Evidence #66 | September 19, 2020

Primordial Monsters

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Jacob’s description of a metaphorical monster that represents “death,” “hell,” and the “devil” is consonant with imagery found in the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts.

Monsters in the Book of Mormon

In 2 Nephi 9:10, the prophet Jacob declared, “O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell” (emphasis added).  In verses 19 and 26 of the same chapter, Jacob again associated a “monster” with “death and hell,” except in these cases he also included the “devil” as part of the description:

19 O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment. …

26 For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil

Monsters in the Bible

The use of the term “monster” occurs only once in the King James Bible,1 yet according to Daniel Belnap, “The personification of death as a monstrous entity is not unique to the Book of Mormon, but found throughout the Bible.”2 For instance, just before Jacob described death and hell as a monster in 2 Nephi 9, he recited Isaiah’s use of similar imagery to depict the victory of God over Rahab (“the dragon”) and the Red Sea (“the waters of the great deep”) in order to demonstrate the Lord’s power to redeem His people (2 Nephi 8:9–10; cf. Isaiah 51:9–10).

Slaying of the Leviathan by Gustav Dore.

Isaiah uses similar terms elsewhere to portray the future triumph of Jehovah as He delivers Israel from the forces of evil. Isaiah 27:1 reads: “In that day the LORD with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.”

Another poignant example can be seen in Psalms 89:8–10: “O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them. Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm.” In Psalm 18, the psalmist compared “the snares” of death and hell to drowning in “many waters” and recounted how only the Lord could save him:

The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid. The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears. … He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. (Psalm 18:4–6, 16)

The word of the Lord recorded in Hosea 13:14, an early Israelite text, comes close to the language Jacob employed regarding what the “awful monster” represents: “I will ransom them from the power of the grave [Heb. sheol]; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction.”

Monsters in Other Ancient Near Eastern Texts

Assyrian relief of a chaos monster fighting against an Assyrian sun god.

These symbols of Rahab, the (Sea) Dragon, Leviathan (a sea monster), the raging waves of the sea, and similar imagery can be found in a variety of texts from the ancient Near East.3 For instance, according to Belnap, “the Ugaritic deity Mot (lit., ‘death’) also possessed a limitless appetite and was one of the primary enemies of Baal (the other being Yamm, or ‘sea’).” Belnap drew attention to “a late text by Philo of Byblos” which “recounts the Phoenicians naming the god of the underworld as ‘Death and Pluto’.”5 

In the context of Christ’s messianic return and subsequent banquet or feast, 2 Baruch 29:4 states, “And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left” (emphasis added).6 Concerning this and similar end-times traditions, Philip J. Long has explained,

Primordial beasts that were present at creation and in the re-tellings of the Exodus story will be killed and consumed just as death itself is consumed in Isaiah 25:6–8. The chaos monsters will be ultimately subdued and consumed. Eden itself will be restored and all will eat from the tree of life, just as the Israelites ate manna in the Wilderness after the Exodus.7

Related but somewhat different imagery concerning these two monsters (Leviathan and Behemoth) can be seen in a text known as 1 Enoch.8 In this account, an angel explains to Enoch that the desert where Behemoth lives is “east of the garden where the chosen and righteous dwell, where my great-grandfather was taken up, the seventh from Adam, the first man whom the Lord of Spirits created” (1 Enoch 60:8). The angel later explains:

These two monsters, prepared according to the greatness of the Lord, will provide food for <the chosen and righteous>

..… so that the punishment of the Lord of Spirits rests upon them, in order that the punishment of the Lord of Spirits does not go forth in vain. (1 Enoch 60:24)

Monsters who are prepared by the Lord and who provide food for the righteous so that the punishment of the Lord rests upon them? What is this talking about? The Book of Mormon may be able to shed some light on this story.

Ammut, an Egyptian chaos monster, devours the souls of the dead should they fail judgement in the afterlife. Image by Jody Livingston.

The fact that Behemoth is described in relation to a garden (presumably the Garden of Eden) and that Adam is mentioned seems somewhat significant; Jacob similarly prefaced his discussion of monsters by discussing “that being who beguiled our first parents” (2 Nephi 9:9). With these linked contexts in mind, Jacob’s monsters and the monsters in 1 Enoch plausibly represent a similar cluster of concepts: Satan (which Jacob describes as a monster) offering food to Adam and Eve, namely the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which brought upon them punishments, namely death and hell (see vv. 10, 19, 26).

The statement in 1 Enoch that this food is given “in order that the punishment of the Lord of Spirits does not go forth in vain” is reminiscent of Lehi’s discourse on the need for “opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11), including the “forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life” (v. 15). Lehi emphasized that the “punishment which is affixed” to the “ends of the law” (v. 10) is necessary, otherwise “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (v. 11).

Conclusion

Although the Bible personifies death in a variety of ways, Jacob’s description of a monster that represents “death,” “hell,” and the “devil” seems to be more expansive than what the biblical imagery alone conveys. Only when viewed in the broader context of ancient Near Eastern literature does Jacob’s metaphor feel completely at home. As explained by David Bokovoy and John A. Tvedtnes, “Jacob’s personification of Death and Hell, together with his reference to Christ’s victory over the grave, fits perfectly in the context of Near Eastern tradition.”9

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does Jacob Choose a ‘Monster’ as a Symbol for Death and Hell? (2 Nephi 9:10),” KnoWhy 34 (February 16, 2016).

Daniel Belnap, “‘I Will Contend with Them That Contendeth with Thee’: The Divine Warrior in Jacob’s Speech of 2 Nephi 6–10,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 17, no. 1–2 (2008): 20–39.

David E. Bokovoy and John A. Tvedtnes, Testaments: Links between the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible (Tooele, UT: Heritage Press, 2003), 79–87.

2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26

2 Nephi 9:10, 19, 26

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