Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Etymology of Isle in the Book of Mormon:

Sometimes, it would seem, that those reading the scriptural record forget who wrote it, and how it was translated. This seems especially true in the academic world where professors appear to approach the Book of Mormon as though it was a long lost codex of some ancient people and reject the idea of God’s involvement with its creation and translation. In so doing, a lot of understanding is lost and other beliefs occur regarding the meaning of what was written and the ultimate interpretation of its writing.
As an example, the authors of the Book of Mormon, from our point of view today, consisted of those prophets and recorders found from First Nephi through Omni; however, for the sake of the geographical setting, we really deal with basically just Nephi, Jacob, Mormon and Moroni.
1.  Nephi: Hebrew speaking and writing, as well as Egyptian writing author; lived at Jerusalem until about 20-25 years of age;
2. Jacob; Hebrew speaking and writing, as well as Egyptian writing author; never lived in Jerusalem, was born in the wilderness and brought up in the wilderness and the Land of Promise;
3. Mormon: Hebrew speaking and writing, as well as Egyptian writing author; born in the Land of Promise at a time when the Hebrew language had been altered by the Nephites; and the Egyptian was called Reformed and altered as well;
4. Moroni: Hebrew speaking and writing, as well as Egyptian writing author; born in the Land of Promise at a time when the Hebrew language had been altered by the Nephites; and the Egyptian was called Reformed and also altered.
5. The Book of Either, translated and abridged by Moroni, was originally written by authors who would not have known Hebrew as it was known to the ancients unless the Hebrew is just a continuation of the language of Noah. Ether, who lived somewhere around 600 B.C., followed a line of speaking people from Mesopotamia who may not have spoken Hebrew or been familiar with it before leaving at the time of the confusion of languages; however, for those who believe they spoke the original Hebrew of Noah, let us keep in mind that there would have been approximately 1600 years between the time Jared and his brother and friends left Mesopotamia and Ether’s birth, or at least his writing of the Ether record. During this time, as Moroni said of the Nephites, their language had been altered: “And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Mormon 9:32).  Thus, even if Ether wrote in the same language that the Nephites wrote, it would have been altered, and not necessarily along the same lines that the Nephite Hebrew would have been altered.
President Joseph Fielding Smith (left) taught that the Jaredites likely spoke the language of Adam (The Way to Perfection, 1970, p69), yet according to Robert L. Millet and Joseph F. McConkie: “in adding the book of Ether to the Book of Mormon, Moroni was probably following instructions from his father Mormon. In the book of Mosiah, as Mormon was giving an account of the discovery and translation of the twenty-four gold plates upon which this record was engraved, he had inserted this comment” (Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. IV, p. 259). Now if that statement was meaningful and not just a slip of writing, i.e., that Moroni “translated” the Book of Ether, then we have to assume that it was written in a language unknown to Moroni, who knew Hebrew, very likely well enough to have understood Ether’s writing of Hebrew if that was the language known to the Jaredites. Otherwise, if he merely abridged the writing (as Mormon did of the Nephite record), then we would understand that to be in a language known to Moroni.
    This would then make sense that 1) the Jaredites spoke the Adamic lanauage, but 2) the Adamic language was not Hebrew, for it was not known to Moroni, who knew Hebrew.
    Now, returning to the language known to the four main writers or abridgers of the records, whose comments generate the most connections of descriptions regarding the Land of Promise, i.e., Nephi, for this comments leading up to and landing on the Land of Promise; Jacob for his discussion about the Land of Promise being an island; Mormon for his abridgement of the main Nephite record; and Moroni for his abridgement of the Book of Ether. In all of this, the Hebrew language would have been a third-level factor in understanding the meaning of words.
    As an example, Nephi who spoke and wrote Hebrew, but also wrote the record in Egyptian (1 Nephi 1:2), he obviously would have thought in Hebrew, it being his native and indigenous language. He then would have translated that meaning into an Egyptian word or character, and inscribed it on the plates. While this is an assumption, it is probably correct since that is the way people who use a second language think and write. On the other hand, if he was extremely familiar with Egyptian, it is possible he would think in Egyptian and not Hebrew at all, as missionaries do who learn a foreign language on their missions—typically, sometime after half their mission, they transfer their thinking from their native language (such as English) to that of their newly learned language (such as Spanish), etc.
Assuming Nephi thought in Hebrew, as all theorists claim, let us consider the words then that Jacob spoke in the temple and Nephi wrote down upon the plates.
    The Lord has made the sea our path and we are upon an isle of the sea” (2 Nephi 10:20).
    The word “isle” or even “island” is not a word in the Hebrew language. The word used today that uses the modern inclusion of “isle” or “island” is “ אִי, (i), which is taken from an unused word, a masculine noun, that has a phonetic spelling of “ee” and a definition of “coastlands.” Originally, the word meant “habitable places” as opposed to water, thus in Biblical times it was used for a coastline, shore, or island. It’s main meaning, however, is singled out as “an island,” or “to cause to become an island, or like an island, to surround or encompass (with water) as an island.”
    Some modern-day scholars have changed the meaning in the new bibles, such as the Revised Versions with a “sea coast” marginal meaning. In Acts, the Hebrew word nesion” is interpreted as ”small island” and “nesos” as “island.” In addition, in the British and English versions of new Bibles, “I” is translated as “islae” or “island.” In that time, only the islands (island cities) of Tyre and Arvad were known in Old Testament times of any import and they were very small. There was also Kittim (Chittim), Cyprus, Elisha and perhaps Carthage were referenced as “isles of the nations.”
    We need to keep in mind that the ancient Jews were not a maritime nation and their geographical knowledge was very limited. It was the Tyrians who had communication with what islands of the sea there were. It was not until the missionary voyages of Paul that we find much writing about islands in the Biblical period at all.
    Thus, when Lehi left Jerusalem, the word “isle” or “island” would not have been a much-used word. However, in their voyage to the land of Promise and their movement up athe coast of southern Chile that has today over 2300 islands, might well have changed their thinking.
In Old Testament times, the Mediterranean Sea was relatively unknown west of Sardinia and Carthage and only a handful of islands were known and fewer inhabited

