The Bird as Angel of the Lord in Book of Abraham Facs. 1 (Old Testament Lesson 7)

For anyone hoping that this post was going to be about the Abrahamic Covenant, I hate to let you down.  Upon reading the first chapters of the Book of Abraham, my attention was drawn (as it often is) again to the “Facsimiles” that accompany that book, which are a frequent source of wonder and awe to young (and old) Latter-day Saint readers.  While perhaps not as mesmerizing and mystifying as Facs. 2, the first facsimile has one figure in particular that begs for some analysis.
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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 — ready to be sacrificed by the priest of Elkanah/Pharaoh on the “bedstead” altar, which was like the one depicted.  He is turned over to the idolatrous priest by his “fathers”, whom he had tried to convince to give up their idol worship.  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 dialogue 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
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So Jehovah came down as an angel (remember angel = malak = messenger) to save Abraham. This is so reminiscent of ancient kingship rituals in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and likely also Israel (see, for example, Psalm 18, among others), but that is another post.  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, you may ask, is the angel of the Lord — Jehovah himself, no less — depicted as, or equated with, a bird?
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Well, 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 quite 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
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(Just for fun, compare the above image to Abr. 1:18)
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While we may expect, then, 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).  Now 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.
And 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 approx. the 15th century AD, scholars believe that the original was likely written in Hebrew in Palestine around the 1st century.  We know that the text became popular among many early Christians (who ended up being the only ones who preserved it).
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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.” This angel is called Iaoel/Jaoel or “Yahoel”– which was likely meant to be “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 describe him as having a body like sapphire, a face like chrysolite, and hair like snow—a description which reminds us of the anthropomorphic Glory of God described 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.
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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
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Ascent of Yahoel and Abraham -- my thanks to Jeffrey Bradshaw for this image

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  1. 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). []
  2. 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. []
  3. Andrei Orlov, “The Pteromorphic Angelology of the Apocalypse of Abraham,” CBQ 71 (2009) 830–42. []
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5 Comments

  1. Posted February 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I do think that the fowl in Genesis 1 are also symbols of angels, the link between heaven and earth (Day 5 is parallel to day 2, in which the division between heaven and earth is created).

    I also love the image of the Crocodile in the expanse on Fac 2. I think it’s a wonderful depiction of Leviathan, in the waters of Chaos!

  2. Reed Russell
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    I was indeed hoping for an Abrahamic covenant post, but that was awesome. Thanks.

  3. Rebecca H Stay
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    The two birds in “Ascent of Yahoel and Abraham” are most probably the dove and pigeon which Abraham had offered in sacrifice in Genesis 15:9–10. All five animals that Abraham sacrificed can be seen as typifying Christ/Jehovah just like the lamb did from the time of Adam and Eve.

  4. Posted February 12, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    The dove (bird) image of god in antiquity is well documented. Among the Jews of Christ’s era, it was prestigious if one could afford a bull, ox or ram for a sacrifice. If that was beyond one’s budget, then a lamb would do. The most poor would offer a dove. Of course, we know that a dove was placed in the scene of Christ’s baptism, indicating the presence of deity, in this case the Holy Ghost. Each of those animals correspond with traditionally and ceremonially correct images of deity in antiquity. This is also true of the four animals depicted beneath the couch in facsimile no. 1, the lion, the ox (or jackal in the Egyptian tradition), the eagle and the man. These are the same images seen in vision by John in Revelation and Ezekiel in his vision. Why all these icons were seen as valid representations of deity in antiquity can only be discerned when one admits their cosmological origins. You may wish to read my views on these and related topics at http://www.mormonprophecy.blogspot.com. Additionally, you may wish to attend one of my symposium presentations where I go in depth into the meaning of these things as they relate to the Restored Gospel, our temple iconography and ritual as well as the teachings of Joseph Smith in this regard.

  5. David Larsen
    Posted February 15, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Thanks for these great comments! I appreciate the additional insights!

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