The Hebrew Language and the Book of Mormon
Consider for a moment the many influences which have shaped our present-day Book of Mormon text. It was written and abridged by people of Hebrew ancestry who lived initially near ancient Jerusalem in the kingdom of Judah, and later somewhere in the western hemisphere, probably in Mesoamerica. They wrote in Hebrew but used a reformed version of Egyptian hieroglyphics engraved onto plates (see Mormon 9:32-34; see also the supplemental article, The Language of the Book of Mormon). The plates were translated by a relatively unschooled nineteenth century farm boy reared in Vermont and New York. Wouldn't we expect, then, to find a variety of characteristics in the text? Would it be surprising to find Hebrew, Egyptian, Jewish, and Mesoamerican influences in the book? Of course not! Wouldn't it be peculiar if we didn't also find some traces of nineteenth century New York and of Joseph Smith himself?
The following story was related by John A. Tvedtnes:
During the years 1968-71, I taught Hebrew at the University of Utah. My practice was to ask new students to respond to a questionnaire, giving some idea of their interests and linguistic background. One student wrote that she wanted to study Hebrew in order to prove the Book of Mormon was a fraud. She approached me after class to explain.
When I inquired why she felt the Book of Mormon was fraudulent, she stated that it was full of errors. I asked for an example. She drew my attention to Alma 46:19, where we read, "When Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air." She noted that in the 1830 edition, this read simply "waving the rent of his garment." In English, the rent is the hole in the garment, not the piece torn out of the garment. Therefore, Moroni could not have waved it. This was an error, she contended and adding the "part" later was mere deception.
This was my first introduction to variations in different editions of the Book of Mormon. Without a Hebrew background, I might have been bothered by it. But the explanation was clear when I considered how Mormon would have written that sentence. Hebrew does not have to add the word part to a verbal substantive like rent as English requires. Thus, broken in Hebrew can refer to a broken thing or a broken part, while new can refer to a new thing. In the verse the student cited, rent would mean rent thing or rent part. Thus, the "error" she saw as evidence of fraud was really a Hebraism that was evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Significantly, the first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon contains many more Hebraisms than later editions. Later editions, especially in 1837, 1840, and 1876, were edited to improve the English in areas where the text appeared to be awkward. Unfortunately, this destroyed some of the evidence for a Hebrew original ("The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon," Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1991], 78).
At the end of the seventh century BC, Lehi and his family lived in Jerusalem or its environs, where Hebrew was spoken, written, and read. They took their knowledge of Hebrew with them to the New World, as Moroni 9:32-33 indicates: "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." Because some form of Hebrew was used among the Nephites, the Book of Mormon, as we will see in this article, reads like an ancient Hebrew book, even in its English translation.
It seems clear that in spite of the Egyptian glyphic form of writing and the translation of the Book of Mormon by a relatively unlettered twenty-three year old Joseph Smith, many evidences of the Hebrew origins of the book have emerged in the present-day text of the book. Let us consider in this brief article some of those words and phrases in the Book of Mormon which indicate its Hebrew foundations. We will learn that there are many expressions in the Book of Mormon that are ungrammatical in English but are perfect Hebrew grammar. Materials for this review article have been taken from "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon" by Angel Crowell printed in the Zarahemla Record, summer and fall issue 1982 and from "Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: A Preliminary Survey" by John A. Tvedtnes, printed in BYU Studies, 1970, volume 11.
Since much of literally translated Hebrew makes ungrammatical English, some of this awkward English has been altered in successive editions of the Book of Mormon. For example, in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon "that" and "which" were frequently used where in English "who" and "whom" would be more proper. Since the original edition, most of these have been altered so as to make the text read more smoothly in English. These changes are, of course, warranted, but unfortunately a Hebraism is lost in such a transformation. For, in Hebrew, the relative pronoun aser is used for both human and non-human references.
One type of construction which is common in Hebrew but unusual in English is that of a noun followed by a descriptive prepositional phrase. This is referred to by the rather awkward title of "construct state." Examples include "altar of stones" rather than "stone altar;" "plates of brass" rather than "brass plates;" and "mist of darkness" rather than "dark mist." Other examples include "sword of Laban," "people of Ammon," "language of Jacob," "plates of Nephi," "army of Moroni," "record of Jared," "Brother of Jared," "descendants of Zarahemla," "words of plainness," "skin of blackness," "night of darkness," and "words of Isaiah." Also, instead of saying "my words" or "my eyes," in Hebrew we might read: "hear the words of me" (Jacob 5:2); "the Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of me" (2 Nephi 10:8); "they are delivered by the power of him" (Jacob 4:8); and "setteth at naught the atonement of him" (Moroni 8:20). The term Lord's is found "but twice in the entire Book of Mormon, while the equivalent of the construct state of nouns using his name occurs about three hundred times in a possessive sense in expressions such as 'commandments of the Lord,' 'presence of the Lord,' 'promises of the Lord,' and 'people of the Lord'" (T.W. Brookbank, "Hebrew Idioms and Analogies in the Book of Mormon," Improvement Era, September 1914, 1062). Similarly, the term God's is found twice in the Book of Mormon, while the construct forms "church of God," "commandments of God," "kingdom of God," "Spirit of God," and so on, are found more than 450 times. In English the phrase the king's house or the house of the king would read, in Hebrew, house the king. Similarly, an adjective-noun pair in English such as brass plates would read plates brass in Hebrew or, in translation, plates of brass, which is precisely what we find in the Book of Mormon. The overwhelming practice of preferring the construct state over the possessive and related form is a strong indication of Hebrew writing.
