In God’s Image and Likeness is an incredibly ambitious undertaking, containing literally volumes within volumes—a cosmic scope that befits its Book of Moses and “JST Genesis” subject matter. Volume 1 covers the visions of Moses, the Creation, the Fall, and Adam the patriarch, as well as an extensive section of excursus that covers nearly everything imaginable related to these topics. Volume 2 covers Enoch, the city of Enoch, Noah and the Flood, and the tower of Babel, along with a likewise varied excursus. Volume 2 is nicely hardbound in a single book; volume 1 first appeared as a single volume but recently has been published in two separate tomes. The authors anticipate the volumes will appear in other formats as well.
Such bookly abundance testifies to the authors’ accomplishment and their publisher’s generosity. But the project may have been more digestible and accessible trimmed to a manageable size and published as one volume. The advantage of a press like Eborn is that it accommodates authors in pursuing such excesses, unchecked by editorial or peer-review-imposed restraint. The advantage of taking scholarly projects to a university press is that it rarely accommodates authors in pursuing such excesses, unchecked by editorial or peer-imposed restraint.
I hope the complexity of its presentation does not put off readers, because great treasures are to be found within. The authors seem intent on, if not saying everything there is to say about the Book of Moses, then saying something about everything about which there is something to say in the Book of Moses. They also seem intent on reproducing almost everything that anyone else has said about the Book of Moses. Much of the work consists of collections of paragraph-length (or longer) quotations of other commentators, such as General Authorities and LDS and other Bible scholars.
I say “Book of Moses” as do many Mormons when referring to all of the pre-Abrahamic sections of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. Of course, the expanded account of Enoch’s city that informs so much of the Doctrine and Covenants had appeared already in Ether 13 in the Book of Mormon. This archetypal account of the heavenly city, which serves as a model for Latter-day Saint imaginings of the perfect society, gives insight that is not found in the Book of Moses. For this reason, and drawing from the precedent established by JST Matthew, I like the term “JST Genesis” to give a more inclusive and accurate name to a concept Latter-day Saints often implicitly use when they refer to Enoch as their favorite part of the Book of Moses. Our imprecise terminology likely reflects the seamless weaving Joseph Smith made of “the Visions of Moses” into the beginning of the Bible where most of his longest JST additions, such as the restored “Book of Enoch,” can be found. The revealed and the established, the new and the ancient are fused together as one.
The authors look to place JST Genesis into the larger Judeo-Christian tradition where ancient but uncanonized legend cycles abound about Adam, Noah, and Enoch. The last of these has his own book in the canon of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities on earth, neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox in faith and practice but Oriental Orthodox instead, tracing its roots to the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptizes in Acts 8.
In the large net this project casts, it turns not only to ancient sources but to contemporary popular culture as well. Here the tone of the work is not as reverential as it is elsewhere. The authors see Donald Duck’s turn as Noah in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 as beneath the dignity of the ancient source material, which “deserve[s] better treatment.” And they preface their discussion of Darren Aronofsky’s yet-to-be-released (as of the book’s printing) big-budget Noah movie with a swipe at Hollywood, “sensing that there is money to be made in Noah’s story.” They sarcastically compliment the accuracy of the giant six-armed Nephilim depictions in the movie’s associated graphic novel (2:7).
Such criticisms are tone deaf or at least indifferent to the possibilities and creative conventions in film and graphic novels, and are a little like crying “Jesus was not a Cuban fisherman!” as a basis for objecting to the crucifixion imagery in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Furthermore, six-armed giants hardly qualify as especially fanciful angelic imaginings when compared to the striking mishmash of animal and human faces in Ezekiel’s cherubim (1:10; 10:14) and the six-wingedness of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:1–7. Rather than taking such swipes, one could also see these graphic novels and films as evidence of Genesis’s timelessness and continuing resonance, even in a modern and postmodern world.
The authors do better in making sense of the modern in the strong case they make that contemporary Mormon literalism is not the same as modernism’s meaning-free descriptive precision or fundamentalism’s (really a religious version of modernism and not the ancient continuance it claims to be) linear pedantic historicism. They highlight Mormon literalism’s openness to creation’s compatibility with deep time and science. They rightly see Mormon cosmologies as at odds with Evangelical Protestant creationism “in both its ‘young earth’ and intelligent design forms” (2:8–13).
Many of the volumes’ gems can be found in the excursus at the back that focus in depth on particular topics. As an example of hidden gems, on pages 2:449–57 the authors present and analyze the “Song of Enoch” recorded in a January 3, 1833, entry in the Kirtland Revelation Book. Mormons first learned of this when David Patten sang it in tongues. Sidney Rigdon then translated it into English. Though never canonized, Frederick G. Williams believed it to be a revelation of a song actually sung by Enoch and adapted it into verse for later singing. “Enoch stood upon the mount / he saw heaven, he gazed on eternity / and sang an angelic song,” reads a verse of the poem as it appeared as one of the new “Songs of Zion.” Given by revelation and seen as part of the Restoration’s bounty, this song was distinguished by the early Saints from traditional (and perhaps not revealed) Christian “hymns” that had been long sung elsewhere.
Much of the work in these two (or three) volumes consists of a line-by-line commentary on every verse of the JST Genesis. In the words of the back cover blurb, they seek to engage with “prophetic insights, excerpts from ancient texts, current scientific perspectives, and up-to-date biblical scholarship.”
JST Genesis occupies a liminal space in the Mormon canon. It emerged out of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible as a flood of new material rather than a few amended sentences or added verses here and there like much of the rest of the JST. We don’t even find most of it organized in the JST but in the Pearl of Great Price. Unlike the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, there was no ancient source present such as golden plates or papyri. The Doctrine and Covenants also mostly comes to us without reference to ancient writings (with the possible exception of John the Beloved’s parchment),but it is by, for, and about contemporaneous, not ancient, people. Out of this liminality, and in the hands of Bradshaw and Larsen, the Book of Moses and the rest of “JST Genesis” are shown to be a remarkable doctrinal and inspirational resource for Latter-day Saints.
Eric A. Eliason is Professor of English at Brigham Young University, where he teaches folklore and the Bible as literature. His books include The J. Golden Kimball Stories (University of Illinois Press, 2007) and Latter-day Lore: Mormon Folklore Studies with Tom Mould (University of Utah Press, 2013). He served as chaplain for the 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces of the Utah Army National Guard in 2002–2008.
1. Doctrine and Covenants section 7; Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002), 17–18.