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Sunday, April 23, 2017

More Book of Mormon Wordplays: A New Proposal Invoving Noah

The Book of Mormon abounds with evidence of ancient Semitic roots. One class of such evidence is the presence of Hebraic wordplays that appear to have been in the original text. The analysis is made difficult by the fact that we don't have the original plates to examine, just the translation. but in the translation, one can see remnants of original wordplays. Some of the first to be noticed, as I recall, involved the names Jershon and  Nahom, which could readily be recognized as Hebrew words with meanings that fit beautifully in the context of the story involving these names. Since then there have been many potential wordplays proposed, including some that don't involve names. But names more directly guide us to the source and to the possibilities of wordplays when they may be present.

One of the most recently proposed wordplays involves the name Noah, which occurs in several contexts in the Book of Mormon. Below is the abstract from Matthew Bowen, "'This Son Shall Comfort Us': An Onomastic Tale of Two Noahs," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 23 (2017): 263-298. Matthew, by the way, is the researcher who I think has done the most in recent years to explore ancient wordplays built into our text. I recommend looking at the list of his articles at The Interpreter.
Abstract: From an etiological perspective, the Hebrew Bible connects the name Noah with two distinct but somewhat homonymous verbal roots: nwḥ (“rest”) and nḥm (“comfort,” “regret” [sometimes “repent”]). Significantly, the Enoch and Noah material in the revealed text of the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis (especially Moses 7–8) also connects the name Noah in a positive sense to the earth’s “rest” and the Lord’s covenant with Enoch after the latter “refuse[d] to be comforted” regarding the imminent destruction of humanity in the flood. The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, connects the name Noah pejoratively to Hebrew nwḥ (“rest”) and nḥm (“comfort” and “repentance” [regret]) in a negative evaluation of King Noah, the son of Zeniff. King Noah causes his people to “labor exceedingly to support iniquity” (Mosiah 11:6), gives “rest” to his wicked and corrupt priests (Mosiah 11:11), and anesthetizes his people in their sins with his winemaking. Noah and his people’s refusal to “repent” and their martyring of Abinadi result in their coming into hard bondage to the Lamanites. Mormon’s text further demonstrates how the Lord eventually “comforts” Noah’s former subjects after their “sore repentance” and “sincere repentance” from their iniquity and abominations, providing them a typological deliverance that points forward to the atonement of Jesus Christ.
I appreciate the many insights into the text that come from understanding the vestiges of wordplays that appear to have been used by the original authors. As always, there is more than meets the eye waiting to be revealed in the pages of the Book of Mormon. 

23 comments:

JR said...

Good article.
The Book of Mormon was instrumental in helping me find the origin of my last name. No one believed me, told me it was coincidence, for many years.
Thanks to the Internet growing over the years, I was able to confirm my suspicions.
I was right. And a DNA test also confirms my finding.

Anonymous said...

A few points for you to consider, Jeff:

1. Of course "[t]he Book of Mormon abounds with evidence of ancient Semitic roots." One would expect this of a 19th-century text whose major source is an ancient Semitic text.

2. I think you’re way too cavalier about the degree to which wordplay can survive translation, and thus the degree to which we can confidently discuss this issue at all without the original text. Bowen treats wordplay as solely a semantic question (a question of meaning), but it’s also very much a syntactic question; syntax determines word order, the proximity between words, etc., all of which have a bearing on whether a wordplay is actually a wordplay. It's hard enough for a translator to preserve the semantic shadings of the original; it's even harder to preserve its syntax.

3. Bowen's methodology seems extremely dubious. If you look at the meaning of any given name, and then scour many hundreds of nearby words for anything with a similar meaning, you're not unlikely to turn up some "false positives." The odds go up when the name connotes more than one meaning (e.g., not just comfort but also rest). The odds go up even more when one is willing to count as a wordplay the negation of the name's meaning (e.g., labor as the opposite of rest). They go up even more when one is as clever and inventive as Bowen in arguing for just what might count as a parallel meaning.

So then. Bowen points to the "rest" and "comfort" connoted by the name Noah, then counts later references to rest and comfort as wordplays. The later references are not, however, very close to the original term they supposedly play on (between the word Noah and the word rest there are ca. 125 intervening words). This increases the likelihood the "wordplay" is a false positive (not to mention weakening any impact it might actually have on the reader).

