The Sacrifice of Sarah

The history of Palestine has been to a remarkable degree a story of “boom and bust,” from prehistoric times down to the present; and that happy and unhappy land has never had a greater boom or a more spectacular bust than occurred in the days of Abraham. Hebron was a brand new city, bustling with activity, when Abraham and his family settled there.1 Just to the east were the even more thriving cities of the valley, to which Lot migrated to improve his fortune. Preliminary rumblings and prophetic warnings of things to come went unheeded by a populace enjoying unprecedented prosperity (today this is called “nuclear incredulity”), but nonetheless, the area was hit hard by a famine that forced Abraham to move out of Hebron after he had lived there only two years. Everybody was moving to Egypt and settling in the area nearest to Canaan and most closely resembling the geography and economy of the Jordan depression, namely, “the land of Egypt, as thou comest to Zoan,” in the eastern Delta, where there had always been camps and villages of Canaanites sojourning in the land. Abraham settled in Zoan, the local capital, a city of Asiatic immigrants that was even newer, by seven years, than Hebron—practically a tent city. There the family lived for five years before they attracted the dangerous interest of Pharaoh.2

The story of how Sarah ended up in the royal palace is now available in the recently discovered Genesis Apocryphon, and the account is a thoroughly plausible one. Pharaoh’s regular title in this document, “Pharaoh Zoan, King of Egypt,” shows him to be one of those many Asiatics who ruled in the Delta from time to time while claiming, and sometimes holding, the legitimate crown of all Egypt. The short journey from Canaan into his Egyptian domain is described in significant terms: “now we crossed (the border of) our land and entered the land of the sons of Ham, the land of Egypt,” as if the family was definitely moving from one spiritual and cultural domain to another.3 This is interesting because the Book of Abraham lays peculiar emphasis on the Hamitic blood of this particular pharaoh as well as his anxious concern to establish his authority—always a touchy point with the Delta pharaohs, whose right to rule was often challenged by the priests and the people of Upper Egypt. In his new home, Abraham, an international figure in the caravan business, entertained local officials both as a matter of policy and from his own celebrated love of hospitality and of people.

One day he was entertaining three men, courtiers of Pharaoh Zoan, at dinner.4 Abraham would host such special delegations again, in Canaan: there would be the three heavenly visitors whom he would feast “in the plains of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1—8), and the “three Amorite brothers” whom he would have as guests.5 The names of these last three were Mamre, Armen, and Eshkol. Mamre and Eshkol are well-known place names, and if we look for Armen,  it is a place name, too, for in the Ugaritic ritual-epic tale of Aqhat, it is the “man of Hrnmy” who hosts “the Lords of Hkpt [Ht-ka-ptah = Egypt, i.e., Memphis]” who come from afar.6 If this seems to put Abraham’s party in a ritual setting, its historicity is vindicated by the name of the leader of the palace delegation, who is called ḤRQNWŠ. B. Z. Wacholder explains this as “an early transliteration of archōnēs,” designating its bearer as “the archon, the head of the household,” and obviously indicating Hellenistic influence.7 But archōnēs is neither a name nor a title, and the “early transliteration” leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, we find in Pharaonic times, in the employ of Sshmt.t, the divine lady of the eastern Delta, the very district where our little drama is taking place, a busy official and agent bearing the title of Hr-hknw, “the Lord of Protection,” whose business was to police the area and keep an eye on foreigners, with whom he was Pharaoh’s contact man; he is, in fact, according to Hermann Kees, none other than our old friend Nefertem,8 the immemorial frontier guard of the northeastern boundary, the official host, border inspector, and watchdog (or rather watch lion) of the foreigners coming to Egypt—especially from Canaan. Nothing could be more natural than to have this conscientious border official checking up on Abraham from time to time and enjoying his hospitality. And since it was his duty to report to Pharaoh whatever he considered of interest or significance on his beat, it is not surprising that a report of ḤRQNWŠ and his aides to the king contained a glowing account of Abraham’s dazzling wife. Her beauty had already caused a sensation at the custom house, according to a famous legend.9 If nothing else, her blondness would have attracted attention among the dark Egyptians: the Midrash reports, in fact, that Abraham had warned her against this very thing: “We are now about to enter a country whose inhabitants are dark-complexioned—say that you are my sister wherever we go!”10 This admonition was given as the family passed from Abraham’s homeland in northern Mesopotamia (Aram Naharaim and Aram Nahor) into Canaan—clearly indicating that the people of Abraham’s own country were light-complexioned.11

In reporting to Pharaoh, his three agents, while singing the praises of Sarah’s beauty in the set terms of the most sensuous Oriental love poetry,12 make a special point of mentioning that “with all her beauty there is much wisdom in her,”13 lauding her “kindness, wisdom, and truth” even above her other qualities.14 They went all out in their description not only because the subject was worthy of their best efforts, but because they hoped to put themselves in good stead with the king by both whetting and satisfying his desire.15 The royal reaction was immediate. Asiatic pharaohs were polygamous and aggressive: “Sarah was taken from me by force”;16 without further ado the king “took her to him to wife and sought to slay me.”17 Josephus says that this pharaoh deserved the punishment he got because of his high-handed manner towards the wife of a stranger.18 But as we all know, Abraham was saved when Pharaoh was assured by Sarah herself that he was her brother and would thus not stand in the way of their marriage; instead of being liquidated, he was, therefore, as the brother of the favorite wife, “entreated . . . well for her sake” (Genesis 12:16).

Sarah on the Lion Couch

Abraham was saved and Pharaoh was pleased and everything was all right except for poor Sarah. It was now her turn to face the test of the lion couch! As we have seen, not only the royal altar but also the royal bed was a lion couch. And this was to be more than a test of Sarah’s virtue, for should she refuse, the king would be mortally offended—with predictable results for the lady. His unhesitating move to put Abraham out of the way had made it clear enough that His Majesty was playing for keeps. After all, three princesses of the royal line had already been put to death on the lion altar for refusing to compromise their virtue (Abraham 1:11), and there was no indication that Sarah would be an exception.

The story of Sarah’s delivery from her plight follows the same order as the stories of Abraham and Isaac. First of all, being brought to the royal bed “by force,” she weeps and calls upon the Lord to save her, at which time Abraham also “prayed and entreated and begged . . . as my tears fell.”19 As he had prayed for himself, so the patriarch “prayed the Lord to save her from the hands of Pharaoh.”20

And though experience may have rendered him perfectly confident in the results, it was the less-experienced Sarah who was being tested. The prayer for deliverance closely matches that on the first lion couch: “Blessed art thou, Most High God, Lord of all the worlds, because Thou art Lord and master of all and ruler of all the kings of the earth, and of whom thou judgest. Behold now I cry before Thee, my Lord, against Pharaoh Zoan, king of Egypt, because my wife has been taken from me by force. Judge him for me and let me behold Thy mighty hand descend upon him.”21 Even so Abraham had prayed for deliverance from the altar of “Nimrod”: “O God, Thou seest what this wicked man is doing to me,” with the whole emphasis on the king’s blasphemous claims to possess the ultimate power in the world: in both cases Abraham is helpless against the authority and might of Pharaoh, but still he will recognize only one king, and he calls for a showdown: “that night I prayed and begged and said in sorrow . . . let thy mighty hand descend upon him . . . and men shall know, my Lord, that Thou art the Lord of all the kings of the earth!”22 This is exactly the point of Abraham’s prayer in the Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu23 and Abraham 1:17, where God says, “I have come down . . . to destroy him who hath lifted up his hand against thee, Abraham, my son.”

