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This first verse moves inwardly through a series of concentric circles, so to speak, beginning with the broadest "land of the Chaldeans," passing through "the residence of my fathers," and arriving at last at "I, Abraham." This movement will be paralleled in 2:3, when Abraham mentions the commandment of the Lord to leave his country, his kindred, and his father's house: the same inward movement will mark the divine commandment to leave the place. This seems entirely appropriate, since this verse here is also characterized by a displacement, namely, Abraham's recognition of the necessity to seek another residence.
But a major difference between the two passages should not be overlooked: while both this verse and 2:3 trace an inward movement through three concentric circles, the later passage never moves so far as to reach the subjective as this passage does. That is, while the later verse arrives thirdly at Abraham's "father's house," it is only here in this verse that the movement arrives at Abraham himself. Though the point is subtle, it is of some importance: the later commandment disrupts Abraham's stay in Ur by triply separating him from his place, people, and family, but this earlier recognition (or even anticipation) establishes the same disruption by leaving Abraham precisely within his place and his people/family. In other words, the later commandment essentially alters this first movement: while both this and the later passage present Abraham as radically other, he is other here precisely through his being there in the residence of his fathers and he will be other there by his being separated by a call/commandment from God.
Helpful for making sense of all this is the central mention here of "my fathers," a phrase Abraham immediately dislocates in verse 2 with mention of "the fathers." The play between these two phrases can be understood in at least two ways: it can be understood as a play between the universal and the particular, and/or it can be understood as a play between relationality and absolution. Either way, the particularity or relationality of "my fathers" is overwhelmed by the universality or absoluteness of "the fathers," especially given the fact that Abraham is going to suggest that "my fathers" had gone astray while "the fathers" had remained true and faithful. There is almost a sense, here, that "the fathers" are, so to speak, real, while "my fathers" are, in a sense, merely imaginary, illusory, or passing.
This is already signaled in the double appearance in this verse of the word "residence." Abraham, at one residence, finds it necessary to seek out another residence. This repetition—like every repetition—is undergirded by a continuity and a displacement: the local particularity of "my fathers" is disrupted as much by the rupture of "the residence" attached to them in the first part of the verse (a rupture effected by the mention of "another place of residence" at the end of the verse) as it is by the mention in the next verse of the apparently absolute or universal fathers. But this focusing of the play between "my fathers" and "the fathers" on the repetition of the word "residence" qualifies the absoluteness or universality of "the fathers" at the same time: rather than questioning the very notion of place—rather than suggesting that place itself is essentially irrelevant here through an appeal to the universal or to the absolute—there is less a displacement than a replacement at work here. That is, Abraham is being called out of one place and into another. Though there is quite clearly a disorientation at work in this first verse, it is clear even in this same verse that it is countered by a reorientation (albeit an orientation to the other). In a word, the violence of the apparent universalism of "the fathers" is enough at first only to resettle Abraham, not to uproot him entirely and forever.
Or rather, there may be said to be here, in this very first verse, a kind of double relation to residence: there is quite clearly, in light of the shift from "my" to "the," a departicularization or universalization at work, but it is curiously paired with a resettling or reparticularization. Abraham is, on the one hand, quite clearly about to take up a very real quest to become one of "the fathers," to deny the particularity of the "here" and "now," of the historical in a question for "the mythological (in the sense that Genesis 1-11 can be called mythological). On the other hand, "the fathers"—almost "mythological" themselves—are the fathers precisely in that they have received promises concerning seed and land, and that according to an undeniable particularity.
The foregoing remarks provide the context in which to understand and to approach Abraham's mention of "the land of the Chaldeans." As the site of Abraham's residence-to-be-displaced, its historicity is at once central and irrelevant. That is, that Abraham here makes contact with the historical world, with the world that can be studied archaeologically for example, he is at once leaving that world off, allowing that historical world to be shattered or reoriented by the realization of the need to move residences. Chaldea enters this story—in the very first verse!—at once as a mark of the historicity of the text and as a question mark about the nature of history, and this determines in advance how every historical detail that will enter the story will have to be regarded: the Book of Abraham can and should be studied as an actually historical text, to be sure, but it is egregiously misunderstood if it is reduced to a historical horizon.
