Evidence #340 | May 16, 2022

Dramatic Irony

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon’s use of dramatic irony demonstrates one aspect of the text’s impressive literary complexity.

Verbal irony, as discussed in separate evidence summary,1 is a notable form of irony used by biblical writers which is also found in the Book of Mormon. Another form of irony found in both texts is dramatic irony. As demonstrated in a study by Roberts Rees, the Book of Mormon’s use of dramatic irony provides another example of the text’s literary sophistication.2

Dramatic Irony in the Bible

Dramatic irony, as Rees notes, “takes place within the action and character development of the narrative” and also “involves the reader in sharing with the author certain information, knowledge, or a point of view of which the character(s) may be unaware or ignorant.”3 This form of irony may be found in statements of characters in the narrative or in the actions of those in the narrative as recounted by an author. As explained by Shimon Bar-Efrat,

On occasions the plot of biblical narratives is built in such a way as to create ironic situations. This is dramatic irony, which derives from the fact that the character knows less than the reader, or unknowingly does things which are not in his or her own best interests, or from the course of events leading to results which are the reverse of the character’s expectations.4

“A familiar kind of dramatic irony in the Bible,” notes Rees, “is the presentation of a person who is first shown to be weak or foolish and then, after being touched by God, is transformed into an extraordinary person.”5 For instance, Abraham and Sarah were old and had no children, but after being blessed by God, Sarah conceived in her old age and Abraham became a father of many nations (Genesis 17:4). Their bareness was ironically transformed into seed as numerous as the stars in the heaven and the sands of the sea (Genesis 22:17).

Abraham telling Sarah about the Lord's promise of innumerable seed. Image via the film Abraham and Sarah produced by Book of Mormon Central. 

Dramatic irony may also be “embedded in an event and sometimes in an utterance of one of the characters.” Such spoken words, however, are not examples of verbal irony because the character in the account is unaware of the irony of what he or she says, “while the author, who is after all responsible for the way the character phrases the words, gives them an ironic flavor.”6 Dramatic irony may be used to criticize the actions of the character, to highlight a surprising or tragic situation in the story, or to show how “justice rules the world and that everyone receives just deserts, in contrast to the distorted view held by the character concerned.”7

Jacob, who used deception to obtain a blessing from his father Isaac, was later tricked by his father-in-law Laban  (Genesis 29:21–26) and also by his own sons, who led him to believe their brother Joseph was dead (Genesis 37:31–35).8 Abimelech, who murdered his brothers “on one stone” (Judges 9:5), was himself crushed to death by a millstone (Judges 9:53). Absalom’s hair which he vainly prized (2 Samuel 14:25–26) was ultimately the cause of his death when he became entangled in a tree (2 Samuel 18:9).9 Haman built a gallows with the intent to hang Mordecai, but instead it become the instrument of his own execution (Esther 7:9–10).

Jacob Deceives Isaac, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Image and caption info via Wikimedia Commons. 

Dramatic Irony in the Book of Mormon

There are many examples of dramatic irony in the Book of Mormon. It was Nephi, the “exceedingly young” one (1 Nephi 2:16), rather than the oldest sons, Laman and Lemuel, who repeatedly delivered  their family on their journey. Yet hundreds of years later, it was the converted posterity of these older brothers who became the means through which the Lord delivered the people of Nephi in a time of war (Alma 57:22) and preserved Christ’s Church (Helaman 6:34–36; 3 Nephi 6:14). In another twist of fate, it is the records of the Nephites which the Lamanites at one time sought to destroy (Enos 1:14) that will bring salvation to Lehi’s posterity (including the Lamanites) in the latter days (Alma 37:9).

King Noah and His Priests

King Noah’s unrepentant priests rejected Abinadi’s testimony of the Son of God and his divine healing power (Mosiah 14:5). Ironically, these later priests were afflicted with “all manner of diseases” because of their iniquities (Mosiah 17:16). In effect, they rejected the very being who could have healed them of their physical and spiritual maladies. King Noah, who put the prophet Abinadi to death by fire (Mosiah 17:20), was himself ironically put to death by fire (Mosiah 19:20) along with many of his priests and their descendants (Mosiah 17:15–18; Alma 25:12).  