In Hebrew when using numbers composed of tens and units, they are connected by the conjunction "and," for example "seventy-seven" is "seventy and seven." This correct Hebrew form is used throughout the Book of Mormon (see, for example, Ether 7:4 and 3 Nephi 28:3).
Often in biblical Hebrew, an expected noun does not follow a number. For instance, Genesis 45:22 states that Joseph "gave three hundred of silver" to Benjamin, without stating that the three hundred probably refers to pieces of silver. In order to fix what would have been an awkward omission in English, the King James translators supplied the word pieces but italicized it to show that it is not part of the original text. Other biblical examples of the number without the noun include "ten weight of gold" (Genesis 24:22; the KJV adds shekels to its translation: "ten shekels weight of gold"), and "a captain of fifty with his fifty" (2 Kings 1:9). In the Book of Mormon, Laman and Lemuel ask, "How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?" (1 Nephi 3:31). The number fifty, used twice in this passage, is not followed by a noun. Does fifty refer to men, warriors, princes, commanders of armies? The context does not make this certain. Other Book of Mormon examples include "my little band of two thousand and sixty fought most desperately" (Alma 57:19); "Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word" (2 Nephi 11:3); "And it came to pass that there were two hundred, out of my two thousand and sixty" (Alma 57:25).
In English we would say "my father and I" or "the lad and I." In Hebrew the order is reversed. For example "I and the lad" (Genesis 22:6); "I and my son" (1 Kings 1:21); "I and this woman" (1 Kings 3:17); "I and Jonathan my son" (1 Samuel 14:40). The Book of Mormon has several examples of this Hebrew construction: "I and my brethren did consult" (1 Nephi 3:10); "I and my father" (1 Nephi 5:20); "I and my brethren will go forth" (Alma 27:15); and "I and my people" (Mosiah 11:27).
In Hebrew, prepositional phrases are often used where adverbs are more commonly used. Therefore we find in the Book of Mormon "with harshness" (1 Nephi 18:11) rather than "harshly;" "with joy" (Jacob 4:3; Mosiah 3:4) rather than "joyfully;" "with gladness" (2 Nephi 1:21; 2 Nephi 1:28:28; Helaman 8:17) rather than "gladly;" and "in diligence" (Mosiah 26:38) rather than "diligently."
A common Hebrew pattern of usage is a verb accompanied by a direct object derived from the same root-such as "cried with a bitter cry" (Genesis 27:34), "sinned a sin" (Lamentations 1:8), "vowed a vow" (1 Samuel 1:11), and "fasted a fast" (2 Samuel 12:16). This construction is referred to by the rather ponderous term "cognate accusative" and is viewed as attractive if not elegant, though English stylists view it as infelicitous phrasing to be avoided. Examples in the Book of Mormon include "curse them with a sore curse" (1 Nephi 2:23), "I have dreamed a dream" (1 Nephi 3:2; 8:2), "yoketh them with a yoke" (1 Nephi 13:5), "work a great and marvelous work" (1 Nephi 14:7), "desire which I desired" (Enos 1:13), "taxed with a tax" (Mosiah 7:15), "judge righteous judgments" (Mosiah 29:29; Mosiah 29:43), and "work a work" (3 Nephi 21:9).
If we were reading the Book of Mormon in Hebrew, some passages might be clearer or richer than they are in English. A typical example is found in 1 Nephi. Having arrived at a valley, 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). The Hebrew word 'eytan, which means "valley," is also an adjective meaning "perennial, ever-flowing, enduring, firm." Another word for "valley" is 'aphig which is derived from the verb meaning "to be strong." Perhaps Lehi was taking advantage of the meaning of the Hebrew words for "valley" when he named this one after his son. Nephi wrote of the wicked who "seek deep to hide their counsel(s) from the Lord" (2 Nephi 27:27; 2 Nephi 27:28:9). The Hebrew word here translated as "counsel" may have been sod, which can also mean "secret."
Many Book of Mormon names end in -i. This may well represent a Hebrew suffix which may be rendered in English as "-ite." Thus Moroni might be rendered "Moronite"-from the land of Moron. Similarly, Lamoni could be rendered "Lamanite"; and Muloki could be written "Mulekite."
