Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"A Covering of the Eyes" in Joseph Smith Translation Genesis 20 in light of Hugh Nibley's One Eternal Round

Abraham at Gerar, as in Egypt, loses his wife (nee sister) to a king, who, under divine mandate, is compelled to restore her to her husband. God comes to an ailing king Abimelech in a dream and warns him to return Abraham's wife under penalty of death; Abimelech wakens terrified and confronts the prophet in a withering reproach for passing off wife as sister; Abraham responds in a vigorous defence of his vulnerability as a resident foreigner throughout the inhabited globe and insists, that technically speaking, "indeed she is my sister" (Joseph Smith Translation: "she was my sister"), that is, before "she became my wife." The argument is what it is, yet Abimelech showers Abraham with every possible gift and, upon returning "the man his wife," makes the following arrangements:

Genesis 20
16 And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver: behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes, unto all that are with thee, and with all other: thus she was reproved.
17 So Abraham prayed unto God: and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maidservants; and they bare children.

If the English words are something less than crystalline, the Hebrew is just as dim.

Claus Westermann renders the verses (Genesis 12-36, 317):

"See, I am giving your brother a thousand silver pieces; this is to be a public justification of you before all of yours-you are entirely vindicated." (Here the scope of the gift and vindication remains hopelessly narrow--only Sarah's family hears about it.)

In what follows I hope to elucidate both the KJV and Joseph Smith Translation of the verses in light of the very heart of wonderful things in Hugh Nibley's and Michael Rhodes's masterpiece, One Eternal Round.

Let's start with the Prophet Joseph's translation, as found in both Old Testament Manuscript 1 and Manuscript 2 (which--because of its confounding obscurity?--is not found in the LDS edition of the Holy Bible):

17And unto Sarah he said, Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, he shall give unto thee a covering of the eyes, [crossed out words: an that all who shall be with the] and it shall be a token unto all that thou mayest not be taken again from Abraham thy husband. And thus she was reproved.
18 So Abraham prayed unto God; and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid servants, and they bare unto unto him children.

The crossed-out words in Old Testament Manuscript 1 show something of the mental effort that accompanies seeric translation: as Hugh Nibley taught, translation through a Urim and Thummim, or by means of intense seeric focus without such helps, is much more difficult than using a dictionary. Here is work at its most supreme: and here is the gift of the Holy Scriptures.

In the Prophet's reading we learn that the thousand pieces of silver have to do with the purchase of a literal object termed "a covering of the eyes," as "a token unto all", in metaphorical sense, of Sarah's married status--sister no more. But what exactly is "a covering of the eyes"? And whose eyes are being covered? On this point all the commentators differ, except in one thing: it does not refer to a physical object.

By comparison, Joseph's literal clarifications appear to be unimaginably crass, and utterly naive. Yet the Targum Onqelos hints at the "covering" as bought object: "he (or it = the hard cash) will be to you a costly veil" (Onqelos). In Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews we read: "To Sarah he gave a costly robe that covered her whole person," at once "a reproach to Abraham that he had not fitted [his princess] Sarah out with the splendor due to his wife" (1:260 and note 198: Bereshit Rabbah 52.12; MHG I, 301). I sense the Prophet's' concrete "crassness" need not obviate the nuances built into Abimelech's discourse: there's room for both the literal and metaphorical here. But let's look first at how the professors have unraveled the "covering."

E.A. Speiser renders: "Let that [the silver] serve you as a blind to everybody who is with you; you have been publicly vindicated." The "blind" or "covering for the eyes," as he translates (148), "appears to describe a method for diverting or forestalling suspicion. Whether the phrase carries special overtones cannot, of course, be determined," (Genesis, 150). I'm indebted to commentaries but cannot understand "a method for diverting suspicion." Would that be staying at home and closing the blinds? Or using kung-fu on any would-be wife-snatchers? "It's in your court now, Abraham." According to Professor Hermann Gunkel, (Genesis, 222): " 'Eye-covering' is a naive legal term. It refers to appeasement [one would have to be dense not to think so: 1000 smackeroos] which hinders one from seeing the harm done one." One from seeing whom? Harm from whom? Huh? Professor Westermann gives us a bit more to go on: "It is clear that the expression is intended in the sense of a justification of her honor, but it is not immediately clear what the image means." Thus: " 'the gift means that the critical eyes of others will be covered so that they will be unable to discover anything shocking in Sarah' (G. von Rad); Sarah's honor is completely restored (J. Skinner); 'so that the people will not look disdainfully on her' (B. Jacob)," (Genesis 12-36, 328). And Westermann, following some of the greats here, must on the right track: it's not a veil that Sarah wears, necessarily; rather the effect Abimelech's bestowal has on onlookers.

