The Explanatory Power of an Ancient Setting for the Book of Abraham: One Example

Critics of LDS scriptures sometimes exert great efforts to find parallels to Joseph’s environment and modern sources of knowledge to account for our sacred texts. Such parallels can be interesting, but they rarely give any meaningful insight into the how the texts were created and lack explanatory power. If, for example, a rare European map of Arabia with the name Nehem or Nehhm on it were available and relied upon by Joseph as a source for the ancient place Nahom, then it is puzzling that Joseph did not take advantage of the many dozens of other place names and details on the map. Why turn to such a treasure and use it for one of the smallest, most obscure place names? Why select such a minor name at all? Why just one word that nobody will recognize? If it were meant to serve as later evidence of authenticity in the future once a co-conspirator finally “discovered” the map with its evidence, why not announce this? Why would it take roughly 150 years for the first person to ever notice the built-in evidence?

Selecting an obscure place name off a map rich in detail makes no sense. The theory that Joseph used a map to get Nahom offers little explanatory power for the origins of anything except one word, and even then fails to explain why Joseph would change that word to one that happens to better fit what a Hebrew writer would write, and one that also provides a good Hebraic word play in the text of 1 Nephi 16.

We run into the same problems with the Book of Abraham. Those who assume that Joseph just drew upon things in his environment and give us theories for one portion of the text don’t provide us with substance that swells with new insights as we explore the text. But if we take the book at face value and consider its ancient context, we often do find new insights that help answer puzzles.

One puzzle in the text is the strange revelation to Abraham in chapter 3 where the Lord begins by discussing the nature of the universe, apparently in ancient heliocentric geocentric terms (a disappointment to all of us who want modern cosmology and astrophysics in our ancient texts! please, teach us about black holes and dark matter and high-energy physics!), and then suddenly moves to a discussion about the nature of souls and our premortal existence. A strange transition. What’s going on? Why this content? But by putting this in its ancient context, it makes much more sense than we realized. John Gee explains this in his book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017), pp. 116-119:

The ancient Egyptians associated the idea of encircling something
(whether in the sky or on earth) with controlling or governing
it, and the same terms are used for both. Thus, the Book of Abraham
notes that “there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above
another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, . . . which Kolob is set
nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong
to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:9;
emphasis added). The Egyptians had a similar notion, in which the sun (Re) was not only a god but the head of all the gods and ruled over
everything that he encircled. Abraham’s astronomy sets the sun, “that
which is to rule the day” (Abraham 3:5), as greater than the moon but
less than Kolob, which governs the sun (Abraham 3:9). Thus, in the
astronomy of the Book of Abraham, Kolob, which is the nearest star
to God (Abraham 3:16; see also 3, 9), revolves around and thus encircles
or controls the sun, which is the head of the Egyptian pantheon.

The conversation between Abraham and the Lord shifts from a
discussion of heavenly bodies to spiritual beings. This reflects a play
on words that Egyptians often use between a star (ach) and a spirit
(ich). The shift is done by means of a comparison: “Now, if there be
two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth,
then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; . . . as, also, if
there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other”
(Abraham 3:17–18). In an Egyptian context, the play on words
would strengthen the parallel.

The first chapter of Abraham narrates how Abraham had been
in trouble with the Egyptian government for speaking against the
official religion. His family “utterly refused to hearken to [his] voice”
(Abraham 1:5) and as a result he was nearly sacrificed and had to
move to Haran for safety. While he was there, the Egyptian dynasty
changed, but pharaonic ideology had not. Speaking against the pharaoh
or the religion was a capital offense, so God revealed to Abraham
an implicit rather than explicit critique of Egyptian religion.
He taught him an astronomy which, like Egyptian astronomy, was
geocentric, where the various heavenly bodies revolved around and
governed the earth. So, in Abraham’s astronomy, the star “set nigh
unto the throne of God” (Abraham 3:9) encircles and thus controls
not only the earth but also the sun, the head of the Egyptian pantheon.
This argument, however, must be worked out; it is not obvious. It allowed Abraham to provide an indirect critique of Egyptian
religion. Therefore, at least two of the revelations that the Lord gave
Abraham before he went into Egypt were to prevent him from being
put to death.

The Egyptian play on words between star and spirit allows the
astronomical teachings to flow seamlessly into teachings about the
preexistence which follow immediately thereafter.

