Zeptah and Egyptes

Book of Abraham Insight #8

The Book of Abraham contains the following account of the discovery of Egypt by the descendants of Ham: “The land of Egypt [was] first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus” (Abraham 1:23). This woman “discovered the land [when] it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.” Thereafter “first government of Egypt” was established by “Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham” (vv. 24–25).

This genealogy in the Book of Abraham reflects the names of the characters as printed in the 1 March 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons.1 Two of the names, however, are rendered differently in the 1835 Kirtland-era Book of Abraham manuscripts. The name of Ham’s wife in all three Kirtland-era manuscripts is either “Zep-tah” or “Zeptah.”2  Additionally, the name of Ham and Zeptah’s daughter is Egyptes in the Kirtland-era manuscripts, as opposed to Egyptus.3

The name Zeptah stands out since it could very plausibly be a rendering of the Egyptian name Siptah (sꜣ ptḥ), meaning “son of [the god] Ptah.”4 This name, as well as its feminine equivalent “daughter of [the god] Ptah” (sꜣt ptḥ), is attested during the likely time of Abraham (circa 2,000–1,800 BC).5 It is also the name of an Egyptian king who lived many centuries after Abraham.6 The spelling of the name with a Z instead of an S is not a problem for the Book of Abraham, since in the Egyptian language of Abraham’s time “these two consonants were pronounced the same, like English s as in set.” They were “essentially one consonant [in the Egyptian language of this time], and could often be written interchangeably.”7

The name Zeptah as it appears in one of the Kirtland-era Book of Abraham manuscripts. Image via The Joseph Smith Papers Project.

The name Egyptes/Egyptus is clearly related to the name Egypt, which comes from the Greek Aigyptos (Latin: Aegyptus). Aigyptos is a rendering of one of the Egyptian names for the ancient city of Memphis, which contains the theophoric Ptah element (ḥwt-kꜣ-ptḥ; literally “the estate of the Ka [spirit] of [the god] Ptah”).8 Since Egyptes/Egyptus is a Greek name that would be anachronistic for Abraham’s day, it might reflect the work of ancient scribes transmitting the text who “updated” the name centuries later. This may have been the case with the name Zeptah as well.9

We don’t know for certain why Joseph Smith changed the names Zeptah and Egyptes when he published the Book of Abraham in 1842. The change from Egyptes to Egyptus might easily be explained as the modern scribe(s) for the Book of Abraham originally mishearing the name and being corrected later.10 The change from Zeptah to Egyptus is harder to explain. It could have been the result of scribe Willard Richards incorrectly copying the name shortly before the Book of Abraham was published.11 Another possibility is that the Prophet or one of his scribes who read through the text of the Book of Abraham beforehand substituted a more familiar name for the less familiar one to make it more consistent with other names in the text.12

But why would a woman have a man’s name like Zeptah? One possibility is that the name was confused by ancient scribes copying the text after Abraham’s lifetime. This seems to have happened before to other ancient Egyptian figures, including, potentially, a male Egyptian king named Netjerkare Siptah who lived before Abraham’s lifetime and who appears to have been mistaken as a beautiful woman for almost 2,000 years because of ancient scribal mistakes.13 Perhaps a similar problem happened when the Book of Abraham was copied over the centuries.

Alternatively, Egyptologist Vivienne G. Callender argues that Netjerkare Siptah was in fact a woman ruler named Neitikrety Siptah, despite the masculine form of Siptah in her name.

Perhaps the presence of the phrase, ‘Son of Ptah’, . . .  may have been a specific tribute to the Memphite god, who was particularly prominent at this time. The masculinity of this name . . . is not a problem for a feminine ruler, because the masculine filiation, sꜣ Rˁ [son of Re], was later used by other female rulers, such as Sobekneferu, who fluctuated between using male and female nomenclature. Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Tausret all used various forms of masculine display or titulary when they were rulers, so, if she had been a female ruler, perhaps Neit-ikrety may have done the same, and the title, sꜣ ptḥ, may have been used to indicate that her monarchy was different from that of the other rulers who used sꜣ Rˁ in the Old Kingdom.14

If this argument is correct, then we would have an attested ancient Egyptian female personality using precisely the same masculine name as in the Book of Abraham.

While we may not be able to currently answer these questions entirely, what can be said is that the name Zeptah in the Book of Abraham is, arguably, authentically Egyptian.

Further Reading

Hugh Nibley, “A Pioneering Mother,” in Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 466–556.

Footnotes

 

1 “Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 705.

2 Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2018), 199, 211, 227.

3 Jensen and Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, 199, 211, 227.

4 The god Ptah was “one of the oldest of Egypt’s gods,” with evidence for his worship as early as the Early Dynastic Period (circa 3,100–2,700 BC). Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 123; Jacobus Van Dijk, “Ptah,” in The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, ed. Donald B. Redford (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2002), 322. Among his other attributes, Ptah was imagined early on as a craftsman and creator god, and was later associated with Nun and Nunet, the godly personifications of the primeval waters of creation. Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2002), 182. This may have significance for the Book of Abraham’s depiction of Egypt being “under water” when it was first discovered by Zeptah and her family.

5 Hermann Ranke, Die Ägyptischen Personennamen, 3 vols. (Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin Verlag, 1935), 1:282, 288.

6 Aidan Dodson and Dyan Hilton, The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 181; Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 243–244; Ronald J. Leprohon, The Great Name: Ancient Egyptian Royal Titulary (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 124.

7 James P. Allen, Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 3rd rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 19.

8 See the discussion in Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 466–556, esp. 526–539; cf. Manetho, Aegyptiaca (I.5).

