A Rough Recapitulation
The first order of business in studying the Book of Abraham is to remove the obstacle that has been diligently erected to prevent anyone from reading it. The Book of Abraham, and especially the explanations of the facsimiles, is routinely put forward as Joseph Smith’s supreme indiscretion, his one fatal blunder, so gross and obvious that a casual word from any true scholar should be enough to blow it away. Unfortunately for the critics, they can make no real case against it until they do read it. So there things have stood for a century and a half. During that time knowledge of the world of Abraham, historical or mythical, has grown at an accelerating pace, until now the student who wishes to do justice to the subject must be prepared to open veritable floodgates of comparative study. If he does, he will find that the Book of Abraham is a miraculous performance.
He should note first of all that the book contains many things about Abraham which are not found in the Old Testament but which have striking parallels in the apocryphal Abraham literature, whose importance is being more appreciated every day. The apocryphal literature tells, for example, of idolatry and child sacrifice; of the threat to Abraham’s life by his family; of his strange sacrifice on a mountain and his mounting up to the heavens to be shown a wonderful picture, a circular plan of the cosmos, whose key was transmitted by the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove; of how Abraham takes up where Noah leaves off; of how Abraham, on undertaking a dangerous journey, was admonished to remember how God had delivered him from the altar; of how Abraham is sore afflicted at Sarah’s plight and prays for her deliverance from Pharaoh’s bed or displeasure.
The Book of Abraham also contains important and peculiar details not found in the Bible but occurring in both the Hebrew and Egyptian reports, such as Pharaoh’s offering human sacrifice in time of drought—the victims being members of his own family; the leading role of the hierodules and the putting to death of royal virgins; the peculiar type of altar on which the sacrifice was made; the victim on the altar praying fervidly for deliverance, in reply to which an angel appears; at the same time the voice of God is heard from heaven, the victim being miraculously delivered by an earthquake that overthrows the altar and kills the priest; after which the liberated victim mounts the throne; how being on the throne he teaches astronomy to the royal court; how he writes an autobiographical account in the first person for the instruction of his posterity; how he examines the records of the fathers to establish his own line; how the king of Egypt had serious doubts about his own divine descent and right to rule; how the king was much concerned with the study of the stars; how Abraham preferred astronomy to astrology, though they were closely related; how cosmology is a fundamental part of basic ritual and doctrine; how Abraham used a circular drawing showing the relationship of ruling powers in the cosmos—a chart represented by Hebrew cabalistic drawings and the Egyptian hypocephalus; how the doctrine of the preexistence is essential to the creation story; how the cosmic drama begins with a great council of the gods in heaven; how the four canopic figures are like apocalyptic beasts, indicating the four quarters of the earth; how the two opposing halves of the circle show the duality of light vs. dark, peace vs. war, etc.; how Sirius and the Sun were worshipped together as Shagreel, for the relief of drought; how the main theme of the whole Abraham history is the rivalry for the priesthood and kingship, the periodic showdown that is at the heart of the ubiquitous year-rite. All this and much more you will find in the Book of Abraham, the traditions of Canaan and Israel, and the records of the Egyptians.
Facsimile 3 gives us a picture of Abraham at court with king, prince, commoner, and slave all present for a special family night at court—an arrangement recently shown to be typical of Pharaoh’s palace life. Facsimile 1 shows the sacrificial scene that is not an embalming scene but a rescue and resurrection, with the man on the couch stirring to life; the altar having the form of a bed—as it really did among the Egyptians; the angel being represented in the form of a hawk; the rites taking place in “Chaldea,” where the idolatrous god of Pharaoh was honored by the presence of four local idols, a situation faithfully described in some Egyptian romances; the “idolatrous god of Pharaoh” as a crocodile, as indeed he was—Sobek, the exclusive and primal god of Pharaoh and his family.
So we need not apologize for the Egyptian preoccupation of the Book of Abraham. As is well-known, the patriarchal narratives are closely bound to Egypt: Isaac is the only patriarch who does not go to Egypt, and that only because he was told to confine his domestic intrigues to Abimelech—the very same involvements that Abraham had had with the same king and with Pharaoh. Here are some specifically Egyptian elements found in that book that do not occur in the Old Testament or the Hebrew legends: The woman who discovers Egypt (Sekhmet, Tefnut, Hathor) immediately after the flood (Re and the Sun’s Eye, etc.) finds it still under water, and settles her son(s) in it as the king (the Great Cruise). Then there is the frustrated pharaoh always trying to claim a glory that he “diligently imitates” but can never fix in a patriarchal line. We find such oddities as Pharaoh and his son appearing dressed up as Hathor and Maat, as indeed they did on occasion, and Abraham himself dressed up like Osiris with the Atef crown “representing the Priesthood, . . . the grand Presidency in Heaven,” with crook and flail as signs of “justice and judgment” (Facsimile 3, figure 1); again, not only living kings but commoners had themselves depicted in such a guise, and the crown and the scepters have been correctly interpreted, to judge by modern research.
