Evidence #77 | September 19, 2020


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Scripture Central


Two linguistic possibilities—one Semitic and the other Egyptian—can plausibly explain the origin of the word “Irreantum” and the definition (“many waters”) that is provided for it in the Book of Mormon.

At the conclusion of their travels through Arabia, Lehi’s family came upon a sea that they called “Irreantum which, being interpreted, is many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). Unlike most other names in the Book of Mormon, a definition called a gloss is provided for Irreantum, informing readers that the name means “many waters” (v. 5).1 With the aid of this supplied definition, scholars have proposed at least two plausible linguistic possibilities for the origin of this name.

Irreantum, by Grace Farinacci.

The first proposal comes from a combination of elements found in West and South Semitic languages.  According to the Book of Mormon Onomasticon, “Irreantum may be composed of four elements: a prosthetic aleph, the root rwy, the nominalizing affix -an, and the root tmm. Together, these four elements … would mean, somewhat literally, ‘abundant watering of completeness’ or ‘fully abundant waters.’”2 These meanings are consistent with Nephi’s interpretation of the name, and the languages from which they come were spoken in Lehi’s day along his family’s route through the mountainous coasts of the Red Sea.

Proposed route that Lehi took through Arabia. Image by Matt Cutler. 

The second linguistic proposal comes from the following Egyptian elements: *itrw-ʿ3-n-tm.3 When combined together, they “would mean ‘great watercourse of all.’” Commenting on this proposed Egyptian etymology, Robert Smith has written:

Ramesses atop a chariot, at the battle of Qadesh. From a relief inside his Abu Simbel temple. Image and description via wikipedia.com.

The closest to Irreantum is the Egyptian name … for the “Orontes,” the largest river in Syria, site of the great battle of Ramses II against the Hittites, at Qadesh. It is precisely this battle, as described afterward in papyri and monumental inscriptions in Egypt, which provides detailed motifs/tropes used throughout the biblical Exodus account. [The] Israelite Exodus is deliberately reenacted by Clan Lehi as they move through the desert, and their journey ends at Irreantum–––just as the Qadesh battle account ends with the Hittites drowning in the Orontes river. As scribes trained in ancient Egyptian, Lehi and Nephi likely read that account of the Battle of Qadesh … , they had the Egyptian Brass Plates, and Nephi certainly knew how to spell “Orontes” in Egyptian.4

Because these proposals match both the transliteration (English spelling) and the meaning of Irreantum, their value as evidence is greater than proposals that are based solely on a transliteration. While these proposals are tentative, they demonstrate that the name Irreantum and its supplied definition are plausibly ancient in origin.

Book of Mormon Central, “Is Irreantum a Real Word?” Book of Mormon Questions and Answers, online at bookofmormoncentral.org.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Would Nephi Call the Ocean ‘Irreantum’? (1 Nephi 17:5),” KnoWhy 20 (January 27, 2016).

Paul Y. Hoskisson, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, “What’s in a Name? Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11, no. 1 (2002): 90–93, 114–15.

Book of Mormon Onomasticon, s. v. “Irreantum.”

1 Nephi 17:5

1 Nephi 17:5

  • 1 Such definitions can also be found in the Bible and other ancient documents. See Paul Y. Hoskisson, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, “What’s in a Name? Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11, no. 1 (2002): 91. For examples of glosses in the Bible, see Matthew 1:23, Mark 5:41, John 1:38, and Acts 4:36.
  • 2 Book of Mormon Onomasticon, s. v. Irreantum; accessed August 15, 2019.
  • 3 See Book of Mormon Onomasticon, s. v. Irreantum; accessed August 15, 2019.
  • 4 Robert F. Smith, “Irreantum,” unpublished paper communicated to Book of Mormon Central staff. On the exodus motif in the Book of Mormon, see Mark J. Johnson, “Notes and Communications: The Exodus of Lehi Revisited,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, no. 2 (1994): 123–26; George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 245–62; Terrence L. Szink, “To a Land of Promise (1 Nephi 16–18),” in Studies in Scripture: Volume Seven, 1 Nephi to Alma 29, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 60–72; “Nephi and the Exodus,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 38–51; S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 75–98; Bruce J. Boehm, “Wanderers in the Promised Land: A Study of the Exodus Motif in the Book of Mormon and Holy Bible,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 187–203; Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 41–42. On Nephi as trained in Egyptian scribal tradition, see Brant A. Gardner, “Nephi as Scribe,” Mormon Studies Review 23, no. 1 (2011): 45–55.
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