Evidence #174 | March 29, 2021

Wordplay on Nahom

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi’s narrative about the events at Nahom evokes a wide range of meanings associated with the Hebrew roots nhm and nḥm, suggesting he was using wordplay on this toponym.

At Nahom, where Lehi and his family buried Ishmael (1 Nephi 16:34), Nephi recorded that Ishmael’s daughters mourned the loss of their father (v. 35). They also murmured, complaining about various afflictions, especially hunger, and expressed a desire to return to Jerusalem (vv. 35–36). Meanwhile, Nephi indicates that his brothers Laman and Lemuel, along with the sons of Ishmael, plotted to kill Lehi and Nephi (vv. 37–8). They were chastised by the Lord, however, and “did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins” (v. 39). Thus, “the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish” (v. 39).

The name Nahom is most likely the ancient South Arabian name NHM, which refers to stone masonry in the Old South Arabian languages.1 To Nephi, a Hebrew author, this foreign name would most likely call to mind similar-sounding words in his own language.2 Two closely related terms—nhm and nḥm—carry meanings and connotations in Hebrew and other related Semitic languages that tie-in thematically with the events Nephi reported at Nahom.

Mourning

First, “the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father” (1 Nephi 16:34; emphasis added). The Hebrew root nhm primarily means “to growl, to groan,”3 and can be used to refer to the mourning or lamenting of those suffering from affliction. In the King James Bible, it is translated as “mourn” in Ezekiel 24:23 and Proverbs 5:11.4

Mourning for Ishmael. Artwork by Joseph Brickey. 

The primary meaning of the Hebrew root nḥm is “to be sorry, to comfort, to console,”5 but its broader meaning can also include regret, sorrow, and suffering emotional pain.6 Although the term is not typically translated as “mourn,” it is regularly used in reference to grieving about death.7 According to literary scholar David Damrosch, “At heart, naḥam means ‘to mourn,’ to come to terms with a death.”8

In the Hebrew Bible, the term nḥm is frequently used in wordplay with the name Noah (NWḤ), and similar wordplays appear to be used later in the Book of Mormon.9 In the Old South Arabian languages, nw means “to mourn,” or “to mourn publicly.”10 Thus, from a South Arabian linguistic perspective, a wordplay similar to that used in the Bible on Noah (NWḤ) and nḥm could be happening here with the South Arabian name Nahom (NHM) and the term nw, “to mourn.”11

Murmuring and Hunger

The daughters of Ishmael also mourned “because of their afflictions in the wilderness,” which led them to “murmur” against Lehi and Nephi. They complained specifically of having “suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue,” and they feared that they would “perish in the wilderness with hunger” (1 Nephi 16:35).

Lehi and one of Ishmael's sons helping one of Ishmael's daughters. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Semitic term nhm, “to groan,” can also refer to the grumbling of complainers, and was linked specifically to hunger. According to Stephen D. Ricks, the Arabic cognate nhm means “to complain, to groan, to suffer from hunger.”12 In Hebrew, nhm may similarly mean “to growl with hunger.”13

Plotting to Kill

While at Nahom, Nephi recorded that Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael plotted to slay Lehi and Nephi (1 Nephi 16:38). The Hebrew term nḥm (“to comfort, to console”) is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to people seeking consolation by seeking vengeance, vindication, or to exercise their wrath.14 According to Damrosch, it specifically “involves either the decision to kill or, conversely, the decision to stop killing.”15 Thus, for example, Esau “comforted” or “consoled” himself (nḥm) by planning to kill his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:42). Likewise, Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael evidently sought consolation for their grief and suffering at Nahom by plotting to kill Lehi and Nephi.16

Jacob and Esau. Attribution unknown. 

Repentance

Before Laman and Lemuel could effectively execute their plan, they were chastised by the Lord and “they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins” (1 Nephi 16:39). The Hebrew term nḥm is regularly translated as “to repent,”17 and is specifically “used when the repenter is mediating murder.”18 As already quoted from Damrosh, it referred not only to “the decision to kill,” but also “the decision to stop killing.”19 It can refer to retracting (or turning away from) punishment, wrath, or a life of sin.20

In some cases, the root nḥm is used to describe the comfort or relief that comes when God forgives sin.21 Laman and Lemuel’s genuine repentance brings resolution to the narrative, and Nephi says, “the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish” (1 Nephi 16:39).

