"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 28, 2014
Just in Time for Christmas: New Insights About Mary in the Book of Mormon
by Jeff Lindsay

One of my favorite things about the Book of Mormon is the presence of interesting Semitic word plays throughout the text. I’ve discussed some of these here in earlier posts here, on my website, and on the Mormanity blog.

Some of these wordplays involve the meanings of names that are skillfully used in the text. Examples include Jershon, an ideal name for the place of inheritance given to the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, or Nahom, a name that can refer to mourning, used in the context of mourning when mentioned as the place of burial for Ishmael in the Arabian Peninsula.

Now, just in time for Christmas, Matthew Bowen in the Mormon Interpreter gives us a scholarly article that expands upon the meaning of the Christmas story in the Book of Mormon as it proposes skillful wordplays in the text that link the names of Mary and Mormon.

“‘Most Desirable Above All Things’: Onomastic Play on Mary and Mormon in the Book of Mormon” by Matthew L. Bowen, MormonInterpreter.com, Nov. 21, 2014, is a carefully considered treatise that proposes that Nephi drew upon his knowledge of Hebrew and Egyptian, another Semitic language, in his vision of the tree of life and his prophecy about the birth of Christ.

Though Nephi does not use the name "Mary" directly, he does seem to artfully draw upon its proposed Egyptian root mr(i) which means love or desire. This root may play a role in the name Mormon, first seen in the story of Alma baptizing his followers at the waters of Mormon, emphasizing the importance of love and desires in his words.

Here is the abstract — but please read the full article to appreciate the depth of Matthew Bowen's proposal:

The names Mary and Mormon most plausibly derive from the Egyptian word mr(i), “love, desire, [or] wish.” Mary denotes “beloved [i.e., of deity]” and is thus conceptually connected with divine love, while Mormon evidently denotes “desire/love is enduring.”

The text of the Book of Mormon manifests authorial awareness of the meanings of both names, playing on them in multiple instances.

Upon seeing Mary (“the mother of God,” 1 Nephi 11:18, critical text) bearing the infant Messiah in her arms in vision, Nephi, who already knew that God “loveth his children,” came to understand that the meaning of the fruit-bearing tree of life “is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Nephi 11:17-25).

Later, Alma the Elder and his people entered into a covenant and formed a church based on “love” and “good desires” (Mosiah 18:21, 28), a covenant directly tied to the waters of Mormon: Behold here are the waters of Mormon … and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God … if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized …?”; “they clapped their hands for joy and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts” (Mosiah 18:8-11).

Alma the Younger later recalled the “song of redeeming love” that his father and others had sung at the waters of Mormon (Alma 5:3-9, 26; see Mosiah 18:30).

Our editor, Mormon, who was himself named after the land of Mormon and its waters (3 Nephi 5:12), repeatedly spoke of charity as “everlasting love” or the “pure love of Christ [that] endureth forever” (Moroni 7:47-48; 8:16-17; 26).

All of this has implications for Latter-day Saints or “Mormons” who, as children of the covenant, must endure to the end in Christlike “love” as Mormon and Moroni did, particularly in days of diminishing faith, faithfulness, and love (see, e.g., Mormon 3:12; contrast Moroni 9:5).

Understanding this proposed meaning of Mary's name helps me better appreciate Nephi's response in 1 Nephi 11, which previously always puzzled me. I felt I was missing something, or perhaps the text was missing something, for Nephi's answer to the angel seemed a little incongruous, until now.

In First Nephi 11, when Nephi sees Mary in vision, we have this exchange with the angel giving him a visionary tour:

[14] And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?

[15] And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.

[16] And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?

[17] And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

[18] And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

[19] And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!

[20] And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.

[21] And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

[22] And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.

Nephi did not understand the symbolic meaning of the tree until he realized that the woman he saw was the mother of Christ. That's when he grasped the symbolic meaning of the love of God, most desirable above all things — concepts linked to the meaning of Mary, or mr(i).

Bowen argues that Nephi is keenly aware of her name due to his use of related wordplays, though Mary is not explicitly spelled out. Mary, the loving mother bearing the Christ child is, with that child, associated with the tree of life, symbolizing the love of God, most desirable above all things, even as she is most beautiful and fair above all.

The tree of life bearing sacred fruit, linked to Mary and her sacred child, are also linked in Nephi's vision to the fountain of pure water, the water of life and perhaps also the water of birth and cleansing.

This is also the role of the waters of Mormon, where a covenant people joined together in the love of God, according to the desires of their hearts, with language in the text (Mosiah 18:8-11) again emphasizing love and desire, related to both the name Mary and the name Mormon.

There's more to Mary than meets the eye in the pages of the remarkable text of the Book of Mormon, where Nephi's vision and the story of baptisms at the water of Mormon are important themes, teaching us about God's love and our need to bring our desires in line with His will.

This Christmas, let us remember its deeper message about the love of God and reflect upon the symbols we have for that love, including Mary herself. May we experience and share that love more deeply as we seek to follow Christ.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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