Sunday, April 01, 2007

Abraham 1

I know that Jeff is preparing some questions and comments about Abraham 1 but I thought that I might, in the meantime, offer a few comments of my own as a kind of place-holder. (I’m also looking forward to Robert’s first opportunity to lead a discussion for us this week on Abraham 2.)

With the short amount of time I’ve got tonight, I’d like to simply comment on two verses from chapter 1.

vs. 1, “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my father, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.”

The first verse of chapter one immediately introduces what is, for me, the most striking (and, perhaps, important) difference between Genesis and the book of Abraham: the shift from an impersonal third-person narrative to an extremely careful and self-conscious first-person narrative ("I, Abraham").

Where the rhetorical style of Genesis is, as Erich Auerbach famously described it, elliptical, opaque, mysterious, and “fraught with background” in need of careful interpretation, the book of Abraham is intensely personal, detailed, and causally coherent.

This first verse is a good example. Where Genesis 12.1 starts off with a command from nowhere for Abraham to depart his homeland, Abraham 1.1 starts with Abraham explaining that he needs to find “another place of residence." The rest of the chapter then supplies a detailed narrative of both the internal interests/desires and the external causes/forces at work in moving him to this decision. In terms of conveyed content, Genesis 12.1 and Abraham 1.1 are very similar (“leave home!”), but in terms of rhetorical elaboration they couldn’t be more different.

Where Genesis has a very archaic, well-worn, almost “oral-tradition” feel to its prose, the book of Abraham’s prose has a very modern, introspective ring. Where in Genesis our knowledge of Abraham’s thoughts, feelings and personal motivations are consistently (and almost entirely) compacted into singularly telling and remarkably small external gestures (e.g., “he rose early in the morning” in Genesis 22), in the book of Abraham we get a veritable window into Abraham’s soul. It’s like we reading his own private diary – before practically anyone kept anything like a personal diary!

This difference in rhetorical posture does, I think, make an immediate theological difference. Because the book of Abraham consistently gives us so much more explanation (because it is interested in giving us reasons and explaining the causes at work in desires and decisions), it has a much more “Mormon” feel to it. What I mean to say is: a Mormon take on Christianity generally emphasizes the necessity of personal works and obedience and de-emphasizes the mysterious and unaccountable intervention of grace. By offering such detailed explanations for that which Genesis leaves unexplained, God’s relationship with Abraham is much less shadowy and much more predictable. There are reasons to like this, but there are also reasons, I think, to be cautious about it.

Also, I’m reminded of something we read in one of my philosophy classes this past week from Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals where Kant says (roughly) that something is only free if you can supply no external cause for it. If you can give a reason for it, then its dimension of “freedom” (or, for us, “grace”) has been more or less expunged.

Do we really risk so much simply in terms of a shift in narrative perspective? I may be exaggerating the differences, but I wonder by how much.

vs. 3, “It [the priesthood] was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time.”

Note again the strong emphasis on continuity. As in the opening of Genesis 12, the “immemorial” is also invoked in this verse, but it is invoked not as the source of a temporal interruption but as the source of the stability and continuity which Abraham wishes to participate in and maintain. Here, it is a question of being a “rightful heir” and of “holding the right belonging to the fathers” (1.2). Is it possible to even imagine the language of “rights” as a part of the Genesis narrative? Nonetheless, it is absolutely central to this description of Abraham’s relationship with God and his reception of the promises and the priesthood. The use of the language of "rights" seems to indicate the same general theological shift referred to above: a shift of emphasis from unaccountable "gift/grace" to meritable "right."

I’m out of time, but I’m interested to see what you make of the differences between Genesis and the book of Abraham and how these differences play out rhetorically, spiritually, and theologically.

What other distinctive features strike you as pertinent?


Blogger Robert C. said...

Interesting thoughts, Adam. Here are a couple of my thoughts in reading through the chapter this morning:

Records. I'm particularly intrigued with this bit about records (vv. 28ff) and the apparent link with Priesthood, creation, and fathers(/family). These passages seem to give the listing of generations in Genesis (esp. ch. 11) much more significance: it is not just Abraham's posterity which is significant, but the link back to Adam and the Priesthood.

