Feast upon the Word Blog

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John and His Asherah

Posted by joespencer on December 14, 2007

I was struck, as I worked through these posts the last few days, by the parallel between the mother-child scene in 1 Nephi 11 and the mother-child scene in Revelation 12. Now that I’ve got a few days to dwell on a few more specific parts of Revelation in a bit more detail, I want to begin there. Is there a connection between these two texts?

First, the texts:

Then there was a great portent in the sky, a woman clothed in the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of seven stars. In her womb she had a child and screamed in labor pains, aching to give birth. And another portent was seen in the sky, look, a great fire-red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail dragged a third of the stars of heaven and hurled them to the earth. The dragon stood before the woman about to give birth so when she bore her child he might devour it. She bore a son, a male, who will shepherd all nations with a rod of iron, and her child was snatched away to God and to his throne. And the woman fled into the desert where she has a place made ready by God that they might nourish her one thousand to hundred sixty days. – Revelation 12:1-6, Willis Barnstone’s translation

Chapter 12th XII. And thare appeared a great sign in heaven, in the likeness of things on the earth; A woman clothed with the son and [the] moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of seven [twelve] stars. And the woman being with child, cried, travailing in birth in [and] pain[ed] to be delivered. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations, with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up, unto god, and his throne. And there appeared another sign in heaven; and behold, a great red draggon, aving seven heads, and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth. And the draggon stood before the woman which was delivered, ready for to devour her child after it was born. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared of God,, that thay should feed her thare a thousand two hundred and three score years. And thare was war in heaven; Michael and his angels faught against the draggon; and the draggon and his angels faught against Michael; and the draggon prevailed not against Michael, neither the child, nor the woman, which was the church of God, who have[d] been delivered of her pains and brought forth the kingdom of our God and his christ. – Revelation 12:1-7, JST Manuscript NT2

And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white. And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou? And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins. And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things. And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh. And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. – 1 Nephi 11:13-23

Is there any reason to connect these texts up? On the one hand, I’m entirely inclined to say no: Nephi’s records a scene of perfect serenity, the sort of bourgeois leisure scene depicted so often in paintings of Mary and the child during the Renaissance, while John’s vision (whether in the “original” text or the JST) is a situation of tense cosmic conflict. Indeed, the particularity of Nephi’s vision of a young girl in Nazareth contrasts sharply with the typological myth (a myth that is all the more typological in the JST than it is in the “original”) that inhabits John’s vision.

Let me confirm the mythical themes with a bit of rigor. Every commentary (do I need even to quote them?) points out that the scene in Revelation here draws heavily on ancient pagan mythology (each has a kind of excursus at this point in the commentary: “Myth in the Bible,” “Mythical Themes in Revelation,” etc.). The most ready parallel is, of course, the Apollo myth, in which, when the god is born, Python attacks only to be killed by the young god. A more interesting parallel, in my opinion, is the first facsimile from the Book of Abraham: the four angels/creatures gather around the four corners of the alter, upon which two priestly/angelic figures are intertwined in an embrace/wrestle, and above which appears the angel of His presence/face, the Angel that is God, thus forming the sevenfold that is the enthronement of the Newborn King; that angel/bird faces off with the only other figure in the picture, the serpent/dragon swimming in the waters upon which the throne is established who waits for the opportunity to swallow up the newly appearing King. The very existence of parallels marks the passage as typological: something “bigger” than the several stories is speaking in them all, is giving them shape or form, is rendering them “mere” types and shadows. And what’s more, the whole thing, as John sees it, is happening in heaven: these are signs or portents, perhaps constellations John is reading in order to understand (from the mystery of the stars) what is determined in the heavens. And, as one might expect, what begins as a rather limited mythical scene immediately gives way to a full-blown cosmic battle: Michael and the dragon engage in universal warfare, resulting in the transfer of things from heaven to earth.

Over against this, again, is the perfect serenity of the mother-child scene in Nephi. There all is love and peace. Moreover, the cosmic aspects of the Apocalypse have melted away and historical facticity has taken their place: Mary is to be located in the obscure village of Nazareth from the very start, and the continuing vision of Jesus’ life is a veritable chronicle of the Master’s “historical” life. But could it nonetheless be that these two visions are connected? The child/kingdom is caught up to the throne in John’s vision, and the Savior disappears from Nephi’s vision only to reappear in the New World. The woman in Revelation is driven into the wilderness for a time while the youthful church in Nephi is simply obliterated. And all of this is then followed by a striking series of direct parallels: the formation of a great and abominable church with its silks and scarlets, gold and silver, harlots and the like.

