Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon
by Angela M. Crowell
Moroni who wrote in the Book of Mormon about A.D. 400, tells us that the book's authors wrote in reformed Egyptian; but if the plates had been large enough, they would have written them in Hebrew to eliminate imperfections in the record (Mormon 4:98-99). It is not surprising that we find Hebrew idioms and syntax (i.e., the way words are put together to form phrases, clauses or sentences) in the English translation. This article gives only a sampling of Hebraisms found in the Book of Mormon; many more could be cited.
One prominent peculiarity of Biblical Hebrew is the frequent use of the conjunction "and," both in beginning a sentence and in the listing of a series within a sentence. In A. B. Davidson's, An Introductory Hebrew Grammar, the author states:
Hebrew syntax, though it has many subtleties of its own,is, broadly speaking, extremely simple, as a glance at any literal translation of the Old Testament, with its ever recurring and, will show.... The Hebrew habit is to coordinate rather than to subordinate, and one principal verb follows another with a regularity which reminds one of the simple speech of children [emphasis in original] (1954:2).
There seems to be a dislike among Hebrew writers to begin a sentence without "and"; even books begin with "and"-such as Leviticus and Numbers (Davidson 1950:184). In the 22nd chapter of Genesis, "and" begins the verse in 21 of the 28 verses [20 of 24 KJV] A similar pattern is found throughout the Book of Mormon. In the 11 th chapter of Alma, "and" begins the verse in 20 of 23 verses. In Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, the author states, "Contrary to English usage, which in lengthy enumerations uses the and to connect only the last member of the series, in Hebrew polysyndeton is customary" (1956:484) (i.e., "and" stands before each word or phrase in a series). A perfect example is found in Genesis 24:35 of the Old Testament.
And the Lord hath blessed my master greatly,
and he is become great;
And he hath given him flocks and herds,
And silver and gold;
And men servants and maid servants ...
Notice the structure of Enos 1:34 from the Book of Mormon.
And it came to pass that the people of Nephi did till the
land and raise all manner of grain and of fruit,
And flocks of herds and flocks of all manner of cattle of
And goats and wild goats and also much horses.
In Hebrew when several nouns are joined by "and," the possessive pronoun must be repeated with each (Kautzsch 1956:439).
And Esau took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters,
and all the persons of his house,
And his cattle and and all his beasts and all his
substance. Genesis 36:6
... thou, and thy children, and thy children's children,
and thy flocks, and thy herds ... Genesis 45:10
Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives
...their cattle, and their goods. Genesis 46:5-6
Book of Mormon
And he left his house and the land of his inheritance,
and his gold and his silver and his precious things ...
1 Nephi 1:29
... to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold
and their silver and their precious things ...
1 Nephi 1:38
... our gold and our silver and all our precious things.
1 Nephi 1:87
According to Green's A Handbook to Old Testament Hebrew, "The chief connective of words and sentences is the conjunction) [vav].... the Hebrew [language] to a great extent discards the links which, in Western languages, unite words and clauses, leaving the reader to supply the connection of thought." The most often translated "and" also "includes the meaning of many particles, such as or, then, certainly, perhaps, in order to, for the sake of, and therefore" (1901:162).
'These particles were reserved for cases in which special emphasis or distinctness was desired: their frequent use was felt instinctively to be inconsistent with the lightness & grace of movement which the Hebrew ear loved; and thus in the AN., R.V., words like or, then, but, notwithstanding, howbeit so, thus, therefore, that, constantly appear, where the Hebrew has simply and . (Gescnius' Lexicon, new edition by Brown, Driver, and Briggs, part iii, p. 252)' (Green 1901:162-163).
Green pointed out the following examples.
. . . Of the garden thou mayest freely eat;
and of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ...
[English usage: "but of the. . ."] Genesis 2:19-20 [2:16-17]
... in the day ye eat thereof, and your eyes shall be
opened... [English usage: "then your eyes. . . "] Genesis 3:10 [3-5]
... there is no beauty and we should desire him
[English usage: "that we should desire him.] Isaiah 53:2
The following Book of Mormon examples are from Thomas W. Brookbank's column in The Improvement Era (1914:367).
Book of Mormon
For there is nothing which is good, save it comes from
And that which is evil, cometh from the devil [English
usage: "but that which. . ."]. Omni 1:45
And it came to pass that when he had said these
words, he could say no more;
And he gave up the ghost [English usage: "then he gave.. ."]
