As One that Hath a Familiar Spirit

The captioned type of expression in the KJV is among the most universally misunderstood in Mormon discourse. This is a natural misunderstanding. The contemporary use of familiar is as an adjective, derived from the Latin familiaris “domestic” (an adjectival formation from familia, “family”). The word means something like “intimate, very friendly.” But in about 1590 the word also began to be used as a noun meaning “demon, evil spirit.”

So in the KJV, the “one that hath a familiar spirit” does not, as commonly understood, have anything to do with “ringing a bell, prompting an impulse of recognition” or any such nuance, but rather has something to do with divination by communicating with the spirits of the dead (necromancy). KJV use of “familiar” in this sense is in my view an unfortunate translation, both for this common linguistic misunderstanding and because even if properly understood, the word conjures concepts of medieval witchcraft that are foreign to the ANE context.

The key word in Hebrew is ‘ob, which appears about 15 times in the OT. Unfortunately, we don’t really know for sure what the word means or whence it is derived. It is used in a variety of different ways. The possible meanings include a spirit, an ancestral spirit, the person controlled by a spirit, a bottle (made of skin), the ritual pit from which spirits are called up, a ghost, a demon. Most simply admit the ambiguity and admit that the word can be used in different ways: a ritual pit used by a necromancer, a spirit called up by a necromancer, and/or the necromancer himself or herself.

The word ‘ob is closely associated with the word yidde’oni. Although ‘ob appears independently (in four passages), yidde’oni always appears in connection with ‘ob (in 11 passages). Many believe the two words are always used together as a hendiadys (a rhetorical device where two nouns joined by and are meant to convey a single sense); others, including most translations, see the terms as referencing two different people, often rendered something like “medium and wizard.” In the case of yidde’oni we can recognize the root *YD’, but it is unclear whether the “one who knows” is the one consulted or the one doing the consulting.

A key text in our modern canon is 2 Ne. 26:16:

16 For those who shall be destroyed shall aspeak 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.

This wording is clearly influenced by Isa. 29:4, which in context is talking about events in Jerusalem. This passage is a pesher, applying the Isaianic imagery to the appearance of the BoM in the last days, with speech low out of the dust. Most translations of Isaiah use some variant of “ghost” in the passage from which this wording derives, meaning a shade from Sheol. If you read this BoM passage with a proper understanding of the familiar spirit reference, it actually makes excellent sense. The words of the Book will speak low out of the dust as a ghost called up from the netherworld.

Comments

  1. I have a whole section on this in my chapter on seerhood. Many of the early LDS understood the BoM in precisely this sense, even as they sought to disentangle themselves from rampant accusations of necromancy (a word with as confusing a history in English as your hendiadys does in Hebrew). Thanks for the reminder.

  2. A lot of the misunderstanding probably stem froms the way that LeGrand Richards completely (and very publicly, in the widely circulated A Marvelous Work and a Wonder) misses this one. He wrote of the Book of Mormon: “Truly, it has a familiar spirit, for it contains the words of the prophets of the God of Israel.”

    That kind of misunderstanding is now perpetuated by generations of returned missionaries who read AMWAAW on their mission, where it was one just of a few permitted books.

  3. interesting. Obviously there was too much fantasy reading in my past because I always thought of it as the witchy familiar, not the cozy one.

  4. This is a great example in a long line of consistently interesting posts. Thanks Kevin.

  5. Jonathan Green says:

    I think this makes an excellent candidate for a Book of Mormon Folk Etymology (TM):

    Gidgiddoni representing both Heb. /y/ (cf. Berling/Rhineland pronunciation of German initial /g/ as /y/) and the guttural /’/ (also a quite plausible English representation of a guttural consonant), with a bunch of other sounds re-arranged according to no particular rule (not quite so plausible).

    But really, who cares about linguistic rules when you have a passage like this:
    3 Ne. 3: 18-20
    18 Now the chiefest among all the chief captains and the great commander of all the armies of the Nephites was appointed, and his name was Gidgiddoni.
    19 Now it was the custom among all the Nephites to appoint for their chief captains, (save it were in their times of wickedness) some one that had the spirit of revelation and also prophecy; therefore, this Gidgiddoni was a great prophet among them, as also was the chief judge.
    20 Now the people said unto Gidgiddoni: Pray unto the Lord, and let us go up upon the mountains and into the wilderness, that we may fall upon the robbers and destroy them in their own lands.

