Abstract: When the sons of Mosiah were returning from their preaching among the Lamanites, Ammon was accused by his brother Aaron of boasting. This article demonstrates how Ammon’s response to this charge employed wordplay involving the Hebrew roots ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) and ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch). Identifying and understanding Ammon’s use of wordplay helps us to appreciate the complexity and conceptual richness of his message.
Following their missionary experiences in “the land of Nephi” (Mosiah 28:5)1 the sons of Mosiah and their companions “did rejoice exceedingly, for the success which they had had among the Lamanites” (Alma 25:17). In fact, Ammon expressed so much elation in their success that his brother Aaron was afraid he had been carried away “unto boasting” (Alma 26:10). In Ammon’s capably crafted response to his brother, we encounter wordplay that can only be fully ascertained if his words are translated into Hebrew.2
Among its many meanings, the Hebrew root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) — expressed by the verbal infinitives להלל (lehallel) and להתהלל (lehithallel) — can be subdivided into three principal definitions:3
- [Page 212]to shine or “flash forth light,”4 from which the name הילל (heylel), or Lucifer is believed to be derived (see Isaiah 14);5
- to praise or be praised;
- to boast or be boastful.
This root occurs nearly two hundred times in the Hebrew Bible, and in most of those instances it is rendered as to praise in the KJV and other English bible translations. Among these are the following passages:
For great is Jehovah, and praised (מהלל) greatly, And fearful He is above all gods. (1 Chronicles 16:25, Young’s Literal Translation6)
They are to stand every morning to thank and to praise (להלל) the LORD, and likewise at evening. (1 Chronicles 23:30, New American Standard Bible7)
Praise (הללו) ye Jehovah. Praise (הללו), O ye servants of Jehovah, Praise (הללו) the name of Jehovah. (Psalm 113:1, American Standard Version8)
Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised (הללוך) You, has been burned by fire; and all our precious things have become a ruin. (Isaiah 64:11, NASB)
The root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l), within its broad range of meaning, can also properly express the idea of to boast9 in English. Amid the various [Page 213]English translations of the Hebrew Bible this translation occurs more than a dozen times. These passages include the following:10
My soul shall make her boast in Jehovah (ביהוה תתהלל), in Yahweh she [my soul] will boast): The meek shall hear thereof, and be glad. (Psalm 34:2, ASV)
In God we have boasted (באלהים הללנו) all day long, And we will give thanks to Your name forever. (Psalm 44:8, NASB)
You will winnow them and a wind will carry them away, a whirlwind will scatter them. But you will rejoice in the LORD; you will boast in the Holy One of Israel (ביהוה בקדוש ישראל תתהלל). (Isaiah 41:16, Christian Standard Bible11)
And if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ then the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast (ובֹו יתהללו). (Jeremiah 4:2, New International Version12)
It is also important to point out that in addition to praise and boast, the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) is also often translated as to glory13 in various English translations. In each of these cases where it is rendered to glory it would be equally as plausible to translate the verb as to boast. For example, in the last two examples cited above (Isaiah 41:16 and Jeremiah 4:2) the King James Version (KJV) renders each as glory rather than boast. Additional examples of this optional translation include:
1 Chronicles 16:10:
Glory ye (התהללו hithalelu) in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the LORD. (KJV)
Boast yourselves (התהללו hithalelu) in His holy name, rejoice doth the heart of those seeking Jehovah. (YLT)
[Page 214]Jeremiah 9:23–24:
Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory (יתהלל yithallel) in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory (יתהלל yithallel) in his might, let not the rich man glory (יתהלל yithallel) in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory (יתהלל המתהלל yithallel hamithallel) in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. (KJV)
This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast (יתהלל yithallel) of their wisdom or the strong boast (יתהלל yithallel) of their strength or the rich boast (יתהלל yithallel) of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast (יתהלל המתהלל yithallel hamithallel) about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD. (NIV)
As demonstrated above, different English translations of the Hebrew Bible render the verbs להלל (lehallel) and להתהלל (lehithallel) — both derived from the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) — as either to praise, to boast, or to glory. A key translation feature to point out is that in order for the verb to be rendered as to boast or to glory, the subject of the verb must boast or glory in someone or something (see above examples). The Hebrew equivalent of in is the preposition ב (the letter bet), which is always prefixed to the noun to which it is related. For example, the phrase “to boast/glory in Jehovah” would be expressed as “להתהלל ביהוה” (lehithallel bYahweh). One can boast/glory in the Lord as well as in one’s wisdom, strength, riches, etc.
It is equally important to point out that to praise does not carry this same grammatical requirement. Rather, what we often find in the Bible is that when להלל (lehallel) is translated as to praise, the object of the verb (the Lord, for example) is often preceded by the preposition ל (the letter lamed). As with the Hebrew word for in (ב), ל is always prefixed to the object of the verb. The word ל can be translated as to or for, but when referring to the idea of praise, it is an unnecessary preposition in English grammar. So, “to praise Jehovah” would be expressed as “ליהוה להלל” (lehallel lYahweh) in Hebrew, with the ל prefixed to יהוה (Yahweh), resulting in ליהוה (lYahweh).
