Evidence #73 | September 19, 2020

Iron Rod/Word of God

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The way that the symbols "rod" and "word" are connected in the Book of Mormon is consistent with their use in the Bible and helps demonstrate that whoever authored the Book of Mormon was likely familiar with both Hebrew and Egyptian.
Image by commonconsent.com.
Image via commonconsent.com. 

In their visions of the Tree of Life, Lehi and Nephi beheld a “rod of iron” which extended along the bank of a river and led to the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8:19; 11:25). When Nephi’s brothers asked him about the meaning of this symbol, he explained that the iron rod represented “the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish” (1 Nephi 15:24; cf. 1 Nephi 11:25).1

Among many ancient societies, the rod was often associated with the authority of a ruler or with the words of the law. As demonstrated by John A. Tvedtnes, this symbolic association between rod and word can be found in the Old Testament:

The use of a rod to represent words or speech is found in Proverbs 10:13 and 14:3. In other passages, it refers specifically to the word of God. In Isaiah 30:31, “the voice of the Lord” is contrasted with the rod of the Assyrians. In a few passages, the rod is compared to a covenant with God which, like a rod, can be broken (see Ezekiel 20:37; Zechariah 11:10, 14). Micah wrote, “The Lord’s voice crieth unto the city, and the man of wisdom shall see thy name: hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it” (Micah 6:9). Isaiah wrote of the Messiah, “But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).2

Summarizing the views of other scholars, Hugh Nibley stated that “in Egypt as among the Hebrews the staff was specifically the Word of God, and the Word of God was the Matteh ha-elohim or Staff of God.”3 This symbolism may be reflected in the Book of Mormon’s quotation of the prophecies of Joseph who was sold into Egypt. In Joseph’s prophecy, the Lord promised to “raise up a Moses” and “give power unto him in a rod” (2 Nephi 3:17). This imagery seems to be intentionally contrasted with the prophecy about Joseph Smith, of whom the Lord said, “him will I give power to bring forth my word” (v. 11).4

Building on the research of Nibley and Tvedtnes, Matthew L. Bowen has found linguistic evidence to further solidify the rod/word connection:

We note that the Egyptian word mdw means not only “a staff [or] rod” but also “to speak” a “word.” The derived word md.t, or mt.t, probably pronounced *mateh in Lehi’s day, was common in the Egyptian dialect of that time and would have sounded very much like a common Hebrew word for rod or staff, maṭṭeh. It is also very interesting that the expression mdw-ntr was a technical term for a divine revelation, literally the “the word of God [or] divine decree.” The phrase mdw-ntr also denoted “sacred writings,” what we would call scriptures, as well as the “written characters [or] script” in which these sacred writings were written.5

Lehi grasping the iron rod. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

In light of this analysis, it seems quite plausible that Nephi would have used a form of the Egyptian word mdw (staff/word) for the “word of God” in the following passage: “whoso would hearken unto the word of God [mdw], and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish” (1 Nephi 15:24). According to Bowen, this passage plausibly exhibits a play on words because “one can physically hold fast to a rod but not to a word.”6 While this concept of laying hold upon the word of God appears to be absent from the Bible,7 it seems to have been picked up by other Book of Mormon writers:8

Helaman 3:29Mormon 7:8Moroni 7:25Moroni 10
Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of GodTherefore repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus, and lay hold upon the gospel of Christ, which shall be set before you, not only in this record but also in the record which shall come unto the Gentiles from the Jews, which record shall come from the Gentiles unto you.9Wherefore, by the ministering of angels, and by every word which proceeded forth out of the mouth of God, men began to exercise faith in Christ; and thus by faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing28 And behold, they shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the everlasting God; and his word shall hiss forth from generation to generation.

29 And God shall show unto you, that that which I have written is true.

30 And again I would exhort you that ye would come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift

Further evidence of Egyptian/Hebrew wordplay on rod/word can be seen in Nephi’s description of Moses parting the Red Sea: “And ye know that by his word [mdw/mt.t] the waters of the Red Sea were divided.  … And ye also know that Moses, by his word [mdw/ mt.t] according to the power of God which was in him, smote the rock, and there came forth water.”10 Bowen explained, “Exodus 14:16, Exodus 17:5–6, and Numbers 20:8–11 are the biblical passages to which Nephi alludes. Remarkably, each passage cites the maṭṭeh (“rod”) as the instrumentality through which Moses performed the miracles recorded in Exodus. Thus Nephi’s additional wordplay in 1 Nephi 17:26, 29 is likewise sublime.”11

The following chart highlights the intertextual word/rod substitutions mentioned above by Bowen:

1 Nephi 17Exodus 14:16Exodus 17:5–6Numbers 20:11

26 and ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither

29 Yea, and ye also know that Moses, by his word according to the power of God which was in him, smote the rock, and there came forth water

But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it

 

 

 

and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand… and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it

 

 

 

And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly

The Book of Mormon’s association between rod and word is consistent with the way that these symbols are connected in the Bible. In addition, the specific way that the term word is sometimes directly substituted for rod in the Book of Mormon suggests an intentional wordplay by authors familiar with Hebrew and Egyptian.

