In a recent article I prepared for The Interpreter, “The Great and Spacious Book of Mormon Arcade Game: More Curious Works from Book of Mormon Critics” (Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 23 (2017): 161-235), I drew upon work from Matthew Bowen regarding an apparent wordplay. His short article on the topic is at Matthew Bowen, “What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?,” Insights 25/2 (2005): 2–3 (sadly Insights documents have been deleted from the Maxwell Institute website, but files from 1989 up to least 2005 are archived at Archive.org). What follows is an excerpt from my article at The Interpreter, which responded to allegations that Lehi’s dream was inspired by Joseph Smith seeing some structures in Rochester after he had already composed most of the Book of Mormon.
In 2 Nephi 3:17, the rod as a symbol of power is found in a prophecy of the Lord given anciently to Joseph the son of Jacob and recorded on the brass plates, possibly in the Egyptian script or language that Joseph may have used: “I will raise up a Moses; and I will give power unto him in a rod; and I will give judgment unto him in writing.” In this couplet, the rod and writing are linked, possibly drawing upon the Egyptian language wordplay in which “rod” (mdw) means “words,” in line with the apparent wordplay in Lehi’s dream where the iron rod is explicitly identified as “the word of God.” On this matter, one of Matthew Bowen’s many notable contributions in Book of Mormon studies is recognizing the ancient Semitic wordplay apparently involved in Nephi’s identification of the iron rod as the word of God:
Further support for the antiquity of Nephi’s imagery is detectable in his own comparison of the word to a rod, a comparison that may involve wordplay with the Egyptian term for “word” and “rod.” Although we have the Book of Mormon text only in translation and do not know the original wording of the text, we can use our knowledge of the languages that the Nephite writers said they used — Hebrew and Egyptian (1 Nephi 1:2; Mormon 9:32–33) — to propose reasonable reconstructions.
We note that the Egyptian word mdw means not only “a staff [or] rod” but also “to speak” a “word.” The derived word md.t, or mt.t, probably pronounced *mateh in Lehi’s day, was common in the Egyptian dialect of that time and would have sounded very much like a common Hebrew word for rod or staff, matteh. It is also very interesting that the expression mdw–ntr was a technical term for a divine revelation, literally the “the word of God [or] divine decree.” The phrase mdw–ntr also denoted “sacred writings,” what we would call scriptures, as well as the “written characters [or] script” in which these sacred writings were written.
Now consider Nephi’s comparison of the word and the rod in the context of the Egyptian word mdw:
I beheld that the rod [mdw/mt.t, Hebrew matteh] of iron, which my father had seen, was the word [mdw/mt.t] of God. (1 Nephi 11:25)
And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod [mdw/mt.t, Hebrew matteh] of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree? And I said unto them that it was the word [mdw/mt.t] of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish. (1 Nephi 15:23–24)
An indication of Nephi’s awareness of the play on words is his use of the expression “hold fast unto” the “word of God,” since one can physically hold fast to a rod but not to a word (compare Helaman 3:29). Nephi’s comparison of the rod of iron to the word of God also makes very good sense in light of other scriptural passages that employ the image of the iron rod. But the comparison takes on even richer connotations when viewed as a play on multiple senses of the Egyptian word mdw. Since Lehi’s language consisted of the “learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2), we would reasonably expect that Lehi and his sons (Nephi in particular) were aware of, and probably even used, the common word mdw/mt.t in at least some of those senses. It seems unlikely that the word’s phonetic similarity to Hebrew matteh would have escaped their attention. On the contrary, it would plausibly explain Nephi’s apparent substitution of “word” for “rod” in later remarks to his brothers in 1 Nephi 17:26, 29: “And ye know that by his word [mdw/mt.t] the waters of the Red Sea were divided …. And ye also know that Moses, by his word [mdw/mt.t] according to the power of God which was in him, smote the rock, and there came forth water.”
Nephi’s imagery itself, along with its possible Egyptian language wordplay, further attests the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. Certainly Joseph Smith in 1829 could not have known that mdw meant both “rod” and “word.” However, Nephi, in the early sixth century bc likely had a good understanding of such nuances, and he may have employed them as part of a powerful object lesson for his brothers. [footnotes omitted, emphasis original]111
In fact, the Egyptian hieroglyph for “word” is the symbol of the walking stick, a rod.112 Further, Bowen observes in a footnote that Nephi’s introduction of the rod of iron may involve a polyptoton, in which words derived from the same root are used in a single sentence. Related to the Egyptian word for rod and word, mdw, is the Hebrew word maṭṭeh (מטה) meaning staff, rod, or shaft, which derived from the root NTH meaning to “stretch out, spread out, extend, incline, bend.” Thus, 1 Nephi 8:19 could be an interesting polyptoton: “And I beheld a rod [maṭṭeh] of iron, and it extended [nth] along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.” Bowen also notes that an Egyptian transliteration of the Hebrew maṭṭeh (“rod”) and Egyptian mdw/mt.t (“rod, word”) would have been graphically similar or even identical if written in demotic characters.113
I find the potential wordplay around related Hebrew and Egyptian words to be highly interesting, difficult to attribute solely to another lucky guess from Joseph, and not the kind of thing one would think up on the fly after being impressed by an aqueduct in Rochester, or even with leisurely study in 1829.
Inherent in the wordplay and in the meaning of the iron rod is the link between the abstract concept of the word and a physical rod. This is also part of the previously mentioned intertextuality between 1 Nephi and Helaman 3, particularly vv. 29–30:
Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wicked —
And land their souls, yea, their immortal souls, at the right hand of God in the kingdom of heaven, to sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and with Jacob, and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out. [emphasis added]
Here language is used that echoes Nephi in several ways. In addition to laying “hold” on the word of God, something one can physically do with an iron rod but not to words themselves, we learn that the word, like the iron rod, serves to lead one in a straight course to eternal life (similar to the tree of life) and to avoid the “gulf of misery” that Nephi also speaks of (2 Nephi 1:13, possibly building on the “terrible gulf” of Lehi’s dream in 1 Nephi 12:18 and the “awful gulf” of 1 Nephi 15:28; cf. Alma 26:20 and Helaman 5:12). The dangerous journey to eternal life is made possible if one will “lay hold upon” the word of God and pursue its straight and narrow course. The iron rod theme seems to have been part of background in Helaman 3, and thus not readily explained by something Joseph saw after dictating Helaman.
Consistent with Nephi’s usage, John Tvedtnes observes that the Old Testament links the voice of God with the concept of a rod:
The use of a rod to represent words or speech is found in Proverbs 10:13 and 14:3. In other passages, it refers specifically to the word of God. In Isaiah 30:31, “the voice of the Lord” is contrasted with the rod of the Assyrians. In a few passages, the rod is compared to a covenant with God which, like a rod, can be broken (Ezekiel 20:37; Zechariah 11:10, 14). Micah wrote, “The Lord’s voice crieth unto the city, and the man of wisdom shall see thy name: hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it” (Micah 6:9). Isaiah wrote of the Messiah, “But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).114
These connections are useful after the fact in examining the appropriateness of the iron rod as a symbol for the word of God, but seem inadequate to provide a basis for fabrication of that concept, particularly in light of the clever wordplay involved.