Other Book of Mormon names have significant Hebrew meanings. Mulek and Melek, for example mean King. Recall that the son of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was named Mulek, or "king." Zarahemla means "seed of compassion." Sariah means "Princess of the Lord." Nahom means "to sigh, to beat upon the breast, to moan." Jershon means "place of inheritance" (see the commentary for Alma 27:22). The Nephites gave the land of Jershon to the converted Lamanites "for an inheritance." Ziff may mean something like "splendor, brightness, or shining." Ziff is listed with silver, iron, brass, and copper-materials used by King Noah to ornament buildings (see Mosiah 11:3; Mosiah 11:8). It is therefore likely a shiny metal.
A prominent peculiarity of biblical Hebrew is the frequent use of the conjunction in both beginning a sentence and in the listing of a series within a sentence. An example in the Book of Mormon is Alma in which 21 of the 46 verses begin with and. In Enos 1:21, note how the phrases listed in series each begin with "and": "And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the land, and raise all manner of grain, and of fruit, and flocks of herds, and flocks of all manner of cattle of every kind, and goats, and wild goats, and also many horses." In such series, when each phrase begins with "and," the Hebrew pattern would also dictate use of repeated possessive pronouns when they apply. See, for example, 1 Nephi 2:4: "And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness."
Another difference in the use of conjunctions in the Hebrew is that that same conjunction can carry both the meaning of and and its opposite but. This would result in the use of and when but is expected. An example from the Book of Mormon is: "Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence" (2 Nephi 4:4).
Yet another difference in the use of conjunctions in Hebrew (a language with no punctuation) is that the conjunction may serve as a marker of parentheses. The words we would put inside parentheses in English are preceded by the conjunction in Hebrew, and, at the conclusion, the next phrase is introduced by the conjunction. An example from the Book of Mormon: "And it came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision; and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost; which power, he received by faith on the Son of God. [And the Son of God was the Messiah, which should come.] And it came to pass that I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things" (1 Nephi 10:17; 1 Nephi 10:1830 edition, parenthetical expression marked with brackets and the pertinent conjunctions italicized).
A special use in Hebrew of this kind of parenthetical phrase is the introduction of a name. In English, we usually say something like, "there was a man name John," or "there was a man whose name was John." The more typical Hebrew would be "there was a man, and his name was John." An example from the Book of Mormon: "They took him; and his name was Nehor; and they carried him . . ." (Alma 1:15).
Another typical Hebrew-like use of the conjunction in the Book of Mormon is the expression and also. In Hebrew, it is used to emphasize the close links between two things as in this example from Mosiah 27:14: "The Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma."
Hebrew begins subordinate clauses with prepositions plus a word that translates as that, such as in Ezekiel 40:1: "after that the city was smitten." Such a use of that in English is awkward and therefore rare. Yet it appears frequently in the Book of Mormon. It was even more frequent in the 1830 edition, but many of the thats were dropped from later editions to read more smoothly. Some examples that still persist: "And because that they are redeemed from the fall" (2 Nephi 2:26); "because that my heart is broken" (2 Nephi 4:32); and "because that ye shall receive more of my word" (2 Nephi 29:8).
In Hebrew, the word that marks the beginning of a relative clause (generally translated which or who in English) does not always closely follow the word it refers back to, as it usually does in English. Some Book of Mormon passages give the impression of having been translated from such Hebrew sentences: "The Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, who were the armies of Pharaoh" (1 Nephi 17:27); "Then shall they confess, who live without God in the world" (Mosiah 27:31); and "Our brother Nephi . . . has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren" (1 Nephi 16:37).
In order to amplify or emphasize an idea, biblical Hebrew sometimes uses a noun in the plural when a singular is expected. The King James translators translated these Hebrew plural nouns into the English singular. In the following examples from the Old Testament the Hebrew readings appear in brackets.
thy brother's blood [bloods] crieth unto me from the ground (Genesis 4:10)
and strength of salvation [salvations] (Isaiah 33:6)
O Lord God, to whom vengeance [vengeances] belongeth (Psalm 94:1)
Wisdom [wisdoms] crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets (Proverbs 1:20)
the wicked . . . shall be brought forth to the day of wrath [wraths] (Job 21:30)
In many instances the Book of Mormon contains Hebrew-like plural nouns instead of the expected singular:
there shall be bloodsheds (2 Nephi 1:12)
the understandings of the children of men (Mosiah 8:20)
great condescensions unto the children of men (Jacob 4:7)
labor with their mights (Jacob 5:72)
great slaughters with the sword (1 Nephi 12:2)
there were . . . magics (Mormon 1:19)
their cunning and their lyings (Alma 20:13)
mine afflictions were great above all (1 Nephi 15:5)
destructions of my people (1 Nephi 15:5)
foolish imaginations of his heart (1 Nephi 2:11)
Hebrew often uses a noun or pronoun as the direct object of the verb in one clause and a pronoun referring to the same person or thing in the following clause in a way that seem unnecessary or redundant in English. For example in Genesis 1:4, we read, "God saw the light, that it was good." The normal way of saying this would be, "God saw that the light was good." Note the following examples from the Book of Mormon: "I beheld, and saw the people of the seed of my brethren that they had overcome my seed" (1 Nephi 12:20); "I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren" (1 Nephi 13:14); and "And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles" (1 Nephi 13:15).