That the person being presented to the man on the throne is an unknown, “one of the King’s principal waiters,” by the Canaanite name of Shulem, is quite in order, the men who commissioned such scenes being in fact very often palace servants, and as such, occasionally Canaanites.
Granted Joseph Smith has turned out an impressive performance, what good is it to us? The argument against the Book of Abraham on which eminent Egyptologists, including Breasted, were most insistent was that the Egyptians were pagans, worlds removed from the religion of the Hebrews. But for some time now, every year has seen the narrowing of the gap as a steady and growing flow of discoveries and studies brings Egypt, Israel, and early Christianity ever closer and closer together. Even so, what is the religious message? What has the Book of Abraham to teach the modern world in general, and the church in particular? That is, of course, the message of Abraham, for we are commanded to do the works of Abraham (D&C 132:32) and told that there is no other way for us to go.
To begin with, Abraham was in the world, a wicked world very much like our own. From childhood to the grave, he was a stranger in his society because he insisted on living by the principles of the gospel and preaching them to others wherever he went, even if it meant getting into trouble. Those principles, teachings, covenants, ordinances, and promises were alien to the world, which was bitterly hostile to them. So Abraham’s whole life, as is often stated, was a series of trials or tests, and by example and precept he tells us how to come through victorious. His object? Not to conquer or impress, but to bless all with whom he comes into contact, ultimately shedding the blessing that God gave to him on the whole human race. For that he is first of all the magnanimous, the great-hearted, the ever-hospitable Abraham, who always does the fair and compassionate thing no matter how badly others may behave toward him; he is the friend of God because he is the friend of man, pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah. That is the moral pattern for all men to follow.
Only by “doing the works of Abraham” can we hope to establish a better order of things on the earth, that order of Zion lost since the days of Enoch. This takes courage, tact, unfailing faith, and the constant aid of divine revelation. It entails more than human contrivance or human wisdom—Abraham must acquire ever more and more knowledge from above. The guiding principle is intelligence, an awareness of things as they are: the physical world, the structure and nature of the cosmos, and the underlying spiritual realities. For Abraham, everything is a prelude to what lies beyond. Determined to disengage from the absurd and vicious world around him, he is ever moving on, looking for a city made without hands, “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). He tells us quite frankly that what he wants is peace and happiness for himself and to be a blessing to all mankind (Abraham 1:2). To achieve that required more than philosophical abstractions or convenient arrangements; he would have to go about it God’s way, learning first the law of obedience, carrying out specific instructions regarding the building of altars, the bringing of sacrifices, the paying of tithes, the carrying out of explicit ordinances, the bestowal of blessings, the keeping of family records, the making of covenants, prayer and intercession for all mankind, works on behalf of the dead, and marrying for eternal posterity. Indeed, the works of Abraham center around the temple.
Our study of the Book of Abraham has been like rummaging through and pouring over a random lot of old plans of some ancient building that has long since fallen into ruin and disappeared under the sands. What good is it to us now? Abraham spent his whole life trying to escape from it; he was determined to find something better. He exerted every faculty of body and mind to carry him toward that state of existence which is man’s proper calling and eternal destiny. As Martin Buber puts it, Abraham’s life was one long series of separations and departures.1 There is no thought of returning to the world of Abraham—he was eager to leave it himself. Now that he “hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne” (D&C 132:29), why are his past tribulations and the world in which he suffered of particular concern to us? Because they show us the way we still have to go.
We are in a perfect position to “do the works of Abraham” because we find ourselves in his position. The Book of Abraham was given to us along with a notice of eviction from our present quarters. We have been told by the scriptures in no uncertain terms for the past 150 years what experts in many fields are telling us today: that this present dwelling is rapidly becoming unfit for human habitation, that the place is soon going to be torn down, and that it is high time for us to start looking around “for another place of residence,” in the manner of Abraham, and to follow his example: Lekh lekha—get going!
But where shall we go, and how shall we go about it? To a far greater extent than they realize, the Latter-day Saints are well into the project. Whenever they have settled down, no matter how great their poverty or their need for temporal things, the first order of business, the object and purpose of all their building and planting, has been to get to work on the temple. Whether in Kirtland, Far West, Nauvoo, or the valleys of the West, their hearts have been set on activities and observances that, in terms of modern-day progress and success, make no sense at all. The temple and its ordinances seem to be grotesquely out of place and impractical in the present world. The temple is, in fact, a school to wean us away from the things of the world. There the Saints take their bearings on the universe and on the eternities, and there they launch into the work by which all the nations of the earth are to be blessed. “Abraham received all things, whatsoever he received, by revelation and commandment, by my word, saith the Lord, and hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne. . . . Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:29, 32).
1. See Martin Buber, “Abraham the Seer,” Judaism 5 (1956): 295—96, 303—4.