The Book of Mormon contains a mixture of modern and ancient language.1 Due to Joseph’s lack of linguistic sophistication, the translation of the Book of Mormon sometimes contains what seem to be fairly literal Hebraisms mixed with his own New York dialect.2
One possible Hebraism of interest is the Book of Mormon’s use of negative rhetorical questions when a positive meaning is intended. Some modern Bible translations3 have begun to translate these negative questions in a positive or even emphatic way. Such questions occur in English, but they are stronger and more common in Biblical Hebrew.4
The King James translators of the Old Testament rendered its Hebrew (and Aramaic) fairly literally into English. The KJV thus contains many of these questions in English. Because of their presence in the KJV, this pattern in the Book of Mormon cannot be used as strong evidence of a Hebrew original.5 Nevertheless, being aware of its presence can help shed light on some Book of Mormon passages.
Hebrew forms “polar” (i.e. yes/no) questions by means of a prefixed h?, (an interrogative particle), and negative questions by adding h?lô’ (the particle plus the word “no.”) In contrast to a “simple question, when the questioner is wholly uncertain as to the answer to be expected,”6 Hebrew scholars have pointed out that these negative questions sometimes have an “exclamatory nuance” or “a special force of asseveration.”7 That is, they are being used for effect, intending a positive or even emphatic statement.
Old Testament Examples
A few examples will suffice to show that where the KJV literally translates the underlying Hebrew, some newer Bibles translate the intended effect on the hearer, a positive indicative or emphatic.8
Example 1–Deuteronomy 11:30
KJV: Deuteronomy 11:30 Are they not on the other side Jordan, by the way where the sun goeth down, in the land of the Canaanites, which dwell in the champaign over against Gilgal, beside the plains of Moreh? NIV: As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, west of the road, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal.
Example 2–Isaiah 10:8
KJV: For he saith, Are not my princes altogether kings? JPS: For he thinks, “After all, I have kings as my captains!”
Example 3–Judges 4:14
KJV: And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day in which the LORD hath delivered Sisera into thine hand: is not the LORD gone out before thee? So Barak went down from mount Tabor, and ten thousand men after him. NRSV: Then Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him.
Book of Mormon Examples
One good example comes from Helaman 9, in which Nephi is accused of murdering the chief judge, Seezoram. Nephi prophetically sends the authorities to the true assassin, Seantum. Nephi instructs them to question Seantum, and ask him, “From whence cometh this blood [on your cloak]? Do we not know that it is the blood of your brother?”9 In other words, “We do indeed know that it is the blood of thy brother.” Seantum promptly confesses.
A second example is a well-known passage from Moroni 10:4.10 “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true;11 and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” While this is easily understandable in English, we can paraphrase this as “I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are indeed true.”12
Other examples may include 1 Nephi 15:12, 2 Nephi 31:7, Jacob 5:48, Mosiah 4:19, 7:23, 20:18, 27:15, Alma 5:11, 27:18, 39:18, 39:19, and 47:34.13
The Book of Mormon also asks negative questions in which the speaker answers his own question with an answer, “yea.” This may correspond to a slightly different category of questions using h?lô, indicating that “an affirmative answer is expected.”14 For example, Alma 5:59 reads “For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.” Other examples include 1 Nephi 15:15, Mosiah 12:30, 13:33, Alma 26:35, 32:30, and Mormon 9:16.
Though some proposals, including this one, may be wrong when all the facts are known, we should nevertheless use what light we have to venture out into the murkier corners of different aspects of the Book of Mormon. Though unprovable given what we know now, it seems possible, if not probable, that the authors of the Book of Mormon deliberately used negative rhetorical questions to indicate positive emphasis, as does Biblical Hebrew.
1 I refer only to the language of the translation, not to a proposed “expanded translation” as originally proposed by Blake Ostler (Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20 (1987): 66-123). According to Kevin Christensen, who has had several communications with Ostler, he has largely abandoned the examples he chose for that article. (E-mail from Christen in my possession.) Christensen will be publishing an article in the next issue of The FARMS Review with a lengthy quote from Ostler on the subject.
