Chapter 16: Astronomy and the Plan of Salvation
In Dr. Hugh Nibley’s book Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, we learn that Abraham’s experience in Egypt had great influence on him much like mission experiences today are pivotal in the missionary’s life. This fact becomes obvious throughout the book of Abraham, as Egyptian references dot its pages, including the three facsimiles and many Egyptian names and words.
The third chapter of Abraham is filled with astronomical information. Abraham learned about great stars and that the name of the closest star to the “throne of God” is Kolob (verse 2). He learned there are different orders of stars. “I have set [Kolob] to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (verse 3). The Lord taught him about stars that govern “times and seasons in the revolutions thereof,” explaining “that one revolution [on Kolob] was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning,…; it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest” (verse 3:4).
The Lord’s word “reckoning” is found twelve times in verses four 4–9through nine, explaining “greater” and “lesser” lights and that the lengths of days, months, and years are calculated and ordered as precise “set time” (verses 6-7). The Lord summarized: “And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord's time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (verse 9). (Abraham learned from records he had in his possession that patriarchs and prophets who had preceded him also had “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” [Abraham 1:31].)
Abraham is the only prophet who taught with illustrations in the scriptures. In Abraham 1:12, he described the altar on which humans were sacrificed: “That you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation [drawing] at the commencement of this record.” Like an ancient PowerPoint presentation, he included many details. “That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics” (verse 14). He also used geographic explanations of how Egypt came to be and of his travels. He put words together artfully—“fain claim,” “sorely tormented,” “eternity was our covering”—and did so with purpose: “I shall endeavor to write [and draw] some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me” (verse 31).
Abraham learned about God’s abilities and what it is like to be God: “There is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it” (Abraham 3:17). The Lord had said to him: “I rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence” (Abraham 3:21), “My wisdom excelleth them all” (verse 21), and “I am more intelligent than they all” (verse 19).
Abraham’s instruction at this point turned from mapping the universe to the history of the earth. Here the Lord taught the doctrine of intelligences—the thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and personality of each person. “Intelligences,” the Lord taught, were “organized before the world was” (verse 22). They “have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are . . . eternal” (verse 18). Abraham was privileged to see this integral part of premortal life. “Now the Lord [showed] unto me, Abraham, the intelligences . . . and there were many of the noble and great ones” (verse 22). The Lord said, “These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good” (verse 23). The Lord informed Abraham that he is one of the noble and great.
Next the revelation progresses to a dramatic scene from the First Estate wherein intelligences have received their spirit bodies. Abraham is privileged to see God and hear Him give two directives:
1. “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” (verse 24). (Later, in the chapter on the Creation, the difference between the earth being created or organized will be pointed out, and here is a good illustration. God saw existing space where a new earth would fit and existing materials to form it.)
2. “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (verses 25–26). (Here the word estate is used as Jude used it in the New Testament: “And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day” [Jude 1:6].) From this verse, new phrases entered Church members’ vocabulary—first estate, second estate, added upon, and glory added upon their heads.
Then God asked the critical question: “Whom shall I send?” Two came forward and volunteered to fulfill this calling:
One “like unto the Son of Man” answered: “Here am I, send me.”
The other said: “Here am I, send me.”
God said “[He would] send the first. And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him” (Abraham 3:27–28).
What glorious doctrine in merely a few verses! God identifies available space and necessary materials to organize earths. He does this to provide a place whereon intelligences clothed with spirits are given their second estate physical bodies. The divine purpose of this process is to test humankind’s obedience “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (verse 25). “First estate” defines premortal life. “Second estate” is the term for earth life. Simply, those who prove themselves in premortal life receive a mortal opportunity on earth, and those who prove themselves in their earth life will receive “glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (verse 26). Both the first and second estates are preparatory for something more and better.
Armed with this advanced scientific information and doctrine of the plan of salvation, Abraham caravanned to Egypt and taught the Egyptians. As mentioned, if Joseph Smith were a fraud, he would have been foolish to add so much seeming trivial detail—detail that no one would miss if it weren’t there. With every specific element, he raised the risk of exposure if he were perpetrating a hoax. As with the names Mahijah and Mahujah in the book of Moses, recent discoveries add to the body of evidence that Joseph Smith was either the luckiest man to ever walk the earth or truly a seer and revelator.
John Tvedtnes, who did much of the course work for his PhD in Egyptian and Semitic languages at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, began a 2005 presentation on ancient names and words in the book of Abraham with this statement:
Over the last century a number of scholars have looked at names and other transliterated words in the book of Abraham and the Kirtland Papers in an attempt to determine their authenticity. In some cases it can be demonstrated that the name is actually attested in Ancient Near Eastern documents. For unattested names it is sometimes possible to postulate an etymology based on known words in Egyptian and other ancient languages in use in the time of Abraham. (“Authentic Ancient Names and Words in the Book of Abraham”)
Of the many examples he gave, most are complex and require knowledge of Egyptian and Hebrew to understand, but here are two that are relatively simple:
Rahleenos. Dr. Tvedtnes showed that the meaning of Rahleenos is hieroglyphics, “a writing system used in ancient Egypt. The word hierogluphikos is Greek and means sacred or priestly writing. Perhaps it equates to Egyptian Ra-nes, which would mean the ‘tongue/language or speech of Ra’—Ra being the Egyptian sun god and head of the pantheon in the city of On or Heliopolis” (ibid.). If I interpret Dr. Tvedtnes correctly, Abraham used Rahleenos, meaning “tongue or language of God,” correctly in context: “That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics” (Abraham 1:14).
