This series is cross-posted with the permission of Book of Mormon Central
from their website at Pearl of Great Price Central
In Essay #32, we discussed the view of Latter-day Saint scholar Donald W. Parry that the outbound journey of the Creation and the Fall is mirrored in the inbound journey of the Tabernacle, the prototype for later Israelite temples. The Garden of Eden can be seen as a natural “temple,” where Adam and Eve lived in God’s presence for a time. Significantly, each major feature of Eden (e.g., the river, the cherubim, the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Life) corresponds to a similar symbol in the Israelite temple (e.g., the bronze laver, the cherubim, the veil, the menorah).
Elsewhere in the ancient Near East, Creation, garden, and temple themes were also combined, as illustrated in this famous Mari Investiture panel from Old Babylon, created in the Abrahamic era. A study of this panel can enrich our study of the temple-like description of the Garden of Eden in Moses 3, preparing us for the temple themes we will encounter in the story of the Fall (Moses 4).
Garden and Temple Themes in Old Babylon
This mural was found the Court of the Palms at Mari, where excavations began in 1933. It dates from about 1800 BCE, possibly during the reign of King Yahdun-Lim. Most scholars believe that it represents the ritual by which the king’s right to rule was renewed each year.
Al-Khalesi argues that the central scene of the mural depicts “a religious ceremony taking place inside [an inner sanctuary] as viewed through an open door.” He concludes that the scene in the Investiture mural is a “figurative representation of the actual architectural form of the [inner sanctuary] and the statues which were originally set up inside it.” Since the ritual would have been witnessed by only a few people, al-Khalesi thinks that “the purpose of the mural was to illustrate the actual act of the ceremony—a given moment” to those standing outside.
In the exact geometric center of the panel, we see a statue representing the goddess Ishtar conferring royal insignia on the king, highlighting the prime importance of this event in the annual kingship ritual. Below the investiture scene, in the lower half of the mural, we see “figures holding jars from which flow four streams,” with a seedling growing out of the middle, recalling the streams that flowed out from underneath the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In the context of the Investiture Panel, the streams could be seen as suggesting the theme of ritual washings or libations as a prelude to the renewal of kingship.
Note that the two sides of the Investiture panel are mirror images. The sequence of movement from the more public to the most private portions of the palace complex would correspond to a stepwise movement from the outer edges of the Investiture Panel toward its sacred center.
J. R. Porter writes of how the scene depicted in the mural “strikingly recall[s] details of the Genesis description of the Garden of Eden. In particular, the mural depicts two types of tree,” one type clearly being a date palm analogue to the Tree of Life. In the symmetrical side panels at the far left and right of the mural, two men climb each of the two date palms. In many traditions, sacred trees are identified with a human king, or with the mother of a king, whether human or divine. Like the two figures witnessing the investiture, two other individuals near date palms raise their hands in supplication, suggesting a parallel between the tree and the king himself. Like the Tree of Life, the king is an “archetypal receiver and distributor of divine blessing.” The palm tree on the right can clearly be seen as harboring a bird.
As an intriguing parallel to the notion of the Tree of Knowledge as the veil of the sanctuary, note that two exemplars of the second type of tree are placed in immediate proximity to the most holy place — suggesting the possibility that they represented treelike wooden posts that would have supported a veil. These two trees are “guarded by mythical winged animals[—the Assyrian version of the] cherubim” who would be responsible for “the introduction of worshippers to the presence of a god.”
Sequence of Ritual Events
Though differing in important details, scholars of Mari are in general agreement that the areas in the ritual complex have been laid out so as to accommodate a ceremonial progression of the king and his entourage toward the innermost sanctuary. We will review some of the themes of the king’s journey, including
- A garden with a central tree bearing sweet fruit
- A veil held up by a second kind of “tree”
- Renewal of kingship.
Creation. Although we know little directly about the details of the Old Babylonian investiture ritual performed at Mari, it is certain that the fourth of the twelve days of the later Babylonian New Year akītu festival always included a rehearsal of the creation story, Enuma Elish (“When on high…”), a story whose theological roots reach back long before the painting of the Investiture Panel. In its broad outlines, this ritual text is an account of how Marduk achieved preeminence among the gods of the heavenly council through his victorious heavenly battles, and the subsequent creation of the earth and of mankind as a prelude to the building of Marduk’s temple in Babylon. The epic ends with the conferral upon Marduk of fifty sacred titles, including the higher god Ea’s own name, accompanied with the declaration: “He is indeed even as I.” Seen in this light, a better title for Enuma Elish might be “The Exaltation of Marduk.”
