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TitleCommentary on Abraham 1
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2022
AuthorsSmoot, Stephen O.
Book TitleThe Pearl of Great Price: A Study Edition for Latter-day Saints
PublisherBook of Mormon Central
CitySpringville, UT

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Heading This heading was published alongside the text of the book of Abraham in the March 1, 1842, issue of the T&S and has appeared, with some modification, in each reprinting of the text. The writings of Abraham. The heading as published in the T&S describes the text as “purporting to be the writings of Abraham.” The phrase “purporting to be” was dropped in the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. This should not be taken to mean Joseph Smith or those who assisted him in the translation of the book of Abraham doubted or questioned the authenticity of the text. Rather, “purport” in the Prophet’s day merely meant “to mean, to signify.” By his own hand. The idiom “by the hand” is attested as an ancient Egyptian idiom to denote authorship and agency. It also appears in the Hebrew Bible (see, for example, Haggai 1:1; 2:1; Zechariah 7:7, 12; Malachi 1:1) to denote the prophetic agent issuing the word of the Lord (compare 1 Corinthians 16:21; Galatians 6:11; Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17; Philemon 1:19). The phrase “written by his own hand, upon papyrus,” accordingly need only be taken here as attributing authorship of the text to Abraham, not necessarily as a declaration that Abraham physically wrote the papyrus manuscripts acquired by Joseph Smith. Ab1 begins: “Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypts.”

1 The opening chapter of the book of Abraham narrates the patriarch’s life in Ur of the Chaldees, focusing on his escape from the clutches of his murderous kinsmen. It contains much unique material that is not paralleled in the sparse biblical account of the early life of Abraham (see Genesis 11:27–32).

1:1 In the land of the Chaldeans. The narrative in the published text of the book of Abraham takes place in the land of the Chaldeans (Ur), Haran, and then Canaan. Abraham never actually sets foot in Egypt in the extant text, although from Abraham 2:21 and Facsimile 3 it is clear this is where the narrative was leading. Although Joseph Smith intended to translate and publish more text, he unfortunately did not accomplish that before his death. The location of Abraham’s Ur of the Chaldees (see Abraham 1:20; 2:1–4; compare Genesis 11:27–32) is disputed. The most popular candidate for Abraham’s Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. However, various sites in modern Syria and Turkey have also been proposed. I, Abraham. The autobiographical voice and structure of the text parallels the inscription of Idrimi (circa 1460–1400 BC), king of the Amorite city of Alalakh.

1:2 Abraham begins his prologue with a list of titles and attributes. Some of Abraham’s titles are shared by Jesus (see, for example, Hebrew 4:14–16), thereby signifying the patriarch as a type of Christ.

1:3 Ab1 omits “it was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers,” making the sentence read: “I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers from the beginning of time . . .” First Father. The 1902 and 1921 editions of the text read, “Our first father.” The 1981 edition corrected this to read, “Or first father,” bringing it into conformity with Ab1 and the 1842 printing.

1:4 The theme of priesthood and rightful priesthood succession is prominent in the text. Pharaoh makes claim to a counterfeit priesthood (see Abraham 1:25–28), and the covenant Abraham enters into with God includes explicit stipulations related to priesthood (see 2:9–11).

1:5–7 The idolatry of Abraham’s kinsfolk. Joshua 24:2 preserves a brief mention of the idolatry of Abraham’s father, Terah. The idolatry of Abraham’s kinsfolk is a common motif in extra-biblical Jewish and Islamic accounts of the life of the patriarch. Elkenah . . . Pharaoh. The names Elkenah and Libnah are given as Elkkener or Elkeenah and Zibnah in the Kirtland-era manuscripts (as at Abraham 1:13, 17, 20, 29), while the name of the god Korash is either omitted or rendered here as Koash in Ab4. The name Elkenah is attested in Northwest Semitic and Anatolian inscriptions as Elkurniša. It appears as a male personal name in the King James Version of the Old Testament (see Exodus 6:24; 1 Samuel 1:1, 4, 8, 19, 21, 23), but not as a deity’s name. It is a shortened version of an epithet meaning “God, creator of earth” (ʾēl qônēh ʾāreṣ). Libnah is plausibly attested in texts from ancient Ugarit and is likely derived from the Semitic root lbn, meaning “to be white” (as in the Ugaritic labanu or the Hebrew lābēn). Mahmackrah remains unattested and the origin of the name unknown. It might be identifiable with the name of a deity found at Beth-Shean rendered in Egyptian as Mkr or MꜤkꜢrꜢ, but this remains uncertain. Korash is perhaps attested in ancient Hittite as kurša, a type of bag that was a symbol for a deity and so was treated as such. The name Pharaoh derives from Egyptian and means literally “great house” (pr-ꜤꜢ). This god could plausibly be the crocodile deity Sobek or the falcon deity Horus (Facsimile 1, fig. 9 would suggest the former), both deities anciently having been associated with the Egyptian monarch and both of whose iconography is attested at sites such as Ebla in northern Syria during Abraham’s day.

