Premortal Existence, Foreordination, and Abraham

The Book of Abraham, chapter 3 is, in many ways, the most important foundational text for the Latter-day Saint concept of a premortal existence. In it, Abraham is shown his own foreordination to be a leader in God’s work as well as the events of the War in Heaven. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk, Stephen Smoot discussed the foreordination of Abraham. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Stephen Smoot wrote about why the Book of Abraham is so important to our understanding of the premortal existence:

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. … 

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.

Abraham 3 has become a foundational text to Latter-day Saint cosmology.

One aspect of the chapter is that it discusses the idea that prophets are foreordained to their role during the premortal existence. As Smoot wrote:

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. …

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.”

He added that there are different ways that the text can be understood:

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.

Foreordination of prophets and other leaders is an important part of Abraham’s vision in Abraham chapter 3.

One of the more interesting statements in the interview was that Smoot wrote about how the concepts of foreordination presented in the Book of Abraham could be viewed as polemical against Egyptian beliefs.

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.

While I personally don’t find a lot of value in arguing about the Book of Abraham being an ancient text or a modern one, it is an interesting insight.

For more on the foreordination of Abraham, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog, From the Desk to read the full interview with Stephen Smoot.