Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Joseph Smith and the Concept of Multiple Inhabited Worlds: Just Simple Borrowing from Others?

Neighbors in the Tarantula Nebula, just 160,000 light years away.
Latter-day Saints with an interest in science are often intrigued by the coherent network of ideas Joseph Smith's revelations provide on the nature of the cosmos. These teachings include:
  • the material nature of spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8), including the teaching that spirit matter is a form of matter that is too "fine or pure" to be seen with our mortal eyes, yet is still genuine matter; 
  • the eternal nature of matter (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33);
  • the plurality of inhabited worlds inhabited by sons and daughters of God across the immensity of space;
  • the denial of creation ex nihilo
  • the insistence that the Creation is for a remarkable purpose, namely, God's work and glory, the endless work of bringing about the salvation of his children (Moses 1:39); and
  • the eternal nature of intelligence and the genuine free agency that God's children have.
The compatibility of some of Joseph Smith's views with science does not necessarily provide proof or "signs" that Joseph was a prophet, for many of the concepts he revealed and discussed have parallels in prior debates and in the discussions of his day. Some concepts such as the plurality of inhabited worlds can be found among other voices of the Enlightenment and in other sources, as Robert Paul has thoroughly documented. See Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Plurality of Worlds Idea," Dialogue, 19/2 (1986): 13–36. However, the net effect of what he provided gives a cohesive set of concepts that strikes me as revolutionary in several ways. Regarding the plurality of worlds, Paul states that:
On careful examination, these complex issues suggest that the environmental thesis -- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions – does not provide a wholly adequate explanation of the style and structure of restoration pluralism.
 Such can be argued for much of Joseph Smith's cosmology, and certainly for its overall effect.

As for Joseph's coherent cosmic views relative to Christian theology of the day, Terryl Givens in Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) writes:
From an early Mormon perspective, Christian theology was generally too reticent in probing beyond the bounds of the biblically revealed. What of the time before Creation? What was God doing then? Preparing Hell for such as would ask such impudent questions, was the answer Augustine recounted. What of God's other dominions? Why is there man at all? For Milton, it was to compensate for the third of heaven's angels seduced by Satan; the scriptures, however, are silent. What of human destiny in the worlds beyond? What are humans being saved for? Dante thought a state of eternal, rapturous contemplation, and few have proffered more specifics than that. Post-redemption theology seems an oxymoron. (Kindle edition, Chapter 2, footnotes omitted.)
But again, there certainly were ministers speaking of multiple worlds. Some were using it to defend Christianity from deism or to support other arguments, but as Paul observes, Joseph takes this as a given and uses it to teach us God's work and purpose, addressing issues relatively untouched elsewhere. Unfortunately, some critics of the Church attempt to explain away the many profound cosmological and theological aspects of the Book of Abraham by dismissing it as a 19th-centtury fabrication merely drawn from Joseph's environment. The "CES Letter" offers a supposedly well-informed but somewhat shoddy argument on this point, claiming that Joseph merely drew upon a book available in his day.

The book in question is by Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books. A PDF of an 1830 printing is downloadable at Archive.org. Like a number of other evangelical voices of his day, Dick argues for the Christian faith using arguments drawn from science, and along the way speaks of life on multiple worlds. This certainly wasn't a novel concept introduced by Joseph Smith. But the "CES Letter" makes more serious charges of derivation. It claims Joseph owned a copy (at least by 1844, he did have one that he donated to the Nauvoo Library), that Oliver Cowdery quoted from it in 1836, and, more importantly, that it might be the source for the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and that it also rejected creation ex nihilo.

Michael Ash in Bamboozled by the CES Letter  treats this argument, but too briefly for those keenly interested in the scientific aspects of Joseph Smith's universe. More recently, a more thorough response to this issue was provided on the Conflict of Justice blog in the post "Did Joseph Smith Get The Book Of Abraham Cosmology From 'Philosophy Of A Future State'?" The author, Rick Moser, a.k.a "Teancum," is blunt about the CES Letter's reliance Klaus Hansen's claim that Thomas Dick's book teaches eternal, indestructible matter and rejects creation ex nihilo:
False. This is 100% incorrect. Take a look at Philosophy of a Future State. It teaches the creatio ex nihilo doctrine, in contradiction with the Book of Abraham.
None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of stars, which called them from nothing, into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.

