[Page 251]Abstract: Name as Key-Word brings together a collection of essays, many of them previously published, whose consistent theme is exploring examples of onomastic wordplay or puns in Mormon scripture in general and the Book of Mormon in particular. Without a knowledge of the meaning of these names, the punning in the scriptural accounts would not be recognized by modern English readers. Exploring the (probable) meanings of these names helps to open our eyes to how the scriptural authors used punning and other forms of wordplay to convey their messages in a memorable way.
Review of Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2018). 408 pp., $24.95.
Matthew L. Bowen, an Assistant Professor of Religious Education at BYU‒Hawaii, who received his PhD in biblical studies from Catholic University of America, has for some time now been publishing short studies that explore onomastic wordplay in Mormon scripture. Many of these essays have been previously published, often in the pages of Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.1 The adjective onomastic [Page 252]derives from the Greek onomastikos “of or relating to names or naming” (from Greek onoma “name”).2
Bowen’s work on proper names in scriptural texts unavoidably brushes up against knotty issues in Book of Mormon translation theory (such as loose v. tight control, the extent of linguistic evolution over a 1,000-year period, creolization with other languages, the whole concept of “inspired” translation, what the “learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” from 1 Nephi 1:2 is supposed to mean, and so forth). Two methodological notes (at pages xlviii‒xlix and 18‒19) make clear that he is thoroughly familiar with these issues, but if we had to solve them first before commenting meaningfully on Book of Mormon language, we would never get anywhere, so he essentially brackets such issues and takes 1 Nephi 1:2 as warrant for treating Hebrew and Egyptian as relevant languages for the Book of Mormon text, which strikes me as a fair way to proceed. (Some of these theoretical issues concerning Book of Mormon translation are also touched on briefly by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, a moving force behind the publication of this volume, in a six-page foreword [ix‒xv].)3
Here I will critique and comment on the first essay in the volume. I have also included an appendix written by Bowen himself and included in the book, which provides complete summaries of all 16 chapters.
On “Nephi’s Good Inclusio”
Chapter 1, titled “Nephi’s Good Inclusio,” essentially posits that (1) the name Nephi means “good”; (2) Nephi plays on the meaning of his own name when he refers to the goodness of his own parents or the goodness of God; and (3) such wordplay occurs both at the beginning and at the end of his corpus, thus forming a rhetorical framing device called an inclusio. The three words in his title for this chapter correspond to the three propositions he makes. I will comment on these propositions in order.
For the suggested wordplay to be meaningful, we must posit that the name Nephi meant “good” (and that Nephi knew this). There have been various suggestions for the etymology of Nephi, but the Book of Mormon Onomasticon opines that the “most likely” derivation of the name Nephi is ancient Egyptian nfr “good, beautiful.”4 At first blush this seems unlikely, since the final r is not represented in Nephi, but that is not actually a difficulty, since the final r can elide.5 Bowen explains that during and after Lehi’s time the word would have been pronounced something like neh fee, nay-fee or nou-fee. The word came into Coptic as noufi (in northern dialects) or noufe (in southern dialects). I remember reading John Gee’s treatment of this name in 1992 and in subsequent work, and it struck me as persuasive. So if the name Nephi is of ancient origin, I think Bowen is justified in considering it as deriving from the Egyptian nfr.
Nephi opens his record with these words:
I, NEPHI, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days. (1 Nephi 1:1, emphasis added)
So Nephi begins by reciting his own name, which means “good,” and then plays on that meaning in referring to the goodness of his parents and the goodness of God. (This verse is the opening frame of the posited inclusio, discussed further below.)
A significant issue arises whether the goodly in “goodly parents” actually means “good” or something else. Over the past decade and [Page 254]earlier, this has become an important and contested point, and I would like to devote some discussion to this question.
The traditional reading of this passage is that goodly = good (perhaps with the connotation righteous). One way to demonstrate this is by consulting translations of the English Book of Mormon into other languages, in which a word for good is generally used, such as Spanish buenos.
Some time ago another theory for how to take the word goodly in this passage arose, of which I first learned from the late Marc Schindler. The basic idea was to take goodly in the sense of “possessed of goods,” thus meaning “wealthy, affluent.” Nephi was able to receive an education, an expensive proposition, because his parents were affluent and could afford such.6 I thought it was an intriguing idea, and goodly seemed like it might bear such a meaning in Jacobean patter, but I took an agnostic stance on the suggestion until I could look into it further.
Six years ago I decided to take a crack at this issue.7 The first thing I did was actually look up goodly in the dictionary, and I was surprised to learn that it does not actually mean “good,” according to lexical sources. The dictionary I keep in my office has “1. Pleasantly attractive; 2. Significantly large: CONSIDERABLE (a [goodly] number).”8 The 1828 Webster’s, often consulted because of its proximity to the production of the Book of Mormon, had the following:9
Being of a handsome form; beautiful; graceful; as a goodly person; goodly raiment; goodly houses.
- Pleasant; agreeable; desirable; as goodly days.
- Bulky; swelling; affectedly turgid.
