Hebrew Words Reflected
in the Book of Mormon
John A. Tvedtnes
And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:33)
From the words of Moroni in Mormon 9:33, it is clear that the Nephites were still acquainted with some form of the Hebrew language a thousand years after Lehi’s family left Jerusalem.[i] And though at least Mormon and Moroni employed a script they called “reformed Egyptian” in place of the Hebrew alphabet, it is likely that they employed this script to transcribe Hebrew words rather than Egyptian. Consequently, several scholars have discussed evidence that the Book of Mormon betrays a Hebrew background.[ii]
The most impressive “Hebraisms” in the Book of Mormon are words that reflect word-plays understandable only in Hebrew and words that are better understood in Hebrew terms than in English due to the range of meaning of the corresponding Hebrew words.
Range of Meaning
Before looking at examples, we need to understand the concept of range of meaning. In English, we have several terms denoting frozen water, such as snow, ice, frost, and sleet. By contrast, a single Arabic word, talj, has all of these meanings and thus has a wider range of meaning than any of these English words. Here, then, are some examples of Book of Mormon words whose range of meaning is such that it suggests a Hebrew, rather than an English, original.
In Alma 49:4, we read that the Lamanites attempted to “cast their stones and their arrows” at the Nephites atop the wall of the city Ammonihah. Alma 49:22 speaks of “the stones and arrows which were thrown.” While, in English, we would appropriately use the verb “throw” of stones, this is not so of arrows, where we would expect the word “shoot.” But the Hebrew verb yrh, meaning “throw” or “cast” (Exodus 15:4, 25; Joshua 18:6; Job 30:19), 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). Indeed, in 2 Chronicles 26:15, the Hebrew verb (with a variant spelling) is used in the passage rendered “to shoot arrows and great stones” in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
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 setting up house or at least staying for a long time, and we would expect to read that the pillar of fire “sat” or “rested” on the rock. Significantly, the Hebrew verb yšb means both “dwell, inhabit,” 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. The Hebrew term meaning “inhabitant(s)” derives from the same root and is illustrated by the word-play in 2 Nephi 2:28: “Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God . . .” The root is also used as a word-play in Alma 34:36: “And this I know because the Lord hath said he dwelleth not in unholy temples, but in the hearts of the righteous doth he dwell and he has also said that the righteous shall sit down in his kingdom.” We see the same thing in the chiasm comprising Moroni 7:27-28, where we have these parallel lines:
“Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down . . .
and he dwelleth eternally in the heavens”
The Hebrew term generally rendered “before” or “in the presence of” in the Bible is lipnēy, which literally means “to the face of” (the l- prefix being the preposition “to”). Knowing this, we can see the word-play in Enos 1:27: “I . . . shall stand before him [Heb. lpnyw]; then shall I see his face [Heb. pnyw] with pleasure,” where the suffix –w is the pronoun meaning “him” and “his.”
In Helaman 9:6, we read that the Nephite judge had been “stabbed by his brother by a garb of secrecy.” Critics have contended that this makes no sense in English, since “garb” has the same meaning as “garment” or “clothing.” This idiom is the same as the English “under cloak of secrecy.”[iii] But what is most interesting is that the Hebrew word begged means both “garment” or “garb” (e.g., Genesis 39:12-13) and “treachery.”[iv] This is an obvious word-play in the Hebrew original of the Book of Mormon. As for the preposition “by,” in Hebrew its range of meaning includes “in,” (locative), “with” or “by means of” (instrumental).
Jacob wrote that Nephi instructed him regarding Nephite sacred preaching, revelations, and prophecies that “I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates” (Jacob 1:4). We really expect something more like “most important” to be used here. Indeed, the Hebrew word for the head of the body (rō’š) is sometimes used to describe things as “chief” (Deuteronomy 33:15; Psalm 137:6; Proverbs 1:21; Amos 6:1) or “precious” (Song of Solomon 4:14; Ezekiel 27:22), which is probably the sense in which Jacob used the word.
