Defending the Faith: A nickname, a 'slam dunk' and a chiasm

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

Kit Hunt, right, and her son Christian (13) follow along with a passage from The Book of Mormon in their home in Bountiful on Thursday, December 26, 2013.

Matt Gade, Deseret News

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Stephen D. Ricks, professor of Hebrew and Cognate Learning at Brigham Young University, received degrees in classical Greek and Latin from BYU. Then, following two years of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he earned a doctorate in ancient Near Eastern studies through a joint program of the University of California at Berkeley and the adjacent Graduate Theological Union (GTU). (Full disclosure: Stephen Ricks was also my last senior companion in the Switzerland Zurich Mission, where his exceptional linguistic ability was likewise on display, and he has now been a close friend for — appalling thought! — more than four decades.)

One of his passions, which he shares with several friends and colleagues, is the study of ancient temples — he regularly teaches a course on the subject — but he has had a lifelong interest in the etymology and lexicography of Semitic languages. Among his works is a “Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian” — Qatabanian was a language of ancient South Arabia — published by the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and probably unavailable at your local bookseller.

I mention these biographical details in order to illustrate the background of training and experience from which Professor Ricks speaks. He recently published a very brief but striking article in the free online “Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture” (mormoninterpreter.com) under the title “A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon.”

In it, he first discusses “Zeezrom,” which, he argues, seems to be a “dysphemism” — that’s the opposite of a “euphemism” — a nickname meaning “he of the ezrom.” The “ezrom” was a Nephite monetary unit (see Alma 11:6-12) and the nickname may have alluded to Zeezrom’s apparent pre-conversion focus on money (see Alma 11:22). He may have become, simply, that “money guy.”

Then, for the remainder of his article, Ricks focuses on the Nephite toponym, or place name, “Jershon” — a name that doesn’t appear in the Bible. This is the “slam dunk” to which his title refers. Jershon, of course, is the place of “inheritance” that was given by the Nephites to the converted “people of Ammon,” or “Anti-Nephi-Lehies,” in Alma 27:22-24 (compare 35:14) when they were obliged to flee their own land.

Given the fact that Hebrew names rendered in English beginning with the letter “j” are typically written in their original alphabet with a “yod” and pronounced as if they began with the English letter “y” — for example, “Jerusalem” is “Yerushalayim” in Hebrew; “Jehovah” was probably pronounced something like “Yahweh” — it’s virtually certain that “Jershon” was originally pronounced “Yershon.” Breaking the word down into its component parts, Ricks contends that it derives from the same root as the Hebrew verb “yarash,” which means “to inherit.” It also includes the suffix “-on,” which routinely marks ancient Israelite and Canaanite place names. Thus, in “Jershon,” the Book of Mormon seems to present us with a classic and very plain play on Hebrew words.

But how can this be explained? It seems far too specific and too contextually appropriate to be the result of mere chance. Yet Joseph Smith began to study Hebrew only later in the 1830s, years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. When he was dictating from the golden plates in the late 1820s, he scarcely knew grammatical English, let alone biblical Hebrew. It’s improbable that a barely educated Yankee farm boy could have come up with so remarkable a “bull’s eye” on his own, and unlikely that he ever noticed it.

Stephen Ricks asks the appropriate question: “If the Book of Mormon is not an ancient document, why are there so many features in it — including proper names — that are so arguably ancient?”

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