Abraham the Seer



A careful reading of the Book of Abraham reveals subtle literary and narrative elements in the text that might otherwise go unappreciated. For instance, a running leitmotif—a recurring theme or concept—throughout the Book of Abraham is that of Abraham as a seer, or someone who sees or otherwise has a visual interaction with divine manifestation (typically or usually aided by a divinatory device such as a seer stone).1 As seen in both the mention of Abraham’s possession and use of the Urim and Thummim (Abr. 3:1) as well as the repeated use of verbs such as see and show (in their various forms), the Book of Abraham captures this imagery in both explicit and subtle ways.

The very first verse of the Book of Abraham launches this leitmotif that is carried throughout the text: “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence” (Abr. 1:1, emphasis added). This is emphasized again when the Lord instructs, “Abraham, get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee” (Abr. 2:3, emphasis added). Rather than haphazardly deciding to find a new land of promise on a whim, Abraham is depicted instead as having the visionary foresight to relocate.

The third chapter of the Book of Abraham greatly expands on this leitmotif as it narrates Abraham’s vision of the cosmos and the premortal world. As mentioned, the text overtly mentions that Abraham had a seer’s instrument (the Urim and Thummim), which he consulted to communicate with God. “And I, Abraham, had the Urim and Thummim, which the Lord my God had given unto me, in Ur of the Chaldees; and I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it” (Abr. 3:1–2, emphasis added). Verbs of seeing or revelation that trigger the leitmotif are employed throughout the rest of the chapter (and in Abraham’s vision of Creation) following these introductory verses:

“And the Lord said unto me: Now, Abraham, these two facts exist, behold thine eyes see it” (Abr. 3:6, emphasis added).

“Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made; and he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof” (Abr. 3:11–12, emphasis added).2

“And the Lord said unto me: Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words” (Abr. 3:15, emphasis added).

“If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me” (Abr. 3:16, emphasis added).

“I rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligences thine eyes have seen from the beginning; I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences thou hast seen. Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; and God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born” (Abr. 3:21–23, emphasis added).

“Now I, Abraham, saw that it was after the Lord’s time, which was after the time of Kolob; for as yet the Gods had not appointed unto Adam his reckoning” (Abr. 5:13, emphasis added).

This depiction of the patriarch as a seer is congruent with a similar motif in the book of Genesis. As summarized by Everett Fox, Genesis also utilizes the language of perception and vision (specifically the verb raʾah, “to see”) in the Abrahamic narrative cycle.

At the outset of Abraham’s journey to Canaan, which signals his entry into biblical tradition as an independent personality, God sends him off to a land that he will “let him see” (12:1). Arriving in the land, Abraham is granted a communication from God, expressed by the phrase “YHWH was seen by Avram . . .” (12:7). God subsequently promises the land to him and his descendants (“see from the place that you are . . . for all the land that you see, to you I give it and to your seed, for the ages” [13:15]). “Seeing” comes to the fore in the story of Abraham’s concubine Hagar; her encounter with God’s messenger ends with her addressing a “God of Seeing” (16:13). Further meetings between Abraham and God (17:1, 18:1) likewise express themselves visually, with the latter scene, where God announces Isaac’s impending birth at Abraham’s tent, almost unique in the Bible for its bold picture of God appearing directly to human beings.3

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber identified seven revelations to Abraham in the Genesis account that lead with the theme of the patriarch seeing or beholding God or otherwise perceiving some crucial information pertaining to God’s covenant:4

“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Gen. 12:1, emphasis added).

“And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the Lord, who appeared unto him” (Gen. 12:7, emphasis added).

“And the Lord said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward” (Gen. 13:14, emphasis added).

“After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.” (Gen. 15:1, emphasis added).

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1, emphasis added).

“And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1, emphasis added).

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. . . . Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off” (Gen. 22:1–2, 4, emphasis added).

As Buber elaborates, the first six revelations culminate with the seventh—the binding of Isaac in the land of Moriah (Gen. 22:2),5 which Abraham renames Jehovah-­jireh (Gen. 22:14; “Jehovah will see”; yhwh-­yirĕʾeh). This new name is given to the site after the angel of the Lord calls out Abraham’s name (Gen. 22:11; compare Abr. 1:15–16) and after the latter lifts up his eyes to see the ram caught in a thicket, which acts as a substitute sacrifice (Gen. 22:13).

