Monday, November 26, 2012

Why did Mormon name Abish?

There are numerous names of men and places in the Book of Mormon, but there are only five women in the entire book who are mentioned by name. The five, in no particular order, are:
  1. Eve: As in Adam and Eve. She is mentioned three times, where one of the three times comes from a direct quote written by Nephi. The other two references are direct quotes from Lehi (as recorded by Nephi).
  2. Mary: As in Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are two references to her, and both references appear in direct quotes that Mormon included in the Book of Mormon. One is from king Benjamin, who is directly quoting the words of an angel. The other is from Alma the younger , and it too appears to be a quote from an angel/the spirit.
  3. Sariah: Nephi's mother. All references to her are from the writings of Nephi, which Mormon included unabridged.
  4. Isabel: A harlot who tempted Corianton, the son of Alma. The only reference to her is from a direct quote from what appears to be something written by Alma to his son Corianton, and Mormon included it without abridgment.
  5. Abish: The subject of this post.
What is interesting when we look at this list is that four of the five women who are named explicitly in the Book of Mormon are named in passages where Mormon quotes them in their entirety  meaning he did not change, shorten or abridge them. This means that of the five only Abish's name is included explicitly by Mormon. Even though Mormon mentions some individual women, and some incredibly faithful and interesting women, he does not name them. Even with Abish, after he gives her name, he refers to her as "the woman servant" instead of by name.

Let us look at the one verse where Abish is named to see if we can figure out why Mormon chose to include her name.
16 And it came to pass that they did call on the name of the Lord, in their might, even until they had all fallen to the earth, save it were one of the Lamanitish women, whose name was Abish, she having been converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father— (Alma 19:16)
The verse refers to her as a "Lamanitish" woman, a term used only one other time in the Book of Mormon in reference to some servants who were servants to same king served by Abish. It is not clear why they are called "Lamanitish" and not "Lamanites". Some commentators have suggested that this distinction may indicate that the servants were a different ethnic group than the Lamanites, but there is too little information to make a definitive statement one way or another. But this still does not answer the question, why did Mormon include Abish's name when he told this story, since he did not include any other female names.

To see if we can sort this out let us turn to the Bible. The name Abish is similar to Abishag, a woman who is mentioned in the Bible in association with King David. There is also a male version of the name, Abishai, who was King David's nephew. In the transliteration into English all three share a similar part, namely "abish". Perhaps if we look at the Hebrew meanings of Abishag and Abishai we might figure out something about Abish.

The meaning of Abishag (אֲבִישַׁג) is unclear with some sources giving the meaning as "the [Divine] Father (?)", while others render it as "father of error" or "the father wanders". Abishai (אֲבִישַׁי) is similar with various interpretations, but its meaning is more settled than Abishag. Different sources give the meaning as "father of a gift" or "father of gifts", with apparently one source rendering it as "my father is Jesse" (for reasons discussed at this link). The only common thing in the various proposed meanings here is the "father" part ("ab"- אֲבִ).

So at the moment the best we can get for the meaning of Abish is "the father [?]". But this is encouraging considering the context. When Mormon mentions Abish he says that she was converted to the Lord "on account of a remarkable vision of her father." So apparently there was an important story involving her father, which Mormon may have known about, but did not include and thus the name Abish had special meaning given the interpretation of the name, the story of Abish's father and the situation that Mormon was writing about.

Let us see if we can take this a step further. In Hebrew "ish" (אּישׁ) is the word for man (as in "Then the man said, "This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman (isha) for from man (ish) she was taken"." Genesis 2:3). So if we can make this connection then Abish (אֲבִאּישׁ) takes on the meaning "father of man". This may seem a little strange for a female name but this would not be the first time a cross gender name has been given to someone.

This additional speculation may or may not be useful but it does show that Abish can be thought of as a Hebrew name with a specific meaning that may be significant given the story of Abish's father and his conversion to the Lord. To settle this question we would need more information, information that Mormon did not include in the Book of Mormon. Still he thought it significant enough to include her name (or alternately other Nephite record keeps thought her name sufficiently meaningful to remember and to write down). So there may have been special meaning associated with the name Abish which may be why it was the only female name that Mormon himself included in the Book of Mormon.

[Added note (2/8/15): There is an interesting article on Abish recently published over at the Mormon Interpreter.]

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Joseph Smith didn't know how to write a date!