1:8–9 Human sacrifice. Although the offering of human life to the idolatrous gods was done “after the manner of the Egyptians,” it was said to be done in the land of Chaldea. The modern terminology of “human sacrifice” does not appear in the text. Only once is this practice called “the sacrifice of the heathen” (1:7). Otherwise, it is called an “offering” or “thank-offering” (1:9–10). The extent to which peoples of the ancient Near East practiced what is sometimes today called “human sacrifice” remains debated. Ritual or sacred violence is attested among the Egyptians of Abraham’s day in the form of execration rituals in which enemies and other threats to Egypt were ritually destroyed. These rituals were mainly carried out on effigies but in at least one documented case on an actual human victim. Trespassers of sacred space, rebels against the king, and desecrators of tombs were also deemed worthy of capital punishment by the ancient Egyptians. Egyptian presence in the land of Chaldea. The text mentions a “priest of Pharaoh” conducting these sacrifices “after the manner of the Egyptians” (1:10–11), suggesting some level of awareness of Egyptian culture and religion in Abraham’s homeland. (But note that the ethnic origin of this priest is not given, only that he served the god Pharaoh mentioned in the text.) Based on the current archaeological record, this detail converges much better with a setting for Abraham’s Ur in modern Syria or Turkey than with the site of Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq.

1:9 The god of Shagreel. The identity of this god is unknown, but the name suggests for itself a Semitic origin.

1:10 Potiphar’s Hill. The name Potiphar derives from Egyptian and means “the one whom [the god] Re has given” (pꜢ-dỉ-pꜢ-rꜤ; compare Genesis 39:1). The apparent association between Shagreel, the god of the sun, and Potiphar’s Hill at Abraham 1:9–10 would be appropriate since Re was a solar deity in ancient Egyptian religion. The plain of Olishem. Adjacent to Potiphar’s Hill is the plain of Olishem, which has been persuasively identified as the toponym Ulisum (or, variously, Ulishum, Ulissum, and Ullis) mentioned in inscriptions from the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (circa 2254–2218 BC).

1:12–14 In a cruelly ironic inversion of the story of the binding of Isaac (see Genesis 22), here it is Abraham who is almost sacrificed. But unlike the loving, trusting relationship displayed between Abraham and Isaac as father and son in the Genesis account, here the idolatrous priests lay violence on Abraham against his will.

1:12 Ab1 interlineally inserts “I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record”; Ab2 reads “that is lying before you” and sublineally inserts “at the commencement of this record.” The references to Facsimile 1 in the text of the book of Abraham (compare Abraham 1:14) were apparently a secondary insertion on the part of Joseph Smith or one of his scribes and not original to the revealed text.  

1:14 Referring to Facsimile 1 (as at 1:12). The gloss “which signifies hieroglyphics” appears for the first time in the T&S printing of the text, suggesting that it comes from Joseph Smith or one of the clerks in the printing office at the time of publication in 1842. In Ab2 and Ab3 the word is rendered Kahleenos. It is unknown what language the Chaldeans of Abraham’s day spoke.

1:15 In another intertextual nod to the story of the binding of Isaac, “the angel of the Lord” stops Abraham from “stretch[ing] forth his hand” and sacrificing his son in the Genesis account (see Genesis 22:10–11), whereas here “the angel of [the Lord’s] presence” saves Abraham from the idolatrous priests who had “lifted up their hands” to slay him.

1:16 Even though the “angel of his presence” stood next to Abraham (compare Facsimile 1, fig. 1, where this figure is called the “Angel of the Lord”), from this verse it is clear that Jehovah delivered the patriarch, thus implying that the “angel of his presence” is Jehovah Himself (compare Genesis 16:9–14; Exodus 3:2).

