Among the invaluable records the Lord promised would be restored in the latter days (see 1 Ne. 13:39; D&C 9:2), the book of Abraham, given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, is a unique and priceless gem in our treasury of revealed scripture.
Truly, it is a most remarkable book—an authentic ancient record that immediately plunges us back into a specific time and place in the Near East, and yet, at the same time, opens to us the wide expanse of the physical universe. It is so dynamic that it can reveal the historical and cultural origins of ancient Egyptian civilization (see Abr. 1:21–28), and yet, in the turn of a phrase, teach us profound truths about eternity. The great power of the book is sometimes overlooked precisely because its five chapters offer tantalizing tidbits about subjects that may seem mysterious or forbidding—Egypt and the universe. But the book of Abraham is a powerful, Christ-centered text that has as its main themes the eternal nature of the Abrahamic covenant, the preeminence of Jesus Christ as represented even in the vast scheme of planets and stars, and the role of Jesus Christ in the three great events of the plan of salvation—the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles testified that Jesus Christ was at the center of these pivotal episodes in salvation history:
“These three divine events—the three pillars of eternity—are inseparably woven together into one grand tapestry known as the eternal plan of salvation. We view the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ as the center and core and heart of revealed religion. It brings to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Salvation is in Christ.”1
The book of Abraham is remarkable in part because of the miraculous way it came to us. The story, briefly recounted, allows us to see how the Lord works within the broad sweep of history to bring about his purposes.
The book of Abraham itself tells us that its original text is a first-person account written by the great patriarch. To how many of the ancients its contents or subject matter was known we cannot tell. But we understand that the information in it was “hid from the knowledge of man for … four thousand years.”2
In the year 1799, an intensified interest in ancient Egypt was kindled in the Western world when the Rosetta Stone was discovered near Alexandria, Egypt. Made of black basalt, the stone was found by an officer of Napoleon’s engineering corps. It bore inscriptions in three ancient languages—Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic (a simplified script that succeeded hieroglyphics), and Greek. Among the European linguists who began to work on deciphering these inscriptions was the young French scholar Jean Francois Champollion. Hieroglyphics, the written language of ancient Egypt, had been a riddle to scholars for many centuries. Working from clues found in the last inscription on the Rosetta Stone, written in Greek, Champollion was finally able to decipher the other two inscriptions. In 1822 he published the results of his work and the science of Egyptology was born, allowing scholars to begin to read the most ancient texts of Egypt.3
These developments involving the Rosetta Stone and Champollion contributed to the coming forth of the book of Abraham in a significant way. As one writer put it, during the early 19th century “worldwide interest in Egyptian antiquities fanned itself to a searing blaze. Egypt was soon overrun with scientific expeditions, adventurers, soldiers of fortune, and robbers of catacombs and ancient burial sites.”4 Into this atmosphere entered Antonio Lebolo, an Italian excavator of Egyptian antiquities.
According to Oliver Cowdery’s account written in 1835, Lebolo and his work crew had discovered several mummies in one of the catacombs near the place where once stood the renowned Egyptian city of Thebes.5 After Lebolo’s death, these mummies and two papyrus rolls and some papyrus fragments that had been placed in some of the sarcophagi eventually found their way to New York City and then into the hands of Michael Chandler.6 He was told that no one could translate the papyri’s inscriptions. He learned, however, that a man named Joseph Smith Jr. claimed some kind of special power that allowed him to decipher ancient writings. The Prophet’s name continued to come up, mostly in derision, at the various places where Chandler stopped to display his traveling mummy show.7 In 1835 Chandler finally made contact with the Prophet Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio. An entry in the Prophet’s history dated 3 July 1835 reads:
“On the 3rd of July, Michael H. Chandler came to Kirtland to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices. As Mr. Chandler had been told I could translate them, he brought me some of the characters, and I gave him the interpretation.”8
The Prophet Joseph Smith was then inspired to raise money to purchase Chandler’s mummies and the accompanying papyri even though he did not know exactly what the writings would disclose. Kirtland Saints contributed the funds for the purchase. The price was $2,400—not an inconsequential sum considering that the temple was under construction, but the faith of members who knew the Prophet and his works led them to help.9
After the purchase, the Prophet Joseph began to translate some of the papyri with the assistance of scribes W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery. (Warren Parish was later called and employed as scribe.) This is what the Prophet recorded in his personal history: “With W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.,—a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.”10
There is no doubt that the Prophet Joseph Smith regarded the manner in which these writings came to him as the result of divine intercession. The testimony of W. W. Phelps is no less certain: “God has so ordered it that these mummies and writings have been brought in the Church.”11 This happened only after the Lord had prepared his Church and the world to receive the book of Abraham. The rekindled spirit of excitement about ancient Egyptian writings in the 19th century, owing to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and Champollion’s work, was one step in that preparation. Speaking of the way the Lord has guided discoveries and achievements of the human family to further his purposes, President Joseph Fielding Smith said:
“There has never been a step taken from that day [ancient times] to this, in discovery or invention, where the Spirit of the Lord … was not the prevailing force, resting upon the individual, which caused him to make the discovery or the invention. … Nor did the Lord always use those who have faith, nor does he always do so today. He uses such minds as are pliable and can be turned in certain directions to accomplish his work, whether they believe in him or not. …
“Now, do you think that these discoveries and inventions … have come just because these men have been sitting down and concentrating their minds upon these matters and have discovered them though their thought or accidentally? Not in the least, but the Spirit of the Lord, the Light of Christ, has been back of it. … We are ready for these discoveries, these inventions, and they all have a bearing upon the restoration of the gospel and preparation for the time which is yet future, but which is shortly to come, when Christ shall reign on the earth, and for a thousand years peace shall be established.”12
Hence, this remarkable book of Abraham was brought forth in a remarkable way to help prepare us for the Second Coming of the Savior.