Last Sunday I was teaching the lesson to my primary class of nine-year-old children. In it we were discussing the Book of Mormon in the Book of Mormon, and at one point we read the verse Mormon 2:2, which says,
2 Therefore it came to pass that in my sixteenth year I did go forth at the head of an army of the Nephites, against the Lamanites; therefore three hundred and twenty and six years had passed away.
After reading that verse one of my students commented and said, "Why do they have to keep saying all the and's? Why do they say "three hundred and twenty and six years"? Why can't they just say "three hundred twenty six years"?"

This is a rather interesting question considering the fact that all dates are given in this bulky and unwieldy format. This problem has not escaped the critics of the Book of Mormon who frequently complain about the bulky language and bad grammar of the book. As one critic put it, the grammatical errors "document[ed] that the writer [of the Book of Mormon] had a very poor knowledge of the English language." To this I have to say I agree. Mormon had absolutely no knowledge of the English language and thus wrote a book that was full of very poor English grammar, such as all the and's. (Also as a side note, if you review the original manuscript of the English version of the Book of Mormon you will also find thousands of spelling and grammar errors, again demonstrating that Joseph Smith "had a very poor knowledge of the English language." The trouble with that criticism is that it only makes the Book of Mormon that much more remarkable since if the people that supposedly "wrote" it had that little command of the English language then how did they produce a book that is so deep, rich and complex, and also so exact and internally self-consistent.)

I was able to explain to my class that the Book of Mormon was not written in English and that if you read it in the original language then all those and's that seem so bulky and annoying in English would suddenly seem grammatical and proper.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Was Antipus, who is commonly thought of as a Nephite commander in the Book of Mormon, actually Nephite?

If you look in the index for the Book of Mormon under Antipus you will find the description "Nephite Commander", and a quick reading of the text (Alma Chapter 56) seems to show that he was definitely a Nephite. He lead an army against invading Lamanites. He fought alongside Helaman, a well known Nephite (as in, Helaman was the one who kept the records of the Nephite people that would later become the Book of Mormon). Antipus was appointed by Captain Moroni (Alma 56:9) to lead the armies in that part of the land. So by all measures it would seem obvious that Antipus is a Nephite.

So why would anyone think that Antipus was not a Nephite? Short answer, his name. In the Book of Mormon there are eight proper nouns that begin with Anti- and one that ends with -Anti. Let us consider these nine proper nouns and how and where they appear in narrative of the Book of Mormon. I will cover them in alphabetical order.

  1. Ani-Anti: This is a small Lamanite village that the sons of Mosiah preached in.
  2. Anti-Nephi-Lehi(s): The name taken by a group of Lamanites who converted to the gospel. This is the name they called themselves, while the Nephites called them the "the people of Ammon" (i.e. the Nephites never used the Anti-Nephi-Lehi designation). They are frequently referred to as having been Lamanites.
  3. Antiomno: He is a Lamanite king.
  4. Antion: A unit of weight in the Nephite currency system. This system of measurement was apparently something the Nephites had acquired in the Americas or had invented themselves, though it seems likely that they picked it up from somewhere for reasons that will be explained later.
  5. Antionah: This is the name of a "chief ruler" in Ammonihah, a group of people who had left the Church but still recognized the authority (Alma 8:12) of the chief judge in Zarahemla. So these were people who were politically aligned with the Nephites but religiously were distinct. Because of events that happened in Ammonihah shortly after Antionah is mentioned for the only time in the Book of Mormon, we can assume that there was significant cultural tension in Ammonihah at the time and that Nephite culture (and scriptures) were removed violently (Alma 14:8) from Ammonihah. Thus there must have been a significant portion of the population that did not like Nephite culture, religion and authority.
  6. Antionum: This is what the Zoramites called the land they lived in. The Zoramites were referred to as Nephite dissenters and would become militarily, culturally and politically aligned with the Lamanites. In other words, they had influences to their society that made them align with the Lamanites as opposed to the Nephites. There is also a brief mention of a man named Antionum several hundred years later after the Nephites and Lamanites had merged culturally and politically.
  7. Antiparah: This is a city in the region where Helaman and Antipus were fighting the Lamanites. After the death of Antipus, Helaman prepares to capture Antiparah and in the process received a letter from the king of the Lamanites that he would exchange the city of Antiparah for a number of prisoners. Helaman rejects this offer to which the Lamanites respond by abandoning the city of Antiparah. In Alma 57:4 Helaman mentions that the people of the city fled before he and his army could get there. Now if the people in the city were Nephites why would they flee before the army of Helaman? There may have been something else going on here.
  8. Antipas: A mountain in the land of the Lamanites. It was near a place called Onidah, "a place of arms".
  9. Antipus: The subject of this post.
So of the nine names containing "anti" four are definitely of Lamanite origin. Two are from people who are Nephite dissenters and/or politically aligned with the Lamanites, which means they were people who would have incentives not to have Nephite names, and three are of unclear origin. One of the three names that is of unclear origin is a unit of weight where the system of weights is unknown in the Old World (i.e. the Book of Mormon acknowledges that this system of weights and measures is not used among the Jews). This fact will shortly become an important point.