The Oxford English Dictionary had the following:10
- [Page 255]Of good appearance, good looking; well favoured or proportioned; comely, fair, handsome.
- Notable or considerable in respect of size, quantity, or number (frequently with mixture of sense 1).
- Of good quality, admirable, splendid, excellent. Also, well suited for some purpose, proper, convenient (often with implication of sense 1).
- Gracious, kind, kindly disposed.
So I quickly saw that I faced a dilemma. Did goodly in 1 Nephi 1:1 mean “good” per the traditional LDS reading, did it mean “attractive” per the lexical meaning, or did it mean “wealthy” per the revisionist reading?
Ultimately, context trumps the dictionary. The word therefore in the Book of Mormon text requires a causal relationship between Nephi’s parents being “goodly” and Nephi’s being taught somewhat in all the learning of his father. Since Lehi and Sariah as pleasantly attractive would have nothing to do with Nephi’s being so taught, the primary lexical meaning of the word simply does not work in our passage, which would seem to leave us where we started: with a choice between the traditional “good” and the revisionist “wealthy.”
I decided the best way to gain some insight into this question would be to examine the usage of the word goodly in our scriptural canon. The word appears 38 other times in our scriptures (29 times in the KJV Old Testament, four in the KJV New Testament, four in the Doctrine and Covenants, and one other time in the Book of Mormon). I thought the usage in the KJV would be especially probative because there we could check the underlying Hebrew and Greek words to determine the intended shade of meaning. The results of my inquiry are set forth below:
- Genesis 27:15. And Rebekah took goodly raiment. Hebrew chemdah, that which is desired, pleasant, excellent.
- Genesis 39:6. Joseph was [a] goodly [person], and well favoured. Hebrew toar, beautiful (in form).
- Genesis 49:21. he giveth goodly words. Hebrew shepher, beauty, elegance (of words).
- Exodus 2:2. she saw him that he [was a] goodly [child]. Hebrew tob, good (in various senses: fair, beautiful).
- Exodus 39:28. goodly bonnets. Hebrew p’er, an ornament, tiara, turban.
- [Page 256]Leviticus 23:40. the boughs of goodly trees. Hebrew hadar, ornament (i.e., “ornamental trees”).
- Numbers 24:5. How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob. Hebrew tob, good in various senses (beautiful, pleasant).
- Numbers 31:10. all their goodly castles. Hebrew tirah, a fortress, enclosure.
- Deuteronomy 3:25. that goodly mountain. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- Deuteronomy 6:10. to give thee great and goodly cities. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- Deuteronomy 8:12. hast built goodly houses. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- Joshua 7:21. a goodly Babylonish garment. Hebrew tob, good in various senses (fair, beautiful).
- 1 Samuel 9:2. Saul, a choice young man and a goodly. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- 1 Samuel 16:12. of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- 2 Samuel 23:21. an Egyptian, a goodly man. Hebrew mar’eh, form, appearance.
- 1 Kings 1:6. and he also [was a] very goodly man. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- 2 Chronicles 6:10. with the goodly vessels. Hebrew chemdah, that which is desired, pleasant.
- 2 Chronicles 6:19. all the goodly vessels. Hebrew machmad, object of desire, grace, beauty, something precious.
- Job 39:13. gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks. Hebrew nenanim, meaning uncertain (something having to do with the sound of the wings).
- Psalms 16:6. I have a goodly heritage. Hebrew shaphar, pleasing.
- Psalms 80:10. the goodly cedars. Hebrew ‘el, mighty (lit. godlike).
- Jeremiah 3:19. a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations. Hebrew tsebi, splendor, glory (i.e., beautiful).
- [Page 257]Jeremiah 11:16. a green olive tree, fair, and of goodly fruit. Hebrew tuar, a beautiful form, i.e., beautiful.
- Ezekiel 17:8. that it might be a goodly vine. Hebrew ‘addereth, wide, ample, thus magnificent, splendid.
- Ezekiel 17:23. and be a goodly cedar. Hebrew ‘addir, large, great, mighty, powerful, magnificent.
- Hosea 10:1. they have made goodly images. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- Joel 3:5. my goodly pleasant things. Hebrew tob, good in various senses.
- Zechariah 10:3. as his goodly horse in the battle. Hebrew hod, splendor, freshness, beauty, and thus majestic.
- Zechariah 11:13. a goodly price that I was prised as of them. Hebrew ‘eder, magnificence, thus “magnificence of price” (said ironically).
- Matthew 13:45. goodly pearls. GR kalos, beautiful, pleasing in form.
- Luke 21:5. adorned with goodly stones. GR kalos, beautiful, pleasing in form.
- James 2:2. goodly apparel. GR lampros, shining, brilliant, and thus splendid, magnificent.
- Revelation 18:14. all things which were dainty and goodly. GR lampros, shining, brilliant, and thus splendid, magnificent.
- Mosiah 18:7. there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon.
- Doctrine and Covenants 99:7. thou mayest go up also to the goodly land, to possess thine inheritance. [Note that in Hebrew, tob when used of land has the connotation “fertile.”]
