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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Another Week, Another New Semitic Wordplay

Matthew Bowen just published his analysis of another fascinating, newly discovered apparent Hebrew wordplay built into the Book of Mormon. This one, like a great many of the interesting Semitic wordplays of the Book of Mormon, comes from Lehi's words as recorded by Nephi, arguably the two Book of Mormon characters most familiar with Hebraic literary tools. The publication is Matthew L. Bowen, "'If Ye Will Hearken': Lehi’s Rhetorical Wordplay on Ishmael in 2 Nephi 1:28–29 and Its Implications,"  Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25 (2017): 157-189.

Bowen explores the relationship between the Hebrew word for "hearken" and the name Ishmael, and suggests with compelling evidence that Lehi's speech invokes a wordplay similar to related wordplays on "hearken" found in the Hebrew Bible. Here is an excerpt
2 Nephi 1:1–4:12 is mainly parenetic [hortatory, encouraging] in character. Lehi speaks to his sons and “unto all his household, according to the feelings of his heart and the Spirit of the Lord which was in him” (2 Nephi 4:12). At the conclusion of the first part of his final blessings and admonitions (2 Nephi 1), Lehi speaks to all his sons who are older than Nephi (Laman, Lemuel, and Sam) and to the sons of Ishmael. Here he bestows a conditional “first blessing,” predicated on their willingness to “hear” or “hearken unto” Nephi — that is, follow his spiritual guidance and leadership:
And now my son, Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam, and also my sons who are the sons of Ishmael [yišmāʿēl or yšmʿʾl] behold, if ye will hearken [cf. Hebrew ʾim tišmāʿû or tišmĕʿû] unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish. And if ye will hearken unto him I leave unto you blessing, yea, even my first blessing. But if ye will not hearken unto him I take away my first blessing, yea, even my blessing, and it shall rest upon him. (2 Nephi 1:28–29)
Lehi’s admonition and blessing, as it appears in Nephi’s text, closely juxtaposes the name Ishmael with a threefold repetition of the verb šāmaʿ.47 If we include “obey” from 2 Nephi 1:27, the repetition is fourfold. The polyptotonic48 repetition of šāmaʿ around the name Ishmael would have had the immediate rhetorical effect of garnering the attention of Ishmael’s sons (and probably any of his daughters who were present on the occasion). The imminence and urgency of their decision to “hearken” is accentuated by the repetition of the root šāmaʿ in its verbal and onomastic forms.

My first response was to see how often "hearken" is used in the Book of Mormon to see if this was so common that it was bound to occur within a few sentences of any mention of Ishmael. It occurs almost 100 times, so across the 500+ pages of the Book of Mormon, its close proximity to Ishmael here could be a coincidence but isn't highly likely. There is a reasonable case to be made that an intelligent wordplay has been invoked. The abstract is just a small part of the scenario explored by Bowen.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fake News of the Day: Your Bank Is Perfectly Safe. Don't Worry.

Some readers here were shocked when I suggested that US banks are not a safe place to park your life's savings. Let me ask for a moment: why do you feel safe? Have you done any research on the safety of your bank? Have you looked at their balance sheet, for example, or related financial reports, to see how much capital they have compared to liabilities? Most US banks are in precarious positions compared to many strong overseas banks, operating at much higher risk than they should be. If a few more of their loans go sour, or if a few more customers decide to take their cash out, many US banks could be in big trouble. Banks can fail. Customers can suddenly find their accounts restricted, frozen, closed, or "taxed" to pay for someone else's mistakes. Why be complacent about this?

A while ago I called our US bank in Wisconsin and asked for their financial statement. Many banks publish this somewhere on their website, but I couldn't find a link on my bank's website so I called to inquire. The customer service people didn't know anything about that and couldn't find it either. They asked around. This was a question they didn't get very often. Perhaps never! So they finally transferred me to their VP over finance. He told me that he had never been asked for this before by a customer, but would email it to me. Their situation was better than most, I'm happy to say, and we still have funds there, but I learned something valuable in this experience: nearly all of this bank's customers have failed to even ask about the financial stability of the bank. If any of you have made a serious inquiry into your bank's stability, please let me know what you did and what you found.

America's banks have changed little since the tremendous problems a decade ago. The derivatives and junk that nearly brought our banking system down has not been cleared out of the system. The problems may be even bigger now. Yet in 2006 and 2007, before the collapse really began, our nation's top banking experts were telling us that everything was fine. No problem. They are highly motivated to be blind. Your job, as the person responsible for your future, is not to be blind, nor to trust the silly statements of blind guides. Your job is to protect your wealth and your future and not rely on possibly bailouts from sources that may perish before you get your share.

Right now we are in a giant economic bubble driven by artificially low interest rates, massive consumer debt, massive corporate debt, and insane government debt. This will not end well. It never has. Food storage is essential. You also need some cash on hand for times when ATMs and credit fail. Having some assets outside of a bank and outside of the US would also be wise, for in the US it takes one crazed official to, say, accuse you of being a drug dealer or terrorist or Russian sympathizer or something to see your accounts frozen. It happens far too easily. There is risk that needs to be managed. Hopefully all will be well and 20 trillion dollars of debt will just go ahead from a generous gift from Putin or somebody and the stock market will just keep going up no matter how bad earnings are. But in case reality kicks in some day, it would be wise to make some preparations.

