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Commentary on Abraham 4
|Commentary on Abraham 4
|Year of Publication
|Smoot, Stephen O.
|The Pearl of Great Price: A Study Edition for Latter-day Saints
|Book of Mormon Central
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4 The book of Abraham’s account of the Creation significantly impacts how Latter-day Saints understand this important theological subject. The more noteworthy elements introduced by the book of Abraham include creation by organizing preexisting matter, multiple Gods (the divine council) participating in the process, and the seeming fact that the periods (“days”) of Creation were less temporally definite. The Creation account here directly follows the divine council scene of Abraham 3:24–28 and should indeed be read as the narrative continuation of that scene. The modern chapter divisions for the text were introduced in 1902 by James E. Talmage. As it appeared in the T&S under the editorship of Joseph Smith and as it appeared in the 1851 first edition of the Pearl of Great Price, there was no chapter division between 3:28 and 4:1. Read as one continuous narrative, the divine council decides on a course of action in 3:24–28 and then executes that decision beginning here. (See further the commentary for Moses 2.)
4:1 Let us go down. The cohortative language here clearly parallels Genesis 1:26; 11:7. As so used both here and in Genesis, it signals the execution of group action. In the biblical Creation narrative of Genesis 1, God does not enlist the effort of the divine council until the creation of humankind. Here, however, and in the book of Moses (2:1), the divine council participates in Creation from the earliest steps. The Gods. As with the glosses earlier in the text (at, for example, Abraham 1:7, 9, 12, 14, 20, 23; 2:11), it is not clear if these explanatory comments were original to Abraham or introduced by Joseph Smith or his scribes. In either case, the text departs from the Genesis account by explicitly introducing multiple divinities as being involved in the creative process. Organized and formed. The text explicitly rejects notions of creation ex nihilo by employing the verbs “organize” and “form” throughout. Although departing from traditional Jewish and Christian ideas of Creation, this absence of creation ex nihilo grounds the book of Abraham more comfortably in the milieu of the ancient Near East during Abraham’s day. It also more closely aligns the text with the underlying Hebrew of Genesis 1. This may likely be, in part, the result of Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew under the tutelage of Joshua Seixas in Kirtland, Ohio, in the early months of 1836. As with the Hebrew terminology that appears in the text (see, for example, Abraham 3:13, 16, 18) and the explanations to the facsimiles (see, for example, Facsimile 1, fig. 12; Facsimile 2, figs. 4–5), it appears that the Prophet’s rendering of this Creation account was influenced by his knowledge of Hebrew. It remains uncertain to what extent his secular learning helped shape the articulation of this revelation—or, conversely, to what extent the revelation itself, as tailored by a divine influence, was adapted for or integrated with Joseph Smith’s growing knowledge of ancient languages.
4:2 The formation of the earth. Even after being formed, the earth remains empty and desolate (compare Genesis 1:2; Moses 2:2; and commentary), until it would be populated with life and given purpose. This suggests that Creation entails more than just the act of physical generation but also functional assignment. The deep. As with Genesis 1:2 and Moses 2:2, here the text describes a primordial dark abyss, with darkness “reigning” (a verb absent from the biblical text and from the book of Moses) over the early stages of the earth’s formation. All this aligns the text with tropes from creation myths from Abraham’s day and signals that Creation is still in its primeval stages.
4:3–5 In Abraham’s account the Gods do not “create” light but rather “comprehend” the light and “divide” it from the darkness, thereby recognizing the day-night cycle. This reinforces the point that Creation involves teleological reckoning or assigning purpose to observable phenomena.
4:6–8 The expanse that separates the waters corresponds to the firmament of Genesis 1:6 and Moses 2:6 (see commentary). Once again, Joseph Smith’s rendering here appears to derive from his knowledge of Hebrew, as it is indeed a more precise rendering of the Hebrew raqiaʿ (compare Facsimile 2, fig. 4).
4:9–13 Waters and earth. The Gods continue their organization of the earth by gathering the seas, dividing the land, and preparing for the generation of vegetation. The subtle detail at Abraham 4:9 (“let the earth come up dry”) that is absent in the King James Version of Genesis 1:9 (as well as in its underlying Hebrew) and Moses 2:9 evokes ancient Egyptian creation imagery of the primeval hillock springing from the primordial waters. This detail would have resonated well with Abraham’s Egyptian audience (compare Abraham 3:15). Ordered and obeyed. A running Leitmotif throughout this account is that of the gods “ordering” or “pronouncing” the stages of Creation and the elements accordingly “obeying” those commands (compare Helaman 12:6–23). This departs from the language of Genesis and the book of Moses but is consistent with the text’s overall portrait of creation through divine organization and conjures imagery of kingly dominion establishing order over a previously chaotic cosmos.
4:14–19 Previously, at Abraham 4:3–5, the Gods divided the light from the darkness for the reckoning of time. Here they organize “the lights in the expanse of the heaven” (that is, the stars) for the same purpose. Kolob, the greatest star, also reckons time (3:4). Ancient Near Eastern peoples tracked the motion of stars for calendrical and timekeeping purposes. Tracking the motion of the star Sirius (see the commentary at 3:3) was especially important in ancient Egypt as its heliacal rising heralded the new year and the onset of the annual flooding of the Nile. Along with this, the gods decree that the “two great lights” (the sun and the moon) are to rule the day and night, respectively, to providing light to the earth. Until they obeyed. The remarkable language of 4:18, which has no corresponding verse in Genesis 1 or Moses 2, suggests that a process of gradual unfolding is involved even in the gods’ commands or decrees in organizing the earth.
4:20–23 In departing once again from Genesis 1, here the gods “prepare” the earth to bring forth aquatic and avian life. At Abraham 4:21 a plan for Creation is mentioned for the first and only time, and the gods recognize it as “good.” The immediate context suggests that this plan was invoked specifically to prepare the earth for sentient animal life, which would eventually lead to human life.
4:26–27 After preparing mammalian, insect, and reptile life (4:24–25), the gods form humankind in their image and likeness. This they counsel to do, thereby explicitly evoking the presence of the divine council. The creation of humans after the image and likeness of the gods is the capstone of Creation. Image and likeness. See the commentary at Moses 2:26–27. This notion of humanity being in the image of the gods works especially well for Abraham’s account, as it parallels ancient Egyptian notions of the Egyptian monarch and humanity at large being the divine offspring and the image of deity who therefore enjoy special status as well as divine concern and attention.
4:31 This injunction to obedience, unique to this account, is more plausibly read as something of an apodictic charge (akin to the “thou shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments), not a descriptive statement on the nature of humanity. At Abraham 3:25 the Lord declares that one of the purposes of sending the premortal intelligences to earth is to see if they will be obedient to the commandments given to them while in a probationary state.
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