While attending the 2018 FairMormon Conference in Provo this summer, I was fortunate to be able to get a copy of a popular new book that sold out on its first day there: Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essay on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation and Salt Lake City: Ehorn Books, 2018) [i]. It’s a book rich in hidden gems from the Book of Mormon (primarily) and other parts of the LDS scriptures that can help us better understand the meaning of our scriptures and also better appreciate the skill and craftsmanship of their ancient authors.
In our modern English-speaking culture (and Joseph Smith’s culture), many of us give names to our children and mention the names of others in our speech and writings often without knowing or reflecting upon what those names originally meant. For ancient Hebrew writers, however, names were highly significant and their meanings, based on various roots the words might derive from, were frequently the subject of puns or other literary tools that drew upon the meaning of names.
The extensive literary devices tied to names in the Old Testament are much easier for Chinese people to grasp because Chinese culture is much closer to ancient Hebrew culture in its treatment of the meaning in names. In China, almost every Chinese name has noteworthy meaning that may reflect upon a parent’s wishes for the child or relate to an ancient tradition in the family line. One of my first friends from China that I met just days after my mission in Switzerland had a given name that can be literally translated as Book Diligent. He became a famous professor through his diligent study and was one of the first Chinese citizens sent to America after the cultural revolution ended to pursue advanced studies and research. He helped fuel my interest in China and blessed my life in many ways over the years until his recent death. He was a credit to his country, to his family, and to his Maker, in my opinion. Such a good and diligent man.
If the Book of Mormon has ancient Hebrew roots, it would make sense that names would be significant to its writers and that word plays might be attempted in some cases. The challenge, of course, is that we don’t have the ancient text to see which words were used. In fact, there is some uncertainty as to which language was used as Nephi and others wrote on metal plates. Were they writing Hebrew using some form of an Egyptian script, or writing Egyptian in an Egyptian script with Hebrew influence?
While the debate continues on the nature of the underlying language(s) and script(s) that were on the gold plates, Bowen’s investigation suggests that the Book of Mormon authors were aware of the Hebrew and sometimes Egyptian meanings behind many Book of Mormon names, and built word plays into the treatment of those names to give emphasis or added meaning. Bowen’s detailed work shows that when a variety of Book of Mormon names are considered in light of their plausible ancient meaning, clever and pervasive word plays appear in the way these names are used.
The name Alma, for example, now known to be an authentic ancient Jewish man’s name (after so many decades of mockery from critics for Joseph’s “blunder” of not recognizing Alma as a common Latin female name),[ii] is introduced in Mosiah 17:2 with an apparent word play on the Hebrew name: given that Alma name can mean “young man” in Hebrew, the statement that Alma “was a young man” suggests a knowing word play in Mosiah 17:2. A word play with the Hebrew root *‘lm, “to hide,” to be “hidden” or “concealed,” may also occur in the story of Alma being “hidden” and “concealed” while writing the words of Abinadi and “privately” teaching those who would listen. The abundance of word plays involving his name in Mosiah 17–18 “accentuates his importance as a prophetic figure and founder of the later Nephite church.”[iii]
Finding word plays, like other Hebraic elements including Hebrew poetical elements, in an English translation faces the obvious problem of lacking the text in the original language from which one might more fully evaluate the nature of the literary device. However, with names in particular, there is a reasonable chance that evidence of a word play can survive translation if the name is transliterated well and if the associated text has been translated well. An example is the name Jesus in Matthew 1:21: “thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” In spite of the Hebrew having been written in Greek and then translated in English, and in spite of not having the original Aramaic or Hebrew words that were actually spoken in Matthew 1, we can still see a connection between the name of Jesus and the Hebrew word yosia meaning “to save.”
