Episode 42: The Divine Council with Stephen Smoot
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References to a divine council of gods are found in several ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt and Canaan. There are also numerous references to the divine counsel in the Hebrew Bible. The concept was pervasive.
Members of the LDS Church may not realize that references to the divine council are also found in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, the Doctrine and Covenants, and in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo discourses.
The Book of Abraham’s depiction of creation, which includes a divine council, fits nicely in an ancient New Eastern cultural background and has strong affinities with the depiction of the cosmos found in other ancient Near Eastern texts. This places the divine council not only within the time frame of Abraham but also within the LDS canon.
Many of the Hebrew descriptions of the divine counsel mirror a heavenly court with God the Father sitting at the head of a court of angelic hosts. Joseph Smith preached in the King Follett discourse that the head of the Gods sat with the council of Gods and “concocted a plan” for God’s children at the Creation.
Does this mean that members of the LDS Church believe in polytheism or that the ancient Israelites did? The very concept, notes Stephen O. Smoot, may be jarring to Mormons.
The answer to both questions is complicated. In fact, if Stephen were to travel back in time to ancient Israel and pose the question of whether the people were monotheistic or polytheistic, they would likely be confused. The ancient Israelites conceptualized their relationship with God more in covenantal terms, rather than in terms of strict monotheism or polytheism.
Smoot also notes that undoubtedly the Israelites were aware of Caananite creation myths and the Mesopotamian creation epic known as the Enuma Elish. The creation account in Genesis may have been an engagement with or reaction to these (and other) ancient myths.
Join Laura Harris Hales as she discusses with Stephen the divine council’s role in the religions of the ancient Near East and what references to the divine council in the LDS canon could mean for Latter-day Saint theology.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 42: The Divine Council with Stephen O. Smoot
Laura Hales: Hello, this is Laura Harris Hales. I’m here with my friend Stephen Smoot, and I will be interviewing him as part of our Young Scholars’ Series. Stephen Smoot is currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto, studying near and Middle Eastern civilizations with a concentration in Egyptology. He graduated cum laude in 2015 from Brigham Young University with a double major in ancient near eastern studies and German studies. He worked at Book of Mormon Central for a year as a research project manager and has published widely on the divine council, which is our topic today. Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen Smoot: Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
Laura Hales: The divine council is not a term referenced in our Sunday School or Institute manuals. However, the council in heaven is a concept that is more familiar to many members. Can you distinguish between the two for us?
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Stephen Smoot: I think that the main distinction is really theological in nature because our Mormon concept of the council in heaven encompasses a much broader scope theologically than the idea of the divine council does in the biblical record and in other ancient near eastern cultures. We have, for example, a very strong emphasis on the premortal existence and the premortal council involving a discussion of the planet’s salvation and the fall of Lucifer and the choice that we made individually as premortal spirits to come into the world. We also have this understanding that these councils, or counsel in heaven, will perpetuate after this life into the eternities where we will become like Heavenly Father, or we will create our own heavenly councils or family councils in the heavens together and so forth.
So there’s a lot of concepts in our idea of the council in heaven that are fairly foreign to the biblical concept of the divine council. There are certainly overlaps, and I’m sure we’ll talk about those, but I think we have to appreciate the differences as well and appreciate that from the vantage point of our modern revelation, we have a more robust and thorough understanding of the council in heaven.
Laura Hales: A thorough one, but there’s definitely a gap in our knowledge because we simply don’t talk about it on a regular basis as you’ve talked about it in your articles. For example, when I think of the council in heaven, I think of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother and spirit offspring. When you think of divine council, who would you think would make a divine council?
Stephen Smoot: Well, you know, Laura, it depends largely on which biblical text or scriptural text you’re looking at because the divine council within our canon is not always entirely portrayed the same way or portrayed consistently. Sometimes you get sort of different angles or different shades of understanding and emphases in different texts that portray the divine council.
But really I guess a prominent example of the divine council in the biblical record would be actually the very beginning in the book of Genesis where in Genesis 1 you have God saying, “Let us make man in our image after our likeness,” and then it goes on to say that, “God made man and woman after His own image,” and so forth (Genesis 1, 26 and 27). You’ll notice that God uses the plural let us, and we will do this and so forth. In this instance, the divine council seems to be composed of God, the Father, and His angelic hosts, the angels that were with Him at the creation, and He’s addressing His divine council sort of instigating or signaling what His intentions are to carry out with the aid of the divine council and the creation.
