As I write, I’m sitting atop the Giza Plateau near Cairo, where the most famous of Egypt’s roughly 80 pyramids have watched over the Nile Valley for nearly 5,000 years. It seems an appropriate place to think about the Book of Abraham.
First published in English in 1842, the Book of Abraham has been an object of often heated controversy ever since. Is it a brazen 19th-century forgery, or does it reflect genuine prophetic insight into an aspect of the ancient world — and, more importantly, into God and the gospel — on the part of Joseph Smith?
I will offer here just a few small items that seem to suggest that the Book of Abraham is authentically ancient (and, therefore, inspired). Further discussion and supporting references can be found (among other places) in “News from Antiquity,” which I authored, published in the Ensign magazine in January 1994, and online at lds.org).
For one thing, the Book of Abraham mentions “idolatrous gods” bearing the names “Elkenah,” “Libnah,” “Mahmackrah” and “Korash” (see Abraham 1:6, 13, 17; Facsimile No. 1, figures. 5–8). Although these gods do not appear in the Bible, other ancient texts suggest that alleged divine beings bearing these or very similar names were actually worshipped in the ancient world.
Certain ancient texts also suggest that the ensemble of four figures depicted as figure 6 of Facsimile No. 2 could indeed “represent this earth in its four quarters” in the ancient world, just as the explanation to the facsimile in the Book of Abraham says.
Ancient texts discovered only since the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also support the interpretation given in the Book of Abraham of figure 11 of Facsimile No. 1 as “designed to represent the pillars of heaven, as understood by the Egyptians.” In fact, the exact Egyptian equivalent of the phrase “pillars of heaven” occurs in ancient Egyptian literature.
Moreover, the explanation given in the Book of Abraham for the angled lines below the lion couch in Facsimile No. 1 identifies them as “the firmament over our heads” (figure 12). Many modern readers likely find this rather strange. It only makes sense when we understand, in light of recent research, that the lines represent the waves of the water in which the crocodile is swimming, and that one way the ancient Egyptians conceived of heaven was as “a heavenly ocean.”
One noteworthy element of the religious situation portrayed in the Book of Abraham is the identification of a crocodile as “the idolatrous god of Pharaoh” (see Facsimile No. 1, figure 9.) The link between a crocodile and “the idolatrous god of pharaoh” scarcely seems obvious to us and wouldn’t likely have occurred to a 19th-century American like Joseph Smith, but discoveries in other ancient texts confirm this association.
Unas or Wenis, for example, was the last king of the fifth dynasty (circa 2356–2323 B.C.), and his pyramid can be seen at Saqqara, south of modern Cairo. An outwardly unimpressive wreck, it has proven enormously important to Egyptologists because of the famous “Pyramid Texts” found within it.
Utterance 317 of those “Pyramid Texts” includes the following: “The King Appears as the Crocodile-God Sobk,” and “Unas has come today from the overflowing flood; Unas is Sobk, green-plumed, wakeful, alert. … Unas arises as Sobk, son of Neith.” The late Miriam Lichtheim observed that “the god Sobk is … viewed as a manifestation of Horus, the god most closely identified with the kingship of Egypt” during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom era (circa 2040–1640 B.C.), which includes the epoch that tradition indicates as Abraham’s lifetime.23 comments on this story
Intriguingly, Middle Kingdom Egypt saw a great deal of activity in the large oasis to the southwest of modern Cairo known as the Faiyum. Crocodiles were common there, and Sobk (or Sobek) was the chief local deity. The last king of the 12th dynasty, which may include the very period of Abraham’s life, even adopted the name of the crocodile god, calling himself Nefru-sobk (“Beautiful is Sobk”), and five pharaohs of the next dynasty, the 13th, took the name Sebek-hotpe (“Sobk is content”).
A remarkable larger-than-lifesize statue located today in the Luxor Museum in Upper Egypt depicts the 14th-century B.C. Pharaoh Amenhotep III standing beside a seated, crocodile-headed Sobek, who casts his protective arm around the king. Viewing Sobek as both crocodile and “idolatrous god of pharaoh” scarcely seems unreasonable in this light.
The best single resource currently available on the Book of Abraham is John Gee’s 2017 volume “An Introduction to the Book of Abraham” .