Noah's Priests. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Lamanites and King Noah’s People

The story of King Noah and his people is creatively shaped in a way that ironically contrasts King Noah and his people with the previous generation under King Zeniff. Whereas Zeniff had described the Lamanites as “a lazy and idolatrous people” who glutted themselves on the labors of others (Mosiah 9:12), it was later Noah and his priests who “were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry” and who caused the people under their rule to “labor exceedingly to support iniquity. Yea, and they also became idolatrous” (Mosiah 11:6–7). Although they considered themselves superior to their enemies, they had in terms of attitude and behavior become Lamanites in all but name.

Zeniff described the Lamanites as “a bloodthirsty people” (Mosiah 10:12) who “knew nothing of the strength of the Lord, therefore, they depended upon their own strength” (Mosiah 10:11), while he and his people “did go up in the strength of the Lord” (Mosiah 10:10). In contrast, Noah and his people “did boast in their own strength” and “did delight in blood and the shedding of the blood of their brethren” (Mosiah 11:19).

Zeniff taught his people that the ancestors of the Lamanites “were wroth” with Nephi and hardened their hearts” against the Lord (Mosiah 10:14) and also “sought to kill him” (Mosiah 10:15). Yet when Abinadi preached to Noah’s people, “they were wroth with him and sought to take away his life” (Mosiah 11:26). Noah and his people also “hardened their hearts against” his words (Mosiah 11:29). Noah’s ironic response to Abinadi’s warning “Who is the Lord?” (Mosiah 11:27)—though not likely his intention—informs the reader that Noah, like the Lamanites, truly does not know the Lord or his ways.

A Contrast in Leadership

There are other ironies in the contrast in leadership between Zeniff and his wicked son. Zeniff and his people built buildings (Mosiah 9:8). Noah and his people built “spacious buildings” (Mosiah 11:8–9), a word choice evoking the “great and spacious building” from Lehi’s dream (1 Nephi 8:26; 11:35–36; 12:18).

Zeniff preemptively set guards about the land to watch for Lamanite attacks (Mosiah 10:2). Noah also set guards to protect and watch over his people, but not enough (Mosiah 11:17). Zeniff saw to the protection of women and children, and courageously led his men in battle against their attackers. Noah, on the other hand, acted with cowardice, ordering his men to abandon their women and children and flee before the Lamanites, “and he himself did go before them” (Mosiah 19:9)! These narrative contrasts underscore the tragedy of the disaster. As King Mosiah later lamented, “For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed” (Mosiah 29:17).

Alma and Korihor

Before his conversion, Alma spoke “much flattery to the people” (Mosiah 27:8). When an angel of the Lord appeared to him, Alma fell to the earth and “became dumb, that he could not open his mouth” (Mosiah 27:19). Many years after his conversion, Alma encountered Korihor, a man who “did rise up in great swelling words before Alma and did revile against the priests and teachers” (Alma 30:31). Alma, who had once been warned to repent by an angel but who later wished that he could become an angel (Alma 29:1), ironically donned an angelic role when Korihor demanded a sign and was ironically struck dumb (Alma 30:49–56). Unlike Alma, who had been struck dumb himself during his conversion experience, Korihor never recovered.

Korihor. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Wicked Judges

When Nephi prophesied the destruction of the Nephites and the loss of their great cities (Helaman 7:22), the wicked judges of the Gadianton party replied, “we know that this is impossible, for behold, we are powerful, and our cities are great, therefore, our enemies can have no power over us” (Helaman 8:6). From Mormon’s narrative, however, the reader knows that not many years before that Nephite enemies had indeed lost many of their great cities and were nearly destroyed (Helaman 4:5–6). The words of the wicked judges, though not intended to be so, are ironic given their context in the narrative. They serve to underscore the self-deception of those in the ruling Gadianton faction.

The Promises of Giddianhi

In an effort to persuade Lachoneus to surrender to him and his band of robbers, Giddianhi assured Lachoneus “with an oath” that he and the Nephites would not be destroyed, while also threatening him “with an oath” that if he did not surrender “on the morrow month,” Giddianhi’s armies would come down against them and destroy them (3 Nephi 3:8). The righteous Lachoneus, unintimidated by the threats of the robbers, promised deliverance to the Nephites with an oath (“as the Lord liveth”) if they would repent (3 Nephi 3:15–16). The Nephites did repent and were delivered (3 Nephi 3:25; 4:33).

