Hebraisms and other ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon
Transcript of the September 2003 BMAF Conference
by Donald W. Parry
Sometimes Hebrew words can have more than one meaning. So, we often try to understand what the ancient prophets meant when they used certain words. Sometimes it’s difficult. That’s one of the reasons we have so many different translations of the Hebrew Bible. By Hebrew Bible I mean the Old Testament. I am truly amazed at the Book of Mormon reading of what appear to be Hebrew forms, but translated into English. I’m going to share some of those items with you today, just some samples.
Hebrew forms have survived the translation into English. I will remind you that Lehi and his family lived in the greater Jerusalem area at the end of the 7th century B.C. Hebrew was spoken and written and read. Lehi and Sariah knew Hebrew, and so did their sons and their wives. I want to quote from Mormon 9:32-33. Moroni wrote, “We have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; . . .” There is a lot to be said about this quote. I’m going to show you some forms that you grew up with if you’ve read the Book of Mormon throughout your life. There are some forms that you’ve loved and maybe wondered and puzzled about.
I teach Hebrew and the Dead Sea Scrolls at BYU; also the type of Hebrew that was spoken by the rabbis at the time of Jesus Christ,; as well as the Hebrew Bible, which is the Old Testament. Part of the book of Ezra was written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, as well as parts of Daniel, which were written in Aramaic, and some parts of Jeremiah.
The great Isaiah scroll, part of the Dead Sea Scrolls was found in a Cave #1 in Israel in 1947. This is a complete scroll, it is a magnificent scroll. I’ve worked on this scroll very closely for about seven years, and produced a new edition of the Isaiah scroll that was published in Hebrew with an English translation. Some of the readings are unique and are not found in our Bible. Hebrew is read from right to left, then from top to bottom, and there is no punctuation – none whatsoever. In fact, the scroll is lacking a lot of the vowels. You have to know how to read the text with just consonants and without the vowels. There is no versification or verse numbers – those are later inventions. There are no chapters and no capitalization. Even today, Hebrew does not use capitalization, even for proper names or the names of God or Jehovah.
A simile is a figure of speech that is used in comparisons and it features the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. Here is an example: “I am as hungry as a bear.” You hear the word ‘as’. That’s the simile comparing two different things. Or, “He is as big as a dinosaur.” Again, the second word ‘as’; so a simile will use the words ‘as’ or ‘like’. A curse is when a prophet curses somebody. We know what that is. A simile curse is a curse that uses a simile. What is outstanding about that is, not only are they found in the Bible, they are found in the Book of Mormon, and everything that I’m going to tell you will build upon the case that Joseph Smith was a prophet and he, indeed, translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. That’s my overall goal is to illustrate this.
Here is a simile curse from 1 Kings 14:10, “I (the Lord) will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam (a very wicked king) . . . and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.” This is a curse with a simile built into it. Here is another one: “I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” (2 Kings 21:13) The inhabitants of Jerusalem were very wicked so the Lord was going to destroy it, and used the simile in the curse to demonstrate how he will destroy it. Also notice how easily the Lord will do it – as easy as when someone takes his dish after he has eaten from it, wipes it and rinses it off and then turns it upside down so it will dry. That is the way the Hebrews used to clean their dishes, and it would be just as easy for God destroy Jerusalem.
There are examples of simile curses also in the Book of Mormon. Did Joseph Smith design it this way? No. The Book of Mormon came out of the ancient Near East, the Biblical world, so they occurred naturally in the Book of Mormon. The prophets Lehi and Nephi brought that tradition with them to the New World. Here are three examples in a row, all spoken by Abinadi: “And it shall come to pass that the life of king Noah shall be valued even as (note the simile) a garment in a hot furnace . . . .” (Mosiah 12:3) Noah is going to burn up. Next – Abinadi promises that Noah “shalt be as (the simile) a stalk, even as a dry stalk (for emphasis) of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot.” (Mosiah 12:11) Last – Abinadi prophesies, “Thou shalt be as (the simile) the blossoms of a thistle, which, when it is fully ripe, if the wind bloweth, it is driven forth upon the face of the land. . . .”(Mosiah 12:12) You can see how powerful this language is once you know what is happening. I would not want to be on the receiving end of a simile curse from a prophet. It’s possible for a prophet to curse someone without using a simile, but the simile make it more poetic and you can visualize the result easier. For instance, what is a garment in a hot furnace like? It’s destroyed in seconds. That’s how Noah would be destroyed.
