Monday, August 9, 2010

"And it pleased the Lord": The Joseph Smith Translation, the Asherah, and the Kings of Judah

The Prophet Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Holy Bible shows us just how Latter-day Saints--as modern Israel--are to understand that sacred record.

Consider the notions forwarded by some over-zealous students about the religious practices of Ancient Israel, and especially those which concern the worship of the Asherah, or tree goddess, by several kings of Israel and Judah. According to the Received Text of the Holy Bible, it was the wicked kings who worshipped such goddesses and their symbols; the righteous kings destroyed them. Yet some contest the narrative and seek to turn the biblical condemnation of idolatry on its head: good becomes evil; evil, good. It's like making the witch in C. S. Lewis's classic, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the good guy. Proud Jadis, in The Magician's Nephew, now becomes the nurturing mother of Israel--quite a change from Mother of Abominations! What would Nephi say? Or C. S. Lewis?

Given the subtleties of scholarship, how grateful we should be for any light given us on the matter by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

While we don't know everything about how the New Translation of the Holy Bible was effected, we are to see the Prophet and his scribes seated at a table and reading aloud, by turns, the entire Bible, book by book (or nearly so). As they read the Scriptures aloud, pure intelligence would flow.

And what is the New Translation of the Bible? It is not only the inspired additions to and corrections of the Bible which make up the New Translation; we also find the inspired affirmation that the remainder of the Authorised Version, itself translated from the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Received Text, as it stands, is Scripture. That Masoretic Text, a gift from the Jews, is the well-spring of all modern Bibles. In the original manuscripts of the New Translation, the Prophet records not only textual expansions and corrections but also the correctness of most of the biblical text as received.

Even so, there remains room for adjustments and expansion, including the expectation of new Books of John the Baptist and Enoch, and the full version of events on the Mount of Transfiguration, all of which the Doctrine and Covenants promises. And belief in, and confirmation of, the Bible, "as far as it is translated correctly," still gave the Prophet plenty of scope for additional translating, or elucidation through re-wording, as reflected in his Nauvoo letters and sermons and in the Book of Abraham. On the other hand, would-be translators and interpreters are not free to move the pieces around in any manner they may choose: the Prophet, in and through the New Translation, has set some bounds and limits to speculation. All of which, however, does not imply full understanding on anyone's part. How utterly changed our view of the world of the Bible or the Book of Mormon would be, could we but view the events in vision! Even so, the doctrinal and narrative framework set out by the Prophet Joseph in his vision--in his New Translation and in the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham--would yet hold.

Taken together, it is the changes in and approval of the King James or Authorised Version of both Testaments, the Masoretic Text and the Received Text, that alike make up and make for the miracle of the Prophet's New Translation. Recall how after lamenting the loss of plain and precious doctrines from the future Bible in the days of the gentiles, Nephi rounds off his prophecy about that Book with resounding praise for the Masoretic Text: "They shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive [note it well] from them?" (2 Nephi 29:4). While the Greek Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch, a few of the biblical scrolls from the Dead Sea, and the Book of Mormon do indeed, here and there, show added text or variant readings that surely sometimes reflect a better text; it is the Masoretic Text that yet stands as the most complete and correct biblical record of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. I thank the Jews for this. While Latter-day Saints invite any correction to, or even inspired expansion of, Masoretic phraseology, the word of the Lord stands true: it is the Bible "which they receive from [the Jews]," in compass with the plain and precious insights of the Isaiah portions of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet's New Translation, that gets the present stamp of approval as God's word.

With that in mind, let us turn to 1 Kings 15:11-12 and begin with an inspired change or two (noted in italics):

And Asa did right in the eyes of the Lord, as he commanded David his father. And he took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his father had made, and it pleased the Lord.

And now to that which the Prophet, by the same spirit of revelation, left without prophetic change, [although some bracketed explanations might prove helpful]:

1 Kings 15:13

And also Maachah his mother, even her he removed from being queen [and "high priestess"], because she had made an idol in a grove [Heb. the Asherah tree or post]; and Asa destroyed her idol, and burnt it by the brook Kidron.

And--say we in accordance with the divine word--it pleased the Lord.

As did Asa, so Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah, the more righteous of the kings of Judah. Each cleansed and repaired the holy Temple; each destroyed the idols placed in the House of the Lord by apostate fathers and apostate mothers; each destroyed that Isabel, Mother of Abominations and Mystery of Iniquity, planted by apostates in the Temple of God, as if it was God: "Who opposeth and exalteth [her]self above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that [s]he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing [her]self that [s]he is God" (2 Thessalonians 2:4).

