World of Abraham Topic of FARMS Conference

Continuing a series of conferences on the Book of Abraham, the Institute sponsored “The World of Abraham,” a free public event at Brigham Young University on 23 March featuring new research that further illuminates the geographical and cultural horizons of the Book of Abraham. Institute executive director Daniel Oswald greeted a crowd of 350 people in the Tanner Building auditorium and dozens more in an overflow room. Many others viewed the event via delayed Web transmission a few hours later.

After remarks and introductions by associate executive director M. Gerald Bradford, BYU scholar Brian Hauglid, coeditor of FARMS’s Studies in the Book of Abraham series, gave an overview of the world of Abraham. He discussed the time period when Abraham lived (most scholars give a date of 2000-1500 B.C.E., the middle bronze age); the idolatry of Abraham’s day (Genesis is silent on this, but the Book of Abraham and numerous ancient traditions indicate that idolatry was rampant at that time); the cultural and religious influences of Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt; and the concrete, dialectic nature of ancient Hebrew thought.

The first session, chaired by Kent Jackson, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, dealt with geography. Institute senior resident scholar John Tvedtnes reviewed the considerable evidence for placing Ur of the Chaldees near Harran (in southern Turkey), farther north than the usual view. His evidence is based on such things as personal names in Abraham’s family that correspond to place-names near Harran, patriarchal customs such as adoption and inheritance, and early traditions and writings about Ur. Locating Ur in northern Syria or southern Turkey is important, he said, because that location fits the description of Abraham’s homeland as found in the Book of Abraham.

Kerry Muhlestein, a graduate student in Near Eastern languages and culture at UCLA, addressed the question of whether Facsimile 3 in the Book of Abraham fits into a historical context that supports the unique story of how Abraham came to teach Pharaoh in his court. Muhlestein noted archaeological evidence dating to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom period (time of Abraham) for (1) Egyptian influence at Megiddo, Byblos, Ebla, and many other sites in the Levant (Syria-Palestine area); (2) a mixed presence in the Sinai Peninsula; and (3) Asiatic presence in Egypt. He concluded that the significant degree of intellectual exchange between Egypt and the Semitic Levant shows Facsimile 3 to be consistent with that international setting.

John Gee, assistant research professor of Egyptology at the Institute, discussed how the geographic “horizons” (the area of contact of a given political entity at a given time) in Abraham’s day provide information for narrowing the time period in which he lived. Textual references and archaeological remains are evidence of such contact, Gee said. His research along these lines has enabled him to posit narrowed dates for Abraham’s travels: in (northern) Ur sometime between 1860 and 1810 B.C., in Harran after 1800 B.C., and in Egypt before 1775 B.C.

S. Kent Brown, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU and director of the Ancient Studies Program, chaired the second session of the conference, which dealt with cultural aspects of Abraham’s world. BYU associate research professor Michael Rhodes discussed the eternal nature of the family in Egyptian belief, as evidenced in funerary statues, tomb paintings, coffin texts, letters to the dead, and the Book of the Dead. The literary, inscriptional, and artistic evidence indicates strong belief in the continuation of the family structure in the afterlife and emphasizes the joy and deification of those who are moral and righteous, Rhodes concluded. Thomas Wayment, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU, reviewed evidence from Greek and Roman sources (e.g., the writings of Euripides, Aeschylus, Plutarch, and Eusebius) indicating that human sacrificeÑincluding the slaying and offering up of a beloved son as a ransom for military successÑpersisted in ancient Near Eastern culture at least since Canaanite times. The practice may reflect an archetypal belief in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that was subsequently altered, he said.

In the final presentation of the conference, Terrence Szink, an instructor in ancient scripture at BYU, showed that God’s covenant with Abraham resembled an ancient simile oath. This oath made in the name of God and accompanied by a ritual ceremony (such as the slaughter of an animal) was self-execrative in nature, the violator of the oath suffering a stipulated penalty, such as death in the manner of the sacrificed animal (see Genesis 15; compare Jeremiah 34:18-20). Szink noted examples of simile oaths in the Old Testament (Ruth 1:16-17) and the Book of Mormon (Alma 46:21-22) and concluded by relating these oaths to the sacramental covenant (see Exodus 24:3-8; Matthew 26:26-28; D&C 19:16-17).

Concluding the conference, Brian Hauglid highlighted the key contributions of each presentation and pronounced the event a success. The proceedings of this conference, as well as those of past and future Institute-sponsored conferences on the Book of Abraham, are expected to be published in book form by FARMS. Notices of these publication efforts will appear in Insights.