A Book of Mormon Place Name that Teaches Us About Grace: Onidah

Both personal names and place names in the Book of Mormon once were a source of ridicule. Like many Book of Mormon weaknesses, recent discoveries have increasingly turned these weaknesses into strengths. Examples include Alma, long ridiculed as a modern woman’s name misapplied by Joseph Smith to an ancient Nephite male, an embarrassment that became a strength when modern archaeologists examined the Bar Kochba documents from around 100 A.D. in Israel and found a deed signed by Alma, a Jewish male. But what is especially interesting about many of the names in the Book of Mormon is not just that they may be plausible, but that they are used in ways suggesting that the writers of the Book of Mormon understood the meaning (or range of meanings) of the name and skillfully drew upon the meaning with word plays or other literary tools. In many cases, this can strengthen the message being conveyed in that passage.

A recent find in these arena is the name of the hill where Alma and Amulek taught a group of poor people who had been mistreated by the lofty, arrogant Zoramites. A reader of the translated text may well wonder why the hill’s name is mentioned at all. But when its plausible Hebrew meaning is examined, one sees that the meaning of that name is being exploited by a skillful writer to teach us about grace and the Lord’s knowledge of our afflictions here in mortality. It’s a fascinating case study of the beauty of names in the Book of Mormon. See Matthew L. Bowen, “He Knows My Affliction: The Hill Onidah as Narrative Counterpart to the Rameumptom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 34 (2020): 195-220.


Abstract: The toponym Onidah, attested as the name of a hill in Alma 32:4, most plausibly derives from Hebrew ʿŏnî /ʿōnî/ʿônî (ʿonyî, “my affliction”) + yādaʿ/yēdaʿ (“he knew,” “he knows”) — i.e., “he has acknowledged my affliction” or “he knows my affliction.” This etymology finds support in the context of the Zoramite narrative in which it occurs. In view of the pejorative lexical associations of the Rameumptom, the “high” and “holy stand,” with Hebrew rām (< rwm, “high”) and haughtiness, arrogance, and pride, we see Mormon using the Rameumptom, the “high” platform for Zoramite self-exalting worship, with Onidah, the hill from which Alma and Amulek taught the Zoramite poor and humble. The latter name and Alma’s teaching from that location constituted a sign that the Lord “knew” their “affliction.” Alma devotes a significant part of his message not only extolling the spiritual value of their state of “affliction” and humiliation or compelled “humility” (ʿŏnî Exodus 3:7, 17), but teaching them how to “plant” the “word” (even Jesus Christ himself) in their hearts through prayer — the word that would grow up into a “perfect knowledge” of God — experientially “knowing” God (Alma 32:16‒36) and being known by him (cf. Alma 7:12).


Author: Jeff Lindsay

17 thoughts on “A Book of Mormon Place Name that Teaches Us About Grace: Onidah

  1. Hmm, so Rameumptom has connotations of haughtiness and Onidah of humility. But Onidah is literally a hill, that is, a high place, and hills also have connotations of haughtiness. The sign (Oneida) connotes humility, while the referent, a hill or high place, connotes haughtiness (and, in the Hebrew Bible, evil polytheistic worship). So it seems to me this analysis would work even better if Alma had preached from a valley (since lowness connotes humility) rather than a hill. Or maybe not, if we understand these connotations to be ironic, which would make sense given Jesus’s antitheses, wherein the lowest become the highest, etc.

    The point is that this sort of analysis doesn’t indicate anything at all, because (a) it makes as much sense when we reverse the basic elements of the situation it analyzes as I just did above (always a sign of a bad methodology), and (b) because of that familiar bugaboo of LDS apologetics, the Texas Sharpshooter problem.

    To better understand (b), think of a semantic space generated by considering all plausible Hebrew roots of all Book of Mormon names and then listing all plausible connotations of those roots. Then consider all of the referents of those names (the actual people and places named) and list all of *their* plausible connotations. Then create a 2×2 grid of all possible pairings of these items. This will generate a huge number of semantic pairings, and even if only a small percentage of those pairings, through sheer coincidence, happen to make sense, that subset of sensible pairings will still be fairly large. It will contain plenty of false “bull’s eyes” for people like Bowen to discover, merely as a matter of chance.

