Setting the Stage—The World of Abraham

Chapter 4

Setting the Stage—The World of Abraham

Hard Times Come Again

One of the main objections of the higher critics to the patriarchal stories
as history was that they were altogether too idyllic in their peaceful pastoral
setting, which belonged to the bucolic poets rather than to the stern realities
of life. But as Professor Albright now reminds us, the calm pastoral life
of the patriarchs has turned out to be a myth.1
And the myth was invented by the scholars, for neither the Bible nor the Apocrypha
gives it the least countenance: the world of Abraham that they describe was
little short of an earthly hell. Furthermore, the peculiar nature of those
terrible times as described in the written sources is in such close agreement
with what is turning up in the excavations that it becomes possible to assign
to Abraham a very real role and, possibly within a short time, a definite
date, in history.

In reconstructing the world of Abraham, it is customary procedure first to
determine an approximate date for the hero and then to look for things in
the history of that period which fit into his career. But since the world
of Abraham has already been described for us in the traditional sources, we
are going to reverse the process and withhold any attempt at dating until
we have the clearest possible picture of what was going on: then, given enough
details and particulars, the dating should pretty well take care of itself.
What justifies such a course is the remarkable clarity and consistency of
the accounts of the Bible and the ancient commentators when they describe
the physical world of Abraham, the state of society, Abraham’s reactions to
the challenges that met him, and the wonderful body of covenants and ordinances
that he handed on to us. Let us consider each of these briefly in order.

Each of the great dispensations of the gospel has come in a time of world
upheaval, when the waywardness of the human race has been matched by a climactic
restlessness of the elements. When Adam was cast out of the Garden of Eden,
he found himself, we are told, in “a sultry land of darkness” where
he was lost and confused,2 where
temporary survival was a matter of toil and sweat amidst the all-conquering
dust—”for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”
(cf. Genesis 3:17—19). Worse still, Satan was on hand to add to his
burdens, deride his efforts, and make fearful inroads into the integrity of
his progeny. Who but our first parents could have sustained the appalling
“birthshock” of sudden precipitation from one world to another,
from the presence of God to thorns, thistles, and dust?3

If we fancy Noah riding the sunny seas high, dry, and snug in the ark, we
have not read the record—the long, hopeless struggle against entrenched
mass resistance to his preaching, the deepening gloom and desperation of the
years leading up to the final debacle, then the unleashed forces of nature
with the family absolutely terrified, weeping and praying “because they
were at the gates of death,” as the ark was thrown about with the greatest
violence by terrible winds and titanic seas.4 Albright’s
suggestion that the flood story goes back to “the tremendous floods which
must have accompanied successive retreats of the glaciers”5 is supported by the tradition that
the family suffered terribly because of the cold, and that Noah on the waters
“coughed blood on account of the cold.”6 The Jaredites had only to pass through
the tail end of the vast storm cycle of Noah’s day, yet for 344 days they
had to cope with “mountain waves” and a wind that “did never
cease to blow” (Ether 6:6, 8). Finally Noah went forth into a world of
utter desolation, as Adam did, to build his altar, call upon God, and try
to make a go of it all over again, only to see some of his progeny on short
order prefer Satan to God and lose all the rewards that his toil and sufferings
had put in their reach.

All of Moses’ life was toil and danger, the real, intimate, ever-present danger
such as only the Near East can sustain at a high level for indefinite periods
of time. No one would ask to go through what Lehi did, or Jared and his brother,
or Joseph Smith in his dispensation. And the one who suffered most of all
was the Lord himself, “despised, . . . rejected, . . . a man of sorrows,
and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). In short, the leaders of the
great dispensations have truly earned their calling and their glory, paying
a price that the rest of the human race could not pay even if they would.
Preeminent among these was Abraham, whose life, as the rabbis remind us, was
an unbroken series of supremely difficult tests.7 As in some frightful nightmare, the narrator ticks off the
principal episodes: “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis
11:30). “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from
thy father’s house” (Genesis 12:1). “. . . going on still
toward the south. And there was a famine in the land” (Genesis 12:9—10).
“The Egyptians beheld the woman . . . and the woman was taken
into Pharaoh’s house” (Genesis 12:14—15). “And Pharaoh . . .
said, What is this that thou has done unto me? . . . And they
sent him away” (Genesis 12:18, 20). “And the land was not able to
bear them, . . . and there was a strife” (Genesis 13:6—7).
“[The kings came and made war.] And they took Lot . . . and
his goods” (Genesis 14:12). “I go childless, and the steward of
my house is this Eliezer of Damascus” (Genesis 15:2). “Lo, an horror
of great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). “My wrong be upon
thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and . . . I was despised
in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee” (Genesis 16:5). “Wilt
thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? . . . Oh let
not the Lord be angry” (Genesis 18:23, 30). “Lo, the smoke of the
country went up as the smoke of a furnace” (Genesis 19:28). “And
Abimelech king of Gerar sent, and took Sarah” (Genesis 20:2). “They
will slay me for my wife’s sake” (Genesis 20:11). “And Abraham rose
up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it
unto Hagar . . . and sent her away” (Genesis 21:14). “And
Abraham reproved Abimelech because of a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants
had violently taken away” (Genesis 21:25). “Take now thy son, Thine
only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, . . . and offer him there for
a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). “I am a stranger and a sojourner
with you: give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury
my dead” (Genesis 23:4).

Any one of these crises is enough to break any man’s spirit. There are various
standard lists of the classic “Ten Trials of Abraham,” and while
the later lists are confined to events mentioned in the Bible, the earlier
ones significantly give a prominent place to Abraham’s imprisonment in Mesopotamia
and the attempt to sacrifice him.8 But
all are agreed that Abraham’s career was an incredibly severe time of probation,
and that the problems he had to face were forced upon him largely by the evil
times in which he lived.

Signs in the Heavens

On the night Abraham was born, his father
had a party to celebrate the event. As the guests were leaving the house very
late at night, they were astonished at the sight of a great fireball that
came from the east at great speed and devoured four stars that converged from
the four quarters of the heavenly firmament.9 There have been times of intensified
meteoric showers in history, and Abraham’s time seems to have been one of
them. Günter Lanczkowski has pointed out significant resemblances between
the Genesis account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Abraham’s
day and the famous Egyptian tale of the shipwrecked sailor, who was told by
a great serpent how his whole race was wiped out by a huge flaming star that
fell upon their island home.10 Of this, G. A. Wainwright asks “whether
the detail of the destruction of the serpents may not be the romanticized
record of an actual event,” in which the island, which he identifies
with Zeberged or St. John off Rās Benās,
was blasted “by the fall of a meteorite” or “by an eruption
. . . not later than the Twelfth Dynasty.”11 Even Jewish tradition tells of a time
when “great dragon-like monsters had taken over the earth,” until
God cut them off suddenly,12 and also of a “planet” that
comes out of Scorpio and “spews gall and a drop of unhealthy blood that
fouls the waters of the earth.”13 To a great comet that appeared periodically
in the north “and destroyed crops and kings in East and West,” the
Greeks gave the name of Typhon,14 identifying him with the Canaanite
Resheph, the sky-god who came from Palestine to Egypt as a fiery meteorite
rushing through the heavens15 and whose sacred symbol was an iron
meteorite in his shrine.16 Now Resheph is closely bound up with
Abraham, and we are told that “the stars fought for Abraham” the
night he marched against the marauding kings, and slew his enemies “by
the almighty power of God.”17 The Egyptians were, according to Wainwright,
convinced that destructive falls of meteorites were an affliction particularly
reserved for the wicked.18

It has been suggested that the remarkable interest in stargazing that meets
us in the Abraham traditions and is so vividly brought home in the Book of
Abraham may be the normal result of a period of unusual celestial displays.
According to one tradition it was by observing the planets
that Abraham was able to calculate that the earth itself was behaving erratically
on its axis.  This
misbehavior had been apparent ever since the days of the flood and the tower,
since the time when the world no longer stood firm, the order of the creation
having been altered. The people of Abraham’s day believed that “the
heaven shifted once every 1656 years,” and they devised a means to prevent
this by building a series of towers, of which the great tower was the first;
for their folly Abraham denounced them.19 This is supposed to be the first time
that the planets had been disturbed since the days of Adam: “Before the
Fall the planets moved with greater speed and in shorter orbits than after.”20 In Abraham’s day, Jupiter is said to have changed its orbit,21 and even the fixed stars were troubled:
“Because men had perverted the order of life, God altered the order of
nature: Sirius became irregular and two stars were removed from their places.”22 Egyptian observers seem to say that Sirius was earlier a variable
star, “ruling all the other stars,” wrote Horapollo, “as it
changes its brightness.”23 We
have already seen that Abraham’s contemporaries were singularly devoted to
the star Shagreel—Sirius—which they associated with the sun, according
to the Book of Abraham and other sources. The great mural discovered in 1929
at El-Ghassul, thought to be one of the “Cities of the Plain” of
Abraham’s day, is dominated by a huge and impressive star figure that has
been identified with both the sun and Sirius and has been hailed as establishing
“the meeting-point between the two great empires of Egypt and Chaldea,
where celestial phenomena played such an important role in the moral life
of men.”24 We
can avoid the enticing twilight zone of science fiction by confining our conclusions
to the minimal speculation—which seems quite safe—that unusual
displays in the heavens, whatever they were, belonged to the general disturbances
of Abraham’s restless world.

Far more conspicuous in the reports are seismic and volcanic disturbances.
When “the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the
land, and utterly destroyed them” (Abraham 1:20), it was no doubt in
the same manner in which he dealt with the proud and wicked Nephites: “that
great city of Moronihah have I covered with earth. . . . I
did send down fire and destroy them” (3 Nephi 9:5, 11). Just so
in the days of Abraham he dealt with Sodom and Gomorrah, which like the American
cities, lay along one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. No
minor catastrophe or the death of a single haughty priest would have caused
“great mourning in Chaldea, and also in the court of Pharaoh” (Abraham
1:20). The overthrow of the altar and the wide destruction are confirmed by
the legends. Just as Abraham prayed on the altar, “there was a violent
upheaval of the heavens and the earth and the mountains and all the creatures
in them.”25 An
older account, the Pseudo-Philo,
says that “God sent a great earthquake, and the fire gushed forth out
of the furnace and broke out into flames and sparks of fire and consumed all
them that stood around about, . . . 83,500 of them. But upon Abraham
there was not the least injury from the burning of the fire.”26 The attempted sacrifice is sometimes
placed at the site of the tower, in northern Mesopotamia, where the rites
are interrupted as “the flame bursts with a roar from the furnace,”
which destroys many people and saves Abraham, but does not bring the people
to repentance.27 The traditions consistently associate
earthquakes with fires bursting from the earth, as at Sodom and Gomorrah,
which were overthrown while fire enveloped them from above and below (cf.
Genesis 19:24—25): “the rivers of the region turned to bitumen,
we are told, and the ground became sulphurous and burned, . . . while the
five cities on their elevations toppled over.”28 Earthquakes, fumaroles, fissures,
rumblings, sulphurous smells, etc., all go together in the story, as they
do in nature.29 “For fifty-two years,” according to a well-known tradition,
“God had warned the godless” by a series of preliminary rumblings
and quakings; “he had made mountains to quake and tremble. But they hearkened
not unto the voice of admonition.”30 The
last twenty-five years were particularly ominous, with the earth subsiding
and quaking almost continually.31 All
through the life of Abraham, even before the fall of the Cities of the Plain,
we meet with earthquakes.

