Bowen explores the use of the word “spare” (ḥemlâ) in Captain Moroni’s letter to Pahoran as wordplay on the name Zarahemla (“seed of compassion/sparing”), potentially emphasizing Moroni’s condemnation toward the Nephite government for failing to live up to their covenant responsibilities.
In this article, Matthew Bowen conducts a brief exploration of Alma 60:32, featuring the scathing letter from Captain Moroni to Pahoran. Bowen notes that Moroni’s use of the word “spare” (“Behold, can you suppose that the Lord will spare you…?”) could form a wordplay with the word Zarahemla, used earlier in the chapter and meaning “seed of compassion/sparing”. Outlining the covenantal implications of both the terms “seed” and “sparing”, Bowen suggests that Moroni could have meant to emphasize the failure of Pahoran and his (likely Mulekite) government to keep their covenantal duty to support the Nephite armies. (Note that Bowen uses the original-manuscript-based spellings “Muloch” and “Parhoran” thoughout).
After providing some of the background behind Alma 60, Bowen begins to detail some of the covenant connections underlying the name “Zarahemla”. Faithful scholars generally identify the word as a combination of the Hebrew zera (“seed”, in terms of posterity), and ḥemlâ (“mercy”, “pity”, “compassion”), with the word zera being used in a covenantal context almost immediately within the biblical narrative. Christ himself is understood as the “seed” of both Eve and Abraham, and the Lord promised Enoch that his seed would continue and that the Messiah would come through his line, a covenant that would continue as part of the Abrahamic tradition.
This concept of “seed” continues in the Book of Mormon as “a key component of the divine covenant”, and is advanced by Moroni himself (i.e., referring to his people as a “remnant of the seed of Joseph”) when establishing the covenant of the Title of Liberty. According to Bowen, Moroni "always regarded the preservation of the Nephite Nation as a matter of covenant”, and with the war turning against him, he sought to hold not just Pahoran but the entire Nephite bureaucracy accountable for their failure to uphold their covenantal responsibilities.
Expanding Moroni’s message beyond just Pahoran opens up further rhetorical possibilities, as many within the government were likely Mulekites descended from King Zarahemla Incorporating wordplay on the name Zarahemla, particularly Moroni’s bitter reversal of the concept of mercy and sparing, may have rung even stronger in Mulekite ears than in Pahoran’s. The “sparing” or “compassion” in the word Zarahemla was was implied to come from God, but Moroni’s wordplay implies being a part of the Lord’s covenant people wouldn’t be enough to spare them from God’s divine judgment. Instead, Bowen argues that Moroni was framing himself and his supporters as the true “seed of sparing”, who would forcefully preserve the Nephites from hunger and violence.
Though this isn’t the first time that Bowen has highlighted the term “spare” or “sparing” in the Book of Mormon and its connections to the name Zarahemla, what this particular article does for me is demonstrate the pathos that wordplay might have generated in those who heard it. The names we apply to ourselves are something our brains automatically respond to. If someone identified strongly with the name Zarahemla (as the Mulekites might in particular), playing off that name isn’t just something that a reader or listener would idly pass over—it would’ve hit them literally where they live. (Which I can attest to having been on the receiving end of name-based wordplay through most of my childhood–either “Cryler” or “Smyler” depending on who you asked.)
In this case the wordplay could’ve been a calculated shot to their guilt-based pathos, directly undermining the moral authority they derived from their royal Mulekite heritage, as well as their status as the seat of Nephite government. Bowen takes a clever turn when he highlights the idea that “Zarahemla” carried the same establishment-based connotations as the term “Washington” might for us today. In the same spirit in which someone might make a bad political dad joke (“those idiots in Washington need a good washing”), I can only imagine the spirit that characterized Moroni as he effectively says “what, did you think God was gonna spare you, oh posterity of sparing?” I’ll look forward to injecting that little edge of sarcasm in Moroni’s voice the next time I read through Alma 60.