Saturday, August 7, 2010

My servant Gazelem (Egyptian D-s-r/Dj-s-r, Semitic g-z-r, the name Gazariya, and the Nazirites)

The Book of Alma, in a gem-like passage, poetically affords us the seeric title of Gazelem:

And the Lord said:

I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem,

a stone,

which shall shine forth in darkness unto light,

that I may discover unto my people who serve me,
that I may discover unto them

the works of their brethren,
yea, their secret works,
their works of darkness,
and their wickedness and abominations.

And now, my son, these interpreters were prepared that the word of God might be fulfilled (Alma 37: 23-4,

Here is an instance of true oracular poetry--a touch of the archaic in the Book of Mormon. Yankee prophet, Joseph Smith, becomes the stuff on which archaic dreams are made, for in another place, ancient Joseph intones poetic phrases about the Choice Seer of the latter-days; now, a nameless oracle lisps prophecies of Gazelem. Such solemn and stirring lines merit an entire book; for now, we pause simply to ask:

What is the significance of this seeric name Gazelem?

While Ancient Egyptian and Amorite, Afroasiatic cousins, hold the best answer, Aramaic makes for a good starting place. Daniel 2:27 speaks of a group of Babylonian diviners known as the gazrin (see "Gazelem" in The Book of Mormon Onomasticon, Maxwell Institute, BYU). Published statements of Hugh Nibley and research gathered in the Onomasticon all direct us to the Semitic root g-z-r in divining the meaning of Gazelem.

The root g-z or gzr signifies the action of cutting, including the cutting of stones, and with that in mind, we continue the search for Aramaic antecedents in Jastrow's famous lexicon (Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature). In one apt entry we find reference to the cut sapphires that make up the foundation stones of the future Temple (to which compare Hugh Nibley's chapter "Jewel of Discernment" in One Eternal Round, and esp. ps. 448-9). Jastrow always promises a rich yield: Gazelem certainly reflects the Aramaic connotations of diviner, discerner, cut sapphire, or a secluded place or setting, that is, set off from the world. Alma twice uses the verb prepare. By "preparing" a stone, we are to understand that the Lord has planned and designed, cut, and set apart a holy object for the use of a specially prepared and foreordained seer. There is one matter where debate becomes pointless. While Gazelem clearly names the seer himself, the name, by default and also by aptness, perforce also describes the character of the special stone. Why? Because the one calls for the other. Can you have Gazelem without his stone?

A well-known Egyptian verb holds the key to understanding the name Gazelem. Professor Antonio Loprieno shows the verb D-s-r or dj-s-r or dj-z-r/l (to cut off, set apart, make pure or sacred) to be a cognate of Semitic g-z-r (to cut, separate, decide), La pensee et l'ecriture: Pour une analyse semiotique de la culture egyptienne (Paris, 2001), 15. The final literal in Egyptian D-s-r, which we arbitrarily transcribe -r, likely had a phonetic realization /l/. To make sacred in Egyptian, as in Indo-European languages, is an act of dedication by separation or fencing off. Objects, places, and persons are thus cut off, dedicated, prepared, or set apart for sacred purposes.

Can D-s-r be a name? Hugh Nibley, with reference to Djoser, the first king to build a pyramid, derives Book of Mormon names Zeezrom and Seezoram from Egyptian D-s-r. And Zeezrom and Gazelem, when we drop the archaic mimetic ending (-m), do share a similar consonantal root base: z-z-r/g-z-l ~ D-s-r/g-z-r. Alma gets the form Gazelem from an archaic oracle; Zeezrom may reflect a current Nephite pronunciation: it's a matter of cognates. We're getting somewhere now: In his study of West Semitic names, Professor Herbert Bardwell Huffmon lists both Gazariya (ga-zr-ri-ya) and Gzry as derivatives of g-z-r (entscheiden, schneiden; to divide up, cut up; cut), Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts: A Structural and Lexical Study (Baltimore, Maryland, 1965), 130. Has anyone ever linked archaic King Djoser to West Semitic Gazariya? I doubt it, but both names come from a common root.

