Showing Forth the Power and Knowledge of Zion: Abraham on Pharaoh’s Throne
Chapter 5, part 4 of The Blessings of Abraham:  Becoming a Zion People
By E. Douglas Clark

As the story continues in the Genesis Apocryphon, Abraham relates that Pharaoh’s messenger “came to me and asked me to come and pray for the king, and lay my hands upon him so that he would recover.” [1] Abraham would have been fully justified in refusing this nearly incredible request to save the man who had forcibly taken Sarah and had been ready to kill Abraham. Had not Pharaoh brought this trouble on himself? Indeed, was it not divine punishment for his arrogant crimes against the Lord’s anointed? And given Pharaoh’s rapidly declining health, Abraham could easily have opted to wait out the king’s imminent demise, and simply taken Sarah and left Egypt a vindicated man.

But Abraham was of different stuff. As the rabbis said, he lived the whole law before it had been revealed. [2] And part of the divine law as it would be revealed through the mortal Messiah would be the command to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Widely known by most Christians as the most difficult part of Christ’s gospel, it was practiced perfectly by Abraham, who could not refuse his archenemy’s request to bless and heal him.

When Pharaoh’s messenger had requested Abraham’s help, Lot divulged that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife and would have to be restored to him before he could help. Summoning Abraham to his side, the ailing Pharaoh chided Abraham and pled with him. “What have you done to me . . . ? . . . Here is your wife; take her away! . . . But now pray for me and for my household that this evil spirit may be banished from us.”[3] Thus, observes Nibley, “the roles of victim and victor are almost ludicrously reversed,” showing that for “all [his] pride and power,” Pharaoh is merely the pretender to Abraham’s patriarchal authority. [4]

Using that authority, Abraham complied with Pharaoh’s request: “I prayed that [he might be] cured,” [5] says Abraham in the Genesis Apocryphon. As recorded in the Asatir, an important Samaritan source, Abraham begged for mercy for the king “and prayed for the loosening of the bonds,” saying, “O, Lord! God of heaven and earth, all merciful, be merciful.” [6] Then, says Abraham in the Genesis Apocryphon, “I . . . laid my hands upon his [hea]d. The plague was removed from him; the evil [spirit] was banished [from him] and he recovered.” [7] Islamic legend likewise remembers that Abraham cured Pharaoh. [8] “The wonderful thing about Abraham,” says Nibley, “is that he always does the right thing, whether anybody else does or not.” [9]

Not only was Pharaoh healed, but also all his household, explains the Asatir. [10] Then, continues the Genesis Apocryphon, “the king got up” and proceeded to give Abraham “many gifts” [11] beyond the lavish riches and flocks he had already bestowed on Abraham (see Gen. 12:16). [12] To Sarah the king gave “much [silver and go]ld and many clothes of fine linen and purple and . . . also Hagar,” [13] a beautiful girl [14] who was one of the king’s many daughters, as a servant. [15] The unfolding of events was, in the words of church father Chrysostom, “marvelous and surprising,” for “a woman dazzling in her beauty is closeted with an Egyptian . . . king and tyrant, of such frenzy and incontinent disposition, and yet she leaves his presence untouched, with her peerless chastity intact.” [16]

Then, according to a medieval Turkish historian, Pharaoh “seated Abraham on a throne.” [17] The event is pictured in Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham, showing that the throne was Pharaoh’s own, the splendidly magnificent throne of Egypt, where Abraham is sitting “by the politeness of the king.”

Appropriately, it was probably the lion throne, [18] emphasizing Abraham’s remarkable rise from the Egyptian lion-altar of death to the most exalted seat of Egypt-reflecting, says Hugh Nibley, the broad outlines of the royal ritual enacted throughout the ancient Near East at the New Year’s drama, an “indispensable element” of which was “the temporary humiliation of the true king while a rival and substitute displaces him on the throne.” And as in the New Year’s drama where “the true king is always vindicated in the end,” so it is with Abraham when Pharaoh ends up “acknowledging that superior power and priesthood of his rival.” [19]

The scene is the ultimate vindication of Abraham and his patriarchal authority to establish Zion on earth. In a momentous event unique in history, Pharaoh-pretender to that authority, and ruler of the mighty kingdom that was but an imitation of the order of Zion-willingly steps down from his throne to defer to Abraham. No wonder that “to the ancients,” says scholar Ben Zion Wacholder, “the encounter between Pharaoh and the traveler from Ur of the Chaldees seemed as a crucial event in the history of mankind.” [20]

Abraham’s rise from the altar of death to the exalted throne of Egypt foreshadowed his own destiny when he would inherit his heavenly throne, the throne mentioned in the Testament of Isaac [21] and in latter-day revelation. [22] And as with Abraham, so also with his faithful posterity, who will likewise inherit thrones (D&C 132:19), prepared for them by Christ, who would descend below all things in order to rise above all and sit on His exalted throne forever.

