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 :
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) .
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.
 "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). 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.