Garment of Joseph:
An Update

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hugh Nibley produced a seminal work entitled An Approach to the Book of Mormon.1 In the chapter “A Strange Order of Battle,” Nibley referred to the garment of Joseph mentioned by Moroni in Alma 46:24. Moroni, quoting the words of Joseph’s father, Jacob, said that

a part of the remnant of the coat of Joseph was preserved and had not decayed. And he said—Even as this remnant of garment of my son hath been preserved, so shall a remnant of the seed of my son be preserved by the hand of God, and be taken unto himself.

Hugh Nibley found support for this passage of scripture in the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) written by al-Tha’labi, a tenth century compiler of ancient stories and legends concerning biblical and nonbiblical pre-Islamic prophets. In his translation of the al-Tha’labi passage, Nibley wrote,

And when Joseph had made himself known unto them [his brethren] he asked them about his father, saying, “What did my father after [I left]?” They answered, “He lost his eyesight [from weeping].” Then he gave them his garment [qamis, long outer shirt]. According to ad-Dahak that garment was of the weave [pattern, design] of Paradise, and the breath [spirit, odor] of Paradise was in it, so that it never decayed or in any way deteriorated [and that was] a sign [omen]. And Joseph gave them that garment, and it was the very one that had belonged to Abraham, having already had a long history. He said to them, “Go, take this garment of mine and place it upon the face of my father so he may have sight again . . . and when he brought the garment he laid it upon his face, so that his sight returned to him.2

In his translator’s preface to The History of al-Tabari the great Arabist Franz Rosenthal cited Helmut Ritter, who said when one works with the Arabic it is easy to get "lost in the Arabian desert."3 As any Arabist knows, Arabic is a most difficult language with many traps and pitfalls, particularly older Arabic. Nibley himself has mentioned that in his early years of studying Arabic, there were many times when he [and his professor] had to throw his [their] arms into the air and exclaim, "Oh Arabic! Oh Arabic!"

I would like to offer an alternative translation to Tha’labi’s passage. Most of Nibley’s translation is reasonable and correct as it stands; however, a critical part of the text was incorrectly translated and therefore loses a good deal of its applicability to Alma 46:24.

The problematical phrase is the following: “According to ad-Dahak that garment was of the weave [pattern, design] of Paradise, and the breath [spirit, odor] of Paradise was in it, so that it never decayed or in any way deteriorated [and that was] a sign [omen].”

In the original Arabic (using the same textual edition as Nibley) the passage reads: “(qalla al Dahak) kana thalika al-qamisu min nasaji al-jannat wa kana fihi rihu al-jannatu la yaqa’u ala mubtalan wa la ala saqim ila sahha wa ufa,” transliterated from: (arabic text)

In translation it reads, “al Dahak said that garment was from the weave of Paradise, and there was in it the odor of Paradise, which does not fall upon the afflicted nor upon the sick but [that] it heals and gives health.”

There are some keys words in this difficult passage that can lead to a misunderstanding. For example, the form I assimilated indicative verb yaqa’u, from the root waqa’a can mean ?gto fall; to fall down; drop; to tumble; to come to pass, take place, occur; to happen.?h But with the preposition ala the verb is translated ?gto come, run (across), meet (with); to fall (to someone, to someone?fs lot or share); to alight, settle down (on someone).?h?4 The la negates the verb in the present tense so that it should read, ?gdoes not fall,?h (or perhaps alight) to (or on) someone. One could perhaps extrapolate the idea of ?gnever?h if the word is taken without its preposition and translated ?gdoes not come to pass,?h or ?gdoes not occur,?h or ?gdoes not happen.?h However, this would be highly unlikely since there is a definite connection to the preposition ala in two places of the sentence that must be taken into account in translation. Hence, it is more likely to be translated ?gto fall?h (to someone), or ?gto alight?h (on someone).

In addition, Nibley apparently defines the word mubtalan as “decay.” Mubtalan is a participle that means “afflicted” or “tried.”5 The defective verb bala, from which mubtalan is derived, can mean “to be or become old, worn, shabby (clothes); to dwindle away, vanish; to deteriorate, decline, become decrepit; to disintegrate (a corpse), decay, rot, spoil.”6 However, when the word is used as a participle, as in the above passage, the meaning is limited to “afflicted” or “tried.” The word saqim was also mistranslated as “deteriorated.” Its root form saqima, a form I verb, bears no explicit connection to the idea of “deteriorate” but means “to be or become sick, ill, ailing: to become thin, lean, skinny; to be poor, meager, measly.” In forms II and IV it takes on the more active meaning of something “making someone sick.”7 Hence, the noun saqim should be translated as “sick, ill, ailing; skinny, lean, emaciated; meager, measly; poor, faulty (language).”8

The phrase ila sahha does not seem to be translated in Nibley’s account unless it is the parenthetical thought “and that was,” which does not fit the meaning of ila, generally translated as “unless, if not; except, save.” In this sentence ila is attached to the previous negatives as denoted by la. When ila follows one or more negatives (la), it is almost always translated in the sense of “only” or “but,” as in the phrase “it (the garment) does not (la) fall upon the afflicted nor (la) upon the sick but (ila) it heals.” The word sahha is usually translated in ways that denote good health, uprightness, soundness, correctness, etc., but there is no indication of any of these meanings in Nibley’s translation. “Sign” or “omen” can be derived from the Arabic word awfa, but this is not the right word. The word used by al-Tha’labi is the passive (ufa) of the form III perfect verb afa, from afa which means, “to restore to health, heal, cure (someone).”9 This would again fit well with the sense of the passage in which the odor of the garment provides healing. It also is customary in Arabic to use two words of the same meaning to give emphasis or underscore something. In this instance both sahha and afa mean the same thing, i.e., “to give health or be healthy.” (The emphasis is on the ability of the garment to provide healing and health because of its odor.)