[Page 215]With this introduction to biblical usage we can now examine Ammon’s response to Aaron’s charge of boasting. In the nine verses leading up to Aaron’s rebuke, Ammon never used the words boast or glory, and we find the word praise used only once but as a noun rather than as a verb: “Blessed be the name of our God; let us sing to his praise,14 yea, let us give thanks to his holy name, for he doth work righteousness forever” (Alma 26:8). However, following Aaron’s accusation, Ammon used the words praise, boast and glory a total of twelve times in his response. These usages appear to be an intentional repetition of Aaron’s original rebuke of boasting and need to be understood as related terms in Hebrew. Ammon’s repeated use of praise, boast, and glory are meant to counter Aaron’s implied accusation that Ammon was boasting in himself. On the contrary, Ammon’s repetitive use of these terms helped clarify that his initial words were intended to be understood as praising, boasting in, and glorying in the Lord, rather than in himself.
Ammon’s response to Aaron is bracketed at the beginning and the end of his discourse by two groupings of the English words praise, boast, and glory. I propose that all these translated English words are derived from the Hebrew root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l). The first grouping of these words is found at the beginning of his response in verses 11 through 16, and the second grouping is found at the end of his discourse in verses 35 and 36. These two groupings form an inclusio15 similar to those often found in the Hebrew Bible and in Rabbinic literature. Broken into the two groupings, his words read:
I do not boast in my own strength or in my own wisdom;16 but behold, my joy is full. Yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God. Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my [Page 216]strength, I am weak. Therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God;17 for in his strength I can do all things. Yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever. Behold how many thousands of our brethren hath he loosed from the pains of hell! And they are brought to sing redeeming love — and this because of the power of his word which is in us. Therefore have we not great reason to rejoice? Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God and has loosed these our brethren from the chains of hell. Yea, they were encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction; but behold, he hath brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation. And they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love. Yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work. Therefore let us glory.18 Yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power and of his mercy and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you: I cannot say the smallest part which I feel. (Alma 26:11–16)
Now have we not reason to rejoice? Yea, I say unto you, there never were men that had so great reason to rejoice as we, since the world began; yea, and my joy is carried away, even unto boasting in my God; for he has all power, all wisdom, and all understanding; he comprehendeth all things, and he is a merciful Being, even unto salvation, to those who will repent and believe on his name. Now if this is boasting, even so will I boast; for this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo. Yea, blessed is the name of my God, who has been mindful of this people, who are a branch of the tree of Israel, and has been lost from its body in a strange land; yea, I say, blessed be [Page 217]the name of my God, who has been mindful of us, wanderers in a strange land. (Alma 26:35–36)
As can be easily observed from even a casual reading of Ammon’s response to Aaron, it was not Ammon’s intent to praise himself, or to boast or glory in his own abilities or success. Rather, Ammon’s praising, boasting and glorying were all directed toward God. And while Ammon’s repeated usage of the Hebrew root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) would have been difficult to miss in Hebrew, it is obscured in English because of the three separate English words used in translation: praise, boast, and glory.
Ammon’s repetitive use of the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) can be described by two different types of wordplay: polyptoton and polysemy. Polyptoton is a “repetition of the same root word but in a different form.”19 More fully, it “is a repetition of the same word in the same sense, but not in the same form: from the same root, but in some other termination; as that of case, mood, tense, person, degree, number, gender, etc.”20 Steen added that polyptoton “is one of the most frequently employed types of repetition in the Bible.”21 Polysemy is “a linguistic term for a word’s capacity to carry two or more distinct meanings.”22 As noted previously, the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) carries multiple distinct meanings, including to shine, to praise, and to boast. The following are two examples of polyptotonic wordplay in the Bible:
I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe (מחיתי) Jerusalem as one wipes (ימחה) a dish, wiping (מחה) it and turning it upside down. (2 Kings 21:13, NASB)
This example of polyptoton is readily observable in English — I will wipe, one wipes, and wiping — and in Hebrew (the infinitive is למחות, from the root מ-ח-ה (m-ch-h)) — מחיתי (machiti), ימחה (yimchah), מחה (machah). However, in the following example from Isaiah, the polyptotonic wordplay is completely hidden in English, because it would not make sense to translate the text the way it is written in Hebrew. Isaiah’s double usage of hear and see makes the statement more emphatic in Hebrew, expressed by the word indeed in English:
[Page 218]And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed (שמעו שמוע, hear, you hear), but understand not; and see ye indeed (ראו ראו, see, you see), but perceive not. (Isaiah 6:9, KJV)
This type of polyptotonic wordplay is also a prominent feature of the Book of Mormon. For example, in 1 Nephi 8:2, Lehi told his family, “Behold, I have dreamed a dream, or in other words, I have seen a vision.” In this passage, Lehi twice utilized wordplay: חלמתי חלום (chalmati chalom — I dreamed a dream), and ראיתי מראה (raiti mareh — I saw a seeing).23 These two examples of polyptotonic repetition are comprised of the following elements: חלמתי (chalamti, I dreamed) and חלום (chalom, a dream), both derived from the root ח-ל-ם (ch-l-m), and ראיתי (raiti, I saw) and מראה (mareh, seeing or vision), which originate from the root ר-א-ה (r-a-h).