For comparisons, common English might be "more choice" or "more precious" or "more abominable" or "sweeter," "whiter," and "purer." In Hebrew the word above is used: "a land which is choice above all other lands" (1 Nephi 2:20); "the tree which is precious above all" (1 Nephi 11:9); "most abominable above all sins" (Alma 39:5); "the fruit . . . which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure" (Alma 32:42).
In English, we say "His parents called him John" or "They named him John." The same is true for places, for example, "He called his ranch Pleasant Valley." In Hebrew it is the name that is called, not the person or place: "we did call the name of the place Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13); "and they called the name of the city Moroni" (Alma 50:13-14); "he had three sons; and he called their names Mosiah, and Helorum, and Helaman" (Mosiah 1:2); "they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies" (Alma 23:17).
The phrase "and it came to pass" is a rendering of the Hebrew word vayehee. This phrase is found 1,297 times in the Book of Mormon. It is also common in the King James version of the Old Testament where it is found some 727 times. Actually in its Hebrew form the expression is found in the Hebrew Bible some 1,200 times, it was translated in the King James Version as "and it came to pass" only about 727 times. The King James translators probably found the expression redundant and cumbersome, which would explain why they often translated it as "and it became," "and it was," or "and." On a number of occasions they simply ignored the expression altogether. Novelist and humorist Mark Twain once joked that if Joseph Smith had left out the many instances of "and it came to pass" from the Book of Mormon, the book would have been only a pamphlet (Roughing It [Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing, 1901], 133).
Hinneh is the Hebrew word for "behold" or "see." In English usage today we consider it unnecessary. It is found over a thousand times in the Old Testament Hebrew text. It is also used frequently in the Book of Mormon and can be found on almost any page. For example there are over 79 "behold[s]" in 3 Nephi alone.
Note the following peculiar construction found in the Old Testament which is typically Hebrew: "and I, even I, will chastise you" (Leviticus 26:28). This may be referred to as the emphatic pronoun, and it is used for emphasis (see also 1 Kings 19:10; 1 Kings 19:14; and Ezra 7:21). The same phrase, "I, even I," is found in the Book of Mormon (see Mosiah 2:26 and Mosiah 10:10).
In Hebrew when a preposition governs more than one object, it is normal to repeat the preposition before each object. In ordinary English usage we avoid repeating the preposition unless it is for emphasis. An example from the Old Testament is Hosea 1:7: "And will save them by the Lord their God, and will not save them by bow, nor by sword, nor by battle, by horses, nor by horsemen." For other Old Testament examples, see Genesis 40:2 and 2 Samuel 6:5. The same pattern of usage is seen in the Book of Mormon in Jarom 1:8, 1 Nephi 19:11, and 2 Nephi 5:15.
Compound prepositions such as "down into" or "from before" are commonly used in Hebrew but are found only rarely in English writing. Examples from the Old Testament include: "Abram went down into Egypt" (Genesis 12:8); "Our fathers went down into Egypt" (Numbers 20:15); "if a man did flee from before a lion" (Amos 5:19-Hebrew text only); and "hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel" (Judges 11:23). Examples in the Book of Mormon include "thou wilt go down into the wilderness" (1 Nephi 4:34); "bringeth them down into captivity" (1 Nephi 13;5); "we did all go down into the ship" (1 Nephi 18:6); "The servant went down into the vineyard" (Jacob 5:15); "They went down into the land of Nephi" (Mosiah 7:6); "was about to flee from before me" (1 Nephi 4:30); "did not flee from before the Lamanites" (Mormon 2:24); and "they fled from before my presence" (1 Nephi 4:28). The phrase "from before" is a literal translation of the Hebrew words mippene and milliphene. It is interesting that in the Old Testament Hebrew text, the phrase is found twenty-three times, but it was properly translated into English only four times (Genesis 23:4; Exodus 4:3; 1 Chronicles 11:13; and Judges 11:23). In the other nineteen instances of its use, it is translated "from" in the King James version. It would have been difficult for Joseph Smith to have copied this Hebraism from the King James version of the Bible when the construct only appears four times in the entire English text! Yet the phrase is found some nineteen times in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 4:28; 1 Nephi 4:30; 1 Nephi 11:12; 1 Nephi 11:29; 2 Nephi 9:8; Mosiah 17:4; Alma 2:32; Alma 44:12; 3 Nephi 9:5; 3 Nephi 9:7; 3 Nephi 9:8; 3 Nephi 9:9; 3 Nephi 9:11; Mormon 2:24; Mormon 2:25; Mormon 4:20; Mormon 4:22; Ether 13:22; and Moroni 9:15). In this particular instance, the Book of Mormon translation is more faithful to the Hebrew than is the Old Testament.
