Joseph Antley, a student of history and ancient Near Eastern studies, speculates on the concepts behind Abrahamic astronomy:
I am not an Egyptologist, nor do I have any formal training in Egyptology. But I do love the Pearl of Great Price’s Book of Abraham, and I enjoy learning about ancient Egypt. With that said, although I’m confident in my conclusions on this issue, I would encourage readers to take my thoughts on this subject with a grain of salt.
Abraham 3 is such a powerful chapter, and it’s one that I worry is too quickly glossed over by most Latter-day Saints. In the chapter, the ancient patriarch sees a grand vision of the cosmos through the Urim and Thummim. From this vision comes several controversial doctrines unique to Mormonism, such as the existence and nature of “Kolob” and God’s physical presence in the universe.
It is not uncommon to hear speculation among Church members about what Kolob is and where it might be. Theories have been given that Kolob is actually the star Polaris, or the star Sirius, or a star at the galactic center. However, all of this wondering about Kolob’s place in the universe—assuming Kolob is actually a physical star—is “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14). People who have this narrow view of the contents of Abraham 3 never see the important meaning of the chapter, which has little to do with celestial bodies in the universe. We imagine it as being something more mysterious than it is, while really Abraham 3 can be very simple to understand.
The question we might ask is, Why would God be interested in revealing principles of astronomy? Do our beliefs about astronomy have any bearing on our salvation? I think that the immediate answer, of course, is no. Ancient prophets are not going to be condemned at the last day because they had a geocentric understanding of the universe. So again we ask the question, Why would God reveal an astronomical system to Abraham? We probably agree that our understanding of astronomy has no bearing on our eternal fate, so we should be able to conclude that God must have had another point in revealing these things to Abraham besides simply to teach him astronomy.
What do we learn about Kolob from Abraham 3? Well, Kolob was the star “nearest unto the throne of God” (Abr. 3:2). It was “the great one…because it was near unto” the Lord, and God appointed Kolob to “govern all those which belong to the same order” (3:3), because Kolob was “after the manner of the Lord” (3:4). Besides Kolob, Abraham is also shown other astronomical bodies, such as “the governing ones,” in which Kolob is included (3:3). So again, what was the point in revealing these things? What salvific value did they carry?
The spiritual message of this chapter is explained in the 18th verse, which tells us that as Abraham saw the stars, “as also” he saw spirits. The stars Abraham saw, such as “the governing ones,” Kolob, and the Kokaubeam, symbolized the spirits in heaven. As Latter-day Saints we are used to such astral imagery when describing spirits. The name Lucifer, after all, actually means ‘Morning Star,’ and we are familiar with the passage from the book of Job, “When the morning stars sang together, and all of the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7).
If, then, the cosmology that Abraham is shown might actually be a metaphor for spirits, interpreting Kolob should be fairly simple. Nearest unto God, after the manner of God, the great one, the chief governing one – Kolob is Jesus Christ. And the “governing ones” are the “noble and great” spirits that Abraham later sees, of which he himself is included (Abr. 3:22-23).
It seems fairly safe for us to conclude that God did not show Abraham the cosmos so that he would have an understanding of astronomy; rather, he was teaching him about the order of heaven, the nature of spirits, and the supremacy of Jesus Christ among those spirits. God teaches Abraham the order of heaven by showing him order in the cosmos: “one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob…[which] is set…to govern all those planets” (3:9). Kolob stands supreme in the universe, atop an infinite cosmological order of heavenly bodies. God then explicitly says to Abraham that “[h]owbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits…one shall be more intelligent than another” (3:18). God tells him that the principle of one star above another star is a metaphor for spirits; like the stars and planets in the cosmos, spirits have varying degrees of light or “intelligence,” one above the other, with Jesus Christ or Kolob ranking supreme.
But why would God used astronomy to teach Abraham these things, when he goes on in the chapter to just restate most of it less symbolically? He gives his explanation to Abraham: “Abraham, I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt, that ye may declare all these words” (3:15). God showed Abraham the Gospel in this way because they astronomically-minded Egyptians could understand it this way.
When seen for what it is, the third chapter of the Book of Abraham is an astounding testimony that God loves his children and that he cared enough for the people of Egypt that he would give Abraham this vision so that they would be able to more easily understand his teachings. It also testifies that Jesus Christ—the one nearest unto the throne of God—is “the great one,” the Redeemer of the world.