Jacob also declared, “we are upon an isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20), which seems a strange way to term the American continent or even a portion of it. But the Hebrew word generally translated “isle” in the King James Bible has a wider range of meaning than the English term and most often refers to coastal lands.[v] Thus, in Isaiah 41:5 and 42:10, the term “isles” is in poetic parallelism with “end(s) of the earth,” while in Isaiah 42:4 it parallels “earth.” In two other passages, it refers to distant lands, alluding to the edge of the continental mass (Isaiah 49:1; Jeremiah 31:10). From the Nephite perspective, they were in a distant land or “isle,” far from their homeland.
Another Hebrew word is reflected in the Book of Mormon use of the term “place.” The Hebrew word translated by this word in the King James Bible is māqōm, literally “place of arising.”[vi] Some Bible scholars have suggested that, in at least some passages (for example, Job 16:18; Ezekiel 39:11; Ecclesiastes 3:20; 6:6), it should be rendered “grave” or “destination of the dead.”[vii] Indeed, this is the meaning of the word when it appears in the inscriptions found on the sarcophagi of the ancient Phoenician kings Panamuwa and Eshmunezer, found in Lebanon.[viii] The Arabic cognate, maqām, is used to denote the tomb of a prominent individual, usually an ancient prophet.[ix] The renowned Arabist William M. Brinner, while acknowledging its primary meaning of “standing-place,” noted that “maqām today usually means ‘shrine’ or ‘place of martyrdom’.”[x] Significantly, the Book of Mormon uses the word “place” once to denote where someone was buried (1 Nephi 16:34), twice to denote where people died (Mosiah 9:4; Alma 14:9), and ten times to denote the destination of the dead (1 Nephi 15:34-35; 2 Nephi 28:23; Jacob 6:3; Enos 1:27; Mosiah 26:23-24; Alma 5:24-25; 54:22).
In one of his discourses, Alma2 declared, “I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests . . . to teach these things unto the people” (Alma 13:1). In English, the word “forward” implies the future, which does not fit with such past-tense verbs as “gave” and “ordained,” and cannot be “remembered” since it has not yet happened. If the Hebrew word rendered “forward” is qedem, which means “before, in front of,” in both a temporal and a locative sense, it would here have a temporal meaning and hence refer something that had gone “before,” i.e., in the past.
Paronomasia, the use of puns and word-plays, is common to many, if not all, languages. Speakers of English are perhaps most aware of the word-play we call a pun, in which a word or a similar-sounding word is assigned a different meaning. For example: “Did you hear about the woman who filed the edges of her pennies before storing them in a vase? Someone had told her that a penny shaved is a penny urned.” The words “shaved” and “urned” reflect both the new meaning and the original saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” The kinds of word-plays found in the Book of Mormon are not puns. What makes the following examples significant is the fact that, while they clearly reflect word-plays in Hebrew, the English text betrays no such phenomenon.
Alma 13:11 and Ether 13:11 speak of being “washed in the blood of the lamb.” This may be a word-play using two Hebrew near-homonyms, kbs, “wash,” and kbś, “lamb.” In support of this we also have the apparent wordplay in Alma 7:14: “Therefore come and be baptized unto repentance that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God.”