The content of the book of Abraham immediately presents us with new insights and information not found in any other scripture. It opens with the patriarch’s first-person account of events leading to the establishment of a special covenant relationship between himself and Jehovah—the premortal Jesus Christ. Sometimes called the Abrahamic covenant, this two-way promise was actually the ancient gospel covenant first revealed to Adam (see Moses 5:4–9, 14–15, 58–59), reconfirmed to other antediluvian patriarchs (see Moses 8:16), and reestablished with Abraham and his posterity (see Abr. 2:9–11).
We learn that the two great actions that brought the covenant to Abraham were his active search for it (see Abr. 1:2) and his faithfulness in the face of apostasy around him, even as evil priests tried to take his life upon a pagan altar (see Abr. 1:5–15). As a result of his dramatic rescue by the hand of the Lord (see Abr. 1:15–16, 20), he became well schooled in trusting the Lord. But in what has to be one of history’s supreme ironies and contradictions, this faithful patriarch would later be commanded to offer his own son upon an altar (see Gen. 22:1–19) by the very same God who had rescued Abraham years before. The earlier test on Pharaoh’s altar, recounted in chapter 1 of Abraham’s personal record and found nowhere else, helps us fully appreciate the significance of his later test—the commanded sacrifice of Isaac. We can better understand what Abraham must have been thinking and feeling when he went to Mount Moriah, because the information provided by Abraham 1 helps give full meaning to Genesis 22.
Both great Abrahamic tests threatened innocent life, both were contradictory in the extreme, both involve dramatic rescue by the premortal Jesus Christ or his angelic agent, and both teach something about the doctrine of mercy. Surely these two tests conveyed to Abraham what few others could understand so well: the meaning of the atoning sacrifice of the Merciful One and what it took for God the Father to give his Only Begotten Son as an offering. How grateful we ought to be for Abraham 1 alone, a chapter that helps us appreciate the nature of Abrahamic tests and teaches us that while the righteous will face many contradictions and trials, each of these brings its own special instructions, rewards, and blessings.
Abraham 1 becomes very much a Christ-centered text of scripture when viewed in the context of Abraham’s entire life. The Book of Mormon declares that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac was “a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son” (Jacob 4:5). The experience with Isaac undoubtedly helped Abraham to see the Crucifixion from the Father’s perspective. (Perhaps that is why Heb. 11:17 refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only begotten son” even though Abraham had already fathered Ishmael.) Just as significant, however, for understanding the Atonement was Abraham’s earlier experience with human sacrifice, recorded in Abraham 1, because that horrible episode placed Abraham in a role or position like that of the Son. Few other mortals, if any, would be thus prepared to comprehend the atoning sacrifice from the perspectives of both the Father and the Son.
The reestablishment of the ancient gospel covenant also required Abraham to fulfill special obligations as his half of the two-way promise. The book of Abraham teaches more clearly than any other text we possess that the Abrahamic covenant—the ancient gospel covenant—was actually one of missionary work. For his part, Abraham agreed to teach the gospel to his posterity and his neighbors. This was an aspect of the covenant from the beginning: “As it was with Noah so shall it be with thee; but through thy ministry my name shall be known in the earth forever, for I am thy God” (Abr. 1:19).
Because Abraham agreed to teach the gospel and administer saving ordinances through his priesthood power, the Lord told Abraham that he would be a great blessing to his posterity, and they, in turn, would “bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations” (Abr. 2:9). We know Abraham was faithful and true to his promise of missionary work because he speaks of migrating to the land of Canaan with the “substance that we had gathered, and the souls that we had won in Haran” (Abr. 2:15; emphasis added).