- Doctrine and Covenants 97:9. planted in a goodly land, by a pure stream. [Note that in Hebrew, tob when used of land has the connotation “fertile.”]
- Doctrine and Covenants 103:20. possess the goodly land. [Note that in Hebrew, tob when used of land, has the connotation “fertile.”]
- [Page 258]Doctrine and Covenants 103:24. to drive you from my goodly land. [Note that in Hebrew, tob, when used of land, has the connotation “fertile.”]
The other Book of Mormon occurrence, Mosiah 18:7, “there was a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon,” is an attested lexical usage and means “there was a considerable number gathered together at the place of Mormon.” The four Doctrine and Covenants occurrences all reflect a particular idiom connecting goodly with land, where “goodly land” means “fertile land.” The four New Testament occurrences are clearly within the lexical range of meaning, two a translation of Greek kalos “beautiful,”11 and two a translation of Greek lampros “shining.”
The Old Testament usage of the word goodly, which is by far the most extensive in the scriptures, reflects substantial diversity in the underlying Hebrew. Of the 29 occurrences, 18 different Hebrew words are translated with English goodly, many with various nuances of the lexical meaning. The other 11 occurrences of goodly in the KJV Old Testament are all renderings of the Hebrew word tob, which fundamentally means “good” (with various shades of meaning). The English translational tradition sometimes renders these occurrences simply with “good,” other times with English words that would better fit the lexical meanings of English goodly, such as “fine” and the like.
Nowhere in the KJV Bible is the word goodly used in the sense of “wealthy.” In fact, I am unaware of any example in the English language where “goodly” is used to mean “wealthy,” which is why that meaning is not so catalogued in lexical sources.
In the comments to my blog post on this subject, someone pointed out that Joseph used this same expression in his 1832 history:
I was born in the town of Charon [Sharon] in the <State> of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instruct<ing> me in <the> christian religion[.]12
[Page 259]Goodly here cannot bear the meaning “wealthy,” a term surely never applied to his own parents. If it meant “wealthy” in 1 Nephi 1:1, Joseph misunderstood the word when he used it here. I think the more parsimonious reading is that in Joseph’s usage goodly simply meant “good.” I suspect he used goodly rather than simply good to give the word a bit of an archaic flavor.13
Accordingly, I concur with the conclusion of Bowen as expressed at the end of a lengthy note on the issue that “the idea that ‘goodly parents’ means ‘wealthy parents’ cannot be sustained.”14
Note: After I had written the above, the most recent edition of BYU Studies Quarterly appeared in my mailbox, which includes an article by Grant Hardy, “Approaching Completion: The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project,”15 which includes a paragraph relevant to this question. Grant Hardy had written a letter to Royal Skousen in which he wondered whether Nephi’s self-description as one who had been “born of goodly parents” might be a mistake for “born of godly parents.” Hardy describes Skousen’s analysis of his suggestion:
On the one hand, “goodly” does not exactly mean “good” … and a search of Early English Books Online yields no instances of “goodly parents,” but 1,185 occurrences of “godly parents,” including forty passages with “born of godly parents,” some of which date back to the seventeenth century. On the other hand, goodly more or less works (Skousen states that “the Oxford English Dictionary provides evidence that one archaic meaning for goodly was, in fact, “good”), and there are no [Page 260]examples of scribes ever mixing up god and good, so in the end he rejects the proposed emendation.16
Hardy notes that he agrees with Skousen’s final judgment and observes that “the OED (which is ultimately more useful than Webster) never actually offers ‘good’ as a definition for goodly, but it does list ‘virtuous,’ ‘excellent,’ and ‘fine’ as archaic usages, so good enough.” Of the Nibley proposal that goodly = wealthy, Hardy comments as follows:
Since these definitions appear idiosyncratic to Nibley, with no precedents in the English language listed in the OED, I would rule them out of bounds. And I would similarly disagree with Skousen’s insistence that the education provided to Nephi by his “goodly parents” was secular rather than religious (the latter would better fit precedents for “godly parents”), since that distinction strikes me as anachronistic with regard to ancient literacy, especially when the only text Nephi ever cites is the brass plates, whose Egyptian script (Mosiah 1:4) he could read thanks to “the learning of [his] father,” which included “the language of the Egyptians.” (1 Nephi 1:1-2)17
Hardy’s discussion simply cements in my mind the conclusion I had already reached, that in 1 Nephi 1:1 goodly simply means “good.”