This is a term used in the past tense. In English the past tense is, “I did something. I walked; I danced; I ate; I slept.” A prophetic perfect is when a prophet uses the past tense to predict a future event. Here are selections from Isaiah 53: “he (Jesus Christ) has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” (verse 4) You’re all familiar with this 53rd chapter, so you will recognize these figures of speech; yet Jesus wouldn’t live for another 750 or so years. But, Isaiah uses the past tense:
“he was wounded for our transgressions” (verse 5)
“he was bruised for our iniquities” (verse 5)
“the chastisement of our peace was upon him” (verse 5)
“the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (verse 6)
“he was oppressed, and he was afflicted” (verse 7)
“he was cut off out of the land of the living” (verse 8)
“of the transgressions of my people was he stricken” (verse 8)
So, Isaiah used these past tenses to predict a future event. Now, why would a prophet do that? They apparently do that because they are so certain that the prophecy will come to pass that it will be fulfilled. And, they all were.
Are these found in the Book of Mormon? Let me give you some examples: Lehi declared, “I have obtained a land of promise” (1 Nephi 5:5) long before he actually arrived in the promised land. This is typical Biblical language. Nephi spoke of Jesus’ baptism and reception of the Holy Ghost as though it had already happened – “Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove” (2 Nephi 31:8). Not only does the Book of Mormon give us an example of the prophetic perfect, it also gives us a definition: “And now if Christ had not come into the world, speaking of things to come as though they had already come, there could have been no redemption” (Mosiah 16:6).
In 1898, a scholar by the name of Bollinger wrote a book called, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. He came up with some remarkable figures of speech. There is one figure of speech called ‘climax’. Bollinger calls it a ‘beautiful figure, very expressive, and one that attracts our attention to the importance of the passage’. He also calls it ‘gradation’. Kind of like a ladder. You climb up a ladder to reach your goal. So, I’m going to give you just one example from the Bible and one example from the Book of Mormon, so you can see how expressive this is. I’ve formatted it so you can see that it repeats a phrase or a word. Then it repeats another phrase or a word, and so on, until there is usually a climax at the end.
“Tell ye your children of it,
and let your children tell their children, and
their children another generation.
That which the palmerworm hath left hath the
locust eaten, and that which the
locust hath left hath the
cankerworm eaten, and that which the
cankerworm hath left hath the caterpiller eaten.” (Joel 1:3-4)
It ends with the caterpillar eating. This is the prophecy. I want to explain the value of the prophecy. This is a very exciting passage once you know how to read this form.
Here is one from the Book of Mormon, and I’m aware of about eight or ten of these in that book. This is from Moroni 8:25-26. Notice that baptism is repeated twice as well as fulfilling of commandments and so on. And then, look at the climax at the end where the saints will dwell with God.
“And the first fruits of repentance is baptism,
and Baptism cometh by faith
unto the fulfilling the commandments, and
the fulfilling the commandments bringeth
remission of sins, And the
remission of sins bringeth
meekness, and lowliness of heart, and because of
meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the
Holy Ghost, which
Comforter filleth with hope, and perfect
love endureth by diligence unto prayer,
until the end shall come when all he saints shall dwell with God”
In this case, the word ‘Comforter’ kind of breaks the chain a bit, but it is still accurate. I hope you enjoy this one and will remember it. Bollinger calls it, not knowing that it occurs in the Book of Mormon, ‘a beautiful figure, very expressive, and one that attracts our attention to the importance of the passage’. I think it’s just remarkable that this type of figure of speech is also found in the Book of Mormon. I like to study these because there is a lot to study here. You could spend a whole Gospel Doctrine one-hour class on just this one passage, and still come away not knowing all that there is to know.
