Wednesday, September 12, 2018

What Prompted Ishmael to Leave His Home? – Part I

Consider Ishmael, the father of two married sons and five unmarried daughters. He was probably over sixty years old, relaxing in his comfortable home, knowing tomorrow would bring another challenge in his life—especially worrying about getting his daughters married.
The problem he faced was that while the four younger daughters were marriageable, the oldest daughter had not proven to be, and since ancient law required the oldest to marry before the younger, he was faced with a dilemma. Unfortunately, at the constant insistence of his four younger daughters he had exhausted all his relatives, even friends, but so far no agreement had been reached with anyone for her hand in marriage.
    It might be of note to know that the name Ishmael, which comes from the Hebrew, meaning “God hears,” refers to the name of God in whose care the individual is entrusted. Like nearly all names in Hebrew, it had significant meaning and was given at birth often to foretell something the parents hoped would take place. “Ishmael” is referred to as a theophoric name, which, according to Ran Zadok of Tel-Aviv University, means “bearing or carrying a god,” which embeds the name of God, both invoking and displaying the protection of that deity. Such names were exceedingly common in the ancient near East and Mesopotamia, comprising nearly 40% of compound theophorous names (Ran Zadok, The Pre-helenistic Israelite Anthroponymy and Prosopography, Peter Press, Louvain, Belgium, 1988, p16),
    Interestingly, the proverbial ancestor of the Arabs was named Ishmael, and is one of the few Old Testament names which is also at home in ancient Arabia. According to Hugh Nibley, “In Lehi’s friend Ishmael, we surely have a man of the desert” (Hugh Nibley, Lehi In The Desert, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1952, p40).
    So there Ishmael is, whiling away his time, worrying about his daughters, and Nephi arrives at his door, along with his three brothers. While Ishmael knew Lehi’s sons, and had many discussions with his friend about them, the boys had never come to Ishmael’s house without being in the company of their father.
Nephi delivers his father’s message to Ishmael that Lehi wants Ishmael and his family to join him in the wilderness

How astounded Ishmael must have been when, after the preliminary greetings necessary in ancient Israel, “Salaam aleykum,” and “Aleykum salaam,” (“Peace be unto you,” and “And unto you”), Nephi said, “My father wants you and your family to join us in the wilderness on our trek into the desert.” Blinking in astonishment, Ishmael undoubtedly asked for an explanation, which was easily given by Nephi. The Lord wanted Lehi to take his family into the desert on a journey to a land of promise; and he wanted Ishmael and his family to join him.
    The interesting thing at this point in the narrative, is that Nephi takes Ishmael (unlike his experience with Zoram who had to be convinced) completely for granted, never explaining more than necessary in regard to following Lehi into the desert—the act of sending for Ishmael was considered the most natural thing for him to do, and appears to be the most natural thing in the world, as does the later marriage of his daughters with Lehi's sons. We see no evidence of concern on the part of Ishmael, no feeling of a need for Nephi to convince Ishmael of coming with him down to Lehi’s beth’ab (the “house of one’s father”), a tent in the desert near the Red Sea, a distance of more than a hundred miles away—a five or six day journey. Nor do we see anything in the way of Ishmael preparing his family to go, discussing anything with his family, nor having to convince his wife, at an advanced age, to leave her comfortable home, lifetime belongings, and friends, to follow Lehi’s sons into the wilderness.
    According to Nephi's account, he spends no time in describing any controversy involved or resistance expressed, in Ishmael and his family agreeing to go into the wilderness with them down to Lehi’s tent. Nor was there, evidently, any hesitation or time taken to prepare. The family of Ishmael are not only willing but they were apparently immediately able to make the trip right then.  They did not have to stay weeks and get ready—settle their affairs, or delay in any way—Ishmael was ready to go. He was obviously a man of the desert as Nibley claims, for such an immediately action would have been out of the question if the family were a settled, or living within Jerusalem and not used to travel or nomadic living, but they had that tradition (Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, FARMS, Salt Lake City, 2004, p167).
Ishmael explaining some of his daughters about going into the desert with Nephi

