Zelph on the Shelf Can’t Read Hebrew (or English, Apparently)

The apocryphal story is told of the freshman who storms up to the reference desk at his university library flustered and frustrated. “What seems to be the problem?” the kind librarian asks him. “I’m trying to do research,” he replies, “and I keep seeing references to a book called “Ibid.”, but I can’t find it anywhere here in the library!” 

With this tale in mind, consider how back in 2016 Zelph on the Shelf wrote blog post responding to an LDS Smile article called “44 Reasons the Church is True.” The fact that they were responding to Latter-day Saint apologetic arguments as they are made on the site LDS Smile—instead of a more robust, scholarly articulation of the arguments as might be found from FairMormon, FARMS, Interpreter, or Book of Mormon Central—means that, even by their standard, they already set the bar low. But somehow in their response they still managed to completely embarrass themselves. (Who says miracles aren’t real?)

Take, for example, this argument responding to the connection between the Book of Mormon name Jershon and the Hebrew root “to inherit”:

As my friend Robert Boylan has already pointed out, JWW is not the Hebrew word for “inherit.” In fact, there is no Hebrew root jww (or more correctly, yww, since the English j is a transliteration, through the German, of the Hebrew yod). The word simply does not exist.

As also pointed out by Boylan, “to inherit” comes from the Hebrew root yrš, which merely requires the usual shift from y to j when transliterated into the English alphabet. Add the common Hebrew locative suffix -on, widely attested in Hebrew toponyms, and voilà! You have Jershon.

Granted, maybe our seasoned Hebraists Samantha Shelley and Tanner Gilliland know something about Hebrew that John A. Tvedtnes didn’t know when he published this etymology for Jershon in the Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics.1

Just to double check, here is the entry for ירשׁ in HALOT:

And here is the same in the BDB:

It’s all quite simple, really, and does not require “a series of potential linguistic exceptions.” Many authentic ancient toponyms require much more complicated etymological discussions, so it’s probably safe to say Samantha and Tanner are not terribly well read in serious linguistic arguments. On the other hand, Stephen D. Ricks—who is an actual expert in Hebrew and Semitic languages—has literally called Jershon a “slam dunk” for the Book of Mormon.

One question, however, has long bugged me: where on earth did Zelph get the demonstrably false idea that “inherit” is JWW in Hebrew? They cited no source, so it is impossible to be certain.

But take a look at the first part of the Book of Mormon Onomasticon entry on “Jershon” (brought to my attention by my friend Neal Rappleye):

Notice the letters JWW in parentheses next to “to inherit.” This is actually a parenthetical citation referring to Latter-day Saint scholar John W. Welch. Similar citations appear throughout the entry to JAT (John A. Tvedtnes), SDR (Stephen D. Ricks), and RFS (Robert F. Smith). It has nothing to do with the etymology of the word “to inherit.” But Zelph on the Shelf evidently performed a face-palm level misreading of this statement, and thought it was saying JWW was the Hebrew root for “to inherit.”

So not only can Zelph on the Shelf clearly not read Hebrew, but their ability to read English is, it would seem, also questionable.

  1. John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon,” in Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, ed. Geoffrey Khan (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2:195.

13 thoughts on “Zelph on the Shelf Can’t Read Hebrew (or English, Apparently)”

  1. How does one manage to nail oneself to the shelf in such an amusing way? Doing this seems to require both considerable skill and just plain old very bad luck.

    Reply
  2. i love researching mormonism but i just can’t get over how little the book of mormon reads like an ancient text. It reads a lot more like the King James bible. Makes too much sense that Joseph just read the bible a lot, told his own stories a lot, and wrote it all down with his pals.

    Reply
    • Hi Landon,
      The book being written to match the KJV is no different than the New Testament being written to match the LXX Greek Old Testament. Read the Unseen Realm by Dr. Heiser (not a Mormon) for the chapter on the day of Pentecost and you’ll see that the language used was designed to mirror that used by the LXX.