And ye shall not clear away the bad thereof, all at once,
lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the
graft, and the graft thereof shall perish, and I lose the
trees of my vineyard [English usage: that the graft]
"And It Came to Pass"
"And it came to pass" is probably the most frequently used phrase in the Book of Mormon. This phrase in the idiom of King James English is a render- ing of the Hebrew word vayehee. Its frequent use in the Book of Mormon is consistent with the frequent use of vayehee in the Old Testament Hebrew text. In J. A. Weingreen's A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrezv, the author comments concerning the meaning of this phrase, "This, rather than implying a continuation with what has preceded, has little more force (when translated) then 'now it happened"' (1959:92). This phrase, " and it came to pass," and the frequent use of "and" are two of the most important evidences of Hebrew language structure found in the Book of Mormon.
Hinneh is the Hebrew word for "lo," "behold" or "see." It is used for pointing out persons, things, places and actions. Hinneh occurs over a thousand times in the Old Testament Hebrew text. In English usage we consider it unnecessary. "Behold" is used frequently in the Book of Mormon and can be found on almost any page. Its common use gives evidence of a literal rendering of Hebrew into English.
Thou, 0 King, sawest, and behold a great image.
behold, a watcher and a holy one came ...
In the Book of Mormon there are over 160 references in Third Nephi alone. For example:
Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the son of God ... 3 Nephi 4:44
Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption
unto the world, to save the world from sin ... 3 Nephi 4:51
Construct State in Biblical Hebrew, when two nouns are joined together to form one thought, which either expresses possession or description, the word "of" is used to join the two nouns. This is called the construct state (Simon, et. al. 1983:65).
children of Israel daughter of Zion
tribe of Reuben land of Egypt
city of David Book of Daniel
king of Israel law of Moses
Kingdom of God word of God
Book of Mormon
sword of Laban record of Jared
people of Ammon brother of Jared
language of Jacob descendants of Zarahemla
plates of Nephi words of Isaiah
army of Moroni BookofMormon
A "succession of constructs," such as "the days of the years of the life of my fathers, constitutes a unity and is perfectly normal" in Hebrew (Davidson 1954:61). A succession of constructs that occurs in the Book of Mormon is the phrase, "the sharpness of the power of the word of God" (2 Nephi 1:48).
The number of adjectives is very limited in Hebrew, their place often supplied picturesquely by a noun in the construct state. For example, in the Hebrew text in Psalm 23 we find "pastures of greenness" and 11 waters of rest." Here we have nouns used for adjectives. An English rendition would have used an adjective.
In Hebrew a quality or attribute of a person or thing is often found in the construct form.
children of wickedness for "wicked children" 2 Samuel 7:10
children of pride for "proud children" Job 41:34
Book of MormonHebrew uses the construct state to describe the material of which something is made.
words of plainness for "plain words" Jacob 3:22
mark of red for "red mark" Alma 1:111
altar of stone for "stone altar" Exodus 20:25
ark of wood for "wooden ark" Deuteronomy 10:1
helmet of brass for "brass helmet" 1 Samuel 17:5
Book of MormonNumerals
rod of iron for "iron rod" 1 Nephi 2:62
idols of silver for "silver idols" 2 Nephi 8:36
plates of gold for "gold plates" Mosiah 12:16
... And Abram was seventy and five years old ... Genesis 12:3 [12:4]
Jehoram was thirty and two years old ... 2 Chronicles 21:5
Book of Mormon
And when Corihor was thirty and two years old. . . Ether 3:41
Therefore after that ye are seventy and two years old ... 3 Nephi 13:14
In Biblical Hebrew, when the compound subject consists of different persons, the first person (the person speaking) precedes any others (Davidson 1950:159). In proper English usage, the order is reversed: the speaker always comes last. We say, "My father and I" instead of "I and my father," as in Hebrew. This phenomenon in Hebrew is a literal translation, i.e., "I" is written in Hebrew before "and my father."
I and the lad Genesis 22:6 [22:5]
I and Jonathan my son 1 Samuel 14:40
I and my son 1 Kings 1:21
I and this woman 1 Kings 3:17
I and my brethren did consult 1 Nephi 1:68
I and my father 1 Nephi 1:172
I and my people Mosiah 6:21
I and my brethren will go forth Alma 15:15
Repetition of the Preposition
Usually in Hebrew syntax "When a preposition governs more than one object, it is normal to repeat it [the preposition] before each one [object] . . ." (Williams 1976:44). In ordinary English usage we avoid repeating the preposition unless it is for emphasis.
