In my LDSFAQ page on the Book of Abraham, Part 2, I have previously acknowledged that one of the weakest aspects of the Book of Abraham is the part where, in Facsimile 3, Joseph Smith says a particular figure represents “Shulem, one of the king’s principal waiters, as represented by the characters above his hand” when in fact, the Egyptian above his head says, “The Osiris Hor, justified forever”. The man’s name is Hor, not Shulem, and it says nothing of being a waiter. This had been a favorite point of attack for critics and a serious puzzle for Latter-day Saints. In discussing this puzzle, I previously cited a passage of Nibley that shows how Osiris could be identified with a high-ranking butler, and then I made this comment:
So identifying Osiris with a high-ranking butler is plausible in Egyptian lore. But why did Joseph say Shulem’s name is on the facsimile, when it isn’t? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a mistake. Perhaps something has been switched or lost that would clarify things. Perhaps Joseph was just dozing here, while still getting inspiration on many aspects of the story.
Could there be some aspect of correctness in what Joseph said about Shulem? Joseph’s comment regarding Figure 5 is “Shulem, one of the king’s principal waiters, as represented by the characters above his hand.” What does “represented” mean? Is a symbolic representation of the waiter sufficient, or does it need to literally spell out Shulem? I don’t know. I lean toward the possibility that Joseph understood the scene that was meant to be conveyed by the editors of the Book of Abraham with their adaptation of an Egyptian drawing, but that Joseph made a mistake in assuming that Shulem’s name was written on the facsimile by his hand. However, if subsequent information reveals that there was another drawing that Joseph’s comments better fit, or that Shulem’s name is somehow represented in other ways on that drawing or on the orignal drawing that went with the Book of Abraham, then I’ll be OK. For now, in light of abundant evidences that Joseph understood some broad and counterintuitive Egyptian concepts associated with the facsimilies, I’m not going to dump the Book of Abraham or Joseph Smith because of an apparent minor error. But if you’re looking for a reason to abandon both, this is as good as any–and yet I think you’d be making a mistake far more serious than Joseph’s.
Recently I learned of an interesting though still somewhat speculative approach to this problem which may fulfill the hopes expressed above.
First, consider the name Shulem. Others have already noted that it can have a meaning related to the divine ascension theme that is related to the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian scene depitcted in Facs. 3 (see Val Sederholm, “Shulem or Ladder, One of the King’s Principal Waiters“). Intriguing. Next, Ryan Larsen in the past few weeks has offered an interesting observation and hypothesis in a preliminary post on Facebook, “My Perspective On Book Of Abraham Arguments”. He relates Shulem to the Hebrew word shulam, related to the Hebrew word for peace and completeness, shalom. As we read at Wikipedia (see also another article on the meaning of shalom), shulam can have the meaning of “fully paid for,” possibly corresponding to “justified” in Joseph Smith’s commentary. Then it’s possible that the connection to “ladder” and the theme of ascension adds further possible interest–though it could all just be an interesting random parallel. Yes, I know, those do happen.
Larsen also observes Joseph’s original comment referred to “kings” without an apostrophe, and he feels that was intentional. Then, observing that Hor, the priest, would have a role as a servant to Egyptian gods, including preparing ritual meals and other duties, it would be fair to call that priest a “waiter” to the gods = “kings.” Thus, the justified man serving the gods/kings could be related to Shulem, a principal waiter of the kings, or the kings’ principal waiter. No mention of Hor, though. Still, with Shulem meaning justified, etc., one could argue that Joseph Smith’s comment may actually have been inspired and worded in a way that would be acceptable for those willing to exercise a little faith, while still leaving room for skepticism, not removing the need for faith. That’s actually how much of the Book of Abraham is (and ditto for the Book of Mormon): impressive, if faith is present, and easy to reject if you want to or if faith is absent. I’ll say more about Ryan Larsen’s views in the future. I think they may have merit. Your views? Is it possible that one of the weakest apparent flaws on the Book of Abraham actually might have a touch of plausibility? I’m putting this on hold for now, but look forward to learning more.