So while all “that night Sarah lay upon her face,” calling upon God, Abraham “without the prison” also prayed24 “that he may not this night defile my wife.”25 It was, as one might by now expect, just at the moment that Pharaoh assayed to seize Sarah that an angel came to the rescue, whip in hand: “As Pharaoh was about to possess Sarah, she turned to the angel who stood at her side (visible only to her) and immediately Pharaoh fell to the ground; all his house was then smitten with plague, with leprosy on the walls, the pillars, and furniture.”26 Whenever Pharaoh would make a move toward Sarah, the invisible angel would strike him down.27 To justify such rough treatment of the poor unsuspecting Pharaoh, the Midrash explains that he was not unsuspecting at all: “an angel stood with a whip” to defend her, because she told Pharaoh that she was a married woman, and he still would not leave her alone.28 According to all other accounts, however, that is exactly what she did not tell him, having her husband’s safety in mind. The almost comical humiliation of the mighty king in the very moment of his triumph is an exact counterpart of the crushing overthrow of “Nimrod” at the instant of his supreme triumph over Abraham. “His illicit lust was checked,” says Josephus, “by disease and stasis—revolution,”29 suggesting that his kingly authority was overthrown along with his royal dignity and prowess.

What saved Sarah, according to the Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon,30 was the sending by El Elyon, the Most High God, of a rwḥ mkdš or rwḥ bʾyšʾ, which Avigad and Yadin render “a pestilential wind” and “a wind that was evil,” respectively. Other scholars however, prefer “spirit” (of plague) to “wind,”31 and while mkdš is not found in the dictionary, miqdāsh, which sounds exactly the same, is a very common word indicating the dwelling place of God, so that rwḥ mkdš suggests to the ear “the angel of the presence,” such as came to rescue both Abraham and Isaac on the altar. Rwḥ bʾyšʾ in turn suggests to the ear “the spirit of fire,” reminding us of a number of accounts of a mysterious being who stood with Abraham in the flames when he rescued him from the altar. The confusion of the rescuing angel with the wind is readily explained if our Aramaic text was written from dictation, as many ancient documents were.

The smiting of all of Pharaoh’s house simultaneously with his own affliction is insisted on by all sources and recalls the “great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh” in Abraham 1:20. And just as the king in the Abraham story, when he is faced with the undeniable evidence of a power greater than his own, admits the superiority of Abraham’s God and even offers to worship him, so he tells the woman Hagar when Sarah is saved, “It is better to be a maid in Sarah’s house than to be Queen in my house!”32 The showdown between the two religions is staged in both stories by the king himself when he pits his own priests and diviners against the wisdom of the stranger and his God, the test being which of the two is able to cure him and his house. An early writer quoted by Eusebius says, “Abraham went to Egypt with all his household and lived there, his wife being married to the king of Egypt who, however, could not approach her. . . . And when it came about that his people and his house were being destroyed he called for the diviners (Greek manteis), who told him that Sarah was not a widow, and so he knew that she was Abraham’s wife and gave her back to him.”33 The first part of the statement is supported by the Genesis Apocryphon, which says that Sarah lived two years in Pharaoh’s house, during which time he was unable to approach her. During that time she was in no danger of his wrath, however, since as far as Pharaoh was concerned it was not her reluctance but only his illness that kept them apart.34

Though Pharaoh’s doctors and soothsayers gave him useful advice, as they do “Nimrod” in his dealings with Abraham, it is the healing that is the real test: “And he sent and called of all the wise men of Egypt and all the wizards and all the physicians of Egypt, if perchance they might heal him from that pestilence, him and his house. And all the physicians and wizards and wise men could not heal him, for the wind [spirit, angel] smote them all and they fled”35—just as the host of wise men summoned by Nimrod to advise him on how to get rid of Abraham were forced to flee ignominiously in all directions by the miraculous fire which left Abraham unscathed. All the wisdom and divinity of Egypt having failed, Pharaoh’s agent ḤRQNWŠ went straight to Abraham “and besought [him] to come and to pray for the king and to lay [his] hands upon him that he might live.”36 To this request Abraham magnanimously complied after Sarah was returned to him: “I laid my hand upon his head and the plague departed from him and the evil [wind spirit] was gone and he was cured [lived].”37 When the healing power of Abraham’s God, in contrast to the weakness of his own, became apparent, Pharaoh forthwith recognized Abraham by the bestowal of royal honors—even as “Nimrod” had done when Abraham stepped before him unscathed.38

That these stories are more than belated inventions of the rabbinic imagination is apparent from the significant parallels with which Egyptian literature fairly swarms. A veritable library of familiar motifs is contained in the late Ptolemaic Tales of Khamuas. They begin with “Ahure’s Story,” telling how an aging pharaoh, in order to assure the royal succession, wanted to force the princess Ahure to renounce marriage with her beloved brother Neneferkaptah and wed the son of a general, contrary to “the law of Egypt” but consistent with the practice of the Asiatic pharaohs.39 The damsel goes weeping to her wedding,40 but at the last moment the old king changes his mind, the princess marries her true love, and the couple is showered with royal gifts and honors.41 They have a child, but Neneferkaptah in his zeal for knowledge steals a heavenly book from Thoth and, as a result, first the child, then the mother, and finally the father pay for the guilt of Neneferkaptah by falling into the Nile, all duly ending up “in the necropolis-hill of Coptos.”42

In these episodes one can hardly fail to recognize the legends of Abraham in Egypt: the true lovers separated by Pharaoh only to be reunited; father, mother, and son as sacrificial victims; the king paying for the blight on the land until a foreign substitute can be found; the humiliation of Pharaoh, etc. Most significant, perhaps, is that these are consciously recurring motifs, with the same characters turning up in a succession of episodes centuries apart. And the fictitious situations are not without historical parallels. Here we have a well-attested historical account of a pharaoh who married a fabulously beautiful princess from the north who thought of herself as a missionary, and to whose religion the king was converted by a miraculous healing, showing us at the very least the sort of thing that could have happened in Sarah’s time. The healing of Pharaoh by the laying on of hands described in the Genesis Apocryphon is a thing which appears absolutely nowhere else in any of the known records dealing with Abraham and should be studied with great care. Without the evidence of the New Testament, we should never suspect that there was any ancient and established tradition behind it: “The healing of the sick by expelling, with the laying on of hands, the evil spirits,” writes Vermes, “is unknown in the Old Testament but a familiar rite in the Gospels. . . . The nearest Old Testament parallel is 2 Kings, V. 11.”43

That we are dealing here with ritually conditioned events rather than unique historical occurrences is apparent from the complete repetition of Sarah’s Egyptian experience with another king many years later. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, a small state lying between Canaan and Egypt, also took Sarah to wife and would have put Abraham to death had she not again announced that he was her brother.44 Again Sarah prayed and again an angel appeared, this time with a sword, to save her.45 At the same time, according to one tradition, “the voice of a great crying was heard in the whole land of the Philistines, for they saw the figure of a man walking about, with a sword in his hand, slaying all that came in his way.”46 This was “on the fatal night of the Paschal feast,” i.e., at the time of the drama of the Suffering Servant, and the king became so ill that the doctors despaired of his life.47 Just as Pharaoh had done, the king summoned all his wise counselors and again they were helpless and abashed (Genesis 20:8); again Abraham’s wife was restored to him (Genesis 20:14), and again “Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech” (Genesis 20:17).

