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Abraham

by E. Douglas Clark

Few biblical characters figure so prominently in LDS faith as does Abraham. Belief that he was a real person is shared by others, but the LDS approach is unique: Revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith confirm the basic historicity of Genesis and add information echoed in ancient sources, many of which have emerged since his day.

The book of Abraham as restored by Joseph Smith autobiographically recounts Abraham's early life, explaining why he was singled out as the pivotal recipient of divine promises for the blessing of mankind. Not only had he been foreordained in premortal life (Abr. 3:23; cf. Apocalypse of Abraham 22:1-5), but as a young man in Ur he opposed idolatry and human sacrifice, ironically turning him into an intended victim (Abr. 1:5-20; cf. Genesis Rabbah 38:13). The irony increases when God's last-minute rescue of Abraham foreshadowed what would transpire at Abraham's offering of Isaac.

After marrying Sarah and learning of his lineal right to the patriarchal order of the priesthood as disclosed in the "records of the fathers" (Abr. 1:2-4, 26, 31; 2:2; Jubilees 12:27; cf. D&C 107:40-57), Abraham traveled to Haran, where he apparently received his ordination (Abr. 2:9-11; WJS, pp. 245, 303). He also saw the Lord, who gave him remarkable promises: Abraham would be blessed above measure; his posterity would carry the gospel to all nations; and all who received it would bear his name, be accounted his posterity, and bless him as their father (Abr. 2:6-11; cf. Gen. 12:1-3).

Accompanied by their converts, Abraham and Sarah proceeded to Canaan (Abr. 2:15; Genesis Rabbah 39:14). Famine soon forced them to Egypt, but not before God commanded Abraham to ask Sarah to pose as his sister (Abr. 2:22-25; Genesis Apocryphon 19:14-21), and then showed him a vision of the cosmos and creation so that he could teach these things to the Egyptians (Abr. 3- 5; cf. Sefer Yetsirah).

The book of Abraham narrative ends here, but the book's last facsimile (no. 3) depicts Pharaoh—who traditionally claimed exclusive possession of priesthood and kingship (Abr. 1:25-27)—honoring Abraham's priesthood by allowing him to occupy the throne and instruct the court in astronomy (cf. Pseudo-Eupolemus; Josephus, Antiquities 1.viii.2). Pharaoh's recognition of Abraham's priesthood was unknown in any other ancient source until the 1947 discovery of the Genesis Apocryphon, purporting, like the book of Abraham, to contain an autobiographical account of Abraham but continuing the narrative into Egypt (Genesis Apocryphon 20:8-34): When Pharaoh took Sarah to the palace, Abraham tearfully appealed to God, who immediately protected her by afflicting Pharaoh. The affliction worsened, but Pharaoh finally had a dream of Abraham healing him; the patriarch was then summoned and, laying hands on Pharaoh's head, restored him to health. This is the only known instance in the Old Testament or related pseudepigrapha of a healing by laying on of hands, and it sets the stage for the book of Abraham scene. Together these two sources explain why the ancients considered Abraham's encounter with Pharaoh "a crucial event in the history of mankind" (Nibley, 1981 [citing Wacholder], p. 63).

But it was Sarah who had faced the most difficult dilemma in Egypt: If she honored both Abraham's request (by feigning maidenhood) and her marriage vows (by refusing Pharaoh's advances), she faced certain death. The alternative was simply to accept her new role with its dazzling wealth and influence. Sarah proved her loyalty at the peril of her life, and was—as were Abraham and Isaac—finally rescued by God. Her sacrifice demonstrated her equality with Abraham and their mutual dependence (CWHN 1:98; IE 73 [Apr. 1970]:79-95).

Later events of Abraham's life are illuminated by other LDS sources, as when Sarah, still childless after returning to Canaan, gave her maid Hagar to Abraham (Gen. 16:1-3) and thereby "administered unto Abraham according to the law" (D&C 132:65; see also verse 34)—congruent with now extant ancient Near Eastern sources describing the legal obligation of a childless wife. Sarah's action demonstrated, says one LDS Apostle, "her love and integrity to her husband" (JD 23:228) and was, says Philo, one of "numberless proofs" of her "wifely love…. Everywhere and always she was at his side,…his true partner in life and life's events, resolved to share alike the good and ill" (On Abraham, pp. xlii-xliii).