In his telling of the story, Mormon subtly notes that Giddianhi and his armies did not keep their oath to come down against the Nephites “on the morrow month” and in fact did not go to battle against the Nephites until three years later (3 Nephi 3:1; 4:5). Although he only mentions the years in passing, Mormon does so in a way that ironically shows that the promises of the robber, unlike those of the Lord, could not be depended upon.


According to D. C. Muecke, “an ironist … is not just like an artist, but is an artist, governed by the artist’s need for perfection of form and expression and all ‘the nameless graces which no methods teach.’”10 Rees argues that the presence of irony in the Book of Mormon is “one more clue among many others that Joseph Smith did not write the book.”11 He contends “that such writing as a whole is neither accidental nor subconscious, but rather the product of a highly sophisticated, creative, organizing intelligence, one steeped not only in the literature of the ancient Hebrews but also in their cultural psychology as well.”12

Robert A. Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12, no. 2 (2003): 10–31, 111–112.

BibleGenesis 17:4Genesis 22:17Genesis 29:21–26Genesis 37:31–35Judges 9:5Judges 9:532 Samuel 14:25–262 Samuel 18:9Esther 7:9–10Book of Mormon1 Nephi 2:161 Nephi 8:261 Nephi 11:35–361 Nephi 12:18Enos 1:14Mosiah 9:8Mosiah 9:12Mosiah 10:2Mosiah 10:10Mosiah 10:11Mosiah 10:12Mosiah 10:14Mosiah 10:15Mosiah 11:6–7Mosiah 11:8–9Mosiah 11:17Mosiah 11:19Mosiah 11:26Mosiah 11:27Mosiah 11:29Mosiah 14:5Mosiah 17:16Mosiah 17:15–18Mosiah 17:20Mosiah 19:9Mosiah 19:20Mosiah 27:8Mosiah 27:19Alma 25:12Alma 29:1Alma 30:31Alma 30:49–56Alma 37:9Alma 57:22Helaman 4:5–6Helaman 7:22Helaman 8:6Helaman 6:34–363 Nephi 3:13 Nephi 3:83 Nephi 3:15–163 Nephi 3:253 Nephi 4:53 Nephi 4:333 Nephi 6:14


Genesis 17:4

Genesis 22:17

Genesis 29:21–26

Genesis 37:31–35

Judges 9:5

Judges 9:53

2 Samuel 14:25–26

2 Samuel 18:9

Esther 7:9–10

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 2:16

1 Nephi 8:26

1 Nephi 11:35–36

1 Nephi 12:18

Enos 1:14

Mosiah 9:8

Mosiah 9:12

Mosiah 10:2

Mosiah 10:10

Mosiah 10:11

Mosiah 10:12

Mosiah 10:14

Mosiah 10:15

Mosiah 11:6–7

Mosiah 11:8–9

Mosiah 11:17

Mosiah 11:19

Mosiah 11:26

Mosiah 11:27

Mosiah 11:29

Mosiah 14:5

Mosiah 17:16

Mosiah 17:15–18

Mosiah 17:20

Mosiah 19:9

Mosiah 19:20

Mosiah 27:8

Mosiah 27:19

Alma 25:12

Alma 29:1

Alma 30:31

Alma 30:49–56

Alma 37:9

Alma 57:22

Helaman 4:5–6

Helaman 7:22

Helaman 8:6

Helaman 6:34–36

3 Nephi 3:1

3 Nephi 3:8

3 Nephi 3:15–16

3 Nephi 3:25

3 Nephi 4:5

3 Nephi 4:33

3 Nephi 6:14

  • 1 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Verbal Irony,” Evidence# 0337, May 9, 2022, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 2 Robert A. Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12, no. 2 (2003): 20–31, 111–112.
  • 3 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 23.
  • 4 Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 125.
  • 5 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 23.
  • 6 Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, 125.
  • 7 Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, 125. In many Book of Mormon narratives, dramatic irony dovetails with the principle of talionic justice that is so prominent in the bible and other Near Eastern texts. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Talionic Justice,” May 28, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 8 Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1965), 97–114.
  • 9 Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, 128.
  • 10 D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen & Company, 1969), 15, emphasis added.
  • 11 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 22.
  • 12 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 31.
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