The Great One is Kolob, Because It is Near unto Me

December 8, 2010

Providing another take on Kolob, we are pleased to have this guest post by Joseph Antley, a student of history and ancient Near Eastern studies.

I am not an Egyptologist, nor do I have any formal training in Egyptology. But I do love the Pearl of Great Price’s Book of Abraham, and I enjoy learning about ancient Egypt. With that said, although I’m confident in my conclusions on this issue, I would encourage readers to take my thoughts on this subject with a grain of salt.

Abraham 3 is such a powerful chapter, and it’s one that I worry is too quickly glossed over by most Latter-day Saints. In the chapter, the ancient patriarch sees a grand vision of the cosmos through the Urim and Thummim. From this vision comes several controversial doctrines unique to Mormonism, such as the existence and nature of “Kolob” and God’s physical presence in the universe.

It is not uncommon to hear speculation among Church members about what Kolob is and where it might be. Theories have been given that Kolob is actually the star Polaris, or the star Sirius, or a star at the galactic center. However, all of this wondering about Kolob’s place in the universe—assuming Kolob is actually a physical star—is “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14). People who have this narrow view of the contents of Abraham 3 never see the important meaning of the chapter, which has little to do with celestial bodies in the universe. We imagine it as being something more mysterious than it is, while really Abraham 3 can be very simple to understand.

The question we might ask is, Why would God be interested in revealing principles of astronomy? Do our beliefs about astronomy have any bearing on our salvation? I think that the immediate answer, of course, is no. Ancient prophets are not going to be condemned at the last day because they had a geocentric understanding of the universe. So again we ask the question, Why would God reveal an astronomical system to Abraham?  We probably agree that our understanding of astronomy has no bearing on our eternal fate, so we should be able to conclude that God must have had another point in revealing these things to Abraham besides simply to teach him astronomy.

What do we learn about Kolob from Abraham 3? Well, Kolob was the star “nearest unto the throne of God” (Abr. 3:2). It was “the great one…because it was near unto” the Lord, and God appointed Kolob to “govern all those which belong to the same order” (3:3), because Kolob was “after the manner of the Lord” (3:4).  Besides Kolob, Abraham is also shown other astronomical bodies, such as “the governing ones,” in which Kolob is included (3:3). So again, what was the point in revealing these things? What salvific value did they carry?

The spiritual message of this chapter is explained in the 18th verse, which tells us that as Abraham saw the stars, “as also” he saw spirits. The stars Abraham saw, such as “the governing ones,” Kolob, and the Kokaubeam, symbolized the spirits in heaven. As Latter-day Saints we are used to such astral imagery when describing spirits. The name Lucifer, after all, actually means ‘Morning Star,’ and we are familiar with the passage from the book of Job, “When the morning stars sang together, and all of the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).

If, then, the cosmology that Abraham is shown might actually be a metaphor for spirits, interpreting Kolob should be fairly simple. Nearest unto God, after the manner of God, the great one, the chief governing one – Kolob is Jesus Christ. And the “governing ones” are the “noble and great” spirits that Abraham later sees, of which he himself is included (Abr. 3:22-23).

It seems fairly safe for us to conclude that God did not show Abraham the cosmos so that he would have an understanding of astronomy; rather, he was teaching him about the order of heaven, the nature of spirits, and the supremacy of Jesus Christ among those spirits. God teaches Abraham the order of heaven by showing him order in the cosmos: “one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob…[which] is set…to govern all those planets” (3:9). Kolob stands supreme in the universe, atop an infinite cosmological order of heavenly bodies. God then explicitly says to Abraham that “[h]owbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits…one shall be more intelligent than another” (3:18). God tells him that the principle of one star above another star is a metaphor for spirits; like the stars and planets in the cosmos, spirits have varying degrees of light or “intelligence,” one above the other, with Jesus Christ or Kolob ranking supreme.

But why would God used astronomy to teach Abraham these things, when he goes on in the chapter to just restate most of it less symbolically? He gives his explanation to Abraham: “Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words” (3:15). God showed Abraham the Gospel in this way because they astronomically-minded Egyptians could understand it this way.

When seen for what it is, the third chapter of the Book of Abraham is an astounding testimony that God loves his children and that he cared enough for the people of Egypt that he would give Abraham this vision so that they would be able to more easily understand his teachings. It also testifies that Jesus Christ—the one nearest unto the throne of God—is “the great one,” the Redeemer of the world.

Tags: , , , ,

27 Responses to The Great One is Kolob, Because It is Near unto Me

  1. Thomas on December 8, 2010 at 3:32 PM

    “The name Lucifer, after all, actually means ‘Morning Star'”

    Just a quibble, but I’m pretty sure it means “Light-bearer,” just as “Christopher” means “Christ-bearer.”

