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Ishmael's Burial

Evidence #258 | October 15, 2021

Abstract

In the Book of Mormon, Ishmael was buried in a place called Nahom, which many scholars believe corresponds to the Nihm tribal region in Yemen. Near this same region, the name “Ishmael” (as rendered in a South Arabian script) was inscribed on a funerary stela which dates to around Lehi’s time.

As Nephi was recounting his family’s journey through Arabia, he briefly noted the death of his father-in-law: “And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:34). The name Nahom most likely refers to the Nihm tribal territory in Yemen, located near the Wadi Jawf. While the exact location and borders of the Nihm tribe have fluctuated over time, inscriptions going back to at least the seventh century BC (referring to nhmyn, “Nihmite”) provide evidence that the Nihm tribe and region existed near its present-day location at the time Lehi’s family was traveling through the area.1

Several ancient burial grounds have been documented in and near the Nihm tribal grounds, suggesting that Lehi’s family could have given Ishmael a proper burial in this region. Most recently, a funerary stela from around the sixth century BC with the South Arabian form of the name “Ishmael” was discovered in a nearby region.2

The Ishmael Stela

The stela was found somewhere in or near the Wadi Jawf. It is 30 cm (ca. 1 ft) x 12.5 cm (ca. 5 in) x 7.5 cm (ca. 3 in) and made from limestone. It features a crude carving of a face in a pan-Arabian style, with distinctive regional variations found in the Wadi Jawf area. Below the face carving is the name ys1mʿʾl, translated as “Yasmaʿʾil.” This is the South Arabian form of the Hebrew name yšmʿʾl, typically translated as “Ishmael.”3

Funerary stela YM 27966 bearing the name Y s1MʿʾL, equivalent to the Hebrew name “Ishmael,” dated to ca. 6th century bc. Image from Arbach et al., Collection of Funerary Stelae from the Jawf Valley, 72, no. 105. Drawing based on the image by Jasmin Gimenez Rappleye.

The stela is paleographically dated to sixth or fifth century BC, but is stylistically representative of “a few coarse examples … known for the 7th–6th centuries BC.”4 Thus, the stela was likely carved around the sixth century BC, the same general time-period of Ishmael’s death and burial in the Book of Mormon.

The name “Ishmael” (Yasmaʿʾil) in Old South Arabian script.

Proximity to the Nihm Region

The stela is part of a corpus of looted funerary monuments, so it is impossible to know exactly where it was recovered from. It most likely came from somewhere in the Wadi Jawf, a region the Nihm tribe has bordered for more than a thousand years.5 Some stelae of a similar style were recovered during formal excavations of the ancient site of Yathill (at modern-day Barāqish), a place known to be associated in modern times with the Nihm tribe.6 It is possible some of the looted stelae also came from places with connections to the Nihm tribe.

Map of the Wadi Jawf.

In fact, scholars believe some of the looted funerary stones came from the ancient site of Haram.7 Inscriptions from Haram dated to the seventh century BC refer to a group of people called the nh[m]tn. Some scholars have translated this as a reference to “stone polishers,” while others have interpreted it as the proper name of a tribe or people—possibly, the Nihm. If this is the case, then it suggests that some of the looted stelae came from a place associated with the Nihm tribe around Lehi’s day.8

The Eastward Turn

Any burial in or near the Wadi Jawf would be in close proximity to the “eastward” turn point of the ancient Frankincense Trail.9  Haram, specifically, is located just four miles west of Qarnaw, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Maʿin, where a nearly directly “eastward” branch of the Frankincense Trail cut across the desert.10 Thus, Lehi’s party could have easily turned “nearly eastward” (1 Nephi 17:1) from Haram.11

Proposed route for the eastward turn at Nahom. Image via Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015), 96.