9 “The transmission of [ancient] documents allowed for updating of language,” including place names and personal names. John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2013), 32. This is seen in the Bible where the names of two of king Saul’s sons are given as Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel but are rendered Eshbaal and Meribaal in 1 Chronicles. While not all scholars agree on the meaning of this divergence, many think the baal (as in the god Baal) element was deliberately replaced by scribes with bosheth (the Hebrew word for “shame”). See the discussion in Michael Avioz, “The Names Mephibosheth and Ishbosheth Reconsidered,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 32, no. 1 (2011): 11–20. City names might also be updated by scribes so that the older name is given along with the name the city was known by at the time the scribe was working. This is seen in Judges 18:29: “They named the city Dan, after their ancestor Dan, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was formerly Laish.” Examples of Egyptian scribes actively “updating” and “expanding” the language older texts, including names and epithets, can also be cited. See for instance Emile Cole, “Interpretation and Authority: The Social Functions of Translation in Ancient Egypt,” PhD dissertation (2015), 167–171, 201–205; and the discussion in Emily Cole, “Language and Script in the Book of the Dead,” in Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt, ed. Foy Scalf (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2017), 41–48.

10 Jensen and Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, 292n78.

11 Jensen and Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, 261.

12 One author has suggested that the name was changed “for consistency,” since Joseph had already “translated or transliterated the name of the country as Egypt.” This makes sense, because “Joseph Smith was translating the papyrus into English for readers who were already commonly familiar with this nomenclature.” James R. Clark, The Story of the Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1955), 127, emphasis in original. Another possibility is that the change was made because the Prophet or one of his clerks had come to view Zeptah and Egytpes as the same person. The story seems to still work if they are viewed as the same person, but the textual history makes it seem more likely these are two different women. For another proposed explanation for this change, see Brent Lee Metcalfe, “The Curious Textual History of ‘Egyptus’ the Wife of Ham,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 34, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2014): 1–11.

13 Kim Ryholt, “The Late Old Kingdom in the Turin King-list and the Identity of Nitocris,” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache 127 (2000): 87–100.

14 Vivienne G. Callender, “Queen Neit-ikrety/Nitokris,” in Abusir and Saqqara in the Year 2010/2011, ed. Miroslav Bárta, Filip Coppens, and Jaromír Krejčí (Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, 2011), 256.

Sobek, The God of Pharaoh

Relief of the god Sobek

Book of Abraham Insight #7

The opening chapter of the Book of Abraham identifies “the god of Pharaoh” as being one of the idolatrous gods worshipped by Abraham’s kinsmen (Abraham 1:6, 9, 13, 17). In Figure 9 of Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham, this god is depicted as a crocodile. Is there any evidence for who this god might have been and whether he was worshipped in Abraham’s lifetime (circa 2,000–1,800 BC)?

A strong case can be made for identifying the “god of Pharaoh” in the Book of Abraham as the Egyptian deity Sobek.1 This god was worshipped even before Abraham’s day and was commonly depicted as either a crocodile-headed man or a full crocodile wearing a crown.2 Anciently “he was regarded as a powerful deity with several important associations,” among them “procreative and vegetative fertility” and, importantly for the Book of Abraham, “the Egyptian king . . . as a symbol of pharaonic potency and might.”3

The worship of Sobek was popular in Egypt in Abraham’s time. Many names from this period contain the name Sobek as a theophoric element,4 including the name of the last ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1991–1782) and no less than seven different rulers of the Thirteenth Dynasty (ca. 1800–1650 BC).5 “[Sobek’s] sanctuaries were numerous and widespread” throughout Egypt during this time.6 Iconography of the god Sobek even made its way into northern Syria, a likely candidate for Abraham’s homeland.7 At the site of Ebla, an important Syrian city throughout the third and second millennia BC, artifacts bearing the images of different Egyptian gods, including Sobek, have been identified by archaeologists.8

Specimens of ivory plaques discovered at the site of Ebla bearing marks of Egyptian style and influence. The crocodile figure (D) is very likely a representation of the god Sobek. Image from Anna-Latifa Mourad (2015), 173.

The ancient Egyptian king Amenemhet III, who was a contemporary of Abraham’s, venerated Sobek, bringing the god “to specific prominence” during his reign.9 In a hymn praising Sobek, Amenemhet III is mentioned towards the end thus: “It is for Sobek the Shedytite, Horus dwelling in Shedyt, lord of myrrh, delighting in the giving of incense. May thou be merciful to King Amenemhet, through whom thy face is happy on this day.”10

From evidence unknown in Joseph Smith’s day,11 we can say the following about “the god of Pharaoh” in the Book of Abraham and Facsimile 1. First, the god in question is most likely the crocodile deity Sobek. Second, among other things, Sobek was closely associated with the Pharaoh of Egypt.12 Third, Sobek was especially venerated by king Amenemhet III, a pharaoh contemporary to Abraham. Fourth, and finally, specimens of Sobek iconography have been recovered from the likely region of Abraham’s homeland during the right period for Abraham’s lifetime (the Middle Bronze Age).

All of this “provides concrete archaeological evidence that . . . the [B]ook of Abraham accurately describes an aspect of the ancient world about which Joseph Smith could have known little or nothing.”13

Further Reading

Quinten Barney, “Sobek: The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh Amenemhet III,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 22–27.

John Gee, “The Crocodile God of Pharaoh in Mesopotamia,” Insights, October 1996, 2.

Footnotes

 

1 See the discussion in Quinten Barney, “Sobek: The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh Amenemhet III,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 22–27.

2 Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 200; Tine Bagh, “Sobek Crowned,” in Lotus and Laurel: Studies on Egyptian Language and Religion in Honour of Paul John Frandsen, ed. Rune Nyord and Kim Ryholt (Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2015), 1–17.

3 Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 218–219.

4 Hermann Ranke, Die Ägyptischen Personennamen (Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin Verlag, 1935), 1:303–306.

5 Ronald J. Leprohon, The Great Name: Ancient Egyptian Royal Titulary (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 60–61, 64, 67–68, 70.

6 Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 220.

7 Stephen O. Smoot, “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited,”BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 7–37.