What is behind all this is indicated in the nature of the illness that afflicted the houses of both Abimelech and Pharaoh. As to the first, “the Lord had fast closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech, because of Sarah Abraham’s wife” (Genesis 20:18). The legends elaborate on this: “in men and beast alike all the apertures of the body closed up, and the land was seized with indescribable excitement.”48 In short, every creature was rendered sterile until Abraham administered to Abimelech, whereupon “all his house were healed, and the women could bear children with no pain, and they could have male children”; at the same moment, Sarah, barren until then, became fruitful, “the blind, deaf, lame, etc., were healed, and the sun shone out 48 times brighter than usual, even as on the first day of creation.”49 To celebrate the birth of Isaac, all the kings of the earth were invited to Abraham’s house, and during the festivities Sarah gave milk to all the gentile babies whose mothers had none, and “all proselytes and pious heathen are the descendants of these infants.”50 As for Pharaoh, the common tradition is that the plague which smote his house, whether leprosy or some other disease, rendered all the people impotent and sterile.51

That this was the nature of the complaint is implied in the tradition that Abraham’s powers of healing the sick by prayer were especially devoted to the healing of barren women.52 By emerging victorious from the contests with Pharaoh and Abimelech, both Sarah and Abraham by their mutual faithfulness reversed the blows of death, so that they became new again and had children in their old age.53 As the Zohar puts it, Abraham received a new grade of knowledge and henceforth “begat children [on a] higher plane.”54

Here Sarah appears as the central figure in that ritual complex that marks the New Year all over the ancient world and has been noticed in these studies in its form of the Egyptian Sed festival. The theme of Sarah’s royal marriages is not lust but the desire of Pharaoh and Abimelech to establish a kingly line. Sarah was at least 61 when she left the house of Pharaoh and 89 when she visited Abimelech. Pharaoh’s only interest in Sarah, Josephus insists, was to establish a royal line; or, as Bernhard Beer puts it, “his object was rather to become related to Abraham by marriage,” i.e., he wanted Abraham’s glory, and that was the only way he could get it.55 Abimelech’s interest is completely dominated by the fertility motif, for he contests with Abraham over “a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had violently taken away” (Genesis 21:25), even as Sarah had been violently taken away; and just as Abimelech surrendered and pleaded his innocence in the case of Sarah (Genesis 20:9), so he pleads ignorance also in the case of the well and even chides Abraham again for not enlightening him: “I wot not who hath done this thing: neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but to day” (Genesis 21:26). To complete the scene, Abraham concludes the episode by planting one of his groves in the land of the Philistines (Genesis 21:33). If Sarah is the bounteous and child-giving mother, Abraham no less presides over the life-giving waters.

That this is the ritual setting of the Abimelech episode is confirmed by documents probably as old as Abraham that describe the goings-on among the Canaanites on the coast to the north of Gerar. These are the famous Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, and the best known of them is the story of Krt. The latest critical study of the Krt drama maintains that it is both a ritual and a historical document, “the subject of the first tablet” being “the rehabilitation of the royal house after disaster, with the wooing of Krt,” while the second tablet describes the royal wedding and in the third we have “the illness and threatened eclipse of Krt” (the ritual king), when his “oldest son Yṣb takes advantage to seek to supplant him.”56 The drama has a definite moral and social object, according to Gray, “such as the securing of a legitimate queen and the establishment of the royal line.”57 In the Krt story the powers of the old king are failing, and he is told by his youthful would-be successor: “In the sepulchral cave thou wilt abide. . . . Sickness is as (thy) bedfellow, Disease (thy) concubine.”58 Just so Abimelech is told that if he takes Sarah to wife, “thou art a dead man!” (Genesis 20:3). After three months of sickness, “Krt is passing away, . . . [in the] sepulchral chamber, like a treasury with a gate”—it is so much like the lion-couch scene in the Sed festival that we are not surprised to learn that Krt is first frantically mourned and then revived by two ladies.59 The cure is effected by the lady Qudshu, whom we have already learned to know as the common heirodule of Egypt and Canaan (fig. 47).60 First she arrives weeping at the house of Krt. “Shrieking, she enters the inmost chambers”; but then she starts to revive the king, who is not completely dead yet,61 and finally “she returns, she washes him. She has given him a new appetite for meat, she opens his desire for food.”62 The king rises from his bier, victorious: “As for Death, he is confounded; as for ḥʿtqt, she has prevailed!” So of course there is a great feast as the king “takes his seat on his royal throne, even on the dais, the seat of his government.”63 It is the lion-couch drama all over again, but the Abimelech elements are prominent too, as when the king’s wise men and counselors all are summoned and asked, “Who among the gods will abolish the disease, driving out all the sickness?” Seven times the challenge is put, but “there is none among the gods who answers him”—the doctors are abashed. They must yield to the true god, El the Merciful, who says, “I myself . . . shall provide that which will abolish the disease”—and he does.64 Of course, it rains and everything grows at last (Mot, the name of the adversary, means both death and drought); Krt on his bier is even called “Sprouts”—a vivid reminder of the Egyptian “Osiris beds” (fig. 48).65

The Ugaritic Krt Text gives strong indication that the adventures of Sarah with Egyptian and Palestinian kings follow the common ritual pattern of Palestine and Egypt; indeed, the point of both stories is that Sarah and Abraham resist and overcome powerful and insidious attempts to involve them in the very practices of the idolatrous nations which Abraham had been denouncing since his youth. It would be impossible to avoid coming face to face with such practices in any comprehensive account of either Abraham or Sarah, and one of the best and most vivid descriptions of the rites is contained in the Book of Abraham. We are dealing here with a worldwide ritual complex of whose existence no one dreamed in 1912 and which is still largely ignored by Egyptologists.66 It is not only the idea of romantic love that is one of the special marks of the patriarchal narratives, as Gordon points out; even more conspicuous is the repeated recurrence of a ritual love triangle in which a third party threatens to break up a devoted couple. Such is the story of Hagar, who sought to supplant Sarah in Abraham’s household and was turned out into the desert to perish of thirst—always the water motif! Being in imminent danger of death, Hagar prays, “Look upon my misery”—which happens to be the opening line of Abraham’s prayer on the altar67—whereupon an angel appears and tells her, “God has heard your prayer,” promising her a son (Genesis 16:11). So here, to cut it short, we have Hagar praying for deliverance from a heat death, visited by an angel, and promised the same blessing in her hour of crisis as was given to Sarah and Abraham in theirs. There is a difference, of course: by “despising” and taunting her afflicted mistress and then by deserting her, Hagar had not been true and faithful, and the angel sternly ordered her back to the path of duty, while the promises given to her offspring are heavy with qualifications and limitations. The issue is as ever one of authority, for, as Josephus puts it, Hagar sought precedence over Sarah, and the angel told her to return to her “rulers” (despotas) or else she would perish, but if she obeyed she would bear a son who would rule in that desert land.68 She too founded a royal line.

In maintaining that “Abraham’s marriage with Keturah (Genesis 25:1—6) can have no historical foundation,”69 scholars have overlooked the ritual foundation of the story, clearly indicated by the name of Keturah, which enjoys a prominent place in the Adonis ritual cycles of Phoenicia and Syria.70 As Gray points out in his study of Krt, these ritual events could very well become history as well when the sacrifices and marriages were repeated at “the accession of each new king” and “at royal weddings.”71 The ritual content of the thing, far from discrediting it as history, is the best possible evidence for some sort of historical reality behind it. The ritual triangle is repeated when Bethuel the king of Haran tries to take the beautiful Rebekah away from Isaac’s agent, Eliezer (who, we are told was the exact image of Abraham); the wicked king was slain by his own treachery and the noble couple departed laden with royal gifts.