In the saving moment [Abraham] lifts up his eyes and sees the ram. And now he proclaims over the altar the name that makes known the imperishable essence of this place, Mount Moriah: YHVH Will See. . . . God sees man, and man sees God. God sees Abraham, and tests him by seeing him as the righteous and “whole” man who walks before his God, and now, at the end of his road, he conquers even this final place, the holy temple mountain [compare 2 Chr. 3:1], by acting on God’s behalf. Abraham sees God with the eye of his action and so recognizes Him. . . . The mutual relationship of the one making the demands, who makes them only in order to bless, and of the one making the sacrifice and receiving the highest blessing in the moment of the greatest readiness to sacrifice, here appears as the reciprocity of seeing. God sees the innermost reality of the human soul; and man sees the way of God, so that he may walk in His footsteps. The man sees, and sees also that he is being seen.6

It is for this reason that Buber feels it appropriate to afford Abraham the title of seer. “Abraham sees God with the eye of his action and so recognizes Him. . . . Abraham becomes a prophet, but a seer is what he was from the very first moment when God ‘let Himself be seen.’”7 The running theme of Abraham as a seer adds a level of depth and narrative sophistication to both the Genesis account and the account of Abraham’s stargazing in the Book of Abraham.

Further Reading

Bowen, Matthew L. “‘In the Mount of the Lord It Shall Be Seen’ and ‘Provided’: Theophany and Sacrifice as the Etiological Foundation of the Temple in Israelite and Latter-­day Saint Tradition.” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-­day Saint Faith and Scholarship 5 (2013): 201–23.

About the author(s)

Stephen O. Smoot is a doctoral student in Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature at the Catholic University of America. He previously earned a master’s degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, with a concentration in Egyptology, and bachelor’s degrees from Brigham Young University in ancient Near Eastern studies, with a concentration in Hebrew Bible, and German studies. He is currently an adjunct instructor of religious education at Brigham Young University and a research associate with the B. H. Roberts Foundation.

John Gee is the William (Bill) Gay Research Professor in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. He has published extensively on scripture and ancient studies. He has served on the boards of national and international biblical and Egyptological organizations and as the editor of an international multilingual peer-reviewed Egyptological journal.

Kerry Muhlestein is a professor of ancient scripture and ancient Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University. He received his bachelor’s degree from BYU in psychology with a Hebrew minor. He received an MA in ancient Near Eastern studies from BYU and a PhD from UCLA in Egyptology. His first full-time appointment was a joint position in religion and history at BYU–Hawaii. He is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. He was also a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford for the 2016–17 academic year. He has served as the chairman of a national committee for the American Research Center in Egypt and serves on their Research Supporting Member Council. He is the senior vice president of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and has served as president. He has published and researched on Egyptological topics and Book of Abraham topics for over two decades.

John S. Thompson obtained his BA and MA in ancient Near Eastern studies (Hebrew Bible) from BYU and UC Berkeley, respectively, and completed a PhD in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. After more than twenty-five years as an employee of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion—most recently as the coordinator/institute director in Cambridge, Massachusetts—he currently researches and writes for Scripture Central.


1. In the Latter-­day Saint canon, seers are defined as those who use divinely prepared stones to receive communication from God, primarily for the purpose of translating sacred records. See, for example, Mosiah 8:13–17; JS–H 1:34–35.

2. Intriguingly, in 1893, Charles Lowell Walker preserved the testimony of a certain John Alger, who related that Joseph Smith informed him (Alger) in 1835 that during the First Vision God the Father physically touched Joseph’s eyes, whereupon the Prophet beheld Jesus Christ. A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, 2 vols. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:755–56. Although the reliability of this account is diminished by it being a late, thirdhand reminiscence, the parallel with the Lord touching Abraham’s eyes at Abraham 3:12 is somewhat remarkable.

3. Everet Fox, The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, The Schocken Bible 1 (New York: Schocken, 1995), xvii.

4. Martin Buber, “Abraham the Seer (Genesis 12–25),” in On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 22–43, esp. 37–41. Buber’s scripture references contain some errors; they are corrected here.

5. The name Moriah might derive from mrʾh (“sight, vision”) or might otherwise be related to the verb raʾah. If so, this would make the name of the location, appropriately, the “land of vision.” E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Yale Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 163; and R. W. L. Moberly, The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 111–12.

6. Buber, “Abraham the Seer (Genesis 12–25),” 42. See also the insightful commentary on this theme from a Latter-­day Saint perspective offered in Matthew L. Bowen, “‘In the Mount of the Lord It Shall Be Seen’ and ‘Provided’: Theophany and Sacrifice as the Etiological Foundation of the Temple in Israelite and Latter-­day Saint Tradition,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-­day Saint Faith and Scholarship 5 (2013): 201–23, esp. 210–17.

7. Buber, “Abraham the Seer (Genesis 12–25),” 42–43, emphasis in original.


Purchase this Issue

Share This Article With Someone

Share This Article With Someone

Print ISSN: 2837-0031
Online ISSN: 2837-004X