8 Beatrice Tessier, Egyptian Iconography on Syro-Palestinian Cylinder Seals of the Middle Bronze Age (Fribourg: University Press Fribourg, 1996), 10n34; Gabriella Scandone Matthiae, “The Relations Between Ebla and Egypt,” in The Hyksos: New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. Eliezer D. Oren (Philadelphia, Penn.: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1997), 421–422; Joan Aruz, Kim Benzel, and Jean M. Evans, Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), 37; Kerry Muhlestein, “Levantine Thinking in Egypt,” in Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature, ed. S. Bar, D. Kahn and JJ Shirley (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 194; Joan Aruz, Sarah B. Graff, and Yelena Rakic, ed., Cultures in Contact: From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), 109–110. Note also the important comment in Anna-Latifa Mourad, Rise of the Hyksos: Egypt and the Levant from the Middle Kingdom to the Early Second Intermediate Period (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2015), 173: “Two additional antithetic [ivory] fragments [discovered at Ebla] represent a falcon-headed figure, whereas another inlay preserves the full body of a crocodile-headed individual. . . . Such Egyptian elements are manifestations of royalty and divinity. The Levantine artist(s) who crafted the inlays was thereby well-versed in Egyptian symbolism and art. The choice to pair the inlays with a piece of palatial furniture further highlights the association of Egyptian art with Eblaite elitism and power.”

9 Tine Bagh, “Sobek Crowned,” 1.

10 Barney, “Sobek,” 26, modifying the translation provided in Alan Gardiner, “Hymns to Sobk in a Ramesseum Papyrus,” Revue d’egyptologie 11, no. 2 (1957): 43–56, quote at 47–48.

11 One source contemporary to Joseph Smith did report that “the crocodile or hippopotamus” was “the emblem of Pharaoh and the Egyptians” and “was one of their principal divinities.” This source also reported that “Pharaoh . . . signifies a crocodile.” Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (London: Thomas Tegg and Son, 1836), 1901, 2148. (This Bible edition with Clarke’s notes was based on an eight-volume commentary series Clarke published between 1810–1826.) By contrast, the Book of Abraham says nothing about hippopotami and indicates that “Pharaoh signifies king by royal blood” (Abraham 1:20), not “crocodile.” Furthermore, none of the archaeological or inscriptional evidence confirming Sobek’s presence in northern Syria or his association with Egyptian kingship was available in Joseph Smith’s lifetime.

12 See further Elizabeth Laney, “Sobek and the Double Crown,” The Ancient World: A Scholarly Journal for the Study of Antiquity 24 (2003): 155–168, esp. 158; Maryan Ragheb, “The Rise of Sobek in the Middle Kingdom,” American Research Center in Egypt: “[I]t was Amenemhat III who brought the role of ‘Sobek of Shedet-Horus residing in Shedet’ to the highest significance. Sobek-Horus of Shedet became associated with epithets like ‘Lord of the wrrt (White) Crown,’ ‘he who resides in the great palace’ and ‘lord of the great palace.’ All of these epithets were related to the king rather than associated with any god. Even the name of Horus in this merged form was enclosed in a serekh like a king’s name. The king has always been identified as Horus on earth. With the new divine form of Sobek-Horus, the king as Horus merged with Sobek and incorporated himself as one with the god Sobek. Sobek’s association with divine kingship is illustrated in the Amenemhat III’s ‘Baptism of the Pharaoh’ scene at his Madinet Madi Temple in Fayum. This scene, the earliest of its kind, depicts Sobek and Anubis anointing Amenemhat III with ankh signs of life. The anointment marks the king’s initiation into eternal kingship and was usually related to the state god’s divine procreation of the king.”

13 John Gee, “The Crocodile God of Pharaoh in Mesopotamia,” Insights, October 1996, 2.

The Idolatrous God of Elkenah

Book of Abraham Insight #6

The Book of Abraham tells how Abraham’s kinsmen worshipped idols. One of these was the god of Elkenah (Abraham 1:6). When Abraham preached against the worship of this god, he said that his kinsmen “hearkened not unto [his] voice, but endeavored to take away [his] life by the hand of the priest of Elkenah” (v. 7). Not only did the priest try to take Abraham’s life, but “this priest had offered upon this altar three virgins at one time . . . because of their virtue; they would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone, therefore they were killed upon this altar” (v. 11).1 Fortunately, the angel of the Lord delivered Abraham out of the priest’s hands before he could be sacrificed (vv. 15–20; Facsimile 1).

What do we know about the ancient god Elkenah? No deity of that name is mentioned in the KJV Bible,2  but in the last century archaeologists have unearthed evidence of his worship.

Elkenah is very likely the shortened form of the name of the Canaanite god El koneh aratz, meaning “God who created the earth” (or “God, creator of earth”).  Among the ancient Hittites living in Asia Minor he was known as Elkunirsha.4

Originally a Canaanite deity, his worship spread to the Hittite capital of Hattusha in northern Turkey, to Karatepe near the border of modern Turkey and Syria, to Palmyra in inland Syria, to Jerusalem, and to Leptis Magna in Libya. All told, Elkunirsha was worshipped for more than 1500 years—from the time of Abraham to the time of Christ.5

We know something about Elkunirsa [Elkenah] from a Canaanite myth that was preserved by the Hittites.6 Unfortunately, the clay tablets containing this myth are broken, so we do not have all the story. One scholar summarized the story as follows:

Ashertu, the wife of Elkunrisha, attempts to seduce Ba’al [the storm god]. The Storm-god reveals everything to her husband and insults her on his inspiration. Thirsting for revenge, Ashertu regains the favor of her husband who then lets her do whatever she likes with Ba’al. The goddess Anat now comes to the scene. Having overheard the conversation between Elkurnisha and Ashertu, she warns Ba’al.7

Then the text breaks off.

The details of this myth may be unsavory, but it is somewhat reminiscent of the situation described in the Book of Abraham: “These virgins were offered up because of their virtue; they would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone, therefore they were killed upon this altar, and it was done after the manner of the Egyptians” (Abraham 1:11). One way of reading this passage is that worshipping the local gods would involve sexual acts in some way. Some have suggested that the Elkunirsha myth was ritually enacted, but because of the fragmentary nature of the surviving texts, how (or even if) this myth was ritualized is disputed.8

What is clear is that, along with the other deities in the text,9 the god Elkenah mentioned in the Book of Abraham has very likely been identified in the ancient world and was featured in a myth involving violence and sexual acts.

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Idolatrous Gods of Pharaoh,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (2019): forthcoming.

Kevin Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 22–35.

