Evidence #161 | March 8, 2021

Wordplay on Alma

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Alma is an attested Hebrew name from the ancient Near East. Significant examples of wordplay based upon the Hebrew meaning of Alma’s name, as well as similar sounding terms, help further establish its authenticity.

Attestation of the Name Alma

Bar Kokhba letter twice featuring the name Alma. Image via Paul H. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Alma as a Hebrew Name,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 73. 

Alma is the name of two prominent prophets in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 17:2; 27:8). Although some critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that the name Alma is anachronistic,1 it is now attested in inscriptions from the ancient Near East discovered in the twentieth century. As first reported by Hugh Nibley, the name “Alma son of Judah” is attested twice on a land deed recovered from a cave near the Dead Sea dating to the Bar Kokhba Rebellion in the early second century AD.2 Terrence Szink has shown that the name is also attested more than eight times on cuneiform tablets at the archaeological site of Ebla in Syria as early as the late third millennium BC.3

Wordplay Involving “Young Man”

The name Alma likely derives from the Hebrew root ʿlm meaning “youth” or “lad” (1 Samuel 17:56; 20:22).4 The theophoric ending “a” yields the meaning “lad of God.”5 The meaning of this name is significant in light of Alma’s story in the Book of Mormon, where he is first introduced as one of King Noah’s priests at the trial of Abinadi. “But there was one among them whose name was Alma, he also being a descendant of Nephi. And he was a young man” (Mosiah 17:2; emphasis added). Matthew Bowen observes, “the textual juxtaposition of the name Alma with ‘young man’—its evident etymological meaning—strongly suggests intentional authorial wordplay on the name (or a play on the meaning of the name).”6

Alma in King Noah's Court. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Wordplay Involving “Hide” or “Conceal”

There may also be several examples of wordplay in connection with Hebrew words that sound similar to Alma’s name. When King Noah attempted to have Abinadi put to death, Alma, one of the king’s priests, pled for the prophet’s life. King Noah then “caused that Alma should be cast out from among them, and sent his servants after him that they might slay him” (Mosiah 17:3). Before they could carry out the king’s orders, however, Alma escaped and went into hiding (v. 4).

Matthew Bowen has noted that the name Alma sounds very much like the Hebrew root *ʿlm meaning to “hide” or “conceal.” Bowen thus proposed that a wordplay on Alma and *ʿlm is evident in the text: “But he fled from them and hid himself [cf. Heb, hitʿallam] that they found him not. And he being concealed [cf. neʿlam] for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken” (Mosiah 17:4).7 This connection between Alma and hiddenness is carried on in the description of Alma’s ministry among Noah’s people:

And now it came to pass that Alma, who had fled from the servants of king Noah, repented of his sins and inquities, and went about privately among the people, and began to teach the words of Abinadi … And as many as would hear his word he did teach. And he taught them privately, that it might now come to the knowledge of the king. And many did believe his words (Mosiah 18:1–3). …And there was a fountain of pure water, and Alma resorted thither, there being near the water a thicket of small trees, where he did hide himself in the daytime from the searches of the king (Mosiah 18:5).8

Bowen also argues that Mormon’s description of the younger Alma’s early efforts to destroy the Church act as “a narratological inversion” of his father’s ministry.9 “For [Alma the Younger] did go about secretly with the sons of Mosiah seeking to destroy the Church” (Mosiah 27:10), just as his father “went about privately” to build it up. Following his conversion, Alma the Younger spent the remainder of his life publicly proclaiming the truth of what he had once secretly fought against.

Alma teaching the people privately. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

One “To Whom” the Arm of the Lord Was Revealed

Another potential wordplay involves the words of Isaiah which Abinadi rehearsed before King Noah and his priests. In response to a question from one of the priests, Abinadi recited the opening passage from Isaiah 53, which asks, “Who hath believed our report, and to whom [ʿal-mi, or “upon whom”] is the arm of the Lord revealed?” (Mosiah 14:1; Isaiah 53:1; emphasis added). Aaron Schade and Matthew Bowen note that the Hebrew phrase ʿal-mi (“to whom,” “upon whom”) would sound very similar to the name Alma. Significantly, Alma was the only member of King Noah’s court who “believed” Abinadi’s “report” about Christ and His redeeming mission.

On two occasions, Abinadi “stretched forth his hand” when delivering his prophesies (Mosiah 12:2; Mosiah 16:1). If this was a common gesture he used when confronting King Noah and his priests,10 it may have seemed as if his remarks were more emphatically directed toward Alma. As explained by Schade and Bowen, “It was to [Alma] alone that the arm of the Lord was revealed at that time … Abinadi speaking directly to him a Hebrew phrase from Isaiah that sounds so close to the pronunciation of his own name may have pierced the soul of Alma as he heard both Isaiah’s and Abinadi’s ‘report.’”11

Bowen further notes how Alma the Younger—who, with the sons of Mosiah, had once been numbered among the unbelievers—looked back at his own conversion and remembered the Lord’s “merciful arm which he extended toward me” (Alma 29:10; emphasis added), a phrase which may evoke the very passage Abinadi quoted to his father.12

Abinadi in front of King Noah. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Conclusion

When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in 1829, he couldn’t have known through scholarly means that Alma was an ancient Hebrew male’s name. Only in the twentieth century have multiple attestations of this name confirmed its ancient Semitic origins.

The various instances of wordplay surrounding Alma’s name in the Book of Mormon help further establish its authenticity. The way that Alma is immediately introduced as a “young man” suggests that the author of this text had a good understanding of the name’s ancient etymology. Additional wordplays involving hiddenness and Alma being the one to whom the arm of the Lord was revealed are also significant. Together, they point to a deliberate and sustained effort by the author to utilize the sound and meaning of this ancient name for literary effect.

As Bowen concluded, “The three-dimensional wordplay on the name Alma in Mosiah 17–18 demonstrates yet again how sophisticated onomastic wordplay in the Book of Mormon can be.”13 It also shows that “Mormon’s skills as a historian and editor most certainly included the ability to write a cogent, compelling narrative of marked literary sophistication.”14

Matthew L. Bowen, “Alma: Young Man, Hidden Prophet,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 343–353.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘He Did Go About Secretly’: Additional Thoughts on the Literary Use of Alma’s Name,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 197–212.

Matthew L. Bowen, Name As Key Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation, 2018), 91–100.

Aaron P. Schade and Matthew L. Bowen, “‘To Whom is the Arm of the Lord Revealed?’Religious Educator 16, No. 2 (2015): 91–111.

Alma,” Book of Mormon Onomasticon, last updated August 18, 2020, online at onoma.lib.byu.edu

Terrence L. Szink, “The Personal Name ‘Alma’ at Ebla,” Religious Educator 1, no. 1 (2000): 53–56.

Terrence L. Szink, “New Light: Further Evidence of a Semitic Alma,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, No. 1 (1999): 70.

Paul H. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name? Alma as a Hebrew Name,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, No. 1 (1998): 72–73.

Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989), 281–282.

Mosiah 14:1Mosiah 16:1Mosiah 17:2Mosiah 17:3Mosiah 17:4Mosiah 18:1–3Mosiah 18:5Mosiah 27:8Mosiah 27:10Alma 29:10

Mosiah 14:1

Mosiah 16:1

Mosiah 17:2

Mosiah 17:3

Mosiah 17:4

Mosiah 18:1–3

Mosiah 18:5

Mosiah 27:8

Mosiah 27:10

Alma 29:10

Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Alma
Book of Mormon

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