AB RAHAM AND ABRAHAMIC TEXTS
Abraham (c.2000 BC) is the first and greatest of the patriarchs, after Moses, from whom Jews trace their ancestry, through Isaac (Abraham`s son) and Jacob (son of Isaac). In the bible we are told that Abraham was chosen by God to be the “founding father” of Israel, whereby his descendants came eventually to live in their own land. He is commanded by God to leave his native home and journey to a new land. Abraham himself of course did not see the flowering of a new Jewish nation.
There is a doubt however about the historicity of the life and travels of the biblical Abraham. It is agreed that if he did really exist he belongs to the distant past. Tradition says he founded several places of worship in ancient Israel which aided the process of monotheistic worship. It seems he was an active figure in several spheres, military and political. There is evidence also that various tribes were descended from him through his sons. Though revered for his active life by successive generations it is as a holy person obedient to God`s wishes that he is most honoured. For example he left his homeland without demur upon hearing divine command, and apparently was ready to sacrifice his own son before heavenly intervention prevented the act.
Clearly, with such a famous figure as Abraham, many stories about him have arisen and several non-canonical texts are extant which relate various aspects of his life. The most notable are : the Book of Abraham, the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham. Perhaps the most controversial of these three documents is the Book of Abraham which we shall look at first.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon or Church of Latter-Day Saints, is reputed to have “discovered” the text of the Book in 1835. (BOOK OF ABRAHAM) As a result the Book has been accepted into the Mormon canon, but not by any other Churches. One of the difficulties the text faces in becoming generally accepted is that its authenticity is doubted and that the translation by Joseph Smith is inaccurate anyway. Some critics believe that the Book is itself a forgery (by Smith) intended to bolster the prestige of the writer (who could be Joseph Smith) and the fledgling Church of Latter-day Saints. The Book is part of what is known as the “Pearl of Great Price” – one of the standard works of the Latter-Day Church. In essence, the text tells of the early life of Abraham, and of a vision which he had of the creation of the world. Some of the doctrines of the Church are, as it were, incorporated into the text, especially those concerning the plurality of gods and pre-mortal existence. The Book itself is composed of five chapters, detailing Abraham`s struggles against idolatry; attempts to make of him a religious sacrifice which were thwarted by the appearance of an angel; God`s covenant with Abraham ; a vision of the universe and creation.
It must be reiterated here that most of these non-canonical books are pseudepigraphical (giving a famous name to works not actually written by the “name”) . Of course, in this instance, Smith did not claim the text was written by Abraham, but originated in the time of Egyptian dominance, say conjecturally 1000 BC. Apart from doubts about Joseph Smith`s scholarship, exegetes have found various similarities with other non-canonical texts which have not aided belief in the authenticity of the Book. At the same time it must be pointed out that it seems there are details in the Book reflected in much non-canonical text that are not found in the bible and which Smith could not have known.
Various criticism have been levelled at Smith`s Book, and the most telling in my view , is that the material in the book is rather inconsistent with what we know of Abraham. But what we know may be erroneous! The discovery of documents in recent years has not been entirely elucidatory: some have suggested the origin of the book has offered evidence that the content has little to do with Abraham; some discoveries have increased the plausibility of the Book as being a genuine text, accurately translated by Smith. Of course adherents of the Church of Latter-Day Saints believe in it and regard it as an integral part of the Mormon Canon. Non-adherents think it spurious.
In a little more detail (than above) the story told in the Book is similar to that related in Genesis. It tells of Abraham`s nearly sacrifice in the land of Ur by an Egyptian priest and of his leaving Ur because of a famine, eventually settling in Egypt. There is then some discussion of premortal existence, an account of a spirit rebellion against the Lord and the casting out of the rebellious spirit. One of the most notable aspects of Smith`s Book is, as mentioned above, his use of the term “gods” i.e. plural, when referring to Godhead. We recall however, that in the OT it does speak of “God” in plural terms: “Let us create Man in our image”. A version of the creation story is also given.
Undoubtedly, the Book of Abraham has (still does) generated much controversy, mainly with regard to its authenticity. Much has been written pro and con regarding the document, especially in relation to its supposed derivation.
Let us now look at the Book itself.