These are special formulas used by prophets. In the Bible there are six formulas, or revelatory expressions that belong to a prophet. These are formulas that a prophet can say that others may not say with authority. Scholars have given them names. One is called The Messenger Formula, and the formula is this, “Thus saith the Lord.” (e.g., Amos 1:1, 6; also found 39 times in the Book of Mormon, e.g., 1 Nephi 20:17; Mosiah 3:24; Alma 8:17). A prophet can state that with authority while others may try to state, but cannot, such as the false prophet in Jeremiah. Jeremiah made a prophecy in the king’s court in front of a lot of people, and the false prophet came up and followed Jeremiah, and Jeremiah said, “Thus saith the Lord, this is what is going to happen to you.” The false prophet came right up to Jeremiah’s face and said, “No. Thus saith the Lord, this will not happen.” He contradicted Jeremiah, and what did Jeremiah do? He didn’t get angry, didn’t react; he was silent as he left the court. Jeremiah knew that he was a prophet and that he had spoken by the spiritual voice according to this formula of “Thus saith the Lord.” He later met the false prophet and said, “Thus saith the Lord, you’re going to die.” The false prophet met an untimely death within weeks – not because Jeremiah was speaking as a human, but because the Lord spoke through him. So, “Thus saith the Lord” is a very important formula that scholars know about, found in the Hebrew Bible. Could we anticipate that this figure of speech would be found in the Book of Mormon? Certainly, and it is found, by count, 39 times in the book. How would Joseph Smith know to put that in if it was fraudulent work? There is no way. Some of these things were not discovered until after Joseph Smith had published the Book of Mormon. The previous ‘climax’ example was only discovered, as far as I know, in 1898.
The Proclamation Formula
The Proclamation Formula – “hear the word of the Lord” (e.g., 1 Kings 22:19; Amos 7:16; Isaiah 49:1; also in Ezekiel, Joel) Book of Mormon instances of this formula include “Hearken to the word of the Lord” (Jacob 2:27); “Hear the words of Jesus” (3 Nephi 30:10); and “hearken unto the words which the Lord saith” (Helaman 3:21).
The Oath Formula
The Oath Formula – “The LORD God hath sworn” (e.g., Amos 4:2; 8:7) or “as the LORD liveth” (e.g., Judges 8:19; Ruth 3:13), The phrase “as the Lord liveth” is found in 1 Nephi 3:15; 4:32; and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. It is important to recognize that these came from the ancient Biblical world, and the Book of Mormon prophets didn’t make them up.
Some Book of Mormon scholars at BYU and elsewhere have discovered ten Book of Mormon names that were not previously known to the world in ancient Hebrew documents; subsequent to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Here is one example: The 5/6Hev 44 Bar Kokhba document was discovered in 1961-62 by Yigael Yadin, who was a famous Jewish archaeologist. He discovered in cave 32 documents that were bound together with a palm frond. They dated to 133 A.D., the Bar Kokhba era. Previous to this discovery, some non-Mormon scholars criticized the Book of Mormon because of the name of Alma. They said that it was a female name. They thought Joseph Smith had made an error in putting Alma as a male name, not once but twice. In this document, written in Hebrew, there is a little square. It says Alma, ben Yehuda – Alma, the son of Judah. This is one of the ten names that were discovered, and I’m going to show you about three more.
Let me just note something here. Certain deities in the ancient Near East are celebrated with a multiplicity of their names or titles, along with the 50 names of martyrs. Now these are not our deities, they belong to other religious systems, the 74 names of Re, and 100 names of Osiris. It’s a long-standing tradition for religious systems to give their deities multiple names. In the Old Testament we have many names for our God. Here are a few, and there are many more: Shepherd, Savior, Redeemer, Lord, God, Rock, Almighty, Branch, Creator of Israel, Deliverer, Everlasting Father, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Shield, Jehovah, Lawgiver, Light, Ruler, Stone, Star, Prince of Peace, Servant. Here is a sample of similar names from the Book of Mormon: Redeemer of Israel, Son of the Living God, Lord God Omnipotent., True Messiah, Great Creator, Stone, Lamb of God, Lord Jesus Christ, Holy One of Israel, Messiah. There are actually 101 names of deity in the Book of Mormon, which is a remarkable fact, I believe. Susan Easton Black, of BYU, counted the names of God in the Book of Mormon, and the verses in which they appeared, did some math, and said that there is one name of God, on average, for every 1.7 verses. I’ve challenged some people to read the Book of Mormon to find those names. They get through 1 Nephi and they’re totally convinced.