For the other(s). The other day I looked for the first time at Bernasconi's essay on Substitution (in Cambridge Companion to Levinas by Critchley and him), so I'm thinking about how this emphasizes Abraham's non-individual identity/existence--we might say Abraham's existence is for the family, and that he has no meaningful identity apart from his relation to the fathers and creation. We read how God destroys those who worship other gods and do not enter into the (past and future) community that Abraham is describing, a community that is bound together through Priesthood and records. On the one hand this helps us find similar themes at play in Genesis. On the other hand, this seems to be saying much more than we can find in Genesis about the link between Abraham and the fathers--and creation: if we think about creation in terms of identity, this chapter seems to be placing creation in a specific relation to God's purposes. Those that worship other gods are not responding to God's graciousness in a way that is meaningful to the family community that God is trying to establish. As such, it seems they are of no use to God, so He very un-graciously allows them to suffer from the famine. Does this mean God wasn't gracious in the first place? The narrative itself seems to undermine the notion of grace in favor of rights and merits as Adam has pointed out. So creation itself seems not to be a pure gift, but the beginning of what seems to be a rather economic exchange which can be undone if not received properly by humankind. Not that the notion of grace is completely undermined, for the "gift" of creation was given before we see any meriting for such, but this graciousness does not seem limitless. The angry God we saw who drowned the world is visible again starving the unfaithful Egyptians.

Human sacrifice. What are we to make of the 3 virgins and their parallel to Abraham? How might the fact that three are mentioned be significant? How should we think about this explicit mention of human sacrifice, something not mentioned in Genesis? Are we justified in considering both texts together and reconsidering Abraham's test with Isaac as something that must surpass the kind of loyalty Abraham witnessed toward other gods? In a certain sense, this seems to detract from how we consider Abraham's faith in the Genesis account alone, no? Also, if we consider both texts together, the contrast between the 3 virgins here and the three messengers in Gen 18 seems particularly intriguing--is this kind of consideration interesting or useful, or should the texts be considered more independently of each other?

6:19 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


I'm also very interested in the way that the Genesis narrative is supplemented here by an emphasis on records and priesthood, by the way that the priesthood is bound up in the Word and the passing on of the Word. You're right to point out that posterity is not sufficient, it must be a posterity that is taken up withing the context of the Word and the priesthood, a posterity that requires "sealing" by the authorized giving of one's Word.

I wonder if we can read the Word/Priesthood conjunction (asserting their speculative identity in the way indicated above) as that which constructs and perpetuates a kind of parallel or alternative temporality that is rooted in the immemorial. Where the temporality of the world reduces things to the finitude of interest and death, the maintenance of the Records/Word/Priesthood protests against this tyranny by supplying an alternative story about what is happening, what it means, and how it can transform worldly time itself. Here, the record/Word/Priesthood is a typological supplement to the world's mundane history meant to re-code the meaning of that history? Priesthood is the "acting out" of a typological relation?

Also, I agree that grace is not "undermined" here so much as de-emphasized, or re-contexualized. How do we continue to think the graciousness of grace even within the context of a fuller causal account?

Last, about the hermeneutic relationship of Genesis to the Book of Abraham. I'd propose the following approach: Genesis ought to be read, at least initially, as a free-standing text (as we more or less did), while on the contrary it is absolutely necessary to read Abraham with Genesis in mind.

My best,

2:51 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

A couple more quick thoughts on Abraham 1 (I'll try to post something on Abraham 2 later today):

Verse 3: Right of the firstborn/first father. This bit in verse 3 raises all sorts of rich questions for me. What is the typlogical significance of this verse? I've often wondered and studied a bit about the possible significance of the secondborns obtaining the right of the firstborn in Genesis, but this is still an unanswered question for me. Paul talks about Christ as the second Adam, which I think is interesting to consider, but it seems in Mormon heritage there is reason to think of Christ as the second Abel (Joe, you've thought about this quite a bit haven't you?). Cain, the firstborn is cursed--perhaps like Adam--and Abel becomes slain, perhaps as a type of Christ. This dual-nature offspring of Adam I think is very interesting. Also, I have a hunch that this verse might be quite helpful in interpreting Genesis 21-22, but I can't make out a good connection yet. Help anyone? (By the way, I noticed that this entry in Easton's Bible Dictionary lists Abraham as probably the youngest son rather than the oldest, which would stengthen the case for a figurative connotation of the term "firstborn" in relation to the rights of the Priesthood; however, I don't see where Easton's gets this since the Abram is listed first, followed by Nahor and Haran in Gen 11:27--what's going here?!) Furthermore, I think D&C 84 is quite interesting to take up here because it ties Adam, the firstborn/first father to the immemorial in the way that Adam has suggested.

