Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Isis and Maat in Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham: A Horrific Blunder by Joseph Smith?

A recent post here at Mormanity, "Shulem in the Book of Abraham: Possible Plausibility?," suggested that the name Shulem given by Joseph Smith in Facsimile 3 might be more interesting than just a blunder or random guess. In response, one critic raised a reasonable question, but with a rather dismissive tone:
Wow. I look forward to your equally convoluted explanations of how "Isis, the great god's mother" (what the characters above figure 2 actually mean) really means "King Pharaoh," and how "Maat, mistress of the gods" (characters above figure 4) really means "Prince of Pharaoh." This just goes to show how infinitely facile apologists can be with the facts.
While anything we say regarding any aspect of Mormonism will be dismissed as "infinitely facile" by critics not interested in dialog, the question does deserve a response. In spite of many evidences for the Book of Abraham as an ancient document, there are definitely some trouble spots, and the most problematic in my opinion are the names given in Facsimile 3. Figures 2 and 4 in that drawing are identified by Joseph as Pharaoh and the prince, respectively, but they are obviously female. Is he blind? Further, he dares to refer to the written text above the characters and states that these identities are "given," "written," or "represented" there. But now that scholars can read Egyptian, they have pointed out that Joseph wasn't even close. The characters above those Figures 2 and 4 state that they are "Isis the great, the god's mother" and "Maat, mistress of the gods," definitely not "King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head" and "Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as written above the hand." As the critics say, here we have a simple test of his ability to read Egyptian, and it would have been easy here for God to simply prove to the world that his prophet could read Egyptian by inspiring him to write something like "The goddess Isis" and "The goddess Maat" for these figures. Instead, we have a "translation" that not only misreads the literal text, but also totally misses the obvious gender of the drawings. Any ordinary farmboy could at least have gotten the gender right, but not Joseph. End of story?

If you're looking for a reason to reject Joseph and the Book of Abraham, this is the perfect place to start. Yes, he failed to render the names Isis and Maat. He even got the genders wrong. Regarding the gender problem, Hugh Nibley has written that ritual dramas in which a man dressed as a female deity are known in Egyptian lore, but even if we accept that a gender-transforming lens can be applied in some kind of Egyptian role playing scenario, is there any reason to believe that Isis could somehow represent Pharaoh and Maat could represent the prince? Joseph gave us specifics that don't make sense, at least not at a literal level.

Latter-day Saints recognize the possibility of human error whenever mortals are involved, and understand that Joseph and other prophets make mistakes. Is that the case here? Perhaps. But there may be something more interesting. Perhaps Joseph's exercise was not about the literal representation of these figures, otherwise he surely would have said something about women rather than men. Perhaps he is seeking to understand what Facsimile 3 symbolized rather than its literal meaning.

Isis and Pharaoh: Any Connections?

Could Isis be linked to Pharaoh? Wikipedia's article on Isis provides our first clue:
The name Isis means "Throne". Her headdress is a throne. As the personification of the throne, she was an important representation of the pharaoh's power. The pharaoh was depicted as her child, who sat on the throne she provided.
Suddenly, the guffawing of critics seems a little less embarrassing for Joseph. The word "Isis" written above Figure 2's head can, without delicate mental gymnastics, be rather directly linked to Pharaoh--rather precisely as stated by Joseph. Again, not literally--obviously not literally, because she is female, of course--but in a rather direct and simple metaphorical link. Isis = throne = symbol of Pharaoh. Not too tricky.

In the Turin Papyrus, Isis learns the secret name of Ra and gains power over him (see R.A. Ritner, "The Legend of Isis and the Name of Re: P. Turin 1993.") This is a powerful goddess well suited to personify the Pharaoh and his power.

AncientEgyptOnline.co.uk offers this commentary on Isis:
Isis was a member of the Helioploitan Ennead, as the daughter of Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky) and the sister and wife of Osiris and the sister of Set, Nephthys and (sometimes) Horus the Elder. However, because of her association with the throne Isis was sometimes considered to be the wife of Horus the Elder- the patron of the living Pharaoh. Ra and Horus were closely associated during early Egyptian history, while Isis was closely associated with Hathor (who was described as the mother or the wife of Horus or Ra) and so Isis could also be considered to be the wife of Ra or Horus.

However, when Ra and Atum (the Ennead of Helipolis) merged, Isis became both the daughter of Atum(-Ra) and the wife of (Atum-)Ra. This situation was clarified by crediting Isis as the granddaughter of Ra-Atum, the mother of Horus (the child) and the wife of Osiris.
Here is more about Isis and her complex roles, also from Wikipedia:
During the Old Kingdom period, Isis was represented as the wife or assistant to the deceased pharaoh. Thus she had a funerary association, her name appearing over eighty times in the pharaoh's funeral texts (the Pyramid Texts). This association with the pharaoh's wife is consistent with the role of Isis as the spouse of Horus, the god associated with the pharaoh as his protector, and then later as the deification of the pharaoh himself.

But in addition, Isis was also represented as the mother of the "four sons of Horus", the four deities who protected the canopic jars containing the pharaoh's internal organs. More specifically, Isis was viewed as the protector of the liver-jar-deity, Imsety. By the Middle Kingdom period, as the funeral texts began to be used by members of Egyptian society other than the royal family, the role of Isis as protector also grew, to include the protection of nobles and even commoners.

By the New Kingdom period, in many places, Isis was more prominent than her spouse. She was seen as the mother of the pharaoh, and was often depicted breastfeeding the pharaoh. It is theorized that this displacement happened through the merging of cults from the various cult centers as Egyptian religion became more standardized. When the cult of Ra rose to prominence, with its cult center at Heliopolis, Ra was identified with the similar deity, Horus. But Hathor had been paired with Ra in some regions, as the mother of the god. Since Isis was paired with Horus, and Horus was identified with Ra, Isis began to be merged with Hathor as Isis-Hathor. By merging with Hathor, Isis became the mother of Horus, as well as his wife. Eventually the mother role displaced the role of spouse. Thus, the role of spouse to Isis was open and in the Heliopolis pantheon, Isis became the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus/Ra. This reconciliation of themes led to the evolution of the myth of Isis and Osiris.
Her role was complex and shifted over time, but her association with the throne and the Pharaoh, either directly or through her connection to Horus, again points to a plausible symbolic meaning that an Egyptian/Semitic editor could see between the female Isis and Pharaoh. Could it be that Joseph recognized the symbolism here and saw that the deeper meaning of Pharaoh was symbolically given in the characters that mention "She of the Throne," Isis? I think that possibility needs to be considered.