So in that instance, it’s God and His angels, but there are other instances where prophets are brought up into the divine council, and they are considered members of the divine council. A good example of that would be in the book of Isaiah, Isaiah chapter 6, where Isaiah himself is brought into the presence of God and the presence of His angels. He sees the seraphim and the cherubim surrounding God on His throne, and in this instance Isaiah himself becomes a member of the divine council, so here’s a prophet who is brought up into this, and there are other examples of different prophets as well. So it really depends on which scriptural text you’re looking at and what the purpose or the function of the divine council is in that scriptural text in order to answer who’s a member of it and what are their roles and responsibilities.
Laura Hales: So the concept is not all that clear as we look at it through the scriptures. It changes here and there. But if you were concisely to say this is what the divine council is, perhaps in Genesis, how would you word it?
Stephen Smoot: I think it’s clear in Genesis that the divine council is composed of God and His angels or other deities you might call them, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about that because that’s kind of loaded, but you have God and His attending angels or deities in His court. It’s a very regal and courtly depiction of the divine council. You have these different angelic ministers or beings who accompany God and assist Him in His work. They consult or council with God, and they participate in the creation, for example, alongside God, and they assist Him in some capacity. So at least in Genesis, I would say that’s broadly speaking what we see happening with God and His divine council, and as I said in other biblical books, you bring in prophets, you bring in other individuals who receive other specific roles and responsibilities. But like I said, broadly speaking, it’s God and His heavenly court you might say with all of His different courtiers fulfilling their respective positions and responsibilities.
Laura Hales: As I was reading some of the quotes you put in this article, it was unclear to me and probably unclear to those who study it as well if these Gods were divine or if they were unembodied at this point, if they were embodied or exalted. Those are still unanswered questions. You gave me a really great definition. I’m going to read one from Joseph Smith from the 1844 King Follett Discourse. He said, “The head god called together the gods and sat in grand council to bring forth the world. The grand council sat at the head in yonder heavens and contemplated the creation of the worlds, which were created at the time. In the beginning, the head of the gods called a council of the gods, and they came together and concocted, or prepared, a plan to create the world and people it.”
Stephen Smoot: That’s a remarkable definition coming from the prophet Joseph Smith because when he says they were preparing or concocting a plan, that’s really what the divine council does in the biblical record and as well as some of our other scriptural passages. But in the Bible, the divine council comes together and, as their name would imply, they council with each other on what to do. They come up with a battle strategy or a plan of some sort, and they do this through disputation. They do it through sort of debate to an extent. Ultimately it’s God who makes the decision about what’s going to happen, and the council is obliged to carry forth his decrees, but in some biblical passages there are nevertheless this sense that there’s some kind of disputation that goes on. Some kind of a give and take that goes on between the members of the divine council as they are concocting their plans as Joseph Smith says.
Laura Hales: Part of what you say and what Joseph Smith said in this discourse is making my head explode.
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff to wrap your mind around.
Laura Hales: Well, it is because reconciling it with other beliefs we have is somewhat more difficult than other concepts. It takes a lot of concentration and study. For instance, when you’re talking about God having a council, “cil,” who are counseling Him, “sel.” So giving Him advice that He weighs then makes a decision. Then I think to myself, “Wait, isn’t God omniscient?” Why does He need council?
Stephen Smoot: Oh well, that’s a remarkably broad and difficult question to answer and that touches on all sorts of theological points, but I think for our purposes here, we should appreciate that our definitions of omniscient or omnipotent and so forth may not always necessarily be clear cut when we compare them to the biblical record or the scriptural record. We have sometimes thrown these phrases out there. God is omnipotent, or omniscient, and we don’t really maybe fully appreciate what we mean by those phrases and terms. So for some, it can be jarring to encounter this concept of the divine council and having these other deities counseling God and giving Him council and counseling with Him and so forth. Then they may say, as you said, “Well, wait a minute, shouldn’t it be God alone that does this because He is omnipotent?”
It’s understandable that that can be a question that people have, but I think that’s why the course to take and answering that question is just to remember how we define these terms and how we understand these terms may evolve over time and to appreciate a level of uncertainty, and, therefore, maybe have a little of humility as we try to tackle the theological issues that come up with this very clear imagery found in the scriptures.
