Definitely a cult. Maybe.

October 18, 2011 | 11 comments
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A recent CNN blog post referred to a “cult” and described their sacred rituals as  “completely violent, mind controlling and alarming.” Indeed? Let’s examine.

samaritan

Samaritan Passover on Mt. Gerizim

The worshippers gather together in the countryside, on the land of the leader’s extended family. He stands at an altar before them and shouts in a loud voice, reciting the strict and detailed requirements of the adherents which he claims (don’t they always claim this?) came from God, governing their eating habits, sexual habits, hygiene habits, even where they can live and whom they can marry. The worshippers chant their agreement in unison after each rule is read out, agreeing to all he tells them God says. After reiterating these “laws” hand-picked young men loyal to the leader slit the throats of cattle, and begin splashing the cow blood all over the adherents, binding them to the cult community and strict obedience, on pain of death by throat cutting.

“Completely violent, mind controlling and alarming” and just so weird. Definitely a cult, yeah?

…oh wait, false alarm, pitchforks down, everyone. It’s the Law of Moses and Exodus 24 (slightly conflated with some Deuteronomy and rearranged for polemic effect).

What exactly is going on here? Covenant rituals often involved animal sacrifice, as a way of ratifying the covenant and symbolizing, often rather graphically, the downside to violating the covenant. Indeed, one “cuts” a covenant in Hebrew. In other words, while we hear often about the blessings of covenants, they carry the potential of both blessings and cursings of one kind or another. A few examples from Israel and her neighbors-

In Genesis 15, Abraham asks God for some kind of assurance God’s promises will happen; He wants God to ratify His promises. Following instructions, Abraham slaughters several kinds of animals, and God later passes in between the cut-up parts. This, apparently was a ritual in which the party passing through the animal pieces was identified with the dead animals, swearing to keep the covenant or else become like them, throats cut, bodies torn.

Much later on in Israel’s history, prominent Israelites had covenanted to release their “servants” for the Jubilee year, but then took them back as slaves again. God responds through Jeremiah by invoking the covenantal curse, ” those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts: the officials of Judah, the officials of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf shall be handed over to their enemies and to those who seek their lives. Their corpses shall become food for the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth.” (Jeremiah 34:18-20) Israelites also used gestures of throatcutting to swear oaths. “May the Lord do thus and more to me if I fail to [do X Y or Z].” This sentence uses “thus” (Heb. coh) “like this,” “like so” and probably was accompanied by some kind of gesture of self-harm.(See my podcast on Ruth.)

The Aramaic treaty  between two kings, Bargayah and Matti’el, found at Sefire, uses more objects than animals in the ritual. These similes graphically depict the consequences of violating the covenant. Again, note the calf cut in two, as in Genesis 15.

“Just as this wax is burned by fire, so may Mati['el be burned by fi]re! Just as (this) bow and these arrows are broken, so may Inurta and Hadad break [the bow of Mati'el], and the bow of his nobles! And just as the man of wax is blinded, so may Mati['el] be blinded! [Just as] this calf is cut in two, so may Mati’el be cut in two, and may his nobles be cut in two! [And just as] a [har]lot is stripped naked], so may the wives of Mati’el be stripped naked, and the wives of his offspring, and the wives of [his] no[bles! And just as this wax woman is taken] and one strikes her on the face, so may the [wives of Mati'el] be taken”- Context of Scripture, 2.82

The curses there go on and on. (In the vassal treaty of Esarhaddon, the blessings are short, but the cursings go for 400 lines, as I recall.)

I make two points with this.

First, as I hope I’ve shown, craziness is somewhat relative, and you can make just about anything look crazy in how you frame it. Richard Bushman makes this point responding a recent CNN blogpost by an ex-Mormon of the Godmakers/Ed Decker vein, after the author describes the LDS temple as “completely violent, mind controlling and alarming.”

