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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Nephite names find a ‘home’ in Middle East

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Nephi begins his story by telling us that in about 600 B.C. his father Lehi received a divine command to take his family and flee Jerusalem. This initial group consisted of Lehi, his wife Sariah, and their four sons, Laman, Lemuel, Sam and Nephi. Daughters are not mentioned probably because ancient patriarchal societies didn't mention females as frequently as males. Elder Erastus Snow, however (who knew Joseph Smith), claimed that the lost 116 pages mention Ishmael's sons marrying Lehi's daughters.

I'd like to pause the story here to talk a bit about the names we have from 1 Nephi. First we have "Lehi." The word appears in the Bible as a place name, but not as a proper name. And while the name seems to be mostly unknown in the ancient Near East, there are tentative connections to an ancient Arabic and Neo-Babylonian versions of a similar name.

Lehi's wife, Sariah, however, has a much more fascinating Old World parallel. According to Dr. Jeffrey Chadwick — who holds a Ph.D in archaeology and Semitic languages — the likely Hebrew spelling of Sariah would be s'ryh. While "Sariah" is not found in the King James Bible, s'ryh is a well documented male name in ancient Israel and appears 19 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, representing eleven different men. Until recently, however, it was not known to represent a female name. So even if Joseph was able to read Hebrew in 1829 (which he could not), why would he use a common Israelite male name for Lehi's wife?

In 1925, a collection of papyri were discovered on the island of Yeb (or Elephantine) near the Nile River. The documents were kept by a small colony of Jews who, perhaps as early as the 8th century B.C., left Jerusalem but remained in contact with the Jews in Jerusalem. On one of these papyrus documents, written in Aramaic, we find the name s'ryh. Although the language of the document is Aramaic, the name, it has been shown, is Hebrew. Non-Mormon scholars have translated this part of the papyri as "Sariah daughter of Hoshea son of Harman." This was the first time that the name has been shown to belong to women in the same general area and time as what we find in the Book of Mormon.

As for Nephi's older and often rebellious brothers Laman and Lemuel, we find that the personal name "Lemuel" is mentioned in the Bible, but "Laman" is not. Dr. Hugh Nibley noted many years ago that these names are not only Arabic "but they also form a genuine 'pair of pendant names,' such as ancient Semites of the desert were wont to give their two eldest sons" (An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 232).

The name "Sam" certainly seems out of place of in an ancient Israelite document. It has, in fact, been the target of criticism by various anti-Mormons through the years. It is also, however, a perfectly good Egyptian name, and is also the normal Arabic form of "Shem."

"Nephi" is not found in the King James Bible but is found in the Apocrypha as a place name. The Apocrypha are part of the Catholic collection of scriptures (which was available in Joseph's day) but is not included in the Protestant scriptures such as the King James Version Bible. Whether Joseph had access to the Apocrypha in 1829 is unknown but unlikely.

If we look to see if the name "Nephi" is at home in the world of Lehi, we find confirmation. In the vicinity and time in which the Lehites lived in the Old World, we have attestations of names that could be translated into English as "Nephi." We don't know how Book of Mormon names were pronounced but typical readers have given the "i" in Nephi a long sound whereas a long "e" sound is equally plausible. From ancient Egypt during Lehi's day we find the name "nfr" with the Semitic transcription "NPY" (the "p" being vocalized as "f"). By the time the Lehites fled Jerusalem the Egyptian "r" in "nfr" was no longer pronounced and a long e sound had taken its place. This demonstrates the name is at home in the right place and at the right time as the Book of Mormon claims.

We'll discuss more Book of Mormon names as we encounter them in this series, but for now it is important to understand that while some critics have claimed that Joseph simply created these names out of thin air for a fictional Book of Mormon, the evidence demonstrates that many of these names have authentic ancient parallels from the right time and place from which the Book of Mormon claims to have emerged.