Understanding the meaning of important biblical names is often essential to fully grasping the Bible’s intended message. That is, such names can serve as pivotal “key-words.” Understanding them is surely not necessary for salvation, but perceiving the wordplays that frequently occur in the Old Testament (and sometimes in the New) can considerably enhance our appreciation of what’s going on.
With regard to 1 Samuel 25, for example, it’s interesting to know that the name of the rich but surly and ungracious Nabal — “churlish and evil,” the King James translation calls him — means something like “fool.” Even his wife Abigail disapproves of him, telling David (in verse 25) that, “as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him.” By the chapter’s end, the Lord has smitten Nabal dead, and Abigail has become David’s wife.
Based on the assumption that the Book of Mormonis an ancient record rooted in the same cultural tradition out of which the Hebrew Bible emerged, Matthew Bowen, who holds a doctorate in biblical studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has devoted the skills that he developed in his graduate studies to searching for similar wordplays in its pages. (A few of the chapters in the book primarily relate to the Bible.) And, as reported now in the latest book from the Interpreter Foundation — Matthew L. Bowen, “Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture” — he has found them.
“Name as Key-Word” is a potentially very important book. (Full disclosure: I am the chairman and president of the Interpreter Foundation.)
“Matthew Bowen nourishes both our intellects and our souls,” writes Jeffrey M. Bradshaw in his substantial foreword to the book, referring to Bowen’s “impressive mastery of the languages of biblical sources” and “his gift for reading Hebrew and Egyptian idioms back into the Book of Mormon through the dark and sometimes refractory mirror of its English translation.” “Name as Key-Word,” Bradshaw says, is “both a tour de force and a delight.”
Donald Parry, a Hebrew professor at the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, describes Bowen as “a world-class scholar” who, in this book, has given us “16 chapters of pure gold.” “Matt Bowen,” declares BYU Egyptologist John Gee, “is currently producing some of the most innovative, exciting, and best scholarship on the Book of Mormon.”
What, exactly, is he doing?
Like Nabal’s, names in ancient Israel and its environs typically carried meanings. (Most of our own names — e.g., surnames like “Carpenter,” “Farmer,” “Smith,” “Anderson,” “Cooper” and “Ford” — do as well, although we’re seldom conscious of them anymore.) Bowen, who is an associate professor in religious education at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, looks at important Book of Mormon names and, teasing out their likely Hebrew or Egyptian root meanings, illustrates how those meanings show up in the stories or messages associated with the named persons. In a number of cases, a careful reading of the English translation suggests that the relevant portions of the original-language text likely contained puns or wordplays on the specific names in question.
To briefly summarize just one example, Bowen considers the name “Nephi,” for which various etymologies have been suggested over the years. Gee has argued that “Nephi” derives from the ancient Egyptian “nfr,” meaning “good” or “beautiful” — think of the famously beautiful Queen Nefertiti — and Bowen’s analysis strongly supports that argument, pointing to, among other things, Nephi’s declaration that he was “born of goodly parents” and to the repeated variations on the theme of “goodness” that recur throughout Nephi’s writings in the Book of Mormon.
Ben McGuire is surely correct in remarking that Bowen’s work “is not so much about proving things about the text as it is about coming to understand it.” But to demonstrate the Book of Mormon’s richness, depth and complexity is, itself, an implicit apologetic argument: If Bowen is correct, he has substantially raised the bar for anybody wanting to argue that the Book of Mormon was composed in English, and by an unthinking, uneducated, frontier yokel farmboy.
Bowen’s own conclusion about what he has found, in his own words, is that it demonstrates the Book of Mormon to be “a highly literate work and a skillfully woven narrative filled with literary devices and intertextual allusion. This bespeaks the work of skilled ancient authors and Mormon’s deft editorial work rather than a 19th century author with limited literary attainments.”