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Friday, June 26, 2009

Lehi and the Throne Theophany in 1 Nephi

Blake Ostler has authored an important work on Lehi's throne theophany in the beginning chapters of 1 Nephi.[1] In his work, Ostler identifies 8 characteristics of the throne theophany found in ancient Near Eastern literature (including both biblical and pseudepigraphal texts) and compares them to Lehi's throne theophany.[2] These elements or characteristics are:

1. Historical Introduction
2. Divine Confrontation
3. Reaction
4. Throne Theophany
5. Commission
6. Protest
7. Reassurance
8. Conclusion

Ostler then disects each of these elements within in the Book of Mormon and explains their historical/contextual meaning.

1. Historical Introduction

Ostler points out the obvious introduction of the current events going on in Jerusalem by Nephi in 1 Nephi 1:4, 6. In these verses, Nephi gives a quick chronology and then informs his reader of the political and religious upheaval going on in Jerusalem at the time, and of the fact that multiple prophets have been declaring different messages to the people.[3] 

2. Divine Confrontation

Ostler next points out how it is later recorded by Nephi that his father encountered a "pillar of fire" and that he later was "overcome with the spirit"(1 Nephi 1:6-7). Of course, Lehi then experiences a divine vision in which he is shown God "sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels" (1 Nephi 1:8), but not before Lehi's reaction to the vision.

3. Reaction 

The reader is informed that upon receiving this vision, Lehi "did quake and tremble exceedingly" and was "overcome with the Spirit" (1 Nephi 1:6-7). This reaction, interestingly enough, is similar to both Moses' as well as the Prophet Joseph Smith's own experiences with deity.[4] Thus it seems that Lehi's reaction to his vision was not unique.

4. Throne Theophany

Then we come to the climax of the vision. Lehi sees God on his throne surrounded by the hosts of heaven. This part of the vision clearly fits with other apocalyptical literature of the ancient Near East that discuss the Council of the Gods or the Divine Council.[5]

Interestingly enough, Ostler notes that there is another element in the Book of Mormon account, namely, the Descensus, which is also right at home in other ancient Near Eastern texts. In 1 Nephi 1:9-10, we read of how Lehi beheld the Savior, who is likened to the sun, and 12 other figures, who are clearly the Apostles of Christ, who are likened to the firmament of the stars. Ostler, quoting Frank Moore Cross notes that "kokebe boker 'the morning stars' in Job 38:7 may be considered in parallel with bene elohim 'sons of God' (compare Isa. 14:12; Ps. 148:2-3), and the terms saba' or sebot apply equally to the heavenly bodies and the angelic host."[6] Ostler, continuing with this idea and after providing some examples of this motif in the biblical texts, explains that it "is a logical extension of the throne-theophany and evidence of the Hebrew influence on Lehi's account."[7]

5. Commission 

1 Nephi 1:18-19, notes Ostler, is the "commission element of Lehi's call" and "the motif is evident from Lehi's actions following the vision, such as preaching to his people of the contents of the vision and the book[8], and from the subsequent revelation given to him."[9]

6. Protest

Ostler notes that this element seems to be missing from the Book of Mormon account, but that such is to be expected since "this element is usually absent when the reaction element in present, as in the call of Ezekiel."[10]

7. Reassurance

Ostler notes that this element of the throne theophany is usually accompanied with rejection of the Prophet by the people, as in the obvious case with Lehi. Notwithstanding, notes Ostler, God reassures his Prophet that said Prophet has indeed received his call from Deity and must press on in the work.

8. Conclusion

Ostler notes that in this element of the throne theophany, "the commission form usually concludes in a formal way, most often with a statement that the Prophet has begun to carry out his commission."[11] This we see in the Book of Mormon in 1 Nephi 1:20, 2:1.

After expanding upon these elements, Ostler then discusses 19th century visions and those in the Book of Mormon. Ostler correctly notes that in the wake of the "revival fever" of the 2nd Great Awakening visions were common claims by religious individuals in the early 19th century. And while Joseph Smith himself patterned his accounts of his visionary experiences following established 19th century norms, which we can only expect considering this was the Prophet's immediate cultural and environmental understanding, Ostler notes that the Book of Mormon does not. 

The Book of Mormon is unique in detailing Lehi's vision, and is alien to 19th century conventions. However, as was demonstrated, Lehi's vision in 1 Nephi is right at home in the literature of the ancient Near East. Ostler therefore concludes that "the possibility that the Book of Mormon derives from and ancient source... must be considered in light of some features better explained in terms of ancient Israel than nineteenth-century America."[12]

David Bokovoy, that indefatigable sleuth, has continued Ostler's studies in a series of Podcasts posted on Youtube.

Part 1


Part 2


Notes:

[1]: Blake Ostler, "The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A Form-Critical Analysis", BYU Studies (26/4): 67-95

[2]: Ostler (p. 70) identifies Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6, the Merkaba texts, 1-2 Enoch, the Testament of Levi, 4 Ezra, 3 Baruch, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Abraham as texts that powerfully display the throne theophany motif.

[3]: Hugh Nibley has shed further light on the political, social and religious situation in Lehi's day. See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Deseret/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. 1988), 3-19.

[4]: See Moses 1:9-10 and Joseph Smith-History 1:20.

[5]: For an LDS perspective on the Council of the Gods or the Divine Council, see Daniel C. Peterson in "Ye Are Gods: Psalm 82 and John 10 as Witnesses to the Divine Nature of Humankind". Available online here. Also see the numerous but enlightening videos produced by Kerry Shirts on his Youtube webpage. For a thoroughly scholarly and enjoyable back and forth on the topic of the Council of the Gods between a Latter-day Saint and an Evangelical, see David Bokovoy and Michael Heiser in the FARMS Review 19/1. Available online here.

[6]: Ostler, 79.

[7]: Ibid.

[8]: Ostler (p. 79-80) notes the importance of the receiving of a heavenly book by the Prophet in his commission, a phenomenon seen clearly with Lehi in 1 Nephi 1: 11-13. John Tvedtnes has written extensively on this subject. See John Tvedtnes in The Book of Mormon and Other Hidden Books: Out of Darkness, Unto Light, (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. 2000). Likewise, consult Michael Ash in Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Springville, Utah: CFI Books. 2008), 75.

[9]: Ostler, 79.

[10]: Ostler, 70.

[11]: Ibid.

[12]: Ostler, 87.