What successive creations have taken place since the first material world was launched into existence by the Omnipotent Creator? What new worlds and beings are still emerging into existence from the voids of space? [Dick, p. 214, 1830 printing, or pp. 206-7, Google Books version; emphasis original in Moser]
It teaches that laws and truth are eternal and that resurrection will be a physical restoration, yes, but there is nothing about Joseph Smith’s and Abraham’s doctrine that matter is eternal.
Other seemingly important parallels are shown to have more ancient sources, such as the Bible itself. For example, the notion of innumerable stars, apart from being in numerous other works, is found in the Bible in Hebrews 11:12.

Further related statements from the "CES Letter" are shown at Conflict of Justice to be misquotes or serious blunders, such as claiming that Dick's book and the Book of Abraham teach of a universe that revolves around the throne of God (wrong in both cases!).

Of course, other modern and fairly ancient sources can be found that reject creation ex nihilo, and thus pre-existing matter or maybe even eternal matter will be implicitly if not explicitly taught elsewhere. But cherry picking lone concepts does not create the coherent and satisfying, even breathtaking (for some of us) framework of concepts that arise from Joseph Smith's revelations. Why does he ignore or reject so much of Dick's teachings if that were an influential book for him? If the case is so compelling, why stretch it past the breaking point with assertions that don't bear scrutiny?

Dick has some interesting statements about eternity and the opportunity for mankind to learn much and enjoy much during immortality from the wonders of the cosmos. But he completely misses a key element of Joseph Smith's cosmology and theology: that God's work and his glory in His endless creative work is to bring us into His presence, for we are His children, co-eternal in some way with Him. His glory and His joy grows as we grow and accept the infinite grace He offers. On p. 62 (1830 printing), Dick writes:
The Creator stands in no need of innumerable assemblages of worlds and of inferior ranks of intelligences, in order to secure or to augment his felicity. Innumerable ages before the universe was created, he existed alone, independent of every other being, and infinitely happy in the contemplation of his own eternal excellencies. No other reason, therefore, can be assigned for the production of the universe, but the gratification of his rational offspring, and that he might give a display of the infinite glories of his nature to innumerable orders of intelligent creatures.
 Such thinking is consistent with much of religious thought in Joseph's day, but is hardly the source for the cosmology of the Book of Abraham and the restored Gospel brought through Joseph Smith.

Other scholars and theologians, though certainly not all and perhaps far from a majority, had proposed that other worlds exist. However, what was taught about God's motivation for the Creation of many other planets? Those who recognized from science that other planets probably exist may have necessarily proffered reasons such as saving souls [so they could endlessly contemplate God or praise Him] or, as Dick did above, allowing immortals to learn about the wonders of the cosmos. But if God is perfectly happy without us, as Dick explains, why bother?

We may struggle to find plausible environmental sources for the sweeping scope of Joseph Smith's cosmology in which the weeping God seeks to bring His sons and daughters home in an infinite work that spans space and time, endlessly motivated by love for us, His children. In Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (viewable at Google Books), we are reminded that a still significant religious concept is the notion, much like that expressed by Dick, that a perfect God does not need man or any of His creations for His perfection and glory. It is a concept drawn from Platonism and is one I find to be directly antagonistic to the work and the glory of God taught in Moses 1:39. Lovejoy explains that in this Platonic paradigm that dominated Western thought for over 2,000 years (less so in the twentieth century as he wrote, though it is "still potent"):
The fullness of good is attained once for all in God; and “the creatures” add nothing to it. They have from the divine point of view no value; if they were not, the universe would be none the worse…. [It is in this implicit aspect of Platonic] doctrine that we must recognize the primary source of that endlessly repeated theorem of the philosophical theologians that God has no need of a world and is indifferent to it and all that goes on it. This implication of the Platonic Idea of the Good speedily became explicit in the theology of Aristotle…. It is — to cite by way of anticipation only or two our of a thousand later examples — this Platonic as well as Aristotelian strain that Jonathan Edwards may be heard echoing in Colonial America, when he declares: “No notion of God’s last end in creation of the world is agreeable to reason which would imply or infer any indigence, insufficiency and mutability in God or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness….” This eternally serene and impassible Absolute is, manifestly, somewhat difficult to recognize in the sadistic deity of the sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; but Edwards did not differ from most of the great theologians in having many Gods under one name. [Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, pp. 43-44]
If God has no need of a world, he certainly has no need of many worlds peopled with the same kind of offensive, miserable sinners we have here.