Maat and the Prince of Pharaoh

If a female deity can represent Pharaoh, can another represent a prince? Does Maat have associations that could make sense of Joseph's statement? To me, this is not as clearcut and remains a fair question. Here is what Wikipedia says about Maat:
Maat or ma'at ... was the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice. Maat was also personified as a goddess regulating the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities, who set the order of the universe from chaos at the moment of creation. Her (ideological) counterpart was Isfet.

The earliest surviving records indicating Maat is the norm for nature and society, in this world and the next, were recorded during the Old Kingdom, the earliest substantial surviving examples being found in the Pyramid Texts of Unas (ca. 2375 BCE and 2345 BCE).

Later, as a goddess in other traditions of the Egyptian pantheon, where most goddesses were paired with a male aspect, her masculine counterpart was Thoth and their attributes are the same. After the rise of Ra they were depicted together in the Solar Barque.

After her role in creation and continuously preventing the universe from returning to chaos, her primary role in Egyptian mythology dealt with the weighing of souls that took place in the underworld, Duat. Her feather was the measure that determined whether the souls (considered to reside in the heart) of the departed would reach the paradise of afterlife successfully.

Pharaohs are often depicted with the emblems of Maat to emphasise their role in upholding the laws of the Creator....

The sun-god Ra came from the primaeval mound of creation only after he set his daughter Maat in place of Isfet (chaos). Kings inherited the duty to ensure Maat remained in place and they with Ra are said to "live on Maat", with Akhenaten (r. 1372-1355 BCE) in particular emphasising the concept to a degree that, John D. Ray asserts, the kings contemporaries viewed as intolerance and fanaticism. Some kings incorporated Maat into their names, being referred to as Lords of Maat, or Meri-Maat (Beloved of Maat). When beliefs about Thoth arose in the Egyptian pantheon and started to consume the earlier beliefs at Hermopolis about the Ogdoad, it was said that she was the mother of the Ogdoad and Thoth the father.
Perhaps I'm grasping at straws here, but I find it interesting that Maat is the daughter of the great sun-god Ra and that some kings incorporated Maat into their names. And not just kings: there was also an Egyptian prince, Nefermaat, whose name was based on Maat's.

What I find more interesting is her role in renewal and preserving cosmic order, a topic that brings us to the issue of coronation of new kings (the former prince). On this issue, Ernst Wurthwein in "Egyptian Wisdom and the Old Testament" in Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. Frederick E. Greenspahn (New York: New York University, 1991), p. 134, cites H. Brunner, Handbuch der Oreintalistik I, 2 (1952), pp. 96ff:
As a goddess, Maat belonged to the Heliopolitan religious system, where she appeared as the daughter of the sun-god. She came down to men in the beginning as the proper order of all things. Through the evil assaults of Seth and his comrades, this order was upset, but restored through the victory of Horus. As the embodiment of Horus, each new king renews this right order through his coronation: a new state of Maat, i.e., of peace and righteousness, dawns. [emphasis added]
Maat's role in coronation to renew the authority of the kingdom naturally points to the man who will serve as successor to Pharaoh, the prince. It is also interesting that the name of Maat was often used in special coronation names given to new kings at their coronation. One reference on this point is Emily Teeter, "Egypt," in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Mediterranean Religions, ed. by Barbette Stanley Spaeth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 24-25:
One of the king's main obligations to the god was to rule the land in accordance with maat, the interconnected concept of cosmic balance and truth that was personified by the goddess Maat. The commitment to maat is illustrated by offering scenes where the king presents a figure of the goddess Maat to the deities as a visible affirmation of his just rule and the acknowledgement that he will uphold the tenets inherent in maat. In the New Kingdom, the king's coronation name was often compounded with Maat, another indication of the association of the king and principle of truth. Some New Kingdom kings are shown presenting a rebus of their name captioned "presenting Maat," suggesting that the king himself was imbued with or personified, Truth.
David Leeming, The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), offers this information about Maat (p. 243):
Maat in Egyptian mythology, the goddess Maat (Ua Zit), the wife of Thoth, a god associated with wisdom, and daughter or aspect of the high god Atum, is at once a goddess and an idea, the personification of moral and cosmic order, truth, and justice . . . that was as basic to life as breath itself, which in the Coffin Texts Maat also seems to personify. Pharaohs held small models of Maat to signify their association with her attributes. Maat gives breath itself--life--to the kings, and so is depicted holding the symbol of life, the ankh, to their noses. Maat represents the proper relationship between the cosmic and the earthly, the divine and the human, the earth, the heavens, and the underworld. It is she who personifies the meaningful order of life as opposed to the entropic chaos into which it might easily fall. It some stories it is the sun god Re who displaces Chaos with Maat. . . .

Maat was essentially in all Egyptian gods and goddesses as the principle of divinity itself. The goddess Isis acknowledges the qualities of Maat, as signified by the maat (ostrich feather) she wears behind the crowns of upper and lower Egypt.

Maat might be seen as a principle analogous to the Logos, divine reason and order. As Christians are told "In the beginning was the Word [Logos] already was" (John 1:1). Atum announces that before creation, "when the heavens were asleep, my daughter Maat lived within me and around me."
If Maat is the daughter of the great god and is a parallel to the Christian Logos and the son of God, then could this child could be considered a princess and thus again a symbol of a prince?

Wikipedia, as quoted above, indicates that Maat is paired with Thoth, having the same attributes. Regarding Thoth, Claas Jouco Bleeker in Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1973), p. 119, writes:
There was a close connection between Thoth and Re. In the previous section we became acquainted with him as son of Re. The sun-god placed so much confidence in the capacities of Thoth that he appointed him his deputy, his vizier. The pertinent text relates how Re sent for Thoth and gave him a place of honour next himself. Thereupon Re spoke: "Thou shalt be writer in the nether-world.... Thous shalt take my place as deputy, thou shalt be called Thoth substitute of Re."

Another text adds that he was even appointed successor to Re. Thoth fulfilled his task so well that he was given the epithet "the one with whose word Atum (the primeval god at Heliopolis who later acquired solar significance) is content."

In his office Thoth performs invaluable services for the sun-god. He is "the perfect secretary." is said that his pen protects Re. Just what this expression implies is made clear in a hymn to Re which runs: "Daily Thoth writes Ma-a-t for thee." [emphasis added]
Thoth, the escort of Maat, may be a symbol of a successor to the throne, again pointing to the role of a prince at a symbolic level.

