Saturday, February 23, 2013

Blasphemy

Aaron Shafovaloff of Mormon Research Ministry has a recent blog post on his pet project: Did God the Father ever sin? In it, he posts an online exchange he had with a Mormon:


I do not typically engage the kind of counter-cult evangelicalism that MRM represents, mainly because I find it tiresome and boring, especially when it comes to biblical scholarship.[1] But this is an interesting subject that is obviously worth exploring in an interfaith context. There are an incredible amount of presuppositions in the reading above; presuppositions that the ancients did not share.

To Shafovaloff, the Thrice Holy in John's Revelation defines God's unique, unchanging, transcendent nature. In Shafovaloff's mind, being a god and possibly being worshipped in the afterlife is a big no-no. Unfortunately for him, the rabbis disagree:

Indeed, the rabbinic tradition sometimes went to the extreme of anthropomorphism: Not only did it make the notion of man's likeness to God as physical and detailed as possible (it included circumcision among the distinguishing marks of the Deity), but it took the likeness as proof of the potential perfection of man and taught that Adam before the fall and the righteous in the world to come realized this perfection and were rightly, therefore, to be worshiped by the angels: We read in Baba Batra 75b, "Rabba said R. Johanan, 'The righteous are destined to be called by the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, for it is said, "Everyone who is called by my name, him have I created, formed and made that he should also share my glory.""...R. Elazar said, 'The trishagion [i.e. Holy, Holy, Holy] will be said before the righteous as it is said before the Holy One, blessed be He.' In a later passage in the Tanhuma and in the condensation of Bereshit Rabbati this potential divinity and predicted worship are presented as the direct consequences of man's being in the image of God. So it is in the Latin life of Adam (13ff.), where, after Adam's creation, the angels are ordered to "worship the image of God."[2]

In D&C 76:21, we read, "And saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever" (italics mine). Notice that both God and the Lamb are the continual objects of worship among deified men and women. Furthermore, the Sifre to Leviticus 26:12 ("I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people") states,

It is to be expressed by means of parable; to what may this be likened? To a king who went out to stroll in his orchard (pardes) with his tenant farmer, and [out of respect] that tenant kept hiding himself from the presence of the king. So the king said to that tenant, “Why do you hide from me? Behold, I, you- we’re alike!” Similarly in the Age to Come the Holy One, blessed be He, will stroll with the righteous in the Garden of Eden, but when the righteous see Him they will tremble before Him; and the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, “Why is it that you tremble before me? Behold, I, you- we’re alike!” ...“Is this to say that you will no longer have fear/reverence of Me? The verse [ibid.] reads, ‘I will [still] be your God, and you shall be my people.”[3]

Even so, would worship of another being besides the High God destroy monotheism? The late Yehezkel Kaufmann didn't think so:

Even the worship of other supernatural beings...cannot be considered in necessary contradiction to monotheism...The One is not necessarily “jealous” in a cultic sense. There is room in monotheism for the worship of lower divine beings—with the understanding that they belong to the suit of the One. Thus Christianity knows the worship of saints and intercessors, as does Islam...Israelite monotheism tended toward cultic exclusivism and was crystallized in this form in the Bible. But during the pre-exilic period Israel was still moving from the basic monotheistic idea to its extreme cultic consequence.[4]

This is not news to biblical scholars and historians. As religious scholar Paula Fredriksen put it, "No ancient monotheist was a modern monotheist. Divinity expressed itself along a gradient, and the High God...hardly stood alone." This is because "lesser divinities filled in the gap, cosmic and metaphysical, between humans and God" and "antiquity's universe, by comparison, was filled with gods." Granted, "not every ancient polytheist was a monotheist," but "all ancient monotheists were, by our measure, polytheists."[5]

Shafovaloff's use of Psalms and Isaiah does not help his position, but in fact undermines it. The Hebrew 'olam ("everlasting") in Ps. 90:2 carries no notion of the philosopher's "timelessness." The word denotes a distant age or ancient time.[6] This is why Frank Moore Cross translates 'El 'olam as "the god of eternity" or "the ancient one." He also notes that 'olam is applied to the "ancient Earth" in the Arslan Tash incantation (Christians who accept creatio ex nihilo certainly wouldn't consider the earth to be "everlasting" as God is).[7] It is also applied to the "might men which were of old" in Genesis 6:4. Furthermore, the context of the psalm praises Yahweh "through all generations" and "before the mountains were brought forth" and before God "had formed the earth" (Ps. 90:1-2, NRSV). This links "everlasting to everlasting" specifically to the primordial era, not a state of eternal existence.[8] As Bill Murray quipped in one of his most popular films, "Maybe [God's] not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, He just knows everything!" Hence, Joseph Smith's revelations borrow from the Psalms to describe man's progression to godhood: "Then shall they be gods...therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue...Then shall they be gods, because they have all power..." (D&C 132:20; italics mine).


The opening of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) begins with "an unusual series of active imperatives, plural..."comfort ye," "speak ye," "proclaim ye."" The "setting is the heavenly council in which Yahweh addresses his heralds[.]"[9] In other words, the passage Shafovaloff cites is one working under the assumption of a divine council and, thus, the plurality of gods. Isaiah's denial of other gods in various chapters should be understood as statements of comparability, much like Babylon's claim that there is "none else beside me" (Isa. 47:8,10).[10]

Now, I don't pretend to have full-fledged theory of the afterlife (let alone deification) or God's pre-creation activities. I am willing to bet most do not. But I do know that Shafovaloff's form of fundamentalist proof-texting is misplaced and ignores the relevant scholarship. This in no way proves that Mormonism's concepts of God and man are correct. However, it does show that there is more wiggle room in the "blasphemy" department within the biblical texts and culture than some Christians would have you believe.



