Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Council of Gods, Part 3 - The Divine Couple

Worship of goddesses is not uncommon in religious history, especially in polytheistic religions where the presence of female deities seemed as natural as the presence of women here. Yahweh, however, has long been understood to be a very different kind of god, very different from humans. The twelfth century Jewish philosopher Maimonides said “God is not a body, nor can bodily attributes be ascribed to him” and then added further “He has no likeness at all.” [1] It must be noted however that Maimonides lived in the twelfth century after Christ and not the twelfth century before Christ. The people of Ancient Israel had a very different understanding of God. As noted in previous posts, ancient Israelite conceptions of the heavens involved a council of Gods. There is also evidence of a divine family of gods including the worship of a Hebrew goddess.

In 1929 a French excavation team working in Ras Shamra, Syria discovered some religious texts of the ancient Ugarit. The Ugaritic religious texts gave tremendous insight into the beliefs of Canaanites who neighbors of the Israelites. The chief God of the Canaanite pantheon was named El. The name “el” is also used in Hebrew. As examples are several theophoric names: Israel “he will prevail as God”; Michael “who is like God?”; Immanuel “God is with us”. The female consort of El was Athirat. El and Athirat had seventy sons. A great resource on the Ugaritic Council of Gods, Divine Family, and their connection to Ancient Israel is Mark Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. The Ugaritic Council of Gods could be broken down into three tiers. At the highest tier sat El and possibly Athirat. The second tier included the seventy sons of El and Athirat (bn ‘ilm). The third tier included messengers and craftsman.

The Israelite Council of Gods could also be understood in a three-tier structure. At the first tier sits Yahweh-Elohim. In the second tier are the Sons of God (bene elohim). The bene elohim are sometimes called the Morning Stars (kokebe boqer). The third tier was made up of angels (mela’kim) which literally means messangers. Some archeologists believe that Yahweh gradually came to fill the role held by El. Others understand that they may have been separate deities. Margaret Barker believes that Yahweh was originally the son of El [2]. This idea is consistent with the drama found in Deuteronomy 32: 8-9 in which the nations were divided and Yahweh was given charge over Israel. Of course, Yahweh would have become foremost among the bene elohim to have rule over all nations (Psalms 82). But what of Athirat? Does she have a place in the Israelite family of gods. There is evidence that Athirat, known in Israel as Asherah, in fact had a huge role in the faith of the people of Ancient Israel.

We can sometimes know what ideas or beliefs were popular during a given time period by the abundance of surviving documents condemning them. Goddesses do appear in the Hebrew Bible but almost always in a negative light. What are condemned most fiercely are the explicit representations of the Goddess. However, some of the more subtle and symbolic references to her remain. Asherah herself is a Semitic mother goddess. There is also an object called an asherah (lower-case) also known as an asherah pole. The asherah pole was a sacred tree or pole that stood near religious sites to honor Asherah, the goddess herself. In the King James Bible the word asherah is translated grove or groves (asherim). The word appears 39 times in the Hebrew Bible. It appears that these trees were everywhere. In fact they were often found in the temple itself. What is difficult to know is whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, for an objective historian this just shows the different factions within Ancient Judaism. But for believers this could be an important point to consider. What we have of the Bible is widely understood to be a collection of various texts, edited and revised by Deuteronomist scribes. A Deuteronomist is one who adheres to strict monotheism, eliminates any reference to any god besides Yahweh. It could be thought of as the “Yahweh-alone” movement. Anyway, King Josiah is the hero of the Yahweh-alone movement. He purged the temple and removed all the asherahs (2 Kings 23). However, it is important to get the other side of the story and understand who Asherah really was and what she meant to the people.

There are two archeological inscriptions that connect Asherah to Yahweh and suggest that they were a divine couple or at least related and amicable. The first was found at Kuntillat ‘Arjud on an 8th century BCE ostracon which reads: “I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah”. Another was found at Khirbet al-Qom which reads: “Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!” However, the most abundant archeological evidences for Asherah worship in Ancient Israel are the figurines, over eight-hundred found to date. It is thought that these figurines were teraphim, small talismans thought to bring fertility and aid in childbirth. These figurines have been found all over Israel as evidence that belief in Asherah was widespread.