Conclusion

This situation aligns with Nephi’s explanation that he made his “record in the language of [his] father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2) and also with Moroni’s statement that he and his forefathers wrote in “reformed Egyptian” because there wasn’t enough room on the plates to write in “Hebrew” (Mormon 9:32–33). In contrast, Joseph Smith didn’t study Hebrew until well after the translation of the Book of Mormon,12 nor does it appear that he ever received any secular training in ancient Egyptian languages or scripts.13

Book of Mormon Central, “How Are Rod and Sword Connected to the Word of God? (1 Nephi 11:25),” KnoWhy 427 (April 24, 2018).

Zachary Nelson, “The Rod of Iron in Lehi’s Dream,” Religious Educator: Perspectives of the Restored Gospel 10, no. 3 (2009): 49–58.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?’Insights, 25, no. 2 (2005): 2–3.

John A. Tvedtnes, “Rod and Sword as the Word of God,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 2 (1996): 148–55; reprinted in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMs Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999) 32–39.

Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 6. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988): 311–328.

1 Nephi 3:28–291 Nephi 8:19–20, 24, 301 Nephi 11:251 Nephi 15:23–252 Nephi 20:262 Nephi 3:172 Nephi 30:9Helaman 3:29Mormon 7:8Moroni 7:25Moroni 10:28–30

1 Nephi 3:28–29

1 Nephi 8:19–20, 24, 30

1 Nephi 11:25

1 Nephi 15:23–25

2 Nephi 20:26

2 Nephi 3:17

2 Nephi 30:9

Helaman 3:29

Mormon 7:8

Moroni 7:25

Moroni 10:28–30

  • 1 Another possible connection between rod and word can be found in 1 Nephi 3:28–29. After Nephi and his brothers failed to retrieve the plates of brass, he reported that his brothers “did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers, and they did smite us even with a rod.” For further exploration of this symbolism, see John A. Tvedtnes, “Rod and Sword as the Word of God,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMs Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999) 33; David E. Bokovoy and John A. Tvedtnes, “Rod as a Symbol of Power,” in Testaments: Links between the Book of Mormon and the Hebrew Bible (Toelle, UT: Heritage Press, 2003), 44.
  • 2 Tvedtnes, “Rod and Sword as the Word of God,” 36.
  • 3 Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 6. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988): 316.
  • 4 Furthermore, Joseph (who was sold into Egypt) prophesied about two sets of records (one from his own descendants and the other from Judah) which would eventually “grow together, unto the confounding of false doctrines” (2 Nephi 3:12; cf. 2 Nephi 29:8). This prophecy seems to be reflected in the prophecy given to Ezekiel which mentions that sticks (i.e. rods) with writing on them and which represent the tribes of Judah and Ephraim will eventually become “one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand” (Ezekiel 37:19; cf. Doctrine and Covenants 27:5). In other words, sticks or rods seem to be connected to the words of scriptural records. For further discussion of these connections, see Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 311–328.
  • 5 Matthew L. Bowen, “‘What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?’Insights, 25, no. 2 (2005): 2.
  • 6 Bowen, “‘What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?’” 2.
  • 7 A preliminary search showed that variations of the phrase “lay hold” is not used in the context of God’s word in the Bible. However, a more exhaustive analysis would be needed to confidently demonstrate that this pairing of ideas is indeed unique to the Book of Mormon.   
  • 8 Interestingly, both Mormon and Moroni mention laying hold upon that which is “good” in a way that implies that the goodness they spoke of relates back to the word of God which they had just mentioned.  
  • 9 Not only is the “gospel of Christ” a concept that is intimately linked to the “word of God” but, as previously noted by Nibley, the symbol of the rod was anciently associated with books or records.
  • 10 The modification of this passage follows Bowen, “‘What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?’” 2.
  • 11 Bowen, “‘What Meaneth the Rod of Iron?’” 3n10.
  • 12 See Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 250.
  • 13 See John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity, 427–448, esp. 448.
Linguistics
Book of Mormon

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