As Abraham sat on Pharaoh’s throne, according to Facsimile No. 3 of the Book of Abraham, he reasoned upon the principles of astronomy. Josephus tells that Abraham conversed “with the most learned of the Egyptians, whence his virtue and reputation became still more conspicuous.” He “introduced them to arithmetic and transmitted to them the laws of astronomy.” [23] Jewish tradition adds that the court members even brought their children to be instructed, and that Abraham began his preaching with the words: “Blessed be God who created the sun, the moon, and the planets.” [24] Such language would have established common ground with his listeners and been particularly appropriate in context, for the lion throne on which he was sitting symbolized Pharaoh’s role as heir to the Creator god. [25]

That Abraham would be qualified to enlighten Pharaoh’s court on astronomy is as much a miracle as was his healing of Pharaoh, for of all the accomplishments of ancient Egypt, none was more significant or renowned than its advancements in astronomy, [26] a science central to sacred Egyptian ritual and architecture. [27] In fact, the first of Pharaoh’s many titles used by his courtiers was “Lord of the Sky.” [28] The title reflected the fact that the king’s highest eternal aspirations were linked with the stars, among which he desired one day to take his place with his predecessors who had already been transformed into “the imperishable stars, that is, . . . the circumpolar stars that never set in the northern sky.” [29]

And here the imagery of the cedar converges with that of the stars, for while Pharaoh is frequently depicted with upraised arms supporting the star-studded heavens, [30] other texts describe the sky as “a huge tree overshadowing the earth, the stars being the fruits or leaves which hang from its branches. When ‘the gods perch on its boughs,’ they are evidently identified with the stars.” [31]

With what amazement Pharaoh and his court must have listened to Abraham as he explained things no other mortal could about the starry heavens, things he had learned directly from the Creator. According to Eupolemus, Abraham explained astronomy and other sciences to them and “taught them much,” but “attributed the discovery of them to Enoch.” [32] The historian Artapanus, writing centuries before Josephus, is even more specific in painting Abraham as the “mentor of the Egyptian pharaoh,” [33] personally teaching him astronomy. [34]

Abraham was teaching the knowledge of Enoch, of Zion, to Egypt’s mighty monarch and his learned court. The picture that emerges is of Abraham as a “pivotal contributor to the origins of culture and learning” as he “play[s] a critical part in the generation and transmission of Near Eastern learning.” [35] And in all his teaching, “his narratives brought people close to God.” [36] Abraham’s purpose was the same as that of his descendant Nephi, who articulated it in terms of his illustrious forefather: “the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Jacob, and be saved” (1 Ne. 6:4).

While Abraham taught the Egyptians, as suggested by Elder Mark E. Petersen, he utilized this opportunity “as a means of proclaiming the name of Christ.” [37] A Turkish source tells that Abraham “taught the faith and true religion,” and adds that the king was “converted.” [38] As told by a Samaritan source, “Pharaoh believed in the truth of the faith of Abraham,” for Pharaoh “knew that his prayer before the idols had not cured him from the plague which he had, but that only the prayer of Abraham to his God had cured him. And at that time he commanded the destruction of the houses wherein the idols were, and the breaking of the idols and the destruction of all the pillars.” [39]

If this tradition is accurate or even close, the ensuing effect would have crescendoed throughout the vast kingdom of Egypt in a manner similar to the widespread conversions experienced among the Lamanites after the conversion of King Lamoni and his father (see Alma 17-26). The extent of Abraham’s missionary success even in his lifetime may be vastly greater than that for which he is normally given credit. Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt, says Jewish tradition, “was of great service to the inhabitants of the country, because he demonstrated to the wise men of the land how empty and vain their views were.” [40]

And as Abraham sat high on Pharaoh’s throne teaching the knowledge of Zion and the cosmos, he was drawing from his store of revealed knowledge that, according to John Taylor speaking in 1880, exceeded “all the combined wisdom of the world today.” [41] Surely it is no different today, except that Abraham’s latter-day seed are fast approaching the day when, as John Taylor foretold on another occasion, “Zion will be as far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as we are today in regard to religious matters.” [42] It is all part of what Isaiah foretold:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:2-3).