The Lord’s part of the covenant agreement—that which Jehovah promised to Abraham—is largely recounted in chapter 2 of the book of Abraham. There are promises of property (see Abr. 2:6), posterity (see Abr. 2:9; Abr. 3:14), priesthood (see Abr. 1:18; Abr. 2:11), salvation (see Abr. 2:10), and preservation of records (see Abr. 1:31).
The most important thing to remember about this covenant in all its facets is that it was centered in Jesus Christ. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
“It will be noticed that, according to Paul, (see Gal. iii:8) the Gospel was preached to Abraham. … Our friends may say, perhaps, that there were never any ordinances except those of offering sacrifices before the coming of Christ, and that it could not be possible [for] the Gospel to have been administered while the law of sacrifices of blood was in force. But we will recollect that Abraham offered sacrifice, and notwithstanding this, had the Gospel preached to him. That the offering of sacrifice was only to point the mind forward to Christ, we infer from these remarkable words of Jesus to the Jews: ‘Your Father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad’ (John viii:56). … It is said again, in Gal. iii:19, that the law (of Moses, or the Levitical law) was ‘added’ because of transgression. What, we ask, was this law added to, if it was not added to the Gospel? It must be plain that it was added to the Gospel, since we learn that they had the Gospel preached to them. From these few facts, we conclude that whenever the Lord revealed Himself to men in ancient days, and commanded them to offer sacrifice to Him, that it was done that they might look forward in faith to the time of His coming, and rely upon the power of that atonement for a remission of their sins.”13
As part of the right of priesthood, Abraham was also given special patriarchal records to preserve. These records contained “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” (Abr. 1:31).
Abraham included information about the Creation of the earth and the structure of the universe in his record. Some of it undoubtedly came from the patriarchal texts in his possession, which he said he would attempt to pass on. However, significant information about the sun, moon, and stars was obtained through the Urim and Thummim, tools of revelation that Abraham was given while he still resided in Ur. Even a knowledge of the greatest of the governing spheres of the endless universe, Kolob by name (see Abr. 3:3–4), was revealed to the patriarch—a unique contribution in all of scripture. As fascinating as this knowledge of astronomy is, the far more important issue here may be why the information was given. The revelation helped teach Abraham (and thus all who would read his record) the greatness of Jesus Christ—the awesome and premier position of the Only Begotten Son relative to all other beings and objects in the Father’s vast kingdom. By explaining to Abraham the truly divine grandeur of something that might engage the mind of any mortal on a clear night—the stars of creation—God could go on to teach the even greater significance of something that one pondering the heavens might consider—the role of the Lord of creation.
Abraham learned that just as one planet or star is greater than another until one comes to Kolob—the great governing one (see Abr. 3:9)—so, too, one spirit is greater than another until one comes to Jesus Christ—the great governing one (see Abr. 3:19, 24). A careful comparison of the characteristics of Kolob with the characteristics of Jesus Christ demonstrates that Kolob was, and is, a profound symbol of the Savior. We offer a few examples. Just as Kolob is “the great one” (Abr. 3:3), so Jesus Christ is “the Great I AM” (D&C 29:1). Just as Kolob is “the first creation” (Facsimile 2, fig. 1), so Jesus Christ is the first creation—“the firstborn” (D&C 93:21) of our Father’s most important creations, his children. Just as Kolob is the source of light for other stars and planets (see Facsimile 2, fig. 5), Jesus Christ is the source of light for the immensity of space, including the sun, moon, stars, and earth (D&C 88:5–13). Truly, the book of Abraham is a remarkable text, preserving a unique testimony of Jesus Christ written in the design of the physical universe and emphasizing again that all things do indeed testify of the Savior (see Moses 6:63).
Illuminated and fortified by this soul-expanding knowledge, Abraham was better prepared (as are we) to comprehend the loftiest, most ennobling and significant of the truths associated with existence itself. That truth is the reason for the creation of the heavens and earth, the placement of life thereon, and the role of Jesus Christ in this grand scheme.
Abraham learned that the central events of the plan of salvation all proceeded according to a divine blueprint. Taken back in time in a very personal way to our premortal state of existence (see Abr. 3:23), he was shown Jesus Christ’s role in the Father’s pre-earth preparations and learned that the Savior was, indeed, “a God before he was born into this world.”14 Abraham wrote of the leadership role that the Lord Jesus Christ took in the Creation:
“And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell” (Abr. 3:24).
Abraham was shown the eternal nature of the plan of salvation and was taught that the earth was purposely created as a schooling and testing ground in “all things” (Abr. 3:25), and learned that rich and everlasting rewards (“glory added upon their heads for ever and ever”) are reserved for those who remain faithful to the plan of the Father (Abr. 3:26). It is on this point that Abraham’s record makes another singular contribution to our understanding of premortality, clarifying what otherwise would be an obscure phrase found elsewhere in one verse of the New Testament. Only Abraham and Jude speak of our premortal condition as the “first estate” (Jude 1:6, Abr. 3:26).