The Humiliation of the King

In this last story the real hero is Eliezer, while the bridegroom-to-be, Isaac, lurks ignobly in the background. Abraham likewise in the affairs with Pharaoh and Abimelech not only takes a back seat but appears in a rather uncomplimentary, if not actually degrading, position. This is an indispensable element of the year-drama everywhere: the temporary humiliation of the true king while a rival and substitute displaces him on the throne and in the queen’s favor. We have seen both Abraham and Isaac in the roles of substitute kings or “Suffering Servants,” and now we must make room for Sarah on the stage, for the play cannot take place without her. The Suffering Servant is the true king during the period of his ritual humiliation, representing his death; at that time his place is taken by a pretender, an interrex, tanist, Lord of Misrule, etc., who turns out to be the real substitute when the time for his death arrives. Both are substitutes but in different capacities: the one king sits on a real throne but suffers a make-believe burial; the other sits on a make-believe throne but suffers a real burial. As we saw in the Sed festival, the main purpose of all this shuffling is to spare the real king the discomfort of a premature demise: the true king is always vindicated in the end. If Abraham was rudely thrust aside by his royal rivals in Egypt and Palestine, and if Sarah was made the unwilling victim of their kingly arrogance, it was only to show who the real king was—they, as it turned out, were for all their pride and power the pretenders, claiming the divine honors that really belonged to Abraham. Abraham is the rival of Pharaoh and Abimelech, both of whom are ready to put him to death in order to raise up a royal line by Sarah.72 That he is the real king, restored to his rightful queen in the end, is made perfectly clear in the almost comical complaints of the two kings that they, who had contemptuously thrust the helpless Abraham aside, were actually the victims of his power: “And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me?” (Genesis 12:18, emphasis added), while Abimelech echoes his words: “Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? . . . thou has done deeds unto me that ought not to be done” (Genesis 20:9). The roles of victim and victor are almost ludicrously reversed. And just as Pharaoh-Nimrod complained that Abraham had escaped the altar by a trick, so does Pharaoh-Zoan complain that Sarah has escaped his couch by a ruse: “why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? . . . Now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way” (Genesis 12:18—19).

The Sarah story starts out with Abraham and Sarah alike at the mercy of the triumphant and irresistible king, and it ends up with the king humiliated by pain and impotence, humbly suing Abraham for succor and then acknowledging that superior power and priesthood of his rival. There is no injustice here: Abraham does not invade their kingdoms or seek their thrones, but the other way around—they coveted his rightful domain and were properly rebuked.

While the humiliation of the rightful king before his return to the throne is a central episode of the great year-rites throughout the ancient east,73 the queen plays quite a different role: she is ageless and immortal, the Mother Earth itself, taking a new spouse at each cycle of renewal and disposing of the old one.74 This makes her the dominant figure of the rites, which have a distinctly matriarchal background—as is clearly indicated in the Book of Abraham, where, moreover, the tension between the old matriarchal and rival patriarchal orders is vividly set forth: While Abraham is completely devoted to the authority of “the fathers, . . . even the right of the first-born” (Abraham 1:3), Pharaoh was put on the throne by his mother (Abraham 1:23—25), so that though he “would fain claim” patriarchal authority (Abraham 1:27), “seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers” (Abraham 1:26), the importance of the female line still outweighed that of the fathers, as it always did in Egypt. The conflict between Pharaoh’s would-be patriarchal role and the claims of the matriarchy is further reflected in the putting to death of three princesses of royal blood who refused to play the game Pharaoh’s way and compromise their virtue (Abraham 1:11—12). Abraham opposes the royal claims that his father ardently supported, in secure possession of “the records of thy fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood,” which records “God preserved in mine own hands” (Abraham 1:31). And in return Terah volunteered his own son as a victim in the sacrificial rites (Abraham 1:30). This should be enough to explain how Sarah and Abraham get involved in all these very pagan goings-on.

Recently Cyrus Gordon has demonstrated the singularly close parallelism between the stories of Sarah and Helen of Troy, the main theme of both being the winning back of the captive queen by her rightful husband: In turn each of the rival husbands is made to look rather ridiculous as the lady leaves first one and then the other.75 In the earliest Babylonian depictions of the year-motif we see the “imprisoned or buried” bridegroom, whom the bride must rescue and revive,76 even as Isis rescues and revives her husband and brother Osiris in the Egyptian versions. And so we have Abraham in an oddly unheroic role, gratefully accepting the presents and favors that Pharaoh bestows upon him as the brother of Sarah the king’s favorite wife!77

Brother and Sister

Still less heroic is the supposed subterfuge by which Abraham got himself into that undignified position. The best biblical scholars in Joseph Smith’s day as well as our own have found nothing to condone in what is generally considered an unedifying maneuver on the part of Abraham to save his skin at the expense of both Sarah and Pharaoh. “Abram appears to have laboured under a temporary suspension of faith,” wrote the most learned commentator of Joseph Smith’s time, “and to have stooped to the mean and foolish prevarication of denying his wife. . . . And had not the Lord miraculously interposed, . . . Abraham must have sunk under his timidity, and forfeited his title to the covenant.”78 How they all missed the point! Far from denoting a suspension of faith, the turning over of his wife to another required the greatest faith yet, and that is where the Book of Abraham puts the whole story on a meaningful and edifying footing. For it was God who commanded Abraham: “see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live” (Abraham 2:23—24). As to the “lie” about the family relationship of Abraham and Sarah, a number of factors must be considered. Technically, the Bible explains, Sarah was indeed Abraham’s half-sister on his father’s side (Genesis 20:12). To this physical relationship, the Zohar adds a spiritual, reporting that “Abraham always called her ‘sister’ because he was attached to her inseparably. . . . For the marital bond can be dissolved, but not that between brother and sister”—so by an eternal marriage that the world did not understand they were brother and sister.79 More to the point, in Syria, Canaan, and Egypt at the time it was the common custom to refer to one’s wife as one’s “sister,” and Abraham’s life reflects both the Semitic and the Hurrian cultural and legal patterns,80 so that “Sarah was . . . a ‘sister-wife,’ an official Hurrian term signifying the highest social rating.”81 On the other hand, everyone knows that it was custom for pharaohs of Egypt to marry their sisters, and in the Egyptian love songs the nonroyal lovers regularly address each other as “my sister” and “my brother.” The same custom appears in Canaan and even in the Genesis Apocryphon, the opening fragments of which show us the mother of Noah berating her husband Lamech for suspecting her virtue, but addressing him throughout the scene as “my Brother and my Lord.”82 Indeed, in Abraham’s day “both in Egypt and Canaan,” according to Albright, “the notion of incest scarcely existed. In fact, Phoenicia and Egypt shared a general tendency to use ‘sister’ and ‘wife’ simultaneously.”83

But whatever the reservation mentale behind the statement that Abraham and Sarah were brother and sister, the point of the story is that it was meant to convey to the kings that the two were not married—the sophistry of the thing would only render it more unsavory did we not have the real explanation in the Pearl of Great Price.

Sarah on Her Own

By telling Pharaoh and Abimelech that Abraham really was her brother, Sarah put the two kings in the clear. From then on they, at least, were acting in good faith. The Bible makes this very clear: the moment Pharaoh learns the truth, he lets Sarah go, saying to Abraham, “why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife? Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife” (Genesis 12:18—19). “I did what I did,” says Abimelech, “with perfect heart and pure hand,” to which the Lord replies in a dream, “I knew that, and I forgave thee” (cf. Genesis 20:5—6). So it is made perfectly explicit that it is not the kings who are being tested—God honors and rewards them both for their behavior, which is strictly correct according to the customs of the times.

