Sunday, May 17, 2015

Revelation 4:6-9

Lamassu statues in the Louvre in Paris, France.
In the book of Revelation there is a curious portion of John's revelation wherein he sees God on his throne in the heavenly temple. Surrounding God's throne are four strange beasts similar to those described in the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah. John describes his beasts in Revelation 4:7 as follows:

"7 And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle" 

What are we to make of these strange creatures and how can we better understand what John is referring to?

Regarding this verse the Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB) has this to say:

"The four living creatures (a designation drawn from Ezek 1.5-25) are cherubim, angelic beings that guard and support the throne of God (Ex 25.17-22; 1 Kings 6.23-28; Ps 18.10; Isa 6:2; Ezek 10). They are full of eyes (an allusion to Ezek 1.18; 10.12), symbolizing unceasing watchfulness." (The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al.; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 2315.)

These creatures are most likely the heavenly archetypes of the cherub statues found in Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. These cherub statues are mentioned in reference to the construction of Solomon's temple in 1 Kings 6:23-29:

"23 ¶And within the oracle he made two cherubims of olive tree, each ten cubits high.

"24 And five cubits was the one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the other wing of the cherub: from the uttermost part of the one wing unto the uttermost part of the other were ten cubits.

"25 And the other cherub was ten cubits: both the cherubims were of one measure and one size.

"26 The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so was it of the other cherub.

"27 And he set the cherubims within the inner house: and they stretched forth the wings of the cherubims, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings touched one another in the midst of the house.

"28 And he overlaid the cherubims with gold.

"29 And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without.

The Israelites were heavily influenced by their neighbors in the construction of their temple. It has been shown how the Ain Dara Temple in particular is remarkably similar to the description of Solomon's temple found in the Bible and was its likely pattern.

This is a photo of me at the British Museum in London,
during a p-day excursion while on my mission (ca. 1997).
Notice the lamassu on the left has a bovine body while
the one on the right features a leonine body.
Evidently the Israelites were influenced by other Mesopotamian iconography as well. The creatures described by John and the cherubim mentioned in 1 Kings are very similar to Assyrian lamassu statues. Assyria was Israel's neighbor to the north and was responsible for the destruction of the Northern Kingdom during the 8th century BC. Lamassu statues were a common feature of Assyrian monumental architecture and have been found at several sites in lands that were once Assyrian.

Lamassu imagery predates the Assyrian empire and is found in literature as early as the Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh which dates to the late third millennium BC. The lamassu were Mesopotamian deities charged with the task of frightening away the forces of chaos. Chaos was personified in the Bible by the dragon Rahab and was the primeval state of creation prior to its subdual by God. Psalms 89:8-10 praises God for subduing chaos and maintaining order in the cosmos.  

Furthermore, 1 Enoch 71:7 (1 Enoch is an ancient Jewish and Christian extra-biblical sacred text) describes the cherubim/lamassu as those surrounding God's throne who: "sleep not and guard the throne of his glory."

Assyrian lamassu statues feature the head and face of a man, the wings of an eagle and a bovine or leonine body. John mentions his creatures as having eagle, bovine and leonine features very similar to the lamassu statues. In addition, lamassu, like the creatures in John's vision, were seen as heavenly sentinels and placed in pairs at entry ways to palaces and temples.

It seems likely, therefore, that the architects of Solomon's temple borrowed this element from the culture of the Near East, of which they were a part, and incorporated it into their sacred structure. Undoubtedly this was done because these symbols were already meaningful for the Israelites. These elements were then incorporated into the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel and John in a way that their contemporaries could understand. 

In our own day a similar thing was done by Joseph Smith when, by inspiration, he incorporated certain elements of the Masonic ritual into LDS temple ceremonies because they were already meaningful for the people of his day. Their incorporation facilitated early Mormons' understanding of temple rituals and helped them find meaning in them.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


*This post is a work in progress*

The Covenant Use of Salt in the Old Testament

The ritual use of salt is attested to in the Old Testament book of Leviticus chapter 2 verse 13 which discusses the use of salt in making grain offerings (NRSV):

"13 You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt."

Likewise, the prophet-priest Ezekiel mentions salt in connection with offering animal sacrifice in Ezekiel 43:23-24 (KJV):

"23 When thou hast made an end of cleansing it [the altar], thou shalt offer a young bullock without blemish, and a ram out of the flock without blemish.

 "24 And thou shalt offer them before the Lord, and the priests shall cast salt upon them, and they shall offer them up for a burnt offering unto the Lord."

