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.