An inclusio18 is a type of distant parallelism between material at the beginning of a section of text and that at the end of the section, thus framing or bracketing the material in the middle. For example, in an article on Mother in Heaven I identified an inclusio in Proverbs 3:13‒18, which happened to be chiastic in nature:
A. happy [v. 13; ‘ashre]
B. Wisdom [v. 13; chokmah]
[Framed material in verses 14 through 17]
B. a tree of life [v. 18; ‘ets chayyim]
A. happy [v. 18; me’ushshar (same root as ‘ashre)]
[Page 261]The word happy was often used to allude to the Goddess Asherah due to similarity of sound (especially during times in Israelite history unfavorable to the goddess). Lady Wisdom was one of the ways Asherah was reconceptualized over time, and the tree of life alludes to her worship.19
One question I had when reading Bowen’s argument was whether or not inclusio occurred at such distances as he posited (i.e., the whole of 1 and 2 Nephi). Turning to that fountain of all human knowledge, Wikipedia (s.v. “Inclusio”),20 the section on Hebrew Bible focused on several distant examples in the writings of Jeremiah, Lehi’s contemporary. For instance, consider this distant inclusio between chapters 1 and 24, which also happens to be chiastic:
A. See, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant. [Jeremiah 1:10]
B. Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree. [Jeremiah 1:11]
[Framed material between Jeremiah and 24.]
B. Then said the LORD unto me, What seest thou, Jeremiah? And I said, Figs; the good figs, very good; and the evil, very evil, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil. [Jeremiah 24:3]
A. For I will set mine eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them again to this land: and I will build them, and not pull them down; and I will plant them, and not pluck them up. [Jeremiah 24:6]
So, returning to Bowen’s argument, recall that he posited 1 Nephi 1:1 with its threefold focus on good/goodness as the opening frame of his posited inclusio. The closing frame is a threefold emphasis on doing good in 2 Nephi 33, the final chapter of his corpus.
First comes 2 Nephi 33:4:
[Page 262]And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. And the words which I have written in weakness will be made strong unto them; for it persuadeth them to do good; it maketh known unto them of their fathers, and it speaketh of Jesus, and persuadeth them to believe in him, and to endure to the end, which is life eternal.
Bowen notes that Nephi starts by referring to “the words which I have written” in the plural but then conceptualizes his plural words as a singular with “it persuadeth to do good” and subsequent singular forms, apparently conceptualizing his record as a single, unified production.21
Second comes 2 Nephi 33:10:
And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.
Bowen notes that the verb believe is repeated five times in this verse alone, and the end of such belief is that all should do good.
Third and finally comes the next to last verse of his corpus, 2 Nephi 33:14:
And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the Jews, and also my words, and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall condemn you at the last day.
So does this threefold mention of good/goodness in Nephi’s final words suffice to constitute a close bracket to the open bracket of the threefold invocation of good in 1 Nephi 1? I think it does. And I take it that the point of this inclusio is to highlight the importance of the goodness of God as a conceptual theme throughout his writings. By my count Nephi uses the terms good/goodness a total of 31 times throughout his writings (only four of which derive from the lengthy Isaiah material incorporated in toto in 2 Nephi), so his emphasis on the goodness of God does seem to be a major theme of his work.
[Page 263]Bowen also points out that later writers imitated Nephi’s introduction in writing their own. I was particularly impressed by his comparison of the introduction of Enos with that of Nephi.
|1 Nephi 1:1||Enos 1:1|
|I, Nephi [Egyptian nfr (nfi) = good(ly)]
having been born
of goodly parents
I was taught somewhat
in all the learning of my father
|I, Enos [Hebrew ‘enos’ = “man”] knowing
my father that he was a just man
he taught me
in his language
What particularly impressed me about this presentation was that where Nephi makes a pun on his name (meaning “good”) by referring to his goodly parents, Enos similarly makes a pun on his own name (meaning “man”) by referring to his father as a just man.
I found Bowen’s exploration of the significance of names and wordplay concerning them in Mormon scripture to be both fun and interesting. He obviously has the background knowledge and personal interest to do this and do it well. Reading these passages through the lens of Bowen’s insights helps to bring the text to life. I recommend the book to those who enjoy this type of detailed scriptural study.
Appendix: A Synopsis of the Sixteen Essays
[Editor’s Note: This appendix is reproduced from Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture, l-lviii. Footnote references have been changed to reflect numbering in this review.]
[Page 264]Nephi’s Good Inclusio. In the opening chapter I endeavor to demonstrate that Nephi’s name22 and its meaning (adj. “good,” “goodly,” “fine,” “fair”; noun = “goodness”) was not only important in terms of Nephi’s autobiography23 but also was the overarching message of his writings. Nephi concludes his personal writings on the small plates using the terms “good” and “goodness of God.” This terminological bracketing, a literary device used anciently, is called inclusio. Nephi’s literary emphasis on “good” and “goodness” not only befits his personal name but fulfills the Lord’s directive, “Thou shalt engraven many things … which are good in my sight” (2 Nephi 5:30), a command which also plays on the name Nephi. This essay further shows how Nephi’s autobiographical introduction and conclusion proved to be enormously influential on subsequent writers. Some of Nephi’s successors modeled autobiographical and narrative biographical introductions on 1 Nephi 1:1–2 and based sermons — especially concluding sermons — on Nephi’s “good” conclusion in 2 Nephi 33. An emphasis in all these sermons is that all “good”/”goodness” ultimately has its source in God and Christ.