"My servant Gazelem" (Alma 37:23; Doctrine and Covenants, Sections 78; 82; 104 = Gazelam) may thus signify, as title: one cut off, separated, dedicated, or made consecrate. Gazelem is the consecrated servant of the Lord, a Nazirite indeed, one set apart or consecrated to discover or reveal secrets (r-z), with piercing gaze, by means of a cut jewel or stone. "I will prepare unto my servant Gazelem, a stone": the richly poetic sentence begins with a play on words.

I see in the Hebrew verb n-z-r (to set apart, make a Nazirite) a semantic correlate of g-z-r or D-s-r. Perhaps the first litteral, the n, represents the lexicalization of what was originally a niphal passive or reflexive verbal stem; the D or g has perhaps, then, been swallowed up by the second consonant, z. The verb n-tz-r, to vow, must then likewise derive from, or share a common origin with, g-z-r. (See The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 9. For another look at these verbs, see also The Hebrew lexicon gives a like definition of apartness and consecration for nzr, and the symbolic connotations all line up: diadems and crowns of precious stones. Ammon, in the Book of Mosiah, calls the gift of seership held by King Mosiah "this high gift."

While Joseph Smith, who was given sight and power to translate the Book of Mormon, is the Gazelem or Choice Seer of the latter-days (as Joseph of old expresses it in another of the book's archaic places), the name applies not to Brother Joseph alone but to seers of all times and places who work by means of the Interpreters, or Urim and Thummim. It is the consecrated priesthood of the latter-days, with authority to use the Urim and Thummim, who, according to the Isaiah pesher for Isaiah 54 (a chapter which the Resurrected Lord enjoined the Nephites to study diligently), make up the number of sapphire foundation stones for the Temple community, a community set apart from the world (Hugh Nibley and Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 448-9, following research by Yigael Yadin). Gazelem thus reveals the assembled society of saints, the panegyris, even the royal priesthood and a peculiar people--the chosen people of the Stone of Israel.


The latest update (2015) to "Gazelem" in the online Book of Mormon Onomasticon reads: "An etymology based on North-west Semitic gzlgṣlǵzl or ǵṣl would be the most likely, with a dual ending  -êm." But simply noting a correspondence between Gazelem and Northwest Semitic g-z-l (and so on) only opens the game. We can continue the game by searching all the various Afroasiatic languages for cognates. Some matters will always remain difficult. For instance, the idea of a "dual ending" -em, given the debates over the morphemic values of -m or -em or -aim, would not be easy to establish.

A reference to Gazelem [written Gazelum] appears in the Funeral Sermon for Joseph and Hyrum Smith. William W. Phelps, who delivered the sermon, wrote the document from memory in 1855. For that reason, it is not possible to know how much the written sermon reflects the original.

"Surely, as one of the holy ones commissioned by his father among the royal seventy, when the high council of heaven set them apart [d-s-r] to come down. . . he was the 'last,' and who knows but the 'greatest,' for he declared--we--knew not who he was! I may say, as the last is to be the first and the first last, in eternal rotation, that Joseph Smith, who was Gazelum, in the spirit world, was, and is, and will be in the endless progress of Eternity:--the Prince of Light."

How are we to read that last sentence? I would suggest: "Joseph Smith (who was Gazelem), in the spirit [i.e., spiritual] world was, and is, and will be in the endless progress of Eternity, the Prince of Light [meaning, the Prince or First among the chosen prophets, that is to say, the revealers of light and truth]. Another possibility would be: "Joseph Smith (who was Gazelem in the spirit world), etc." Either reading satisfies me. Though I don't know exactly how Brother Phelps saw things, the second reading doesn't, perhaps, fit the Book of Mormon designation of Gazelem as a mortal man given sight and power to reveal the hidden mysteries of the Lord's economy in earlier ages of the world.

The manuscript copy may be examined in the Church History Library; I've also looked at the typescript publication of it in Richard Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, "The Joseph/Hyrum Smith Funeral Sermon," BYU Studies 23:1 (1983), 3-18 [see esp. page 8]. (Some of the wording of the sermon much recalls a sermon said to have been delivered by Joseph Smith and written by memory by George Laub after the death of the Prophet.) Pace Van Wagoner and Walker, Phelps's recovered sermon (recovered from memory) has both pathos and beauty and ought to be better known.

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