Initial Short Speculation on Three Book of Mormon Passages and Ancient Cosmology

Part of writing a book about ancient cosmology and Genesis 1 is… reading lots about ancient cosmology and Genesis 1. In doing so, I’ve had some thoughts about three Book of Mormon passages. I’ve generally set these on the shelf, so these are initial thoughts which upon further investigation may turn out to be highly significant or completely baseless. But I float them here for public interest and as a reminder to myself later.

First, while generalizing must be recognized for what it is, the Israelites in general probably thought of the world as flat and fairly limited, geographically. Their Babylonian neighbors actually left a representation of the world, below. (See this for a fairly technical analysis, also coming to Logos for cheap, or this for a much more accessible discussion. Much longer list here.) This image comes from a multi-part paper at Biologos about Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible.

godawa_3_2Babylon is portrayed as the center of the world, with some islands, all surrounded by the cosmic waters above and below. It’s like an inverted snow globe, with air inside the globe, but water all around the outside.

The Israelite view was probably quite similar.

Where did Nephi and company think they were going? The Israelites were not really ocean-going people. How did they conceptualize the geography of their voyage? Jacob later takes Isaiah’s “isles of the sea” theme, spending some time interpreting it, before stating that “the Lord has made the sea our path, and we are upon an isle of the sea.” (2 Ne 10:20)

I imagine the idea of sailing away from land, especially from the covenant land to an unknown “land of promise” ran quite counter to their mental geography of the universe.

Second, several biblical and non-biblical creation accounts express creation in terms of separation and differentiation, not physically but conceptually. (This is a bit like the “functional creation” idea of John Walton I summarize here.) That is, creation comes about or is defined by, God differentiating opposites or matched pairs- day from night, male from female, land from water, priestly from non-priestly, civilization from wilderness. Without naming and defining these pairs, there is no creation; everything is just a non-functional non-differentiated… non-existence.  I thought of that concept of creation when I reread Lehi’s statement recently in 2 Nephi 2:11-12.

it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

Lehi’s connection of the necessity of these differentiated pairs for God’s creation and purposes was striking, although not unproblematic. I’ll have to spend some time with it later.

Third, the book of Ether makes a vague statement in 13:2.

they rejected all the words of Ether; for he truly told them of all things, from the beginning of man; and that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord;

This has sometimes been interpreted as evidence for a worldwide flood, but that seems unlikely to me. First, you can find my initial thoughts on the flood at my Gospel Doctrine blog and a long follow-up here about Mormon appropriation of hyper-literalist fundamentalism. The scriptural account of the flood envisions the same cosmic geography as Genesis 1: not a globe, not a planet in a solar system, but a flat earth with a dome above, held up by the mountains, keeping out the cosmic waters of creation. Of course, the land was originally covered by waters at creation in many of the ancient creation accounts, including Genesis 1. Given the close connection in Ether between “the beginning of man” and “waters receding of the face of this land” it makes more sense to me to see Ether referring back to a creation account similar to Genesis 1, in which the cosmic waters come first (the teh?m or “Deep” of Genesis 1:2), the dry land emerging out of it, not a later global flood. (Again, a “global flood” anachronistically imputes a modern scientific planetary cosmology back on these texts.)

Will have to return and look at later.

32 comments for “Initial Short Speculation on Three Book of Mormon Passages and Ancient Cosmology

  1. Ha! I made the same connection between creation and Lehi’s discussion of opposites five years ago. Glad to see you’re catching up [grin].

    To take the speculation a step further, do the ties between creation, opposites, and the garden of Eden described by Lehi suggest that he had access to a combined J and E account (presumably on the brass plates)?

  2. True enough Jared. I think I even remember reading it. Must have been percolating down there in the deep recesses of the brain…

    I think access to *text* isn’t necessary, since the writing-down tended to take place after oral circulation. Lehi doesn’t allude in very specific terms anywhere (that I’m aware) that you could make a specific claim about this or that creation text. But the ideas were certainly circulating, and he undoubtedly was familiar with those.

  3. I have a couple of thoughts:

    First, why assume that Israelites had a similar worldview to Babylonians? Their early Biblical history seems much more closely tied to Egypt, as well as the various nearby Canaanite civilizations. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that Babylon wouldn’t be the first culture I would associate Israel with. Plus, the Pentateuch is very focused on Israel separating itself from the people around it, so it also seems quite possible that Israel actively set its beliefs in opposition to neighboring worldviews, and therefore its relation to other creation stories and cosmologies could have been an antagonistic, not synchronistic, one.

    Second, while the Biblical creation account does focus a lot on separation between opposites or pairs, it also has more traditional creation, and its divisions are often hierarchical, not equal (for example, the fourth day, where the sun and moon are created, serving as mechanisms of separation, and are separated unequally, with the sun set as the “greater,” and both sun and moon set as rulers of day and night). So, while separation of opposites is definitely an important part of creation, maybe it could even be argued the central component, I think it is incorrect to simplify it to being the only one.

    And finally, 600 BC was post-Solomon, whose empire, while localized, was more expansive in its contacts than earlier periods. It was also post-Assyrian captivity, mid-Babylonian captivity, and after a short period of Egyptian dominance in Jerusalem.

    In sum, I definitely agree it is important to see ancient scripture and people as existing near other ancient cultures, and to consider how they were impacted by them, but I think it is more difficult to accurately do that than your article seems to suggest. I believe such interactions were probably very complicated, and therefore are very difficult for us to understand. Basically, I think you have a great article if you replace your use of the word “probably” with “maybe”—you raise a lot of interesting possibilities. I don’t think the evidence for any of them is strong enough to make them likelihoods. They’re worth talking about, but shouldn’t be used to discount the many other possible interpretations there can be.