“Most Desirable Above All Things.” This volume’s second essay examines the linguistic connection between the names Mary (Egyptian, “beloved”), Mormon, and the “love of God.” The names Mary and Mormon most plausibly derive from the Egyptian lexeme mr(i), “love, desire, [or] wish.” Mary denotes “beloved [i.e., of deity]” and is thus conceptually connected with divine love, while Mormon evidently denotes “desire/love is enduring.” Upon seeing Mary (“the mother of God,” 1 Nephi 11:18, critical text) bearing the infant Messiah in her arms in vision, Nephi, who already knew that God “loveth his children,” perceived that the meaning of the fruit-bearing tree of life “is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:17- 25). Many generations later, Alma the Elder and his people entered into a covenant and formed a church based on “love” and “good desires” (Mosiah 18:21, 28), a covenant directly tied to the waters of Mormon and “desire” (Mosiah 18:8–11). Alma the Younger, in the next generation, recalled the “song of redeeming love” that his father and others had sung [Page 265]at the waters of Mormon (Alma 5:3–9, 26; see Mosiah 18:30). Mormon, whose father Mormon named his son after himself and the land of Mormon and its waters (3 Nephi 5:12), repeatedly characterized charity as “everlasting love” or the “pure love of Christ [that] endureth forever” (Moroni 7:47–48, 8:16–17, 26). All of this has implications for Latter-day Saints or “Mormons,” who, as children of the covenant, must endure to the end in Christlike “love” as Mormon and Moroni did, particularly in days of diminishing faith, faithfulness, and love (see, e.g., Mormon 3:12; contrast Moroni 9:5).
Joseph, Benjamin, and Gezera Shawa. The third essay endeavors to show how the Book of Mormon contains several quotations from the Hebrew Bible that have been juxtaposed on the basis of shared words or phrases, this for the purpose of interpreting the cited scriptural passages in light of one another. Nephi and his successors employed an exegetical technique — one that Jesus himself used — that came to be known in later rabbinic times as Gezera Shawa (“equal statute”). In several additional instances, the use of Gezera Shawa converges with onomastic wordplay. Nephi uses a Gezera Shawa involving Isaiah 11:11 and Isaiah 29:14 twice on the basis of the yāsap verb forms yôsîp/yôsīp (2 Nephi 25:17 and quoting the Lord in 2 Nephi 29:1) to create a stunning wordplay on the name “Joseph.” In another instance, King Benjamin uses Gezera Shawa involving Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14, and Deuteronomy 14:1 (1–2) on the basis of the Hebrew noun bēn (“son”; plural bānîm, bānôt, “sons” and “daughters”) on which to build a rhetorical wordplay on his own name. This second, sophisticated wordplay, which further alludes to Psalm 110:1 on account of the noun yāmîn (“right hand”), was ready-made for King Benjamin’s temple audience, who, on the occasion of Mosiah’s coronation, were receiving their own “endowment” to become “sons” and “daughters” at God’s “right hand.” The use of Gezera Shawa was often christological — e.g., Jacob’s Gezera Shawa on ʾeben (“stone”) in Jacob 4:15–17 and Alma’s Gezera Shawa on Zenos’s and Zenock’s phrase “because of thy Son” in Alma 33:11–16 (see Alma 33:4–17). Taken together, these examples suggest that we should pay more attention to scripture’s use of scripture and, in particular, the use of this exegetical practice. In doing so, we will better discern the ancient prophetic messages preserved in the Book of Mormon.
“What Thank They the Jews?” In the fourth essay I examine a wordplay on the name Judah/Jews against the backdrop of etiologies for the name Judah in Genesis 30 and 49, and the Lord’s repeated warning against Gentile (including gentile Christian) antisemitism in the Book of [Page 266]Mormon. Genesis explains the meaning of the personal and tribal name “Judah” — from which the term “Jews” derives — in terms of “praising” or “thanking” (*ydy/ydh). In other words, the “Jews” are those who are to be “praised out of a feeling of gratitude.” The Genesis etiologies have important implications for the Lord’s words to Nephi regarding Gentile ingratitude and antisemitism across the centuries: “And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them?” (2 Nephi 29:4). Gentile Christian antisemitism, like the concomitant doctrine of supersessionism, can be traced (in part) to widespread misunderstanding and misapplication of Paul’s words regarding Jews and “praise” (Romans 2:28–29). Moreover, the strongest scriptural warnings against antisemitism are to be found in the Book of Mormon, which also offers the reassurance that the Jews are still “mine ancient covenant people” (2 Nephi 29:4–5) and testifies of the Lord’s love and special concern for them.
“And There Wrestled a Man with Him”: Jacob, Enos, Israel, and Peniel. In the fifth chapter I propose several instances in which the Book of Mormon prophet Enos uses wordplay on his own name, the name of his father “Jacob,” the place name “Peniel,” and Jacob’s new name “Israel” in order to connect his experiences to those of his ancestor Jacob in Genesis 32–33, thus infusing them with greater meaning. Familiarity with Jacob and Esau’s conciliatory “embrace” in Genesis 33 is essential to understanding how Enos views the Atonement of Christ and the ultimate realization of its blessings in his life.