Garden with a central tree bearing sweet fruit. A tree, either real or artificial, typically took the central position in palace courtyards of the Babylonians and Assyrians, recalling the biblical account of the Tree of Life “in the midst” (literally “in the center”) of the Garden of Eden.
In this attempted visual reconstruction of the Court of the Palm at Mari, the sacred date palm with its sweet fruit is placed in the exact center. A single date palm tree “often yielded more than one hundred pounds of fruit per year over a productive lifetime of one hundred years or more. Akkadian synonyms for ‘date palm’ included ‘tree of abundance’ (iṣu mašrû) and ‘tree of riches’ (iṣu rāšû)—appropriate names for the vehicle of agricultural success and richness.”
The Investiture Panel is shown just to the right of the entry to the fore throneroom. Though the central palm no doubt dominated the courtyard symbolically and visually, the courtyard might also have been filled with potted trees and plants to create a luxurious garden.
The motif of eating sacred fruit is preserved in the Sumerian myth of Enki and Ninhursag, where Enki was cursed because he ate the carefully nurtured plants of Ninhursag, the mother-goddess. However, according to both early Mesopotamian and later Palestinian texts, date palms were not only a source of sweet fruit but also they sometimes were climbed to obtain access to a source of wisdom or warning that was termed “the conversation of palm trees.” The action of eating sweet fruit or honey from such a tree was associated in the Bible with the “opening of the eyes” and the attainment of “supernatural vision.” More generally in the ancient Near East, sacred trees were seen as a source of energy, grace, and power.
Sacrifice. Following the king’s ordeal and a recital of the events of the creation, the royal party would make its advance from the gardenlike open space in the courtyard with its central palm. This is consistent with a sacrificial scene painted on the walls of the courtyard that has been “interpreted as representing the king … leading a ‘procession of several temple servants towards’ an enthroned god.” Texts from Mari tell us that the queen was the one who furnished sacrifices for the “Lady of the Palace,” presumably meaning the goddess Ishtar.
A veil held up by a second kind of “tree.” Scholars contrast the realism in the Investiture Panel depiction of the date palm to the representation of the second type of “Sacred Tree,” which seems to be “imaginary” or artificial in kind.
As to the function of the second type of sacred tree, al-Khalesi concludes that it was “meant to symbolize a door-post.” From archaeological evidence, he conjectures that such posts could have provided supporting infrastructure for a partition made of “ornamented woven material.” This recalls the kikkisu, a woven reed partition ritually used in temples through which the Mesopotamian flood hero received divine instruction. Al-Khalesi cites the presence of a rectangular chink in the pavement of the inner throne room as evidence for the presence of tree-like gatepost. He conjectures that such posts could have provided supporting infrastructure for a partition made of “ornamented woven material.” If symmetrically placed, the gateposts would have defined a portal of about two meters in width. The neo-Hittite temple at ‘Ain Dara provides a parallel to such an arrangement in its screened-off podium shrine located at the far end of its main hall. In essence, the veil shielded the “Holy of Holies” of the Mari palace from public view, suggesting the same symbolic function as the Tree of Knowledge, which in Genesis hid the Tree of Life from view.
Priests acting in the role of cherubim, shown above next to the treelike posts of the veil, would be responsible for “the introduction of worshippers to the presence of a god.”
Renewal of kingship. This scene seems to “depict a king being invested by the Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar: Eve has been associated with such divine figures.”
As one part of his initiation ceremony, the king would have touched or grasped the hand of the statue of the god of the palace. Within the innermost sacred chamber, the king raises his right hand, perhaps in an oath-related gesture. At the same time, his left hand receives the rod and coil that signified his worthiness for the prerogatives of his office. These two items of regalia are measurement tools used in construction, corresponding in their general function to the later symbols of the square and compass. They served as symbols of divinely authorized power.
