Early in the Small Plates of Nephi, Ishmael and his family join Lehi and his family in the wilderness. In spite of their likely close proximity, though, we don’t know much about Ishmael.[fn2] Nephi and his brothers found favor in Ishmael’s sight. Although at various times Ishmael’s sons and daughters act for or against Nephi, we don’t have any sense about where Ishmael falls in the Laman & Lemuel/Lehi & Nephi continuum.
And then, ten chapters after he joins the Lehite family, Ishmael dies and is buried.
As he didn’t tell us much about Ishmael in life, Nephi also tells us little about the circumstances of his death. Still, Nephi provides some context, and that context perhaps hints about a cause of death.[fn3]
We know that Nephi ended up making a new bow, asked Lehi where he should hunt, and eventually brought back meat. But we don’t have any idea how long they went without (sufficient? any?) food. Note that Ishmael dies two verses after Nephi returns with food.
Still, the proximity between Nephi finally returning with food and Ishmael dying isn’t strong evidence that Ishmael’s death was related to their lack of food; just like Nephi doesn’t provide us with any sense of how long they went without food, the two verses could represent days or they could represent years.
Nonetheless, I think there’s decent support for the idea that Ishmael’s death was somehow related to their lack of food. At his death, Ishmael’s daughters[fn4] mourned their father’s death. As they mourn his death, the complain about their sufferings in the wilderness, and end with the plaintive assertion that “after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger.”
There’s no terminal like our father in their cry but, in light of the composition of the story, the placement of Ishmael’s death, and the ultimate focus/fear of his daughter’s, it’s not too unreasonable a stretch to assert that Ishmael’s death may have resulted from complications related to hunger.
[fn1] Yes, I know I’m still not quite halfway through the Approaching Zion Project. And I intend to get through the rest of it. But, in the meantime, as I try to steal some modicum of time for blogging, I hope you’ll indulge me as I throw in little posts here and there, like this one.
[fn2] And, unsurprisingly, given that Nephi gives one woman—his mother—a voice (one time, for that matter), we know nothing at all about Ishmael’s wife.
[fn3] Or maybe not, but I thought the arrangement of Chapter 16 was interesting.
[fn4] Note here that Nephi, who married one of the daughters of Ishmael, says that the “daughter of Ishmael” murmured against him and Lehi upon Ishmael’s death and wanted to go back to Jerusalem; he doesn’t exempt his wife from the numbers of those mourning and complaining. Do with that what you will.