Reading the Book of Mormon from the Right Perspective
Hebrew metaphysical paradigm.
The word metaphysics originated with Aristotle, circa 322 BC. It is a division of philosophy that deals with ontology—the science of being. The Greeks viewed a physical object as something different than the idea of or word for the physical object. The Hebrews viewed reality and truth differently than this Greek metaphysical construct, because the Hebrew paradigm makes no such distinction. The Hebrews viewed the idea of the thing and the thing as a singular, undifferentiated existence.
Hebrew metaphysics can be illustrated by a Hebrew word difficult to translate into English, davar (רבר). There is no equivalent for this word in English, because davar can be translated as word or thought or thing.
[B]iblical authors use the word davar as though they see no need to draw a sharp boundary between word and object. [Footnote omitted.]
. . . .
. . . this blurring of the distinction between words and object is not an accident of imprecise writing, but it is rather a reflection of the biblical understanding, according to which davar is often something intermediate between word and object. . . . what is meant when the Bible speaks of a davar is not a word at all, but what we might today call an understanding of something, by which is meant the object as understood.1
The Hebrew perspective on reality does not separate the physical or temporal object or event from the idea or recollection of the object or event. One can hear the word Lord actually or by thinking about what the Lord has said or would say. Thinking and hearing are the same, so just thinking about what the Lord would say is the same as the Lord saying it.2 Whether one actually sees a person or just thinks about that person being present makes no difference; they are equivalent experiences.
This equivalence between reality and thought can be seen if one is looking for it. For example, Paul alludes to this metaphysical reality among the Hebrews when he says “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of [God].3And the Savior in our day has said “all things are present before mine eyes.”4and “all things unto me are spiritual . . . . not temporal.”5
The apparent conflation of temporal things with the unseen thoughts of a person is suggested by the word spiritual and make the words not temporal in the just-quoted passage superfluous. The temporal is not irrelevant, but the word spiritual refers to metaphysical reality from the Lord’s view of the world, a view difficult for the modern Western reader to understand because there is no difference between the object and the idea of that object from the Lord’s perspective. The Western mind makes a difference seem so intuitive. After all, Plato and Aristotle taught that there is a difference between the thing and the thought of the thing. But the writers of the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon thought and spoke and wrote on a higher plain where the reality and the idea are merged.
A few biblical examples can help one see this higher perspective. Understanding this conceptual view of he world and existence is essential to understanding the impact of the Hebrew/Book-of-Mormon metaphysical paradigm on one who reads the Book of Mormon. This understanding is essential to appreciating the full record of the Book of Mormon rather than a superficial construction of it.
The first example of the Hebrew construction comes from the Savior when He taught among people imbued with Greek and Roman philosophy, which separates the physical from the thought of something, the act from the contemplation. The Savior was pulling His listeners up to the higher plain or view of reality rather than giving a new law when he condemned the thought of the act of adultery as much as the act itself:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.6
The fact that this preachment was not a new concept declaimed by the Savior is witnessed by the same teaching in the Book of Mormon where the fact that there is no difference between the thought of something and the thing itself is underscored by Alma’s declaration that it makes no difference in the judgment if one just thinks about something, as opposed to doing it:
For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence.7
Alma equates words with works in this scripture. No difference. Then he declaims that words and works are the same as thought, And this declamation was a hundred years or so before Christ, so it is impossible to say Christ was preaching new doctrine when He said thinking or lusting is the same as doing.
This equivalence of thought and act is prevalent in the Old Testament, the scriptures in the Savior’s day. But what the Old Testament says can seem ambiguous to the modern-day reader imbued with Aristotelean metaphysics. For example, what is it that bothered Abraham when Sarah told Abraham to cast out Hagar with her son?
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son [Lot]: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son.8
The word thing, which is a translation of the word davar, is without a clear antecedent. Thing can refer back to what Sarah had said, or thing can mean the casting out required by what Sarah said. The Western mind would not use the word thing here; instead, the Western-world way to say this would be either (1) what Sarah said was grievous or (2) the thought of casting out Hagar was grievous or (3) casting out Lot and Hagar was grievous. But there is no difference between the thought of something, davar, and the act itself, devar, in the Hebrew construct, so the use of the word thing is precise in this instance because what Sarah said and the thought and the effect of her words—the eventual act—are all one and the same: inseparable and grievous.
Here is another example from the Old Testament. King David receives a battle report that caused him to tear his garments in grief; but one cannot separate the words of the report from the reality of what was reported, so this inseparability is expressed by the word thing, which is translated from devar:
And it came to pass, while they were in the way, that tidings came to David, saying, Absalom hath slain all the king’s sons, and there is not one of them left. . . . And Jonadab, the son of Shimeah David’s brother, answered and said, . . . let not my lord the king take the thing to his heart, to think that all the king’s sons are dead: for Amnon only is dead.9
The thing David is told not to take to his heart—his mind—and think about is this devar. Thing is the right word because there is no differentiation between the words or idea and the inseparable reality of the thoughts in David’s mind with what happened. Makes no difference.
