Evidence #351 | June 20, 2022

Wordplay on Ishmael

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Scripture Central


The name Ishmael is derived from the verb šāmaʿ, which means to “hear,” “hearken,” or “obey.” Apparent wordplay on this name in the Book of Mormon is persistent and multifaceted, while also harking back to biblical precedents.

Wordplay on Ishmael in the Bible

As noted by Matthew Bowen, “Ishmael is a Semitic and Hebrew name meaning ‘May El [God] Hearken’ or ‘El [God] has heard.’”1 It derives from the verb šāmaʿ, which means to “hear,” “hearken,” or “obey.”2 Wordplay involving this name shows up in several biblical narratives, beginning with the account of Abraham in Genesis. Because Sarai was barren, she entreated Abraham to “go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2). It is fitting that Ishmael—whose name invokes the verb “to hearken”—was begotten due to Abraham hearkening to his wife.

The meaning of Ishmael’s name is later formally invoked when an angel comforted Hagar after she fled into the wilderness: “Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction” (Genesis 16:11). Upon revealing to Abraham that he would have another son named Isaac, God again closely linked the name Ishmael with the verb šāmaʿ: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee” (Genesis 17:20).

Abraham Sends Hagar and Ishmael Away, by Gustave Doré. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Similar associations play out in the rest of the Abrahamic account, only to rise again in the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 28:7–9), as well as in the Joseph Cycle (Genesis 37–50).3 Bowen notes that in these biblical stories, the “narrator’s interconnection of Ishmael, Esau, and the other sons of Jacob (except for Joseph), pertains to the ongoing theme or pattern of older sons not receiving the birthright blessing.”4 Tellingly, the same theme swirls around the name Ishmael in the Book of Mormon.5

Ishmael and His Divided Family

The opening chapters of the Nephite record portray Ishmael as a righteous patriarch living in Jerusalem during Lehi’s day. The first thing Ishmael does is hear the “words of the Lord” which Nephi and his brothers used to “gain favor” in Ishmael’s sight (1 Nephi 7:4). The account then states that “the Lord did soften the heart of Ishmael, and also his household, insomuch that they took their journey with us down into the wilderness to the tent of our father” (v. 5). In other words, Ishmael and his family hearkened or obeyed the Lord’s messengers.

Ishmael and his family discuss leaving Jerusalem to join Lehi and his family in the wilderness. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Soon afterwards, however, the family’s allegiance to the Lord was fractured, as “two of the daughters of Ishmael, and the two sons of Ishmael and their families” rebelled against “Nephi, and Sam, and their father, Ishmael, and his wife, and his three other daughters” (1 Nephi 7:6). In this setting Nephi asked, “How is it that ye have not hearkened unto the word of the Lord?” (v. 9).

While addressed to Laman and Lemuel (the apparent ring leaders of this interfamily dispute), this question would likely have been a poignant reminder for every member of Ishmael’s family. Some of them weren’t living up to the righteous ideal of hearkening unto the Lord that was inherent in Ishmael’s name. Notably, soon after Nephi’s statements, “one of the daughters of Ishmael, yea, and also her mother, and one of the sons of Ishmael,” were instrumental in saving Nephi from his brothers’ wrath (1 Nephi 7:19). When it came to hearkening to the Lord, the Ishmaelites were a divided people ever after.6

Ishmael's wife and one of his daughters pleading with Laman and Lemuel. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Lehi’s Covenant Promise

Throughout Nephi’s account, his efforts to persuade Laman, Lemuel, and the rebellious among the house of Ishmael to hearken unto the Lord becomes a major theme.7 This conflict is memorialized in Lehi’s final blessings upon his posterity:

And now my son, Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam, and also my sons who are the sons of Ishmael, behold, if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish. And if ye will hearken unto him I leave unto you a blessing, yea, even my first blessing. But if ye will not hearken unto him I take away my first blessing, yea, even my blessing, and it shall rest upon him. (2 Nephi 1:28–29)

According to Bowen, the three-fold use of “hearken” in this passage, used in such close proximity to the name Ishmael, “would have had the immediate rhetorical effect of garnering the attention of Ishmael’s sons (and probably any of his daughters who were present on the occasion).”8 Just as forms of the verb šāmaʿ are used in the Genesis accounts of younger sons receiving the greater or birthright blessing, it is used here as well. Anyone who wanted Lehi’s “first blessing” had to “hearken” to Nephi,9 which was a roundabout way of designating Nephi as Lehi’s primary successor.