John Walton observed that “the ideology of the temple is not noticeably different in Israel than it is in the ancient Near East. The difference is in the God, not in the way the temple functions in relation to the God.”  Of course, resemblances between authentic, revealed religion in Old Testament times and the religious beliefs and practices of other peoples do not simply imply that the Israelites got their religion from their neighbors. Rather, to believing Latter-day Saints, they provide “a kind of confirmation and vindication” that the Gospel was preached in the beginning and that ancient evidence of distorted fragments of truth found outside of biblical tradition may be the result of subsequent degeneration and apostasy.
Adapted from Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., and Ronan J. Head. "The investiture panel at Mari and rituals of divine kingship in the ancient Near East." Studies in the Bible and Antiquity 4 (2012): 1-42. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/sba/vol4/iss1/1/.
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Notes on Figures
Figure 1. Published in D. W. Parry, Garden, pp. 134–135. We have modified Lyon’s original drawing by moving the Tree of Life to the top of the mountain. It was originally placed slightly downhill. For the rationale for this modification, see J. M. Bradshaw, Tree of Knowledge.
Figure 2. Drawing from J. R. Porter, Guide, p. 28. With permission.
Figure 3. Image from J.-C. Margueron, Mari, p. 892. Muller, agreeing with Margeueron, accounted for the seeming discrepancy between the single palm tree of the palace and the symmetric doubling of the palm tree in the Investiture Panel by citing rotation and flattening as principles of artistic perspective in the ancient Near East (B. Muller, Aspects, pp. 135, 138). Differing from al-Khalesi, however, they applied this same principle to the statue of the goddess with the flowing vase and concluded that there was only one such statue, rather than two, and that it stood on a pedestal within room 64, facing the opening from courtyard 106 ().
Figure 4. M.-T. Barrelet, Peinture, p. 27 figure 11. With permission.
Figure 5. Image in J.-C. Margueron, Mari Métropole, p. 478. With permission.
Thorkild Jacobsen reminds us of how the interpretation of the stories may change even when the stories themselves remain relatively intact (T. Jacobsen, Treasures, pp. 19-20):
It is not only that older elements disappear and are replaced with new; often the old elements are retained and exist side by side with the new; and often too, these older elements, though seemingly unchanged, have in fact come to mean something quite different, have been reinterpreted to fit into a new system of meanings. To illustrate with an example from our own Western cultural tradition, the story of Adam and Eve is retained unchanged since Old Testament times, but the [first chapters] of Genesis [have] been progressively reinterpreted by St. Paul, by St. Augustine, and by Milton (not to speak of modern theologians) so that [they have] come to carry a wealth of theological and anthropological meaning related to the essential nature of man, very different from what the story could possibly have meant in its earlier… cultural setting.
In approaching ancient Mesopotamian materials, it should be kept in mind that the older elements of culture survive, and that they may be reinterpreted over and over; for we find among these materials religious documents, myths, epics, laments, which have been handed down almost unchanged in copy after copy for as much as a thousand or fifteen hundred years, and it is often difficult to say with certainty whether a document originated in the period from which it seems to come, or whether it was in fact from earlier times.
Marduk’s life is, of course, a recapitulation of events from the story of the god Ea. It is quite possible that the version of the creation story told at Mari featured Ishtar rather than Marduk as its principal character—see S. Dalley, Esther’s Revenge, p. 148.
Everything Ea… accomplished [was] later accomplished by Marduk, on a grander scale. Apsû and Mummu announce Tiamat and Kingu and they are vanquished in the same way, by magic. Ea has created his dwelling with the body of Apsû as Marduk will create the intelligible world with the body of Tiamat, the exact correspondence of the Apsû being the Ešarra. The deeds of Ea are thus a prefiguration of the great deeds of Marduk, who will receive as his last name the name of his father in Tablet VII.
Continuing his exploration of the means by which it seems possible that “something of the original Mesopotamian concept of the divine left its mark in the Western mind” (ibid., p. 277), Talon writes (ibid., p. 276):
The Chaldaean doctrine does not directly reflect Mesopotamian cosmology in itself, but is rather like an echo. Fragment 7 of the Oracles says: “Because the Father created everything in perfection and gave it to the second Intellect, whom you call the first, all of you, human race.” On which Psellus comments: “After having worked the whole creation, the first Father of the Triad gave it to the Intellect, the one that the human race, ignorant of the preeminence of the Father, calls the first God.” Psellus, being of Christian faith, is here linking the Oracle with his own doctrine and he adds: “Because in the book of Moses, the Father gives the Son the idea of the production of creatures, and the Son becomes the artisan of creation.” This agrees with the role of Marduk in the Babylonian myth if we see him as the Demiurge, the Twice-Beyond who created the universe, distinct from Aššur/ Marduk, the One from which the other gods emanate in the diagram elaborated by S. Parpola. It also agrees well with Enuma Elish, if we understand the Father as Ea and the son, the Creator, as Marduk. It is Ea who advises his son and gives him the plan, the idea, leading to his victory over Tiamat. Later, at the end of the myth, Marduk eventually assumes the name of his Father, Ea, and thus all of his powers.
