Evidence #249 | October 4, 2021

Wordplay on Law

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The words of Jacob and Amulek provide examples of Hebrew wordplay based upon the Hebrew root for law (tôrâ).

Before the time of Christ, Nephite prophets taught their people to keep the law of Moses. They taught that the purpose of the law was to help them look forward to the coming of Christ and his Redemption (Alma 25:15–16). Matthew Bowen, in a study of the term law in the Book of Mormon, notes that in several instances, Book of Mormon prophets “exhibit a conception of ‘law’ consistent with the most basic sense of tôrâ in Hebrew and in so doing, they reveal an important function of divine ‘law’ as it relates to the divine Lawgiver.”1

The Law Points the Way

The Hebrew word for law in the Old Testament is torah (tôrâ), which denotes “direction, instruction.”2 The noun is derived from a verbal root that meant to “instruct, teach.”3 Bowen observes, however, that the verb originally had the meaning of “stretching out the finger, or the hand, to point out a route.”4 This can be seen in several example from the Bible:5

  • And he sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to direct [lêhôrōt, “to point”] his face unto Goshen; and they came into the land of Goshen (Genesis 46:28).
  • The Lord showed him [wayyôrēhû, pointed out to Moses] a tree, which when he had cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet (Exodus 15:25).
  • He winketh with his eyes, he speaketh with his feet, he teacheth [mōreh] with his fingers (Proverbs 6:13).
Torah scroll. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Book of Mormon Wordplay on Tôrâ

Jacob taught that ancient prophets “believed in Christ and worshipped the Father in his name, and also we worship the Father in his name. And for this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness” (Jacob 4:5). Here, as Bowen observes, “Jacob specifically describes the function of the ‘law’ (tôrâ) of Moses as ‘pointing’ (directing) the Nephites to Christ like the pointing of a finger (or like a pointing of an instrument such as a compass).”6

Jacob goes on to teach how some would stumble and reject Christ by “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), which suggests the imagery of a pointed arrow that misses the target (the “mark” or target being Christ).7 The apparent wordplay involving the “law” and “pointing” is an example of what biblical scholars call polyptoton, a form of wordplay that involves two different words from the same root.8

A second example of such wordplay is found in Amulek’s words to the Zoramites, “And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:14).

Amulek teaching the Zoramites. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Word of Christ and the Pointers in the Liahona

Bowen also draws attention to the spindles on the ball or Liahona that miraculously “pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10).

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them. And there was also written upon them a new writing, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it (1 Nephi 16:28–29).

Generations later, Alma taught his son Helaman, “for behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land” (Alma 37:44). By following the words of Christ (His law and commandments), one can “look to God and live” (Alma 37:47). As Bowen notes, “Alma recognized that the Liahona and the word of Christ written thereon ‘pointed’ or ‘taught’ the way to Jesus Christ in the same way that the law of Moses and all the scriptures ‘pointed [their] souls’ to him and his atoning sacrifice.”9

Lehi and Nephi holding the Liahona. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Conclusion

The evidence of polyptoton found in the words of Jacob and Amulek are akin to other examples found in the Bible. Only in recent years, however, have western scholars become aware of the intricacies of Hebrew wordplay in the Bible. Not only does wordplay on the law (tôrâ) in the Book of Mormon point readers towards Christ, but it also points away from 19th century authorship and towards the text’s claimed ancient Hebrew origins.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘God Hath Taken Away His Plainness’: Some Notes on Jacob 4:14, Revelation, Canon, Covenant, and Law,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 39 (2020): 81–102.

Matthew L. Bowen, “Scripture Note: ‘Pointing Our Souls to Him,’” Religious Educator 20, No. 1 (2019): 165–171.

Matthew L. Bowen, “Look to the Lord! The Meaning of Liahona and the Doctrine of Christ in Alma 37–38,” in Give Ear to My Words: Text and Content of Alma 36–42, ed. Kerry M. Hull and Hank R. Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2019), 275–295.

Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Looking Beyond the Mark,” in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 149–164.

BibleGenesis 46:28Exodus 15:25Proverb 6:13Book of Mormon1 Nephi 16:10Jacob 4:5Jacob 4:14Alma 25:16Alma 34:14Alma 37:44

Bible

Genesis 46:28

Exodus 15:25

Proverb 6:13

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 16:10

Jacob 4:5

Jacob 4:14

Alma 25:16

Alma 34:14

Alma 37:44

Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Law
Book of Mormon

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