The Book of Abraham includes an account of the foreordination of Abraham as one of God’s noble and great ones. Latter-day Saints often interpret these verses as a reference to rulers in God’s earthly church, but there are also other potential meanings. For instance, the verses may refer to divine members of God’s heavenly council. In this interview, Stephen Smoot discusses the history, theology, and ancient Egyptian context of Abraham’s foreordination.
Learn more about the foreordination of Abraham in Stephen O. Smoot’s article in A Guide to the Book of Abraham.
What does the Book of Abraham say about the foreordination of many “noble and great ones”?
The third chapter of the Book of Abraham depicts the patriarch’s vision of the pre-mortal council. In that vision, Abraham sees “intelligences” that were “organized before the world was.” Among these “intelligences,” which are also called “souls” and “spirits” in the text.
A certain number of them are singled out as being “noble and great ones” (vv. 19, 22–23). These “noble and great ones” God says he would make “rulers” on the earth (v. 23).
The cosmological framing of this chapter thus mirrors a graded hierarchy of stars and planets that Abraham sees in his vision (vv. 1–18) with a graded hierarchy of pre-mortal spirits that he also sees (vv. 19–28), with some spirits, apparently, being more “noble and great” than others, and thereby worthy of rulership.
Was Abraham identified as one of them?
Yes. The text is explicit on this point: “Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born” (v. 23). Abraham is clearly identified in the text as one of the “noble and great ones” pre-ordained to be a ruler on earth.
What are some ways Latter-day Saints have interpreted how the noble and great ones were to be rulers?
Predominantly this has been interpreted as a reference to righteous leaders in God’s kingdom; or, more generally, to be exemplary leaders on earth. Doctrine and Covenants 138:53–55 identifies Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and others as “choice spirits” who were “among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.”
Some, however, see this as a reference to divine members of God’s heavenly council. The immediate context of the passage, in my judgment, seems to favor this interpretation. But even so this does not necessarily preclude the traditional Latter-day Saint interpretation, as mortal figures such as Abraham are clearly identified as one of the noble and great ones.
It is noteworthy too in this regard that Elder James E. Talmage, in his classic work Jesus the Christ, identified both Christ and Satan as “among those exalted intelligences” spoken of at Abr. 3:22.
What is the most well-known Biblical verse about the foreordination of prophets?
Without a doubt the most well-known verse is Jeremiah 1:5, which every Latter-day Saint who has gone through seminary probably knows by heart:
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.Jeremiah 1:5
This has become a standard prooftext for Latter-day Saints discussing the pre-mortal existence.
While this verse certainly lends support to this concept, we should be careful not to read too much into it. As former BYU religion professor Dana M. Pike has emphasized, this verse speaks more to God preordaining Jeremiah as a prophet than the pre-mortality of humanity writ large. But without question what we see in Jeremiah 1:5 is in harmony with what is depicted at Abraham 3:22–23.
Is there any evidence that suggests peoples of the ancient Near East believed similarly?
Yes, absolutely. We have abundant evidence that ancient Near Eastern peoples held to some kind of notion that kings especially were divinely pre-ordained by the gods to rule. That is clear from Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources.
Take, for instance, these lines from the opening of the famous law code of Hammurabi:
When the august God Anu . . . and the god Enlil, lord of heaven and earth, who determines the destinies of the land, allotted supreme power over all the peoples to the god Marduk[,] . . . [a]t that time, the gods Anu and Enlil, for the enhancement of the well-being of the people, named me by my name: Hammurabi, the pious prince, who venerates the gods, to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, to rise like the sun-god Shamash over all mankind, to illuminate the land.Law of Hammurabi
The point of these lines from the prologue of the law code is to emphasize that the gods had elected Hammurabi to be king, thereby legitimizing him and his laws.
How did the ancient Egyptians of Abraham’s day view the issue?
The ancient Egyptians, like their contemporaries in Mesopotamia, believed their kings had been divinely appointed (and perhaps even pre-ordained from birth) to rule.
One text from Abraham’s day says of the king Senwosret I:
He took possession [of kingship] in the egg; his face was toward it from before he was born.James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works of the Middle Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 87.
Scholars have debated the meaning of the strange Egyptian idiom “in the egg,” which appears in other texts that speak of kings receiving their divine right to rule from the gods.
They wonder whether it means, for instance, pre-natal conception or post-natal early childhood. In either case, however, there is no doubt that the Egyptians believed their kings to be divinely appointed.
What might Abraham have been demonstrating by drawing attention to his foreordained status?
As I have argued at length in a recent article, by emphasizing his own pre-mortal election as a “noble and great one” who was destined to be a ruler, Abraham was attempting to subvert and supplant the pretentions of his Egyptian foes.
This includes the pretender Pharaoh, who in the first chapter of the Book of Abraham is depicted as attempting to institute a counterfeit priesthood that rivals Abraham. The Book of Abraham thus subtly undermines the notions of the divine election of kings that were prevalent in Abraham’s day.
As I write in the conclusion of my Religious Educator article, there is:
a historically plausible ancient Egyptian setting for the Book of Abraham’s teachings on foreordination and divine election. The text’s exposition on this doctrine is situated in Abraham’s larger autobiographical narrative that, on one level, is a sustained polemic against his Egyptian adversaries. That the text so effectively renders this polemic in a manner that subtly plays off of attested Egyptian terminology and concepts and seems to preserve a genuine reflection of its purported intellectual-historical environment strengthens the proposition that it is an authentic product of that environment and not a later imitation.Stephen O. Smoot
Why are the Book of Abraham’s teachings about foreordination and divine election important?
I will refer readers to Terryl Givens’ deeply interesting book, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought to get a better idea of how important and profound this notion of a pre-mortal existence really is.
Suffice it to say for now that Latter-day Saints should not overlook the fact that our fullest account of what transpired in the pre-mortal council comes from the Book of Abraham.
You of course gets glimpses of this in other books of Restoration scripture, such as at Moses 4:1–4. But it is in Abraham 3 where we get a fuller picture of what happened. As my colleague John Gee put it in his 2016 book,
The largest effect that the Book of Abraham has had on Latter-day Saint thought is its concept of the premortal existence and the purpose of life. Although other Latter-day Saint scriptures discuss the premortal existence, the Book of Abraham provides the clearest explanation of this key Latter-day Saint doctrine. The Book of Abraham explains that God organized all the spirits of this world ‘before this world was’ (Abraham 3:22), explains its purpose (see Abraham 3:24), and states that this earthly existence was to ‘prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them’ (Abraham 3:25). The Book of Abraham thus provides Latter-day Saints with their most succinct statement on the purpose of mortal existence.John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham
So, if Latter-day Saints want a concise and compelling idea of what our purpose is on earth, and what our true eternal identity looks like, they need look no further than Abraham 3.
It is for this reason that I was so pleased to see some of the text from Abraham 3 quoted verbatim in the recent adjustments made to the temple endowment. That is exactly the context where this text and its teachings about the pre-mortal existence belong.
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About the interview participant
Stephen Smoot is a doctrinal candidate studying Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literature at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of several gospel-related articles, and the co-author of “A Guide to the Book of Abraham” published by BYU Studies.
- Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham
- Book of Abraham Bibliography
- The Pure Language Project
- Abrahamic Legends: Old Testament Lore
- The Genealogy of Jesus
Foreordination of Abraham resources
- The Foreordination of Abraham (BYU Studies)
- “Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Wast Born”: An Egyptian Context for the Election of Abraham (Religious Educator)
- When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (Oxford University Press)
- Foreordination (Gospel Topics)
- Formed In and Called From the Womb (Interpreter Foundation)