“Land of Promise” and Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon
The expression land of promise in the Book of Mormon is often cited as an example of ancient “Hebraic” wording and thus as evidence in support of its authenticity as a translation of an ancient collection of Israelite scriptures. This article takes a close look at this argument.
What Mormons Say about Land of Promise as a Hebraism in the Book of Mormon
The claim that the Book of Mormon’s claim to be authentic ancient Israelite literature has been corroborated by the discovery of Hebraisms in its text has now attained something like official status in Mormon teaching, as the following statement from the LDS Church’s official website illustrates:
In addition, some grammatical constructions that are more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than English appear in the original manuscript, suggesting that the base language of the translation was not English.1
Retaining these Hebraisms as evidences of ancient authenticity and miraculous translation was cited by the LDS Church as one of the reasons for its stance discouraging Mormons from producing modern English versions of the Book of Mormon.2
A standard reference on this subject is an essay by John Tvedtnes published in 1991. Tvedtnes explicitly claims that the presence of Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon is evidence of its authenticity:
These Hebraisms, as I will call them, are evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon—evidence that Joseph Smith did not write a book in English but translated an ancient text and that his translation reflects the Hebrew words and word order of the original…. The Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon help persuade us that it is authentic…. There is much more linguistic evidence for the influence of Hebrew on the Book of Mormon, but the examples of Hebraisms that I have cited should be enough to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text influenced by Hebrew. Many expressions used in the Book of Mormon are awkward or unexpected in English, even in Joseph Smith’s time. Yet they make good sense when viewed as translations, perhaps as too literal translations, from an ancient text written in a Hebrew-like language.3
Another important essay on the subject was written by Donald Parry (2002), who likewise thinks Hebraisms are strong evidence for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity:
The Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon attest to the book’s Near Eastern background and antiquity. Their presence cannot be explained as a matter of coincidence, nor could a modern writer have integrated them so effectively (naturally and correctly) throughout the narrative. It is very unlikely that Joseph Smith had technical knowledge of these various archaic modes of expression, for many of them are subtle in their Book of Mormon contexts and are similarly inconspicuous in the Old Testament. Joseph’s level of education and familiarity with the Bible could not have equipped him with the requisite literary knowledge and skill to craft so many Hebraisms so seamlessly and correctly into the Book of Mormon text…. The literary forms covered in this paper were generally uncommon in, if not altogether foreign to, the English of Joseph Smith’s day. One must search beyond the nineteenth century for the origin of the Book of Mormon text.4
One of the types of Hebraism in the Book of Mormon cited by both Tvedtnes and Parry is the construct state, a Hebraic grammatical structure of two nouns in which the second noun is descriptive of the first noun (in effect taking the place of an adjective). Instead of saying “gold ring,” for example, a Hebrew would say something we would translate literally as “ring of gold.” According to Parry, “The overwhelming practice of preferring the construct state over the possessive and related forms is a strong indication of Hebraic writing.”5
One commonly mentioned example of a construct state in the Book of Mormon is the expression land of promise. This expression has been cited as evidence of the Hebraic nature of the Book of Mormon for over a century.6 Both Tvedtnes and Parry cite the expression in their cataloguing of examples of the construct state in the Book of Mormon. Parry specifically cites 1 Nephi 17:33, which uses the expression, and does not mention any others.7 Tvedtnes asserts, “The Hebrew-like expression land of promise appears twenty-two times in the Book of Mormon, while promised land (common in English) is found only ten times.”8 Both of these statements by Parry and Tvedtnes are quoted on FairMormon’s website as evidence in support of the Book of Mormon.9
So, is the presence of the expression land of promise in the Book of Mormon evidence that it is a literal translation of an ancient Hebraic text?
Land of Promise versus Promised Land in the Book of Mormon
|Land of Promise/Promised Land in the Book of Mormon|
|Land of promise (22)||1 Ne. 2:20; 4:14; 5:5, 22; 7:1, 13; 10:13; 12:1, 4; 13:14; 17:33, 42; 18:25; 2 Ne. 1:3, 5, 10, 24; Jacob 2:12; Alma 37:45b; Ether 2:7, 8, 9|
|Promised land (21)||1 Ne. preface; 13:12; 14:2; 17:13, 14; 18:8, 22, 23 [twice]; Mosiah 10:15; Alma 36:28; 37:44, 45a; Hel. 7:7; 3 Ne. 20:29; Ether 6:5, 8, 12 [twice], 16; 7:27|
The expression land of promise occurs 22 times in the Book of Mormon. There are also two occurrences in the plural, lands of promise (2 Ne. 9:2; 24:2). However, the equivalent expression promised land occurs 21 times—not ten times, as John Tvedtnes erroneously claimed.10 The error is not the result of any question about the original wording of the Book of Mormon, since The current Book of Mormon matches the first edition (1830) as well as the handwritten manuscripts with regard to these two expressions.11 Thus, the Book of Mormon has a nearly equal number of occurrences of both expressions.