Now that’s pretty interesting. The Lord appears to have prepared Abraham with a way to teach astronomy to the Egyptians in a way that they could grasp and find impressive, and then, through a built-in Egyptian wordplay, sets the scene to naturally move into a discussion of souls, building upon the astronomy already taught to illustrate indirectly and in a politically correct way that won’t get Abraham killed the important truth that there is a living God above Pharaoh.

Understanding the apparent word play between star and spirit from the ancient setting and language breathes life and explanatory power into the story, and ties it back to the beginning of the text where Abraham’s life is threatened for challenging the Egyptian religion (at least the local variety in the area where the story begins). It also links us to the final drawing, Facsimile 3, which has been adapted to represent Abraham teaching astronomy in the Egyptian court — a scene that other ancient documents suggest may have happened (but yes, it is possible that Joseph could have gleaned that obscure tidbit from a passage in Josephus if he or his associates had that book in 1835, which does not appear to be the case). The details behind Abraham 3 and the apparent use of an Egyptian word play to help Abraham teach the Egyptians is one of many examples of the explanatory power of an ancient setting for the Book of Abraham.  It doesn’t solve some of the other puzzles and problems we face in the Book of Abraham, but it reminds us that understanding the ancient setting may be fruitful in understanding the text.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

8 thoughts on “The Explanatory Power of an Ancient Setting for the Book of Abraham: One Example

  1. How can you make such claims when your original claim is that we have no Egyptian text with which to compare the translation? Using an English translation to prove wordplay in Egyptian is ridiculous unless you have the original text to compare. The same goes for your claims of Hebrew wordplays in the BoM. They are ridiculous claims as you don't have the original text with which to make comparisons. You can speculate that if this were the original word, and this is its English translation, it's possible that there is word play, but you have no way to know how the original text read. It's pure speculation and as valuable as a discussion of how the Klingon language may have influenced the decision making process of the United Federation of Planets.

  2. Jeff,

    The parallels you drew in your article reminded me of something I saw when studying this chapter during my personal study a few weeks ago.

    When studied closely, one can see "Kolob" as being a way to teach about "Jesus Christ". This is especially apparent when reading vv. 3, 9, 19, 21, where Kolob is described as being "nearest to God and governs all other stars" and Christ is described as "a ruler of the heavens".

    When studied in this fashion, the lesson the Lord is giving to Abraham is akin to that present in Moses 6:63

    "And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me."

  3. Anon @ 11:58 said, "How can you make such claims when your original claim is that we have no Egyptian text with which to compare the translation? Using an English translation to prove wordplay in Egyptian is ridiculous unless you have the original text to compare."

    James Fallows at The Atlantic recently mentioned a hilarious example of Chinglish from one of China's leading airlines at Beijing's main airport. An English sign at the check-in area told customers to please "wait outside rice-flour noodle." Those familiar with Chinese may be able to appreciate what happened after a little reflection even without having the original text to consider, because the common word for a noodle made from rice flour is mi xian, with mi meaning rice, but it can also mean "meter." The word xian can mean line or something like a line, such as a noodle. So Chinese students can probably guess that the sign was telling people to stand behind the meter line, or the one-meter line, to keep one meter away from the agent processing people. But there's a word play involve here where the word for "meter line" can also mean "rice-flour noodle." The dual meaning, essentially a word play opportunity, created the ambiguity that led to a very funny translation.

    A great deal of English signage in China and other nations needs to be mentally translated back into the (apparent) parent language to come up with hypotheses for what was actually meant. Sometimes that process fails to explain the puzzle, but often can lead to a plausible scenario with explanatory power.

    That's what may be going on in the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon in quite a few cases. You are right, of course, that we don't have the original test before us, but we can note indicators that point to apparent word plays, and then discuss them as possibilities. Note that I referred to the example in my post as an apparent word play. It's not for sure, it's tentative or even speculative, but in this case it's relatively straightforward and provides explanatory power. I don't think it's as ridiculous as you suggest.

    Actually, there are many times when it makes sense to

  4. Actually, there are many times when it makes sense to consider word plays that may have occurred in an original expression when all we have left is a translation. Not as nice as having the original, but it's still possible.

  5. Jeff,

    Your comments reminded me of an English translation of the directions on an Italian can of hair spray: "Point bomb towards head and vaporize." I wish I would have purchased that hair spray and brought it home as a souvenir. It's easy to work backwards and know what the original Italian was. The word for small bottle is also the same word for bomb. Italian for vaporize can also be spray.


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