Kaimi’s T&S thread on Kolob raises the question of what the word “Kolob” means. Clark mentioned the Kolob as Sirius theory, and I mentioned that I personally hold to that theory. I was sure someone would ask about it, but no one did, so I thought I would undertake a brief explanation of it here.
There are two prominent etymological theories held by LDS scholars on the derivation of Kolob.(1) The first, as represented by Michael D. Rhodes in his “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…Twenty Years Later” at p. 8, suggests that “The word most likely derives from the common Semitic root QLB, which has the basic meaning of “heart, center, middle” (Arabic qalb “heart, center”; Hebrew qereb “middle, midst”, qarab “to draw near”; Egyptian m-q3b “in the midst of”). In fact, qalb forms part of the Arabic names of several of the brightest stars in the sky, including Antares, Regulus, and Canopus.” Nibley also favored this view, and given Nibley’s tremendous influence it has probably been the most widely held position historically.
The other common theory, held to by John Gee(2) and certain other LDS scholars, and which I myself favor, sees Kolob as deriving from the Semitic root KLB “dog,” which is an allusion to Sirius.(3) Both anciently and today Sirius was known as the “dog” star, or more technically in astronomical terminology, Alpha Canis Majoris (which means the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, or the “Bigger Dog”).
I like this view because:
1. The Semitic root works for Kolob.
2. Sirius is indeed the brightest star in the night sky from the perspective of earth.
3. Sirius is extremely important in Egyptian astronomy, since it was at its heliacal rising that the Nile began to rise. As Sir Alan Gardiner wrote in his seminal grammar,
It must have been early recognized that the Nile began to rise afresh about the same time (near July 19th of the Julian calendar) that the brilliant star Sirius (the dog-star), after having been invisible for a prolonged period, was first again observed in the sky shortly before sunrise. Consequently this latter event, described by modern astronomers as the heliacal rising of Sirius, and by the Egyptians as prt Spdt “the going up of (the goddess) Sothis,” came to be regarded as the true New Year’s Day (wpt-rnpt “the opening of the year”), i.e. tpy (n) tht sw t “first month of inundation, day 1.”(4)
Traditionally there have been three approaches to the astronomical material in chapter 3 of the BoA. First, many LDS take the view that the BoA portrays the universe as it actually is, and thus reflects modern relativistic Einsteinian or post-Einsteinian astrophysics. Second, those who see it as purely a 19th-century pseudepigraphon assume that it should reflect Copernican or Newtonian heliocentric astronomy. Third, some view the book as reflecting an ancient geocentric astronomy.
The first position is articulated by Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody, “Astronomy and the Creation in the Book of Abraham,” and the third position is articulated by John Gee, William J. Hamblin and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” both in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo: FARMS, 2005).(5) This to me is an absolutely fascinating contrast in approaches to understanding the scripture in question, and I think it is wonderful that the editors have placed these contrasting approaches side by side for easy comparison.
I favor the third view, and would agree with Gee, Hamblin and Peterson in their contentions that (i) the text of Abraham 3 can best be understood as a discussion of the visible heavens rather than as a grand supernatural vision of the entire universe, and (ii) the text of this material makes most sense when read as referring to ancient geocentric astronomy. But many Latter-day Saints don’t see it that way, and favor the first view (and some even the second).
If you’re at all interested in the variant ways different LDS scholars approach the scriptures, I think this is a fascinating case study. I highly recommend that you read both articles together and then draw your own conclusions. Toward that end, if you don’t have a copy yet, I would suggest putting the Astronomy, Papyrus and Covenant volume on your Christmas book list, along with the other volumes suggested by J. Stapley.
(1) I read a draft of a paper as a peer reviewer once that took it for granted that Kolob derives from Hebrew kol ab, meaning “every father.” I view this suggestion as incoherent, and so I have not undertaken to discuss it further here.
(2) Based on personal conversation. John and I reached similar conclusions independently of each other.
(3) I believe the first person to pose this as a possibility was the non-LDS scholar R.C. Webb [J.E. Homans], in his 1913 article in the Improvement Era, “A Critical Examination of the Fac-similes in the Book of Abraham,” where he wrote: ” The explanation given in connection with this figure is that it indicates ‘Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the Celestial.’ The form of this word would seem to suggest a Semitic etymology, akin, perhaps, to the Hebrew word KALAB, a dog; whence, possibly, Sirius, the Dog-star, so called.” This article may be found at this link; the paragraph in question is four-fifths of the way down. On Webb, see here.
(4) Sir Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 3rd Ed. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1979), 205.
(5) These articles are next to each other, the first I mention at p. 17 and the second at p. 1.