Young Man, Hidden Prophet: Alma. In the sixth chapter I examine how the biographical introduction of Alma the Elder into the Book of Mormon narrative (Mosiah 17:2) also introduces the name Alma into the text for the first time, this in close juxtaposition with a description of Alma as a “young man.” The best explanation for the name Alma is that it derives from the Semitic term ǵlm (Hebrew ʿelem) — “young man,” “youth,” “lad.” This strongly suggests the possibility of an intentional wordplay on the name Alma in the Book of Mormon’s underlying text: Alma became “[God’s] young man” or “servant.” Additional lexical connections between Mosiah 17:2 and Mosiah 14:1 (quoting Isaiah 53:1) suggest that Abinadi identified Alma as the one “to whom” or “upon whom” (ʿal-mî) the Lord was “reveal[ing]” his arm as Abinadi’s prophetic successor. Alma began his prophetic succession when he “believed” Abinadi’s report and pled with King Noah for Abinadi’s life. Forced to flee, Alma began his prophetic ministry “hidden” and “concealed” while writing the words of Abinadi and teaching them “privately.” The [Page 267]narrative’s dramatic emphasis on this aspect of Alma’s life suggests an additional thread of wordplay that exploits the homonymy between Alma and the Hebrew root *ʿlm, forms of which mean “to hide,” “conceal,” “be hidden,” or “be concealed.” The richness of the wordplay and allusion revolving around Alma’s name in Mosiah 17–18 accentuates his importance as a prophetic figure and founder of the later Nephite church. Moreover, it suggests that Alma’s name was appropriate: the details we learn of his life demonstrate that he lived up to the positive connotations latent in his name.
Father Is a Man: Abish. In the seventh essay I begin with the observation that the mention of “Abish” and a “remarkable vision of her father” (Alma 19:16) is itself remarkable, since women and servants are rarely named in the Book of Mormon text. As a Hebrew-Lehite name, “Abish” suggests the meaning “Father is a man,” the midrashic components ‘ab- (“father”) and ‘îš (“man”) being phonologically evident. Thus, the immediate juxtaposition of the name “Abish” with the terms “her father” and “women” raises the possibility of wordplay on her name in the underlying text. Since ‘ab-names were frequently theophoric — i.e., they had reference to a divine Father (or could be so understood) — the mention of “Abish” (“Father is a man”) takes on additional theological significance in the context of Lamoni’s vision of the Redeemer being “born of a woman and … redeem[ing] all mankind” (Alma 19:13). The wordplay on “Abish” thus contributes thematically to the narrative’s presentation of Ammon’s typological ministrations among the Lamanites as a “man” endowed with great power, which helped the Lamanites understand the concept of “the Great Spirit” (Yahweh) becoming “man.” Moreover, this wordplay accords with the consistent Book of Mormon doctrine that the “very Eternal Father” would (and did) condescend to become “man” and Suffering Servant.
“They Were Moved with Compassion.” The eighth essay explores hebraistic toponymic wordplay on the names Zarahemla and Jershon in the Lamanite emigration narratives. As in Hebrew biblical narrative, wordplay on (or play on the meaning of) toponyms, or “place names,” constitutes a discernable feature of Book of Mormon narrative. The text repeatedly juxtaposes the toponym Jershon (“place of inheritance” or “place of possession”) with terms “inherit,” “inheritance,” “possess,” “possession,” and the like. Similarly, the Mulekite personal name Zarahemla (“seed of compassion,” “seed of pity”), which becomes the paramount Nephite toponym as their national capital after the time of Mosiah I, is juxtaposed with the term “compassion.” Both wordplays occur and recur at crucial points in Nephite-Lamanite history. Moreover, both [Page 268]occur in connection with the migration of the first generation Lamanite converts. The Jershon wordplay recurs in the second generation, when the people of Ammon receive the Zoramite (re)converts into the land of Jershon, and wordplay on Zarahemla recurs subsequently, when the sons of these Lamanite converts come to the rescue of the Nephite nation. Rhetorical wordplay on Zarahemla also surfaces in important speeches later in the Book of Mormon.
“See That Ye Are Not Lifted Up”: Zoram and the Rameumptom. In the ninth essay I propose that the most likely etymology for the name Zoram is a verbal (third person singular perfect qal or pôʿal) form of the Semitic-Hebrew lexeme *zrm, meaning, “He [God] has [is] poured forth in floods.” However, the name could also have been heard and interpreted as a theophoric –rām name, of which there are many in the biblical Hebrew onomasticon (e.g., Ram, Abram, Abiram, Joram/Jehoram, Malchiram; cf. Hiram [Hyrum] or Huram), whether or not it originated as such. Thus analyzed, Zoram would connote something like “the one who is high,” “the one who is exalted,” or even “the person of the Exalted One [or high place].” This has important implications for the later pejoration of the name Zoram and its gentilic derivative Zoramites in Alma’s and Mormon’s account of the Zoramite apostasy and the attempts made to rectify it in Alma 31–35 (cf. Alma 38–39). Mormon also describes the Rameumptom as a high “stand” or “a place for standing, high above the head” (Hebrew rām; Alma 31:13) — not unlike the “great and spacious building” (which “stood as it were in the air, high above the earth”; see 1 Nephi 8:26) — which suggests a double wordplay on the name “Zoram” in terms of rām and Rameumptom in Alma 31. Moreover, Alma plays on the idea of Zoramites as those being “high” or “lifted up” when counseling his son Shiblon to avoid being like the Zoramites and replicating the mistakes of his brother Corianton (Alma 38:3–5, 11–14). Mormon, perhaps influenced by the Zoramite apostasy and the magnitude of its effects, may have incorporated further pejorative wordplay on the Zoram-derived names Cezoram and Seezoram in order to emphasize that the Nephites had become lifted up in pride like the Zoramites during the judgeships of those judges. The Zoramites and their apostasy represent a type of Latter-day Gentile pride and apostasy, of which Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni warned repeatedly.
