Evidence #116 | November 26, 2020

Wordplay on Zarahemla

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The name Zarahemla appears to derive from Hebrew terms meaning “seed of compassion.” Examples of plausible wordplay associated with this name and meaning are abundant in the Book of Mormon.

The book of Omni records that after King Mosiah and his people fled from the land of Nephi, they discovered the “people of Zarahemla” who lived in the “land of Zarahemla” and were led by a man named “Zarahemla” (Omni 1:12–14). Zarahemla was a descendant of Mulek, the only son of King Zedekiah who was not killed when Jerusalem was destroyed (v. 15; cf. Mosiah 25:2; Helaman 8:21).1 Eventually, after the people of Mosiah and Zarahemla merged together (v. 19), the city/land of Zarahemla became the capital of the Nephite nation and is featured prominently in many Book of Mormon narratives.

The name Zarahemla is likely constructed from two Hebrew terms—zera and hemlah—which together would mean something like “seed of compassion.”2 Various passages in the Book of Mormon seem to evoke wordplay on this name and meaning.

Wordplay on Zera

The Hebrew noun zera denotes “seed” in reference to plants, trees or crops (Genesis 1:29; 47:23), but it can also refer to human seed, meaning “offspring” or “descendants” (Genesis 3:15; 13:15–16; 2 Samuel 22:51).3 Thus, instances of plausible wordplay can be found in passages which link the concepts of descendants or seed with the name Zarahemla.

Mormon described Ammon as “a strong and mighty man, and a descendant [zera] of Zarahemla” (Mosiah 7:3). When Ammon introduced himself to King Limhi, he said, “I am Ammon, and am a descendant [zera] of Zarahemla, and have come up out of the land of Zarahemla” (Mosiah 7:13). This would have confirmed to Limhi that the people of Zarahemla were yet alive because Ammon—a descendant of Zarahemla—was yet alive and standing before him.

Ammon 1 - Descendant of Zarahemla. Artwork by James H. Fullmer.

Mormon wrote, “Now there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla, who was a descendant [zera] of Mulek, and those who came with him out of the wilderness” (Mosiah 25:2). The Nephite dissenter Coriantumr was also “a descendant [zera] of Zarahemla” (Helaman 1:15). When Nephi prophesied against the wicked in the city of Zarahemla, he cited an example of the Lord’s power to deliver from destruction, “Yea, do ye not behold that the seed [zera] of Zedekiah are with us?” (Helaman 8:21).

Wordplay on Hemla

As a Hebrew noun, hemlah denotes “compassion,” “mercy,” or “pity.” When used as a verb, it means to “spare, have compassion.”4 It is used, for example, in Jeremiah’s prophecy in which the Lord declares that the king of Babylon “shall not spare them, neither have pity [hml], nor have mercy” (Jeremiah 21:7; cf. 13:14; 15:5). Given this context, the name Zarahemla seems remarkably appropriate for a descendant of Mulek, the only son of king Zedekiah who was spared from death at the hands of the king of Babylon (2 Kings 25:6–7) and mercifully led by God to a land of promise.

The execution of the sons of Zedekiah. Artwork by François Xavier Fabre. 

Some examples of wordplay on Zarahemla can be found in accounts describing the people of Ammon. When a group of Lamanite converts were cruelly massacred, Ammon and his brethren were “moved with compassion”:

Therefore when Ammon and his brethren saw this great work of destruction, they were moved with compassion, and they said unto the king: Let us gather together this people of the Lord, and let us go down to our brethren in the land of Zarahemla [“seed of compassion”] to our brethren the Nephites, and flee out of the hands of our enemies, that we be not destroyed. (Alma 27:4–5)

Several years later this compassion was reciprocated by these same converts.

They had been brought down into the land of Zarahemla and had ever since been protected by the Nephites. And because of their oath they had been kept from taking up arms against their brethren … Yea, they would have suffered themselves to have fallen into the hands of their brethren, had it not been for the pity and the exceeding love which Ammon and his brethren had for them. And for this cause, they were brought down into the land of Zarahemla. And they had ever been protected by the Nephites. But it came to pass that when they saw the danger and the many afflictions and tribulations of the Nephites bore for them, they were moved with compassion and were desirous to take up arms in defense of their country. (Alma 53:10–13)

The Nephites’ compassion in receiving and protecting Lamanite converts in the land of Zarahemla led to reciprocal compassion from these converts a generation later as their sons (Helaman’s stripling warriors) helped to defend this land in a time of need.

Other examples of wordplay on Zarahemla center around the word spare. In the tragic aftermath of a disastrous expedition, Zeniff wrote, “We returned, those of us that were spared, to the land of Zarahemla, to relate that tale to their wives and children” (Mosiah 9:2). Samuel the Lamanite prophesied, “Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla … But blessed are thy who will repent, for them will I spare. But behold, if it were not for the righteous who are in this great city, behold, I would cause that fire should come down out of heaven and destroy it. But behold, it is for the righteous’ sake that it is spared” (Helaman 13:12–14). During the great destruction at the death of Christ, Nephite survivors lamented, “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” (3 Nephi 8:24).

Zarahemla on fire. Image from the film The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd (2000).

When preaching from his tower near “the city of Zarahemla” (Helaman 7:10), the prophet Nephi used wordplay on the name Zarahemla in an unexpected way to warn the wicked Nephites to repent:

Now therefore, I would that ye should behold, my brethren, that it shall be better for the Lamanites than for you except ye shall repent. For behold, they are more righteous than you, for they have not sinned against that great knowledge which ye have received; therefore the Lord will be merciful unto them; yea, he will lengthen out their days and increase their seed. Even when thou shalt be utterly destroyed except thou repent” (Helaman 7:23–24).

Conclusion

Repeated instances of the name Zarahemla being connected with themes of seed, pity, compassion, and mercy offers persuasive evidence of intentional wordplay. According to Matthew L. Bowen, this type of intertextual allusion and creative wordplay “bespeaks the work of skilled ancient authors and Mormon’s deft editorial work rather than a nineteenth century author with limited literary attainments.”5

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘They Were Moved with Compassion’: Zarahemla and Jershon,” in Name as Key Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Orem, Utah: Interpreter Foundation, 2018), 119–140.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘They Were Moved with Compassion’ (Alma 27:4; 53:13): Toponymic Wordplay on Zarahemla and Jershon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 18 (2016): 233–253.

Pedro Olavarria and David Bokovoy, “Zarahemla: Revisiting the ‘Seed of Compassion’,” Insights: An Ancient Window 30, no. 5 (2010): 2–3.

Stephen D. Ricks and John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place Names ,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6, no. 2 (1997): 255–259.

Mosiah 7:3, 13Mosiah 9:2Alma 27:4–5Alma 53:10–13Helaman 7:23–24Helaman 1:15Helaman 8:21Helaman 13:12–143 Nephi 8:24

Mosiah 7:3, 13

Mosiah 9:2

Alma 27:4–5

Alma 53:10–13

Helaman 7:23–24

Helaman 1:15

Helaman 8:21

Helaman 13:12–14

3 Nephi 8:24

Linguistics
Wordplays
Wordplay on Zarahemla
Book of Mormon

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