Plays on Hebrew Words

Classical Hebrew writers loved wordplay, as is evidenced by the many plays on words in the Bible. The Book of Mormon has its share as well. In this wordplay, words around a Hebrew name echo its meaning or one of the elements from which it is formed. These plays on words only work in Hebrew, suggesting that the text was originally written in that language.

Here are some examples of wordplay around Hebrew names in the Book of Mormon.

Zedekiah and Jehovah

A chiasm in Helaman 6:7–13 is centered on verse 10, and for the sake of brevity that is what I have shown below—just the central part of the chiasm. The parallel elements in the chiasm are in italics.

A Now the land south was called Lehi
B and the land north was called Mulek,
C which was after the son of Zedekiah.
C’ For the Lord [Jehovah] did bring
B’ Mulek to the land north and
A’ Lehi to the land south.[1]

The iah ending of Zedekiah is a short form of Jehovah that is used in coining names. Jehovah is generally translated as Lord in the King James Bible and Book of Mormon. At the focal point of this chiasm, the iah (denoting Jehovah) of Zedekiah is parallel to Lord (i.e., Jehovah). The central element is the most important part of a chiasm, and this play on the word Jehovah is necessary to create the parallelism in the central element. The play on words only exists in the Hebrew, suggesting the chiasm was written in that language.

Nahom and Mourning

In 1 Nephi 16:34–35, we read “Ishmael died and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.” The Hebrew root NHM relates to sorrow, hunger, consoling, and mourning. In the next phrase, Ishmael’s daughters “mourn exceedingly.”

Jershon and Inheritance

In Alma 27:22,24, we read: “Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon…unto our brethren for an inheritance…that they may inherit the land Jershon;” and in Alma 35:14, “they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon.” Jershon is based on a Hebrew verb meaning “to inherit.”

Liahona and Jehovah

Liahona is a Hebrew word coined by the Nephites in their journey to their promised land. It refers to the brass ball or “compass” that directed them in their journey.

The case of the Liahona in the Book of Mormon is fascinating, not just for the play on words, but also in its relation to translator’s glosses and to compass as a supposed “anachronism” (see the footnotes below).

In Alma 37:38-39, the prophet Alma begins his discussion of this instrument:

And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball or director—or our fathers called it Liahona (which is, being interpreted, a compass), and the Lord prepared it. And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship.

Alma says that the Nephite fathers called this instrument a ball, a director, or Liahona, which is interpreted as “a compass.” In other words, whenever we see compass in the Book of Mormon, the original Hebrew text would have had Liahona. The only place Liahona is left untranslated is in Alma’s introduction of the instrument, above. It was probably left untranslated there because Alma is referring specifically to the coined Hebrew word, not just to it’s meaning. He says the fathers “call” the instrument a ball or director in their writings, but they “called it” (i.e., named it) Liahona. Because Liahona was left untranslated, the parenthetical element (“which is being interpreted, a compass”) was likely added as a gloss to the English text during translation, and would not have appeared in Alma’s original text.[1] The gloss was needed to inform the English reader that the transliterated word Liahona represents the same Hebrew word that appears elsewhere as compass.

So what does Liahona mean?

Liahona appears to be a properly constructed Hebrew word from li, which can indicate the possession of something, iaho, which is a short form of Jehovah used in coining words, and ôna, which can be translated as whither as it is in “whither wilt thou go?” in Genesis 16:8. Together they mean, more or less, whither of Jehovah, or by analogy, Jehovah’s compass.[2]

Alma appears to be making a wordplay on the Jehovah element in Liahona. Without the translator’s gloss, the first sentence of Alma’s discussion of this instrument would have read:

And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball or director—or our fathers called it Liahona; and the Lord [Jehovah] prepared it.”

The last phrase is unexpected in English, but as wordplay on iaho in Liahona, it would have been no surprise in Hebrew. The prophet Nephi introduces this instrument with the same type of wordplay whenever he refers to it as a compass (i.e. Liahona).

Here it is in 1 Nephi 18:12:

And it came to pass that after they had bound me insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work.

And in 2 Nephi 5:12:

And I, Nephi, had also brought the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass; and also the ball, or compass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord, according to that which is written.

In contrast, there is no mention of Jehovah  when Nephi refers to the instrument as a ball (1 Nephi 16:10–16; 1 Nephi 10:26–30). This wordplay on the Jehovah element of Liahona suggests that both Alma and Nephi composed their writing in Hebrew.

NOTES

1. There is plenty of indication that this is a translator’s gloss. Helaman, whom Alma was addressing, should not have needed a Hebrew word interpreted for him (see the discussion of Liahona later in the text). Even if he had, an interpretation as “a compass” would not have meant anything to him, since compasses wouldn’t be invented for another thousand years or so. Also, the wording, “which is, being interpreted” is nearly identical to wording used in all other instances in the Book of Mormon where interpretations are provided for coined terms (1 Nephi 17:5, Alma 18:13; 31:21, Ether 2:3; 15:8), suggesting that all of these parenthetical interpretations have a common, later source.

2. Jonathan Curci. “Liahona:’The Direction of the Lord’: An Etymological Explanation,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/2 (2007): 60–67, 97–98. Compass is more an analogy than a translation for Liahona. Although the brass ball, like a compass, was a navigational instrument, it worked by faith, not magnetism, and pointed toward a destination, not magnetic north. Navigational compasses weren’t invented, according to the historical record, until around 1000 A.D. Colin A. Ronan, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 3. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 7–33. Compass is not an anachronism in the Book of Mormon since the original Hebrew text would have instead had Liahona, which translates as compass in only a broad sense as directional instrument. The word compass, of course, appears only in the English translation, having been chosen by the translator to represent Liahona.

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