The Abraham cycle includes the tradition that one-third of the tower was swallowed
up by the earth and one-third was burned by fire from heaven.32 The Pearl of Great Price itself tells
us that when Enoch led the people of God against their enemies, “the
earth trembled, and the mountains fled, . . . and the rivers of
water were turned out of their course; and the roar of the lions was heard
out of the wilderness, and all nations feared” (Moses 7:13). The Jewish
tradition is that in the days of “Enos,” when men started to worship
idols, the mountains on which men once farmed became broken up, rocky, and
no longer arable.33 The passage from the book of Moses reads like an accurate description
of the great Assam earthquake of 1955—including even the “roar
of lions . . . out of the wilderness.” When Abraham’s grandfather
Nahor was seventy and his people had become confirmed idol worshipers, there
was another great earthquake—but for all that they only increased in
their wickedness.34

One of the best-known stories of the childhood of Abraham tells how the boy’s
father, out of patience with his son’s lack of respect for the king’s claim
to divinity, took him to the palace for a personal interview with majesty,
hoping the boy would be properly impressed. Just as the father and son entered
the throne room, there was a short and violent earthquake, which shook the
throne and threw all the courtiers off their feet. This shattered their dignity,
and the king, impressed by the coincidence of the tremor with the appearance
of Abraham, cried, “Truly thy God, Abraham, is a great and mighty god,
and he is the King of all Kings.”35 In
another version it is Pharaoh’s palace that is shaken by an earthquake while
Abraham is visiting there.36 Carrying
things to extremes, the Apocalypse of Abraham reports that when as a youth he was one day leaving
his father’s house, “there was a great clap of thunder, fire fell from
heaven and burned up Terah, his house and all that was in it for 40 cubits
around.”37 This seems to reflect
the story of the death of Haran, who got involved with the idol worship of
his father and suffered death as a substitute for Abraham while trying to
extinguish supernatural fires.38 One report has it that Nimrod sacrificed his victims in inextinguishable
fires of petroleum, which Abraham, with the aid of God, nonetheless extinguished.39 All in all, fire and earthquake go
well together in the Abraham traditions: “and the fiery furnace fell
down, and Abraham was saved.”40 “In Abraham’s day,” says
the Clementine Recognitions, “the world was afflicted by fire, which, beginning
at Sodom, threatened to destroy the entire world.”41 After the destruction of Sodom and
Gomorrah, Abraham had to leave his beloved Mamre, because the entire region
had been completely blighted by the catastrophe.42 All plant life was
destroyed, and seeds transplanted from Sodom would not grow anywhere.43 No wonder Lot’s daughters, hiding
in a cave, thought they were the only surviving mortals.44 “The
entire landscape was desolation; there were almost no travellers; everything

Archaeology confirms the general picture of disaster in Abraham’s time. “Our
archaeological discoveries in the Negeb,” wrote Nelson Glueck, “are
in harmony with the general historical background of the accounts in Genesis
12, 13, and 14.”46 Southern
Canaan right to Sinai is marked by many sites of permanent settlements and
caravan stopping places, reminding one that “all the plain of Jordan
. . . was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom
and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou
comest unto Zoar” (Genesis 13:10). Then suddenly all of these “sites
were destroyed at the end of the Abra(ha)mitic period, and for the most part
were not reoccupied ever again or not until at least a thousand years, and
in most such instances not till about two thousand years had elapsed.”47 In Ghassul, the only City of the Plain
that has been located so far, everything was ruined completely by an earthquake.48 Otto Eissfeldt, one of the most sober and cautious of scholars,
believes that the story of Sodom is “a very obscure and distorted memory
of a real historical occurrence,” noting that a great earthquake actually
did take place at the southern end of the Dead Sea sometime in the second
millennium B.C., and concluding that the best solution
to the problems of the stories of Lot and Abraham in Genesis 19 is to regard
them as real history.49 While
Robert Graves and Raphael Patai observe that “the shallower southern
basin, beyond the Lisan peninsula [the tongue of land that protrudes into
the Dead Sea from the east] may once have been a plain, encroached upon by
the salt waters after severe earthquakes about 1900 B.C.,”
they would explain away the fire from heaven as a description of “the
intense [summer] heat.”50 An
easier explanation would be those fires which, according to seismologists,
are always the main cause of destruction when cities suffer earthquake.

A century ago Bernhard Beer listed a number of ancient sources reporting the
rather sudden formation of the Dead Sea.51 Yet until recently scholars have rejected the whole story as impossible.
“Critical scholarship,” writes Friedrich Cornelius, “insists
emphatically that the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah are purely fantasy”;
yet it now appears that the Jordan Valley is a very active earthquake zone,
and Cornelius calls attention to disturbances that afflicted the whole ancient
world about the middle of the seventeenth century B.C., when “an enormous earthquake
destroyed the Cretan palaces, Ugarit and Alalah VII.”52 “It is quite possible,”
he notes, “that the southern end of the Dead Sea, a plain which is only
4 to 6 metres under the level of the sea, was formed by an earthquake.”
Though there is no lava in the area, “the ignition of earth gases among
the tarpits (Asphaltsee) is virtually unavoidable in an earthquake,”
such as is described in Genesis 19.53 André Parrot speculates that “Sodom was destroyed perhaps
by an earthquake accompanied by a sinking of the ground-level, which caused
a moderate extension of the Dead Sea which could have submerged the cities.”54 He suggests that we take seriously
the notoriously persistent place names of the desert, which still designate
features of the region as “Mt. Sodom” (Djebel Usdum), Zoar, etc.,
remembering that St. Jerome, who lived in Palestine, reported that the latter
village was actually swallowed up by an earthquake in his day.55 The
fate of Sodom and Gomorrah reminds us of the account in the Iliad of how Hephaestus dried up the river Scamander and
chased the Trojans out of the place, with a mighty flame.56 The fact that earthquakes of appalling
violence have occurred in that very area within the last few years is a reminder
that the disasters described, if not the mythical beings, who personify their
destructive wrath, could have been quite real. That such disturbances reached
a peak in Abraham’s lifetime is implied by the tradition that after him and
because of him the state of nature has remained more stable.57

Great natural disasters do not come singly. Earthquakes and volcanoes are
regularly accompanied by great storms. Typhon was not only the flaming meteorite;
he was also the bringer of great storms and disastrous floods, according to
the Egyptians, while Horus and Osiris held back the waters and cleared the
skies.58 The three great floods of water, wind,
and fire were assigned by the old desert sectaries to the times of Noah, Abraham,
and Lot, respectively; a tradition kept alive in the Old Syrian church has
it that when the great wind destroyed the generation of the tower, only Abraham
was saved.59 It is interesting that Abraham should
be made the central figure of some of the old stories of the great winds;
even the story of Ram and Rud, the righteous brothers whose language was not
confounded at the tower and who wandered back toward Eden, makes place for
Abraham, for while Rud may be a Mandaean form of Jared, Ab-ram has been suggested
for his brother.60 What made it easy to confuse the two periods was the persistent
report that Abraham did indeed have to cope with great winds and storms—but
mostly hot winds. In the one hundredth year of his grandfather Nahor, “God
opened the vessels of the Winds and the gate of the storms, and a great hurricane
swept over the land, carrying away the idols and covering the settlements
with sand-hills which remain to this day.”61 The poetic language is remarkably like that of Ether 2:24, “for
the winds have gone forth out of my mouth,” but the reality of the winds
is attested in many old Egyptian and Babylonian sources, such as “The
Lament for Ur” (Abraham’s city?), in which we read of “the evil
winds of Gibil and fire-god . . . the great heaven-storm with its
floods, and the hot wind that darkens the sky,” scatters the flocks,
lays bare the fields, and depopulates the cities and the holy places “like
a field desolate after the harvest.”62 The
Egyptians have left us a whole literature of lamentation vividly describing
the dire circumstances that attend the hot desert winds and the low Nile at
times when even the ultra-stable government of Egypt was shaken to pieces.63 Even the flood story of the Egyptians
goes back to far distant climatic changing—not speculative, but a real
experience of the human race. The best attested account of a superstorm, however,
is found on the stele of the Pharaoh Amosis. In it, that monarch recounts
in a dry, factual manner his tour of inspection of the disaster area: the
face of the land was changed, a major valley was formed overnight, the land
was in total darkness, so much so “that it was impossible to light a
torch anywhere,” and the most awesome aspect of the thing was the total
silence that met the king wherever he went: “the population sat in total
silence in the east and in the west, after God had shown his power.”64 Parallels to the Book of Mormon and Abraham 1:20 are no more striking
than the genuinely religious interpretation that the pious Amosis puts on
the event.

World Food Shortage

But far more conspicuous in the Abraham traditions than the raging storms
and floods is the blasting heat and drought that bring famine to the scene.
In the Book of Abraham, the prophet—even before the conflict with the
people of Ur of the Chaldees—learns from the Lord that there is going
to be a famine in the land; and after his escape from the altar the famine
descends in earnest, blighting the whole land of Chaldea (Abraham 1:29—30).
Leaving the country, Abraham, as his first act on crossing the border into
Canaan, sacrifices to God, praying “that the famine might be turned away
from my father’s house, that they might not perish” (Abraham 2:17). But
even in Canaan the famine only got worse and worse, forcing the patriarch
to go clear to Egypt for food, “for the famine became very grievous”
(Abraham 2:21). Of the ten great famines to afflict the world, according to
Jewish tradition, the greatest was that in Abraham’s time, it being the first
worldwide famine.65 Needless to say, hunger
(or famine) was one of the ten trials of Abraham.66

In the last days of Methuselah, when men began to apostatize and defile the
earth and steal from one another, God purposely caused the harvests to fail.67 This tradition is clearly recalled
in the Pearl of Great Price (Moses 8:3—4). With the birth of Noah, things
began to improve, and Noah himself sought to improve conditions by inventing
plows, sickles, axes, and other agricultural machinery.68 Next,
when men reverted to evil during the time of the scattering from the tower,
the time of God’s wrath, it did not rain—the great winds were dry winds.69 In the “Lament for Ur” we
are told how “the good storm, Nannar, is driven out of the land, and
the people . . . are scattered. . . . Everywhere corpses lie
withering in the sun; . . . many die of hunger; the heat is unbearable; .
. . all government collapses; . . . parents desert their children.”70 Kenan, the son of Enos, is said to have recorded the great famine
that followed the preaching of his father.71 Then
in the days of Terah, just before the birth of Abraham, “Mastema [Satan]
sent crows and birds” and by the starving birds the people were robbed
of their grain and fruit and reduced to destitution.72

So we find Abraham at the age of four (some say fifteen) driving the birds
from the fields, but politely explaining the situation to them and reaching
an amicable understanding as he does so.73 All his life he is escaping from heat, drought, and hunger, or
helping others to escape from them. Everywhere he goes he digs wells and plants
trees (most of which perish);74 he invents important
improvements in agricultural machinery and methods75 and distributes food wherever he can.
He undertakes search-and-rescue missions for wanderers in the desert when
it was as hot as the day of judgment, God having released the fires of hell
on the earth, and tangles with marauding bands amidst “dust” and
“stubble.”76 But above all it is in a ritual
capacity that Abraham is involved in the business of checking heat and drought.
This may seem very strange until we realize that the running of the waters
and the tempering of the blasting heat is the Hauptmotiv (main theme) of the great yearly ritual assemblies
of Abraham’s day from one end to the other of the inhabited world.77 The Book of Abraham is aware of the
strange system in which human sacrifice and famine are closely connected.
The ancients, though they knew perfectly well that it was the sun that dried
up the earth, nevertheless attributed the most deadly heat and drought to
the Dog Star, Sirius, who in Abraham’s day was propitiated with “the
thank-offering of a child,” as “the god of Shagreel” (Abraham
1:10, 9). It was when famine prevailed in spite of everything that Abraham’s
father decided not to make such an offering of his own son: “a famine
prevailed throughout all the land of Chaldea, and my father was sorely tormented,
. . . and he repented of the evil which he had determined against
me, to take away my life” (Abraham 1:30). But Abraham’s brother, Haran,
died in the famine (cf. Abraham 2:1). We are not told why this was permitted
while the rest of the family survived, but numerous legendary accounts have
it that Haran died as an offering in the fire in the place of Abraham.78

