long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The name of Zarahemla

Many of the Latter-day Saints who still believe what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah also find it significant that the Lord named the site to be built across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo.

Let them build up a city unto my name upon the land opposite the city of Nauvoo, and let the name of Zarahemla be named upon it. (Doctrine and Covenants 125:3)

There are three key points here. First, it was to be a city. Second, it was to have the name of Zarahemla. Third, the name was given by the Lord through revelation. This was nothing like the situation in Utah, when settlers named their communities after Book of Mormon places (Lehi, Nephi, Bountiful, etc.).

No one says there is only correct interpretation of D&C 125:3, but the Iowa Zarahemla does fit within the overall geography, as well as extrinsic evidence.

Naturally, the M2C scholars insist that Zarahemla cannot be in Iowa. When we read their justifications, though, they rely on their own interpretations of the text, not the text itself. While there is nothing inherently wrong with their interpretations, there is nothing inherently correct, either. Their M2C hypothesis is merely the logical result of their assumptions and interpretations. It's axiomatic that if you believe the M2C interpretations, you'll conclude that Zarahemla must be in Mesoamerica.

Next week I'll propose a model that will clarify how we reach different hypotheses from the same facts, but for now, let's just say that, even starting with the same facts, people reach different conclusions because of their different assumptions about the facts. 

Ideally, we'd all recognize, respect and appreciate multiple working hypotheses. I emphasize repeatedly that I'm fine with people believing M2C. I understand it quite well having accepted it by default for decades. M2C thrives on ignorance, but even those who are well informed choose to believe M2C. That's all great. Most readers of this blog understand that approach, but there are still a handful of critics that are so devoted to M2C they still cannot acknowledge alternative faithful interpretations, let alone understand or accurately explain them.

A lot of people don't realize that Joseph Smith purchased far more land on the western side of the Mississippi than on the eastern side. In the map from the Joseph Smith Papers, I circled Nauvoo with the red circle below.

Some people wonder how Zarahemla on the Mississippi could fit within the geography described by the text of the Book of Mormon. It fits easily, as we'll discuss below after reviewing the name Zarahemla.

The phrase "name of Zarahemla" brings to mind a passage in Alma:

Now it was the custom of the people of Nephi to call their lands, and their cities, and their villages, yea, even all their small villages, after the name of him who first possessed them; and thus it was with the land of Ammonihah. (Alma 8:7)

Because the Lord instructed Joseph Smith to call the site across from Nauvoo by "the name of Zarahemla," it's logical to assume that site was first possessed by Zarahemla.

The scriptures don't tell us much about Zarahemla, either as a person or as a title. When Mosiah and his people left the land of Nephi, they "they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. Now, there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla; and also Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews." (Omni 1:14)

We see that the leader of these people was named "Zarahemla," but we don't know if he was the first Zarahemla or one in a line of leaders. Maybe those people followed the same custom as the people of Nephi:

Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.
(Jacob 1:11)

Because they were called the people of Zarahemla, and they lived in the land of Zarahemla, it seems likely that Zarahemla was a honorific name, similar to the way the Nephites used the name Nephi for their kings. Otherwise, the people would have to change their name and the name of their lands every time they got a new king.

No "city of Zarahemla" is mentioned in the text until Alma 2:26. This could be because the city was founded after Mosiah showed up, because Mormon didn't think to mention it, or any number of other reasons. However, the people did have a temple somewhere in the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 2:1).

This is important to recognize because some people assume that when Mosiah traveled to Zarahemla, he arrived at the city of Zarahemla instead of the land of Zarahemla. 


The Book of Mormon Onomasticon offers these possibilities for the name Zarahemla. I don't have an opinion about this speculation, but it deserves consideration because for Mulek to come to the New World, presumably it was some Phoenicians who built and navigated the ship(s).


Possibly hypothetical HEBREW *zerʿa-ḥemlâ "Seed of Compassion" (JH, JAT), or "Merciful scattering," employing ḥemlâ "mercy, compassion, pity, commiseration" (Genesis 19:16), and the same Semitic root is a loanword (ḥml) in 20th Dynasty EGYPT as ḥa-ma-nra "Be merciful, Have Compassion!"[1] PYH argues that ḥemlâ looks like a feminine participle from the verb "to pity." If so, the preceding element in the name would probably not be a verb, thus perhaps leaving us with the meaning "Merciful-scion." This proposed name is structured somewhat like HEBREW zeraʿ hammělûkâ, zeraʿ hammamlākâ "royal descendant" (Jeremiah 41:1, 2; 2 Kings 11:1; 25:25; Ezekiel 17:13; Daniel 1:3),[2] and like HEBREW zeraʽ ʼĕlōhîm "progeny of God, godly offspring" (Malachi 2:15),[3] and the Neo-Babylonian PN Zer-babili,[4] the PN of the late biblical prince and governor Zerubbabel "Scion/Offspring of Babylon, Seed-of-Babylon, Born-in-Babylon" (1 Chronicles 3:19, Ezra 3:2 = Sheshbazzar, Ezra 1:8; NT Zorobabel Matthew 1:12-13).[5] Note also that each is a royal descendant of the House of DAVID. Word-play based on this etymology has been found by Pedro Olavarria and David Bokovoy at Mosiah 9:2, and 3 Nephi 8:24 (based on use of ḥml "spared" at 1 Samuel 15:9).[6]

