Shulem in the Book of Abraham: Possible Plausibility?

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.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

6 thoughts on “Shulem in the Book of Abraham: Possible Plausibility?

  1. Thanks much for the write-ups that you've done. You're an inspiration to my own research and desire to enter into apologetics. Every which way I turn, during my own research on critic's claims, my appreciation of the LDS scriptures are reinforced.

    I find it interesting that, as time goes on and scholarly work continues to expand on our understanding of the scriptures, we find more and stronger arguments for our scriptures.

    Bear with me, as the two points of the following are inter-related and intertwined with how I approached the issue…

    On a tangent, but still in the same vein of the BofA and its "detractors", I came upon an interview of Scott Gordon ( president) by an interviewer from Issues Etc. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries reviewed the podcast and claimed "Agnostic Mormonism" of Br. Gordon's answers.

    I became a bit agitated by both the podcast and the AOMin review and wrote up a rebuttal. You can find my rebuttal to the interviewer's points at the end of the podcast on their facebook page (Issues Etc.) under my name, Jarred L. Mitchell, from their November 15 posting.

    I also went to the AOMin's facebook page with rebuttals against Mr. White's derogatory tone. During the posting debate or flaming, as it were, I was referred to Mr. White's "Min is Not God" write-up from 2012. I find it inflammatory what he stated in the article, as he used quotes or partial quotes from others. Included in this was one from a 1977 book, but was updated in 1994, but not used in the aforementioned article. Whether thi is due to oversight, ignorance or outright ignoring the update, I'm not sure. Since going back to the AOMin's page, I am unable to find the November 22 posting of Mr. White's video and my postings, but the video can still be found on their youtube feed if you look for "Agnostic Mormonism".

    Included in their rebuttal to my remarks, they stated that anything from Kerry Shirts is laughable at best. Is there something that I missed in Shirts' defense of the faith that may have caused discredit upon him that you might know of?

    I am currently doing some research on Min, his "cult" and what his role in Egyptian society was. I've found various hypocephali that show him in his ithyphallic state, but there are some that don't show that portion at all on the hypocephali or, in two cases I've noted, without the ithyphallic symbolism (one without any ithyphallic organ and the Fac. 2 where it looks like an arm extended at the elbow).

    I believe that, as noted by some from the Maxwell Institute's documents, that J.S.jr was inspired to interpret the icons. While it wasn't a direct interpretation of the symbols, there are many key factors, just as you described in this post here, that show many concepts that provide deeper insight into what was revealed to him.

  2. Also, the reason I give any weight to what James White says is that I have a fellow Soldier that listens to him regularly. I am attempting to learn as much as I can of our doctrine, documents and such so that, when I have a discussion with this fellow, I have the proper rebuttals to his statements. It's a steep learning curve on my part, as I was inactive for 16 years and only returned in 2010.

    Knowing White's history with FAIRmormon apologists, his books and postings, I find it to be a challenge to provide accurate statements to spar with my fellow Soldier. I'm finding Calvinism to be, at first blush, very contradictory to our own doctrine.

  3. Wow. I look forward to your equally convoluted explanations of how "Isis, the great god's mother" (what the characters above figure 2 actually mean) really means "King Pharaoh," and how "Maat, mistress of the gods" (characters above figure 4) really means "Prince of Pharaoh." This just goes to show how infinitely facile apologists can be with the facts.

  4. Rogue, that's a fari question. First, it is OBVIOUS that Figs. 2 and 4 are women, so what was Joseph thinking? If we step back for a moment and recognize that he wasn't blind, and open ourselves to the possibility of meaning beyond immediate, literal representations, then we can explore the possibility that these female figures are serving as representations of something else. Is it even remotely possible that Isis could represent Pharaoh and Maat a prince?

    Wikipedia's article on Isis provides our first clue:

    The name Isis means "Throne". Her headdress is a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh's power. The pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided.

    Interesting, no? The word "Isis" written above Figure 2's head can, without delicate mental gymnastics, be rather directly linked to Pharaoh–rather precisely as stated by Joseph. Again, not literally–obviously not literally, because she is female, of course–but in a rather direct and simple metaphorical link. Isis = throne = symbol of Pharaoh. Not too tricky. In the Turin Papyrus, Isis learns the secret name of Ra and gains power over him. This is a powerful goddess well suited to personify the Pharaoh and his power.

    Maat is not as readily linked to a prince. Let me look into this a bit more. I'll post what I find, if anything, here at Mormanity. Thanks for asking.

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