Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

When Abraham Knew

Posted by BrianJ on May 23, 2010

What motivated Moses to kill the Egyptian? What did Mormon hope to accomplish when he re-accepted his role as general? What did Ruth believe was at stake when she followed her mother-in-law?

The answers to questions like these influence how we interpret scripture. Knowing how the people reached their decisions instructs us on how to apply (or avoid!) their same reasoning to our own situations. It affects what we view as the “moral of the story.” In some cases, it dramatically impacts the theology. Much of the answer rests on knowing what the people knew at the time their decisions were made and not what they learned afterwards.

One challenge is what I see as a tendency to glorify most everyone in the scriptures (especially prophets): “Well, he was a prophet, so whatever he did was the right thing to do.” Several examples show that this is not correct, including: Moses (disobeyed at Meribah), Moroni (berated Pahoran), Lehi (murmured against God), Jonah (umm, yeah).

Related to this first challenge is the tendency to view all scriptural heroes as fully enlightened individuals. One problem is that the scriptures occasionally highlight one person’s faith or vision as being exceptional: the brother of Jared, for example. If he was so extraordinary, then surely most everyone else was not quite so enlightened. Additionally, this view ignores that, just as all of us increase in knowledge and faith as we feel our way through life, so too many of the stories in the scriptures are precisely about one person’s spiritual progression. The Apostle Peter is perhaps the most obvious example: the story invites us to contrast the pre-ascension/pre-Holy Ghost Peter with the later man who leads the church. (Alternatively, imagine assuming total enlightenment into all of Peter’s befuddling actions throughout the Gospels.)

Not only do we not know what the people knew, another challenge is that we don’t know when they knew it. In other words, even if we assume that everyone in the scriptures was eventually fully enlightened, we don’t know what stage they were in at a particular time. By the time Moses was just outside Canaan he knew Jehovah, but what about when Moses killed the Egyptian? Would he still have killed the Egyptian if he knew then what he knew later? What did Moses understand before crossing the Red Sea—or did his experiences on Sinai not really advance him spiritually?

A Specific Example

Abraham provides a perfect example of how difficult this can be (and why I care; in a later post, I’ll discuss why it’s important to how we understand him).

Suppose that we take it from Abraham 1:2 that Abraham got his wish: he was eventually just about as enlightened as a mortal can possibly be.  But his…’troubled’ upbringing by an apostate father makes me think he didn’t start out that way. How did Abraham gain his knowledge, and when? Did everything just come together all at once during a vision like the one recorded in Abraham 3—he went from 0% to 100% overnight—or did he follow a more typical gradual progression throughout life?

To make the question more pointed, when did Abraham first know about prayer? the priesthood? exaltation? atonement? Jesus Christ? Was all that before or after he entered Egypt? before or after interceding for Sodom? before or after taking Isaac to Mount Moriah?

7 Responses to “When Abraham Knew”

  1. Robert C. said

    Brian, great thoughts and questions.

    If you haven’t picked up Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon yet, I highly recommend it. I’m only through the first few chapters, but he basically takes up this very same approach with Nephi, trying to carefully work out exactly when Nephi knew about the importance of his own work of record keeping and the visions he had of the importance of a book from the tribe of Joseph to come forth and complement the book from the tribe of Judah, etc. On its surface, this might not sound like a particularly enlightening question to examine in such depth, but he ties together a number of very important themes in Nephi’s writing in ways I hadn’t thought of before, so I highly recommend it.

    Plus, Hardy’s book might give you some ideas for your writing a similar book with respect to Abraham! :-)

  2. NathanG said

    Interesting question Brian. Another question to compound the problem of figuring out what people knew when is considering when the account was written. Nephi’s experiences as we have them in the small plates was written 20 or 30 years after they happened. Abraham’s account seems to be written in 1st person, so when did he write it? The scriptures rarely seem to be written as the events happen, but have the advantage of some retrospection. Then there are instance where we may not even know who is authoring the text at all.

  3. BrianJ said

    Robert, Nathan: Nephi is an very good example, especially because (as Nathan points out) Nephi clearly wrote 30 yrs later. Add to that the fact that his book is in part a political document, and you have a lot of room for ‘selective retrospection.’

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  6. kirkcaudle said

    Did everything just come together all at once during a vision like the one recorded in Abraham 3—he went from 0% to 100% overnight—or did he follow a more typical gradual progression throughout life? –Brian

    I am not sure of the answer to this question, but I think the following experience from JSH might shed some light on the subject.

    “so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation. Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of” (v73-4).

    Once the mind of a prophet (or anyone perhaps) has been “enlightened,” their capacity for things spiritual seems to change. I tend to think this happened in the life of Abraham when he took Isaac up to Mount Moriah. However, I am not immovable on that stance, but I think something extra special happened at that time which brought increased knowledge of the gospel that was unreachable for Abraham previous to that point.

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