More than ten years ago, Stephen Ricks and John Tvedtnes presented a case for interpreting the Book of Mormon proper noun Zarahemla as a Hebraic construct meaning "seed of compassion" or "child of grace, pity, or compassion." The authors theorized:
It may be that the Mulekite leader was given that name because his ancestor had been rescued when the other sons of King Zedekiah were slain during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. [See Mosiah 25:2.] To subsequent Nephite generations, it may have even suggested the deliverance of their own ancestors from Jerusalem prior to its destruction or the anticipation of Christ's coming.1
A literary analysis of this proposal provides further evidence supporting the legitimacy of this etymological claim. This confirmation derives from what could reflect original Hebrew wordplays in the Book of Mormon consistent with Tvedtnes and Ricks's proposal concerning the prefix zara- and the terminal form -hemla. Reading the Book of Mormon through a Hebraic lens, the name Zarahemla appears linked with attestations of these Hebraic roots.
In their consideration of the name Zarahemla, Tvedtnes and Ricks divided the word into the Hebrew nouns zeraʿ meaning "seed," and ḥemlāh denoting "compassion/mercy."2 As a verbal form, the root ḥml signifies "to have compassion," or "to spare."3 This nuance appears reflected in texts such as 1 Samuel 15:9 in the King James Version of the Bible: "But Saul and the people spared (ḥml) Agag, and the best of the sheep." Significantly, the Book of Mormon features two occasions in which the place name Zarahemla appears in close proximity with individuals being "spared":
And we returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and their children. (Mosiah 9:2)
And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla. (3 Nephi 8:24)
In terms of analyzing the name Zarahemla, this biblical-like pun provides supporting evidence for the accuracy of interpreting the terminal ending -hemla as the Hebraic nominal form ḥemlāh.
If translated into biblical Hebrew, the Book of Mormon would feature a similar wordplay between the Hebrew word zeraʿ and the proper noun Zarahemla. In addition to its specific nuance "seed" reflecting a vegetative connotation, the Hebrew noun zeraʿ denotes human "offspring, or descendants."4 The term descendant occasionally appears in the Book of Mormon in close literary proximity to the proper noun Zarahemla:
Ammon, he being a strong and mighty man, and a descendant of Zarahemla. (Mosiah 7:3)
For I am Ammon, and am a descendant of Zarahemla, and have come up out of the land of Zarahemla. (Mosiah 7:13)
Though these literary proposals create an intriguing reading of the text, the legitimacy of these observations as intentional wordplays reflects the assumption that the reformed Egyptian in the Book of Mormon was a modified Egyptian script used to record an attestation of Hebrew. If correct, these Hebraic puns would provide evidence that Book of Mormon authors incorporated similar writing techniques to those witnessed throughout the Old Testament.
In their own literary efforts, ancient Hebrew authors made frequent use of wordplays on proper names of people and places in a way that parallels the Book of Mormon's presumed Hebraic use of the nouns "spared," "descendants," and "Zarahemla."5 For example, in Hosea 12:3—4, the biblical author creates a play upon the proper name Jacob yaʾqob and the verb ʿāqob meaning "to supplant":
The Lord . . . punished Jacob for his conduct. . . . In the womb he tried to supplant his brother. 6
Biblical scholars have identified a variety of these wordplays throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Studies have shown that in the process of producing the Book of Mormon, Nephite writers imitated and were influenced by biblical techniques. Assuming that the underlying text from which the Nephite record was translated derived from some form of Hebrew, the literary relationship between "spared," "descendants," and "Zarahemla" witnessed throughout the Book of Mormon supports the etymology offered by Ricks and Tvedtnes for the meaning of this important Nephite name. In addition, interpreting Zarahemla as the place name "seed of compassion" provides evidence that Book of Mormon authors possessed an impressive familiarity with the literary styles and techniques witnessed throughout the Old Testament.
By Pedro Olavarria
and David E. Bokovoy
PhD candidate, Hebrew Bible
1. Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, "The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place Names," JBMS 6/2 (1997): 259.
2. See Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1906), Accordance Bible Software, DVD, 3.0.
3. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament; Study Edition (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 1:328.
4. Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 282.
5. See Wilfred G. E. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques (Sheffield: JSOT, 1984), 244.
6. As translated in Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Text (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 1000.