The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon
John A. Tvedtnes
The English translation of the Book of Mormon shows many characteristics of the Hebrew language. In many places the words that have been used and the ways in which the words have been put together are more typical of Hebrew than of English. These Hebraisms, as I will call them, are evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon—evidence that Joseph Smith did not write a book in English but translated an ancient text and that his translation reflects the Hebrew words and word order of the original.
There can be no doubt that the Nephites spoke Hebrew. Not only did they come from Jerusalem, where Hebrew was commonly spoken at that time, but Moroni himself indicated that they knew Hebrew (see Mormon 9:32-34). Therefore, the English translation of the Book of Mormon not surprisingly contains characteristics of Hebrew.
We do not know exactly what language was used on the original plates of the Book of Mormon. Nephi described the writing system as a combination of "the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). Moroni, writing a thousand years later, called it "reformed Egyptian" (Mormon 9:32-34). This might mean that they used Egyptian symbols to represent Egyptian words, or that they used Egyptian symbols as a shorthand to represent Hebrew words, or even that they used both Egyptian and Hebrew symbols to represent Hebrew words. Whatever reformed Egyptian was, it must have been influenced by the language that the Nephites used in daily speech—Hebrew. That influence can be seen in the Hebraisms preserved in the English translation.
The Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon help persuade us that it is authentic. The following story will illustrate. During the years 1968-71, I taught Hebrew at the University of Utah. My practice was to ask new students to respond to a questionnaire, giving some idea of their interests and linguistic background. One student wrote that she wanted to study Hebrew in order to prove the Book of Mormon was a fraud. She approached me after class to explain.
When I inquired why she felt the Book of Mormon was fraudulent, she stated that it was full of errors. I asked for an example. She drew my attention to Alma 46:19, where we read, "When Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air." She noted that in the 1830 edition (p. 351), this read simply "waving the rent of his garment." In English, the rent is the hole in the garment, not the piece torn out of the garment. Therefore, Moroni could not have waved it. This was an error, she contended, and adding the word part later was mere deception.
This was my first introduction to variations in different editions of the Book of Mormon. Without a Hebrew background, I might have been bothered by it. But the explanation was clear when I considered how Mormon would have written that sentence. Hebrew does not have to add the word part to a verbal substantive like rent as English requires. Thus, broken in Hebrew can refer to a broken thing or a broken part, while new can refer to a new thing. In the verse the student cited, rent would mean rent thing or rent part. Thus, the "error" she saw as evidence of fraud was really a Hebraism that was evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Significantly, the first (1830) edition of the Book of Mormon contains many more Hebraisms than later editions. Later editions, especially in 1837, 1840, and 1876, were edited to improve the English in areas where the text appeared to be awkward. Unfortunately, this destroyed some of the evidence for a Hebrew original. Therefore, I will occasionally refer to the reading of the 1830 edition to illustrate Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon.
When English shows a possessive or descriptive relationship between two nouns, it usually puts the possessive or descriptive noun first: the king's house or wood house. Hebrew, however, uses the opposite order: house the king (which would usually be translated house of the king) or house wood (house of wood). If the Hebrew word order is kept in the English translation, the word of must be added, even though it does not exist in the Hebrew.
The Book of Mormon contains a large number of what appear to be translations from the Hebrew preserving the Hebrew word order:
"plates of brass" instead of brass plates (1 Nephi 3:24)
"works of righteousness" instead of righteous works (Alma 5:16)
"words of plainness" instead of plain words (Jacob 4:14)
"chains of hell" instead of hell's chains (Alma 5:7)
"voice of the Spirit" instead of the Spirit's voice(1 Nephi 4:18)
"skin of blackness" instead of black skin (2 Nephi 5:21)
"night of darkness" instead of dark night (Alma 34:33)
"rod of iron" instead of iron rod (1 Nephi 8:19)
The Hebrew-like expression land of promise appears twenty-two times in the Book of Mormon, while promised land (common in English) is found only ten times.
Hebrew has fewer adverbs than English. Instead, it often uses prepositional phrases with the preposition meaning in or with. The English translation of the Book of Mormon contains more of these prepositional phrases in place of adverbs than we would expect if the book had been written in English originally—another Hebraism. Here are some examples:
"with patience" instead of patiently (Mosiah 24:15)
"with much harshness" instead of very harshly (1 Nephi 18:11)
"with joy" instead of joyfully (Jacob 4:3)
"in spirit and in truth" instead of spiritually and truly (Alma 34:38)
"in righteousness" instead of righteously (1 Nephi 20:1)
"with gladness" instead of gladly (2 Nephi 28:28)
Cognates are related words that come from the same root. For example, the English noun student is cognate to the verb study and the adjective studious. In Hebrew, a verb is sometimes followed by a noun that is a cognate, such as "wrote upon it a writing" (Exodus 39:30) and "she vowed a vow" (1 Samuel 1:11). In English, cognates are used much less often. Using such cognates is often considered an awkward or inelegant style in English. Someone writing in English would be more likely to use "she vowed" or "she made a vow." Even in translation from the Hebrew, the King James Bible sometimes avoids using cognates. In Genesis 1:11, a literal translation of the Hebrew would be "Let the earth grass grass," but the English translation reads "Let the earth bring forth grass."