    With all that said, I think it is interesting to wonder about how Nephi’s and the Brother of Jared’s companies would have viewed their journey to the promised land. Nephi’s group, in particular, seemed quite content to settle on the shores of Bountiful, and it only at this point that Nephi becomes the leader of their journey instead of Lehi. God, not Lehi, tells Nephi to build a boat, and in fact Lehi’s involvement with its construction isn’t really mentioned. Perhaps a younger mind was necessary for God to expand the concept of God’s chosen world.

    It’s also interesting to wonder about where Lehi got his well-established sense of universal duality from, especially since that view seems to influence the entirety of The Book of Mormon. The whole narrative is sparse on having shades of grey.

    All of this leads me to wonder about my own modern biases, and those we have as a church, and how we may allow them to shape our understanding of deity, and whether or how often that is a good or a bad thing.

    Nephi says the Lord “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”

    We have accepted that different races are exactly the same, and that slavery is bad, but we still persist in saying that male and female are different, despite Nephi’s words. Are we like Paul in his acceptance of slavery—products of our time and environments? Is The Family: A Proclamation to the World based in and rising out of the secular culture of the 1800s in the United States? Does God really think gender is an essential characteristic?

    Like with Israel, it’s probably complicated in ways difficult for any side to admit. But we should at least consider the possibility. I like that your article, starting with ancient Israel, can help us do that.

  4. A lot to think about, Ben. Probably will respond more later, but mirrorrorrim said “All of this leads me to wonder about my own modern biases, and those we have as a church, and how we may allow them to shape our understanding of deity, and whether or how often that is a good or a bad thing.”

    One thing I’ve found in years of dealing with people’s personal problems (most of them women) is that we often view the Father as being someone like our own father. (In my experience, this is more accentuated in women). For example, if our fathers are strict, “iron rodders” then we see God as judging us by the same standard. The converse is also true. While it may be cultural, in our cases, its mostly family example oriented. We can mitigate this to a certain extent intellectually, but in the bedrock of our souls, this is the way it works.

  5. Terry H, I came to hold a similar belief, minus the gendered components you expressed, that the God people believe in tends to reflect who they are as people: I feel most people unintentionally create an image of God that is a reflection of themselves. A person’s view on authority probably plays a big role in that. Since mothers and fathers are most people’s first experience with authority in life, it makes sense that a person’s relationship with his or her parent would often have a big impact on her or his image of God.

    I knew a very good man who was an atheist. Despite not believing in God, he openly admitted he was angry with Him, and he described how this anger came from some very negative experiences he had with a particular organized religion that had great control over him as a child. He no longer believed in that religion, but was still angry in it, which created a parallel where he also no longer believed in God, but was still angry at Him.

    When I was more judgmental than I am now (not hard to do—I’m still far too judgmental), I often felt unworthy in God’s eyes and knew I didn’t deserve to go to the Celestial Kingdom, and thought there was no way I could get there, even with Christ’s help. My solace was that at least no one else I knew would get there, either. My concept of God was of an almighty being Who loved us but Who was forever disappointed in us.

    Now, although I’m still very judgmental and don’t believe I deserve to go to heaven, I have a strong belief that people can change, myself included, and that the people we are today doesn’t determine who we’ll be tomorrow or in eternity. To me, the Atonement has come to embody that medium of change. Now when I imagine God, I see a group of Parents Who, while not blind to a child’s shortcomings, look optimistically toward what that girl or boy will someday become, and Who enjoy watching and contributing to that eventual development.

    I think that’s why eternal life is sometimes defined as knowing God. It is a process of shaking off and overcoming our false conceptions and cultures and replacing them with God’s true ones. Otherwise, we’re unknowingly imposing our flat earths or round earths or relative earths onto what God is, and, like the ancient Babylonian map Ben referenced, and which Lehi possibly may have believed in, limiting our view of God’s Promises.

  6. I enjoyed your article. Just a thought, and I’m not trying to detract from the substance of your article at all. I may be merely displaying my ignorance on this matter, but that’s OK.

    It seems to me dangerous to pick one map (as pictured in your post) to depict a definitively “Babylonian” understanding of the shape of the earth. To demonstrate what I mean in reverse, suppose someone in the year 2500 finds a map of the world and determine that that map was made in 1805. They presume that said map represents the views held by all ancient “Americans” on how the world looked. It doesn’t seem reasonable to assume that one map made in 1805 represents the universal understanding of all ancient “Americans” in 1805 of how the world looked. If those living 2500 then proceed to assume that all “Canadians” who lived in 1805 also held a similar view of the world because they were next door neighbors, it seems that the problem would then be compounded.

    If that made no sense, I’ll try again. Feel free to poke holes in it as I’m sure there are some.

  7. I like your idea about Ether, but since the flood was also about establishing a new creation, the two concepts collapse into one. Since they came from (or near) Babylon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jaredites had a Noah/Atrahasis tradition.

  8. I think we call the flood “global” to express the understanding that the entire world was covered with water. The ancients may still have believed that entire world was covered, even if they didn’t realize the world was a globe. So I don’t think calling it a global flood anachronistically imputes our concepts back on the ancients. It is only translating their ancient concepts into our current understanding.

    I am always amazed at just how much Bible there is in the Book of Mormon. If Isaiah never said anything about “isles of the sea,” then I would be utterly amazed that Nephi did in light of this map you have illustrated above. This would be real hard-core evidence of BoM historicity. However, the fact that Isaiah did use that expression is only more evidence that Joseph Smith was riffing on Bible themes, ideas, motifs, etc.

    Another unfortunate bit of evidence of this nature is the striking similarity of Ether 12 and Hebrews 11. What must I believe? God inspired both the writer of Hebrews and the Moroni to make a “who’s who” list of the faithful? Or, more likely: Joseph Smith (or whoever) was so inspired by the wording of Hebrews 11 that he decided to include a “who’s who” list for his own story, too.