More subtle references to the Hebrew Goddess remain intact in the Hebrew Bible. These references are often understood as simple personifications of attributes of deity. For example, God’s wisdom is often personified in feminine form. The fallacy of reification is the error of treating an abstraction as if it were the real thing. But this is open to interpretation. Two feminine manifestations of God are the Shekhina and Hokhma. Shekhina is a term used in the Talmud to denote the “visible and audible manifestation of God’s presence on earth.” In Midrash literature, “the Shekhina concept stood for an independent, feminine divine entity prompted by her compassionate nature to argue with God in defense of man.” [3] The word “shehkina” however does not occur in the Bible itself. There was a trend in the late Biblical period of theology to interpose “personified mediating entities between God and man”. It is perhaps from this that Shekhina developed. These entities may have been originally emanations of God’s attributes that developed into angel beings who acted under the instruction of God. The most common of these emanations was Hokhma or Wisdom (Sophia in Greek). [4]

The most important Biblical text regarding Hokhma is probably in Proverbs. Here Hokhma (Wisdom) is speaking in first person about her relationship with Yahweh:

“The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When [there were] no depths, I was brought forth; when [there were] no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I [was] there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, [as] one brought up [with him]: and I was daily [his] delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights [were] with the sons of men.” (Proverbs 8:22-31)

What is notable here is the role of Hokhma with Yahweh in the Creation. Near the end of this passage she says “I was brought by him, [as] one brought up [with him]”. The Hebrew word for “brought up” used here is “amon” which means “trained as a craftsman”. Hokhma plays an active role in creating the earth, the mountains, hills, fields, seas, and the sons of men with whom were her delights. In another text it reads: “The LORD by wisdom [hokhma] hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens.” (Proverbs 3:19). In the previous verse, Hokhma is related the Tree of Life itself. “She [is] a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy [is every one] that retaineth her.” (Proverbs 3:18). It has been noted here that the Hebrew word for happy, “ushar”, may have been a play on words for Asherah, the mother goddess and giver of life. Margaret Barker proposes that the menorah itself, which stood in the first Israelite temple, was a tree of life and a symbol of the Mother Goddess, in fact, an asherah. She suggests that this was the very asherah that Josiah had removed from the temple. [5] Mormon scholar Daniel Peterson, proposed that family of Lehi would have been very familiar with the relationship of the Tree of Life to the Mother of God. Margaret Barker believes that the First-Temple Judaism understood Yahweh to be the son of God (bene elohim) and that he also had a mother. Daniel Peterson suggests that Nephi would have understood the symbol of the Tree of Life as a symbol of the Mother of God. [6] When the angel asked Nephi what he desired he said that he desired to know the interpretation of the tree that his father, Lehi, had seen. Interestingly, the angel did not offer an interpretation. Rather he showed him Mary, the mother of Christ. Nephi saw her and then the child in her arms. Then the angel asked him if he understood the meaning of the tree and Nephi answered without hesitation: “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men.” (1 Nephi 11:9-22).

My favorite concept of a Heavenly Mother is in the story of Creation. Granted you need to read between the lines a little, but it makes sense to me. First of all, Hokhma was understood to play a role in the Creation. Also, there is the issue of name of God, Elohim. In Mormonism there is an idea that there is no such thing as a single god, in fact all gods would be god pairs united to become one Elohim. The Doctrine and Covenants mentions a few ways people become gods. First, there is no deification without Christ: “They are they who received the testimony of Jesus... Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods... even the sons of God.” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:51-58). In another section deification comes by participation in celestial marriage: “If a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant... Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection... Then shall they be gods, because they have no end...” (Doctrine and Covenants 132: 19-20). In another section it is also said that that the highest order of the Celestial Kingdom is for only those who enter into the “new and everlasting covenant.” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:1-4). Mormon apostle Erastus Snow put the concept this way: “There never was a God, and there never will be in all eternities, except they are made of these two component parts; a man and a woman; the male and the female.” [7]

After Elohim had made the Earth, the light and darkness, heavens, seas, land, plants, and animals, they set about to create mankind, in Hebrew “adam”.

