A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon

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Nicknames and Dysphemisms in the Bible and Ancient Mediterranean

Even in the Bible, nicknames and dysphemisms—expressions whose connotations may be offensive to the hearer—are not rare and were equally so in other parts of the ancient and early medieval world. In 1 Samuel the ungenerous husband of Abigail rudely refused hospitality to the men of David, greatly angering them. David and his men were so incensed at his offense against the laws of hospitality that they intended to punish him for his boorish behavior before they were dissuaded from their plan by Abigail (1 Samuel 25:1-35). Shortly thereafter the husband died suddenly and mysteriously (1 Samuel 25:36-37). To all subsequent history his name was given as “Nabal,” which means either “churl” or “fool,”1 a rather harsh nickname that might also shade off to a dysphemism.

The Babylonian conqueror of Jerusalem was officially named Nebuchadrezzar, a transliteration of the Hebrew name based on the Babylonian Nabu kudurri usur, “Nabu preserve my prince, my boundary.” Among his less grateful subjects he was called—perhaps privately—Nebuchadnezzar, which may be from the Babylonian Nabu kidanu usur, “Nabu, preserve the donkey,” quite an unflattering name or nickname.

[Page 192]Because as a small child Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (AD 12-41) made his way around the Roman military camp, where his father was commanding, in specially designed soldier’s sandals (Lat. caligae), he was affectionately called Caligula, “little boots.”2 However, calling the emperor by his nickname, originally a term of endearment, would likely have been insulting during the early part of his reign (AD 37-41) and later, after an illness left him mentally unbalanced and borderline insane, may have proved fatal.

Al-Mansur, Abbasid emperor (A.D. 754-775) during the apogee of Arab power, was given the nickname (Arab. laqab) Abu Dawaniq, “father of farthings,” on account of his thriftiness, which many interpreted as penury and miserliness.3

Zeezrom as a Nickname in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon proper name Zeezrom may follow a naming pattern parallel to the Hebrew zeh Sinai, “he of Sinai” (i.e., God) (cf. Judges 5:5; Psalm 68:8) and may have the meaning “he of the Ezrom.” Ezrom/Ezrum is a Nephite word mentioned in Alma 11:6, 12, as a unit of silver measure. As a silver measure (which, in Hebrew, is kesep, “silver; money”), it may be the equivalent of money as well, indicating the meaning “he of silver, money,” suggesting Zeezrom’s early obsession with money or his willingness to resort to bribing Alma and Amulek with money to have them deny their belief in God (Alma 11:22). Happily, however, Zeezrom underwent a powerful conversion, forsook his sins, and became, with Alma and Amulek, fervent missionaries and ardent exponents of the faith.4
[Page 193]

A Book of Mormon “Slam Dunk”: The Proper Name Jershon5

When the Lamanites converted by the sons of Mosiah left their homeland to escape persecution, the Nephites allowed them to settle in the land of Jershon. The name, though not found in the Bible, has an authentic Hebrew origin, the root *YRŠ meaning “to inherit,” with the suffix -ôn that denotes place-names, and may have the meaning “place of inheritance.” Wilhelm Borée, in his important study Die alten Ortsnamen Palästinas (The Ancient Place Names of Palestine), cites fully 84 ancient Canaanite place names with the ending -ôn in biblical and extrabiblical sources (Egyptian and Mesopotamian writings, the El-Amarna letters, ostraca), including—to cite only a few examples—Ayyalon (Elon) (Joshua 19:42, 43), Eltekon (Joshua 15:58), Ashkelon (Judges 1:18), Gibeon (Joshua 9:3), Gibbethon (Joshua 19:44), and Dishon (Genesis 36:21).

We should understand Jershon in the sense of “place of inheritance” and its Hebrew root yarash in the sense of “to inherit” in Alma 27:22 (“and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance”), Alma 27:24 (“that they may inherit the land Jershon”), and Alma 35:14 (“they have lands for their inheritance in the land of Jershon”) as plays on words.

Why is the Book of Mormon proper name Jershon a “slam dunk?” Because the name with all its subtle connotations is not something that Joseph Smith would have understood at the time that the Book of Mormon was translated. He began to study Hebrew seriously only while he was living in Kirtland, [Page 194]Ohio in the 1830’s, several years after the publication of the Book of Mormon.6

Conclusion

Austin Farrer, observing C. S. Lewis as an ardent and articulate defender of Christianity, noted that “though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish”7 (this quotation was cited on several occasions by Neal A. Maxwell). In the spirit of this quotation, I believe that proper names in the Book of Mormon are arguably ancient. With regard to critics of the Book of Mormon, the question may thus be shifted to, “If the Book of Mormon is not an ancient document, why are there so many features in it—including proper names—that are so arguably ancient?”