Laura Hales: I think it’s actually exciting to learn something new and have a new project, a new view when we’re reading. “Oh, this is a reference to the divine council.” So as we proceed, I want listeners to put aside what they know on the council of heaven because we’re not really going to talk about in our podcast. We’re going to talk about the divine council and how we see it in scripture. In your research, you mentioned that you found references to the divine council in the Hebrew Bible.
Stephen Smoot: Right, yes.
Laura Hales: The Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, the Doctrine and Covenants, and, of course, the King Follett Discourse.
Stephen Smoot: Right, it’s all over the place if you know how to find it, I think.
Laura Hales: Well, I’m learning.
Stephen Smoot: Right, yes.
Laura Hales: I googled divine council, and a website maintained by biblical scholar Michael Heiser, who you quote, was at the top of the list. He has a whole website on the topic — very user friendly.
Stephen Smoot: Yes, that’s right. He’s wonderful.
Laura Hales: Very much for the layman.
Stephen Smoot: And that’s a big strength that Michael Heiser brings into this discussion, is he’s able to translate some of these sometimes very esoteric and complicated concepts into a very user friendly presentation, so I think it’s good you found Michael Heiser because he has a lot of valuable contributions to this.
Laura Hales: He gives us wonderful little paragraphs, sound bites. Go away and come back. Read another one. Process it. I’m going to share a quote with you that I grabbed from him.
Stephen Smoot: Sure, yeah.
Laura Hales: “All ancient Mediterranean cultures had some concept of a divine council.” Okay, it is common in ancient near eastern studies. Can you speak to the presence of this concept and the cultures of the ancient Near East?
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, I can, and I’ll try to keep it brief because I’m not lying when I say you can go on and on and on about this. Several books and dissertations and articles have been written, so I’ll try to just very briefly summarize what we see from the ancient Near East. Michael Heiser is absolutely correct. When you look at ancient Israel, Egypt, Mesopotamia, even in ancient Greece and later on in the classical world, you have some idea of the gods coming together in a council setting and that they interact with each other in a council setting. Sometimes it’s more explicit and overt than others, but it always sort of shows up eventually.
In some cultures, the divine council has sort of different roles or functions, or it’s more you might say “pagan,” than in others. For example, in Mesopotamia and in Greece, you have the gods that can become jealous with each other and have rivalries and try to kill each other. In ancient Canaan, you have the divine council, and you have these conflicts between the gods and so forth, whereas in ancient Egypt, you don’t so much have an overt sense of the divine council in that sense, but you nevertheless have say, a divine family of gods that interact with each other in different ways. Think of Isis and Osiris and their son, Horus, or think of earlier forms of Egyptian religion where you have different deities that participate in the creation of the world.
So you have to be careful when you’re looking at the specific culture to not get it confused with just this broad idea of the divine council. Sometimes there are very specific, local variations or different regional manifestations of the divine council in these ancient cultures, but nevertheless the lowest common denominator is they have a multiplicity of gods, and they call them as such. They call them gods and other similar terms and epithets. You have a multiplicity of gods that are interacting with each other in a council setting, in a divine heavenly family setting of some kind of domestic setting of some kind, and that this belief, this idea is manifest in the Hebrew Bible on a number of points, and that the authors of the Hebrew Bible, they understood and were interacting with these ideas about the divine council that they were getting from their neighbors, and sometimes in very unique ways, but it nevertheless is there.
Laura Hales: One of the more common would be Enuma Elish that has a God, and his soldiers that help him. So the idea was pervasive in the culture at the time. Not that Israel adopted it, it was just a concept that was accepted.
Stephen Smoot: I think you might be able to say that the authors of the biblical record, they had some level of familiarity with, for example, the Enuma Elish, or with the Canaanite myths about the divine council of El and his sons and his daughters and his divine family. They had an understanding of these myths and these portrayals of the divine council, and to an extent, they were reacting against them, they were in some ways trying to maybe to fight back against them. There’s a lot of biblical scholars that will say the creation in Genesis, especially Genesis chapter 1, is a reaction against the Enuma Elish in sort of what it’s portraying. You have others that have talked about the relationship between El, or Elohim in the Hebrew Bible, and El in Canaanite literature. Places such as Ugarit, where we have a very rich corpus of texts that talk about the god El and his family.
