Monday, September 21, 2020

Wordplay in the Book of Mormon

This post will list the compelling examples of wordplay from the Book of Mormon. This is a topic of great interest to me. I believe it offers very strong evidence that the author of the Book of Mormon was well-versed in ancient languages and scribal traditions. 

I'll briefly summarize each item on the list, but I encourage you to click the links to get more details.

Wordplay related to proper names:

  • Gideon -- Mosiah 19:4 introduces Gideon in a way that matches the meaning of his name ("hewer, feller, he that cuts down") rather perfectly.
  • Zeezrom -- Right after telling us "the object of these lawyers was to get gain," Mormon interrupts his narrative to tell us about Nephite money.  What appears to be a random aside is actually a vital detail in order to understand the wordplay on the name "Zeezrom."
  • Onidah/Rameumptom -- Onidah is the name of the hill where Alma teaches about experimenting on the word.  Its name involves wordplay on Alma's prayer with his brethren right before embarking on this part of his ministry. There are numerous intentional parallels between how the people on the Hill Onidah are described and how the prideful Zoramites are described.
  • Joseph/'yasap' -- This example is really profound and might be my favorite.  Lehi makes a very serious point about the significance of the name "Joseph" when speaking to his son with that name, including how it will relate to the latter-day restoration.  It turns out the root of the name Joseph is used in 1 Nephi 22:8,11 and Isaiah 29:14 in reference to the latter-day work the Lord "will proceed to" do.
  • Noah -- Mormon describes the wicked King Noah's laziness in a way that highlights the meaning of his name.
  • Mormon -- The trilateral root in the name Mormon (MRM) make reference to a "head source" of "water," similar to what is described both in Mosiah 18 where Alma is preparing a group of believers for baptism and in Lehi's dream and Genesis (the fountain of pure water associated with the tree of life). Several other proposed meanings for this name have also been postulated.
  • Nephi -- a play on Egyptian nfr (fair, good) and possibly Hebrew "nephil" (giant). See 1 Nephi 1:1-2; 2:16.
  • Benjamin -- "Son of the right hand"
  • Jared -- "go down"
  • Alma -- A recently attested authentic Hebrew name meaning "young man" (See Mosiah 17:2)
  • Nahom -- "to mourn"
  • Jershon -- From the Hebrew 'yarshon' meaning "place of inheritance"
  • Enos -- means "man" in Hebrew. The very first verse in the Book of Enos plays on this.
  • Abish -- "my father was a man" in Hebrew. Strange name but fits well with the little information we get about her.
  • Aminidab -- "My kinsmen are willing." (see Helaman 5:39,41).
  • Ephraim -- "Thou art the fruit of my loins." (See 2 Nephi 3)
  • Cain -- "get gain." (See Helaman 6:17, 27 and Ether 8:16, 22-23; compare Genesis 4:1 and Moses 5:31)

There are others which are more speculative but just as fascinating: 

  • Ishmael and "hearken" 
  • Ammon and "faithful" (see Alma 18:10)
  • Laman and "unfaithful"
  • Mosiah -- A possible example of similar sounding words in Hebrew.
  • Hermounts -- Similar to the name of an Egyptian god of wild things. See Alma 2:37.

Wordplay not related to names:

  • Obscurity and dust -- Lehi tells his sons to "come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust." Jeff Lindsay argues in this paper that the likely Hebrew roots here are similar, adding a poetic element to his words in the original language: “obscurity” = "ʾophel / ʾâphêl" and “dust” = "ʿaphar."
  • The Ironic Fate of Moronihah -- Mormon goes out of his way to point out irony in the fate of the wicked people of the city of Moronihah relative to the fulfillment of a prophecy given by Nephi. They reject the opportunity to be carried up to "Mount Zion" and instead "the earth was carried up" upon them and "in the place of the city there became a great mountain." (3 Nephi 8:10)
  • The iron rod is the word of God -- the Egyptian word mdw means both "staff, rod" and "speech, word" according to scholar Matthew Bowen. Thus, in the tradition that heavily influenced Lehi, there is a word that encompasses one of the figurative elements of his dream and its interpretation.
  • Rod/Ruler -- In 1 Nephi 3, the angel rebukes Laman and Lemuel with a little bit of wordplay.
  • Joy/Boast -- Aaron rebukes his brother and Ammon responds with a very clever poetic response, building off of the two key words of Aaron's rebuke.
  • "Cast out/give place" -- Alma uses the contrasting Hebrew roots in clever and interesting ways as he talks about hearts and the word of God in his well-known sermon on the Hill Onidah (see above for the broader context).

There are many more examples. Although this is speculative, since we don't have the original text to study. Even so, if a passage makes more sense in Hebrew than it does in English, or if repetition in a passage makes more sense when Hebrew cognates are considered, we can learn something about the nature of this text.  

Is it reasonable to conclude that the Book of Mormon is the work of a poorly educated farmhand in upstate New York?  

Is it reasonable to dismiss all of these examples as mere coincidence? 

Is it reasonable to assume Joseph Smith would be well-versed enough to work dozens of subtle examples of Hebrew wordplay into his book and then never mention any of them to anyone?