The so-called Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible — which is not really a translation but rather the Mormon prophet’s inspired revision of the King James Version — Genesis 17:3, originally a very short verse,
And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,
is expanded to
And it came to pass, that Abram fell on his face, and called upon the name of the Lord. And God talked with him, saying, My people have gone astray from my precepts, and have not kept mine ordinances, which I gave unto their fathers; and they have not observed mine anointing, and the burial, or baptism wherewith I commanded them; but have turned from the commandment, and taken unto themselves the washing of children, and the blood of sprinkling; and have said that the blood of the righteous Abel was shed for sins; and have not known wherein they are accountable before me.
This is the Joseph Smith Translation we’re talking about here, so of course there’s a gratuitous “and it came to pass” (the phrase which Mark Twain called Smith’s “pet,” and which accounts for a full 2.5% of the total text of the Book of Mormon).
Aside from that, though, the interesting thing is the introduction, out of the blue, of the idea that people in Abraham’s time were venerating Abel as some kind of savior figure. Where did that come from?
From the New Testament, as it turns out. The phrase “the blood of the righteous Abel” is from Matthew 23:35, but a more important source is Hebrews 12:24.
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
As is often the case, Smith uses biblical phrases and biblical juxtapositions of ideas as a starting point but puts his own spin on them, often resulting in a very different meaning. The “blood of sprinkling” turns up in both passages, but the author of Hebrews puts it at the end of a long list of good things that “ye are come unto” — together with “the heavenly Jerusalem,” “an innumerable company of angels,” and Jesus himself. Smith puts it instead in a list of ways in which the people have gone astray.
Similarly, both passages contrast the blood of Christ with that of Abel, but they do so in very different ways. Hebrews is presumably alluding to Genesis 4:10, in which the blood of the murdered Abel cries up from the ground for vengeance, and contrasting it with Christ’s blood, which was shed to bring mercy and forgiveness. Smith, on the other hand, reads it as pointing to Abel as a false savior who was worshiped in the place of Christ.
Elsewhere in Hebrews the author again alludes to Abel’s blood crying from the ground, and Smith again appears to misunderstand the reference. Here is Smith explaining Hebrews 11:4.
“By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.”
How doth ye yet speak? Why, he magnified the Priesthood which was conferred upon him and died a righteous man, and therefore has become an angel of God by receiving his body from the dead, therefore holding still the keys of his dispensation, and was sent down from heaven unto Paul to minister consoling words and to commit unto him a knowledge of the mysteries of godliness — and if this was not the case, I would ask how did Paul know so much about Abel, and why should he talk about his speaking after he was dead? (source)
The simplest answer to Smith’s question would be that Paul (or whoever wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews) knows nothing about Abel beyond what is recorded in Genesis, and that he talks about his speaking after he was dead because Genesis tells of Abel’s spilt blood crying out to God. But Smith seems to have missed this, and so, in what I suppose literary critics would call a “creative misreading,” he concocts the story of Abel appearing to Paul as an angel — just as a similar misreading of Hebrews 12:24 led him to write the misguided worship of Abel into the Old Testament.
But, leaving all that aside, let us take the JST at its word. If Abel had indeed been worshiped as a savior in the ancient Middle East, wouldn’t we expect such worship to have left some mark on the history of religion? Do any known Middle Eastern deities look as though they might be the mythic descendants of Abel?
The first possibility that came to mind was Baal — but all he seemed to have in common with Abel was a couple of consonants. Then I thought of Dumuzi, a dying God who was a shepherd like Abel, but it still didn’t seem very compelling. Wasn’t there any god who had been murdered by his brother?
Of course: Osiris. Osiris is depicted holding a shepherd’s crook, and he was murdered by his brother — and not just any brother, but his brother Seth! Abel, you will recall, also had a brother named Seth.
In Genesis, of course, it is Cain, not Seth, who murders Abel — Seth isn’t even born until after Abel’s death — but the coincidence is still striking. If Abel and Osiris are one and the same, is there anything that can account for the very different treatment of Seth — his murderer in one version of the story, his successor in the other?
One possible explanation comes from none other than Joseph Smith. Smith’s Book of Abraham describes the Egyptian Pharaohs as being the descendants of Egyptus, a daughter of Ham (apparently the biblical Mizraim, reinterpreted as a woman) and strongly hints that this woman’s mother, Ham’s wife, also called Egyptus, was descended from Cain.
If the Egyptians were the descendants of Cain, it makes sense that they would rewrite the story to make the other brother the murderer. Osiris, who bears both the crook of a shepherd and the flail of a tiller of the ground, could even be a conflation of Cain (as ancestor of the Egyptians) and Abel (as victim of fratricide); with the third brother, Seth, recast as the murderous villain.
Osiris is usually identified as the lord of the underworld and of the dead — a natural role for Abel, the first man to die.
Osiris’s parents, Geb and Nut, also appear to have something in common with Adam and Eve. Geb is an earth god and is often depicted with red skin; the name Adam is related to the Hebrew words adamah (“earth”) and adom (“red”). Geb is also called the father of snakes, and barley is said to grow from his ribs; the snake and the rib are of course also prominent attributes of Adam. Nut, as “she who bore the gods,” is the counterpart of Eve, “the mother of all living.” She was also originally the goddess of the night sky, suggesting the meaning of eve in English.
One final point: If Seth is Seth in both Hebrew and Egyptian, why are the names Abel and Osiris so different? The best explanation may be that Abel is not a name at all but a religiously motivated dysphemism. It is well known that the Hebrews, to avoid uttering the name Baal, replaced it with the word bosheth (“shame”). For example, Saul’s son Ishbaal is usually referred to in the Bible as Ish-bosheth; and if Hannibal had attacked the Hebrews rather than the Romans, he would probably have gone down in history as Hannibosheth.
If Osiris (or whatever his original name was) was, like Baal, an alternative deity being worshiped in place of Jehovah, he may also have merited a pseudonym — and what better name than Abel, the same Hebrew word which in Ecclesiastes is translated “vanity”?