Monday, November 26, 2012

Why did Mormon name Abish?

There are numerous names of men and places in the Book of Mormon, but there are only five women in the entire book who are mentioned by name. The five, in no particular order, are:
  1. Eve: As in Adam and Eve. She is mentioned three times, where one of the three times comes from a direct quote written by Nephi. The other two references are direct quotes from Lehi (as recorded by Nephi).
  2. Mary: As in Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are two references to her, and both references appear in direct quotes that Mormon included in the Book of Mormon. One is from king Benjamin, who is directly quoting the words of an angel. The other is from Alma the younger , and it too appears to be a quote from an angel/the spirit.
  3. Sariah: Nephi's mother. All references to her are from the writings of Nephi, which Mormon included unabridged.
  4. Isabel: A harlot who tempted Corianton, the son of Alma. The only reference to her is from a direct quote from what appears to be something written by Alma to his son Corianton, and Mormon included it without abridgment.
  5. Abish: The subject of this post.
What is interesting when we look at this list is that four of the five women who are named explicitly in the Book of Mormon are named in passages where Mormon quotes them in their entirety  meaning he did not change, shorten or abridge them. This means that of the five only Abish's name is included explicitly by Mormon. Even though Mormon mentions some individual women, and some incredibly faithful and interesting women, he does not name them. Even with Abish, after he gives her name, he refers to her as "the woman servant" instead of by name.

Let us look at the one verse where Abish is named to see if we can figure out why Mormon chose to include her name.
16 And it came to pass that they did call on the name of the Lord, in their might, even until they had all fallen to the earth, save it were one of the Lamanitish women, whose name was Abish, she having been converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father— (Alma 19:16)
The verse refers to her as a "Lamanitish" woman, a term used only one other time in the Book of Mormon in reference to some servants who were servants to same king served by Abish. It is not clear why they are called "Lamanitish" and not "Lamanites". Some commentators have suggested that this distinction may indicate that the servants were a different ethnic group than the Lamanites, but there is too little information to make a definitive statement one way or another. But this still does not answer the question, why did Mormon include Abish's name when he told this story, since he did not include any other female names.

To see if we can sort this out let us turn to the Bible. The name Abish is similar to Abishag, a woman who is mentioned in the Bible in association with King David. There is also a male version of the name, Abishai, who was King David's nephew. In the transliteration into English all three share a similar part, namely "abish". Perhaps if we look at the Hebrew meanings of Abishag and Abishai we might figure out something about Abish.

The meaning of Abishag (אֲבִישַׁג) is unclear with some sources giving the meaning as "the [Divine] Father (?)", while others render it as "father of error" or "the father wanders". Abishai (אֲבִישַׁי) is similar with various interpretations, but its meaning is more settled than Abishag. Different sources give the meaning as "father of a gift" or "father of gifts", with apparently one source rendering it as "my father is Jesse" (for reasons discussed at this link). The only common thing in the various proposed meanings here is the "father" part ("ab"- אֲבִ).

So at the moment the best we can get for the meaning of Abish is "the father [?]". But this is encouraging considering the context. When Mormon mentions Abish he says that she was converted to the Lord "on account of a remarkable vision of her father." So apparently there was an important story involving her father, which Mormon may have known about, but did not include and thus the name Abish had special meaning given the interpretation of the name, the story of Abish's father and the situation that Mormon was writing about.

Let us see if we can take this a step further. In Hebrew "ish" (אּישׁ) is the word for man (as in "Then the man said, "This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman (isha) for from man (ish) she was taken"." Genesis 2:3). So if we can make this connection then Abish (אֲבִאּישׁ) takes on the meaning "father of man". This may seem a little strange for a female name but this would not be the first time a cross gender name has been given to someone.

This additional speculation may or may not be useful but it does show that Abish can be thought of as a Hebrew name with a specific meaning that may be significant given the story of Abish's father and his conversion to the Lord. To settle this question we would need more information, information that Mormon did not include in the Book of Mormon. Still he thought it significant enough to include her name (or alternately other Nephite record keeps thought her name sufficiently meaningful to remember and to write down). So there may have been special meaning associated with the name Abish which may be why it was the only female name that Mormon himself included in the Book of Mormon.

[Added note (2/8/15): There is an interesting article on Abish recently published over at the Mormon Interpreter.]


