|Image by James Fullmer|
Nearly three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the Book of Mormon Onomasticon project, and it became a pretty popular post, even being featured on Real Clear Religion. In that post, I used the name Zoram as a case study on how the meaning of names can shed light on the text. The etymology I used there was Ṣûrām or *Ṣûrʿām, “their rock” or “rock of the people” and suggested that the narrative in 1 Nephi 4 lends itself to a wordplay with Zoram.
At the time, I noted that Zoram is first introduced into the narrative simply as the “servant of Laban” (1 Nephi 4:20, 31, 33), and that it’s not until taking an oath wherein he is promised his freedom that he is called by his name (1 Nephi 4:35). At the time, I suggested this could be a deliberate literary device intended to suggest that with the oath he became Zoram, a “rock,” steadfast and true to his oath.
While this reading is certainly interesting, Matt Bowen has just suggested an alternative etymology which fits this narrative even better. He suggests that it is a –rām (high/exalted/lifted up) name with the demonstrative zô, hence Zôrām, would mean something like “one who is lifted up/exalted.” The implications this has for 1 Nephi 4 are explained by Bowen as follows:
In the context of Zoram’s liberation from having been the “servant [i.e., slave] of Laban” to become a “free man” (1 Nephi 4:33), perhaps his name came to connote “the one lifted up” out of bondage.
With this meaning of Zoram in mind, it indeed seems significant that Zoram’s name is not used until after his oath with Nephi. At first just a lowly servant—or possibly even a slave—through the oath he became Zoram, the one who was lifted up out of bondage and into freedom.
Bowen’s etymology has the advantage over the previous etymology in that it works very well with other narratives in the Book of Mormon involving “Zoram” and other similar names, which is the focus of Bowen’s paper.
This is just a small example of the many ways the study of Book of Mormon names illuminates the narratives in the text. Book of Mormon names continue to be a fruitful avenue of exploration, and Bowen has prodigiously (two papers just this week!) been plumbing the depths of possibilities not only with Book of Mormon etymologies, but with literary wordplays on the names found throughout the texts.
While these are often speculative, and they may not all pan out, the very fact that so many can be plausibly proposed is strongly suggestive of the Hebraic origins of the Book of Mormon. If you disagree, you are welcome to make up a whole bunch of names and stories and then see if any of the names can reasonably mean anything in Hebrew or Egyptian, and if so, you can then check to see if those meanings happen to pun on the details of your randomly made up stories in any meaningful way. Good luck.