Friday, November 16, 2012

Recreated in the Image of God

Death played a major role in the development of early Mormonism.[1] Nineteenth-century deathbed rituals would have helped establish a connection between early converts and some of the stories within the Book of Mormon. For example, Samuel Brown explains,

According to the narrative, a good-hearted but benighted Lamanite king named Lamoni heard the Gospel message and entered a deathlike conversion trance...Ammon promised that "on the morrow" Lamoni would "rise again" from his trance. His prediction came gloriously true on schedule. Not only did this account employ familiar tropes to describe the Christian conversion of an infidel king, it documented the power of God over death and the dramatic social power of the corpse. Ammon's ability to resolve the uncertainty of Lamoni's apparent deathbed, in the presence of malodorous evidence of decay, documented the prophet's power...The stricken king arose from apparent death. Lamoni's escape from premature burial became the exemplar for his people, who would thereby die and rise again: the entire kingdom converted, several others undergoing deathlike trances. Nineteenth-century readers would have found in the story of Lamoni scriptural confirmation of the power of the ambiguous status of the corpse. The possibility that some apparently dead bodies might in fact be alive also pushed toward the striking possibility, nourished by biblical narratives, that in the right setting the dead could actually rise long before the final resurrection.[2]

A people's king "dying and rising" again would have provided a powerful representation for the new Christian converts as well as strike the already Christian reader with unmissable symbolism. Similarly, the conversion of Alma the Younger was brought on by another deathlike trance (itself caused by an angelic visitation), for "the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father." (Mosiah 27:19) Noting an ancient parallel, one researcher writes,

Not only does Alma declare himself as near death, but the formal response of those around him resembles the "Opening of the Mouth" rite for initiation and rebirth that was intended to "reverse the blows of death." A religious leader called a multitude of people to gather to witness the event ritually (Mosiah 27:21). The priests assembled and fasted and prayed for two days and nights that "God would open the mouth of Alma, that he might speak, and also that his limbs might receive their strength" (Mosiah 27:22). Notice the word pairs in Mosiah 27:22–23, which collectively reinforce the notion of a ritual context: open the mouth—speak, limbs—strength, eyes—see and know.[3]

The priests' fasting and prayers for God to "open the mouth of Alma" could involve a hands-on ritual without contradiction. In the Babylonian Akitu festival, it was understood that Marduk himself (along with the other gods) had purified the temple, with the "exorcist and slaughterer merely act[ing] on behalf of Marduk, or...function[ing] as Marduk (i.e., they show what Marduk once did and is doing again)."[4] In the Mesopotamian mīs pǐ ("mouth-washing") ritual, "the arms of the human artisans who formed the idol are symbolically amputated...The human limb connected with the fashioning of the idol is removed to emphasize that in reality the idol was created by the gods. Similarly, the human agents are removed in the Akitu, when the exorcist and slaughterer are banished from the city."[5] After "the limbs of Alma received their strength," he "stood up and began to speak unto them" about how he had "been redeemed of the Lord" and "born of the Spirit." (Mosiah 27:23-24)

It could be that God's "opening" of Alma's mouth is meant to reflect his emergence as a messenger of the divine. When relaying his experience to his son Helaman years later, Alma says, "Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there. But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God." (Alma 36:22-23) Drawing on the prophetic call of Isaiah, David Bokovoy illustrates, 

The seraph's act of purifying the prophet's mouth in Isaiah 6 features important symbolic elements reflecting this insight. Through the act of a sacred mouth-cleansing ritual, Isaiah appears to have received a religious rite similar in purpose to the traditional Mesopotamian mīs pǐ, or "opening of the mouth," ritual. As Victor Hurowitz has noted, a comparative analysis between mīs pǐ and Isaiah 6 suggests a common motif. "A large portion of the [Mesopotamian] sources," writes Hurowitz, "raise the possibility that the washing of the mouth or the purity of the mouth has independent significance as a characteristic granting or symbolizing special divine or quasi-divine status to the person or object so designated. The pure mouth enables the person or object to stand before the gods or to enter the divine realm, or symbolizes a divine status." By analogy, through a mouth-cleansing ritual at the altar, Isaiah received a divine status as one fully capable of participating in God's council and eventually of speaking his message. This use of traditional Near Eastern imagery connected with the deification of an idol as a representation of Isaiah himself becoming a "god" in the assembly works well in the context of Isaiah's message regarding Israel's violation of sacred covenants by means of idolatry.[6]