Eaton finds it notable that “the story does not contain any death and resurrection of Marduk, nor a union with his consort” (J. H. Eaton, Kingship, p. 91). However, this does not mean that these ideas were not widespread in Old Babylonian culture. Regarding the notion of life after death in Mesopotamia, Lapinkivi writes:
[T]he widespread scholarly notion that belief in a resurrection did not exist in Mesopotamia but that all dead human souls stayed eternally in the Netherworld is contradicted by the Mesopotamian texts themselves: for instance, the kings Sulgi and Isbi-Erra ascended to heaven after death; Dumuzi died only temporarily and, according to one tradition, ascended to the highest heaven to be its gatekeeper. Ascent to heaven is the central theme in the Etana and Adapa myths. Utnapstim, the sage of the Gilgamesh Epic, was made divine and granted eternal life after the Flood. In the poem Ludlul bel nemeqi (“I will praise the lord of wisdom [i.e., Marduk]”) from the Kassite period (ca. 1595-1155 bc), the righteous sufferer pairs descent to the Netherworld with ascent to heaven, implying that both ideas were famliar to him (II 46-47): “In prosperity they speak of going up to heaven, under adversity they complain of going down to the Netherworld.” Later in the text (IV 33-36), the sufferer claims that only Marduk (the divine king) and Zarpanitu (= Ishtar of Babylon) can restore the dead to life or grant life. In short, the evidence indicates that the Mesopotamians believed humans had souls that were separate from the body because they were able to leave the body in dreams or ecstatic experiences. The soul survived after death and continued its existence in the Netherworld or in heaven.
In this context, it should be kept in mind that, while the human soul, according to the Hebrew Bible—as in Mesopotamia—generally ended up in the Netherworld, a different fate was reserved for select individuals such as Enoch and Elijah… According to Josephus’ (ca. 38-101 ce) Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades:
The souls of all men are confined [in the Netherworld] until a proper season, which God has determined, when he will make a resurrection of all men from the dead, … raising again those very bodies, … giving justly to those who have done well an everlasting fruition, but allotting to the lovers of wicked works eternal punishment [cf. John 5:28-29; Alma 40:11-26].
On various forms of sacred marriage in Mesopotamia, see B. Pongratz-Leisten, Sacred Marriage; P. Lapinkivi, Sumerian.
Such traditions continued into later times. Notes Visotzky (B. L. Visotzky, Conversation, p. 212; cf. H. W. Nibley, Message (2005), p. 288):
For a period of close to five hundred years, stories from Semitic religious communities preserved (in Palestinian Aramaic, koine Greek, and rabbinic Hebrew) snatches of the conversation of palm trees. The palms speak in dreams to one another and in broad daylight to those who would transgress against them. What seems to bind the dialogues together is that in every case, the ultimate hearer is a towering religious figure.
An example of the theme of warning is illustrated in the Genesis Apocryphon, a Jewish text from Qumran where we find Abram dreaming of a cedar and a date palm, representing himself and his wife Sarai. It is only through the pleadings of the palm tree that the cedar is spared from the axes of the woodcutters (F. G. Martinez, Genesis Apocryphon, 19:14-17, p. 232). A similar theme is found in the later biography of Mani, where Elchasai the Baptist climbs a date palm and is apparently warned that he should not cut it down for wood (R. Cameron et al., CMC, pp. 11, 13.). The theme persists centuries later in the Persian Shahnama epic (A. Ferdowsi, Shahnama (1905-1925), pp. 517-519), where a talking tree rebukes Alexander the Great “for his lust of conquest and prophesies his death in a distant land” (E. Edson et al., Cosmos, p. 55, caption to Figure 29).
