4 and Abraham 3. In this council the Lord also asked who should be sent. The premortal Christ offered himself. This meeting also has the feel of a formal meeting with prepared statements, but Lucifer didn’t quite catch on to the protocol. The Father was supposed to ask the question and Christ was supposed to offer himself, but Lucifer jumped in and started offering his own ideas—and it didn’t go so well. Anyway, Christ was accepted and the plan of the council was put into motion. In Abraham, the council is composed of the “noble and great ones” of whom the Lord says “these I will make my rulers”. It appears here that many members of the council of gods were premortal spirits. Though they are not called gods here, the next chapter recounts the implementation of the very plan formulated by these noble and great ones.

“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)

This account of the creation is actually similar to the account in Genesis. The first verse of Genesis could be translated the usual way:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

But since the word here translated “God” is “elohim” the verse could also be translated:

“In the beginning the gods created the heaven and the earth.”

Scholars may argue over whether this is the plural form of “eloah” meaning god or if it is referring to the head God. Certainly the word “elohim” is used in other places to refer to a single being. But on the other hand, the creation account quotes Elohim speaking to someone using the first person plural:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).
“And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).

To whom was Elohim speaking? The idea that Elohim was addressing a council of gods makes a lot of sense. The divine council was not uncommon in the Ancient Middle East. In fact, the divine council was a very common motif. Readers of the Bible who have a strict monotheistic background are accustomed to the idea of one single god or maybe three at most. But this idea, while common today, would be quite unusual in ancient times. Another surprising void in the modern, monotheistic conception of god is the omission of any female deity. It is in contrast to this void that we find what may be one of Mormonism’s most radical yet least explored doctrines: a Mother Goddess or Mother in Heaven. But this topic deserves its own post, next time.

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