Regarding Thoth, Maat's husband, Leeming writes (p. 381):
Thoth was the moon god as well as the god of wisdom in Egypt. . . . In Hermopolis he might sometimes have been seen as a creator god. For some, Thoth was the son of Re, Re in this case being the sun, the right eye of Horus, whose moon eye had been ripped out by Seth. His consort was Maat. . . .
Maat, Thoth, son/daughter of the great god, and successor: if Isis can be a symbol for Pharaoh, could these associations allow an Semitic editor to also use Maat as a symbol for a prince? This doesn't answer all the questions or objections to the identities offered by Joseph Smith on Facs. 3, but may suggest that there is "something interesting going on" besides random guessing coupled with gross inability to recognize a female in a drawing.

I could be way off and welcome your feedback. I know little about Egyptology and have just relied on easily found sources here that may be inadequate in many ways. It's still possible to accept that some egregious errors were made, but the theory that Joseph's comments are based on symbolic meanings would be fairly consistent with some of the more interesting hits in the Book of Abraham, and consistent with the principle of God not removing the need for faith in accepting scripture. God could have provided manuscripts and literal interpretations capable of gaining peer-reviewed acceptance from the scholarly community with no need for faith. But that's not how He does things. Faith will always be required.

Related resources:

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Noham, That’s Not History (Nor Geography, Cartography, or Logic): More on the Recent Attacks on NHM

As mentioned in my previous post about the significance of Nahom, in a recent presentation at an ex-Mormon conference, a man who says he is “addicted to truth” made the claim that his searching had revealed that among 3-letter consonant groupings for place names, NHM was one of the most common.  So common that you could find it almost anywhere you looked, making the occurrence of Nahom/Nehem/NHM in the Book of Mormon to be “lacking in significance.” As a reminder, here is the transcript of his comments on this topic:
We have NHM in Germany, Austria, Iran, Zimbabwe, Angola, Israel, Canada, and basically everywhere you look you can find those 3 letters. I’m sure there’s a dozen companies named NHM that all around the world as well. Basically, if it was QXP, that would be more significant because those are more rare across the languages of the world. But NHM happened to be some of the most common letters. So the significance of NHM is lacking.
This was said while displaying a slide entitled “Significance of NHM” with the following list of direct hits:
  • Noham, Germany
  • Noham, Austria
  • Nohom, Iran
  • Nhime, Angola
  • Nahum, Israel
  • Anhim, Canada
  • Nhaem, Vietnam
  • Enham, United Kingdom
  • Nahme, Bulgaria
  • Nahoma, Namibia
  • Nhamuai, Mozambique
  • Nhime, Guinea-Bissau
  • Nahma, Michigan
  • Nahimha, Tanzania
  • Naham, Israel
Apart from completing missing, or completely obfuscating, the real point about Nahom being confirmed as an ancient burial place in exactly the location required for Book of Mormon plausibility, Johnson’s misdirection about whether Nahom/NHM is a novel name in its own right raises further interesting questions upon closer examination. We have already pointed out (citing Warren Aston) that Nahom/NHM is an exceedingly rare name in the Arabian Peninsula, which is relevant to the debate. What is not relevant to the debate is whether related NHM placenames also occur on other lands. But Johnson’s intriguing tactics on this point may be relevant to understanding his approach to data when he makes other supposedly objective, data-based claims on Book of Mormon authorship.

Something about that list of NHM names bothered me as soon as I saw it. I’ve traveled to a few parts of the world and have looked at many maps and many names, and just didn’t recollect ever noticing any of these places before. Would these have been obvious clues rendering NHM-based place names fairly obvious for a 19th-century plagiarizer and conman (per Chris Johnson’s views of Joseph)? Granted, the whole premise of his argument is blatantly misguided—the key issue is that Nahom, common name or not, is rare in Arabia and is placed at exactly the right spot, reachable from Jerusalem by heading south-southeast, and within a few miles of the only place along the ancient incense trails where one can turn due east, as Nephi’s group does, and survive to reach the coast. Add to that the massive significance that Nahom, the place where Ishmael was buried, turns out to be an ancient burial place in the Arabian Peninsula and a bonus for having the NHM name attested to have been in that place in the 7th century B.C. (Lehi’s day) by ancient altars from the tribe of Nihm that were recently discovered. Add to that the amazing fact that going nearly due east from Nahom doesn’t just get one to the coast, but to a remarkable candidate or two for the place Bountiful as described in the First Nephi 16 and 17. These are stunning finds of massive significance, regardless of how often NHM names are used in other parts of the world. Whether Africa, Germany, and North America are sprinkled with NHM names or not doesn't detract from the value of the Arabian Peninsula evidences for Book of Mormon plausibility. 

But for the moment, let’s accept Johnson’s premise that the significance of finding Nahom is somehow related to how common NHM names are anywhere in the world as, perhaps, inspiration for Joseph’s plagiarism, and then explore the significance, if any, of his list. It turns out that there are some possible serious gaps in his argument about NHM being so common. I may be missing something, so let me know if I have erred in my searching, which is entirely possible. Here’s what my searching reveals about these places:

Noham (Germany and Austria): There is nothing for Noham in Wikipedia. Google finds nothing for Noham, Austria. There are hints of something for Noham, Germany.  But not much can be found until searching is done for Nöham.
Then we find this on the German Wikipedia at http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nöham_(Dietersburg):

Nöham ist ein Pfarrdorf in der Gemeinde Dietersburg und war bis zur Zusammenlegung mit Dietersburg am 1. April 1971 eine eigenständige Gemeinde. Nöham liegt an der Staatsstraße 2112 zwischen Pfarrkirchen und Arnstorf und hat etwa 500 Einwohner.

This states that Nöham is a parish village with about 500 inhabitants. If it’s almost invisible to the modern world today, I don’t think it could have served as some kind of inspiration to Joseph Smith.

Nohom, Iran: Finding something on this place is much easier than it was for Noham. Something relevant shows up right away in Google: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nohom, where we read this:

Nohom (Persian: نهم‎) is a village in Sarfaryab Rural District, Sarfaryab District, Charam County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province, Iran. At the 2006 census, its population was 186, in 39 families.

Not even big enough to be a parish village, I fear, little Nohom has a  population in 2006 of just 186 people. Any chance it was there in 1830? Known to Joseph?