      A superficial reading of the BoM might allow you to think that Jo Smith wrote it with his pals, using poor grammar and misspellings. Then when you dig down into the text and see that it’s full of complex chaisms and complete reinterpretations of other passages such as Isaiah.
      E.g. Isaiah 48-49 while traditionally held to be exilic and pertaining to Cyrus liberating Judah’s Jews is now turned into a last days story of the return of Israel being gathered and Cyrus is completely omitted from the story.

      1st Nephi also is written in parallel with 2nd Nephi where identical motifs and words are used so you can see how he’s trying to retell the story of and bring out greater meaning, especially in the Isaiah 2-14 vignette.

      (P.s. calling out Isiaiah 2-14 as a solid story is something that no other biblical commentators do but it makes sense. 2-5 Israel’s apostasy to explain the next chapters, 6 Isaiah’s calling, 7-14 the rise and fall of the King of Assyria (Babylon))

      That’s why I dispute the notion that Joseph and his palls read the bible and came up with this.

      But I guess at the end of the day THE TEXT SAYS HORSES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Reply
      • I don’t understand how the presence of chiasms prove the book of mormon couldn’t be written by Joseph. Chiasm isn’t exclusive to Hebraic writings and is found in plenty of literature that Joseph Smith had access to including the King James Bible that he loved so well and studied so thoroughly.

        I also don’t agree that chiasms are complex in nature. It’s just ABBA (suddenly Dancing Queen is stuck in my head). It goes out the same way it comes in and, honestly, Chiasm would be a great way to fill pages, you only have to write the first half and the second half is pretty much written. I do think the Book of Mormon is full of (sometimes really lovely) complexity but so are many books written in the 19th century by people of Joseph Smith’s skill and education. It’s an extraordinary leap to claim that complexity can only be attributed to God. Especially considering Joseph was a great student of language, an excellent orator, and wrote plenty of other complex stuff that isn’t attributed to God.

        As far as grammar errors and misspellings, those never bothered me, seems like inevitable error due to Joseph’s dictating to scribes and wow I never want to read the Book of Mormon without punctuation. Those early followers were really devoted.

        As far as the reinterpretations of Isaiah and other scripture, that isn’t very convincing either. I would fully expect Joseph to interpret those scriptures to suit his theology. I would be much more convinced if, in translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph was shocked to translate something that didn’t suit his theology and so reorganized his perspective and church around that translation. (This could get us talking about polygamy but you’d have to convince me that polygamy didn’t suit Joseph in one way or another which would be interesting but probably exhausting for all of us.)

        Thank you for chatting with me about this and for giving me something to think about! I hope I’ve given you something to think about as well. Again, I’m fascinated by the history and the life of Joseph Smith. I hope I’m being respectful. Be well!

        Reply
    • “i just can’t get over how little the book of mormon reads like an ancient text. It reads a lot more like the King James bible.”

      It should be pointed out that the King James Bible IS a translation of an ancient text (just like the Book of Mormon).

      Reply
      • I just can’t get over how much Paul reads more like the Septuagint and not an ancient text.

        P.s. Hey Stephen, found a new Hebraism in the term “My father dwelt in a tent”.

        Tabernacle in Hebrew is Mishkan. To translate that directly into English shouldn’t be “Tabernacle” but “Place of Dwelling”.
        And then tent which is Ohel, where the most famous proper noun for Ohel in Hebrew would be Ohel Moed, Tent of Meeting, often conflated with the Mishkan.

        So “My father dwelt in a tent” brings to mind the two most famous dwelling tents in the Israelite history which just happen to be where the Lord speaks to Moses and the Lord lets his presence be know. And that’s where Nephi’s father is.

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  3. What’s sad is that this isn’t even close to the dumbest statement they’ve ever made. Recently on Twitter, they basically said that “TBMs” aren’t allowed to read books critical of the Church. Cue Ziff on a Glyph, Kwaku, and Robert Boylan, utterly raking them over the coals.
    Love your post Stephen!

    Reply
  4. An absolutely hilarious and insightful probe into the inner workings of Zelph on the Shelf. Thanks for posting this, Stephen!

    Reply

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