Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Understanding Words in the Book of Mormon about the Land of Promise—Part IV

Continuing with the understanding of words Joseph Smith would have known and used in the translation of the plates growing up in New England from 1805 to 1829, when the plates were finished, we find that the New Englander, Noah Webster, according to his own words, felt inspired to create an American dictionary of the English Language. Published in 1828, this dictionary was the first in setting down words as they were known and used in the New England area of the early United States, as opposed to the words then defined by English dictionaries in England.

As an example of words used in the Book of Mormon and their 1828 definition:

• Wilderness – An unoccupied track of land; a track of land or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings; a desert, forest or wide barren plain. In the United States, it is applied only to a forest.

Sorenson wrote “To appreciate the setting of much of Book of Mormon history, it is necessary to get a correct idea of what is meant by "wilderness." That word has in the Book of Mormon the same connotation as in the Bible, and usually refers to desert country.” Hugh Nibley also claimed that the word “wilderness” always meant a desert in scripture. Other theorists have written, “Without the wilderness to provide a frequent diversion and perpetual background for its story, Book of Mormon history would be quite unthinkable. The word "wilderness" occurs at least 336 times in the Book of Mormon. There has always been a prejudice in favor of interpreting the word "wilderness" as signifying forest or jungle, both out of courtesy to the jungles of Central America—the classic Book of Mormon country—and to the language of our fathers, who grew up in a world happily unfamiliar with deserts. To our ancestors, deserted land was land grown wild—overrun and choked with vegetation. Yet according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that is the fourth and least common meaning of the word, which properly refers to desert country. Certainly there is no doubt at all that the Book of Mormon is speaking of desert most of the time when it talks about wildernesses.

The problem with this attitude is to misunderstand the topography and nature of the Land of Promise. In Joseph Smith’s day, wilderness meant first and foremost, a “forest,” but also a desert or wide barren plain, hillsides, mountains, or any other area where man did not live and where man had not cultivated. In short, an” unoccupied tract of land.”

Thus, when Mormon wrote: “the king sent a proclamation throughout all the land, amongst all his people who were in all his land, who were in all the regions round about, which was bordering even to the sea, on the east and on the west, and which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore, and the borders of the wilderness which was on the north by the land of Zarahemla, through the borders of Manti, by the head of the river Sidon, running from the east towards the west” (Alma 22:27), we cannot claim that this narrow strip of wilderness was a desert—this wilderness was a strip along the border of the Land of Zarahemla and the Land of Nephi, the latter being at a much higher elevation, in a valley area among mountains” (Mosiah 7:5-6).

In addition, Mormon writes of the Land of Bountiful: “it being the wilderness which is filled with all manner of wild animals of every kind, a part of which had come from the land northward for food” (Alma 22:31). It is very unlikely that the Land of Bountiful, by its very name, would be a desert. Then, too, the Wilderness of Hermounts is described has having ravenous beasts in “they were met on every hand, and slain and driven, until they were scattered on the west, and on the north, until they had reached the wilderness, which was called Hermounts; and it was that part of the wilderness which was infested by wild and ravenous beasts” (Alma 2:37). The trouble is, there are not so many wild beasts in the desert as there are snakes, spiders, armadillo, weasels, foxes, tortoise, gila monsters, rats, wolves, scorpion vultures, jack rabbit, owls, and the like. These are rarely referred to as “ravenous beasts.”

However, in forests, grassy plains, open woodlands and mountains are found puma, cougars, lions, jaguarundi, and numerous other “ravenous beasts,” which seem to match the description of the wild beasts that killed the Lamanite stragglers.

The point is, to always interpret “wilderness” as desert, or always interpret it as “mountains,” etc., is unwise. The term could be, and should be, applied to numerous types of topography in the Land of Promise.

(See next post, “Understanding Words in the Book of Mormon about the Land of Promise—Part III” for more understanding of the words Joseph knew when translating the Book of Mormon)

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