My Fathers – My Ancestors

June 19, 2011 | 4 comments
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BOAfacsimile1A Happy Father’s Day to all! My day’s been celestially filled with family, great meals, and rainbow drawings/notes from my children. And on top of it all I’ve had the rare opportunity to sit quietly in an idyllic spot and read The Book of Abraham – an appropriate text for Father’s Day if ever there was one.

In reading and talking through some of the verses with my wife – who already seems to have the great knowledge and the greater knowledge that I, like Abraham, seek for – we spent some time on that conspicuous word that pops up over and over again: fathers. Now I’ve no idea what language the Abrahamic scroll was originally written in, nor even what the linguistic and cultural conventions of later Egyptian implied. However, I have a middling knowledge of Hebrew (greatly supplemented by my wife’s much better grasp of the language), and in Hebrew, as in other related languages from the region, the word we commonly see translated as ‘fathers’ is avot – a plural ending (-ot) attached to the singular father (av). Similarly, the plural for mother is imahot. The plural for a mixed crowd of “ancestors,” however, is simply avot. Thus, the word when it appears in scripture is ambiguous.

The same is true for lots of plurals, in ways that are significant to us today. Take ‘children’ for example (benim), which is the same word used for ‘sons’ – that is ‘son’ (ben) with a plural ending (–im). Consequently, when in Exodus 40:12-15 the Lord tells Moses to bring Aaron and his “sons” before the door of the tabernacle to wash, anoint, and clothe them in the robes of the priesthood, the word used is a grammatical construct of benim and hence ambiguous as to whether the Lord is referring specifically to Aaron’s sons or more generally to his children collectively[1] – a fact that ought to alter the way we think of our initiatories, administered today both by and to men and women. We know how later Israelites interpreted the Exodus 40:12-15 injunction, but that’s not always a good indicator of how it was originally intended or interpreted. (For example, later Israelites interpreted their religion as forbidding women from the inner sanctuary of the temple, but as the scholarship of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts – not to mention the restored gospel – makes abundantly clear, women were originally and ought now to be participants in the inner sanctum of the temple. There are lots of reasons not to make the interpretations of later, apostate remnants our default when it comes to women.)

At any rate, I feel confident that it is and would have been culturally, and perhaps even linguistically appropriate to read “ancestors” into Abrahams search for the blessings and rights of his “fathers” – particularly since we’re dealing with the temple in these passages of scripture. But the point of all this is not a pedantic linguistic speculation – especially given my candidly acknowledged status as dilettante! Rather, I wanted to share what was for me today a poignant fatherly insight – one of those tender mercies from heaven that helped me better understand what it means to be a father and to have inherited the blesses and covenants of my “fathers.”

On a related note, while the irony of taking our greatest hymn in praise of Heavenly Mother and renaming it “O’ My Father” is not lost on me, it strikes me as a perfect song for Father’s Day – one that encapsulates what I hope was expressed somewhere in this post. “O’ My Father” reminds me that in honoring my father on this day or in receiving honor from my children, I inherently acknowledge and honor my wife and my mother. It reminds me of the intimate and exalted coupling after which Abraham sought and all of us seek.


[1] Translators of this one always take the context of ordaining priests to disambiguate the word and translate it as ‘sons’ – but I think this just pushes the analysis back one level and doesn’t actually answer the question.

4 Responses to My Fathers – My Ancestors

  1. Marjorie Conder on June 19, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    I have been thinking about the following for a while. No way to prove or disprove any of it, but I offer this in the spirit of considering ancestors both male and female. In my opinion, the Bible, like the Book of Mormon, is first of all a “family history”. I think Job is a maternal ancestor of Abraham. (Note that only the daughters are named at the end of the book of Job, which is highly unusual, and signals something usual about this story. Also, how did Abraham come to even know about “the blessings of the fathers”?—it certainly wasn’t from his own father—but somehow he knew. If Job was a maternal grandfather or great-grandfather, maybe even of both Abraham and Sarah it would explain how this information had been transferred to them. Job would also have been a model for Abraham in dealing with the “cosmic absurdity” which abounds in both the story of Job and what we know about Abraham once he had received the covenant

  2. Cameron N. on June 20, 2011 at 12:13 am

    I always understood ‘fathers’ to mean families and not just individual men, interesting to see the hebrew support for this.

  3. charlene on June 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    James,
    Thanks for this post! I’ve thought a lot recently about when male nouns refer specifically to males and when they may be intended as collective generics. I’m less than a novice at ancient languages, though I suspected that there may be a hint of an answer there. This post assures me that the answer may still be obscure even before translation.

  4. Barb on June 21, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    You do give new meaning to Father’s Day.

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