Nhema, Zimbabwe: A Google search for Nhema, Zimbabwe reveals Nhema is a last name, but I see no easy-to-find evidence of a noteworthy place name. When I search for “Nhema city Zimbabwe” I find a link a questionable  claiming it is a place name: http://itouchmap.com/?c=zi&UF=10648647&UN=11361339&DG=PPL
This link has a map which points to an empty spot with no name east of Harare. Sorry, I’m not yet convinced that this is a notable place name in Zimbabwe. And even if it were, how could Joseph have known?

Nhime, Angola: No such place shows up in Wikipedia. But a Google search shows that at least some weather services recognize the name, and a site called Wikimapia has an entry that tags it with “beach, village.” See http://wikimapia.org/13602991/Nhime-Angola-Provincia-de-Benguela. Google maps also shows a beach called Nhime in Angola. So this one exists. That’s progress. But significant? Knowable or useful to Joseph Smith? Unlikely. (Also see http://www.gazetteering.com/africa/angola/provincia-do-kwanza-sul/3346935-nhime.html.)

Nahum, Israel: The most interesting entry on Johnson’s list, in my opinion. This is promising because one could argue that Joseph might have recognized Nahom was a valid place name based on the occurrence of Nahum as a place in Israel. But as I mentioned in my initial post on the significance of Nahom, this argument also has a touch of weakness. Again, blame it on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia’s article on Sde Nahum, Israel explains that it is a modern kibbutz founded in 1937. Population around 550. Not likely an influence for the Book of Mormon. What about Nehama, Israel? Wikipedia doesn’t seem aware of it, so it must not exist, I suppose. But there is an Israeli “Comfort Girls” band called Habanot Nechama. Is that the link? Or what about Nahma, Michigan? Another 500-person township. Founded 1881. Probably not an inspiration for Nahom.

Anhim, Canada: This is particularly puzzling. Where did Johnson come up with this one? Wikipedia hasn’t heard of it. Google Maps doesn’t seem to have it, and asks if maybe I meant Anaheim. Maybe I did. More on that later. Turning to Google search for Anhim, Canada, the only indication I can see of a possible place of that name -- apart from my own previous blog post at Mormanity mentioning Johnson’s list – is a Google books result for River Palace that appears to mention Anhim, Canada. But when I go to that book, the apparent mention of Anhim, Canada is in fact, a rotated caption that says “Library and Archives, Canada”. Apparently the 90-degree rotation of small text was misread by Google. So strange. So again, we have another place on Johnson’s list that doesn’t appear to exist.

Nehama, Israel: Another potentially interesting item. I’m not sure it exists as a place name, though. Google’s top return for this term is the previously mentioned “Comfort Girls” band of Israel, Habanot Nechama. Not quite a hit for NHM. And not quite a place, but maybe a destination for modern music fans. I fear they came along too late to attract any farm boy groupies from upstate New York. A nice try, but alas, this one brings no comfort to Johnson’s argument.

Nhaem, Vietnam: Another place that puzzles me. Apart from the obvious question about whether transliterated Vietnamese place names were available for Joseph Smith to pluck as needed for his feverish and grueling work of plagiarizing a few words here, a few there, over and over to gradually string verses together, one also has to ask just where this place is and whether it is “significant”? There’s no Wikipedia page for any place named Nhaem (though a Wikipedia page for the obscure commune of Lvae in Cambodia shows that the commune includes 12 villages, one of which is named Doun Nhaem). But wait, there may be a place of this name with Vietnamese connections: Google’s top hit in my search is a Yelp entry for the Nha Em Restaurant and Bar in Vietnam – wait, my mistake, it’s a Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, California. Ok, something physical exists for this one—an actual two-word place name—but this bar was probably not around in Joseph Smith’s day. The Cambodia listing, missed by Johnson, doesn’t exactly impress either and may not have been there in Joseph’s day. This one looks like a pretty wide miss at the moment.

Enham, United Kingdom: Now we’re talking. Folks, I’m happy to report that there is an actual place with a population and a history for this location. There’s not much information about it, but enough to show that Enham, England, known as Knight’s Enham until recently, actually exists, though the name today is not Enham but Enham Alamein. It was there in Joseph’s day. It is fair to list this one to show how common NHM is among the inhabitants of the earth, 804 of whom live in this sprouting metropolis. Yes, Enham Alamein is a small parish with a population of 804 according to a German website, CityPopulation.de. The population may have been smaller in Joseph’s day, but at least I think there were people there. The English 1841 Census shows 102 results for a search of people living in anything containing “Enham” in the place name. Rather small, in my opinion. Somehow I’m not sure that this would be the kind of thing that would rise to the attention of New York farmers. Perhaps we can add a colorful new link to the Solomon Spaulding theory to bring information about the obscure village Knight’s Enham to Joseph. But pending further creative work, it’s hard to see how this demonstrates NHM names are wildly common. Shouldn’t we be able to find some significant places likely to be known to Joseph given that we have such a common grouping of letters to work with?

Nahme, Bulgaria: Google doesn’t seem to find anything for this place.

Nahoma, Namibia: Ditto. Google recommends I search for Nujoma, Namibia instead. I’m not falling for that one.

Nhamuai, Mozambique: Google results don’t look promising, except that ITouchMap.com says there is a place of that name. But the map result that comes up looks like a blank spot in the hills without roads or obvious population. Strange.

Nhama, Angola: Wikipedia hasn’t heard of it. There are some weather sites listing it, and one place puts it on the map, but it looks like a rather uninhabited spot of jungle.

Nhime, Guinea-Bissau: Some weather sites show up in Google, but the closest thing to an indication of a real place name that I see is a page at GoMapper.com saying “Nhime is a place with a very small population in the state/region of Oio, Guinea-Bissau which is located in the continent/region of Africa.” Yawn.

Nahma, Michigan: Finally! A real place. One significant enough that Wikipedia actually recognizes its existence. Whew, just in time. What does Wikipedia have to say about this important place, close enough to Joseph Smith that perhaps word of its prominent and common name could have come to him for inspiration in writing the Book of Mormon? Let’s see:

Nahma Township is a civil township of Delta County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The population was 499 at the 2000 census. Nahma was established in 1881 by the Bay De Noquet Lumber Company as the base for its upper Michigan lumbering operations.

Hmm. Tiny, obscure (no offense, dear Nahmians), and non-existent prior to 1881.  Do I sense a pattern here?