Lehi teaching his family. Image via chrurchofjesuschrist.org. 

The Conversion of Lamoni’s People

“Apart from Nephi’s writings,” explains Bowen, “the strongest concentration of narrative mentions of the name Ishmael and ‘Ishmaelites’ is in Mormon’s abridged Lamanite conversion narrative. There is a significant narratological focus on ‘hearing’ and ‘hearkening’ to Nephite spiritual guidance.”10

It is reported that “Ammon went to the land of Ishmael, the land being called after the sons of Ishmael, who also became Lamanites” (Alma 17:19). Presumably, many of Ishmael’s descendants still dwelled in this region. It is in this setting that the account of Lamoni’s conversion is given.

Much like Nephi and his brothers sought to persuade Ishmael and his family to hearken to the Lord many years earlier, Ammon (a Nephite) sought to convert King Lamoni and his household. At a key moment in the narrative, Ammon asked Lamoni, “Wilt thou hearken unto my words, if I tell thee by what power I do these things?” (Alma 18:22). Lamoni answered, “Yea, I will believe all thy words” (v. 23; cf. 2 Nephi 5:6).11

When Lamoni fell to the ground in a vision, his household thought he was dead, “and his wife, and his sons, and his daughters mourned over him, after the manner of the Lamanites, greatly lamenting his loss” (Alma 18:43). Interestingly, the only other Book of Mormon narrative which features family members mourning the loss of a named father occurs at the burial of Ishmael reported in 1 Nephi 16:35: “the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father.”12 The unique mention of the family’s mourning in this context may be intended to further solidify the Ishmael-Lamoni connection.

Wife and daughters of Lamoni mourn over his seemingly dead body. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Ultimately, Lamoni’s willingness to “hearken” unto the words of the Lord proved to be vital to the missionary efforts of Mosiah’s sons. When Lamoni miraculously arose from his vision, he taught his people “the words which he had heard from the mouth of Ammon; and as many as heard his words believed, and were converted unto the Lord. But there were many among them who would not hear his words; therefore they went their way” (Alma 19:31–32). The emphasis on the verb “hear” (šāmaʿ)— spoken by the king of Ishmael’s descendants, in the land of Ishmael, and in a setting that harks back to the funeral of the patriarch Ishmael—is striking.           

The Unique Status of the Land of Ishmael

Ammon’s missionary success in the land of Ishmael was as unique as it was surprising. As for Aaron and his companions, “it was their lot to have fallen into the hands of a more hardened and a more stiffnecked people; therefore they would not hearken unto their words” (Alma 20:30). The inhabitants of Jerusalem, for instance, “would not hear” the words of Aaron, and “when he saw that they would not hear his words, he departed out of their synagogue” (Alma 21:10–11). Thus, initially, only in the land of Ishmael were there Lamanites to be found who willingly hearkened unto the Lord—a point which seems to be intentionally contrasted with the other cities’ refusal to hearken. The exceptional receptibility of the people in the land of Ishmael is emphasized again in vv. 18–21.

