Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Waving a "rent" (Howlers #2)

“But the following caps the climax of absurdities. Moroni has rent his coat, and taken `a piece thereof, and wrote upon it,’ and `fastened it upon the end of a pole thereof, and then after earnest an prayer: `He went forth among the people, waving the rent of his garment in the air, that all might see the writing which he had wrote upon the rent’ . . . . It is not strange that a man of meagre literary attainments as Joseph Smith . . . should be guilty of a great many blunders in composition, should make use of inelegant, and even vulgar expressions, should often choose the wrong word to express his thought.”
                                                                        M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible (1887), 57.

The words of this passage in Alma 46:19 have been slightly amended in editions subsequent to 1830 to read “waving the rent part of his garment” and “writing which he had written upon the rent part.” John Tvedtnes sheds additional light on this phrase as it appeared in the 1830 edition.

During the years 1968-71, I taught Hebrew at the University of Utah. My practice was to ask new students to respond to a questionnaire, giving some idea of their interests and linguistic background. One student wrote that she wanted to study Hebrew in order to prove the Book of Mormon was a fraud. She approached me after class to explain.

When I inquired why she felt the Book of Mormon was fraudulent, she stated that it was full of errors. I asked for an example. She drew my attention to Alma 46:19, where we read, "When Moroni had said these words, he went forth among the people, waving the rent part of his garment in the air." She noted that in the 1830 edition (p. 351), this read simply "waving the rent of his garment." In English, the rent is the hole in the garment, not the piece torn out of the garment. Therefore, Moroni could not have waved it. This was an error, she contended, and adding the word part later was mere deception.

This was my first introduction to variations in different editions of the Book of Mormon. Without a Hebrew background, I might have been bothered by it. But the explanation was clear when I considered how Mormon would have written that sentence. Hebrew does not have to add the word part to a verbal substantive like rent as English requires. Thus, broken in Hebrew can refer to a broken thing or a broken part, while new can refer to a new thing. In the verse the student cited, rent would mean rent thing or rent part. Thus, the "error" she saw as evidence of fraud was really a Hebraism that was evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

John Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in John Sorenson and Melvin Thorne, ed., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (1991), 78.

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