Another type of compound preposition used commonly in Hebrew consists of a preposition plus a noun, in places where English would normally use just a preposition. For example, Hebrew uses compound prepositions that would be translated literally as "by the hand of" and "by the mouth of." English would normally use just "by." Some examples from the Book of Mormon include: "ye shall be taken by the hand of your enemies" (Mosiah 17:18); "I have also acquired much riches by the hand of my industry" (Alma 10:4); "sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren" (Alma 10:3); "the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets" (1 Nephi 3:20); and "by the mouth of angels, doth he declare it" (Alma 13:22). The English of these would be "by your enemies," "by my industry," etc.
In the language of the Hebrew prophets, it is common usage to speak of future events, seen in prophecy, as if they had already happened. This has been called the "prophetic perfect" tense. Apparently Old Testament prophets prophesied using these forms "to express facts which are undoubtedly imminent, and therefore, in the imagination of the speaker, already accomplished." Referring to the Babylonian captivity, which culminated in 586 BC, Isaiah, writing in 720-740 BC, said, "Therefore my people are gone into captivity" (Isaiah 5:13). Speaking of Christ's mortal ministry, Isaiah said, "People that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). Prophesying of the birth of Christ, Isaiah wrote, "For unto us a child is born" (Isaiah 9:6). A more literal translation is "for a child has been born unto us." Examples of the prophetic perfect tense in the Book of Mormon include: "But behold I have obtained a land of promise" (1 Nephi 5:5)-spoken by Lehi in the wilderness in the valley of Lemuel. "After he was baptized with water, the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove" (spoken 559-545 BC in 2 Nephi 31:8). "These are they whose sins he has borne; these are they for whom he has died, to redeem them from their transgressions" (spoken 148 BC in Mosiah 15:12).
There are several Hebrew idioms which are found in both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon. Isn't it fascinating that genuine Hebrew idiomatic expressions would be found in a book whose detractors claim was written by an unschooled twenty-three year old boy in western New York? A few examples include: "burned with fire" (Jeremiah 38:23; 3 Nephi 9:3; 3 Nephi 9:9; 3 Nephi 9:10); "eye to eye" (Isaiah 52:8; Alma 36:26); "day to day" (2 Samuel 13:4; Mosiah 4:24; Mosiah 4:26); "give ear"-listen (Joel 1:2; 2 Nephi 4:3); "in their ears" (Genesis 20:8; 2 Nephi 28:22); "face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10; Alma 38:7); "upon the face of" (Genesis 1:2; 1 Nephi 22:18); "face of the earth" (Exodus 10:5; 1 Nephi 1:11); "by the hand of" (Genesis 38:20; 1 Nephi 13:26); "right hand"-may mean strength, justice, righteousness (Exodus 15:12; 1 Nephi 20:13); "before my face" (Psalm 5:8; 1 Nephi 11:29; 3 Nephi 9:5; 3 Nephi 9:7; 3 Nephi 9:8; 3 Nephi 9:9; 3 Nephi 9:11); "in the eyes of"-meaning before (Isaiah 49:5; 1 Nephi 21:5; 1 Nephi 22:10; 1 Nephi 22:11; 1 Nephi 22:23; 2 Nephi 10:8); "generation to generation"-meaning for all eternity (Exodus 17:16; Isaiah 13:20; 2 Nephi 8:8; 2 Nephi 9:2; 2 Nephi 23:10; 2 Nephi 25:9; 2 Nephi 25:16; 2 Nephi 25:21, 22); "harden the heart" (Exodus 14:17; 1 Nephi 22:5); "hearken to the voice of"-obey (Job 34:16; Alma 5:38); "lift up the voice"-cry, shout, begin speaking (Isaiah 52:9; Mosiah 12:22); "lift up your heads" (Psalm 24:9; 2 Nephi 9:3); "stiff-necked"-obstinate (Exodus 32:9; Jacob 4:14); "a man of many words"-eloquent (Exodus 4:10; Mosiah 27:8); "by the mouth of" (2 Chronicles 36:22; 1 Nephi 13:41); "open the mouth" (Ezekiel 21:22; Mosiah 27:22); and "from the mouth of" (2 Chronicles 35:22; Mosiah 21:28).
There are, in the Book of Mormon text, two examples of literal Hebrew translation that appear to be more true to the Hebrew than that which is found in the King James version of the Bible. The first is found in Nephi 26:32. In Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 we read: "thou shalt not kill." There are ten different Hebrew words which might be translated into English as kill. The Hebrew word used in both of these Old Testament scriptures is ratsach, which literally means to murder or to slay. If these Old Testament verses had been translated more literally, they might have read: "thou shalt not murder." Most modern translations of the Bible do contain this more literal translation. In the Book of Mormon 1 Nephi 26:32 is in complete agreement with Hebrew scholars of today. It reads: "and, again, the Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder; that they should not lie; that they should not steal" (emphasis added). The second example of an accurate literal Hebrew translation contained in the Book of Mormon is Alma 7:11 which corresponds to Isaiah 53:3-4. The King James version reads: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows." The key words, for the purpose of this example, are "sorrows" and "griefs." There are some twenty-six different Hebrew words which might be translated into English as "sorrow" and ten Hebrew words which could be translated as "grief." In this Isaiah passage, the Hebrew word translated as "sorrow" is makob which literally means "pain." The Hebrew word translated as "grief" is holi which literally means "sickness." The verse in the Book of Mormon which agrees with these more accurate literal translations from the Hebrew is Alma 7:11: "And he shall go forth, suffering pains, and afflictions, and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith, he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people." How can we account for a Book of Mormon "translation" which is more true to the Hebrew than the King James version unless the record was indeed translated by the "gift and power of God."