    I see Abraham 3’s discussion of various heavenly bodies, of increasing greatness culminated in that of Kolob, as a metaphor for the subsequent discussion of the hierarchy of increasingly great spirits culminating in God — which, as I mentioned in another thread, is basically a re-statement of Aquinas’s Argument From Degree.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  2. aquinas on December 8, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    Thank you for this post. This is the kind of interpretation that I have come to as well, namely, that God is using a vision of the cosmos and the relationships between various heavenly bodies as a way to teach Abraham about the relationship between God and man.

    This reading has been also been advanced by others. See Ferrell, James L. “The Hidden Christ: Beneath the Surface of the Old Testament.” (Deseret Book, 2009):9-12.

    We may differ in some details as to the identification of various speakers in the narrative, but overall, I feel a great affinity with this type of reading and approaching the text in this manner.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  3. hawkgrrrl on December 8, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    Great post! I think taking it metaphorically (and esp as a teaching tool for Abraham to use in Egypt) is vastly superior (as well as being supported by the text) to believing it’s a literal explanation of astronomy. But this is a new perspective to me. So, thanks for sharing it!

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  4. Jack on December 8, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    Grain of salt indeed!

    http://www.mormonthink.com/book-of-abraham-issues.htm

    Does it bother you at all that in your quest for truth you’ve thrown out… truth?

    Controversial! What do you think? Thumb up 7

  5. Mike S on December 8, 2010 at 4:53 PM

    I really like this metaphorical approach. I hadn’t heard it before with regards to Abraham 3, but it makes sense. It does seem like Joseph Smith and many leaders of the early church took these things quite literally in their subsequent writings, but I like this approach.

    This does raise the issue, however, as to what we take metaphorically and what we take literally. Is the Creation story metaphorical or literal? How about the Flood or the towel of Babel? How about the scattering of the ten tribes? Elephants in the Americas? Etc. Are all scriptures essentially metaphorical?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  6. Joseph Antley on December 8, 2010 at 5:25 PM

    @Thomas (#1): You’re right, I should have been more careful. “Lucifer” does not literally translate to “Morning Star,” although it was the Latin name for the morning star Venus.

    @Jack (#4): What truth have I thrown out, specifically?

    @Mike (#5): Great question. My point wasn’t that Kolob isn’t literal — I have no idea whether it is or not. My point was simply that it is only spiritually beneficial when taken metaphorical. That’s what is important. I would apply the same thinking to the Creation, Flood, and similar scientifically controversial subjects — they are certainly meant to be taken metaphorically, regardless of whether they are literal accounts or not.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  7. Alan Taylor Farnes on December 8, 2010 at 5:32 PM

    Trevor–you rock–real quick–I’m thinking stream of consciousness so forgive me but remember when Joseph Smith would use code names in the Doctrine and Covenants for people close to him? I wonder if that is what is happening here. Idk, then again, Joseph doesn’t need to hide Christ’s identity for fear the Missourians might get Christ but I thought maybe it was an interesting parallel.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  8. Alan Taylor Farnes on December 8, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    @Jack–did you want him to ingest that entire page? You really should do that Trevor and then you will find truth…somewhere on that huge web-page…

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  9. Stephen Marsh on December 8, 2010 at 5:51 PM

    What is neat about the Book of Abraham is that it is a temple text. Regardless of what you think of the Book of Breathing, it is also a derivation of a temple text (vastly different from the LDS in many ways, very similar in a few).

    Or why Jack is completely missing the point.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  10. Jettboy on December 8, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    I really don’t understand what is so “revolutionary” about this metaphorical meaning. The chapter practically begs its readers to understand it as a metaphor and then, as stated in the above, makes its meaning even clearer in the next chapter. It bothers me when Mormons (and non-Mormons even more) focus on where Kolob must be or even if it exists. Totally misses the point.

    Fan Favorite! Do you like this comment as well? Thumb up 6

  11. Joseph Antley on December 8, 2010 at 7:26 PM

    @Alan (#7): Thanks for the comment! No, that’s not what’s happening here. What appears to be simply going on is that God/Abraham uses an astronomical system to teach the astronomically-inclined Egyptians the order of heaven. It’s a simple metaphor that is more lost on us than it would have been on them.