Regarding Lev 2:13 the Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB) makes the following comment:

"Since salt was the preservative par excellence in antiquity, it made the ideal symbol for the perdurability of a covenant, and it is likely that salt played a prominent role at the solemn meal that sealed a covenant in the ancient Near East" (155).

An allusion to this covenant meal is also mentioned in the book of Ezra:

After returning from Babylon the Jews set about rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Hearing of this the Samaritans offered assistance but were rebuffed by the Jews who saw them as impure. Deeply offended the Samaritans endeavored to frustrate the plans of the Jews and wrote a letter to Artaxerxes I, the Persian king, claiming that the Jews intended to cease paying tribute upon completion of the city and temple. Their letter can be found in Ezra chapter 4 and in verse 14 the Samaritans say the following (NRSV):

"Now because we share the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king's dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king ... "

According to the HCSB the phrase "we share the salt of the palace" refers to this covenant meal:

"Share the salt, are partners in a covenant ratified by a meal seasoned with salt (cf. Lev 2.13; Num 18.19)" (707).

Another reference to salt as a token of covenant can be found in 2 Chronicles 13:5.

Salt as a Purifying Agent

Elisha's Spring in Jericho
5 September 1999
Salt is also mentioned in the Old Testament story of the bitter spring at Jericho. 2 Kings chapter 2
relates this very brief story beginning in verse 19:

"19 ¶And the men of the city [Jericho] said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground barren.

 "20 And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him.

 "21 And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land.

 "22 So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake."

Salt in Wisdom Literature

Ben Witherington III makes an interesting statement regarding salt in his book On the Road with Jesus: Teaching and Healing where he says the following:

"What we need to know is that the term salt in wisdom literature refers to 'wisdom' hence the verb that suggests the opposite of having salt in oneself means being foolish. There is probably a play on words here in the Aramaic - for tabel and tapel mean, respectively, 'salt' and 'foolish.'  The point is that if a disciple ceases to function in the one capacity in which he is truly valuable, namely witnessing to the world in word and deed, then that disciple is worthless. Fit only to be cast out (noting the end-time judgement overtones here.)" (Link)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark 1:12-13

Mark, in his gospel, provides a very brief description of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. It is found in the first chapter verses 12 and 13. It reads as follows (KJV):

"12 And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

 "13 And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him."

There are a couple elements of note in these verses. One is the mention of the wild beasts. Margaret Barker in Temple Mysticism says the following:

"Jesus ... spent 40 days in the wilderness 'with the wild beasts and the angels served him' (Mark 1:13, my translation). He was alone and so must have reported these experiences to others, and presumably not in Greek. This is important because in Hebrew the 'wild beasts' would have been the same as the 'living creatures' of the chariot throne, hayyot (Ezek. 1:5; Rev. 4:6), and the serving angels would have been the working hosts in the throne vision since 'serve' 'abad,' also means worship in Hebrew (Rev. 5:11). Jesus' mystical experience in the desert is described more fully in the opening scene of Revelation" (24-25).

The important point about Barker's argument is that the inclusion of wild beasts in Mark's account is an allusion to the cherubim of the Holy of Holies in the temple. The inner sanctuary of the temple represented the Garden of Eden and so Mark is presenting Jesus as a new Adam. Paul also presents Jesus as a new Adam in 1 Cor. 15:45 & Romans 5:19.

An interesting note in the Yale Anchor Bible Commentary (YABC) for Mark mentions that:

"The reference to animals, which may be an allusion to Isa 11:6-8, 65:25, and Hos 2:18. suggests (according to Jeremias) the restoration of paradise. H.-G. Leder ... finds in this account a christological motif: the eschatological warfare with Satan has been joined, and Jesus in his ministry is proleptically the triumphant Son of Man. He denies that there is any Adam-Christ typology, deriving from Genesis 3 here, pleading that there is no clear example in Jewish literature of angels ministering to Adam" (203-4, emphasis added).

Although, as the YABC commentary points out, there is no mention of angels ministering to Adam in Jewish sources, there is in LDS sources. Moses chapter 5 mentions the visitation of an angel to Adam as he is performing an animal sacrifice:

"6 And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.

 "7 And then the angel spake, saying: This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth."

Therefore, with the added insight provided by latter-day scripture it seems safe to see Mark's inclusion of the wild animals as a prefigurement of the restoration of paradise, through Jesus, which was lost due to Adam's transgression.