Shortly after Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon the members of the Church began to speculate as to where the narrative contained in it took place. The initial speculation was that it took place all over North and South America, but I will not discuss that theory here. This view was the dominate view among members of the Church for sometime even up until a few decades ago. There were even General Authorities that questioned the testimony and church standing of LDS scholars who suggested that the Book of Mormon covered only a limited geography and not all of North and South America. But in recent years with more scholarship and critical readings of the Book of Mormon the most widely accepted theories hold to a limited geography of no more than a few hundred miles (roughly the size of the modern state of Israel).

Previously members of the Church, and even a good number of Church leaders, thought that the Nephites and Lamanites were the only people that populated the American continent, but that theory too has fallen out of style. Even the (modern) introduction to the Book of Mormon was written to imply that all Native Americans were descendants of Lehi, but this has been changed recently to imply that they were one of many groups of people that lived here. The only thing is that the Book of Mormon does not seem to mention other people who were not Nephite, Lamanites, Mulekites or Jaredites (all people who came from the Old World).

Part of this could be an extremely cultural-centric writing by Mormon, or possibly a misapplication of the term Lamanite (or even Nephite!) over several hundred years of history. (I would remind the readers that the misapplication of names to groups of people is not something unusual or just a misdirection used by Church apologists to try to explain away perceived problems with the Book of Mormon. Native Americans were called and are still called Indians, even though they have never been to India. Over the last century Germans were derogatorily called Huns, despite the fact that only Hungary actually lays claim to the Huns, and to anyone who has learned about Native American tribes would know there were frequently two names for each tribe, the one they called themselves, which usually translated to "the people", and the name that everyone else called them. Or even in the case of the Hohokam Indians (there's that word again) the name we know them as today is not the name that anyone at the time they were around would use for them. The word comes from a Pima Indian word that literally means "the vanished ones", in other words the Pima found the ruins of the Hohokam and gave them that name long after they were gone. Also with the Byzantines, a name given them by Western Europeans long after the "Byzantine" Empire had fallen apart. Calling the Empire centered around the city of Constantinople the "Byzantine Empire" is a bit like calling the United States "The Arlington Republic". So the misapplication of names to groups of people is not something unusual or new in history.)

Due to some references about the skin of the Lamanites being cursed and darkened to distinguish them from the Nephites we can assume that the original Lamanites intermarried with the local population and thus their descendants acquired, through genetics, the same color skin as the local population. Over time this simplification of things may have lead to the Nephites referring to all people with dark skin as Lamanites, regardless of whether or not they actually were descended from the original Lamanites. So in the jumble of history some differences and distinctions may have been glossed over when Mormon (or other historians) wrote what we know as the Book of Mormon. Which brings us finally back to Antipus. As I have already mentioned the prefix Anti- is usually associated not with Nephite names, but with Lamanite names, or at least with those who didn't like the Nephites or wanted to become Lamanites. Also it would seem that the system of weights and measures mentioned in Alma chapter 11 is a local thing that the Nephites picked up from the local people and used after some of their own modifications. So the word Antion may also have had local roots, which considering the supposed origin of other Anti- names in the Book of Mormon would not be that much of a stretch.

So to sum up, the Anti- that we see in several names may be a part of local language that Lamanites, and perhaps a few others, picked up and incorporated into their names. Also we need to keep in mind that at the time the Nephites were going through a "growth spurt" of sorts. They were interacting with the people surrounding them. There was more talk about other cities and people who had cultural ties to the Nephites, but struggled with how to define their relationship (see Ammonihah). There are some references to the Nephites extending their influence and borders (see Alma 50:7-9). It is possible that the people who lived there previously if they aligned politically with the Nephites then they were allowed to stay on the land, if not then they were kicked off. There may have been some intermarriage and some exchange of language, culture and ideas (such as, where did all this idolatry come from that the Book of Mormon keeps talking about?).