The introduction to the Book reads as follows. “A translation of some ancient records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
Summary of Chapter One.
Abraham seeks the blessing of the patriarchal order; he is persecuted by false priests in Chaldea; Jehovah saves him; origins and government of Egypt reviewed.
The concluding paragraph of Chapter One is worthy of quotation.
“But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation and also of the planets and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept unto this day and I shall endeavour to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me.”
Summary of Chapter Two
Abraham leaves Ur to go to Canaan; Jehovah appears to him at Haran; all gospel blessings are promised to his seed; and through his seed to all; Abraham goes to Canaan and then on to Egypt.
Summary of Chapter Three
Abraham learns about the sun, moon, and stars by means of Urim and Thummin (secret devices or tokens used to divine things , or the future); the Lord reveals to him the eternal nature of spirits; he learns of pre-earth life, fore-ordination, the creation, the choosing of a Redeemer; and the second estate of man.
A significant paragraph may be quoted here,
“I (the Lord) dwell in the midst of them all; I now therefore, have come down to thee to declare unto thee the works which my hands have made, where in my wisdom excelleth them all, for I rule in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligence thine eyes from the beginning; I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligence thou hast seen.”
Summary of Chapter Four
The Gods [notice plural] plan the creation of the earth and all the life therein; their plans for the six days of creation are set forth
The fourth Book begins as follows:
“And then the Lord said . Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning and they, that is the Gods, organised and formed the heavens and the earth.”
Then follows in the Book the stages of creation . (Very similar to Genesis in the OT). We read throughout the details, a constant reference to “Gods) – in the plural—who made everything.
Paragraph 27: “So the Gods went down to organise man in their own image , in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them.”
Summary of Chapter Five
The Gods finish their planning of the creation of all things; they bring to pass the creation according to their plans; Adam names every living creature.
In this chapter we read also of the creation of a man and of a woman – similar to the telling of events in Genesis. The Garden of Eden is mentioned and the “forbidden” tree.
In concluding this part dealing with the Book of Abraham, it seems opportune to quote a sentence from the third Chapter: “Thus I , Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talks with another , and he told me of the works which his hands had made”.
APOCALYPSE OF ABRAHAM
Essentially similar to the Book of A. It was probably written about 50AD but it is not clear what the original language was; Hebrew or Aramaic are possible. The Apocalypse itself was revealed only comparatively recently: about 1900. There are numerous parallels with the Book of A. Some of them are: Abraham saw/met God upon a cloud of fire; he was rescued by the hand of God; the future generations of A were made known to him before they were born; God showed A his creations; A learned about astronomy and time; God withdrew and left a wondering Abraham. Basically the Apocalypse deals with A`s conversion from idolatry to monotheism. This happens after A is told by God to leave his idol-worshipping house. Clearly A is considered by God as being the most worthy of humanity – that is our understanding
A then undertakes certain travels in the course of which he performs several sacrifices, and meets a guiding angel and has an “interview” with Satan. He is then taken up into heaven by God and there sees its magnificence. He ascends further but does not see God who is invisible, God tells A that he has free will and can choose to abstain from sin. A. next obtains insight into the future – his descendants for example. The concluding part of the Apocalypse speaks of the Promised Land for the Hebrews and of a judgement awaiting the wicked.
There appear to be several later Christian and Gnostic interpolations in the text. No doubt one of the reasons for its non- inclusion in the accepted Canon is this very admixture of “doctrines”. Now we can look at the Apocalypse document itself.
It is clear that a body of literature concerning Abraham flourished about the time of Christ. The accepted view of the Apocalypse is that it is basically Jewish with features that suggest an Essene origin but passed under Gnostic influences, not very overt however.