Nahimha, Tanzania: Wikipedia hasn’t heard of it. But something must be there because some Islamic sites list prayer times. I finally found this at Chinci.com:

Nahimha is a tidal creek(s) in the country of Tanzania with an average elevation of 3 feet above sea level. The location is sparsely populated with 36 people per mile2 . The nearest town larger than 50,000 inhabitants takes about 2:12 hour by local transportation.

An estimated 4.14% of the children below 5 years old are underweight.

A tidal creek, eh? I can see Joseph going for that, if only he had some way of knowing. This may be a real place, but it is tiny, obscure, and probably of no value to Johnson’s argument—which was a bit unfair in the first place since the consonants here are NHMH, not NHM. When it comes to arguments drawing upon Nahimha, it’s not just the children that are underweight.

Naham, Israel: Wikipedia reveals this was founded in 1950 and today has a population a little over 450. Not a hit. 

It’s not just that a few of these names can be questioned due to minor oversights in scholarship and fact checking. Every one can be regarded as "lacking significance" and most appear to be bogus. The proffered list of NHM names is utterly worthless as evidence that NHM names are “among the most common” or that Joseph Smith could easily come up with the NHM root for a place name based on Johnson's cornucopia of NHM hits. It looks like a rare and somewhat obscure root, even beyond the borders of Arabia, and even when one is willing to stretch it our with triple value endings and vowel prefixes.

A possibly glaring oversight in Johnson’s list is the omission of Anaheim, California, which would represent the most notable city for his PPT slide and the only one with a population bigger than an obscure farm village. Perhaps Johnson realized that many listeners might see through the Mickey Mouse nature of that argument, knowing that Anaheim wasn’t founded until after Joseph Smith’s day. One peek at Wikipedia’s entry for Anaheim would expose the weakness in that argument: “The city of Anaheim was founded in 1857 by 50 German-Americans. . . .” Schade! Too late to make Nahom trivial. But wait, surely the German-sounding name must be some ancient place name from Germany, right? Wikipedia brings further trouble here:

Anaheim's name is a blend of "Ana", after the nearby Santa Ana River, and "heim", a common German language place name compound originally meaning "home".

Ach du liebe! This must be why Johnson had to say auf widersehen to that argument. But Anaheim as an illustration of the insignificance of NHM is arguably no less viable than any of the other examples Johnson offers.

Does Johnson’s list of NHM names expose the insignificance of an interesting piece of Book of Mormon evidence, and help us better understand how easily Joseph Smith could have come up with an NHM-based placed name in the Arabian Peninsula? As Hugh Nibley might have said, “Noham, that’s not history.” It’s also not geography or cartography. Frankly, I find the arguments against Nahom to be lacking in significance.

Update, Dec. 23, 2013: Kudos to Mark Butler for identifying another interesting hit that was missed by Johnson: Niihima, Japan, which, according to Wikipedia, has over 100,000 people. Finally, a notable spot! Unfortunately, Wikipedia also gives this troublesome fact: "Niihama was founded on November 3, 1937." Too late for Joseph Smith, but not too late for anti-Mormon fun. The NHM list would really have been much better and even more entertaining if Niihima had been included, along with Anaheim.

Say, do any of you know of other NHM place names that should have been on the list?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ancient Temple Themes in the Book of Mormon

Over at The Nauvoo Times, my latest post, "The Temple in the Book of Mormon," points to several recent discoveries or scholarly developments that help us better appreciate the influence of ancient temple concepts in the Book of Mormon. One of the topics there that I enjoyed learning about most was the possible role of ancient sacred relics in Nephite religion serving a role similar to the relics of the Ark of the Covenant in the Jewish temple. Here I combine a portion of my previous post with some additional information.

One of the first issues to consider regarding the temple and the Book of Mormon is how the Nephites could dare to make their own temple in the New World without the Ark of the Covenant and its authoritative relics that added to the sanctity of the holy of holies and made it a place fitting for the presence of the Lord? This is an interesting question addressed by Don Bradley in “Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages,” FAIRMormon.com, 2012:

How was it even possible for the Nephites to observe the Mosaic rituals without the Levitical priesthood, the Aaronite high priest, and the Ark of the Covenant? And given that our temple worship today isn’t about animal sacrifice, what, if anything, does their temple worship have to do with ours?

Bradley then points out that the Nephite kings were, at least initially, the de facto high priests in the Book of Mormon, at the top of the priesthood hierarchy. In part of this discussion, he mentions some sacred relics in the possession of the kings:

In addition to the king’s position at the top of the Nephite priesthood structure, we find evidence of his status as high priest in his using the same or a similar instrument to the one used by the biblical high priest to inquire of God’s will for His people. For the ancient Israelites this instrument was the stones of Urim and Thummim, kept in the pocket of a breastplate. The equivalent Nephite instrument, which also attaches to a breastplate, is called in the Book of Mormon “the interpreters” and in revelation to Joseph Smith “the Urim and Thummim.” Importantly, this Nephite equivalent to the Jerusalem high priest’s most important relic was the possession of the Nephite kings. Mosiah the Second used it to interpret the twenty-four Jaredite plates, as his grandfather Mosiah the First evidently had to interpret the Jaredite stone record. This would place the interpreters in the hands of the Nephite kings even while the prophetic record “the small plates” was still being through Jacob’s line, suggesting that the Nephite high priestly relics and role belonged, not to the prophets, but to the kings.

After discussing Nephi’s role as king and legitimate high priest, he addresses the “glaring” issue of Nephite temple worship without the Ark of the Covenant. Incidentally, as discussed by Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, the Ark of the Covenant was removed during the Deuteronomist reforms as the concept of the presence of God in the holy of holies was replaced with an incorporeal voice that merely issued the law. But for pre-exilic Jews maintaining the early version of their religion, the relics of the Ark of the Covenant would have been vital for the sanctity of a true temple. Bradley continues:

We go from the “who” now to the “how” of Nephite temple worship. Nephi wrote that he had built a temple like that of Solomon. This statement has drawn guffaws from critics, who note the enormous scale and grandeur of Solomon’s temple. But it isn’t the scale and grandeur of Solomon’s temple that made it a model for Nephi’s. Nephi wanted his temple to be like Solomon’s, not in size, but in functionality. To perform the rituals prescribed by the Law of Moses his people would need a temple parallel to Solomon’s in rooms and relics.

The modeling of Nephite worship on early Israelite worship in Jerusalem has been explored by Kevin Christensen. Christensen describes key features of Jerusalem worship from the days of Lehi’s youth, before the heavy-handed Josian reform, and then observes that Nephite religion contained all of these, “with the understandable exception of the specific temple artifacts kept in the holy of holies, the ark of the covenant…and the cherubim.”