These parallels, it seems to me, at least deserve careful attention. Perhaps the best explanation is that while John and Nephi saw essentially similar or parallel visions of the mother-child pairing, the situatedness of that snippet of vision was so radically different in each of their visions that they here become almost disparate. While the historical particularity of Nephi’s vision contrasts sharply with the typological cosmism of John’s vision, the links here suggest that these two might best be thought in connection (why else would we be provided with the name of the apostle who would write up the “rest” of the vision?). The interpretive question to ask, it would seem to me, is this: How does the mother-child image, by fundamentally linking up the typological and the historical, gives us to think the relationship between these two ways of thinking? As obscure as the question may sound, the answers that may be given to it are the most concrete of all: how we deal with the everyday, with the sacred, with interpretation, with the Spirit, etc., all comes down to this very question. (Another way to say this same thing: we are all answering this question all the time, whether we know it or not.)

So how do we think about this? On the one hand, what of the parallels between the description of the woman and the symbols carved into the very stone of the Nauvoo and Salt Lake Temples? What of the relationship between the kingdom and the church implied by the image of childbirth? What of the typology of birth, of motherhood, of childhood, of thrones, of serpents? What of the mythological elements? But on the other hand, what of the intuitive recognition of the obscure village of Nazareth? What of the being carried away in the Spirit? What of the condescension questions from the angel? What of the love of God business? What of the particularities of the Jesus story as it unfolds subsequently? What of the baptism especially? And then, on both hands, what of the connections implied by the pairing of images? How does the temple symbolism link us back up with the historical particularity of Jesus’ life? How does the physical experience of baptism point away to the enormous typological worlds of birth and motherhood, etc.? How does the myth give us to think the meaning of condescension? And how does the pragmatic effects of the love of God open up the possibility of thinking the split between the kingdom and the church?

Or am I only speculating again?

15 Responses to “John and His Asherah”

  1. Clark said

    No, I think you’re exactly right. However what’s so fascinating about the two accounts is how the symbol means such different things for John and Nephi. One can’t help but think of the Song of Solomon and how it was used over the centuries as well. Yes Joseph Smith was not in the least a fan of the Song of Solomon (despite quoting it in some interesting places in the D&C). But it seems that the use of the Song of Solomon makes considerable use of these same mythic symbolism.

  2. robf said

    Joe, you’ve served up a 25 course feast here and its going to take us a long time to chew on all this, let alone savor!

  3. Joe Spencer said

    Yes, Clark, I agree with most of what you’ve said here. (My only quibble: Joseph never said publicly that the Song of Solomon was uninspired; rather, it is a note in the JST manuscripts that was, like just about everything else in the JST, not written in Joseph’s hand… I’m not so quick to take that scribbled note as evidence that Joseph threw out that whole book.) I think you are especially right in pointing out that the Song of Solomon picks up on these very themes (I wrote a ridiculous poem some time ago exploring the Song of Solomon in precisely those terms, picking up on hints of the three facsimiles in the Song and then tying all of this to Psalm 54…). And then of course: it is so fascinating that the “symbol” (sorry to put that in quotes, but I’ve been reading Lacan all morning) takes on such profoundly different meanings. How are we to think about that?

  4. Todd Wood said

    Joseph Smith didn’t like the Song of Solomon?


  5. Clark said

    Todd, I’m not sure. Joe’s correct to note that the comment I mentioned was itself just a marginal note. However I’m not sure one can or ought discount that. An other way to look at it is to see what use Joseph made of it. Given it’s place – especially in esotericism – one can’t help but wonder why Joseph didn’t make use of it. (Although I suppose one could make appeal to the two military motifs quoted in the D&C) It’s a pretty important book in the history of both Judaism and Christianity.

  6. Robert C. said

    So, should we then read “the space of a time” in 1 Ne 11:19 where the mother of the Son of God is “carried away in the Spirit” the same as the 1260 days in Rev 1:6 where the woman/mother is nourished?