    Alma’s dissertation on the state of the soul between death and resurrection? Not original. It’s in the Bible you just have to look for traces of it in several places. The BoM is just good Bible commentary. It takes some of the more scattered doctrines of the Bible and organizes them in a convenient way. The doctrinal passages read like great sermons.

    The Bible is an accidental book. No one who wrote it was “writing scripture.” It became scripture. This is why some doctrines must be pieced together from various places within it. The Book of Mormon was written with the stated intention (more or less) that it would be treated as scripture. This causes problems for me. It suggests that one man wrote it or a limited number of men wrote it. And they simply transferred their intentions for this book onto the fictional characters within the book.

  9. The second bit about differentiating opposite pairs reminded me of virtual particle pair production in the theory of quantum foam. In a nutshell: vacuum isn’t empty. Particles and their anti-particles can pop into existence and then usually recombine and annihilate one another. But if the virtual pair can be separated (such as at the event horizon of a black hole), then they can each survive.

    In a very real scientific sense, if the matter in the universe “should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death.” Separation may have literally been key to creation.

  10. Very interesting, Ben. Reading the first few verses of Ether 13, I certainly get the impression it is talking about historical time (“from the beginning of man”) not cosmological time, and that the waters receding are a reference to a global flood of Noah’s era rather than waters and land in the Genesis creation account. Waters receding “off the face of this land” is a reference to the land the Jaredites came too. Modern LDS readers read “this land” as the Americas.

    That reading is also consistent with the Book of Mormon’s conception of the Americas as being entirely unpopulated until the arrival of the three Book of Mormon oceanic migrations of the Jaredites, Mulekites, and the Lehi party. (I’m not endorsing that view, just saying that is what the text seems to hold and what Ether 13:2 seems to be saying.)

  11. There are strong parallels especially with the Jaredite story to the Noah story. I wonder what you think of the Atler like type setting for explaining some of the Nephite and Jaredite accounts. Even the notion of a land of promise can be seen as tied to Noah accounts.

    John, I’m a bit confused how parallels with the Bible entails evidence of Joseph Smith riffing. This seems a typical Hebrew literary technique. Wouldn’t it be odder if the Book of Mormon didn’t have this sort of thing? At best it seems neutral rather than evidence for Joseph Smith “riffing.”

  12. Is “Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one;” a problematic statement? It doesn’t suggest separation or differentiation to me, but perhaps a divine binary, dialectic or even parallel. In respect of male and female #3, the word is that they be ‘one’, reconciled and agreed; ‘a compound in one’, an image of the deified life.

  13. SJames, is there any non-cultural basis for that assertion? When Lehi is talking about binaries, it is never a separate but equally good concept. To the contrary, he pairs holiness with misery, good with bad, law with sin. Are you saying men are law and women are sin, but that in coming together they somehow create an image of the deified life?

    I just can’t agree with that—I feel that is a 19th-century cultural bias.

    I never know God to use “all are alike” to mean separate but equal. From everything I have learned, to God equal means the same, not different, and different interpretations are cultural justifications, not divine principles.

    Sorry to disagree so strongly, but I just don’t think Lehi’s statements at all refer to what you say they do. Opposition, which is the word Lehi uses to explain his concept of duality, means opposition, not reconciled or agreed. I cannot see it in any way applying to female and male. I think you’re imposing your flat earth onto God’s all-encompassing one.

  14. Mirrorrorrim, I understand why some try to read 2 Ne 2 in Hegelian terms. I’m not sure that works simply because there’s no third move as in a Hegelian dialectic. (This is often presented as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis – but that actually Fichte rather than Hegel but everyone attributes it to Hegel although I think it was popularized by Marx. But in any case it was in the air in the 19th century and everyone calls it the Hegelian dialectic even if it isn’t.)

    The problem with identifying this with Lehi is that he sees it as two opposing choices present to the agent. For German Idealism even in the looser forms Joseph *may* have theoretically been exposed to the antithesis is the negation of the thesis and a reaction to it. It’s not a choice between opposites. If anything Lehi is presenting a more game theoretical model than a German Idealist development of a self.

    Your right that Lehi always pairs opposites, but this is more common in ancient styled dualistic conceptions such as in Zoroastrianism. Although that style of dualism appears to have been quite important in the ancient world such as in gnosticism and earlier platonism.

    Anyway Lehi’s conception since it involves choice between these moral opposites seems much closer to the ancient conception than the German Idealist conception. It’s found commonly at Qumran for instance where good and evil aren’t just opposites but are metaphysically dualist (as opposed to the monism in neoPlatonism where evil is the privation of the good). This dualism persists for a bit in Judaism in the notion of the “two powers” or the inclination of the soul. And to be fair to the 19th century oriented skeptics, it’s not as if that sort of extreme dualism didn’t pop up then either. Certainly one could find the Jewish notions although it would have been harder for Joseph in his young New York period rather than his more mature Nauvoo period while studying Hebrew.

    I do fully agree that you can’t compare Lehi’s opposition to the male/female one although often in religions like gnosticism or more mystical forms of early Judaism you do get something like that. Adam losing his rib is the splitting of the heavenly Adam into Adam the man and Eve the woman – and the fusing of these opposites is important in gnosticism. The tradition goes back a long time – probably to the era of Lehi – although I don’t see it in Lehi’s writings in a fashion akin to gnostic/mystical union nor German Idealism.