In Genesis it says, “thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10), the Hebrew reads “thy brother’s bloods (plural) crieth unto me . . .” The King James and other translators didn’t use the plural, bloods, because it sounds funny. The plural usage amplifies some aspect of doctrine that the writers wanted to emphasize. Here’s another example in Isaiah 33:6: “and strength of salvation (Hebrew reads ‘salvations’)”. In Psalms 94:1: “O LORD God, to whom vengeance (Hebrew reads ‘vengeances’) belongeth.” Proverbs 1:20 states: “Wisdom (Hebrew reads ‘wisdoms’) crieth without, she uttereth her voice in the streets.” That’s a personification. In the Hebrew, wisdom is personified as a woman. Would you anticipate that there would be some of these plural amplifications in the Book of Mormon? There are several examples, and most of these are still in the Book of Mormon, which tells me that Joseph Smith gave us a very careful translation.
2 Nephi 1:12, “There shall be bloodsheds”
Mosiah 8:20, “impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men”
Jacob 5:72, “and labor with their mights” (We would never say that in English.)
1 Nephi 12:2, “great slaughters with the sword among my people”
Mormon 1:19, “And it came to pass that there were . . . magics” (We would simply say there was magic.)
1 Nephi 15:5, “destructions1 of my people”
1 Nephi 2:11, “foolish imaginations of his heart”
The Printer’s Manuscript and the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon read the plural “destructions”. After the 1830 edition, this word was singularized. (See Royal Skousen, The Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, Provo, FARMS, 2001, p. 101.)
The Word "of"
The usage of ‘of’,’ is not a fancy grammatical term. But, we’ll just say ‘of'. In the Old Testament they liked to use the word ‘of; such as,
“the word of the LORD” rather than saying “the LORD’s word” (Genesis 15:4).
“vessel of wood” rather than “wooden vessel” (Leviticus 11:32).
The same thing is true in the Book of Mormon. Here are four examples:
“plates of brass” rather than “brass plates” (1 Nephi 3:24).
“rod of iron” rather than “iron rod” (Alma 34:33).
“sword of Laban” rather than “Laban’s sword” (2 Nephi 5:14).
“temple of Solomon” rather than “Solomon’s temple” (2 Nephi 5:16).
Repetition of the Definite Article
The next figure of speech is Repetition of the Definite Article. In Hebrew, the definite article ‘the’ is repeated for each noun in a sentence. It drives some translators crazy. Some translators don’t translate it this way. “We did observe to keep the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord” (2 Nephi 5:10). When you read the Book of Mormon, notice all of the ‘thes’.
The Verb and Noun Sharing the Same Root. These are found throughout the Bible; hundreds of examples, but they generally are not translated literally, as in the Book of Mormon, they are put into idiomatic English, basically the English that we use today.
This is very typical Biblical Hebrew, and here are just a few examples from the Book of Mormon:
“I will curse them even with a sore curse” (1 Nephi 2:23; see also 2 Nephi).
“Behold I have dreamed a dream: (1 Nephi 13:5).
“yoketh them with a yoke” (1nephi 13:5).
“I will work a great and marvelous work” (1 Nephi 14:7).
“build buildings” (2 Nephi 5:15; Mosiah 23:50.
“this was the desire which I desired of him” (Enos 1:13).
“work all manner of fine work” (Mosiah 11:10).
“judge righteous judgments” (Mosiah 29:29, 43).
“sing the song” (Alma 5:26). Of course, we do use this one quite often in English.
“taxed with a tax: (Mosiah 7:15; Ether 10:23).
“fear exceedingly, with fear” (Alma 18:5).