The Book of Mormon uses cognates much more often than we would expect if the book had originally been written in English. These cognates show the Hebrew influence of the original. One of the best-known examples is "I have dreamed a dream" (1 Nephi 8:2). That is exactly the way that the same idea is expressed in literal translation of the Old Testament Hebrew (see Genesis 37:5; 41:11).
Here are some other examples of the use of cognates in the Book of Mormon, each followed by the more normal expression for English:
"work all manner of fine work" (Mosiah 11:10) instead of work well
"and he did judge righteous judgments" (Mosiah 29:43) instead of judge righteously or make righteous judgments
"build buildings" (2 Nephi 5:15; Mosiah 23:5) instead of erect buildings or simply build
"this was the desire which I desired of him" (Enos 1:13) instead of what I desired
"I will work a great and a marvelous work" (1 Nephi 14:7) instead of perform a great and marvelous work
"taxed with a tax" (Mosiah 7:15) instead of taxed
"cursed with a sore cursing " (2 Nephi 1:22; Jacob 3:3) instead of cursed sorely
Hebrew often uses compound prepositions, made up of a preposition plus a noun, in places where English would normally use just a preposition. For example, Hebrew uses compound prepositions that would be translated literally as by the hand of and by the mouth of. English would normally use just by. The Book of Mormon contains many examples that appear to show the influence of this Hebrew use of compound prepositions:
"ye shall be taken by the hand of your enemies" (Mosiah 17:18)
"I have also acquired much riches by the hand of my industry" (Alma 10:4)
"sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren" (Alma 10:3)
"the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets" (1 Nephi 3:20)
"by the mouth of angels, doth he declare it" (Alma 13:22)
Hebrew uses another compound preposition that would be translated literally as from before the presence of or from before the face of. English would normally use simply from. The influence of the Hebrew can be seen in these Book of Mormon passages:
"they fled from before my presence" (1 Nephi 4:28)
"he had gone from before my presence" (1 Nephi 11:12)
"they were carried away . . . from before my face" (1 Nephi 11:29)
Hebrew uses conjunctions much more frequently than English does. One clear example of this can be found in lists of items. In English, the conjunction and is normally used only before the last item in a list, such as wood, iron, copper, and brass. But Hebrew usually uses a conjunction before each item. The Book of Mormon contains many examples of this Hebrew-like usage, such as this one found in 2 Nephi 5:15: "in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores."
This kind of repetition is so prominent in the Book of Mormon that Professor Haim Rabin, President of the Hebrew Language Academy and a specialist in the history of the Hebrew language, once used a passage from the Book of Mormon in a lecture in English to illustrate this principle, because, he explained, it was a better illustration than passages from the English Bible.
In such lists, Hebrew also repeats related elements such as prepositions, articles, and possessive pronouns. Here are some examples from the Book of Mormon:
"And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family and provisions, and tents, and [he, 1830] departed into the wilderness" (1 Nephi 2:4).
"And it came to pass that we went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things" (1 Nephi 3:22).
" . . . All mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state . . . " (1 Nephi 10:6).
" . . . My gospel . . . and my rock and my salvation . . . " (1 Nephi 13:36).
" . . . The city of Laman, and the city of Josh, and the city of Gad, and the city of Kishkumen, have I caused to be burned with fire" (3 Nephi 9:10).
" . . . All their men and all their women and all their children . . . " (Mosiah 24:22).
Such repetition seems to be a waste of precious space on the plates, except for the fact that it is required by the Hebrew language.
Another difference between Hebrew and English conjunctions is that in Hebrew the same conjunction can carry both the meaning and and also the opposite meaning but. Here are two well-known Bible passages in which the King James Version renders the conjunction but:
"Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it" (Genesis 2:16-17).
"And as for Ishmael . . . I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac" (Genesis 17:20-21).
Evidence for Hebraism in the Book of Mormon lies in the fact that some passages use the conjunction and when but is expected. Here, for example, are two different versions of the Lord's promise to Lehi:
"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence" (2 Nephi 1:20; compare Alma 50:20).
"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence" (2 Nephi 4:4).
In one of the quotations of this promise, Joseph Smith rendered the conjunction and, while in another place, he rendered it but. In other Book of Mormon passages, Joseph translated and when in English we would expect but because a contrastive meaning is clearly called for:
"And when I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and (= but) when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it" (Moroni 9:4).