Land of Ishmael. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Although more Lamanite cities eventually converted unto the Lord, it isn’t too surprising that the land of Ishmael tops the list of such cities given in Alma 23:9. After noting several other passages which emphasize Ishmael’s distinctive status, Bowen concluded, “The name Ishmael in these chapters (Alma 17–25) becomes a fitting symbol of the people’s willingness to ‘hearken’ to the Lord and his messengers, and the Lord in turn ‘heard’ or ‘hearkened’ to them.”13


While the main conflict in the Book of Mormon was between Nephi and his older brothers, Ishmael and his children were caught square in the middle of the family drama. It appears that the authors and editors of the Nephite record didn’t miss the opportunity to leverage this situation for rhetorical purposes. Linkages between the name Ishmael and verbs such as “hear,” “hearken,” and “obey” are persistent and multifaceted throughout the text.

It is also significant that the use of this wordplay revolves around a dispute over the status and birthright of the founding patriarch’s sons. It doesn’t seem to be happenstance that biblical wordplay on the name Ishmael involves the very same issue. Whoever authored the Book of Mormon appears to have been aware not only of the Hebrew meaning behind Ishmael’s name, but also the precedent of Ishmael-related wordplay in biblical texts. While such knowledge is understandable for the authors and editors mentioned in the Book of Mormon itself, it makes little sense as coming from Joseph Smith in 1829.14

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken’: Lehi’s Rhetorical Wordplay on Ishmael in 2 Nephi 1:28–29 and Its Implications,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 25 (2017): 157–189.

BibleGenesis 16:2Genesis 16:11Genesis 17:20Genesis 28:7–9Genesis 37–50Book of Mormon1 Nephi 7:41 Nephi 7:51 Nephi 7:61 Nephi 7:91 Nephi 7:191 Nephi 16:352 Nephi 1:28–292 Nephi 5:6Mosiah 21:31Alma 17:19Alma 18:22Alma 18:23Alma 18:43Alma 19:31–32Alma 20:30Alma 21:10–11Alma 21:18–21Alma 23:9Helaman 9:10


Genesis 16:2

Genesis 16:11

Genesis 17:20

Genesis 28:7–9

Genesis 37–50

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 7:4

1 Nephi 7:5

1 Nephi 7:6

1 Nephi 7:9

1 Nephi 7:19

1 Nephi 16:35

2 Nephi 1:28–29

2 Nephi 5:6

Mosiah 21:31

Alma 17:19

Alma 18:22

Alma 18:23

Alma 18:43

Alma 19:31–32

Alma 20:30

Alma 21:10–11

Alma 21:18–21

Alma 23:9

Helaman 9:10

  • 1 See Matthew L. Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken’: Lehi’s Rhetorical Wordplay on Ishmael in 2 Nephi 1:28–29 and Its Implications,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 25 (2017): 158.
  • 2 See Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 158.
  • 3 See Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 162–164.
  • 4 Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 164.
  • 5 The points discussed in this section closely follow Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 160–164.
  • 6 The points raised in this section closely follow Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 164–167.
  • 7 See Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 166–171.
  • 8 Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 172.
  • 9 See also 2 Nephi 5:6: “Wherefore, it came to pass that I, Nephi, did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me. And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words.”
  • 10 Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 176.
  • 11 Ammon then rehearsed unto Lamoni various points of doctrine and history, including “the rebellions of Laman and Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael” (Alma 18). Ammon likely wanted Lamoni to recognize that he didn’t have to side with Laman and Lemuel, as some of Ishmael’s posterity had done many years earlier. The option was still available for Lamoni and his people to align themselves with the Nephites, both religiously and culturally.
  • 12 Most other narrative accounts of mourning in the Book of Mormon are generic, dealing with a general loss of lives, either due to battle or destruction. The only other prominent account of mourning for an individual concerns the murder of the chief judge in Helaman 9:10. Note, however, that it was the people generally who were mourning for his loss, rather than his immediate family members. The same is true for the brief mention of mourning for Abinadi’s death in Mosiah 21:31.
  • 13 Bowen, “‘If Ye Will Hearken,’” 180.
  • 14 Joseph Smith was not well educated at the time and didn’t receive any formal Hebrew training until 1835. See Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 250; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Joseph Smith’s Limited Education,” Evidence# 0001, September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
Wordplay on Ishmael
Book of Mormon

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