All of that being said, it should be noted that Abraham does not mention the city Ur until Abr 1:20, and only then as the site of the sacrifice, the place of Potiphar's Hill. There is, then, no explicit statement here that Abraham lived in Ur, only that he lived in the land of the Chaldeans. If one is justified in reading into the language here the city/land distinction apparent elsewhere in scripture (the disction between a central location of a ritual place of worship and the surrounding lands that fall under the jurisdiction of the priesthood associated with that ritual place), then Abraham's mention only of the land of the Chaldeans may suggest that his place of residence—the residence of his fathers—is at some distance from any central city, from any centralized ritual complex. And if this is the case, it would appear that Abraham's fathers have retreated from the political arena to a relatively rural lifestyle, away from the clash of religions. Such a retreat can be understood in two radically opposed ways: on the one hand, one might suggest that this retreat marks a recognition on the part of Abraham's fathers that the priesthood they have passed down among themselves is essential non-political or non-historical, that it wanders in the countryside and seldom ventures into the apostate city centers to vie with the idolatrous religions of the political world; on the other hand, one might suggest that Abraham's fathers have, in their turn to idolatry, essentially given into the political pressure, handing themselves over to the political gods by settling at some distance from the heart of things, hoping to disappear into relative oblivion.
If these two options are genuine interpretive options, it would seem that the remainder of this first chapter decides on the latter of the two: Abraham's fathers seem to have raised him to be a good local citizen rather than a successor to the supra-political patriarchy. That Abraham seems only to have come to a knowledge of the patriarchal lineage through his access to the sacred writings is quite telling here: his fathers were not speaking of the fathers.
This verse might well be described as an acrobatic stunt. It might be parsed thus:
And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.
This structure might best be approached by making reference to a more intuitive way of breaking this complex verse into pieces, one that understands it to be describing three interconnected events: Abraham desired (which implies craving, yearning, or wishing, but does not imply any action undertaken), he sought (which implies that some kind of action is undertaken to reach the desired goal or object), and he found (which implies that the action resulted in something, whether or not what was found was what had been desired in the first place). This intuitive pattern—desiring, seeking, finding—nicely fits into the structure above twice, recasting the parsing as a chiasm:
A And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, B I sought for the blessings of the fathers... C desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge... C' and desiring to receive instructions and to keep the commandments of God, B' I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, A' holding the right belonging to the fathers.
This is interesting in a number of ways. The first parsing above isolates the basic linguistic structure of the verse as being a simple compound sentence: "And ... I sought for the blessings of the fathers ... and ... I became a rightful heir." According to this chiastic structure, in which Abraham opens his story by providing the intuitive desiring-seeking-finding pattern first in reverse order, the two foundational halves of the verse's basic compound sentence are suspended between the extremes (A and A') and center (C and C') of the chiasm as B and B'. Or, to put it the other way around, B and B' are something like "a nail in a sure place" on which are hung "all vessels..., from the vessels of cups, even to all the vessels of flagons," here A and A', and C and C' (Isa 22:23-24).
Of course there are other, less intuitive ways to make sense of the parsing first laid out above. There is so much repetition that deserves attention: "greater" occurs a number of times; "peace" is repeated; "blessings" appears as such only once, but is doubled by "the same"; "fathers" and then "father" and then "fathers" again; "right" appears twice, and "rightful" once; "follower of righteousness" of course shows up twice; and "possessed" is doubled by "possess," in both instances having reference to "knowledge." Each of these deserves careful, individual attention below. Of course, this rather broad theme of doubling or repetition is closely tied to the chiastic structure of the verse: what appears in the first part is often doubled in the second. But of course, it is not mere repetition that is at work here because the repetition is always building: what is great becomes greater, etc. And this last point perhaps simply suggests that every reading of this verse nicely feeds back into the chiastic structure laid out above: even the repetitions, in their various forms, are hung on the framework of the chiasm. A word or two of analysis of the way the chiasm interweaves its several themes thus deserves attention.
What is curious about the way the themes are woven together through the chiasm is that the "intuitive" pattern described above is first provided only in reverse: Abraham finds, then seeks, and then desires, after which he desires, then seeks, and finally finds. While the second part of the verse makes perfect intuitive sense, then, the first part seems to be essentially backward. While the verbal form of the word "desiring" makes this perfectly straightforward (the verbal form suggests that the "desiring" was a precursor to the action of seeking, though it appears later in the actual written form of the verse), the likewise verbal form of "finding" seems to disrupt what might otherwise seem to be a straightforward continuity (the verbal form of "holding" at the end of the verse will do much the same thing). That is, because the "finding" occurs in an imperfect form instead of a perfect form (as an ongoing, untotalized event rather than as a completed, totalizable action), it appears at first to be the precursor to seeking: Abraham only seeks because he finds; his seeking is grounded in his finding.
