Thursday, March 11, 2010

Names of Women in the Book of Mormon

Why are so few women named in The Book of Mormon? There are visions of Mary, beautiful above all, but not a single Jaredite woman is named; the same holds true for the Nephites. In fact only two women march through the pages of Ancient American religious history by name: Sariah and Abish. Thousands of years, two names.

Most would say three names: Sariah, Abish, Isabel. But, as Hugh Nibley has pointed out, Isabel is not a personal name, rather a name associated with hierodules. For Nephites, as for moderns attuned to the Bible, Jezebel names every harlot.

On the other hand, you do have "the queen" (two of these), "the daughter of Jared," "the daughters of Ishmael," and "their mothers" (of the stripling warriors), real women all, though nameless, as we consider names.

So why do Sariah and Abish luck out? The answer is simple.

As with several other cultures of the ancient world, the names of Nephite and Lamanite (and, seemingly, Jaredite) women were not for public consumption. I recall the words of the Athenian lady who blasted an admirer of her white arms by retorting "my elbow is not on public display."

So who can be named, and survive the public glare? Sariah is the founding mother of the tribe, namesake and image of the Princess Sarah, the mother of the entire race. Her name is powerful and above reproach, a blessing, a grace: "My mother, Sariah." What about Abish? Abish is a servant ("the woman servant," in fact), and servants just don't matter; they have nothing to hide or to parade. Yet Abish, though servant, plays a dramatic role in the Book of Alma, an irony that the book is at pains to declare. And Isabel? She (and her ilk) are prostitutes; no need to shield infamy.

The paucity of female names in The Book of Mormon evidences its ancient origins. After all, if the Prophet Joseph Smith's mind really conformed to Fawn Brodie's description of "his plastic fancy"-- "His imagination spilled over like a spring freshet"--shouldn't the names of Nephite and Lamanite women overflow and dazzle the pages of Alma (in Western usage a female name)? Why does the freshet go dry? Shouldn't we find Mara, Zaraptah, and--to be sure--Laneah?

But how about the Bible? Aren't there a lot of named women in its pages? I find the following statement in notes prepared by Hugh Nibley for his Old Testament Sunday School Class:

"Now he [Samson] finds another lady friend: all the women so far have been great--and scrupulously unnamed. Now we come to a vicious creature, and the editors can't wait to tell us her name--Delilah. SHE is the dame fatale."

Jacob must have had many daughters. Why does Dinah alone appear, and then only in a story of disgrace and retribution? And the same holds true in book after book: named women in the Judean chronicles are as often as not the subjects of a fall from palatial grace. Nephi, a well-educated Judean male, almost chokes when he has to mention his sisters (in the very last historical portion of his writings).

And were the Nephites chauvinists? Hugh Nibley, when teaching Jacob's sermon on chastity, would point this out. Like the Ancient Greeks, the greatest of history's chauvinists, so the Nephites. . .

After all, that lovely white elbow didn't just come from genetics---the poor Greek lady passed all her days locked safely away from the glare of the sun.


The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ may be found here:

Isabel is discussed in Hugh Nibley's The Prophetic Book of Mormon.

Delilah: Hugh Nibley, unpublished, typed class notes for The Book of Judges, found on the Website of Bruce J. Porter. Sunday School with Hugh Nibley, I fondly recall, was no Sunday School picnic. It was more like dusk come Ramadan--dinner is served. Yet all was seasoned with grace.

Fawn Brodie: No Man Knows my History, 27.

PS: If anyone has already heard or read a like explanation for the naming of Sariah and Abish (or for the omission of other female names in the Book of Mormon), please hasten to bring the source to my attention.

Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide, 288 n 3 (2010), lists bibliography for studies on Nephite attitudes about women..

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