Saturday, August 7, 2010

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

The Book of Alma, in a gem-like passage, 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. In 2 Nephi ancient Joseph intones poetic phrases about the Choice Seer of the latter-days; in Alma, a nameless Jaredite oracle from a far-distant past lisps prophecies of Gazelem.

Alma 37 twice uses the verb prepare in connection with Gazelem. By preparing a stone, we are to understand that the Lord has designed and set apart an object for the particular use of a specially prepared and foreordained seer. There is one matter on which debate, though commonplace, 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. Could you have Gazelem without his stone?

What is the significance of the seeric name Gazelem?

Professor Antonio Loprieno finds in the Egyptian verb Dsr (to clear a path, make separate, set apart; make pure, make sacred) an indisputable cognate to the Semitic verb gzr (to cut, cut off; to separate, decide). Back to Egypt in a moment--but to unlock Gazelem we should begin with what we already know about the familiar, but tricky, Semitic root gzr.

Hugh Nibley long ago pointed at the Aramaic realizations of the Semitic root gzr as helpful in explaining both Gazelem and the special stone, and it is not difficult to figure out that he had been examining Jastrow's famed Aramaic lexicon, with something of Drower's Mandaic Dictionary tossed into the mix. (Mandaic, a dialect of Aramaic, attests gzl.) (See Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, volume 2.)

For instance, Daniel 2:27 speaks of the skills of the Babylonian gazrin, an Aramaic word (see "Gazelem" in The Book of Mormon Onomasticon, Maxwell Institute, BYU for the gazrin and several other occurrences of gzr in the Bible). And it is in Daniel where we read: "that a stone ('even) was cut out (gzr: hithgezeret 'even) without hands."

The Semitic root gzr signifies the action of cutting, naturally including the cutting of stones, and with that in mind, we leaf through Jastrow's 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. Jastrow is a house of treasures, a treasury of connotation--often more encyclopaedia than dictionary--and Book of Mormon Gazelem certainly reflects the various Aramaic words referencing cut sapphire, a secluded place or setting, and so forth. (Compare Hugh Nibley's chapter "Jewel of Discernment" in One Eternal Round, and esp. ps. 448-9.)

After ransacking Jastrow, and pausing to activate the search engines on the CAL database (the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon)--a true dictionary--the student ought to read Edward Lipinski's short but comprehensive article, "The root GZR in Semitic" (Aula Orientalis 17/18, 1999-2000, ps. 493-497). Lipinski notes the prevalence of gzr in Hebrew, Ethiopian, and Arabic, while noting that Aramaic holds "the richest repository of connotations." These include gzr (to cut) as connoting the actions of slaughter, circumcision, cutting treaties (that is, covenants), being "cut off" by an untimely death, ocular divination with sacrificed animals, the demarcation (or "cutting off") of lands by the sweeping flood waters, and the making of decisions. We further note the Phoenician cognate, gzl. A 5th century Phoenician king laments that his fleeting life has been untimely "cut off."

And anyone tuning into satellite TV knows about Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera, ultimately a borrowing into Arabic from Aramaic, references the Holy Island of Arabia, a land doubly "cut off" from the rest of creation, a real so well as metaphorical geology. Another place on the map, Al-Jazira, marks out all of Northern Mesopotamia as wasteland, "cut off" from the inhabitable world, and thus both forbidding and untrodden (Grk. a-batos; see also the place name Algeria).

In Hebrew gezerah marks land set aside, or fenced off, for pasturage; in ritual practice, it marks the rugged wasteland to which the scapegoat is sent, "a land which is cut off" (eretz gezerah, Leviticus 16:22). All of this recalls the Jaredite passage, from Mesopotamia "northward," "into the wilderness, yea, into that quarter where there never had man been," and through which only continuous divine direction could trace the untrodden way (Ether 2:5). Here is one instance in which the Book of Mormon geography is crystal clear.

Place names like Gezer and Ba'al Gezer likely reflect rugged geographic features, cut away from ordinary travel in the form of a natural rampart--what the ancients called a Cumorah. (For Jazirat, Leviticus, and Gezer, again see Lipinski, "The root GZR in Semitic.") Just so, the sacral geography of Ancient Egypt affords us both the demarcated t3 Dsr, the holy land reserved as necropolis, and the Abaton, an island (Philae) set apart for ceremonies of purification (see Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt). I doubt anyone has yet ventured to compare the notionality of the Egyptian t3 Dsr and the Hebrew eretz gezerah.

Thus on to Ancient Egypt, where Antonio Loprieno surprisingly posits the vital Egyptian verb D-s-r or dj-s-r or dj-z-r/l as cognate with Semitic g-z-r, (La pensee et l'ecriture: Pour une analyse semiotique de la culture egyptienne (Paris, 2001), 15. And Gazelem? The lateral 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 (and Hebrew), is an act of dedication by separating or fencing off. Objects, places, and persons are thus cut off, dedicated, prepared (by sweeping or clearing paths), purified, or set apart for sacred purposes. Such objects, persons, and places (including roads) become barred, forbidden, "off-limits" to the common and thus restricted to the designated few--one's own private road. Only after the purposeful removal of physical element from the everyday sphere, and for a specific task, may we speak of a sacred stone or of a holy man of God. (Hugh Nibley often notes how sacer, hagios, qdsh all convey the idea of a fence).