Footnotes

 

1 The ancient Hittites recorded myths about deities engaging in sexual acts with mortals, myths that were possibly enacted in ritual dramas. One class of cult specialists among the ancient Hittites were the šuppiššareš, literally “virgins.” There may even have been a rare instance of the Hittite king and queen enacting a “fertility rite” of some sort that included sexual intercourse, although the evidence for this isn’t entirely clear. See Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., “Sexualität(sexuality). B. Bei den Hethitern,” in Reallexikon der Assyriologie 12 (5/6) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 427–430. The sacrifice of the “virgins” in Abraham 1:11 to the idolatrous gods of the Chaldeans might be read in this context.

2 The name Elkanah appears in the KJV Bible as a male personal name. It is, for example, the name of the prophet Samuel’s father (1 Samuel 1:1, 4, 8, 19, 21, 23). A form of the name appears in the Hebrew Bible as a divine epithet (e.g. Genesis 14:19, 22), but in the KJV it is translated (“God, possessor of heaven and earth”) as opposed to transliterated as a proper name/epithet (El elyon koneh shamayim wa aratz). The personal name Elkanah in the Bible is derived from this divine name/epithet.

3 W. Röllig, “El-Creator-Of-The-Earth,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 280–281; Kevin Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 22–35.

4 Ben H. L. Gessel, Onomasticon of the Hittite Pantheon (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998), 1:63; Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 82–83; Maciej Popko, Religions of Asia Minor (Warsaw: Academic Publications Dialog, 1995), 128; N. Wyatt, “Asherah,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 101.

5 Patrick D. Miller, Jr. “El, The Creator of Earth,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 239 (1980): 43–46; F.O. Hvidberg-Hansen, “Uni-Ashtarte and Tanit-Iuno: Two Phonecian Goddesses of Fertility Reconsidered from Recent Archaeological Discoveries,” in Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean: First International Conference on Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean. University of Malta, 2–5 September 1985, ed. Anthony Bonanno (Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner Publishing Company, 1985), 170–171.

6 “Although the particular events of this tale are not known from the mythological tablets recovered at Ugarit, the story certainly belongs to the corpus of northern Syrian myths which they represent.” Gary Beckman, “Elkurniša and Ašertu (1.55),” in The Context of Scripture, Volume 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 149; cf. Heinrich Otten, “Ein kanaanäischer Mythus aus Boğazköy,” Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung 1 (1953): 125–150.

7 Popko, Religions of Asia Minor, 128. See also Beckman, “Elkurniša and Ašertu (1.55),” 149.

8 Popko, Religions of Asia Minor, 106; Meindert Dijkstra, “Let Sleeping Gods Lie?” in Reflections on the Silence of God: A Discussion with Marjo Korpel and Johannes de Moor, ed. Bob Becking (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 74–75; Mary R. Bachvarova, “Adapting Mesopotamian Myth in Hurro-Hittite Rituals at Hattuša Ištar, the Underworld, and the Legendary Kings,” in Beyond Hatti: A Tribute to Gary Beckman, ed. Billie Jean Collins and Piotr Michalowski (Atlanta, GA: Lockwood Press, 2013), 30–33. How much ritualized sexual activity occurred in various ancient cultures is an intensely debated question for nearly all cultures where it is alleged to have occurred. The Book of Abraham does not explicitly confirm or deny the practice though it suggests that it was practiced by some in Abraham’s day.

9 John Gee, “The Idolatrous Gods of Pharaoh,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship (2019): forthcoming.

Did Abraham Lie About His Wife Sarai?

Book of Abraham Insight #5

Before he journeyed into Egypt, Abraham was instructed by God: “Behold, Sarai [or Sarah], thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live” (Abraham 2:22–23).

This passage is paralleled in Genesis 12:10–20.1  The rationale behind Abraham’s actions are clear enough. He was “afraid that his wife’s beauty [would] put him in danger when the couple arrive at a foreign kingdom, because he might be killed if the king desires his beautiful wife for himself. This [was] not an unrealistic fear, given how ruthless royalty could be” in the ancient world.2  A key difference between the accounts in Genesis and the Book of Abraham, however, is that the Book of Abraham portrays God as instructing Abraham to engage in the subterfuge, a detail not found in the Genesis account.

The question that naturally arises is whether Abraham was lying by saying Sarai was his sister instead of his wife.3 Some readers of the Book of Abraham are especially bothered by what appears at first glance to be God commanding Abraham to lie.

The important thing to keep in mind is that Genesis 20:12 identifies Sarai as Abraham’s half-sister. “So it is at least possible that Sarah belonged to Abraham’s extended family and was thus considered to be his ‘sister’ in the sense of a near blood relative.”4 Abraham was therefore using somewhat ambiguous terminology and not necessarily making a false statement.5

This tactic would have played well in ancient Egyptian. As Egyptologist John Gee explains,

Abraham was instructed by God to refer to his wife, Sarah, as his sister (Abraham 2:22–25). This takes advantage of an ambiguity in the Egyptian language: the Egyptian word for wife (hime) means only wife, but the Egyptian word for sister (sone) means both sister and wife. Thus, the term that Abraham used was not false, but ambiguous. It was also necessary: since numerous Egyptian texts discuss how pharaohs could take any woman that they fancied and would put the husband to death if the woman was married, this advice saved Abraham’s life.6

Finally, it is noteworthy that a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Genesis Apocryphon depicts Abraham being warned in a dream of the danger he faced when traveling into Egypt because of Sarai’s beauty. This in turn prompted his equivocation with Pharaoh.7 While this text does not overtly say that God told Abraham to “lie” about his relationship with Sarai, it heavily implies that he was divinely forewarned of the situation. This harmonizes nicely with the account in the Book of Abraham.

Further Reading

Gaye Strathearn, “The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 100–116.

Hugh Nibley, “The Sacrifice of Sarah,” in Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 343–381.

Footnotes

 

1 This so-called “sister/wife” motif is picked up again at Genesis 20:1–18 and Genesis 26:6–11 but involves different characters. For some perspective on this motif, see Gaye Strathearn, “The Wife/Sister Experience: Pharaoh’s Introduction to Jehovah” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 100–116.

