28 January 2010

The Tree in the Midst of the Garden and the Temple Symbolism of the "Center"

One thing that has always perplexed readers of Genesis is the location of the two special trees in the Garden of Eden. The Hebrew phrase corresponding to "in the midst" literally means "in the center." Although scripture initially applies the phrase "in the midst" only to the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge is later said by Eve to be located there, too.

Elaborate explanations have been advanced as attempts to describe how both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge could share the center of the Garden. For example, it has been suggested that these two trees were in reality different aspects of a single tree, that they shared a common trunk, or were somehow intertwined.

The subtle conflation of the location of two trees in the Genesis account seems intentional, preparing readers for the confusion that later ensues in the dialogue between Eve and the serpent. The dramatic irony of the story is heightened by the fact that while the reader is informed about both trees, Adam and Eve are only specifically told about the Tree of Knowledge. In the story of the Fall, Satan exploits their ignorance to his advantage.

A brief review of the symbolism of the “center” in ancient thought will help clarify the important roles that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge played “in the midst” of the Garden of Eden...

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21 January 2010

The Temple Symbolism of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge

A mural from the Court of the Palms at Mari dated to 1750 BCE is an example of how temple and garden themes were combined anciently, even outside of Judaism. J. R. Porter writes of how the scene depicted above “strikingly recall[s] details of the Genesis description of the Garden of Eden. In particular, the mural depicts two types of tree,” one type clearly being a date palm, “guarded by mythical winged animals[—the Assyrian version of the] cherubim.” In the symmetrical side panels at the far left and right of the mural, two men climb each of the two date palms; the tree on the right can clearly be seen as harboring a dove.

“The lower half of the central panel shows figures holding jars from which flow four streams,” with a seedling growing out of the middle, recalling the streams that flowed out from underneath the Tree of Life in the Garden. The streams originate in a basement room that might be seen as providing an ideal setting for ritual washings. “The upper scene may depict a king being invested by the Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar: Eve has been associated with such divine figures.” Note the king’s raised right hand, perhaps an oath-related gesture. His outstretched left arm receives the crown and staff of his office.

In many traditions, sacred trees are identified with a human king, or with the mother of a king, whether human or divine.10 Like the two figures witnessing the investiture, two others near the trees raise their hands in worship and supplication, suggesting a parallel
between the tree and the king himself. Like the tree, the king is an “archetypal receiver and distributor of divine blessing.” ...

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14 January 2010

The Creation and the Garden of Eden as Models for Temple Architecture

The descriptions of the days of creation in Genesis and the book of Moses differ from those found in the book of Abraham and in modern temples. In contrast to the latter accounts, Moses’ version seems to have been deliberately shaped to highlight resemblances between the creation of the cosmos and the building of the temple. Such a view helps explain why, for example, in seeming contradiction to scientific understanding, the description of the creation of the sun and moon appears after, rather than before, the creation of light and of the earth. A close examination of scripture reveals that the Garden of Eden also seems to have provided a model for temple architecture.

The nature of the light referred to in Moses 2:2 is not explained. Several possibilities have been suggested. Some interpreters see this event as consonant with the prevailing scientific view that describes the birth of our universe as a sudden burst of light and energy of unimaginable scale. Others see this phrase as referring to a “local” event whereby the natural light of the sun was created. It is, of course, a given that the sun was created prior to the fourth day, though from the vantage point of earth no light will “appear in the firmament” until that later time.

In contrast to such naturalistic readings, Hugh Nibley’s interpretation seems more consistent with related scriptural passages—namely, that the light referred to was the result of God’s presence: “All this time the Gods had been dwelling in light and glory, but the earth was dark... This was not the first creation of light. Wherever light comes into darkness, ‘there is light.’” Consistent with this view, President John Taylor wrote that God
... caused light to shine upon [the earth] before the sun appeared in the firmament; for God is light, and in him there is no darkness. He is the light of the sun and the power thereof by which it was made; he is also the light of the moon and the power by which it was made; he is the light of the stars and the power by which they are made.”
D&C 88:12-13 continues this description to make it clear that this light is something over and above mere physical light as generally conceived, since it not only “enlighteneth your eyes” but also “quickeneth your understandings,” governs and “giveth life to all things,” and “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space.” As Isaac Watts expressed in one of his hymns: “In vain the bright, the burning sun / Scatters his feeble light; / ’Tis Thy sweet beams create my noon; / If Thou withdraw, ’tis night.” ...

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13 January 2010

Interview with David Larsen: Conclusion

And now for part 5 (the exciting conclusion) of this series. We delve into Dr. Bradshaw’s background as a scientist, and his ideas on the topics of Mormonism and Science, the Origin of Man, the literalness of the Bible, Scripture reading techniques, and other poignant topics. Dr. Bradshaw’s answers are simply fascinating.

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07 January 2010

Interview with David Larsen: Part 4

[David] You make some interesting comments in your Preface regarding the opinion of many people in modern society concerning Mormonism, which would presumably apply to the Book of Moses as well. Specifically, that Mormons seem to be a very superstitious people from the perspective of our modern, scientific world, with our beliefs based, as author J. Hannay once charged, on "the absurdity of seeing visions in the age of railways." The Book of Moses, I would think, would be a prime example of this supposed fault: a book produced in modern times that contains a very traditional view of the Creation, very literal descriptions of Satan and of God's corporeality, etc. It has a number of visions in which Moses and Enoch actually see God. It contains quite fanciful accounts of the Earth speaking and mourning and even God himself weeping. Do these elements and others in the Book of Moses lend support to a negative perception of Mormonism as outdated and what Mormons say as "mostly nonsense"? What weight should Latter-day Saints place on the Book of Moses as a part of their personal beliefs?

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06 January 2010

The Vision of Moses as a Heavenly Ascent

One of the most remarkable chapters in scripture is Moses. Though it serves as a superb introduction to succeeding chapters that describe the Creation and the Fall, its separate prologue1 and epilogue signal its status as a revelation that can stand apart on its own. The events described apparently took place sometime after Jehovah called Moses out of the burning bush but before he had returned to Egypt to deliver the children of Israel.

Though several of the individual episodes in the chapter are very well known—Moses’ confrontation with Satan, his comprehensive vision of the earth and all its inhabitants, and God’s declaration about his “work and glory”—how all these pieces join beautifully into a coherent whole has been underappreciated in the past. It is now quite evident, however, that the outline of events in Moses 1 fits squarely in the tradition of ancient “heavenly ascent” literature and its relationship to temple theology, rites, and ordinances. It is significant that this account was revealed to Joseph Smith more than a decade before the full temple endowment was administered to others in Nauvoo.

Although the stories of heavenly ascent are similar in many respects to temple practices, they make the claim of being something more. While ancient temple rituals dramatically depict a figurative journey into the presence of God, the ascent literature tells the stories of prophets who experience actual encounters with Deity within the heavenly temple — the “completion or fulfillment” of the “types and images” in earthly priesthood ordinances. In such encounters, the prophet may experience a vision of eternity, participation in worship with the angels, or the conferral of certain blessings that are “made sure” by the voice of God Himself. Consistent with the basic temple pattern and stories of heavenly ascent, Moses descends from his first home in the spirit world and then undertakes a step-by-step return to the Father.

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