There appears to be no reason for the variation in forms that could be explained in terms of ancient authorship. Both forms are found more often in 1 Nephi than in any other book, and they are also both found in the books of Alma and Ether. This is noteworthy since 1 Nephi is attributed to Nephi himself, Alma is attributed to Mormon, and Ether is attributed to Mormon. Thus, the three main supposed ancient authors of the Book of Mormon all use both expressions.
Nor does there seem to be any contextual reason for the variation. The two forms often mix in the same context where they must have the same meaning or referent, even in one instance in the same verse (1 Ne. 13:12-14; 18:22-25; and especially Alma 37:44-45).
A particularly telling indication that the form land of promise in the Book of Mormon does not reflect an ancient Hebraic original text comes in 1 Nephi 18. This is the place in the Book of Mormon narrative where Nephi and his party arrive in the New World:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land. And it came to pass that after we had sailed for the space of many days we did arrive at the promised land; and we went forth upon the land, and did pitch our tents; and we did call it the promised land. And it came to pass that we did begin to till the earth, and we began to plant seeds; yea, we did put all our seeds into the earth, which we had brought from the land of Jerusalem. And it came to pass that they did grow exceedingly; wherefore, we were blessed in abundance. And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind, both the cow and the ox, and the ass and the horse, and the goat and the wild goat, and all manner of wild animals, which were for the use of men. And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper. (1 Ne. 18:22-25)
1 Nephi 18:22-25 uses the expression the promised land three times in quick succession and then, just a few sentences later, uses the land of promise. The meaning of the latter expression clearly must be the same as the former. What is especially interesting is that when the group lands and sets up camp Nephi says, “we did call it the promised land” (1 Ne. 18:23b). Here, if anywhere, one would have expected a literal translation to reflect a supposed ancient Hebraic grammatical construction, but such is not the case.
The best explanation for the variation is that it arose from the modern author of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith dictated the existing Book of Mormon beginning with Mosiah through to the end (Moroni), then dictated the first part from 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon.12 If we plot the occurrences of the two expressions promised land and land of promise according to the dictation order, we find a marked preference for land of promise exhibited inconsistently but more frequently as Joseph’s dictation proceeded, as shown in the table below.
|Book of Mormon Reference||Promised Land||Land of Promise|
|Alma 37:44, 45a||X|
|3 Ne. 20:29||X|
|Ether 2:7, 8, 9||X|
|Ether 6:5, 8, 12 [twice], 16; 7:27||X|
|1 Ne. preface||X|
|1 Ne. 2:20||X|
|1 Ne. 4:14||X|
|1 Ne. 5:5, 22||X|
|1 Ne. 7:1, 13||X|
|1 Ne. 10:13||X|
|1 Ne. 12:1, 4||X|
|1 Ne. 13:12||X|
|1 Ne. 13:14||X|
|1 Ne. 14:12||X|
|1 Ne. 17:13, 14||X|
|1 Ne. 17:33, 42||X|
|1 Ne. 18:8, 22, 23 [twice]||X|
|1 Ne. 18:25||X|
|2 Ne. 1:3, 5, 10, 24||X|
At first Joseph Smith used the familiar English expression promised land in his dictation, using land of promise only once in the early going, in Alma 37:45b (immediately after using promised land twice). When he began dictating the Book of Ether, Joseph used land of promise a few times, then went back to promised land. Early in 1 Nephi, however, he started showing a decided preference for land of promise. He used it in eleven of the twelve chapters where either expression occurs, with some vacillation between the two in 1 Nephi 13-14 and 17-18. In all, 13 of the 21 occurrences of promised land come in Mosiah through the preface of 1 Nephi and only 8 thereafter, whereas land of promise occurs only 4 times in Mosiah through Moroni but 18 times in 1 Nephi 2 through Words of Mormon. These data are best accounted for on the hypothesis that Joseph Smith began using the more common English wording promised land but later in his dictation began preferring the expression land of promise.
|Mosiah—1 Nephi Preface||1 Nephi 2—Words of Mormon|
|Land of promise||4||18|
Far from suggesting that Joseph Smith was dictating by supernatural revelation a literal translation of an ancient Hebrew-like text, the pattern of usage of land of promise suggests that the expression reflected his own changing linguistic preference. That pattern continued after his production of the Book of Mormon, since he consistently used the expression land of promise both in his modern revelations (D&C 38:18; 57:2; 124:38), which presumably were not translated from a Hebraic original text, and in his revision of Genesis (see Moses 6:17).