    @Jettboy (#10): Nice pun with “revolutionary”! LOL. But no, I didn’t intend it to be, and I agree that the chapter is clear that the cosmology is an analogy (see Abraham 3:18). It’s too bad that this is lost on most modern readers.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  12. Jared* on December 8, 2010 at 8:25 PM

    This basic view of Abraham 3 has at least some support among BYU religion faculty.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  13. Joseph Antley on December 8, 2010 at 9:04 PM

    [...] wrote a blog post over at Wheat & Tares today titled “The Great One is Kolob, Because It is Near unto Me,” where I suggest a non-traditional interpretation of Abraham 3. Might wanna check it [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  14. AdamF on December 8, 2010 at 9:46 PM

    Great post Joseph – the scriptures really only come alive for me when I stop looking at the details and what happened where etc. and take a step back and look through symbols. I know that metaphorical views may not be revolutionary, but many of us forget to apply them.

    Also, I hope Jack comes back, but I’m not counting on it. Maybe he can do a post for us on the BoA that’s more than a drive by.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  15. Mark D. on December 9, 2010 at 7:45 AM

    Barring a compelling argument to the contrary, it would seem that most plausible interpretation here is to conclude that the proper (doctrinal) answer is “both”.

    Otherwise one is reading into the text the proposition that “there is no such place” without a serious argument as to why such a place is almost certain not to exist.

    The doctrinal principle is that God has a body. If he has a body, then presumably (as P. Pratt said) he is actually somewhere. The nature of the place aside, if the scriptures are to be taken as canonical, the canonical answer is that somewhere is called “Kolob”.

    Otherwise one is reduced to arguing that the residence of God has a different name, is without a name, or that God doesn’t have a body in any particular place at all. Doctrinally speaking, I don’t think any of those three propositions can be sustained.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  16. Mike S on December 9, 2010 at 8:21 AM

    Mark D:

    Here is your compelling argument to the contrary:

    There are an estimated 10^23 stars in the galaxy. Assume there are the same number of planets (some stars have more, some have less – if you include each asteroid, there are A LOT more)

    Look at life on earth. We are told that God even knows when a sparrow falls. Assume he knows something about each life form. There are therefore trillions and trillions of life forms (actually orders of magnitude higher). And what does he know about each of us. One thing. Or does he know a lot. Does He know if there is a cancer cell in my brain? Does He know my experiences? Etc. For for each life form, He likely knows A LOT of bits of information. For He probably knows AT LEAST 10^15 bits of information about any given world (again, a gross underestimation).

    Therefore, overall, God needs to “know/store/understand” AT LEAST 10^23 * 10^17 bits of information, or around 10^40. So where does He store this?

    Assuming we are in the same likeness of God, He has 10^11 neurons in his body. This is clearly not enough. What if EVERY atom in his body stored a bit of information? The human body has around 7 x 10^27 atoms. Still not enough. How about the earth? The earth has around 9 x 10^49 atoms. That is closer to the ballpark.

    So if God were physically present in the universe, there is NO way He could even just store the necessary information. This doesn’t even include the information needed if God actually knew where each atom was in the universe.

    How do we resolve this? God is NOT somewhere despite P. Pratt’s statement. And he is NOT on Kolob, but this is just a misunderstanding that has been passed down in the Church.

    In Abraham, we read that Kolob is NEAR to God. Nowhere does it actually say that Kolob is where God is, so it is NOT canonical as you suggest. Since God cannot exist IN the universe and store the necessary information, He likely exists in a higher dimension. He may have an area of the universe where He “touches” this universe, but that would be undefined. And Kolob would be the creation “NEAREST” to that point.

    NOTE: If you have read any of the “Science & Religion” posts, this is actually going to be covered in much more detail in the next 2-3 posts.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  17. Jettboy on December 9, 2010 at 8:28 AM

    Mark D., do you see a metaphorical meaning behind the “Kolob” chapter? Why is it so hard for Mormons to see both a literal and metaphorical meaning in the same passages? I didn’t want to put that question forward when I first posted a comment, but it seems like a battle that shouldn’t exist. Not with the rich theological history of Mormonism’s founding with regard to likening and types and shadows.

    Part of the blame is, I believe, similar battles going on in secularized contexts against Evangelicals. The idea of ancient miracles is challenged by science and philosophy, and defended by literalists. This has spilled over into a modern Mormon worldview where the separation shouldn’t exist. I believe Kolob exists. I believe it is metaphorical. I have no idea and don’t think it is any concern of mine where it might be in the vast Universe.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  18. Jettboy on December 9, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    Actually Mike S, if you read the Scriptures all the vast information is contained within a great planet sized Urum and Thummum. His very place of abode is a memory storage device where past, present, and even future (mathematical formulated calculations? Space-Time manipulator?) is always before Him. It is even suggested he carries a hand-held device that connects to the vast storage system. One day, according to Scripture, we can have one of our own such white stones of knowledge. So, location doesn’t become a problem when the location is the answer.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  19. Cowboy on December 9, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    “This basic view of Abraham 3 has at least some support among BYU religion faculty.”