Of course, the most obvious way of dealing with this difficulty is to suggest that what Abraham "finds" at the beginning of the verse is not "greater happiness and peace and rest," but simply that "there was greater happinses and peace and rest." That is, Abraham only finds that..., discovers a possibility. The "finding" at the beginning of the verse would thus be parallel to the later "desiring": a kind of negativity inhabits Abraham from the beginning by the existence of something else somewhere else, and that is simply another way of saying that he desires. Of course, if one takes this interpretive tack, then one is forced to interpret the fundamentally strange parallel of "finding" and "desiring," the idea of a "desiring" that is a "finding." Of course, this idea—in which desire is established or perhaps even stabilized by a conclusive finding—is quite rich in itself, with its hint of a neurosis that Abraham overcomes precisely in that he does seek and actually obtains in this verse: finding desire, Abraham allows it to propel him toward an actual finding (cf. Abr 2:12).
But this is, of course, not the only way this difficulty can be approached: the introduction above of the distinction between the perfect and imperfect forms of the verbs provides a second way of taking this text. Given this distinction, there are only to "perfected" actions or totalizable events in this verse: Abraham sought (the actual journey, so to speak) and Abraham became (through some actual event, such as an ordination). All else, it would seem, remains, so to speak, somewhat mysterious, untotalized or untotalizable. The finding with which the verse begins is thus a very real finding—while it remains a "finding that...," it is nonetheless an actual discovery—rather than some ephemeral mental activity. That is, Abraham quite literally begins by finding, by being at the end of the journey; were it otherwise, the journey would never begin.
In the end, these two readings are not so very different from each other: Abraham desires because he finds, seeks because he desires, but finds because he seeks. The knot that weaves these several verbs together is thus quite complex. Or rather, it would be quite complex were Abraham not to have woven it for his readers in a chiasm: there he finds, and seeks, having his desire set free, and desiring, he becomes, finding or holding at last the right belonging to the fathers. The crossing that is the chiasm essentially weaves together in a strange series of repetitions the essential subjectivity of Abraham.
Now, important—indeed, central—as this subjectivity is, it is ultimately only woven by the several themes that run through this verse, all of which deserve extended attention.
What Abraham finds from the very beginning of this verse is the existence of something better: "greater happiness and peace and rest" for him. Of course, this seems quite obviously to follow from the large picture on the page opposite the text: Abraham is facing less than felicitous circumstances in his homeland! Abraham's dense language here, with its almost stumbling, easily sidetracked, almost wandering feel, contrasts sharply with the visual image it follows: why would Abraham (or whatever editor) write this verse in such a remarkably terse tone when the situation was so dire? But, of course, many answers could be given to this question. For now it is perhaps most helpful to look at the threefold of what Abraham finds: happiness/peace/rest. Why these three? Are they redundant? Is there some kind of a pattern underlying these terms? What does it mean to speak of greater happiness, greater peace, and—here's the curious one—greater rest?
At least for modern ears, the first of these three overdetermines the other two: "happiness" is such a common term, albeit one that evades strict definition for the most part. Because of its generality, and because it imposes itself first, it is easy to give to the other two terms similarly broad, almost meaningless definitions: Abraham simply sees that there is a better way of living.
And yet this does not satisfy. Perhaps this is primarily because what Abraham seeks is ultimately not a place of happiness or peace or rest, but the blessings of the fathers: Abraham, finding that there was great happiness and peace and rest, seeks for (what is presumably to be understood as) the priesthood (see discussion below).
1) Abraham seems repetitive: he mentions "great knowledge" and then "greater knowledge." The difference Abraham saw between these two gifts is possibly explained in D&C 42:61. In other words, Abraham wanted to understand what was already understood by the prophets of God and the sages of the world, but he also wanted to extend his understanding beyond what was already known. (We see in Chapter 3-5 some of the fulfillment of this wish.)
2) Abraham seems repetitive (again): he wants to be a "follower of righteousness" and also “to keep the commandments”. This may not seem repetitive until one tries to define “righteousness”—which must include some mention of keeping the commandments. The difference between the two can be explained by Matt 24:45-46 and D&C 58:26. Abraham sees the difference between patiently serving by one’s actions (keeping the commandments) and taking the initiative to serve with one’s whole heart, mind, and body (following righteousness).
3) Abraham is ambitious: or some may say, "audacious." Abraham—without qualification (stipulation)—wants to be "a father of many nations" and "a prince of peace." Several questions come to mind, none of which I have answers to: Was this the standard dream for men in ancient times, or was Abraham really thinking big? Was Abraham the exception, or should all of us ask for truly great rewards? What does Abraham mean by "prince of peace"? Was Abraham promised this before or because he desired it? Alma 29:3 seems relevant.
