It comes as no surprise that our greatest Latter-day Saint scholar, Hugh Nibley, would select Abraham as the subject of an important study. To Abraham belongs the distinction of being the only person in the Old Testament whom the Lord calls “my friend” (Isaiah 41:8; see also 2 Chronicles 20:7), or more literally, “my beloved friend.”1 This unique designation occurs in a part of the book of Isaiah which many moderns posit was written by a later author; however, the Book of Mormon not only establishes Isaiah as the true author,2 but also recounts a unique endorsement of his writings by the resurrected Lord, who commanded his listeners to “search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah” (3 Nephi 23:1).
Searching those great words reveals a second divine testimonial of Abraham and the continuing relevance of his life: “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn. . . . Look unto Abraham your father, . . . for I called him” (Isaiah 51:1–2). The singularity of the divine compliment here paid to Abraham is better appreciated after reading one noted scholar’s assertion that the passage must have originally referred not to Abraham but to the Lord as the rock, a metaphor reserved elsewhere in scripture for the Lord himself.3 But the Book of Mormon’s quotation of this Isaiah passage follows the King James nearly verbatim (2 Nephi 8:1–2), indicating that the traditional reading is correct: the Lord—the true Rock4—chose to use that same metaphor to describe Abraham, whom his descendants are commanded to remember.
Nephi’s reward for remembering Abraham5 included some of the same blessings that Abraham had received, like being led away from a wicked society—Jerusalem, which was about to be destroyed—to a promised land where Nephi and his faithful posterity continued to remember their forefather Abraham and his covenant6 as they aspired ultimately to have their “garments spotless” so as to “sit down with Abraham” and his righteous posterity “in the kingdom of heaven” (Alma 5:24; 7:25; Helaman 3:30). Meanwhile back in Jerusalem in the second century B.C., Abraham was considered “a great father of many people: in glory there was none like unto him; who kept the law of the most High, . . . and when he was proved he was found faithful.”7
Jesus seemed to confirm this tradition when he preached about the beggar Lazarus ascending to heaven—to “Abraham’s bosom”—where he conversed with “father Abraham” (Luke 16:19–31). On another occasion when Jesus’ audience resisted his teachings by boasting of their Abrahamic descent, he did not deny the importance of their claim but merely explained that notwithstanding their biological descent, they could not be true children of Abraham without “do[ing] the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). The Apostle Paul would likewise emphasize that those works necessarily bring one to the Savior, for “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed” (Galatians 3:29). If the rabbis never accepted that premise, they at least did continue to remember Abraham as the outstanding example of one who had kept the commandments8 and who “is said to have ‘loved God’ because he loved righteousness; this was Abram’s love of God.”9
Nor was Abraham any less regarded among the separatist Israelite community at Qumran during the time of Christ, where those entering the covenant were exhorted to follow the path of Abraham who “was accounted a friend of God . . . and did not choose his own will.”10 At the same time among the Alexandrian Jewish community (more populous than the entire Palestinian community), Abraham’s life was remembered as so congruent with divine law that he was considered “himself a law and an unwritten statute.”11
And some six centuries later in nearby Arabia, Muhammad claimed to restore the true religion of his forefather Abraham, who as the very paradigm of submission (Islam) to God was revered in the Qur’an as “indeed a model, devoutly obedient to God, (and) true in faith.”12 To this day Abraham is commonly referred to among his Muslim descendants not just as Abraham but as “Abraham the friend,”13 echoing the Qur’an’s statement that “God chose Abraham as friend,”14 or as more literally translated, “a beloved friend.”15
These impressive traditions uniformly attesting to Abraham’s righteousness help explain what the book of Genesis does not: why this particular man was selected for his pivotal role in God’s plan for the human race. With Abraham’s entrance onto the stage of history comes an abrupt shift of focus in the Genesis story, which, as scholars note, had previously concerned itself with the broad scope of mankind as a whole. But “all at once and precipitously the universal field of vision narrows; world and humanity . . . are submerged, and all interest is concentrated upon a single man.”16 To use a modern analogy, the lens of the Genesis camera that has been panning the landscape suddenly zooms in on one man, and will thence occupy itself exclusively with this individual and his descendants.
