Book review: “Enoch the Prophet” by Hugh Nibley

When I moved up to Washington to attend graduate school, I left a massive library of books, including a (near) complete set of the works of Hugh Nibley. I haven’t have the chance to read them all the way through as of yet, so I was hoping to find some time between parties and other shenanigans to read one or two volumes. I settled on Enoch the Prophet because it was a slim 300 pages, and I was more likely to get all the way through.

Enoch started my first adolescent obsession with Nibley. Nibley to me was the first name I associated with Mormon scholarship, and embodied a deeper level of faith and study that I yearned to achieve. During my mission, I made the happy discovery that Nibley had published an extensive series on the lost Book of Enoch in the Ensign between 1976 and 1977 titled A Strange Thing in the Land. As these were available online, and were technically appropriate reading material for a missionary, I printed off the whole thing, but wasn’t able to successfully read it in its entirely. A Strange Thing makes up most of the volume Enoch the Prophet.

I have mixed feelings about Nibley now that I have read quite a bit of his writing, as well as much written by other Mormon scholars since. Nibley is an amazing scholar, in the breadth of topics he is able to write about and the number of sources he is able to draw on. But, and perhaps this is my layman perspective, that can also lead to rather drawn-out works that begin to feel repetitive, and quite probably will put you to sleep.

Nibley also is from a different era of Mormon scholarship, one dedicated to a different approach to apologetics that now to me feels forced, at times feeling unimaginative, and at others feeling even a little deceptive. When I learn more about history, I usually feel like I have to do an update, try to regroup what I know because not everything conveniently fits into the Mormon perspective that I grew up with. But for Nibley, it feels like everything he draws upon conveniently fits into Mormonism’s grand narrative. From his arguments, you would be surprised that every scholar of history and religion hasn’t converted to Mormonism by now, because every discovery seems to support Joseph Smith’s revelations!

But Hugh Nibley is definitely a force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by this tribute to him in a publication by an Evangelical seminary I stumbled upon at one point titled Apologetic Scholarship and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?:

The few evangelicals who are aware of Hugh Nibley often dismiss him as a fraud or a pseudo-scholar. Those who would like to quickly dismiss his writings would do well to heed Madsen’s warning: “Ill-wishing critics have suspected over the years that Nibley is wrenching his sources, hiding behind his footnotes, and reading into antique languages what no responsible scholar would ever read out. Unfortunately, few have the tools to do the checking.” The bulk of Nibley’s work has gone unchallenged by evangelicals despite the fact that he has been publishing relevant material since 1946. Nibley’s attitude towards evangelicals: “We need more anti-Mormon books. They keep us on our toes.”

I wanted to address a few central ideas covered in Enoch the Prophet that are simultaneously fascinating, but also don’t sit completely will with me in some of their implications. As usual, I am impressed with Hugh Nibley, because of his stalwart faith in the prophet Joseph, taking everything completely at face value. Hugh Nibley doesn’t need to try to explain away anything at all, or try to frame it in the proper context. He defends it where he sees it. It is a different temperament and a different approach than my own faith, but one that I appreciate nonetheless.

Gnosticism and mysteries

First: gnosticism. If you aren’t familiar with gnosticism, here’s a definition from Wikipedia: a modern name for the variety of ancient religious ideas and systems, originating in the Jewish-Christian milieux in the first and second century AD. These systems believed that the material world is created by an emanation of the highest God, trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by gnosis. Some of the core teachings include the following:

  1. All matter is evil, and the non-material, spirit realm is good.
  2. There is an unknowable God, who gave rise to many lesser spirit beings called Aeons.
  3. The creator of the material universe is not the supreme God, but an inferior spirit.
  4. Gnosticism doesn’t deal with sin, only ignorance.
  5. To achieve salvation, one needs to get in touch with secret knowledge.

