What Was a "Mosiah"?
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
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
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.