Why such a radical shift? Because what is promised to Abraham extends far beyond personal benefit; he is told that through him and his posterity all nations of the earth will be blessed. As Nibley points out, Abraham embarks on his momentous journey not just for himself but for all mankind, causing one writer to call him “the most pivotal and strategic man in the course of world history.”17
With so much entrusted to Abraham, no wonder many readers are perplexed by the first incident in Genesis in which he speaks. Having obediently left his native country, Abraham arrives in the promised land only to find, ironically, that conditions there seem to threaten God’s promise of worldwide blessing. “There was a famine in the land,” Genesis reports, and “the famine was grievous” (Genesis 12:10). So grievous that Abraham was forced to leave the parched land of Palestine for the country the Greek historian Herodotus would rightly call “the gift of the Nile”—Egypt, where crops depended not on rainfall but on the annual flooding of the great life-giving river. Thus “Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there” (Genesis 12:10). Referring to another part of the Abraham story in Genesis, one scholar has called it “fraught with background,”18 a description equally applicable to the terse, nearly cryptic account of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt, the first time in Genesis that we hear Abraham’s voice:
And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon: Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive. Say, 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. And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair. The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels. And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s wife. And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? 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: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way. And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had. (Genesis 12:11–20)
One might expect that any ambiguities in this account would be read as Martin Luther chose to read them19—congruent with the widespread ancient tradition praising the exemplary goodness of Abraham’s life. Surprisingly, many readers have seized upon this story as license to criticize the father of the faithful, calling him, for example, “a desperate man . . . act[ing] in prudential and unprincipled ways”20 out of “cowardice and betrayal” and “with a brutal disregard for Sarai” in this “despicable ruse.”21 All in all, complain the critics, Abraham “never sank lower,”22 and “no attempts should be made to try to justify or excuse what [he] did.”23
Such zealous certainty in censuring Abraham appears curious in light of what scholars (including some of those same critics) observe about the difficulty of understanding the story. “How strange this is!”24 “How different is the Abram of [this episode] from the trusting, obedient Abram of [before]!”25 He seems to be “acting completely out of character”26 in this “puzzling”27 and “incongruous scene”28 which “pose[s] a challenge” for anyone attempting to interpret the Abraham story.29 Indeed, the episode is “a melange of the credible and the unexplained,”30 and “provides an extreme example of how little suggestion most of the patriarchal stories give the reader for any authoritative explanation and assessment of any occurrence,”31 for it contains “some extraordinary gaps which have not been covered over.”32 In fact, some scholars insist that the original story contained additional information which has long since dropped out of the text.33
The significance of that missing information is hinted at by what the ancients understood about Abraham’s experience in Egypt. “If Abram had not gone down to Egypt and been tested there,” says an important Jewish source, “his portion would not have been in the Lord.”34 According to the learned Philo of Alexandria, it was by means of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt that “the nobility and piety of the man” were made manifest.35 And that Abraham’s Egyptian experience not only vindicated his character but also his pivotal role in God’s plan may be implied by the assertion of a prominent scholar, quoted by Nibley, who insists that “to the ancients . . . the encounter between Pharaoh and the traveler from Ur of the Chaldees seemed as a crucial event in the history of mankind.”36
The lost knowledge of why that was such a crucial event was restored in the Book of Abraham, which reveals that it was the Lord who commanded Abraham to ask Sarah to feign being only his sister in order to preserve his life in Egypt (see Abraham 2:22–25). Then to further prepare Abraham for his journey, the Lord showed him the vastness and order of the cosmos, man’s premortal existence, and the creation, in order that Abraham might teach these things to the Egyptians (Abraham 3:15). Although the book’s narrative portion ends here, Facsimile 3 (the last of the book’s three illustrations) presupposes a dramatic turn of events, for Pharaoh himself (who traditionally claimed exclusive possession of priesthood and kingship) actually recognizes Abraham as the true priest and king, and ushers him onto the royal throne to instruct the sages of Egypt. This intriguing scenario is rendered all the more remarkable in light of Abraham’s earlier experience in Ur where, as the Book of Abraham has already recounted, he had once lain bound on a sacrificial altar as Pharaoh’s priest lifted the knife to slay Abraham. Only divine intervention at the very last moment saved him (see Abraham 1:5–20). Nibley’s insightful exploration of those ancient scenes helps us appreciate their historical uniqueness as well as their continuing relevance.