As we have seen, Abraham’s delivery from the altar in the land of the Chaldees
is often described as his escape from the fire of the furnace of Chaldea,
and we are told how at the moment he was cast from the altar into the flames,
the latter became a lush and lovely garden.79 In the most mysterious episode in all his career, we find Abraham
driving off birds of prey from a sacrifice while he is overcome with a tardema, which some scholars interpret as sunstroke.80 The first altar Abraham built, according
to Abraham 2:17, was for an offering and prayer “that the famine might
be turned away from my father’s house.” What is most significant for
our study is that the “Busiris” type of sacrifice, of which our
Facsimile 1 is an illustration, has the specific object of propitiating the
heavens in time of drought and famine.81

A World in Trouble

The great insecurity of life accompanying major natural upheavals, when men
can no longer count on the stability of the earth itself, is not without marked
psychological effect. A basic teaching of the Talmud is that there is a definite
correlation between the behavior of man and the behavior of nature. The universe
is so organized, according to this, that when man revolts against God’s plan
of operations, to which all other creatures conform, he finds himself in the
position of one going the wrong way on a freeway during rush hour: the very
stars in their course fight against him. The blight of nature follows the
wickedness of man in every age. Thus, when Adam fell, an angel cut down all
the trees of the garden but one; when Abel was murdered, all the vegetation
in the world withered until Seth was born, when it bloomed again; but when
men started worshiping idols in the time of Abraham’s great-grandparents,
the sea rose along the whole eastern Mediterranean seaboard, “flooding
one-third of the land from Akko to Jaffa”; and when in the last days
of Methuselah men again defiled the earth, God caused all the harvests to
fail.82 This
same philosophy is strikingly expressed in the book of Moses in the Pearl
of Great Price, especially in the seventh chapter, where we even hear the
earth itself, personified as “the mother of men,” weeping for the
wickedness of her children that have defiled her (Moses 7:48). It was because
of wickedness among the people that the birds came to destroy their crops
when Abraham was a child. As it was in the days of Noah, so in the days of
Abraham, a very old Christian writing explains, the world was ripe for destruction,
according to the principle that whenever men fall away completely from God,
destruction must follow.83 Indeed,
the people had sunk so low, says one very old source, that God caused their
civilization to degenerate back to the stage of cave dwelling, and brought
Abraham out of the land.84

After the flood, men were haunted by an understandable feeling of insecurity,
to overcome which they undertook tremendous engineering projects; among these
was the famous tower, which was to be the symbol of man’s ultimate mastery
of nature, being so ingeniously designed and solidly constructed as to be
absolutely safe against flood, fire, and earthquake. Within the walls of the
tower was to be stored the sum total of man’s knowledge of the physical universe,
enabling him to meet and master any situation that might arise—”and
it was all done out of fear of another flood!”85 A great economic boom and commercial
expansion enabled them to undertake all kinds of engineering projects for
controlling a dangerous nature, but the Lord fooled them by “altering
the course of nature and creation.”86 That was in Abraham’s day: the Nimrod
legends are full of marvelous gadgets and structures—superbuildings,
mechanical thrones and altars, flying machines, and whatnot. It was a time
of great scientific and technological progress—the Abraham stories,
including the Book of Abraham, are unique in their concern for a scientific
understanding of the cosmos, as against a purely religious and moral teaching—but
toppling on the edge of destruction: those hot winds were breathing down everybody’s

In desperation, men turned to worshiping idols. Why idols, of all things,
in a scientific age? It was “because in the whole world the people were
without a teacher or a lawgiver or any one who could show them the way of
truth.”87 Of course, there was Abraham, but
they didn’t want him; and precisely therein lay the convenience of having
idols. Even when the boy Abraham argued with his father that the idols were
blind, dumb, and helpless, as anyone could see, and therefore could not possibly
help others, Terah stuck to his idol business. The one salient, outstanding,
universal, undeniable characteristic of all idols is their utterly passive
helplessness; if men persist in worshiping them, it cannot be in spite of
that quality, but because of it. The sophisticated people of Abraham’s time
wanted the sanction of holy beings which at the same time were one hundred
percent compliant with their own interests and desires, just as people today
search out those scriptures which support their interests and push the rest
aside. As Brigham Young pointed out time and again, the enlisting of systematic
piety in the interest of private greed and ambitions is the very essence of
idolatry.88 We can believe that
the smart and cynical people of Abraham’s day were sincere and devout in their
idol worship—after all, Abraham’s own father was willing to put him
to death in support of the system.

Move On!

The Bible does not tell us why Abraham left Ur,89 but the Book of Abraham (Abraham 1:1—2) clearly implies
that he found the general atmosphere of Mesopotamia unbearable. There are
indications that he was swept along to the west with many others under the
pressure of world unrest and political crisis: “When you see the Powers
fighting each other,” says the Midrash, “look for the coming [lit.
‘feet’] of the King Messiah. The proof is that in the days of Abraham, because
these Powers fought against each other, greatness came to Abraham.”90 Recently E. MacLaurin has suggested that “the advancing
armies of the great Semitic ruler Hammurabi were probably the cause of departure
from his native city of Abraham.”91 Others
emphasize religious reasons: he was escaping from the idolatrous rites and
ceremonies of the fathers, according to Judith;92 Terah left Ur because he hated Chaldea,
on account of his mourning for Haran, says Josephus;93 and when the family
moved, Abraham was in serious trouble with both Chaldeans and Mesopotamians,
and finally had to leave the country altogether.94 He left for the west, according to the Pseudo-Philo, because his homeland had become completely degenerate
and because he had become disgusted with the tower building and the whole

The religious background of Abraham had been Babylonian, “Chaldean”
rather than Egyptian, and that at a time, as Friedrich Cornelius puts it,
“when Babylonian religious degeneracy was flooding the Syrian regions.”96 It was to escape this
spreading miasma, some have maintained, that Abraham fled to the purer air
of the west.97 While
on a return visit to Haran after fifteen years in Canaan, according to one
story, Abraham was terribly shocked by the general immorality of the old home
town and yearned for the simpler frontier life of Canaan.98 A Roman soldier with a keen eye and
a sound head has left us a description of the hot, sultry, mosquito- and lion-ridden
district of Haran, with its voluptuous, rich, carefree, immoral inhabitants,
and though his account is as far removed from Abraham’s day as it is from
our own, still this particular corner of the “unchanging east” has
indeed remained unchanged even down to our times, as Parrot has strikingly
demonstrated.99 The ancient Ur to the south has been
described by its excavators in much the same terms as are the great contemporary
cities of the Indus Valley by their discoverers: they were depressing places
to live—huge, ugly, monotonous, geometrical, rich, sultry, joyless metropolises.

But Abraham’s Canaan did not offer escape for long. The fabulous prosperity
of the Cities of the Plain turned them too into little Babylons.100 The only “City of the Plain”
yet discovered, El-Ghassul, displays astonishing luxury and sophistication,
the style being Babylonian rather than Egyptian, and apparently already in
a state of decadence just before its destruction by an earthquake.

Some have explained Abraham’s departure to the west simply as a test—he
migrated because God told him to do so.101 If it was a test, it was a severe one: Professor Albright has
recently pointed out that the ancient pioneers, far from finding a golden
west awaiting them, were “ethno-political intruders in the West,”102 and as such “were not well received
but were closely watched and were usually driven away [by the local inhabitants,
who] bitterly resented any attempt on the part of outsiders to move in and
take over their fields or pastures.”103
Even in Canaan, moreover, the Babylonian threat followed the patriarch, who
was forced to leave Damascus, according to a very ancient source, because
of military and political pressure from the east.104 In Canaan, Abraham’s nephew Lot, catching the spirit of the times,
declared that he preferred suburban Sodom to the society of his uncle, saying,
“I want neither Abraham nor his God!” and moved down into the crowded
and prosperous plain.105

The Procrustes Cycle

A number of legends fit Abraham snugly into the peculiar category of victims
of Procrustes (fig. 30). In the standard Procrustes-type story, of which there
are many, a wandering hero and prince is entertained at the palace of a king
who tries to subject him to a sacrificial death, but whose attempt fails when
the hero at the last moment is miraculously freed and repays his host’s inhospitality
by putting either him or his priest to death. Among the most celebrated monsters
of the Procrustes persuasion are Minos, Philomeleides, Amycus, Cycnus, Syleus,
Antaeus, Phalarus, Cronus, Lityerses, Faunus, Cacus, Athamus, Proteus, Polyphemus,
Eurytheus, Sciron, and many others, the most famous of all being Busiris of

Among the heroes who met and bested them are Odysseus, Pollux, Menelaeus,
Paris, Hermes, Jason, Bellerophon, Cytisorus, etc. The reader can look them
all up in Pauly-Wissowa’s Real-Encyclopaedie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft or a good classical dictionary, preferably Robert
Graves’s The Greek Myths,106 which pays special attention to such
sordid goings-on and shows us time and again that the terrible doings we hear
about in the Abraham legends actually could have taken place.

The greatest hero of this cycle is Heracles, who shall serve us here as an
example. Heracles was a wandering, suffering, conquering benefactor of mankind
who, like Abraham, wandered through the world meeting and overcoming the enemies
of the race and in the process becoming the father of many nations. After
ridding Crete of bears, wolves, and serpents, he went to Libya, where the
tyrant King Antaeus, the son of Mother Earth and Poseidon the water-god, would
force all strangers to wrestle with him, murder them in the contest, and nail
their skulls to the roof of the temple of his father.107

Heracles, accepting the challenge, killed Antaeus and turned his desolate
kingdom into a blooming paradise. Then he moved on to Egypt where Antaeus’s
brother Busiris was king; every year, to combat the force of drought in his
kingdom, he would sacrifice a noble stranger on the altar of Zeus.108 Heracles, as we have seen, allowed himself to be led to the altar,
and at the last moment burst his bonds and murdered the cruel king or, in
some versions, his priest (fig. 31).109
That labor performed, the hero went to Gaul, “where he abolished a barbarous
native custom of killing strangers,” and founded “a large city,
to which he gave the name Alesia, or ‘Wandering-town.'”110 In Italy he accepted the challenge
to duel with the wicked King Cacus, slew him on the Great Altar (the Ara Maxima),
married the queen, Acca Larentia, and so became the father of the Romans.
According to a later account, Cacus was an idol to whom the natives would
offer up their infant children—exactly in the manner of the Phoenicians
and the Chaldeans of Abraham’s Ur!111 While he was at it, Heracles also
killed Faunus, “whose custom was to sacrifice strangers at the altar
of his father Hermes,” marrying the royal widow to become the father
of the Latin race.112 He then reformed the Cronian year-rites by supplanting the throwing
of human victims into the river by the use of puppet substitutes.113 At Celaenae, Lityerses, the son of
Minos, would force his guests to compete with him in reaping his harvest,
whip them if their strength flagged, behead them at sunset, and bind them
up in a sheaf while singing a dirge for them; Heracles beat the king in the
reaping game, cut off his head with his sickle, and threw him into the river.114
The beheading, the dirge, the whipping, and the throwing into the river are
all important in the Egyptian rites for Osiris, and remind us that Maneros,
the son and successor of the first king of Egypt, also died in such a harvest
rite. At Itonus, Heracles slew King Cycnus, who forced his guests to duel
with him for a chariot and decorated his father’s temple with their heads.115 And he tore up the vineyards of the
Lydian King Syleus, who used to make passing strangers toil amid the vines.116 Here we should note that it was actually the custom in ancient
Asia Minor and Syria to seize and kill strangers in the vineyards during the
vintage season.117