The introductory part of the Apocalypse is concerned mainly with Abraham`s idol worshipping and making background. One day the Lord speaks to him and declares “I am before the ages” –and virtually telling Abraham that he had been chosen among men for his virtue and is commanded to perform sacrifices. An angel comes down to encourage him and to bless him They both travel for about 40 days during which Abraham performs sacrifices. One day Satan (Azazel) appears in a disguise, endeavouring to lead Abraham astray. The angel then speaks and tells Abraham that the “Eternal One”has chosen him. The angel also orders Azazel to go into the “inaccessible parts” of the earth. Abraham and the angel ascend, and Abraham becomes aware of fiery regions. He is told to sing a song praising God. This he does, then sees a fiery throne . Abraham describes the throne and the “Living One”in terms reminiscent of Ezekiel in the OT , “four faces” and so on. He speaks of hearing “the holy voice like the voice of a man”. Now Abraham ascends into the heavens or does so guided by the angel. There he saw more spirits and angels . The “Eternal Mighty One” speaks “I will make you see a nation and a people set apart”. Then he is able to see the whole earth . the levels of heaven and hell, the Garden of Eden and whole multitudes of men and women, who seem to be divided into two groups – one on the left, one on the right. The people on the right are, as the Voice relates, “people who have been set apart for me.” The Voice continues: “And so it came to pass that whatever I had determined to be, was already planned beforehand in this picture vision before you”. The “Eternal One” adds : “You are well pleasing in my sight “.
Abraham then has a vision of Adam and Eve, but God says he is angered by the sins of some of Abraham`s descendants, (Adam and Eve having brought sin into the world) . Abraham then as it were sees certain vices, such as “Theft” and “Desire” and sees the folly of the worship of idols. Next he saw the Temple (in Jerusalem) and its image in the heavens and its significance in the life of Jesus. Then he sees much wickedness, pillaging and murder committed by Abraham`s descendants and sees the victims of such violence. He sees various historical times and varying behaviour. He sees Azazei killing a Man [note capital!] . Abraham is puzzled by this so the Lord replies, “the Man is the Relief you saw insulted and beaten and yet worshipped by many”. He is told that the wickedness of humanity will bring about plagues, when the righteous will survive. At this juncture, Abraham finds himself on the earth again. The Godhead lists the plagues which will assail mankind and told that a Hell is prepared for the sinful. But he is also promised that in the seventh generation from him his descendants would be freed from their slavery.
Abraham having heard, accepted the words of God in his heart
TESTAMENT OF ABRAHAM
Probably written in the first or second century AD by a (Christian) Jew. There are two editions of the work, broadly similar to each other, differing in minor details. Like many documents from biblical times an original was often altered or enlarged by later Christian writers. The original text was probably written in Hebrew . It does not contain any reference to a messiah, suggesting a Jewish and very early origin .
The central theme of the document is concerned with the reluctance of Abraham to die despite the intentions of God to bring him to His bosom, as the most righteous man on earth.
We can look at some of the main aspects of the Testament.
God decides to take Abraham into heaven and sends the Archangel Michael to tell him of his approaching end. Michael however is to say the least diffident about telling Abraham of his approaching death. His son Isaac then dreams of the death of his father and relates the dream to him. Michael had appeared to Isaac in the dream and made him aware of God`s intention. But still Abraham will not surrender his soul, so Michael returns to the Lord who tells him he must try to persuade Abraham and to tell him that he will be translated to a better world without suffering the pangs of death. Abraham then accedes but requests that he may be permitted to view all the world, both the good and bad features. Sinners he sees he asks Michael to destroy, which he does. Then he sees a vision of what is presumed to be the Judgement of Souls. The righteous go one way; the wicked another. “Average” people are required to undergo a period of purification (purgatory). Abraham sympathises with one soul that is being “weighed in the balance.” After seeing the whole world, Abraham is returned to earth by the angel, but Abraham still refuses to capitulate. Michael returns to the Lord again confessing the failure of his mission. Then another stratagem is tried whereby Abraham is to be tricked by the (evil) angel Azazel disguised as a beautiful being. Abraham is intrigued and divines the true nature of Azazel, and as a result sees him in his true form i.e. the Angel of Death. Abraham finds all this a great shock and does not fully recover from it. In his weakened state, God takes the soul of Abraham at last, “as in a dream” and Michael wraps the body in linen and anoints it. After three days the body of Abraham is buried and the soul is carried up to heaven. Thus the righteous Abraham is finally brought into paradise.
Though the stories in the three documents differ somewhat there is a theme common to all. All emphasise the righteousness of Abraham and his appeal to the Lord.
Let us look at the main features of each and try to compare and possibly contrast them.
