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Reexploring the Book of Mormon  >  What Was a "Mosiah"?
CHAPTERS
  1. How Long Did It Take to Translate the Book of Mormon?
  2. The Original Book of Mormon Transcript
  3. Colophons in the Book of Mormon
  4. Two Figurines From the Belleza and Sanchez Collection
  5. Textual Consistency
  6. Lehi's Council Vision and the Mysteries of God
  7. The Book of Mormon and the Heavenly Book Motif
  8. Old World Languages in the New World
  9. Columbus: By Faith or Reason?
  10. The Plain and Precious Parts
  11. Nephi's Bows and Arrows
  12. Lodestone and the Liahona
  13. Lehi's Trail and Nahom Revisited
  14. Winds and Currents: A Look at Nephi's Ocean Crossing
  15. Did Lehi Land in Chile?
  16. Statutes, Judgments, Ordinances, and Commandments
  17. Kingship and Temple in 2 Nephi 5-10
  18. Jacob's Ten Commandments
  19. What Did Charles Anthon Really Say?
  20. Textual Criticism of the Book of Mormon
  21. Parallelism, Merismus, and Difrasismo
  22. View of the Hebrews: "An Unparallel"
  23. No, Sir, That's Not History!
  24. Seven Tribes: An Aspect of Lehi's Legacy
  25. Antenantiosis in the Book of Mormon
  26. Once More: The Horse
  27. Lost Arts
  28. What Was a "Mosiah"?
  29. Ancient Europeans in America?
  30. "Latest Discoveries"
  31. The Ideology of Kingship in Mosiah 1-6
  32. "This Day"
  33. Benjamin's Speech: A Classic Ancient Farewell Address
  34. The Coronation of Kings
  35. "O Man, Remember, and Perish Not" (Mosiah 4:30)
  36. Barley in Ancient America
  37. Decorative Iron in Early Israel
  38. Abinadi and Pentecost
  39. Dancing Maidens and the Fifteenth of Av
  40. New Information about Mulek, Son of the King
  41. Four Quarters
  42. Three Accounts of Alma's Conversion
  43. Joseph Smith: "Author and Proprietor"
  44. The Law of Mosiah
  45. Possible "Silk" and "Linen" in the Book of Mormon
  46. Epanalepsis in the Book of Mormon
  47. Antithetical Parallelism in the Book of Mormon
  48. The Land of Jerusalem: The Place of Jesus' Birth
  49. The Nephite Calendar in Mosiah, Alma, and Helaman
  50. The Destruction of Ammonihah and the Law of Apostate Cities
  51. Ammon and Cutting Off the Arms of Enemies
  52. Directions in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Nephite Language
  53. "A Day and a Half's Journey for a Nephite"
  54. Exemption from Military Duty
  55. Synagogues in the Book of Mormon
  56. The Sons of the Passover
  57. Conference on Warfare in the Book of Mormon
  58. "Holy War" in the Book of Mormon and the Ancient Near East
  59. Symbolic Action as Prophetic Curse
  60. New Year's Celebrations
  61. Concrete Evidence for the Book of Mormon
  62. Mesoamericans in Pre-Spanish South America
  63. Mesoamericans in Pre-Columbian North America
  64. Wordprints and the Book of Mormon
  65. "Secret Combinations"
  66. Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7-13
  67. Chiasmus in Mesoamerican Texts
  68. Nephi's Garden and Chief Market
  69. Was Helaman 7-8 An Allegorical Funeral Sermon?
  70. The Case of an Unobserved Murder
  71. Mormon's Agenda
  72. Thieves and Robbers
  73. The Execution of Zemnarihah
  74. The Sermon at the Temple
  75. The Gospel as Taught by Nephite Prophets
  76. Getting Things Strai[gh]t
  77. Prophecy Among the Maya
  78. The Survivor and the Will to Bear Witness
  79. Mormon and Moroni as Authors and Abridgers
  80. Number 24
  81. The "Golden" Plates
  82. Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan: Possible Linguistic Connections
  83. Words and Phrases
  84. Our Nephite Sacrament Prayers
  85. Climactic Forms in the Book of Mormon
  86. Introduction

Chapter 28
What Was a "Mosiah"?

Omni 1:12 "I will speak unto you somewhat concerning Mosiah."

