Evidence #138 | March 30, 2023

Attestation of Sheum

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Sheum is the name of a crop cultivated by the people of Zeniff in the Book of Mormon. It is also an attested agricultural name from ancient Mesopotamia. It is possible that this term made its way into Nephite vernacular through the Jaredites.

Sheum in the Book of Mormon

The term sheum (which is not found in the Bible) is mentioned only once in the Book of Mormon. It was one of several crops cultivated by the people of Zeniff in the land of Lehi-Nephi during the second century BC: “And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land” (Mosiah 9:9). The presence of “sheum” among this list of Nephite crops has been an object of amusement by critics of the Book of Mormon.1

Nephite woman watering crops. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

An Attested Agricultural Name from Mesopotamia

In 1973 Robert F. Smith suggested that Sheum in the Book of Mormon derives from še’um (pronounced “she-um”), an attested old Akkadian name which refers to barley, grains in a general sense, and even pine nuts.2 That proposal, however, has since been rejected in favor of a Sumerian word. According to the Book of Mormon Onomasticon, “The closest known term available is in Sumerian cuneiform and was used throughout Mesopotamia as a primary word for ‘grain,’ Sumerian ŠE.UM, ŠE.AM, ŋešše, še, še-am, ŠE (ŠE.PAD.MEŠ) ‘barley; grain; length measure 3.33 cm; 1/180 GIN2 [shekel of silver].’”3 

Various grains at market. Image via wikipedia. 

The use of this term in the Book of Mormon is significant since the Jaredites are said to have come from Mesopotamia (Ether 1:33).4 Hugh Nibley and others have pointed to the persistence of some Jaredite names in the Nephite record as evidence that Jaredite culture influenced later Book of Mormon peoples, possibly by way of the people of Zarahemla.5

Loanshifting

Because “sheum” is mentioned in addition to barley and wheat (Mosiah 9:9), the term was likely applied by Book of Mormon peoples to some other New World crop. It is possible that the Jaredites were familiar with this same crop and referred to it with the Sumerian term with which they were familiar, even though the crop may have differed somewhat from that found in their Mesopotamian homeland. It is also possible that the crop was a unique variety grown in the land of Lehi-Nephi (perhaps among the Lamanites), but with which Zeniff’s people weren’t familiar. They may have used the familiar Jaredite term “sheum” to describe it.

Whatever the case may have been, history is full of examples of migrants using terms they are familiar with to describe foreign plants or animals—a phenomenon often called loanshifting.6 For instance, English speakers today use the word hippopotamus (which derives from a Greek term meaning “horse of the river”) to describe a mostly non-horse-like animal from Africa.7 Similarly, the Nephites during Zeniff’s time could easily have used a Mesopotamian term, passed to them through Jaredite culture, for an unfamiliar New World grain.

Hippopotamus under water. Image via Wikipedia. 

Conclusion

Sheum presents an unusual opportunity for reliable linguistic confirmation. Not only is this term preserved in its transliterated (rather than translated) form in the Book of Mormon, but it also comes with a specific meaning. Readers understand from the context of its use that “sheum” is a type of crop (presumably a type of grain). This means that for any ancient term to be a good “match,” it would have to agree in both form and meaning. The Sumerian term še.um provides a precise match on both fronts. Only a few other Book of Mormon names offer this degree of corroboration.8

The fact that this term shows up in its transliterated form—rather than as an English translation (like all the other crops listed in Mosiah 9:9)—suggests that it may have been preserved as a foreign word in the underlying record as well.9 The theory that this was an Sumerian loan word preserved among the Jaredites provides just the type of explanation needed for an unusual instance of transliteration in the Nephite record.  

It should also be pointed out that the Sumerian term would certainly have been unknown to Joseph Smith in 1829, since Sumerian could not be read until decades after the Book of Mormon was published.10 Taken together, the attestation of this ancient agricultural name in the text constitutes a remarkable evidence for the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 26–31.