This means that when Jacob used a word that Joseph Smith translated as “isle,” we need to keep in mind two things:
1. The word “island” was not used in 1828 New England. As Noah Webster says of the word “Island”: “This is an absurd compound of isle and land, that is, land-in-water land, or ieland-land. There is no such legitimate word in English, and it is found only in books.” Thus, Joseph’s translation of the word to “isle” is correct, for “island” would not have been the word used in  his time. In addition, Webster also tells us the meaning of the word “isle” as: “A tract of land surrounded by water, or a detached portion of land embosomed in the ocean,” thus, once again, showing that the correct word was used for the translation.
2. The Hebrew word that would translate as “isle” in 1828 would be nesos, not “i” so the Egyptian character that was actually engraven on the plates would have translated to “nesos” in Hebrew, otherwise the English translation would have been “coast” or “coastal land,” not “isle,” again, showing Joseph Smith’s correct translation, and the correct meaning of the word as used in the scriptural record as “island” in today’s language.


  1. Quite convincing. My dad, bless his soul, used to say, "a man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still." The choir will agree with you Del, but the entrenched advocates of the other models will brush this off like water from a duck.

  2. I have a little difference of opinion about the language of the Jaredites. I believe they did come here to South America and spoke Hebrew. That language would have been corrupted over the centuries following their arrival of course. But the language of Adam was Hebrew. The language of the patriarchs was Hebrew and the language of Abraham was Hebrew. The Egyptians got their language from Hebrew. I can prove this several ways of course. JFS was correct in assuming that the Jaredites spoke the language of Adam. My question to you is how do you know Adam did not speak Hebrew? Even the rabbis today know that Hebrew was the language of Creation. This is a marvelous language and there is great power in its words. This is why the Lord has kept this language around throughout the ages because it is also the language of the scriptures. A person gets greater knowledge from the scriptures though the Hebrew. So I wouldn't discount this.