In 1965, John Sawyer published an article titled "What was a Môšiac?"1 He argues that the term mosiah was an ancient Hebrew term, like gō'ēl ("redeemer, or avenger of blood"), or sedeq ("victor, savior"). Such terms originally had meaning in Hebrew daily life and culture but came to be used among their titles for God. The word môšiac (pronounced moe-shee-ah) is a word peculiar to Hebrew, a "word invariably implying a champion of justice in a situation of controversy, battle or oppression."2

Sawyer's analysis sheds interesting light on the name Mosiah in the Book of Mormon. Several subtle reasons show why Nephites, who continued to speak Hebrew in the New World, would have been attracted to the use of such a name or title.

Apparently the form of the word Mosiah is a "hiphil participle" in Hebrew. It occurs in the Hebrew in Deuteronomy 22:27; 28:29; Judges 12:3; Psalms 18:41; and Isaiah 5:29—texts that in all probability were on the Plates of Brass. This word, however, was not transliterated into the English by the King James translators, and thus the Hebrew would not have been known to Joseph Smith. It was, however, known and used as a personal name in the Book of Mormon, as well as by people in the Jewish colony at Elephantine in the fifth century B.C.

The key meaning of the word môšiac was "savior." People in danger cry out, "But there is no môšiac" (Deuteronomy 22:27). After examining all occurrences of this term in the Hebrew Bible, Sawyer concludes that the term applied to a particular kind of person or role and was sometimes a title designating "a definite office or position."3 Typical of this office are the following traits:

1. The môšiac is a victorious hero appointed by God.

2. He liberates a chosen people from oppression, controversy, and unjustice after they cry out for help.

3. Their deliverance is usually accomplished by means of a nonviolent escape or negotiation.

4. The immediate result of the coming of a môšiac was "escape from unjustice, and a return to a state of justice where each man possesses his rightful property."4

5. On a larger scale, "final victory means the coming of môšicim [plural, pronounced moe-shee-eem] to rule like Judges over Israel."5

Thus the term also had judicial, legal, or forensic connotations, similar to the word advocate." A môšiac gives refuge to those on his "right hand" from their accusers in court (Psalm 17:7).

The exact derivation of the Book of Mormon name Mosiah is unknown, but it appears the same as môšiac, which derives from the Hebrew yašac ("to be wide open, free, deliver, rescue, preserve, save"). It is thus quite different from the Hebrew word mašiah (anointed, "messiah," Greek christós). The Nephite word mosiah might also contain a theophoric element (-iah), thus meaning "the Lord is a môšiac."

Interestingly, the term môšiac applies perfectly to the Mosiahs in the Book of Mormon. King Mosiah I was a God-appointed hero who delivered the chosen people of Nephi from serious wars and contentions by leading them in an escape from the land of Nephi (see Omni 1:12-14). It is unknown whether he was called Mosiah before he functioned as a môšiac of his people or whether he gained this well-earned title afterward, perhaps as a royal title, but either is possible.

Indeed, the themes of God's salvation and the deliverance of his people are strong in the book of Mosiah. It tells of one môšiac after another. Alma was a God-inspired môšiac who peaceably saved his people from king Noah and the Lamanites. Zeniff tried to return to the land of Nephi to repossess the rightful property of the Nephites. His efforts failed, however, and his grandson Limhi eventually functioned as a môšiac by leading his people in their escape back to Zarahemla. At the end of the book of Mosiah, the reign of judges was established, a fitting development for a people that had been well served by môšicim for over a century. Thus, the book of Mosiah, like the book of Judges in the Old Testament, appears to have been meaningfully named.

Finally, the Hebrew term môšiac also was used as a divine title. God was and is such a savior, who would come down and bring salvation (see Mosiah 3:9). The Book of Mormon adds support to Sawyer's idea that the divine title môšiac was also at home in a cultural context. It seems to preserve traces of a broader usage when it says that "the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation" (Mosiah 3:20; italics added), "in other words a Savior of the world" (1 Nephi 10:4; italics added).

Ultimately this term, as a divine title, was applied exclusively to God. As Isaiah 43:11 states, "I . . . am the Lord; and beside me there is no môšiac." Likewise, the angel to Benjamin affirmed the unique work of the Savior, the only way and means whereby salvation comes to mankind (see Mosiah 3:17). Thus, in several respects, the Book of Mormon usage of this term is quite remarkable, meaningful, and wholly consistent with Hebrew usage.

Based on research by John W. Welch, April 1989. The Sawyer article from the Old Testament journal Vetus Testamentum became available as a F.A.R.M.S. reprint in 1989.
Footnotes

1. John Sawyer, "What Was a Môšiac?" Vetus Testamentum 15 (1965): 475-86.

2. Ibid., 476.

3. Ibid., 477.

4. Ibid., 480.

5. Ibid., 482.