But while the Nephites’ omission of the Ark of the Covenant from their temple is, as he says, understandable, it is also glaring. The Jerusalem temple was, in one sense, a house for the Ark of the Covenant. The temple was structured in layers of sacredness, or degrees of glory, if you will, around the Ark, with the chamber that contained the Ark being the holiest place of all, the Holy of Holies. The Ark, bearing as it did the stone tablets God touched with His finger on Sinai during the Exodus, provided Israel an embodiment of His presence. The Ark also served as an altar, upon which the Aaronite high priest was required to sprinkle sacrificial blood during the all-important Day of Atonement.

How could the Nephites keep the Law of Moses without access to the Ark of the Covenant? And with what, if not the miraculous relics of the Exodus, including their literal touchstones with Deity, would sufficiently sanctify their Holy of Holies to make it an appropriate dwelling place for God? As in the case of replacing the Aaronite high priest, they would have to introduce their own fitting substitute. Whether the Nephite temple was like Solomon’s on its exterior was irrelevant. Whether it was like Solomon’s here, at its heart, the Holy of Holies, was vital. Something, presumably something remarkable, would have to sit in the Ark’s place.

But what did the Nephites have that could stand in for the sacred relics of the Exodus kept in Solomon’s temple? They had their own sacred relics, including those of their exodus to the new promised land, relics handed down through the line of kings and then that of prophets and ultimately recovered by Joseph Smith on the Hill Cumorah. In the stone box—which Martin Harris reportedly called an “ark”—Joseph found a set of Nephite sacred treasures that paralleled the relics associated with the Ark and its custodian, the High Priest.

The relevant relics associated with the Ark and the High Priest were as follows: in the Ark were the stone tablets God had touched during the Exodus, and according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, also Aaron’s rod that budded and a pot of manna. And we’ve already discussed the High Priest’s Urim and Thummim and breastplate, which attached to a garment referred to as the ephod.

Cumorah’s “ark” contained the plates, the breastplate and interpreters, the Liahona, and the sword of Laban. The most obvious identification, which we’ve already made is that of breastplate with breastplate, and interpreters with Urim and Thummim. Only slightly less obvious is the parallel of scriptural stone tablets with scriptural golden plates—or, golden tablets.
Bradley goes on to equate the rod of Aaron, a symbol of authority, with the sword of Laban, which was akin to the sword of Goliath. Both were used by young men to slay powerful foes and become a symbol of kingship. Both were kept as sacred relics reminding others of God’s power and of the authority of a kingly line (Goliath’s sword was kept with the breastplate in the tabernacle, until David needed it again and took it. See 1 Samuel 21:9.)

But what of the pot of manna? This is what I found most interesting. Recall the description of the discovery of manna in Exodus 16:13-15: “In the morning the dew lay round about the host. And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing…. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna, for they wist not what it was.” The manna, a symbol of the Lord’s mercy in which he provided sustenance for the Jews in their exodus from captivity to the promised land, was found in the morning as they traveled in the wilderness, and is described as a small round thing that lay on the ground. Any guesses as to what sacred relic among the Nephites might be a fitting substitute for the pot of manna? Significantly, it was in the morning in the wilderness when Lehi, while leading his family on their own exodus to a new promised land, discovers a strange round thing lying on the ground that gives them guidance regarding where to go, and where to find food. And like the Jews finding manna who didn’t know what it was, Lehi was also astonished and puzzled: “As my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship” (1 Nephi 16:10). Lehi’s Liahona serves as a remarkably fitting parallel to the pot of manna, a symbol of the Lord’s mercy and deliverance. And like manna, it wasn’t a gift to be taken for granted, but could quit functioning as a result of rebellion.

Amazingly, all of the sacred relics in the Ark of the Covenant have a fitting parallel among the sacred relics preserved among the Nephites and kept in the charge of their high priests/kings. Bradly then states:
The cache of Nephite sacred treasures was more than sufficient, and at least equal in spiritual power to those in the Ark of the Covenant. Including as it did the interpreters, which had been touched by God and served as a medium of communication with Him, it made an ideal point of contact between God and man to rest at the center of the Nephite Holy of Holies.

This is one of many subtle and fascinating aspects of the temple in the Book of Mormon. I especially like the connection between the manna and the Liahona, and the abundance of pre-exilic temple and wisdom themes in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon, as usual, is far “smarter” than Joseph Smith, meaning that its ancient influences and themes are far more sophisticated and rich than Joseph or anyone in his day could have contrived.

I am intrigued by the relationship between the small, round manna found on the ground in the morning and the food-finding round Liahona, found on the ground in the morning and listed as a "small thing" in Alma 37 when sacred relics are being turned over to Helaman by his prophet father Alma. Whether it was deliberately recognized and described to parallel manna or not, it certainly could serve as an important sacred relic for the Nephites, and possibly as part of a Nephite equivalent to the Ark of the Covenant.

There is much more one can say on this topic, such as the themes we find when Christ ministers to the Nephites and Lamanites at the temple in Bountiful. See The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount: A Latter-Day Saint Approach, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, 1990). Of particular interest is the chapter from John Welch, "Toward an Understanding of the Sermon as a Temple Text," which provides a lengthy list of correspondences between the LDS temple concept and the pivotal events in 3 Nephi involving Christ and His teachings at the temple. Welch helps us see that the Book of Mormon has much more temple-based influence in it that we might have previously recognized. Much of the Sermon at the Temple is drawn from the Sermon on the Mount, of course, but dismissing it as mere lazy plagiarism overlooks the significant and subtle differences between the two, and the many interesting and authentic ancients twists found in the Book of Mormon presentation.

The covenant-related aspects of the 3 Nephi text should be considered in light of the ancient covenant formulary that I believe is found not only in ancient treaties and covenants from the Middle East, but also in the restored LDS temple concept, something I discuss on my LDSFAQ page about the LDS temple. The six general elements of the ancient covenant formulary, first noted by modern scholars in the 1930s, appears to be present in the Book of Mormon in King Benjamin's speech. See "Kingship. Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1–6" by Stephen Ricks in one of my favorite books available for free online reading, King Benjamin's Speech at the Maxwell Institute. (Since several of the links for this post are for the Maxwell Institute, I will warn readers that the books and articles on that website often no longer display the author's names or other relevant information about the source. But this article is from Stephen Ricks, though you cannot tell by looking at the article itself. A related problem in some important articles is that longer titles are truncated, sometimes leaving out the most important information, like this one about the views of Hugh Nibley where Dr. Nibley's name has been deleted from the displayed title. Sigh.) Also see "King Benjamin's Speech: Forget Solomon Spaulding, Ethan Smith, and Shakespeare" at Mormanity.