It must be Abraham and Sarah who are being tested then. But Abraham too is out of it, for, as we have seen, the Lord commands him to ask Sarah to say he is her brother, and he obeys. But no one commands Sarah—the whole thing is left up to her as a matter of free choice. It is she and she alone who is being tested on the lion couch this time. It is incorrect to say with Graves that “Abraham gave Sarah to Pharaoh,”84 for he was in no position to do so: he was completely in Pharaoh’s power—he had already taken Sarah by force—and Pharaoh was listening only to Sarah! The rabbis who knew the ancient law say that only unmarried women were taken into the harem of Pharaoh, and that these could not be approached by the king without their own consent.85 It might mean death to her if she refused, but still to refuse was within her power, while Abraham was helpless to save her and Pharaoh was acting in good faith—throughout the story every crucial decision rests with Sarah and Sarah alone.

Why do we say that no one commands Sarah? God commanded Abraham to propose a course of action to Sarah, but Abraham did not command Sarah—he asked her humbly for a personal favor: “Therefore say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister, that it may be well with me for thy sake, and my soul shall live because of thee” (Abraham 2:25; Genesis 12:13, emphasis added). He explained the situation to her—”I, Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said unto me”—but the decision was entirely up to her. According to the Midrash, on this occasion Abraham “made himself of secondary importance, . . . whereupon he really became subordinate to Sarah.”86 Everything was done for her sake: “the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of [Sarah]” (Genesis 12:17).87 Abraham was given both life and property “for Sarah’s sake,” and the king “entreated Abram well for her sake” (Genesis 12:16). Sarah was legally and lawfully married to both kings and was thus the legitimate recipient of their bounty. Pharaoh, according to Rabbi Eliezer, “wrote for Sarah a marriage document, (giving her) all his wealth, . . . [including] the land of Goshen.”88 He “took her to him to wife and sought to slay me,” says Abraham in the Genesis Apocryphon,89 “and I, Abraham, was saved because of her and was not slain.”90 From this Vermes concludes that Abraham was indebted to Sarah for his life but not for his prosperity, having received riches in return for healing Pharaoh.91 But the verses on which he bases this view may be more easily interpreted as meaning that it was to Sarah rather than Abraham that the pharaoh gave the treasures, the badly damaged lines reading:

     31. . . . And the King gave him a large . . . the gift much and much raiment of fine linen and purple [several words missing]

32. . . . before her, and also Hagar [several words obscured] . . . and appointed men for me who would escort out [several words missing].92

Now the Jewish traditions are quite explicit that it was to Sarah that Pharaoh gave the royal raiment and the maid Hagar. Since Abraham is writing in the first person, it is not absolutely certain who the “him” is in line 31, but the “her” in the next line is certainly Sarah, and there is no indication that the gifts and Hagar were not for her. The Bible clearly states that Abraham came into possession of Hagar only later when Sarah “gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (Genesis 16:3), i.e., Sarah gave more than permission to marry—she actually handed over her property to him, for Hagar was her personal maid (Genesis 16:1). And when Hagar behaved badly, Abraham, to keep peace, gave her back to Sarah again: “Behold, thy maid is in thine hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee” (Genesis 16:6). When Sarah sent Isaac forth to school (as she thought) or to the rites on Mt. Moriah, “she dressed him in the royal garments and crown that Abimelech had given her.”93 Everything indicates that she was a princess in her own right—the gifts of her royal husbands did not so much bestow as recognize her royalty, for which they eagerly sought her hand in the first place, hoping to raise up kingly lines by her. Before her name was changed to Sarah, “Princess of all people,” it had already been Sarai, “Princess of her own people,” according to the Midrash; and before she ever married Abraham she was well known by the name of Jiska, “the Seeress,” either because she had the gift of prophecy or because of her shining beauty, or both.94

The rabbis have resented the superior rating of Sarah with its matriarchal implications and attempted to cover it up. Granted that everything that Pharaoh gave to Abraham was for Sarah’s sake, the doctors must conclude that Pharaoh acted unwisely, and they hold up as a proper example the case of Abimelech, who, according to them, gave his gifts to Abraham rather than Sarah. Yet these same authorities report that this same Abimelech gave to Sarah “a costly robe that covered her whole person, . . . a reproach to Abraham, that he had not fitted Sarah out with the splendor due his wife”—it would seem that Sarah has her royal claims after all.95

Actually the idea of rivalry between Abraham and Sarah is as baseless as that between Abraham and Isaac when we understand the true situation, in which neither party can fulfill his or her proper function without the other. Having been commanded of the Lord, Abraham explained his situation to his wife and asked her whether she would be willing to go along (Abraham 2:25). According to the Genesis Apocryphon, he did not like the idea at all—it was a terrible sacrifice for him: “And I wept, I Abram, with grievous weeping.”96 Would he have wept so for his own life, which he had so often been willing to risk? Why, then, did he ask Sarah to risk her person to save him: “say unto them, I pray thee, thou art my sister . . . and my soul shall live because of thee”? Plainly because nothing else would move Sarah to take such a step. There was nothing in the world to keep her from exchanging her hard life with Abraham for a life of unlimited ease and influence as Pharaoh’s favorite except her loyalty to her husband. By a special order from heaven Abraham had stepped out of the picture and Pharaoh had been placed in a legally and ethically flawless position, and Sarah knew it: “I Abraham, told Sarai, my wife, all that the Lord had said to me.” Why is the brilliant prospect of being Queen of Egypt never mentioned as an inducement or even a lightening of Sarah’s burden? Sarah apparently never thinks of that, for she was as upset as Abraham: “Sarai wept at my words that night.”97 Still, the proposition was never put to her as a command, but only as a personal request from Abraham: “Please say you are my sister for the sake of my well being, so that through your ministration I shall be saved, and owe my life to you!” (cf. Genesis 12:13); and so with Abimelech: “This will be a special favor which I am asking of you in my behalf” (cf. Genesis 20:13). Abraham is abiding by the law of God; the whole question now is, Will Sarah abide by the law of her husband? And she proved that she would, even if necessary at the risk of her life. It was as great a sacrifice as Abraham’s and Isaac’s, and of the same type.

The Cedar and the Palm: A Romantic Interlude

Some famous episodes are associated with the crossing of the border into Egypt, such as Abraham’s beholding Sarah’s beauty for the first time as they wade the stream—”In comparison with her, all other beauties were like apes compared with men.”98 It was under like circumstances that King Solomon is said to have first beheld the beauty of the Queen of Sheba.99 Again, Abraham concealed his wife’s beauty by trying to smuggle her across the border in a trunk, on which he was willing to pay any amount of duty provided the officials would not open it; of course, they could not resist the temptation and were quite overpowered by this Pandora’s box in reverse.100

But the story of the cedar and the palm has the most interesting parallels of all: “And I, Abram, dreamed a dream in the night of our going up into the land of Egypt, and what I beheld in my dream was a cedar tree and a palm-tree . . . [words missing] and men came and tried to cut down and uproot the cedar while leaving the palm standing alone. And the palm tree called out and said, ‘Do not cut the cedar! Cursed and shamed whoever [words missing].’ So the cedar was spared in the shelter of the palm.”101 We have seen that Abraham was often compared with a cedar, and that the palm could be either Sarah or the hospitable Pharaoh.102 But when we read in the Genesis Apocryphon that “for the sake of the palm the cedar was saved,”103 we recall the unforgettable image of the mighty Odysseus, clad only in evergreen branches, facing the lovely princess Nausicaa, as in an exquisitely diplomatic speech he compares her with the tall sacred palm standing in the courtyard of the temple at Delos. In return for the compliment, the princess dresses the hero in royal garments and conducts him to the palace. Later, when the two meet for the last time, the damsel makes good-natured fun of the way she had saved the mightiest man alive, but in return Odysseus solemnly tells her that it was no joke: “For you really did save my life, lady, and I shall never forget it!”104 Here, then, the palm again saved the cedar. If scholars are now inclined to compare Sarah with Helen of Troy, it is pleasanter and even more appropriate to compare her with the chaste and clever Nausicaa, the most delightful of ancient heroines.

