I Olishem on GoogleEarth
Even the thank-offering of a child did the priest of Pharaoh offer upon the altar which stood by the hill called Potiphar's Hill, at the head of the plain of Olishem (Abraham 1:10).
Abraham's book opens in a running though poetic style-as if the author had not a moment to lose; the second part of verse 10 even shows meter:
which stood by the hill/
called Potiphar's Hill,/
at the head of the plain of Olishem.
Given Abraham's vivid account, the reader can clearly see the hill at the head of the stretching plain. "The places and names are specific and real," says Hugh Nibley. Despite the poetic touch, this is a real place, a place that could swim into ken on GoogleEarth. Look for it (Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round , 187; Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 406).
II Is Ulisum, Olishem?
So where is the plain of Olishem? John Lundquist links Olishem with a Syrian place name found in the Akkadian record, Ulisum: "Naram-Sin the strong defeated Arman and Ebla and from the banks of the Euphrates as far as Ulisum." Where is Ulisum? Far away in the West, says the record. Somebody ought to look for that one, too. Whether Naram-Sin's Ulisum occupies the same spot as Abraham's Olishem, it's the very same name. The reading Ulisum (u-li-si-im-ki), as John Gee carefully sets forth, ought to be rendered Ulisem or even Olisem (u-li-se-em-ki (the Sumerian determinative sign KI found at the end of the place name signifies land). As Michael Rhodes and Hugh Nibley further explain: "The 'u' and 'o' are phonetic variants of each other in Semitic languages. Moreover texts from the time of Naram-Sim regularly use the 's' to represent the 'sh' sound" (One Eternal Round, 173; text cited on ps. 172-3; John Gee, "A Tragedy of Errors," note 64).
"From the banks of the Euphrates as far as Olishem": Is that far-away Ulisum or Olis(h)em the plain of Olishem? Conclusions remain premature, but it would be remiss not to point out the similarity and, by so doing, show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look.
What does Olishem mean? John Gee and Stephen Ricks suggest Semitic Ali-Shem, City of Shem--but Abraham says nothing of a city ("Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study," in Paul Hoskisson, ed., Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures [Provo, 2001], note 113). Oli- mirrors other names found in the Book of Abraham: Oliblish (a governing star), Olimlah (the servant of a Prince of Egypt), and Egyptian or Semitic Olea (the moon). These last are Egyptian names: Olimlah matches the Egyptian name Wrj-jmn-r' (Great is Amun-Ra, Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 220-1). Other phonological matches may include Wrj-mj-r' (Great like Re) and '3j-jmn-r' (Great is Amun-Re).
Now to Olishem, which appears to be a Semitic name. Should we even attempt an Egyptian reading, I would prefer for Oli- neither '3j nor wrj because a choice just as phonologically sound, and even more specific and peculiar to what Abraham 1 describes, presents itself: 3w or 3wj, with 3 as O- and wj as lateral glide, thus l- or li-. Because the dictionary designates 3w as an expanse of land (Woerterbuch I, 4), 3wj-shem suggests "the broad expanse of Shem," or the Plain of Shem." There is a Hebrew cognate: 3wj matches Hebrew rb (to be large: Egyptian 3 = Hebrew r; w ~ b) and further suggests r-h-b, a broad, open area, a plaza: Rekhob-Shem. (Does rhb derive from rb-rb?) Nibley will give me a bit of help: On page 414 of An Approach to the Book of Abraham, we read that "Phathus or Petor" [Potiphar?] "was originally the name of Aram-naharaim, Abraham's native city, when it was first settled by Aram and his brother Rekhob." Indeed (414 n. 138): "The name of Rekhob alone would guarantee its religious background"--which brings us back to 3w, rb, and rhb (I'm adding all these italics, to be sure.)
III Olishems Everywhere!
For Professors Gee and Ricks another Semitic place name (or names), mentioned in Middle Kingdom execration texts, recalls Olishem: Irissym(n) and 3wshamm, a designation sometimes supposed to refer to 'Urushalimum, that is, Jerusalem ("Historical Plausibility," notes 116 and 117 = James Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts, 493). Nothing could suggest Olishem more forcibly than 3wshamm! James Hoch reads the hieroglyphs on the execration texts as 'lw-w-shl-l-m-m = *'Urushalimum, while noting: "If the reconstruction is correct, the writing is defective, indicating neither the i- nor all of the u- vowels." Absent these vowels, Hoch's reading could yet yield Orushalemem, that is, "the land of Jerusalem." I read the same signs as 3wj-sh3-m-m, a name marked with the determinative sign of land or place (not city): the land of Owishamem or Olishamum. Sham (ash-Sham), the reader will recall, is the Arabic name for Syria. How old is the name? How old is Damascus?
