Question: Does the term "familiar spirit" in the Book of Mormon refer to occult practices?

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Question: Does the term "familiar spirit" in the Book of Mormon refer to occult practices?

This doesn't mean that Isaiah was only referring to the Book of Mormon, or that he was particularly thinking about it at all: Nephi simply used the imagery and language of Isaiah

Why are the words "familiar spirit" in Isaiah 29:4 said to refer to the Book of Mormon (as used in 2 Nephi 26:16, when "familiar spirit" usually refers to occult practices such as channeling and necromancy everywhere else in the Old Testament? This doesn't mean that Isaiah was only referring to the Book of Mormon, or that he was particularly thinking about it at all. Nephi simply used the imagery and language of Isaiah, and adapted it to make his point. This was common practice in the ancient world. One wonders how young Joseph Smith knew that?

The comparison does not say that the Book of Mormon is a familiar spirit, but that the message from the Book of Mormon would be comparable, or like such a spirit.

What is "a familiar spirit"?

The answer to this criticism depends on understanding Isaiah—and Nephi's use of him. Critics count on the Latter-day Saints being unfamiliar with these materials, and so a review is helpful.[1]

It is natural that some have misunderstood the term "familiar spirit." The contemporary use of familiar is as an adjective, derived from the Latin familiaris, meaning “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, mean that people will be familiar with it (e.g., as might be expressed by saying it "rings a bell," or is something they've been acquainted with before they heard it.)

Rather, the term "familiar spirit" in Isaiah has something to do with divination by communicating with the spirits of the dead (necromancy). KJV use of “familiar” in this sense is an unfortunate translation, both because it confuses modern English readers and because it brings up images of medieval witchcraft that don't match the ancient biblical world.

Hebrew text

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 scholars 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.

Use of "familiar spirit" in Isaiah

We can now consider what Isaiah meant.

Isaiah is referring to events at Jerusalem (called "Ariel"), and says:

4 And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust. (Isaiah 29:4)

The New English Translation (NET) Bible translation renders this verse as

"Your voice will sound like a spirit speaking from the underworld."

Thus, Jerusalem and its inhabitants will be destroyed, and (in a striking image) Isaiah says that the only thing that will linger on is their voices or witness "from beyond the grave," so to speak. Their destruction will leave them to bear witness, but that is all they can do.

Most translations of Isaiah use some variant of “ghost” in this passage, meaning a shade from Sheol (the Hebrew realm of the dead, or land of spirits).

Book of Mormon usage of Isaiah: Nephi uses the Isaiah passage to explain or illustrate his own prophecy

Nephi (a lover of Isaiah) uses the Isaiah passage to explain or illustrate his own prophecy:

14 But behold, I prophesy unto you concerning the last days; concerning the days when the Lord God shall bring these things forth unto the children of men.

15 After my seed and the seed of my brethren shall have dwindled in unbelief, and shall have been smitten by the Gentiles; yea, after the Lord God shall have camped against them round about, and shall have laid siege against them with a mount, and raised forts against them; and after they shall have been brought down low in the dust, even that they are not, yet the words of the righteous shall be written, and the prayers of the faithful shall be heard, and all those who have dwindled in unbelief shall not be forgotten.

16 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.

17 For thus saith the Lord God: They shall write the things which shall be done among them, and they shall be written and sealed up in a book, and those who have dwindled in unbelief shall not have them, for they seek to destroy the things of God. (2 Nephi 26:14-17)

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. 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.

(All writing from another time does this—it allows the dead to speak to us. Matthew and Paul speak to us "as if" from the dead in the Bible, Shakespeare speaks to us through his plays, etc.)

Thus, the Book of Mormon, being a record from a fallen Christian civilization, would be "as if" the dead spoke, since those who are now dead can speak to us. The comparison to Isaiah's Jerusalem probably seems appropriate to Nephi, since:

  • Isaiah prophesied of Jerusalem's destruction, and the Nephites were witnesses of that destruction (e.g. 2 Nephi 1:3-4).
  • The Nephites had fled Jerusalem to avoid destruction.
  • Jerusalem was destroyed for wickedness, as Nephi knew his own people would eventually be destroyed (see 1 Nephi 15:5).
  • Like the wicked at Jerusalem, only the tale (the witness or record) of the wicked Nephite civilization would persist

The symbol used by Isaiah is thus both appropriate for Nephi's situation, and ironic, since the Nephites have ended up also "speaking from the dust" just like the people at Jerusalem from whom the Nephites fled to avoid destruction!

Remember also that the Book of Mormon was "To come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof" as the title page to the book states. The interpreters, or Urim and Thummim, as well as the seer stone, are what are being referred to here. These are sacred implements. Implements are also used in the context of divination. So it is not surprising that the gift and power of God manifest through use of sacred implements would be described in this manner in Isaiah. The tools such as seer stones and so forth are abused by those who misuse them in occult contexts. But in the context of their correct use under priesthood authority and revelation from God, they are still spiritual implements that manifest things from the unseen world, but in that case, being acted upon by the power of God, not by false spirits.

The Book of Mormon disapproves of necromancy

The critics try to tie the Book of Mormon's use of this passage to ideas of witchcraft or devil-worship. But, Isaiah uses the same imagery (a ghost speaking from beyond the grave) to describe Jerusalem events. Surely the critics don't expect us to believe that Isaiah's use of this metaphor means he approves of witchcraft?

The Book of Mormon verse also emphasizes that the power to translate the Book of Mormon comes from God, not from channeling or necromancy: "the Lord God will give unto him [the translator] power." But, the critics do not mention this inconvenient fact.

Those who advance this criticism also ignore that the Book of Mormon also speaks negatively about appealing to actual "familiar spirits," in another citation from Isaiah in 2 Nephi 18:19.

Notes

  1. Portions of this analysis are derived from Kevin L. Barney, "As One that Hath a Familiar Spirit," bycommonconsent.com (18 October 2007); used with permission, last accessed 17 November 2007).