The Book of Mormon, like the Bible, features many ‘ands’. It’s a characteristic of Biblical Hebrew. (Joshua 7:24) “And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor.” In ordinary English, we would dispense with almost all of the ‘ands’. But this is very typical early Hebrew.
Now look at the Book of Mormon: “But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people; yea, the account of the Lamanites and the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping, and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms cannot be contained in this work. (Helaman 3:14) When you read the Book of Mormon and see all the ‘ands’ that is a very typical Hebrew usage.
Repetition of the Possessive Pronoun
From Exodus 10:9; “And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go” For a Book of Mormon example: “Turn all ye Gentiles, from your wicked ways; and repent of your evil doings, of your lyings and deceivings, and of your whoredoms, and of your secret abominations, and your idolatries, and of your murders, and your priestcrafts, and your envyings, and your strifes, and from all your wickedness and abominations, and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Nephi 30:2) This is not how we speak in English and it’s not how Joseph Smith spoke.
Seals are sometimes put in the form of a ring (signet); sometimes they would put them on a cord and wear them around the neck. You may remember the seal that Tamar took (Genesis 38:25-26) as proof that Judah had slept with her. She took three things, one of which was his seal that had his name on it. I’m going to show you some that have Book of Mormon names on them, which names were unknown to the world at the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
There is a clay seal with ancient Hebrew writing on it. This is pronounced similar to ‘Sariah,’ the wife of Lehi. Her name in Hebrew means ‘Jehovah is Prince’. The name ‘Sarah’ is similar – it means ‘Princess’. Sariah happens to be a masculine name, but don’t let that throw you, as there are six names in the Bible that are shared by males and females. Solomon is also a female name in the Bible. Abijah is a male name in one place and a female name in another place in the Bible. The same occurs in English. There are many English names that are shared by males and females.
There is a seal that is spelled in the ancient Hebrew ‘Abish’. You recall Abish was a Lamanite servant of King Lamoni’s wife.
Also one with three characters that is translated as ‘Aha’. You remember that he was one of the sons of Zoram, a military officer.
One more seal is the name ‘Josh’. This is the name of one of the cities that was destroyed at the time of the crucifixion, and many critics of the Book of Mormon say this is simply a nickname, short for Joshua. They said the same thing about ‘Sam,’ that it was a nickname for Samuel. Both the names Sam and Josh did exist in antiquity.
I’ve presented some eight or ten peculiar items in the Book of Mormon, and there are many, many more. I’ve actually identified at least 18 just as an example. I want to emphasize that these forms and peculiarities are really fun, and to me they’re really important. I enjoy teaching these to my students. But there is something that is much more important than these. I’m going to read a quotation from one of the early brethren. This is from Willard Richards, an early Church convert. (Some people may argue and say, “Well, so what about these things? So what if the name, Aha, was discovered? The same with Alma? I don’t care. What’s more important than that is your personal testimony of the Book of Mormon that is borne by the Spirit.) In the summer of 1835, someone handed Willard Richards a copy of the Book of Mormon. He opened the book without regard to place, and totally ignorant of its design or contents. (He had no idea what was in it.) Before reading half a page he declared, and here is this quote, “God or the devil has had a hand in that book, for man never wrote it.” He read it twice through in about ten days, and so firm was his conviction of the truth, that he immediately began settling his accounts, selling his medicines, and freeing himself from every encumbrance, went to Kirtland, Ohio, 700 miles west, the nearest point where he could hear a saint (Latter-day Saint), and give the work a thorough investigation. He firmly believed that the doctrine was true and that God had some greater work for him to do than selling pills.
And I’ll give you one more quote – this one from Parley P. Pratt. “I opened the Book of Mormon with eagerness, and read its title page. I then read the testimony of several witnesses in relation to the manner of its being found and translated. After this I commenced its contents by course. I read all day. Eating was a burden. I had no desire for food. Sleep was a burden; when night came, I preferred reading to sleep. As I read, the Spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true. This discovery greatly enlarged my heart, and filled my filled my soul with joy and gladness. I esteemed the book, or the information contained in it more than all the riches of the world.”
I testify that this has happened millions of times since the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to millions of people who have read its contents. Their hearts have been enlarged, including mine. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.