  1. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament tr. M.E. J. Richardson (Leiden/New York: Brill, 1995), 2:663-64. 

  2. Suetonius Caligula IX; Tacitus, Annales I, 41, 69. 

  3. History of Tabari: Abbasid Authority Affirmed, tr. Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), xviii. 

  4. The proper name Sherem may be understood as a dysphemism in the Book of Mormon. Sherem may be related to the Arabic noun surm, “anus.” John A. Tvedtnes observes that “although an unlikely name for a man, his character would certainly prompt some contemporary readers to think the name was an appropriate dysphemism.” From the Book of Mormon Names website at https://onoma.lib.byu.edu/onoma/index.php/SHEREM

  5. In this section I have relied heavily on the study by John A. Tvedtnes and myself, “The Hebrew Origin of Some Book of Mormon Place Names,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (1997): 257-58. 

  6. The first “slam dunk” was the name Alma, mentioned previously by myself in “Some Notes on Book of Mormon Names,” in Interpreter 4(2013): 155-60, esp. 159-60, which had connotations (based on the Hebrew noun ‘elem, meaning “young man”) which Joseph Smith would not have known given the current state of his knowledge. 

  7. Austin Farrer, “The Christian Apologist,” in Light on C. S. Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1965), 26. 

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About Stephen D. Ricks

Stephen D. Ricks completed his BA in Ancient Greek and MA in the Classics at Brigham Young University, and then received his PhD in ancient Near Eastern religions from the University of California, Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. While completing his doctoral work he spent two years studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is now professor of Hebrew and Cognate Learning at Brigham Young University where he has been a member of the faculty for nearly thirty years.

11 thoughts on “A Nickname and a Slam Dunk: Notes on the Book of Mormon Names Zeezrom and Jershon

  1. Very enlightening. I enjoy articles like this. I am always learning from Interpreter. I appreciate everyone who works on these things, and keeps discovering new information and sharing it
    My maiden name is pronounced exactly like a name in the Book of Mormon. My maiden name is spelled differently by one letter. My father always said that he nor anyone in his family knew the origin of our last name. About seven years ago I discovered where my maiden name comes from – Armenia. And growing up members in my Branch would tease us about being related to this person in the Book of Mormon because the pronunciation is exactly the same, and the name in the BofM is a bad guy. LOL We had fun with it. Name are interesting!

  2. Both the naming and titling conventions of the Book of Mormon seem remarkably restrained compared to the way exotic societies were depicted in 19th Century popular literature. At the time, a classic revival had led to many cities and towns, even those on the frontier like Palmyra, being named after locations in ancient Roman, Greek, and Egyptian cultures (like Alexandria, Virginia). Orson Scott Card has pointed out how counter-cultural the Book of Mormon is compared to popular stories of thst era.

  3. Thank you for this quick, informative article. I especially enjoyed the Farrer quote. Sure this kind of evidence is not a substitute for a testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, but having these evidences brought forward certainly doesn’t harm such testimonies. Thank you for helping maintain “a climate in which belief may flourish.”

  4. Stephen,
    Very nicely done.
    Hirsch Miller, a long ago Jewish convert to Mormonism, who was fluent in biblical Hebrew and who was a master Torah scribe, translated the entire Book of Mormon into Hebrew from about 1923 to 1927. He rendered the name Jershon into Hebrew just as you do, and even applies the obvious word-play in verse 24 – as you suggest.
    There is a great deal more of this sort of thing in the Book of Mormon.

  5. After Zeezrom begins to be confounded, one his peers, Antionah, comes forward to continue arguing (Alma 12:20). The name Antionah has been analyzed with several possible meanings, but is there a chance that his name is mentioned because like Zeezrom’s possible link to money via ezrom, the Anti in Antionah has some similarity to the Nephite onti, the largest silver measure, a step above the ezrom?

    • Or more relevant than onti might be the unit “antion” of gold (Alma 11:19). So if a wordplay of sorts is being made between Zeezrom and money, might the same hold for his successor in the attack against Amulek and Alma, a man whose name also includes a Nephite monetary unit?

