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 seems to shift 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 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 , 187; Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 406).
1. So what or 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." 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 carefully set forth by Professor John Gee, ought to be rendered Ulisem or even Olisem (u-li-se-em-ki; the Sumerian determinative sign, KI, signifies land). As Michael Rhodes and Hugh Nibley also 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 Ulisum or Olis(h)em the plain of Olishem? Conclusions remain premature, but it would be remiss of students not to point out the similarity and, by so doing, show that the Book of Abraham merits a second look.
And what does Olishem mean? John Gee and Stephen Ricks suggest 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 Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures [Provo, 2001], note 113). The second half of the name, -shem, evokes the oldest of all Semitic personal names, that of Shem, which indeed signifies name, as the name or father of the Semitic peoples. As for the first half, Oli- mirrors other names found in the Book of Abraham: Oliblish (a governing star), Olimlah (the servant of a Prince of Egypt), and Olea (the moon).
Olimlah matches the Egyptian name Wrj-jmn-r' (Great is Amun-Ra, Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 220-1). Another possibility for Oli- leaps to mind: '3j (which also signifies great). '-3-j phonologically matches Oli- point for point--but, then, so does w-r-j.
As for Oli-b-lish, the phonology approximates '3j rx (great of knowledge), '3j m rx, or even '3j m rx-sw (the One who is great in knowing or in knowledge). 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). Such a reading recalls the legends often written on both sides the Oliblish-Amun figure: "I knew; I will know." Abraham Facsimile 2, figure 2, has "[I know] the name of this 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.
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. In this case I don't read Oli- as '3j or 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." But wouldn't Olishem be better understood as a Semitic name? There is a Hebrew cognate: 3wj matches Hebrew rb (to be large: Egyptian 3 = Hebrew r; w ~ b) and speaks to r-h-b, a broad, open area, a plaza, etc. (Does rhb derive from rb-rb?)
For Professors Gee and Ricks another Semitic place name (or names) mentioned in Middle Kingdom ceremonial cursing, or execration texts recalls Olishem: Irissym or Irissymn and 3wshamm, a designation sometimes supposed to refer to Urushalimum [James Hoch: 'lw-w-shl-l-m-m?], 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! I read 3wj-sh3-m-m, which is marked with the determinative sign of land or place (not city), as the land of Olishamum. (I wouldn't rule out Jerusalem however, a high place often identified with Mount Moriah and Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, and, therefore, another Potiphar's Hill.)
A proposed reading of 3wj as Oli (and the phonetic writing of the place name Oli-shamum(?) does use the very same hieroglyph of an expanse of land!) matches the description of the place as "the plain of Olishem," and certainly 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). (The Americas know their own Plains of Abraham: the decisive place of battle in the French and Indian War.) Here is the maidan, the plain, the field as the ritual or panegyric gathering-place of all the sons of Shem. They gather at the "head" of the plain of Olishem. It is the place where Abraham, son of Shem, was offered upon an altar--and escaped!
2. Hugh Nibley puts forward a far more convincing etymology for Olishem in An Approach to the Book of Abraham, 415: "Olishem 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, "height"; Shami, Shamah, "visible heavens, sky"). For Abraham on the altar, the place becomes Anti-Zion; then the bright angel appears. (Tsiyy-on signifies 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, 415).
Brother Joseph's Explanation of Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 helpfully gives us Shaumau for the very same root ("to be high"); we might therefore 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? 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?
Alas! It's true I prefer Nibley's reading: While I enjoy my own little analysis of the name Olishem, I discern in Nibley's approach l'esprit de finesse. I'm a fan of Jacques Barzun, you see. . .
Nibley will give me a bit of help: On page 414 of An Approach to the Book of Abraham he does point out 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.)
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 for descendants of the great ancestor Shem--or even Adam at Adam-ondi-Ahman. 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).
What does Olishem mean? "Plain of heaven" best renders Olishem, or even "the plain of Olishem."
Because no one knows the time frame for the Patriarchal Age, we must pay attention to name-types such as Potiphar (p3-dj-p3-r' = the one whom-given-(by the)-Re) and Aseneth in sorting the dates out (including perhaps even tossing out prior conclusions).