Saturday, July 10, 2010

El Beth El, The Place Where Gods Appeared (Gen 35:7)

Apologies in advance for the length of this thing.

One of the most common assertions about the Hebrew faith by modern Christians and Jews is that the Bible is about a monotheistic faith delivered to Abraham.

When Mormons discuss that by revelation, God has explained that is not the case, but that the destiny of mankind is to follow in the footsteps of God (who has feet, Gen 3:8), and sit on his throne, by invitation and through overcoming the world (Rev 3:21), to rule and reign with God and Jesus, they are attacked as attempting to replace God and change the Faith to polytheism. Mormons don't believe they will ever replace God the Father, or no longer worship him as God.

But the obvious issue here is this creates a type of polytheism in Mormonism. Not that they worship multiple Gods, for in one sense there really is only one God, as the Shema of Deut 6:4 says. They are in complete harmony, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but they are distinct beings who in simple terms share the same mind, that is they are in perfect union of thought because perfection in godhood leads to the same values and desires, and so they share the "mind of God" (Alma 36:4, D&C Official Declaration 1 comments, Moses 4:6, Rom 8:27), which is the holy Spirit, as taught in Lectures on Faith 5:2, which is sometimes twisted by critics to try to say there is some kind of binary godhead in the LDS faith, because the Spirit is described as the method of creating the "mind of god" between the Father and Son and Humankind as well, even though the lecture also states:
these three are one; or, in other words, these three constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme, power over all things; by whom all things were created and made that were created and made, and these three constitute the Godhead, and are one;
going on to state of the relationship of man to the godhead:
...the Spirit of the Father, which Spirit is shed forth upon all who believe on his name and keep his commandments; and all those who keep his commandments shall grow up from grace to grace, and become heirs of the heavenly kingdom, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ; possessing the same mind, being transformed into the same image or likeness, even the express image of him who fills all in all; being filled with the fullness of his glory, and become one in him, even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.

Lectures on Faith were removed in 1921 from the D&C (effectively removing the "Doctrine" part, as historically that is what that part of the D&C referenced)because they really were essentially Sunday School lessons prepared for the early Church, and had never been officially endorsed as inspired writings. Their explanation of doctrines is in a style which can lead to some misunderstandings or nuanced differences in light of later revelations and official doctrinal statements by the Church, such as the somewhat ambiguous teaching about the nature of the Spirit, which can be read in two very different ways, and was clarified in D&C 130:22-23. Since the lectures were never accepted by the Church as "official" scripture, their removable was only mildly controversial within the Church, and is now seen as no more significant than the change of the topical guide or chapter headings.

Anyway, despite the critics of the LDS Church's contention that the idea of their being multiple real gods was a doctrinal evolution in the Church from the 1830's-40's, D&C 76, dating from Feb 1832, makes the existence of "gods",and the destiny of humanity to potentially become like God and gods themselves, explicit (D&C 76:58).

Starting in the 20th Century, the archaeological evidence began to bring to life the previously ignored textual evidence of the Hebrew faith being believers in the existence of multiple real gods, in a way similar to their Canaanite neighbors. The discovery of the Ugaritic texts from Syria in the late 1920's did not have significant impact on Biblical interpretation until they began receiving broad scholarly dissemination in the 1960's and beyond. Today the work of Raphael Patai and Mark Smith, as well as a host of other scholars including Michael Heiser (a non-LDS Christian who attends a Reformed church, and works for Logos Bible Software as their academic editor)and his extensive writings on the Divine Council make defense of "exclusive monotheism" untenable as the teaching of the original Hebrew religion.

The Place where Gods Appeared

Finally, we start to engage the scripture in Genesis 35:7. The King James Bible records:
7 And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.

There are a couple of very interesting items within this verse. First, the name "Elbethel" actually means "God's house of God", because this was the place where God appeared to Jacob. Today we still say that the Temple is the "House of the Lord" and that God visits his holy temples, as he apparently has done throughout history.

But secondly, and even more significantly, is what the King James Version ignores. The word for "appeared", galah is translated as a singular. But in fact, it is a plural. Coupled as it is with "elohim", the correct and accurate translation should be "there gods appeared unto him".

This has many, many theological and historical implications.

First, because Moses uses "El" and "Elohim" in the statement about naming the place and the plurality of "El"s, it is not possible to contend (as Michael Heiser and other critics of the LDS Church often do) that there is an "ontological" difference between Elohim/Jehovah, and the other 'elohim'. (Ontological means "nature of existence", and is asserted to mean in its application to Elohim/Jehovah, that He is self-existent, but the other 'gods' are contingently existent, based on Elohim/Jehovah creating them). The assertion is that the other "elohim' are really more like angels than 'gods'. Moses' statement about what happened to Jacob makes such a contention impossible to maintain. Moses/Jacob lumps El into the same bucket as the other "elohim"/gods that appear to Jacob.e learn from this verse that the statements from Deut 32:8-9, Ps 82, Ps 95:3, Ps 97:7, 9; or Genesis 3:5, 22 do not discriminate about the nature of existence between "El/Elohim/Jehovah" and the other 'gods'.

This inevitably results in some unschooled critic shooting me a note about Isaiah 43:10 and saying "if god doesn't know of any other gods, Mormonism must be false."

Oh that one need never do research, our prejudices would be so much easier to maintain.

