Besides Ur of the Chaldees and the plain of Olishem, one of the geographical features of the Book of Abraham is a location called Potiphar’s Hill, which is said to be “at the head of the plain of Olishem” in the land of Chaldea (Abr. 1:10). It was at this hill that “the priest of Pharaoh”—who was also in the service of a solar deity named Shagreel—made offerings on an altar (vv. 9–10). Other sacrifices were made at this site, and it also appears to have been the site of local idol worship (vv. 11–12).
Hugh Nibley was one of the first to argue that Potiphar’s Hill functioned as what scholars today call a cult center, meaning a location of special religious significance that was dedicated to the worship of a particular deity or group of deities.1 Cult centers dotted the landscape of the ancient Near East, including Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt. “The cult centers of the ancient world were the prime location and focus of ritual activity. Temples and shrines were not constructed in isolation, but existed as part of what may be termed a ritual landscape, where ritualized movement within individual buildings, temple complexes, and the city as a whole shaped their function and meaning.”2 At each site was often a shrine or temple dedicated to the chief deity being worshipped, although multiple deities (typically the chief deity and his or her divine consort) were sometimes worshipped at the same cult center.3 In ancient Syria and Anatolia, pilgrimages were frequently made to cult sites in the countryside,4 and “at each cult center, the gods were [given] offerings of food and drink. . . . The deities also received animal sacrifices, particularly at the great festivals.”5 Similar to what is depicted in the Book of Abraham, “even human sacrifice, though rare, was not unknown.”6
The worshippers at Potiphar’s Hill were engaged in a form of Egyptian-Canaanite syncretic religious practice. The Egyptian element in the narrative is obvious from the god (and priest) of Pharaoh being present in the scene. It can also be seen in the name Potiphar. Famously the name of the Egyptian officer who bought Joseph as a slave (Gen. 39:1), Potiphar has long been recognized as deriving from the Egyptian pꜣ-dỉ-pꜣ-Rꜥ or pꜣ-dỉ-Prꜥ (“the one whom [the god] Re has given”).7 Although the name Potiphar itself is only currently attested after Abraham’s day, the grammatical formula used in the name (pꜣ-dỉ-[X]; “the one whom [such-and-such god] has given”) appears to be based on an earlier formula that is found plentifully in Egyptian names from Abraham’s day.8 The Re element in the name Potiphar links the name (and thereby the cult site in the Book of Abraham) with solar worship, inasmuch as Re was the chief solar deity of ancient Egypt.9 This explains why the idolatrous priest in the Book of Abraham is depicted in the text as making an offering to the god of Shagreel, which is identified as a sun deity (Abr. 1:9). The veneration of this deity in Egypt predates Abraham’s day by many centuries,10 so it is not at all inconceivable that the name could have been as old as Abraham, even if it is not yet attested.11
What’s more, “very good knowledge . . . of the Egyptian iconographic patrimony” is attested in northern Syria at sites such as Ebla, where “Egyptianiz[ed]” ivories bearing the iconography of multiple Egyptian deities have been recovered.12 Some of these recovered ivories include samples featuring “the crocodile god Sobek, gods having the head of the falcon Horus, and a goddess bearing the horns and the sun disc of Hathor. Such figures appear frequently in the contemporary Syrian glyptic of the classical Old Syrian style, where they are shown with divine figures of the Syrian pantheon and kings and officials of the northern Syrian kingdoms.”13 According to one scholar, “Egyptian and Egyptianising scenes and figures constitute c. 14 per cent of the total iconographical repertoire of published Syrian seals.”14 Solar deities such as Re-Horakhty and Hathor are attested in this corpus (sometimes sporting a sun disc above their heads).15 The picture presented in the Book of Abraham of Abraham’s kinsfolk adopting elements of Egyptian solar religion into their own native Chaldean worship of the sun deity Shagreel is therefore plausible based on current evidence.16
But what is the significance of this cult site in the Book of Abraham featuring a hill? “In the ancient civilizations from Egypt to India and beyond, the mountain can be a center of fertility, the primeval hillock of creation, the meeting place of the gods, the dwelling place of the high god, the meeting place of heaven and earth, the monument effectively upholding the order of creation, the place where god meets man, a place of theophany.”17 As Nibley observed, the Book of Abraham appears to link Potiphar’s Hill with this concept of the mythological primeval hillock—the sacred Urhügel “marking the first land to emerge from the great waters and the place where the sun first rose on the day of creation.”18 The concept of “a mound of earth that emerged as the first dry land when the primeval waters receded” was foundational to the Egyptian view of the cosmos, being “one of the earliest known Egyptian images of the creation.” So central was this idea in Egyptian religious imagination that “many Egyptian temples had a mound of earth in their sanctuary, which not only commemorated this primeval hill but which also was viewed as the primeval mound.”19 The placement of an altar next to a hill, as depicted in Abraham 1:10, thus fits nicely the pattern of ancient ritual complexes.
Ancient Syrian-Levantine and Anatolian peoples shared a similar conception of the cosmic mountain as a place of great cultic and mythic importance often associated with the temple or sacred space.20 “Worship of the Hittite gods was . . . frequently carried out in sacred precincts on rocks or mountains. Open-air sanctuaries were commonplace in Anatolia, particularly where some natural feature, such as a large rock outcropping or a spring, lent itself to the numinous.” Texts recovered at some of these sites “often refer to rituals taking place on mountains, which were considered, from early Hittite times, to be the place where the presence of the celestial deities (especially the storm gods) could be felt, and where special ceremonies devoted to their worship were performed.”21 All of this is in harmony with the Book of Abraham’s description of Potiphar’s Hill (Abr. 1:9–11), which is said to be a place of syncretic Egyptian-Canaanite cultic activity (“made an offering unto the god of Pharaoh, and also unto the god of Shagreel, even after the manner of the Egyptians”) that featured sacred architecture (“the altar,” “this altar”) as well as a local priesthood (“priest of Pharaoh,” “the priests”). It was also a place of revelation and theophany, since it was at this site where Abraham was “filled with the vision of the Almighty” and delivered by Jehovah after “the priests laid violence upon [him], that they might slay [him] also, as they did those virgins upon this altar” at the hill (vv. 12, 15; compare vv. 15–19).
Nibley, Hugh. An Approach to the Book of Abraham, edited by John Gee, 405–18. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 18. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2009.