2 John Gee has pointed out that many so-called Hebraisms are also true of Egyptian, which some have argued is the language of the Book of Mormon. See his review of The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, in the FARMS Review of Books, 5 (1993): 179. Egyptian aside, certain of the Hebraisms put forward as such are shared by other Semitic languages that Lehi may have been familiar with.
3 These are among Jewish and various Christian translations, demonstrating that the decision to translate these negative questions positively is not an idiosyncrasy of one translator or theological bias.
4 In some ways, the Hebrew usage is functionally closer to English question tags, meant to affirm the validity of the statement, as in, “It’s hot, isn’t it?” See Bruce K. Waltke and Michael Patrick O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1990), § 40.3, footnote 48.
5 That is, it cannot be conclusively demonstrated that this pattern in the translation is due to its presence on the plates versus the influence of King James language on Joseph. This is particularly difficult for interrogatives because of the overlap between English and Hebrew usage. See the useful discussion of Hebraisms (and extensive references) in Kevin Barney, “A More Responsible Critique,” The FARMS Review 15:1 (2003): 114-115. “Considering the fact that in a lot of cases, hal?’ does not fit well if conceived of as a mere interrogative particle, some alternative renderings have been proposed. We are, however, fully aware of the subjective character of some of them. The problem we were confronted with is an extremely difficult one.” H.A. Brongers, “Some Remarks on the Biblical Particle hal?’,” Oudtestamentische Studiën 21 (1981): 189.
6 Wilhelm Gesenius, E. Kautzsch, and A. E. Cowley, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, Second English edition (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1910), §150 d.
7 Paul Joüon and T. Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Roma: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblio, 1991), §161 b-c and 164 d. Gesenius, speaking of the interrogative in general, says “A few passages deserve special mention, in which the use of the interrogative is altogether different from our idiom, since it serves merely to express the conviction that the contents of the statement are well known to the hearer, and are unconditionally admitted by him.” This seems particularly apt for Mosiah 27:15. Gesenius, Kautzsch, and Cowley, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, §150 e. For further references, see Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction, §40.3, footnote 48. H.A. Brongers breaks these down into three categories, with multiple subcategories. See Brongers, “Some Remarks on the Biblical Particle hal?’.”
8 Further examples are listed in Brongers, “Some Remarks on the Biblical Particle hal?’,” 177-189.
9 See Helaman 9:32. Emphasis mine.
10 This is, of course, only a valid example if our understanding of biblical Hebrew is still applicable to this time period. That Hebrew was still in use, at least for writing, is indicated by Moroni in Mormon 9:33. He notes that their Hebrew has been “altered.” Though it certainly occurred, we simply do not have any data on diachronic changes in Nephite Hebrew. Cf. footnote 13.
11 Because this is an indirect polar question, the beginning phrase would be ‘im lô’, instead of h?lô’. As a side note, several critics of the Book of Mormon have argued that if one takes Moroni 10:4 literally, a positive response to a prayerful inquiry as to its truthfulness would indicate that the Book of Mormon was false. While I believe this is a hostile misreading of the English, the Hebrew pattern I have proposed effectively undercuts this argument.
12 Royal Skousen has pointed out another Hebraism that occurs in this passage in the 1830 edition. See Royal Skousen, “The Original Language of the Book of Mormon: Upstate New York Dialect, King James English, or Hebrew?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3:1 (1994): 34-35. Skousen defends this claim in Royal Skousen, “Critical Methodology and the Text of the Book of Mormon,” review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, FARMS Review of Books 6:1 (1994): 132-135.
13 I have been unable to locate any good examples of this beyond the Book of Alma, with the exception of Moroni 10:4. This may be either due to a change in Nephite Hebrew or a fluke of no further examples happening to be included on the plates. It is also possible I have simply overlooked later examples.
14 Waltke and O’Connor, An Introduction, §40.3, footnote 48.