But the genius of the Book of Abraham is that interwoven through the description of those momentous events is a panorama of mankind’s divine origin and potential. As literal spirit offspring of God (see Abraham 3:11–12), we are sent into mortality to be “prove[n] . . . to see if [we] will do all things whatsoever the Lord [our] God shall command [us]” (Abraham 3:25) so that we can “have glory added upon [our] heads for ever and ever” (Abraham 3:26). Parley Pratt noted that in Abraham’s record “we see . . . unfolded our eternal being—our existence before the world was—our high and responsible station in the councils of the Holy One, and our eternal destiny.”37 The Book of Abraham even describes the road to that highest destiny: strictly obeying all God’s commandments (see Abraham 3:25); diligently seeking righteousness and peace (see Abraham 1:2); making and keeping sacred covenants (see Abraham 2:6–13); receiving the priesthood and sacred ordinances (see Abraham 1:2 and Facsimile 2); building a family unit (Abraham 2:2); searching the scriptures (see Abraham 1:31); keeping journals and records (see Abraham 1:31); sharing the gospel (see Abraham 2:15); and proving faithful in the face of opposition (see Abraham 1:5–15 and Facsimile 1)—all works of Abraham, who is as much a model for Latter-day Saints as he was in ages past for those aspiring to be the people of God. “Do the works of Abraham,” declared a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith (D&C 132:32; see also 101:4–5).
One can appreciate, then, the profound joy among the early saints of this dispensation at the coming forth of the Book of Abraham. On 19 February 1842, after helping set the type to print the first installment of the Book of Abraham, Wilford Woodruff could hardly contain his exuberance as he recorded in his journal:
Truly the Lord has raised up Joseph [Smith] the Seer of the seed of Abraham . . . & is now clothing him with mighty power & wisdom & knowledge. . . . to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God [and] to translate . . . Ancient records . . . as old as Abraham . . . , which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us.38
Wilford was hardly less effusive a month later when, after spending the day printing another installment of the book, he recorded:
The truths of the Book of Abraham are truly edifying, great & glorious, which are among the rich treasures that are revealed unto us in the last days.39
Later that year when the Book of Abraham was first printed for the British Saints in the Millennial Star, the paper’s editor, Parley Pratt, exulted:
When we read the Book of Abraham with the reflection that its light has burst upon the world after a silence of three or four thousand years, during which it has slumbered in the bosom of the dead, and been sealed up in the sacred archives of Egypt’s moldering ruins, . . . we are lost in astonishment and admiration. . . . The morning of celestial light has dawned.40
But just as the great Abraham has not escaped the criticism of the modern world, neither has the great latter-day restorer of his record, Joseph Smith, who has been accused of producing a story that departs radically from the biblical account and contains features similar to standard Egyptian texts. Ironically, as Nibley demonstrates, such objections are now proving to be the very points that overwhelmingly confirm the antiquity and authenticity of the Book of Abraham. For what the critics did not foresee was the emergence of numerous ancient sources—apocryphal, pseudepigraphical, Egyptian, and otherwise—that would collectively recount essentially the same story as that found in the Book of Abraham.
Nibley takes us on a grand tour of many of those sources, pointing out their remarkable parallels with the Book of Abraham and filling in much of the background that Genesis leaves out. In the process, Abraham comes alive for us as Nibley deepens our understanding and appreciation of the man whose extraordinary life still serves as a model for the saints. The morning of celestial light, Parley Pratt would say, shines yet brighter.