All these commentators filch from Rashi (as my generous borrowings from The Complete Jewish Bible at Library makes clear):

And to Sarah he said: Abimelech [said] in her honor in order to appease her, “Behold I have bestowed upon you this honor; I have given money to your brother, about whom you said, He is my brother. Behold this money and this honor are to you a covering of the eyes.”

[Of her associates]: They will cover their eyes, so that they will not denigrate you, for had I returned you empty-handed, they could say,“After he violated her, he returned her.” Now that I had to spend much money and to appease you, they will know that against my will I returned you, and through a miracle. —

and with all: And with all the people in the world. —

you shall contend: You shall have the opportunity to contend and to show these evident facts. Wherever the word הוֹכָחָה appears, it refers to the clarification of matters.

[Rashi cites the Targumic reading]: “Behold it will be for you a covering of honor on account of my eyes, which gazed upon you and upon all who are with you.” Therefore, he [Onkelos]
translated it :“And I saw you and all who are with you.”

Now back to Targum Onqelos:

16. And to Sarah he said, Behold, I have given a thousand seleen of silver to thy brother; behold, that is to thee a veil of honour, for my having sent to take thee, and to see thee, and all that is with thee; and concerning all whatever thou hast spoken thou art reproved (Onqelos, tr. J.W. Etheridge:; for the Targumic florilegium for Genesis 20:16, please visit The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon at HUC-JIR).

Note how Etheridge dodges the literal and the crass. What he renders "veil of honour," the Onqelos bluntly terms "a costly veil" (ykr)--an actual object which costs a pretty penny. Perhaps I'm wrong about ykr: Michael Maher insists on the rendering "a garment of honor" being a literal translation of the Hebrew. Yet the bit about honor in modern translations surely comes from the Greek Translation of the Bible: tauta estai soi eis timen tou prosopou sou kai pasais tais meta sou: "this shall be for you as honor-covering [timen] of your countenance and for all who may be with you," that is to say: "if your honor is intact that of all your female associates and indeed that of the tribe will remain intact as well." And the translation garment in light of Abimelech's princely endowment, which makes of Sarah a true municipal (as in the sense in which it appears in Doctrine and Covenants 124:39), also sets me thinking about the interconnectedness of things.

Thus from Rashi (and company, that is, all commentators else), we learn that "a covering of the eyes" signifies a poetic expression of a woman's vindication after being "catched" by King Henry, or almost. But how on earth will it work? Things get out: rumors could dog Sarah forever--and Isaac's about to be born. . . (Rumor has it he's Abimelech's son.) Is she just supposed to stamp her feet and contend her way out of it all?

I'm not convinced.

With my eye on the Prophet's reading (and the Targumim), and sensitive to the legal implications of Abimelech's speech (as signaled by the commentators), I render the Hebrew as follows:

1. See now, I do accordingly transfer to thy Brother (or place under his control) '1000 silverweight.'

2a. See then, 'hu-lakh' 'kesut einaym' [Abimelech is using strict legal and ritual terminology here: 'he-to you': 'a covering of eyes']

2b. regarding all that pertains to thee, even all [legal quiddities here: all is covered; or: this reward and gift covers the honor of all women associated with you, relations, handmaidens, etc.].

3. And so her legal status was accordingly settled for her.

The Hebrew text may be corrupt: the scholars all agree on this (the editor of Genesis in the Biblia Hebraica all but insists). Nobody rests easy with "lekhol asher ittakh ve et khol," and emendations have been proposed. I consider the phrase to be the typical intelligible legal language; Joseph Smith is right by crossing out the entire line all together, although he does so only after an initial struggle at translation. Yet I would insist on one point: the Prophet is not saying that the Received Text in Hebrew is wrong (although the implication may be there). Noting the unintelligibility of the phrasal string (i.e., as nonsense), he simply bypasses it in order to restore the fuller cultural practice lurking behind the words: the Prophet's not going to delve into legal intricacies here, word-by-word.

For me, the essential phrases of the text (all rather mysterious) are: "1000 silverweight," "he-to you," and "a covering of eyes." Nobody seems to know what these phrases signify. "1000 silverweight" seems materially clear, but note the scholarly glosses: "a fabulously large sum" (Westermann, 327); "a very considerable sum" (Gunkel). This is all wrong: "1000 silverweight" means "1000 silverweight," not just big bucks, but a very specific amount that would have referred to a most specific and particular transaction. "Hu-lakh" ("he-to you") is more clear: Abimelech has to give the money to Sarah via Abraham, since "by the rules the wife cannot [directly] acquire it" (Westermann, 327).

