Source:Echoes:Ch11:8:Hebrew legal terminology

Hebrew Terms for Law, Statutes, Judgments, Ordinances, and Commandments

Hebrew Terms for Law, Statutes, Judgments, Ordinances, and Commandments

In 2 Nephi 5:10, Nephi records that his people were strict to observe "the judgments, and the statutes, and the commandments of the Lord in all things, according to the law of Moses." Why did he use so many words to convey what seems to us the simple idea that they kept the law? Part of the answer comes from Hebrew, which uses several words to express different semantic aspects and subtle nuances of our word law.28 Those Hebrew words appear to match the Book of Mormon usage of comparable English terms.29

Torah. In Hebrew the law of Moses is always referred to as the torah of Moses. It means more than "law" in any modern sense. Torah derives from the verb yarah, whose many meanings include "to show, to instruct, to teach." The torah thus embodies all God's instructions given to his people, implemented and taught through his priests. Only a rebellious people would fail to listen to the torah of the Lord (see Isaiah 30:9). These ideas fit the frequently mentioned priestly function of teaching in the Book of Mormon (see, for example, Jacob 1:17–19; Jarom 1:11; Mosiah 6:3; 12:25; Alma 8:24; Moroni 3:3).

Mishpat. Usually translated "judgment," this Hebrew word not only means "to pronounce a verdict," but it also embraces most phases of a legal trial. It usually has something to do with the rules of governing properly. Likewise, in the Book of Mormon, when the term judgments appears by itself, it is in the context of judges who "judge righteous judgments" (Mosiah 29:29, 43), or it refers to the outcome of a court procedure (see Alma 30:57) or to God's judgments upon his people.

Mitzvah. This broad term has no technical meaning and is usually translated "commandment" or "precept." It is found frequently in Deuteronomy to signify divine commandments in general. Similarly, the use of the word commandments in relation to God is extensive in the Book of Mormon (see, for example, 1 Nephi 3:7; Jacob 1:12).

Edut. Less common is this word, meaning "testimony, witness, or monument." Especially in the early biblical period, the law was thought of as a testimony or witness that God had established. The book of the "law" (edut, Deuteronomy 31:26) witnessed that God had established his law, by which mankind will be judged (see Psalm 78:5). In the Book of Mormon similar ideas are found, for example, in Benjamin's farewell speech (see Mosiah 3:23–24) and in Moroni's words concluding the monumental Nephite rec-ord (see Moroni 10:27).

Most interesting are the words hoq and huqqah. In this pair, the first is masculine, the second feminine, though both have substantially the same meanings, basically "custom, manner, decree, portion, order, prescription, limit," and so on. Thus when the word ordinance is used to translate these terms from an ancient text, we should understand that it includes more than priesthood rites, ceremonies, or sacraments. Indeed, when the Book of Mormon speaks of ordinances in a priesthood sense, the term performances is often included (see 2 Nephi 25:30; Mosiah 13:30).

Moreover, Hebrew usage of hoq and huqqah may correspond quite precisely with the Book of Mormon terms ordinances and statutes. Due to the near identity of these two Hebrew words, finding them both in the same pleonastic list would be odd. In fact, no Hebrew pleonastic list has been found containing both hoq and huqqah (when the English words statute and ordinance occur together in such a list in the King James translation, the Hebrew word translated as statute is either hoq or huqqah, but the word for ordinance is mishpat).30 Thus I find it quite significant that the English words ordinance and statute never appear as companions in the pleonastic lists in the Book of Mormon. Indeed, they are the only two English equivalents of the Hebrew terms for "law" that never appear in the Book of Mormon in combination with each other.[1]


  1. John W. Welch, "A Steady Stream of Significant Recognitions," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 11, references silently removed—consult original for citations.