Orson F. Whitney, in September of 1889 wrote the following in his Collected Discourses.
“It has been taught that it was the object of the people who built the Tower of Babel to reach heaven, to attain to one of the starry planets, one of the heavenly bodies. This sounds, indeed, like a fairy tale; and for one I cannot conceive now — although I once believed it — how a race of people, out of whose midst a Zion had arisen, a generation so intelligent as to have produced such a city, intelligent enough to build a great tower of which the world has not since seen the counterpart, that we are aware of, could cherish the idea that they could actually reach the sun, moon, or one of the stars simply by piling brick upon brick and stone upon stone. But the Prophet Joseph Smith, whose job it was to shed light upon the darkness of this generation, is said to have declared that it was not their intention to reach heaven, but to reach Zion, which was then suspended in mid-air, between heaven and earth, or at such a height as to render the project feasible. This certainly is more reasonable.” (emphasis mine)
That’s right. According to Bro. Whitney, its “more reasonable” to think, as he claimed Joseph said, that a planet once stood above the Earth, close enough that humans thought a tall, sturdy tower might enable them to reach it.
Where do you suppose a prophet of God and an Apostle came up with such a heretical concept? In all that has been written and said of the Babel story since Gutenberg first published the Bible in 1457, no one else has ever suggested such a thing. This is truly a novel concept — one not easily accepted by the rational, scientific mind or seemingly even provable.
Yet, Bro. Whitney not only wrote this once, he wrote it twice. Earlier, in 1885, in a book entitled Elias, he broached the subject. “According to the Bible, the people who built the Tower of Babel did so that its top might ‘reach unto heaven.’ (Gen. 11:14.) Joseph Smith is said to have declared that the ‘heaven’ they had in view was the city of Enoch, then suspended within the sight of the earth.”
There’s that word “suspended” again. What does all this mean? How are we to consider such a radical notion?
Well, in order to make sense of such an idea, the concept requires further commentary.
This “starry” planet didn’t rise and set as the sun and the moon appear to do. Whitney’s use of the word “suspended” is specific and emphatic. In order for the Babylonians to conceive of connecting to a planet, it must have hung motionless in the sky — suspended. They would have correctly deemed that reaching a moving body that drifted across the sky daily, however slowly it might travel, would prove problematical. But, a body that seemingly sat fixed in one place, appearing close enough to almost touch might just make the Herculean construction project practicable.
Oh … and just in case you might think that Bro. Whitney, one of the Twelve, was alone in his attribution of this notion to the Prophet, think again. Orson Pratt, also an Apostle, said the same thing in an 1873 discourse. “About the time of Abraham, the Tower of Babel was built. The people being of one language, gathered together to build a tower to reach, as they supposed, the crystallized heavens. [The “crystallized heavens” is an ancient notion that all the heavenly bodies — the sun, moon, planets and stars — were imbedded in a series of nested, transparent spheres that encircled the earth.] They thought that the City of Enoch was caught up a little ways from the earth, and that the city was within the first sphere above the earth; and that if they could get a tower high enough, they might get to heaven, where the City of Enoch and the inhabitants thereof were located.”
Clearly, Joseph taught of a condition in Earth’s ancient heavens of which our science and our tradition knows nothing.
More amazing still is the fact that when we turn to the mythology and religious beliefs of ancient cultures, we find virtually the same thing, except in that case they were speaking of their pagan gods. For example, in a hymn to their god, Ra, the Egyptians say, “O thou firstborn, who dost lie without movement,” who “rests on his high place.” Atum, another personification of Ra, was called “the Firm Heart of the Sky.” The Coffin Texts say: “The Great God lives fixed in the middle of the sky.” In the Papyrus of Ani, the honored decedent is compared to the god of resurrection or rebith, Osiris: “O thou who art without motion like unto Osiris.”
That all these ‘gods’ had a planetary aspect almost goes without saying. I will not herein cite the voluminous evidence for my claim that these gods were planets, but you may read all I and many others have written on the subject for more background.
Suffice it to say, that the gods of the ancients were originally planets, hovering near the Earth, producing prodigious celestial displays that made an indelible impression on our ancestors. That is the only reasonable interpretation of both the above citations from ancient Egyptian texts and the beliefs attributed, anecdotally, to Joseph Smith. Thus, when the Mesopotamians wrote of this bright planet, “Like the midst of heaven may he shine! O Shamash … suspended from the midst of heaven,” they were talking about a god who was a planet. (More about Shamash later.)
When you think about it, there is only one place in Earth’s skies where a planet, moon or star could reside without moving. It’s that place in the northern skies where the star Polaris or pole star sets today. And in fact, that’s what all the ancient traditions say about the gods that once dominated the heavens. They were all said to inhabit the polar sky. Hence, they were called “the immovable ones.”
In India, it is Vishnu “who takes a firm stand in that resting place in the sky.” It is the celestial pole, “the exalted seat of Vishu, round which the starry spheres forever wander.” A Vedic text says of Vishnu, “fiery indeed is the name of the steadfast god.”
Read again the Egyptian’s descriptions of their god cited above. In the context of a polar god, they become still more meaningful.
Clearly, Joseph, teaching of the Babel story, referred to the same reality as these ancient traditions. Both speak of a star, planet, orb or city ‘hovering’ in a fixed position in Earth’s northern skies.
The payoff and clincher for this idea among Mormons is the stunning illustration produced by Philo Dibble, a faithful Saint, close confident and bodyguard of the prophet. Dibble claimed that in 1842, Joseph drew this picture of the Earth and gave it to him.
There is much to be gained from a careful examination of this drawing. But for now, we will restrict our observations to the simple and prominent fact that the Prophet’s conception of Earth’s ancient condition involved other planets or orbs in close proximity, locked into position along a shared polar axis that would have made any orb above the Earth seem to hover, “suspended” in the heavens.
There is much, much more evidence for these things than I can cover in this venue.
Next, we will see how this unique planetary positioning plays into the creation story.
© Anthony E. Larson, 2008