“And said, Elohim, Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.

“So created Elohim, adam in his image, in the image of Elohim he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1: 26-27, my translation)

This story brings up an interesting thought. Mankind, adam, was created in the image and likeness of Elohim, the gods. They were created male and female. It would seem here that Elohim has both a male and female image and likeness. This could mean that both male and female are compound in one being. That is one interpretation. However, I prefer the view that the Elohim are actually two beings, a father and mother. Man being created in the image and likeness of God the Father and woman in the image and likeness of God the Mother. There is a lot to consider here. Particularly important is the idea that these two divine beings live in such unity that they can be considered one God while still retaining their ontological distinctiveness. How could this serve as an example for earthly things? Can husbands and wives pattern their marriages after this kind of unity? Much can be gained from exploring these ideas.


[1] Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. Wayne State University Press. 1990. p. 28.

[2] Barker, Margaret. Temple Theology: An Introduction. Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge. 2004. p. 7.

[3] Patai, p. 96.

[4] Patai, p. 97.

[5] Barker, p. 90

[6] Peterson, Daniel. Nephi and His Asherah. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume - 9, Issue - 2, Pages: 16-25. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2000
See an online version here:

[7] Journal of Discourse 19:270

Further Study

Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods. Volume 3. Kofford Books. 2008. pgs. 41-121.

Smith, Mark. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background. Oxford. 2003.

Dever, William. Did God Have a Wife?: Archeology and Folk Religion of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2008.

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.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Council of Gods, Part 1

The religion of Ancient Israel has been called “monotheistic” which is understood to mean belief in one god and only one god. The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is filled with calls to give complete devotion to Yahweh and to none other. Consider the following passages:

“Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:8)
“I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me... there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else.” (Isaiah 45:6-7)
“I, even I, am the LORD; and beside me there is no saviour.” (Isaiah 43:11)

If there is one storyline that is told again and again in the Old Testament it is that Yahweh blesses Israel, Israel goes after other gods, Yahweh warns Israel through his prophets, Yahweh punishes Israel, Israel repents, and Yahweh blesses Israel, and the cycle continues. In the LDS church this kind of repeated behavior within a society is called the “Pride Cycle” and is also found in the Book of Mormon. How then can we explain this statement by Joseph Smith?

“I will preach on the plurality of Gods. I have selected this text for that express purpose. I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods.” [1]

This statement is seemingly very radical and strange to modern Christian sentiments, not to mention to Jewish and Muslim sentiments. In Islam, monotheism is the foundational principle of the faith. It is called the Shahadah: “I bear witness that there is no god but al-Lah and that Muhammad is his Messenger.” Jews have a similar proclamation of faith called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Christians have a bit more difficulty with monotheism because Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Holy Ghost is understood to be God as well. What do we make of three Gods? The traditional solution is the Trinity as expressed in the Athansian Creed. Let me continue with the quote from Joseph Smith.

“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 was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural; and who can contradict it?... the doctrine of a plurality of Gods is as prominent in the Bible as any other doctrine. It is all over the face of the Bible. It stands beyond the power of controversy. A wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein.” [1]

Joseph Smith makes a very good point here and it is often overlooked. When he called “Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father” he was in direct violation of the Athansian Creed which says “So are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.” But though he may have been in violation of this creed he was on sure scriptural footing. I believe Joseph Smith was right to say that the plurality of Gods is “all over the face of the Bible”. However, an important point that he made and I shall make as well is this:

“Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many. I want to set it forth in a plain and simple manner; but to us there is but one God—that is pertaining to us; and he is in all and through all... I say there are Gods many and Lords many, but to us only one, and we are to be in subjection to that one, and no man can limit the bounds or the eternal existence of eternal time.” [1]

The New Testament has plenty to say about the Godhead but I would like to focus here on the Old Testament and the Council of Gods. One of the best treatments I have found on the Council of Gods in relation to Mormon doctrine is that of Blake Ostler in the third of volume of the series “Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods”. It is an excellent book that I would recommend to anyone interested in the subject. Ostler defines a term he calls “metaphysical monotheism”:

“There exists a simple, immaterial substance SS that: (i) is necessarily the sole of instance of the kind ‘divine’ and utterly unique in the sense that there are no other members in the class of being occupied by SS; (ii) alone has ontologically necessary actuality; and (iii) everything else that is actual in any way depends upon SS for its actuality.” [2]

Ostler proposes, however, that metaphysical monotheism is an anachronistic view of the Hebrew Bible and not the original understanding of the authors. While it is clear from the Bible that Yahweh is foremost and preeminent, the only God worthy of devotion—there are passages that suggest that he is not the only being of his kind, the only divine being.