These few examples are enough to give one the idea. The noble Theseus got
the best of Minos, the half-human monster who meant to murder his royal guest,
and on his wanderings accepted King Sciron’s routine challenge to wrestle—and
threw him into the sea. And it was Theseus who finally settled the score with
Procrustes himself; one can read all about that sort of thing in Marie Renault’s
The King Must Die and The
Bull from the Sea
.118 Sciron’s father was Cronus, the Cretan
killer, who used to eat his guests; and his neighbor was the king of the Bebryces
on the Black Sea, who also murdered his guests. King Philomeleides compelled
all his guests to wrestle with him until the wandering Odysseus retired him,
as did the wandering water-god Pollux to King Amycus, who forced every visitor
to box with him and threw them all into the sea, where he finally ended up
himself. Menelaus suffered the cruel hospitality of the old Man of the Sea,
as Odysseus did of the Cyclops (another son of Poseidon), until each was able
to turn the tables and force his host to help him on his way. And so on and
on. Long ago Eugéne Lefébure noticed the kinship of these stories to the tale
of the Egyptian Busiris, who was Heracles’ most famous host.119
Because he ties in directly with the Abraham legends, Busiris deserves a little
more attention.

“Who does not know about the famous altars of Busiris?” which were
proverbial among the ancients.120
A whole string of classical writers from the fifth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D., a full thousand years, recount the
lurid tale with the normal and expected variations. As Apollodorus tells it,
Busiris was desperate when his kingdom was afflicted by a severe drought and
famine, for the king, as everyone knows, was directly responsible for the
prosperity of the land. The seer Prasius came from Cyprus and told the king
that the dearth would end if a stranger were sacrificed annually, and Busiris
obliged the visiting prophet by making him his first victim. Thereafter the
sacrifice was repeated annually until Heracles put an end to it in the manner
described, killing, according to Apollodorus, not only the king but his son
as well and the priest or “herald” Chalbes—with a good Canaanitish
name.121 Names and details differ in various
versions of the story, indicating that in the case of Apollodorus, who came
along and tidied things up in the end, the name of Heracles was used as it
often was as a convenient catchall to avoid serious and laborious historical
research. Ovid, a much earlier writer, says that the seer who advised the
king and suffered death at his hands was a Thracian, and Hyginus reports that
he was the nephew of the king of the Phoenicians.122 Pherecydes, a contemporary of Lehi,
reports only that after Heracles had restored fertility to the land of Libya
by slaying Antaeus, he went straight to Memphis “and there sacrificed
[Antaeus’s equally wicked brother] Busiris on the same altar on which he was
accustomed to sacrifice strangers to Zeus.”123 What all sources agree
on is the real essential, and that is that once long ago an illustrious stranger
and seer visited the court of Pharaoh at his invitation and that the king
tried to put him to death; in one case at least he succeeded, but in the most
famous story of all the stranger, whoever it was, got the best of the affair.
We can neither accept nor reject the stories as they stand, for they are plainly
conditioned by the memory of definite ritual practices, which were themselves
very real and sometimes very important historic events. Abraham in the Book
of Abraham emphatically tells us in the first chapter that the fate planned
for him by the priest of Pharaoh was one that had been suffered by others
before him—he was by no means the first, nor possibly the last, such
victim. The picture is a complicated one.

In ancient times the name of Busiris was a byword for cruelty and inhospitality.
The Emperor Maximin was so cruel, we are told, “that people called him
Cyclops, Busiris, Sciron, Falaris, and Typhon.”124 It is interesting to see the name
of Typhon, the slayer of Osiris, added to this list of authentic “Procrustean”
heroes. Another emperor is accused of reviving the bloody altars of Busiris
in rites more savage than sacred.125 Busiris was remembered as one who
sacrificed substitutes to pay for his sins: “It was he who would propitiate
for his crimes by making the gods participants in the blood of innocent guests.”126 While some go so far as to accuse
Busiris of cannibalism, Isocrates in the fifth century B.C.
caused a sensation by an oration in praise of Busiris, in which he debunked
the whole story.127 Diodorus, more cautious,
says that the story is probably Greek propaganda, spitefully circulated against
Busiris when he closed Egyptian ports to Greek merchants in his desire to
protect the cult of Osiris. He admits, however, that the tale does reflect
the notorious hostility of the Egyptians to strangers unless they were scholars
of world reputation, such as Orpheus, Homer, Pythagoras, and Solon.128 At any rate, the cruel
altar of Busiris remained proverbial.129

The oldest and best-informed Greek commentators were quite aware that Busiris
was a place rather than a person, though it could be both. To Eratosthenes
is attributed the observation that “hostility to strangers is a common
barbarian trait, which is also found among the Egyptians: stories told in
the Busirite nome about Busiris are a criticism of that inhospitality.”130 Herodotus reports that in his day
the main temple of Isis in all the world stood in Busiris, which with Bubastis
formed the nucleus of Egyptian cult life.131 Indeed, since prehistoric times Osiris
was known as “the Lord of Busiris,” and it was from there that his
rites spread to the other cult centers of Egypt, notably Abydos. I. E. S.
Edwards even suggests that Osiris was probably a real king, “first the
king and then the local god of the ninth Lower Egyptian nome,
with its capital at Busiris”;132 while Henri Frankfort held that Busiris was the tomb of some forgotten
king.133 Every dead Egyptian needed to take
a ritual journey to Busiris, to “appear there as the dead King Osiris,”
his presence in the place qualifying him as an Osiris.134 The place was named,
according to Sethe, after its local divinity, and was even older as a cult
center than Heliopolis itself.135 In the Pyramid Texts the king comes to Busiris for rites of human
sacrifice,136 and a Nineteenth-Dynasty monument
has the same rites still celebrated in Busiris.137 Edwards believes that
the yearly passion play of Osiris was performed at Busiris as early as the
First Dynasty.138
“I am enduring in Busiris, conceived in Busiris, born in Busiris,”
boasts King Tutankhamun, reminding us that Busiris is preeminently the place
of the lion couch.139
When Heliopolis took over the ancient cult of Busiris under the guidance of
the great Imhotep, it supplanted the human sacrifice by the use of substitutes,
thus leaving Busiris the distinction, which is retained right down into the
Middle Ages, of being the right and proper place for human sacrifices.140

Our Hospitality

When Abraham went forth into a starving world, he found the people understandably
touchy and dangerous: “and they persecuted Abraham our father when he
was a stranger, and they vexed his flocks” as well as his servants, “and
thus they did to all strangers, taking away their wives by force, and they
banished them. But the wrath of the Lord came upon them.” This is the
Testament of Levi speaking
of Abraham in Shechem.141 But he found the same
hostility elsewhere, that worldwide cruelty and inhospitality which is best
represented by the notorious Procrustes and especially by Abraham’s own stomping
grounds, Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Bible tells us that the Jordan depression was a veritable paradise when
Abraham first visited it, “before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah”
(Genesis 13:10). It is not surprising that “the men of Sodom were the
wealthy men of prosperity, on account of the good and fruitful land whereon
they dwelt. For every need which the world requires, they obtained therefrom.”142
Nor is it very surprising that “they did not trust in the shadow of their
Creator, but (they trusted) in the multitude of their wealth they trusted,
for wealth thrusts aside its owners from the fear of Heaven.”143 Here Rabbi Eliezer seems to be quoting
the same sources as did Samuel the Lamanite (Helaman 13:18—39), both
men being diligent students of the old Jewish writings. He also seems to be
using the same source as King Benjamin (Mosiah 4:16—26) as he continues:
“The men of Sodom had no consideration for the honour of their Owner
[of their wealth] by (not) distributing food to the wayfarer . . .
but they (even) fenced in all the trees on top above their fruit so that they
should not be seized; (not) even by the bird of heaven.”144 This was in the authentic Babylonian tradition, eyewitness accounts
telling how the people of Babylon “oppressed the weak, and gave him into
the power of the strong. Inside the city was tyranny, and receiving of bribes;
every day without fail they plundered each other’s gods; the son cursed his
father in the street, the slave his master. . . . They put
an end to offerings and entered into conspiracies.”145 The people of Sodom and Gomorrah were not condemned for their
ignorance of the God of Abraham but rather for their meanness, their immorality,
and their greed; they were destroyed because they did not strengthen the hand
of the poor and heeded not the needy.146
For them everything existed for the sole purpose of being turned into cash:
they put a toll on all their bridges, with a double toll for wading; they charged visitors for everything
and had the most ingenious tricks for getting money out of them.147

When Abraham’s servant tried to help a poor man who had been robbed and was
being beaten up by a gang in Sodom, he was attacked by the mob, arrested,
and dragged into court, where he was fined the price of bloodletting as a
perfectly legitimate physician’s fee.148
For like the Nephites under the Gadianton administration, these people were
careful to keep everything legal: thus they would pay a merchant good prices
for his goods but refuse to sell him any food, and when he starved to death
would piously confiscate all of his wares and his wealth.149 Of course, “the richer a man,
the more was he favored before the law,” for it was wicked to encourage
idleness by helping the poor.150 Anyone helping the poor in Sodom
got thrown into the river.151 There are lurid tales of tender-hearted
virgins, including Lot’s daughter Pilatith, who suffered terrible punishment
when they were caught secretly helping the poor.152
It was one of these episodes, according to the Midrash, that finally caused
God to decide to destroy the city.153
Just south of Sodom was the great plain where the licentious yearly rites
were held; in these all strangers were required by law to participate, and
during the four-day celebration they were efficiently relieved of everything
they owned154—the great pilgrimage centers
of the Old World were understandably the worst places in the world for fleecing
strangers, that being through the centuries the principal commercial activity
of the natives.