There is a specificity of things here: all the commentary notes the legal language, but what's it all about?

Step One: Abimelech transfers Sarah to Abraham along with a specific silverweight.

Step Two: It's now Abraham's obligation, not Abimelech's ("he" to you) to transfer the equivalent to Sarah in order to cover all legal loose ends.

Step Three: Sarah now returns legally to her status as Abraham's wife.

But what Step Three really means for Abimelech is that Sarah now obtains, for the first time, a specific legal status as Abraham's wife, everywhere and in all things, and is sister no longer, no way. The entire legal rigmarole thus spells a marriage: Abimelech (Father of the King) gives away the Princess (Sarah) to his client-heir (he's just made Abraham heir to a hugh tract of land). And marriage, in the Ancient Near East, necessarily makes up a rite of coronation: she is to wear a glorious crown.

Given that the "1000 pieces of silver" convey concrete and specific referentiality, and that it is Abraham's fresh obligation to transfer the equivalent to Sarah, in token of receiving her as wife by the laws of the Canaanite kinglets, it now makes more sense to consider "a covering of the eyes" as referring to a second, "bought," concrete object, however metaphorically described.

Let's return to the Prophet's translation:

1. Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver;

2. behold, he shall give unto thee a covering of the eyes[:]
and it shall be a token unto all
that thou mayest not be taken again
from Abraham thy husband.

3. And thus she was reproved [the Prophet did not modify this last line--legal stuff to bypass].

Three things stand out here, wonderful things.

First comes the discourse shift from Step One to Step Two, from "thy brother" to "Abraham thy husband." The shift would be irony, terrible irony, except for the strict ritualistic purpose of the language: what we have here becomes the technical terminology of a marriage. It is precisely the rarity of marriage ceremonies, per se, in ancient texts that make the matter tricky to reach. (The subject of such ceremonies, and whether Genesis 20 contributes to such, demands further attention elsewhere.) But Joseph Smith, with vision and precision, has restored the most telling words of all: a shift from "brother" to "husband": Abimelech has now obviated Abraham's need to ever play his game again; Abraham and Sarah are safe now--and forevermore.

The second point: "He shall give unto thee" expands into intelligible words the technical transfer of rights from Abimelech, erstwhile husband (or father), to Abraham--and thus to and over Sarah, a transfer of rights [not just vindication here] which is cast in the shadowy, metaphorical form of "a covering of eyes."

Third: What does it ["it shall be a token"] refer to? The "1000 silverweight"? Or the "covering"? Or just the act of transfer? And does "token" refer to a concrete object? Or, a symbolic act of transfer? I would say it refers to all of the above. In the first instance, the pronoun refers back to the metaphor(?) or noun phrase(?) "a covering of the eyes," but that "covering", whatever it is, only betokens the act of transfer of authority over Sarah from Abimelech to Abraham. (She has to be officially "restored" to Abraham--see: this is all technical legal and royal practice in order to obviate any lese-majesty or violation of private rights). "And it shall be a token" bespeaks both object (if any) and act.

Certainly for Joseph Smith the noun phrase "a covering of the eyes" bespeaks an object Abraham "give[s]" to Sarah, which then serves as a visible token to all the world of her new, or renewed and now permanent status as Princess-wife. The covering must be a precious object indeed to match the princely gift: indeed Abimelech not only makes Sarah legal and lawful wife but markedly a Princess. The Covering must betoken a Princess, as well as Queen, or it means nothing at all--it's not some simple veil being referred to--the commentators, by the way, are right on that point. The covering of the eyes, more than veil, perforce conveys metaphorical profundity.