On the other hand, the function of the trees as a source of wisdom is shown in the Pistis Sophia, which reports that God spoke “mysteries” to Enoch “out of the Tree of Gnosis [Knowledge] and out of the Tree of Life in the paradise of Adam” (C. Schmidt, Pistis, 2:99, p. 495; G. R. S. Mead, Pistis, 2:246, p. 205).
Firstly, the king is escorted by the god to the throne of his father, where he presumably takes his seat. This suggests that he approaches the throne accompanied by the image of the god, perhaps holding his hand;
Secondly, he is given the “divine weapons,” which are identified as those used by the god in the mythical Chaoskampf [i.e., primeval battle between the god and the forces of chaos]. Something of their power and efficacy is evidently to be transmitted to the king;
Thirdly, he is anointed, in the first extra-biblical allusion to the anointing of a king. This most distinctive of Israelite and Judahite rites is now given a pedigree going back a millennium. This is the thus the formal inauguration of [the king’s] reign…
Differing from Wyatt in the interpretation of the “rod and ring,” Slanski concludes, from both linguistic and archaeological evidence, that the “ring” in the hand of Ishtar could well be an ancient chalk line (K. E. Slanski, Rod and Ring, pp. 47-48), symbolizing the just rulership of the king. As emblems that symbolically conjoin the acts of measurement and temple foundation-laying with the processes of cosmic creation, the Mesopotamian rod and ring can be profitably compared to temple surveying instruments in the biblical book of Ezekiel (see, e.g., D. I. Block, Ezekiel 25-48, pp. 512, 515) as well as to the analogous figures of the square and circle (or compass) (H. W. Nibley, Circle).
Note that the battle axe that hangs down from Ishtar’s left hand in the mural would have been a more fitting symbol of war. Since there is no explicit link between the Mari Investiture Panel and the text on which Wyatt bases his interpretation, Ronan J. Head and I have tentatively concluded that, just as the painting seems to depict an established rite involving the “rod and ring” that authorized the king to build a palace and establish his just rule, so there may have been an analogous ceremony to which Wyatt’s text alludes, where the god would stretch out his battle-axe to the king in preparation for war. A biblical parallel to the dichotomy between building and waging war can be found in the story of King David, who was forbidden by God from constructing a temple because of his career as a warrior. For this reason, Solomon his son, a “man of rest,” was eventually given the commission to build the earthly House of God (1 Chronicles 22:8-9).
To say that the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness is restored is to say that something has been lost and regained — but it is not to say that everything has. The Mormon believes that after every outpouring of divine light there is a record of degeneration and loss, the signs of which he thinks he can see in every generation. But Mormons have resisted from the outset the sectarian impulse: the isolation of a text or principle and the insistence that they alone possess and practice it. Exultant at a new revelatory downpour, the Mormon sees the implication: unless the same truths, authorities, and powers can be found in prior times and places; unless there have been genuine prophets, apostles and holy men who were, for all their individual traits, in touch with divine outpourings; unless there have been saints of former as well as of latter days — unless these things are so, Mormonism is without foundation. In other words, Mormonism has no claim to be a viable religion in the present unless it has been a viable religion in the past. And this is not just a halfhearted concession that there has been sort of, or part of, or a shadow of the fulness of the Gospel. It is to say that some, at least, among the ancients had it all. It is to match the thesis that from the early (and supposedly crude) beginnings things have become better; just as often they have, instead, become worse. Spiritual anabolism and catabolism have been at work in the religious life from the beginning. …
If the outcome of hard archaeological, historical, and comparative discoveries in the past century is an embarrassment to exclusivistic readings of religion, that, to the Mormon, is a kind of confirmation and vindication. His faith assures him not only that Jesus anticipated his great predecessors (who were really successors) but that hardly a teaching or a practice is utterly distinct or peculiar or original in his earthly ministry. Jesus was not a plagiarist, unless that is the proper name for one who repeats himself. He was the original author. The gospel of Jesus Christ came with Christ in the meridian of time only because the gospel of Jesus Christ came from Christ in prior dispensations. He did not teach merely a new twist on a syncretic- Mediterranean tradition. His earthly ministry enacted what had been planned and anticipated “from before the foundations of the world,” (e.g., John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20; Alma 22:13; D&C 130:20; Moses 5:57; Abraham 1:3) and from Adam down.