So there’s certainly room for debate about how extensively Israel was, if we might say, “borrowing,” from their neighbors in the ancient Near East, versus how much are they reacting against it. We can have that discussion, and there’s been a lot of scholarship done on it, but nobody I think can deny that the Bible is familiar with this concept. It’s engaging with it; it’s reacting to it; and it’s formulating it sometimes in very unique ways.
Laura Hales: I think a term they use sometimes instead of borrowing is re-appropriate, too.
Stephen Smoot: Right, that’s a good word for it, I think.
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Laura Hales: Let’s start with the concept of the divine council in ancient Israel. At first this appears like an oxymoron because we have the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue. How do you reconcile the Decalogue and acceptance of a divine council for ancient Israelites?
Stephen Smoot: Well, that’s an important question, Laura, because that’s also been raised against the Latter-day Saint understanding of the council in heaven. Understandably, many Christians have looked at our teaching of the heavenly council and have said, “Well, wait a minute. If the Ten Commandments and other passages in the Bible say there’s only one God, and we’re supposed to worship Him, then how can you acknowledge multiple gods as Joseph Smith taught?” And very briefly, I think because, again, this is a very complex issue in some ways, it comes down to how we define these terms of, for example, monotheism or polytheism and so forth. We have to be very careful in how we define these terms and how we utilize these terms, and also we have to careful in how we project them back onto the biblical record because monotheism and polytheism, both as words and as concepts, are relatively modern.
There’s an interesting history behind how these theological ideas came to be, but basically if you were to go back in time in a time machine, and you were to ask an ancient Israelite, “Are you a monotheist or a polytheist?” they probably wouldn’t have any idea what you were talking about. If you were to say, “Do you believe in just one God?” that would maybe help them a little bit, but that’s kind of fraught with a lot of implications theologically. So speaking of the Decalogue, for example, when it says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the second commandment. So the second commandment says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” people will point to this and say, “Therefore, pure, strict monotheism.”
But what a number of biblical scholars have pointed out is that this seems to be a relational declaration here. In other words, it’s a matter of quality as opposed to quantity. There’s a robust corpus of biblical scholarship that is saying these statements of monotheism in the Hebrew Bible is more about Israel’s relationship with God, their covenantal relationship, rather than the actual number of gods. So there may be multiple gods out there. The Bible is saying, “The Egyptians and the Babylonians and these other people may there gods, but we as Israel will only have one god that we have a covenantal relationship with,” And therefore this is, as you can probably tell, this raises all sorts of questions. Well, “Okay, is that monotheistic if you acknowledge other gods as existing but only worship one?” Or do we come up with another word for it? And sometimes scholars come up with the word monolatry to explain this, which is worshiping or having obedience to one god while also acknowledging the existence of other gods.
So to wrap it all up, I think it really comes down to a question of how we define terms, how we understand these terms, and being careful in how we read them back onto the biblical text and making sure that we’re not importing our modern concepts back onto the ancient scriptures.
Laura Hales: You have mentioned that the divine council is referenced in Isaiah and also Genesis, but would you say that in the Hebrew Bible, the divine council is most evidenced in poetic renderings such as Job and Psalms?
Stephen Smoot: It would probably be safe to say that. There are a number of psalms that acknowledge other gods besides God himself. Not necessarily the psalm is saying to worship these gods, but usually using them to contrast these gods with the god that Israel is worshiping. Think about the phrase, “The god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords.” We often hear this phraseology in the scriptures and this sometimes appears in the Psalms and in other poetic books in the Hebrew Bible, and the idea behind this phraseology appears to be that these other deities, these other gods may be out there, but our god, he is king of the gods, or he’s the god of those gods, right? He is somehow greater and bigger, and more magnificent and powerful than these other gods are, and therefore he’s worthy of our worship.
The poetic depictions of the divine council in places such as the Psalms is usually doing it to exalt the god of Israel and exalt Him over the gods of other nations or even the gods in the divine council, and to reiterate the point that this god alone is who we’ll worship, even if there are these other gods around Him. There’s a lot more to say about it, but certainly you look at Job, you look at the Psalms, you look at other parts of the Hebrew Bible, and you can definitely see the divine council creeping out.
