The Purpose of Astronomy In the Book of Abraham

This post is not meant to explain the many astronomical references in the Book of Abraham.  I’m not a scientist; I’m an English teacher.  My interest is in analyzing why those astronomical references are there: what function do they serve?  After studying them, I find that they consistently testify of the doctrines of Christ.

The Pearl of Great Price itself is a fascinating text, and ironic.  By far the smallest of the standard works, this tiny anthology is not a series of testimonies, a record of covenants, or a detailed collection of exegesis and exhortations, like most other scriptural works are.  No, The Pearl of Great Price is far too ambitious for that.  Just about the only thing it does is reveal the most important saving truths of eternity, connecting us directly to the Lord. 

Consider that the Bible Dictionary identifies seven major dispensations throughout world history: those begun by Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith.  Now glance through The Pearl of Great Price and notice whose records it amplifies: in order–Moses, Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith.  

Consider that in the Doctrines of the Gospel manual for church classes, the Pearl of Great Price, which comprises less than 2½% of the standard works (61 out of 2475 pages), represents about 10% of the scriptures cited in the index (nearly a whole page out of nine and a half printed pages), an impressively disproportionate total.  If The Pearl of Great Price were a basketball player, it’d be one foot tall and five times better than Michael Jordan. 

I labor this point because it relates directly to the use of astronomical information in The Pearl of Great Price’s Book of Abraham.  These often confusing ideas about space and time are not a primer for astronomy as much as they are meant to add to our understanding of those massive spiritual truths with which this volume was designed to enlighten us.

First, in Abraham 3:12-13, God shows Abraham an expansive vision of the physical universe (perhaps similar to that shown to Moses in Moses 1:27-35), and then tells him in verse 14, “I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.”  The meaning of this first use of a cosmic reference is fairly obvious: it’s an object lesson.  God wants Abraham to understand how incomprehensible will be the blessings of posterity for him, so He compares it to the created objects throughout space.  Truly, if Abraham hadn’t had a clear idea of what was in store for his descendants before, this overwhelming metaphor should have opened his eyes.

Another physical fact is translated into a spiritual truth soon after.  In verse 16, God explains that the star Kolob is the greatest of all stars “because it is nearest unto me.”  Indeed, we would all do well to remember that “greatness” is not measured by wealth, fame, or worldly authority, but by our nearness to God. 

As God had just used an overall panorama of the universe to demonstrate a covenant blessing to Abraham, He then elaborated on this object lesson to make another spiritual point: verse 17 begins with the simple reminder that if there are two heavenly bodies in question, one may be closer to God (or “above” the other body); likewise, as verse 18 asserts, if there are two spirits, one may be closer to God.  The ultimate conclusion to this line of thought, though, is not merely to show that we can each draw spiritually nearer to God, but to establish, as verse 19 does, that “I am the Lord thy God.  I am more intelligent than they all.” 

Just as the array of magnificent objects throughout space are not all equally near to God, but some are nearer to Him and therefore greater, spirits differ in their closeness to God, with God himself being the pinnacle of perfection in it all, the One to whom the rest looks and by whom it is anchored.  We’re right to be impressed by the glorious majesty of the order, power, and beauty of all the many galaxies and other staggering kings of creation, but their awe-inspiring nature is best appreciated as a reminder that the order, power, and beauty of God is infinitely greater. 

Following this episode, God shares with Abraham the famous story of the council in heaven and the subsequent plan for mankind’s salvation, promises Abraham that “they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (verse 26).  So soon after having that mighty vision of eternity that is outer space revealed to him, a promise of glory being added forever must have conjured up a useful idea of what exactly was being promised to valiant keepers of the covenant.  God might be infinitely greater than any of His children, even far more so than those unbelievable sizes, distances, and forces in space, but He would help each of us grow as near to Him as we would be willing to obey. 

At the end of facsimile 3, when we are told that “Abraham is reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king’s court,” we can safely assume that this lecture has less to do with math and science than it does with the gospel of which those disciplines may be employed to testify.  Just as God had started with those physical fields in instructing Abraham, Abraham now obeyed God’s command to follow that example in his own teaching: “I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words” (Abraham 3:15). 

When facsimile 2 says of figure 7, that it “represents God sitting upon his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood,” we are now naturally led to see this not only as a decsription of revelation from God to mankind on Earth, but as a clue that there could be symbols of these sacred things in the heavens above.  This method of seeing the astronomical references in Abraham primarily as illustrations of spiritual truths may help to clarify the stranger items in Abraham.  What exactly all of those names and figures mean is still a mystery and will require great study to discern, but the text above suggests that such discovery is possible, indeed, even advised by God.  James L. Ferrell’s inspiring interpretations of scriptural lives and names as symbols for Christ in his books The Holy Secret and The Hidden Christ help us see that similar strategies may be profitably applied to the Pearl of Great Price.  (Though I, like many, am eagerly awaiting the imminent publication of Hugh Nibley’s posthumous magnum opus One Eternal Round for his final explication of facsimile 2.)

After starting to study the Book of Abraham through this lens, I’m inclined to agree even more strongly with that great scriptural statement, “all things denote there is a God…yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

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2 comments on “The Purpose of Astronomy In the Book of Abraham

  1. I found this a very good start for someone interested in understanding Abraham and PofGP better. I remember when I was reading them first, I was more than just a little bit overwhelmed by some things that seemed to turn old paradigms on their heads.

    Now I see how much they have to teach us, and how little we understand if we get stuck on Abraham’s Geocentric views — the Lord’s idea was not so much to teach astronomy as to use the concept Abraham had (the Hebrew/Middle East view that was a “little bit” different than ours) to explicate certain principles. We’d be better off first getting to know what Abraham possibly thought about the Earth and stars. From that point, the exposition in Abraham already expands his view quite considerably.

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