In this final example of both polyptoton and polysemy, the wordplay is completely obscured in English while it is easily noticeable in Hebrew, just as we observed in Ammon’s response to Aaron:
If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving (מעזב meazov) it to him, you shall surely release (עזב תעזב azov taazov) it with him (Exodus 23:5, NASB).
In this example the root ע-ז-ב (a-z-b) is used three times: מעזב (meazov, from leaving), and עזב תעזב (azov taazov, translated as you shall surely release, but literally meaning releasing you shall release). The wordplay in this verse is created with the infinitive לעזוב (laazov) which can signify both to leave and to release, and represents an ideal example of both polyptotonic and polysemic wordplay.
While some wordplay is expressed in simple polyptotonic or polysemic constructions, Ammon’s discourse contains a much more complex expression of these types of wordplay. Tables 1 and 2 below show my proposed Hebrew expressions derived from the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) for Ammon’s response to Aaron, divided according to the two groupings of usage at the beginning (Table 1) and the end (Table 2) of his response. While there is some repetition of form in the Hebrew, most word usages are unique expressions.
[Page 219]Table 1
|1||11||I do not boast||(al-mithallel) אל-מתהלל 24|
|2||12||I will not boast||(al-tithallel) אל-תתהלל|
|3||12||I will boast||(tithallel) תתהלל|
|4||12||we will praise||(tehallelu) תהללו|
|5||14||to praise||(lehallel) להלל|
|6||16||let us glory||(hithallelu) התהללו or
|7||16||we will glory||(tithallelu) תתהללו|
|8||16||we will praise||(tehallelu) תהללו|
|9||16||who can glory||(yithallel) ללהתי 25|
|10||35||boasting||(tehilah) הלהת 26|
|12||36||I will boast||(tithallel) תתהלל|
As can be observed in Tables 1 and 2, the Hebrew rendering of Ammon’s words displays a significant amount of polyptotonic and polysemic wordplay with significant variations in the verb conjugations and forms, mixed with the noun boasting, Aaron’s original accusatory wording. In addition, Ammon’s repetitious usage of the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) allowed him to forcefully counter Aaron’s charge of self-directed boasting, and to reorient the focus of his boasting toward his actual target — God.
In addition to Ammon’s wordplay with the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l), it is also apparent that Ammon employed similar polyptotonic wordplay with the noun joy (שמחה, simchah) and the verb rejoice (לשמוח, lismoach) — both derived from the root ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch) — in his response. As with his usage of the ה-ל-ל [Page 220](h-l-l) root, his use of the ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch) root is restricted to the beginning of his discourse (verses 11–16) and then again at the end of his discourse (verses 35–37), with only one mention of joy outside of these ranges, in verse 30. As with the root ה-ל-ל (h-l-l), I have divided the usage of the root ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch) into two separate tables, with the uses of the root at the beginning of his discourse in Table 3 and those at the end in Table 4
|1||11||my joy||(simchati) שמחתי|
|3||11||I will rejoice||(esmach) אשמח|
|4||13||to rejoice||(lismoach) לשמוח|
|5||16||we will rejoice||(nismach) נשמח|
|6||16||our joy||(simchatnu) שמחתנו|
|7||30||our joy||(simchatnu) שמחתנו|
|8||35||to rejoice||(lismoach) לשמוח|
|9||35||to rejoice||(lismoach) לשמוח|
|10||35||my joy||(simchati) שמחתי|
|11||36||my joy||(simchati) שמחתי|
|12||37||my joy||(simchati) שמחתי|
As we can observe in Table 3, the first six uses of joy or to rejoice fit the parameters of polyptotonic wordplay extremely well, with each use a unique employment of the root ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch). However, the final six occurrences of the root (see Table 4) rely on repetitious employment of previously utilized forms of ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch). Ammon’s usage of this root might also reveal a simple chiastic-type structure:
From Table 3:
A Joy (my joy, joy)
B Rejoicing (I will rejoice, to rejoice, we will rejoice)
A Joy (our joy)27
[Page 221]From Table 4:
A Joy (our joy)
B Rejoicing (to rejoice, to rejoice)
A Joy (my joy, my joy, my joy)
Because Ammon’s usage of the root ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch, meaning joy or to rejoice) is so closely connected with his use of the root ה-ל-ל (h-l- l, meaning to praise or to boast) — in both physical placement and in meaning — it seems apparent that this repetition of roots was meant as intentional wordplay by Ammon. Perhaps of most importance for this paper, Ammon’s repetitive usage of the roots ה-ל-ל (h-l-l) and ש-מ-ח (s-m-ch) possibly displays an underlying Hebrew linguistic structure in the original wording of his response to Aaron.
ללשןו עברי ,ברית חדשה על פי משיח: נעתק מלשון יון (London: A. Macintosh, 1817), 147.