Laura Hales: If I were to approach the Old Testament with the purpose of finding the divine council, what types of phrases would I look for that would specifically refer to that type of a body?
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and that kind of comes down to a question of which Bible translation are you going to use? Because some biblical translations are better than others, and rendering the phrases or the key words you might say that indicate when the divine council is in play here. I can recommend to our listeners the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is a wonderful translation. In it, if you’re reading that translation of the Bible, look for phrases such as divine council, council of God, council of the holy ones. I’m trying to think of what else there might be off the top of my head.
Laura Hales: How about the members of the council?
Stephen Smoot: Oh, there we go. That’s a little more clear. The members include gods, the sons of God, or sons of the gods. It can include the angels, the stars, the heavens, the host of heaven or the heavenly host. That’s a pretty big one. Even the Lord of Hosts, a phrase that we encounter quite often. The idea behind that phrase is that there’s God, the Lord, and he is the divine commander of this heavenly army of deities that fight for him, right? You look for those key phrases or those key titles or names for the divine council and it’s participants, and that’ll clue you in that you’re reading a divine council text, and I have to say it’s much clearer in Hebrew when you encounter these things than it is when you encounter it in different English translations because sometimes the translations will obscure the names or the titles for the divine council and its members.
But nevertheless, you can see it there, and these are a couple that our listeners can keep in mind as they’re reading the scriptures. Think of divine council, think of the heavenly host, think of the host of heavens, the sons of the gods, the sons of God, the angels, the stars, and so forth. If you encounter these, odds are you’re talking about a divine council text.
Laura Hales: Surprisingly, you also located divine council rhetoric in the Book of Mormon.
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, that’s right.
Laura Hales: In at least two places.
Stephen Smoot: Yes, it’s quite remarkable because I think this is indication that the Book of Mormon is drawing off of the same ancient near eastern or biblical tradition that is manifested in the Hebrew Bible. So let’s look at the big one maybe that we find in the Book of Mormon, and it’s actually in first Nephi chapter 1. It’s right off the bat in the Book of Mormon. I’m sure many if not most of our listeners are familiar with what happens in First Nephi, but just as way of reminder, you have Lehi, and he has this vision where he looks up, and it says, “He saw God sitting on his throne, surrounded by numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.” That right off the bat indicates we have a divine council text. You have God on His throne, He’s surrounded by His angels in this council setting, and in this case, in this instance, they’re singing His praises and they’re exalting Him and so forth. But those phrases again, you see those key phrases. Concourses of angels, God on His throne, etc., and you know you’re talking about a divine council text.
What happens as our listeners will recall, is that Lehi is given a heavenly book, he reads it, and he learns these wonderful mysteries and prophecies about the coming forth of the Messiah, and he is given the job to go to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to teach what he learned from the divine council. This is a very common, typical motif found in the Hebrew Bible where a prophet is called up into the divine council, he’s given secrets or some sort of mysteries, and he is then commissioned by council to go back to Earth and preach what he has learned to the people, and Lehi has followed that exact same pattern. Nephi, to an extent, follows the same pattern with his experience with an angel later in First Nephi. There’s been an article written by David Bokovoy, he’s an LDS biblical scholar, published with the Interpreter journal, Mormon Interpreter, and he has explored the language and the motifs that appear in Nephi’s vision that link that with the divine council.
And then finally, last but not least, you recall in the Book of Helaman another Nephi who has a vision of God, and God says, “I swear to you in the presence of my angels that I will make this covenant with you,” where Nephi is given the sealing power and this great prophetic power in commission. Once again, there’s the same pattern. Nephi is called up, God swears in the presence of his angels, indicating the divine council, Nephi is given a divine power or divine mandate, and then goes back down and preaches it to the people. So there’s a number places in the Book of Mormon where it shows up. and, like I said, I think it’s indication that it’s drawing from the same ancient near eastern tradition and is following the biblical pattern that we see throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Laura Hales: I want to change topics just slightly and move toward creation myths.
Stephen Smoot: Okay.
Laura Hales: Before we talk about those creation myths, I want to define myth for listeners because some people think myth means lie, or something made up, which is actually the fourth definition according to Merriam-Webster, but we’re going to go with the first definition, which is, “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people, or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” After I read your two articles, I went back to Moses and Abraham and read the creation myths there, which up to this point I figured to be nearly identical. Rereading, I find them so different.
