The Death of Ishmael[fn1]

November 5, 2013 | 7 comments
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jewish-tombstoneEarly 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]

Remember, in the middle of the chapter—a few verses before Ishmael’s death—Nephi breaks his bow. The loss of his bow isn’t just an annoyance; rather, without his bow, they “could obtain no food.”

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.

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7 Responses to The Death of Ishmael[fn1]

  1. Dave on November 5, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    I suppose it is worth noting that Lehi at least had a divine dream directing him to head off into the wilderness (obviously a perilous undertaking), whereas Ishmael had only Nephi and company’s less than inspiring proposal to rely on: “So, would you consider heading off into the wilderness with the Lehi company, destination unknown? In return we’ll marry your daughters, who will head off into the wilderness as well.” Yet Ishmael went.

  2. Cameron on November 5, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    Not sure about these assumptions, they seem a bit of a stretch. Many unrecorded things happen in the scriptures that are not included. Ishmael may well have had a dream, seen an angel, or had a weird good feeling about the crazy proposition. It’s pretty hard to die of hunger, much easier to die from other causes, even when old.

    I do appreciate this article Sam. Asking these kinds of questions to ourselves is a fruit of pondering and slow reading, something I have gratefully discovered since I was a missionary. Even down to small phrases and individual words, it greatly benefits our study and understanding.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on November 5, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    We don’t know how long it took Lehi’s party to get to Nehem, where they buried Ishmael, but we do know that the wives in the company, including Sariah, were having babies out there in the wilderness. I can imagine that Ishmael, as a loving father, may have been cutting back on his own rations in order to ensure his daughters had the food they needed for their children. And they could not minimize the calories they burned by just lying down; they needed to keep moving to find water.

    If Ishmael were starving, at some point he would be too weak to refuse nourishment, so I don’t think it is likely he directly died of starvation. But being weak form hunger would have made him weaker and more likely to stumble and fall, getting an injury that was hard to recover from, and possibly triggering an infection that, in the age before any antibiotics, could easily become fatal. My wife had a fall, leading to uncontrolled growth of a staph bacteria that is ubiquitous in the environment, and that could have killed her but for the antibiotics she recevied intravenously over ten days in the hospital.

  4. Abu Casey on November 6, 2013 at 2:15 am

    I love this. A friend of mine pointed this out during a Sunday School lesson he was teaching last year. Nice to see that other people see this there too. As Cameron points out, there’s no smoking gun, but still, the text seems to hint in that direction.

  5. Grant Hardy on November 7, 2013 at 9:05 am

    I talk a little about the family dynamics surrounding Ishmael’s death on p. 46 of Understanding the Book of Mormon, but the topic certainly deserves more attention. Thanks, Sam.

  6. Robert Ricks on November 7, 2013 at 9:53 am

    This kind of close reading of the scriptures is great. Thanks, Sam.

  7. Sam Brunson on November 7, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. I agree that the textual evidence isn’t enough to say that Ishmael died of starvation, but as RTS says, I believe it strongly suggests that his death was related somehow to their lack of food during the period when Nephi’s bow was broken.

    And Grant, Understanding the Book of Mormon is really what inspired me to try to read closely; I appreciate all of the work you did there. I hope that in my reading and blogging, I can find little crannies where I can add to your analysis.