As for the market bubble we are in now, here is an excerpt from the SovereignMan.com newsletter I receive:

May 16, 2017
Reno, Nevada, USA

There’s something completely ridiculous happening around the world right now.

We can start in the United Kingdom, where the FTSE-100 stock market index hit an all-time high yesterday of 7454.

Simultaneously the British government released statistics yesterday showing that debt judgments and bankruptcy filings across the UK soared 35% in the first quarter of 2017 to the highest level in a decade.

British consumers are on a debt binge, borrowing (and now defaulting) at record levels.

This all sounds pretty sustainable.

Across the pond in the Land of the Free, the US stock market also hit a record high yesterday.

Simultaneously, consumer credit (i.e. DEBT) in the US is also at an all-time high of $3.8 trillion.

Even more specifically, margin debt, which is the amount of money that investors borrow to buy stocks, is at an all-time high.

Think about that: investors are borrowing record amounts of money to buy stocks at all-time highs.

This sounds like a fantastic trend!

If you look deeper, the numbers become even more bizarre; let’s go back in time a few years and I’ll show you.

In 2012, Coca Cola reported $48 billion in revenue for the year, and $9 billion in profit. That was as pretty good year for Coca Cola shareholders.

For 2016, however, Coca Cola reported revenue of $41.8 billion, and $6.5 billion in profit.

So when you compare 2016 to 2012, revenue declined 13%, and profit declined 28%.

Given those dismal figures you’d think that Coke’s stock price would be a LOT lower today than it was back then.

But no.

After Coca Cola reported its 2012 earnings on February 12, 2013, its stock price was around $37.50.

When Coca Cola reported its 2016 earnings earlier this year, its stock price was $41.25. And today it’s even higher at $43.50.

Even more curious is that Coke’s 2012 report shows long-term debt of $14.7 billion. By 2016, long-term debt had more than doubled to $29.6 billion.

So Coca Cola is basically telling the world that its business is declining and they’re going deeper into debt. Yet investors continue to push the stock higher.

Makes perfect sense, right?

Now let’s look at ExxonMobil, whose 2010 annual report showed $383 billion in revenue, $30 billion in profit, and $12 billion in debt.

The company’s most recent annual report from 2016 posted $226 billion in revenue (42% decline), $7.7 billion in profit (74% decline), and $28 billion in debt (133% increase)!

Once again a rational person would think that the price of ExxonMobil’s stock (XOM) would be dramatically lower.

Wrong again. XOM is up from $78 to $83 over that period.

Then there’s Netflix, which has been one of the top-performing stocks over the last several years.

Bear in mind that Netflix actually LOSES money; it’s operating business lost nearly $1.5 billion in 2016, and the company continues to pile on more and more debt.

Earlier this month Netflix closed another $1.4 billion in debt financing, which is the third time in two years that the company has raised more than a billion in debt.

Netflix’s total long-term debt and content liabilities (the amount of money they’re legally required to pay to content owners) is approaching $20 billion, and rising.

Lose money, go into debt. Not exactly a recipe for success.

Yet curiously the stock price is at an all-time high. 

Companies are losing money, declining in business value, and having all-time highs in their stock valuation. The bubble of cheap credit in the US is being used by companies to buy back stock and pay dividends, massively increasing corporate debt to drive up the stock price. This does not end well. Are you ready? It could be years before reality kicks in, or it could be next week. Please consider preparing, wisely and steadily, for trouble ahead 

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Linguist John S. Robertson Reviews Brian Stubbs' Work on Uto-Aztecan Languages and the Evidence for Old World Influence

"Exploring Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan Languages" by Dr. John S. Robertson was just published in the Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. This is a review of Stubbs' recent highly technical work, Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan (Provo, UT: Grover Publications, 2015), a tome with 436 large pages packed with details. You may recall that I've discussed this book and Stubbs' less technical book for LDS audiences on ancient languages in the Book of Mormon (my comments began with an overview called "Bigger Than Nahom?" and then details of the evidence were discussed in Part 1Part 2, and Part 3), and was quite impressed with the rigor and abundance of links found through use of the comparative method in linguistics. I dare say that Robertson seems to hold a similar view. After reviewing many aspects of Stubbs' work, he offers this simple conclusion:
As a practitioner of the comparative historical method for 40+ years, I believe I can say what Stubbs’s scholarship does and does not deserve: It does not deserve aprioristic dismissal given the extensive data he presents. It does deserve authoritative consideration because, from my point of view, I cannot find an easy way to challenge the breadth and depth of the data.
I would welcome thoughts from those who actually take a look at Robertson's article.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Rod of Iron: Part of Another Intriguing Wordplay in the Book of Mormon

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. 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 mdwntr was a technical term for a divine revelation, literally the “the word of God [or] divine decree.” The phrase mdwntr 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.