Evidence #337 | May 9, 2022

Verbal Irony

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Scripture Central


One aspect of the Book of Mormon’s literary artistry can be seen in its frequent use of verbal irony.

Irony, at its most basic level, is the upending of expectations, often resulting in the very opposite of what might be anticipated. In recent decades, biblical scholars have shown that irony was a significant element of the literature of ancient Israel, which has resulted in a greater appreciation of the Bible’s artistic complexity.1 As demonstrated by Robert Rees, an authority on American literature, various forms of irony can also be found in the Book of Mormon, showing that it too is a work of high literary art.2 This evidence summary will focus specifically on each text’s use of verbal irony.

Verbal Irony in the Bible

Literary critic Northrup Frye characterizes verbal irony as a “pattern of words that turns away from a direct statement or its own obvious meaning.”3 “Verbal irony,” notes Rees, “has to do with levels of ambiguity and discrepancy between what is said on the surface and what is meant below it.”4

Sometimes this can be expressed through mockery or sarcasm. In the Bible, Elijah used a mocking form of verbal irony when the idolatrous priests failed to get the god Baal to respond to their petitions: “Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Elijah, of course, knew that the Baal was not just preoccupied, but entirely non-existent.

Elijah Contends against the Priests of Baal, by Jerry Harston. 

When the prophet Micaiah was brought before Ahab, who was about to embark on a doomed military campaign at Ramoth-Gilead, all the false prophets predicted success. Yet when Micaiah was asked if they would be victorious, he responded ironically: “Go, and prosper: for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king” (1 Kings 22:15). It is clear that Micaiah knew the very opposite would happen: Ahab would die.

There are various ways that verbal irony may be conveyed. According to Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, it may be expressed through “meiosis and litotes (understatement), hyperbole (overstatement), antiphrasis (contrast), … chleuasm (mockery), mycterism (the sneer); and mimesis (imitation, especially for the sake of ridicule).”5 In some forms of verbal irony, “one meaning is stated and a different, usually antithetical, meaning is intended.”6 Whether humorous or sobering, verbal irony has a unique ability to emphasize important truths and penetrate falsehoods, often in a way that is more engaging than straightforward forms of discourse.

Verbal Irony in the Book of Mormon

In the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon, Lehi and his family came upon a river flowing through an impressive valley. Using this scene as an opportunity for instruction, Lehi admonished Laman to be like the river, “continually running into the fountain of all righteousness,” after which he admonished Lemuel to be like the valley, “firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 2:9–10).

Since this is the first information readers get about Laman and Lemuel, Nephi has to explain that Lehi’s statements aren’t all that they seem: “Now this [Lehi] spake because of the stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel; for behold they did murmur in many things against their father” (1 Nephi 2:11). In other words, Lehi’s praise was somewhat ironic. Rees observes, “the irony is deepened when we realize that Laman and Lemuel begin acting contrary to their father’s counsel even before they leave this river valley that he hopes will symbolically guide their behavior.”7

Entrance to Wadi Tayyib al-Ism from the coast. This location is widely believed to correlate with the Valley of Lemuel. Photo via isha-borade.blogspot.com.

Centuries later, a related irony reveals itself. Early in the Book of Mormon, the Lamanites were viewed as hardhearted while the Nephites were depicted as being more righteous. Just before Christ’s ministry, however, many of the Nephites fell into gross wickedness and apostasy, which Mormon contrasts with an especially faithful group of Lamanites. Invoking the specific wording of Lehi’s praise at the Valley of Lemuel, Mormon describes these Lamanites as being, “firm, and steadfast, and immovable, willing with all diligence to keep the commandments of the Lord” (3 Nephi 6:14). Thus, in a second twist of irony, the aspirations of Father Lehi which his oldest sons failed to live up to were unexpectedly fulfilled by their converted descendants!

According to Rees, “with verbal irony, the meaning of a word can change from its initial meaning to a new, even opposite meaning later on.”8 He highlights a significant example of this in Nephi’s use of the word know from a tense conversation with his older brothers.9

As recounted by Nephi, Laman and Lemuel had been visited by an angel and witnessed miraculous examples of divine deliverance. Yet even after all these experiences, they brazenly claimed, “Now, [Nephi] says the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us” (1 Nephi 16:38). Later, after Nephi was commanded to build a ship, the brothers similarly asserted, “we knew that ye could not construct a ship, for we knew that ye were lacking in judgment” (1 Nephi 17:19). They also said, “we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people …. We know that they are a righteous people” (1 Nephi 17:22).