While all of the above may play a part in the "opening" of Alma's prophetic mouth, it is worth noting that Alma describes those "born again; yea, born of God" as being "changed from their carnal and fallen state." They become God's "sons and daughters" and thus "new creatures." (Mosiah 27:25-26) The allusion to the Fall and the description as "new creatures" invokes a kind of creation imagery (similar to the "new creation" language of Paul). The major portions of the mīs pǐ pīt ritual took place "in a verdant and fruit-filled temple garden (kiru)."[7] The eyes, ears, mouth, and nose of the divine image are "opened" within the garden. Recitations are made by the priest that allude to the idol's ability to eat, drink, hear, and smell. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, Adam's animation "is summarized in Gen. 2:7: Yahweh Elohim breathed the breath of life (nismat hayyim) into the man and he became a living being (nepes hayyah)."[8] John Walton of Wheaton College has explained the Genesis creation story as a temple text, with God taking up His "rest" in the cosmic temple:[9]

Once "the creation and animation of the image was complete, it was installed in its temple home. This climatic moment was a distinct phase of the rite accompanied by its own incantations in which the priest entreated the god, manifest in its statue, to establish (kanu) itself in the sanctuary."[10] It is possible that the use of the second hiphil of nwh in Gen. 2:15 was "to indicate that Adam was not simply placed in the garden of Eden but that Yahweh installed them there in the office of royal caretaker and watchman, similar to the way a divine statue would have been installed in its own temple, as in the mīs pǐ pīt , or a statue or mummy would have been installed in its tomb, as in the wpt-r."[11] These statues begin naked, but are clothed and adorned by the priests. Various intertestamental and rabbinic writings describe the luminous garments originally worn by Adam and Eve and lost following their disobedience. The psalms state that God made man "a little lower than the elohim" and "crowned them with glory and honor." (Ps. 8:5) 

In the case of Alma's conversion, the possible "opening of the mouth" ceremony that accompanied it could have less to do with the deathlike experience and more to do with Alma being recreated in the image of God: "redeemed of the Lord" from his "carnal and fallen state" as a "new creature." (Mosiah 27:24-26) The Book of Mormon once more invokes creation imagery when talking about the redemption that comes through Christ.[12]


1. See Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Brown, "The "Beautiful Death" in the Smith Family," BYU Studies 45:4 (2006).

2. Brown, 2009, 41.

3. Kevin Christensen, "'Nigh Unto Death': NDE Research and the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2:1 (1993): 3.

4. Benjamin D. Sommer, "The Babylonian Akitu Festival: Rectifying the King or Renewing the Cosmos?" The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 27 (2000): 88.

5. Ibid., 88 (footnote 31).

6. David E. Bokovoy, "On Christ and Covenants: An LDS Reading of Isaiah's Prophetic Call," Studies in Bible and Antiquity 3 (2011): 34-35. Bokovoy also notes, "Reading the introductory chapter of the Book of Mormon through the lens of Old Testament tradition, Lehi appears, like Isaiah, as a messenger sent to represent the assembly that had convened in order to pass judgment upon Jerusalem for a violation of God's holy covenants. Nephi's account may represent this subtle biblical motif through a reference to Lehi assuming the traditional role of council member, praising the high god of the assembly." (pg. 37) See also Daniel C. Peterson, "'Ye Are Gods': Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind," The Disciple as a Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000). 

7. Catherine Leigh Beckerleg, "The "Image of God" in Eden: the Creation of Mankind in Genesis 2:5-3:24 in Light of the mīs pǐ pīt and wpt-r Rituals of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt" (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2009), 196. 

8. Ibid., 206. 

9. See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

10. Beckerleg, 2009, 216.

11. Ibid., 218. 

12. Beckerleg also discusses the kin relationship between God and mankind described in Genesis, which would fit well with Alma's claim about those converted becoming God's "sons and daughters." This is yet another example of Alma's creation imagery.

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