Evidence #398 | March 27, 2023

Wordplay on Jacob

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Scripture Central


Throughout the Book of Mormon, the name Jacob (may-he/God-protect) is repeatedly associated with the concepts of protection and preservation.

In the Bible, the meaning of the name Jacob is connected with his grabbing of Esau’s “heel” during childbirth, as well as his scheming efforts to “supplant” his brother (Genesis 25:26; 27:36; Hosea 12:3).1 Yet these associations appear to be more of a narrative convention involving wordplay, rather than a reflection of the name’s true etymology. According to Matthew Bowen,

From a scientific etymological perspective, “Jacob” (yaʿăqōb) has the much more positive meaning, “may he [i.e., God] protect,” or “he has protected.” That is, it is probably short (hypocoristic) for Jacob-El as yʿqb-ʾl “may-El-protect (him),” as the original text of Deuteronomy 33:28 likely read.2

In a number of instances, it appears that Book of Mormon authors were aware of this meaning and intentionally played off of it in their writings.

Jacob, Son of Lehi

Based on several Book of Mormon passages, it seems that Jacob was born sometime during his family’s harrowing wilderness travels before they reached Bountiful.3 For Lehi and Sariah to give the name Jacob to one of their lastborn sons in such a setting—during a time of great vulnerability and physical hardship—is quite fitting, as they were in constant need of divine protection.

We get a hint that Sariah was thinking along these lines even before Jacob was born. After her sons safely returned with the brass plates, she declared, “I also know of a surety that the Lord hath protected my sons, and delivered them out of the hands of Laban” (1 Nephi 5:8). Several verses later, Nephi explains the details of the brass plates, including the story of how the Lord preserved Jacob and Joseph in the Old Testament (1 Nephi 5:14):4


yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob,



who was sold into Egypt, and who was preserved by the hand of the Lord,



that he might preserve


his father, Jacob, and all his household from perishing with famine.

Considering all the things that could have been said about these individuals, the two instances of “preserve(d)” sandwiched between two instances of “Jacob” in a chiastic structure is telling.5 As proposed by Bowen, “Jacob’s name [as given by Lehi and Sariah] may have constituted a kind of prayer for the preservation of the family throughout their wilderness journey and beyond, expressing the added hope of ‘protection’ for the special son who was their ‘firstborn in the wilderness’ (2 Nephi 2:1–2, 11).”6

Nephi as a Protector

In his final words and testament to his family,7 Lehi declared, “if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish” (2 Nephi 1:28). This echoes Lehi’s earlier promise that those who kept the commandments would “dwell safely forever” in the land of promise (v. 9).

Nephi inspects a sword and other weapons. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

In addition to these general statements, given to the older generation of Lehi’s and Ishmael’s sons, the theme of Nephi providing safety is especially pronounced in Lehi’s counsel to Jacob: “thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi” (2 Nephi 2:1–3). This same idea is later expressed by Jacob himself, as he paired his own name with the word “protector” in a short chiastic structure (2 Nephi 6:2):8


Behold, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob [may-he/God-protect]



having been called of God, and ordained after the manner of his holy order, and



having been consecrated by my brother Nephi,


unto whom ye look as a king or a protector, and on whom ye depend for safety

Bowen notes,

When Jacob added to “protector” the words “upon whom you depend for safety” (2 Nephi 6:2), he alluded to Deuteronomy 33:28 (“Israel shall then dwell in safety, untroubled is the fountain of Jacob [-El]”) and back to the content of his father’s dying blessing upon him personally: “thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God” (2 Nephi 2:3).