    I find this break between Rev 12:6 and 12:7 quite interesting and difficult to think about, so I’m wondering if 1 Ne 11 might not help us think about what’s going on. This nourishing/wilderness time seems to have several typological antecedents (esp. the children of Israel fed by manna in the wilderness and Elijah and the widow both being fed in 1 Kgs 17:1-14; 19:1-8, not to mention BOM and pioneer parallels), but why the shift to a heavenly battle after this discussion of the woman fleeing into the wilderness?

    More, more, more please!

  7. Clark said

    That might well parallel 1 Ne 11:34.

    “And after he was slain I saw the multitudes of the earth, that they were gathered together to fight against the apostles of the Lamb; for thus were the twelve called by the angel of the Lord. And the multitude of the earth was gathered together; and I beheld that they were in a large and spacious building, like unto the building which my father saw. And the angel of the Lord spake unto me again, saying: Behold the world and the wisdom thereof; yea, behold the house of Israel hath gathered together to fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”

    Parallel with Rev 12:13.

    The bit about the war in heaven (which obviously is cosmologically well before these events of the birth of Christ) are interesting. Is the fall Nephi speaks of in verse 36 of the great and spacious mythologically and typologically paralleling the war in heaven?

    One should note that these symbols are supposed to function on multiple planes. (Look at Nephi and Jacob’s use of Isaiah where typologically they deal with Israel around the time of the exile, spiritual Israel, the individual and their salvation, and the last days)

    But the ordering is interesting. My guess is that this is a repeat of the old Jewish notion of a connection between heaven and earth.

  8. Robert C. said

    (#6 addendum: I accidentally left out the most obvious scriptural type of the nourishing/wandering time for the mother which is Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt.)

    Clark #7, yes, good point, very interesting—I’ll be thinking about this more….

  9. Proud Daughter of Eve said

    The New Testament scholar who was teaching Institute said that the woman in Revelations does not represent Mary but is rather a metaphor for the Church of God and the child she bears is not the Christ child but a metaphor for the Kingdom of God.

    So while there are definite parallels between the images used, I don’t think the stories themselves are meant to connect that closely.

  10. Joe Spencer said

    Which is, PDoE, precisely the point of the post: it would seem that John and Nephi saw something like the same thing, but they have entirely different roles to play in their visions (for John, the Church and the Kingdom are figured; for Nephi, Mary and Jesus).

  11. s james said

    Why the reference to ‘Asherah’ (queen of heaven)? and ‘His’ refers to?

  12. Joe Spencer said

    Sorry for my obscurity. I’m playing off of the title of a paper by Dan Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” which can be read here. It is an attempt to link up Margaret Barker’s work with the Book of Mormon through a reading of the Mary-Jesus imagery in 1 Nephi 11. I meant only to point in the direction of this reading with my apparently overly obscure title.

  13. Clark said

    One should point out that in scholarly circles Barker is a controversial figure. (Faith Promoting Rumor discussed her in a post last month) I don’t have much of a horse in that race – partially because I’ve never read Barker. The interesting to me set of parallels that doesn’t get enough attention is all the Merkabah literature.

    However the divine feminine in the OT is quite interesting. The one a lot of Mormons are familiar with is Sophia or Wisdom. Sometimes this symbol is applied to Christ but often it’s treated as the divine feminine. (Easy, since in Greek the word is feminine – and a lot might deal with that) Sometimes I think this is a symbol for the Holy Ghost but also the types of the woman in John’s revelation (or Nephi’s). So we have it, following the old mystic reading of Song of Solomon, as being the Church or Israel. We also have it in Nephi’s take as Mary the Mother of Jesus. I’m sure there’s other aspects of the symbols.

    Probably it carries so many meanings since there was historically a distinct downplaying or repression of the feminine in Israelite religion. (Probably due to Baal and Ashtoreth worship via Canaanite religion in Israel – they downplayed it to avoid the apostasy, prostitution cults, and human sacrifices)

  14. s james said

    Thanks for that reference Joe, a very interesting position built up there. I note elsewhere Asherah is linked to a tradition of bread-making by Hebrew women and hence becomes the ‘bread of life’, which the Saviour counters.

  15. Joe Spencer said

    Barker discusses the bread-Asherah connection in a number of places, most particularly in The Great High Priest, where she connects it with the bread of the presence. Interesting stuff, for sure.

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