1:16–17 Abraham. The Kirtland-era manuscripts and the T&S give the name as Abram instead of Abraham, and the Lord continues to address the patriarch as such. The name was changed to Abraham in the MS printing in 1842. Jehovah. Like Moses on the mount (see Exodus 3), here Abraham receives the revelation of the Lord’s true name (compare Joseph Smith Translation, Exodus 6:3). Strange land. The “land which thou knowest not of” refers to the land of Canaan. “Strange” in this sense means “foreign” or “unknown.” Mahmackrah. Rendered Mah Mach-rah in Ab2 and Mahmachrah in Ab3, Ab4.

1:18–19 The Lord promises Abraham that He will lead him by the hand, put His name on him, and give him priesthood power. The covenantal language and temple imagery of these verses is unmistakable. The reference to Noah hearkens to the covenant made in Genesis 9:8–17.

1:20 In an overt act of iconoclasm that would have been tantamount to deicide in an ancient Near Eastern mindset, the Lord destroys the Chaldean idols and, for good measure, slays the idolatrous priest. This signals the abject impotence of the false gods of Abraham’s rivals.

1:21–24 The discovery of Egypt. Origin myths were prevalent in the ancient Near East. Some of the common elements in ancient myths include the presence of a primordial flood, a description of the origin of humanity, and an etiological explanation for the condition of the world. These themes are echoed in these passages. Abraham’s understanding of the prehistoric origins of Egypt are best viewed in the context of the religious milieu of his day and age. The blood of the Canaanites. A dynasty of Semitic or Levantine (“Canaanite”) rulers was established in the Nile Delta of Lower Egypt sometime around 1800–1725 BC. This was followed by another dynasty of Semitic kings known commonly as the Hyksos. The mention of the king of Egypt in Abraham’s day being a “partaker of the blood of the Canaanites” could perhaps be a reference to a ruler from either of these dynasties. Alternatively, it could be a reference to the pre-Flood Canaanites mentioned at Moses 7:6–9. Egyptus. The name of the daughter of Ham in Kirtland manuscripts is given as Zeptah. The name arguably derives from Egyptian, meaning “son of [the god] Ptah” (sꜢ-ptḥ). The name is said to signify “that which is forbidden” in Chaldean, not Egyptian. As with the gloss at Abraham 1:14, it is possible that this is something of a folk etymology or poetic metonymy, much like how centuries later the name Babylonian (“Chaldean”) came to mean something like “superstitious” and was associated with soothsaying and astrology (compare Daniel 2:2, 10). The curse of Ham. The mention of Ham and the “curse in the land” appears to be a reference to the enigmatic account of Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:18–27. The precise nature of this curse is not specified, although it involved some kind of restriction to holding the priesthood based on the description at Abraham 1:26–27. These verses have in the past been (mis)read to justify a ban on men of African descent from holding the priesthood, even though the text says nothing about the curse and priesthood restriction being associated with skin color. From the immediate context it is apparent that the issue is more along the lines of rightful priesthood succession rather than skin color (compare Abraham 1:3–4, 25–27, 31). The racist reading of these verses that links worthiness to hold the priesthood with skin color has been officially rejected by modern leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. See further the commentary at Moses 7:6–8.

1:25 The Kirtland-era manuscripts render the name Egyptus as Egyptes, probably reflecting how it was pronounced by Joseph Smith and contemporaries.

1:26 Pharaoh is described as a “righteous man” who enjoyed some blessings but was unauthorized to hold priesthood. Unlike the hardhearted and murderous Pharaoh of the Exodus account (see Exodus 1:15–22; 5; 7–9), the Pharaoh of this text is portrayed as sincere but misguided.

1:27 Pharaoh is treated as a personal name at Abraham1:25, but in this instance appears to be a title held by multiple individuals (comparable perhaps to the Caesars of ancient Rome or the Nephis of the Book of Mormon). Although there appear to be a few rare earlier attestations, it did not become commonplace to refer to the Egyptian monarch with the title of pharaoh until after Abraham’s day.

1:29–30 The famine serves as a literary element that drives the narrative forward and gives Abraham motivation to leave his ancestral home. In the Genesis account the motivation for the flight of Abraham and his family is not specified (Genesis 11:27–12:5).

1:31 Foreshadowing the Creation account in Abraham 4–5. Records of the fathers. Some apocryphal Jewish works depict Abraham as having had ancestral records from which he gained knowledge and wisdom. In one of these works, Abraham teaches the Egyptians out of the book of Enoch, while in another he learns from ancestral records the language of Adam (said to be Hebrew) and of the Creation.

Scripture Reference

Abraham 1:1