    Really!

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  20. Mike S on December 9, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    Jettboy:

    I disagree, although I understand where you are coming from. The numbers I gave above were actually a great simplification. If we go past stars and assume God knows where every particle is in the universe, that is around 10^75 things. Assume there is information recording this at ALL TIMES for billions of years, this would easily be up in the 10^85 to 10^95 range.

    This is a staggering number. It is MORE than the number of atoms in the entire universe. So it doesn’t matter how big the “planet sized” place it, it is impossible. God cannot live IN this 3-dimensional universe on a physical planet yet still have all this information. So if you claim that God is a space-limited being on a finite planet, you must admit that He is NOT omniscient, which goes against just about every scripture and characterization of God.

    But look where this idea comes from (D&C 130):

    7 But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.
    8 The place where God resides is a great Urim and Thummim.
    9 This earth, in its sanctified and immortal state, will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim and Thummim to the inhabitants who dwell thereon, whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom, or all kingdoms of a lower order, will be manifest to those who dwell on it; and this earth will be Christ’s.

    We get hints here that God is NOT in our space-time continuum.

    – All things in all times are continually before the Lord. This does not say stored to be displayed on a video monitor, but always before the Lord.
    – The earth is sanctified and immortal We know that “mortal” eyes cannot see “immortal” things. If it existed in the universe, we should be able to see it. Also, the universe will ultimately run down due to laws of entropy. Something physically present in the universe will ultimately share the same fate
    – kingdoms of a lower order If the immortal earth is outside the universe in a higher dimension, then seeing everything of the “lower order” is actually quite a trivial thing
    – God lives on an Urim and Thummim. The earth will become one. Perhaps this is the natural state of “planets” outside this universe.
    – There are more, but this is getting long

    Overall, there are a great many logical inconsistencies with God living on a planet physically located in the universe. It requires violations of the speed of light. It violates informational theory. It violates a number of things.

    Fortunately, as I alluded to above, there are actually ways to reconcile this, hinted at in both scriptures as well as in science. It will take much more space than this already bloated comment, but there are going to be a series of posts over the next month or so specifically addressing this resolution.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  21. hawkgrrrl on December 10, 2010 at 9:40 AM

    IME, most Mormons are prone to think that scripture like this is BOTH literal and metaphorical. IOW, as an example, the belief in a literal worldwide flood is evidence that the earth was metaphorically “baptized” by immersion. If it’s not literally true, the metaphor is at risk (in not being precise), or so the thinking goes. I think the key is to embrace the metaphorical while shrugging off the literal. But the reason to tie both literal and metaphorical is actually kind of similar to the notion explored in this post: external evidence that “God is teaching us through his creations what his correct principles are.”

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  22. GBSmith on December 10, 2010 at 11:20 AM

    After reading the original post and the comments, I read chapter 3 of Abraham and I’m afraid my opinion didn’t change. When the words like Kolob, Shinehah, Olea, and all the others are taken into account, the tangled syntax that reads like 1st Nephi, the specific references to place and time vis a vis God’s time and man’s, and the repeated usuage of phrases you see in proverbs, for me it just doesn’t add up. Metaphor may make something inspiring or motiviating but it doesn’t make it what it claims to be.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  23. [...] All Things Before God: Similarly, we are often told that all things are “before God”.  In a recent post about Kolob, people talk about vast computers and planet-sized storage units.  In some of my [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  24. Ed Goble on January 24, 2011 at 9:02 AM

    My new book “Nail of Heaven: LDS Cosmology, Metaphysics and Science” is now on Amazon.com:

    http://www.amazon.com/Nail-Heaven-Cosmology-Metaphysics-Science/dp/1456508229

    This deals with the various theories on kolob and proposes that the Galactic Center theory is correct, but that the other interpretations such as Sirius and the North Star actually have something to add to the concept as well.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  25. Joseph Antley on January 30, 2011 at 2:21 AM

    Apparently Ed did not write my blog article.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  26. The Meaning of Kolob « The Contrarian Mormon on March 15, 2011 at 1:50 PM

    [...] Joseph Antley, a student of history and ancient Near Eastern studies, speculates on the concepts behind Abrahamic astronomy: [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  27. Kalvin Rauma on December 12, 2012 at 9:45 PM

    Mike S on December 9, 2010 at 1:10 PM
    Jettboy,

    all of the numbers you are estimating are irrelevant when God says he has created worlds WITHOUT NUMBER.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

Archives

%d bloggers like this: