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Home Book of Abraham Special Section Legal Document: Book of Abraham in a New Ancient Light

Legal Document: Book of Abraham in a New Ancient Light

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The Book of Abraham: A Legal Document?


Research by Kerry A. Shirts

Manager of Research

FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research)

We've all pretty much read the Book of Abraham and understood that it is a religious document, while some of us even believe it is also an historical document as well. Recently a study was published which I believe shows that we can understand the Book of Abraham as a legal document as well. In fact, Nili Shupak's study has helped me see some anomalies in Book of Abraham Fac. No. 1 that otherwise seem ambiguous at best.[1]

Now, on the front of it, there really ought not to be much in the Book of Abraham at all correlating with any ancient culture, were it merely made up by Joseph Smith in the 1830's before anything significant was known of ancient cultures from anywhere in the world. Yes, there might be a correlation here or there, an odd item out, and what-have-you, but to have a consistent and significant number of correlations is simply out of the question.... if Smith merely made it up. In this respect, the more correlations that are found, the more significant they become, expecially as those correlations come about because of studies crafted and researched as late as the 1990's, such as Shupak's. What I found is not just one or two odd items out in other words, but a significant and consistent correlation with what we have in the Book of Abraham, and the ideas of ancient Egyptian law practices and legal documents, complaints, and observations, discovered by Egyptologists after decades of research and learning, far more than Joseph Smith could have had.

The first item that caught my eye as having some significance, was that a form of complaint, in order to be legal, had to be written down.[2] This Abraham did in his own book, describing the attempted sacrifice on his life.

The next item that caught my eye was that while the king was certainly the highest legal authority in ancient Egypt, "the king delegated this right to a lower authority... it was clearly the king who acted here as supreme judge and, according to the custom of ancient Egypt, delegated the authority of the verdict to the high steward, who was lower in the legal hierarchy."[3] This is interesting because in Facsimile No. 1 and in the Book of Abraham, it is the Priest of Pharaoh or some other God or person who attempts to sacrifice Abraham, clearly using a delegated authority in the process. The Book of Abraham is right on the mark with this.

The next thing that stood me bolt upright was the idea that "According to the ancients, a man's spiritual forces are hidden in his clothes. A man's garment contains his identity and symbolizes it; it has magical properties and symbolic legal significance. Damaging, grasping, or tearing a man's garment were considered acts which caused its owner shame."[4] The reason this is so very interesting is that of all the lion couches so far discovered, only the Book of Abraham lion-couch shows the figure on the couch as fully clothed, including his slippers! Most other lion couches show wither mummies or a completely nude figure on the couch. With this legal background and understanding, the anomaly begins to make much better sense why the Book of Abraham figure is so different from other ones. Abraham is in rivalry with Pharaoh, who has the true kingship, but Abraham has the true Priesthood! This is an excellent reason why he is fully clothed on the lion couch! There may very well be more to this than meets the eye.

The garment tells it all, showing just who has the true priesthood and who doesn't, who is the covenant person, and who isn't. A Mesopotamian parallel is instructive concerning garments which tie the individual wearer of the garment into the cosmos, and showing garments were definitely associated with kingship and who possessed the real authority.

Leo Oppenheim's excellent study shows that by the end of the first millenium B.C. the kusitu garment "shifted from secular to ceremonial use. From then on, gods, kings, and priests are clad in it... the Neo-Assyrian texts refer to the kusitu as to the exclusive royal dress."[5] Esarhaddon gave his son this garment, showing the people who the future king was to be, "you have girt your son with the kusitu and (thus) you have endowed him with the kingship over Assyria."[6] Alma P. Burton notes that "The words "to endow" (from the Greek enduein), as used in the New Testament, mean to dress, clothe, put on garments, put on attributes, or receive virtue."[7] So this is the idea in facsimile 1. It is interesting that the priesthood of Eanna was threatened, "on repeated royal attempts to induce the priesthood of Eanna to send the kusitu to a rival sanctuary which the collegium refused." The authority over the entire earth as well as sky was at stake, as the garments had stars sewn onto them, especially of the late Assyrian kings, these nalbas same were literally "garment(s) of the sky."[8] Not only the sky, but clouds, stars, and the sun were sewn into the garments, the wearer being called the gallab same, the "shearer of the sky," i.e. "he who cuts off the fleecy clouds." Is it coincidence that this was the garment of Marduk, and that Marduk was equated with Nimrod, the same who sheared the sky with his arrow and claimed he killed God?[9] In the legends, Nimrod shoots an arrow in the sky and it comes down with blood, hence Nimrod claims he killed the God of Abraham so he has the power.[10] Also legendary is Nimrod establishing his priesthood line through the matriarchal line, while Abraham came through the patriarchal line, hence the rivalry.[11] That contest of matriarchy verses patriarchy involving the -archy is noted as "the origin of a quarrel or a murder... command, power, authority, which is what the quarrel is about. The suffix archy means always to be first in order, whether in time or eminence..."[12] Is it coincidence that the stars on the Mesopotamian-Assyrian garments of the kings are connected "with the cult of the foremost goddess of the Mesopotamian pantheon"?[13]

