Monday, July 5, 2010

Gates and the Divine Council in the Book of Mormon

Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the LORD. (Psalm 118:19)

Cosmology in the ancient near east represented both the underworld and the heavens as being barred by a series of portals or gates guarded by angels placed there by divine commission to keep out the unworthy. Mortals desiring entrance to these worlds were required to traverse the doors and bypass the keepers of the portals. The earthly application of this principle resulted in special offices of priests acting as keepers of the sacred gates of the temple asking questions about the purity of those who would enter: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?” (Ps 24:3; see also Ps 15 and 95). We see this gate-salvation imagery used by the Savior in the New Testament: “Enter ye in at the strait gate . . . Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Mat 7:13-14 KJV; see also Luke 13:24). The metaphor is also used frequently in the Book of Mormon: “Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ” (Hel 3:28; see also 2 Ne 4:32; 31:9, 17, 18; 33:9; Jac 6:11; 3 Ne 11:39-40; 14:13-14; 18:13; 27:33). However, in a departure from the usual idea of priests and angels as keepers of the threshold, Jacob in his great sermon on the atonement (2 Ne 6-10) refers to God himself standing at the gate. This metaphor echoes old ideas about the divine council sitting in judgment on the Day of Atonement and reflects strains of similar thought in the Bible and other ancient near eastern texts.

Jacob's atonement address was likely part of what is known as the autumn or fall festival in ancient Israel, a harvest ritual that centered on the enthronement of Yahweh (Jehovah) as king, who after his victory over the monsters of chaos renews the covenant of creation, stands as judge over his congregated people (day of judgment), and extends atonement and healing to the land and people, after which they celebrate the harvest and start the new year. After the Babylonian exile, this festival would be separated into the three discrete festivals celebrated as New Year, the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles as described in Numbers 29 and Leviticus 23. (See my earlier post, “The Annual Fall Festival in the Book of Mormon”). During this speech, Jacob tells us that the gate keeper is none other than the very God of Israel:

O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name. (2Ne 9:41)

As I noted in a previous post (“A Tower and a Name: Benjamin as the Anti-Nimrod”), this imagery of God at the gate is similar to the experience of the biblical Jacob, who sees a ladder reaching into heaven with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it” (Gen 28:12). At the top of the ladder Jacob encounters the Lord himself, who renews the Abrahamic covenant with him (Gen 28:13-15). Jacob calls this 'the gate of heaven' (Gen 28:17), giving us the image of God standing at the gate to make a covenant with Jacob. And this type of imagery was reflected in the sacred texts of other ancient cultures whose temples were stepped to symbolize their use as a spiritual ladder or staircase to the god who waited at the other end. The Egyptian god Osiris, the judge of the dead, was known as “the god at the top of the staircase.”[1] The Egyptian funerary text from the New Kingdom called “The Book of Gates” narrates how deceased souls pass into the afterlife by traversing a number of gates represented as encounters with a council or assembly of gods stationed at each portal.[2]

But there is something else going on with Jacob's atonement speech. His concern for righteousness and use of titles like 'the Holy One' and 'the Holy One of Israel' reflects a dependence on the priestly purity language of the Holiness Code of Leviticus, while the imagery of a straight path to a gate reflects the underlying context of the fall festival that included a ritual procession consisting of the assembled people making their way up to the gate of the temple as part of the ceremony that celebrated the enthronement of Yahweh as king. As part of this ritual, those approaching the temple would implore the keeper to “Open to me the gates of righteousness” (Ps 118:19). According to early Jewish and Muslim tradition, this refers to the eastern gates of the temple because “Gates of Righteousness” was their original name.[3] Note Nephi's use of similar terminology in his own psalm: “O Lord, wilt thou not shut the gates of thy righteousness before me” (2Ne 4:32).

In another psalm that documents the same ritual procession, those approaching the eastern gate[4] of the temple address the doors as if these objects are actually the keepers of the threshold themselves: Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors” (Psa 24:7 KJV). Frank Moore Cross sees this as a reference to the assembled gods of the divine council:

How does a gate lift its head? Where is its head that it may be lifted? . . . The figure is actually one of full personification of the circle of gate towers which like a council of elders sat waiting the return of the army and its Great Warrior gone to battle, and which sat bowed and anxious. Then comes the shout,

שאו שערים ראשיכם
Lift up, O Gates, your heads!

In Ugaratic Text 2.1.19-37, we find a picture of the council of the gods assembled in the mountains of 'El. On the approach of emissaries of Ba'l's arch foe, Prince Sea, the gods are cowed and fearful, “dropping their heads onto their knees, down on their princely thrones,” sitting in fear and despair. Ba'l, the young king, shouts:

š'u 'ilm r'ašikm
Lift up, O Gods, your heads!