It is not surprising that travelers and birds alike learned to avoid the rich
cities of the plain, while all the poor emigrated to other parts.155 Interestingly enough, the records
of Ugarit, which some hold to be contemporary with Abraham, show that “the
practice of killing merchants was . . . widespread” in that part of the
world, even as the Amarna letters show us a world in which it is every man
for himself.156 Having no love for the stranger, the people of Abraham’s homeland
had even less to waste on each other, and finally there was so much crime
and murder among them that everything came to a complete standstill.157 Being grossly materialistic, they
rated the hardware high above the software: “If a man fell and died [working
on the tower] they paid no heed to him, but if a brick fell they sat down
and wept.” Seeing this, Abraham “cursed them in the name of his
God.”158 One cannot help thinking of the church builders in Mormon 8:37
and 39, who adorn themselves “with that which hath no life” while
calmly ignoring the needs of the living. “They were dwelling in security
without care and at ease, without the fear of war, . . . sated with
all the produce of the earth, but they did not strengthen . . . the hand of
the needy or the poor, as it is said, ‘Behold, this
was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom.'”159

That this emphasis on wealth and status was the real wickedness of Sodom and
Gomorrah is attested by both the Bible and the Pearl of Great Price, the latter
holding up as a lesson in contrast to the world in which the patriarchs lived—”there
were wars and bloodshed among them” (Moses 7:16). In the Old Testament,
the one time in his life when Abraham refuses to deal with one who makes him
an offer is when he coldly turns down the king of Sodom: It was after his
victory over the marauding chiefs of the East that Abraham willingly accepted
whatever the grateful king of Salem offered him as a reward, freely exchanging
gifts and compliments with “the King of Righteousness”; but he absolutely
refused to take anything whatever from the fawning king of Sodom, whose goods
he had also rescued: “I have raised my hand to Jehovah El-Elyon,”
that he would not take so much as a shoestring from that king, “so that
he can never say, ‘I enriched Abraham.'”160
He knew his Sodom and saw just what kind of a deal the king wanted to make
for himself; and God applauded his wisdom and reassured him: “Fear not,
Abram: I am thy shield” (Genesis 15:1). When Abraham and Lot started
getting rich, their retainers took to quarreling, whereupon Abraham, determined
to avoid involvement in that sort of thing, told Lot that he was welcome to
Sodom while he, Abraham, withdrew to a less prosperous region: “Let there
be no strife, . . . for we be brethren” (Genesis 13:8). The
rich cities of the plain, where they failed to serve the Lord “by reason
of the abundance of all things,” were no place for Abraham.161

Bed or Altar?

The most famous thing about Procrustes, as everyone knows, was his bed, and
it is this notorious item that ties his story very closely to the Abraham
cycle. The story goes that when Abraham’s servant Eliezer, being the exact
image of his master and serving as his proxy in the most important negotiations,
once visited Lot and Sodom on business for Abraham, he was entertained by
an innkeeper whose unauthorized hospitality (which would, of course, encourage
vagrancy!) got him banished from the town, while Eliezer himself was seized
and taken to the marketplace to be thrown down on a very special kind of bed.
All the cities of the plain, we are told, had such beds: the judges of the
other cities—Shaqar of Gomorrah, Zabnak of Admah, and Manon of Zeboiim—had
all taken counsel together and advised their people to “set up beds on
their commons. When a stranger arrived, three men seized him by his head,
and three by his feet, and they forced him upon one of those beds.” There
they stretched or contracted him violently to make him fit the exact length
of the bed, saying as they did so, “Thus will be done to any man that
comes to our land.”162
Beer, commenting on this, notes that Procrustes’ epithet Damastes means “the
Forcer,” or “the Violator,” that being, according to him, also
the root meaning of the word Sodom!163

So here is an authentic Procrustes story in which the victim on the bed is
none other than Abraham’s double. There is another Procrustes story of how
the same Eliezer, again looking exactly like Abraham, came to the house of
King Bethuel of Haran, where “they tried to kill him with cunning,”
the king arranging for poison dishes to be served Eliezer at a banquet in
his honor; but “it was ordained by God that the dish intended for him
should come to stand in front of Bethuel, who ate it and died,” the victim
of his own treachery.164 What is behind these
many stories of the strangely inhospitable kings? The bed is an important
clue. Professor Lefébure noticed when he was studying the Busiris tradition
that the inhospitable kings specialized in strange and ingenious contraptions
for putting their noble guests to death, such as bronze bulls or giant braziers.165
The altar of Busiris was held to be the fiendish invention of that ingenious
monarch, and no ordinary altar.166
Graves compares the bed of Procrustes to the bed to which Sampson was tied
(another sun hero like Heracles) by his inhospitable Philistines.167 In view of such things, somebody
should someday give serious consideration to Abraham’s strange insistence
in the Book of Abraham that the altar on which he was sacrificed required
a special note and a special illustration, being “made after the form
of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans” (Abraham 1:13). “And
that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation”
(Abraham 1:12). For the interesting fact is that all the Jewish legends of
the attempted sacrifice of Abraham make special mention of the peculiar altar
employed, each one describing and explaining it in a different way.

Some of the oldest accounts mention the unusual altar while not attempting
to describe it beyond saying that it was a binyan (Hebrew) or a bunyan (Arabic), i.e., a “structure” or “contraption.”168
But why not an ordinary altar? All kinds of explanations are given. For one
thing, nothing less than a superholocaust will do for Abraham; so the king
sends a thousand camels for wood, and when “he had [dug] a pit on a hill[?],
and trees thrown upon it, and spread everything that the [thousand camels]
carried, and set it on fire,” the rites were underway.169 Others explain that it was not the
altar itself that was the “structure,” but a wooden tower that the
king had erected near his palace so that he could watch Abraham in the fire.170 This might easily be a contamination
of one of the well-known tower-building stories about Nimrod, such as the
one in which he challenges Abraham to a duel as he comes out of the fire and
builds a tower to give him an advantage against the god of heaven.171
In the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, too, the piling up of the wood is
an important detail; though the wood is never ignited and the instrument of
sacrifice is really a knife, still the woodpile altar grows in the legends
until it becomes a huge tower, “built straight up towards the heavenly
throne of divine majesty.”172
It was after the attempted sacrifice had failed, we recall, that Abraham in
the rites in the Plain of Shaveh near Sodom was invited to sit atop a high
cedar tower or altar and be hailed as king.173

The superbonfire, “30 ells high and 30 ells broad,” raised bothersome
questions: How, for example, could you put Abraham into it without getting
burned up yourself (fig. 32)? Since the victim had to have his blood shed
by the knife before his remains could be committed to the flames, it would
not do simply to light the wood and run; it was only when the sacrificial
blade proved totally ineffectual that Satan appeared and suggested a solution
to the problem, which was to throw the victim from the altar to the fire from
a safe distance.174 This explanation converted the altar
into a sort of catapult or ballista.175 Schützinger says that the first mention
of the catapult is in Thaʿlabi,176 but the account of
that learned Persian has Jewish predecessors at least a thousand years older
than his time, for in 4 Maccabees, we read of the heroic widow’s sons being put to
death by a Nimrod-type tyrant, two of them being tied to catapults177 while a third is cast into a red-hot
brazier.178 Another much older source than Thaʿlabi has that king plan to hurl Abraham into an immense
This suggests certain Egyptian practices,180 as well as the addressing of the royal victim in Coffin Text 135
as “Thou who art raised upon the scaffold!”181

According to the ʿAntar legend, Nimrod had an iron oven for his victims.182 Just after Facsimile
1 was published, Joseph Smith wrote: “But if we believe in present revelation,
as published in the ‘Times and Seasons’ last spring, Abraham, the prophet
of the Lord, was laid upon the iron bedstead for slaughter.”183
Turning to that issue of the Times and Seasons, however, one finds no mention whatever of any iron bedstead, and so one naturally assumes that the
word “bedstead” suggested to the Prophet the image of a standard
iron bedstead.184 Still, it is interesting
that by far the fullest parallel to the story of Abraham on the altar is a
very early account preserved in the East Syrian Christian church in the very
place where the event was supposed to have taken place, in which the hero,
by a familiar transposition, is changed into St. Elias, who is bound on a
bed of iron that is heated for three hours.185

Abraham the Hospitable

The history of Abraham is a story of contrasts and extremes. If meanness and
inhospitality reach an all-time high in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham holds
the record for charity and compassion. The contrast is an intentional one
and a mark of authentic Abrahamic literature.186 The supreme example of such “coincidence of opposites”
is found in the Pearl of Great Price, where, in contrast to the city of Enoch—the
height of human perfection in this world, is set the most depraved society
in all the universe: “and among all the workmanship of mine hands there
has not been so great wickedness as among thy brethren” (Moses 7:36).
In Abraham’s day the world was in a desperate state, ripe for destruction.187 And Abraham’s own society was the
wickedest: “When a man was cruel,” says the Midrash Rabbah,
“he was called an Amorite.”188 For the patriarchs, as Theodor Böhl notes, the future was grim—and
none had better cause to know it than Abraham.189 By very definition “Abraham the Hebrew” was a “refugee,”
a “displaced person.”190
The famous formula “Lekh lekha” (Genesis 12:1) is a double imperative,
according to the rabbis, telling Abraham to get going and keep moving, from
one land to another.191 His whole career, as Martin Buber put it, was “an ever-new
separation for him and his progeny” from the world and from his own people.
“This entire history . . . is a consequence of choices and partings.”192

If constant travel was one of the ten trials of Abraham, jeopardizing his
family, fortune, and reputation,193
travel in dangerous and hostile regions was a horror: such was the curse placed
upon the wandering Jew for his meanness and want of hospitable feeling.194 The Zohar has an interesting psychological
note on the state of Abraham’s world: It is when things are going badly that
Satan loves to spread his accusations abroad: “For this is the way of
. . . Satan, . . . to bring accusations against him on high, . . .
reserv[ing] his indictment for the hour of danger, or for a time when the
world is in distress”195—then hysteria adds fuel to
the fires of destruction. In such times even the righteous have no guarantee
of security, for while “the Holy One does not punish the guilty until
the measure of their guilt is full,”196 when that time comes, look out! “When
punishment overtakes the world a man should not . . . let himself be found
abroad, since the executioner does not distinguish between the innocent and
the guilty.”197

In the most inhospitable of worlds, Abraham was the most hospitable of men.
It was said that charity was asleep in the world, and Abraham awakened it.198 Even before he went to Canaan, he
held continual open house near Haran, to try to counteract the evil practices
of the time.199 Then when he was forced to move, he dug wells and planted trees
along his way, leaving blessings for those he would never see.200 Arriving and settling in Beersheba, he built a garden and grove
and put gates on each of the four sides of it as a welcome to strangers from
all directions, “so that if a traveller came to Abraham he entered any
gate which was in his road, and remained there and ate and drank . . .
for the house of Abraham was always open to the sons of men that passed and
repassed, who came daily to eat and drink in the house of Abraham.”201 He also operated a school at the
place, that none might want for spiritual food: “Abraham’s house thus
became not only a lodging-place for the hungry and thirsty, but also a place
of instruction where the knowledge of God and His Law were taught.”202
When his guests thanked him, he said, in the words of King Benjamin (an ardent
student of early Jewish traditions; cf. Mosiah 4:19), “What, ye give
thanks unto me! Rather return thanks to your host, He who alone provides food
and drink for all creatures.”203

Inspired by the noble example and teaching of his uncle, Lot tried to operate
the same kind of inn when he settled near Sodom, but he was soon reported
to the authorities and had to operate secretly at night,204 while his daughters practiced their charities with great stealth
and suffered severe penalties when they were caught. Abraham’s continued hospitality
nearby was resented by the people of the plain as a standing rebuke to their
own sensible practices.205

Not content to admit the weary wanderer at all hours to his pleasant grove
and board, Abraham in those dangerous times used to undertake search-and-rescue
missions in the desert. It was at noon of a phenomenally hot day when “the
entire earth was being consumed with unbearable solar heat,”206 as if God had “pierced one hole
in the midst of Gehinnom, and . . . made the day hot, like the day
of the wicked,”207 or as if he had caused the sun to
emerge from its protecting sheath, depriving the earth of its normal defense
against deadly rays,208 that Abraham, suffering terribly
from illness, had his faithful Eliezer go out and search the byways for any
lost wanderers. Eliezer couldn’t find a soul, which was no wonder on such
a day; but Abraham still felt uneasy—it was just possible that somebody
might be out there needing his help. So the old man went forth all alone to
search in that dusty inferno. For that supreme act of involvement he received
his supreme reward—the son he had always prayed for. For as he was returning
from his mission of mercy, still alone, he was met by three men, whom he at
first, according to a very ancient tradition, took to be Arabs.209 Joyfully he led them
to his tent, where he soon discovered who they were: “Lord of the Universe!”
he cried, as he served them with food. “Is it the order of the cosmos
that I should sit while you stand?”210 Then it was that Abraham received
the desire of his heart (Genesis 18:9—14), and the commendation of his
good works: “Thou hast done well to leave thy doors open for the wanderer
and the home-journeyer and the stranger,” nay, were it not for men like
Abraham “I would not have bothered to create the heaven, earth, sun,
and moon.”211

