Saturday, March 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Hugh Nibley! Abraham and Personal Piety: Now I have found thee

The following Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:2) sums up the contributions of Hugh Nibley:

Why did Abraham have to go forth to the world?

At home he was like a flask of myrrh with a tight-fitting lid. Only when it is open can the fragrance be scattered to the winds (see Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 442-3).


Now on to the fragrance.

New Kingdom Egypt, along with its "crisis of the polytheistic worldview," stands out for its dynamic, individualistic "new religiosity," commonly termed "popular religion" or "personal piety," Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 229. Central to the movement is prayer, especially prayers offered in moments of crisis and with expectation of blessing. Thus a pious individual can "find" God by means of prayer and revelation. The God of these Egyptian texts is Amun, the supreme god of the universe, the Egyptians' final answer, after the disaster of Atenism, to the crisis of polytheism.

The Book of Abraham, although likely set in Egypt's Middle Kingdom, shares the language of the religious breakthroughs of the New Kingdom. Abraham, a man of prayer and a visionary, as both the Bible and the Book of Abraham show, was also the founder of the great religions of monotheism, the worship of the One God. Just what effect Abraham's stay in Egypt had on the minds and hearts of his hearers, we may never know. For now, some parallels between the Book of Abraham and New Kingdom texts may prove instructive.


The Egyptian verb for finding, gmj, often bespeaks both seeking and finding, to seek and to find, and is written with the hieroglyph of the black ibis, eyes and bill earnestly trained on the ground.

The Book of Abraham opens with a quest: "And finding there was greater happiness, peace, and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers" (1:2).

"I sought for mine appointment to the Priesthood" (1:4).

Pharaoh had been seeking the same thing, earnestly but in vain: "seeking earnestly to imitate that order" of the fathers (1:26).

Abraham found God through revelation: "Thy servant has sought thee earnestly; now I have found thee" (2:12).

The assertive focus on the self, I sought, and now I have found, has its equivalent in many New Kingdom writings.

Before moving to the parallels from Egypt, I turn to those noted by Hugh Nibley in the stunning Apocalypse of Abraham. This seeking and finding, explains Nibley, "is the theme on which both Abraham histories open," Abraham in Egypt, 15 (see ps. 13-5).

"Thou art seeking in the understanding of thine heart the God of Gods and the Creator; I am He" (Ap. Abr. VIII). Again: "You shall see great things never before beheld by you; for you have loved to seek me (Ap. Abr. IX p15). God, announces Abraham triumphantly (again the first person usage), "has now found me!" (Ap. Abr. VII).

Following in the footsteps of Abraham, we enter an Egypt in which "a new dimension of experiential nearness to god had opened up, accurately described as revelation and indicated by concepts of 'finding' and 'coming,'" Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt, 241.

"I have not sought for myself a protector among men,
god is my defender," 234.

Again (p. 235):

"And [Kiki] bethought himself
that he should find a patron [Abraham, as wanderer, desperately needed a patron];
and he found Mut at the head of the gods,
fate and fortune in her hand,
lifetime and the breath of life are hers to command.
Everything that happens, happens at her command."
(Abr 3:17, "And there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it.")

Hymn to Amun (p. 241):

"How good it is to follow you, Amun:
a lord great in 'being found' for the one who seeks him,"
(Note how Abraham desires "to be a greater follower of righteousness," 1:2).

"May Amun be found by his coming [and rescue me]."

Abraham tells the same story: "I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee. . .I have come down to visit them, and to destroy him who hath lifted up his hand against thee, Abraham, my son" (Abr. 1:16-7); "I, now, therefore, have come down unto thee," even as "I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences thou hast seen," (3:21).

Did the Egyptians look to Abraham's incredible deliverance as a possibility on which to pin hopes? Here is King Ramesses "at the moment of ultimate danger," as Abraham so often was:

"My voice echoing in Thebes,
The moment I called to him, I found Amun came" (241).

Amun intervenes in the earthshaking Battle of Kadesh by 'giving his hand' to the king and, at the last minute, saving him from death or captivity."

Ramesses the Great, and "the armies of Pharaoh," "came through," as Nephi would say of his own fathers: "and our fathers came through out of captivity " (1 Nephi 4:2).

When the Lord delivers Abraham from the altar, he says: "Behold I will lead thee by my hand, and I will take thee" (1:18).

Three times, Ramesses thanks his "found god" by using the verb of finding (263):

1) "Amun I found more help to me than millions of troops, hundred-thousands of chariotry."
2) "My heart I found strong, my mind joyful."
3) "I found that the 2,500 chariots in whose midst I was
fell prostrate before my horses."

Nephi: "For behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands? Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses," (1 Nephi 4:1-2, and here note the parallel constructions in both writings (Ramesses and Nephi) to emphasize God's superiority over any number of thousands).

Great Ramesses (264): "As the one and only he is by his name stronger than hundreds of thousands (264).

"The description of the predicament, the prayer, and the announcement of the 'found' god are all clear indications that the first person singular section of the Poem is a variant of the stela formula for personal piety, modified for kingly usage," Mind of Egypt, 263. Nephi's language is also poetic and certainly hearkens back to Miriam's famous poem of deliverance from the armies of Pharaoh--all one pattern here.

"The description of the predicament, the prayer, and the announcement of the 'found' god" also perfectly matches the autobiographical Book of Abraham (Chapter One: Deliverance from the altar of the priest of Pharaoh).

"I have called on you, O Amun,
while I am amidst multitudes whom I know not.
All the foreign countries have united against me, I being entirely
alone, no one else with me," Mind of Egypt, 263.

Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone [achad], and blessed him, and increased him" (Isaiah 51:2).

Concludes Jan Assmann (459 n.88): "Using the term 'find' to refer to God and his coming appears to be a motif characteristic of personal piety," as the following text on Tuthmosis IV's Dream Stela shows:

"That he found this glorious god was by speaking with his own mouth [as] a father speaks to his son."

"Thus," Abraham:

"Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another. . . And he said unto me: My son, my son" (3:11-2; and 1:17: "Abraham, my son"); the language is intimate: "Now, Abraham" (3:6).

Ramesses the Great, Nephi, and Abraham all wish to say "Happy Birthday, Hugh Nibley!"

March 27, 1910
March 27, 2010

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