The humiliation of Odysseus, who appears first supplicating the princess while covered with dirt and leaves and then trails after her wagon publicly dressed in women’s clothes, is a moment of matriarchal victory, as is the humiliation of Abraham. The meeting ground of the two stories is appropriately Egypt, for in the Tale of the Two Brothers, in which scholars have discerned the background of a wealth of biblical motifs, especially those of the patriarchal stories, we meet the same strange combination of elements: the hero as a cedar tree threatened with destruction, the royal laundry ladies by the river, the trip to the palace, the humiliation of the king and his ultimate restoration, and all the rest.105 The felling of the cedar is also the fall of Adonis in the Attis-Adonis cult, related in turn to the Osiris mysteries and the cult of Sirius. Already in the pyramid texts Osiris is the king “who takes men’s wives from them”—why should not Pharaoh be an Osiris in this as in other dramatic situations?106 When Sarah died “hospitality ceased; but when Rebekah came the gates were again opened.”107 In all these operations Rebekah, we are assured, “was the counterpart of Sarah in person and spirit,” the living image of Sarah.108 Sarah is thus the ageless mother and perennial bride: the whole point of the birth of Isaac is that she becomes young again—”Is any thing too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Firmicus Maternus informs us that the early Christians saw in the Egyptian cult of Serapis, the last stage of the Osiris mysteries, the celebration of the Sarras-pais, “the son of Sarah,” with Sarah as the mother of the new king.109 Which may not be so farfetched, since that was exactly Pharaoh’s intention in taking her to wife, according to Josephus.

Here it is in order to note that the legends of Abraham’s birth and childhood are dominated by the conflict between matriarchy and patriarchy, with Abraham’s mortal foe and rival, Nimrod, as the archdefender of the matriarchy. To forestall the birth of Abraham, foretold by the stars, he first attempts to bar all contact between men and women; then he orders all expectant mothers shut up in a great castle: when a girl baby is born, she and her mother are sent far from the castle showered with gifts and crowned like queens, while all boy babies are immediately put to death.110 And while Abraham’s father supports Nimrod and tries to destroy the infant, his mother saves him by hiding him in a cave. Her name, Emtelai, is a reminder that this is the age-old Amalthea motif.

Breaking the Mold

Facsimile 1 and the explanation thereof admonish the student not to be too surprised to find Father Abraham deeply involved in the abominable rites of the heathen. This, admittedly, is not a healthy situation, but then the point of the whole thing is that Abraham is fighting the system, and his is a lifelong struggle. In the process of meeting the foe on his own ground he finds himself in one unpleasant situation after another—unpleasant and strangely familiar. The familiarity of the setting, as we have insisted all along, vouches for the authenticity of the tradition. The Abraham stories are poured into an ancient mold—but Abraham cracks the mold. One of the most striking examples of the shattered mold is the famous romance of Joseph and Asenath, a reediting of the story of Abraham and Sarah in an authentic Egyptian setting.

Everything in this romantic tale reverses the order of the conventional Near Eastern romance. True, it begins with the maiden locked up in her tower, the proud heiress of the matriarchy disdaining all men and rejecting all lovers, according to the standard fairy-tale formula going back as far as the Egyptian romances of the Doomed Prince and the Two Brothers. But presently she falls desperately in love with Joseph, of whose love she feels abjectly unworthy. Gerhard von Rad insists that the Joseph stories are the purest fiction, “durch und durch novellistisch,” and have no place in the patriarchal histories.111 But he overlooks the all-important ritual element that places Joseph and Asenath in the long line of holy couples: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zippora, Aaron and Elisheba, etc.112 The undeniable link between the Abraham and the Joseph romances is the key name of Potiphar; for just as the testing of Abraham takes place at Potiphar’s Hill, so the triumph of Joseph over the practices of the heathen and the wicked prince of Egypt takes place at Potiphar’s castle, Potiphar being none other than the father of Asenath. In the rites of the sacred marriage (the hieros gamos), an angel instructed Asenath to change her black garment of death to a pure white wedding dress, the most ancient, primal wedding garment, whereupon she kisses the feet of the heavenly visitor (who, incidentally, is in the exact image of Joseph!), who takes her by the hand and leads her out of the darkness into the light.113 The two then sit upon her undefiled bed to partake of bread and wine supplied by the bride while the angel miraculously produces a honeycomb for a true love feast in the manner of the primitive Christians.114

If one compares this with the “Setne” romance or the tales of the Two Brothers or the Doomed Prince, or with the stories of Aqhat or Krt, or numerous Greek myths, one will recognize at every turn the same elements in the same combination—but what a difference! The heathen versions are full of violence and bestiality, with one brother murdering another and the lady deceiving and destroying her lovers: there is no better example of both the ritual and historical situation than the account in the eighth chapter of Ether where the throne is transmitted after the manner of “them of old” by a series of ritual murders supervised by the queen. In the Sed festival, Moret points out, the king’s wife represented the unfailing fecundity of the earth, while the pharaoh was one whose failing powers were arrested by a sacrificial death, effected since the middle of the fourth millennium B.C., by the use of a substitute.115 This is the sort of thing in which Abraham and Sarah become unwillingly involved—a desperate perversion of the true order of things. The first pharaoh, being a good man who “judged his people wisely and justly all his days,” had tried hard to do things right, would “fain claim” the right of the priesthood, and was always “seeking . . . to imitate that order established by the fathers” (Abraham 1:26—27). But the best he could come up with was an imitation, being “cursed . . . as pertaining to the Priesthood.” Abraham, possessed of the authentic records (Abraham 1:28), knew Pharaoh’s secret—that his authority was stolen and his glory simulated—and refused to cooperate, turning to God instead for the knowledge and the permission necessary to restore the ancient order (Abraham 1:2). For this he was rewarded and received the desire of his heart, but only after being put to the severest possible tests. Forced against his will to participate in the false ordinances, he resisted them at every step, even to the point of death. What breaks the mold is the sudden, unexpected, and violent intervention of a destroying angel, which puts an end to sacrificial rites and in their place restores an ordinance of token sacrifice only, looking forward to the great atonement. Neither Abraham, Isaac, nor Sarah had to pay the supreme price, though each confidently expected to, and was accordingly given full credit and forgiveness of sins through the atoning sacrifice of the Lord. In them the proper order and purpose of sacrifice was restored after the world had departed as far from the ancient plan as it was possible to get.