In that one verse, Jude speaks of certain angels not keeping their “first estate” and thus leaving “their own habitation.” But only from Abraham do we learn that these angels were in fact spirit children in the presence of God, that the habitation they left was God’s presence, that they departed because they chose to follow Satan rather than God and Jesus Christ, and that in this “first estate” God’s children lived as independent identities, exercising moral agency in the Father’s presence. Were it not for the book of Abraham, much of our basic understanding of the structure, sociality, and history of our premortal existence would be missing. Only Abraham’s remarkable record speaks of mortality’s probationary period as the “second estate,” given as an endowment to all those who kept their first estate (Abr. 3:26).
The keystone of the Father’s plan of salvation is the Atonement, and the keystone of the Atonement was the selection of the Son in premortality to be the executor, the one who put into operation all of the terms and conditions of the plan—the one who would be our Savior. According to the book of Abraham, the selection of the Savior was the first major event in bringing to pass the Father’s plan.
“And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first” (Abr. 3:27).
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “at the first organization in heaven we were all present, and saw the Savior chosen and appointed and the plan of salvation made, and we sanctioned it.”15 Abraham’s record is the earliest scriptural account we possess of this essential truth.16
In the book of Abraham we have clear expression of the creative efforts of the Gods in organizing and forming the earth and heavens (see Abr. 4:1). Such language assumes the existence of materials before the creation of this earth began, and it corroborates the earlier statement in Abraham 3:24 [Abr. 3:24]: “we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth” (emphasis added). The doctrine of creation thus taught in Abraham opposes the notion of a creation ex nihilo (literally, creation “out of nothing”). It also fits perfectly with the original Hebrew verb bara’, used in the Hebrew Bible account of the Creation. This Hebrew term and its Semitic cognates literally mean to form, to shape out, to fashion by cutting already existing material.17 In this connection the Prophet Joseph Smith taught:
“You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing; and they will answer, ‘Doesn’t the Bible say He created the world?’ And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the [Hebrew] word baurau which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship.”18
The book of Abraham makes another unique contribution to our understanding by explaining the physical location of the earth in the universe at the time this sphere was created, before the actions of Adam and Eve brought on the Fall. Note the references to time in the following verse:
“But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the time that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die. Now I, Abraham, saw that it was after the Lord’s time, which was after the time of Kolob; for as yet the Gods had not appointed unto Adam his reckoning” (Abr. 5:13).
President Joseph Fielding Smith stated that in this verse the Lord “revealed to Abraham that Adam was subject to Kolob’s time before his transgression.”19 According to President Brigham Young, Abraham 5:13 [Abr. 5:13] also means that before the Fall of Adam, the earth was near the very throne of God. But when the Fall occurred, the earth literally fell or moved from the physical presence of God to its present position in our solar system. When all the effects of the Fall of Adam are finally overcome, the earth will literally move back into the presence of God. Here are President Young’s words:
“When the earth was framed and brought into existence and man was placed upon it, it was near the throne of our Father in heaven. … But when man fell, the earth fell into space, and took up its abode in this planetary system. … This is the glory the earth came from, and when it is glorified it will return again unto the presence of the Father, and it will dwell there, and these intelligent beings that I am looking at, if they live worthy of it, will dwell upon this earth.”20
We have reason to believe that the book of Abraham was a lengthy record in its original form. It was said that when completed, the full text of the book would be more lengthy; Oliver Cowdery spoke of volumes that would be necessary to contain it.21 But at the close of its fifth chapter, the book we have seems to end somewhat abruptly, and after the presentation of so many powerful teachings and remarkable insights in such a short space, we are left hungering for more.
One scholar has written that had the Prophet Joseph Smith’s last 16 months not been so turbulent, he likely would have given us more, as he had promised.22 However, all who read what we do have with a prayerful heart, an eye of faith, and a clear mind will be eternally grateful for this most remarkable record.
Though ancient people are its main characters, the book of Abraham is completely relevant for our times. It shows us that the hope in eternity that we today derive from priesthood power, centered in the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, was also the same foundation upon which the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs built their lives. Abraham said, “Therefore, eternity was our covering and our rock and our salvation, as we journeyed from Haran by the way of Jershon, to come to the land of Canaan” (Abr. 2:16).
We know that many of the ancient Saints were successful in their quest for eternity. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for example, “have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods” (D&C 132:37).
Are those same promises given to Abraham, Sarah, and their posterity in force today? Yes—and they apply to us!
“This promise is yours also, because ye are of Abraham, and the promise was made unto Abraham. …
“Go ye, therefore, and do the works of Abraham; enter ye into my law and ye shall be saved” (D&C 132:31–32).