Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Silliness Behind Mesoamerican Thinking – Part I

In December 1984, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), based in Provo, Utah, issued its first monthly Update. That one-page bulletin announced the discovery of domesticated barley in the Americas before Columbus, which was, of course, a significant find with barley first appearing along with corn and “our grain of every kind” (Mosiah 7:22) as Nephite crops being paid to the Lamanites. It appeared again when Limhi planted “corn, wheat, and barley” (Mosiah 9:9). The importance lay in the fact that before that discovery, no evidence existed of cultivated barley in ancient America. Following that first bulletin, FARMS researchers have written and circulated a steady stream of findings and insights, which were collected and placed in a book titled: Reexploring the Book of Mormon, by John W. Welch. The above is the introduction to this work, which also states: “Most updates shed new light on a particular passage or concept in the Book of Mormon.” One of those updates is found in Chapter 52, “Directions in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Nephite Language,” and states:
“How would the Nephites, using the "learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2) have written north, south, east, and west? The Hebrews, like most Semitic peoples, oriented themselves by facing east, toward the rising sun. Thus east in Hebrew was simply front (qedem), with south as right (yamín), north as left (semôl), and west as rear (achôr) or "sea" (yam). But the Nephites also knew the "language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:4; Mormon 9:32). The Egyptians oriented themselves by facing south, toward the source of the Nile. "One of the terms for 'south' [in Egyptian] is also a term for 'face'; the usual word for 'north' is probably related to a word which means the 'back of the head.' "The word for east is the same as for left, and west is the same word as right. Thus the Hebrew orientation is shifted 90 degrees from the Egyptian. The Hebrew word for west (rear) has the same basic meaning as Egyptian north (back of the head); Hebrew east (front) equals Egyptian south (face); Hebrew north (left) matches Egyptian east (left); with Hebrew south (right) being Egyptian west (right). Thus when Nephi or his descendants wrote in "the language of the Egyptians," they would conceptualize the land westward in terms of the Hebrew word back. But in writing the Hebrew land backward in Egyptian characters, they would actually be writing the Egyptian word for land northward. So when the Nephites wrote the Egyptian word for north, did they have the Hebrew meaning west in mind, or the Egyptian meaning north?”
One can only wonder at such statements. Let’s use a little responsible thinking here. Nephi, Sam and Zoram were the only ones who knew anything about the Hebrew language in the Land of Promise as it was understood in Israel. First of all, the language known in Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and around the time of the Babylonian exile, was Classical Hebrew in which the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was written, and is referred to by Jews as Leshon HaKodesh, "The Holy Language", since ancient times. Hebrew itself is derived form the word ibri (plural Ibrim), one of several names for the Jewish people, and is believed to be based on Abraham’s ancestor, Eber (Ebr), which supposedly means “cross over,” in reference to the people who crossed over the river Euphrates. In the Bible, the Hebrew language is called Yәhudit because Judah (Yәhuda) was the surviving kingdom at the time of the quotation around the 8th century B.C. (Isaiah 36, 2 Kings 18). In Isaiah 19:18, it is also called the "Language of Canaan."
One of the first questions to be asked is, would Lehi think in terms of the language he knew “the learning of the Jews,” in these terms? That is, would he have thought of how a specific word in the Hebrew language got its name when he used it? Do we think of how English got its name when we refer to the English language, the English people, or England? Or do we think of the etymology of any word within the language when we use it?
The fact that the word East was originally “coined” by facing east to the Jews, and using the word for face or front as the directional name, may have been understood for a generation or two, however, it is unlikely that the meaning survived among the common Hebrew or Jew in Jerusalem in 600 B.C., several centuries later. It is also doubtful, though the word East originated from the word qedem, meaning “front,” that the origination of the word survived more than a generation or two, and certainly not for centuries.
In the vernacular of English today, when someone uses the word “awful,” such as “Isn’t that an awful tune?” it is very doubtful that the person knows, or even if he did, that he would think of it as a word that originally meant “full of awe,” and “inspiring,” which, in reality, based on the word’s etymology, the person is asking, “Isn’t that tune inspiring?” or “Isn’t that tune worthy of reverence?” which obviously is not what the person meant. Or when someone says: “That person is really awkward,” would he know that the word originally meant “turned around backward,” and not “clumsy.” When someone says “O.K.,” which happens millions of time a day in the U.S., does anyone know the word was popularized by Martin Van Buren’s run for President in 1840 when his nickname Old Kinderhook, after his birthplace in New York state, was shortened to OK in the OK Club. And the word “quiz,” another common word in constant use today, originally meant “an odd or eccentric person. And the word “snob,” which originally meant a shoemaker or his apprentice, but was adopted to mean students at Cambridge University, but they changed it to mean someone who lacked a title or were of humble origins, which later became used for anyone who was not a student. Later it was used to refer to anyone with no breeding, and finally used by those with breeding about those they looked down upon.
The point of all this is simply to show that word origins fall by the wayside, but the words involved remain and are used for what they currently mean. Does anyone seriously think that a word’s origin, after centuries, is going to convey the same understanding of the word it originally held? In the phrase “The wrong side of the tracks,” does anyone know today that it had to do with the way smoke blew when trains passed and only the poor lived on “the wrong side of the tracks.” Or the next time you tell one of your kids to “sleep tight,” you might want to know that the phrase originally meant “sleep properly” or “sleep effectively.” When you give someone your Zip Code, do you know you are referring to a number based on a “Zone Improvement Plan”? Have you ever been stumped? The word comes from the Old West when train tracks were laid down and they came across a tree stump—they were stumped. The next time you offer a “toast” keep in mind that in the 18th century, punch was often made with small pieces of burnt toast on top for decoration. A “big wig” came from when men wore powdered wigs—the richer the man, the larger the wig he wore.
In short, nobody uses words long after they were established in the way they were originally meant, let alone know how they came into being, or that they might mean something else entirely. East, after all, means the direction “East,” in any language. It does not mean back, front, facing, etc., and hasn’t for many centuries.
It might also be of interest to know that the word east first appeared in Sunskrit, EAS, meaning “dawn.” The T was added to mean “toward the firey dawn (in the east)” The word “Asia” is taken from the Hebrew ASH (AiSH), meaning “fire” as used in Deuteronomy 4:24. “Asu” from an ancient Assyrian marker means “land of the rising sun.” In Latin, the word “oriens” means “upcoming” (of the Sun) and is used for East (orio-rise), and from which we get the words Orient (east) and Oriental (eastern). The French word Levant, applied to the eastern Mediterranean littoral (sea and land), originally meant the East, or east of Italy (and northeast of Africa). Vostok in Russia is from this, and means “rising” and East; Mizrahi in Hebrew, “zriha” meaning sunrise; dogu in Turkish meaning “born,” “to rise.”
So if we were to take the Latin “oriens” and claim that a writer of that time meant rising and not east, we would be misstating the use of the word. And the same is true with the Hebrew “qedem,” to mean anything other than east when discussing directions.
(See the next post, “The Silliness Behind Mesoamerican Thinking – Part II,” for more on the silly and disingenuous descriptions and ideas Mesoamericanists use to promote their model of the Land of Promise)

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