Hebrew School in the BoA?

I had a little time to kill this afternoon, so I decided to run a deltaview comparison of Abraham 4 and 5 against Genesis 1 and 2 to get a good visual map of the variations from the latter to the former. The results were fascinating. Some of the changes seem to have been influenced by Joseph’s studies with Joshua Seixas in the Kirtland Hebrew school (as a number of scholars have opined over the years). I’m at work without resources (in particular my copy of the Seixas grammar), but I thought I would try to identify some of the changes that to me seem most likely to have had a Hebrew-based motivation. These are just a series of (very) rough notes for my own future reference, but I thought some of you might find them interestintg as well:

4:1 and throughout: God—>Gods. Text is modified throughout to change a single deity to a pantheon. Presumably influenced by the plural form of ‘elohim.

created—>organized and formed. Creatio ex nihilo—>creatio ex materia. Appears to be based on the lexis of the verb bara’.

heaven—>heavens. Appears to be based on the dual form shamayim.

4:2: without form, and void—>empty and desolate. I believe this is the translation given in the Seixas grammar for tohu webohu.

moved—>was brooding. I believe this is the translation given in the Seixas grammar for merachepheth.

4:4: divided the light—>caused it to be divided. The verb yabdel is in the hiphil verb stem, which has a causative force; the BoA is highlighting that.

4:6: firmament—>expanse. I believe the suggested translation for raqiya’ in the Seixas grammar is “expanse.” This is also an easier translation vis-a-vis modern science, since “firmament” suggests the hard dome over the earth from ancient Hebrew cosmology. I remember Ellis Rasmussen, one-time Dean of BYU Religious Education and a Hebraist, preferring the translaction “expanse” for this very reason.

4:10: Seas—>Great Waters. Perhaps assimilating to mayim from earlier in the verse, and influenced by the dual form of the noun to render a plural.  (Note: Big Bang Theory acress Mayim Bialik’s first name is indeed the Hebrew word for “water.”)

4:14: to divide—>caused them to divide. Again, as in 4:4, this seems to have been influenced by the hiphil (or causative) form of the verb.


  1. This is very interesting stuff, Kevin.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Cool stuff, indeed.

  3. Why can’t every BCC post be this awesome??

    -8th most favorite reader.

  4. Yep. I spend a good bit of time on this in my book , and Matt Grey at BYU has some exciting research coming out on it later this year, some sideways archival discoveries from the JSPP. I wrote a bit on this earlier here.

    Seixas’ grammar, which was reprinted for LDS study, included the Hebrew text of Genesis 1, and Seixas used a lot of examples from it.

    To draw an analogy, the relationship between the Book of Moses and the KJV is that Joseph was working with the English, working and reworking it.
    The Book of Moses is the JST to the English of the KJV.
    The Book of Abraham creation account is the JST to the *Hebrew* behind the English of the KJV.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Great examples, Ben! And I love Matt’s stuff, so I’ll look forward to that as well.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    I always though the KFD was the JST to the Hebrew behind the KJV. (grin)

  7. Here I go off on a tangent. I wonder if anyone knows of a book entitled The Authors of Genesis by Dr. Irving H. Cohen, a Jewish convert to the church in the early 1950s. It was published in 1966 and appeared along with him at BYU Education Week seminars throughout the 1970s. In it he posits that Genesis was written in turn by the various major Patriarchs starting with Adam’s book of remembrance in the Adamic language down to Joseph’s time when all the records were stashed in Joseph’s coffin to be carried back to the promised land by Moses. He points to evidence in Genesis of a colophon system used to denote the various sub-books such as “the book of the generations of Adam” or “these are the generations of Noah” etc. I think the Hebrew word for this is “toledot.” Now this is just the start of what gets to be a mixed study of Genesis, Abraham, and Moses. Maybe this has been covered somewhere before in the bloggernacle.

  8. Lots of people have written about the toledot. One conservative protestant back in 1969 suggested that the toledot-heading was written at the top of successive tablets in the Genesis saga.
    I was unaware of Cohen’s work or suggestions along those lines, but they strike me as implausible. For one thing, the vast majority of the Pentateuch is written in Hebrew largely datable to the 1st millennium, not older Hebrew or pre-Hebrew languages that might have been known to the patriarchs, like Akkadian, Egyptian, or others.

  9. Interestingly, Joseph apparently didn’t follow Seixas slavishly. Whereas Seixas has tanninim as “sea monsters,” the Book of Abraham retains KJV “great whales.”

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Really interesting, Kruiser. I had never heard of him or his book.

    Ben, yes, I have the Roland Kenneth Harrison Intro to the OT book, so I was familiar with the theory that toledot = colophons to separate tablets. I think I mentioned that in a footnote in my Documentary Hypothesis article. I like his (massive) book. It is indeed conservative, but it’s especially good on tracing the history of various strands of scholarship, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. (He chaired Avraham Gileadi’s Ph.D. committee at BYU; Hugh Nibley was also on the committee, and my understanding is that Hugh ripped Avraham to shreds during his defense, but he did indeed get the degree.)

    Fun story about Harrison. He came to BYU once to give a lecture. As I recall, it was in a lecture hall in the Wilkinson Center; that was the only time I was ever in that particular room. The hall was packed. He gave a great lecture. And then at the end, he basically bore his testimony of (mainstream) Christianity, and implicitly against Mormonism. And he got a rousing standing ovation! My theory is that crowd admired a scholar who was religious, took a religious stand, and was willing to stand up for what he believed in and bear testimony, even in the lion’s den as it were. The admiration for him felt very genuine to me, even if the audience reaction sort of surprised me.

