"Look unto Abraham Your Father"
“Look unto Abraham Your Father”
Reviewed by Brian M. Hauglid
Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you. (Isaiah 51:2)
Over the past few decades or so I have had the privilege of studying the
life and teachings of Abraham, and it has been as interesting as it has been
fulfilling in both my personal and professional life. The driving force behind
my interest in Abraham was initially fueled by verses from Isaiah quoted in
my patriarchal blessing: “Hearken unto me, ye that follow after righteousness.
Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from
whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah, she
that bare you; for I called him alone, and blessed him” (2 Nephi 8:1–2;
cf. Isaiah 51:1–2).
Since receiving this first inspired and personal emphasis on Abraham, which
has continued to direct my life, others have helped me to see and appreciate
Abraham in personal and uplifting ways. In my view, E. Douglas Clark’s
book, The Blessings of Abraham: Becoming a Zion People,
is worthy, with only a couple of reservations, to sit on my bookshelves beside
other favorite works on Abraham.
Stylistic and Devotional Considerations
In the introduction to his book, Clark gives the main thesis: “Together
Abraham and Sarah built Zion, and together they are to be remembered by their
righteous posterity who aspire to build Zion. Together they teach us how to
build Zion and qualify for the very blessings once bestowed on them for their
faithfulness” (p. 26). For the next twelve chapters, which cover
the life of Abraham from birth to death, Clark stays assiduously close to
this purpose. His prose carries each event, concept, idea, principle, or doctrine
smoothly and clearly forward. I found that this helped the book flow from
one chapter to the next in a most satisfying and readable manner.
From a devotional perspective, Clark focuses on the best characteristics
of Abraham (and Sarah) as he weaves together a tapestry of ancient Jewish,
Christian, and Islamic lore in support of or expanding on the scriptural text.
For instance, according to Abraham 1:31, Abraham learned the “knowledge
of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars.”
Here Clark notes that Abraham had the Urim and Thummim and that rabbinic tradition
evidences Abraham owning a “‘rare stone in which he could read a man’s
destiny'” (p. 113); also, in the Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham
prayed and “received revelation upon revelation teaching him about history,
astronomy, theology, and science” (p. 114). To expand on this further,
Clark uses Jewish tradition to demonstrate that Abraham “possessed great
genius,” “spoke every tongue and mastered every art,” and “was
the greatest scientist of his day” (p. 114).
Clark then builds on some of these ancient traditions with statements from
modern scripture and prominent church leaders in order to apply learned gospel
concepts and principles to the contemporary Latter-day Saint. As Abraham sought
for his “appointment unto the Priesthood” (Abraham 1:4), according
to President Spencer W. Kimball and President Ezra Taft Benson, so should
every worthy male member of the church (p. 65); as Abraham was hospitable
to all, President Harold B. Lee and President Gordon B. Hinckley encourage
us to show gratitude to God through our service to those in need (pp. 130–31);
as Sarah was the great exemplar of patience and good motherhood, so, as Sheri
Dew teaches, the sisters of the church should look to Sarah (pp. 167–68).
Clark does not overuse statements by the Brethren, but instead inserts them
at appropriate times for a spiritual lesson. On more than one occasion I found
myself inspired, moved, and seeking to pattern my own life more on the example
of Abraham. This one aspect alone made the book a worthwhile read for me.
I also found that Clark provided many interesting bits of information and
told the story of Abraham in an engaging manner. I feel the chapter on the
Akedah (chap. 10), the binding of Isaac, is particularly insightful and instructive.
Clark’s use of sources demonstrates an impressive knowledge of ancient Jewish,
Christian, and Muslim lore. His use of secondary works and church sources
also shows he has paid the price to fill this book with as much insightful
and helpful information as possible. But his use of sources also raises some
important questions: How should we use ancient lore with the scriptures? Can
ancient nonscriptural accounts provide truth? And if so, how are we to sift
through these traditions to find it? What kinds of criteria should we use
to discriminate among these traditions? These issues need to be probed more
fully at some point.
These were ever-present questions as research and writing progressed for
Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham.1 As we worked on that collection, we found
that the Book of Abraham could not have been produced in the early nineteenth
century—it contained too many themes and characteristics from antiquity.
In other words, we were not trying to prove that the Book of Abraham was true.
However, it is apparent that it fits more comfortably in the ancient world
than in Joseph Smith’s time period.
I do not believe that Clark is trying to prove the truth of the Book of Abraham,
but he does sometimes cite ancient tradition in support of weak assumptions
not confirmed in the scriptures. Concerning Enoch, for instance, Clark argues
from ancient lore that Enoch saved Abraham from near death on the altar (p. 77),
ordained Abraham to the patriarchal priesthood (p. 84), inspired Abraham
to desire translation (to Enoch’s city) (p. 92), presided over the sacrifice
in Genesis 15 (pp. 147–48), and stayed Abraham’s hand from sacrificing
Isaac (p. 221). Of course, none of this is specifically supported in
The reader should also be aware that ancient sources are used indiscriminately
throughout the book. No attempt is made to evaluate which sources may be more
reliable than others. Sometimes a source will appear to be cited as if it
were the true account. Could the number of converts in Haran reach the thousands
because the Book of Jasher says it was seventy-two (heads of families) (p. 87)? Did Pharaoh
in Abraham’s day really convert to the gospel, according to a Samaritan and
a late Muslim account, so that possibly widespread conversions occurred in
Egypt (p. 121)? Does Rashi (like many later commentators faced with difficult
verses) take liberty in rescuing Sarah from her harshness against Hagar in
Genesis 16:5 (pp. 162–63)? Does Martin Luther give the correct
interpretation of Sarah’s “laugh” in Genesis 18:11–12 (p. 176)?
How correct is the obscure Jewish tradition that says that Sarah had no hatred
for Ishmael? Could this be, as commonly happened, a later “improvement”
on the text made by commentators sympathetic to Sarah (p. 196)?
Later rabbinic, Christian, and Muslim commentators often expanded on the
scriptural text because, in most cases, the sacred text leaves room for conjecture
and speculation. For the biblical scholar these traditions serve to provide
a peek into the world of the commentator and how the scriptural text was once
viewed by redactors. To determine if a certain tradition in a nonbiblical
text is factual, however, is difficult. A good starting point for this type
of investigation is the work of James Kugel in volumes such as Traditions
of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era
and In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts.
The Blessings of Abraham is not a
scholarly work that painstakingly sifts through these many traditions, thus
making a distinction between the reliable and unreliable. Therefore, the reader
should be cautioned in accepting these traditions wholesale. My advice is
to read them for the feel and flow of Abraham’s life but with an appropriate
grain of salt.
Although not a serious concern, I noticed other weaknesses in the book. For
example, we know, according to Abraham 1:31, that Abraham had records from
which he learned about astronomy. Does this mean, as Clark suggests (p. 71),
that Abraham had access to our version of the Book of Moses account about Enoch? This
could imply that our version is a direct translation from a text that would
have existed during the time of Abraham. However, we have no clear evidence
of this. Phrases such as “Abraham would have read” (pp. 71,
72, 77, 78, 79) or “Abraham may well have recognized” (p. 74)
denote the shakiness of the assumption. I have noted above other examples
of weak assumptions connected to questions of source reliability and discrimination.
However, this is a good book. If Clark wrote it to give an inspirational
and uplifting view of Abraham and Sarah, he has succeeded. But readers should
not accept all that the ancient Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions
say as true and factual.
1. John A. Tvedtnes,
Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions about the Early Life of
Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001).