"He commanded the multitude that they should cease to pray, and also his disciples. And (= but) he commanded them that they should not cease to pray in their hearts" (3 Nephi 20:1).
Another difference in the use of conjunctions is that in biblical Hebrew, a language with no punctuation, the conjunction also serves as a marker of parenthesis. The words we would put inside parentheses in English are preceded by the conjunction in Hebrew, and, at the conclusion, the next phrase is introduced by the conjunction. In the following biblical example, the same conjunction has been variously rendered and, for, and that by the King James translators to fit the requirements of the English language: "As they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, (for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest,) that the waters . . . stood and rose up" (Joshua 3:15-16). We see that for and that, two English renditions of the same Hebrew conjunction, served to set off what the English translators chose to mark with the parentheses.
The Book of Mormon also uses conjunctions to mark parenthetical phrases. In the Book of Mormon examples listed below, I have added parentheses to illustrate:
"After I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God (and the Son of God was the Messiah which should come) and it came to pass that I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things" (1 Nephi 10:17, reading of 1830 edition).
"When Jesus had spoken these words unto Nephi, and to those who had been called, (now the number of them who had been called, and received power and authority to baptize, was twelve) and behold, he stretched forth his hand . . . " (3 Nephi 12:1).
A special use in Hebrew of this kind of parenthetical phrase is the introduction of a name. In English, we usually say something like, "there was a man named X," or "there was a man whose name was X." While the Book of Mormon has many such examples, it often reflects the Hebrew usage, which is, "there was a man (and his name was X.)" In the examples which follow, I have added parentheses where necessary:
"Zoram did take courage at the words which I spake (now Zoram was the name of the servant) and he promised . . . " (1 Nephi 4:35).
"They took him (and his name was Nehor) and they carried him . . . " (Alma 1:15).
Another Hebrew-like use of the conjunction in the Book of Mormon is the expression and also. In Hebrew, it is used to emphasize the close links between two things, as in this biblical passage: "Both drink thou, and I will also draw for thy camels" (Genesis 24:44). Here are some examples from the Book of Mormon that seem to reflect the Hebrew usage:
"They . . . worshiped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name" (Jacob 4:5).
"The Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma" (Mosiah 27:14).
" . . . What the Lord had done for his son, and also for those that were with him . . . " (Mosiah 27:21).
"Now the sons of Mosiah were numbered among the unbelievers; and also one of the sons of Alma was numbered among them" (Mosiah 27:8).
Biblical Hebrew begins subordinate clauses with prepositions plus a word that translates as that, such as in Ezekiel 40:1: "after that the city was smitten." Such a use of that in English is awkward and therefore rare. Yet it appears frequently in the Book of Mormon, another evidence of Hebrew influence. It was even more frequent in the 1830 edition, but many of the thats were dropped from later editions to read more smoothly (noted in the following examples by brackets).
"And because that they are redeemed from the fall" (2 Nephi 2:26)
"because that my heart is broken" (2 Nephi 4:32)
"because that ye shall receive more of my word" (2 Nephi 29:8)
"because [that] they had hardened their hearts" (1 Nephi 16:22)
"because [that] ye are of the house of Israel" (2 Nephi 6:5)
"before [that] they were slain" (1 Nephi 13:15)
"before [that] he shall manifest himself in the flesh" (Enos 1:8)
"and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross" (3 Nephi 27:14)
"after that I am gone to the Father" (3 Nephi 28:1)
"after [that] I have abridged" (1 Nephi 1:17)
"after [that] he hath been commanded to flee" (1 Nephi 3:18)
The Relative Clause
In Hebrew, the word that marks the beginning of a relative clause (generally translated which or who in English) does not always closely follow the word it refers back to, as it usually does in English. Some Book of Mormon passages give the impression of having been translated from such Hebrew sentences:
"Our brother Nephi . . . has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren" (1 Nephi 16:37) instead of to be a ruler and teacher to us, who are his elder brethren.
"The Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, who were the armies of Pharaoh" (1 Nephi 17:27) instead of the Egyptians, who were the armies of Pharaoh, were drowned in the Red Sea.
"Then shall they confess, who live without God in the world" (Mosiah 27:31) instead of then shall they who live without God in the world confess.
Extrapositional Nouns and Pronouns
Hebrew often uses a noun or pronoun as the direct object of the verb in one clause and a pronoun referring to the same person or thing in the following clause in a way that seems unnecessary or redundant in English. For example in Genesis 1:4, we read, "God saw the light, that it was good." In this case, the King James Bible reflects the Hebrew wording, despite the fact that in English the normal way of saying this would be, "God saw that the light was good." This Hebraic usage is also found in the Book of Mormon:
"I beheld, and saw the people of the seed of my brethren that they had overcome my seed" (1 Nephi 12:20).
"I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren" (1 Nephi 13:14).
"And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles" (1 Nephi 13:15).