One could mistakenly view mubtalan and saqim as adjectives modifying qamis, the word for garment. However, these words actually function as subject predicates—that is, the afflicted or tried are the subjects upon which the odor of the garment falls and subsequently heals. This certainly agrees with the context of Tha’labi’s passage, for in Nibley’s translation, Joseph says, “Go, take this garment of mine and place it upon the face of my father so he may have sight again . . . and when he brought the garment he laid it upon his face, so that his sight returned to him.”

Not only does this revised translation fit the context of Tha’labi’s version, but Tha’labi seems clearly to be following the Qur’anic account. In Sura 12:93, Joseph says, “Go, take this shirt, and do you cast it on my father’s face, and he shall recover his sight.” Later, “the bearer of good tidings came to him and laid it on his face, forthwith he saw once again (96).”10 Tha’labi also follows the idea of the scent or odor of the garment that no doubt originated in the Qur’an. According to Sura 12:94, after the caravan had left Egypt, Jacob says, “Surely I perceive Joseph’s scent.”11 However, Tha’labi expands on the Qur’anic narrative saying that Joseph’s garment was originally a heavenly garment, had once belonged to Abraham,12 still retained a heavenly odor, and had healing powers.13

To see how the revised portion fits into the context of the larger passage, I quote Nibley’s translation. I have inserted the revised portion in italics.

And when Joseph had made himself known unto them [his brethren] he asked them about his father, saying, “What did my father after [I left]?” They answered, “He lost his eyesight [from weeping].” Then he gave them his garment [qamis, long outer shirt]. According to ad-Dahak that garment was from the weave of Paradise, and there was in it the odor of Paradise which does not fall upon the afflicted nor upon the sick but [that] it heals and gives health. And Joseph gave them that garment, and it was the very one that had belonged to Abraham, having already had a long history. And he said to them, “Go, take this garment of mine and place it upon the face of my father so he may have sight again, and return [to me] with all your families.” And when they had put Egypt behind them and come to Canaan their father Jacob said, “Behold, I perceive the spirit [breath, odor] of Joseph, if you will not think me wandering in my mind and weakheaded from age.” . . . [for] he knew that upon all the earth there was no spirit [breath, odor] of Paradise save in that garment alone. . . . And as-Sadi says that Judah said to Joseph, “It was I who took the garment bedaubed with blood to Jacob, and reported to him that the wolf had eaten Joseph; so give me this day thy garment that I might tell him that thou art living, that I might cause him to rejoice now as greatly as I caused him to sorrow then.” And Ibn-Abbas says that Judah took the garment and went forth in great haste, panting with exertion and anxiety . . . and when he brought the garment he laid it upon his face, so that his sight returned to him. And ad-Dahak says that his sight returned after blindness, and his strength after weakness, and youth after age, and joy after sorrow. [Then follows a dialogue between Jacob and the King of Death].

As shown above, I believe the revised translated portion of this passage better reflects the original Arabic wording, grammar, and meaning of the text. Also, I have noted that the Qur’an likely provided Tha’labi with the primary idea that Joseph?fs garment had an odor and healing powers. The above passage, especially the revised part, indicates that Tha’labi began with the Qur’anic account and then expanded and combined the two concepts so that the odor became the healing power from heaven that healed Jacob’s blindness. Therefore, based on this corrected translation and corroboration from the Qur’an, Tha’labi’s passage cannot support the idea that Joseph’s garment never decayed (Alma 46:24).

Footnotes:

  1. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988).
  2. Translation from al-Tha’labi, Arais al-Majalis fi qisas al-anbiya (Cairo, 1340), 96 as found in Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 219–20, emphasis in original.
  3. The History of al- Tabari, trans. Franz Rosenthal (New York: State University of New York, 1989), 1:163.
  4. Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1980), 1089.
  5. Ibid., 75. See J. G. Hava, al-Faraid Arabic-English Dictionary (Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq, 1982), 46.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 416.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 625.
  10. A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (New York: Macmillan, 1955).
  11. Ibid. Baidawi, a thirteenth century Muslim commentator, said “God caused him [Jacob] to scent that of Joseph’s smell which attached to his shirt, when Judah brough it to him, from 80 leagues away.” A. F. L. Beeston, Baidawi’s Commentary on Surah 12 of the Qur’an (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 47. Ibn Kathir (14th century), a noted Qur’anic exegete and compiler of stories, relates that Jacob smelled Joseph while the caravan was still eight days away from him. Qisas al-Anbiya (Cairo: Ulum al-Arabiyya, 1998), 273.
  12. According to an anonymous medieval Arabic manuscript, Joseph’s garment “came from the Garden of Eternity: / Gabriel provided it, as the story relates, / For the Friend of God [Abraham], on the day he was thrown into the fire, having been cast from a catapult. / It was an artifice devised by Nimrod, / and Satan cunningly helped him in it. / He put it on him while he was [yet flying through] the air / and [the fire], by God’s help, turned into the cold [and ceased] / to throw out sparks. . . . Gabriel put it on Joseph in the well, / thus saving him from all intrigues and harm. / Jacob the Prophet threw it over his face, / and his sight returned as though he had suffered no harm.” The Story of Joseph in Arabic Verse: The Leeds Arabic Manuscript 347, ed. and trans. R. Y. Ebied and M. J. L. Young, Supplement III to the Annual of Leeds University Oriental Society (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 53–54.
  13. Although the heavenly garment motif is attested in other Islamic traditions, the tranference of the odor from Joseph, in the Qur’an, to a heavenly odor that heals seems to be, as far as I can determine, unique to Tha’labi’s version. Yet Tha’labi is likely referring to both the garment and its odor as having a healing effect.