2 Hilary Lipka, “Sarah, Abraham, and Pharaoh,” Bible Odyssey, online at www.bibleodyssey.org. See additionally the insights offered by James K. Hoffmeier, “The Wives’ Tales of Genesis 12, 20 & 26 and the Covenants at Beer-Sheba,” Tyndale Bulletin 43, no. 1 (1992): 81–100.

3 Yael Shemesh, “Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Society 29 (2002): 88–89; Shira Weiss, Ethical Ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible: Philosophical Analysis of Scriptural Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 130–138.

4 Strathearn, “The Wife/Sister Experience,” 103. See additionally the remarks in Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 361–363.

5 Shemesh, “Lies by Prophets and Other Lies in the Hebrew Bible,” 88. “[The biblical text] is implying that [Abraham] did not lie to Abimelech [and also Pharaoh in Genesis 12:13] but only concealed vital information from him.”

6 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2017), 102. Note that Gee is using the Coptic spelling for the words ḥmt and snt. The Egyptian texts Gee is referring to include Pyramid Text 317, P. D’Orbiney (BM EA 10183), and the Bentresh Stele (Louvre C 284). For Pyramid Text 317, see Kurt Sethe, Die Altaegyptischen Pyramidentexte (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1908–1910), 1:261; Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 99; James P. Allen, The Egyptian Coffin Texts, Volume 8: Middle Kingdom Copies of Pyramid Texts (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2006), 293; Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 1:40; James P. Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 60; for P. D’Orbiney (BM EA 10183), see Alan H. Gardiner, Late-Egyptian Stories (Bruxelles: Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1932), 22–21; Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 2:208; for the Bentresh Stele (Louvre C 284), see Adriaan de Buck, Egyptian Readingbook (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 1963), 106; Orell Witthuhn et al., Die Bentresch-Stele: Ein Quellen- und Lesebuch (Göttingen: Seminar für Ägyptologie und Koptologie der Georg-August-Universität, 2015); Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, 3:91. On the usage of sone (snt) as both sister and wife, see Rainer Hannig, Ägyptisches Wörterbuch II: Mittleres Reich und Zweite Zwischenzeit (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern Verlag, 2006), 2:2247–2253, esp. 2253. See also Rainer Hannig, Ägyptisches Wörterbuch I: Altes Reich und Erste Zwischenzeit (Mainz: Philipp von Zabern Verlag, 2003), 1153–54.

7 John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2001), 26–29.

Ur of the Chaldees

Book of Abraham Insight #4

The opening verse of the Book of Abraham places the story “in the land of the Chaldeans” (Abraham 1:1). Several references to the city of Ur and “Ur of the Chaldees” are also present in the text (Abraham 1:20; 2:1, 4, 15; 3:1). This location is said to be the “residence of [Abraham’s] fathers” and Abraham’s own residence and “country” (Abraham 1:1; 2:3).

The Book of Abraham gives some specific details about Ur and this “land of the Chaldeans” that are not found in the Genesis account (Genesis 11:26–32; 12:1–5). This includes an apparent degree of Egyptian cultural and religious influence in the area (Abraham 1:6, 8–9, 11, 13) and being in or near the vicinity of “the plain of Olishem” (Abraham 1:10).

Where exactly is Abraham’s “Ur of the Chaldees”? For centuries, the traditional location for Muslims, Jews, and Christians was the city of Urfa (modern Sanliurfa in southeast Turkey). In the 1920s, however, the excavations of Sir Leonard Woolley at Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq identified an ancient Sumerian city called Urim or Uru.1 Woolley argued that this site was the location of Abraham’s Ur, not the traditional site in Turkey. Woolley’s argument has since gained widespread acceptance amongst biblical scholars.

Sanliurfa, Turkey, one of the proposed sites for Abraham’s Ur, approximately 94 miles (151 km) east of Gaziantep, Turkey and 30 miles (48 km) north of Harran, Turkey.

While Woolley’s identification of Urim with the biblical Ur has remained popular, other scholars have challenged it. Chief among them has been Cyrus Gordon—a member of Woolley’s excavation team2—who disputed Woolley’s identification on linguistic and archaeological grounds.3 He and a vocal minority of scholars have argued for candidates in northern Syria and southern Turkey as being Abraham’s Ur.

An additional complication besides locating Abraham’s Ur is identifying the ancient “Chaldeans” or “Chaldees” mentioned in both the Book of Abraham and the book of Genesis. Our best current evidence suggests they were a nomadic Semitic tribe from modern Syria who emigrated into Mesopotamia and established a dynasty that came to power as the Babylonian Empire.4 The infamous biblical king Nebuchadnezzar was a descendant of these Chaldeans, and by his time the name Chaldean had become synonymous with Babylonian.5 Unfortunately, we have practically no inscriptional or archaeological evidence for the identity of the Chaldeans before they entered Mesopotamia long after Abraham’s lifetime. We therefore still have large gaps in the archaeological record that do not permit us to say much about the Chaldeans during Abraham’s lifetime.

Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq, another proposed location for Abraham’s Ur, approximately 150 miles (240 km) away from the Persian Gulf.

Latter-day Saint scholars who have approached this question have pointed out that a northern Syrian-Turkish location for Ur is much more favorable for the Book of Abraham than a southern Mesopotamian location.6 For one thing, as mentioned, the Book of Abraham mentions some kind of Egyptian cultural influence or presence in and around Abraham’s homeland of Ur. Abraham’s kinsmen included “the god of Pharaoh” in their worship (along with a “priest of Pharaoh” to carry out the rituals), and practiced ritual human sacrifice “after the manner of the Egyptians” (Abraham 1:6–13). There is presently no evidence for Egyptian influence in southern Mesopotamia during the lifetime of Abraham (circa 2000–1,800 BC), but there is evidence for Egyptian influence in northern Syria at this time.

Additionally, the proximity of Abraham’s Ur to “the plain of Olishem” is an important geographical detail that works best in a northern as opposed to southern location. The Book of Abraham’s Olishem has been plausibly identified with the ancient city of Ulisum or Ulishum located somewhere in southern Turkey (although the precise location remains debated).7

Taken together, the evidence from the Book of Abraham text and external archaeological and inscriptional sources can reasonably point us in the general direction of modern northern Syria and Turkey as the ancient homeland of Abraham. While there are many questions that scholars still grapple with, enough evidence has surfaced over the years that paints a generally reliable picture of the historical and geographical world described in the Book of Abraham.