While Mormon doctrine doesn’t align completely with these teachings, there are some themes that definitely stick out: the idea of a multitude of gods, and the importance of secret or knowledge only attainable from a correct source (think temple). Nibley finds this idea of secret knowledge one of the key themes of the Enoch literature:

Part of the book’s appeal is its necessary secrecy, “revealed to the Eons in the End-time.” It is a secret, a special writing, only for the initiates. “‘It is given to you to write it down,'” says the Lord to John, “‘and it must be put in a safe place.’ Then he said to me, ‘Cursed shall be whoever gives it away as a gift or in return for food, drink, clothing, or anything of that nature.'” Then he handed the mysterion to John and immediately vanished. Such writings as are made known are carefully rationed: “Some things thou shalt publish, and some thou shalt deliver in secret to the wise”; or, in another Ezra text, “These words shalt thou publish openly, but those thou shalt hide,” twenty-four books being published and sevently withheld.

The tradition of secrecy began with Enoch: When Enoch found the Book of Adam and read it, “he knew that the human race would not be able to receive it. So he hid it again, and it remained hidden until Noah.” But the practice began with Adam, who received a golden book from Michael, and “hid it in the crevice of a rock.”

I shiver a little when anyone implies the need for such secret knowledge, because it seems that there is no check on such a claim. The approach to truth in the university setting is built into the system, what Jonathan Haidt calls institutional disconformation: arguments that can’t hold their weight in the literal battleground of academia are discarded, letting bad ideas fall by the wayside. The ultimate test of truth is that it can stand the test of time on its own without any props. But secret knowledge that can’t be questioned and can only be attained by the few entering certain rituals seems to counter my experience with truth. It reminded me of a retort by Stephen Fry in a debate over The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World. In it, Anne Widdecombe accused Stephen Fry of oversimplifying the doctrine of limbo, the spiritual state where, among other people, unbaptized babies go, unable to reach heaven. Fry snapped back:

I make no apology for apparently not understanding the theology of Thomas Aquinus or Augustan of Hippo or the Council of Trent, and all the others that ruled on limbo. Don’t tell me there’s some magisterial and mystical reason behind limbo that I’m too stupid to understand! That’s not good enough, it really isn’t.

I am going to have to stand by Fry on this one, and not because I want to take a stab at another fellow Christian believer, but because I think we are at times grossly irresponsible with our doctrine, secret or no.

The other curious thing about secret doctrines is the fact that as a Church, Latter-Day Saints seems to be increasingly stepping away from deep and secret doctrines, discussed so in depth in Nibley’s book here. I remember reading this article that is clearly in response to the works of Denver Snuffer at a FAIR Conference:

A spiritual threat is influencing some Church members: the notion that “the Church has lost its way. Church leaders are not inspired or in favor with God, so God has raised up new leaders outside the Church hierarchy whose visions and teachings are important for us to follow…”

They embrace a particular set of assumptions and interpretations that I am going to call, for our purposes today, ‘gnosticism’… the belief that esoteric knowledge– hidden, deep doctrine– is necessary for fulfilling our spiritual potential, and that seeking for it is more spiritually advanced.

Conservative authority in the past

Nibley emphasizes the ancient origin of all truth: Christianity didn’t originate in AD 33, but rather is part of one great whole gospel of Jesus Christ that has been around since the days of Adam. The Book of Enoch is just one part of this great pattern. Enoch follows the pattern of all prophets in the Mormon tradition: burying a record to come forth at some future day. Of course, the greatest example is the Book of Mormon, but Nibley pulls out many other examples of the importance of writing and having correct records, including Adam’s Book of Remembrance, and Christ correcting the Nephite records in the 3 Nephi. It reminded me of Joseph Spencer’s analysis of Isaiah, whom he adds to this tradition:

Isaiah’s task as prophet was (as Isaiah 6 makes clear) to address himself to a people hardened in advance against his message, with the result (as Isaiah 8 makes clear) that he found it necessary to write and then to seal up his prophecies for a later generation that would be prepared to receive them. Because he was called to prophesy, but to a people who couldn’t receive his word, he helped to launch an era during which prophecy was understood to be directed to a later age rather than to the prophet’s own people. And that’s why it was to be written down.

But the interesting thing about this writing tradition is what I see as again the Mormon impulse to merge the priestly with the prophetic. The importance of preserving tradition was a role of the priest, according to Weber, whom Lowell Bennion quotes here:

Weber described prophets as men who spoke “as one having authority” out of their own calling. They broke with the existing order; they were critics of the immoralities and religious formalities of their people, such as I’ve illustrated with Isaiah and Micah. Like Jesus, they were revolutionary in their day: “It is written . . . but I say unto you.” Jesus didn’t reject the old, but he gave a new thrust and a different emphasis to that which had gone before: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23.)