And it was all foreshadowed by the ancient father of Zion, Abraham, when he sat on Pharaoh’s throne and instructed the master physicists and astronomers of his day in things quite beyond their ken.

[1] .         1QapGen 20.21-22, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:43.

[2] .         See citations in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2:115.

[3] .         1QapGen 20.21-28, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:43.

[4] .         Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 359-60.

[5] .         1QapGen 20.28, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:43.

[6] .         Asatir 6:23, in Gaster, Asatir, 254 (“earth” is capitalized in the original).

[7] .         1QapGen 20.29, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:43.

[8] .         Knappert, Islamic Legends, 1:77-78. In this legend, Abraham cures Pharaoh’s hand, which had withered when he tried to approach Sarah.

[9] .         Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 203.

[10] .        Asatir 6:24, in Gaster, Asatir, 254.

[11] .        1QapGen 20.29, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:43.

[12] .        Jubilees speaks of the “extremely large amount of property: sheep, cattle, donkeys, horses, camels, male and female servants, silver, and very (much) gold.” Jubilees 13:14, in VanderKam, Book of Jubilees, 77.

[13] .        1QapGen 20.31-32, in Martinez and Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:43.

[14] .        Al-Tabari reports that she was a “woman of good appearance.” Brinner, History of al-Tabari, 65.

[15] .        Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:223.

[16] .        Homilies on Genesis 32.22, in Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary, 2:10.

[17] .        Al-Rabghuzi, Stories of the Prophets, 2:112. In this source the story parallels what in other sources occurs in Egypt, though said here to take place in Haran. The invitation to Abraham to sit on a throne occurs before Abraham’s healing of the king, said to be the successor of Nimrod.

[18] .        Redford, Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 2:165.

[19] .        Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 359-60.

[20] .        Ben Zion Wacholder, “How Long Did Abraham Stay in Egypt?” Hebrew Union College Annual 35 (1964):43.

[21] .        An angel tells the aged Isaac that “there has been prepared for you the throne beside your father Abraham.” Testament of Isaac 1:7, in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:905.

[22] .        Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “have entered into their exaltation . . . and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.” Doctrine and Covenants 132:37.

[23] .        Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.8.1-2, in Josephus 4, 83.

[24] .        Bet Ha-Midrash, quoted in Nibley, Teachings of the Pearl of Great Price, Lecture 23, 11.

[25] .        Redford, Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 2:165.

[26] .        From the earliest times, explained Diodorus of Sicily in the first century b.c., “the positions and arrangements of the stars, as well as their motion, have always been the subject of careful observation among the Egyptians, if anywhere in the world . . . they have observed with utmost keenness the motions, orbits and stoppings of each planet” Barton, Ancient Astrology, 24, quoting Diodorus, World History 1.81.

[27] .        “It never occurred to the Egyptians to enter upon the search for truth for its own sake. . . . They had much practical acquaintance with astronomy.” Breasted, A History of Egypt, 100. The royal ideology and its cult had “need to establish the exact periods of time deemed indispensable for the performance of certain rites.” Morenz, Egyptian Religion, 8. “Remarkable progress was made in astronomy by observation of the sky” in order “to meet the practical requirements of telling the time for temple services to begin, watching the public calendar with celestial time and correctly orienting sacred buildings such as temples and pyramids.” Strouhal, Life of the Ancient Egyptians, 239-40.

[28] .        Wainwright, Sky-Religion in Ancient Egypt, 16-17.

[29] .        Goff, Symbols of Ancient Egypt, 20. See also E. Douglas Clark, “Cedars and Stars: Enduring Symbols of Cosmic Kingship in Abraham’s Encounter with Pharaoh,” in Gee and Hauglid, Astronomy, Papyri, and Covenant.

[30] .        Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art, 127.

[31] .        Mller, Egyptian Mythology, 35.

[32] .        Eupolemus, as quoted by Eusebius, in Praeparatio Evangelica 9:17.8, in Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:881.

[33] .        Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, 150-51.

[34] .        The Fragments of Artapanus, Fragment 1, Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:897.

[35] .        Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, 150.

[36] .        Zornberg, Particulars of Rapture, 254, citing Rabbenu Bahya.

[37] .        Petersen, Abraham, 53.

[38] .        Al-Rabghuzi, Stories of the Prophets, 2:114.

[39] .        Pitron 6:24, in Gaster, Asatir, 233. The Pitron is the Samaritan commentary on the Asatir.

[40] .        Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 1:225.

[41] .        Journal of Discourses, 21:245.

[42] .        Ibid., 21:100. I have normalized the spelling of “to-day.”