And here's where Hugh Nibley's comments on Abraham and Sarah come into play. For Brother Nibley the repetition of the sister-wife episode throughout Genesis spells no mere repetition but ritual (and that formalized by law and custom). And in this ritual setting in which Sarah intercedes for the soul of her brother, Nibley finds an exact parallel in the doings of Isis and Osiris. "What is going on here? Abraham and Sarah identified with Isis and Osiris?" he asks (One Eternal Round, 151; see ps. 148-160). But: "That is just the beginning of the parallels that affirm their identity," as he goes on to show in utmost detail. Again: "If Isis was first of all the great princesses, Sarah's name shows her to be the same." And that's why Abimelech hoped to keep her: she looks and acts like a princess because she is a princess--a forlorn Anastasia recast as all dreams come true. Truly, without princess there can be no right to the throne (in Egypt, especially). "Sarah, like Isis, is the ageless mother and perennial bride; with the birth of Isaac she becomes young again," says Nibley--and the birth of Isaac follows directly the incident at Gerar. No time to spare: Abraham needs to assert his right to the Princess at just this juncture. Abimelech's marriage ceremony thus makes possible a universal, not just Hebrew, claim for Isaac's majestic terrestrial inheritance to be. And it is all made possible because of Sarah. (For further discussion of Abimelech's quest for fertility and his reasons for marrying Sarah, see H. Nibley, "The Sacrifice of Sarah," Abraham in Egypt, an unforgettably brilliant essay).

But we need to capture this elusive "covering of the eyes." Here things converge on the fascinating. Nibley, who doesn't touch upon this particular phrase from Genesis 20:17, does dwell on the objects worn on the heads of ladies who substitute, like Sarah, for Isis. Ani's wife (as Isis: "bears the large and conspicuous emblems of Isis, all signifying stages of rebirth [the stages of life: birth, initiation, marriage, coronation, death, resurrection]--the huge lotus [draped over the forehead and literally covering the eyes], menat-necklace or pectoral of pregnancy, and the large sistrum which soothed Isis at the delivery . . [and]. . . her crown is the same throne [hieroglyph as Isis'] worn on her head," (154). The idea of soothing recalls what Gunkel says about Sarah's appeasement--in Egypt you appease the goddess, or else; for Bastet easily shifts to Sekhmet: tame kitty to fierce tigress: "The Lady's green stone goes back to prehistoric times as the tranquilizing amulet of Sachmis [Sekhmet]," and includes both turquoise amulet and a green malachite girdle (431).

So "a covering of the eyes" suddenly explodes into a bouquet of choices: flowers draped on the head, jewels, and, above all, the crown that stands for the right to the throne: "1000 silverweight" becomes not merely princely gift--it is Abimelech's All. As the Hebrew text emphasizes: it's all and everything that I can possibly give. Abimelech fades as Abraham waxes. (As Johannes Pedersen would say, To Abraham belongs the increase and the blessing.)

But there's more in Chapter 10 of One Eternal Round ("Jewel of Discernment"), and it is here that things get serious--and deeply beautiful.

Discernment is the telling word. Recall what the JST says: "and it shall be a token unto all that thou mayest not be taken again from [not Abraham thy brother but from] Abraham thy husband." All will discern (and borrow from) Sarah's permanent status from the covering she wears--and they will accordingly cover in her presence.

Is that covering, then, a diadem or jewel? Nibley loves to cite the Talmudic description of Abraham, who "had a precious stone hung round his neck which brought immediate healing to any sick person who looked on it" (One Eternal Round, Ch. 10, 423). (He constantly reminds us that Abraham, according to the Pearl of Great Price, is possessor [a koneh] of Urim and Thummim.)

All this goes too far: Talmudic legend to Sarah's covering of eyes? (And whose eyes are being covered anyhow?) Not at all. Note how the Abimelech episode ends: Upon the transfer of the silver and the covering, "Abraham prayed unto God; and God healed Abimelech." Now for Nibley, the stone of Abraham is to be understood as a green stone, a stone that greens and restores the world in rebirth and fertility: "and God healed Abimelech, and his wife, and his maid servants, and [note it well] they bare unto him children." The phrase unto him has been added by Joseph Smith, and the addition signifies much. The healing of Abimelech consists precisely in his recovered ability to sire heirs. Sarah grants, by way of the green jewel, whose apotropaic brilliance blindingly covers the eyes of all who behold it, Abimelech's right to posterity by turning away the plague. She has amply repaid the "1000 pieces." Abimelech has given his every penny (see Targum Neofiti 1), and in return, all is amply restored to him. He, too, has passed his test.

When "Abraham administered to Abimelech," recounts Hugh Nibley, " 'all his house were healed, and the women could bear children with no pain, and they could have male children"; at the same moment, Sarah, barren until then, became fruitful, "the blind, deaf, lame, etc., were healed, and the sun shone out 48 times brighter than usual, even as on the first day of creation" ("The Sacrifice of Sarah," Abraham in Egypt = Beer, Leben Abrahams). That last moment recalls the New Year's rising of the Sun in company with Sirius, "a covering of the eyes" indeed (174-5). Universal Vindication, as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will soon, in summation, be.