  15. #13 you have evoked the gender binary and its historical antecedents when for all earthly and eternal intents and purposes they are inseparable just as there is no individual exaltation, ‘they without us…’ .
    #14 you are quick to apply Hegel to what more broadly is a reference to a kind of dialogue or conversation, which in our religious context is indeed at least a three way one. This is not about lhappiness and unhappiness, it is about happiness, unhappiness and God.
    I guess the point is, is it possible to conceive of existence where the binaries described above are not in play. It appears that Lehi cannot as the creation narrative plays out in his conceptions, upon which it appears God’s wisdom and power is dependent. Or is he actually saying that God is in the conversation of oppositions? Too mystical? The LDS cultural legacy seems to be to resolve all mysteries at all costs; living with contradiction (dissonance they call it) breaks the mind, rather than makes it. I’s all about getting answers..
    Maybe Ben could elaborate on his comment re the problematics of Lehi’s assertion.

  16. You could discuss Biblical cosmology for an entire year in GD and never exhaust the subject. Sadly, we can only talk within the realm of probabilities and not even possibilities. Here are a few thoughts.

    1. Oral cosmology was not spacial or mechanistic. It was wholly ontological. Oral cosmology was rooted in celestial archetypes (think Plato’s Allegory of the Cave), and sought out various heaven-earth relationships. Oral cosmology was not so much a model, as it was a drama, for it was analogically enacted throughout society in rituals which sought to reproduce observed cosmic processes. The cosmogony was repeated in drama and rite during key points throughout the year which saw heaven-earth correspondences between those celestial points in the sky that announced changes on the earth.

    Our spacial models of ancient cosmology come to us by later, literate sources, and these may have already misapprehended the underlying metaphysics of the system. The cosmology of Abraham was probably something different than the cosmology of Lehi, noting there would be common themes.

    2. Geocentrism is a Greek production. Eudoxus (4th cent. BCE) is the first Greek to articulate the homocentric spheres, with Aristotle (later in the 4th cent.) enshrining the conceptual framework in the West, and Ptolemy perfecting the idea with his carefully worked out mathematical models. There were earlier pseudo-geocentric models, such as from Anaxamander, but these models were something entirely different than the cosmology of the Pythagorean School, for example, who probably held a more ancient and oral view on the matter.

    There are competing cosmologies outside and inside of Greece as well. Aristarchus of Samos (3rd cent. BCE) for example, espoused a heliocentric system. Meanwhile, we have this curious verse in Helaman 12.14-5 in the Book of Mormon: “Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done; And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” Well, I don’t think that’s a geocentric view.

    3. Near Eastern cosmology was something different altogether. It was rooted in a three-tiered system: heaven, earth, and underworld. Instead of a Big Bang which formed the universe, the universe was a sort of cosmic umbilicus, whose source resided in heavenly regions (heaven and underworld) that produced material phenomenon (the earth between). Whether the earth was seen as the ultimate center of this system, spatially, is entirely irrelevant. In fact, in early Indian cosmology the earth was not so much the center as it was the bottom, the place where gross material matter descended from a heavenly source.

    Indeed, all three regions of this system held celestial correspondences. The underworld, for example, was actually a region in the sky, generally seen as the stars shining south of the ecliptic and Milky Way. Liturgically, the underworld was analogically modeled in a subterranean chamber, for in order to be reborn one had to descend into the underworld (our word initiate means to descend below the ground). In both Polynesian and Hermetic traditions, the entrance to the underworld was said to be at the foot of Orion (i.e. Rigel), from which flowed the river constellation Eridanus. This is the exact river that both Jason and Heracles sail upon to enter the underworld.

    Meanwhile, in ancient Chinese cosmology, the earth was really nothing more than the extension of the horizon onto the celestial equator, incorporating the points of equinox and solstice. Plato tells us that there is a true earth above the material one, which one may view as he travels through the true heaven.

    This brings us to that interesting Babylonian map shown above. Clearly it cannot be taken too literally (i.e. from a modern spacial and mechanistic view). There is a great wide waterway that surrounds the earth. Almost every scholar writing about this stuff names this waterway as the various oceans surrounding the known world at the time. Really? The true primer is the heavenly waters, or the Milky Way, which was the celestial archetype of the system. The earthly waters are only an earthly reflection. The seven islands listed on the map were probably the seven planets, which may have held certain terrestrial correspondences in the mind of the Babylonian map maker. But the text on that map speaks more of the cosmic regions than it ever does of the earthly ones. Well, I’ll leave it to the experts to parse it out….

    4. The Flat Earth is not always what it seems. It is true that most people in the ancient world believed the earth to be a flat disc, and certainly did not imagine it as a planet sailing through the sky. Still, the flat earth is also part of a mythological paradigm that held ontological and celestial correspondences which cannot be mapped out in spacial logistics. Therefore, our interpretation of this flat earth should be made with a great deal of caution.

    Nor should we believe, I think, that everyone believed in a flat earth, and there may have been a sparse few who had figured the earth was indeed a sphere long before the Greeks. For example, it is interesting to note that when Lehi and Nephi leave on their ocean voyage they do so from about 31 degrees north latitude. If they land at the Isthmus of Panama, then they have traveled south to about 9 degrees north latitude. A difference of 22 degrees in latitude will result in the angular distances of the stars from the horizon shifting about 22 degrees, or about two hand widths as held at arms length. Indeed, if one crosses south of the equator, the North Star, which is the anchor point for the system of traveling by the stars (yes, they actually did that), disappears altogether, whilst new stars arise in the south that have not been seen before. This is impossible to explain with a flat earth cosmology. Ocean voyagers would certainly have noticed the change in the celestial landscape as they traveled north-south.

    Indeed, those curious islands on our Babylonian map may in fact not be the planets, but the farthest stars known to the Babylonians, north and south, east and west, that define the flat earth. In any case, the metaphysics behind the system goes deep into an oral cosmovision that is wholly experiential and linked with observations in the sky.

    One of our problems discussing ancient cosmology is this: modern scholars do not know the dynamics of the sky. Ancient peoples did, and to a great degree.