Similar to word-plays is the use of two words deriving from the same Hebrew root. This usually occurs in what is termed the cognate accusative, where the accusative (direct object) of a verb is from the same root as the verb. A classic example is found in Lehi’s words recorded in 1 Nephi 8:2: “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.” It is obvious from the English translation that “dreamed” and “dream” are related, but less obvious for “seen” and “vision,” which, in the Hebrew text are likely from the root hzh, “to see” (hence, “seen a scene” or “vised a vision”).[xi]
Alma told the Zoramites, “If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). The Hebrew words for “faith” and “truth” are related, both coming from the root ’mn. Hebrew ’ĕmūnāh and the related ’ămānāh mean “belief,” “faith,” or “support,” while ’ĕmet, following a regular rule in Hebrew, n assimilates into the feminine singular suffix t, means “truth.” A related word, ’omnāh means “verily, truly, indeed.” The word-play used by Alma is not possible in English.[xii]
A classic example of word-play is found in 1 Nephi. Having arrived at a valley in the Arabian peninsula, Lehi named the valley after his son Lemuel, exhorting him to “be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable” (1 Nephi 2:10). He similarly named the valley’s river after Laman, pleading that he might “be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness” (1 Nephi 2:9). One of the Hebrew words for “river,” nāhār, has a verbal root meaning “to flow.” A Hebrew term for “valley” is ’aphiq, which actually means “a stream-bed,” a “water channel,” or a “ravine,” derives from the verb meaning “to hold” or “to be strong.” Another Hebrew word for “valley” is ’ēytān, which is actually an adjective meaning “perennial, ever-flowing, enduring, firm.” The Hebrew word ’ămānāh, discussed above, also has the meaning of “firmness, steadfastness, fidelity,” and is also the name of a river flowing down from the Antilebanon mountains into the plain of Damascus (2 Kings 5:12). These terms suggest that Lehi deliberately patterned his speech to reflect the meanings behind the Hebrew words he used.[xiii]
When the Lamanites converted by the sons of Mosiah fled their homeland to escape persecution, the Nephites allowed them to settle in the land of Jershon. The name, though not found in the Bible, has an authentic Hebrew origin, the root yrš,[xiv] meaning “to inherit” or “to take possession,” with the suffix -ôn that denotes place-names.[xv] It is in this light that we should understand the word-plays 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”), Alma 27:26 (“they . . . took possession of the land of Jershon”), and Alma 35:14 (“they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon”).
The toponym Nahom is also used in a word-play in 1 Nephi 16:34-36, where we read that when Ishmael died, his daughters mourned his death and murmured against Lehi for asking them to leave Jerusalem. Nahom derives either from Hebrew nhm, “grown, groan,” or nḥm, “be sorry, comfort/console oneself.” Both roots have the potential for playing a role in this passage.[xvi]
Sometimes, we can gain insights into the Book of Mormon text by reading some of the words as reflections of Hebrew. For example, in Alma 13:18, we read that Melchizedek “was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.” To the mind of speakers of English, this implies that he was coregent while his father was yet alive. But not so in Hebrew, where the word meaning “under” also means “instead of.” In most places in the Bible, the word taúat means “under,” as in “under the whole heaven” (Genesis 7:19) or “under the tree/oak” (Genesis 18:4, 18; 35:4, 8; 1 Chronicles 10:12). In other passages, it means “instead of” or “in place 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 Hebrew term hosha-na’ (KJV hosanna) is an imperative form meaning “save, rescue, deliver,” and thus fits well with the deliverance of the Nephites from destruction as described in 3 Nephi 4:32-33: “Yea, they did cry: Hosanna to the Most High God. And they did cry: Blessed be the name of the Lord God Almighty, the Most High God. And their hearts were swollen with joy, unto the gushing out of many tears, because of the great goodness of God in delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; and they knew it was because of their repentance and their humility that they had been delivered from an everlasting destruction.”
Though Joseph Smith later studied Hebrew, he was unacquainted with that language or any other foreign languages at the time he translated the Book of Mormon. Though the King James Bible contains many Hebraisms, the English words discussed here are not used in the same way in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. We can conclude, therefore, that Joseph Smith was not influenced by English or biblical usage and that these words reflect a Hebrew original for the Book of Mormon.
See also Tvedtnes, “The Remnant of Joseph,” FARMS Update 137, Insights: An Ancient Window 20/8 (August 2000)
See also Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon.
