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A familiar 'ghost' in the Book of Mormon

"And their speech shall whisper out of the dust" (2 Nephi 26:16).

There are two ways of looking at the scriptural phrase "familiar spirit," according to Paul Y. Hoskisson, director of the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Research and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS).

Hoskisson wrote about two ways of approaching any text: "Exegesis" and "eisegesis."

Exegesis is reading out of the text. The goal is to find the meaning of the text, which leads to a greater understanding of what the author is trying to teach.

Eisegesis is reading into the text. It is bringing a pre-existing understanding into what is in the text to enrich the application of the author's words.

"Anyone who reads the scriptures will at times engage in both exegesis and eisegesis, whether knowingly or unwittingly," Hoskisson wrote. "Therefore, the more conscientiously and consciously we engage in rigorous and careful exegesis and eisegesis, the better the chance that our reading of the scriptures will truly enlighten the mind and provide substance for the soul."

Hoskisson used the related passages of scripture in 2 Nephi 26:16 and Isaiah 29:4 to show how this works in application. Those scriptures speak of a familiar spirit. The Book of Mormon version is illustrative:

"For those who shall be destroyed shall speak unto them out of the ground, and their speech shall be low out of the dust, and their voice shall be as one that hath a familiar spirit; for the Lord God will give unto him power, that he may whisper concerning them, even as it were out of the ground; and their speech shall whisper out of the dust" (2 Nephi 26:16 emphasis added).

Eisegesis approach: The word "familiar" has several meanings in English, according to Hoskisson. The most common meaning is "to be acquainted with." Hoskisson showed how applying this understanding of the word affects how the scripture is interpreted.

"It is certainly true that the Book of Mormon will have a spirit about it that will be familiar to those who know the Bible; they will recognize the same spirit in both books," he wrote.

Exegesis approach: The word "familiar" has another, less known definition in English that is connected to communication with spirits. Hoskisson looked at the Isaiah version at the Hebrew that was translated as "familiar spirit." The original Hebrew word was "ob." "This Hebrew word denotes, approximately, 'the spirit of a deceased person.' "

"God's Word" translation, for example, rendered the phrase as "your voice will come out of the ground like that of a ghost."

Hoskisson wrote that calling upon "familiar spirits" is condemned in the scriptures — and was usually done by a medium in a seance (see 1 Samuel 28). But he wrote that familiar spirits, or in other words, the spirits of those who have died, are not always evil.

"Therefore, when the Bible says in Isaiah 29:4 that the inhabitants of Jerusalem who will be destroyed will speak 'out of the ground … as one that hath a familiar spirit,' the meaning is that destroyed Judah will speak from the dead," Hoskisson wrote.

How will they speak? Through an unauthorized, and condemned, medium? No. According to Hoskisson, they speak through their records.

"This has nothing to do with necromancy and divination, but everything to do with the dead speaking to the living through the records the dead leave behind," he wrote.

The Book of Mormon paraphrasing of Isaiah is even clearer on this. "They also shall speak 'out of the ground … as one that hath a familiar spirit; for the Lord God will give unto him (Joseph Smith) power, that he (the translator of the Nephite records) may whisper concerning (the destroyed Nephites), even as it were out of the ground' where they are buried, and where the plates had been buried" (compare 2 Nephi 26:16).

So which way of interpreting the scriptures is correct? Hoskisson wrote it is a choice. The reader can read eisegetically and see "a spirit which seems familiar" or exegetically and see "a message from those who have passed on before us."

"Both ways," Hoskisson wrote, "… are correct and legitimate methods that can lead to enlightenment and understanding."

This is based on an article in "Insights: The Newsletter of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship," Vol. 28, No. 6, 2008.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com