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

Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988), 242–252.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 116–121, 185–186.

Robert F. Smith, “Some ‘Neologisms’ from the Mormon Canon,” in Conference on the Language of the Mormons (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Language Research Center, 1973), 66.

Mosiah 9:9

Mosiah 9:9

  • 1 Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (New York, NY: 1838), 14–15; Latayne Colvett Scott, The Mormon Mirage (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 84; Rick Branch, “The Book of Mormon Fails,” The Utah Evangel 30, no. 1 (March 1983): 3.
  • 2 Robert F. Smith, “Some ‘Neologisms’ from the Mormon Canon,” in Conference on the Language of the Mormons (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Language Research Center, 1973), 66; I. J. Gelb, Glossary of Old Akkadian (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 256; Erica Reiner, ed., The Assyrian Dictionary (Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute, 1992), 17: 345–355.
  • 3 See Book of Mormon Onomasticon, s.v. SHEUM, online at onoma.lib.byu.edu. For the rational for doubting the previously favored Akkadian proposal, see Alasdair Livingstone, “The Akkadian Word for Barley: A Note from the Schoolroom,” Journal of Semitic Studies 42, no. 1 (1997): 1–5. The authors of the SHEUM entry in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon note, however, that "since Sumerian affords and exact parallel, the Akkadian is unnecessary."
  • 4 John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 26–30.
  • 5 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988), 242–252; John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 119–121; Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 304–305. In his contribution to the Small Plates, Amaleki first recorded that the Nephites, during the reign of Mosiah1, merged with the people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:12–19). Immediately after this, Amaleki mentioned that a Jaredite artifact (a large stone) was brought to Mosiah1 for translation. The engravings on the stone make it clear that the last Jaredite king, Coriantumr, actually lived for a time among the people of Zarahemla (vv. 21–22). Only after relaying these details did Amaleki mention that a group of his people had traveled from Zarahemla to reclaim the land of Nephi (vv. 27–30). Readers later learn that this party was led by Zeniff, who became the ruler of the Nephite colony (Mosiah 9:1–7). Thus, the people of Zeniff were surely influenced to some degree by the people of Zarahemla. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that some members of Zeniff’s colony were of Mulekite heritage.  
  • 6 For further discussion of this common linguistic phenomenon, see Neal Rappleye, “‘Put Away Childish Things’: Learn to Read the Book of Mormon with Mature Historical Understanding,” 2017 FairMormon Conference presentation, 22–24, online at fairmormon.org.
  • 7 See Rappleye, “‘Put Away Childish Things’,” 24.
  • 8 Other transliterated terms for which a meaning is explicitly or implicitly given in the text include “deseret” (Ether 2:3), “Hermounts” (Alma 2:37), “Irreantum” (1 Nephi 17:5), “Liahona” (Alma 37:38), “Mormon” (Mosiah 18:4), “Rameumptom” (Alma 31:21), “Riplicancum” (Ether 15:8), and “shelem” (Ether 3:1). For research regarding these words, as well as many other Book of Mormon names, see Book of Mormon Central, “WATCH: Five Evidences for Book of Mormon Names,” BMC Blog, December 28, 2018, online at bookofmormoncentral.org (click on “References” at the bottom of the blog post to access the relevant sources).
  • 9 The use, and sometimes explanation, of foreign words can also be found in the Bible. For example, the Greek text of John 20:16 in the New Testament introduces the Aramaic term Rabboni, and then provides a gloss explaining its meaning to the reader: “Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.”
  • 10 Ernst Doblhofer, Voices in Stone: The Decipherment of Ancient Scripts and Writings (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1971), 121–148; Cyrus H. Gordon, Forgotten Scripts: Their Ongoing Discovery and Decipherment (New York, NY: Dorset Press, 1982), 55–85.
Linguistics
Attested Names
Sheum
Book of Mormon

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