Evidence #53 | September 19, 2020

Hand Gestures (ANE)

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon’s use of various hand gestures is consistent within the text itself and in several ways parallels the use of hand gestures in Ancient Near Eastern texts.

In 2012, David Calabro studied four different types of hand gestures in the Book of Mormon:1

  1. stretching forth one’s hand(s),
  2. stretching forth the hand to exert divine power,
  3. extending the arm(s) in mercy, and
  4. clapping the hands to express joys.

Not only are these gestures used fairly consistently in the text, but in several cases they run parallel, in both context and apparent meaning, with hand gestures found in the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern settings. Calabro’s analysis of these gestures is summarized below:

1. Stretching Forth One’s Hands

King Benjamin by Jeremy Winborg.

Examples of individuals stretching forth their hands are plentiful in the Book of Mormon. Calabro explained, “In all these instances, the phrase stretch forth one’s hand(s) precedes a verb describing speech (prophesy, say, cry, beseech, speak), usually followed by direct speech introduced by a form of the verb say.”2 Based on analysis of preceding and subsequent verb usage, it appears that this gesture was used in many cases to “increase the force or urgency of the speech.”3 Furthermore, “One can posit that the desire for contact as a symbol of acceptance is a consistent aspect of this gesture in the Book of Mormon. In every instance of this gesture, the one performing it is presenting a message whose acceptance is critical to the welfare of either the addressee or himself.”4  

2. Stretching Forth the Hand to Exert Divine Power

As exceptions to the above category, two passages in the Book of Mormon—1 Nephi 17:53–55 and Alma 14:10–11—use the stretched-forth hand imagery as a “gesture of supernatural destructive power.”5 While sparse in the Book of Mormon, this imagery happens to be “very common in the Hebrew Bible.”6 Calabro noted that of “the forty-three biblical instances in which the idiom nāṭâ yād ‘extend the hand’ refers to a gesture of destruction or exertion of supernatural power (as in 1  Nephi 17 and Alma 14), not one mentions speech, while other gestures that accompany speech almost always mention the speech act explicitly.”7 This is notable because the two analogous Book of Mormon passages mentioned above (1 Nephi 17:53–55 and Alma 14:10–11) fit this same distinctive pattern by omitting the speech act.

Nephi Subduing his Brothers by Arnold Friberg.

3. Extended Arm(s) of Mercy

Related but somewhat different imagery can be found in the Book of Mormon’s repeated imagery of the Lord extending His arm(s) of mercy. In this case, the “arm and not the hand is always mentioned, and the gesture is often correlated with mercy but not with speech.”8 In addition, several concepts consistently cluster around this imagery, such as the invitation to come and to be received, as well as the implication of being embraced.9

4. Clapping Hands to Express Joy

The two passages where the Book of Mormon depicts the clapping of hands are in contexts of intense joy (see Mosiah 18:11; ).10 Calabro noted, “In the Hebrew Bible and other ancient Near Eastern sources, clapping the hands is [likewise] a sign of intense emotion, but it is anger or derision at least as often as joy. Too few examples of the gesture exist in the Book of Mormon to be sure whether the gesture indicated joy exclusively or was a more general indicator of intense emotion. If used solely to denote joy, this would be a unique feature of Book of Mormon culture compared to ancient Israel and other Near Eastern cultures.”11

Moses’s Gesture at the Red Sea

Image via biblestudytools.com.

In addition to the abovementioned categories, the Book of Mormon’s descriptions of how Moses parted the Red Sea are noteworthy. The prophet Nephi mentioned that “Moses … truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither” (1 Nephi 4:2) and “that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither” (1 Nephi 17:26). Later on, Nephi (son of Helaman) mentioned “that God gave power unto one man, even Moses, to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea” (Helaman 8:11). After showing how these descriptions diverge from the description in Exodus and yet accord with extrabiblical accounts, Calabro explained,

From the perspective of gesture symbolism, the interesting thing about the diverging accounts of the two Nephis in 1 Nephi 4:2 and Helaman 8:11 is that they can both be understood as interpreting the outstretched-hand gesture of Moses mentioned in Exodus 14. Speaking is substituted for the gesture in one case, and smiting is substituted for it in another, showing that the gesture was interpreted in two different ways, both of which accord with usage elsewhere in scripture. The fact that both interpretations are also found in other restoration scripture and in nonbiblical ancient sources shows that these interpretations are not unique to the Book of Mormon.12


For the most part, readers typically pay little if any attention to the nuances of hand gestures in the Book of Mormon. The fact that its depictions of various hand gestures are, generally speaking, categorically consistent and that they overlap in several ways with biblical and extrabiblical sources is therefore not insignificant. This subtle aspect of the Book of Mormon appears to be intentionally implemented and authentically ancient.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Abinadi Stretch Forth His Hand as He Prophesied? (Mosiah 16:1),” KnoWhy 94 (2016).

David Calabro, “‘Stretch Forth Thy Hand and Prophesy’: Hand Gestures in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 1 (2012): 46–59.

David Rolph Seely, “The Image of the Hand of God in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights That You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1991), 140–150.

1 Nephi 17:53–542 Nephi 15:252 Nephi 20:4–52 Nephi 24:26–27Jacob 5:47Jacob 6:4–5Mosiah 12:2Mosiah 16:1Mosiah 18:11Mosiah 29:20Alma 5:33Alma 10:25Alma 13:21Alma 14:10–11Alma 15:5Alma 19:12Alma 20:20Alma 31:14, 36Alma 32:7Helaman 13:43 Nephi 9:143 Nephi 11:93 Nephi 12:1Ether 3:6

1 Nephi 17:53–54

2 Nephi 15:25

2 Nephi 20:4–5

2 Nephi 24:26–27

Jacob 5:47

Jacob 6:4–5

Mosiah 12:2

Mosiah 16:1

Mosiah 18:11

Mosiah 29:20

Alma 5:33

Alma 10:25

Alma 13:21

Alma 14:10–11

Alma 15:5

Alma 19:12

Alma 20:20

Alma 31:14, 36

Alma 32:7

Helaman 13:4

3 Nephi 9:14

3 Nephi 11:9

3 Nephi 12:1

Ether 3:6

Hand Gestures (ANE)
Book of Mormon

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