Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Harrowing up of Souls

Posted by robf on August 1, 2011

The Book of Mormon uses the term harrow or harrowing 10 times. Harrowing is the agricultural practice of dragging a series of spikes or disks over a field to either smooth or tear up the surface. The practice is mentioned three times in the Old Testament, but only the Book of Mormon mentions the harrowing up of souls or minds. Where does this phrase come from?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, use of the term harrowing to refer to lacerating or wounding the feelings; to vex, pain, or distress greatly (rarely with up) apparently dates in English to the early 1600s, and is first attributed to Shakespeare (1603) Hamlet i. v. 16,

“I would a tale unfold, whose lightest word Would harrow up thy soule.”

So rather than seeing mention of harrowing in the Book of Mormon as referring to Nephite agricultural practices, perhaps it is best to see these verses in the Book of Mormon as an English rendering of some unknown Nephite term that refers to lacerating or tearing up of the mind or emotions.

BTW, I discovered this Shakespearean reference while researching this term as part of the Alma 14 project on the Feast Upon the Word wiki, so here’s another plug for joining the efforts there to jointly explore the scriptures in more depth and share whatever insights your study may bring up.

5 Responses to “Harrowing up of Souls”

  1. joespencer said

    Nice work here, Rob. I like this a lot.

    It leaves me wondering about the linguistic filiation I usually assume between the Book of Mormon and the KJV Bible. My usual presupposition is that the first place to look to make sense of a BoM term is the KJV, where a kind of precedent is worked out. You’ve shown here nicely that there is a sharp distinction between the KJV usage and the BoM usage of this word. I want to think about the implications of that further.

  2. RuthS said

    It looks to me as though harrow in the Book of Mormon means the same thing it means Hamlet which is my thesaurus tells me is synonymous with distress. The distressed mind is as old as mankind. I expect every language has a word that means the same thing.

    It would be interesting to know if the connotation we have today of troubling the mind is in any way related to disturbing the ground to make it ready for planting. Is it possible for one to be independent of the other?

  3. Keith said

    I’m not certain we could or would want to divorce the “distress” meaning from the “plow up the ground” meaning. Does the OED separate the two completely–different etymologies completely?

  4. robf said

    Keith, the distress connotation for harrow seems to date to the early 1600s and may well be a Shakespearean creation, where he apparently used the tear up the ground meaning metaphorically to refer to tearing up a human soul. Several other similar uses are given by OED within a few years of the publication of Hamlet, but that’s the earliest reference they cite.

    Joe, I also tend to look to the KJV but as this shows sometimes that isn’t going to work so well :-)

  5. […] “Harrow” is a very rich word.  More here. […]

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