So here is the difficult part for the reader of the Book of Mormon. How does the reader know if what is described as happening really happened or is just a thought? This quandary can be easily resolved when, for example, a metaphor is employed. Take Lehi’s prayer in 1 Nephi. A pillar of fire came a dwelt upon a rock before him. There are three metaphors here, pillar, fire, and rock. These are vehicles for the tenor of these metaphors, so only a naif will think this actually happened rather than searching out the tenor carried by these vehicles.
The Book of Mormon videos produced by the Church in 2019 are imaginative depictions of what the producers of these videos thought Nephi said. Naive hardly describes the superficiality of the video’s depiction of the pillar of fire upon the rock while Lehi prayed. The kindest characterization of this particular video is obfuscatory. A more accurate description of this video is the word misleading. An excerpt of this scene in the Church-produced video can be viewed here,
The elevator music in the background of the Church’s video adds a false numinosity to this a misleading depiction.
Cecil B. DeMille portrayed the same disjunction in his two productions of “The Ten Commandments.” DeMille felt compelled to make the pillar of fire that led the Israelites a literal event. DeMille’s 1923 silent-version of “The Ten Commandments” is laughable because it portrays the pillar of file as a wall of fire; this version can be viewed at
the actual scene with the wall of fire begins just after 04:23 in this 06:33 excerpt, and the careful listener can hear my spontaneous laugh while I was recording this excerpt (I forgot my computer’s microphone was on).. The excerpt is longer than the wall-of-fire scene because it is interesting to compare what DeMille did in 1923 to what he did in his last ever film production in 1956. An excerpt from DeMille’s 1956 movie distributed by Paramount Pictures showing the pillar of fire can be seen on YouTube,
Interestingly, DeMille employed Arnold Friberg to paint the pictures used by DeMille to direct the film. Friberg’s paintings preceded and were duplicated in the film. An interview of Friberg can be found at
What we have in the DeMille’s 1956 movie, then, is Friberg’s artistic conception of the pillar of fire, which is as laughable, notwithstanding the great music in DeMille’s movie, as the Church video’s presentation with its somnolent music.
Other things Nephi and other Book of Mormon writers describe as reality, however, are not so obvious. Think about the attempts by Nephi and his brothers to obtain the brass plates from Laban. Nephi describes the appearance of an angel after the second attempt. The angel intercedes to stop Laman and Lemuel after they “smote us with a rod.”10 Nephi did write that this “angel of the Lord came and stood before them,” but does that really mean there was an angel in propria persona who stopped a thrashing with a stick?
Probably not, because Nephi’s metaphysical view of this event does not require an actual event, and Nephi describes the angel’s intercession using allusions to Elijah’s experience at the mouth of the cave where the Lord passed by—not really—in different manifestations.11 Nephi both alludes to Elijah’s experience, which other Old Testament writers also do, and later records that his older brothers did not believe he had ever seen an angel, that he lied about such an experience,12 and Nephi uses rod as a metaphor. These anomalies from the perspective of the Western mind militate against a literal reading.
What really happened is different the literal meaning attached to this event by those, like most readers today, imbued with Aristotelean metaphysics. Nephi and Sam were smitten by the verbal attacks of Laman and Lemuel, because they were attacking Nephi’s presumptuous behavior as the leader of this band of brothers. After all, who was the leader is the subject of the angel’s chastisement of Laman and Lemuel, there is nothing about a thrashing: being smitten with a rod imports a different meaning by the use of this metaphor.13The appearance of the angel during the attempts to get the plates from Laban, then, did not really happen. What really happened, the thing to be learned by this telling of the experience, is far more important than wondering how Laman and Lemuel could be so obdurate right after an angel appeared.
The video the Church produced in 2019 about the angel interceding is unfortunate because it portrays this event literally, which it was not. But most members of the Church think it must have been literal because they do not consider the metaphysical paradigm used by Nephi, which makes the thought of an angel appearing the same as one being there. The Church video can be viewed here.
The modern-day reader’s confusion is because of the reader’s Western-world metaphysical view of this event. This disjunction between Nephi knowing there was angelic intervention via a storm, like the storm at the mouth of Elijah’s cave, does not mean Laman and Lemuel were aware of the angel’s attendance. So conjectures about Laman and Lemuel being so resistant to what should have been the mollifying effect of being called out by an angel in propria persona, which is how a normal person would react, are folly notwithstanding the countless hours, no doubt, that have been spent in Gospel Doctrine and other Church classes wondering at the non sequitur presented by this event when it is viewed from the Greek metaphysical paradigm.
