Sunday, December 18, 2016

It’s Very Good Hebrew – Part I

Most have heard Mark Twain's sarcastic quip that removing "and it came to pass" from the Book of Mormon would reduce the book to a pamphlet. Who could blame him? Even in the present edition of the Book of Mormon "it came to pass" occurs 1297 times. However, this phrase is not unique to the Book of Mormon, since the phrase also occurs 457 times in the KJV of the Old Testament. According to Donald W. Parry, Instructor in biblical Hebrew, BYU, it appears 727 in the KJV of the Bible.
    As one critic recently wrote: “The Book of Mormon is cursed with the clumsy, repetitious phrase “and it came to pass” that appears hundreds of times in the book, on almost every page.” Interestingly, not he, nor Mark Twain, nor even Joseph Smith would have known in the nineteenth century just how important the phrase was to the Book of Mormon authors and as an authentic example of the accuracy of the book.
    “The English translation of the Hebrew word wayehi (often used to connect two ideas or events), “and it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The expression is rarely found in Hebrew poetic, literary, or prophetic writings. Most often, it appears in the Old Testament narratives, such as the books by Moses recounting the history of the children of Israel.
    This word, actually “veyehi” which is the same as hâyâh, means loosely “and it was,” and is a very common word, but often indicates more than a simple introduction as the rabbis explicate it to refer (often) to a negative situation; others claim it means “and he lived,” such as in “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years” (Genesis 47:28). The problem is that there really is no way to singularly translate most Hebrew (especially interlinear translations) since there is no one-to-one correspondence between words in English and words in Hebrew.
    As an example of difficulty, this word can be spelled with either a “chet” (pronounced “chate”) and a “hey” (pronounced “hay”). “Chet” is the 8th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and is usually transliterated as "ch", "kh", or simply an "h" in English; on the other hand, “hey” is the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, but both are extremely similar in appearance:
Biblically, it is the English translation of the single Hebrew word, hâyâh. We tend to read this phase as indicating a passage of time. Yet, Jacob Weingreen, in Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew (Oxford University Press, 2nd Ed., 1959), suggests that it would best be given the meaning, "now it happened." Strong's Hebrew dictionary suggests "to exist" or "to become" as possible translations of hâyâh. Royal Skousen postulates that hâyâh represents a "discourse marker" and suggests that the phrase and it came to pass "may be considered equivalent to “and then" or "and so” (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 3 No. 1, p. 37).
    The Hebrew Old Testament has 1204 occurrences of the word hâyâh, Most of these have either been ignored or reduced to simply "and," with only 727 of these translated as “and it came to pass.” While in the Bible some variety was used by the numerous groups that translated the KJV in 1611, Joseph Smith, the single translator, kept more true to his source, using “and it came to pass” in every instance.
    As in the Old Testament, the expression in the Book of Mormon (where it appears some 1,404 times) occurs in the narrative selections and is clearly missing in the more literary parts, such as the psalm of Nephi (see 2 Nephi 4:20-25); the direct speeches of King Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Jesus Christ; and the several epistles.
    In his editing for the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon Joseph Smith removed 46 occurrences of "it came to pass," rendering them as "and," just as was done by the King James translators. Think how Mark Twain might have reacted had he read the 1830 edition, which had passages like:
• "and it came to pass that when my father had made an end of speaking unto them behold it came to pass that he spake unto the sons of Ishmael…" (2 Nephi 4:10):
• "now it came to pass that after Alma had received his message from the angel of the Lord he returned speedily to the land of Ammonihah and it came to pass that he entered the city by another way yea by the way which was on the south of the city Ammonihah and it came to pass that as he entered the city…” (Alma 8:18-19).
    Had the Bible been translated as literally as the Book of Mormon, Mark Twain might have had the same comment to make of it. Take for example this passage of the Bible:
• “"And they journeyed from Bethel; and [it came to pass that] there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour. And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin” (Genesis 35:16-18)
It is important to ask “Why is this phrase so common in the Book of Mormon?” The answer is simple: Because Joseph Smith was translating a Hebrew text. If "it came to pass" were not prominent in the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew claims for its origin would be absurd. Hâyâh is an integral part of Hebrew expression. Thus, "it came to pass" must be found as a common expression in any document that claims to be a translation from Hebrew to English. Does this prove the Hebrew origins of the Book of Mormon? No. But another thread is added to our tapestry of evidence.
    Now before anyone jumps on the bandwagon and scrolls down to leave a comment like: “But the Book of Mormon is not translated from Hebrew, but from Reformed Egyptian,” we need to be reminded that those writing the Book of Mormon on the plates were speakers of Hebrew and spoke that language every day for their 1000 year history (Mormon 9:32-33), and one tends to write, even in another language, those idioms and phrases that one commonly uses.
    Another ingredient of Hebrew that shows the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, is that in Hebrew, words, phrases, and sentences are generally connected by a single character, usually translated "and." Thus, in a literal translation of Hebrew into English "and" appears in many places where English would have a punctuation mark. In this literal translation, many sentences would begin with "and," as in Alma 11 where 20 of the 23 verses begin with "And." Lists in this literal translation would have each item set off by "and," both briefly and extensively, as in “with our bows and our arrows and our stones and our slings” (1 Nephi 16:15), or “and of gold, and of silver, and of copper” (1 Nephi 18:25) or in "all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of precious ores" (2 Nephi 5:15).
    This Hebrew conjunction translated and really has many possible meanings in English. In the Old Testament it has been translated: "And also"
    In addition, there are other different uses of the word “and” that are found in the Book of Mormon, such as in the Old Testament: "or," "then," "certainly," "perhaps," "in order to," "like," "therefore," "so," "thus," and "but." This last, “but,” leads to an interesting observation in the Book of Mormon. Consider this sentence from Moroni 9:4, "and when I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it." Obviously, the sense of this "and. ." would, in English, be better expressed by the word "but. .." However, if Joseph was making a near literal translation of Hebrew, "and" is a correct rendering.
Another example provides a strong illustration when the Lord is quoted by Lehi in 2 Nephi 1:20. In 2 Nephi 4:4, this same passage is again quoted, with one interesting difference: the "but" appearing in the first passage is replaced by an "and." in the second. The Hebrew for each of these passages would be identical and both renditions are fully acceptable translations of that Hebrew.
(See the next post, “It’s Very Good Hebrew – Part II,” for more on how the Book of Mormon fails in English but excels in Hebrew.


  1. I just finished reading Del's book on scientific fallacies; I really enjoyed it especially the chapters on radiocarbon dating, the creation, and the flood. I highly recommend it.

    I also recently read his book on "who really settled Mesoamerica". Outstanding chapters on the Jaredites-their origin, their journey, etc another must read.