One thing that differentiates the Book of Abraham’s account of the Creation from the biblical account in Genesis is that the Book of Abraham mentions plural Gods as the agents carrying out the Creation. “And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abr. 4:1). These Gods are mentioned thirty-two times in Abraham 4 and sixteen times in Abraham 5. Significantly, these Gods are said to have taken “counsel” among themselves during the Creation (Abr. 4:26; 5:2–3, 5).
This language of the Gods taking counsel among themselves in Abraham 4–5 appears to be a natural continuation of the description of the premortal council in heaven described in Abraham 3:22–28.1 One of “rulers” in the premortal council who was “like unto God” is depicted as saying, “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (vv. 23–25). In this manner the council of Gods in Abraham 3 counseled with each other during the Creation in Abraham 4–5.
After the lifetime of Joseph Smith, archaeologists working in Egypt, Syria-Palestine, and Mesopotamia uncovered scores of texts written on papyrus, stone, and clay tablets. As these texts were translated, scholars were surprised to discover creation myths that in many ways paralleled the biblical Creation account while differing in other significant ways.2 One way in which these creation myths were different from the Creation account in Genesis was the clear, stark portrayal of what came to be widely called the divine or heavenly council. In many of these myths, a group or family of gods or divinities work together in fashioning the components of the cosmos.3 Other times, the gods engage in divine battle over control of the cosmos.4 Whatever the specific case, almost universally these myths described multiple deities serving different roles or functions in the process of Creation.
With this extrabiblical material in mind, and with the discovery of superior manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that provided better readings of certain biblical passages,5 scholars returned to the Hebrew Bible and reevaluated passages that appeared to acknowledge the presence of a divine plurality. Over time, a consensus has been reached that the Bible does indeed portray a multiplicity of gods, even if there remains individual scholarly disagreement over some of the finer details.6
In contrast to typical Jewish and Christian belief in Joseph Smith’s day, the Book of Abraham frankly depicts a plurality of Gods and even uses specific language (“took counsel among themselves,” Abr. 4:26) that invokes the presence of what is now widely recognized by scholars as the unquestionably ancient concept of the divine council. This divine council as depicted in the Book of Abraham is composed of, at least,
- “intelligences” and “noble and great ones” (Abr. 3:22);
- “God” (v. 23);
- “one . . . that was like unto God” (v. 24), who was “like unto the Son of Man” (v. 27); and
- “another” who was “second” to the one who was “like unto God” (v. 27).
According to the Book of Abraham, then, God the Father did indeed work with a council, of which Jesus Christ and other “noble and great” premortal intelligences, “souls,” or “spirits” (vv. 22–23) were members. The polytheistic divine councils of the ancient Near East might well be echoes of the conception of the divine council portrayed in the Book of Abraham, or vice versa. To be sure, while there are striking similarities between the Book of Abraham and other ancient texts that feature a divine council, there are also notable differences. What is important for the Book of Abraham is that the text broadly (and even in some instances, specifically) shares a similar ancient conception of a heavenly hierarchy or council of divine beings. Besides the examples already provided in print,7 take additionally the grave stela of Tjetji, an important administrator under the early Eleventh Dynasty (ca. 2134–2060 BC) pharaoh Intef II. In his stela, Tjetji is depicted as traversing the “firmament” (bỉꜣ) and “heaven” (ḥrt) as he “ascends” (ꜥr) into the presence of “the great god” (nṯr ꜥꜣ) and is welcomed into the “divine council” (ḏꜣḏꜣt-nṯr). This divine council is said to be a tribunal of “great ones” (wrw, with “seated god” determinative) who extend their arms to Tjetji when he is brought on board the sacred barque of Osiris (dỉt n.f ꜥwy m nšmt), thus assuring his divinization in the afterlife.8
While it is true that Joseph Smith learned from his Hebrew studies that the word for God (Elohim) in the Old Testament is technically a masculine plural noun,9 it does not seem likely that he would have learned about the divine council from his Hebrew teacher, Joshua Seixas, since the two seemed to strongly disagree on the implications this fact held for the biblical view of God.10 In any case, with the exception of the Bible, the surviving ancient texts that overtly depict the divine council were unknown in the Prophet’s day.
While the theological implications of the divine council remain to be fully explored and articulated,11 what can be said with a fair degree of reasonableness is that the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the divine council shares features present in other ancient Near Eastern texts, some of which date to Abraham’s day. This reinforces belief that the Book of Abraham is authentically ancient.
Bokovoy, David E. “‘Ye Really Are Gods’: A Response to Michael Heiser Concerning the LDS Use of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John.” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 267–313.
McConkie, Joseph Fielding. “Premortal Existence, Foreordinations, and Heavenly Councils.” In Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, edited by C. Wilfred Griggs, 173–98. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1986.
Smoot, Stephen O. “Council, Chaos, and Creation in the Book of Abraham.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 28–39.