E. Douglas Clark
1. The Hebrew word derives from the verb ʾāhab, “to love”; see Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 12–13; and G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986), 1:99–118. The word also “implies a more intimate relationship than . . . the usual word for ‘my friend/companion,'” so that God literally calls Abraham “him whom I loved,” Christopher R. North, The Second Isaiah: Introduction, Translation and Commentary to Chapters XL–LV (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), 97; or “my beloved” or “my beloved friend,” as the passage is in fact translated in some versions both ancient and modern. The Septuagint has the Greek equivalent of “whom I have loved,” while Aquila has the Greek equivalent of “my beloved.” John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 25 (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987), 99; Westermann reads “whom I loved,” in Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 67; Gileadi reads “my beloved friend,” in Avraham Gileadi, The Literary Message of Isaiah (New York: Hebraeus, 1994), 351; The Emphasized Bible reads “my loving one,” in Curtis Vaughan, Twenty-six Translations of the Bible, 3 vols. (Atlanta: American Home Libraries, 1967), 2478.
2. The numerous passages of Isaiah 40–66 quoted from the brass plates demonstrate that such passages are by no means postexilic but were actually part of the original book written by Isaiah.
3. P. A. H. de Boer, Second–Isaiah’s Message, Oudtestamentische Studien, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 1956), 58–67.
4. See for example Moses 7:53; 1 Nephi 15:15; 2 Nephi 4:30; 9:45; 18:14 (= Isaiah 8:14); Helaman 5:12; and Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:95–99.
5. In teaching his spiritually illiterate brothers, Nephi repeatedly refers to Abraham and his covenant, which, as Nephi points out, was received through Abraham’s exemplary righteousness; see 1 Nephi 15:18–19; 17:35–40.
6. See 2 Nephi 29:14; Jacob 4:5; Alma 13:15; Helaman 8:16–17; 3 Nephi 20:25–27; Mormon 5:20; and see also Ether 13:11.
7. Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] 44:19–20 (Apocrypha, King James Version).
8. “Abraham,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, corrected ed., 2:115–17, citing numerous rabbinic sources, including this statement from 32a of the tractate Nedarim of the Babylonian Talmud: “No one occupied himself so much with the divine commandments as did Abraham.”
9. Lech Lecha 76b, in The Zohar, 2nd ed. (London: Soncino, 1984), 1:260.
10. The Damascus Document III.4, in Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin, 1997), 129.
11. Philo, On Abraham XLVI, in Philo VI (1935; reprint, London: Heinemann, 1966), 135.
12. Qur’an 16:120, in A. Yusaf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary (Brentwood, Md.: Amana, 1983), 688 (parentheses in original).
13. As I was emphatically reminded by a Kurdish taxi driver near the Turkish city of Urfa, which claims to be the birthplace of Abraham. See also Ali, The Holy Qur’an, 219 n. 634; and George Sale, The Koran (London: Warne, n.d.), 90 n. 2.
14. Qur’an 4:125, in Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur’an (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 90.
15. Qur’an 4:125, in Kenneth Cragg, Readings in the Qur’an (London: Collins, 1988), 92; so also in a note in Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Gibraltar: Dar Al-Andalus, 1980), 129 n. 144: “chose Abraham to be [His] beloved friend” (brackets in original).
16. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 154.
17. Hugh Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price, part 7: The Unknown Abraham,” Improvement Era 72/1 (January 1969): 30, quoting J. M. Adams.
18. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), 12.