In their three sacrifices the classic rivalry and tension between father and son, patriarchy and matriarchy are resolved in a perfect equality. On Mt. Moriah, Isaac showed that he was willing to suffer on the altar as Abraham had been; in Egypt it was made perfectly clear that Sarah was Abraham’s equal and that he was as dependent on her for his eternal progress as she was on him. The two kings knew that without Sarah they could not attain to the glory of Abraham, but she knew that without Abraham her glory would be nothing, and she refused all substitutes. “Do this,” says Abraham to his wife at the beginning of the story, “for the sake of benefitting me, [and] for your own advantage”—[ lə-maʿan yîṭab lî ba-ʿabûrek] (cf. Genesis 12:13). According to the Midrash, Abraham and Sarah kept the whole law from ʾalef to taw, “not under compulsion, but with delight.”116 They kept the law fully and they kept it together. Why is it, asks the archaeologist André Parrot, that we never read of the God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, but only of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The answer is given in Abraham 2:22—25, where Abraham obeys a direct command from God, though he is free to reject it if he will, while Sarah receives it as the law of her husband, being likewise under no compulsion. It is indeed the God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel to whom they pray directly, but they covenant with him through their husbands. “If . . . he guards [the holy imprint],” says the Zohar, speaking of the ordinances of Abraham, “then the Shekhinah does not depart from him”—but how can he be sure he has guarded it? “He cannot be sure of it until he is married. . . . When the man and wife are joined together and are called by one name, then the celestial favor rests upon them . . . and is embraced in the male, so that the female also is firmly established.”117 It was by their usual faithfulness, according to rabbinic teaching, that Abraham and Sarah reversed the blows of death, so that they became new again and had children in their old age.118 Just so, when Asenath was anointed with the oil of incorruptibility and then became the bride of Joseph, she was told, “from this time on art thou created anew, formed anew, given a new life.”119 When Sarah had passed through the valley of the shadow in order to save her husband’s life, Abraham received a new grade of knowledge, after which he “begat children [on a] higher plane.”120 This is that measure of exaltation promised in Abraham 2:10—11: “for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed. . . . And in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel . . . even of life eternal.” It was this doctrine that led to the discussions among the Jewish doctors on whether Abraham and Sarah were actually given the power to create souls.121 “Abraham obtained the possession of both worlds,” says an ancient formula, “for his sake this world and the world to come were created.”122 Abraham’s covenant, as André Caquot observes with wonder, “appears to be outside of time and space.”123 Or as the Prophet Joseph Smith put it, “Let us seek for the glory of Abraham, Noah, Adam, the Apostles,” naming Abraham first of all.124

And Abraham earned his glory: “The sacrifice required of Abraham in the offering up of Isaac, shows that if a man would attain to the keys of the kingdom of an endless life, he must sacrifice all things.”125 But Isaac was in on it too—the stories of Isaac and Sarah teach us that salvation is a family affair, in which, however, each member acts as an individual and makes his own choice, for each must decide for himself when it is a matter of giving up all things, including life itself, if necessary. But “when the Lord has thoroughly proved him, and finds that the man is determined to serve Him at all hazards,” only then “the visions of the heavens will be opened unto him,” as they were to Abraham, “and the Lord will teach him face to face, and he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.”126 If Abraham knew that “God would provide a sacrifice,” Isaac did not; if he was perfectly sure of his wife, she was not and prayed desperately for help—husband, wife, and son each had to undergo the terrible test alone.

But every test is only a sampling: as a few drops of blood are enough for a blood test, so, as Morgenstern points out, the rite of circumcision demanded of Abraham expressed the idea that a token shedding of blood “redeems the remainder.”127 Circumcision, then, is an arrested sacrifice. When one reaches a critical point in an act of obedience at which it becomes apparent that one is willing to go all the way, it is not necessary to go any farther and make the costly sacrifice. Abraham called the spot where he sacrificed Isaac “Jehovahjireh,” signifying that God was perfectly aware all the time of what was going on and knew exactly where Abraham stood: “For now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son.”128 He knew that Abraham would certainly carry out the sacrifice, and he let him go as far as possible for the sake of his instruction, and then he had him complete the ordinance with a token sacrifice, which was to be repeated by his progeny in the temple.129 Cyril, the last “primitive” Christian bishop of Jerusalem, has left us a report on how the early Christians thought of this token sacrifice. The first step in becoming a Christian, he says, is to renounce all the idols (as Abraham did); next, one must escape the power of Satan, described as a ravening lion; then come baptism, anointing, and the receiving of a garment;130 the candidate is then buried again three times in water, to signify Christ’s three days in the tomb. “We do not really die,” Cyril explains, “nor are we really buried, nor do we actually rise again after being crucified. It is a token following of instructions (en eiponi hē mimēsis), though the salvation is real. Christ was really crucified and buried and literally rose again. And all these things are for our benefit, and we can share in his sufferings by imitating them while enjoying the rewards in reality. O how everflowing is God’s love for man! Christ received the nails in blameless hands and feet, . . . while I may share in the suffering and reward of salvation without the pain or suffering!”131 He goes on to note that one then becomes “a Christ,” an adopted, but nonetheless a real, son of God, “receiving the very form of the Son of God.”132

Cyril describes the priesthood standing in a circle around the altar (“leave the altar if thy brother hath aught against thee”), the mutual embracing “which signifies a complete fusion of spirits,” and then “that thrilling hour when one must enter spiritually into the presence of God.”133 Throughout this ancient and forgotten discourse the emphasis is on the token or mimetic nature of the ordinances, along with the quite real and necessary part they play in achieving salvation. Julius Maternus, describing the same rites, says that they match the Osirian mysteries very closely, and he accuses the Egyptians of stealing their ordinances from Israel back in the days of Moses.134

The important thing in the early Christian rites is that every individual must imitate the suffering and burial of Christ; this is the great essential of the ordinances, as it is the fundamental principle of all Jewish sacrifice as well. This we learn from the sacrifices of Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah; each was interrupted and by the providing of a substitute became a token sacrifice, acceptable to God because of the demonstrated intention of each of the three to offer his or her life if necessary. The perfect consistency of the three sacrifices is a powerful confirmation of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.


1. Jubilees 13:10; Genesis Apocryphon 19:9—10.

2. Genesis Apocryphon 19:23.

3. Ibid., 19:13.

4. Ibid., 19:24, 27.

5. Ibid., 21:19—22.

6. Cyrus H. Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilization (New York: Norton, 1965), 159—60.

7. Ben Zion Wacholder, “Pseudo-Eupolemus’ Two Greek Fragments on the Life of Abraham,” Hebrew Union College Annual 34 (1963): 110—11.

8. Hermann Kees, “Bubastis,” Orientalische Literaturzeitung 53 (1958): 311; see also Hermann Kees, “Ein alter Götterhymnus als Begleittext zur Opfertafel,” ZÄS 57 (1922): 117—19.

9. The story of Sarah in the trunk, Genesis Rabbah 40:5, in Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, trans. Harry Freedman, 10 vols. (London: Soncino 1939), 1:328—29.

10. Cf. Nibley’s translation here with Genesis Rabbah 40:4, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:328.

11. Ibid.

12. Genesis Apocryphon 20:2—8.

13. Ibid., 20:7.

14. Ibid., 19:25.

15. They held an auction, each trying to buy her in order to make a gift of her to Pharaoh, Genesis Rabbah 40:5, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:329—30.

16. Genesis Apocryphon 20:11.

17. Ibid., 20:9.

18. Josephus, Antiquities I, 8, 1.

19. Genesis Apocryphon 20:12.

20. Sefer ha-Yashar, cited in Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 113.

21. Genesis Apocryphon 20:12—15.

22. Ibid., 20:12—16.

23. Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Adolph Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 6 vols. (1853—77; reprint, Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1967), 1:34.

24. Genesis Rabbah 41:2, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:333.

25. Genesis Apocryphon 20:15.

26. Bernhard Beer, Leben Abraham’s nach Auffassung der jüdischen Sage (Leipzig: Leiner, 1859), 25, discussing sources on 128 n. 219.

27. Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 144.