Because the Egyptian "group writing" for the Semitic place name Oli-shamum does use the very same hieroglyph that signifies expanse of land, plain, as discussed above, a proposed reading of 3wj as Oli matches Abraham's description of the place as "the plain of Olishem." And here we must also recall p3 hql 'brm, the heqel Abram (the p3 is the Egyptian definite article), or Field of Abram, a Syro-Palestinian place name mentioned "in the great Karnak inscription of Sheshonq I," a place which, says Hugh Nibley, again recalls our plain of Olishem, an open field set apart as the gathering-place for the nation (see One Eternal Round, 171-3; 182-7; James Henry Breasted, "The Earliest Occurrence of the Name Abram," The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 21:1, Oct. 1904, 22-36 ). Here is the maidan or rekhob, the plain or field, as the panegyric gathering-place of all the sons of Shem.
Confusion between place names, and their reinterpretation over time, marks nothing new in the Ancient Near East, where "Wandering of geographic names is a common phenomenon." The name of Mount Moriah, where Abraham offered Isaac, transfers onto Mount Zion, which itself comes to bear the name Zaphon, that Olympus of "the heights of the north" (Psalm 48:3; Johannes C. de Moor, "Ugarit and Israelite Origins," Congress Volume Paris, ed., J.A. Everton, 217-18). We are dealing with both a severely limited geographic area and also with a specific and peculiar Kulturkreis; within such close compass, we can expect a second or even a third Ulisum, Olishem, or Olishamum.
IV Heaven's Height: Olishem's Sun Hill
Hugh Nibley advances a convincing etymology for Olishem in An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 415: "Olishem [and also Ulishim, for that matter] can be readily recognized by any first-year Hebrew student [ouch!] as meaning something like 'hill of heaven,' 'high place of heaven,' or even possibly 'sun hill' [or] the Plain of the High Place of Heaven," etc. ('al= '-l-y, "height"; Shami, Shamah, "visible heavens, sky" = Sky-Height; Heaven's Height). For Abraham on the altar, the place becomes Anti-Zion; then Bright Angel appears. (Tsiyy-on suggests a high place of blinding white-hot brilliance.) As for Potiphar's Hill, its Egyptian name signifies "the Hill of the One-whom-Re-has given or appointed" (One Eternal Round, 172; Approach to the Book of Abraham, 415).
Who is the one whom Re has given? In Genesis, the name belongs to a "captain of the guard" and also to the "high priest" of Heliopolis, Sun City. That both are stand-ins for the King, the Captain of all and ultimate Priest of the Sun, cannot be doubted. Potiphar's Hill, an open shrine to Re, thus belongs by definition to Pharaoh himself and to Pharaoh alone (see Jan Assmann, ed., The King as Sun Priest). In Book of Abraham Chapter 1, it is Pharaoh's priestly substitute, as every priest perforce must be, that presides at Potiphar's Hill--and the pretender must die. Abraham, as Nibley often asserts, is the pretender who must die, but in a dramatic reversal God "smote the priest." His stunning death, at the very moment he lifts the knife to slay the pretender, says Abraham, caused "great mourning. . . in the court of Pharaoh" (1:20). Forget Ulisum, that last phrase alone speaks with such convincing power that no serious reader will set the book down after encountering that line. The ceaseless carping at the Book of Abraham today, the scorn and jocularity, the intellectual preening and pose of superiority, makes me rejoice no end. What it reveals from the housetops of cyberspace is that it is only the thoughtful reader, the kind of reader that pauses over words and phrases, that looks things up in other books, that studies and prays, who will begin to discover the pearl of greatest price. And that's how it should be!