One interesting passage is found in Psalms 82:

“Elohim takes his stand in the assembly of El, among the gods he pronounces judgement. How long will you judge unjustly and favor the cause of the wicked? Selah. Defend the lowly and fatherless; render justice to the afflicted and needy. Rescue the lowly and poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. They neither know nor understand, wandering about in darkness; all the world’s foundations shake. I have said, You are gods and all of you sons of Elyon, But you shall die like mankind, and fall like one of the princes. Arise, O Elohim, judge the earth: for yours are all nations.”

What is going on here? This psalm is best understood in the context of an ancient Israelite belief. After the Flood the descendants of the three sons of Noah spread abroad across the earth and became many nations, seventy to be exact. Seventy names are listed in Genesis chapter 10 and 11. These chapters constitute a “Table of Nations”. This organization of nations was later referenced in Deuteronomy:

“Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will tell you. When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Yahweh’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)

The passage above is a translation from the Masoretic text which date from between the seventh and tenth centuries of the Common Era. An older version, however, is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls which dates back to 200 BCE:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated humanity, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of divine beings. For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (4QDeut 32:8-9)

The Hebrew phrase for “divine beings” in the Dead Sea Scrolls is “bene ‘elohim” which means “sons of God”. It is the opinion of many scholars that the Masoretic version of this passage was a product of some alteration that occurred in the interim—evidently in an effort to remove any inference that there were other divine beings along with Yahweh. But the message seems quite clear—this was an ancient belief. If the Israelite children were to ask their fathers or elders they could tell them the story. When the nations were divided up Yahweh was given charge of Israel.

But what happens in Psalms 82? All the other gods given charge of the other nations have not been doing their job. They have not taken care of the poor, the orphans. They have not exacted justice. So Elohim takes charge of all the nations of the earth. The other gods are sent down to earth to live and die as mortals and Elohim takes charge of all. “Arise, O Elohim, judge the earth: for yours are all nations.”

What is seen here is exactly what Joseph Smith had taught—there may be many gods, many divine beings but one is superior to them all. So was the understanding in ancient Israel. Among the gods there was but one who was worthy of worship and that is Yahweh. But what is the role of the other gods? What does the Council of Gods do? More on that for subsequent posts.


[1] Smith, Joseph Fielding. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Covenant Books. 2002. p. 383-84.

[2] Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought: Of God and Gods. Kofford Books. 2008. p. 42.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Relationship with God

In 1643 the English Parliament summoned the "learned, godly and judicious Divines", to meet in Westminster Abbey to produce a statement of faith, a creed for the Church of England. The English clerics produced several declarations over a period of five years, defining and refining the doctrines and beliefs of their church. The most influential of these declarations was arguably the Westminster Confession of Faith. Of note is the passage in Chapter II, titled “Of God, and of the Holy Trinity”. It reads:

“There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his won glory, most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin; and who will by no means clear the guilty.” [1]

This passage is cited frequently in Mormon literature to contrast its declarations with the doctrine of the Restored Gospel. Perhaps we have been a bit too hard on the English clergyman who drafted the Confession of Faith. They were very knowledgeable in theology and the history of Christian thought. Indeed, their statements above were consistent with doctrines of deity accepted in the Western Church since the days of Augustine. But I should note some contradictions in the above passage. The Confession states that God is without “passions” yet also states that he is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering...” To me, these seem like token “passions”. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word “patior” which means “to suffer or endure”. It is in this sense that Christ’s suffering is sometimes called “The Passion”. Passion can also be understood more generally to mean emotions such as love, grace, mercy, long-suffering, etc. I don’t think the contradiction in the Westminster Confession was something that the clerics simply overlooked—I suspect they were well aware of it—rather it was a simple example of an age-old case of Christian indecisiveness.