28. Genesis Rabbah 41:2, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:333—34.

29. Josephus, Antiquities I, 8, 1.

30. Genesis Apocryphon 20:16.

31. So Eva Osswald, “Beobachtungen zur Erzählung von Abrahams Aufenthalt in Ägypten im ‘Genesis Apokryphon,'” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft  72 (1960): 15, 19.

32. Micha J. bin Gorion, Die Sagen der Juden, 5 vols. (Frankfurt: Rütten & Loening, 1913—27), 2:158.

33. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel) IX, 17, in PG 21:708.

34. Genesis Apocryphon 20:17—18.

35. Ibid., 20:18—27.

36. Ibid., 20:21—22.

37. Ibid., 20:29.

38. Ibid., 20:30—34, cf. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1909—1938), 1:203; cf. bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:97; Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet-ha-Midrasch, 1:35, 41; Thaʿlabī, Kitāb Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ (Cairo: Muṣ afā al-Bābi al-Ḥalibī wa-Awlāduhu, 1340 a.h.), 55; Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 73; Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 18; 113 n. 136.

39. F. L. Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis (Oxford: Clarendon, 1900), 16—19.

40. First Tale of Khamuas 3:3, in ibid., 18.

41. First Tale of Khamuas 3:5—6, in ibid.

42. Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis, 27.

43. Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 115 n. 2.

44. Nahman Avigad and Yigael Yadin, A Genesis Apocryphon [Hebrew and English] (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1956), 26, note that the Genesis Apocryphon version of the affliction and healing of Pharaoh “is actually much closer to Genesis xx, dealing with Sarah and Abimelech.”

45. Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:250.

46. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:258.

47. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 45.

48. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:258.

49. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 46—47.

50. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:263.

51. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 128 n. 219; Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:224.

52. Genesis Rabbah 39:11, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:321.

53. Ferdinand W. Weber, System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie aus Targum, Midrasch und Talmud (Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1880), 256.

54. Zohar, Vayera 103b, in The Zohar, trans. Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, 5 vols. (London: Soncino, 1984), 1:333.

55. Josephus, Antiquities I, 8, 1. Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham; cf. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 25.

56. John Gray, The Krt Text in the Literature of Ras Shamra, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1964), 2.

57. Ibid., 4.

58. Ibid., 28, lines 31, 35—36.

59. Ibid., 24, lines 86, 88—89.

60. See Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (September 1969): 92; see John Gray, The Legacy of Canaan (Leiden: Brill, 1965), 25 n. 5.

61. Gray, Krt Text, 28, line 5.

62. Ibid., 28, lines 10—12.

63. Ibid., 28, lines 13—14, 23—24.

64. Ibid., 27, lines 26—27. The word for “do” is here ʾeḥtrš, meaning to perform an ordinance.

65. Ibid., 26, lines 4—12.

66. See Claas J. Bleeker, Egyptian Festivals: Enactments of Religious Renewal (Leiden: Brill, 1967), 37—43.

67. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 5 n. 308; Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 1:32.

68. Josephus, Antiquities I, 10, 4.

69. So Frederick J. Foakes-Jackson, The Biblical History of the Hebrews (Cambridge: Heffer & Sons, 1917), 25, noting at the same time that Isaac is “no more than a tribe-name.”

70. W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 147—48.

71. Gray, Krt Text, 10.

72. Josephus, Antiquities I, 8, 1; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:250.

73. Gray, Krt Text, 5.

74. Cf. James G. Frazer, The New Golden Bough, ed. Theodor H. Gaster (New York: Anchor, 1961), 172—73; Claas J. Bleeker, “The Position of Queen in Ancient Egypt,” in The Sacral Kingship (Leiden: Brill, 1959), 261—68.

75. Cyrus H. Gordon, Before the Bible (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 143, 147; cf. Herbert Haag, “Der gegenwärtige Stand der Erforschung der Beziehungen zwischen Homer und dem alten Testament,” JEOL 19 (1965—66): 517; Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugarit and Minoan Crete (New York: Norton, 1966), 151.

76. E. Douglas Van Buren, “The Sacred Marriage in Early Times in Mesopotamia,” Orientalia 13 (1944): 15.

77. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 25.

78. William Hales, A New Analysis of Chronology and Geography, History and Prophecy, 4 vols. (London: Rivington, 1830), 2:111.

79. Zohar, Vayera 112a, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar, 1:353.

80. Ephraim A. Speiser, “The Wife-Sister Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives,” in Biblical and Other Studies, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), 18.

81. James L. Kelso, “Life in the Patriarchal Age,” Christianity Today 12 (21 June 1968): 918.

82. Genesis Apocryphon 2:9.

83. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, 128.

84. Robert Graves, King Jesus (London: Cassell, 1950), 59.

85. Discussed by Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 126—27 n. 206.

86. Genesis Rabbah 40:4, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:329.

87. Cf. Genesis Apocryphon 20:24—25.

88. Gerald Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer (New York: Hermon, 1965), 190.

89. Genesis Apocryphon 20:9.

90. Ibid., 20:10.

91. Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 116.

92. Genesis Apocryphon 20:31—32.

93. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 61.

94. Ibid., 18. “Indeed, in prophetical power she ranked higher than her husband,” Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:203.

95. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:260.

96. Genesis Apocryphon 20:10—11.

97. Ibid., 19:21.

98. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:222.

99. Thaʿlabī, Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ, 223.

100. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 24, 127 n. 214.

101. Genesis Apocryphon 19:14—16.

102. See Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 72 (September 1969): 94 n. 162: In a number of cases the hospitable lotus is identified with the royal palm, suggesting the palm branch as a symbol of honorable reception.

103. Genesis Apocryphon 19:16.

104. Homer, Odyssey VIII, 461—68.

105. The story has recently been made available in paperback by Adolf Erman, The Ancient Egyptians, trans. Aylward M. Blackman (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), 150—61.

106. Alexandre Moret, La mise à mort du dieu en Égypte (Paris: Geuthner, 1927), 13.

107. Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:330.

108. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:297.

109. Firmicus Maternus, De Errore Profanarum Religionum (The Error of the Pagan Religions) XIII, 1—2, in Theodor Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae (Bonn: Marcus and Weber, 1922), 520.

110. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 2—3; 101 n. 18.

111. Gerhard von Rad, “Josephsgeschichte und ältere Chokma,” Vetus Testamentum, Supplement 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1953): 120.

112. Leon Nemoy, Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), 300.

113. Joseph and Asenath 15:10—11.

114. Ibid., 15:14; 16:1—11.

115. Moret, Mise à mort du dieu en Égypte, 51—52.

116. Midrash on Psalms 112:1, in Midrash on Psalms, ed. William G. Braude, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2:210.

117. Zohar, Lech Lecha 94a, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar, 1:310.

118. Weber, System der altsynagogalen palästinischen Theologie, 256.

119. Joseph and Asenath 15:4—6.

120. Zohar, Vayera 103b, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar, 1:333.

121. Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965), 170—72, with sources.

122. George F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), 1:538.

123. André Caquot, “L’alliance avec Abram,” Semitica 12 (1962): 62.

124. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 162.

125. Ibid., 322.

126. Ibid., 150—51.

127. Julian Morgenstern, “The ‘Bloody Husband’ (Exod. 4:24—26) Once Again,” Hebrew Union College Annual 34 (1963): 39.

128. Genesis 22:14; Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 71, on the meaning of the name.

129. Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 194—95; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:308.

130. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis XIX [I], 1—11, in PG 33:1065—76.

131. Ibid., XX [II], 5, in PG 33:1081.

132. Ibid., XXI [III], 1, in PG 33:1088.

133.   Ibid., XXIII [V], 3—4, in PG 33:1112.

134. Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions 14, in PL 12:1012.