Stephen Smoot: Lots of differences, absolutely.
Laura Hales: Very, very different. The Book of Abraham is quite explicit in reference to gods, while the Book of Moses is more subtle like Genesis. Would you like to elaborate on the differences?
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, I’d be happy to, and I’m really glad that you brought up that definition of myth because I use it in my writings on the divine council and scholars use it all the time when talking about the creation accounts in Genesis and so forth, and I think it’s important for our listeners to understand what a myth is and what it isn’t, at least when we’re talking about it in the scriptural sense. So there’s nothing wrong with the word myth, so long as you’re using it in the appropriate scholarly or scripturally sense, and actually, and maybe this is a conversation for another time, but I think it brings a lot of power and a lot of gravity to these accounts when you read them as myths.
But in any event, let’s talk a little bit about the Book of Abraham because the divine council, or the council in heaven, is very explicit. It’s overt in the Book of Abraham. It starts in Abraham chapter 3, where Abraham has a vision of the cosmos that he’s given by God, and this is where we get all that information about Kolob, and the stars, and how they revolve around each other and so forth. Then in the middle of this vision, we suddenly go from stars and planets like Kolob into spirits and intelligences in the council in heaven, in the premortal council. Some people may wonder what’s the logical connection between the two, and I’ll leave it up to our listeners to go read my articles on it and some others, and they can found out because there’s a fun logic going behind there.
Basically once we get into the premortal council, we suddenly have a council scene where we have the gods come together, and there’s a dispute that’s arisen or some kind of a controversy. In this case, the controversy is what plan will God’s children follow when they come down to earth, which the gods are going to create, and we know of course what happens. We have these competing plans, we have Heavenly Father present His plan that’s championed by Jesus, the premortal Jesus, and we have Lucifer, who presents his opposing plan. He has some different thoughts in mind about how things should be run, and we have some sort of controversy, some sort of a disputation where Lucifer loses out, and he’s dismissed, and he falls from heaven, and there’s the war in heaven, and we have this understanding of what proceeds.
But nevertheless, you have this connection in Abraham 3 and Abraham 4. What happens in Abraham 4? Right after the council has ended in Abraham 3, we go into Abraham 4. And who is creating the world and the cosmos in Abraham 4? It’s not God singular. It’s the gods, plural, right? And it’s not just that they’re creating. They are organizing things, and they are commanding things to be formed and to be organized, and at one point I believe it says, “Let the Earth bring forth grass,” right? Suddenly the language is a lot different than what we encounter in Genesis and in Moses, and as I argue in one of my articles, I think there’s a direct, logical flow between what happens in Abraham 3 and the creation by the gods in Abraham 4. I would say the creation by the divine council, which in the biblical near eastern tradition, is one of the main roles of the divine council, is to lay out the creation.
So you’re absolutely right, Laura, to say there’s a difference between Genesis and Abraham and Moses, and if we appreciate these differences, I think we get a much more fuller and robust picture of the creation on a mythological or a theological scale.
Laura Hales: Latter-day Saints have access to four creation myths that are similar in substance. You could even say in substance they say the same thing, but in verbiage, they vary. We have Genesis, we have the Book of Moses, we have the Book of Abraham, and we have the temple ceremony.
Stephen Smoot: Yes, that’s right.
Laura Hales: When we’re thinking of these differences, we need to keep in mind audience and message. It’s not that one is more correct than the other. One is trying to emphasize one message more than others, and in fact you made the point that the Book of Abraham, the fact that it does refer to gods, shows that Abraham, the book, had a place in that culture of that period of time.
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right to say we have to ask questions about audience, about composition, historical context, and also we can add to that the purpose or usage of the text. So we have the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham and Genesis and our scriptures which we can read as a family. We can sit down and read whenever we want and wherever we want, but we also have the creation account in temple, which we can’t do that, right? And the reason for this is because the purposes of these different myths vary from another to an extent. The presentation of the creation and the endowment has very overt ritual purposes that we don’t really see in the scriptures, so that’s another way to appreciate what’s going here, I think.
So talking about the Book of Abraham, or looking at it specifically, the fact that the Book of Abraham mirrors or shows some kind of familiarity with other ancient near eastern creation myths, including the Enuma Elish, and I talk about this in my paper. I think it demonstrates, or at least suggests where we might look to try to situate to the Book of Abraham historically. Frankly, it would have been impossible for Joseph Smith to have plagiarized the Enuma Elish or some of these other creation myths because they had not been translated into English. Some of them hadn’t even been discovered at this point in the 1830s and 40s, let alone translate it into English.