Ishmael, an Ephraimite from around Jerusalem, seems unbelievably cooperative in taking his wife, five daughters, two sons and their households to travel into the wilderness to join the exodus of Lehi. If he had a concern about his daughters marrying, or of his oldest daughter finding someone to marry in the wilderness, we see no mention or reference to it. Of course, common sense suggests some discussion must have ensued between Ishmael and his family, as well as between he and Nephi, but nothing is mentioned.
    While an explanation of this event might well have been spelled out in greater detail in the Book of Lehi, those 116 translated pages were lost by Martin Harris, leaving us with nothing more to go on than Nephi’s comments, which might have been greater in the original, or Large Plates, but seem rather scarce in his abridgement of the events on the Small Plates.
    It might be understood, however, that there is a perfectly logical explanation behind this that makes the event far more understandable. According to High Nibley, “It has ever been the custom among the desert people for a man to marry the daughter of his paternal uncle (bint 'ammi), it is hard to avoid the impression that Lehi and Ishmael were related.”
    Now Ishmael was of the house of Ephraim and Lehi was from the house of Manasseh (Alma 10:3), thus, in Lehi’s sons marrying Ishmael’s daughters, the prophecies of Jacob were fulfilled as Ishmael’s family came to the American continent with Lehi (Genesis 48:16; 49:22). As Erastus Snow stated: “Whoever has read the Book of Mormon carefully will have learned that the remnants of the house of Joseph dwelt upon the American continent; and that Lehi learned by searching the records of his fathers that were written upon the plates of brass, that he was of the lineage of Manasseh. 
    The Prophet Joseph informed us that the record of Lehi was contained on the 116 pages that were first translated and subsequently stolen, and of which an abridgment is given us in the first Book of Nephi, which is the record of Nephi individually, he himself being of the lineage of Manasseh; but that Ishmael was of the lineage of Ephraim, and that his sons married into Lehi’s family, and Lehi’s sons married Ishmael’s daughters, thus fulfilling the words of Jacob upon Ephraim and Manasseh in the 48th chapter of Genesis, which says: ‘And let my name be named on them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the land.’ Thus these descendants of Manasseh and Ephraim grew together upon this American continent” (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1976, p199).
Nephi and his brothers approach Ishmael’s house outside of Jerusalem. Presumably, they were already betrothed to Ishmael’s daughters

So we find that evidently, Ishmael’s younger four daughters were betrothed to these young men, an agreement he made with Lehi in an engagement agreement some years earlier, but they had never because the oldest daughter had not married. Thus, at the time Nephi and his brothers called on Ishmael, the younger four daughters were pledged to Lehi’s sons, but were unable to marry until their oldest sister, who seems a little slow and unappealing, cold first be married. No doubt this is the reason that Laman and Lemuel, who had complained bitterly about returning to Jerusalem to obtain the Brass Plates, showed no resistance to going back to get Ishmael and his family.
    It might also be interesting to know that this simple event describes a fulfillment of a somewhat obscure prophecy that few people in the world understand. However, in the time when Jacob (Israel) went to bless Joseph’s two sons, he placed his right hand upon the head of the younger, which displeased Joseph, who sought to straighten out his father’s hands, so his right rested upon Manasseh, his first borne. But Israel responded: “I know it, my son, I know it. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. But truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.” He then blessed them both, saying “In thee shall Israel bless, saying God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh, and he set Ephraim before Manasseh” (Genesis 48:19-20).
(See the next post, “What Prompted Ishmael? – Part II,” for more on the events and circumstances that led Ishmael to follow Nephi to Lehi’s tent and join him in the wilderness trek to the land of promise)


  1. This was interesting and makes a lot of sense. I would suspect that there was a spirit of gloom over the land of Israel in those days. Anyone with the spirit would be sensitive to it. Destructions were coming. Ishmael probably heard the warning voice of Lehi and knew he was a true prophet. So that would also be a motivation for Ishmael to leave the land and go into the desert to meet up with Lehi.

  2. Paragraph 7 should read, “according to Nephi’s account..” Mormon did not abridge the small plates of Nephi.

  3. Unknown: Yes. Corrected. Thank you.

  4. erichard: It was likely much like today. Those who know what is going on can see where things are headed; those who have their heads in the sand have no clue to the dangers we face.