One of the more memorable contributions of the Book of Abraham is its depiction of Kolob (Abr. 3:3–4, 9, 16; Facsimile 2, fig. 1). According to the Book of Abraham, Kolob is characterized by the following:
- It is a star or planet (Abr. 3:1–2, 8–9).1
- It is a “great [star]” and one of the “governing ones” (Abr. 3:3).
- It is “near unto [God]” or “nigh unto the throne of God” (Abr. 3:2–3, 9–10).
- It was used to tell relative time (“one revolution [of Kolob] was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou [Abraham] standest” [Abr. 3:4]).
- It “signify[ed] the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God. First in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time. The measurement according to celestial time, which celestial time signifies one day to a cubit” (Facsimile 2, fig. 1).
Latter-day Saints have long been interested in Kolob for its doctrinal and cosmological significance.2 The opening words to the beloved hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob,” written by William W. Phelps, were of course inspired by Kolob in the Book of Abraham.3
In recent years, spurred on by promising discoveries, some Latter-day Saint scholars have sought to situate Kolob in the ancient world. Although there are still many uncertainties, a few points in favor of the name and concept of Kolob being authentically ancient can be affirmed with reasonable certainty.
First is the matter of the etymology of the name Kolob. One of the more common proposals is that the name derives from the Semitic root qlb,4 meaning “heart, center, middle,” and so forth, and is thus related to the Semitic root qrb, meaning “to be near, close.”5 This explanation is enticing because throughout the third chapter of the Book of Abraham, Kolob is conceptually linked with the idea of being near God and his celestial residence (vv. 2–3, 9–10, 16). It thus works well as a pun on the name within the Book of Abraham itself:
- “the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me [that is the Lord]” (v. 3, emphasis added).
- “until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; 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” (v. 9, emphasis added).
- “therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam [stars] that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me” (v. 16, emphasis added).
The drawback to this theory, however, is that qlb as a Semitic word for “heart, center” is only attested in Semitic languages as far back as Arabic (qalb; “heart, core”), which emerged considerably later than Abraham’s time.6 However, some scholars believe that the Semitic qrb (and Arabic qalb) are ultimately derived from the reconstructed Afroasiatic root *ḳlb/ḳrb,7 which has attested cognate descendants in Egyptian (ḳꜣb; “interior, midst”), Akkadian (qerbum; “inside”), and Hebrew (qereb; “inside, middle”).8 The Egyptian example (ḳꜣb)9 is especially interesting, because there is evidence that the Egyptian aleph /ꜣ/ in Abraham’s day was used to render the liquid consonants /r/ and /l/ in Semitic languages.10 This strengthens the etymology for Kolob proposed above and the likelihood of genuine Semitic-Egyptian paronomasia in the text of the Book of Abraham.
Another promising proposal is that Kolob derives from the Semitic root klb, meaning “dog.”11 This theory has been circulating since at least the early twentieth century, when a non–Latter-day Saint named James E. Homans (writing under the pseudonym Robert C. Webb) postulated this idea in 1913.12 This, in turn, has prompted some to identify Kolob with Sirius, the dog-star.13 This theory actually goes back as far as the mid-nineteenth century, when William W. Phelps captured the idea in an 1857 poem.14 Known as Sopdet in ancient Egypt (or Sothis in Greek), Sirius held both mythological and calendrical significance to the ancient Egyptians. Usually associated with the goddesses Isis and Hathor, the star Sirius “had a special role because its heliacal rising coincided with the ideal Egyptian New Year day that was linked with the onset of the Nile inundation.”15 Both Sirius and Kolob share a number of overlapping characteristics, including the following:
- Both are associated with the throne of God.16
- Both are recognized as the “greatest” (probably meaning brightest) of stars in earth’s night sky.17
- Both are depicted as governing other stars.18
- Both are associated with creation.19
- Both are significant in measuring time.
While these convergences are compelling, the identification of Kolob as Sirius faces some difficulties. For starters, most of Sirius’s features just reviewed are attested in Egyptian sources from the Greco-Roman Period, long after Abraham’s day (although it may be significant that this is the time period of the Joseph Smith Papyri). The Egyptian word for “dog” (ỉw) is also quite different from the Semitic word for the same.20 Furthermore, Ancient Mesopotamian astronomical texts do speak of a star or constellation called Kalbu (Dog),21 but it is unclear if this Kalbu was identified anciently with the constellation Canis Major (which contains Sirius) or another, such as Hercules.22 By the Greco-Roman period, there is evidence that Sirius (Isis-Sothis) was “represented as a large dog,”23 and it is possible that this representation predates Abraham’s day, although this point is disputed among Egyptologists.24 Additionally, scholars who study ancient astronomical texts emphasize that “the identifications between the ancient names and modern names [for stars and constellations] are only approximate and are meant to serve as an aid to the modern reader, rather than to imply exact equivalence between ancient and modern constellations.”25 With this amount of lingering uncertainty, the identification of Kolob with Sirius should therefore be accepted cautiously.
Conceptually, the way Kolob is depicted in the Book of Abraham indicates some awareness (and attempted subversion) of ancient Egyptian cosmology.
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:]3, 9), revolves around and thus encircles or controls the sun, which is the head of the Egyptian pantheon.26
While questions about the identification of Kolob still remain, there are some very tantalizing pieces of evidence that, when brought together, reinforce the overall plausible antiquity of this astronomical concept unique to the Book of Abraham.
Gee, John. “Abrahamic Astronomy.” In An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 115–20. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017.
Gee, John, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson. “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy.” In Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, edited by John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid, 1–16. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005.
Nibley, Hugh, and Michael D. Rhodes. One Eternal Round, 250–60. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 19. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010.