Platonic thought is at the heart of Dick's framework and also guides Jonathan Edwards, another source frequently cited as an influence on Joseph Smith, but Platonic thought is far from the revelatory and revolutionary framework of Joseph Smith.

I have no trouble with language from Joseph's environment, such as "intelligences" as a term to describe intelligent life or spirit beings, influencing his use of language to express revealed concepts. I have no problem with terminology and even core concepts from others having influenced his thinking, his choice of words, his inquiries and interests. But for those who are willing to exercise a modicum of faith, there is something much more interesting going on than just trying to generate revenue with some flashy Egyptian relics or bewilder awed believers with fabricated revelations. There is a richness in his cosmological revelations from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants and the Books of Abraham and Moses that answers deep questions in satisfying ways, These concepts continue to be worthy topics to contemplate in light of expanding scientific knowledge. Simple borrowing from his environment, even if he had been among the literati of his day with advanced education, is a theory that lacks explanatory power for what we have been given.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

New Light on Mesoamerica from LiDAR, Something Book of Mormon Fans Are Likely to Like

Thanks to Kirk Magleby for sharing some exciting implications from an advanced exploration technique, LiDAR, that is being used to make new archaeological finds in Mesoamerica which many LDS people see as the only reasonable possibility for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon. See his Meridian Magazine article of Feb. 4, 2018, "How an Incredible New Archeological Discovery Corroborates the Book of Mormon." Also see his Feb. 2, 2018 blog post, "LiDAR" at BookofMormonResources.blogspot.com. Magleby's reports draw upon his ongoing attention to LiDAR and a hot new story from National Geographic published Feb. 1, 2018, "Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya 'Megalopolis' Below Guatemalan Jungle." Also see the trailer for their TV show at the page for "The Lost Treasure of the Maya Snake Kings."

LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing technique that uses pulses of laser light to measure distance. With the right kind of light (infrared can be especially useful for looking at sites covered with jungle) and with sophisticated digital processing, reflected signals can be turned into 3-D maps showing structures that aren't apparent to the eye and that have been missed in previous work. It's long been used for meteorological work and recently has been adapted for archaeological exploration.

LiDAR data can be processed to digitally remove the forest canopy and reveal ruins below that have long been overlooked. Now we can see that Mesoamerican cities such as Tikal were much larger than scholars realized based on ground-based exploration. 

The data from aerial LiDAR over Mesoamerican regions has been truly tantalizing. As National Geographic reports,
In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala
Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.
Magleby cites some of the results that might be of interest to Book of Mormon students:
Richard Hansen’s and Fernando Paiz’ Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (PACUNAM) just went public with the results of the largest LiDAR survey ever attempted for archaeological research. It mapped 10 tracts totaling 2,100 square kilometers in the Mirador Basin and other areas of northern Guatemala. The surveyed area is less than half the size of Utah County. And what did archaeologists find buried in the Peten?
  • 60,000 previously unknown structures
  • vast networks of highways elevated so they functioned even in the rainy season
  • ubiquitous fortresses, ramparts, and defensive walls
  • waterworks including dikes, dams, canals, and reservoirs
  • agricultural terraces with irrigation systems
  • animal pens
  • stone quarries
It will take decades to study so many new sites, but settlement patterns and big picture insights are already apparent.
  • Maya lowland population at apogee could have reached 15 million Mormon 1:7
  • Maya civilization was much more complex than previously thought Jarom 1:8Helaman 3:13-15
  • Maya cities were more interconnected than anyone realized 3 Nephi 6:8
  • Food production was on an industrial scale Helaman 6:12
  • land use was intensive – nearing 100% utilization is some areas Mormon 1:7
  • Many people lived on marginal, swampy lands 4 Nephi 1:9
  • Endemic warfare over centuries was the norm Mormon 8:8
  • Warfare was particularly prevalent in the early classic AD 250-500 Moroni 1:2
This northern Guatemalan LiDAR project will continue in phases, eventually mapping more than 5,000 square kilometers (about the size of Utah County). At that point it will have mapped approximately 1.4% of the ancient Maya area which covers 350,000 square kilometers (about the size of Montana).
This new work also reveals to a serious blunder I've made in emphasizing the infancy of archaeological exploration of Mesoamerica to counter absence of evidence claims that Mesoamerica is well understood and leaves no room for Book of Mormon peoples. I've previously quoted others to the effect that less than roughly 10% of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica have been excavated. Now that we are realizing that the extent of ancient civilization in that region is far more advanced and complicated than scholars had imagined, it may be better to say less than 1%. It will take decades or centuries to sort through the treasures of knowledge that we have been missing. That doesn't mean we can expect easy answers to the toughest Book of Mormon challenges, but the century-plus trend of laughable items periodically becoming more plausible might not be over yet. In any case, what a world of knowledge remains to be explored, whether it has any relevance to the Book of Mormon or not. Exciting times are ahead, if we can keep research going and have enough political stability in those lands for the work to be done.