Still, even when working with the original language, an apparent word play may be unintended and arise from chance. However, when the word play relates well to the text or has explanatory power, and when the word play is applied more than once or in creative, artful ways, the probability of intent is higher. Bowen makes the case for most of his finds that multiple factors point to intentional and clever word plays rather than mere chance. Word plays involving Book of Mormon names in Bowen’s book (which also considers some newly proposed Biblical word plays) include the following:
- Nephi’s name. Proposed to be from Egyptian nfr meaning good or goodly, Nephi appears to have multiple meaningful connections to the word “good” in the text, beginning with Nephi’s declaration at the very beginning of our text that “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents….” Bowen suggests this relationship is at play in not only the opening but also the closing chapter of Nephi’s writings, forming an “inclusio” that appropriately brackets his two-book work and underscores his mission of helping readers know the goodness of God and helping them to choose do good and follow Christ.[iv]
- The name Mary, related to the Egyptian root mr(i), “love,” “desire,” or “wish.” It is only after seeing Mary in vision that Nephi recognizes the significance of the tree he saw in his vision: “it 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 11:22). Others possible word plays with other occurrences of the name Mary are also discussed.[v]
- Mormon’s name and the related place name, the Waters of Mormon, for which Mormon appears to show awareness of a relationship to the same root as Mary for first syllable, apparently resulting in creative links with the words “desire” and “love.”[vi]
- The name Joseph, which involves evidence of particularly extensive and creative word plays related to a Hebrew root meaning “gather,” “assemble,” etc., and a root meaning “to add” or “increase.” These word plays are primarily made using an ancient Hebrew literary technique known as Gezera Shawa, in which two scriptural passages are brought together based on a shared word in both passages, thereby adding to or reinterpreting the meaning in a creative way. After Bowen’s book went into print, he published another study investigating a further set of word plays related to the name Joseph.[vii] There Bowen makes the case that Nephi’s heavy application of the Isaianic use of yāsap (“to add, to proceed”) in 2 Nephi 25–30 is “a direct and thematic allusion” to a latter-day Joseph who would have a role in in bringing forth additional scripture. “This additional scripture would enable the meek to ‘increase,’ just as Isaiah and Nephi had prophesied.”[viii]
- The name Benjamin, which is also used artfully with Gezera Shawa by Benjamin himself. In the covenant-making context of King Benjamin’s speech, he seeks to make his people become sons and daughters of God (Mosiah 5:17), with language drawing upon language in 2 Samuel 7:14 which employs the Hebrew leben (“for a son”), and also Psalm 2:7 and Deuteronomy 14:1–2, employing the Hebrew word ben (“son”) or banim (“children”) and to be able to be at the right hand of God. Those who accept the Lord will be at the “right hand” (Hebrew yamin) of God (Mosiah 5:9)[ix], possibly invoking Psalm 110:1. The verses that Benjamin brings together shows further usage of Gezera Shawa resulting in a clever word play on his own name that emphasizes that through making a keeping the covenant with God, Benjamin’s people can become sons and daughters of God and be enthroned at his right hand, each becoming “a Benjamin.”
- The name Judah and the Jews, with Judah being related to Hebrew roots which can mean “to offer praise out of a feeling of gratitude” or to “praise,” “thank,” or “acknowledge.” In his chapter, “‘What They the Jews?,’” Bowen shows how Nephi applies these meanings as he urges the future Gentiles to grateful to the Jews for the scriptures they have preserved for the world and to resist the temptation to despise and persecute the Jews (2 Nephi 29:3–6). “What thank they the Jews?” in 2 Nephi 29:4, the Lord’s condemning question of future anti-Semitic Gentiles, appears to provide a direct word play between the words for “Jews” and “thank.” To say that the Jews have helped bring forth “salvation” to the Gentiles (also 2 Nephi 29:4) may also be a word play on the name of Jesus. Bowen also observes that Nephi’s closing words which call upon us to “respect the words of the Jews” (2 Nephi 33:14) further underscores the revealed message shared in 2 Nephi 29.[x] Bowen also notes that the Book of Mormon offers the strongest condemnation of anti-Semitism found anywhere in the scriptures.[xi] How appropriate that it would be done with Hebraic wordplays.
- The names Enos and Jacob, as used by Enos to relate his experiences to those of his ancestor Jacob in Genesis 32–33. Enos appears to employ a Hebraic word play between the name Jacob and “wrestle” in addition to a word play on his won name.[xii]
- Abish, a woman servant among the Lamanites whose name is given, strangely, while most Book of Mormon women go unnamed. In this case, however, her name fits the story with a straightforward wordplay, and also fits an important theological agenda. “Abish” can mean “Father is a man,” an apt name for a woman who, in the same verse that names her, is said to have been secretly converted due to a “remarkable vision of her father.” But since names beginning with “Ab-” in the Old Testament often make a reference to God, “Father is a man” has a very appropriate reference to the nature of God, particularly Christ. Ammon was seeking to teach the Lamanites who the Great Spirit was and how Christ would come to earth as a mortal to redeem all mankind. The name Abish is meaningful in more than one way in this account, and we can be grateful that it was included.[xiii]
- The place names Zarahemla and Jerson. Jershon was one of the first potential word plays noted in the Book of Mormon, with an easily discernible relationship to the word “inheritance,” the perfect name for the land that was given as a land of “inheritance” to the newly converted and exiled Anti-Nephi-Lehites fleeing their Lamanite homelands. But Bowen reveals more in the literary devices involving Jerson, including intriguing parallels between how Jershon is consistently with the way in which word plays are done with the name Zarahemla relying on its apparent Hebrew meaning of “seed of compassion” or “seed of pity.”[xiv]
- The names Zoram and Rameumpton. Both names share a common syllable that in Hebrew can describe something that is “high” or “lifted up.” These names may be involved in word plays in descriptions of the Zoramites and their peculiar, prideful religious practices involving standing on an elevated tower or stand called the “Rameumptom” from which they boasted of their elite status. Similar word plays may have been used in Alma’s counsel to his son Shiblon and in Mormon’s description of the corrupt chief judges Cezoram and Seezoram, both with Zoram-dervied named, to emphasize that the proud and wicked Nephites had become lifted up like the Zoramites.[xv]
- The name Aminadab, which Bowen sees as a Semitic/Hebrew name meaning “my kinsman is willing” or “my people are willing.” Aminadab is the Nephite dissenter among the Lamanites who helps them recognize what is occurring during a miraculous event in Helaman 5 in which the Nephite brothers and prophets Lehi and Nephi are spared in a Lamanite prison. Aminadab, remembering his religious roots, tells the terrified Lamanites that “you must repent and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ” (Helaman 5:41). They are converted and their witness leads to many more converts. Mormon, in concluding this story, notes that it was the “willingness” of the Lamanite people that led to their conversion (Helaman 6:36).