Further Reading

Stephen O. Smoot, “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 7–37.

Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 119–36.

Footnotes

 

1 Leonard Woolley and Max Mallowan, Ur Excavations (London: The British Museum, 1927–62); Leonard Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees (London: E.  Benn., 1929); Leonard Woolley, Abraham: Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins (London: Faber and Faber, 1936); Leonard Woolley, Excavations at Ur: A Record of Twelve Years’ Work (London: E. Benn. 1954); Leonard Woolley and P. R. S. Moorey, Ur “of the Chaldees,” rev. ed. (London: Herbert Press, 1982).

2 Cyrus H. Gordon, A Scholar’s Odyssey (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 35–36. Gordon was skeptical of Woolley’s efforts to “prove” the Bible was true for “well-heeled and God-fearing widows,” feeling that his efforts to link Abraham’s Ur with Tell el-Muqayyar compromised his otherwise “masterful” archaeological abilities.

3 Cyrus H. Gordon, “Abraham and the Merchants of Ura,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17 (January 1958): 28–31; “Abraham of Ur,” in Hebrew and Semitic Studies, ed. D. Winton Thomas and W. D. McHardy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 77–84; “Where Is Abraham’s Ur?” Biblical Archaeology Review 3, no. 2 (1977): 20–21, 52; Cyrus H. Gordon, “Recovering Canaan and Ancient Israel,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, 4 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995), 4:2784.

4 A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 160–63; Trevor Bryce, Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia (London: Routledge, 2009), 158.

5 Richard S. Hess, “Chaldea,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:886; Bryce, Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia, 159. But see also the cautionary note in Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “Arameans, Chaldeans, and Arabs in Cuneiform Sources from the Late Babylonian Period,” in Arameans, Chaldeans, and Arabs in Babylonia and Palestine in the First Millennium B.C., ed. A. Berlejung and M. P. Streck (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2013), 33, 51, who points out that “relying solely on cuneiform sources from Babylonia, which are relatively abundant, we find no evidence that Nebuchadnezzar considered himself the ruler of Chaldeans and Arameans.” Instead, the Neo-Babylonian dynasty appears to have “adopted an archaizing political vocabulary which harked back to the time of the First Dynasty of Babylon and even to the Old Akkadian period. The perennial and unchanging nature of Babylonian civilization and its Sumero-Akkadian heritage was emphasized, and the reality of a society fragmented along ethnic, tribal, and linguistic lines, as well as by several other factors of social and institutional nature seems to be denied.”

6 John A. Tvedtnes and Ross Christensen, “Ur of the Chaldeans: Increasing Evidence on the Birthplace of Abraham and the Original Homeland of the Hebrews,” in Special Publications of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1985); John M. Lundquist, “Was Abraham at Ebla? A Cultural Background of the Book of Abraham,” in Studies in Scripture—Volume Two: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City: Randall Book, 1985), 230–35; Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Where Was Ur of the Chaldees?” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1989), 127–31; Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, ed. Gary P. Gillum, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 234–36, 238, 247; John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2001), 70–72; Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2009), 418–28; John Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 34–39.

7 John Gee, “Has Olishem Been Discovered?” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 104–7.

The Plain of Olishem

Book of Abraham Insight #3

The opening chapter of the Book of Abraham mentions a location named “the plain of Olishem” (Abraham 1:10). It isn’t clear from the text whether the plain itself was Olishem, or whether some city or region in the area to which the plain was adjacent was Olishem, or if the plain takes its name from a major city on the plain. In any case, this “plain of Olishem” was near Abraham’s homeland of Ur of the Chaldees according to the Book of Abraham.

In 1985, a Latter-day Saint archaeologist named John M. Lundquist published a pioneering article situating the Book of Abraham in a plausible ancient geographical and cultural environment in northern Mesopotamia.1 Among the points discussed by Lundquist was the plausible identification of Olishem with the ancient place name Ulisum (or Ulishum). Lundquist pointed to inscriptional evidence dating to the time of the Akkadian king Naram Sin (who reigned circa 2254–2218 BC) which spoke of Ulisum in what is today northern Syria or southern Turkey.2 Scholars have debated the location of this ancient city and at least half a dozen different sites have been proposed over the years.

Subsequent studies have built upon and strengthened this enticing identification of Olishem in the Book of Abraham as the ancient Ulisum.3 In fact, one non-Latter-day Saint archaeologist working in the area has favorably suggested a possible (though inconclusive) connection between Olishem and Ulisum on linguistic, chronological, and geographical grounds.4 In 2013, excavators at the Turkish site of Oylum Höyük near the Syrian border announced that it was the ancient Ulisum mentioned in the inscription of Naram Sin and identified it as “the city of Abraham.” Another Latter-day Saint scholar, Egyptologist John Gee, reviewed this evidence uncovered by the Turkish excavators and deemed its confirming significance for the Book of Abraham “promising but not proven.”5

Oylum Höyük in modern Turkey on the Kilis plain, approximately 45 miles (73 km) north of Aleppo, Syria.

The evidence for the proposed site is not conclusive. There are still gaps in the archaeological and inscriptional record that preclude a definitive identification of the Book of Abraham’s Olishem with Ulisum and with any particular archaeological site. (For one thing, no inscriptional evidence at the site of Oylum Höyük mentions the ancient name of the site.) Nevertheless, the following can be said with a fair amount of certainty:

  1. There is definitely an ancient site with the name Ulisum or Ulishum.
  2. There is no agreement as to the precise location of Ulisum, but it can most likely be identified in a specific general region (southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border). Many scholars are interested in exploring where precisely Ulisum may be in this region.6
  3. Olishem is a name from the Book of Abraham, which matches the phonetics and time period of the known site of Ulishum.
  4. The region of the ancient Ulisum matches well with some geographic interpretations of the Book of Abraham.7

Textual and archaeological studies about Ulisum can inform our understanding of the Book of Abraham, and studying the Book of Abraham can in turn inform these textual and archaeological studies because the Book of Abraham provides geographical information about Olishem not available in any other ancient source.

