Background/The Divine Council
Background/The Divine Council
As I have discussed in a series of posts on creation in Genesis 1-3 (see: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), the vast majority of biblical scholars now recognize that the ancient Israelites viewed the cosmos as being formed from a primeval chaotic state, and not ex nihilo. This may be best understood, perhaps, by taking a closer look at their worldview of the order and structure of the cosmos. Biblical scholar Bernhard Anderson briefly summarizes their cosmological world-view as follows:
The Bible takes for granted a three-storied structure of the universe: heaven, earth, and underworld (Ex. 20:4). According to this Weltbild, the earth is a flat surface, corrugated by mountains and divided by rivers and lakes. Above the earth, like a huge dome, is spread the firmament that holds back the heavenly ocean and supports the dwelling place of the gods (Genesis 1:8; Ps. 148:4). The earth itself is founded on pillars that are sunk into the subterranean waters (Ps. 24:2; 104:5), in the depths of which is located Sheol, the realm of death. In this view, the habitable world is surrounded by the waters of chaos, which unless held back, would engulf the world, a threat graphically portrayed in the flood story (Genesis 7:11; c.f. 1:6) and in various poems in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 46:1-4; 104:5-9).  [Read more...]
God ['elohim] has taken his place in the divine council ['adat 'el];
in the midst of the gods ['elohim] he holds judgement.
Ps. 82.1 (NRSV)
References to a divine council or heavenly assembly are found frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible . Simply, the divine council is the heavenly royal court over which Yahweh, the God of Israel, presides as heavenly king. The members of this heavenly court or assembly are referred to in the Hebrew Bible by such terms as: bene (ha)’elohim “sons of God” (Gen. 6.2, 4; Deut. 32.8-9; Job 1.6, 2.2, 38.7), ‘elohim “gods” (Ps. 82.1, 6), bene elim “sons of gods” (Ps. 29.1, 89.7), and bene ‘elyon “sons of the Most High” (Ps. 82.6). Moreover, the council itself is referred to by such appellations as the adat ‘el “council/assembly/congregation of ‘El/God” (Ps. 82.1), sod qedoshim rabbah “great council of the holy ones” (Ps. 89.8), sod YHWH “the council of Yahweh” (Jer. 23.18), and sod eloah “council of God” (Job 15.8). [Read more...]
In much of the modern Judeo-Christian tradition, including LDS Christianity, Satan is seen as the personification of evil, a being who purposely defies God and attempts to thwart his plans for the world. Because Satan is such a prominent figure in especially the Christian tradition, it is quite shocking that the notion of this archenemy to God is not really found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, and doesn’t clearly appear until the intertestamental period (i.e., the period between the writing of the Old and New Testaments).
There is an interesting tradition found in many biblical texts that affirms that Yahweh, the God of Israel, genuinely consults with others and considers their voice despite the fact that he is eminently more powerful and knowledgeable than they. This is especially evident in those texts where Yahweh reasons or dialogues with a prophet and, at times, even changes his intended course of action after hearing their argument(s) and opinion(s). As one example, consider Exodus 32.7-14 (NRSV) which records a dialogue between Yahweh and Moses after the people of Israel–whom Yahweh had just powerfully delivered from the land of Egypt–worshiped and offered sacrifices to a golden calf: [Read more...]
Deuteronomy 6.4-9, also known as the Shema because the first word of the passage in Hebrew is the imperative shĕma‘, meaning “Listen,” is probably one of the most well known passages in all of biblical literature. In Jewish tradition this passage is frequently recited as a prayer, a practice that goes back at least to the early rabbinic period . The broader Judeo-Christian tradition, moreover, has often taken the first verse of this passage as a statement of Israel’s (and its own) radical monotheistic faith. This verse reads: “Listen, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.” However, this common Judeo-Christian interpretation which claims that Israel maintained a radical monotheistic stance, or a belief that there is only one G/god in existence (in this case, Yahweh, the God of Israel), has been subject to severe criticism by modern biblical scholars.
The category of “myth” is arguably the most important for evaluating the Bible in the last few hundred years. The very earliest critics of the Bible employed the category of “myth” in evaluating the stories and histories recorded there. D. F. Strauss (Das Leben Jesu, 1835) employed the term for making sense of the life of Jesus, among the first to suggest that the gospels were not literal history.
Besides the difficulty in identifying and defining myth, the most important interpretive problem comes in trying to figure out how to understand the significance of myth. In sum, is myth a good thing or a bad thing? Basically, two different options emerged that dominated 19th c. biblical studies.
There has been serious discussion among Mormon scholars over the past several years regarding the divine council in the Hebrew Bible and its implications for Mormon thought. For instance, very recently Blake Ostler published his third volume of Exploring Mormon Thought, in which, among other issues, he discusses at length various aspects of the heavenly council in the Hebrew Bible and what their implications might be for Mormon theology. David Bokovoy, a Mormon PhD student studying at Brandeis University under noted biblical scholar Marc Brettler, also had a lengthy exchange with Evangelical scholar Mike Heiser in a recent issue of the FARMS Review that included serious discussion of the council motif. Moreover, this exchange itself was provoked by an even earlier essay by BYU Professor Daniel Peterson that included an analysis of the heavenly assembly and its relevance for Mormonism. Kevin Barney also mentions the topic in his article “Examing Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1″ for BYU studies. There has also been some discussion here at FPR regarding this topic. Given, then, the importance of this topic among Mormon scholars in recent years, I thought that in addition to pointing out these articles to those who might otherwise be unaware of them, I might also briefly describe the divine council as referred to in the Hebrew Bible, as well as some of its historical analogues. I invite any comments following that reader’s might feel to be of relevance to the divine council and/or its relationship to Mormon thought.
For the past couple of days I have been reading An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Like most books or papers on the Book of Mormon I have read, it lacks a theory of Book of Mormon translation and suffers because of this lack. I would like to propose a rule for all future efforts at Book of Mormon apologetics, archaeology, or exegesis. The rule is that before you do anything you have to lay out your theory/explanation of the translation style used in translating the Book of Mormon. This means that before you attempt to explain something about the text you have to explain what kind of text you are working with.
The Gospel of Philip from the Nag Hammadi corpus contains some important passages about a kind of celestial marriage in the “bridal chamber.” It is not uncommon for Latter-day Saints to appeal to this text as evidence for a kind of parallel to Mormon notions of eternal marriage found in ancient Christianity. I hope to show that such a reading of this text is mistaken, and that appeals to the Gospel of Philip to butress Mormon apologetic aims are an example of the problem that much apologetic work faces, that of decontextualizing ancient material to produce systematic misreadings. Rather than an approval of a particular kind of ritual marriage that unites a mortal husband and wife together for eternity, the bridal chamber is best understood as BYU Prof. Gaye Strathern’s dissertation, “The Valentinian Bridal Chamber,” argues, “within the context of an ascetic lifestyle where the body and its passions were renounced in favor of a higher spiritual lifestyle” (i).