Matthew Bowen just published his analysis of another fascinating, newly discovered apparent Hebrew wordplay built into the Book of Mormon. This one, like a great many of the interesting Semitic wordplays of the Book of Mormon, comes from Lehi’s words as recorded by Nephi, arguably the two Book of Mormon characters most familiar with Hebraic literary tools. The publication is Matthew L. Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken’: Lehi’s Rhetorical Wordplay on Ishmael in 2 Nephi 1:28–29 and Its Implications,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25 (2017): 157-189.
Bowen explores the relationship between the Hebrew word for “hearken” and the name Ishmael, and suggests with compelling evidence that Lehi’s speech invokes a wordplay similar to related wordplays on “hearken” found in the Hebrew Bible. Here is an excerpt
2 Nephi 1:1–4:12 is mainly parenetic [hortatory, encouraging] in character. Lehi speaks to his
sons and “unto all his household, according to the feelings of his
heart and the Spirit of the Lord which was in him” (2 Nephi 4:12). At
the conclusion of the first part of his final blessings and admonitions
(2 Nephi 1), Lehi speaks to all his sons who are older than Nephi
(Laman, Lemuel, and Sam) and to the sons of Ishmael. Here he bestows a
conditional “first blessing,” predicated on their willingness to “hear”
or “hearken unto” Nephi — that is, follow his spiritual guidance and
And now my son, Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam, and also my sons who are the sons of Ishmael [yišmāʿēl or yšmʿʾl] behold, if ye will hearken [cf. Hebrew ʾim tišmāʿû or tišmĕʿû] unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish. And if ye will hearken unto him I leave unto you blessing, yea, even my first blessing. But if ye will not hearken unto him I take away my first blessing, yea, even my blessing, and it shall rest upon him. (2 Nephi 1:28–29)
Lehi’s admonition and blessing, as it appears in Nephi’s text, closely juxtaposes the name Ishmael with a threefold repetition of the verb šāmaʿ.47 If we include “obey” from 2 Nephi 1:27, the repetition is fourfold. The polyptotonic48 repetition of šāmaʿ around the name Ishmael
would have had the immediate rhetorical effect of garnering the
attention of Ishmael’s sons (and probably any of his daughters who were
present on the occasion). The imminence and urgency of their decision to “hearken” is accentuated by the repetition of the root šāmaʿ in its verbal and onomastic forms.
My first response was to see how often “hearken” is used in the Book of Mormon to see if this was so common that it was bound to occur within a few sentences of any mention of Ishmael. It occurs almost 100 times, so across the 500+ pages of the Book of Mormon, its close proximity to Ishmael here could be a coincidence but isn’t highly likely. There is a reasonable case to be made that an intelligent wordplay has been invoked. The abstract is just a small part of the scenario explored by Bowen.
10 thoughts on “Another Week, Another New Semitic Wordplay”
"My first response was to see how often "hearken" is used in the Book of Mormon to see if this was so common that it was bound to occur within a few sentences of any mention of Ishmael. It occurs almost 100 times, so across the 500+ pages of the Book of Mormon, its close proximity to Ishmael here could be a coincidence but isn't highly likely."
Some of your poster do keep you on your toes, eh Jeff? :>)
Another great article by Bowen.
What's the wordplay, here, Jeff? I really didn't get this from the post. Is it that "šāma" sounds a bit like "Ishmael"?
The statistical analysis to do isn't just to check the frequency of "hearken", because I suspect that "hearken" probably occurs in clusters. Wherever there's one "hearken" in the text, I bet there are likely to be several nearby. If I'm right about that, then it won't be such a coincidence to have multiple "hearken" occurrences near "Ishmael", because "hearken" often comes in clusters.
The only thing about this passage, then, would be that one of the "hearken" clusters came with an "Ishmael". But I don't see that this would indicate Hebrew wordplay. I think it would just indicate that Lehi is representing as asking some sons of Ishmael to hearken to him, and so he says "hearken!" several times, because that's how people usually speak in the Book of Mormon.
In Hebrew, The root of Ishmael is "y+isma". The root of harken is "t+isma". The pun works a lot better in Hebrew than in English.
Yes, James, the purported wordplay involves the shared root shm. The association between Ishmael and hearing/hearkening/etc. is explicitly made in Genesis 16:11, when God tells Hagar, "Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction.
What I see in Bowen's latest "discovery" is just more evidence that Joseph Smith was heavily influenced by the Bible. In addition to mimicking its vocabulary, phraseology, and rhythms, he also occasionally replicated its semantic associations. There's nothing special about this at all.
As usual anti-mormons have a higher opinion of Joseph Smith's genius than mormons do. They think he was an utter genius when they're explaining all of the complex details of the Book of Mormon. He was a scholar of Hebrew, Greek, the Bible, MesoAmerica, ancient Arabian geography, Olive culture, ancient poetic forms etc. etc.
Collin, I definitely think Joseph Smith was a very bright guy. But I don't think "[h]e was a scholar of Hebrew, Greek, the Bible, MesoAmerica, ancient Arabian geography, Olive culture, ancient poetic forms etc." There's plenty of evidence he was familiar with the King James Bible, but no evidence he had any particular expertise in any of the other things you list. (Mesoamerica? Good grief.)
Coincidence. There is no contextual tie between Ishmael & hearken other than Ishmael's name is the name we know in the BoM. We don't know the names of his sons so Ishmael's name is invoked.
People seem to overlook the possibility that Smith learned things orally, rather than from a vast frontier library which he himself owned. In particular it seems to me that Smith could have learned quite a lot from listening to sermons. Some preachers in his time and place may just have been fire-and-brimstone rabble-rousers, but nineteenth century New England also had a lot of educated ministers.
One of the major parts of education in divinity at that time was Hebrew. Even today preachers love to trot out tidbits of linguistic lore to make dull or difficult scriptural passages more appealing, by showing how different the passages were in their original language. Nothing is better than this kind of linguistic expertise for reassuring the congregation that they're getting bang for their bucks in the preaching department. Explaining Hebrew wordplay boosts a preacher's job security, even now.
So I wouldn't be at all surprised if Smith had heard a sermon about how "hearken" and "Ishmael" are related in Hebrew. It takes a somewhat unusual mind to collect handy little factoids like that and then use them, years later, to spice up a fake scripture. It does not take a genius, however, or a great education. Salespeople, politicians, and con artists all do things like that, just by instinct.
We're not likely to find any evidence now about what Smith did or did not hear in sermons. So the theory that he could have learned something from a sermon is speculation unsupported by evidence. There's no evidence against this theory, either, though—and the speculation itself is very plausible.
This means that arguments of the form "Joseph Smith could not have known enough to fake X because he didn't own the right books" are inherently weak, because it's pretty hard to claim that the chances of Smith having learned about X somehow orally are less than the chance of revelation from an angel who gave him gold plates.
It's a read that many people focus and read it all the time. I like this one as well. Or who has not read it can read it. สมัครบาคาร่า