Something that even critics of the Church should notice is that faithful Mormons tend to look forward to more archaeological exploration in proposed Book of Mormon lands. We want more scrutiny, more data, more research, more science, not less, and it's been that way for a long time. Ditto for exploration of the Arabian Peninsula, where some of us hope to learn more about places that may be relevant to Lehi's Trail, but are also significant in their own right. Some impatient enthusiasts have been frustrated with unanswered questions, but in many ways the advances in knowledge have been helpful and have been useful in better appreciating many Book of Mormon issues. Witness John Sorenson's Mormon's Codex and An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon or Brant Gardner's Traditions of the Fathers. There is much we can learn by looking carefully at Mesoamerica as well as by looking in the Book of Mormon for Mesoamerican influence.

Back to LiDAR, here is a section from Wikipedia's article on LiDar that discusses archaeological applications:


Lidar has many uses in archaeology, including planning of field campaigns, mapping features under forest canopy, and overview of broad, continuous features indistinguishable from the ground. Lidar can produce high-resolution datasets quickly and cheaply. Lidar-derived products can be easily integrated into a Geographic Information System (GIS) for analysis and interpretation.

Lidar can also help to create high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) of archaeological sites that can reveal micro-topography that is otherwise hidden by vegetation. The intensity of the returned lidar signal can be used to detect features buried under flat vegetated surfaces such as fields, especially when mapping using the infrared spectrum. The presence of these features affects plant growth and thus the amount of infrared light reflected back. For example, at Fort Beauséjour – Fort Cumberland National Historic Site, Canada, lidar discovered archaeological features related to the siege of the Fort in 1755. Features that could not be distinguished on the ground or through aerial photography were identified by overlaying hill shades of the DEM created with artificial illumination from various angles. Another example is work at Caracol by Arlen Chase and his wife Diane Zaino Chase. In 2012, lidar was used to search for the legendary city of La Ciudad Blanca or "City of the Monkey God" in the La Mosquitia region of the Honduran jungle. During a seven-day mapping period, evidence was found of man-made structures. In June 2013, the rediscovery of the city of Mahendraparvata was announced. In southern New England, lidar was used to reveal stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads, and other landscape features obscured in aerial photography by the region's dense forest canopy. In Cambodia, lidar data were used by Demian Evans and Roland Fletcher to reveal anthropogenic changes to Angkor landscape. In 2018, archaeologists using lidar discovered more than 60,000 man-made structures in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a "major breakthrough" that showed the Maya civilization was much larger than previously thought. [emphasis added]
I'm looking forward to more light from LiDAR or any other method being shined on Mesoamerica, the spot where, in my opinion, ancient traditions of written language, vast ancient civilizations, a narrow neck of land, the presence of volcanism, and many other factors make it the only reasonable candidate to consider for a plausible New World setting for the Book of Mormon.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Exposed: Ironic Inconsistency in the Book of Mormon

Given all the complexities of preparing the Book of Mormon -- multiple ancient sources combined, redacted, then translated into English that is verbally dictated and written by a scribe, then later copied into a printer's manuscript, and finally put into print -- it's not surprising that there could be inconsistency at times in a text that is still remarkably consistent across the centuries. But now a Mormon scholar has exposed a significant and highly ironic inconsistency that deserves our attention. It's an example of apparently intentional "ironic inconsistency" remarkably similar to that found in the Bible in 2 Samuel 13–20. The ever insightful Matthew L. Bowen explains in "'Possess the Land in Peace': Zeniff’s Ironic Wordplay on Shilom," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 28 (2017): 115-120:

