Hebrew WordPlay in the Book of Mormon


These things really shouldn’t surprise anybody anymore. Pick a literary practice used by ancient Jewish people, and then see if it is in the Book of Mormon. Of course it is there.

Take Gezera Shawa, for instance. It’s where two seemingly unrelated passages of scripture are brought together because they share a common word. For example, Jesus uses it in Matthew 22:36-40 when two Old Testament passages are linked because of the common word “love.”

By the way, it was Matthew L. Bowen, a Nibley Fellow and Ph.D. student in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, who did the discovery for this particular Hebrew literary practice in the Book of Mormon. His article on it appears in the latest “Insights,” the newsletter sent out by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

The two passages Jesus brought together are “And thou shalt LOVE the Lord thy God with all thy heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “but thou shalt LOVE thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). “Jesus’s Gezera Shawa makes one commandment of two,” Bowen wrote. “Nephi’s technique similarly makes one prophecy from two separate prophecies.”

Nephi’s use of Gezera Shawa, however, isn’t obvious in English. He combines “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand AGAIN the second time to recover the remnant of his people” (Isaiah 11:11) and “Therefore, behold, I will PROCEED to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder” (Isaiah 29:14).

“Again” and “proceed” may not seem too related in English, but the underlying Hebrew words for “again” and “proceed” are yosip and yosip — forms of the word yasap. Yasap literally means “to add,” Bowen wrote, but is can also mean “continue” or “proceed to do” or “to do again.”

So Nephi melds these two scriptures together to, as Bowen wrote, “foretell the gathering and restoration of Israel at the time of the coming forth of additional scripture.”

One example of Nephi’s use of these passages is 2 Nephi 25:17, “And the Lord will set his hand AGAIN the second time to restore his people from their lost and fallen state. Wherefore, he will PROCEED to do a marvelous work and a wonder among the children of men” (see also 2 Nephi 29:1; 22:8, 11).

Nephi’s wordplay does not end with linking these two passages together. The word yasap was also the source of a name. Rachel used this word to name her son, saying, “The Lord shall ADD to me another son” (Genesis 30:24). Her son was Yosep or Joseph.

Bowen wrote that when Nephi used Gezera Shawa to link two yasap passages together, he was also linking them to Joseph “both to remind us that it was the seed of Joseph that would be gathered and to foretell the involvement of another Joseph, Joseph Smith, in the gathering and in the coming forth of scripture.”

This article was based on “He Shall Add”: Wordplay on the Name Joseph and an Early Instance of Gezera Shawa in the Book of Mormon,” by Matthew L. Bowen, in Insights vol. 30, no. 2, 2010. The transliterations of the Hebrew vowels are only approximate; for more precise renderings, see the original article.

From Mormon Times, 28 July 2010

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