Rees observes that Laman and Lemuel repeatedly “state as knowledge something they know is false.”10 In response to these blatant falsehoods, Nephi engages in “a highly sophisticated use of verbal irony. That is, he states what he knows they cannot deny in order to show that what they say they know is false.”11 Throughout these remarks, Nephi uses the words “ye know” or “ye also know” nearly a dozen times:

  • ye know that the children of Israel were in bondage” (1 Nephi 17:25)
  • ye know that they were laden with tasks” (v. 25)
  • ye know that it must needs be a good thing for them, that they should be brought out of bondage” (v. 25)
  • ye know that Moses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work” (v. 26)
  • ye know that by his word the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither” (v. 26)
  • ye know that the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea” (v. 27)
  • ye also know that they were fed with manna in the wilderness” (v. 28)
  • ye also know that Moses … smote the rock, and there came forth water” (v. 29)
  • ye know that they were led forth by his matchless power” (v. 42)
  • ye also know that … he can cause the earth that it shall pass away” (v. 46)
  • ye know that by his word he can cause the rough places to be made smooth (v. 46)

One by one, these successive reminders—which help connect Lehi’s wilderness journey with the Israelite Exodus from Egypt—ratchet up the irony of Laman and Lemuel’s empty claims.12

Significantly, after emphasizing what his brother know, Nephi references his own knowledge only twice. Speaking of those at Jerusalem he says, “I know not but they are at this day about to be destroyed; for I know that they must be destroyed” (1 Nephi 17:43). Rees notes that with “wonderful irony” Nephi “states the negative before the positive, showing that unlike his brothers, he does not claim knowledge that he does not possess, but also that the knowledge he does have is based on revelation.”13

Nephi, Laman, and Lemuel contending about building a ship. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

In an impressive crescendo of this theme, Nephi’s discussion with his brothers ends in a reversal of their initial claims. After being shocked with divine power, they are constrained to admit to Nephi what they really knew (in their heart of hearts) all along: “We know of a surety that the Lord is with thee, for we know that it is the power the Lord that has shaken us” (1 Nephi 17:55).


The presence of verbal irony in the Book of Mormon is consistent with its claimed Israelite heritage. While irony was certainly not a new concept at the time, it is questionable whether Joseph Smith had the literary talent in 1829 to produce the sophisticated instances of verbal irony found in the Book of Mormon.14 As Rees argues, “there is little evidence that Joseph Smith was an ironist; certainly there is not evidence that he had the rhetorical or expressive skills necessary to produce the rich variety of irony one finds in the book he claims to have translated.”15

Robert A. Rees, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance: An Update,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 19 (2016): 1–16.

Robert A. Rees, “John Milton, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2015): 6–18.

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

Robert A. Rees, “Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the American Renaissance,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 3 (2002): 83–112.

Bible1 Kings 18:271 Kings 22:15Book of Mormon1 Nephi 2:91 Nephi 2:101 Nephi 16:381 Nephi 17:191 Nephi 17:221 Nephi 17:431 Nephi 17:553 Nephi 6:14


1 Kings 18:27

1 Kings 22:15

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 2:9

1 Nephi 2:10

1 Nephi 16:38

1 Nephi 17:19

1 Nephi 17:22

1 Nephi 17:43

1 Nephi 17:55

3 Nephi 6:14

  • 1 For a sampling of treatments on this topic, see Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009); Jerry-Camery Hoggartt, Irony in Mark’s Gospel: Text and Subtext (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 2005); Jerry Lynn Ray, “Narrative Irony in Luke-Acts: The Paradoxical Interaction of Prophetic Fulfillment and Jewish Rejection,” Mellen Biblical Press Series 2800 (1996); George W. Macrae, S. J., “Theology and Irony in the Fourth Gospel,” in The Gospel of John as Literature (Leiden: Brill, 1993); Lillian R. Klein, “The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 43, no. 3 (1988); Jakob Jonsson, Humor and Irony in the New Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1985); Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1950).
  • 2 Robert A. Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12, no. 2 (2003): 10–31, 111–112.
  • 3 Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 40.
  • 4 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 23.
  • 5 Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, eds., The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 634.
  • 6 Preminger and Brogan, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 635.
  • 7 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 29.
  • 8 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 29.
  • 9 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 30.
  • 10 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 30.
  • 11 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 30.
  • 12 See Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 31: “What Nephi is doing, of course, is confronting his brothers with truth that no Israelite could deny: the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, their rebellion against God, and their eventual arrival in the promised land. He then uses this great defining moment in Israelite history to parallel the Nephite sojourn in the Arabian desert and their voyage to their own promised land. By employing the word know/knew 22 times in this short passage, Nephi dramatically demonstrates the difference between the ways that he and his brothers operate in the world (they are dishonest or, at best, manipulative, while he always acts with integrity).”
  • 13 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 30.
  • 14 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith’s Limited Education,” Evidence# 0001, September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org. See also, Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith Compared with Contemporary Authors,” Evidence# 106, November 2, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 15 Rees, “Irony in the Book of Mormon,” 31.
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