The Simile Curse
A certain form of pronouncing curses in scripture is characteristic of Hebrew cultural tradition. It is the "simile curse." A simile curse combines the elements of a simile (a comparison of two things or a resemblance, marked with like or as) with a curse. An example of an Old Testament simile curse appears in 1 Kings 14, which registers Jeroboam's evil deeds and idolatries in verses 7-8: "Therefore, behold, I [the Lord] will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam . . . and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone." Note the simile marker as, which connects the two points of comparison (house of Jeroboam and dung) to graphically portray the manner whereby the remnant of Jeroboam's family will be exiled. In another example, in 2 Kings 21:12-13, the Lord curses Judah's king Manasseh, members of the tribe of Judah, and Jerusalem for their considerable iniquities. The curse compares the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah to the cleaning of a dirty dish: "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle. . . . I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down." In Mosiah 12:2-12, the Lord, speaking through his prophet Abinadi, curses king Noah because of his great wickedness. In this account, Abinadi stretches forth his hand, introduces his words with the phrase "Thus saith the Lord," and pronounces three curses upon Noah's head. These three curses are given in the form of the simile curse. They are: (1) "the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace" (verse 3); (2) "they [my people] shall have burdens lashed upon their backs; and they shall be driven before like a dumb ass"; and (3) "thou [Noah] shalt be as a stalk, even as a dry stalk of the field, which is run over by the beasts and trodden under foot" (verse 11).
Given the Hebrew roots of the Book of Mormon, the presence of simile curses should not be surprising to those of us who believe in the book as an authentic ancient record. For those who believe otherwise, the presence of simile curses is difficult to explain, since not many examples of simile curses appear in the Old Testament, and it is doubtful that Joseph Smith was aware of their form or setting in scripture. The simile curses in the Book of Mormon provide additional indication that the Book of Mormon was indeed framed in antiquity
The study of the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon is enriched by understanding some of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry. About ninety percent of the book of Isaiah was originally written down in Hebrew poetry. Poetry is utilized by the author of scripture to make the passage more unified and memorable. It is not used to report common events. Instead, it is used for more formal speech, such as sermons, instructions, and especially prophecy. Poetry helps the prophetic message to reach beneath surface meanings by adding rhythmic repetitions intended to focus our attention and touch our souls. Poetry exalts the heart of man. If the reader wishes to take a "poetry tour" of the Book of Mormon, then the following passages are suggested: 1 Nephi 2:18- 20; 2 Nephi 2:25; 2 Nephi 4:16-35; 2 Nephi 8:5-6; 2 Nephi 9:17-18, 41; 2 Nephi 33:6; Mosiah 16:9; Alma 33:4-11; Alma 37:35-37; Helaman 10:3; Helaman 10:6-12; and Ether 6:9-12.
A common pattern of writing in Hebrew poetry is called parallelism. In its simplest form, two consecutive lines of poetry have basically the same meaning, therefore they reinforce and complement each other. In a general way, this is referred to as "semantic" or "meaning" parallelism. The two lines may also have in common other features such as a key word or a pattern of grammar (rhyme scheme, verb conjugation patterns, prefixes, or suffixes). This is called "grammatical" or "form" parallelism. It should be apparent that semantic parallelism is often easier to recognize in English or other non-Hebrew translations than form parallelism. The latter may be obscured in the process of translation, particularly when the translator is not even aware of the style of parallelism in the first place.
Parallelism was originally pointed out or discovered in our time by Robert Lowth, a bishop of the Anglican Church in AD 1753. This discovery was made more than a century after the King James translation of the Bible was written. Those scholars that created the King James version in AD 1611 were unaware of this form of Hebrew poetry which was a disadvantage to their understanding of the original Hebrew texts, and also resulted in a less perfect preservation of the style of parallelism as they translated from the ancient Hebrew text into Elizabethan English.
Let us consider some examples of different types of Hebrew parallelism. In the following examples, the (a) and (b) lines form a parallel pair.
1. Synonymous Parallelism: A theme of the first line repeats itself in slightly different words. Examples:
a. A fool's mouth is his ruin, and
b. His lips are the snare of his soul (Proverbs 18:7).
a. An ox knows his owner, and
b. An ass his master's crib (Isaiah 1:3).
In this form of parallelism, the repeated ideas reinforce each other and provide a more complete perspective of a single major concept.