For examples of Dsr as a verb of separating, we find Horus separated from the rebel Seth (and the Sethian): for you are separated (Dsr) from him in your name of Ta Djeser, the Holy Land (Dsr.t(j) jr=f m rn=k n(j) t3 Dsr). We also see Atum in action of separating (Dsr) heaven from earth and the primeval waters (Dsr pt jr t3 nnw). The hieroglyph that writes Dsr shows an outstretched arm holding a baton in act of separation (see Loprieno, 14-15).

So which idea lies at the heart of verbal meaning for Dsr, the clearing of the road? or that of abstract separation? To get at the root of the thing, I picture a horse (or car) happening upon a herd of sheep. The sheep don't scatter before the horse; they divide. It's a clean cut. Here comes the king in procession; at the sight of the royal rod or baton the crowds part, as once the waters of the Red Sea, "hither and thither," in clean cut (See Helaman 8:11). One previously proposed Semitic cognate, drsh (to drive off, and therefore, supposedly, to clear, purify, etc.), does not match the picture half so well as does gzr.

For Loprieno, the arm with baton signifies a near universal idea. Spatial separation appears throughout many religious systems, notably in the idea of the temple, a word deriving from the Indo-European root -tem (the Greek temenos), which, again, means to cut (ibid., 15; cf. Morenz). Dsr thus bespeaks an ordering of the universe into its several constituent parts, including not only the initial work (or divisions) of creation but also the culminating creation of the temple, the accomplished and permanent setting apart of the sacred from the profane. In conjunction with the semantic constellation of (s)st3 (be inaccessible, secret, mysterious) and w'b (to be pure, clean), Dsr signals separation for the related purposes of purity, sacrality, and inaccessibility. To explain the semiosis for moderns, Professor Loprieno suggests comparison with the theology of ritual purity in the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (ibid., 19; cf. the Hebrew root qdsh). Besides, only "purer eyes" can gaze into the spiritual realm (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8; for St, John's white stone, the Urim and Thummim, and the sanctified earth "made like unto crystal" see Doctrine and Covenants 130).

While parallels invite a second look into Mormonism, a reader may wonder whether the intent behind pointing out such matters of correspondence and etymology is to convince the non-believing or to defend the cause against detractors. Not so. Spiritual truth is, ultimately, set apart for those seeking such truth.

Can D-s-r be a personal name? Recall Lehi in the Desert! 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 Gazelem from an archaic (Jaredite?) oracle; Zeezrom may reflect a current Nephite take on the same verb: 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), 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 the very same root. Gzry, or Gazariya, the CAL database reveals, means a "man from Gezer," a Gezerite.

"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 through the instrumentality of a cut jewel or stone.

I further 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. The first element of the root, n, perhaps 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 also reveals the assembled society of saints, the panegyris, even the royal priesthood and a peculiar people--the chosen people of the Stone of Israel.


1) 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 the obvious Northwest Semitic suspects only opens the game. We can continue the game by searching the various Afroasiatic languages for cognates. Some matters will always remain difficult. For instance, the idea of a "dual ending" -em, given the endless debates over the endings -m or -em or -aim, would be impossible to establish. For now we observe that the instrument known as the Urim and Thummim shares with Gazelem, the chosen seer in possession of like instruments, the archaic nominal mimation.

2) I update this piece from time to time for clarity and completeness. For example, the material from Edward Lipinski was not found in earlier versions. I have also expanded on Jastrow and on Loprieno's semiotic treatment of ritual purity and holiness in Egyptian religious texts. Further bibliography may yet be recommended.

A thorough rereading of James Hoffmeier's detailed study of Dsr in light of Loprieno's proposed etymology may prove beneficial to any student (Sacred in the Vocabulary of Ancient Egypt: the term DSR, with special reference to Dynasties I-XX). Why was gzr not previously proposed as a cognate to Dsr? The question of whether clearing the road or separation represents the primary meaning of Dsr, or how the two ideas might notionally correspond, the sometime perceived semantic correspondence with Semitic grsh (to drive away), all these stir round and round and have perhaps obscured the link. Besides, the notionality of cutting in gzr seems, at first blush, a far cry from the idea of separation often expressed by Dsr. It takes a linguist equally attuned to both Semitics and Egyptian to make the link.

4) As has been noted by Royal Skousen, Helaman 8:11 originally read: the waters "departed" "hither and thither." There is a connotative use of gzr, found in both Hebrew and Aramaic, of the ebb and flow of waters. In place of ebb, though, we often find the translation: "swept away," which something recalls the iconography of the baton departing the crowds and restricting the road for the sole use of the king (see discussion in Edward Lipinsky). The menacing rod that clears the roads and vertically separates earth from sky, may also depart the waters.

5) A reference to Gazelem [written Gazelum] appears in the Funeral Sermon for Joseph and Hyrum Smith. William W. Phelps, who delivered the eulogy in 1844, wrote it 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 revelators 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, that is) has both pathos and beauty and ought to be better known.

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