There is a story of how Abraham, to see what kind of a wife Ishmael his son
had got, visited his camp in the desert as a simple wandering old man; Ishmael
was away at the time, and his wife turned the old tramp away. Abraham left
a message with her, however, by the cryptic wording of which Ishmael knew
who had been there—and advised him to get another wife. Three years
later Abraham visited the camp under the same circumstances and was shown
kindness by the second wife, with whom he left another message for Ishmael,
commending her worth.212 A more famous story
tells how when God sent Michael to fetch Abraham back to his presence at the
end of his life, the patriarch was still his old hospitable self, kindly inviting
the dread stranger—representing Death itself—to be his guest.213
Ever since then, when the world is in an evil way, the angels say to God:
“The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth, he hath broken the
covenant. Where is the reward of Abraham, he who took the wayfarers into his

Let It Begin with Me

Students of Abraham’s life are impressed by the way in which he seems to start
from scratch: with all the world going in one direction, he steadily pursues
his course in the opposite. Granted that the tradition of the fathers, of
which the Book of Abraham speaks so eloquently, was still known, yet his own
father and grandfather had lost faith in it and departed from it. “Ten
generations from Noah to Abraham . . . and there was not one of
them that walked in the ways of the Holy One . . . until Abraham our father,”
says Rabbi Nathan, who asks where, then, did Abraham get the idea of starting
things moving?215 The common explanation
that Abraham was self-taught—”God appointed the two reins of Abraham
to act as two teachers”—still does not make him a privileged character,
for all men have the same promptings of the Spirit if they will only listen
to them: “for charity . . . was asleep, and he roused it.”216
The power was there, but it lay dormant from neglect: When all the inhabitants
of the earth had been led astray in their own pride and self-sufficiency,
Abraham still believed on the Lord, who then made a covenant with him.217 Abraham received his covenant only
after he had made the first move. Speaking of him, the Zohar says, “the
prophetic spirit rests upon man only when he has first bestirred himself to
receive it.”218 Again, “the stirring below is accompanied by a stirring above,
for there is no stirring above till there is a stirring below.”219 But who was to start the stirring?
It was Abraham’s unique merit that he loved righteousness in a hard-hearted
and wicked generation, without waiting for others to show him the way.220
A wonderful illustration of this principle is set forth in the newly found
1831—32 account of Joseph Smith’s first vision, in which he recounts
how for three years he sought diligently for something that apparently interested
nobody else, and finally “I cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there
was none else to whom I could go . . . and the Lord heard my cry
in the wilderness.”221
This was exactly the case with the young Abraham, who at an early age angered
his father by questioning all the values and beliefs of his society.222

For generations the world had moved ever farther and farther from God, until
by Abraham’s time it had become what the Pearl of Great Price describes as
the worst of all worlds (Moses 7:36). Then Abraham single-handedly reversed
the trend: “The Shechinah [spirit of God] came to earth at the Creation,
but through human sin removed itself farther and farther from earth. Then
Abraham . . . brought it down again.”223 He was, says the Midrash,
like a man who saw a building all on fire and no one willing to put out a
hand to save it: “He said, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without
a guide?'”224 So he did the only
thing he could do and, exactly like Joseph Smith, appealed directly to God
at an early age—it was he who made the first move, according to Abraham
2:12: “Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee.”

This independence of mind got both prophets into trouble from the beginning.
“The man Abram is singled out, and sent out. He is brought forth from
out of the world of peoples and must go his own way.”225 The trials of both men begin immediately.
What drives Abraham is set forth at the beginning of his story with great
clarity and power: first of all, he is frankly seeking “greater happiness
and peace and rest for me”; he wants to be more righteous, to possess
greater knowledge than he has, to be a father of nations, a prince of peace,
receiving and following divine instruction, to become “a rightful heir,
a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers” (Abraham 1:2).
In short, he wants happiness, peace, rest, righteousness, knowledge, and light,
and he wants to be able to hand them on to others—to his own progeny
and to the world. The world is not interested in such things, but Abraham
was willing to pay any price for them. The Midrash compares him to a son being
soundly beaten by his loving father again and again, but never saying to his
father, “I have had enough!” but only “Thine is the power.”226 “Abraham,” says 1 Maccabees,
“was accounted righteous only after he had been found true and faithful
by passing through many testings.”227
He was chosen, says the Midrash, only after God saw that he would follow him
through the greatest tribulations.228 If Joseph Smith had based the Book of Abraham on his own experiences,
one might account in part for the astonishing parallels between the situation
in which the two prophets found themselves and their uncompromising and epoch-making
behavior in that situation. But our parallels do not come from Joseph Smith’s
account; they come from the studies and commentaries of Jewish scholars: it
is their Abraham who seems to be almost a carbon copy of
Joseph Smith.

Doing the Right Thing

The wonderful thing about Abraham is that he always does the right thing,
whether anybody else does or not. He had to get along with all sorts of people,
most of them rascals, and he treats them all with equal courtesy—he
never judges any man. After Pharaoh had tried to put him to death, and after
he had taken his wife away from him, Abraham could still not refuse his old
enemy in his need and laid his hand upon his head and healed him. He performed
the same healing office for the king of the Philistines, who would also steal
Sarah, and God recognized his great-heartedness and approved it: On the day
that Abraham assured the increase of the house of Abimelech, the angels asked
God that Abraham’s own house might increase.229 He was “the Friend of God” because he was the friend
of man. “When Abraham went to the Holy One . . . with [a petition for]
mercy,” says the Midrash, “the Holy One . . . met him with mercy.
When Abraham went to the Holy One . . . in singleness of heart, the Holy One
. . . met him in singleness of heart; . . . with subtlety, the Holy
One . . . met him with subtlety; and when Abraham asked to be guided in his
doings, the Holy One . . . guided his doings for him.”230 Never, says Maimonides, did Abraham
ever say to any man “God sent me to you and commanded me to do [or not
do] so and so!”231 for he knew that the priesthood operates
“only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness”
(D&C 121:41); it may command the elements and the spirits, “but never
force the human mind.” “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between
me and thee,” he says to Lot; “if thou wilt take the left hand,
then I will go to the right; or . . . the right hand, then I will
go to the left” (Genesis 13:8—9). So Lot helped himself to the
best land and as a result soon got all of his property carried away by raiders.
Instead of saying “I told you so,” Abraham got it back for him.
He could have made a very good thing of this for himself when the king of
Sodom, whose goods he had also rescued, came fawning to him (“wagging
his tail,” as the Midrash Rabbah
puts it)232 and trying to win him with flattery,
but without denouncing the wicked king, he simply turned down his offer (Genesis

“If Abraham does not play fair, who will?” says the proverb. His
passion for fair play breaks all the records in his pleading for the wicked
cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, to whom he owed nothing but trouble. He knew
all about their awful wickedness, but still, Josephus observes, “he felt
sorry for them, because they were his friends and neighbors.”234 He appealed directly to the Lord’s
sense of fairness: “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”
(Genesis 18:23). The impressive thing is the way in which Abraham is willing
to abase himself to get the best possible terms for the wicked cities, risking
sorely offending the Deity by questioning his justice: “far [be it] from
thee . . . to slay the righteous with the wicked: . . .
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). “Behold
now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes”
(Genesis 18:27). “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak”
(Genesis 18:30). “Now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord”
(Genesis 18:31). “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet
but this once” (Genesis 18:32). It was not an easy thing to do—especially
for the most degenerate society on earth. It can be matched only by Mormon’s
great love for a people whom he describes as utterly and hopelessly corrupt,
or by the charity of Enoch, Abraham’s great predecessor: “Enoch . . .
looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth
his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity,” and declared “I
will refuse to be comforted” until God promised to have compassion on
the earth (Moses 7:41, 44; cf. 49—50).

Abraham learned compassion both by being an outcast himself and by special
instruction, regarding which there are some interesting stories. When Melchizedek
was instructing him in the mysteries of the priesthood, he told him that Noah
and his people were permitted to survive in the ark “because they practiced
charity.” On whom? Abraham asked, since they were alone in the ark. On
the animals, was the answer, since they were constantly concerned with their
comfort and welfare.235
Again, Abraham once beheld a great vision (described also in the Book of Abraham)
of all the doings of the human race to come; what he saw appalled him—he
had never dreamed that men could be so bad, and in a passionate outburst he
asked God why he did not destroy the wicked at once. The answer humbled him:
“I . . . defer the death of the sinner, [who might possibly] repent and
live!”236 When Abraham saw with
prophetic insight the crimes that Ishmael would commit against him and his
house, he was about to turn the youth out into the desert, but the voice of
God rebuked him: “Thou canst not punish Ishmael or any man for a crime
he has not yet committed!”237 He learned by precept and experience that men are judged by God
not as groups but as individuals.238

But Abraham’s most famous lesson in tolerance was a favorite story of Benjamin
Franklin, a story which has been traced back as far as a thirteenth-century
Arabic writer and may be much older.239
The prologue to the story is the visit of three angels to Abraham, who asked
him what he charged for meals; the price was only that the visitor “invoke
the name of God before beginning and praise it when you finish.”240 But one day the patriarch entertained
an old man who would pray neither before eating nor after, explaining to Abraham
that he was a fire worshiper. His indignant host thereupon denied him further
hospitality, and the old man went his way. But very soon the voice of the
Lord came to Abraham, saying: “I have suffered him these hundred years,
although he dishonored me; and thou couldst not endure him one night, when
he gave thee no trouble?” Overwhelmed with remorse, Abraham rushed out
after his guest and brought him back in honor: “Go thou and do likewise,”
ends the story, “and thy charity will be rewarded by the God of Abraham.”241 In the oldest version of the story
the Lord says, “Abraham! For a hundred years the divine bounty has flowed
out . . . to this man: is it for thee to withhold thy hand from him because
his worship is not thine?”242 One is strongly reminded of the Nephite
law, which declared it “strictly contrary to the commands of God”
to penalize one’s neighbor if he does not choose to believe in God (Alma 30:7).

Once Abraham broke the ice, others began to follow. Pharaoh returned his generosity
by escorting him on his way.243
Abimelech loaded him with gifts. The Hittites matched his fair dealings with
their own.244 “Again and again,”
writes Josef Bloch, “it is compassion and forgiveness alone that are
the unfailing family trait of the true descendant of Abraham.”245 Luzzato discussed
the polarity of the human race between “Abrahamism” and “Atticism,”
with “Abrahamism elaborating the poetry and practice of compassion and
tenderness, while ‘Atticism’ articulated man’s cold, calculating, self-centered
approach to life.”246 A disciple of Abraham, according
to a well-known tract of the Talmud, can be distinguished by “a good
eye, a humble soul, and a lowly spirit,” while the men of the world are
marked by “an evil eye, a proud soul, and a haughty spirit.”247
“Man is only worthy of his name, he is only ‘really a man’ if he has
fully acquired the virtues” of Abraham. “It is only then that he
is worthy of being called ‘lover of God,’ or ‘God-fearing,’ like Abraham and
David.”248 Like Brigham Young, Abraham sought
to benefit his fellows in practical ways: as a young man back in Mesopotamia
he invented a seeder that covered up the seeds as it sowed them, so the birds
could not take them, and for this “his name became great in all the land
of the Chaldees.”249 He apologized to the birds for driving
them off, and came to an amicable understanding with them, for he was kind
to all living things: “No one who is cruel to any creature,” says
an old formula, “can ever be a descendant of Abraham.”250

Compassion is the keynote of Abraham’s life and the teaching that makes the
Pearl of Great Price supremely relevant to our own time. This is most unequivocally
affirmed in what is the most remarkable passage of the book, where God himself
weeps as he is about to bring the flood upon the earth. “Naught but peace,
justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne,” cries Enoch; “and
mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?
The Lord said, . . . in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his
agency; And unto thy brethren . . . have I given commandment, that
they should love one another, . . . but behold, they are without
affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:31—33).


