The Language of the Book of Mormon
Moroni, the last of the prophets who kept the record known as the Book of Mormon, 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” (Mormon 9:32-33).
This suggests that, though the Nephites used Egyptian characters, Hebrew remained their native tongue a thousand years after their ancestors had left Jerusalem to settle in the New World. In the previous article, I suggested that they probably wrote a Hebrew text using Egyptian characters, and showed examples of such texts from the ancient Near East. This being the case, we should not be surprised to find evidence of the Hebrew original in the English translation of the Book of Mormon. One such evidence is in the consonants used in Book of Mormon names, which fit the pattern of Hebrew consonants.
Some phrases used in the Book of Mormon must have seemed strange when it was published in 1830, for they are not good English. But they are valid Hebrew expressions, reflecting the language from which Joseph Smith translated.
An example is what is called the “construct state,” in which we find two Hebrew nouns in succession that bear a close grammatical relationship. For example, in English, one would say “stone altar,” though in Hebrew it would be “altar stone.” But to correctly reflect the relationship between the two Hebrew nouns, it is necessary to say “altar of stone,” though the word “of” does not exist in Biblical Hebrew. When the Book of Mormon uses expressions such as “plates of brass” instead of “brass plates,” and “mist of darkness” instead of “dark mist,” it is reflecting the Hebrew word order.
The cognate accusative is a Hebrew idiom in which a verb is accompanied by a direct object (accusative) that derives from the same root as the verb. Some examples from the Book of Mormon are “I dreamed a dream,” “cursed with a sore cursing” (rather than “cursed sorely”), “work all manner of fine work” (rather than “work well”), and “judge righteous judgment” (rather than “judge righteously”). These kinds of expressions are redundant in English, but necessary in Hebrew.
Words with Hebrew Meanings
Some words used in the English translation of the Book of Mormon reflect Hebrew meaning. For example, Alma 49:22 speaks of “the stones and arrows which were thrown.” While the verb “throw” makes sense for stones, we would expect the verb “shoot” for arrows. Indeed, the Hebrew verb yrh, meaning “throw” (e.g., stones, as in Numbers 21:30; Job 38:6), also has the meaning of “shoot” for arrows (e.g., Exodus 19:13; 1 Samuel 20:11; 20; 36-37; 2 Kings 13:17; 19:32).
In 1 Nephi 1:6, we read that as Lehi “prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him.” The English term “dwelt” normally connotes staying for a long time, and we would expect “sat” or “rested.” Significantly, the Hebrew verb yšb means both “dwell” and “sit.” For example, Jacob’s sons “sat down to eat” (Genesis 37:25), but “Israel dwelt in that land” (Genesis 35:22). The same verb is used in both passages.
In Alma 13:18, we read that Melchizedek “was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.” To the English mind, this implies that he was coregent while he father was yet alive. But not so in Hebrew, where the word meaning “under” also means “instead of,” as in Genesis 4:25, where God gives Eve another son “instead of Abel, whom Cain slew,” or Genesis 22:13, where God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice “in the stead of his son” Isaac. In several passages, it refers to someone who served as king in place of his predecessor (1 Kings 3:7; 2 Kings 14:21; Jeremiah 22:11; 37:1), as in the Book of Mormon passage.
The first of the Book of Mormon writers, Nephi, tells how he removed a written record on plates of brass from a “treasury” in Jerusalem (1 Nephi 4:20, 24). To the modern reader, it may seem strange to keep books in a treasury rather than a library. It would seem more logical to keep books in a library rather than a treasury. But to ancient peoples, a treasury was often a place where records were kept. A single Bible passage, Ezra 5:17-6:2, speaks of a “treasure house” contained written records. The Aramaic word used for “treasure” in this passage is ginzayyâ, from the root meaning “to keep, hide” in both Hebrew and Aramaic. From the same root is the Mishnaic Hebrew gcnîz~h, which denotes a repository for worn synagogue scrolls, and gann~z, “archivist” or one in charge of records. The practice of placing worn-out scrolls in a synagogue treasury continues in Judaism to this day. A number of ancient peoples, including the Greeks, kept records in their treasuries.
