Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Language of Symbolism Continued

Continued from: The Language of Symbolism

Another misconception about symbolism that I commonly see goes something like: “Your religion / churches / buildings / temples use symbols that were also used by pagans, so you are worshiping the devil.” I have already pointed out the most significant problem with this logic, namely that symbols have no inherent meaning outside their power to communicate ideas. As such, a symbol only means what the hearer thinks it means, and so, if its user doesn’t think it represents a Pagan idea, then for that user, it doesn’t. However, there is another important issue at work here, and that is that it is apparently standard operating procedure for God to use the images of the culture around His covenant people in order to teach them His eternal truths. One way to express this idea would be to say that God speaks to us “according to our own language and understanding” (see 2 Ne. 31:3; D&C 1:24).

Let me give several illustrative examples. When the Israelites came out of Egypt, God commanded Moses to construct an "ark." The Ark of the Covenant was basically a portable representation of the throne of God carried by the priests on poles (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Israelite "Ark of the Covenant"
The Egyptians of the time built very similar "portable shrines" and placed them in the holy of holies of their temples. These Egyptian shrines were carried on poles by priests like the ark; they were covered by cloths when carried, like the ark; and like the ark, they had a representation of the God's throne. Unlike the Israelite version, the Egyptian arks actually contained a statue of the deity (see Figure 2). The Egyptian versions were fashioned like boats, because the Egyptians believed that the sky was blue because it was made out of water. The idea was to represent the concept that the throne of the deity moves through the heavens, and that their god was a king of the heavens.
Figure 2: Egytpian parallels to the Ark of the Covenant

Both the similarities and the differences are important for understanding the symbols of the Ark of the Covenant. Since symbolism is a language, the right approach is to ask, "what would the Israelites, who just came out from Egypt understand by the symbolism of the Ark." Clearly, they would have recognized it as a portalbe throne for a king similar to those used in Egypt and Mesopotamia:
Figure 3: A Kings throne guarded by Cherubim from Messopotamia
Further, the Israelites would have understood the idea that God is a heavenly king. Since the throne was the seat of judgement for earthly kings, they would have understood the ark as a representation of the place of God's merciful judgment, and so it was called the "mercy seat."

There are many more instances where God used Pagan symbolism to teach His eternal truths to the Israelites. For example, the Temple of Solomon looks like many of the Pagan temples that surrounded it.

This drawing of the temple at Tainat could be accidentally confused with Solomon's if you don't look closely.

And there are many other examples, for example, this Pagan temple from Arabia:
And this one from Syria, which is perhaps the closest Solomonic Parallel [1]:

This "similarity" was not restricted to the architecture of the Israelite temples, but extended to their rituals as well. The Day of Atonement ritual has many similarities to Babylonian year rituals, complete with the goat killed and cast out (although the Babylonians only used a single goat, which they both killed and cast out) [2].

So what are we to make of these similarities? If we were to take the approach taken by many critics of LDS temples, we would have to conclude that the Israelites were worshiping the devil. Clearly they are using pagan imagery, even "occult" imagery in their worship of God!

However, there could be many other explanations for the similarities between pagan traditions and the Israelite temples. A more balanced approach might see fragments of truth left over in the Pagan practices and worship, or one might see Satan imitating truth in the pagan traditions, or one might see God teaching the Israelites eternal truths using the symbolic language that they understood given their cultural contact with the pagans around them.

Symbolism is a language. As such, the definitions of its "words" depend on how the people being spoken too would view the image or symbol. The Israelites contact with the pagans which surrounded them would have given the symbolic "words" meaning, but the message, the way those words were combined to teach eternal truths was still inspired despite the pagan (and even "occult" whatever that might mean) nature of some of the individual elements.

Clearly the same sort of balanced approach should be applied when analyzing similarities between LDS temples and the religious and symbolic systems that surrounded Joseph Smith when the Endowment was revealed to him, or which surrounded Brigham Young when the design for the Salt Lake Temple was revealed to him.


[1] "The New 'Ain Dara Temple: Closest Solomonic Parallel," by John Monson, in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 [May/June 2000]. The article says that the 'Ain Dara temple "has far more in common with the Jerusalem Temple described in the Book of Kings than any other known building" (p. 20). Its archaeology dates it to the period just preceding (Phase 1) Solomon's Temple, contemporary with Solomon's Temple (Phase 2) and just after (Phase 3). It is far better preserved than Tainat, and "is the most significant parallel to Solomon's Temple ever discovered (p. 22).
[2] James L. Carroll "An Expanded View of the Israelite Scapegoat" in Temples and Ritual in Antiquity, presented by the BYU Religious Studies Center and SANE's Studia Antiqua, 2008.


FelixAndAva said...

Very interesting material, and your point was very well made. Great work, and I look forward to more of your posts.

David Carroll said...

So to sum up what you are saying here, I will use an example. Some exclusive night clubs require a password to get through the door. It doesn't really matter what the password is, so long as it matches the password the guy behind the door was given by those in authority.
We as Latter-day Saints have a few things we are told to memorize. It is possible those things have a meaning, or its possible they are just set in place as things people on both sides of the 'door' have memorized.

When Jesus taught in parables, and when Jehovah used symbolism, the symbols were analyzed for thousands of years, providing insights into difficult situations as a person prayerfully studied the parable. The sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament were a symbol for the sacrifice of Christ. The symbol has many layers of meanings as one comes to understand the various aspects of sheep and animal husbandry. Likewise, the life of Moses was a symbol of the life of Christ. The more one studies Moses, the more deeply we can understand Jesus. The sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, though stopped at the last moment, is a symbol of the sacrifice God made of His Only Begotten Son. Once more, the symbol has deeper meaning the more one studies it.

Other symbols have no meaning beyond matching the symbols those in authority have written down as a measure of security. This reminds me of the wedding supper where someone got in without the proper attire and was then cast into outer darkness. It is possible to learn the symbols of the temple from a pagan source, but doing so as a means of entering the Kingdom of God will only lead to weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Symbols are not enough to save a man. We must live our lives following the example of Christ.

James Carroll said...

Although I agree with most of what you said, my main point was slightly different. I was saying that it doesn't make sense for someone to say "your rituals have Pagan elements in them, so they must be of the Devil" which I hear all the time. People who say that are usually unaware of the presence of "Pagan" symbols in Biblical temple worship.

I also intended to explain one reason why God might use such symbols from so called "Pagan" sources when He talks to us. When God speaks, he does so in a way that will most likely communicate His thoughts to us, which can depend on our culture, and on the things around us. This is one reason why God might use imagery from Pagan sources to teach His truths, because those "Pagan" sources are part of our culture.