Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Prophet and the Unicorn

In the Joseph Smith Translation of Isaiah 34:7 we encounter the unicorn and meet the Re-em. The reading unicorn comes to us thanks to the Vulgate (Latin) Bible, to Wycliffe, and the rest, and perhaps simply references the rhinoceros [Lat. rinoceros; monoceros; unicornis]--but you never can be sure. Those were the days when unicorns ran free.

But the Prophet will have none of that. Old Testament Manuscript 2, plum in the middle of manuscript page 106, yields:

Verse 7 re
[crossed out] Re-em

Re-em replaces unicorns in: And the unicorns [Re-em] shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls.

Wycliffe follows the unicorns of the Vulgate:
And vnycornes schulen go doun with hem, and bolis with hem that ben myyti.

Robert J. Matthews (A Plainer Translation, 213), noting that Re-em answers to the Hebrew word [pron. ruh-AIM, later raim] for wild ox, admits the possibility the Prophet added the word to the manuscript after beginning his study of Hebrew in 1836. But if that were the case, the correction would not appear where and how it does (note well the mise-en-page), as part of the steady unfolding of the Old Testament translation completed in July 1833.

Now that's rum: that is to say, the Ugaritic word for the beast is rum, plural rumm!

Plural? And so to another matter: the KJV of Isaiah 34:7 gives us not one, but many unicorns. Yet Re-em denotes a singular noun in Hebrew, the plural would read re'emim or remim. For one thing, here's evidence the Prophet is not using a Hebrew Bible or lexicon--he doesn't own one in 1833. So why the mistake?

I see no mistake, or in other words, I see some odd mistakes. For instance, what the Hebrew reveals as singular reem, the translators of the King James Version often render as a whole herd: "his horns are like the horns of the reem becomes "their horns are like the horns of unicorns."But things get even more baffling: the Samaritan Pentateuch yields the plural: re'emim. So which is right? the Hebrew? the English, purposely veering from the Hebrew? or that remnant of Ephraim, the Samaritans? Again, note how Deuteronomy 33:17 in the English version of The Midrash on Psalms renders the verse: "like the horns of the reem," an Anglicized reading that likely now appears, or must appear (and as collective plural), in the Oxford English Dictionary. In Yiddish slang: Reem! spells "You dummy! Big Ox!" And talk about Reems! Puzzling comes the recollection that anything with horns, cannot possibly be a unicorn! Or even a monoceros.

The Prophet's Re-em, to set the unicorns straight, need not match a Hebrew plural anyhow. In English, singular nouns often refer to animals in a collective sense: the deer and the antelope play, as do bison and buffalo; the wild ox can even collectively step in for the archaic plural ox-en. And I think that's what Re-em is all about (and note the manuscript correction from lower-case to caps, and especially the dash that reveals the glottal stop aleph separating the consonants: Re-em). Re-em is Anglicized Hebrew, just as the noun Hebrew is itself Anglicized ivrit--take your pick. And note how the Hebrew of Isaiah 34 gives the older, more archaic reading re-em or Resh-Aleph-Yod-Mem rather than the later Biblical spelling Resh-Yod-Mem. Reading Re-em as an Anglicized collective noun makes sense, and again shows the prophetic inspiration, and the touch of genius withal, that characterizes modern prophets in our day.

But couldn't the Prophet have come across Re-em in a reference book or marginal notes? To be sure--and certainly no claim appears in Old Testament Manuscript 2 that the word came by inspiration, or by inspiration absent looking things up. On the other hand, none of the nine appearances of the unicorn in the Prophet's Phinney Bible (KJV) supplies a marginal notation about the beast. Other contemporaneous Bibles, such as an 1836 Bible from Philadelphia (R.P. Desilver), gloss Isaiah's unicorns: "Or, rhinoceros"--and do note the singular noun. Buck's Theological Dictionary, which the Prophet later owned, has no pertinent entry, although Sidney Rigdon, scribe and counselor to the Prophet, may well have been acquainted with the doughty Clarke's Commentary, in which the following gloss for Isaiah 34:7 appears: "Or, rhinoceroses." We turn to Job and his reems, where after endless sermonizing on the mythical nature of the unicorn, just for fun and besides the point, given that unicorn reflects, in Latin, merely rhinoceros, Clarke spills the beans: "The animal in question, called reim [a poor transcription], is undoubtedly the rhinoceros [which it isn't], who has the latter name from the horn that grows on his nose. The rhinoceros is known by the name of reim in Arabia to the present day. He is allowed to be a savage animal" (3:176). Deep waters: but if Brother Rigdon, the former preacher, was really coaching Brother Joseph, wouldn't he just have prompted: "Ahem! Rhinoceros!" Under Psalms 22:21 we find: "the unicorns, remim [reflecting the later Hebrew plural, without the glottal stop: raimim], (probably the rhinoceros,) the Gentiles;" Psalms 92:11: "reeym" [Resh-Aleph-Yod-Mem], much closer to Re-em. Now I have no objection to the Prophet's receiving intelligence on the Bible from any source whatsoever--all knowledge comes by revelation, says Brigham Young. But as things stand, we can hardly allow Clarke's lower case reim, or even his reeym, to be quite our savage Re-em, an animal that stands proud.