Prophets try to get people to put religion in perspective, to see it in terms of great fundamentals and in terms of ethics as well as theology. Prophets have never been bound by the past. They speak for God afresh in the interest of man, in the light of the great ideals of religion, and in the light of God’s purpose and character. The other type of religious leader, Weber calls a priest. By this he means a man in any faith whose primary concern is to conserve the religion of the founder—of a Moses or Christ, for example. The priest canonizes scripture, refines doctrine, establishes tradition, records history, performs sacred rites and sacraments. In this way he builds and maintains the church, welding the believers into a meaningful fellowship.

The prophets in this tradition are ones who come to tear down incorrect traditions, layers and layers of “good ideas” that have clouded the central aspects of the pure and simple gospel (channeling Uchtdorf here):

But this may present a problem for some because there are so many “shoulds” and “should nots” that merely keeping track of them can be a challenge. Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of “good ideas.”

I think as a tradition that does try to maintain a prophetic aspect is good: but has the prophetic been reduced to merely the priestly?

Good versus evil

The next idea is the clear separation between good people and evil people that Nibley stresses in the book. Nibley explains the two groups that arose shortly after Adam and Even left in the garden: the camp of the Cainites and the righteous posterity of Adam. Similar splits are illustrated in the Book of Mormon (Nephites and Lamanites). It seems like it should always be easy to identify the camp of the righteous and everyone else (the wicked) if you have on the right spiritual glasses. Enoch himself is associated with the city that was taken up into heaven because of their righteousness.

The redeeming aspect of Enoch that is brought to the fore is Enoch’s (and God’s) suffering at the plight of the wicked, hitting on the theme of the God who weeps that Terryl Givens has also masterfully written about:

There is no gloating in heaven over the fate of the wicked world of Noah; it is Enoch who leads in the weeping, but the surprising thing is that God himself weeps! “When God wept over the destruction of the Temple, Metatron fell on his face and said: ‘I will weep, but weep not thou!’ God answered and said: ‘If thou wilt not suffer me to weep, I will go wither thou canst not come and there will I lament.'”…

God does not say to the holy man who is afflicted by the fate of the wicked, “Who are you to question what I do?” He does not blast Enoch or Abraham or Baruch or Ezra or the Brother of Jared or Job on the spot for daring to question his mercy, but on the contrary commends each for his concern for his fellowman and he explains in effect, “I known just how you feel; what you fail to understand is not that I had good reason for doing what had to be done, but that I feel much worse about it that you ever could!”

While I am grateful for this context, it still doesn’t feel complete. But wrestling with the existence of evil and suffering in the world isn’t an easy not to untie, and it is one that I suppose will always be wrestled with. I wanted to add my appreciation for some insights from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who actually finds Noah wanting in his response to evil in the world:

Noah’s gift was that, living through a time of widespread evil, he was not affected by it. He was unmoved. But he was also unable to grow. The Jewish sages heard in the phrase ‘righteous in his generations’ a sublte criticism. Relative to his generation, he was righteous but in absolute terms he was not.

What was Noah’s failure, according to the classic commentators? Told that there would be a flood and that he should build an ark, he busied himself in the labour. The text goes out of the way to emphasize his obedience, stating no less than three times that Noah did ‘exactly as God had commanded him.’ Throughout the whole of the narrative– the warning of the deluge, the building of the ark, the gathering of the animals, the beginning of the rain- Noah says nothing. The silence, in contrast, with the dialogues of Adam and Cain have with God, is unmistakable.

Noah’s failure is that, righteous in himself, he had no impact on his contemporaries. He does not engage with them, rebuke them or urge them to mend their ways. Nor does he pray for them questioning the justice of the Flood, as Abraham was later to do for the people of the cities of the plain.

This paints a different view of righteousness that doesn’t quite come through in Nibley’s writing, and is a model of righteousness perhaps not emphasized in Mormonism in general. We do tend to isolate. We take the model of Zion, of the righteous remnant, standing in holy places, apart of the world, as our model. And this is Nibley’s interpretation of Enoch as well.

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