Conclusion

The use of wordplay or puns in relation to proper names is common and widespread in ancient Near Eastern literature, including Hebrew texts.22 Thus, a sixth-century BC Jew like Nephi might be expected to use some puns of his own. In this instance, concepts related to both nhm and nḥm—including mourning, murmuring, hunger, plotting murder, consolation, and repentance—permeate Nephi’s description of Nahom and the events that transpired there (1 Nephi 16:34–39). The concentration of so many nhm/nḥm-related themes surrounding an NHM toponym strongly suggest intentional wordplay. 

Without access to Nephi’s original text, it is impossible to know if he directly used either nhm or nḥm throughout his narrative. Yet either way, a valid case for wordplay can still be made.23 The name Nahom itself—which is most likely South Arabian in origin—didn’t need to mean the same thing as nhm or nḥm in Hebrew in order to have brought these terms and their meanings to the minds of Lehi’s family.24

Although “these etymologies are not reflected in the geographic name Nehem,” noted Stephen D. Ricks, “it is possible that the name Nahom served as the basis of a play on words by Lehi’s party that Nephi recorded.”25 All that was needed was for the South Arabian term to sound similar to Hebrew words that were thematically relevant. As S. Kent Brown suggested:

Even though the meaning was quite different in Old South Arabian—it referred to masonry dressed by chipping—the meaning in Hebrew may connect with the consolation that members of the party sought at Nahom after they buried Ishmael, father of one of the two families in the party.26

Biblical authors are believed to have similarly used bilingual wordplays, drawing on words from different languages that sounded similar to relevant words in their own language, despite their holding different meanings.27 Nephi could very well have done the same, and in this instance it seems likely he did. The multiple shades of meaning for both nhm and nḥm that permeate this narrative about events at a place with an NHM name (Nahom) stand as evidence that 1 Nephi was written by an author familiar with ancient Hebrew language and literary practices. For a chart summarizing the various potential wordplays involved in the Nahom narrative, see the Appendix (below).

Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, ID: Xlibris, 2015), 64–66.

Neal Rappleye and Stephen O. Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 8 (2014): 174–179.

Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 92–99.

Semitic Root

Meanings

Language

Connection to Nahom in 1 Nephi 16

nhm

“to mourn”

Hebrew

“And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father” (v. 35)

 

(compare with Ezekiel 24:23 and Proverbs 5:11)

“to growl, to groan, to growl with hunger”

Hebrew

“they did murmur against my father … saying: … we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue” (v. 35)

 

“And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me” (v. 36)

“to complain, to groan, to suffer from hunger”

Arabic

“they did murmur against my father … saying: … we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue” (v. 35)

 

“And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me” (v. 36)

nḥm

 

“to be sorry, to comfort, to console”

 

in association with:

 

  • mourning
  • coming to terms with death
  • plotting vengeance (often through murder)
  • repentance (especially of killing)
  • relief through forgiveness of sin

Hebrew

“And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father” (v. 35)

 

Our father is dead; yea, … and we have suffered much affliction” (v. 35)

 

“And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi” (v. 37)

 

“and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins” (v. 39)

 

(compare with Genesis 27:42)

nwḥ

“to mourn, to mourn publicly”

 

(In the Hebrew Bible, nwḥ is often associated with the similar-sounding nḥm.)