Land of Promise and Hebrews 11
The expression land of promise occurs in the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible just once, in Hebrews 11:9, a Greek text reflecting the Hebraic way of speaking.13 Ironically, this is the only place in the Bible (in any language) where this expression or any verbal equivalent occurs (promised land is not found at all). The idea is certainly found in the Old Testament (Exod. 12:25; Deut. 6:3; 9:28; 19:8; 27:3; Josh. 23:5, 15; Neh. 9:15, 23), but the expression is not and appears to be original to the book of Hebrews.14 Thus, although it is a legitimate example of a construct-state expression, it is not an expression that the Book of Mormon prophets would have derived from their Israelite heritage. Rather, it is an expression that originated centuries after Lehi, Mulek, and their parties left Israel.
Two of the occurrences of land of promise in the Book of Mormon in their immediate contexts reflect in other ways that the text was influenced by Hebrews 11:
“And I looked and beheld the land of promise, and I beheld multitudes of people, yea, even as it were in number as many as the sands of the sea” (1 Ne. 12:1).
“By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations…. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable” (Heb. 11:9, 12 KJV).
“And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as this director did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise” (Alma 37:45).
“By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God… But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly” (Heb. 11:9-10, 16).
The four distinct verbal parallels between 1 Nephi 12:1 and Hebrews 11:9, 12 are especially convincing. Further evidence that the author of the Book of Mormon drew on Hebrews 11 is found in Ether 12, especially in the following statement:
“And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6).
The above statement clearly echoes the famous opening statement of Hebrews 11:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
Moroni goes on in Ether 12 to give a series of statements and examples involving Book of Mormon figures to support this point, often using the phrase “by faith” just as does Hebrews 11 (where it occurs eighteen times). The expression “by faith” occurs eleven times in Ether 12 (12:3-23) and only eight times in the entirety of the rest of the Book of Mormon. Recall that the expressions land of promise and promised land occur a total of nine times in the short Book of Ether.
The evidence, then, shows that the Book of Mormon’s use of the expression land of promise derives from Hebrews 11:9. This means the occurrence of the expression in that form cannot be cited as evidence that the Book of Mormon is an ancient Hebraic text. Rather, it is evidence that the Book of Mormon is a modern composition dependent on the New Testament.
2. “Rewriting Book of Mormon into Modern English Not Authorized,” Church News (2/20/2013): 3. For a rare Mormon criticism of this stance, see Marvin Folsom’s review of Lynn Matthews Anderson, The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon: A Learning Companion, in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 7/1 (1995): 14-15 (13-18).
3. John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, edited by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo: FARMS, 1991), 77, 78, 91 (77-91).
4. Donald W. Parry, “Hebraisms and Other Ancient Peculiarities in the Book of Mormon,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo: FARMS, 2002), 181.
5. Ibid., 176.
7. Parry, “Hebraisms,” 175.
8. Tvedtnes, “Hebrew Background,” 79. See also John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: A Preliminary Survey,” BYU Studies 11/1 (1970): 55 (50-60).
10. John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hebrew Background of the Book of Mormon,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, edited by John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo: FARMS, 1991), 77-91. Earl Wunderli points out Tvedtnes’s error but incorrectly gives the number of occurrences of promised land as 20, since he does not include the preface to 1 Nephi (which the text explicitly attributes to Nephi and so is not supposed to be a modern preface). See Earl M. Wunderli, An Imperfect Book: What the Book of Mormon Tells Us about Itself (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013), 231-32.
11. In the Printer’s Manuscript (P), promised land was changed to land of promise in 1 Ne. 10:13, conforming it to the Original Manuscript (O), by crossing out and insertion: the ^land of promised land. In 1 Nephi 12:1, O has “the land[,] the land of promise,” which might have been a mistake; P has “the band the land of promise.” These appear to be the only relevant variants in the manuscripts of the Book of Mormon. Thus, the current Book of Mormon accurately reflects the original dictated text as much as can be known with regard to the two forms. Missing or illegible in O (but present in P): promised land: 1 Ne. preface; 14:2; Mosiah 10:15; Alma 37:44, 45; Hel. 7:7; 3 Ne. 20:29; Ether 6:5, 8, 12 [bis], 16; 7:27; land of promise: Jacob 2:12; Alma 37:45; Ether 2:7, 8, 9.
12. For a brief explanation and references supporting this statement, see this author’s article “‘I’m Mormon’: How Book of Mormon Authors Name Themselves” (Institute for Religious Research, 2015). This view of the order of dictation is no longer in serious question among Book of Mormon researchers.
13. The Greek phrase is γῆν τῆς ἐπαγγελίας (Heb. 11:9), lit. “land of the promise.”
14. Cf. Paul Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1993), 583.