One of the most oft-criticized doctrines of Mormonism is the belief that God is a glorified celestial person; a fully material and anthropomorphic (human-like) being who occupies a specific physical location and experiences in some manner a passage of time. Mormons claim that this doctrine is in full agreement with Biblical belief and evidence continues to mount that supports this position.
One of the more obscure evidences establishing this belief is the Hebrew word kabod, a noun translated as “glory” in the Old Testament. The kabod is an ancient belief, which stresses that God’s physical form is surrounded by a brilliant robe of light and (at sundry times) a veil of cloud or smoke, and is thought to be a “visible manifestation” of the physical presence of God.1
Early Hebrews and Christians believed that before one can see God they must penetrate the dense veil of smoke and light that surrounds him. The kabod is most often associated with God, but is also identified with the appearance of Christ and the angels (cf., Exodus 24:19, Luke 2:9, Acts 22:6-8, Revelation 10:1). Psalms 18 describes how in the heavenly temple God masks himself in smoke and fire before descending to the earth to aid David. The poetical language states that there went a “smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth” (18:6-16).2
Psalms 97:1-4 speaks of how God is surrounded by cloud and mist, and fire proceeds before him. Psalms 104:1-4 also speaks of God covering himself “with light as with a garment,” riding on cloud, and using flames of fire as his servant.
The Old and New Testaments state that when God appears to men the phenomena of the kabod accompany him. For example, when Israel gathers to worship at Mt. Sinai fire and smoke cover the sacred mountain as God “descends” from heaven (Ex 19:18). Immediately following the dedication of the temple of Solomon a “cloud filled the house of the LORD,” so that the priests found that they could no longer minister in the temple, due to “the glory of the LORD” that had filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10-11).3
Exodus records that when Moses went into the tabernacle to speak with God that a “cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door, and the LORD talked with Moses” (33:9).4
The prophet Ezekiel describes a cloud in the distance filled with fire that speeds toward and descends upon him. In the cloud God is seen seated on his throne (reminiscent of a chariot with wheels in motion), surrounded by an encircling radiance compared to a rainbow in the clouds, and called “the glory of the LORD” (Ezekiel 1:4-28).5
In like manner John describes both billowing smoke and a brilliant light like a “rainbow” encircling God as he sits upon his throne in the heavenly temple (Revelation 15:8, 4:3). One cannot help but compare Paul’s vision of the glorified Christ, when a light from heaven shone down on him (Acts 22:6); or the “pillar of light” seen just before Joseph Smith’s encounter with the Father and the Son. It is interesting that Joseph was not able to see God and Christ until he was fully enveloped by the descending kabod of God (Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17).
God is considered to be physically present when the kabod appears.6
When traveling through the wilderness Israel was led by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire at night (Ex 13:21-22). These pillars are the kabod of God, and a close reading of the passage indicates that they contain God’s physical person.7
Moses tells Israel that God is “among this people,” even appearing “face to face,” and goes before them in the pillar as they journey to Canaan (Numbers 14:14). It is also clear from Exodus 14:24 that God views the camp of the Egyptian army while physically within the pillar of fire.8
God also announces that He will deliver the ten commandments to Moses and the people of Israel from the cloud on Mount Sinai, and Moses is said to approach the dark cloud “where God was” (Exodus 19:9, 20:21).
At the Mount of Transfiguration Christ shines with his own kabod as a “bright” cloud overshadows the disciples (Matthew 17:1-8).
An understanding of the kabod can explain why it is said that no one can see or come into the presence of God. John declares “no man has seen God at any time” (John 1:18); but he also writes: “he which is of God, he hath seen the Father” (John 6:46). Paul, in like manner, describes God and Christ as “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Paul and John make it understood that normally no mortal man can see God, as He resides invisibly within the brilliant kabod. God chooses a select few to have the privilege of penetrating the kabod and seeing Him face to face.
Paul also declares that no man can approach the kabod of God. It seems that men who are unprepared to see God will face danger or death if they stand in His presence. Such are the warnings given to Moses before Israel is presented to Him at Mount Sinai. God instructs that the people be warned not to rush forward into the cloud to gaze upon His majesty or they will perish (Exodus 19:21).
At an authorized time, and after intense preparation, Moses and seventy of the elders of Israel are allowed within the kabod and see God without perishing (Exodus 24:9-11). One may not simply request to be allowed to see within the kabod,but must merit the privilege. In Exodus 33 Moses is allowed to see God face to face, but Moses’s request to see God’s glory is later denied, with God only allowing Moses to see His back, but not His face (Exodus 33:11, 18-23).
A notable exception is the experience of the Brother of Jared. Christ, masked by a cloud, appeared to the Brother of Jared on several occasions (Ether 2:4, 14). When the brother of Jared asked the Lord to illuminate sixteen stones for his people, his faith caused the kabod to partially part, so that “the veil was taken off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord.” The kabod was then completely taken away, revealing the Lord as the pre-mortal Christ (Ether 3:1-17).
Passages from the Old and New Testament make it clear that God’s physical body is surrounded by a glorious kabod, and that no ordinary mortal man may approach nor see him because of the kabod’s intense nature. This is not, however, a complete prohibition against seeing the form of God or Christ for those who are chosen and prepared. Thus, the Mormon doctrine of an anthropomorphic God is again vindicated.
1R. Laird Harris, Gleason J. Archer, Jr., Bruce Kaltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, 2 Vols.) Vol. 1, “kabod II, Glory,” 943e, 427. See also Gerhard Kittel and Gerhand Friedrich, eds.,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 178-181, for more meanings of “kabod” and its greek equivalent “doxa.”
2Clyde A. Holbrook, The Iconoclastic Deity (London and Toronto, Associated University Presses, 1984), 113.
3Diana Vihander Edelman, ed., The Triumph of Elohim, From Yahwisms to Judaisms (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1996), Brian B. Schmidt, The Aniconic Tradiition: On Reading Images and Viewing Texts, p 91; Thomas S. Mann, Divine Presence and Guidance in Israelite Traditions: The Typology of Exaltation (John Hopkins, Baltimore, 1977) 217-218.
4Schmidt, 91; Mann, 144-145; E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., “The Assembly of the Gods; The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature,” Harvard Semitic Monographs 24 (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1980), 171; Holbrook, 113-114.
5Luis Stadelmann, The Hebrew Conception of the World (Rome, 1970), 109.
6Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Ancient Deities in Ancient Israel (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), 100.
8Cross explains that both are manifestations of the kabod of God, and that the angel of God’s presence is also at times present in the pillar; Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973), 30, 164.