The transfer from Abimelech (= Abraham) to Sarah plays out again when "Solomon gave the great sapphire to the Queen of Sheba" after she bests him in the universal game (429). "The jewels work as mirrors that convey "the [healing; fructifying] light of the sun into the earth" (434). Thus: in a medieval fresco "you can see Abraham the Righteous [holding] two round mirrors, which show his offspring on the one mirror, the sons of Sarah, and on the other the sons of Hagar" (Abimelech comes in the picture too as Abraham's gentilic double) (434). Again, we are told that "Asenath, like Joseph, wore the diamond crown of twelve emeralds and is identified with [the Egyptian goddess of weapons, bows and arrows, shields, etc.] Neith, 'the Lady of the Green Crown' " (460).

Shield your eyes when Pippa passes: Sapphires of green, emeralds, crowns, diamonds, blinding mirrors, tiaras, the cobra crown piercing the eyes of any would-be snatcher, and even the hypocephalus (the crown-and-pectoral worn at the head and neck, Aaron-like, that bursts into shimmering flames that leave the observer "awestruck and dumbfounded", 460)--our very own Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham)--all, all these answer to "a covering for the eyes."

Yet nothing so charms like the simple lotus draped over the forehead--more precious than rubies: "even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matt. 6:29). A lotus for Sarah--"to kindle the Easter-fire."

Note: Please now also see the complementary essay, "What Hugh Nibley Meant (Or, Sarah to the Rescue)," published 12/09/2011, on

The Lotus as Crown: "A parable of a king who entered a city: when the men of the city came forth to crown the king with a crown of gold studded with precious stones and pearls, they were met and told: 'The king requires nothing from you except a crown of lilies.' Forthwith, the men of the city rejoiced," W. G. Braude, The Midrash on Psalms (Ps. 45), 449.

Sarah wears a perakh (a blossom-shaped ornament) on her head; an afer (tiara, head-cover: "fruit" or "fruitful"), even a pe'er (head-dress from the verb pa'ar: to glorify or make beautiful) or po'arah (green branch, top branch, etc.).

Sarah wears the Egyptian tpj.t: a nisba adjective meaning "that which pertains to the head," being defined as the uraeus, the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and the Solar Eye [which corresponds also to the hypocephalus]. Hathor herself bears the name tpj.t (here: "first or eldest) as the First Lady, the feminine sun god herself (m jtn.t tpj.t nt jtn(.w) "as the Eldest Solar Globe of the Solar Globes"): see my Papyrus British Museum 10808 and Its Religious and Cultural Setting, 124. Comparable is the blinding amulet to ward off the evil eye given to one Padiamon [a great "Book of Mormon" name], 104.

The edition of the Joseph Smith Translation to read and to hold sacred as a gift to our generation is Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews, Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts.

Vulgate: Biblia Sacra, Stuttgart edition: hoc erit tibi in velamen oculorum ad omnes qui tecum sunt et quocumque perrexeris.
Septuagint: Septuaginta, Gottingen edition, 1974.

The Aramaic Bible: Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis, tr. Michael Maher, p. 73 n. 12.
Targum Neofiti 1: Genesis, tr. Martin McNamara.
The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (CAL), an online resource, is priceless.

Abimelech and Fertility:
From "The Sacrifice of Sarah," Abraham in Egypt: "Here Sarah appears as the central figure in that ritual complex that marks the New Year all over the ancient world and has been noticed in these studies in its form of the Egyptian Sed festival. The theme of Sarah's royal marriages is not lust but the desire of Pharaoh and Abimelech to establish a kingly line. Sarah was at least 61 when she left the house of Pharaoh and 89 when she visited Abimelech. Pharaoh's only interest in Sarah, Josephus insists, was to establish a royal line; or, as Bernhard Beer puts it, "his object was rather to become related to Abraham by marriage," i.e., he wanted Abraham's glory, and that was the only way he could get it. Abimelech's interest is completely dominated by the fertility motif, for he contests with Abraham over "a well of water". . . To complete the scene, Abraham concludes the episode by planting one of his groves in the land of the Philistines (Genesis 21:33). If Sarah is the bounteous and child-giving mother, Abraham no less presides over the life-giving waters." After all, as the Pyramid Texts say: "If you are green then will the king be green as a living rush is green" (One Eternal Round, 430).

Again: In JST Genesis 21:33, the battle over the planting and the water continues with Abimelech doing the planting instead of Abraham: but he dedicates it all in prayer to Abraham's God!

Neith: Hans Bonnet, Reallexikon der Agyptischen Religionsgeschichte.

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