    5. The reference in Ether is cosmological. It can be seen as both creation and flood imagery. This is part of ancient cosmology, for creation was born from the heavenly waters, and creation myths very often recite a flood tale, and flood myths are very often reproductions of the creation story (the Genesis text proves this point). Please note these verses in Abraham 1. 23-4: “The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden; When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.”

    Egypt was founded when it was under the waters. This hales back to an early Summerian myth where its first occupants were said to arrive on boat. There is also a clear parallel in Irish mythology where the primordial Cessair arrives to Ireland on a boat oared by fifty sailors. The land was under the waters, and it is only at her arrival does the land rise up from the depths and is made into the “center of the universe.” Curiously, this myth also recounts a flood story.

    When one understands that early oral cultures, when founding new lands, re-enacted the cosmogony as a way to “cosmicize” the land, or initiate it into a created order, then one comes to understand the flood imagery. In fact, in order to “cosmicize” the land one had to set up a sacred center, such as a temple. The Israelite temple, it should be noted, analogically sat upon the flood waters, and it was the foundation stone that held the flood waters back. This is cosmic imagery, for the temple was a template of the created order: heaven, earth, and underworld. The underworld was the waters below, from which new life sprang.

    So, was the land really underwater when the Jaredites arrived? No. What is being recounted is the mythic (i.e. cosmological) origins of the land, that are blessed by the Lord.

    Well, at least that is my take.

  17. I think the North Star wasn’t available to Nephi. I think then the nearest star was Ursae Minoris and not Polaris. If I recall Polaris only became the north star a few centuries ago. I don’t know what was available to Nephi, but I know by around 300 BCE we have people saying there were no stars near the celestial point. Which I’m sure made travel much more difficult as compared to the era of classic European exploitation when the stars favored navigation. (Although I’m sure there were ways around this that navigators new)

    I just bring this up because it raises a complex issue about cosmology. The starts aren’t stable. They move. Slowly and that transforms texts somewhat. Especially texts or oral traditions from eras when the stars were quite different.

    Regarding the issue of spatiality and ontology of cosmology you make a lot of great points. Abraham appears to have a geocentric astronomy, but the stars also represent quite a bit more. Thinking in terms of place lets you miss a lot. Centuries later than Nephi the Romans are thinking of the stars as daemons with multiple roles.

    As for Genesis my favorite text there remains Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil. We think of Creation as creation of objects in a spatial perspective. That’s really a very, very recent way to think of creation. The saga very much is about God holding back chaos and organizing it. So the cosmology is not merely (or even primarily) about creation as we think about it but is much more about evil, chaos, and freedom.

  18. sjames, I just brought up Hegel because it sounded more like what people were talking about and also because critics have often brought up German Idealism and 2 Ne. I think the point is though that it’s not a dialectic in a normal sense, although there is an odd precession. I’m not sure calling it dialectic in any of the normal senses makes sense. There is definitely a kind of developmental angle to it. As I said I can fully understand those who see Hegel, especially his Phenomenology, in it. There are some interesting parallels but I think the fundamental work is more seen in classic dualism of antiquity. The oppositions are needed because choice moves one towards these. So the oppositions are needed to enable choice which enables change.

  19. That’s right Clark. The North Star changes over time, due to precession of the equinoxes; but the North Celestial Pole is consistent, and the North Star becomes the closest star to that axis. So, ancient seafarers were not looking at Polaris per say, but at the star that filled the role of the “North Star.” (you have equated Polaris with the North star, while I have used the phrase “North Star” as a polar marker).

    It doesn’t matter, because changes in declination and ascension of the stars would still be noted when traveling far distances north and south, whether that travel was a result of sea or land migration. Though you are correct that certain heaven-earth correspondences encoded in myth and ritual would change over time as the stars changed on the horizon. This would introduce new elements, gods, myths, etc.

    The cosmology in the Book of Abraham is geocentric? Several LDS scholars write this, but I am unconvinced. Certainly the papyri from which the text is supposedly taken is Ptolemaic, and therefore heavily influenced by Greek cosmology; still, it remains Egyptian cosmography through and through. Fac. 2 in Abraham is an excellent “map of the cosmos,” and it probably has more in common with the map shown above than with modern ideas of literal flat disc models or inverted globes. Flat earth cosmology was always integrated with the sky, and this remains highly problematic when developing spacial models.

    Good call on Levenson, though I have only perused the book, and you just reminded me that it is in my book pile.

    The cosmology of Genesis is complicated by a series of factors: 1) The Genesis text is written by literate scribes centuries after the Genesis rites were enacted. The cosmology of the creation pericope did not originate as a text, but as a dramatic liturgy associated with temple and cult and integrating several ontological factors implicit in the culture but long lost by the time it is written down. 2) Therefore, we can only admit as evidence the cosmology of the text, which is something different than the cosmology of the oral cult. 3) The text has been purged in many cases, due to scribal transcription or by purposeful addition and subtraction. 4) There are, by scholarly standards, different textual sources within the creation, and these sources may not be analogous. 5) We often assume that the temple reforms done by Josiah was a restoration of older rites and forms. I believe this might be a fallacy. Josiah may have further cluttered the temple rites and the old temple cosmology with ideas current in his time.

    However this plays out, one thing is certain: I look forward to Ben’s book.

  20. I found the geocentric argument persuasive, but then I’m far from a historian specializing in the near east. So that’s not worth too much. (grin) The traditional counter-argument is the phrase “all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.” However I think this makes sense if each planet is perceived as a center. That’s not a traditional geocentric system but something in a more weird coordinate system. However it makes sense if it’s intended to work on multiple levels including an allegorical ascent from each individual. But it’s definitely not a slam dunk. There are still odd things going on in the text. Complicated, of course, by the fact it’s a composite text much like the Book of Mormon. So there’s undoubtedly expansion by Joseph which complicates everything.