There is nothing illogical about this story if it is viewed from the Hebrew metaphysical paradigm. Indeed, there is lot more to be learned from the event than positing speculative rationalizations about the stubborn nature of Laman and Lemuel even though they had just been in the very presence of an angel, something that would normally awe and humble the most recalcitrant sinner. And the reader must remember that at this time in the lives of Laman and Lemuel they were often humbled and brought back into line by just Lehi’s and Nephi’s words. So the reader thinks an actual chewing out by an actual angel actually present would leave them of the same mind? Really? Can the reader actually be this credulous?
The ontological view of existence held by the Hebrews and Nephi, their metaphysical paradigm, then, must be kept at the forefront of the mind when reading the Book of Mormon. It is written from at a different metaphysical plain. The reader’s mind must adjust to this plain, just like the reader’s mind must adjust to how the Bible is written. Just because the scriptures say the Lord appeared, or this or that prophet heard the Lord’s voice, or there was an angel that appeared and said something does not mean those things actually happened as the Western mind views such things, as actual events. On rare occasions, though, they do actually happen, but there is always a key that lets the reader know it was an actual experience, not just a thought.
And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as one man speaketh unto his friend.14
- Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scriptures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) at 210. Davar, רבר, appears 487 times in the Old Testament. Each time it appears there is this conflict an ambiguity if the use of the word is interpreted from the Athenian view of metaphysics, but there is none if the word is understood from the Hebrew perspective. For example, Ezekiel, a contemporary of Lehi, uses this word like this, “The word of the Lord came expressly unto Ezekiel . . . .” Ezekiel 1:3. Does this mean Ezekiel heard the voice or word of the Lord or just thought about it. When Ezekiel was afraid of the rebellious whom he was called to serve, the Lord told Ezekiel not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns [be] with thee, and thou doest dwell among scorpions. Ezekiel 2:6. Does this mean the thought or the actual circumstances of Ezekiel’s being? Ezekiel 3 describes Ezekiel’s calling where he is told to eat a book—the Hebrew word for book is used, not sticks—and the declare the Lord’s words which he has heard: but the word is devar, so it probably means just Ezekiel’s thoughts of what the Lord would have said if he had been present. Ezekiel says the word of the Lord came to him or spoke to him many times. Ezekiel 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, and 38. There are fifty instances where Ezekiel hears or has the voice of the Lord “came unto me,” and many more where devar is used to describe, for example the things shown unto Ezekiel by the Lord, Ezekiel 11:25, or the effect of a vision. Ezekiel 12:23. Ezekiel, clearly did not differentiate between thoughts and things or events and expectations or realities and reflections.
The same can be said of Jeremiah’s use of the word. In Jeremiah 5:14 the word is translated as this word and my words, but Jeremiah 5:28 translates it as the deeds. In Jeremiah 7:1 it is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, and the word is translated another seven times variously, including as but this thing, and concerning, because the translators needed something that worked in context. Sometimes the translators had to use a lot of words to translate this one word, like unto me, Where[is] the word in Jeremiah 17:15, like the word is a physical thing. Another example of using a lot of words to capture the meaning is this translation from Jeremiah 42:4, according to your words; and it shall come to pass, [that] whatsoever thing. And Jeremiah enjoins the earth to hear, using this word, Jeremiah 22:29. In Jeremiah 38:5 davar is equated to literally doing something; Zedekiah delivers Jeremiah to the elders because he, the king, cannot do [any] thing against him. And it is translated as portion, referring to the portion of food given Jehoiachin until his death, Jeremiah 52:34. The word davar is found at least 179 times in the book of Jeremiah.
- Thucydides, circa 460 BC to 400 BC, wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War. He quoted people verbatim although he did not hear them speak or could not remember what they said if he did hear them. He justified these verbatim quotes by saying, “[M]y habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as close as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”. Id. bk 1, par. 22. Perhaps, this is what Neph and other writers of the Book of Mormon did, as well.
- Hebrews 4:13.
- D&C 38:2.
- D&C 29:34–35.
- Matthew 5:27–28. The word heart is a metaphor that means the mind.
- Alma 12:14.
- Genesis 21:10.
- 2 Samuel 13:31-33.
- 1 Nephi 3:28–4:4.
- 1 Kings 19. Nephi wrote about this event thirty or more years after the fact, and he writes about it twice, once in 1 Nephi 3 and another time in 1 Nephi 17. The parallels between Elijah’s experience and the intercession of the angel are unmistakable, unless, of course, the reader does not know the story of Elijah very well.
- 1 Nephi 15:38.
- The Lord warned the Saints in the early days of the Church to “repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth. D&C 19:15.
- Exodus 33:11.