    To give an example using English words only:

    Imagine a man named Miller preaching in a place called New England. Among the many ideas connoted by or etymologically associated with “Miller” and “England” are the following:

    1. Miller: grinding; associated with grain, basic foodstuffs, slow, patient, and repetitive work, turning grain into flour, bread, nourishment, etc.

    2. England: from the German angeln, meaning narrow, narrow water, angling (as in fishing); hence Jesus as a fisherman on Galilee, a fisher of men, water and baptism, the straight and narrow way, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, etc.

    Given all the above, surely it cannot be a coincidence that one of the greatest revivalist preachers of all time, a man who brought thousands of sinners to Christ, should be a “miller,” a man who patiently works to provide his community with the very “bread” of life, and that he should do this work in a place that recalls Jesus’ own “fishing of men,” leading them to the “narrow” way which leadeth unto life, etc. This beginning could easily be elaborated into a full-fledged article for The Interpreter. I think I could devote two or three paragraphs just to the “miraculous” juxtaposition of loaves (which recalls the miller who made the flour) and fishes (which recalls the place where Miller preached).

    Surely all these semantic linkages cannot be coincidental, right? And yet that’s exactly what they are, and if anyone submitted an essay based on them them to a decent academic journal (as opposed to The Interpreter) the author would (at best) be told to re-take Research Methods 101.

    — OK

  2. Joseph picked the place off a map, like so many other locations in the BoM. This is more likely than the web of lies you've built around your beliefs.

  3. Thanks for this insight, Jeff. It seems your blog attracts some folks who "doth protest too much…" 🙂

    In response to the first commenter, not that I expect this to be received well or to have any impact on his opinion, I would just say that the scriptures talk about two types of "lifting up." One is pride, in which we life ourselves up over those around us. The other type of "lifting up" comes when we humbly seek God's grace and He lifts us up. This sermon is therefore quite cleverly and subtly playing on some deeper themes.

    After reading Bowen's paper, I tried to point out some of the subtle contrasts between Onidah and Rameumptom here.

  4. Hmmm … sounds an awful lot like Oneida an area in Western NY which is located in the same burned-over-district where Joseph Smith grew up. Although the town wasn't incorporated until after the BOM was published, it was named for the Oneida tribe that had inhabited the area from the 17th century.

    Of course it may be that Joseph was channelling some Hebrew expression but then it's also possible that he simply changed the spelling and invited the whole thing. So easily available local information or magical divinely inspired revelation. Which could it possibly be?

  5. "Alma, long ridiculed as a modern woman's name" There's that persecution complex. Is there ever post without it.

    1. For some reason Jeff believes that if people thought something about his position was wrong, and it is proven not to be so, then that makes him more right—even if the initial judgement was made in ignorance, by ignorant individuals, or with incomplete information.

      If one of his positions is proven right, then the others must be so, regardless of the ridiculousness of the claims.

  6. Exactly, Anon 9:28. All too often, Jeff chooses to knock down a flimsy strawman. To paraphrase JFK’s famous speech, he does it not because it is hard but because is easy. It’s also easy to pick through the vastness of the relevant textual archives in search of superficial resemblances that can then be freighted with all kinds of bogus spiritual significance.

    You can see the strawman tactic at work on one of the FAIR pages dealing with the Holley map. I can’t find the page right now on my phone, but if I recall correctly, FAIR mentions the argument that “Onidah” might have been based on upstate New York’s Oneida community, then knocks down that strawman by pointing out that the Oneida community did not exist until after the Book of Mormon was published — conveniently ignoring the fact that (as someone pointed out above) “Oneida” as the name of the local Indian tribe had long been in circulation. But you wouldn’t know this from the FAIR page.

    I’ve said this many times before but I think it bears repeating: there is nothing in the Book of Mormon that could not have been written by Joseph Smith.