Clever applications of ancient Jewish temple themes, including subtle Hebrew word plays, seem to be present in First Nephi as well, including the rich symbolism of Lehi's vision in First Nephi 1 and his tree of life vision in First Nephi 8. Some interesting and long-overlooked temple aspects of his tree of life vision are brought out in a recent book by D. John Butler, which I discuss in "A Temple Gone Dark: An Important New Slant on the Themes of Nephi’s Vision and Lehi’s Dream." Butler builds upon some of the new insights into ancient Jewish religion obtained by examining early records and reconstructing what was lost after the Exile and through some of the reforms that began with King Josiah. Also see  David E. Bokovoy, “'Thou Knowest That I Believe': Invoking The Spirit of the Lord as Council Witness in 1 Nephi 11" in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 1-23, and Kevin Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi's World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem, ed. by John Welch, David R. Seely, and Jo Ann N. Seely (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2004). Growing scholarship about the ancient temple increasingly sheds light on key elements of the LDS temple and the world of the Book of Mormon, where we can see many aspects of ancient temple-related traditions and paradigms in the Book of Mormon.

Here are some further resources related to the discussion above:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Race and the Priesthood: Significant New Statement on the LDS History of Blacks and the Priesthood at LDS.org

I'm delighted with the release of a new and thoughtful statement at LDS.org clarifying the history of the Church's former policy that prior to 1978 prohibited those with African ancestry from holding the priesthood. The statement reminds us of the influences of culture and the fallibility of mortals in the Church, and gives us cause for gratitude regarding the revelation that finally did away not only with a problematic policy but with troubled attempts at justifying it. A welcome announcement worthy of reflection. 
One can complain that it's too little, too late, or that further apologies are needed, etc., etc., but I suggest simply welcoming this with humility and faith, while recognizing the monumental faith exhibited by those who accepted the Gospel and strengthened the Church in spite of the limitations that former policy might impose on them. That's remarkable faith and courage. A great resource on this topic is BlackLDS.org.

Update: Other resources to consider include the podcast on the 2013 statement at FAIRMormon.org and also my LDSFAQ page on race and the priesthood

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Significance of Nahom: Just Three Letters?

When thoughtfully understood, the evidence for Book of Mormon plausibility and authenticity related to Nephi’s account of crossing the Arabian Peninsula are profound and impressive. The modern findings and insights related to First Nephi 16 and 17, for example, are worthy of careful discussion and consideration. As a result of both field work by Latter-day Saints exploring potential Book of Mormon locations in the Arabian Peninsula and the work of non-LDS experts, we have a wealth of information that can strengthen our appreciation of the Book of Mormon and its plausibility. This includes such things as excellent candidates for the Valley Lemuel and the River Laman, the place called Shazer, the green area called Bountiful, specific plausible pathways corresponding to the detailed directions Nephi gives, and the place called Nahom where Ishmael was buried. These are some of the evidences which I touch upon in my Book of Mormon Evidences page.

Confirming the plausibility of these places and names is interesting and can help us better understand the Book of Mormon, but don’t mistake these evidences for proof. These evidences do not prove that the Book of Mormon is true or that God exists or that Jesus is the Christ, but they do weigh heavily against claims that a 19th century yokel in the American frontier just fabricated the account in First Nephi 16 and 17. They weigh in favor of the hypothesis that those two chapters were written by someone who actually made the ancient journey described.   

The evidences are not trivial, contrived, random parallels. For example, what are we to say of finding an ancient burial place with a name essentially equivalent to Nahom in the Arabian Peninsula in exactly the place where the Book of Mormon implies it must be—at a place where one can depart from the south-southeast direction Nephi was originally traveling, substantially corresponding to the ancient incense trails of Arabia, and then turn nearly due east to reach a place like Bountiful, without passing through the nearby portions of the desolate empty quarter? Even if we don’t (yet) accept the Book of Mormon, shouldn’t that raise an eyebrow or two? And when 7th-century B.C. altars are found from that region bearing the tribal name Nihm, clearly based on the same Semitic root of NHM as Nahom, indicating that this tribal name and thus most likely a place name of that kind was in fact not just there “anciently” but in precisely the era that Ishmael was buried, shouldn’t that at least give us pause to appreciate that this is indeed an interesting find for Book of Mormon fans?

When critics of the Church chant the mantra that “there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon,” informed Latter-day Saints may occasionally dare to make an objections and point out that there is a growing body of rather impressive evidences that should at least be considered before hastily rejecting Book of Mormon claims. When committed anti-Mormon critics are presented with such evidence, the response can be surprising. Take for example an enthusiastically received presentation at a recent ex-Mormon conference on Oct. 19th in Salt Lake City, where Chris Johnson presumed to use statistics to explain away the Book of Mormon. His statistical sleight-of-hand allegedly exposing the Book of Mormon was supposed to be so impressive that it could utterly destroy the very foundation of Mormonism, thus the title, “How the Book of Mormon Destroyed Mormonism.” His work attempting to link the Book of Mormon to an obscure book about the war of 1812 has been discussed here previously and at Mormanity, drawing upon a rigorous debunking by Ben McGuire at the Mormon Interpreter.  Here I would like to address Chris Johnson’s other comments on parallels. 

If you must, you can watch the video by using the URL provided in footnote #2 of McGuire’sarticle, or you can use this shortcut: http://tinyurl.com/late-war-fail.  But I don’t recommend it because of its mocking and insulting tone, beginning with mockery of Jeffrey Holland in his defense of the Book of Mormon, and ending with snippets of video clips from the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult to equate Mormonism with them. Low and rather inappropriate, IMHO. In spite of my disappointment in his stance and in spite of the errors I think he has made in his approach,  I still find Chris Johnson interesting with intelligence and humor that I wish were being applied to better causes. 

His approach to the issue of the Arabian Peninsula is instructive.  I find it interesting that for one fascinated in exploring parallels related to the Book of Mormon, he swiftly dismisses the evidence from the Arabian Peninsula as just trivial and meaningless parallels. All the impressive finds and bull’s eyes, in this well trained anti-Mormon’s view,  boil down to nothing more than a random parallel of 3 letters that can be explained away with the tiniest exertion of a brain cell or two. 