The next situation that shows a legalistic background in the Book of Abraham is the "cry" or "appeal" for justice of a wrongdoing.[14] We find this exact situation in the Book of Abraham, where, not only has he been driven from his land, but on arrival at Egypt, Abraham is taken by force and threatened to be sacrificed, so his "cry" or "appeal" is to the highest possible authority which he recognizes, God, which is demonstrated in his supine figure in Facsimile No. 1, as well as the figure of the "Angel of the Lord" coming to answer his complaint! We read that in ancient Egyptian materials, "the verb 'nis' meaning literally 'to cry,' 'to call'... 'to submit a complaint....'"[15] The widespread situation ancietly is explained: "The wronged man addresses his cry to the judge charged with defending justice. The 'call' was the legal resort of the poor not only in Egypt but in Israel and probably throughout the ancient world."[16] Abraham's only recourse, in his situation, after being bound onto the altar, was to "cry" out and address the only judge he knew could help him, the Lord. (Abr. 1:15)

Now the other interesting aspect of the ancient legal justice system in ancient Egypt comes out, namely "Justice should not only be done, but be seen."[17] What makes this aspect so interesting is that in the legendary literature it is Nimrod as Pharaoh who tries to kill or sacrifice Abraham by fire according to most ancient sources, entirely unavailable and unknown to Joseph Smith.[18] Here is the Book of Abraham and Covenant of Abraham sacrifice theme par excellence. Abraham refuses to give into the Pharaoh and Pharaoh will not give into Abraham. Nimrod in his councils decides Abraham must die, so the people followed Pharaoh's decree, everyone bringing wood for the heating of the kiln. The height of the wood was five ells, as well as five ells in diameter, and for three days and nights the fire was kept up. We are told "the flames licked the heavens, so that the oven was at a white heat."19] Abraham is thrown in and is unharmed. The accounts vary as to what happens, but in every case Abraham wins, God shows He is on Abraham's side because Abraham does not follow other Gods. In Pseudo-Philo the fire was so great it caused 83,500 to be burned as God caused an earthquake to save Abraham, "and Abraham came up out of the furnace, and the fiery furnace collapsed."[20] Interestingly, scholars are aware that "the words Ur Kasdim in Genesis 15:7 ("I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur Kasdim") were taken to mean 'the fire of the Chaldeans' since Ur was read as 'or, 'flame, fire.'"[21]

G.A. Wainwright noted how the Egyptian Pharaohs were considered divine, and at times they were "liable to a ceremonial death, ... and that death was, or had been, by fire." He further notes that "Sometimes a human substitute is found for the king," and that "in being burned alive these men were put to death in the manner of certain Pharaohs... thus they were no doubt substitutes for the kings themselves."[22] In line with this, W. Needler's study of King Djer's flint knife, indicates another theme from facsimile 1 - "The knife immediately suggests the slaughter of animals offered to the king during or after his funeral, and one may well imagine it being used to slit the throats of oxen or oryx. It is also tempting to see in it the instrument employed to kill a human victim, as pictured on a tablet of Djer." The picture of the knife shows it is exactly the same shape as the knife in facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham.[23] Abraham in the true ancient Egyptian manner is about to be sacrificed by the knife, following Facsimile No. 1.

In the Book of Abraham as well, Justice is indeed "seen," where we read "And the Lord broke down the altar of Elkenah, and of the gods of the land, and utterly destroyed them, and smote the priest that he died; and there was great mourning in Chaldea; and also in the court of Pharaoh..." (Abr. 1:20, 29-30).

Anciently, in Egypt, the ideal they strove for was "Ma'at," that is divine order, both of the state here on earth, as well as the cosmos. "Ma'at was the order of the universe ever since its creation by the god Ra."[24] This is very clearly seen in Facsimile No. 3, where figure 4 wears the Ma'at feather, and the orderly situation depicted, the learning of astronomy (Ma'at as the universal ideal!) and that also in the king's court, the perfect place to learn of the universal order. All appears to be back in harmony and order after the near debacle of Abraham by Pharaoh, who once he realized that Abraham had the true priesthood, then obviously wanted to learn of Ma'at from the man Pharaoh could not kill, obviously, because he was in harmony with universal Ma'at! The situation is perfectly depicted in both the text as well as the Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham.

Shupak also indicates that the court process as well as legal complaints, etc., were held in a public court, where all kinds of administrative duties were performed and all types of public buildings were erected. What better depiction than at Pharaoh's court in the Book of Abraham Facsimile No. 3, where we also have all kinds of people represented, from the highest strata of society to the lowest? The Facsimile depicts Pharaoh himself, the foreigner Abraham, a waiter, the Prince of Pharaoh, even a slave, and all in the "court of Pharaoh." It is a perfect set up for a legal situation as well as seeing the Book of Abraham in a wonderful new light, as an ancient legal document.


1. Nili Shupak, "A New Source for the Study of the Judiciary and Law of Ancient Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant," in "Journal of Near Eastern Studies," 1992, pp. 1-18.