Verse 17: Destruction of Egyptians. Thinking more about God's declaration that he will destroy "him who hath lifed up his hand against [Abraham]" has me thinking more about parallels with the destruction of the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah. I think it is only against this background of God's seeming disgust with humanity and willingness to destroy all others that we can really appreciate the family (fathers and posterity) and community (esp. Abimelech; I think it is particularly provocative how he later interacts with Isaac...) covenants that are being created. I've recently been thinking about truth and faith in various ways, and so I'm inclined to think about the metaphorical implications of a "true covenant" being established amidst such danger of violence and anger. For example, if we think about a propositional truth as that which will not be destroyed, something that can coexist with other truths, then we might think about true/faithful relationships in families and communities as those individuals or communities that covenant to live in peace with others. From my little samplings of Badiou's writing, I seem to recall him somehow addressing this notion of local truths vs. universal truths in an interesting way (help Adam!). In thinking about larger issues of community, justice, peace, etc., it's interesting that here we have a "local" example, an individual who is righteous, blessed, and does good things, but is nevertheless not tied back to the fathers or creation. Contemplating this Pharoah who is "left hanging" gives me a renewed perspective on the idea of temple work for the dead....

Verse 26: Pharoah cursed yet blessed. This verse strikes me as quite intersting b/c it describes Pharoah as righteous and blessed "with the blessings of the earth" and yet cursed "as pertaining to the Priesthood." In the blessings of the covenant that Abraham obtains, Ishmael does not obtain certain blessings. This seem to parallel in some intereseting ways (contrasts in others) the curse of Ham. Paul seems to take up a related tension in his discussion of election and grace (Rom 9-11?), which I tend to read as a notion of community-predestination (a reading which I don't think contradicts the Mormon view of individual predestination...). In this context, the account of Pharoah as a righteous individual, yet born into a cursed lineage/community is fascinating, perhaps mirroring the I/they narrative style that Adam mentioned above.

(Note that here you can find a a bit of helpful material at the Feast wiki on this chapter.)

11:32 AM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

Thanks Robert and Adam for these thoughts. I need to brush up on my background knowledge of the PofGP---I had some trouble following even the basic narrative line in these chapters (what's the geographic sequence?). But I'll share a few impressions.

After the verbal economy of the Old Testament, the copious prolixity of this text is a rhetorical shock. Some of the wordiness might be an effect of Joseph's revelatory composition process---maybe he had to talk things out to get the juices flowing---but without a working model of that process it's hard to separate out textual byproduct from foreproduct. And perhaps the process itself is inseparable from the content, and that kind of sorting would do material violence to the text in any case.

I too was struck by the immense distance between the OT language of priesthood-as-gift (though this might not be precisely right) and the PoGP language of priesthood-as-right. I was reminded of a phrase of Alter's noting the "panoply of the abundant rhetorical devices of ancient Hebrew for expressing self-abasement before a powerful figure." In these first chapters of Abraham, at least, that sort of language, and the abject-subject it implies, seems entirely missing. This implies up a different kind of relationship between God and Abraham, it seems to me, which necessarily informs the nature of the priesthood. I think this might have some bearing on the notion of the "rights of the priesthood".

I noticed the text's intense interest in the same kind of ethnogony that figures so prominently in the opening chpaters of the Genesis account: we learn in great (if, to me, greatly confusing) detail about the origins and development of the Egyptians. But this text does so, as has been noted, to set up a kind of mimetic relationship between peoples and priesthoods: a cracked mimesis, to be sure, but an instructive resemblance nevertheless between true and false priesthoods. I wonder if and how the rhetorical forms of mimesis might help us understand the text's work on community and and peace.

9:24 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I’m sorry not to enter this discussion until so late. Actually, I wrote a rather lengthy comment a few days back but lost it, and I’ve not had a chance to get back to the seminar until today.