One of the unique features of the BOOK is the reference consistently to the plurality of the gods, which of course is decidedly not the Christian doctrine. Another aspect revealed in the Book is the belief in a pre-mortal existence. The general story related is similar to that of Genesis. The relation of the persecution of Abraham by jealous rivals is not echoed in the other two texts. He then is given knowledge of the universe and “sees” Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden . It is emphasised that the universe and all creature in it are created by the “gods”. This latter part is similar to sections in the other two texts, but with probably more emphasis on creation. Naturally he could not have been privy to all this without the blessing of the Lord.
The APOCALYPSE is similar to the Book of A, broadly speaking. It begins the story by telling of A`s conversion from idolatry to monotheism, thus relating the history of A from early beginnings. Thereafter he must have led a blameless life because he is taken up to the heavens and promised a new Land for his nation. This “promise” is not reflected in the Book or in the Testament. He is conducted to heaven by an angel – a theme echoed in the Testament. There he sees God – not “gods” notice! who promises him that “One Nation” will be the lot of his descendants = a promise not encountered in the Book . While elevated A is shown the sinfulness upon earth – presumably as a dire warning. He is told of the region of Hell and the pains prepared for the wicked. He is then returned to earth.
One observation is noteworthy: the TESTAMENT makes no mention of a redeemer, at least hinted at in the above texts. This particular document begins with God`s wish to take A to heaven but before that he must relinquish his mortal body. A`s unwillingness to die results in the sending of the angel Michael to persuade him , unsuccessfully. This aspect is not mention in the above two texts. A said he wanted to see a vision of the world first before he would accede. He sees the judgement of souls and the wickedness of sinners: in this respect the document is similar to both of the previous texts. Like the Apocalypse, A is returned to earth . Eventually A. Is tricked by the devil (in disguise) and in a shocked state, A`s soul is taken up to heaven while his body is interred.
If we now look at the historical record concerning Abraham (as far as we can divine) we can put the accounts given in the Book, the Apocalypse and the Testament into some sort of context.
It must be confessed at the outset that Abraham is something of a shadowy figure in the historical context, especially in his earlier days, We do learn something about him in Genesis 11-27 to 25-11. And from this we can judge that Abraham was involved in several activities or incidents, most of which involved travelling. We see he was not only the “father of the nation” but was the progenitor of a special nation. Deuteronomy also tells us more of A (1-8 and 6-10) and is mentioned in the pseudepigraphical Book of Jubilees. What accounts we have indicate that Abraham and his family were nomads but had roots in the hill country north of Jerusalem. He was not regarded however as a regional figure as witness the places of worship he founded throughout ancient Israel. Largely due to his example and industry, monotheism began to take hold in Canaan ; he also ,it appears, made land purchases or accessions and other territorial activities which bound him even closer to the indigenous peoples. It is small wonder therefore that he was regarded (as far as we can tell) as a founding patriarch, especially as a founder of a dynasty. He had several wives and a plurality of children.
Many of the places, towns and cities, that A and his family visited, traversed and dwelt in, were, in the times of the biblical writers, important staging posts or junctions for traders or simply itinerant peoples. Thus A and his progeny became well known throughout the lands of Mesopotamia, Israel, Canaan, Syria, to name but some of them. (He also had a long life.!) His sons engendered a long and significant line who among other things eventually became the antecedents of the famous twelve tribes of Israel. Abraham also had children by several concubines who made their presence felt in various parts, especially Arabia. Several groups related to Abraham in various ways became influential in that region. Probably the most revered (by later people) were the descendants of Abraham himself, such as the Israelites .
We have mentioned that one of the most revered traits of Abraham to later peoples was his unquestioning obedience to God`s commands, a sign of his absolute trust in God. Note the command to “sacrifice” his son, Isaac – which of course was aborted. Abraham became a very paradigm and true model of faith and trust in God – despite having children by concubines!