1. "Anti-Mormonism of the evangelical kind has come, with a few exceptions, to bore me intensely. It is not only that it tends to be repetitious and uninteresting. (My friend and colleague William Hamblin and I have laughed about doing an autobiographical film entitled Bill and Dan's Excellent Adventure in Anti-Mormon Zombie Hell.) It is not merely that the same arguments reappear ad nauseam, no matter how often they have been refuted, and that reviewing essentially the same book for the thirty-second time grows tiresome. (One definition of insanity is that the insane one keeps doing the same thing over and over and over again and expects to get different results.) It is also the deep streak of intellectual dishonesty that runs through much of the countercult industry, the triumphalism that exaggerates and even invents problems on the Mormon side while effectively pretending that no problems remain to be addressed on the so-called "Christian" side" (Daniel Peterson, "Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism," FARMS Review 17:2. 2005: 423). This is not to say that MRM and other groups do not have some worthwhile material or criticisms (e.g. changes in Gospel Principles manuals, Bruce McConkie's letter to Eugene England, questionable history).

2. Morton Smith, "The Image of God: Notes on the Hellenization of Judaism, with Especial Reference to Goodenough's Work on Jewish Symbols," Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, Vol. 1: Studies in Historical Method, Ancient Israel, Ancient Judaism, ed. Shaye J.D. Cohen (The Netherlands: Brill, 1996), 120-121.

3. Cited in Judah Goldin, "Of Midrash and the Messianic Theme," Studies in Midrash and Related Literature, eds. B.L. Eichler, J.H. Tigay (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1988), 369-370. Thanks to Allen at Calba Savua's Orchard for providing the reference.

4. Quoted in Baruch Halpern, "'Brisker Pipes than Poetry': The Development of Israelite Monotheism," in From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (Germany: Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, 2009), 19. ""How do we differ from pagans?" "We have only one God." "Do Catholics believe in saints, Jews and Muslims in angels, Protestants in devils?" "That is different," comes the response! "Do angels not live forever, enjoy supernatural powers, exist in a dimension different from that inhabited by mortals?" "Still different!" ...[T]he difference between monotheism and polytheism in the student's mind is the difference between God and god - between two ways of spelling the same word..." (Ibid., 16).

5. Paula Fredriksen, "Gods and the One God," Bible Review (Feb. 2003): 49. See Daniel Boyarin's discussion of the worship of Metatron (the deified Enoch) and other Logos-like entities in his Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004). For more on the subject of Metatron, see Daniel Abrams, "The Boundaries of Divine Ontology: The Inclusion and Exclusion of Metatron in the Godhead," Harvard Theological Review 87:3 (1994).

6. "Its most basic meaning is "far" or "distant time," which allows the word to be used (sometimes within construct forms) in the sense of "ancient" or "long ago" and, more commonly (over 260x in the OT), in the sense of the (distant) "future" or "forever"...The term cannot be used as equivalent for philosophical notions about God, such as purely timeless eternity or even unbounded time ("everlasting")" (Todd Pokrifka, "Time," Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, eds. Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, 825).

7. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 50.

8. I'm indebted to David Bokovoy for these insights.

9. Frank Moore Cross, Jr., "The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 12:4 (1953): 275.

10. See Michael S. Heiser, "Divine Council," Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings, eds. Tremper Longman III, Peter Enns (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

2 comments:

  1. There is another Jewish source in which mortals are worshipped just as God is worshipped. The wording is bold, to say the least. The Kalir's qedushta "Ehad be-Ehad Gashu," lines 295-322, particularly 306-314. You can find it in Shalom Spiegel's posthumous book "The Fathers of Piyyut," p. 119-121 in the Hebrew edition. God calculates leap years and blesses the months with the righteous, their faces reflect his glory, the stars get their light from them, the heavenly attendants rush to attend them, the divine celestial beings (eyley merom) worship them, and the same words which they use to sanctify God they also use to sanctify the righteous.
    Two things make this reference all the more striking. One is the late date, the Byzantine era. Popular wisdom would have them fierce monotheists long before then. The second thing to consider is the type of text. Piyyut is a genre of para-liturgical songs, and were meant for public recitation in synagogues. This particular qedushta was composed by the Qalir, one of the greatest writers of classical piyut. To make this even better (and positively cause Shafovaloff's blasphometer to burst), a qedushta was sung on Sabbath's and holidays after the qedusha prayer was recited. The qedusha employs the trishagion from Isaiah 6:3! In other words, what we have here is a community of dedicated monotheists singing as part of the synagogue service a poem composed by a mainstream poet, a poem claiming that the righteous will be worshipped in the same terms as God is, and all this after reciting the trishagion!

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  2. Allen, you're a stud. You never cease to amaze me.

    I actually forgot to include Rabbi Akiba's now well-known passage:

    "The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future call all of the pious by their names, and give them a cup of exilir of life in their hands so that they should live and endure forever…And the Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future reveal to all the pious in the world to come the ineffable Name with which new heavens and a new earth can be created, so that all of them should be able to create new worlds…The Holy One, blessed be He, will give every pious three hundred and forty worlds in inheritance in the World to Come." (Midrash Alpha Beta diR. Akiba, BhM 3:32)

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