So you can’t really accuse Joseph Smith of plagiarizing things, and I think you can therefore look at this and ask the question, the fact that the Book of Abraham has some familiarity with the divine council, it seems to echo some of the imagery and some of the language of other near eastern creation myths and divine council myths. The fact that you have all of this here, it raises the question of where to situate the Book of Abraham historically. Was it composed in Abraham’s time, was it composed at a later time, and that’s a really difficult question that we can’t definitively answer right now, but I nevertheless think that there’s something to be said about the divine council in the Book of Abraham as evidence for its historicity during the time of Abraham, since we know for example the Enuma Elish, depending on how you date Abraham, roughly dates to the time of Abraham. We have some potential elements of appropriation as we said, and it raises these sorts of questions, and it’s something that I hope that those who read my work or the work of scholars on the divine council will appreciate.
Laura Hales: Okay, just briefly, let’s talk about the King Follett Discourse, which we referred to earlier. King Follett was a close friend of Joseph Smith, he died working on the Nauvoo Temple, and this is a speech he gave at his funeral. I imagine the people in the crowd … their heads were exploding.
Stephen Smoot: Yeah, I’m pretty sure mine would have if I’d listened to it.
Laura Hales: He said many, many things that were quite profound, and this is just weeks before he died. I mentioned earlier that the divine council does not show up in our manuals right now. In fact, I ran a search on lds.org and got nothing, but my husband ran a broader search with a broader database such as the Doctrines of Salvation and the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, he found three hundred references to councils from prophets and in the scriptures. Some are for the divine council, some are for the council in heaven. There were definitely references to the council in heaven besides the King Follett Discourse. Stephen, why has the divine council consumed so much of your research time? What is it about the divine council that catches your imagination?
Stephen Smoot: I think the fact that it appears so frequently in the scriptures, very frequently in the Hebrew Bible, Book of Mormon, and so forth, but also a reference it seems here or there in the Doctrine of Covenants, and as you just said, it appears several times in the teachings of our modern prophets. Because of that, because it appears so frequently, I think it’s important to understand what it is and why it’s important. Why would God operate in a council setting? Why does he need to work in a council setting? How do we relate to God and relate to this heavenly divine council? These raise all sorts of theological questions and scriptural exegetical questions that I think are very important to confront and try to answer, just like if there were any other concept that appeared throughout the scriptures or any kind of phrase or any kind of imagery that appeared throughout the scriptures. I think we would take that seriously, right? We would think that’s important, and we would want to understand that, and I think the same is true with the divine council.
I’ll also say because it appears so frequently throughout the scriptures because it’s talked about by our prophets, even if the terminology that they use is sometimes different, as you said, they don’t use divine council. They use council in heaven for example. Because of this, I think it’s important to understand it. Basically to appreciate it and to know what it is and to know how we can relate to it and what kind of meaning we can draw from it.
Laura Hales: So in five sentences or less, can you sum up what you’ve learned about the divine council through your study?
Stephen Smoot: Okay, I’ll try to in five sentences, that’ll be kind of tough, but I think I can do it. So, I have learned that the divine council is throughout the scriptures. It’s represented throughout the scriptures, and it’s portrayed throughout the scriptures. I have learned that it has various shades of meaning and function and purpose depending on which scriptural book you’re reading, but at the same time there are underlying concepts that are the same in each of the scriptural books. I’ve also learned that the presence of the divine council in the Book of Mormon and in the Book of Abraham to me is evidence for the historicity of these in the ancient world. It is evidence that these are ancient compositions that were engaging in the same world where the divine council as an idea, as a thought, was being circulated in ancient religions, and I’ve also learned to appreciate the remarkable, wonderful revelations that prophet Joseph Smith gave us that more fully fleshes out the council in heaven and what we understand about the council in heaven, and how we as children of heavenly parents participate in the council in heaven.
Laura Hales: Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Smoot: Hey, thank you, it was wonderful.
Laura Hales: Good luck on your next semester.
Stephen Smoot: Thanks so much, I need all the luck I can get.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS church leaders, policies, or practices.
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