2. Shupak, p. 4, 10.

3. Shupak, p. 5.

4. Shupak, p. 7.

5. A. Leo Oppenheim, "The Golden Garments of the Gods," in "Journal of Near Eastern Studies", Vol. 8 (1949), p. 179.

6. Ibid., p. 179.

7. Alma P. Burton, "Endowment," in the "Encyclopedia of Mormonism", vol. 2. Cf. Blake T. Ostler, "Clothed Upon: A Unique Aspect of Christian Antiquity," in "BYU Studies", Vol. 22, (1982) pp. 31-45 for discussion of endowments meaning to clothe with a garment. See also the excellent discussions of John Tvedtnes, "Priestly Clothing in Bible Times," in Donald W. Parry, ed., "Temples of the Ancient World", Deseret/FARMS, 1994, pp. 649-704, and Stephen D. Ricks, "The Garment of Adam in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Tradition," in Ibid., pp. 705-739. Also Hugh Nibley, "Sacred Vestments," in Don E. Norton, ed., "Temple and Cosmos", Deseret/FARMS, 1992, pp. 91-138.

8. Oppenheim, Ibid., p. 180, note. also 181.

9. Oppenheim, Ibid., p. 185f, 187 note 25; K. van der Toorn and P.W. van der Horst, "Nimrod Before and After the Bible," in "Harvard Theological Review", 83:1 (1990), p. 9, though they ultimately abandon the equation of Nimrod=Marduk.

10. Rev. S. Baring-Gould, "Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets", John B. Alden Publishing, 1884, p. 165.

11. Hugh Nibley, "Abraham in Egypt", Deseret Book, 1981, pp. 189f.

12. Hugh Nibley, "Patriarchy and Matriarchy," in John Welch, Gary P. Gillum, Don E. Norton, eds., "Old Testament and Related Studies", Deseret Book/ FARMS, 1986, p. 95.

13. Oppenhaim, Ibid., p. 191.

14. Shupak, p. 10.

15. Shupak, p. 11.

16. Shupak, p. 11.

17. Shupak, p. 13.

18. Jack Finegan, "Light From the Ancient Past: The Archeological Background of the Hebrew-Christian Religion", Princeton University Press, 1946, p. 56. Hugh Nibley, "Abraham In Egypt", Deseret Books, 1981, discusses the sources of the Abrahamic lore, and demonstrates how they were all found after Joseph Smith was murdered, see Chapter 2, pp. 41-55.

19. Rev. S. Baring-Gould, "Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets", John B. Alden Publishing, 1884, p. 179. Cf. Marcus von Wellnitz, "Christ and the Patriarchs: New Light from Apocryphal Literature and Tradition", Horizon Publishers 1981, pp. 76-78; See also the long and excellent discussion of Hugh Nibley, "The Unknown Abraham," in the "Improvement Era", Jan 1969- July 1969; Richard Hinckley Allen, "Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning", Dover, 1969, p. 309; Giorgio De Santilliana and Hertha von Dechend, "Hamlet's Mill", Nonpareil Books, 1969, pp. 166, 177.

20. Pseudo-Philo 6:16-17 in James H. Charlesworth, ed., "The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha", 2 vols., Doubleday & Co., 1985, vol. 2, p. 312.

21. Toorn & Horst, Ibid., p. 20. Cf. Charlesworth, Ibid., vol. 2, p. 311, note d. "The connection of Abraham's escape from Ur (in Heb. 'ur means 'fire') and the building of the tower of Babel is unique to Ps.-Philo. The tradition of Abraham in the fiery furnace is similar to those of Dan 3 and 2 Mac 7. Also the Book of Jasher, Chapter 12 has Abraham escaping the fire. It's interesting that the Medieval commentaries on Abraham and Nimrod picture this event, Abraham escaping from the fire that Nimrod built to kill him, see "The Encyclopedia Judaica", Keter Publishing, 1971, under the entry "Abraham," p. 118, the illuminated page from the Leipzig Mahzor, S. Germany, circa 1320 where Terah delivers Abraham to Nimrod, but Abraham is delivered from the fire. Also an illumination from a Haggadah, Spain circa 14th century showing the enthroned Nimrod ordering Abraham to be cast into the fire, in Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing, 1973, Vol. 12, p. 1166.

22. G. A. Wainwright, "The Sky Religion in Egypt", Cambridge University Press, 1938, pp. 51, 53. Robert Graves, "The Greek Myths", 2 vols., Penguin Books, 1960, vol. 1, p. 49 tells of an occasion of king sacrifice. Herodotus indicates that sacrifices were cut with knives, and burned with fire, The Histories, translated by Selincourt, Penguin Books, 1972, p. 144, while Jos. L. Saalschütz, Archäologie der Hebräer, Verlag der Gebrüder Bornträger, 1855, p. 180, note 3, describes the human sacrifices of Themistokles and Aristomenes and Theopompus, and that said sacrifices were done from the oldest times, according to Plutarch.

23. W. Needler, "A Flint Knife of King Djer," "Journal of Egyptian Archaeology", 1956, p. 43, illustration, between pp. 41, 42.

24. Shupak, p. 15.

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