    Jared, absolutely right, Joseph did not follow Seixas slavishly. Louis Zucker in his Dialogue article on Joseph as a student of Hebrew suggested that he used Hebrew more as an artist than as a scholar, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that observation.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    One way to look at Joseph’s post Book of Mormon translations is that they have a strong demythologization even if there is a literalness to it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the change from monsters to whale is because he doesn’t believe in monsters. That doesn’t work everywhere. The animism in his Enoch sections go against that unless one takes them very poetical.

  12. I agree with you, Clark. Even in the Enoch section the sons of God are men of the covenant rather than members of the divine council. (Joseph probably hadn’t discerned the concept of the divine council yet.) It may be my own perception, but I see repeated attempts by Joseph (and non-canonically, Brigham Young) to clear away what they viewed as unbelievable nonsense in the scriptures, even if the altered interpretation is not as true to the underlying Hebrew/Greek. So yes, firmament becomes expanse, but whales remain whales.

  13. Kevin & Ben,
    Thank you so much. I am not a scholar of any kind, but questions pop into my head. I suppose you are going to get to this later, so I will not go into it much. The pivotal scripture of Genesis 2:5 then progressing to Abraham 5:5 and finally to Moses 3:5 as an evolution towards preexistence. I suppose there is an underlying Hebrew text that you will explain. Early translations into English seem to support the KJV approach. Again we may have Tyndale to thank for that. For Genesis 2:5 he writes: “And all the shrubbes of the felde be fore they were in the erthe, And all the herbes of the felde before they sprange: for the Lorde God had yet sent no rayne vpon the erth nether was there yet any man to tylle the erth.”

  14. Both Tyndale and the KJV translators (who were revising Tyndale, not doing a completely new translation) either misunderstood the nature of the Hebrew there, or translated it so literally as to mislead in English. You’ll note that as translated, neither the KJV nor Tyndale are complete sentences, and that because they translate so literally and follow the (medieval) verse divisions. The word translated as “before” terem also means “not yet” as in 1Sa 3:7.

    So I would follow modern translations as reading this way, starting halfway through v. 4. (This is the Jewish Publication Society translation)
    4b When the LORD God made earth and heaven —
    5 when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil,
    6 but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth —
    7 the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. (Gen 2:4-7 TNK)

    There’s no hint of premortal existence in the Hebrew. I think one of the things Joseph Smith was doing with Moses and Abraham was trying to solve problems with the text. What’s most interesting is that he solves it one way in Moses, then similarly but with stark differences in Abraham, then the temple provides a completely different answer. The question, of course, is why are there two consecutive creation accounts, and the second assumes the first didn’t happen?

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Just to add a thought to what Ben says, the way the Book of Moses solves the problem of two sequential creation accounts is by making the first one a spiritual creation, and the second the actual physical creation. And scholars who have studied the development of the Mormon concept of preexistence have pointed to this Moses text as sort of the beginning of the thought process that leads in that direction.

  16. Yes, I have heard that too about the two creation accounts.Yet looking at the Jewish Study Bible and some other sources, it seems like Genesis 1 and 2 had different authors such as the P (Priestly) writer in 1 and the J (Yahweh) writer in 2. Like the redactors of the Second Temple period were not too concerned about accuracy and consistency and put the two accounts together as a redundancy. I am sure you are familiar with all of this.

    What I wonder is how all this happened. Was there a pre-Hebrew language used by the patriarchs which wound up in the hands of Moses? Who took it from there and produced the Torah? Where did the colophons come in? Or did Moses just receive Genesis through direct revelation? Maybe there is not a scholarly answer to these questions.

  17. I think those are unanswerable with the tools of academia, but scholarship would certainly lean away from some of the assumptions made. The Hebrew Bible as we have it long post-dates Moses, so it’s extremely difficult to see with any clarity that far back.

    I’ll be covering some of these things in more or less depth in my book.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    Just to note, the idea of separate physical and spiritual creations has an old heritage going back at least to Philo who reads the spiritual creation very Platonically. (There are certainly hints of that in Moses as well)

  19. Ben, I just read your post at T&S on Genesis: Week Two. Wish I could have been there for your genre conversation using Galaxy Quest…

  20. That’s my go-to for explaning genre confusion to people :) Used it on my seminary class recently.

  21. Kevin, I used your blog post as inspiration to finish my contrast of similarities differences between Abr 4-5 with Gen 1-2. You may (or may not) find this of interest:

  22. Ben, do you have that Galaxy Quest analogy written up anywhere?

  23. I don’t think so, but with any luck, it will be part of the Sperry Symposium this year :)
    I’ve touched on it here and here , in relation to parables and Jonah.

  24. It has been so long since I’ve watched Galaxy Quest that I didn’t remember too much about it, but then this gem from your first link brought it all back:

    “For the ultimate fun exploration of genre confusion, I highly recommend watching Galaxy Quest, since the whole film is premised on the idea of aliens misreading a Star-Trek-like tv show as “historical documents.”

    Now I know why you like this analogy. I couldn’t place how your genre discussions related to Galaxy Quest, because I couldn’t remember much about it, but of course, it all makes sense now.

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