Mosiah 1:4 – Teaching our posterity the language of scripture

Jan 14, 2016
4 min read

For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time. (Mosiah 1:4)

I was listening to this chapter yesterday and then read it again today. I don’t know that I have anything profound to say about it but I wanted to point a few things out that I think are of interest.

The plates and the information they contained was critically important in perpetuating the covenants between the people and God. Lehi was taught in the language of the Egyptians, it never says how but that information might have been in the book of Lehi that was unfortunately lost.

This verse says that the engravings on the brass plates were in the Egyptian language, but I guess that somehow I missed that detail. I had speculated that perhaps Lehi knew Demotic and that was the language they wrote their plates in.


Demotic characters

The brass plates might have been an unprecedented artifact, something akin to the Antikythera mechanism or the Codex Gigas, crafted by some passionate visionary and retained in a private treasury. 

Because Hieratic was used in priestly texts, it might have proven suitable for something sacred and special like a one-of-a-kind brass edition of the Hebrew scriptures. There could be many other reasons for using the Egyptian language, they could have been created in Egypt as part of an Egyptian library, their creator might have been Egyptian convert living in Jerusalem, or perhaps the more cursive script was more attractive and sophisticated than the blocky Paleo-Hebrew used at the time.

I think much of the Anthon transcript, which contains characters allegedly copied from the Nephite ‘golden’ plates, looks more Demotic, but perhaps the same sort of simplifications to Heiratic that resulted in Demotic could have happened independently among the Nephites over time. They did alter their alphabet and language over time, but we don’t know in what way or to what extent. The fact that the Brother of Jared’s interpreters were included signified that this would be a lost language to future generations and would require special means for interpretation.


Hieratic characters

Lehi and his party would have all most likely written in Paleo-Hebrew which preceded the more block-style alphabet used when the Aramaic alphabet gained popularity 100 years after they left Jerusalem. Paleo-Hebrew is virtually identical to the Phoenician alphabet and they are both strikingly similar to Hieratic. The Heiratic seems to be a more beautiful-looking alphabet compared to the Paleo-Hebrew and that combined with the brass plates as precedent might be the reason why Lehi and his posterity continued to use Hieratic or some form of Egyptian writing on the plates.

If the alphabets were virtually the same, then it stands to reason that it would be no problem writing the Hebrew language using the Hieratic alphabet. I’m guessing it might not have been much different than cursive versus regular block lettering. I could be wrong about any of what I just wrote, don’t take my word for it but that’s my working theory for the moment.

The other thing in this verse that caught my eye was that Lehi taught his children the Egyptian language so that they could read the plates. I wonder how many of his children actually learned the Egyptian language. I think we could reasonably agree that Nephi and Jacob knew the language since they wrote on the plates. Not being able to read the plates was just as bad as not possessing them at all in the first place. Perhaps that is part of the curse that fell upon those that left the Nephites, that they perished in ignorance, descending into a darkness where the light of truth could not penetrate.

This brings to mind what I think is a very cool idea. The Nephites had to actually learn a new language to read their scriptures and a very similar challenge is before us today. The standard King James Version of the Bible is, in a way, another language from the English we speak in the present.

What steps are we taking to help our children read the scriptures and understand not just the physical words that are spoken, but the symbolism, metaphors, idioms, cultural peculiarities, and writing styles? Ideally, we could learn Greek and Hebrew and read them straight from the source, but until then we can explore other translations of the Bible or study a concordance for greater insight.

Lehi saw that the plates were not only secured but that his posterity could read and understand them. That took effort, time, and dedication, but how much are we willing to put in to see that our posterity has that same blessing? Will we stand as great patriarchs and matriarchs of the next generation or perpetuate a casual relationship with sacred things?

What do you think?

  • What challenges have the scriptures presented to you in terms of language? Have you found any success in overcoming those challenges?
  • What are some good approaches for helping children overcome the language hurdle scripture presents.
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Richard J. Nobbe III
Richard J. Nobbe III
4 years ago

You brighten my day with new and wonderful things to think about. Thank you. I think one of the basic issues here was simply that of space. Consider the following from Mormon Chapter 9: 32 And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. 33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have… Read more »

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