Book of Abraham Insight #1
The Book of Abraham narrates the life of the biblical patriarch in a first-person autobiographical voice. The book begins: “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence” (Abraham 1:1). This first-person voice continues throughout the text as if Abraham himself was writing.
When the Book of Abraham was published in 1842, no other texts from a similar time and place were known. The Book of Abraham was unique in that respect. In the last nearly two hundred years, archaeology has uncovered more texts that we can compare with the Book of Abraham.
One such ancient text discovered in 1939 contains strikingly similar features with the Book of Abraham. It too is an “autobiography” in that it narrates a story in the first-person. It speaks of a ruler named Idrimi who lived in ancient Syria—which is in the vicinity of one very plausible candidate for Abraham’s homeland1—not long after the likely time period of Abraham (circa 2,000–1,800 BC).2 “Idrimi’s autobiography compares well with Abraham’s autobiography in both subject and form,” explains scholar John Gee, “even though Idrimi’s autobiography dates about two hundred years later.”3
Although Idrimi’s text is often called an “autobiography,”4 this term might be somewhat misleading. For instance, “we do not know if such ancient autobiographical texts were written by the individuals themselves, dictated to scribes, or ghostwritten by scribes.” While it is “unlikely that Idrimi carved the words on his statue, . . . he may have been directly responsible for the content of the text.”5 This might similarly be the case with the Book of Abraham.6
The parallels between Abraham’s autobiography and Idrimi’s “autobiography” include the following:
- Both report their journeys through Canaan.
- Both emphasize that their travel to their new residence was the result of divine inspiration.
- Both refer back to promises made to their ancestors for whom they have records.
- Both describe that they worshipped the way that their fathers did.
- Both deal in covenants.7
The two texts even open in very similar manners:
|Book of Abraham (1:1)||“Autobiography” of Idrimi|
|“In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.”||“In Aleppo, my ancestral home . . . I, Idrimi, the son of Ilim-ilimma . . . took my horse, chariot, and groom and went away.”8|
The parallels between these two texts and other considerations led Gee to conclude, “The Book of Abraham belongs to the same specific literary tradition as Idrimi’s autobiography.” This, naturally, raises the question, “How did Joseph Smith manage to publish in the Book of Abraham a story that closely matched a Middle-Bronze-Age Syrian autobiography that would not be discovered for nearly a hundred years?”9 The most plausible explanation is that the Book of Abraham belongs to that time period, genre of literature, and part of the world.
John Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 34–39.
1 See Stephen O. Smoot, “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 7–37.
3 Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 35.
4 See for instance “The Statue of Idrimi,” British Museum, online at www.britishmuseum.org; Tremper Longman III, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography: A Generic and Comparative Study (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1991), 62–63; Piotr Bienkowski, “Autobiographies,” in Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, ed. Piotr Bienkowski and Alan Millard (Philadelphia, Penn.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 41; Tremper Longman III, “The Autobiography of Idrimi (1.148),” in The Context of Scripture, Volume One: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 479–481; Ekin Kozal and Mirko Novák, “Alalakh and Kizzuwatna: Some Thoughts on the Synchronization,” in Overturning Certainties in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Festschrift in Honor of K. Aslıhan Yener, ed. Çiğdem Maner, Mara T. Horowitz and Allan S. Gilbert (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 297–299.
5 Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 35.
6 From the ancient point of view it would not have really mattered if an author of a text like Abraham used a scribe to do the physical writing or even influenced textual composition. See the discussion in Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 4–9.
7 Paraphrasing Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 38.
8 So translated by Edward L. Greenstein and David Marcus, “The Akkadian Inscription of Idrimi,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 8 (1976): 67, cited in Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 37. The opening lines of the Idrimi inscription read in their entirety: “In Aleppo, my ancestral home, a hostile [incident] occurred so that we had to flee to the people of Emar, my mother’s relatives, and stay there. My older brothers also stayed with me, but none of them had the plans I had. So I, Idrimi, the son of Ilim-ilimma, devotee of Im, Ḫebat, and my lady Ištar, lady of Alalaḫ, thinking to myself, ‘Whoever his patrimony is a great nobleman, but whoever [remains] among the citizens of Emar is a vassal,’ took my horse, chariot, and groom and went away.”
9 Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 38.