Egyptus. Another example comes from Abraham 1:23, 25, where Abraham explains that Egyptus was the daughter of Ham who discovered the land of Egypt. In ancient writings the name Aigyptos is found relating to the discovery of and naming of Egypt. (For many more correlations, you can watch Dr. Tvedtnes’s presentation at youtube.com/watch?v=HUbp04NFCl0. It comes in six parts.)
Scholarly studies provide if not confirming evidences at least reasonable similarities connecting the book of Abraham and other ancient writings and artifacts, none of which would have been available to Joseph Smith in 1836. The book of Abraham was first published in 1842. Skeptics suggest that Joseph could have found detail for the book of Abraham in a work called Apocalypse of Abraham, but it did not become available until 1863. Another source they mistakenly suggest gave Joseph his background information was the Greek Testament, but it was not available until 1895.
Dr. Hugh Nibley wrote an entire book on this subject. His careful scholarship and documentation prove his thesis: “To date, not one critic has laid a finger on the Book of Abraham. Instead, they have all sought to discredit it by indirection, dwelling exclusively on the method and person by which they assume it was produced” meaning, of course, Joseph Smith (Abraham in Egypt). Dr. Nibley tells readers they “will find that the Book of Abraham is a miraculous performance.”
At the end of the book, Dr. Nibley summarizes Abraham’s life as “one long series of separations and departures.” He contrasts Abraham’s life in Egypt to how life was in his own country. In Egypt, Abraham was considered a celebrity as he taught Pharaoh and his court on principles of advanced astronomy. He also taught the gospel wherever he lived. At home in his own country, his father was complicit in allowing Abraham to be sacrificed. After miraculously escaping, he lived as a figurative nomad in a wicked world. “From childhood to the grave, he was a stranger in his society because he insisted on living by the principles of the gospel and preaching them to others wherever he went, even if it meant getting into trouble. . . . Abraham’s whole life . . . was a series of trials or tests, and by example and precept he tells us how to come through victorious” (Abraham in Egypt).
You may be able to identify with Abraham in Egypt if you have had opportunity to live in another country where you were immersed in a foreign culture with traditions alien to your own. You know how your perspectives change as you recover from culture shock, and you learn to appreciate the differences. You may remember how you picked what to enjoy, what to adopt about the new culture, and what to merely tolerate. Abraham included some of these differences and noted they were “after the manner of the Egyptians” (Abraham 1:9, 11). One particular aspect of Egyptian culture was in complete opposition to Abraham’s belief system. Abraham believed in one God. The Egyptians had many—Elkenah; Mahmackrah; Libnah; Korash; and Shagreel, God of the sun. It is reasonable to think that Abraham would have learned unique vocabulary either from God in preparing him to teach the Egyptians in their own language or by being immersed in the culture. In facsimiles 2 and 3 are more unique Egyptian words: Enish-go-on-dosh, Floeese, Hah-ko-kau-beam, Jah-oh-eh, Kae-e-vanrash, Kil-flos-is-es, Kolob, Oliblish, Olimlah, Raukeeyang, Shaumahyeem, Shaumau, Shulem.
The facsimile explanations contain 671 words, including those listed above. There are also twenty-six unique English words and a couple of phrases: Answering, answers, astronomy, BUT IN THIS CASE, CELESTIAL, characters, cubit, EMBLIMATICAL, equal, FASTENED UPON AN ALTAR, grand, HOLY TEMPLE OF GOD, idolatrous god, KEY-WORDS, MEASUREMENT, meant, measuring, pillars, POLITENESS, principal, presidency, REVEALING, scepter, signify, signifying, WAITERS. (Words in solid capitals are unique in all scripture. The lowercase words are unique to the Pearl of Great Price.)
“The truths of the Book of Abraham are truly edifying great and glorious which are among the rich treasures that are revealed unto us, in the last days” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal 2:159, 1842).
As I made the list of Abraham’s unique words, I noticed how often the Lord God Jehovah, Jesus Christ, spoke to Abraham. There are fifty-five unique words and a couple of phrases.
Abominations, Abraham, Abraham, accounted, anoint, astray, broad, chariot, clay, climbeth, comforter, CONCEIVETH, counseled, counsels, course, decree, decreed, denied, devised, dull of hearing, estate, fierce, FORESWORN, forgiven, fowls, gate, govern, GOVERNING, immortal, inherit, INTELLIGENCES, INTELLIGENT, justice, kindled, kinsfolk, kiss, maketh, measure, necks, oaths, peaceable, Pharaoh, pierce, planet, prudence, purposed, quickeneth, reckoning, revolution, rivers, sands, sold, strive, vengeance, waxed, whirlwind.
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017