Finally, at the beginning of his own book, Jacob declared, “I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi. … The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them” (Jacob 1:10). Thus, we see that the theme of divine protection provided by Nephi is repeatedly connected with and articulated by Jacob, whose name means “may he/God protect.” Interestingly, the “word ‘protector’ is used twice in Latter-day Saint scripture and Jacob uses it in both instances (2 Nephi 6:2; Jacob 1:10).”9

An Allusion to Jacob’s Preservation at Peniel

As mentioned previously, Lehi prophesied that Jacob would “dwell safely” with Nephi (2 Nephi 2:3). There is, however, additional evidence in this passage worth considering (bolded below):

Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain. Wherefore, thy soul shall be blessed, and thou shalt dwell safely with thy brother, Nephi; and thy days shall be spent in the service of thy God. Wherefore, I know that thou art redeemed, because of the righteousness of thy Redeemer; for thou hast beheld that in the fulness of time he cometh to bring salvation unto men. And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed (2 Nephi 2:3–4)

Several of these elements—(1) Jacob’s name, (2) the repeated emphasis on him being “blessed” or “redeemed,” and (3) the report that he “beheld” the “glory” of God—connect Jacob, son of Lehi, with the great patriarch of the same name in the Old Testament. As concluded by Bowen, “All of this recalls, and appears to be meant to recall, their ancestor Jacob’s esoteric ‘temple’ experience at Peniel, and his subsequent reconciliation with Esau.”10 Especially relevant is the description of the protection and safety that the ancient patriarch received: “And Jacob [may-he/God-protect] called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30).

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel, by Jan Luyken, 1698.

It is little wonder, then, why Lehi’s blessing of his son Jacob included a promise that he would “dwell safely” with his brother (2 Nephi 2:3). Not only does this promise evoke the meaning of Jacob’s own name (may-he/God-protect), but it is given as part of a network of allusions to his ancestor Jacob, who was likewise “preserved” after seeing the Lord at Peniel.

Jacob and Mulek

At one point in the war chapters of the book of Alma, the Lamanites “retreated with all their army into the city of Mulek, and sought protection in their fortifications” (Alma 52:2). A major Nephite initiative was then undertaken to reconquer this location:11

And it came to pass they sent embassies

to the army of the Lamanites, which protected the city of Mulek,

to their leader, whose name was Jacob (Alma 52:20)

Jacob, however, failed to protect the city, and it was retaken by the Nephites (Alma 52:15–40). The next chapter then recounts the story of Helaman’s stripling warriors, emphasizing how they began to protect the Nephites who had previously been protecting them (see Alma 53).

Of all the textual units in the Book of Mormon, Alma 52–53 (which constituted a single unit in the original text12) has the highest concentration of the word protect.13 The fact that a Lamanite-Zoramite military leader named Jacob (may-he-protect) failed to protect a major Lamanite stronghold in a narrative where protection is a major theme is suggestive of ironic wordplay, especially since most military leaders aren’t identified by name in Mormon’s abridgment.

Protection from the God of Jacob

A final association arises in the Nephites’ conflict with the Gadianton robbers in 3 Nephi 4:28–30:14


and [they] did cry with a loud voice, saying:



May the Lord




preserve his people in righteousness …


And they did rejoice and cry again with one voice, saying:



May the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,




protect this people in righteousness, so long as they shall call on the name of their God for protection.

As can be seen, “Jacob” is placed immediately next to the word “protect,” and “protect” in the lower part of the structure is paired with “preserve” in the upper part of the structure (element C). Thus, once again, Jacob is associated with words that reflect the meaning of this name and also the patriarch’s encounter with the divine being at Peniel: “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30).15


When all the relevant textual data is assembled, it is apparent that the name Jacob is repeatedly connected with the concepts of protection, preservation, and safety in the Book of Mormon. These associations reflect the meaning of the name itself and likely allude to biblical passages which seem to evoke the same types of wordplay. These data demonstrate the Book of Mormon’s keen attention to onomastic detail and provide another line of evidence in support of its Hebrew literary origins.

Matthew L. Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 229–256.

Matthew L. Bowen, “‘I Kneeled Down Before My Maker’: Allusions to Esau in the Book of Enos,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 29–56.

Matthew Bowen, “‘And There Wrestled a Man with Him’ (Genesis 32:24): Enos’s Adaptations of the Onomastic Wordplay of Genesis,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 10 (2014): 151–160.

