Kabbalah in Mormon Doctrine: The King Follett Discourse
On Sunday afternoon, 7 April 1844, Joseph Smith stood before a crowd estimated at 10,000 and delivered his greatest sermon, the King Follett Discourse.130
Dissension, rumor, accusation, and conspiracy all abounded in Nauvoo on that pleasant spring day, and Joseph was at the center. This would be Joseph's last conference, ten weeks later he lay murdered at Carthage Jail. In this atmosphere of tension, many in the congregation probably expected a message of conciliation, a retrenchment. Instead, the prophet stunned listeners with his most audacious public discourse--a declaration replete with doctrinal innovations and strange concepts that many of the Saints had never before heard. As Fawn Brodie noted, "For the first time he proclaimed in a unified discourse the themes he had been inculcating in fragments and frequently in secret to his most favored saints: the glory of knowledge, the multiplicity of gods, the eternal progression of the human soul."131
Van Hale, in his analysis of the discourse's doctrinal impact, notes four declarations made by Joseph Smith which have had an extraordinary and lasting impact on Mormon doctrine: men can become gods; there exist many Gods; the gods exist one above another innumerably; and God was once as man now is.132
Interestingly, these were all concepts that could, by various exegetical approaches, be found in the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition. But even more astoundingly, it appears Joseph actually turned to the Zohar
for help in supporting his introduction of these radical doctrinal assertions.
The prophet begins his discussion of the plurality and hierarchy of the Gods with an odd exegesis of the first words of Genesis, Bereshith bara Elohim:
I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible. . . . I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today. I will go to the very first Hebrew word--BERESHITH--in the Bible and make a comment on the first sentence of the history of creation: "In the beginning. . . ." I want to analyze the word BERESHITH. BE--in, by, through, and everything else; next, ROSH--the head; ITH. Where did it come from? When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the first part--the BE--there; but a man--a Jew without any authority---put it there. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head of any man. It read in the first: "The Head One of the Gods brought forth the Gods." This is the true meaning of the words. ROSHITH [BARA ELOHIM] signifies [the Head] to bring forth the Elohim. If you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God. No learned man can tell you any more than what I have told you. Thus, the Head God brought forth the Head Gods in the grand, head council.133
By any literate interpretation of Hebrew, this is an impossible reading. Joseph takes Elohim,
the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object, the thing which received the action of creation. Bereshith
("in the beginning") is reinterpreted to become Roshith,
the "head" or "Head Father of the Gods," who is the subject-actor creating Elohim.134
he interprets not as God, but as "the Gods." Louis C. Zucker, who published an insightful examination of Smith's study and use of Hebrew, notes that this translation deviates entirely from the interpretative convention Joseph had learned as a student of Hebrew in Kirtland. Joshua Seixas, the professor who had instructed Joseph and the School of the Prophets in early 1836, used in his classes a textbook he had written, Hebrew grammar for the Use of Beginners.135
In the Seixas manual (p. 85), this Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 is given along with a "correct" word-for-word translation: "In the beginning, he created, God, the heavens, and the earth." Seixas would not have introduced in his oral instruction a translation entirely alien to the conventions of his own textbook. Zucker comments on Smith's strange translation of the verse: "Joseph, with audacious independence, changes the meaning of the first word, and takes the third word `Eloheem' as literally plural. He ignores the rest of the verse, and the syntax he imposes on his artificial three-word statement is impossible."136
But Zucker (along with Mormon historians generally) ignored another exegesis of this verse--an exegesis which was a basic precept of Jewish Kabbalah from the thirteenth century on and which agrees, word for word, with Joseph's reading.137
In the tradition of Kabbalah, Bereshith bara Elohim
was most emphatically not an "artificial three-word statement," as Zucker implied. Gershom Scholem, in the middle of a long discussion, explains this other view:
The Zohar, and indeed the majority of the older Kabbalists, questioned the meaning of the first verse of the Torah: Bereshith bara Elohim, "In the beginning created God"; what actually does this mean? The answer is fairly surprising. We are told that it means Bereshith--through the medium of the "beginning," [Hokhmah, or "Wisdom," the primordial image of the Father God in the Kabbalistic Sefiroth]--bara, created, that is to say, the hidden Nothing which constitutes the grammatical subject of the word bara, emanated or unfolded,--Elohim, that is to say, its emanation is Elohim. It [Elohim] is the object, and not the subject of the sentence.138
Scholem's point is perhaps made clearer by restatement. In the Zohar,
and in the commentaries of the majority of older (that is, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Kabbalists), the verse Bereshith bara Elohim
is grammatically turned around. Bereshith
is understood to refer to the Sefirah
translated as "Wisdom" and identified in Kabbalistic theosophy as the Supernal Father--the figure who is usually interpreted in Kabbalah as the First of the Godhead. Hokhmah
then emanates, or "creates" in the sense of unfolding, the Elohim.139
As Scholem notes, the interesting thing here is that Elohim
has become the object of the sentence, and is no longer the subject. This is precisely Joseph Smith's reading.