With this in mind we can return to Alma 56 and take another look at how Antipus is mentioned. It says that he was appointed by Captain Moroni (v. 9), but he would not necessarily have to be a Nephite to lead the armies from that part of the land. It would be ideal to have someone local to lead the people from that area. When Helaman arrived with his 2,000 stripling warriors, Antipus has about 6,000 men to his army. After a few months they were reinforced with 2,000 men from Zarahemla, bringing the total to 10,000 men (v. 28). During one particularly intense battle in which Antipus was killed the Nephite armies got the upper hand and managed to defeat the Lamanites. Helaman described it like this:
54 And now it came to pass that we, the people of Nephi, the people of Antipus, and I with my two thousand, did surround the Lamanites, and did slay them; yea, insomuch that they were compelled to deliver up their weapons of war and also themselves as prisoners of war.
Normally we would read this passage and think that the "we" refers to the people of Nephi, meaning the people of Antipus and the 2,000 stripling warriors. But considering all that I have been discussing up until now we can read this passage a different way. After the "we" there is a full stop and then a list begins with three distinct categories, Nephites, the people of Antipus, and the 2,000 Ammonites. This is interesting since under this reading the people of Antipus are not included in the group "Nephites". This would perhaps be a minor thing that Helaman may not have felt necessary to explain to Moroni, but Mormon writing some 400+ years later may have missed this fine distinction between Nephites and non-Nephites, who were still fighting on the side of the Nephites.

So we have a few options here. Antipus was a full Nephite, with a Nephite name (which would be odd considering all the other Anti- names). Antipus was a Nephite with a non-Nephite name. Antipus was part Nephite with a non-Nephite name and of mixed cultural heritage. Antipus was a non-Nephite who was culturally Nephite and indistinguishable from true Nephites. Antipus was a non-Nephite who was politically aligned with the Nephites, but kept a distinct culture from the Nephites. And there could be any variation, combination and complex mish-mash of any and all of these options (he also could have been a Mulekite!).

I don't think that this is something that can be settled from just reading the Book of Mormon because there is not enough information to say one way or another, but this idea does give us a way of looking at the Book of Mormon from a radically different way than we normally get in a Sunday School, Seminary, or Institute class. It shows that there is more complexity in the book than we may have first thought. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

My comments on the election and other thoughts

Today I voted. I did my research, looked up the candidates, all the way down to the local county elections, considered the options and implications and voted based on what I thought best.

Now without saying who I voted for I will explain four things I thought about before and while I was voting.

First, government debt.

Some people will read that and instantly try to put me somewhere on some insane left-right spectrum so first I will tell a little story. While I was on my mission in Argentina, the first little town I was in was called Bella Vista. It was a tiny town of perhaps 5,000-10,000 people, depending on the time of year and the expected harvest from the surrounding farms. In Argentina fútbol (soccer) was very popular. In some cases it was considered a religion. After being in the country for a few months there were only three teams I had ever heard about: Boca, River and Newell's Old Boys. The town seemed split down the middle. Half the town were Boca fans, the other half were River fans and everyone hated Newell's Old Boys.

I was unfamiliar with Argentine professional sports (I barely know anything about American professional sports) so I was wondering how they could have a championship play off with only three teams in the entire country (I later learned about other teams it's just that no one in Bella Vista talked about them). I thought Argentines were very weird. At one point River managed to win the national championship and half the town was out in the streets celebrating. There were car horns blaring, firecrackers going off, music blasting and people driving through the streets with people standing on the roof of their cars waving River flags.

About four weeks after this happened we heard on the street that Newell's Old Boys had played River and had beaten them. Everyone was shocked. That's when I decided to become a fan of Newell's Old Boys. That way I could have my "team" but my choice of team would not immediately alienate me from half the people we talked to. At about that same time I had a rather interesting conversation with a child of about 8 years old. My companion and I were talking to his family and all the little kids gathered around to ask "los americanos" some questions. The 8 year old looked at me and asked with great earnestness "What is your team?" I told him I didn't have a team. He thought for a second and came to the conclusion that I didn't understand the question. So he asked the question again. Again I told him that I wasn't a fan of any team. He was not satisfied so he rephrased the question and asked again. At this point I remembered that Newell's Old Boys had just beaten River so I told him that I was a fan of Newell's Old Boys. He gave me a look of exasperation and said, "No. WHAT IS YOUR TEAM! BOCA OR RIVER?!?" I told him that neither one was my team and that I was a fan of Newell's Old Boys. At that point he gave a frustrated sigh and concluded that this delusional American was too stupid and could not speak and understand Spanish so it was useless to continue the conversation.

When people ask me if I am a Republican or a Democrat, or if I am conservative or liberal the image that comes to my mind is that frustrated 8 year-old boy who had to deal with an American that was too stupid to know that there were only two choices and you had to be one or the other.

