Hey guys, so, in some ancient cultures, like ancient Israel, oftentimes, the name given to a person or place told you something about that person or place. For example, in Genesis 32, after Jacob wrestles with a divine being, we read, “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face …” In Hebrew, Peniel means “facing God” or “face of God.” It’s not just a name Jacob thought sounded cool — it tells you something about that place.
In Hebrew, “Jacob” means (among other things) “supplanter.” You’ll recall that earlier in Jacob’s life, he pretended to be his brother, Esau, and tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him his brother’s birthright. Jacob was a supplanter. But after his wrestle with a divine being, we read, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” In Hebrew, Israel means (among other things) “a man who wrestles with God” or “One who prevails with God.” In this episode, we’re going to look at how understanding names in scripture can often unlock additional meaning — both in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon.
Alright, so let’s look at a few more biblical examples. We just talked about Jacob “supplanting” Esau. Genesis 25 somewhat graphically describes Esau’s birth: “And the first came out red, all over like a hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.” Believe it or not, Esau means “hairy”.
In 1 Samuel 25, a guy named Nabal offends David. In Hebrew, Nabal means fool or foolish. Nabal’s wife pleads with David to forgive her husband. She says, “Please, let not my lord regard this scoundrel Nabal. For as his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name, and folly is with him!” Now, did Nabal’s parents really name him “fool”? Maybe, but it’s also possible that this was a nickname or that an editor of this story changed or satirized the name to drive home a point.
Wordplay with names also shows up in the Book of Mormon. In Alma 27:22, the Nephites say, “This land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance.” And two verses later, we read again, “…this we will do unto our brethren, that they may inherit the land Jershon…”. Scholars Stephen Ricks and Matthew Bowen agree that in Hebrew, Jershon would have meant “place of inheritance.” In other words, the writers of the Book of Mormon are likely making a play on words here. Jershon, or “place of inheritance,” is the place of inheritance.
The first author of the Book of Mormon, Nephi, stated that the record was made “in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” In accordance with this description, scholars have noticed elements of both Hebrew and Egyptian in the Book of Mormon. “Nephi is most likely derived from an Egyptian word (nfr) which means ‘good,’ ‘goodly,’ ‘fine,’ or ‘fair’….” If that’s correct, then it appears that Nephi uses some clever wordplay right out of the gate in the first verse of the Book of Mormon:
“I, Nephi [goodly], having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father… 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.” It’s a play on words.
In the Book of Mormon, the wicked Zoramites would pray from the Rameumptom, which is described as “a place of standing, which was high above the head”. “The first element of the name is most likely related to Hebrew rām, ‘to be high, to be exalted,’ and rāmâ, ‘eminence, high place,’ the same root that appears in the biblical geographic name Ramah, [meaning] ‘hill’”. Again, the name fits the thing.
One of my favorite examples is Zeezrom — In Alma, we read, “And it came to pass that there was one among them whose name was Zeezrom…” but before the narrator tells us Zeezrom’s story, there’s a pause while the narrator describes the Nephite monetary system. We learn about all of the different units of gold and silver. Notably, one of the units of silver is called an ezrom.
Scholar Stephen Ricks noted that “The Book of Mormon proper name Zeezrom may follow a naming pattern parallel to the Hebrew zeh Sinai, ‘he of Sinai’ … and may have the meaning ‘he of the Ezrom.’” The Book of Mormon Onomasticon adds that Zeezrom may mean “he of silver, [or] money”. This makes sense. First, we’re introduced to Zeezrom, who is described as essentially a greedy Nephite lawyer. Next, we immediately get a review of what an ezrom is. Then we immediately jump back into the story of Zeezrom, who tries to bribe Amulek, offering him a hefty sum of silver if he will deny the existence of God. Amulek refuses and says, “Believest thou that there is no God? I say unto you, Nay, thou knowest that there is a God, but thou lovest that lucre more than him.” — Just as Zeezrom’s name would suggest.
As far as I am aware, Joseph Smith never talks about any of this linguistic stuff from the Book of Mormon, which suggests to me that he simply wasn’t aware it was there. And remember that the Book of Mormon was published long before Joseph began to study the Hebrew language. None of this proves that he was a prophet, but I imagine that if you were a fraud and had gone to the effort of researching and subtly lacing the Book of Mormon with these intricate linguistic gems, you’d want people to know about them. You’d find a way to tout them up as evidence of your prophetic call — but he doesn’t.
In my mind, that leaves three options: 1. The scholarship must be all wrong, and none of these examples are valid. 2. Joseph just made a series of unimaginably lucky guesses. Or 3. this book really is what it claims to be and has traces of ancient influence because it comes from a real ancient record. Of course, whether or not the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be is a question that you need to find your own answer for, ideally with God’s help. But if you’re looking for more info about today’s topic, check out the links in the YouTube description, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “What’s in a Biblical name” via Christian Science Monitor: https://bit.ly/3rWSuZH
- “The Power of a Name: The Power of Naming” via MyJewishLearning: https://bit.ly/3ILcbuj
- “Hebrew Wordplays in the Book of Mormon Text: Possible Evidence of Ancient Origins” via Jeff Lindsay: https://bit.ly/3oajPqq
- “A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon” by Stephen Ricks (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3uv1yrV
- “‘They Were Moved with Compassion’ (Alma 27:4; 53:13): Toponymic Wordplay on Zarahemla and Jershon” by Matthew Bowen (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3L0IAPk
- “Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context” by Matthew Bowen (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3GhiUuc
- “‘And There Wrestled a Man with Him’ (Genesis 32:24): Enos’s Adaptations of the Onomastic Wordplay of Genesis” by Matthew Bowen (Interpreter Foundation): https://bit.ly/3AOTy5P
- “Alma: Young Man, Hidden Prophet” by Matthew Bowen (Interpreter): https://bit.ly/3gcVPyr
- “‘He Did Go About Secretly’: Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma’s Name” by Matthew Bowen (Interpreter Foundation): https://bit.ly/3odoacr
- “What Is So Good about Nephi’s Name?” via Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3KZdXd7
- “A Note on the Name Nephi” by John Gee (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3IMCLTQ
- “Nephi’s Good Inclusion” by Matthew Bowen (Interpreter Foundation): https://bit.ly/3AP4PU4
- “Nephi” in Book of Mormon Onomasticon: https://bit.ly/3rgjoN7
- “Why Was Jershon Called a Land of Inheritance?” via Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/369kRZi
- “Rameumptom” via the Book of Mormon Onomasticon: https://bit.ly/3KUjMsm
- “Ramah” via the Book of Mormon Onomasticon: https://bit.ly/3gdhlTF