This interpretation of Genesis 1:1 is not deeply hidden in the Zohar,
but constitutes its opening paragraphs, and is the central concern of the entire first section of this long book. The Zohar
begins with a commentary on Bereshith bara Elohim:
It is written: And the intelligent shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever. There was indeed a "brightness" [Zohar].140 The Most Mysterious struck its void, and caused this point to shine. This "beginning" [Reshith] then extended, and made for itself a palace for its honour and glory. . . . Thus by means of this "beginning" [Reshith] the Mysterious Unknown made this palace. This palace is called Elohim, and this doctrine is contained in the words, "By means of a beginning [Reshith, it,] created Elohim."141
So far this is exactly Joseph Smith's reading. In his exegesis Joseph takes Elohim,
the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object which received the action of creation from the first god-image (here called Reshith
), just as does the Zohar.
Indeed, his words as transcribed by William Clayton, "Rosheet signifies to bring forth the Eloheim," are almost identical with the Zohar
's phrasing of the interpretation.142
In his next step of translation, Smith interprets Bereshith
to become Rosh,
the "head" or head God. As Zucker objected, orthodox standards of translations do not yield the word Rosh,
or "head," from Bereshith.
But it was not "audacious independence" alone that led Smith to changed the meaning. A basis for this reading is actually found in the next verse of the Zohar:
By a Kabbalistic cipher of letters--a technique used in Kabbalah to conceal deeper esoteric meanings--the Zohar
explains that the word Reshith
"is anagrammatically Rosh (head), the beginning which issues from Reshith."143
(To understand the fuller intent of this phrase, one must again remember that Rosh
is here interpreted by Kabbalah to be Hokhmah,
the first god-image, the Supernal Father.) Thus in this text Reshith
has been interposed as an anagram for Rosh
--who is understood to be the "Head God," Hokhmah.
Could this be what Joseph means when he says "a man, a Jew without authority" changed the reading of the word, perhaps by failing to understand this ancient Kabbalistic anagram?
Finally, Smith translates Elohim
in the plural, as "the Gods." The word is indeed in a plural Hebrew form, but by the orthodox interpretative conventions Joseph was taught in his Kirtland Hebrew class (which remain the norm) it is read as singular. In the Zohar,
however, it is interpreted in the plural. This is witnessed throughout the Zohar
and appears clearly in the following paragraph from the opening sections of the work, where the phrase "Let us make man" (Gen. 1:26) is used as the basis for a discussion on the plurality of the gods:
"Us" certainly refers to two, of which one said to the other above it, "let us make," nor did it do anything save with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague. But that which is called "the Cause above all causes," which has no superior or even equal, as it is written, "To whom shall ye liken me, that I should be equal?" (Is. 40:25), said, "See now that I, I am he, and Elohim is not with me," from whom he should take counsel. . . . Withal the colleagues explained the word Elohim in this verse as referring to other gods.144
Within this passage is both the concept of plurality and of the hierarchy of Gods acting "with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague." This interpretation is of course echoed in the King Follett discourse and became a foundation for all subsequent Mormon theosophy.
Two months after giving the King Follett Discourse, Joseph returned to these first Hebrew words of Genesis and the subject of plural Gods. Thomas Bullock transcribed his remarks on the rainy Sunday morning of 16 June 1844. This was to be Joseph's last public proclamation on doctrine; eleven days later he lay dead. Joseph first introduced his subject--the plurality of Gods--then again read in Hebrew the opening words of Genesis and repeated his interpretation of Bereshith bara Elohim,
using much the same phrasing recorded two months earlier in the King Follett Discourse. He then turned to Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man," the same passage interpreted in the Zohar
to imply a plurality of Gods. After reading the verse aloud in Hebrew, he interpreted the text and found in it the same occult import given by the Zohar:
The God "which has no superior or equal" (the Zohar
's words), the "Head one of the Gods" (Joseph's term) addressed the "other Gods," Elohim
in the plural translation, saying "let us make man." Bullock transcribed his remarks thus: "if we pursue the Heb further it reads [here he apparently read in Hebrew Genesis 1:26] The Head one of the Gods said let us make man in our image. . . . in the very beginning there is a plurality of Gods--beyond power of refutation--it is a great subject I am dwelling on--the word Eloiheam ought to be in the plural all the way thro."145
As he began his exegesis of the opening Hebrew phrase of Genesis in the King Follett Discourse, Joseph stated that he would go to the "old Bible." In Kabbalistic lore, the commentary of the Zohar
represented the oldest biblical interpretation, the secret interpretation imparted by God to Adam and all worthy prophets after him. Joseph certainly was not using the knowledge of Hebrew imparted to him in Kirtland nine years earlier when he gave his exegesis of Bereshith bara Elohim,
or plural interpretation of Elohim.
Was then the "old Bible" he used the Zohar
? And was the "learned man of God" he mentioned Simeon ben Yochai, the prophetic teacher attributed with these words in the Zohar
Joseph wove Hebrew into several of his discourses during the final year of his life. In these late Nauvoo discourses, however, he interpreted the Hebrew not as a linguist but as a Kabbalist--a reflection of his own predilections and of the fortuitous aid of his tutor, Alexander Neibaur.146
But in conclusion, we need to step back from this discussion of words and see that behind them resides a unique vision, a vision characteristic of the occult Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition. Harold Bloom called the King Follett Discourse "one of the truly remarkable sermons ever preached in America." It is also a remarkable evidence of the prophet's visionary ties to the archaic legacy of Jewish Gnosticism and to the single most influential force in the evolution of Christian occultism: the Kabbalah.
Reference : http://www.gnosis.org/jskabb3.htm