So, government debt. Government debt is a dangerous thing. It has all the dangers and negative consequences of normal debt, but it carries with it the enforced mandate of government. It is not something that can be done away with without undermining the foundation of government. To fail to honor a debt is to acknowledge that there has been a failure with the person who has the debt. For a government to fail to honor a debt is to acknowledge that the government has failed, which is to acknowledge that the fundamental structure of our society can no longer hold us together. It is quite a scary thing.

The thing to realize with debt (any debt whatsoever) is that the overall effect of debt on out society is to take money from poor people and give it to rich people. That is, debt makes poor people poorer and rich people richer (this is not just a trite saying this is something that has been shown with statistics and computer models of economic conditions, see this link for more information and some references). In computer models where the financial transactions of people are modeled we can reproduce roughly the income distribution that we see in US census records (see below).

As the above graph shows the modeled behavior (black line) closely follows the data from the US census. In these models we find that if we allow for debt (with interest!) then that line gets shifted so that there are more people who are "poor" and the "rich" people get richer (see below).

The end result of debt is to make poor people poorer and rich people richer. In these models if we allow for infinite debt (i.e. no bankruptcy) then the amount of debt that some people have will become infinite  and the amount of money that rich people have will also become infinite. Either way the system become unworkable and it eventually collapses. So how do you counteract the inflationary tenancies of debt? With taxes. Just as the models show that debt (with interest) can be fundamentally unstable, taxes tend to have the opposite effect. As debt makes rich people richer, and poor people poorer, as long as you have a minimally fair tax code (as in everyone gets taxed and then everyone benefits from the taxes), then it has the effect of decreasing the number and wealth of rich people and increasing the wealth of poor people. That is, it moved the bottom end of the curve up and counter acts the negative tendencies of debt.

Up until now I have just been talking about debt in general, which includes mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, education loans etc. But government debt is slightly different. Because it is backed by the thing that creates the monetary system in the first place. While government debt can help in extreme circumstances it has the tendency to act just like normal debt except that now everyone has to pay it, just like a tax. Taxes take money from all sides of the spectrum but it redistributes it in a way that poor people become a little less poor. Government debt is essentially the opposite of taxes. It takes money from everyone and transfers it to rich people (to understand this consider this: How many people who make less than $40,000 have bought a government bond? How many people who make more than $100,000 a year are invested in such a way that they make money off of government bonds? Who ultimately pays for government bonds, including the interest? and who ultimately benefits from the interest generated by government bonds?).

So having a consistent, and persistent, deficit in government spending, and then using the issue of more debt to fund the debt is perhaps the most destructive and immoral thing that can be done to people who can be considered "poor". Government debt is perhaps the only legal and socially acceptable method we have of grinding upon the face of the poor.

If you want to help poor people the best thing that the government can do is to balance the budget. Until you do government debt will make us all poor.

Second, oil.

I don't think we all need to give up our cars and use only *non toxic* non-petroleum products (the non-toxic part is sarcastic). Nor do I think that global warming will get so bad that the earth will punish us with a series of super storms, or that we need to give peace prizes to people who bake up a bunch of facts and scare the easily manipulated. What I am saying is that right now in our history oil tends to cause too many wars. It is an out sized portion of our economy and we should find a way to get along with less of it, if only to decrease the likely hood that we get involved in more wars because of oil.

Third, are the people competent for the job.

The Republican candidate for Secretary of State in North Carolina may be a good neighbor, a good farmer, a good father and a generally good man. But the more I looked into his experience and what he was proposing to do as Secretary of State I don't think he knows what a Secretary of State does. If you look at his campaign website he mentions the most important issues that he "promises" to address. The only problem is that all the things he brings up are things that can be addressed in the state legislature, but not by the Secretary of State. He seems a little confused about what the Secretary of State can and cannot do. I would not vote for him.

There was a similar case for several judges that were on the ballot. In North Carolina the election of judges is non-partisan, but there were two Republicans and one Democrat who were challenging the incumbents for no reason, apparently, other than they were of the opposite party and they wanted to make a partisan race about it (even if they knew nothing about being a judge). I didn't vote for any of them. That doesn't mean I voted for the incumbent, but it means I particularly did not vote for the challengers.

Fourth, basic morality.

Over the last while there is a disturbing trend in our society that belittles and scoffs at basic morality. Anything that might possibly require that someone use self restraint and hold to some "old fashioned" moral principles is roundly dismissed as ignorant and oppressive. I will not go into it in this post, but there is very little that voting can do to counter this trend. Still I look for men and women of good character, who have a desire that others also be men and women of good character.

With those four things in mind I went to vote. I marked my ballot and turned it in. I was number 108 at the polling place that day.