Evidence #438 | February 27, 2024

Wordplay on Samuel

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Scripture Central

Abstract

In various ways, the Book of Mormon appears to invoke wordplay in connection with the name Samuel.

“Ask” and “Hear”

In the Old Testament, names were regularly associated with a meaning that wasn’t strictly etymological in nature. The name Samuel falls in this category. Matthew Bowen explains, 

The biblical text etiologizes the name Samuel in terms of the verb šāʾal, “ask,” “request,” “demand,” “loan (on request)” (1 Samuel 1:20, 27–28; 2:20; cf. 1:17) but also creates numerous instances of interpretive paronomasia on the name Samuel in terms of the verbs šāmaʿ, “hear,” “hearken,” “obey.”1

In other words, when Samuel is introduced as a character in the Bible, his name is associated with the ideas of “ask” and “hear,” even though, linguistically speaking, those ideas don’t represent the name’s actual meaning.2 The way these creative associations swirl around the name Samuel in several biblical narratives suggests intentional wordplay.3

Boy Samuel Called by the Lord, by Harry Anderson.

The same is true in the Book of Mormon with regard to Samuel the Lamanite. After delivering several prophecies to the people of Zarahemla, Samuel declared, “Behold ye, the people of this great city, and hearken unto my words; yea, hearken unto the words which the Lord saith; for behold, he saith that ye are cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them, and have not hearkened unto the words of him who gave them unto you” (Helaman 13:21). At the conclusion of this portion of the speech, Samuel similarly declared, “O ye people of the land, that ye would hear my words!” (Helaman 13:39). In the next section of the speech, Samuel stated, “And ye shall hear my words, for, for this intent have I come up upon the walls of this city, that ye might hear and know of the judgments of God” (Helaman 14:11). 

Thus, we observe that Samuel was strongly and repeatedly asking or requesting that the people of Zarahemla hear him or hearken to his words.4 This language, of course, corresponds to the etiological meaning of Samuel’s name in the Bible (involving “ask”) and also to a repeated wordplay in the Bible (involving “hear”).5

Samuel upon the Wall, by Jody Livingston. 

At the conclusion of the larger narrative, Mormon draws attention the idea of hearing Samuel on two more occasions. In the first instance, Mormon directly mentions Samuel by name, stating “there were many who heard the words of Samuel, the Lamanite” (Helaman 16:1).6 The very last thing that Mormon says about this Lamanite prophet was that “he was never heard of more among the Nephites” (v. 8).7 The fact that Mormon closes out his discussion of Samuel by once again invoking a biblical wordplay on Samuel’s name seems significant.8

One more association is worth highlighting. When preaching to the Nephites, Samuel prophesied about the lamentation of the people when destruction would come upon them. Yet notice that when Mormon records the fulfillment of this prophecy in 3 Nephi,9 he twice emphasizes that the cries of the people were “heard” (bolded and underlined in black):

Samuel’s Prophecy (Helaman 13)

Mormon’s Recorded Fulfillment (3 Nephi 8)

32 And in the days of your poverty ye shall cry unto the Lord; and in vain shall ye cry, for your desolation is already come upon you, and your destruction is made sure; and then shall ye weep and howl in that day, saith the Lord of Hosts. And then shall ye lament, and say:

33 O that I had repented, and had not killed the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out. Yea, in that day ye shall say: O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from us.

23 And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them.

24 And in one place they were heard to cry, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla.

25 And in another place they were heard to cry and mourn, saying: O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out;

As explained by Bowen, 

The phrases “they were heard to cry” and “they were heard to cry and mourn” (“and … they were heard”—cf. Hebrew wayyiššāmʿû) recalls the name of the giver of these signs and prophecies which were, at that hour, being fulfilled—the name of the prophet whom they had refused to “hear” (šāmaʿ), Samuel.10

 “His Name Is El”

After noting that the association between the name Samuel and the ideas of “ask” and “hear” are not strictly etymological in nature, Bowen explains, 

the more likely etymology for the name Samuel (šĕmûʾēl), at least in terms of its Hebrew spelling, appears to be “his name is El” (šmw, “name” + the possessive suffix w [“his”]); or, “his name [the name on which he cultically calls] is El” from an earlier Semitic *šimuhū + ʾil. … Peter Ackroyd has noted that šĕmûʾēl “means, ‘the (his) name is El’, i.e. his nature, his person is El.” To which he adds, “It is a name which glorifies God.”11