The indecisiveness within Christendom is the desire to have two, seemingly contradictory things in one God. We want God to be strong, stronger than we are. We are limited by our emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness, even love. Fear keeps us from doing things that may be necessary but frightening. Even love can stand in the way of duty, keeping us from doing what is “right” because it may cause pain to a loved one. We don’t want God to be so encumbered by emotions like us. Yet we still want a personal God, we want him to comfort us and love us. We want him to listen to our prayers and have mercy on us. So we have a God without passions who is also most loving, gracious, merciful, and long-suffering. Sterling McMurrin explained the two sides of our conception of God saying: “The God of the theologians has no passions. But the God of religion is compassionate.” [2]

The appropriate theological term here is “impassibility”. Impassibility is the doctrine that God does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being. The doctrine of Impassibility does not necessarily entail that God be without passions—it simply means that his emotions cannot be altered by the actions of humanity. For example, God may have infinite joy and not even the immense suffering and sin of all mankind can in the least part diminish that joy. God is the ultimate constant—the same yesterday, today, and forever. However, this doctrine runs into a problem in the person of Jesus. I find this happens in the case of most doctrines pertaining to the character of God in Christian orthodoxy. The theological constructs work great, they are aesthetic and logical, but then we have to explain Jesus. If Jesus is one with God the Father and as such, divine, how do we deal with the fact that Jesus was a person, a man, experienced pain and felt sorrow over the sins of his people?

In early Christianity, there were several sects that approached this problem in unique ways. The Gnostics accepted a doctrine called Docetism. Docetism is derived from the Greek word “dokeo” meaning “to seem”. They believed that Jesus made himself to seem as though he were mortal, to seem as though he had a body, and to seem as though he suffered when in fact this was all an illusion. To the credit of the Gnostics, this doctrine could be consistent with Impassibility and scripture (interpreted very liberally) and thus seemingly solves the problem. But the Gnostics had tough luck and the doctrine of Docetism was deemed heretical by the majority of Christianity. (Interesting note though, the Qur’an suggests a form of Docetism when speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion in Sura 4:157).

One of the major problems with the God of the theologians is that he is not always the God of the scriptures. The God of the scriptures is not impassible. Yahweh is very emotional and not afraid to show it. Even more passionate is Jesus himself. Jesus is often moved with compassion, forgiving sinners, healing the sick, teaching his disciples to love one another. The scriptures indeed portray God as powerful and strong but he is not unmoved by the pains of his people. Indeed in the Book of Mormon, the suffering of Christ is shown to be a source of his redemptive power.

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.” (Alma 7:11-13)

The Atonement of Christ is the formation of a relationship, a relationship with a personal being, Jesus Christ. His power to redeem comes from his compassion, his empathy, as he has felt what we fill and suffered what we suffer. His passion, or suffering, is “compassion” which is derived from Latin, meaning “to suffer together with”. It is important to remember that the relationship is indeed a relationship and not simply a one-man show. It takes two people to form a relationship and requires our involvement. Even in the LDS church there is a tendency to say things like “God doesn’t really need us” and “He could get along just fine without us”. But these kinds of ideas seem to me very callous and misdirected. I believe he does need us.

One of the twentieth century’s foremost philosophers, Martin Buber, spoke quite poignantly about our relationship with God: “You know always in your heart that you need God more than everything; but do you not know that God needs you—in the fullness of His eternity needs you? How would man be, how would you be, if God did not need him, did not need you? You need God, in order to be—and God needs you, for the very meaning of your life.” [3] God does really need us and would be very affected without us. His work and glory is to bring about our immortality and eternal life (Moses 1:39). Above all things he wants to enter into a relationship with us and needs us to accept the invitation that he constantly offers. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) This is a God who knows us and loves us and a relationship with him can be the fullest and most complete relationship possible.


1. (Retrieved March 2, 2010)
2. McMurrin, Sterling. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion. Signature Books. 2000. p. 132.
3. Buber, Marin. I and Thou. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 2nd ed. 1958. p. 82.