Cf. also Semitic zhr, zrʿ "to sow" in Demotic ḏrʿ, ḏl3 "spread, scatter" (> Coptic ḏōōre, ḏar, ḏar=, ḏare=, ḏēr, čer=),[7] as the possible prefix of the name.

Alternatively, Jo Ann Hackett compared the King James Bible PNs Zarah (Genesis 38:30; 46:12), Zerah (Genesis 36:13, 17, 33; 1 Chronicles 1:37; Nehemiah 11:24), Zara (Matthew 1:3), all based on HEBREW Zaraḥ, Zeraḥ, "Shine foroth, Light up; Dawn; Risen-Like-the-Morning-Sun" (hypocoristic PN for KJV Zerahiah Zeraḥ-Yah "YHWH has Risen Like the Morning Sun"[8] HEBREW Zrḥy = LXX Zaraei, and that HEBREW Zryh = LXX Zaraia.[9] Cf. the ASSYRIAN practice of naming a land for its capital city.

Less likely is hypothetical HEBREW *zĕrōʿ-ḥemla "Arm of mercy," an English phrase used three times in the Book of Mormon, including once by JESUS at 3 Nephi 9:14, which could be a play on words (pun) on the name of ZARAHEMLA (using a folk etymology), whose destruction he had just mentioned (JAT). Cf. for example, the reading zeraʽ in MT, which is not supported by LXX Greek omos "shoulder" and Vulgate brachium "forearm," which means that the correct reading should be zĕrōʿa "arm."[10]

Less likely is hypothetical HEBREW *Zārâ-ḥemlâ "Scattering of mercy," employing piel HEBREW zrh "to scatter, spread," i.e., the scattering of JUDAH among the nations (RFS).[11]

Margaret Barker combines several of these meanings into complex wordplay designed to communicate the deeper meaning of the Servant Songs of ISAIAH: "To whom has the arm [zĕrōʿa] of the LORD been revealed?" can also mean "To whom has the seed/son [zeraʿ] of the LORD been revealed?" (Isaiah 53:1 ||Mosiah 14:1; cf. Mosiah 15:31 "The Lord hath made bare his holy arm") without changing the HEBREW consonantal text - especially since the next line reads "he grew up before him as a suckling child" (Isaiah 53:2 [ RSV "young plant"; LXX "little child"] ||Mosiah 14:2) - and this coheres with Isaiah 53:10||Mosiah 14:10 "he shall see his seed/offspring, " which can also be read "he shall be revealed as the son."[12] This is merely part of the much broader liturgical and esoteric content of First Temple Israelite religion jettisoned by Deuteronomistic revisionism - according to Barker - a revisionism which did not infect the Book of Mormon.

How Zarahemla fits.

The text tells us little about the geography of Zarahemla, but we can tell the city was located along the river Sidon and that people would go "down" into the city and "up" out of the city. Thus we infer the city was lower in elevation than the land surrounding it. 

Some claim the river Sidon must flow north because the "head of the river" was south of Zarahemla, but the text reads "head of the river," not "headwaters of the river." The phrase "head of the river" is somewhat ambiguous; we can find usage and definitions that include both a conjunction and a source. 

I've discussed this issue several times.

For example, unfortunately some foreign language editions of the Book of Mormon have adopted the M2C interpretation, as I discussed here: http://www.bookofmormoncentralamerica.com/2017/05/more-on-sidon-flowing-north-and.html

I included a side-by-side table of assumptions here:

I've also discussed the issue of the "head of the river" with examples from Church history:

And, of course, Jonathan Edwards referred to Binghamton as the head of the river, as I discussed in Between these Hills.

We can't revisit all of this here, but this map shows one interpretation of the text that shows how well the site in Iowa, named in D&C 125, fits the overall geography, specifically here where Mosiah left the Land of Nephi for the Land of Zarahemla.

Often, people ask "where is the narrow neck" because they've been conditioned to think of the "narrow neck" as an hourglass shape. That's not an unreasonable interpretation, but it's also not the only possible interpretation, or even the most probable. 

Another approach is to assume the text uses different words for different things; i.e., the small neck is not the narrow neck, and the narrow neck is not the narrow neck of land. The term "land northward" is not a proper noun but a relative term. 

This approach allows numerous possible real-world settings. The thousands of possible sites in ancient North America accommodate multiple working hypotheses.

But all in all, the Iowa Zarahemla fits well with the New York Cumorah.

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