This is significant because the importance of the name of God is emphasized several times in Samuel’s prophecies. In Helaman 14:1–2 we read, “And now it came to pass that Samuel [šĕmûʾēl], the Lamanite, did prophesy a great many more things which cannot be written. And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God [Hebrew ʾēl/ʾĕlōhîm] to redeem all those who shall believe on his name [Hebrew šĕmô].”12

Later in the same chapter, Samuel proclaimed that his prophecies were given for the following purpose: “that ye might know of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and that ye might know of the signs of his coming, to the intent that ye might believe on his name. And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits” (vv. 12–13).13 According to Bowen, 

Of all the Book of Mormon writers, editors, or speakers who use forms of the phrase “believe on his name,” Samuel gives us its most concentrated use in his speech to the recalcitrant Nephites of Zarahemla, suggesting his emphatic and conscious use of this phrase as a rhetorical strategy. Samuel, whose own name bore witness to the sanctity and power of the divine name, was perhaps the perfect messenger to draw on this earlier Nephite prophetic language to call them back to the doctrine of Christ.14

Another strong correspondence can be seen in the words of Christ found in 3 Nephi 23:9: “Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel [šĕmûʾēl], the Lamanite, that he should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name [šĕmô] in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them.”15 Concerning this passage, Bowen writes, 

This juxtaposition of the name Samuel with the phrase “glorify his name” creates a lucid wordplay strikingly consistent with the etymology and function of that name, “his name is El [God]” or “the Name is God”—i.e., “a name which glorifies God.” In other words, Samuel’s name constitutes a sign of what the Father did, “glorified his name in [Jesus],” and what Jesus did, “glorified the name of the Father” (Ether 12:8; see also 3 Nephi 11:11).16

Composite He aqui soy Jesucristo and Samuel en la muralla, by Jorge Cocco.

Conclusion

Adding to this evidence, in Bowen’s article he elaborates further and in great detail about how the meaning of Samuel’s name ties into the theme of the doctrine of Christ.17 This evidence summary provides just a few highlights from that much longer and more nuanced discussion. Nevertheless, enough has been covered to demonstrate the strong likelihood of intentional Hebrew wordplay regarding this name. 

One advantage of investigating a name like Samuel is that it is attested repeatedly in the Bible. It therefore avoids the additional layer of ambiguity and guesswork that proposed wordplays for non-biblical names sometimes face in Book of Mormon studies. 

Another strength is that the Nephite record seems to play off both the etiological and etymological meanings of Samuel’s name, as well as associated wordplay in biblical texts. Thus, even if one were to argue that Joseph Smith perhaps picked up on the etiological meaning recorded in the Bible (involving the associations of “ask”), one would still have to account for the wordplay involving “hear” and also the wordplay involved with the name’s likely etymology (šĕmûʾēl = “his name is God”). The latter associations would only be apparent to one with a knowledge of Samuel’s name in its original Hebrew form, but Joseph Smith didn’t formally study Hebrew until years after he translated the Book of Mormon.18

Overall, the name Samuel adds one more intriguing possibility for multi-faceted wordplay in the Book of Mormon. On its own, it constitutes valuable evidence for antiquity. When placed alongside the many other proposed wordplays,19 attested ancient names,20 and other ancient literary and cultural features in the text,21 the case for the Book of Mormon’s historical authenticity becomes much more compelling. 

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘If Ye Believe on His Name’: Wordplay on the Name Samuel in Helaman 14:2, 12–13 and 3 Nephi 23:9 and the Doctrine of Christ in Samuel’s Speech,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 46 (2021): 49–76.

Bible1 Samuel 1:17 1 Samuel 1:20, 27–281 Samuel 1:27–28Book of MormonHelaman 13:21Helaman 13:39Helaman 14:11Helaman 14:1–2Helaman 14:12–13Helaman 16:1Helaman 16:83 Nephi 8:24–253 Nephi 23:9

Bible

1 Samuel 1:17

1 Samuel 1:20, 27–28

1 Samuel 1:27–28

 

Book of Mormon

Helaman 13:21

Helaman 13:39

Helaman 14:11

Helaman 14:1–2

Helaman 14:12–13

Helaman 16:1

Helaman 16:8

3 Nephi 8:24–25

3 Nephi 23:9

Footnotes
Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Samuel

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