  6. The BOM does not read like a genuine ancient work.

    When one looks at the BOM manuscript, or what there is of it on the Joseph Smith papers project, what we see reads more like the frontier fiction intentionally drafted in a biblical style – as critics have rightly noted, a Monte Carlo analysis revealed that the BOM draws most frequently from two sources:

    1. The Late War
    2. The First Book of Napoleon

    In places it is word for word matching sections from these books.

    With regard to the comments on silver and coinage. I discussed this recently with another LDS academic who argued that the Nephites did not have any coinage. I expressed surprised at this, since even if we accept that coinage did not exist in the way we see it today as a pressed or stamped lump of metal, we do see clear evidence that metals were weighed to set amounts in sufficient volumes that the Nephites had common names for the ‘coins’.

    If this is the case, can we conclude why we haven’t found any? I mean, by comparison (as someone who lives in the UK) we have an abundance of Roman coinage. We have coinage covering all of the major Emperors from the time of the Roman arrival in britain. We have roman buildings, inscriptions on plinths, lintels, columns, walls, mosaics in floors, cities like Chester, Bath, York, Londinium, Forts like Lunt (which is just a couple of miles from my house and a place of frequent visit as a child).

    As a boy my father introduced me to collecting coins. You’ll find Roman coins in most city museums in the UK – why is this – well it is because they were in common use in the UK and were frequently lost.

    So why then do we find no comparison for the BOM coinage in the Americas?

    Consider, the number of Romans in the UK was circa 30,000 at any one time. Yet the number of Nephites numbers in the millions, sufficient that they had such huge battles with fighters in the millions slaughtering each other until the two lead protagonists remained (with beheaded bodies attempting to get up).

    Across the Americas we’ve discovered the Incas and Aztecs, Myans, Olmecs, etc etc. We’ve translated the 26 Myan languages, and yet we find no mention of the Nephites anywhere. Nor is there any reference to Abrahamic languages in these Amerindian languages – Brian Stubbs might disagree but i took this matter personally to Lyle Campbell the worlds foremost expert on Amerindian Languages and he confirmed for me that the evidence simply does not exist, there is no link no matter how much Latter-Day Saint or other Christian Groups attempt to assert we all emerged from Eden.

    The simple fact is, in the circa 200 year since the emergence of the BOM, we have failed to find a single Nephite city. Yet we have a huge log of documented cities or towns and even villages and camp sites that were roman (despite them being present in significantly smaller numbers).

    Then comes the DNA evidence which also confirms that the Amerindians are intact Asian in origin – which causes the LDS church to change the intro to the BOM. It has a new narrative now that places the Nephites as a small group surrounded by Asian tribes in the Americas – even though support for this cannot be found in the text of the BOM).

    It also faces other scientific challenges, it recently admitted it had been wrong for more than 150 years in claiming that black people had been less valiant in the pre-existence, or wore the mark of cain. Yet now we know that such claims are silly. Skin is affect by melanocytes. The melanocytes of black people are fully functional, as were in white counterparts a genetic defect prevents them working properly and means our skin fails to respond to the sunlight effectively leaving us more prone to skin cancer. Would God really curse ‘white folks’ with whiter skin that exposed them to a greater risk of cancer? Yet curse black people with functioning melanocytes that protect them? The story sounds muddled. It also fails to address that the admission that skin colour is not determined by sin or transgression unturned the BOM claims that the Laminates were cursed with a darker skin for their unbelief? It creates a direct contradiction in print.

    So arguing a random example of how an invented name ‘might’ be related to a jewish word is really playing darts in the dark and hoping randomly to hit the board and then claiming it was all skill. It simply isn’t. Many, many, BOM names are just variants on biblical names. Some of them are very much out of place, like Timothy in the Americas anyone?

    A fair evolution would pick up on the problems as well as the possible hits.

    The simple matter is, the church was founded circa 200 years ago when such dramatic claims could be made. Today, all these years later we have access to so much more data – we see what the facsimiles really translate into. We see Monte Carlo data on the BOM, we have copies of Thomas Dick and in it we see extensive overlap with the POGP and recognise that Joseph Smith not only owned this book but was seen reading it in the years running up to the production of the POGP.

    As an academic, i’d appeal to your sense of fair play and ask you to consider the implications for some many evidences that now argue in line with Popper as disproof.

    Kind regards,

    D.

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