Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Book of Abraham Facsimile 2, Number 8: Something New Under The Sun

The saying Fools rush in where angels fear to tread ought both to sober and to encourage anyone who attempts to read the cuneiform and hieroglyphs that come to us from the Ancient Near East. The ancients beckon us to a rich feast, carefully spread; if we expect McDonald's and fast answers, we're going to drive away both humiliated and disappointed. And we often won't even recognize the humiliation, for the less we truly partake, the more we will crow. Thus it is when anyone insists that a particular type of document, or oft-appearing sentence or idiom in said document, is an open book to any-and-all comers, fully understood by all students everywhere, it doesn't quite ring true. It rings like a french fry machine. 

Or recalls "Joseph Smith Hypocephalus" on Wikipedia--further from the mark one cannot hope to drift.

To study the ancient writings calls for patience, daring, depth. The challenge ever is to take up the task with new eyes and not simply to rely on all previously said or translated, as if all that might be said had already been said. 

Yet some cast aspersions on the Prophet Joseph Smith for saying that a line of hieroglyphs found on Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham: "8. Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God." Nonsense, they say, anybody can read the line: there is no mystery at all. None at all. Not only can these writings indeed "be revealed unto the world," they challenge nobody.

Here is a run-of-the-mill Egyptian sentence, promptly (though variously!) translated by everybody, a sentence whose prolonged theme fills numbers 9-12 (as numbered on the facsimile), and whose focus appears in the final box of text, our number 8 (focus in italic): 

O noble god, lord of heaven, earth, netherworld, mountains, and primordial seas, cause that the ba-soul of Osiris Sheshonq, the deceased, might live.

The sentence under consideration thus has as focus a single, simple verb: s'ankh (s'anx). (And let me assure the reader that the hieroglyphic trace is indeed an [s].) Simple, they say, s'ankh is quite simply the causative form of the verb 'ankh (to live) and, merely, signifies to cause to live

Yet today I find a beautiful, daring, and carefully documented study on that same verb, a study which shows us just how misguided a simplistic reliance on the lexicon and grammars can be. S'nkh, it turns out, has semantic resonance undreamed of. These 30 pages, with their repeated references to initiation, guild, religious ceremonies, divine emanation, and individual induction into the renewing cycles of the cosmic order evoke, for this reader, something more along the lines of what the Prophet Joseph Smith set down than what some fleeting students, shaking their heads with a smile, and staking their reputations on it, have attested. That's quite a verb, that s'ankh, not the simple causative--y punto fijo--we've been sold on. But read the article for yourself. (And more later from this contributor.)

J. Rizzo, « À propos de sʿnḫ, “faire vivre”, et de ses dérivés », ENiM 8, 2015, p. 73-101.