The Burial of Foreigners and Caravan Travelers

Some scholars believe that funerary stelae of this style and type were made by outsiders, who had some kind of connection to the city-states in the Wadi Jawf, but were not official members of the community. This leads some to conclude that they were foreigners and caravneers.12 Others have suggested that these were people from the lower social strata of the local populations, but still grant that some of these individuals were likely “caravan traders, nomads, Mineans established in Northern Arabia, [and] Central or Northern Arabian populations.”13

To better understand the cultural origins of these people, scholars have carefully studied the names engraved on these funerary markers.14 Many of them have names with a Northwest Semitic and North Arabian origin (including the name “Ishmael,” which is a Northwest Semitic name) which supports the proposed connection to foreigners and caravan traders.15

Thus, the “Yasmaʿʾil” buried in or near the Wadi Jawf in the sixth century BC may have been a foreigner from the north traveling along the major trade route, just like the Ishmael of the Book of Mormon.

Conclusion

It is impossible to determine whether the individual represented by this funerary stela was the Ishmael from the Book of Mormon.16 This is especially so since the exact place of origin for the stela is uncertain, and thus cannot be definitively linked to a place associated with the Nihm tribe. “The most that can be said,” explains Neal Rappleye, “is that there was an Ishmael, buried near the Nihm tribal region, around the 6th century BC.”17 Circumstantial evidence further suggests that the “Yasmaʿʾil” buried in or near the Wadi Jawf was a foreigner from the north—like Ishmael in the Book of Mormon—but this cannot be determined with certainty.

Still, as Rappleye observes, “Although a firmer conclusion eludes us, the very fact that an Ishmael was buried in close proximity to the Nihm tribal region around the very time the Book of Mormon indicates that a man named Ishmael was buried at Nahom is rather remarkable.”18

Neal Rappleye, “An Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 48 (2021): 33–48.

Warren P. Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51, no. 2 (2012): 78–98.

S. Kent Brown, “New Light: ‘The Place that was Called Nahom’,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 66–68.

1 Nephi 16:34

1 Nephi 16:34

  • 1 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Nahom,” Evidence #0163, April 19, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 2 See Neal Rappleye, “An Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 48 (2021): 33–48.
  • 3 See Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 33–34, 37. For information on the stela, see Mounir Arbach, Jérémie Schiettecette, and Ibrâhîm al-Hâdî, Collection of Funerary Stelae from the Jawf Valley: Sanʿâʾ National Museum, Part III (Sanʿāʾ: Social Fund for Development and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2008), 72, no. 105.
  • 4 Arbach et al., Collection of Funerary Stelae from the Jawf Valley, 10. Dating to the sixth or fifth century BC on p. 72, no. 105.
  • 5 Christian Robin, “Nihm: Nubdha fī ʾl-jughrāfiyya al-taʾrīkhiyya wafqan li-muʿṭiyāt al-Hamdānī,” in Al-Hamdani: A Great Yemeni Scholar, Studies on the Occasion of His Millennial Anniversary, ed. Yusuf Mohammad Abdallah (Sana’a, Yemen: Sana’a University, 1986), 83–98.
  • 6 See Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 35.
  • 7 Arbach et al., Collection of Funerary Stelae from the Jawf Valley, 3.
  • 8 See Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 36.
  • 9 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Travel Eastward from Nahom,” Evidence #0184, April 19, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 10 Nigel Groom, Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Frankincense Trade (New York, NY: Longman, 1981), 167; Michael Jenner, Yemen Rediscovered (Essex: Longman, 1983), 16.
  • 11 Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 36.
  • 12 Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 36.
  • 13 Arbach et al., Collection of Funerary Stelae from the Jawf Valley, 15.
  • 14 Arbach et al., Collection of Funerary Stelae from the Jawf Valley, 13–15; Alessio Agnostini, “Funerary Stelae from Barāqish: Study of the Onomastics,” in Sabina Antonini and Alessio Agostini, A Minaena Necropolis at Barāqish (Jawf, Republic of Yemen): Preliminary Report of the 2005–2006 Archaeological Campaigns (Rome: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente, 2010), 49–70.
  • 15 See Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 36–37.
  • 16 One reason to be cautious about the potential connection is the fact that the stela is in a thoroughly Arabian style, and uses the Epigraphic South Arabian script. Thus, nothing would suggest a connection to Israelite or Hebrew burial customs. Nonetheless, Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 37–38 discusses possible reasons Lehi’s family might have followed local South Arabian burial practices and used the local script.
  • 17 Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 38.
  • 18 Rappleye, “Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” 39.
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