Here we might make some general comment on the “facts” of Abraham`s life and how the life (or periods of it) are depicted in the three documents we have looked at. What we must remember ab initio is that none of the three documents is actually written by Abraham (as we have earlier pointed out) but as was the custom have been given an “Abraham” name. The “Book” however purports to befrom about the time of the flourishing of A braham i.e. it is an ancient text “discovered” and translated by Joseph Smith and then given to the world as shedding authentic light on Abraham. Let us look at the Book first. It is perfectly feasible that the opening chapters do reflect facts in A`s early life; the breaking away from an idolatrous family background and the subsequent persecution he underwent. Smith`s aim however (presuming the document is spurious, which may not be the case) is to present A in a special light, in a relationship with his Maker, maybe in order to establish a firm doctrinal base for espousal of the Latter-Day Saints movement. Whether A did nave angelic guidance and experienced visions of heaven we cannot for certain say – but there is no hint in the events of A`s life as we know them, that bear these out. In the Book we read of the covenant between God and A whereby A`s descendants would form eventually the Jewish nation. It is widely regarded that indeed A was the progenitor of the twelve tribes. This aspect would certainly be worth emphasising by Smith. We also need to remind ourselves when reading the Book that its general tone is pro the Church of Latter-Day Saints and its beliefs, and this aspect may give rise to doubting its (reputed) authenticity.
As this study concerns the three extra-canonical texts, the BOOK , the APOCALYPSE and the TESTAMENT, and what is written therein and only sketchily tells of the life of A, we need to look for further detail in Genesis regarding the life. Certainly Genesis makes great play of A`s relation with God, and it is impossible not to believe in this if we believe in the OT at all. In this, the Book is consonant with the biblical story,
Let us consider next the Apocalypse. This text in outline is very similar to the Book of A. Like the initial lines of the Book we are told of Abraham`s idolatrous family background. Thereafter follow many details similar to those mentioned in the Book; for example, God revealing himself (to A) and showing him the universe; A`s learning about his lineage; and about aspects of astronomy; measurement of time. There are also echoes of Latter-Day Saints doctrine: mankind living before birth; future generations being called to work (the divine provenance) and ordained before birth. But note no reference to a plurality of gods. The similarities are so numerous that it is possible to imagine Joseph Smith was acquainted with this Apocalypse, but according to the accepted dating this would have been impossible.
Comments like those made above regarding the Book are tenable. We do not know enough to gainsay the details given in the Apocalypse. We can only say that the historical record (as with so many biblical personages) does not offer any support to these details. The author or authors of these extra-canonical texts did have an axe to grind and it may be that in their zeal they elaborated upon truth or in fact concocted material (which may never have happened) . That Abraham was a devout man and on this score would have been venerated is true, and in the days when special people were sublimated by God, it is possible that A was indeed raised to heaven and granted sight (or allowed visions) of heaven. Belief and faith is all. Clearly the author of the Apocalypse wanted to establish Abraham as an extra special man, beloved of God, and the undoubted founder of a dynasty. Much of the material surrounding A is the stuff of legend, it must be said, and these three texts are an attempt to reify Abraham in contemporary eyes.
We can now comment on the third of our documents, the Testament. The document tells a different story from that of the Book and the Apocalypse. Nowadays the story told is generally regarded as legend, or at least, based on legend with a plentiful admixture of imaginative material (on the part of the author) .In essence, the document is about the circumstances of Abraham`s death – how it was brought about and fulfilling the wishes of the Lord. Basically it is an apocryphal text and like the two above is an attempt to emphasise and reinforce the perceived righteousness of A before God. Of course in Genesis God speaks with Abraham on several occasions; however we do not glean from Genesis the fact that God wishes to take Abraham up to heaven before his due time. We certainly do get the impression that A was obedient to God and lived a blameless life. He died “in good old age” and was “gathered to his people” i.e. he was buried. (Genesis 25; 8)
The story as we remember told in the Testament is to a large extent concerned with A`s lack of obedience to the will of the Lord! He did not wish to die, wished to see the whole world with mortal eyes, and finally was effectively “tricked” into surrendering his soul to the Deity. What we have to remember is that the authors of Genesis (and of the OT as a whole) have not written what is necessarily the absolute truth about their subjects and that it is possible that the extra-biblical texts are (historically) more true to life than the accepted canon. It may be so that the Lord wanted to take A away from an uncertain world but nothing we have reinforces this view. It is possible that these non-canonical documents contain material that is true to the life; often they are at variance with the accepted texts which over the centuries have been in many cases elaborated on, or simply altered. It may be that the extra-biblical texts convey a story which is deserving of attention.