Here is my transcription of Johnson’s comments: beginning at 6:53 in the video and ending at 8:05, with screenshots of the slides shown:
Perhaps the book is true, or false, depending on the evidence. Here’s some of the evidence for the Book of Mormon. 
Just really briefly, they found Nahom. It’s 3 letters. NHM because they removed the O and the A because Hebrew apparently didn’t have those letter back then. But basically, um, so we have 3 letters. And, there’s a few other little things like that.  But what is the significance of the evidence for the Joseph Smith as a prophet/translator? What is the evidence? So NHM, for me, that’s probably the biggest evidence. NHM. It’s in the right place,  it’s the right name.
 So here’s the significance.
We have NHM in Germany, Austria,, Iran, Zimbabwe, Angola, Israel, Canada, and basically everywhere you look you can find those 3 letters. I’m sure there’s a dozen companies named NHM that all around the world as well. Basically, if it was QXP, that would be more significant because those are more rare across the languages of the world. But NHM happened to be some of the most common letters. So the significance of NHM is lacking.
And there you have it. All the impressive finds in the Arabian Peninsula reduced to 3 letters, and they are readily explained away because lots of other countries have places with NHM in it.

Here are 3 more letters that come to mind: HUH?

This argument is given by the man presumably delivering a death blow to the Book of Mormon with brilliant analysis and scholarship, finding telltale smoking-gun parallels in random four-word chunks of text shared by the Book of Mormon and The Late War Against the United States, chunks that are also shared with numerous other texts before and after the Book of Mormon, not because they were somehow plagiarized, but because of common language and methods of expression. Minor random and irrelevant parallels are enough to destroy Mormonism, but the evidence of intricate, relevant, and interesting “parallels” like confirming the existence of an ancient burial place Nahom/Nehem/NHM in exactly the right place and time given in the Book of Mormon--complete with supporting archaeological finds--is irrelevant and “lacking in significance” because…because other 3-letter combinations with NHM can be found in, say, Mozambique?

One of the key points in the LDS scholarship about Nahom is that it is, of course, a name known in the Bible—a person’s name. But as a place name, it is rare in the Arabian Peninsula. Johnson claims that NHM is one of the most common 3-letter combinations (really??), but his list of “parallels” from all over the world don’t have any others from Arabia, the place that actually matters in this story. Warren Aston in his groundbreaking In the Footsteps of Lehi reports that the ancient burial site Nehem/Nahom appears to be the only place In the entire Arabian Peninsula with that name. Here is an excerpt from page 12 (footnotes omitted):

The Rarity of the Name

The first point to be made is that the name NHM (in any of its variant spellings Nehem/Nihm/Nahm, and so on) is not found anywhere else in Arabia as a place name. It is unique. It is known to appear only once in southern Arabian writings (as a personal name) and a handful of times in northern Arabian Safaitic texts. There are also some interesting appearances in the Old Testament; as Naham [a person] (1 Chronicles 4:19), as Nehum [another person](Nehemiah 7:7), and, of course, as the name of the Prophet Nahom, whose brief book provides some of the Bible’s most vivid poetic imagery. … These biblical occurrences of the name, however, are far removed geographically from southern Arabia, and no historical connection with the tribal name in Yemen can be made. The fact that the name appears only once as an Arabian place name argues strongly in itself for a possible link with Nephi’s Nahom.

Of related interest is Wikipedia’s page of Arabic place names. I couldn’t see anything related to Nahom or related forms. Look for yourself. 

I was intrigued by the listing of Nahum as a place name in Israel. Could Joseph Smith have gotten the concept of Nahum as an Old World place name from that? Not likely.  Wikipedia’s article on Sde Nahum, Israel explains that it is a modern kibbutz founded in 1937. Population around 550. Not likely an influence for the Book of Mormon. What about Nehama, Israel? Wikipedia doesn’t seem aware of it, so it must not exist, I suppose. But there is an Israeli “Comfort Girls” band called Habanot Nechama. Is that the link? Or what about Nahma, Michigan? Another 500-person township. Founded 1881. Probably not an inspiration for Nahom. Or Anhim, Canada? Again, HUH? Sorry, but neither I not Wikipedia can find this place. Might exist, but if I can’t find it with Google and Wikipedia, what chance would Joseph Smith have? Any of you able to help me out here? I'm curious about just how common and obvious NHM is. 

Again, please, could someone explain to me how these scattered and sometimes nonexistent places make NHM names so extremely common, and how any of these could have somehow influence Joseph Smith to put Nahom as a place in the Book of Mormon, much less as a place name that perfectly fits a genuine ancient burial place in just the right spot?

The significance of Nahom, contrary to Johnson’s assertions, goes far beyond just 3 letters, and even beyond 3 letters in the right place on a map. There is also the meaning of the word which ties in perfectly with the narrative in the Book of Mormon. The Hebrew root NHM can have meanings of “to comfort, to console, to be sorry,” akin to the related Arabic root that refers to  sighing or moaning. Another Hebrew root that can be rendered NHM can mean “to complain” or “to be hungry.” The association with sorrow, mourning, complaining, and hunger all nicely fit Nephi’s text in 1 Nephi 16:34-35:
[34] And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.
[35] And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger.
[36] And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me; and they were desirous to return again to Jerusalem.
The apparent deft play one words by Nephi in the text is just one aspect of the many subtle evidences related to the issue of Nahom and the Arabian Peninsula aspects of the Book of Mormon. To ignore that body of evidence and see the evidence as no more than 3 common letters that can be accounted for by, say, Nahimha in Tanzania, reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of relevant evidence. Further, the straining at four-word gnats in the Book of Mormon to “destroy” Mormonism does not reflect any significant improvement in objectivity or analysis.

The point here is that when our most vocal or committed opponents speak out, they are often not interested in a genuine debate or fair consideration of the actual evidence, but in trashing the faith at all costs. Do not dismayed to hear that the evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon, no matter how impressive, will always be “lacking significance” in their minds, while that which is truly trivial will be given great weight if it can be used to attack. 

Do be dismayed, however, at how the Book of Mormon is becoming more interesting and more worth thoughtful and even scholarly reflection today than it ever was. There are numerous issues that we can better appreciate and objections we can better answer today, and more reason than even to pick it up and take it seriously. It’s a remarkable book worthy of far more than flippant dismissal and bad statistics.