Compare this to what is probably the most famous wordplay in the Bible, the pun on Adam/Adamah, in which God forms the human/Adam out of the earth/Adamah. Most translation don't preserve this wordplay; if one wanted to do so, one might take the KJV's "God formed man of the dust of the ground" and render it something like "God formed the earthling out of the earth."

So compare this nice, compact pun:

God formed the EARTHLING out of the EARTH

to this sprawling construct:

king NOAH built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of a precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper; And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things. And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the a temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass. And the seats which were set apart for the a high priests, which were above all the other seats, he did ornament with pure gold; and he caused a breastwork to be built before them, that they might REST their bodies

See what I mean? At what point do we say that two terms are simply not close enough to one another to constitute a wordplay?

Obviously, the less proximity, the more "wordplays" we will find.

To be continued….

-- OK

Anonymous said...

To continue: Here's another way of looking at the basic problem with Bowen's methodology: we can investigate whether, using Bowen’s assumptions, other names would have been just as likely as “Noah” to result in wordplays. If it turns out that many biblical names end up playing on words within 100+ words of Noah in the Book of Mormon text, then it supports the idea that Bowen’s discoveries are chance artifacts. The more such “punning” names we find, the less likely Bowen’s findings are legit.

So, let’s try a few other names. Suppose Joseph Smith had decided to name the Book of Mosiah's hero not Noah but, let's say, Adah. The root would then mean "adornment" (see here). And whaddaya know, one would then discover a very nice wordplay in Mosiah 11:8:

Adah ADORNMENT built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ORNAMENTED them.... (Note how much more compact and believable this is as a wordplay compared to Bowen's Noah/rest example.)

Or suppose JS had named the character Adlai ("refuge"). Then at Mosiah 11:13 we would also have a wordplay:

... he Adlai (REFUGE) caused many buildings to be built in the land Shilom; and he caused a great tower to be built on the hill north of the land Shilom, which had been a RESORT for the children of Nephi....

Many other biblical names similarly wind up giving us wordplays in the BoM text. The name Ish-bosheth (man of shame) might be said to play on "riotous living" at Mosiah 11:14. Isaac (he will laugh) might be said to pun again on "riotous living." Had the name been Jacob (God may protect), we might find a (negative) wordplay on "Jacob sent guards round about the land to keep them off" at 11:17. Had it been Kish (power), we'd find a nice pun at 11:19, "boast in their own strength." Ditto for 11:19 if the name had been Amzi (my strength, or strong).

Based on my casual efforts here, I would estimate that, if one uses Bowen's highly dubious methodology, something like one out of three or four biblical names would result in "wordplays." This strongly supports the possibility that the wordplays Bowen finds for Noah are methodological artifacts rather than evidence of ancient Semitic authorship.

-- OK

Darren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darren said...

"So, let’s try a few other names. Suppose Joseph Smith had decided to name the Book of Mosiah's hero not Noah but, let's say, Adah. The root would then mean "adornment" (see here). And whaddaya know, one would then discover a very nice wordplay in Mosiah 11:8:

Adah ADORNMENT built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ORNAMENTED them.... (Note how much more compact and believable this is as a wordplay compared to Bowen's Noah/rest example.)"

What would you say would be the chances of Joseph Smith getting right that Adah could mean "adornment" in ancient Semitic tongues?

Anonymous said...

Odds that JS would know that are about zero. Odds of using that name, and then using a word semantically close within 100+ words of text, in a text of hundreds of thousands of words, pretty high.

It's our old friend, the Texas Sharpshooter. That old cuss can barely hit the broadside of a barn, but danged if he doesn't manage to shoot down a lot of sloppy Mormon apologetics.

-- OK

Darren said...

Anomynous;

If sharpshooters are that bad the ain't from Texas, that's for sure.

So, the fact that a word *is* related to an ancient Semitic language, the same language the narrative claims to have been from and we see use of that word around the etymological root meaning of that word, and whose author had no idea that said word is of Semitic origin, even 100+ words away, it is useless as wordplay?

Anonymous said...

Not sure I understand the question --- can you clarify?

-- OK

Darren said...

"Not sure I understand the question --- can you clarify?"

Joseph Smith is the legal author of the Boo of Mormon. That book claims to be of ancient Middle Eastern origin with its primary narrative located somewhere in the pre-Columbian Americas. If there is a word, like "Noah", which has a Semitic root meaning, that it is not a valid word play within the text if words associated with that meaning are 100+ words away?

Darren said...