LL said...

Proper names in many cultures have special meaning and apply to a particular person. Thus Ab {in Arabic, Abu] (father) a prefix of sorts at least in Hebrew, and the suffix "ish" , which could have many meanings now lost to us.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that it means daughter - or daughter of her possibly famous father.

We have Mahonri Moriacumer (the Brother of Jared), who may have been known as the Brother of Jared either because Jared was more noteworthy at the time or because the people felt more comfortable with it than Mahonri Moriancumer. (Who knows?)

Historically surnames in both Korean (very structured), Russian and Scandanavian are all based on a patronymic. Lars' son becomes Larson, Peter's son becomes Peterson/Petersen, etc. It's less true in the Middle East and we don't see that pattern often in the Book of Mormon - but as you pointed out, we don't have any information on the women. It may have been common.

Turning to Spanish (and I know that you're familiar with the language), there are patronymics and matronymics with each name in common use.

ie - Jose Salazar (patronymic) Gomez (matronymic). The personal name therefore becomes an amalgamation of two families who produced the person. In English the closest we come is jr/sr and a numerical accounting John Doe III son of John Doe II, etc.

But then again, I said that I was reaching.

LL said...

You may/may not wish to weigh in on a discussion I had with my home teacher on the subject of having one's calling and election made sure.

He referred to a conference talk by Bruce McConkie (March 25, 1969), which doesn't address the issue at all.

My reference is to John 13 and the first part of 14 where we, the reader, witness a priesthood ordinance. In every priesthood ordinance (blessing sacrament, baptism, confirmation, etc.) there are four parts: (1) Invocation (2) Commandment (3) Blessing associated with keeping the commandment (4) Physical Aspect - In baptism burial and resurrection in water - in confirmation, you RECEIVE the Holy Ghost and in the case of the sacrament, you take bread and water symbolically.

Each of those aspects are also present in the Endowment.

However, the ordinance in John 13-14 (a NEW commandment I give unto you that ye love one another as I have loved you) and blessing John 14:16 "And I will pray the Father and he shall give you another comforter, that he may abide with you forever (17) Even the Spirit of Truth whom the world can not receive because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him, for he dwelleth with you and shall be in you - makes it clear that it's an ordinance.

robin marie said...

i'm glad he does use her name. she is one of my favorite characters and her story is very powerful. i often referred to her on my mission as an example of a part-member or less-active family in the scriptures.

like with enos - the example of a righteous parent who shares his/her testimony is powerful.

Bill Evans said...

I always thought it was interesting how when it said that she had been "converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father" it is ambiguous as to who had the vision of whom/what. In other words, was it Abish's father (presumably alive at the time) having a vision of angels (or whatever), or was it Abish having a vision of her father (who in this case would have been deceased at the time). Both seem to me to fit with the text, and both would make sense. Does anyone know of any commentaries/other language translations that clear this up? Anyways, great post as always.

Quantumleap42 said...

Bill, that is one interpretation that I never thought about. I think it comes in the ambiguous use of the word "of". Does the sense of "of" here imply ownership (the father's dream) or as subject (the father was the subject of the vision). I think this is something that cannot be cleared up without looking at the original text, because in other languages it will be equally ambiguous (as is the case with Spanish) or it will be subject to the bias of the translator. Meaning is the language that it is being translated into can render the phrase so that it is not ambiguous then how it gets translated is up to the translator.

I came across something similar with the phrase "rolled together as a scroll" that appears in the Book of Mormon. In English the phrase is not ambiguous (other than the general "What in the world does that mean?!?!?"), but in Spanish the phrase is ambiguous. The Spanish is, "se plegará como un rollo", which, as one of my Argentine companions pointed out to me, literally means "to come unstuck like a scroll". The important thing here is direction. In English it is clear, the direction is to come together like a scroll being rolled up (direction from flat to rolled). But in Spanish it just says "to come unstuck" which means it could go either direction (from rolled up to flat, or from flat to rolled up). So something that is unambiguous in English is ambiguous when translated into Spanish.

In my case I could appeal to English to establish a direction, but in this case the most original translation is ambiguous so we can't appeal to anything higher, except the original text, which we don't have. Sigh.

cspokey said...

Side note: there is a 6th woman named in the Book of Mormon: Sarah, wife of Abraham. 2 Nephi 8:2