W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968), 64—65.

Micha J. bin Gorion, Die Sagen der Juden,
5 vols. (Frankfurt: Rütten & Loening, 1913—27), 1:333.

We have discussed the reality of such a “fall” in Hugh W. Nibley,
“Tenting, Toll, and Taxing,” Western Political Quarterly 19 (1966): 600—601, 628—29; reprinted
in The Ancient State, CWHN
10 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991),
34—35, 67—68. The specific mention of thistles, thorns, and dust
in Genesis 3:17—19 is a clear indication of drought conditions.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan,

Genesis Rabbah 32:11, in Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, trans. Harry Freedman (London: Soncino 1939), 1:256.

Franz M. Th. Böhl, Das Zeitalter Abrahams
(Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1930), 35—36.

Bernhard Beer, Leben Abraham’s nach Auffassung der jüdischen Sage (Leipzig: Leiner, 1859), 190—92 n. 819; Judah
Goldin, trans., The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan (New York: Schocken, 1955), 132; Böhl, Zeitalter
, 35—36; the older
list is in Gerald Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer (New York: Hermon, 1965), 187—230.

Sefer ha-Yashar, VIII:1—2,
18a—20b (Salt Lake City: Parry, 1887), 17; and bin Gorion, Sagen
der Juden
, 2:26—28.

Günter Lanczkowski, “Parallelmotive zu einer altägyptische Erzählung,”
Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft 105 (1955): 258.

G. A. Wainwright, “Zeberged: The Shipwrecked Sailor’s Island,” JEA 32 (1946): 38.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Ibid., 2:310.

Hephaestius of Thebes, Astrologia
XXIV, in Theodor Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae (Bonn: Marcus and Weber, 1922), 562.

G. A. Wainwright, “Letopolis,” JEA 18 (1932): 161.

Ibid., 160; G. A. Wainwright, “Amun’s Meteorite & Omphaloi,”
ZÄS 71 (1935): 44.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 30.

Wainwright, “Letopolis,” 166.

19.   Robert Eisler, Iēsous
Basileus ou basileusas
, 2 vols. (Heidelberg: Winter, 1930), 2:108.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Ibid., 2:185: “shifting its position from west to east,” whatever
that means.

Ibid., 1:206.

Horapollo, Hieroglyphica
I, 3, in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 577; Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Astrothesiai Zodion, 33, says Sirius gets its name from the fact that
its brightness changes (dia tēn
phlogos kinēsin
), which can
hardly refer to twinkling, since other stars twinkle just as much, in Hopfner,
Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae,

Alexis Mallon, “Le disque étoilé en Canaan au troisième millènaire avant
Jésus-Christ,” Mélanges Maspero 1/1 (1935—58): 59.

25.   Thaʿlabī, Kitāb
Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ
(Cairo: Muṣṭafā al-Bābi
al-Ḥalibī wa-Awlāduhu, 1340 A.H.), 54.

Pseudo-Philo 6:17.

Leopold Cohn, “An Apocryphal Work Ascribed to Philo of Alexandria,”
JQR 10 (1897): 286.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Cohn, “An Apocryphal Work Ascribed to Philo of Alexandria,” 288—89.

Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1909—38), 1:253.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 41.

Ibid., 9, 109 n. 84, for sources; also bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:58—59; Sefer ha-Yashar, 9:37—38.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Cave of Treasures 25:17,
trans. by E. A. Wallis Budge (London: Religious Tract Society, 1927), 138.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
2:45. In some legends God shakes and even overthrows the throne of Nimrod
as a warning, without any mention of Abraham; cf. Heinrich Schützinger, Ursprung
und Entwicklung der arabischen Abraham-Nimrod-Legende
(Bonn: Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität,
1961), 74.

Gustav Weil, Biblische Legenden der Muselmänner (Frankfort: Rütten, 1845), 59.

Apocalypse of Abraham 8:6.

He was consumed by fire from heaven while Abraham was saved, Beer, Leben
, 16—17; a fragment
of Josephus says that he was killed trying to put out the flames that were
destroying his father’s idols and house, Eisler, Iēsous Basileus ou basileusas,

39.   Schützinger, Ursprung
und Entwicklung der arabischen Abraham-Nimrod-Legende
, 100.

Pseudo-Philo 6:18. The two phenomena meet most dramatically in
volcanic activity. The Egyptians have much to say about “the fire-island
that emerged from the waters” at the time Egypt was first settled—perhaps
a volcanic island emerging from the Mediterranean, Günther Roeder, “Die
Kosmogonie von Hermopolis,” Egyptian Religion
1 (1933): 10.

Clement, Recognitiones (Clementine Recognitions) I, 32, in PG 1:1226.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 165
n. 464.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Genesis 19:30—31; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:239—40.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 44.
Also at the attempted sacrifice of Abraham, fire burned all the birds and
made all the surrounding region desolate, Thaʿlabī,
Kitāb Qiṣaṣ al-Anbiyāʾ,

Nelson Glueck, “Ancient Highways in the Wilderness of Zin,” Proceedings
of the American Philosophical Society

100/2 (1956): 154—55.

Ibid., 151.

Mallon, “Le disque étoilé en Canaan,” 57—58.

Otto Eissfeldt, “Achronische, anachronische und synchronische Elemente
in der Genesis,” JEOL
17 (1963): 163—64.

50.   Robert Graves and Raphael Patai,
Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 169.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 137
n. 260.

Friedrich Cornelius, “Genesis XIV,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentlische
72 (1960): 5—6.


André Parrot, Abraham et son temps
(Neuchatel: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1962), 105 n. 3.

Ibid., 105 nn. 3—4.

Homer, Iliad XXI, 211—382;
Apollodorus, Epitome IV,

Zohar, Lech Lecha 86b, in
The Zohar, trans. Harry Sperling
and Maurice Simon, 5 vols. (London: Soncino, 1984), 1:288.

Plutarch, de Iside 39—40.

Eisler, Iēsous Basileus ou basileusas, 2:109.

Ibid., n. 1. Interestingly enough, one of the most important accounts of the
wind-flood relates that there were no inhabitants in the Near East before
the time of Noah, the world’s population dwelling far to the eastward near
the region of Eden, Cave of Treasures
26:15, 17, trans. Budge, 141—42. To this area, according to the Ram
and Rud story of the Mandaeans, Jared and his brother returned.

Cave of Treasures 26:11,
trans. Budge, 141.

Maurus Witzel, “Die Klage über Ur,” Orientalia 14 (1945): 190, noting that this must be descriptive
of a real historical event.

Hermann Kees, “Aus den Notjahren der Thebaïs,” Orientalia 21 (1952): 86—97; E. A. W. Budge, Egyptian
Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum

(London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1923), 19.

Claude Vandersleyen, “Une tempête sous le règne d’Amosis,” RdE
19 (1967): 133, 155—57; quotation is from 140.

Different lists (but both including famine) are found in August Wünsche, Bibliotheca
Rabbinica: Eine Sammlung alter Midraschim
(Hildersheim: Olm, 1967), 182, and Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:220—21.

Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer,
189; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
1:174; cf. Helaman 11:4—6.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Ibid., 2:83.

Witzel, “Die Klage über Ur,” 190.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
1:155. Among the oldest and most vivid products of Egyptian art are the famine
reliefs from the Third Dynasty, showing the horribly emaciated condition of
the people.

Jubilees 11:11—13.

Jan Bergman, Legenden der Juden
(Berlin: Schwetschke & Sohn, 1919), 58. Bar Hebraeus, Chronography, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge, 2 vols. (London: Oxford
University Press, 1932), 1:10, says he was fifteen when he drove off the qarqāsê (ravens? locusts?) who were eating all the crops
of the Chaldeans.

Jubilees 24:18; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:272.

Jubilees 11:22—24.

Midrash on Psalms 110:2,
in William G. Braude, Midrash on Psalms,
2 vols. (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1959), 2:205.

Hugh W. Nibley, “The Hierocentric State,” Western Political Quarterly 4 (1951): 226—30, 235—53; reprinted
in CWHN 10:99—103,

Eisler, Iēsous Basileus ou basileusas, 1:523.

E.g., Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Adolph Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 6 vols. (1853—77; reprint, Jerusalem: Wahrmann,
1967), 1:34; cf. 32.

Genesis 15:9—12; cf. Josephus, Antiquities I, 10, 3.

This is well treated in Alexandre Moret, La mise à mort du dieu en Égypte (Paris: Geuthner, 1927). Cf. Jean Bérard, “De
la légende grecque à la Bible,” RHR 151 (1957): 229.

These episodes are described, with the sources in bin Gorion, Sagen der
, 1:317, 151, 153, 174.

Clementine Recognitions I,
29—33, in PG 1:1223—27.

Pseudo-Philo 7:1—4.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
2:64, 48.

Ibid., 1:196—97.

Cave of Treasures 25:8—9,
trans. Budge, 137.

E.g., Journal of Discourses,

Cf. M. H. Segal, “The Religion of Israel before Sinai,” JQR 52 (1961—62): 45.

Genesis Rabbah 42:4, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:346. The Lord “was chosen by our father
Abraham when the nations were divided in the time of Phaleg,” Testament
of Naphthali
8:3, in The
Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament
, ed. Robert H. Charles, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon,
1976), 2:363.

E. C. B. MacLaurin, “The Development of the Idea of God in Ancient Canaan,”
Journal of Religious History 2 (1963): 278.

Judith 5:6—8.

Josephus, Antiquities I,
6, 5.

Ibid., I, 7, 1.

Pseudo-Philo 7:1—4.

Cornelius, “Genesis XIV,” 7.

Daniil A. Chwolsohn (Khvol’son), Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus (St. Petersburg: Buchdruckerei der Kaiserlichen
Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1856), 1:620.

Genesis Rabbah 39:8, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:317; Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 23.

See Parrot, Abraham et son temps,
especially the illustrations.

Michael C. Astour, “Political and Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis 14 and
in Its Babylonian Sources,” in Alexander Altmann, Biblical Motifs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 74.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan,

Ibid., 65. This applies whether Abraham was a caravaneer or shepherd: “The
life of wandering shepherds was anything but pleasant.”

Eusebius, Praparatio Evangelica
(Preparation for the Gospel)
IX, 16, in PG 21:705; cf. Josephus, Antiquities, I, 7, 2, who says that Abraham’s house in Damascus
was still being pointed out in his day.

Genesis Rabbah 41:7, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:337.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths,
2 vols. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1955).

Ibid., 2:134, 146—47.

Apollodorus, The Library
II, 5, 11.

Hyginus, Fabulae XXXI, 65,
in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae,

Graves, Greek Myths, 2:135.