[i] All languages change over time, while preserving much of their ancestral forms. Nephite Hebrew may have been influenced by the Egyptian writing system used by such writers as Nephi1, Mormon, and Moroni. Indeed, Moroni wrote that “none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:34).
[ii] Among others, see the following: M. Deloy Pack, “Possible Lexical Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon (Words of Mormon-Moroni),” Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1973; Sidney B. Sperry, “Hebrew Idioms in the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era 57 (October 1954), reprinted in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995), 218-25; Thomas A. Wayment, “The Hebrew Text of Alma 7:11,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 98–103, 130; John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: A Preliminary Survey,” BYU Studies, Autumn 1970; Tvedtnes, I Have a Question: “Since the Book of Mormon is largely the record of a Hebrew people, is the writing characteristic of the Hebrew language?” The Ensign, October 1986, also in in A Sure Foundation: Answers to Difficult Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988); Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” chapter 8 in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (eds.), Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991); Tvedtnes, “Faith and Truth,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/2 (1994), 114-17; Kevin L. Barney, “Understanding Old Testament Poetry,” Ensign, June 1990; Angela Crowell, “Hebrew Poetry in the Book of Mormon,” Zarahemla Record, 32–33 (1986): 2–9, 34 (1986): 7–12; Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” chapter 7 in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 2002); Hugh W. Pinnnock, Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999).
[iii] In 1 Samuel 28:8, we read that “[King] Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment” so he would not be recognized. See also 1 Kings 22:30 and Joshua 9:2-16. Note, too, the English idiom “cloak and dagger.” For discussion of the use of disguise in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, see Alan Goff, “Abinadi’s Disguise and the Fate of King Noah,” Insights: An Ancient Window 20/12 (2000).
[iv] The adjectival form is rendered “treacherous” and “treacherously” in Isaiah 24:16, Jeremiah 12:1, and Zephaniah 3:4.
[v] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974 reprint), 15-16.
[vi] For the implications of this and other terms for an ancient belief in resurrection, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Burial as a Return to the Womb in Ancient Near Eastern Belief,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 152 (March 1983), 5-7.
[vii] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 880; Marvin H. Pope, Job (Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY : Doubleday, 1973), 124.
[viii] Phoenician and Hebrew are basically dialects of the same language, often termed Canaanite.
[ix] Anyone who travels extensively in the Middle East will encounter many such places. Arabic, too, is related to Hebrew.
[x] William M. Brinner, transl., The History of al-Tabari, vol. 2, Prophets and Patriarchs (Albany: State Univ. of NY Press, 1987), 78 (note 210).
[xi] If from the more usual verb meaning “ to see” (r’h), then the accusative would be mar’eh, usually rendered “appearance,” but also meaning “marvel.”
[xii] For an extensive discussion, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Faith and Truth,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3/2 (Fall 1994).
[xiii] The river Laman flowed into the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:9). Zohar Exodus 198b, commenting on Exodus 14:27, which speaks of the Red Sea: “And so it happened, as it is written, ‘and the sea returned to its strength when the morning appeared,’ where the term l’ethano (to its strength), by a transposition of letters, can be read litnao (to its stipulation).” Harry Sperling et al., The Zohar (New York: Rebecca Bennet Publications, 1958), 4:172.
[xiv] English uses J to transliterate biblical names beginning with Y sound in Hebrew. In older forms of English, J and Y were the same.
[xv] See the discussion in Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place-Names,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (Fall 1997), 255-9.
[xvi] See Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” chapter 9 in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (eds.), Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret & FARMS, 1991). For other possible examples of Book of Mormon word-plays involving names, see Matthew L. Bowen, “Internal Textual Evidence for the Egyptian Origin of Nephi’s Name,” Insights: An Ancient Window 22/11 (2002); Bowen, “‘O Ye Fair Ones’: An Additional Note on the Meaning of the Name Nephi,” Insights: An Ancient Window 23/6 (2003). Some of Bowen’s suggestions have not yet been published.