19. Luther’s lengthy exegesis of the story includes the following observations: “When [Abraham] had to migrate from Canaan, he could have thought: ‘Where is the promise that was given to me concerning this land, which I must leave now unless I want to perish from hunger with my people? Is this the way God does what He promises? Is this the way He concerns Himself about me?'” But Abraham “overcomes this trial by his patient hope for the future blessing. . . . You see here an outstanding example how faith is tried in the saints; and yet holy Abraham does not succumb.” Finding famine in the promised land, yet “he knew for certain that he would not be permitted to return to the place from which he had departed, for he had been commanded by the divine Word to depart. . . . Attracted by the fertility of [Egypt], therefore, he sets out. . . . In earthly dangers reason has its place. . . . Hence this prudent householder, finding himself in danger, directs his destiny by reason and yet does not discard his faith. . . . Aware of the various dangers, he still looks only at the promise. He knows that it has been given to him and his seed and has, so to speak, been attached to his body. . . . Therefore he looks for every means of safety or self-defense, as though he were saying: ‘I am not avoiding the death of this body if it thus pleases God; and yet the promise must not be wasted through negligence. . . . Therefore, my dear Sarah, do not say that I am your husband; say that I am your brother. Thus I shall remain alive through your favor. But as for you, do not have any doubt. You will experience the help of the Lord, so that nothing dishonorable may befall you; and I shall also help you in this regard as much as I am able, with prayers before the true God, who has promised that He will be merciful.’. . . Because Scripture often presents Abraham to us as a believing father and a perfect model of faith, I prefer to decide in favor of the opinion that here, too, his great faith is revealed rather than either that he sinned or that his faith succumbed in the trial.” Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1960), 2:289–90, 294. Luther’s conclusion that Abraham knew that Sarah would be protected echoes an ancient tradition in the Zohar (a tradition of which Luther seems unaware) telling that Abraham made the request of Sarah only after “he saw an angel escorting her, who said to him: ‘Fear not on her account, for the Holy One . . . hath sent me to protect her from every danger.'” Menahem M. Kasher, ed., Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation: A Millennial Anthology, Genesis (New York: American Biblical Encyclopedia Society, 1955), 2:130, quoting Zohar 3:52 (apparently Lech Lecha 81b–82a).
20. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 128 (Atlanta: Knox, 1982), 128.
21. Joyce G. Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12–50: From Abraham to Joseph, The Bible Speaks Today, 38–39 (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 38–39.
22. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (1942; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 1:425.
23. G. Ch. Aalders, Genesis: Volume I (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1981), 274.
24. W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (1953; reprint, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 119.
25. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1990), 383.
26. Clyde T. Francisco, in Clifton T. Allen, ed., The Broadman Bible Commentary, rev. (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1973), 1:157.
27. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible (New York: Morrow, 1997), 25; Eugene F. Roop, Genesis, Believers Church Bible Commentary, 104 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald, 1987),.
28. Ronald Youngblood, Faith of Our Fathers, A Bible Commentary for Laymen, 22 (Glendale, Calif.: G/L Publications, 1976).
29. Everett Fox, In the Beginning: A New English Rendition of the Book of Genesis (New York: Schocken, 1983), 49.
30. Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977), 182.
31. Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, 168–69.
32. Brueggemann, Genesis, 129.
33. John J. Scullion, Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers, Old Testament Studies 6 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1992), 112–13, agreeing with H. Gunkel and K. Koch.
34. Lech Lecha 83a, in The Zohar, 2nd ed. (London: Soncino, 1984), 1:276.
35. Philo, On Abraham XIX, in Philo VI, 53. It was this same Philo who could not help criticize the critics of another of Abraham’s great-but-much-misunderstood actions, his offering of Isaac: “Quarrelsome critics who misconstrue everything and have a way of valuing censure above praise do not think Abraham’s action great or wonderful.” Ibid., XXXIII, in Philo VI, 89.
36. Ben Zion Wacholder, “How Long Did Abraham Stay in Egypt?” Hebrew Union College Annual 35 (1964): 43.
37. Parley P. Pratt, “Editorial Remarks,” Millennial Star 3/4 (August 1842): 70.
38. Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal: 1833–1893 Typescript (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983), 2:155, journal entry for 19 February 1842.
39. Ibid., 159, journal entry for 19 March 1842.
40. Pratt, “Editorial Remarks,” 70–71.