Regarding the narratological wordplay on the name Absalom (“[my] father is peace”) in terms of šālôm (“peace”) and the verbal root šlm throughout 2 Samuel 13–20, Moshe Garsiel observes that “the entire story deals in a manner of the most pronounced irony with the absence of ‘peace’ between ‘father’ and son.”1 It is, he notes, an example of the “ironic inconsistency of names to events” being deliberately highlighted by the biblical writer.2

This observation brings to mind word usage in the brief royal autobiography of Zeniff recorded in Mosiah 9–10. During his life and reign, Zeniff fights multiple wars with the Lamanites and therefore appears to use the toponym Shilom in a similar, ironic3 way:

Mosiah 9:5
A. And it came to pass that I went again with four of my men into the city, in unto the king B. that I might know the disposition of the king,
C. that I might know if I might go in with my people
D. and possess the land in peace [šālôm]
Mosiah 9:6
A′ And I went in unto the king B′ and he covenanted with me
C′ that I might possess the land of Lehi-Nephi,
D′ and [possess] the land of Shilom

Zeniff’s use of parallelistic language in Mosiah 9:5‒6 strongly suggests his correlation of the šlm-derived4 name Shilom with “peace” — Hebrew šālôm. Since the Nephites were a Hebrew-speaking/writing people,5 this correlation makes good sense. We further note Zeniff’s covenant use of the verb know (cf. Hebrew yādaʿ)6 in correlation with “he covenanted with me.” Zeniff seeks a bĕrît šālôm — a “covenant of peace,”7 or what we would today call a “peace treaty” — on terms of equality with the king of the Lamanites.
The last time I mentioned word plays in revealed LDS scriptures, a commenter  objected that it's impossible ("ridiculous") to find word plays without the original text. But that's not quite so. It makes identification of a word play more tentative or speculative, but it can still be done with reasonable plausibility, especially when the proposed word play adds significant meaning to the text or provides reasonable explanatory power in understanding the intent and methods of the authors.

Finding a possible word play in an original text based on examination of a translation is not something unique to desperate Mormon scholars. An interesting example of this comes from China, as I explained in my response to the objection in the comments:
James Fallows at The Atlantic recently mentioned a hilarious example of Chinglish from one of China's leading airlines at Beijing's main airport. An English sign at the check-in area told customers to please "wait outside rice-flour noodle." Those familiar with Chinese may be able to appreciate what happened after a little reflection even without having the original text to consider, because the common word for a noodle made from rice flour is mi xian, with mi meaning rice, but it can also mean "meter." The word xian can mean line or something like a line, such as a noodle. So Chinese students can probably guess that the sign was telling people to stand behind the meter line, or the one-meter line, to keep one meter away from the agent processing people. But there's a word play involve here where the word for "meter line" can also mean "rice-flour noodle." The dual meaning, essentially a word play opportunity, created the ambiguity that led to a very funny translation.

A great deal of English signage in China and other nations needs to be mentally translated back into the (apparent) parent language to come up with hypotheses for what was actually meant. Sometimes that process fails to explain the puzzle, but often can lead to a plausible scenario with explanatory power.

That's what may be going on in the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon in quite a few cases. You are right, of course, that we don't have the original test before us, but we can note indicators that point to apparent word plays, and then discuss them as possibilities. Note that I referred to the example in my post as an apparent word play. It's not for sure, it's tentative or even speculative, but in this case it's relatively straightforward and provides explanatory power. I don't think it's as ridiculous as you suggest.
For the word play involving Shilom and peace, it's less speculative than many of the intriguing word plays in the Book of Mormon because here we have a transliterated name from the gold plates, Shilom. This word has long been recognized (see the Book of Mormon Onomasticon entry) as likely being related to the Semitic/Hebrew root š–l–m, “to be whole, or complete,” which links it to the word for peace. The way this word is used in connection with peace and its ironic opposite, including such usage in a case of reasonably clear parallelism, helps us understand authorial intent and suggests we have a deliberate word play and intentional ironic inconsistency in the Book of Mormon, now exposed at last for all to better appreciate. Thanks, Brother Bowen!