We turn next to Chronicles. 2 Chronicles 34:16, in the New Translation, shows an inspired change in idiom only, though the change reflects Ancient Near Eastern conceptions about the king and his "word" as an all but concrete sacred object to be held inviolate, that is, not to be tampered with but fulfilled to the letter. The verse further evidences, by what remains unchanged, that the Prophet authoritatively confirms the biblical account about Josiah's cleansing of the Temple, discovery of the sacred Book of the Law, and destruction of the Asherah: again, that sacrilegious tree or post placed in God's sanctuary as symbol of the Mother of Abominations--the Great and Abominable Church of the devil, as Nephi would say.

King Josiah has commissioned three officials to preside over the repairs of the House:

Now in the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land, and the house, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, and Maaseiah, the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz the recorder, to repair the house of the LORD his God (KJV 2 Chronicles 34:8).

During the repairs, Hilkiah, the priest, discovers "a book of the law of the Lord, given by Moses" and commits it to Shaphan:

And Shaphan carried the book to the king, and brought the word of the king back again, saying, All that was committed to thy servants, they do (JST 2 Chronicles 34:16).

And--we repeat the inspired affirmation--it pleased the Lord. The wording in the New Translation resounds with cultural depth--an understanding of royal commissions, the royal word of command. We see the difference in cultural nuance, when we compare the New Translation with the Authorized Version:

And Shaphan carried the book to the king, and brought the king word back again, saying, All that was committed to thy servants, they do it (KJV 2 Chronicles 34:16).

The Prophet Joseph brought the word of the Scriptures, the word of righteous kings and prophets and judges, even the word of the Lord, back again--and we also sing of how he "brought the Priesthood back again."

And in light of the New Translation--or, for that matter, any translation of the holy writ--I would question the wisdom of following the lead of modern, agenda-striped students on the theme of the Asherah.

For example, consider the implications of associating the symbolism of Asherah and her tree, as some students eagerly do (though intending no harm), with Nephi's vision of the Tree of Life as symbolic of God's eternal love manifest in blessed Mary and her Child.

That the motif of lady-and-tree belongs to the Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean Kulturkreis has never been in dispute. And given the biological and metaphorical likenesses between woman and tree--the slender willow, the delicately flowering cherry, the perfumed orange--the whole matter must be sufficiently rooted in the human psyche to blossom into correspondences everywhere. A look at the work of Mircea Eliade or Stith Thompson (Motif-index of folk-literature) would set things straight.

In other words, the idea that the language of Nephi, a lad steeped in the Genesis story of Adam, Eve, and Eden, refers back to apostate Asherah rather than being a reflection of his own cultivated awareness of deeply rooted cultural and literary themes, as in the Proverbs and the Song of Songs, is both counter-intuitive and the stuff on which Robert Graves and his "white goddess" is made.

Now to the Holy Bible.

To misread the Bible on the worship of the Asherah or of the Queen of Heaven (in Jeremiah 44) is both to misconceive and to misconstrue the Book's very storyline and plot. Whether we choose to accept Scripture, the Bible has its own assumptions about itself. Among these is that Deuteronomy 16:21 (KJV and JST), though penned long before the monarchy came into being, defines just what an Asherah then was and just what an Asherah will be throughout Israelite history--and the plot never varies: "Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of trees [Heb. an Asherah] near unto the altar [Temple] of the Lord thy God, which thou shalt make thee." King Josiah, in a scene foreshadowing King Messiah's cleansing of the Temple--the role of all righteous kings--"brought out the grove [Asherah] from the house of the Lord, without Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and stamped it small to powder, and cast the powder thereof upon the graves of the children of the people [the former adherents of apostate worship]" (2 Kings 23:6, KJV and JST).

One can argue against the Bible's self-assumptions (such as the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy), but to do so is to engage in higher criticism, or to follow faddish agenda and archaeological sensationalism, or to rewrite its hard drive (take your pick).

Some will doubtless say we exaggerate concerns; they will say that by espousing sensationalist scholarship, they do not contemplate a merger, only a dalliance. But what of those poor souls who draw back from intellectual dalliance, as a child shrinks from the fire? Being but children, though we reach for the truth, we mistrust the stranger. However goddesses go or sophisticates parade, "always, always, we'll walk in the light."

How abundantly we thank God for a Prophet who, while restoring lost words and threads of biblical text and teachings, also gives us the Bible anew, even the Masoretic Text--including blessed Deuteronomy!--as a true record of Ancient Israel. And thank the Jews for it, for their great role "in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles" (2 Nephi 29:4; see also 1 Nephi 5:11; 19:23; Moses 1:41).

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.