2. Antithetic Parallelism: The thought of the second line contrasts diametrically with the theme of the first. Examples:
a. When pride comes, then comes disgrace.
b. But with the humble is wisdom (Proverbs 11:2).
a. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat of the good things of the earth:
b. But if you refuse and disobey, you will be devoured by the sword (Isaiah 1:19-20).
a. Though your sins be [red] as scarlet,
b. They shall be white as snow.
a. Though they be red as dyed wool,
b. They shall be [white] as fleece (Isaiah 1:18).
In this form of parallelism, the use of opposites clarifies both extremes. It might be compared to a black silhouette. Its outline is brought into sharp focus when it is placed on a white background. Note that in the last example given above, we can also find an example of synonymous parallelism (ab-ab).
3. Parable Parallelism: The ideas of two lines are compared by means of a simile or metaphor. Examples:
a. Like clouds and wind without rain
b. Is the man who boasts of a gift he does not give (Proverbs 25:14).
The comparisons can usually be recognized by the words like or as. Comparative statements allow the reader's past experiences to enrich his understanding. He can use his own background and insights to enhance his comprehension of a topic.
4. Complementary Parallelism: The second line completes or complements the thought of the first by a variety of possible techniques (question/answer, proposition/conclusion, situation/consequence). An idea is introduced in the first line which is incomplete and generates questions about that idea. The second line then comes to the rescue and completes the idea or answers a question raised by the first line. Note how the first line of the two leaves you searching for more information and how the second line satisfies that need:
a. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: [Why should I not be afraid in the valley of the shadow of death?]
b. For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).
a. I [the Lord] have nourished and brought up children, [So, what became of the children?]
b. And they have rebelled against me (Isaiah 1:2).
Complementary parallelism uses good educational psychology as it generates and then answers questions, completes statements, and amplifies ideas. Complementary parallelism might be considered an advanced form of synonymous parallelism.
5. Climactic Parallelism: Part of one line (a word or phrase) is repeated in successive (b) lines and their meanings build a theme. Then the climactic theme line (a) is stated. Examples:
b. Ascribe to the Lord heavenly beings
b. Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength
b. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name
a. Worship the Lord in holy array (Psalm 29:1-2).
b. Your country is desolate
b. Your cities are burnt down
b. Your land is devoured by strangers before your eyes
a. It is desolate; as overthrown by strangers (Isaiah 1:7).
Sometimes the climax or theme statement is given first and is followed by the "building" lines:
a. The daughter of Zion is left
b. Like a booth in a vineyard
b. Like a hut in a cucumber field
b. Like a city beleaguered (Isaiah 1:8).
6. Chiastic Parallelism or "Chiasmus": A pattern of words or ideas is stated and then repeated but in a reverse order. The word chiasmus comes from the Greek chiazein, meaning to mark with an x, or a chi. This poetic device is useful for several purposes, especially for concentrating attention on the main point of a passage by placing it at the central turning point of the text rather than in a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph, as is the common practice of modern Western writers. Chiasmus has often been pointed out in recent years by literary analysts in studying the texts of the Bible. Some examples include:
We have escaped as a bird have escaped
From the snare of the fowlers snare
The snare is broken, snare
And we have escaped! have escaped
Ephraim shall not envy Ephraim
And Judah Judah
Shall not harass Ephraim. Ephraim
One might have to look carefully for chiastic patterns:
Make the heart of this people fat, heart
And make their ears heavy, ears
And shut their eyes, eyes
Lest they see with their eyes, eyes
And hear with their ears ears
And understand with their hearts, heart
And convert, and be healed.
In this last example the last line is not involved in the chiastic pattern. For a more complex example, see Isaiah 2:3-5. I will not quote these verses here, but if you would like to look up the reference, here is the chiastic diagram:
swords - plowshares
spears - pruning hooks
Chiastic patterns may be expanded to include many verses, whole chapters, and even groups of chapters. With the more elaborate patterns, a main theme or message is usually stressed in the center of the chiasmus. Chiastic parallelism is a common literary and public communications style used by Israelite poets and prophets. Just as modern-day students in public speaking classes are taught to organize their talks with an introduction, major ideas with illustrations, and a conclusion, ancient Israelite poets would use chiasmus along with other forms of parallelism to present their messages. In most cases the use of chiasmus appears to be a conscious choice, but it need not always be intentional. Poets, authors, composers, musicians, and other artists create their works without being aware of every facet of their compositions. Yet, a high degree of precision in chiastic repetition indicates that the author was likely using this literary tool consciously. For other biblical examples, see Genesis 1:27; Genesis 7:21-23; Leviticus 24:13-23; Psalm 3:7-8; 58; Isaiah 55:8; Isaiah 55:60:1-3; Amos 5:4-6; Matthew 10:39; Matthew 13:13-18.