There are many more word plays that have been proposed for various passages in the Book of Mormon, but Bowen’s focus on the significance of names appears to be especially fruitful and generally plausible, and frequently brings out added meaning or answers meaningful questions about the text. In most of these cases, it would be difficult to ascribe the word plays identified to just chance and clever argumentation, though false positives in general cannot be completely ruled out.
As Bowen observes, whether the text was written in Hebrew or Egyptian, the underlying meanings of names and relevant word plays drawing upon Hebrew roots could have been recognized by readers familiar with the brass plates and the Nephites’ (evolving) spoken language with its Hebrew origins, reducing the impact of uncertainty on the written language on the relevance of word plays based on names with recognized meaning in Hebrew or Egyptian. In spite of such uncertainties, Bowen’s work leaves us with a much richer appreciation of the genuinely ancient literary nature of the Book of Mormon, filled with gems that are only being noticed now nearly two centuries after the Book of Mormon was dictated by a young man who had not yet studied Hebrew and could not have studied Egyptian.
Mercifully, Bowen does not require readers to be familiar with Hebrew or Egyptian, but it is still a book that might be challenging for some readers because of its rich detail and technical content. It’s not for everybody, but I think it is somewhat more accessible that some of the original papers upon which it is based (e.g., some highly technical terms have been replaced with more generally understandable terminology). For those interested in digging into the Book of Mormon and exploring the miracle that this rich and ancient text represents, Bowen’s work should definitely be on your shopping list and your reading list. Strongly recommended.
[i] Matthew Bowen’s Name as Key-Word contains 16 essays treating names in the Book of Mormon as well as some from the Bible. Readers of Bowen’s many publications at The Interpreter (https://www.mormoninterpreter.com) will recognize that much of the content in these essays is drawn from his peer-reviewed publications there, but with some differences, including added insights, strengthening of arguments, a great bibliography, a helpful index, and good introductory material, including an excellent and detailed foreword from Jeffrey Bradshaw.
[ii] Paul Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 7/1 (1998): 72–73; https://publications.mi.byu.edu/pdf-control.php/publications/jbms/7/1/S00011-50be297b720ea9Hoskisson.pdf. See also John Tvedtnes, “Hebrew Names in the Book of Mormon,” presented at the Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, August 2001; https://www.fairmormon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/tvedtnes-HebrewNames.pdf and Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name ‘Alma’ at Ebla,” Religious Educator, 1/1 (2000): 53–56; https://rsc.byu.edu/es/archived/volume-1-number-1-2000/personal-name-alma-ebla.
[iii] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, lii–liii and 91–100. See also Matthew L. Bowen, “Alma — Young Man, Hidden Prophet,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 19 (2016): 343–353; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/alma-young-man-hidden-prophet/ and Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Did Go About Secretly’: Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma’s Name,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 27 (2017): 197–212; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/he-did-go-about-secretly-additional-thoughts-on-the-literary-use-of-almas-name/.
[iv] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 1–15.
[v] Ibid., 17–47.
[vi] Ibid., 24–47.
[vii] Matthew L. Bowen, “‘And the Meek Also Shall Increase’: The Verb YĀSAP in Isaiah 29 and Nephi’s Prophetic Allusions to the Name Joseph in 2 Nephi 25–30,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 30 (2018): 5–42; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/and-the-meek-also-shall-increase-the-verb-yasap-in-isaiah-29-and-nephis-prophetic-allusions-to-the-name-joseph-in-2-nephi-25-30/.
[ix] Bowen, Name as Key-Word, 49–68.
[x] Ibid., 69–81.
[xi] Ibid. liii.
[xii] Ibid., 83–90.
[xiii] Ibid., 101–118.
[xiv] Ibid., 119–140.
[xv] Ibid., 141–175. See also Matthew L. Bowen, “‘See That Ye Are Not Lifted Up’: The Name Zoram and Its Paronomastic Pejoration,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 19 (2016): 109-143; https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/see-that-ye-are-not-lifted-up-the-name-zoram-and-its-paronomastic-pejoration/.