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Matt Bowen: Laman and Nephi as Key Words

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Inarguably, Jesus Christ is the most important figure described in the Book of Mormon and his name the most important used therein.[1] Apart from divine names and titles, however, the personal names Nephi and Laman and their gentilic derivatives—Lamanites and Nephites—appear to constitute the most important names in the Book of Mormon text. As Hugh Nibley understood, taking the Book of Mormon seriously as an ancient text means taking seriously the evidence of its onomasticon.[2]


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Whatever the name LAMAN may have meant originally, Matt Bowen's suggestion that this name was converted into a dysphemism as Lʼ ʼmn “Unfaithful” (Deuteronomy 32:20 Massoretic vocalization is lōʼ- ʼēmūn), with wordplay on that name in 1 Nephi 17:23, Alma 56:4, Helaman 6:34,36, etc., is certainly convincing.  Especially given the opposite play on words at Alma 18:2,10, “faithfulness of Ammon,” and 1 Samuel 22:14 “so faithful” (neʼeman).[1]  Approaching this from the Phoenician and Hebrew proper name ʼāmôn “Master-craftsman; Firm, Faithful, True,” as a qatol-form of the Hebrew root,[2] Jo Ann Hackett suggests in this case that the meaning of AMMONIHAH could be “Yahwe is (my) faithfulness.”[3] 

Personally, I like the metonymic etymology as Arabic proper name Lâmân “Scoundrel,” which is undoubtedly related to Arabic luʼmān “evil, vile, wicked,” Hans Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary, ed. J. Cowan (Ithaca: Spoken Language Services, 1994), 1001.

[1] M. Bowen, “’According to My Faith Which is in Me’: The Covenant Dimension of Faithfulness in Nephi’s Writings,” SMPT Conference lecture, October 10, 2015, at BYU, Provo, Utah; Bowen, “Not Partaking of the Fruit: Its Generational Consequences and Its Remedy,” in The Things Which My Father Saw: Approaches to Lehi’s Dream and Nephi’s Vision: The 40th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, eds. Daniel L. Belnap, Gaye Strathearn, and Stanley A. Johnson (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center/ SLC: Deseret Book, 2011), 242-243.

[2] R. Zadok, “Notes on Biblical and Extra Biblical Onomasticon,” 115; Koehler & Baumgartner, HALOT, I:62-65 (cf. Akkadian ummanu); LDS “Bible Dictionary,” 607.

[3] Hackett & Welch, “Possible Linguistic Roots of Book of Mormon Names,” FARMS Preliminary Report CAR-81. Provo: FARMS, 1982.


As for NEPHI, I go along with Hugh Nibley's suggestion that this name is most likely the Egyptian proper name Nfy “Captain,”[1]  and the name appears in the name of the 7th cent. B.C. nomarch of Athribis, BЗk-n-nfy which may mean something like “Servant-of-the-Captain.”[2]  The literary evidence merely compounds our suspicion that Nephi is Egyptian Nfy.  For, not only does Nephi build and captain his ship under divine guidance, but he is constantly referred to as a "ruler" (1 Nephi 2:22, 3:29, 16:37-38, 18:10, 2 Nephi 5:19, Jacob 1:9), as well as "king" (1 Nephi 16:38, 2 Nephi 5:18), his name becoming, in fact, a title accorded each successive king (Jacob 1:11), and the "chief city" of the land of Nephi being called "Nephi" (Alma 47:20).  Nor should we miss the remarkable opportunities for paronomasia, when, as "skipper," Nephi alone can successfully "guide the ship" (1 Nephi 18:22; cf. 1 Nephi 18:12, 2 Nephi 1:24), and when he is bound and the ship is driven helplessly before the wind (Egyptian nf, nfw "wind" = Coptic nife; and Egyptian nfw, nfy, nfi "blow; breathe; fan"), only his prayers can bring safety (1 Nephi 18:8-10,12,21-22; cf. 2 Nephi 1:25,27).

The wordplay on nfr posited by Bowen and others is certainly also, simultaneously justified.

[1] Nibley, “Lehi in the Desert,” part I, Improvement Era, 53/1 (Jan 1950):72 n. 43, citing S. R. K. Glanville, “The Letters of Ahmose of Peniate,” JEA, 14:304, line 10; in Nibley, CWHN, V:27, that citation was deleted.

[2] L. Habachi, MDAIK 15:69-77, cited by R. F. Smith at JBMS 5/2 (1996):110 n. 65, online at https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/ .

Edited by Robert F. Smith
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