Future discoveries may shed further light on this topic, but for now it can be said that Ulisum is plausible and promising (though not yet definitive) evidence for the Book of Abraham’s Olishem.8

Further Reading

John Gee, “Has Olishem Been Discovered?” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 104–107.

John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 63–98.

Footnotes

 

1 John M. Lundquist, “Was Abraham at Ebla? A Cultural Background of the Book of Abraham (Abraham 1 and 2),” in Studies in Scripture, Volume Two: The Pearl of Great Price, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City, UT: Randall Book Co., 1985), 225–237.

2 Lundquist, “Was Abraham at Ebla?” 233–234.

3 John Gee and Stephen D. Ricks, “Historical Plausibility: The Historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 75–76.

4 Atilla Engin, “Oylum Höyük İçin Bir Lokalizasyon önerisi: Ulisum/Ullis/İllis,” in Armizzi: Engin Özgen’e Armağan, ed. Atilla Engin, Barbara Helwing, and Bora Uysal (Ankara: Asitan Kitap, 2014), 136.

5 John Gee, “Has Olishem Been Discovered?” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 2 (2013): 104–107, quote at 106.

6 J. R. Kupper, “Uršu,” Revue d’assyriologie 43 (1949): 80–82; Albrecht Goetze, “An Old Babylonian Itenerary,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 7 (1953): 69–70; Sidney Smith, “Ursu and Haššum,” Anatolian Studies 6 (1956): 35, 37–41; Margarete Falkner, “Studien zur Geographie des alten Mesopotamien,” Archiv für Orientforschung 18 (1957-1958): 31; Alfonso Archi, Paolo Emilio Pecorella, and Mijo Salvini, Gaziantep e la sua regione (Roma: Edizioni dell-Ateneo, 1971), 37–46; Dennis Pardee, “Ugaritic Proper Nouns,” Archiv für Orientforschung 36/37 (1989/1990): 500; Piotr Michalowski and Adnan Mısır, “Cuneiform Texts from Kazane Höyük,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 50 (1998): 53; Atilla Engin, “Oylum Höyük İçin Bir Lokalizasyon önerisi: Ulisum/Ullis/İllis,” 129–49.

7 See the discussion in Stephen O. Smoot, “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 7–37, esp. 33–34.

8 Gee, “Has Olishem Been Discovered?” 107.

Human Sacrifice

Book of Abraham Insight #2

The Book of Abraham begins with an account of the biblical patriarch Abraham almost being sacrificed to “dumb idols” and “strange gods” (Abraham 1:7–8). The form of sacrifice practiced by Abraham’s kinsmen in Ur (vv. 8, 13) was said to be “after the manner of the Egyptians” (vv. 9, 11), and indeed a “priest of Pharaoh” was involved in this procedure (vv. 7–8, 10). This suggests that Abraham’s kinsmen had adopted elements of Egyptian practice and incorporated these elements into their local (Chaldean) practice.

This raises the question of whether the ancient Egyptians ever practiced “human sacrifice.”1  While scholars might disagree on what precise terminology to use, there is, in the words of one Egyptologist, “indisputable evidence for the practice of human sacrifice in classical ancient Egypt.”2  Some of the evidence for this practice dates to the likely time of Abraham (circa 2,000–1,800 BC). “The story presented in the Book of Abraham matches remarkably well with the picture of ritual slaying” in Egypt during the same time period, concludes two Egyptologists in a study of this evidence.3

For example, a stone inscription from the eighteenth-century BC decrees that anyone trespassing sacred space reserved only for priests would be burned. This indicates a cultural setting or “milieu in which slaying someone for desecration of sacred space was an accepted practice.”4 A royal inscription from two centuries earlier depicts the Egyptian king as decreeing death upon “children of the enemy” for desecrating a temple. This apparently included punishment by flaying, impalement, beheading, and burning. “[W]hen the sacred house of a god had been desecrated, the Egyptian king responded by sacrificing those responsible.”5

There is also direct archaeological evidence for “human sacrifice” or ritual slaying at an Egyptian fortress at the site of Mirgissa in modern northern Sudan. During the time of Abraham, this site was part of the Egyptian empire and was under Egyptian control. Discovered at the site was “a deposit . . . containing various ritual objects such as melted wax figurines, a flint knife, and the decapitated body of a foreigner slain during rites designed to ward off enemies. Almost universally, this discovery has been accepted as a case of human sacrifice.”6

This view is supported by so-called execration texts, or magical spells used to ward off evil and curse enemies by destroying a wax or clay human effigy (comparable to a voodoo doll).8  It would appear from the evidence uncovered at Mirgissa that on some occasions these magical rituals were performed on actual humans (as opposed to figurines), such as foreigners who were seen as a threat to Egyptian political and social order.9

From this evidence, we can conclude the following about Egyptian “human sacrifice” during Abraham’s lifetime:

  • That it was more or less “ritual” in nature.
  • That it was sometimes undertaken “for cultic offenses” or offenses against Egypt’s gods.
  • That “the pharaoh [was sometimes] involved and the sacrifice [was sometimes] under his orders.”
  • That sometimes these sacrifices were initiated “for rebellion against the pharaoh.”
  • That “the sacrifice could take place both in Egypt proper and outside the boundaries in areas under Egyptian influence.” 10

These details converge remarkably well with the Book of Abraham, offering a plausible historical context for Abraham’s near-sacrifice.

Further Reading

Kerry Muhlestein, “Sacred Violence: When Ancient Egyptian Punishment was Dressed in Ritual Trappings,” Near Eastern Archaeology, 78, no. 4 (2015): 229–235.

Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 70–77.

Footnotes

 

1 Past studies have looked at the practice of “human sacrifice” among Mesopotamian and Levantine peoples and the implications for the Book of Abraham. See William James Adams Jr., “Human Sacrifice and the Book of Abraham,” BYU Studies 9, no. 4 (1969): 473–480; Kevin Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 29–30. See also the discussion in Beate Pongratz-Leisten, “Ritual Killing and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East,” in Human Sacrifice in Jewish and Christian Tradition, ed. Karin Finsterbusch, Armin Lange, and K. F. Diethard Römheld (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 3–33.

