Evidence #137 | January 18, 2021

Attestation of Sebus

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The name Sebus found in the Book of Mormon may be connected to attested Semitic names, the meanings of which show up as instances of plausible wordplay in Book of Mormon narratives.

An Odd but Attested Name

The account of Ammon defending king Lamoni’s flocks takes place at a location called “the waters of Sebus” (Alma 17:26). Paul Hoskisson, a Latter-day Saint Semitic scholar, notes that for a long time he was puzzled by the name Sebus.

Hebrew words, like other Semitic words in general, are most often built on a structure of three different consonants. This language feature emphasizes the consonants and their sequence and order. The problem with Sebus is that its first and third consonants, /s/ and /s/, are the same—something that is extremely rare in any Semitic language.1

Some biblical scholars have been puzzled by the word bšs, which is only found in Amos 5:11. They have argued that bšs is derived from the Akkadian šabāšu which mean “to collect (taxes), to gather in.”2 Hoskisson found that the Akkadian word in its Neo-Babylonian form (subbusu) is actually derived from the West Semitic Aramaic root sbs.3 Aramaic is a west Semitic language that was known in ancient Israel and is closely related to Hebrew.

The Carpentras Stele. It was the first ancient inscription ever identified as "Aramaic." Image and caption info via Wikipedia. 

Because only consonants, rather than vowels, were typically written out in ancient Semitic languages, the name Sebus from the Book of Mormon would also likely have been spelled sbs.4 In other words, this Book of Mormon name appears to be attested in an ancient Near Eastern language that is closely related to Hebrew and with which ancient Israelites were familiar.

Wordplay on “To Gather”

In what appears to be an example of intentional wordplay, the Book of Mormon repeatedly connects the idea of gathering with the name Sebus. First of all, the text explains that “the water of Sebus” was where “all the Lamanites drive their flocks … that they may have water” (Alma 17:26), indicating that it was a place of gathering flocks. After a band of Lamanite ruffians scattered the king’s flocks, Ammon mentioned gathering explicitly when saying to his fellow servants, “Let us go in search of the flocks, and we will gather them together, and bring them back to the place of water” (v. 31). Gathering is mentioned again in the next verse where the king’s servants “did gather them together again the to place of water” (v. 32).

A Servant of King Lamoni Watching His Flocks. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

 

Wordplay on “To be Angry”

Hoskisson found a second possible wordplay based on the Babylonian word absu which means “to be angry.”5 After the Lamanite attackers failed to permanently scatter the flocks and began to be struck down by stones from Ammon’s sling, “they were angry because of the slain of their brethren” (Alma 17:36). Hoskisson notes, “Perhaps the choice of the word angry in Alma 17:36 was not just serendipitous but a conscious play on a word that sounded similar to Sebus.”6

The theme of anger—as well as gathering—is picked up again when the people “began to assemble themselves together” after Lamoni and his household were overcome with the Spirit (Alma 19:18). Those who gathered at the scene included some of the men “who had stood at the waters of Sebus and scattered the flocks which belonged to the king, for they were angry with Ammon because of the number which he had slain of their brethren at the waters of Sebus” (v. 21). One of those present, “being exceedingly angry,” tried to kill him Ammon but was struck dead (v. 22). It is not insignificant that the phrase “waters of Sebus” is mentioned three times in these two verses alone (vv. 21–22).

A Lamanite Slinging Stones at Ammon. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Conclusion

Concerning the potential attestation of Sebus in ancient Semitic languages, Hoskisson concluded,

Thus, a possible Aramaic word from around the time of Lehi meaning to “gather,” as well as a well-attested word in Babylonian (including the Neo-Babylonian of Lehi’s day), could provide the etymology for the Book of Mormon place name Sebus. The consonants line up; the vowels match. Additionally, it is telling that the only name in the Book of Mormon that begins and ends with the same consonant, a sibilant, corresponds well with one of the rare Semitic words that begin and end with a consonant, also a sibilant.7

Adding to the credibility of this proposal is the way that the meaning of this Aramaic/Neo-Babylonian cognate (“to gather”) shows up multiple times in the Book of Mormon narratives involving Sebus. The fact that another potential wordplay involving a similar-sounding Babylonian term (absu, “to be angry”) has been identified in relation to these Sebus narratives, bolsters the argument even further. Hoskisson’s initial puzzlement over the name Sebus, followed by his discovery of these startling linguistic connections, shows how some things found in the Nephite record, which at first seem strange or wrong, can turn out upon closer examination to be right on target.  

Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? SebusInsights: An Ancient Window 32, No. 1 (2012): 3.

Sebus,” Book of Mormon Onomasticon, online at onoma.lib.byu.edu.

Alma 17:26Alma 17:31Alma 17:32Alma 17:36Alma 18:7Alma 19:18Alma 19:20Alma 19:21

Alma 17:26

Alma 17:31

Alma 17:32

Alma 17:36

Alma 18:7

Alma 19:18

Alma 19:20

Alma 19:21

Footnotes
  • 1 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? SebusInsights: An Ancient Window 32, No. 1 (2012): 3.
  • 2 Francis I. Anderson and David Noel Freedman, Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible Series (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1989), 500; Erica Reiner, ed., The Assyrian Dictionary (Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute, 1989), 17:6, s.v. šabāšu, “to collect, gather,” and in the D stem (= Hebrew piel) “to collect taxes, to gather in.”
  • 3 Hoftijzer and Karel Jongeling, Dictionary of North-West Semitic Inscriptions, 2 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 2:775; Reiner, The Assyrian Dictionary, 15:341; H. ben Yosef Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew (New York, NY: KTAV, 2009), 61; Michael Sokoloff, Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 1107.
  • 4 Hoskisson, “What’s in a Names? Sebus,” 3. He notes that as a Hebrew word, as opposed to Aramaic, the sibilants would be distinguished as šbs, but “the transcription in the Book of Mormon of a Hebrew word would mask the difference because in English we have only the letter s for Semitic /, /, and s.” (4).
  • 5 Reiner, The Assyrian Dictionary, 17:4.
  • 6 Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Sebusv,” 3.
  • 7 Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Sebus,” 3.
Linguistics
Attested Names
Sebus
Book of Mormon

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