    (For getting Mormons to understand the phrase under discussion, this is not helpful. The opposite of helpful, actually. Sorry.)

  6. Thanks, Kevin. This was fascinating.

  7. Kaimi, are you sure LeGrand Richards got it wrong?

    Kevin explained If you read this BoM passage [2 Nephi 26:16] with a proper understanding of the familiar spirit reference, it actually makes excellent sense. The words of the Book will speak low out of the dust as a ghost called up from the netherworld.

    This seems consistent with LeGrand Richards’s statement that “Truly, it has a familiar spirit, for it contains the words of the prophets of the God of Israel.” Isn’t LeGrand saying that the Book of Mormon speaks as a voice from the dead, delivering the words of long-dead prophets? If that is what he is saying, then it seems he understood “familiar spirit” just fine.

    I do not doubt that Kevin has observed many Latter-day Saints misunderstanding the word “familiar” and thinking it means friendly or known, or whatever, but that has not been my experience. I haven’t really had much discussion about “familiar spirits” with anyone but I haven’t gotten the sense that Latter-day Saints are broadly ignorant of the fact that “familiar” meant something different in Jacobean English and that it has something to do with a supernatural characteristic.

  8. Jonathan Green says:

    Your HTML tag cruncher ate the first words of my folk etymology: Gidgiddoni derived from yidde’oni, with…

    I protest! Why is BCC so intolerant and narrow minded when it comes to folk etymology? Clearly, you are all brainwashed into only accepting word histories that are 100% correlated.

  9. I once surveyed several LDS commentaries and other texts commenting on this passage. I found that texts by Bruce R. McConkie, Robert Matthews, Orson Spencer, and Orson Pratt leaned toward the “ringing a bell” or “familiar/something already known” interpretation.

    The current Book of Mormon Institute manual quotes Daniel Ludlow’s commentary on the Book of Mormon, which states that “[s]ome biblical scholars have maintained that witchcraft is being referred to in that portion of Isaiah 29:4 which says that the voice shall be ‘as one that hath a familiar spirit.’ These scholars evidently arrived at this interpretation because of similar wording in other parts of the Bible….However, a careful reading of this scripture, particularly when read together with Nephi’s explanation, would indicate that the term…means that this record (the Book of Mormon) would speak with a ‘familiar voice’ to those who already have the Bible. In other words, Nephi is evidently saying here that the doctrinal teachings of the Book of Mormon would seem familiar to people who had already read and accepted the Bible.” A February 1992 issue of the Church News also quoted Ludlow.

    Monte Nyman’s commentary on Isaiah explicitly recognizes both interpretations. McConkie/Millet’s BoM commentary quotes BRM but also notes how the phrase is used in the Bible to refer to necromancy. LeGrand Richards’ April 1976 General Conference talk used the “something known” reading.

  10. I’s surprised, because I had never heard the explanation of familiar spirit in the sense of “something known”. Perhaps I need to pay more attention.

    I’ve always understood familiar spirit to mean something like ghost. In Shalespeare’s Henry V, Joan says:

    Now, ye familiar spirits that are cull’d
    Out of the powerful legions under earth …

  11. Thanks Kevin,

    That was great. I always suspected it meant what you described.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for that survey of approaches, Justin. Very interesting.

    (Needless to say, I disagree with Ludlow here.)

  13. I was aware of both usages, as in”witches familiar” and also as something with a familiar sound. It would seem that as an institution, the church is notcomfortable with the “supernatural”. A few years ago a boundary change within our stake was held up over new ward names. “Phantom Lake Ward” was not acceptable, specifically due to the use of the word Phantom, so now it is the 6th Ward.

  14. Ludlow’s evaluation is not consonant with early LDS interpretations. Phelps particularly makes this view clear.

  15. Kevinf,
    Cool story about the Phantom Ward. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over the fact that the church banned the use of the name.

  16. I’ve never understood how anyone could think “familiar” in this verse means something “warm and fuzzy” or “remembered,” given the way it is used in Isa. 8: 19 / 2 Ne. 18: 19:

    …unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep and mutter…

    It’s clearly a witchcraft/necromancy context.

  17. Constanza, they also rejected “Temple View Ward”.

  18. How about just reading the context of the familier word, and derive from that what the meaning is in that particular text… Or is that too simple? :)

  19. Sam MB,

    I have been meaning to ask this forever, but just how long is the book of yours? I swear you have a chapter devoted to every single topic posted on at BCC.

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