Anonymous;

I think Matt Bowen's argument is that the overall narrative of King Noah is that he was a king who lead his people to a false sense of "rest" and "comfort" and that the prophet Abinadi testified of where true "rest" and "comfort" ifs found: in the divine redemption through Jesus Christ. In Mosiah 12 in particular, Abinadi explicitly denounces the priests of King Noah who perverted scripture to justify sin; sin used to "comfort" King Noah's followers. I do not recall if Bowen brought this up in his essay (I read it several months ago) but related to Bowen's argument is that Abinadi spoke of the "suffering servant" who is, in Abinadi's time, the Messiah to come, as spoken of by Isaiah, as Abinadi was being tortuously put to death.

My take: The irony is that while Abinadi suffered physical pain, perhaps of unimaginable proportions, he experienced true "rest" and "comfort" in that he focused on the redemption of the Savior while King Noah, who provided great physical comfort to his followers, stod against "rest" and 'comfort". Bowen's overall purpose was to use the meaning of "Noah" to demonstrate King Noah's misuse of his role as leader of God's people while Abinadi taught that very people the true meaning of "rest" and "comfort".

Anonymous said...

... it is not a valid word play within the text if words associated with that meaning are 100+ words away?

Yes. The more words that intervene between one of the words and the other, the less likely it's a wordplay and the more likely it's mere chance. The longer a story goes on, the more likely a given word will show up just as part of the story.

-- OK

Darren said...

"Yes. The more words that intervene between one of the words and the other, the less likely it's a wordplay and the more likely it's mere chance. The longer a story goes on, the more likely a given word will show up just as part of the story."

I would agree but in this essay Bowen argues, as I pointed out, that "Noah" correlates with the entire narrative of King Noah and particularly the interaction he and his priests had with Abinadi.

everything before us said...

I would agree but in this essay Bowen argues, as I pointed out, that "Noah" correlates with the entire narrative of King Noah and particularly the interaction he and his priests had with Abinadi.

Well, then it was a good thing that King Noah's dad decided to name him "Noah," right? I mean...imagine how horrible it would've been to have lost this amazing wordplay if Noah's dad decided to name him Sam.

Anonymous said...

"Noah" correlates with the entire narrative of King Noah....

Yes, but the relationship between a word and a story's theme is not a wordplay.

It's a lot more impressive to find two semantically related words in close proximity, like "God formed the EARTHLING out of the EARTH," than it is for some critic to say he's found a relationship between a name's root and what that critic takes to be a story's general theme.

The latter is a very easy game to play. If I were of mind to, I could probably toss off dozens of essays like Bowen's. Let's see.... As we all know, the name "Moses" has a sense of being taken out of the water. And guess what? One of the high points of Moses's story involves water! Wow! What a discovery! Of course, other parts of his story involve bricks, straw, an overseer, frogs, a burning bush, some mannah, a mountain, some tablets, a calf, a problematic brother.... If one of these had not by chance connect up with Moses's name, then quite likely some other one would have.

Yes, it's a very easy game to play. If by chance the hero of the Exodus had been named Asher ("happy"), a scholar might argue that, well, the Israelites were certain happy to escape bondage, right? And look here: And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians)! And later on, the Israeiltes were unhappy about all that wandering in the desert: And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?

I suppose I could take this utterly unremarkable state of affairs and gussy it up in some academic language and publish it in some backwater, non-peer-reviewed journal --- but only, of course, if I didn't mind trashing my reputation as a scholar.

Just how easy is it to play this game? Consider the great American masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Off we go...:

"From a semantic perspective, the surname 'Finn' denotes whiteness (Irish fionn, via Gaelic and Old German, white, fair), while its homophone 'fin' (as the external membranous process of an aquatic animal, or an appendage of a boat, used in propelling or guiding) has a strong connotation of both aqueous existence and propulsion and guidance. Significantly, these varied sets of meanings converge as Twain employs the watery expanse of the Mississippi River as the scene of Huckleberry Finn's growing racial understanding, that is, his new understanding of the significance of whiteness in antebellum America. This drama unfolds as the powerful river propels Huck ever deeper into the slaveholding South, where whiteness equates to freedom, on a raft, which, unlike other watercraft, is virtually defined by its lack of any means of guidance or propulsion. What emerges from my close reading of Twain's novel is a dense network of semantic connections that..." blah blah blah.... I could do this all day.

All Bowen has really shown is that in a lengthy narrative one can find words and themes with related meanings. Big whoop.