“He Is a Good Man.” The tenth essay returns to the subject of the name Nephi and its significance within the Helaman narratives. Mormon, as an author and editor, was concerned to show the fulfillment of earlier Nephite prophecy when such fulfillment occurred. Mormon [Page 269]took care to show that Nephi and Lehi, the sons of Helaman, fulfilled their father’s prophetic and parenetic expectations regarding them as enshrined in their given names — the names of their “first parents.” It had been “said and also written” (Helaman 5:6–7) that Nephi’s and Lehi’s namesakes were “good” in 1 Nephi 1:1. Using onomastic play on the meaning of “Nephi,” Mormon demonstrates in Helaman 8:7 that it also came to be said and written of Nephi the son of Helaman that he was “good.” Moreover, Mormon shows Nephi that his brother Lehi was “not a whit behind him” in this regard (Helaman 11:19). During their lifetimes — i.e., during the time of the fulfillment of Mosiah’s forewarning regarding societal and political corruption (see Mosiah 29:27) that especially included secret combinations — Nephi and Lehi stood firm against increasingly popular organized evil.
My People Are Willing: Aminadab. The eleventh essay explores how Aminadab, a Nephite by birth who later dissented to the Lamanites, played a crucial role in the mass conversion of three hundred Lamanites (and eventually many others). At the end of the pericope in which these events are recorded, Mormon states: “And thus we see that the Lord began to pour out his Spirit upon the Lamanites, because of their easiness and willingness to believe in his words” (Helaman 6:36), whereas he “began to withdraw” his Spirit from the Nephites “because of the wickedness and the hardness of their hearts” (Helaman 6:35). The name Aminadab is a Semitic/Hebrew name meaning “my kinsman is willing” or “my people are willing.” As a dissenter, Aminadab was a man of two peoples. Mormon and (probably) his source were aware of the meaning of Aminadab’s name and the irony of that meaning in the context of the latter’s role in the Lamanite conversions and the spiritual history of the Nephites and Lamanites. The narrative’s mention of Aminadab’s name (Helaman 5:39, 41) and Mormon’s echoes of it in Helaman 6:36, 3 Nephi 6:14, and elsewhere have covenant and temple significance not only in their ancient scriptural setting, but also for latter-day readers of the Book of Mormon.
Getting Cain and Gain. The twelfth chapter explains how the biblical etiology (story of origin) for the name “Cain” associates his name with the Hebrew verb qny/qnh, “to get,” “gain,” “acquire,” “create,” or “procreate” in a positive sense. A fuller form of this etiology, known to us indirectly through the Book of Mormon text and directly through the restored text of the Joseph Smith Translation, creates additional wordplay on “Cain” that associates his name with murder to “get gain.” This fuller narrative is thus also an etiology for organized evil — secret [Page 270]combinations “built up to get power and gain” (Ether 8:22–23, 11:15). The original etiology exerted a tremendous influence on Book of Mormon writers (e.g., Nephi, Jacob, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni) who frequently used allusions to this narrative and sometimes replicated the wordplay on “Cain” and “getting gain.” The fuller narrative seems to have exerted its greatest influence on Mormon and Moroni, who witnessed the destruction of their nation firsthand — destruction catalyzed by Cainitic secret combinations. Moroni, in particular, invokes the Cain etiology in describing the destruction of the Jaredites by secret combinations. The destruction of two nations by Cainitic secret combinations stands as two witnesses and a warning to latter-day Gentiles (and Israel) against building up these societies and allowing them to flourish.
Place of Crushing: Heshlon. Chapter thirteen, co-written with Pedro Olavarria, explains how the name Heshlon, attested once (in Ether 13:28) as a toponym in the Book of Mormon, most plausibly denotes “place of crushing.” The meaning of Heshlon thus takes on significance in the context of Ether 13:25–31, which describes the crushing or enfeebling of Coriantumr’s armies and royal power. This meaning is also important in the wider context of Moroni’s narrative of the Jaredites’ destruction. Fittingly, Moroni’s mention of the name Heshlon itself serves as a literary turning point in the chiastic structure of a text that describes the fateful reversal of Coriantumr’s individual fortunes and the worsening of the Jaredites’ collective fortunes. Moroni, who witnessed the gradual crushing and destruction of the Nephites, seemingly mentioned this name in his abridgement of the book of Ether on account of the high irony of its meaning in view of the Jaredite war of attrition which served as precursor to the destruction of the Nephites.
