When reading the LDS Book of Abraham, readers’ attention is often drawn to the “Facsimiles” that accompany that book, which are a frequent source of wonder and awe to many. While perhaps not as mesmerizing and mystifying as Facs. 2, the first facsimile has one figure in particular that begs for some analysis.
In the narrative of the Abraham 1, we are told that this image is included by Abraham to illustrate the situation in which he found himself — about to be sacrificed by the priest of Elkanah/Pharaoh on the “bedstead” altar, which was like the one depicted. His “fathers,” whom he had tried to convince to give up their idol worship, have turned him over to the idolatrous priest. However, just before he is sacrificed (in a scene reminiscent of the sacrifice of Isaac), Abraham tells us that the Angel of the Lord’s presence comes to save him, unlooses his bands and (after an extended dialogue) smites the priest of Elkanah. What is particularly significant in this story is that the Angel of the Presence announces himself to be Jehovah – whom most Bible readers would not consider to be the oft-mentioned “Angel of the Presence” of the Old Testament.1
So Jehovah came down as an angel (remember angel = Hebrew malak = messenger) to save Abraham. However, when you look at the facsimile, the figure (fig. 1) that Joseph Smith identifies as “The Angel of the Lord” is a bird! Why is the Angel of the Lord — Jehovah himself, no less — depicted as, or equated with, a bird?
Although I pose it as an exasperating conundrum, the equation of a divine being with a bird should not be very surprising. The Holy Ghost, for example, is commonly represented by a dove. Anciently, it was common to employ this imagery to depict different gods. Very pertinent to our facsimile is the ancient Egyptian tradition of depicting the savior-god Horus as a hawk. As BYU professor James Harris notes, the bird in this facsimile (in its wider Egyptian context) likely does not represent the “ba“-bird, but “Horus (the hawk) who delivered his father Osiris from death just as a personage represented by a hawk delivered Abraham from death.”2
(Just for fun, compare the above image to Abr. 1:18)
While we may expect an ancient Egyptian pictogram to depict a god as a bird, we can consider it rather odd that Joseph Smith would have so readily made the connection, especially since this association is not made clear in the text (nor is it common in Christianity to depict the Father or Son as a bird). What would be even more interesting is if their were some other evidence specifically linking the story of Abraham to an image of Jehovah/Yahweh as a bird.
We do find such an association in the Slavonic text of the Apocalypse of Abraham. Although we know it only from Old Slavonic Christian translations made in approximately the 15th century AD, scholars believe that the original was likely written in Hebrew in Palestine, possibly as early as the 1st century. We know that the text became popular among many early Christians, who ended up being the only ones who preserved it.
In the Apocalypse of Abraham (ApAb), after an extended sequence in which Abraham rejects and destroys the idols of his father, Abraham seeks the true God, the Creator of all things. God answers Abraham and sends to him the Angel of his Presence. In the text, this angel is called Iaoel/Jaoel or “Yahoel”– which was likely meant to be a variation of “Yahweh-El.” The angel is called Iaoel “of the same name” (10:3), probably meaning that his name was understood to be the same as God’s (Yahweh). The text describes this angel as being “in the likeness of a man” (10:4). 11:2-4 describes him as having a body like sapphire, a face like chrysolite, and hair like snow—a description which reminds us of the anthropomorphic descriptions of Deity found in the Old Testament and many pseudepigraphal texts. He is described as having a turban, purple robes, and golden staff, which recall a royal/high priestly figure. So far, this seems like a pretty standard (albeit notably anthropomorphic) description of Yahweh/the Angel of Yahweh.
But what about the bird connection? Dr. Andrei Orlov notes that Kulik’s translation of ApAb includes a detail which Rubinkiewicz’ is missing: the rendering of the Slavonic word “ногуего,” as “griffin” (“the appearance of the griffin’s body was like sapphire,…”). According to Orlov, the author depicted Yahoel as both man and bird.3
Ascent of Yahoel and Abraham — my thanks to Jeffrey Bradshaw for this image
However, Margaret Barker provides abundant evidence that this indeed was the ancient understanding, see her The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville: W/JKP, 1992). ↩
James R. Harris, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham” in Milton R. Hunter, Pearl of Great Price Commentary, accessed online at http://www.gospelink.com/library/document/17396?highlight=1, on Feb. 11, 2010. ↩
Andrei Orlov, “The Pteromorphic Angelology of the Apocalypse of Abraham,” CBQ 71 (2009) 830–42. ↩