Monday, April 23, 2012

What's in a name? --Mos 3:7-8

"And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.
 And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary." (Mosiah 3:7-8)

The first part of this passage is beautiful, but the second part always used to confuse me. I mean, Isaiah gets the name technically wrong but communicates the concept clearly when he talks about "Immanuel," meaning "God with us." And to me, a God who communicates about the future more on the level of metaphor than in exact but meaningless specific terms makes sense. So it didn't make sense to me that God would send an angel to Benjamin with a literally accurate, but largely meaningless, prophecy about names. 

For a long time, I figured it just must be the translation. Benjamin said something metaphorical or symbolic, and Joseph Smith translated it to Jesus and Mary because those are the names Joseph Smith knew. But when we went over the passage in Sunday school this year, the same old concern popped into my mind anyway: what would these names possibly have meant to people living long before Christ?

Sometimes I wish that I could just delete a concern as soon as I decide it's not really important instead of having it come up again and again.  Sometime I wish that when something bothers me, I could just decide not to worry about it and that my brain would cooperate and I would never think about it again. 

But it's a good thing our brains don't work that way, because this time just as soon as the concern popped into my brain, I realized there's a very cool possible answer. And so I'm glad the concern has stuck with me for over a decade: carrying a quiet little concern for a while is more than worth the insight that comes when the time is right. 

Here's what I realized all at once in Sunday school:

"Jesus" is just another way of saying "Joshua." Which did have at least two meanings in the house of Israel long before Jesus was born. The name itself meant "God helps" or "God rescues." But it also would have reminded listeners of the prophet-leader Joshua, who (after their forty years of wandering) led the children of Israel into the promised land. So when King Benjamin says that there's going to be a son of God who comes and suffers, but that through his suffering he will be a greater Joshua, people may have understood the name as meaning that the anointed one wasn't just going to rule in the geographical land of Israel: he was going to lead us to a deeper Promised Land. 

"Mary" is the later equivalent of "Miryam." Which literally means "bitter" and might have reminded the people that this Son of God would still have a mother who'd have to watch him suffer. But "Miryam" is also the name of Moses' older sister: the one who followed him down the river to make sure he was safe and who made sure that he'd have his mother as a nurse (and therefore be raised with a knowledge of his identity). That parallel is specifically significant if the people had the idea that the Messiah would simply come down the known Davidic line of succession and live his whole life as a celebrated king. By telling his people that the Messiah's mother would be a Miryam, maybe Benjamin was trying to explain that his identity would be secret. That only through the Miryam-to-come would he know where he really came from, and have the sense of incompleteness that drives the chosen out into the wilderness to search for the divine. 

I'm glad I never stopped going to church because I didn't understand why King Benjamin would have given Jesus' and Mary's exact names. But I'm also glad a part of me stayed concerned enough about the issue to finally piece together what a prophecy about the names Joshua and Miryam might have meant to people who lived long before Christ. I didn't technically need that particular answer I suppose, but having the insight suddenly click like it did makes the passage feel more special to me: like the way a dream of God can turn a patch of desert into sacred ground.

It's not good, I think, to let your concerns interfere with your study or keep you from believing in the scriptures. But it is good to have concerns, because the day may come when those concerns burst into insight and make your relationship with the scriptures closer and richer.


  1. Thank you for sharing this, James!

  2. Never thought of the resonance that Joshua and Miriam would have - thanks for pointing that out!

  3. And, I really like your point (forgot to add this :D) that concerns are in many ways a good thing - they are a sign of thinking deeply, which leads to deeper understandings.

  4. I enjoy your articles and appreciate the thought and attitude you invest in them. Great!

  5. What a great model for dealing with concerns and with things we don't understand. We Mormons too often act as though questions and concerns are bad, but isn't it kind of the definition of faith to keep on believing in the face of incomplete knowledge, and maybe even of concerns?



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