And will save them by the Lord their God,
And will not save thembybow,
Nor by sword, norbybattle,
By horses, norbyhorsemen.
And Pharoah was wroth againsttwo of his officers,
against the chief of the butlers, andagainstthe chief
of the bakers. Genesis 40:2
... even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels,
and on cornets, and on cymbals. 2 Samuel 6:5
Book of Mormon
exceeding rich ingold andinsilver andinprecious
And infine workmanship of wood inbuildings, And inmachinery and also iniron ... Jarom 1:19
... the Lamanites had gathered together an innumerable
army of men,
And armed them withswords and withcimeters and withbows and witharrows and withhead-plates
And withall manner of shields of every kind;
And they came down again, that they might pitch battle
against the Nephites. Helaman 1:15
And to work in all manner ofwood, and ofiron, and of
copper, and ofbrass, and ofsteel, and ofgold, and of
silver, and ofprecious ores ... 2 Nephi 4:21
A Students's Dictionary for Biblical and Theological Studies defines the cognate accusative as, "A noun, derived from the same root as the verb, that defines, explains, or strengthens (emphasizes) the verbal idea" (Huey and Corley 1983:45). An intensifying attribute is very frequently added to the object, e.g. "He cried (with) an exceeding great and bitter cry" (Genesis 27:34). In English we would consider this form repetitious and avoid its use. Many examples of the cognate accusative are found in the Old Testament Hebrew text, some of which have been translated literally and carried over into the English versions. Many examples of this Hebrew language structure are found in the Book of Mormon also.
cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry Genesis 27:34
we have dreamed a dream Genesis 40:8
vowed a vow Judges 11:30
thundered with a great thunder 1 Samuel 7:10
lamented with this lamentation 2 Samuel 1:17
fasted a fast (David fasted) 2 Samuel 12:16
feared a fear (they are in great fear) Psalm 14:5
sinned a sin (grievously sinned) Lamentations 1:8
The last three examples are in the Hebrew text, but they are not carried over literally into the English versions of the Bible.
Book of Mormon
curse them with a sore curse 1 Nephi 1:57
I have dreamed a dream 1 Nephi 1:60
yoketh them with a yoke 1 Nephi 3:140
work a great and marvelous work 1 Nephi 3:214
desire which I desired Enos 1:19
succor those that stand in need of your succor Mosiah 2:28
taxed with a tax Mosiah 5:20
feared exceedingly with fear Alma 12:72
"Hebrew syntax calls for compound prepositions" rather than the single preposition common in English. This usage is traced back to the literal translation of the Hebrew text.
Compound prepositions are used to indicate the locale and direction of the action as well as the action itself (Rosenau 1902:119-120). Sometimes two prepositions are expressed, and at other times only one is expressed and a second implied in the verb.
As Rosenau points out, examples of a double preposition "with one implied in the verb would be":
Abram went down into Egypt Genesis 12:8 [12:10]
our fathers went down into Egypt Numbers 20:15
Book of MormonExamples of double prepositions are:
the servant went down into the vineyard Jacob 3:50
they went down into the I-and of Nephi. Mosiah 5:7
if a man did flee from before a lion
(in Hebrew text only)
Amos 5:19hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people
Israel. Judges 11:23Book of Mormon
did not flee from before the Lamanites Mormon 1:52
they fled from before my presence 1 Nephi 1:132
A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew explains the prophetic perfect in the following terms:In Hebrew thinking, an action is regarded as being either completed or incompleted. Hebrew, therefore, knows no past, present, or future tenses, but has instead a Perfect and an Imperfect (which, in context, lend themselves to a variety of shades in meaning).... the Hebrew Perfect may be taken to represent action in the past ... the equivalent of the English present tense is supplied by the Participle ... and the English future tense (with other varieties) by the Imperfect (Weingreen 1959:56-57).
The prophetic perfect is a common usage in the language of the prophets. The prophet so transports his mind ahead "that he describes the future event as if it had been already seen or heard by him." This happens often in making promises or threats and also in the language of contracts. The following are three Old Testament examples spoken by the prophet Isaiah in the latter half of the eighth century before Christ (Kautzsch 1956:312-313).
