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Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Semitic Play on Words in the Book of Mormon: The Rod of Iron as the Word of God

"What Meaneth the Rod of Iron" is a short note on page 2 a 2005 FARMS publication, Insights (Vol. 25, No. 2). Here Matthew Bowen builds upon previous work by John Tvedtnes and Hugh Nibley, who showed how the Book of Mormon's use of the rod as "the word of God" is consistent with evidence from the ancient Near East. Matthew Bowen further shows that consideration of Hebrew and especially the related Egyptian terms points to a clever word play in Nephi's writings, with very similar words probably being used in his Semitic text for both "word" and "rod" in 1 Nephi 11:25 and 1 Nephi 15:23-24. That this relationship between "rod" and "word" might be more than just a lucky accident is strongly suggested in 1 Nephi 17:26 and 29 when Nephi refers to well known events in the Torah dealing with the rod or staff of Moses, but replaces the word "rod" with "word":
26 Now ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work; and ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither, and they passed through on dry ground. . . .

29 Yea, and ye also know that Moses, by his word according to the power of God which was in him, smote the rock, and there came forth water, that the children of Israel might quench their thirst.
The deliberate word play is also suggested in 1 Nephi 15:24, where Nephi, after mentioning the rod of iron, tells us to "hold fast" to the word of God - something easily done with a rod but not with a word.

Today we can appreciate this wordplay, knowing that a single Egyptian word, mdw, meant both rod and word, and that it was closely related to the Hebrew terms for these concepts. (Recall, of course, that Nephi and other Nephite writers were influenced by both Egyptian and Hebrew - see 1 Nephi 1:2 and Mormon 9:32-33). As Matthew Bowen points out, Joseph Smith in 1829 could not have known any of this. Is the apparent Semitic wordplay with "rod" and "word" just another lucky coincidence for the Book of Mormon, like rich and artistic chiasmus and numerous other Hebraisms?


ltbugaf said...

I was contemplating this last night as my family read Alma 32. I wondered if there might be some wordplay going on with the planting of a seed in one's bosom. (But I'm not basing that "wondering" on any special knowledge of near eastern or Mesoamerican languages, of which I have almost none.)

Walker said...

Just a side note:

Zara hemla resembles very closely the Hebrew phrase "Seed of Compassion." The only problematic issue is that "Zara" lacks the feminine element for the genitive case (which would make it something like Zarot--a small issue considering the possibilitie of language corruption after arriving in the promised land)