4) Abraham understands the purpose of commandments: Many people mistakenly think that a relationship with God should progress in the same way as a relationship with parents; ie. in childhood there are numerous rules to follow, but as one grows older and proves oneself more responsible, fewer and fewer rules are imposed as they eventually become unnecessary. Abraham, however, desires to more "instructions." Rather than view commandments as restrictions, Abraham sees them as rewards for good behavior. Adam and Eve exemplify this pattern (Moses 5:1-11). They were obedient to the commandments they had been given (Moses 4:22, 25, 28) and then pray to God. And what did they pray for? We do not know, but we see how they were rewarded for their obedience. Once again, Adam and Eve were obedient. And how were they rewarded this time? With knowledge and more commandments. Which ultimately leads to the greatest (in my opinion; because it was without precedent) moment of revelation in human history.
Abraham states what he desires, but it is not the same as what he seeks. This is not a foreign concept for those who have read Matt 6:23. In this manner, Abraham does not seek learning so that he can "possess a greater knowledge," he does not seek personal enrichment so that he can be a "greater follower of righteousness," and so on. In order to obtain the blessings he desires, he seeks the priesthood.
This gives us interesting insight into how Abraham viewed the priesthood and its effect on those who exercise it. If asked to define the priesthood, Abraham might agree with some of the answers we commonly hear: The power of God, An eternal principle, A form of government, An opportunity to serve. But this verse suggests that Abraham might give a different definition: The means by which God’s blessings are realized.
Thinking of the priesthood in this way brings new understanding to the promise made to Abraham in the following chapter (Abr 2:9,11).
We end how Abraham began—a phrase I have always found humorous. What could Abraham possibly mean by "greater...rest"? If we look at Abraham’s life, we see that this is both an understatement and a very strange definition.
As an understatement, we have to look at the context of the verse: Abraham has chosen to leave his father’s house in Ur and pursue a path that will lead him to Jehovah. If we remember that Abraham had narrowly escaped being sacrificed to his own father’s gods—a fate that apparently Abraham’s brother suffered—then we might say that for Abraham, things could only get easier. So "greater happiness and peace and rest" might simply mean "getting away from my filicidal dad."
But this is not how Abraham is thinking. First, he takes his father with him. Second, he is clearly not referring to getting away from a rotten former life but instead he is describing how he views the life that lay ahead. What I find so interesting is that Abraham makes this statement after living the post-Ur life; i.e. this is Abraham looking back over his life and calling it happy, peaceful, and restful.
A reminder of some of the events in Abraham’s life will show why this is noteworthy. During Abraham's life he:
• Flees from drought • Wanders as a stranger in Canaan • Fears he will be killed in Egypt • Goes to battle against a huge army • Sees his son-in-law’s family get nearly destroyed • Goes without children until he is well over 60 years old • Is told to sacrifice his own son • Toils to make a living where he owns no land • Expels one of his own sons from his household
Abraham’s life was filled with events that we would normally call hardships, trials, or challenges, yet he remembers the walk up the mount with Isaac and the expulsion of Ishmael as "happy"; he looks back on the conflicts with Pharaoh, Abimelech, and the conquerors of Sodom and calls it "peace"; he recalls the miles and miles of travel, travel, travel in search of the land of his inheritance and he calls it "rest." Was Abraham crazy, or was he just blessed with wisdom to see the good in the bad he had experienced?
"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27).
Incidentally, there is only one other verse in the scriptures that uses this combination of words (Alma 40:12):
"And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow."
Points to ponder
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I have a question
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- Verse 1: General question. Why does Abraham start out his record this way? Why does he mention first, before anything else, that he is moving?
- More specifically: why mention the move first, but not explain why he left until much later in the chapter? Why start the record with this brief mention of location, then jump into his desires for and reception of the priesthood, and only by the end of chapter one explain more about Chaldea?
- Or, in other words: Why would it have been important for his readers to know he moved? Is he focusing on a question of land and inheritance? Was moving away from one's fathers seen as a very drastic decision that would have been questioned by later generations and that needed explanation? Is he assuming that his posterity won't have a connection with his fathers so he is starting by explaining why they don't know their grand- and great-grandparents?
- Verse 2: Finding greater happiness. How did Abraham find greater happiness? What does this mean? Is this related to the later phrase, "having been myself a follower of righteousness?" Should we think about the finding of greater happiness as coming before he was a follower of righteousness, after, or simultaneously?
- Verse 3: Right of the firstborn. In what sense is the Priesthood the right of the firstborn? Does this mean that the Priesthood was included in other rights that only firstborns inherited (see Firstborn in the Bible Dictionary)? Or, if this is simply a way of referring to Adam, the firstborn of God and the first father, why such an emphasis on first? "Firstborn" is a word fequently associated with Christ, does this affect how we should read this verse, or does this verse affect how we should understand Christ as the firstborn?
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- Verse 2. See the following series of posts at BrianJ's blog Cold & Calculating all discussing verse 2: part i, part ii, part iii, part iv, part v, part vi, and part vii.
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