An important recent discovery is that of some chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. This discovery was made in 1967 by John W. Welch while serving a mission in Regensburg, Germany. Please see that inspirational story in "The Book of Mormon," volume 2, chapter 20, Joseph Smith in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine. Chiasmus was not used equally by all writers in the Book of Mormon. King Benjamin and Alma were particularly effective in creating chiastic structures. For two clear examples, see Mosiah 3:18-19 and Mosiah 5:10-12. Again, I won't quote these passages here but here are their chiastic diagrams:
atoning blood of Christ
atonement of Christ
For other examples in the Book of Mormon see the commentary for Mosiah 36:1-30, Alma 36, Alma 41:13-14, and Helaman 6:7-14. See also 2 Nephi 6:16-17; 2 Nephi 9:20; 2 Nephi 9:29:13; Jacob 4:9; Enos 1:8-12: Mosiah 2:5-6; Mosiah 2:7-8; Mosiah 2:26; Mosiah 2:31-41; Mosiah 4:6-7; Mosiah 4:21; Alma 18:34-39; Alma 18:34:9; Helaman 6:7-13; Helaman 6:10; Helaman 16:2-3.
Chiasmus is not exclusive to ancient Hebrew texts but has also been found in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Mayan texts. Although it occurs in many ancient works of literature and also to an extent in modern authors, chiasmus has been used more extensively and purposefully in the Hebrew Bible and in the Book of Mormon than anywhere else.
Some chiasms are lost in any translation process, but larger chiastic patterns are usually preserved. The Book of Mormon is no exception to this rule. Of all poetical devices, extended chiasms and parallelisms are among the most likely to survive translation.
Not much was known about chiasmus in Joseph Smith's day. In England, two authors published books in the 1820s about sacred Hebrew literature, exploring the presence of chiasmus in the Bible. Some early reviewers endorsed the idea of chiasmus, but there is no known evidence that Joseph Smith was aware of it while translating the Book of Mormon. The chance that Joseph smith unconsciously assimilated chiasmus through his familiarity with the Bible assumes a great deal about literary osmosis. The presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is strong evidence that these writings are orderly, complex, artistic, purposeful, and consistent with ancient literary conventions.
Can anyone deny that there is Hebrew literary influence among the Nephite prophet writers? Would chiasmus or any other of the many characteristic Hebrew patterns of writing be found in the Book of Mormon if Joseph Smith had written the book himself?
Let us conclude with these observations:
1. The Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon attest to the book's Near Eastern background and antiquity. Their presence cannot be explained as a matter of coincidence, nor could a modern writer have integrated them so effectively (naturally and correctly) throughout the narrative. It is very unlikely that Joseph Smith had technical knowledge of these various archaic modes of expression, for many of them are subtle in their Book of Mormon contexts and are similarly inconspicuous in the Old Testament. Joseph's level of education and familiarity with the Bible could not have equipped him with the requisite literary knowledge and skill to craft so many Hebraisms so seamlessly and correctly into the Book of Mormon text. This is especially obvious in light of statements by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and his wife. Both Lucy Mack Smith and Emma Smith made statements that indicated that the Prophet had only a partial knowledge of the Bible. Emma recalled assisting her husband as he translated the Book of Mormon: "When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out . . . When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, 'Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?' When I answered, 'Yes,' he replied. 'Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.' He had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls" (as quoted in Russell M. Nelson, "A Treasured Testament," Ensign, July 1993, 61). On one occasion the Prophet's mother revealed: "From this time forth, Joseph continued to receive instructions from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same. I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth-all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons, and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy eighteen years of age, who had never read the Bible through in his life: he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study" (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith, ed. Preston Nibley [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958], 82).
2. The Hebrew literary forms which are mentioned in this article and elsewhere throughout this commentary were generally uncommon in, if not altogether foreign to, the English of Joseph Smith's day. One must search beyond the nineteenth century for the origin of the Book of Mormon text.
3. It is significant that many changes in the Book of Mormon from the first edition in 1830 to subsequent editions pertain to Hebrew literary style. Joseph Smith and others apparently changed many awkward-sounding Hebraisms to idiomatic English. This does not mean, however, that the meaning of the text has changed. For instance, English and linguistics professor Royal Skousen has found in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon fourteen examples of a common Hebrew-like construction whose literal translation ("If . . . and") is not significantly different in meaning from its present adjusted version. One passage is Moroni 10:4, which originally read, "If ye shall ask with a sincere heart with real intent having faith in Christ and he will manifest the truth of it unto you" (italics added). The present form of the verse does not include the and.
4. When properly understood, the Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon enhance the readability of the Book of Mormon. For example, readers who come upon a simile curse (see the discussion above) will recognize its form and function and will thus better appreciate the cultural and religious world of the prophets of both the Old and New Worlds. Similarly, readers who encounter the cognate accusative (e.g., "dreamed a dream") will recognize it as an ancient Hebrew form instead of being distracted by it.
5. The peculiar expressions in the Book of Mormon that reflect ancient literary forms in the underlying text reveal Joseph Smith to be a careful, faithful translator of the text inscribed on the gold plates.