It turns out that no one who has actually studied the cultural context of the Hebrew people in light of the Ugaritic texts and other archaeological finds from Israel believe the verse is about anything other than idols or the superiority of Jehovah to the other real gods which cannot save us. Scholars point out Isaiah references the Divine Council himself, and so he is not saying there are no other real gods. He is saying men can make no real gods. He is also not addressing what God holds in store for humanity.

If we stick to the strict language applied to the verses like Isaiah 43:10 invoked by LDS critics stretching for proof of this being a statement against the existence of other real gods, then we must concede that God notes that there was also a time before his own creation.

Of course the answer by the critics is essentially "don't stick my sacred cow with your interpretation". Well, why don't we read this like those folks of Isaiah's day would have read it. But to do so gets you into Mark Smith's or Michael Heisers, or similar experts, who flatly deny the verses are making any claim about the existence of other real gods. Here are a few examples:

In briefest terms, the statements in the canonical text (poetic or otherwise) inform the reader that, for the biblical writer, Yahweh was an אלהים [elohim] , but no other [elohim]אלהים was Yahweh—and never was nor could be. This notion allows for the existence of other אלהים [elohim] and is more precise than the terms “polytheism” and “henotheism.” It is also more accurate than “monotheism,” though it preserves the element of that conception that is most important to traditional Judaism and Christianity: Yahweh’s solitary “otherness” with respect to all that is, in heaven and in earth.

But on what grounds can this description be derived? The elements of the text that allow this approach have been copiously documented in the scholarly literature. As Isaiah 43:10 and 44:6-8 affirm, the canonical writers assume that their God was uncreated and always existed, and that the other gods were subsequent. This alone points to intrinsic superiority to and distinction from all the other gods.[Michael Heiser, Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible, pg 23

Reading Heiser, one is struck by his insightful reading, yet difficult balancing act, as he tries to harmonize a traditional doctrine of Trinitarianism with his research results. Traditional Christianity doesn't believe there were any additional divine beings, period. They call it "exclusive monotheism". Heiser is essentially saying to traditional Christians, "Don't get hung up on the words, look at the faith and not the labels of the early Christians and Jews." Of course, his belief that there can be any additional real gods, regardless of their inferiority to to Jehovah or not, is unacceptable to almost all unschooled traditional Christians, and requires a change of view by them. While his position is not as radical as Mormonism is to traditional Christianity, it is not traditional Christianity.

Finally, while I have the highest respect for Heiser's work, I think he is straining to try to retain his faith. As Genesis 35:7 shows, the Hebrews did not feel a need to differentiate between the types of "Elohim". His method of differentiating between the types of Elohim and Jehovah boils down in his writing to placing his entire emphasis on a two verses, Neh 9:6, and Ps 33:6, which say that God "made" (Heb. "asah" Strongs 6213, to make from existing material, BDB pp 793-5)the hosts of heaven.

Heiser's argument is that because Jehovah "made" the host of heaven, which are 'gods'/elohim, he has a different type of existence than those elohim he has created. That assumes that the cycle or process of creating 'elohim' starts with Jehovah. Such an assertion is absent from the Bible. Jehovah/God is concerned about our existence. There is not Biblical conversation about the "time", as it were, before Jehovah organized this planet. From Everlasting, from all eternity, is a very long time. Especially when it passes without comment.

Moreover, Heiser's argument by necessity relegates Jesus to a position of 'ontological inferiority' to Jehovah, since Hebrews 2:6-18 and Hebrews 12:9 make it clear that the Father made the spirits of all men and Jesus too. Instead of demoting man to an inferior existence, as is the case with traditional Christianity, the Bible in fact elevates man kind to a quality equal to God's, though we are beneath him.

Acts 17:29
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.

Heb 2:9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
10 ¶ For it became him, for whom [are] all things, and by whom [are] all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
11 For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified [are] all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren,
12 Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.
13 And again, I will put my trust in him. And again, Behold I and the children which God hath given me.
14 ¶ Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
16 For verily he took not on [him the nature of] angels; but he took on [him] the seed of Abraham.
17 Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto [his] brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things [pertaining] to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.

The Bible may differentiate in how gods came to be gods, but it never approaches the idea that any god's existence is inferior in terms of its capability or existence compared to Jehovah. Throughout the Old Testament, Jesus is Jehovah, or the mouth piece of the Father, so the role of Jesus in the OT is sometimes hard to detect. But we do see that in the NT, according to Heiser's criteria, Jesus would be an inferior God.

Yet I believe the reason Jacob states that Gods appeared to him at ElBethEl is because he saw two Gods, the Father and the Son. The Biblical text explicitly supports that he did see two real Gods. That makes the faith of the Bible similar to the faith of the LDS Church.

Sorry for the length of this blog post, but the concepts require a lot of interaction with the arguments of critics to really show that the faith of the LDS is in fact Biblical and defendable.


Tony said...

This is quite a bold and interesting post. Something I will be chewing on for a while. That part about 'galah' just makes me want to learn more Biblical Hebrew even more.

Don Boone said...

"If we stick to the strict language applied to the verses like Isaiah 43:10 invoked by LDS critics stretching for proof of this being a statement against the existence of other real gods, then we must concede that God notes that there was also a time before his own creation."

I responded to this fallacious argument here...
Sept 22

Walker said...

You completely misread Bob, Don. And your post in response is...sad.