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Interpreting Interpreter
Joseph-Based Stumbling-Block Removal

This post is a summary of the article ““Unto the Taking Away of Their Stumbling Blocks”: The Taking Away and Keeping Back of Plain and Precious Things and Their Restoration in 1 Nephi 13–15” by Matthew L. Bowen in Volume 53 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Bowen argues that the Book of Mormon’s description of truths being “taken away” or “kept back” from the Bible resemble prohibitions against “diminish[ing] ought from [God’s word], and that the underlying Hebrew words could be echoes of the name “Joseph”, with those echoes also present within covenant promises to return those harmed by lost truths back into God’s fold.

The Summary

In this article, Matthew L. Bowen adds to previous work detailing potential Book of Mormon wordplays involving the name “Joseph” (yôsēp), leveraging the fact that the name’s root is associated with the concepts of both “to add” and “to take away”. In this case, Bowen applies this to Book of Mormon passages referencing changes made to God’s (biblical) word after the death of Christ, passages that allude to the “canon-formula”—the command that Israel “shall not add (tōsipû) unto the word” and “neither…diminish (a direct antonym of yāsap) ought from it”—as recorded in Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and Revelation. That this injunction would be broken is evident within Nephi’s vision, but so too are the promises that would help undo the harm done by those doctrinal losses. As he walks readers through Nephi’s vision, Bowen points out the various ways Nephi may have used wordplay to highlight both of these concepts.

Bowen begins by describing the vision where-in Nephi is told about the “plain and most precious” parts that would be removed from the “record of the Jews”, alterations that are heavily implied to be
deliberate and occurring over the
passage of several generations. This removal (with parts of the gospel “kept back”; potentially gāraʿ) characterized as having substantial spiritual costs—Nephi is told that they cause “an exceedingly great many [to] stumble”, with the Hebrew term for “stumble” (kāšal) producing an image similar to the biblical “stone of stumbling” that serves as a metaphor for the difficulty that many would have accepting Christ.

The Book of Mormon and the Restoration would themselves help offset these spiritual costs by “establishing” or
“gathering]” God’s word into one, ultimately “taking away” those stumbling blocks (note the potential wordplay inherent in that concept), and that Israel “shall no more” (often rendered wĕlōʾ yôsîp) be confounded (see Ether 13:8 for another potential use of this wordplay). Nephi says those who had been lost “shall be numbered again” (yôsîpû/yōsipû) among the house of Israel, in fulfillment of divine covenant. These passages provide numerous instances where Nephi could have used Joseph-related wordplay to emphasize both the losses his people would endure and the covenant promises that would bring them back to their spiritual home.

The Reflection

Bowen does an intriguing job here setting up yet more possible instances of wordplay on the part of Nephi. My main question is similar to that of a few weeks ago—as the potential for wordplay spreads to an increasing number of concepts, how can we tell these uses apart from the normal use of relatively common words and phrases? Especially if we extend wordplay not just to words that sound like other words, but also to antonyms and synonyms, it could start to get easier to see these patterns on the basis of chance alone. Bowen is right to call our attention to these potential examples, but the task of identifying literary intention doesn’t appear to be getting easier.

Regardless, I’ll never be one to turn down any proposal that provides further depth and texture to my reading of the Book of Mormon. Bowen’s prolific articles do exactly this, helping me to pause and more thoughtfully chew on every word that those ancient prophets have sent our way (particularly those such as “take away” or “shall no more” that we might otherwise gloss over), tying the mundane into the divine.

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