Evidence #78 | September 19, 2020

Wordplay on Noah

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The positive meanings associated with Noah’s name in the Bible—comfort, rest, and repentance—are negatively associated with King Noah in the Book of Mormon and thereafter become major themes in his people’s stories of deliverance.

The Name Noah and Its Associated Meanings

The name Noah predates biblical Hebrew,1 yet for those who spoke and read that language the name was associated with the Hebrew root nwḥ (to “rest”) and also with the root nḥm (to “regret” or “be sorry,” to “console oneself,” or to “comfort”).2 Biblical authors used wordplay on both roots to creatively link Noah’s name with related narrative details.3 According to Matthew L. Bowen,

The narrator [of Genesis] explains that Noah (nōaḥ “[divine] rest”) was so named because he would “comfort” (naḥămēnû) his forefathers concerning their work and toil (Genesis 5:29). … The wordplay then shifts from nḥm to nwḥ (“rest”), with the ark coming to “rest” (wattānaḥ, Genesis 8:4), the dove’s attempting to find “rest” (mānôaḥ, Genesis 8:9) , and the “sweet savour” (rēaḥ hannîḥōaḥ) of the sacrifice that appeased the Lord after the flood (Genesis 8:21).4

Noah’s name is also linked to repentance. “In the biblical version of the Noah story, Yahweh ‘repents’ (wayyinnāḥem, niḥam, Genesis 6:6‒7) for having made humanity.”5 The association with repentance comes from the same root (nḥm) that connotes “comfort” or “consolation.”

These concepts associated with the biblical Noah— “rest,” “comfort,” and “repentance”—are similarly linked with King Noah in the Book of Mormon.6 However, instead of emphasizing positive attributes or outcomes, the Book of Mormon portrays King Noah negatively in relation to these concepts. 

The “Comfort” and “Rest” of King Noah7

Instead of providing “comfort” to the people concerning their “work and toil” (as described in Genesis 5:29), King Noah was a burden upon his people. He heavily taxed them to support extravagant building projects as well as his (and his priests’) many wives and concubines (see Mosiah 11:1–13). In so doing, he caused the people to “labor exceedingly to support iniquity” (v. 6). Moreover, rather than helping his people obtain divine peace and rest, King Noah constructed elaborate seats for his wicked priests upon which they could lazily “rest their bodies and their arms” while speaking “lying and vain words to his people” (v. 11).

Abinadi Before King Noah, Arnold Friberg. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Abinadi’s Message of Repentance 

Abinadi repeatedly warned Noah and his people that they needed to repent.8 Bowen has suggested that the term “repent” found in Abinadi’s phrase “repent in sackcloth and ashes” (Mosiah 11:25) is plausibly a form of the root nḥm, likely deriving from Job 42:6: “and [I] repent [niḥam] in dust and ashes.”9 Bowen likewise proposed that the use of “repent” in Abinadi’s twice repeated statement “repent and turn un(to) the Lord” (Mosiah 11:21–23) is a form of nḥm, based on the fact that nḥm is frequently used in the Bible in conjunction with the Hebrew word for “turn” (šûb).10 Thus, Abinadi seems to have condemned Noah by ironically using a form of the word “repent” that was, according to the biblical tradition, associated with Noah’s own name. 

Alma’s Message of Repentance

The link between Noah’s name and the idea of repentance seems to have been picked up later by Alma. When relating his past transgressions, Alma emphasized his need for “sore repentance” soon after mentioning King Noah by name: “But remember the iniquity of king Noah and his priests; and I myself was caught in a snare, and did many things which were abominable in the sight of the Lord, which caused me sore repentance” (Mosiah 23:9). As Bowen noted,11 this reminiscence may have been the source behind the details reported in Mosiah 18:1, which links Noah’s name even closer to Alma’s repentance: “And now, it came to pass that Alma, who had fled from the servants of king Noah, repented of his sins and iniquities.” 

“The Lord Hath Comforted His People”

At one point during Abinadi’s trial, one of King Noah’s priests asked Abinadi about the meaning of a passage from Isaiah which, in part, states that “the Lord hath comforted his people” (Mosiah 12:23; cf. Isaiah 52:9). Bowen noted that when quoting this passage the priest “would have inevitably used the “Noah”-associated verb nḥm” which was “integral to the midrashic meaning of Noah’s name: (“This same shall comfort us [naḥămēnû] concerning our work and toil of our hands,” Genesis 5:29).12 After expounding on the priest’s question, Abinadi quoted the verse again in Mosiah 15:30. “Abinadi’s return to these words at this moment in the exchange between Noah’s priests and himself is poignant,” explained Bowen. “Abinadi knows that Noah, who has already brought his people into spiritual bondage, is bringing them into temporal bondage as well: he has not comforted them.”13