    — OK

  7. And prematurely. The argument that Joseph plucked names off a map fails in many ways, especially if the names weren't on a map in his day. So the argument is revised to be that he plucked names he had heard of. But what such plucking can't account for is the intelligent word plays based on these names, and the fact that many ridiculed names turn out to be reasonable and appropriate ancient Old World names.

    The point about Onidah is how its meaning so artfully fits into the account in Alma 32-34. Ditto for the use of Hebrew "ram" roots (Rameumptom, Zoram).

    For the person saying Alma should have gone to a valley, that might have been a nice artifice is Joseph were making the story up, but if there really were an Alma preaching to the wicked Zoramites, being in an elevated place to speak to a multitude is a much more practical means of preaching. He's not there to make a symbolic point about the people in affliction, but to preach to the proud. But then a group of rejected poor people approach him and he turns away from the haughty and speaks to them instead. He doesn't make explicit points about the appropriateness of the hill's name, though it must have been named in his record that Mormon is quoting or adapting. Whether it was Alma or Mormon or recognized the significance of the name and its relationship to the repeated mention of "afflictions" and "knowing/knowledge" in Alma 32 to 34, it's a remarkably fitting name. That's probably we why are told the specific name of what may have been a fairly small hill. It's exactly the kind of rhetorical touch that happens frequently in ancient Hebrew, and one that we see abundantly in the Book of Mormon, if you've been paying attention to Matthew Bowen's work at The Interpreter and elsewhere, along with many other discoveries from others.

    Ditto for the name Alma, with a meaning related to "young man" and used as if Mormon were keenly aware of that meaning, giving us multiple word plays indicative of ancient Hebraic influences. But now, Alma was a name just plucked randomly by Joseph because he had heard of it — a modern woman's name, a laughingstock ridiculed by the Tanners and many others — but only in recent years did non-LDS archaeologists shows that surprisingly it actually was an ancient Hebrew male's name, transliterated exactly as Alma, and spelled with four Hebrew letters, not just an "l" and an "m" such that it could have been Elmo, Alamo, Loomi, whatever. It was Alma. Fascinating hard evidence for the ancient authenticity of a ridiculed name in the Book of Mormon — but no, Joseph just got it from his environment, and was really, really lucky when yet another blunder became plausible.

    The evidence should raise an eyebrow enough to get people to stop squinting and to look at the Book of Mormon afresh and try to understand what it really is. Plucking names from maps or elsewhere doesn't account for what is really going on in the Book of Mormon.

  8. Jeff, you write that “[t]he argument that Joseph plucked names off a map fails in many ways, especially if the names weren't on a map in his day. So the argument is revised to be that he plucked names he had heard of.”

    How does this “fail”? It’s perfectly reasonable to think that, in the course of writing the Book of Mormon, Joseph would have incorporated ”names he had heard of.” Writers do that all the time. In a broader sense, that’s just part of the normal way people acquire and use language. I don’t see why you find this so hard to understand. It’s like saying, “Joseph couldn’t possibly have incorporated elements of his discursive milieu into the Book of Mormon, because that would involve him using language in the same way every other writer does, and that would be impossible!”

    You make this ridiculous position seem a little less ridiculous by using the word “plucked,” which implies conscious writerly decision-making on Joseph’s part, as if he thought to himself “Hmm, where can I get a name for this character? Should I take a familiar name and add ‘-iah’ to the end, like I did last time? Nah, this time I think I’ll use the name of that Indian tribe I read about in the newspaper yesterday.”

    But of course none of us “antis” are suggesting anything of the sort. Why would we? Unlike Jeff, we have a more realistic understanding of how writers write.

    — OK

  9. Jeff, you also write that “what such plucking (which is not really plucking, but just an utterly normal writing process) can't account for is the intelligent word plays based on these names, and the fact that many ridiculed names turn out to be reasonable and appropriate ancient Old World names.”

    That’s right! Those (apparent) wordplays etc. are not accounted for by Joseph’s mundane writing process. What does account for them — and for much of the nonsense propagated by Brian Stubbs and Stanford Carmack — is the apologists’ laughable methodology, in this particular case their habitual commission of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.