“In the Mount of the Lord It Shall Be Seen” and “Provided.” Chapter fourteen examines the ancient temple as a place where, for ancient Israelites, sacrifice and theophany (i.e., seeing God or other heavenly beings) converged. The account of Abraham’s “arrested” sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) and the account of the arrested slaughter of Jerusalem following David’s unauthorized census of Israel (2 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21) served as etiological narratives — explanations of “cause” or “origin” — for the location of the Jerusalem temple and its sacrifices. Thematic wordplay on the verb rā‘â (to “see”) in these narratives creates an etiological link between the place-names “Jehovah-jireh,” “Moriah,” and the threshing floor of Araunah/Ornan, pointing to the future location of the Jerusalem temple as the place of theophany and sacrifice par excellence. Isaac’s “arrested” sacrifice and the vicarious [Page 271]animal sacrifices of the temple anticipated Jesus’s later “un-arrested” sacrifice since, as Jesus himself stated, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day” (John 8:56). Sacrifice itself constituted a kind of theophany in which one’s own redemption could be “seen,” and the scriptures of the Restoration confirm that Abraham and many others, even “a great many thousand years before” the coming of Christ, “saw” Jesus’s sacrifice and “rejoiced.” Additionally, theophany and sacrifice converge in the canonized revelations regarding the building of the latter-day temple. These temple revelations begin with a promise of theophany, and mandate sacrifice from the Latter-day Saints. In essence, the temple itself was, and is, Christ’s Atonement having its intended effect on humanity.
Founded Upon a Rock: Peter’s Surnaming. The fifteenth chapter recommends that the famous Petros/petra wordplay in Matthew 16:18 does not constitute Jesus’s identification of Peter as the “rock” upon which his Church would be built. This wordplay does however identify him with that “rock” or “bedrock” inasmuch as Peter, a small “seer-stone” (cf. JST John 1:42), had the potential to become like the Savior himself, “the Rock of Ages” or “Rock of Heaven” (Moses 7:53). One aspect of that “rock” is the revelation that comes through faith that Jesus is the Messiah. Other aspects of that same rock are the other principles and ordinances of the gospel, including temple ordinances. The temple, a symbol of the Savior and his body, is also a symbol of the eternal family — the “sure house” built upon a rock.24 As such, the temple is the perfect embodiment of Peter’s labor in the priesthood, against which hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).
You More Than Owe Me This Benefit: Philemon and Onesimus. The sixteenth chapter analyzes Paul’s use of wordplay and punning involving the names Philemon (Φιλήμων, “affectionate one”) and Onesimus (Ὀνήσιμος, “useful”) and their meanings in his letter to Philemon, the believing (anachronistically “Christian”) owner of a converted slave named Onesimus. It further notes and analyzes concomitant paronomasia involving the name-title Χριστός (Christos) and various homonymic terms. All of this wordplay constitutes a key element in Paul’s polite, diplomatic, and carefully worded letter. Paul artfully uses Philemon’s own name to play on the latter’s affections and to remind him that despite whatever Onesimus may owe (ὀφείλει, opheilei) Philemon, Philemon more than owes (προσοφείλεις, prosopheileis) his very self — i.e., his life as a Christian and thus his eternal wellbeing — to Paul. Hence, Philemon “more than owes” Paul his request to have [Page 272]Onesimus — who was once “useless” or “unprofitable” and “without Christ,” but is now “profitable” and “well-in-Christ” — as a fellow worker in the gospel. In a further (polyptotonic) play on Onesimus, Paul expresses his urgent desire to “have the benefit” (ὀναίμην, onaimēn) of Onesimus in the Lord out of Philemon’s own free will and with his blessing, since all three are now brothers in Christ, and thus slaves to Christ, their true “master.” In the context of Paul’s use of –χρηστός (–chrēstos) and ὀναίμην (onaimēn), Paul’s desire for Philemon’s voluntary “good deed” or “benefit” (τὸ ἀγαθόν σου, to agathon sou) is to be understood as the granting of Onesimus and as the point and climax of this publicly read letter.
In these sixteen chapters, it is hoped the reader will recognize the enormous importance of names in ancient scriptural narrative — not only the in Hebrew Bible, but also in the New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Pearl of Great Price. An awareness of the meanings of names in their narratological context often leads to a deeper understanding of the messages intended by ancient authors and editors and enhances our appreciation of the meaning of the temple and its ordinances which are, among many things, very name-centric.
- Later in the verse, Nephi refers to the goodness of God. I wonder if that might be a verbal echo of goodly?
- Some scholars have suggested that Nephi’s name is derived from Egyptian nfr, which means “good” and that perhaps there is a wordplay on his name involved in the use of goodly here.” (Barney, January 1, 2012, comment on Barney, “‘Goodly Parents’ Revisited.”)
Go here to see the 3 thoughts on ““What’s in a Name? Playing in the Onomastic Sandbox”” or to comment on it.