Noah Comforts with “Wine in Abundance”

The only negative portrayal of Noah in the Bible concerns his planting a vineyard and getting drunk (see Genesis 9:20–21).14 Likewise, King Noah is the only Book of Mormon character who is noted for winemaking: “And it came to pass that he planted vineyards round about in the land; and he built wine-presses, and made wine in abundance; and therefore he became a wine-bibber, and also his people” (Mosiah 11:15). Biblical scholars have connected the Bible’s given explanation of Noah’s name—he “shall comfort us [naḥămēnû]” (Genesis 5:29)—with his status as a “husbandman” who produced wine.15

This connection seems to be ironically emphasized in the Book of Mormon. Just before the Lamanites invaded the Nephite lands, the text mentions that “the forces of the king were small, having been reduced” (Mosiah 19:2). It is quite possible that Noah reduced his armies to support his extravagant and lazy lifestyle, allocating resources to construct his palace and tend to his vineyards rather than protect his people. The abundance of wine seems to have made them all entirely too comfortable with their situation. Bowen suggested that the “winemaking and winebibbing served as a kind of spiritual anesthesia for King Noah and his people, who grew increasingly proud, self-sufficient, and overconfident.”16

Bearing Other’s Burdens and Comforting Those in Need of Comfort

Alma’s teachings at the Waters of Mormon seem intended to reverse the negative attributes associated with King Noah. Whereas Noah burdened his people with taxes and comforted them with wine, Alma taught his people that they should “bear one another’s burdens” (Mosiah 18:8) and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (v. 9). It doesn’t seem a coincidence that these themes are brought out among a people who were in hiding from the wicked King Noah.

Alma Baptizes in the Waters of Mormon by Arnold Friberg

Isaiah’s Prophecy Fulfilled

As twice quoted at Abinadi’s trial, Isaiah prophesied that “the Lord hath comforted his people” (Isaiah 52:9; cf. Mosiah 12:23; 15:30). Because of their iniquity, the Nephites under King Noah’s reign apparently didn’t qualify to be counted among the Lord’s people. Instead of being “comforted” by the Lord, they were punished for the “wickedness and abominations” which King Noah caused them to commit (Mosiah 29:17–18).    

Yet after their repentance and conversion, the Lord twice told Alma’s followers to “be of good comfort” (Mosiah 24:13, 16) when they were under the bondage of Amulon and the Lamanites at his command. The Lord also promised them that he would “ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders” (v. 14) and indeed “it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease,” (v. 15). This same theme is emphasized after the people of Limhi humbled themselves and cried unto the Lord for deliverance: “the Lord did hear their cries, and began to soften the hearts of the Lamanites that they began to ease their burdens” (Mosiah 21:15).  

Conclusion

The above analysis suggests that Book of Mormon authors and editors were aware of the range of meanings that Noah’s name evoked in biblical Hebrew. In the Book of Mormon, Noah is immediately and ironically depicted as an unrepentant monarch who selfishly burdens his people, comforts them with an abundance of wine, and only provides rest for his newly appointed priests. These foundational themes negatively associated with Noah’s name are then emphatically contrasted as separate groups of Noah’s people truly repent, are comforted by the Lord, receive relief from their burdens, and ultimately find rest and comfort in the Land of Zarahemla.17

It seems that the creation of this story would necessitate a deep knowledge of Hebrew and a keen familiarity with the Bible’s onomastic treatment of Noah’s name. It would also have required a significant degree of literary skill to subtly infuse these themes into a set of complex and interweaving storylines. 

When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in 1829, he had very little education and virtually no literary experience to speak of.18 Moreover, he didn’t begin to study Hebrew until the fall of 1835.19 As Bowen concluded, “The sophisticated nature of the proposed onomastic wordplay on the name Noah has important implications for Joseph Smith as translator,” offering “internal evidence” that the Book of Mormon is a translation of a “real ancient [text].”20

Book of Mormon Central, “How Does The Book of Mormon Use a Hebrew Pun on King Noah's Name? (Mosiah 11:6),” KnoWhy 406 (February 8, 2018). 

Matthew 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.
 

Mosiah 11Mosiah 12:23Mosiah 15:30Mosiah 18:1, 8–9Mosiah 21:15Mosiah 23:9Mosiah 24:13–16

Mosiah 11
Mosiah 12:23
Mosiah 15:30
Mosiah 18:1, 8–9
Mosiah 21:15
Mosiah 23:9
Mosiah 24:13–16

Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Noah
Book of Mormon

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