Ba'l can deal with the foe. The verse is addressed to the divine council in this text and the phrase in the Psalm are strikingly alike in wording and prosodic form.[5]

The parallel between gods and gates in this Ugaritic text is intriguing. Mark Smith also draws a parallel between the two words in the context of the divine council:

It is not uncommon for Bronze Age texts from Mesopotamia and Syria to refer to the general collectivity of deities as a “council” or “assembly.” Indeed, this divine social structure seems to be the dominant way to refer to the gods and goddesses as a group. Mesopotamian literature attests to “the assembly of the gods” (puru ilāni) in a number of different contexts. The Ugaritic texts also use this language extensively to refer to the deities. Apart from the expression “meeting of the gods” ('dt 'ilm), which is confined to one section of Kirta (1.15 II 7, 11), the terminology for the general assembly involves the root *pḫr . . . . The meaning of Ugaritic pḫr is suggested not only by the ample attestation of its cognate term puḫru in Akkadian but also by its use in the Ugaritic texts. In 1.23.57 the word refers to a group: “and the assembly sings” (wyšr pḫr). In 1.96.9, 10, the word is apparently parallel to “gate” (ṯgr). These passages illustrate the sensibility of what Ugaritic pḫr designated, namely, a group (1.23.57) and perhaps the location where that group meets (1.96.9-10?).[6]

Among the Israelites, the earthly representation of this principle consisted of a council or assembly of city elders who would meet at the city gate to execute their office as judges of the people (cf. Deut 21:19; Ruth 4:1-11; Ps 107:32; Prov 31:23). In the heavenly aspect, the assembly consisted of a “council of the holy ones” (Ps 89:7 NIV) who were present when God judged his people: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Ps 82:1 NRSV). He would naturally take his place in the divine council at the heavenly gates—or “gate of heaven.” In ancient Israel, this day of judgment was the Day of Atonement (part of the autumn or fall festival), which started with the gate ritual that asked who was worthy to enter the temple and thus God's presence. In this context, Jehovah stands as the son of Elohim who leads the other sons of God in the divine council at the gate of heaven, and it is he who admits others past the gate and into the assembly, thus defeating the monster death and hell. When Jacob speaks of the Holy One of Israel as the keeper of the gate, he does so within the ancient context of atonement on the day of judgment. The priest at this portal is not just any priest—it is the heavenly high priest and king, the very God of Israel who leads the divine council and administers healing to the people and their land. And he does so at the gate.


1. Northrop Frye, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Publishing, 2008), 140.

2. Cf. J. Zandee's translation of “The Book of Gates” as published in Liber Amicorum: Studies in Honor of Professor Dr. C.J. Bleeker (Leiden: Brill, 1969) p. 309:

            [165] Second figure. Legend: the council of judges.
Text: It is they who judge (read ntsn wḏ', ntsn from p. 164) near this gate, [166] who hold the trail and who are in it.
Re says to them: Hail to you, oh gods, council of judges, who judge the dead, who protect the divine son (Horus) so that he is placed on his (Osiris') throne. Your righteousness belongs to you, oh gods.
Gate. Introduction: Approach to this gate on the part of this great god, entering this gate, praise to this great god on the part of the gods [174] who are in it.
[175] Gate. Name of the gate: The burning one.
. . .
Text of the nine deities placed one above the other: Come to us, oh thou who art in the horizon, great god who opens [177] mysteries. Mayest thou open the holy gate. Unlock the mysterious door.

3. See J. Morgenstern's argument in “The Gates of Righteousness” (Hebrew Union College Annual 6, 1929) 1-37; see a useful summary in Andrew C. Brunson, Psalm 118 in the Gospel of John: An Intertextual Study on the New Exodus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003) 335-36.

4. See Morgenstern's argument that this reflects early Christian and rabbinic tradition as summarized in J. Glen Taylor, Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel (Sheffield: JSOT, 1993) 246.

5. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (US: Harvard University Press, 1973) 98-99; many others have followed Cross' lead in this interpretation—cf. J. J. M. Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays (US: Eisenbrauns, 2002) 105; citations to the Ugaritic texts in Cross are from Andrée Herdner, Corpus des Tablettes en Cunéiformes alphabétiques (Geuthner, 1963), abbreviated as CTA in most citations.

6. Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 41.


Michaela Stephens said...

Very interesting. Here's something I was working on just before I read your post:

21 Behold, my son, I cannot recommend them unto God lest he should smite me.
22 But behold, my son, I recommend thee unto God, and I trust in Christ that thou wilt be saved… (Moroni 9:21-22)

Here, Moroni quoted a letter from his father in which his father points out that he can’t recommend the Nephites to God lest God smite him. This speaks of some interesting assumptions. It suggests that part of Mormon’s work as a disciple was recommending people to God, or vouching that their spiritual status was acceptable. Mormon speaks as one who knows that there are grave responsibilities attached to this role and that if he failed in them by recommending someone who was unworthy, not only would God know about it, but God would “smite” him for it. That he brings up this issue after a recital of the Nephites’ barbaric behavior seems to indicate that he had had to deny a number of the Nephites recommendations to God because of their behavior. This may have been at the door of the temple as you suggested. Mormon seems relieved that even if he can’t recommend the Nephites to God, he can recommend Moroni to God.

Joey Green said...

Very insightful, Michaela. Related to this, I think, are the several Book of Mormon prophets who give a last witness similar to Nephi's:

And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye--for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness. (2 Ne 33:11)

This again is a judgment scene that has as its setting "the last day" (Day of Judgment/Day of Atonement). Nephi seems to have become part of the Divine Council that assists in the judgment. I think you've picked up on something similar at work with Mormon.