Abraham the Monotheist?

Abraham’s Departure (1849) by József Molnár.

James L. Kugel has some interesting comments on the account of Abraham’s call and journey as recorded in the Book of Genesis. In his volume How to Read the Bible, Kugel explores how ancient and modern interpreters of the Abraham narrative(s) in Genesis portray the patriarch’s relationship with God. “Abraham came to acquire a specific image among ancient interpreters, and one that has carried through even to the present day,” Kugel remarks. “[H]e was thought of as the discoverer of monotheism, the first person to figure out that there is really only one God, and that worshipping many gods and the things that they were identified with . . . was useless, the practice of an illusion” (p. 92).

This venerable tradition can be found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and Kugel devotes a few pages exploring these later portrayals of Abraham as the pioneering monotheist of the ancient world.

Except, Kugel says, there’s a problem. “Was Abraham truly an exponent of the belief that there is only one God in the world?” he asks. “This idea . . . appears to have been wholly the creation of the ancient interpreters.” In other words, according to Kugel, this portrayal of Abraham as a great monotheist is anachronistic. “When it comes down to cases, not a single verse in the book of Genesis actually says that Abraham believed in the existence of only one God. It is hard to see how he could have. If there even was an Abraham . . . he lived and traveled about in a polytheistic world. There is nary a hint, even in the Bible’s much later depiction of him, that Abraham’s beliefs differed in kind from those of the people he encountered or even that this was ever a subject of discussion. He is presented as worshipping his own God (and perhaps worshipping others as well), but not as an exponent of monotheism” (p. 103, emphasis in original).

After I read this, my initial reaction was to compare these comments with the Book of Abraham. Does the Book of Abraham describe the same seemingly anachronistic depiction of the patriarch that later Jews, Christians, and Muslims have?

A surface-level reading of the Book of Abraham might support this. After all, Abraham 1 follows later Jewish and Christian tradition of depicting Abraham as an iconoclastic polemicist. And Abraham 2–3 has Abraham being an evangelist for Jehovah, winning souls in Haran (Abraham 2:15) and going on a mission to Egypt (Abraham 3:15).

However, this surface-level reading is quickly unseated by Abraham 3–5, which depicts the divine council and uses the plural “Gods” in describing the agents that carried out the creation. So odious is the Book of Abraham’s polytheism to classical theists, in fact, that I’ve encountered plenty of sectarian denunciations the text as blasphemous.

As such, I welcome Kugel’s remarks, and think they align closely with the Book of Abraham’s depiction of the patriarch. Yes, the Book of Abraham does present Abraham as a polemicist for his God over other deities (specifically Egyptian deities), but it never goes so far as to argue for strict monotheism as later interpreters anachronistically did. In this sense there’s a bit of irony in the text, as we’d assume to expect there to be radical denunciations of polytheism, yet such denunciations never materialize, and instead we’re quickly treated to a rather stark polytheistic depiction of God.

This also raises in my mind questions about the historicity of the Book of Abraham. If depicting Abraham as a strict monotheist is anachronistic, as Kugel argues, and belongs in later post-biblical tradition, then what does this say about the possibility of the Book of Abraham being a Greco-Roman or 19th century pseudepigraphon rather than a text composed in the Bronze Age levant, the “polytheistic world” spoken of by Kugel? I’m not going to definitively argue that the Book of Abraham’s polytheism is evidence for its historicity, since other complicating issues, such as the influence Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew had on the text, are still under discussion, but I do want to raise the point. It is, I believe, something to seriously consider.