The editors of the Latter-day Saint Bible clearly favor the idea of a prophetic reading: the new translation re'em, they point out (loading the argument), matches the Hebrew word re'em. But what error everywhere! The Joseph Smith Translation, although marking the glottal stop with a nice dash, knows no re'em, only the unprecedented Re-em, which is not to be found in any book. We are further informed by footnotes that the re'em is a wild ox--but isn't it really a wild bull? or, to be exact, the Bos primigenium Bojanus? The reem of the Bible is hardly a Latin classification. Much more than that, the beast takes on mythic proportions--so we're back to the unicorn. The Biblical reem looms so large its horns can push Israel's exiles to the four quarters of the earth; God Himself has the strength of a reem; fresh, kingly anointing oil flows from the horn of this mighty reem. Indeed the unicorn has nothing on the reem of Medieval Jewry: David, tending lambs, once found a reem 100 cubits high, on whose pattern he designed Solomon's lofty temple structure.

A Prophet, says President Spencer W. Kimball, need not be a linguist--but Joseph, as seeric Translator, had something of the linguist. Re-em blends well with the Prophet's other strange animal names, the famous Cureloms and Cumoms, all of which show, says Hugh Nibley, the archaic Semitic feature of mimation, that is, the nominal case ending of -um (here: -om; Akkadian rimum shows the m twice, which might signal linguistic "hypercorrection"): "The correct use and sequence of mimation and nunation in the Book of Mormon speaks strongly for the authenticity of the record, for the principle is a relatively recent discovery in philology," The World of the Jaredites, 242. Neither the Prophet nor Professor Seixas knew anything about archaic case-endings. And note how the "plurals-challenged" Prophet, after supplying the recently discovered case ending, purposely Anglicizes Curelom and Cumom in the Book of Mormon's oddest sentence (from the archaic Book of Ether): "and elephants, and cureloms, and cumoms." What would you have done?

Like all these, the Reem is a linguistically early beast: Mythical Gilgamesh stood supreme "like a wild bull" (again, Akkadian rimu(m)--note the long i). Shamash, the sun god, was himself the wild bull, the head of the herd. And this Babylonian beast was indeed a commanding and destructive behemoth (or should we say behemoths?). Finally, there is something familiar in how students transcribe the cuneiform pattern of the word, which shows the long i (or e) vowel: Sumerian AM = ri-i-mu. If AM (which likely is not "simple Sumerian" but a borrowing) conjures up visions of Cum-OM and Curel-OM, the transcription of Akkadian Ri-i-mu looks for all the world like our dashing Re-em. All of which recalls the Prophet's use of dashes in rendering names, as found in both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. However puzzling the sophisticated editors at Doubleday found Anti-Nephi-Lehi, there is something "modern" and "scientific" about such notation. The Prophet always wanted to get the transcription of perfectly formed, and wonderfully significant, Ancient Near Eastern names just so. . .

The Prophet kept on. He employed Professor Seixas [Shashius], a jolly and ebullient grammatical drill master, bought a Hebrew Bible, grammar, and lexicon, and studied assiduously; he also tried his hand at Classics and German--then still more Hebrew under Alexander Neibaur. With all this additional work, would the Prophet have stuck to the translation of unicorns as Re-em or might he have changed the word to plural re'emim? Given a respite from governors, mobs, and members, the Prophet would have loved to have looked over the full corpus of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Bibles by combining hard-won linguistic knowledge with seeric insight. This he eventually would have done. Still, I'm sure he would stick to Re-em or Reem over re'emim (and maybe even over Wild Bulls, conjure 'em up as you will). It's the better reading for English.

I have to laugh at John Bernhisel's note on the Re-em. (Bernhisel, as clever a Latter-day Saint as ever came off the dock, made a partial copy of the New Translation and carried it to Utah). Notes Bernhisel: Re x em---(this I not comprehend) [Matthews, A Plainer Translation, 213 n. 17].

And any one of us would say the same: Cureloms? Cumoms? This I like, but this I not comprehend.

(I do allow the reem to be a savage animal, if it has a mind to be.)


Brother Frederick G. Williams: was the scribe who wrote the dictation for Isaiah 34:7 (Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts, Faulring, Jackson, and Matthews (eds), 586).

Professor Joshua Seixas: "You recollect how Seixas [he calls him Shashius] used to drill us--that laughter loving man" (James H. Fairchild to Mary Kellogg, 2 June 1840); "I never saw any man talk and have so much to say as Mr. Seixas in recitation in my life," Ms Journal of John Buss, see History of Oberlin College, 368-370. After teaching on the frontier, Seixas returned to the Sephardic Synagogue in New York, founded by his famous father; organized America's first Sephardic choir, and taught Hebrew, living on through the 1870s. Professor Louis Zucker (who all but ridicules the Prophet Joseph for even thinking about studying Hebrew, then for daring to use intelligently what knowledge he was able to glean), while noting that Joshua Seixas was (somehow) related to the famous Gershom Mendez Seixas (his grandfather, in fact), records how Seixas, after Kirtland, walked into the mists. Indeed, for Zucker, for whom Sephardic transcriptions of Hebrew into English letters are not up to scholarly par--a sad old bias--Professor Seixas is a lost soul: dour, ashamed, hiding in self-imposed exile from his Jewish family, and vanishing without a trace ("Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew," [ie: How Dare Anyone Study a Language Under a Sephardic Jew Without My Permission], Dialogue 3).

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