2 Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 1993), 162–63. Egyptologists typically use phrases such as “sacred violence,” “ritual slaying,” “sanctioned killing,” “capital punishment” and the like to avoid the pejorative connotations that arise with the term “human sacrifice.” Whatever it’s called, the practice documented among the ancient Egyptians ultimately involved putting humans to death for transgressing religious and/or political boundaries, sometimes done in a ritualistic or ceremonial manner. See the discussion in Kerry Muhlestein, Violence in the Service of Order: The Religious Framework for Sanctioned Killing in Ancient Egypt (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2011), 5–8; Herman te Velde, “Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt,” in The Strange World of Human Sacrifice, ed. Jan N. Bremmer (Leuven: Peeters, 2007), 127–134.

3 Kerry Muhlestein and John Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 72.

4 Muhlestein and Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” 73. Compare Harco Willems, “Crime, Cult and Capital Punishment (Mo‛alla Inscription 8),” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76 (1990): 27–54.

5 Muhlestein and Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” 73.

6 Muhlestein and Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” 73.

8 See Kerry Muhlestein, “Execration Ritual,” in UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, online at www.escholarship.org.

9 Muhlestein and Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” 74; Velde, “Human Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt,” 131–132.

10 Muhlestein and Gee, “An Egyptian Context for the Sacrifice of Abraham,” 74.

Abraham and Idrimi

Abraham by Emily Gordon side-by-side with an image of the statue of Idrimi via the Maxwell Institute.

Book of Abraham Insight #1

The Book of Abraham narrates the life of the biblical patriarch in a first-person autobiographical voice. The book begins: “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence” (Abraham 1:1). This first-person voice continues throughout the text as if Abraham himself was writing.

When the Book of Abraham was published in 1842, no other texts from a similar time and place were known. The Book of Abraham was unique in that respect. In the last nearly two hundred years, archaeology has uncovered more texts that we can compare with the Book of Abraham.

One such ancient text discovered in 1939 contains strikingly similar features with the Book of Abraham. It too is an “autobiography” in that it narrates a story in the first-person. It speaks of a ruler named Idrimi who lived in ancient Syria—which is in the vicinity of one very plausible candidate for Abraham’s homeland1—not long after the likely time period of Abraham (circa 2,000–1,800 BC).2 “Idrimi’s autobiography compares well with Abraham’s autobiography in both subject and form,” explains scholar John Gee, “even though Idrimi’s autobiography dates about two hundred years later.”3

Although Idrimi’s text is often called an “autobiography,”4 this term might be somewhat misleading. For instance, “we do not know if such ancient autobiographical texts were written by the individuals themselves, dictated to scribes, or ghostwritten by scribes.” While it is “unlikely that Idrimi carved the words on his statue, . . . he may have been directly responsible for the content of the text.”5 This might similarly be the case with the Book of Abraham.6

The parallels between Abraham’s autobiography and Idrimi’s “autobiography” include the following:

  • Both report their journeys through Canaan.
  • Both emphasize that their travel to their new residence was the result of divine inspiration.
  • Both refer back to promises made to their ancestors for whom they have records.
  • Both describe that they worshipped the way that their fathers did.
  • Both deal in covenants.7

The two texts even open in very similar manners:

Book of Abraham (1:1) “Autobiography” of Idrimi
“In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.” “In Aleppo, my ancestral home . . . I, Idrimi, the son of Ilim-ilimma . . . took my horse, chariot, and groom and went away.”8

The parallels between these two texts and other considerations led Gee to conclude, “The Book of Abraham belongs to the same specific literary tradition as Idrimi’s autobiography.” This, naturally, raises the question, “How did Joseph Smith manage to publish in the Book of Abraham a story that closely matched a Middle-Bronze-Age Syrian autobiography that would not be discovered for nearly a hundred years?”9 The most plausible explanation is that the Book of Abraham belongs to that time period, genre of literature, and part of the world.

Further Reading

John Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 34–39.

 

Footnotes

 

1 See Stephen O. Smoot, “‘In the Land of the Chaldeans’: The Search for Abraham’s Homeland Revisited,” BYU Studies Quarterly 56, no. 3 (2017): 7–37.

2​ John Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22, no. 1 (2013): 34–39.

3 Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 35.

4 See for instance “The Statue of Idrimi,” British Museum, online at www.britishmuseum.org; Tremper Longman III, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography: A Generic and Comparative Study (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1991), 62–63; Piotr Bienkowski, “Autobiographies,” in Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, ed. Piotr Bienkowski and Alan Millard (Philadelphia, Penn.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), 41; Tremper Longman III, “The Autobiography of Idrimi (1.148),” in The Context of Scripture, Volume One: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 479–481; Ekin Kozal and Mirko Novák, “Alalakh and Kizzuwatna: Some Thoughts on the Synchronization,” in Overturning Certainties in Near Eastern Archaeology: A Festschrift in Honor of K. Aslıhan Yener, ed. Çiğdem Maner, Mara T. Horowitz and Allan S. Gilbert (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 297–299.

5 Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 35.

6 From the ancient point of view it would not have really mattered if an author of a text like Abraham used a scribe to do the physical writing or even influenced textual composition. See the discussion in Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 4–9.

7 Paraphrasing Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 38.

8 So translated by Edward L. Greenstein and David Marcus, “The Akkadian Inscription of Idrimi,” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 8 (1976): 67, cited in Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 37. The opening lines of the Idrimi inscription read in their entirety: “In Aleppo, my ancestral home, a hostile [incident] occurred so that we had to flee to the people of Emar, my mother’s relatives, and stay there. My older brothers also stayed with me, but none of them had the plans I had. So I, Idrimi, the son of Ilim-ilimma, devotee of Im, Ḫebat, and my lady Ištar, lady of Alalaḫ, thinking to myself, ‘Whoever his patrimony is a great nobleman, but whoever [remains] among the citizens of Emar is a vassal,’ took my horse, chariot, and groom and went away.”

9 Gee, “Abraham and Idrimi,” 38.