    That said I don’t find the readings of Abraham in terms of real cosmology terribly persuasive. (I know a popular one attempts to read in relativity but I just don’t buy it) Oddly though so far as I’m aware no ones really found a strong ancient or 19th century counterpart to the cosmology. I looked through most of the esoteric texts I was able from more or less the 19th century (most unlikely to be had by Joseph) but couldn’t find anything. The one everyone mentions, Thomas Dick’s, has very few real parallels. But neither did the hermetic or masonic texts I found. While I don’t know the literature that well, I also found as many things from late antiquity as I could and couldn’t find anything smacking of a parallel. No one else has found any I found compelling either including memory palaces, hermeticism of late antiquity, gnosticism, or Kabbalism. (Which, if Joseph were heavily influenced by Kircher’s egyptology speculations – and there definitely are some parallels with the Kirtland Egyptian papers – you’d think you’d see something in the cosmology but you don’t) It’s weird.

    Some suggest that the JST of Genesis 1&2 adopt a more neoPlatonic conception of creation where the initial creation is an intellectual creation and the second creation more tangible. While Moses 3:4-5 sure points that way and you can find somewhat parallel exegesis with Platonic conceptions of Genesis I’m still not sure what to make of it. (An example of this reading is of course Philo’s although there are others) That whole JST of 3:4-5 makes Mormon readings tricky although I don’t think people focus on it enough. However reading Abraham in light of this style of reconciling the two creation accounts is interesting especially since Joseph has Abraham take up the Genesis 1 account and while it’s not exactly the same as the JST, Abr 5:3 also suggests Gen 1 is a planning/intellectual creation and not the physical creation.

    Interestingly I just noticed the chapter headings at for Abr 4 say that too – “The Gods plan the creation of the earth and all life thereon—Their plans for the six days of creation are set forth.” and for 5 “The Gods finish Their planning of the creation of all things—They bring to pass the Creation according to Their plans—Adam names every living creature.”

    I no longer have physical scriptures so I don’t know if that is new or was in the old edition from the 80’s.

  21. S James, there may be no individual exaltation, but knowing that things will become equal in the hereafter is no good excuse to continue injustices in the present. In short, I don’t think what you were talking about has any bearing on unequal treatment of genders in society, or how much culture, not God, is the impetus for that. I think in the gospel something is often removed from its original, unfamiliar meaning, and inserted into an intimate, modern one, in a way that does not always fit. For 2 Nephi 2, I think its original purpose is important: it is the last recorded sermon of a father to one of his sons, of whom it is intended to meet certain pressing needs. Specifically, Lehi knows, as he tells Jacob, “in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren.
    “Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.”

    The whole point is not, at its inception, about agency, but to help a child who has had a hard life to understand the purpose of suffering. Lehi does so by explaining how necessary opposition is to reality, and why that is. Only in that context does freedom of choice become a topic; the main point is just to help Jacob understand how his suffering is beneficial, and how, in the end, it will turn to his benefit.

    Lehi’s purpose didn’t seem to be to correct misconceptions Jacob had about making right choices, or an imagined necessity for their family or society to treat different parts of it differently.

    Again, sorry to keep disagreeing.

    Clark Goble, you provide some good examples, but there’s no need to even go outside Christianity for parallels to Lehi’s kind of dualism—the Gospel and First Epistle of St. John contain very similar themes of dueling opposites, with John using light and dark, heaven and earth, etc., as opposing, antithetical forces to one another.

    While I disagree with your specific interpretation of what the creation story is really about, I agree it’s much more than God just telling the world what he did to physically create it, and in fact it may not even include that at all.

    John Lundwall, I also have trouble seeing the Book of Abraham as being geocentric. There’s a passage where God talks about how different celestial bodies rule other ones, and earth isn’t one of those ruling bodies. If anything, Abraham is God-centric, placing Him at the center of creation, governing the movements of everything else, and making particularly clear that nothing compares to Him.

    I had never taken the time, though, to think about whether Josiah’s reforms might not have been quite as positive or unbiased as Kings and Chronicles imply; it’s something interesting to consider.

  22. Yup elements of dualism were popular at that era. One just has to be careful since usually John is seen as fairly neoPlatonic (whether fairly or not). Certainly the platonic uses of dualism as in gnosticism end up being a tad more complex and don’t necessarily fit what I’m arguing for a context in Lehi. Of course Qumran offers dualisms more like I was arguing for and one can argue that’s a context for Jesus. The problem with John is that it’s often dated much later and thus is influenced in its presentation of Jesus by these later movements. (Although again Philo is interesting to read here if we keep in mind the differences of Lehi from Plato)

  23. Yeah, I guess I have to admit John isn’t necessarily a perfect equivalent, depending on how you interpret his writings, and Lehi’s. In some ways, Peter actually might be better at getting to Lehi’s main point, with their shared emphasis on suffering working toward our eventual good and its resultant necessity. But Peter doesn’t have the dualistic component that Lehi does, so it’s not a perfect match, either. You almost need a synthesis of both.

    Reading a bit of your Philo link, I was reminded of how Hellenistic the traditional Christian idea of spirit being good and body being bad is, and how at odds that is with what Lehi’s saying. Maybe when there was similar thought in first century Christianity, it had to be couched, maybe even conceived of, in different verbiage, in the same way Paul’s talk of us being God’s slaves tends to be softened in modern rhetoric, to more of a voluntary servant concept.