    For those not familiar with this fallacy, here’s a quick rundown from Wikipedia:

    The Texas sharpshooter fallacy is an informal fallacy which is committed when differences in data are ignored, but similarities are overemphasized. From this reasoning, a false conclusion is inferred….

    The name comes from a joke about a Texan who fires some gunshots at the side of a barn, then paints a target centered on the tightest cluster of hits and claims to be a sharpshooter.

    Also from Wikipedia is this classic example of how the fallacy can mislead people:

    A Swedish study in 1992 tried to determine whether power lines caused some kind of poor health effects. The researchers surveyed persons living within 300 meters of high-voltage power lines over a 25-year period and looked for statistically significant increases in rates of over 800 ailments. The study found that the incidence of childhood leukemia was four times higher among those who lived closest to the power lines, and it spurred calls to action by the Swedish government. The problem with the conclusion, however, was that the number of potential ailments, i.e., over 800, was so large that it created a high probability that at least one ailment would exhibit the appearance of a statistically significant difference by chance alone…. Subsequent studies failed to show any association between power lines and childhood leukemia.

    For another example, think of how unlikely it would be to flip a coin and get “heads” ten times in a row. If someone pulled out a coin, flipped it ten times, and it came up heads every time, you’d be justified in suspecting something fishy. But what if the same person videotaped themselves flipping the same coin thousands of times, until finally they got ten heads in a row? In that case, the run of ten heads would have occurred by chance and be meaningless. But if someone edited everything out of the video but that one run of ten, then they’d have something that looked pretty impressive — maybe even impressive enough to get published in The Interpreter!

    In the case of Book of Mormon wordplays, we have apologists doing much the same thing as the Swedish researchers and my imaginary coin-tosser. Out of the thousands and thousands of possible bits of evidence of BoM antiquity — of possible linkages between BoM names and ancient concepts, or between BoM phrases and EModE grammar, etc. — out of that vast field of possibilities they naturally turn up an occasional “hit” that at first appears just as convincing as, but is actually just as meaningless as, the link between power lines and childhood leukemia.

    It’s a mirage, Jeff.

    — OK

  10. Seriously, Jeff? You're an intelligent man. Do you really purport that it's unlikely that Smith overlooked the name of local Indians who were the dominant culture for 200 years before Smith was born when he came up with a different spelling of the identical sound?

    Even if you can force yourself to believe this you can't believe you can talk others not committed to your preconceived conclusion into it.

    I think you were wiser to drop this topic. Now you're just drawing attention to the depth of your delusion.

  11. Happy Pioneer Day, everyone!

    My favorite Pioneer Day joke explains why it’s a holiday in certain states other than Utah: in Ohio because Joseph left, in California because Brigham never made it that far.

    I’ll see myself out, thanks.

    — OK

  12. Probably best to say that BY didn't want to go that far, since Samuel Brannan tried to convince him to push on, and BY was emphatic about not settling in a region with a mild climate.

    I wish I'd celebrated yesterday by having some orange jello with mini marshmallows.

  13. How about remembering Illinois, where citizens drove thousands from their homes in the winter of 1846 and later that year, to suffer and even die in Iowa (among them two of my gg-grandfather's sisters), and the governor allowed two brothers to be killed while behind bars, with a third brother falling ill and dying shortly thereafter as a result of the incident.

  14. Anon 7:41, when I ponder Mormon history — from, say, the Kirtland Safety Society on up to John D. Lee’s hanging, or maybe better, up to the Smoot hearings — I am reminded of nothing so much as the history of the Rajneesh movement.

    There are some obvious differences, of course, but also many parallels: a charismatic religious leader with sincere, dedicated followers; migration and the creation of new communities, followed by the hostility of locals; the terrible, terrible crimes (the Rajneeshi bioterror attack, the Mormon massacre of the Fancher party); and finally, after the death of the most problematic leaders, a gradual settling down into respectability.

    A part of me looks at these histories (and others like it) and wants to say, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” Another part of me strives to be more sympathetic and to remember that people are complicated and flawed, and so are the histories they create.

    — OK

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