Therefore my people are gone into captivity...
[occurred 586 B.C.] Isaiah 5:13The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light ... [spiritual enlightenment brought about by Christ's Galilean ministry in Matthew 4:12-16]
Isaiah 9:2For unto us a child is born ...
child has been born to us"--refers to birth. of Christ]
Isaiah 9:6Book of Mormon
But behold, I have obtained a land of promise. . .
[spoken while still in the wilderness] 1 Nephi 1:150... after that he was baptized with water, the Holy
Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove
[spoken 559-545 B.C.] 2 Nephi 13:10For these are they whose sins he hath borne;
These are they for whom he hath died to redeem them
from their transgressions [spoken 148 B.C.].
One usage of the Hebrew plural form is called the "plural of amplification." These plural forms are used to intensify or heighten the idea of the singular. In English we would use the singular form.Old Testament
visions of the night Genesis 46:2
(meaning an important vision) Job 13:26
bitter things (extreme bitterness) Isaiah 32:18
sure dwellings (full confidence)Book of Mormon
and great slaughters with the sword 1 Nephi 3:99
all the energies of my soul 1 Nephi 4:42
and by bloodsheds, and by pestilence 2 Nephi 5:39
and did reap with your mights Alma 14:84
Words such as "hand," "head," "mouth," "tongue" and "voice" are generally used in Hebrew in the singular form when the word is "common to a number of persons" (Davidson 1950:20). In English we would use the plural form.Old Testament
put forth their hand Genesis 19:15 [19:10]
nor was a hair of their head singed Daniel 3:27Book of Mormon
by the mouth of his holy prophets 2 Nephi 6:2
with the tongue of angels 2 Nephi 13:17
by the voice of his angels Alma 8:29
In English usage, repetition of the same word is usually avoided. The reverse is true in Hebrew. Repetition was commonly used in Biblical Hebrew for emphasis, or to intensify an attribute, or express "'a continuous progress, higher and higher. . .lower and lower. . ."This is readily seen in the Hebrew text, but it is not as discernable in the English versions, since the translators do not carry this over (Kautzsch 1956:432).Old Testament
That which is altogether just shalt thou follow
[literally translated from Hebrew text: "Justice, justice
shalt thou pursue"] Deuteronomy 16:20Holy holy, holy is the Lord [highest degree of
holiness ascribed to the Lord] Isaiah 6:3Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace [literally translated
from the Hebrew text: "peace, peace" i.e. much peace,
great peace] Isaiah 26:3Book of Mormon
Wo, wo, wo be unto them 2 Nephi 12:18
A bible, a bible, we have got a bible, and there can not
be any more bible. 2 Nephi 12:45
Repent ye, repent ye and be baptized 2 Nephi 13:14
0 remember, remember that these things are true. Mosiah 1:91
An idiom is defined as a word or group of words used in a language which has a different meaning in a literal word-for-word translation. For instance an English idiom would be, it is "raining cats and dogs," which of course actually means "raining very hard."
The following are some identical Hebrew idioms found in both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon.
before my face (litterarly, "to the face of") Psalm 5:8 3 Nephi 4:30 burned with fire Jerimiah 38:23 3 Nephi 4:28 eye to eye Isaiah 52:8 Alma 17:23 in the eyes of (before) Isaiah 49:5 1 Nephi 6:35 day to day 2 Samuel 13:4 Mosiah 2:40 give ear Joel1:2 Helaman 4:55 in their ears Genesis 20:9 [20:8] 2 Nephi 12:28 face to face Deuteronomy 34:10 Alma 18:8 face of the earth Exodus 10:5 Ether 4:103 generation to generation(for all eternity) Exodus 17:16 Mosiah 12:19 right hand (sometimes mean strength, justice, righteousness) Exodus 15:12 1 Nephi 6:20 hearken to the voice of (means he obeyed) Job 34:16 Alma 3:105 in the presence of 1 Kings 8:22 Alma 13:63 lift up your heads Psalm 24:7 Mosiah 5:27 stiff-necked Exodus 32:9 2 Nephi 11:52
The following are two examples of accurate literal Hebrew translation found in the Book of Mormon. In Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, the commandment is given "thou shalt not kill" in the King James Version and also in the Inspired Version of the Bible.