Descriptio plenaria totius Urbis
VIII, text in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 532—33.

Graves, Greek Myths, 2:137.


Ibid., 164.

Ibid., 197.

Ibid., 164.

Ibid., 167.

Marie Renault, The King Must Die
(New York: Pantheon, 1962); and Marie Renault, The Bull from the Sea (New York: Pantheon, 1958).

Eugéne Lefébure, “Le sacrifice humain d’après les rites de Busiris et
d’Abydos,” BE 36 (1915):

Probus, Scholia on Georgics
III, 4, in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 618.

Scholiast Apollonius of Rhodes, Argon
IV, 1396.

Ovid is discussed by J. Gwyn Griffiths, “Human Sacrifices in Egypt: The
Classical Evidence,” ASAE
48 (1948): 411; Hyginus, Fabulae
LVI, 59—60, in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 348, who also says that Heracles broke loose just
as the sacrificial prayer was being uttered by the king, ibid., XXXI, 65,
in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 349.

Quoted in Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones (Divine Institutes)
I, 21, in PL 6:238—40;
see Lefébure, “Le sacrifice humain d’après les rites de Busiris et d’Abydos,”

Lampridius, in Scriptores Historiae Augustae,
Maximus Prior VIII, 5, in
Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 557.

Claudian, in Rufinus, Vitae Patrum
(Life of the Fathers) I,
254—56, in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 591.

Orosius, Adversus Paganos Historiarum Libri Septem (Against the Heathens)
I, 11 (6—8), in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 636—37.

Isocrates, Busiris 9—10,
in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 49, praises the high moral standards of Egypt,
and points out (ibid., 15) that Busiris lived 200 years before Perseus, while
Heracles lived four generations after him.

Diodorus, I, 67, discussed by Griffiths, “Human Sacrifices in Egypt”

Griffiths, “Human Sacrifices in Egypt,” 411—12; which Rufinus
turns to sarcasm: “O kindly altars of Busiris!” Claudian, in Rufinus,
Vitae Patrum I, 254—56,
Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae,

Strabo, Geography XVII, 1,
in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 76.

Herodotus, Historiae II,

I. E. S. Edwards, The Pyramids of Egypt, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1961), 27.

Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 200.

134.   Jaroslav Černy, Ancient
Egyptian Religion
(London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1952), 106.

Kurt Sethe, Übersetzung und Kommentar zu den altägyptischen Pyramidentexten, 6 vols. (Gluckstadt: Augustin, 1934), 1:91, 80.

136.   Pyramid Text 477 (§962,
964, 966).

The monument of Mentu-her-khepeshef; see Lefébure, “Le sacrifice humain
d’après les rites de Busiris et d’Abydos,” 285.

Edwards, Pyramids of Egypt,

Alexandre Piankoff, The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon (New York: Harper, 1955), 60.

E. A. W. Budge, Osiris: The Egyptian Religion of Resurrection, 2 vols. in 1 (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books,
1961), 1:212; Sethe, Übersetzung und Kommentar zu den altägyptischen Pyramidentexten, 1:80, 78—79; Coffin Text 37, in Adriaan de
Buck, the Egyptian Coffin Texts,
7 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935—61), 1:155. Even
Min of Coptos survived as a sacrificial god at Busiris; see Henri Gauthier,
Les fêtes du dieu Min
(Cairo: BIFAO, 1931), 231—32, 234, 236—38.

Testament of Levi 6:9—11.

142.   Friedlander, Pirkê
de Rabbi Eliezer
, 181, citing Rabbi Ẓeera.


Ibid., 181—82.

W. G. Lambert, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960), 5.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
1:248; Graves and Patai, Hebrew Myths,

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
2:236. A visitor would often have an “accident” that put him at
the mercy of the townsmen, ibid.

Cf. bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Ibid., 1:249.

Zohar, Vayera 105b, in Sperling
and Simon, Zohar, 1:339.

Ibid., 106b, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,
1:342; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Ibid., 2:211—12, 228.

Zohar, Vayera 105b—106a,
in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,

Anson F. Rainey, “Merchants at Ugarit and the Patriarchal Narratives,”
Christian News from Israel
14/2 (1963): 19.

TB Sanhedrin 109a-b.

Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer,

Ibid., 182 (emphasis added).

See Genesis 14:22—23; Josephus, Antiquities I, 10, 2.

Zohar, Vayera 116a, in Sperling
and Simon, Zohar, 1:362;
cf. Deuteronomy 28:47.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
1:246—47; cf. Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 41.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 164
n. 441, noting that in Homer, Iliad
XVI, 386—89, Procrustes suffers the same fate as Sodom.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Lefébure, “Le sacrifice humain d’après les rites de Busiris et d’Abydos,”

Claudian, in Eutropius, Breviarium
I, 161—62, in Hopfner, Fontes Historiae Religionis Aegyptiacae, 591.

Graves, Greek Myths, 1:332.

Schützinger, Ursprung und Entwicklung der arabischen Abraham-Nimrod-Legende, 47.

Wolf Leslau, trans., Falasha Anthology
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951), 27.

David Sidersky, Les origines des légendes musulmanes dans le Coran et dans
les vies des prophètes
Geuthner, 1933), 33.

Max Seligsohn, “Nimrod and Abraham,” in The Jewish Encyclopedia, 9:310.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 66.

Genesis Rabbah 42:5; 43:5, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:347, 355.

Schützinger, Ursprung und Entwicklung der arabischen Abraham-Nimrod-Legende, 47, for sources on the problem.

Maʿaseh Abraham Abinu, in Jellinek, Bet ha-Midrasch, 1:32—34; Weil, Biblische Legenden der
, 73.

Schützinger, Ursprung und Entwicklung der arabischen Abraham-Nimrod-Legende, 128.

4 Maccabees 9:26; 11:9—10.

Ibid., 11:17—20; 12:1.

Bernard Chapira, “Legendes bibliques attribuées à Kaʿb el-Ahbar,”
REJ 69 (1919): 99.

The Egyptians had “an altogether special type of furniture,” by
whose ministrations one possessed “a new means of spiritualizing the
offerings—by literal combustion” in a metal brazier, Gustave Jéquier,
“Notes et remarques,” RT  33 (1911): 166—69. John Garstang, “Excavations
at Hierankonpolis, at Esna, and in Nubia,” ASAE
8 (1907): 148, has commented on the strange sacrificial structures in the
necropolis at Esneh.

Coffin Text 135, in de Buck, Egyptian Coffin Texts, 2:160.

Schützinger, Ursprung und Entwicklung der arabischen Abraham-Nimrod-Legende, 106.

Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,

“The Book of Abraham 1:5,” in Times and Seasons 3/9 (1 March 1842): 704.

George Foucart, Bibliothèque d’Études Coptes, 15 vol. (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire,
1919), 1: Fol. 11.

A contrast pointed out by Berend Gemser, “The Instructions of ʿOnchsheshonqy
and Biblical Wisdom Literature,” Vetus Testamentum, Supplement 7 (Leiden: Brill, 1959), 121—22.

Clementine Recognitions I,
32, in PG 1:1226.

Genesis Rabbah 41:7, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:338.

F. M. Th. de Liagre Böhl, “Babel und Bibel (II): The Patriarchenzeit,”
JEOL 17 (1963): 136.

J. C. L. Gibson, “Light from Mari on the Patriarchs,” Journal
of Semitic Studies
7 (1962):

Genesis Rabbah 39:8, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:316.

Martin Buber, “Abraham the Seer” Judaism 5 (1956): 295—96.

Genesis Rabbah 39:11, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:319—20.

Michael Asin, “Logia et Agrapha Domini Jesu,” 79-Ih., IV, 163, 9,
in PO 13:407—8. The famous story of the hospitable
Philemon and his wife Baucis has been tied to the age of Abraham through Lot
by Joseph E. Fontenrose, “Philemon, Lot, and Lycaon,” Classical
13 (1944—1950):
119, deriving both from “a subtype of the Babylonian flood myth.”

Zohar, Vayera 113b, in Sperling
and Simon, Zohar, 1:357.

Ibid., in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,

Ibid., 107b, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,
1:345; so 113a, p. 357: “When the angel of destruction obtains authorisation
to destroy, he does not discriminate between innocent and guilty.”

Midrash on Psalms 110:1,
in Braude, Midrash on Psalms,

Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer,

Jubilees 24:18; bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden, 2:272.

Sefer ha-Yashar 22:11—12.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,
1:271; cf. bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,
2:231; Beer, Leben Abraham’s,

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer,
184—85; Zohar, Vayera
105a, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 206
n. 973.

Ibid., 37.

Friedlander, Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer,

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

This tradition is discussed by J. Perlès, “Ahron ben Gerson Aboulrabi,”
REJ 21 (1890): 247.

The stories, based on Genesis 18, are told with the sources in bin Gorion,
Sagen der Juden, 2:201—3,
and Beer, Leben Abraham’s,

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

Ibid., 2:258—63.

Testament of Abraham 1:1—5:2.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Goldin, The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan, 131.

Midrash on Psalms 110:1,
in Braude, Midrash on Psalms,

Cf. Pseudo-Philo 7:1—4
and Genesis Rabbah 39:6, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:315.

Zohar, Lech Lecha 77b, in
Sperling and Simon, Zohar,

Ibid., 88a, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,

Ibid., 76b, in Sperling and Simon, Zohar,

Text reproduced and discussed by Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts
of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9 (1969): 280—81.

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Claude G. Montefiore, A Rabbinic Anthology
(London: Macmillan, 1938), 84.

Genesis Rabbah 39:1, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:313.

Buber, “Abraham the Seer,” 295.

Midrash on Psalms 26:2, in
Braude, Midrash on Psalms,

1 Maccabees 2:52.

Midrash on Psalms 18:25,
in Braude, Midrash on Psalms,

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews,

Midrash on Psalms 18:22,
in Braude, Midrash on Psalms,

Maimonides, Daalat III, 302,
in The Guide for the Perplexed,
trans. Michael Friedländer, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover, 1956), 317.

Genesis Rabbah 43:5, in Freedman, Midrash Rabbah: Genesis, 1:355 n. 7.

Josephus, Antiquities I,
10, 2, contrasts the two kings who met Abraham at the same time, the king
of Sodom being the opposite number to Melchizedek, “the righteous king.”

Josephus, Antiquities I,
10, 1.

Bin Gorion, Sagen der Juden,

K. Kohler, “The Pre-Talmudic Haggada,” JQR 7 (1894—95): 584—85.

Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 51.

Zohar, Vayera 107a, in Sperling
and Simon, Zohar, 1:343.

George A. Kohut, “Abraham’s Lesson in Tolerance,” JQR 15 (1905): 105, 110.

Ibid., 104; this story is independently attested by Tabari and early Jewish

Ibid., 106.

Ibid., 110.

For which in turn Pharaoh enjoyed a special blessing, Z. H. Chajes, Student’s
Guide through the Talmud
East and West Library, 1952), 156.

For which they too received a special blessing, Beer, Leben Abraham’s, 76.

Josef S. Bloch, Israel und die Völker nach jüdischer Lehre (Berlin: Harz, 1922), 513.

Jacob B. Agus, The Vision and the Way: An Interpretation of Jewish Ethics (New York: Ungar, 1966), 4.

Aboth v. 22, cited by Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1973), 172.

Seder Eliyahu, cited by R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, “A Note on the Text of
Seder Eliyahu,” Journal of Jewish Studies 6 (1955): 217.

249.   Jubilees 11:23, 21.

Beza 32b, cited by Beer, Leben Abraham’s,
90; 204 n. 969.