Evidence #262 | October 25, 2021

Wordplay on Abish

Post contributed by


Scripture Central


Abish was a female servant who played a key role in the story of King Lamoni’s conversion. Several lines of evidence indicate that wordplay was intentionally used on her name.

Abish in the Book of Mormon

As is the case in the Bible, few women or servants are named in the Book of Mormon.1 Yet one character, who happened to be both a woman and a servant, is given a name in the story of King Lamoni’s conversion.2 After an intense outpouring of spiritual power, those in Lamoni’s household “had all fallen to the earth, save it were one of the Lamanitish women, whose name was Abish, she having been converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father” (Alma 19:16). Abish plays a key role in the narrative by gathering the people in her community to witness the miraculous conversion event in Lamoni’s household.

Abish witnessing those in Lamoni's household who had fallen to the earth. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Wordplay on ʼab Names in the Bible

The beginning part of the name Abish (ʼab) is present in a number of Israelite names, including Abimelech, Abner, Absalom, Abigail, and Abishag. In Hebrew, ʼab means “father” and several of the biblical narratives surrounding these names seem to evoke wordplay in relation to that meaning.3 For instance, after Gideon helped the Israelites defeat their enemies, the people wanted to make him a king. Gideon refused, stating “I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you: the Lord shall rule over you” (Judges 8:23). While outwardly humble, Gideon immediately proceeded to act like a worldly king and then, upon siring a son, named him Abimelech—which means “my father is king.”4 In other words, it appears that Abimelech’s name ironically reveals his father’s true aspirations for kingly privileges.

Wordplay on Abish Involving “Father”

A similar type of wordplay, although with a much more positive message, can be seen in the name Abish. According to Matthew Bowen,

The name “Abish” as a Hebrew name suggests the meaning “Father is a man” or “My father is a man” (ʼab[î] “[my] father” + ʼîš “a man”), or at least an ancient Israelite would have heard these midrashic components in this name. “Abish” would have suggested a similar meaning to the Nephite ear, and perhaps it would have held this meaning for Lamanites who had learned the language of Nephi via the priests of Noah (Mosiah 24:4).5

This is significant because immediately upon introducing Abish, the narrator informs readers that she had already been converted unto the Lord “on account of a remarkable vision of her father” (Alma 19:16).6 Outside of Ammon and Lamoni, Abish is the only other named character in this narrative (Alma 17–19). As Brant Gardner noted, “Even the queen is not named, despite her much more important role.”7 The fact that this otherwise inconspicuous character is given a name, and that a key meaning (“father”) inherent in her name is immediately presented, makes this an especially likely instance of Hebrew wordplay.

Abish, by Krista Jones. Image via Book of Mormon Central Art Contest 2018.

Wordplay on Abish Involving “Man”

The second element (ʼîš) of Abish which means “man” is an important theme in this same narrative. After Ammon showed forth God’s power in defending Lamoni’s flocks, Lamoni and his household thought that maybe Ammon was more than a man and perhaps even the “Great Spirit.” Ammon, in contrast, clarified that he was just a man and was simply Lamoni’s servant. This issue is repeatedly discussed and emphasized throughout Alma 18:

  • “Surely, this is more than a man. Behold, is not this the Great Spirit …” (v. 2)
  • “Whether he be the Great Spirit or a man, we know not” (v. 3)
  • “O king, we do not believe that a man has such great power” (v. 3)
  • “Where is this man that has such great power? (v. 8)
  • “… there has not been any servant … so faithful as this man” (v. 10)
  • “Behold, I am a man, and am thy servant” (v. 17)
  • “I am a man; and man in the beginning was created after the image of God (v. 34)
  • “he began at the creation … and told him all the things concerning the fall of man (v. 36)

Unlike most discussions of “man” in the Book of Mormon, which typically involve mankind collectively speaking, this narrative focuses on the issue of God’s identity and whether or not a specific man (in this case, Ammon) was divine. When read in context, this discussion helps prepare Lamoni to recognize a different man (Jesus Christ) who, unlike Ammon, was divine.

After his visionary experience, Lamoni stood and declared, “behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth, and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name” (Alma 19:13). In other words, Jesus was in one sense a “man” because he was born of a woman, but in another sense, he was the “Father of heaven and earth,” as taught by Ammon’s grandfather, King Benjamin (Mosiah 3:8).8 Hence the appropriateness of the narrator introducing a character (Abish) whose name means “father is man.” The name effectively captures the truth about God’s identity which Lamoni had just learned in vision, and which had been building up in the narrative prior to that point.9

King Lamoni speaking. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 


Several points reinforce the likelihood of wordplay involving the name Abish in this narrative: (1) the mention of her name despite her being a female servant, (2) the immediate mention of her “father,” corresponding to the ʼab-element of her name, (3) the thematic importance of the concept of “man” in this narrative, corresponding to the ʼîš-element of her name, and (4) the biblical precedent for this type of worldplay involving similar names. It could also be added that the way that this wordplay connects Abish to her father is found in several other examples of wordplay in the Book of Mormon.10 When viewed together, these separate lines of data make a strong case for intentional wordplay, providing yet another evidence of the Book of Mormon’s literary sophistication and Hebrew origins.

Matthew Bowen, “Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 14 (2015): 77–93.

Book of Mormon Onomasticon, “ABISH,” online at onoma.lib.byu.edu. 

Alma 18:2–3Alma 18:10Alma 18:17Alma 18:34Alma 18:36Alma 19:16

Alma 18:2–3

Alma 18:10

Alma 18:17

Alma 18:34

Alma 18:36

Alma 19:16

  • 1 While certainly discriminatory by modern standards, such tendencies are common in the literature of ancient patriarchal societies. For further information on this topic, see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Are So Few Women Mentioned in the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 26:33),” KnoWhy 391 (December 19, 2017).
  • 2 See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Textual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:303.
  • 3 See Matthew Bowen, “Father Is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the Name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 14 (2015): 79–81.
  • 4 See Bowen, “Father Is a Man,” 79–80. Although the name Abimelech could be seen as a theophoric name (meaning its reference to “father” could be viewed as a reference to God), it appears the narrator of the story intended for readers to see the irony when the name is applied to Gideon, Abimelech’s earthly father. As noted by Bowen, “Israelites not only understood but apparently relished the double entendre-potential in these names—that the ‘father’ element could be understood as not only referring to a deity but also the birth father of the name-bearer” (p. 79).
  • 5 Bowen, “Father Is a Man,” 81–82.
  • 6 The statement “on account of a remarkable vision of her father” could mean several different things: (1) her father had a remarkable vision, (2) she had a remarkable vision in which her father appeared to her, or (3) she had a remarkable vision of her Father in heaven. See Bowen, “Father Is a Man,” 84–86.
  • 7 Gardner, Second Witness, 4:303.
  • 8 For support for God’s identity as a man in biblical texts, see Bowen, “Father Is a Man,” 86–88.
  • 9 For a much more detailed explanation of this narrative buildup, see Bowen, “Father Is a Man,” 88–92.
  • 10 See Bowen, “Father Is a Man,” 83–84.
Wordplay on Abish
Book of Mormon

© 2024 Scripture Central: A Non-Profit Organization. All rights reserved. Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-5294264