I think Adam’s “works” reading of Abraham 1 is astute. At the same time, I wonder if it doesn’t overlook how profoundly “fraught with background” this chapter really is. A year or two ago I spent a couple of months working carefully through this chapter, and I was amazed at the political backdrop that can be worked out if one pays attention to the details (even a semi-coherent picture of some broad mythological motifs Abraham’s contemporaries held is identifiable). The more I read the chapter, the more I’m convinced that Abraham’s understanding of the priesthood stands as a graceful counter to the works-based economy at work in the idolatries against which Abraham preaches. If time permits me later on this week, I’ll dig out my pages of notes from that earlier study and see if I can’t summarize some of my findings in another comment. But for now, I think these hints suggest that the “subjective” focus of the language here does not particularly betray a works-over-grace emphasis, but perhaps lays the foundation for the task of thinking the unique Latter-day Saint theology of grace (hardly a “salvation by works,” but certainly more nuanced than “born again, freed from sin, never have to do nothin’.”

As for verse 3: Adam is clearly right to suggest that there is a kind of reworking of the immemorial in this verse, but again, I’m hesitant to suggest that it de-emphasizes the gift/grace. It would probably be rather important, really, to bring Gerhard von Rad’s interpretation of Gen 1-11 to bear on this (something I’ll have to do later again, since I’m away from my books at the moment): how does this introduction to the Abraham material recast the interplay between myth and history, and what does all of this imply about works/grace? (That is, might works be equated with history and grace with myth? Something like this is often at work in German readings of the OT.) At the very least, this first chapter of Abraham calls us to take up quite carefully the way that grace is being rethought (rather than replaced).

Robert’s words regarding the importance of records are worth repeating: this plays into a theme in the D&C that I’ve been more or less obsessed with for some time. Several sections might be brought to bear on this theme here: D&C 42; 84; 85; 107; 127; 128; 132; not to mention Moses 6. This is especially important in light of Robert’s further comments regarding Abraham’s handing himself over to “the fathers” (the Other).

Robert also brings up the whole question of sacrifice, focusing primarily on the importance of the number three. There is so much here! I really do need to dig out my earlier notes to summarize, because I found some interesting anti-familial themes at work in all of this. But more on that later. Certainly the parallel between Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and the priest’s sacrifice of Abraham should be taken up at some length. This is vital to any real interpretation here. The three virgins (and their father) bring up some historical questions that may or may not be worth taking up. Joseph and the saints purchased four mummies with which the papyri were found, and some of the notes in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers suggest that these mummies were (understood to be) the bodies of the three virgins and their father. Curiously, these notes are attended by specific dates that place the sacrifice in a time one would imagine was closer to the time of Joseph in Egypt than Abraham in Egypt. At times I’ve toyed with the possibility that when Joseph said the scrolls contained writings of Abraham and Joseph that what we have in this book is a text once written by Abraham and then copied and edited by Joseph of Egypt (some of the peculiar grammar, the “that is’s,” and the apparently excurses seem to confirm this). This might be a whole lot of gibberish, but there is undeniably reason to watch for the hand of the editor in the text. Is there anything we can see about this here?

Adam’s paragraph beginning “I wonder” is worth reading again and again. I really like the direction you’re heading here, Adam. Any further thoughts?

Before I got a chance to post this, Robert and Rosalynde added further comments. I appreciate them both, but have hardly digested them yet.

I’d really like to get to my notes, especially because I think they will open the possibility of thinking the role of community/collectivity more closely here, and I’d like to see if I can’t thereby spur Jim into this discussion. More soon.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Going back through my notes, now. I have about sixty pages here on the first 15 verses of this chapter, so my summary will be rather pretentious (that is, I will write it as if I’m convinced of everything I’m saying, as if it were all this clear, etc., though it is only so much speculation). My purpose in writing these things out is to get them on the table, and to allow (at least) me to think about them clearly so that (at least) I can take them into account as we work further.

Verses 1-7 tell a rather interesting story. They set “my fathers” over against “the fathers,” allowing the universality of the latter to call into question the particularity of the former. This disruption highlights the immemoriality of “the fathers.” But even as it does this, Abraham paradoxically offers a kind of genealogy of the immemorial: “the right belonging to the fathers … was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me.” We can certainly sense what Rosalynde calls “copious prolixity” in this passage, but hopefully the point is clear: whatever this “right” amounts to, it has been passed from Adam (whose place as “first father” is of importance), through “the fathers,” to Abraham.