This is kind of fun, but at least I know it's nonsense. The Interpreter hasn't figured that out yet. The good folks at BYU and the Maxwell Institute have figured it out --- which of course is the reason they gave Dan Peterson et al the heave-ho awhile back.

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

Perhaps OK carefully read Bowen's work, but the criticism of it seems to miss quite a lot. Summarizing Bowen's work, he chides: "All Bowen has really shown is that in a lengthy narrative one can find words and themes with related meanings. Big whoop." And also: "Yes, but the relationship between a word and a story's theme is not a wordplay. It's a lot more impressive to find two semantically related words in close proximity."

Bowen's work is much more interesting than that. He begins by looking at the extended wordplays in Moses 7 and 8, where the meanings of Noah's name are applied in close proximity in multiple cases. Then he contrasts the positive uses of these meanings (positive toward Noah) with similar but negative wordplays in the Book of Mormon. These wordplays, where Noah's name is contrasted with negative meanings related to the name, are shown to occur in Mosiah 11:1‒4, Mosiah 11:6, Mosiah 11:8-10, with other related passages, creating an interesting theme related to Noah in much of the story about him. It seems to be more meaningful than just random words found by an apologist.

So what about close proximity? As one example, consider Mosiah 11:6, where the meanings of "comfort" and "rest" are given a pejorative twist with "labor exceedingly" due to the burdens Noah imposed: “Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity” (Mosiah 11:6; see also Mosiah 29:35). It's in the same verse. The other cases are usually in the same pericope. The description of Noah's actions and the impact on his people are frequently portrayed with pejorative inversions of the meanings of Noah. Something interesting. Bowen does not offer this as a "proof" of anything but as a useful insight for better appreciating the depth of the text before us. Appreciating the Noah account in the Book of Mormon is enhanced by appreciating the wordplays in the Book of Moses and the Old Testament, and seeing how they have been turned to appropriately describe a wicked king.

Anonymous said...

Appreciating the Noah account in the Book of Mormon is enhanced by appreciating the wordplays in the Book of Moses and the Old Testament, and seeing how they have been turned to appropriately describe a wicked king.

Unless, of course, the "wordplays" are actually just methodological artifacts, in which case Bowen is teaching believers to misread their holy text. It seems to me that this would be something that, out of respect for the scripture, an LDS scholar would be at pains to avoid. And one way to avoid it would be to pay more attention to critical method.

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

Hmm, not sure that critical method is your real concern here. By the way, what made you think that proximity was not present in any of Bowen's proposed examples?

Anonymous said...

Hate to sound like a broken record, but this.

Search for patterns in a text of several hundreds of thousands of words, and stuff will turn up, purely by chance, that appears significant but really is not.

Just for fun, you might want to read this brilliant and vaguely related short story by Borges.

-- OK

everything before us said...

If the Book of Mormon is historical, meaning Noah truly did impose hard labor upon his people, then the wordplay in an account of this historical event is purely coincidental. Otherwise, it sounds a lot like one is making a case for the Book of Mormon as fiction, in which the name Noah was selected by the storyteller for its ability to serve its role in the creative wordplay he desired to include in the story.

In the same spirit as OK's objections, I think someone thousands of years could really have a heyday with the name of our current president and his fascinating and unexpected rise to power. Yet...this would clearly be purely coincidental. For the same reasons it is only a coincidence that a historical figure (Noah) engaged in activity that creates wordplay with his own name.

Jason Robertson said...

If we look at the story of Noah in genesis as an example of the word play between "Noah" and "rest" we see the words don't occur near each other. We are first introduced to Noah in Genesis 5:29. We then don't encounter "rest" until Genesis 8:4 over 2 chapters into the story. Rest and Noah in the Book of Mormon occurs much closer. Its not as close as say the wordplay between Nephi and "goodly" in 1 Nephi 1:1 but if we use the Genesis Noah wordplay as the standard then we should expect the wordplay to occur within the story but not necessarily close to the name in question.

Anonymous said...

If the Book of Mormon is historical, meaning Noah truly did impose hard labor upon his people, then the wordplay in an account of this historical event is purely coincidental....

Excellent point.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

If the Book of Mormon is historical, meaning Noah truly did impose hard labor upon his people, then the wordplay in an account of this historical event is purely coincidental....


I think you mean purely ironic.

Steve

Everything Before Us said...

Nope...I meant precisely what I said.