Erickson does a good job of making Mormon temple rituals seem ominous and irrational. The secrecy surrounding the temple inevitably arouses suspicion, but in my opinion secrecy is important. I see Mormon temples as an effort to create a sacred space in a secular world, a quest followed by numerous religious peoples throughout history. They are a spatial equivalent of the Christian and Jewish Sabbath where a sacred time is demarked from the rest of the week.

One way to set temples apart as a sacred space is to make them secret. They are not, of course, actually secret, Erickson and Dekker [sic] quote passages from the ceremony and the whole script can be found online. But Mormons treat them as secret by not even discussing the ceremonies among themselves outside the temple walls. The various measures taken to protect these spaces means Mormons find they can draw closer to God when they enter the temples.

To my way of thinking the idiosyncrasies of Mormon belief and practice are not the issue; Catholic belief in transubstantiation and Protestant belief in the Resurrection can be made to look silly, too.

Second, some of Mormonism’s more lurid and, shall we say, “creative” critics like Ed Decker have claimed that nothing so (apparently) violent or strange as the LDS temple ever had a place within Christianity or Judaism; it’s not “Biblical”. I think I’ve shown that such a claim represents either ignorance or a double-standard; No one’s ever been splattered with warm animal blood in the temple. My wife quipped in response, “It’s so shocking, you have trouble staying awake.”

[Note: the topic here is not sacred vs. secret nor the temple per se, but how one frames such issues, and double-standards. Limit your comments to that. And, as usual, cranked out rather quickly.]

11 Responses to Definitely a cult. Maybe.

  1. Eric Nielson on October 18, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Interesting stuff Ben.

  2. Ben on October 18, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    BTW, the picture is of Samaritans. They still follow their own version of animal sacrifice at Mt. Gerizim. The linked pic under “splashing cow blood” is to a Hindu festival I’d never heard of.

  3. Kent Larsen on October 18, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Our ignorance of the past makes it easy to judge everything by our own narrow ideas.

  4. Erin on October 18, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    *nodding head in agreement with Ben*

  5. mmiles on October 18, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    “(slightly conflated with some Deuteronomy and rearranged for polemic effect)”

    FTW.

  6. Steven B on October 18, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Several passages in the Book of Mormon incorporate rituals symbolic of violence as part of covenant ritual. In Alma 46:20-22, for example, all the people rend their garments indicating that if should they forsake the Lord their God, he should rend them even as they rent their garments.

    But even more shocking are the grizzly covenant renewal “feasts” which take place in Mormon cultic centers every week, where the blood thirsty adherents enact cannibal-like mock ingestion of their own deity and pretend to drink its blood.

  7. michelle on October 18, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Great post.

  8. Ben S on October 19, 2011 at 5:44 am

    On the Book of Mormon, see http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=2&num=1&id=23

    One of the better ones is with Moroni and the Title of Liberty- Alma 46:21-22 “And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.
    22 Now this was the covenant which they made, and they cast their garments at the feet of Moroni, saying: We covenant with our God, that we shall be destroyed, even as our brethren in the land northward, if we shall fall into transgression; yea, he may cast us at the feet of our enemies, even as we have cast our garments at thy feet to be trodden under foot, if we shall fall into transgression.”

  9. Mark B. on October 19, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Jon Stewart did the same thing the other night, not in such detail, but funnier.

  10. psychochemiker on October 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Do you have a link Mark?
    Steven Colbert’s was pretty funny too.

  11. david packard on October 23, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Weirdness (by definition) is relative. 100%. So there’s an art in preparing your audience and framing the issue appropriately in order to maximize the weirdness effect. (Music always helps.)

    Still, whether the title of cult should be assigned to a group also has to do with all of that chanting, blood spilling, following charismatic leaders who claim divine status, etc. With a little creativity, it’s not hard to frame the issues to make organizations seem to fit within this definition.

    Mormonism on the weirdness continuum has been slipping away into becoming normal. On the chanting rituals, etc., we certainly have vestiges all around us, some of them from Christianity and some from the Nauvoo era, but it just doesn’t seem to me to be remarkably different from other stuff going on. This point is much easier to sell to liberals.

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