But about the “right,” which sounds so American (or at least Lockean) to us: it is “the right of the firstborn.” Though the language is certainly western, the “concept” is only marginally so: there is something to which the firstborn is entitled, but to which the other children are not so entitled. In a word, where “rights” means, in the context of our Lockean heritage, precisely what founds a democracy, in which, as Mark Twain’s entire corpus made obvious over and over again, people becomes individuals or even absolute individuals, the word’s appearance in Abraham here suggests a kind of anti-democracy (in fact, a rather shocking one): the firstborn is privileged with a kind of lordship/kingship over the whole earth, an almost godlike position in relation to the remainder of mankind. In fact, the more I look at verse 3, the more I think the only way it can be read is to see in it the implication that Adam’s “right” was not something he earned or deserved, but the power/ability to rule that was given him. Abraham is not telling us that he had a right to this same power, but that he became an heir to this power, to this right. Or so it seems to me (for the present moment: I’m sure I’ll change my mind later).

In light of this verses 5-7 become very important: “my fathers,” for some reason, decided to leave off the possibility of this rule. If I am right in assuming that we can read this power into Adam’s reception of lordship over the whole earth in Gen 2, then here we have a whole stretch of those who could have had the same lordship rejecting it entirely, rejecting it so that they could retreat into relative anonymity. Might “land” in verse 1 be important here? At least in the Book of Mormon, “land” implies the countryside, not the city, and this account does not mention Ur at all until verse 20, and there it refers to the location of the sacrificial scene (which would have to be performed at the sacral city center, but perhaps at some distance from “the residence of my fathers). In other words, it appears that “my fathers,” this stretch of those who could have inherited the lordship over the whole earth, have retreated into anonymity rather than accept the appointment concerning the seed. Abraham discovers all of this and seeks to receive the appointment they have rejected.

And this brings him quite quickly into difficulties. One might read the sacrifice here as precisely aimed at canceling the patriarchal: verse 7 has those attending the idolatrous cult “offering up their children unto these dumb idols,” ridding themselves of the familial structure inherent in the lordship/kingship model bestowed upon Adam/Abraham. Does this suggest that Terah was called upon to have Abraham killed, thereby denying the patriarchal structure of the inherited promises? And what might that imply about Isaac’s sacrifice and how Abraham would have experienced it?

All of this said, the drama of Abraham’s near-sacrifice is fascinating as well: Abraham is laid up on a bed, upon which he is killed. That the bed is an altar of sacrifice might connect this rite up with the many ancient legends of the sleeping hero. Having arrived at the mount (Potiphar’s hill) in his attempt to slay the god, the hero falls asleep at the bottom of the hill. While he sleeps, the god of the mountain (the sun god=Shagreel?) steals out and kills him in his sleep (Teancum and Amalickiah?) The sexuality implied by the refusal of three “virgins” to lose their “virtue” in the rites suggests something more about the myth behind the rites: the hero sleeps at the foot of the hill because he seduces someone in the god’s harem (or worse: his wife?). All of this happens between the sacred space of the mountain and the profane space of the plain before the mountain: the unfortunate seduction takes place in the realm of the dead, the night, the place of darkness and sexuality. All of this is overcome in the name of Shagreel, the sun god, who slays the powers of darkness and returns power to the fourfold understructure of Pharaoh’s rule. Or some such thing.

But all of these surmisings aside, it seems quite clear that what is at work here is the establishment of an earthly kingdom, accomplished by violence to the heavenly kingdom that is bestowed upon Abraham. Ethnogony, indeed.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

re: emphasis on records.

There's an unavoidable dialogue between text-as-language and text-as-artifact here: how can one understand the emphasis on records as a guarantor of legitimate patriarchy without also reflecting on the highly uncertain provenance of the Book of Abraham itself?

And yet that very uncertainty undercuts the methodological foundations of most kinds of interpretation, doesnt it?

3:11 PM  
Blogger Rosalynde said...

Also, Adam, I wonder if there's any way of installing a "Recent Comments" feature on this blog? It owuld make it a lot easier to keep on ongoing conversations.

3:12 PM  

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