Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Names and Meaning: Zoram as a Case Study

Neal Rappleye posted the following at Studio et Quoque Fide (reposted with permission):

Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project Launched Online

The Book of Mormon Onomasticon project, which has long been in the works, has finally been launched online. Although it is still under development, there is plenty of great information and research available already on every single name in the Book of Mormon. Many of the entries provide convenient summaries of the research that has gone into a Book of Mormon name. Some brief time browsing the entries will quickly make it apparent which names have received the most attention from scholars and which names need more work. In any event, it is a great new tool for Book of Mormon study.

Understanding the meaning of a name can shed light on the meaning of scripture, especially since scriptural names can be metonymic. That is, names more relevant to the actions or role of a person in a narrative may be substituted for that actual person’s name. Even in cases where a metonymic name is not in play, authors aware of the meaning of the name may have used it in some way to enhance the narrative. Such word plays on proper nouns are common in ancient Near Eastern literature.
Zoram: From “Servant of Laban” to “Rock of Nephi”

Consider the name Zoram. I chose this name because it has received very little attention from scholars. It was one of the first I looked up in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon (BMO) because, as the only name in the 1 Nephi narrative that has not been attested in ancient sources, I was interested in seeing what they had come up with. Hugh Nibley had suggested it meant something like “refreshing rain,” and William J. Hamblin has followed suit (from the Hebrew zerem). The BMO, however, suggests either ûrām, “their rock,” or the hypothetical construct *ûrʿām, “rock of the people.” I like this suggestion much better than the “rain” idea from Nibley and Hamblin because when I think about that meaning in light of the role Zoram plays in the narrative, it becomes more interesting.
Zoram is first introduced into the narrative simply as the “servant of Laban” (1 Nephi 4:20, 31, 33). It is not until he taking an oath wherein he is promised his freedom that his called by his name (1 Nephi 4:35). This might be significant. I suggest that this is a deliberate literary move made by Nephi, meant to convey his transition from bondage to freedom. At first he is known only as someone else’s, “the servant of Laban,” but after taking an oath which grants him his status as a free man, he becomes known by his own name, “Zoram.” In the narrative, it is almost as if he becomes Zoram upon taking the oath, like receiving a new name. If the name, as the BMO suggests, has the element “rock” in it, then the imagery of a now strong and mighty person, no longer a slave or servant could be conveyed by the choice to call him no longer the “servant” but by his name, Zoram. Since rock imagery can convey the idea of steadfastness, faithfulness, or reliability, it may be meant to convey his faithful commitment to the oath he was making. The meaning “their rock” might even be expressive of his relationship to his oath-givers. While he was granted status as a “free man” it was on the condition that he join their group, that he “go down into the wilderness with us” (1 Nephi 4:33). Thus in that sense, he was to become “their rock,” or their faithful and loyal companion. As Lehi is about to pass away, he speaks to Zoram and we find out that indeed, Zoram had become a “true friend” to Nephi, and Lehi is confident that he will be so “forever” (2 Nephi 1:30). Again, the imagery here is that of a rock – someone who is firm, faithful, and true forever. Zoram is the “rock of Nephi”, his ever loyal comrade.
Final Thoughts

These are, of course, only my fairly amateur ruminations and may not be connected to reality at all. But whether or not ûrām/*ûrʿām is really the underlying Hebrew of Zoram, thinking about the possible meaning of this name has given me a whole new way of reading his story in the Book of Mormon in light “rock” imagery that provides insights on freedom, strength, friendship, and loyalty. Right or wrong, it was worthwhile. And that is from just one name. Imagine what else can be gleaned as we seek out possible meanings of other names in the Book of Mormon. So go check out the Book of Mormon Onomsticon and see what treasures of hidden knowledge (see D&C 89:19) await you!