"I . . . beheld the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended" (1 Nephi 14:14).
In biblical Hebrew, the prepositions that are translated in and to in English are often interchangeable. This would not usually work in English. In at least two Book of Mormon passages, the 1830 edition used to and in in ways that reflect the Hebrew usage, although later editions were changed to reflect the normal English use.
In 1 Nephi 7:12, the 1830 edition read "let us be faithful in him." Both in and to are possible in biblical Hebrew, but, when speaking of God, faithful in is usual. Faithful to is more normal in English, and in was changed to to in later editions of the Book of Mormon.
In 1 Nephi 17:14, the 1830 edition read "after ye have arrived to the promised land." Both in and to are possible in biblical Hebrew, but arrive to< is much more common. English prefers arrive at.
Comparison in English is usually expressed in this way: a certain thing is more X than a second thing, or a certain thing is Xer than a second thing. The words more and than or the suffix -er express the comparison. In Hebrew, comparison is expressed by a word that is translated as from in this way: a certain thing is X from< a second thing. The Book of Mormon frequently uses the word above in comparisons in a way that is more like the Hebrew use of from than the English use of more or -er, apparently reflecting a Hebrew influence.
"a land which is choice above all other lands" (1 Nephi 2:20; see 13:30)
"the tree which is precious above all" (1 Nephi 11:9; see 15:36)
"most abominable above all sins" (Alma 39:5)
"the fruit . . . which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure" (Alma 32:42)
When a child is born, we say in English that his father and mother "called him X" or "named him X." The same is true in naming places, for example, "He called his ranch Pleasant Valley." But Hebrew expresses it quite differently: "He called the name of his son X." In Hebrew, it is the name that is "called," not the child or the place. Perhaps the best-known example from the Bible is the one found in Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." This idiom is found in a number of places in the Book of Mormon:
"we did call the name of the place Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13)
"and they called the name of the city Moroni" (Alma 50:13-14)
"he had three sons; and he called their names Mosiah, and
Helorum, and Helaman" (Mosiah 1:2)
"they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies" (Alma 23:17)
In Hebrew, a possessive pronoun is added to the end of the noun. Thus my book would be the book of me. This Hebraic usage is reflected in several examples from the Book of Mormon:
"hear the words of me" (Jacob 5:2)
"the Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of me" (2 Nephi 10:8)
"how unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him" (Jacob 4:8)
"they are delivered by the power of him" (2 Nephi 9:25)
"setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption" (Moroni 8:20)
Words Used in Unusual Ways
At several points in the Book of Mormon, we encounter English words used in ways that are unknown or unexpected in our language. King Mosiah said, "I shall give this people a name, that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people" (Mosiah 1:11). In English we would expect distinguished from. But the Book of Mormon passage reflects the normal Hebrew expression, which uses the compound preposition that means from above.
Jacob wrote that Nephi instructed him regarding Nephite sacred preaching, revelations, and prophecies that "I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates" (Jacob 1:4). The term head seems out of place. We would expect something like most important to be used. But the expression is readily explainable in terms of Hebrew. The Hebrew word for the head of the body is sometimes used to describe things as chief (see Deuteronomy 33:15; Psalm 137:6; and Proverbs 1:21) or precious (see Amos 6:1; Song of Solomon 4:14; Ezekiel 27:22). This is probably the sense in which Jacob used the word.
Nephi wrote, "We are upon an isle of the sea" (2 Nephi 10:20). It seems strange to have Nephi call the American continent an island. But the Hebrew word generally translated isle in the Bible has a wider range of meaning than just island. It most often refers to coastal lands.
Alma 13:18, speaking of Melchizedek, notes that "he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father." This may reflect the normal biblical Hebrew use of the preposition under for the meaning instead of. The same preposition is rendered instead of in some passages of the King James Bible. For example, after King Amaziah had been murdered, "all the people of Judah took Azariah . . . and made him king instead of his father Amaziah" (2 Kings 14:21).
In Ether 8:11 we read "he desired her to wife." English would prefer for a wife. There is a Hebrew preposition that means both to and for. Furthermore, the Hebrew word used for wife really means woman. In three Book of Mormon passages, the word women appears to mean wives:
"Our women did bear children" (1 Nephi 17:1).
"Our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children" (1 Nephi 17:20).
"For behold, he hath blessed mine house, he hath blessed me, and my women, and my children, and my father and my kinsfolk; yea, even all my kindred hath he blessed" (Alma 10:11).
There is much more linguistic evidence for the influence of Hebrew on the Book of Mormon, but the examples of Hebraisms that I have cited should be enough to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text influenced by Hebrew. Many expressions used in the Book of Mormon are awkward or unexpected in English, even in Joseph Smith's time. Yet they make good sense when viewed as translations, perhaps as too literal translations, from an ancient text written in a Hebrew-like language.