  • 1 See Matthew L. Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 27 (2017): 230–231.
  • 2 Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 230–231.
  • 3 Lehi described Jacob as being “my firstborn in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness” (2 Nephi 2:1) and Joseph as being born “in the wilderness of mine afflictions; yea, in the days of my greatest sorrow did thy mother bear thee” (2 Nephi 3:1; emphasis added). These statements seem to reflect the difficult stages of wilderness travels that occurred before the party reaching the more prosperous setting at Bountiful. See also the generic mention of women bearing children in 1 Nephi 17:1, 20, which also implies a pre-Bountiful setting. The first mention of Jacob and Joseph by name occurs in 1 Nephi 18:7: “And now, my father had begat two sons in the wilderness; the elder was called Jacob and the younger Joseph.” So we can be certain they were born before the ocean voyage. Later in this chapter, Nephi briefly explains that Jacob and Joseph were “young” and had need of “much nourishment” during Laman and Lemuel’s maritime rebellion (1 Nephi 18:19).
  • 4 See Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 233. This chiasm appears to be part of a larger, more complex chiastic structure:
  • A
  • a
  • And it came to pass that my father, Lehi,
  • b
  • also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers;
  • c
  • wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph;
  • B
  • a
  • yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt,
  • b
  • and who was preserved by the hand of the Lord,
  • b
  • that he might preserve his father,
  • a
  • Jacob, and all his household from perishing with famine.
  • B
  • And they were also led out of captivity and out of the land of Egypt, by that same God who had preserved them.
  • A
  • a
  • And thus my father, Lehi,
  • b
  • did discover the genealogy of his fathers.
  • c
  • And Laban also was a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records.
  •  Note that a somewhat different structure is proposed in Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2007), 12. However, the example given above (suggested by Evidence Central staff) better accounts for what must otherwise be seen as several instances of extraneous repetition of key terms in the center elements of the chiasm.
  • 5 See Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 233: “Nephi, probably as his father did, read the entire narrative of Genesis 37–50 (in the much fuller form that he had it) as a story of protection and ‘preservation.’ Indeed, there appears to be an allusion to the meaning of Jacob’s name (‘may he protect’) in the verb translated ‘preserve’ (cf. Genesis 32:20: ‘And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life [soul] is preserved [wattināṣēl napšî]’; Genesis 45:5: ‘God did send me [Joseph] before you to preserve life [lĕmiḥyâ]’). It is worth noting here that the Semitic verb ʿqb as preserved in the Ethiopic verb ʿaqaba (‘guard, watch, keep watch, safeguard, tend [flocks], preserve … protect’) and substantive participle ʿaqābbi (‘guardian, guard, keeper, watchman, protector, official’ cf. kjv Akkub) and South Arabic ʿqbt(n) (‘watchtower’) and *mʿqbt (‘guard, guardian’) convey this sense of protection.”
  • 6 Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 234.
  • 7 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Testament of Lehi,” Evidence# 0068, December 7, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 8 This chiasm is proposed in Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 237.
  • 9 Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 236.
  • 10 Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 243–244. Enos’s account also draws extensive parallels with these stories. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Enos and the Jacob-Esau Cycle,” Evidence# 396, March 13, 2023, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 11 Note how the basic syntax of this passage somewhat correlates “Jacob” with “protected.”
  • 12 See John W. Welch and Greg Welch, “Comparison of Chapter Divisions: 1830 and 1981 Editions,” in Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), chart 170.
  • 13 Forms of the word “protect” are mentioned 9 times in Alma 52–53. Interestingly, the second largest concentration (with 3 uses) happens to be in 3 Nephi 4, which also features the name Jacob, as will be discussed in the following section.
  • 14 Parallel structure proposed by Evidence Central staff. At least these elements, in this simplified form, adhere to an alternate pattern. See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Alternate Parallelisms,” Evidence# 0281, December 7, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org. See also 3 Nephi 4:10: “But in this thing they were disappointed, for the Nephites did not fear them; but they did fear their God and did supplicate him for protection.” For the legal evidence pertaining to this narrative, see Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Zemnarihah’s Hanging,” Evidence# 0034, September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 15 For more discussion of these passages, see Bowen, “Jacob’s Protector,” 252–253.
Wordplay on Jacob
Book of Mormon

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