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Explanatory Power of an Ancient Setting for the Book of Abraham: One Example

Critics of LDS scriptures sometimes exert great efforts to find parallels to Joseph's environment and modern sources of knowledge to account for our sacred texts. Such parallels can be interesting, but they rarely give any meaningful insight into the how the texts were created and lack explanatory power. If, for example, a rare European map of Arabia with the name Nehem or Nehhm on it were available and relied upon by Joseph as a source for the ancient place Nahom, then it is puzzling that Joseph did not take advantage of the many dozens of other place names and details on the map. Why turn to such a treasure and use it for one of the smallest, most obscure place names? Why select such a minor name at all? Why just one word that nobody will recognize? If it were meant to serve as later evidence of authenticity in the future once a co-conspirator finally "discovered" the map with its evidence, why not announce this? Why would it take roughly 150 years for the first person to ever notice the built-in evidence?

Selecting an obscure place name off a map rich in detail makes no sense. The theory that Joseph used a map to get Nahom offers little explanatory power for the origins of anything except one word, and even then fails to explain why Joseph would change that word to one that happens to better fit what a Hebrew writer would write, and one that also provides a good Hebraic word play in the text of 1 Nephi 16.

We run into the same problems with the Book of Abraham. Those who assume that Joseph just drew upon things in his environment and give us theories for one portion of the text don't provide us with substance that swells with new insights as we explore the text. But if we take the book at face value and consider its ancient context, we often do find new insights that help answer puzzles.

One puzzle in the text is the strange revelation to Abraham in chapter 3 where the Lord begins by discussing the nature of the universe, apparently in ancient heliocentric geocentric terms (a disappointment to all of us who want modern cosmology and astrophysics in our ancient texts! please, teach us about black holes and dark matter and high-energy physics!), and then suddenly moves to a discussion about the nature of souls and our premortal existence. A strange transition. What's going on? Why this content? But by putting this in its ancient context, it makes much more sense than we realized. John Gee explains this in his book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017), pp. 116-119:
The ancient Egyptians associated the idea of encircling something (whether in the sky or on earth) with controlling or governing it, and the same terms are used for both. Thus, the Book of Abraham notes that “there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, . . . which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:9; emphasis added). The Egyptians had a similar notion, in which the sun (Re) was not only a god but the head of all the gods and ruled over everything that he encircled. Abraham’s astronomy sets the sun, “that which is to rule the day” (Abraham 3:5), as greater than the moon but less than Kolob, which governs the sun (Abraham 3:9). Thus, in the astronomy of the Book of Abraham, Kolob, which is the nearest star to God (Abraham 3:16; see also 3, 9), revolves around and thus encircles or controls the sun, which is the head of the Egyptian pantheon.

The conversation between Abraham and the Lord shifts from a discussion of heavenly bodies to spiritual beings. This reflects a play on words that Egyptians often use between a star (ach) and a spirit (ich). The shift is done by means of a comparison: “Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; . . . as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other” (Abraham 3:17–18). In an Egyptian context, the play on words would strengthen the parallel.

The first chapter of Abraham narrates how Abraham had been in trouble with the Egyptian government for speaking against the official religion. His family “utterly refused to hearken to [his] voice” (Abraham 1:5) and as a result he was nearly sacrificed and had to move to Haran for safety. While he was there, the Egyptian dynasty changed, but pharaonic ideology had not. Speaking against the pharaoh or the religion was a capital offense, so God revealed to Abraham an implicit rather than explicit critique of Egyptian religion. He taught him an astronomy which, like Egyptian astronomy, was geocentric, where the various heavenly bodies revolved around and governed the earth. So, in Abraham’s astronomy, the star “set nigh unto the throne of God” (Abraham 3:9) encircles and thus controls not only the earth but also the sun, the head of the Egyptian pantheon. This argument, however, must be worked out; it is not obvious. It allowed Abraham to provide an indirect critique of Egyptian religion. Therefore, at least two of the revelations that the Lord gave Abraham before he went into Egypt were to prevent him from being put to death.