  24. Yes it’s an interesting question. To me the more interesting question is comparing and contrasting the natural man section of King Benjamin’s speech with somewhat similar passages in Paul. Now if Benjamin’s context is Lehi whereas Paul is influenced both by this Philo styled dualism but also is educated in Stoicism how are we to distinguish them? My experience is that most read Benjamin through a lens of Paul. (Although it’s sometimes fun to read Paul more through a Stoic rather than Platonic lens – and of course NT Wright would argue both are wrong and perhaps gives a lens more in line with what I see Benjamin and thereby Lehi doing)

    The problem with the more Philo or Platonic reading (and Philo illustrates this was in mainstream Judaism at the time of Christ) is that the opposites involve a privation ultimately. (This becomes even more pronounced in neoPlatonism although that’s a bit of an artificial label) So focusing in on body is the privation from focus on true intellect. And body itself becomes a kind of privation or lack from the intellect such that body, while not strictly evil as in gnosticism, is a problem of a sort.

    With Lehi I think we have to real independent objects such that one isn’t understood in terms of the other as a lack or negation. (This is the break from German Idealism too) Rather both are independent but the only way to distinguish them is to encounter them both. So it’s more Saussure than Hegel. The “all things compound in one isn’t the synthesis of Hegel but a kind of presentation of oppositions so that one could be chosen in opposition to the other. It’s ultimately a choice. It’s better seen in a kind of game theoretic model where we have to have the goal on either side of the field for the game to work as the game. It’s compound in one on in the sense both are needed to achieve anything. You can’t really score a goal with only one.

    Now we can complain about whether this logic works as an argument. But as a presentation rather than an argument (which is how it’s usually taken) I think it works great. The question of purpose is purpose as in a game. In particular I think it’s hard to read 2 Ne 2:13 in terms of say Paul in Romans.

    The whole argument of the natural man for Benjamin isn’t the same as the more Platonic reading of Paul (that I’d argue persists through Luther and Calvin) but is this game theoretic stance.

    To tie all this back to the cosmology of Genesis this is more or less the ancient Jewish conception within Genesis 1 – at least that’s what Levenson convincingly argues in Creation and the Persistence of Evil. But for this to work the creation has to constantly be repeated. Not just by God (God is constantly battling the waters of chaos rather than creating ex nihilo with evil being privation from God). Rather each of us have to take up this work of creation. Reading say Mosiah 3 in terms of this overarching creation cosmology is quite interesting.

    I think Qumran is quite interesting relative to Lehi. Exactly how dualistic Qumran was is up for debate. Some attempt to reduce it to personal or ethical dualism. While taking it as cosmic dualism as in Zoroastrianism might be pushing it, the definitely are strong echoes of Lehi. We have the evil spirit (Angel of Darkness) that arrives after the creation of humanity that exists to tempt and torment the “Sons of Light” in the present. Interestingly this tends to appear only in “The Treatise on the Two Spirits” and not in what was found in most of the other caves. Reading the dualism in The Treatise on the Two Spirits is quite interesting – reread Lehi afterwards. It’s important to note that at Qumran they make a distinction between God and the good spirit in opposition to the evil one. Within Lehi it’s possible to see a similar move depending upon how one takes the Messiah. It’s useful to reread D&C 93 as well, although I fully admit it’s much more fun to read that neoPlatonically.

  25. mirrorrorrim, #21 there is nothing to apologise for.

    Your view that ‘things will become equal in the hereafter’ is an interesting one, I’m not sure where you got it. ‘Just’, perhaps. I’m happy to accept your reading of 2 Ne 2, there are, however, other readings.

  26. The argument from LDS scholars that the Book of Abraham reflects a geocentric cosmos is laid out in John Gee, William Hamblin, and Daniel Peterson’s essay “‘And I Saw the Stars,’ The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy” contained in the book Astronomy, Papyri, and Covenant. These authors write, “A careful reading of the Book of Abraham, however, shows that the text is describing a geocentric system” (7). To reinforce this point, they pull out phrases in Abraham, i.e. “the moon above the earth,” “one planet [is] above another,” “the earth upon which thou standest,” etc. to show that all the stars and planets are circling around the earth from the perspective of an earth bound observer, and therefore Abraham is ultimately describing an earth centered universe.

    The difficulty I have with this is it reduces ancient oral categories into modern, literate spatial logistics. When someone hears “geocentric” they are thinking of the Ptolemaic model of all the heavenly spheres turning around the earth. Perhaps the writers of the papyri were thinking of that? But is that an accurate description of the cosmology Abraham was shown?

    Immediately complications start spilling out, even within the same book. In another chapter we are shown another vision of Egyptian cosmology where ancient texts describe the universe as a great tree, whose branches are the heavens and fruits are the stars. Upon this conception we have contradictory visuals, as the author writes, “Ironically, the center of the cosmos in Egyptian belief was represented by Pharaoh’s throne, which was deemed ‘the divine throne as the pivot of society in a permanent changeless cosmic order of elemental vastness'” (52). The Pharaoh, like Osiris, is turned into a star, and his throne, whilst on earth, governs the heavens. In several Egyptian texts Ptah is the regulator of the heavens, and is identified as a northern star, but is also given the title “regulator of the circuit of the heavenly bodies.” Perhaps this is a reference to the Northern stars of Ursa Major? But it should be noted that another of Ptah’s titles was “Lord of the Thirty Year Circuit,” a clear allusion to Saturn which takes thirty years to complete one rotation around the sky as seen from earth.

    Here is the problem with defining ancient cosmology. As in the case of Egypt, the entire system is shrouded underneath a vast cloud of epithets, puns, and technical titles all of which had relevant meaning within a cosmology whose center was not calculated in spacial logistics. Ancient cosmology was rooted in the miraculous observations of nature in the microcosm, where life was seen to decay in one season and reborn in another. What caused the rebirth of nature? The powers of heaven, and behind that the power of life residing in the heavens. The center was not just Pharaoh, but the celestial archetype that gave power to the whole system and opened the doors to eternal life.