There are 10 different Hebrew words translated for the English word "kill" in the Old Testament; some mean "slaughter," "slay," "pierce," "put to death," "smite" (Young 1936:563). The Hebrew word used in both of these scriptures is ratsach, which means (in the literal sense) "murder," "slay" (Brown et. al. 1951:953).
Translated more strictly the verse would read "thou shalt not murder"-as it does in all English Jewish translations and also in recent Bible translations, including the Holy Bible, New International Version (1978:70,167) and the New American Standard Bible (1960:69,171). In the more recently published scholarly work of the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the author states: "'You shall not murder"' is a "more precise reading than the too-general KJV 'thou shalt not kill"' (Harris, et. al. 1980:860).
Second Nephi 11: 110 is in total agreement with Hebrew scholars of today. It reads "And, again, the Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder ..."
The second example of an accurate literal translation found in the Book of Mormon is a reference to Isaiah 53:3-4. The King James Version and Inspired Version both read:He is despised and rejected of men;
A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
And we hid as it were our faces from him;
He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our
Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and
The key words here are "sorrows" and "griefs." There are 26 different Hebrew words in the Old Testament translated into English as "sorrow," some meaning "wo," "grief," "fear," "pain," "affliction," "sadness," "evil" and "labour." The Hebrew word used in these particular verses is makob which means (literally) "pain" (Young 1936:916).
There are 10 different Hebrew words in the Old Testament translated into English as "grief," some meaning "sickness," "weakness," "pain," "sadness," "anger," "bitterness" and "evil." The Hebrew word used in this scripture is holi, which means (literally) "sickness" (Young 1936:437).
In the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, the author writes that "the word is translated 'grief in Isa[iah] 53:3-4, although it may be better translated 'sickness' (margin of ASV and RSV), whether physical or spiritual" (Harris, et al. 1980:287).
Notice the closer literal translation of the same verse in the 1955 Jewish Publication Society's English translation of the Old Testament, The Holy Scriptures.He was despised, and forsaken of men,
A man of pains, and acquainted with disease,
And as one from whom men hide their face:
He was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried;
Whereas we did esteem him stricken,
Smitten of God and afflicted (1955:605).
The key words here are "pains" and "disease."
In the Jewish Publication Society's most recent (1985) English translation, Tanakh The Holy Scriptures, the verse reads:He was despised, shunned by men,
A man of suffering, familiar with disease.
As one who hid his face from us,
He was despised, we held him of no account.
Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God; (1985:732-733).
The key words here are "suffering," "disease" and "sickness."
The verse in the Book of Mormon which totally agrees with Hebrew scholars of today is Alma 5:20-21.And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions
And this that the word might be fulfilled which saith,
"He will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses
of his people;
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the
bands of death which binds his people;"
The key words here are "pains," "afflictions" and "sicknesses," which are correct literal translations from the Hebrew text.
How can we account for a Book of Mormon translation which is more precise than the King James Version in both of the previous examples? Joseph Smith used the King James translation of the Bible for his personal study yet that version rendered these words differently.
How could a young man, who did not have the knowledge of Hebrew or any other Semitic language, produce a work such as the Book of Mormon? How did so many literal translations of Hebrew words and Hebrew grammatical structures get into the record? We have seen that many Hebraic usages have not even been translated literally into English in the King James Version of the Bible. Mere copying of the words and style of the King James Version of the Bible would not produce the vast number of Hebraisms used correctly in the Book of Mormon. Only by translating from the Hebrew text can one see all these illustrations. Joseph Smith did not study Hebrew until 1835 (RLDS 1896:606). The Book of Mormon was published in 1830, five years prior to his study of Hebrew.
The main research for this paper took five months. It took Joseph Smith only 65-75 days to translate the entire book of 777 pages (1908 edition) (FARMS 1986; Welch and Rathbone 1986:3-27). For Joseph to have studied the Hebrew language and then to have produced a Hebraic writing as harmonious and as extensive as the Book of Mormon all in his own power, takes on the proportion of a physical impossibility in that length of time.
Considerations such as these lead us to conclude that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be-an authentic Semitic record written by men thoroughly versed in Hebrew and translated by the "gift and power of God" (preface 1830 Book of Mormon). We have firm evidence that the book's authors wrote as Nephi said, "in the lang