Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Plain of Olishem and the Field of Abram: LDS Book of Abraham, Chapter One

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 brief book shifts easily between prose and poetry. Chapter One opens with a cascade of poetic verve--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 (Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round [2010], 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." Whether Naram-Sin's Ulisum occupies the same spot as Abraham's Olishem, it's the very same name. The reading Ulisum (u[2]-li-si-im-ki), as John Gee carefully sets forth, ought to be rendered Ulisem or even Olisem (u[2]-li-se[2]-em-ki; the Sumerian determinative sign, KI, 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).

Is the place of 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, or 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; Oli-shem is Semitic.

Olimlah matches the Egyptian name Wrj-jmn-r' (Great is Amun-Ra, Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 220-1). Oli-b-lish approximates wrj-jb, rxy (the Great of heart, the Knower), wrj m rx (the One who is great in knowledge; or even, wrj m rx-sw. Even closer might be 3wj-jb [m?] rx(-sw) (The joyous one, lit. the expansive of heart [Moroni in Alma 48:12], the one who knows), with rx (knowing) as a pun on rsh (rejoicing = both 3wj-jb and rsh). Such a reading recalls the legends often written on both sides the Oliblish figure: "I know; I, the knower." Abraham Facsimile 2, figure 2, has the legend: "[I know] the name of that god." Mighty Oliblish, standing at the apex of the circle of the hypocephalus, possesses omniscience. And -lish certainly matches the Coptic outcome of Egyptian rx or rx-sw = esh. Yet -lish might not convey three separate Egyptian phonemes, but one: Egyptian shin as lateral fricative or the like. Given that the giant Oliblish figure represents the Ba of Shu, I cannot help but wonder whether Oli-b(l)-lish/sh mirrors Wrj-b3-Shw (Great is the Ba of Shu).

Have I resolved anything? Maybe not; but I have absolved myself of an obligation. It would be remiss of me not to point these possibilities out. Here is how Hugh Nibley worked, a method--nay, duty--but little understood. Students of ancient languages point things out--and that is all.

Now to Olishem. 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- or Ol-, and wj as a lateral glide, thus l- or li-. Because the dictionary designates 3w as an expanse of land (Woerterbuch I, 4), 3wj-shem might then signify "the broad expanse 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." Further (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 ceremonial cursing or 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 signs 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." Without all the 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 Olishamum. Sham (ash-Sham), the reader will recall, is the Arabic word for Syria. How old is the name?

A proposed reading of 3wj as Oli (and the Egyptian "group writing" for the Semitic place name Oli-shamum does use the very same hieroglyph of an expanse of land!) matches Abraham's description of the place as "the plain of Olishem." It certainly also recalls the "Field of Abram," a Palestinian place name mentioned "in the great Karnak inscription of Sheshonq I," a place which, says Hugh Nibley, suggests, well--the plain of Olishem, a field set apart as the gathering-place for the nation (see One Eternal Round, 171-3; 182-7). Here is the maidan, the plain, the field as the ritual or panegyric gathering-place of all the sons of Shem.

Confusion between, or even reinterpretation of, place names marks nothing uncommon in the Ancient Near East--nor anywhere else. "Wandering of geographic names is a common phenonenon." For instance, the name of Mount Moriah, where Abraham offered his son, 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). Though the question must remain open, in theory a name such as City of Peace (itself, perhaps, a reinterpretation of City of the Evening Star) could mark either a reinterpretation or an alternative name for (or a misunderstanding of or conflation with) Olishem (for Nibley: High Place of Heaven), Potiphar's Hill, Mount Moriah, or even Zaphon. We are dealing with both a severely limited geographic area and also with a specific and peculiar Kulturkreis; within such close compass, we may expect a second or even a third Ulisum, Olishem, or Olishamum.

IV  Heaven's Height: Olishem's Sun Hill

Hugh Nibley advances a far more 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 the 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 ultimate Priest of the Sun, cannot be doubted. Potiphar's Hill, an open shrine to Re, belongs to Pharaoh himself (see Jan Assmann, The King as Sun Priest). In Book of Abraham Chapter 1, Potiphar's Hill belongs not to the actual Pharaoh but to his royal substitute--and the pretender must die. If Joseph can inherit Potiphar, by marriage to Asenath, his daughter, and thus become a Potiphar, a royal representative, cannot Abraham also play the part? Joseph, in his own way, and in circumstances, at first blush, as different as can be, passes through the same tests and episodes Abraham once faced. The inheritance, the throne on high, is the gift of Re. Potiphar signals the altar, and Potiphar signals the ultimate exaltation. Both the Joseph and the Abraham narratives have to do with the creation of a king. Whatever the origins of the Egyptian name Potiphar, its ritual implications in the patriarchal narratives are clear.

Brother Joseph's Explanation of Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 helpfully gives us Shaumau for the very same root (to be high); 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?

V  A lot of explaining to do

Hugh Nibley has given us the root of the matter: It is one thing for Joseph Smith to give us a name, Olishem, susceptible to linguistic analysis, it is entirely another for that same Semitic name to yield a meaning which fits the ritual requirements of the narrative. We should say: the ritual requirements which the narrative sets for itself; for, after all, the narrative has its own assumptions about itself. The notion of plain-cum-hill, Plain of the High Place of Heaven, perfectly fits the setting, as do the solar and Heliopolitan associations of Potiphar's Hill. The critics have a lot of explaining to do.

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; since we have not yet looked for, let alone found, the Ulishim of Naram-Sim, dogmatic conclusions remain premature. 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 personal and place names the record may yield, yet exactly how does such a cornucopia bestow upon the philologist the right to dismiss any "certain" "phonetic similarity?" Cross-examination seems in order: To what language family does the name Ulishim belong? and what might the name mean? Should Ulishim, perchance, register either height or heaven, or both, might the place, which seems to be a natural border, include a hill?

Exactly how does a book of 14 pages produce dozens upon dozens of linguistic, cultural, thematic, theological, and literary points of comparison? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with no hesitation whatsoever, with no hint of abatement, continues to post the Book of Abraham on line and to print copies by the tens of thousands, and in every language. 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 considering Christopher Wood's explanations was added in February 2014 (then itself modified, revised, reworked, and all the rest, from time to time--but esp. in September).

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