LDS sources further describe how Abraham was taught about Jesus Christ by Melchizedek (TPJS, pp. 322-23), who, as a prototype of Christ (JST Gen. 14:26-36; Alma 13:17-19), gave Abraham the priesthood after the Order of the Son of God (see Melchizedek Priesthood; D&C 84:14; 107:2-4; cf. Genesis Rabbah 43:6) with accompanying temple ordinances foreshadowing Christ (Abraham, Facsimile 2; Alma 13:2, 16; cf. Cave of Treasures [Budge], p. 148). Later, Abraham "looked forth and saw the days of the Son of Man, and was glad" (JST Gen. 15:9-12; Hel. 8:17; John 8:56).

Abraham's supreme test—the offering of Isaac—both recalled Abraham's prior experience and typified things to come. Centuries before Jesus, a Book of Mormon prophet pointed to Abraham's offering of Isaac as "a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son" (Jacob 4:4-5)—just as many Christian fathers would do retrospectively. Abraham's life thus typified and testified of his preeminent descendant Jesus, who, because he was also the Son of God, could atone for Abraham and all others.

Abraham's life also prefigured that of another descendant, Joseph Smith (D&C 132:30-31), whose prayer at age fourteen echoes young Abraham's prayer at the same age (Jubilees 11:16-17; JS—H 1:7-17). Both men had been foreordained; both received the priesthood, preached the gospel, and encountered formidable opposition; both spoke face to face with divine messengers and God himself; both possessed a Urim and Thummim, translated ancient records, and wrote scripture; and both founded an influential community of saints.

But the connection is more direct. John Taylor reported that Abraham visited Joseph Smith (JD 20:174-75; 21:94), whose mission included revealing lost knowledge about Abraham (cf. 2 Ne. 3:7, 12) and whose entire ministry of restoration helped fulfill Abraham's covenant that through his seed all nations would be blessed (2 Ne. 29:14; 3 Ne. 20:27, 29). A central purpose of that restoration is to make Abraham's promises effective for his descendants, who through temple ordinances may receive the blessings of Abraham and be sealed in an ancestral chain back to Abraham and Adam (D&C 2; TPJS, pp. 337-38).

To achieve the glory of Abraham, Latter-day Saints are commanded to come to Christ by "do[ing] the works of Abraham," whose life constitutes a pattern (D&C 132:32; cf. Isa. 51:1-2; John 8:39; Koran 16:120-23). These works begin with baptism and reception of the Holy Ghost, whereupon the recipient must "press forward" (2 Ne. 31:19-20) in righteousness, as did Abraham, by obeying God, receiving the priesthood and temple ordinances, honoring covenants, building a family unit, teaching children, keeping sacred records, preaching the gospel, and proving faithful in opposition (Abr. 1-2; Gen. 12- 25). Progression along this path brings increased identification with Abraham and Sarah and the blessings promised to them. For example, anyone who is not a descendant of Abraham but receives the Holy Ghost becomes the seed of Abraham (TPJS, pp. 149-50; Abr. 2:10; cf. Gal. 3:29), while each man magnifying the Melchizedek Priesthood likewise becomes Abraham's seed (D&C 84:33-34). And each couple married eternally in the temple is promised the blessings of Abraham—posterity as the stars of heaven and sand of the seashore, meaning an eternal increase of posterity in the Celestial Kingdom (D&C 132:30; JD 11:151-52; 15:320).

Such blessings of innumerable posterity were promised to Abraham on several occasions (Abr. 3:13-14; Gen. 13:16; 15:5; 17:2, 6), but it was not until he demonstrated his willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice that the Lord guaranteed the promises (Gen. 22:16-18), showing, explains Joseph Smith, that any person who would attain eternal life "must sacrifice all things" (TPJS, p. 322). Accordingly, the Lord's people must be "tried, even as Abraham," to become sanctified through Abraham's descendant Christ (D&C 101:4-5; Moro. 10:33) in preparation to "sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham" and Sarah (Alma 5:24) on thrones of glory to inherit the same blessings of exaltation already enjoyed by that exemplary couple (D&C 132:34-37; cf. Testament of Isaac 2:5-7).

(See Abrahamic Covenant)

Bibliography

Kimball, Spencer W. "The Example of Abraham." Ensign 6 (June 1975):3-7.

Nibley, Hugh. "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price." IE 71-73 (Jan. 1968-May 1970), a series of articles covering two years.

Nibley, Hugh. Abraham in Egypt. Salt Lake City, 1981.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Abraham

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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