The Egyptian play on words between star and spirit allows the astronomical teachings to flow seamlessly into teachings about the preexistence which follow immediately thereafter.
Now that's pretty interesting. The Lord appears to have prepared Abraham with a way to teach astronomy to the Egyptians in a way that they could grasp and find impressive, and then, through a built-in Egyptian wordplay, sets the scene to naturally move into a discussion of souls, building upon the astronomy already taught to illustrate indirectly and in a politically correct way that won't get Abraham killed the important truth that there is a living God above Pharaoh.

Understanding the apparent word play between star and spirit from the ancient setting and language breathes life and explanatory power into the story, and ties it back to the beginning of the text where Abraham's life is threatened for challenging the Egyptian religion (at least the local variety in the area where the story begins). It also links us to the final drawing, Facsimile 3, which has been adapted to represent Abraham teaching astronomy in the Egyptian court -- a scene that other ancient documents suggest may have happened (but yes, it is possible that Joseph could have gleaned that obscure tidbit from a passage in Josephus if he or his associates had that book in 1835, which does not appear to be the case). The details behind Abraham 3 and the apparent use of an Egyptian word play to help Abraham teach the Egyptians is one of many examples of the explanatory power of an ancient setting for the Book of Abraham.  It doesn't solve some of the other puzzles and problems we face in the Book of Abraham, but it reminds us that understanding the ancient setting may be fruitful in understanding the text.

Some Resources for the Puzzling Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham

Latter-day Saints interested in the Pearl of Great Price have much to be excited about thanks to recent scholarship giving us many more insights into the significance and meaning of the Book of  Abraham and the Book of Moses. There's much to learn and some difficult, puzzling issues to grapple with, but much to appreciate, including some answers to tough questions and remarkable evidences that something interesting is going on in these texts other than just some ignoramus making up stuff. See, for example, my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The easiest part of the Book of Abraham to attack, in my opinion, is Facsimile 3. It's easy to say that this scene is just an ordinary funerary/judgment scene related to the Book of the Dead and that Joseph has grossly misidentified its meaning. The characters don't give the names we expect and there is something odd going on with gender (the prince and the pharaoh are obviously women). What's up? Some believing Latter-day Saints may be OK with obvious errors, feeling that the figure is an unimportant add-on to the inspired text and not meant to be canonized, and may feel that the evidences supporting the text and the other facsimiles outweigh whatever possible error happened there. But I think it's helpful to consider further information about the Facsimile, recognizing the misconceptions that abound regarding what it is.

For an overview and some general answers to common challenges, see:
 Some related posts here on a couple of details and somewhat speculative possibilities:
Some other basic issues around the Book of Abraham are also covered in the Book of Abraham Project's page, "Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham." The apparent weaknesses with Facs. 3 should, in my opinion, also be considered along with the strengths of the text. As a recent example of growing evidences related to the actual text of the Book of Abraham, see the discussion of the place name Olishem, as discussed in my review of John Gee's recent book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. Also see the Gospel Topics publication from the Church, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," which cites some of the significant evidence that the Book of Abraham, however it was translated, has an ancient source.

To evaluate a text that purports to be an ancient text, a reasonable approach should begin with taking that claim at face value and seeing how or if it fits into an ancient setting, before looking anywhere else. A theory for its origins, whether it appears to be an outright fraud or a document with ancient roots, also ought to provide a plausible explanation for the manuscript, including its strengths. (This is true of the Book of Mormon especially.) Can those strengths all be explained as lucky coincidences, outweighed by a section of the document with apparent glaring weakness? The strengths of the Book of Abraham, even the fairly simple stuff like correctly identifying the upside down four Sons of Horus in Facsimile 2 as pertaining to the "four quarters of the earth" or the relationship between the solar barque and 1000 cubits or identifying crocodile god Soebek as the god of Pharaoh should be at least noted, however grudgingly, before declaring a premature victory over Joseph Smith.

Yes, Facsimile 3 is still quite puzzling. I'm not sure what's going on there and why it has been adapted by Joseph or the author of an ancient text for the story of Abraham teaching astronomy to the Pharaoh (which, by the way,  is one of the areas with good evidence supporting it). But there's definitely something interesting going on throughout much of the Book of Abraham, and I can say the same for the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon, though all involve complexity and some difficult issues along with a growing body of exciting issues as well.