Now consider: if Joseph can, by marriage to his daughter, inherit Potiphar, and thus become a Potiphar, that is, a stand-in for Pharaoh himself, cannot Abraham also play the part? Why else would Pharaoh seek to take Abraham's wife for himself? Joseph, in his own varied circumstances, passes through the same tests Abraham once faced and receives the like blessings. The inheritance, the throne on high, is the gift of Re. Potiphar signals both the altar and the ultimate exaltation. Both the Joseph and the Abraham narratives culminate in exaltation to a kingly station; no wonder Abraham goes to the trouble of giving a history of the Egyptian kingship, while also explaining his own patriarchal claims and bloodline. Whatever the origins of the name Potiphar, its ritual implications in the patriarchal narratives are clear.
V A lot of explaining to do
Because Brother Joseph's Explanation of Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 helpfully gives us Shaumau (to be high) for what may be the same root as the -shem in Olishem, we might then also read Olishem as Oli-Shaum, Oli-Shaumau, or even Oli-Shaumaum. So what do we have? Are we to understand Olishem as the plain of the expanse of Shem? the plain of the expanse of heaven? the high place of Shem? Jerusalem? place of ascent of heaven? the heights of heaven? or the high place of heaven? All seem to fit, but which makes for the best cultural, ritual, and linguistic match? which, the specific and peculiar?
Hugh Nibley reaches the root of the matter: It is one thing for Joseph Smith to give us a name susceptible to linguistic analysis, it is entirely another for that same name to yield a meaning which fits the ritual Sitz im Leben of the Ancient Near East. The notion of plain-cum-hill, Plain of the High Place of Heaven, fits the ancient setting, as do also the Heliopolitan associations of Potiphar's Hill, for Potiphar, in the Joseph story, is the high priest of On, or Heliopolis, the city of the solar mound, with its sacred pillar. The critics have a lot of explaining to do.
Pouring on adverbials and qualifiers does not explain. Witness the following look down the lorgnette: "Certainly, Ulishim could be superficially linked on phonetic grounds to the Olishem mentioned in the Book of Abraham. . . But a convincing identification would have to be based on much more substantial evidence" (Christopher Wood, "The Practice of Egyptian Religion at 'Ur of the Chaldees," in, Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition [2012; 2nd ed., 2013], 91). Well and good. Because we have not yet looked for, let alone found, the Ulishim of Naram-Sim, dogmatic conclusions remain premature. Yet Professor Wood, who transliterates the place name as both Ulishim and Ulishem, goes on to "explain" how "the phonetic similarity is accidental (and here it should be pointed out that cuneiform sources attest thousands of place names)," Ibid. 91. Thousands of names the record may yield, yet exactly how does such a cornucopia bestow upon the philologist the right to dismiss any "accidental"-though-clear "phonetic similarity"?
Cross-examination is in order: To what language family does the name Ulishim belong? Is it not Afroasiastic? in particular, may it not be West Semitic? If so, what might the West Semitic name mean? Should Uli-shim, perchance, register either height or heaven, or both, might the place, which seems to be a natural border, include a hill? In other words, besides the accidental phonetic similarity, are we also dealing with an accidental thematic correspondence? Does the one (accidental) correspondence in phonology necessarily presuppose the other?
Exactly how does a book of 14 pages produce dozens upon dozens of linguistic, cultural, thematic, theological, and literary points of comparison to the Ancient Near Eastern record? The numbers are no exaggeration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with no hesitation whatsoever, not even a hint of abatement, continues to post the canonical Book of Abraham on line and to print copies by the tens of thousands in scores of languages. There is a lot of explaining to do.
Ulisum appears in "an inscription of the Akkadian king Naram Sin" (2250 BC), The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (Richard Draper, S. Kent Brown, Michael Rhodes), 251, citing John M. Lundquist, "Was Abraham at Ebla?" in Studies in Scripture 2 (ed. Robert Millet and Kent Jackson, Provo, 1985), 233-34. The date is early but fits the idea of an archaic gathering-place. We know where Adam-ondi-Ahman is, and someday we shall also find Olishem. For the reading Ulisem/Ulishem/Olishem see John Gee, "A Tragedy of Errors," note 64 (published on the Neal A. Maxwell Institute Website).
This essay was originally posted in 2010, but modifications have been made and paragraphs added or moved about, from time to time. The paragraph assessing Christopher Wood's explanations was added in February 2014 (then itself modified, revised, reworked, from time to time--but esp. in September 2014, and again in 2017).