    So a more accurate description of this cosmology may not be geocentric after all. Profoundly, when Copernicus was looking for evidence of a heliocentric system, he scoured through every ancient text he could find. Copernicus did not come to his theory through astronomical observations (a complete fallacy printed in all our textbooks) but through the reading of ancient texts. What got him on the hunt was a passage he read from Philolaus the Pythagorean who stated that the entire universe revolved around a great Central Fire. The problem was Philolaus had the Sun also revolving around this central fire. So, this was not a geocentric or heliocentric system.

    What was this central fire? It was the true center of the universe where life originated, and this was the idee fixe embedded in religious cosmology throughout the ancient world. One could say, using an Abrahamic term, it is Kolob. And if one looks at Fac. 2 in Abraham one sees that the center of the universe is God’s throne. Pharaoh’s throne was simply a reproduction of the stellar hierarchy.

    Ultimately, in this three tiered system of heaven, earth, and underworld, one could also say there are three centers, one in each realm. Only in the earthly realm is earth really a center. The underworld also had a center, in the place where the secrets of eternal life were kept (the island of Utnapishtim, the Hersperides, or various other mythical locales that bear up “the midnight sun”). The true center was the heavenly one, where the gods ruled on their throne, and in Greece, called “The Tower of Cronos” (there’s Saturn again), “The Highway of Zeus,” or “The Blessed Isles.”

    The tension between this ontological cosmos and the spacial geocentric or heliocentric one is actually summed up by the Roman Emporer Julian, who writes:

    “Some say then, even though all men are not ready to believe it, that the sun travels in the starless heavens far above the region of the fixed stars. And on this theory he will not be stationed midmost among the planets but midway between the three worlds: that is, according to the hypothesis of the mysteries. [. . .] For the priests of the mysteries tell us what they have been taught by the gods or might daemons, whereas the astronomers make plausible hypotheses from the harmony that they observe in the visible spheres. It is proper, no doubt, to approve the astronomers as well, but where any man thinks it better to believe the priests of the mysteries, him I admire and revere, both in jest and earnest. And so much for that, as the saying is.”

    So in Julian’s day there was the this competing cosmovision between the “creationists” and the “Darwinists,” or I should say between the religious cosmology of the mystery endowments and the physical cosmology of the schools. Please note that this great sun that travels through the heavens IS NOT the sun in our sky, but the celestial archetype of the system (the throne). It is the true center as it is not in the middle of the planets but in the middle of the three-tiered cosmos. Here is the central fire of Philolaus, from which the modern idea of heliocentric cosmology was born. Irony to be sure.

  27. The complaint that it’s not addressing ptolemaic spheres so we shouldn’t take it as such is a good one. That is the issue is less whether it’s geocentric than what kind of geocentric discussion is going on. Don’t shift it to what we’d (today) call an astronomical one because it’s clearly not doing astronomy as such.

    A similar point gets made with other texts such as with dualism in the dead sea scrolls. Often people read everything in cosmic dualist terms when often more simple explanations are called for. Here we have a geocentric model but it seems much more a causal system of some sort rather than anything related to orbital dynamics except to the degree they constitute movement and time in some sense. So it’s not that it might not also be a more traditional geocentric system just that perhaps we should be careful to say it is.

    That said, I think the issue of times and movements do suggest this is a reasonable reading to see it as astronomical. Throw in Joseph’s comment that Abraham is talking about *astronomy* and there’s some evidence to read it this way. But it’s hardly determinative I fully agree.

  28. Clark, I am not suggesting that no real astronomical measurements were going on in the ancient world. They clearly were. Egypt had a stellar, lunar, and solar calendar from before the very first dynasty! This also shows us that Abraham did not teach the Egyptians astronomy. Rather, he taught them cosmology, or a new way to see the stars. In Joseph Smith’s day “astronomy” was a word that was interchangeable with “astrology” and “cosmology.” Today we have differentiated these concepts.

    Astronomy as such is the technical measurements of the movements and dynamics of the sky. Cosmology is the philosophical cosmovision of the universe. Astrology is High Priest Quorum :). It is probably the case that Abraham taught the Egyptians more cosmology than he did astronomy.

    So, I believe that there is probably some real technical data behind the vast veil of mythological tropes used in all these rites, funerary texts, stelaes, and stories. But in the end, when we are talking about pre Greek cosmology we are definitely talking about a different kind of geocentric model because it was rooted in macro-micro relationships, and not in mechanical movements of parts (admitting that they were also aware of the movement of those parts).

  29. Well we don’t really know what’s going on there and how much of it is intended to be purported “actual history” versus what others used the vignettes to represent versus an interpretation of Abraham. Lots of complexity there – although that’s an even stronger reason that “astronomy” shouldn’t be taken literally.

    In any case using geocentric astronomy the positions of the stars/planets can be represented reasonably good – especially if you add epicenters. I don’t know enough about Egyptian astronomy to know how that was done.

    Even if one pushes fac 3 as tied to real history (and I’m not sure even historicists to the Book of Abraham need do that) I don’t think we can say Abraham couldn’t teach such astronomy. First we don’t know which Egypt Abraham is talking about as Egypt. Second by “teaching” it could just be a discussion of geeks who knew this esoteric stuff and maybe Abraham thought he had a better epicenter. (I’m obviously being a bit facetious here – but you get the idea) In any case I’m not sure fac 3 has much practical significance outside of the more apologetic/historicist question of the relationship of the papyri to the Book of Abraham.

  30. Thanks, S James, for being so non-confrontational, especially with how opinionated I have been being in this thread. I think you’re right that there are a lot of ways to interpret all the different scriptures; thanks for sharing a little of your understanding with me.

  31. ^ lbw, check out ‘Thunderbolts Project’ on youtube, some interesting theories there, all rooted in anthropology, archeology, and scientific testing. My favorite thing about this group is their generally agnostic take on religion (they don’t have a hard stance), they focus only on the science and archeology and open, multi-disciplinary discussions.

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