Old South Arabian

“And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father” (v. 35)

 

  • 1 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Nahom,” March 9, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 2 S. Kent Brown, “Nice Try, Bur No Cigar: A Response to Three Patheos Posts on Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34),” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 150: “To be sure, the range of meanings of the root letters NHM in pre-exilic Hebrew are very different from those of ancient South Arabian. Why would they not be? But to suppose that the party of Lehi and Sariah would not sense relevance in the name when they heard it is to deny what happens anytime one is in a foreign-speaking environment. A person looks for cognates or similar sounding words and then links them to what he or she knows. It is a simple observation played out countless times when individuals step into an unfamiliar linguistic world.”
  • 3 See F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hebrickson Publishers, 1906), 625; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, study ed., 2 vols., trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Boston, MA: Brill, 2001), 1:676; David J. A. Clines, ed., The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 8 vols. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993–2011), 5:631.
  • 4 See Stephen D. Ricks, “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 4 (2013): 158–159.
  • 5 Brown et al., BDB Lexicon, 636–637; Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT 1:688–689; Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 5:663–665.
  • 6 For in-depth analysis of its full range of meaning, see H. Van Dyke Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NḤM,” Biblica 56, no. 4 (1975): 512–532. On the general sense of “suffer emotional pain,” see p. 519.
  • 7 In many cases, it is paired with the root nûd (“lament, mourn, grieve”). See Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NḤM,” 516–517.
  • 8 David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant: Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1987), 128. The word naḥam, as used by Damrosch, is equivalent to nḥm. Since vowels weren’t written out in ancient Semitic languages, translators often supply them when rendering Semitic words into English.
  • 9 See Evidence Central, “Wordplay on Noah,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; Matthew L. Bowen, “‘This Son Shall Comfort Us’: An Onomastic Tale of Two Noahs,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 23 (2017): 263–298. See also Damrosch, Narrative Covenant, 128–130; Moshe Garsiel, Biblical Names: A Literary Study of Midrashic Derivations and Puns (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 1991), 203–204.
  • 10 Alessia Prioletta, Inscriptions from the Southern Highlands of Yemen (Rome: L’erma di Bretschneider, 2013), 274; Stephen D. Ricks, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1989), 103. See also A. F. L. Beeston, M. A. Ghul, W. W. Muller, J. Ryckmans, Sabaic Dictionary (English-French-Arabic) (Sanaa: University of Sanaa, 1982), 101, “mourning, bereavement.”
  • 11 This would depend on how much of the native South Arabian languages Nephi managed to learn, but since they learned the local name (Nahom) of the place where they buried Ishmael, presumably they knew the language well enough to communicate with the local population. Scholars have also suggested that the name Irreantum incorporates South Arabian linguistic elements, further indicating that they had gained a fairly extensive knowledge of local languages. See Paul Y. Hoskisson et al., “What’s in a Name? Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 90–93, 114–115.
  • 12 “Lehi’s Trail and Nahom Revisited,” Insights: An Ancient Window 6, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 2. See also Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, ID: Xlibris, 2015), 65.
  • 13 Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 5:631.
  • 14 See Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 5:663–664; Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT 1:689; Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NḤM,” 521–522.
  • 15 Damrosch, Narrative Covenant, 129.
  • 16 See Alan Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Historicism, Revisionism, Positivism, and the Bible and the Book of Mormon” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1989), 100–107; Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 92–99.
  • 17 Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 5:663; Brown et al., BDB Lexicon, 637.
  • 18 Damrosch, Narrative Covenant, 129.
  • 19 Damrosch, Narrative Covenant, 129.
  • 20 Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NḤM,” 522–525. For this reason, it is often used in close connection with the Hebrew term šûb, “turn” (see p. 529).
  • 21 Parunak, “A Semantic Survey of NḤM,” 516–517.
  • 22 See Garsiel, Biblical Names; Scott B. Noegel, ed., Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2000).
  • 23 For example, Gary A. Rendsburg, “Word Play in Biblical Hebrew: An Eclectic Collection,” in Puns and Pundits, 143–145, proposes that in Genesis 9–10, the biblical author alludes to and plays off the dual meanings of the Egyptian ḫm and the name Ham, even though the biblical text never explicitly uses the Egyptian term. See also Herbert Marks, “Biblical Naming and Poetic Etymology,” Journal of Biblical Literature 114, no. 2 (1995): 30. 
  • 24 See Brown, “Nice Try, But No Cigar,” 150.
  • 25 Stephen D. Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 1 (2011): 67.
  • 26 S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 82.
  • 27 This issue is addressed by Neal Rappleye and Stephen O. Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 8 (2014): 174–179, citing the example of Ham and the Egyptian m mentioned in n.23.
Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Nahom
Book of Mormon

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