In the fifth chapter of his book, Nephi’s brother Jacob recorded a parable of an olive tree that is situated in a “vineyard.” We might more logically expect an olive tree to be in an orchard and grapevines in a vineyard. But again, we find ancient references to vineyards as places where trees were grown. The Israelite king Ahab requested of Naboth, “Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs (vegetables)” (1 Kings 21:2). Similarly, in Song of Solomon 8:11-13, the vineyard appears to be considered a garden. One chapter earlier, we read of pomegranates growing in the vineyard alongside grapes (Song of Solomon 7:12). In Luke 13:6-9, we read of a fig tree planted in a vineyard. In the Jewish Mishnah (Zeraim 4:1-8:1), we read that the rabbis of two thousand years ago argued about what else could be planted in a vineyard without breaking the mosaic law of diverse kinds. Most agreed that vegetables, grains, and flowers could be planted in a vineyard, provided there was adequate spacing between the various species. They also discussed the question of training vines over nonfruit trees and fruit trees, and both the olive and fig tree are mentioned (Zeraim 4:1-8:1). The ancient Egyptian word for “vineyard” also means a “garden,” and it is sometimes written with the ideographic vine determinative and sometimes with the tree determinative. The Egyptian scribe Any mentions twelve vines that he planted in his garden, alongside 100 fig trees, 170 date palms, and other plants.
Sometimes, Book of Mormon passages make more sense when we realize that the Hebrew would involve word-plays. One of the most well-known is in the story of the converted Lamanites whom the Nephites allowed them to settle in the land called Jershon. The name, though not found in the Bible, has an authentic Hebrew origin, the root yrš, meaning “to inherit,” with the suffix -ôn that denotes place-names. It is in this light that we should understand the words in Alma 27:22 (“and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance”), Alma 27:24 (“that they may inherit the land Jershon“), and Alma 35:14 (“they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon“).
We find another word-play in 1 Nephi 16:34, where we read “that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom. And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father.” The name Nahom evidently derives from the Hebrew root nh.m, “to mourn, comfort.”
Book of Mormon Names
A number of scholars (Mormon or interested in Mormonism) have looked at the names in the Book of Mormon and have determined that many of them have Hebrew etymologies, even when they are not known from the Bible. Thus, for example, the name of the Nephite capital, Zarahemla, is from the Hebrew zerac-h.emlah, “seed/offspring of compassion.”
Some Book of Mormon names reflect the Hebrew gentilic, referring to one’s ethnic or geographic origin. In Hebrew, the masculine singular gentilic is the suffix -î. In the Book of Mormon, it is found in names such as Moroni (“Moronite,” from the land of Moron), Lamoni (“Lamanite”), and Muloki (“Mulekite”). Mulek was the son of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, and significantly derives from the Hebrew root meaning “king.”
A few names in the Book of Mormon, such as Nephi, Paanchi, and Pahoran, are actually Egyptian in origin, and reflect the fact that the book was originally written in Egyptian script.
Hebrew Poetic Forms
Hebrew poetic structures are also found in the Book of Mormon. The two most frequent forms are parallelism and chiasmus. Parallelism is the repetition of a line, often with substitution of key elements in the line, while chiasmus (from the Greek letter chi, X, because the second parallel line runs backward compared to the first). Here are examples of both from Isaiah 2:2-3:
The mountain of the Lord’s house
a shall be established in the top of the mountains,
a’ and shall be exalted above the hills;
b And all nations shall flow unto it.
b’ And many people shall go
and say, Come ye, and let us go up
c to the mountain of the Lord,
c’ to the house of the God of Jacob;
d and he will teach us of his ways,
d’ and we will walk in his paths;
e for out of Zion shall go forth the law,
e’ and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Each pair of numbered lines contains a parallel construction. Thus in a-a’, “shall be established” parallels “shall be exalted,” while “top of the mountains” parallels “above the hills.” In b-b’, “nations” parallels “people” and “shall flow” parallels “shall go.” In c-c’ “mountain of the Lord” parallels “house of God.” In d-d’, “he will teach” parallels “we will walk,” while “his ways” parallels “his paths.” Lines e-e’ are a chiastic structure, where “out of Zion” at the beginning of e parallels “from Jerusalem” at the end of e’, while “the law” at the end of e parallels “the word of the Lord” at the beginning of e’.
The Book of Mormon uses both of these ancient poetic forms and sometimes its chiasms are rather complex. Here is one of the simpler examples of chiasmus from the sign given at the time of Christ’s birth, as found in 3 Nephi 1:15:
a for behold, at the going down of the sun
b there was no darkness;
c and the people began to be astonished
b’ because there was no darkness
a’ when the night came.
At the time Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, chiasmus in the Bible was just being discovered, and it was not yet known to most Bible scholars, much less the general public. Joseph Smith knew no Hebrew at the time, yet his English translation reflects the structure of the Hebrew language. How is this possible? While nonbelievers might dismiss it as coincidence, Mormons and others who accept the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient Israelite text also accept Joseph Smith’s testimony that it was through divine inspiration that he brought the Book of Mormon to people of our day.