What to Make of Abish?

There are only four women mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon, and three of them are pretty straightforward female archetypes: the virgin, the whore, and the nagging wife. While they may serve the purpose of fleshing out the larger story that they appear in, they are not fleshed out themselves. I’m sorry about that. I wish more women’s stories were included. The fourth woman, however, is a bit of a surprise.

Abish is a servant in the court of the wife of King Lamoni. We are told that she had been converted years ago because of a vision her father had, but kept it secret. When the entire royal court fell unconscious because of Ammon’s preaching, she saw that as an opportunity, and ran out to round up all the people of the kingdom (or at least the neighbors) so they could witness the power of God. Instead of being impressed by Ammon, however, the neighbors were pretty ticked off at the Nephite who was sitting in the court in the midst of their unconscious royalty. They began to threaten Ammon, and even tried to kill him.  The conflict escalated, and Abish was upset at the consequences of gathering the people to the court. She took the hand of the queen, and the queen came back to consciousness, praising the Lord.

That’s all we know about the fourth woman. We know her name. We know there was a religious history in the family, but don’t have the details of that. We know her small part in the larger and heroic story of Ammon. But I think we know a few other things about her too. I think she had a sense of confidence in her own beliefs and spirituality, however secret those beliefs were to the outside world, because in a time of crisis she acted on that belief instead of slinking away in fear. She must have been fairly tenacious to round up the people, and she  had a larger and fairly ambitious  plan to convert more people (although it went somewhat awry.) She seems to have been brave as well, to not only gather the crowd, but to stay there when things started to fall apart.

The confidence and tenacity and bravery that Abish showed are not usually thought of as being “feminine traits.” We don’t know anything about her traditional markers of femininity: if she’s married or single, virgin or mother. None of the traditional labels define her, rather her actions are highlighted, and serve to define her character for the purposes of this story.

I wish there were more Abishes in the Book of Mormon. I think it’s important to recognize and emulate positive traits whether they are portrayed in women or men. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that it is easier for me to relate to female characters. It is easier for me to picture them, and I’m more engaged by their stories. Maybe that’s why I remember Abish, even though she tends to get lost in the middle of the Alma saga. The sons of Mosiah were brave and admirable, but so was Abish.

Comments

  1. Technically, Abish was converted by a vision of her father. That could be interpreted to mean she was converted by a vision her father had. It could also be interpreted to mean a vision she had of her father (earthly or heavenly).

  2. Well said. Here is a BOM Stories verse our family composed in her honor:

    Abish saw Lamoni and the queen hear Ammon’s word.
    They believed and sank for joy; their hearts he truly stirred.
    Abish shared her testimony, then bent on her knee,
    And she raised up the queen righteously.

  3. Abish is my favorite. :) I’ll come back later and write more.

  4. Love Abish. She deserves major props for her quick action, natural missionary skillz, loyalty to her queen and ability to follow the Spirit. Plus I bet she was hot.

  5. What I find most interesting about Abish is that she seems to speak in tongues — not in the miraculous able to communicate with someone from another country way — but in the weird Pentecostal Christian babbling way where nobody in the room understands her.

  6. Actually there is five women mentioned by name. Sarah, the wife of Abraham, is mentioned in one of the Isaiah chapters (2 Ne 8:2). Not much of her is sayed though.

    I’ve always liked the story of Abish, even though it indeed is very brief.

  7. Mary Magdalene says:

    If someone needed a label, could we say Abish was a missionary? Her intent was to bring others to know the power of God and perhaps soften their hearts. If love is an action word, then Abish was filled with love for her fellow travelers (and certainly for those she served).

  8. I love Abish. But Eve and Sarah are also mentioned by name in the BoM — and there’s a Rahab mentioned, though from context I’m not sure if it’s the Biblical Rahab.

  9. No love for Eve? There’s five women mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon–Sariah, Eve, Isabel, Abish and Mary.

    Your point still stands, it’s just that I’m writing a paper on Eve at the moment, and feel like I have to keep reminding people that Adam had a wife. There’s a lot more written about him than her.

  10. This is great stuff, Karen.

    That’s awesome, Joanne.

  11. Joe Spencer did a series of posts on Abish at FMH a few months ago. : http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=4681

  12. Maybe the sealed 2/3 of the Book of Mormon is filled with alternate spiritual journeys and actions of women like Abish, written by women prophetesses and scribes and filled with insights into Heavenly Mother and feminine divine. God is just waiting for us to open our minds wide enough and treat women well enough to be worthy of such revelation. That must be it…right? Right?

    As a SS teacher I have had a few throw the Gospel Doctrine manual through the wall moments, but none so violent as the lesson that “covers” the story of Deborah (you know prophetess, judge of Israel etc.). She is ultimately cast as “friend” to Barak. How are good friends important to helping us live the Gospel? Are your friends like Deborah? Way to go correlation committee! Turning the story of the most independently powerful women in all of scripture into a BFF.

  13. So what I’d love is an Abish verse in Book of Mormon stories actually printed in the Children’s Songbook. Nice work, Joanne – I bet there are other versions out there, too. They should not just be apocryphal and family-specific, but widely shared and officially celebrated. In my dream world, anyway.

  14. Julie M. Smith says:
  15. Kevin Christensen says:

    I agree with Kim’s comment on the nature of the Abish’s vision according to the actual Book of Mormon wording. Joe Spencer’s reading is also very interesting.

    Regarding the “nagging wife” archetype, Sariah, I think that intended archetype depends on noticing an allusive/type scene comparison to the Widow of Zarapeth from the account of Elijah. I think Nephi intends readers to connect his mother with that earlier account of an exemplary woman of faith.

    FWIW,

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  16. There’s a lot to be said about the qualities of Abish. Of course, there’s a lot to be said about the qualities of the queen she worked for too. You might see her as nagging, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished my wife would say something to the effect of “that as for [herself], to [her I] doth not stink.” Unfortunately, for my wife, it’s usually the opposite. Perhaps I should take her advice and just lay off the spicy chimichangas.

  17. A few weeks ago I was sitting in the foyer and overheard some of YW in Excellence. One of the girls talked about how she spent time learning about the lives of the women in scriptures. I thought, “How long did that take? 10 minutes?”
    It’s common for women and girls to try and glean stories from the lives of women ins scriptures because as you explained, we may feel we can relate to them. However I wonder if this is to our detriment. If the scriptures are supposed to be universal to learning the gospel, it seems focusing on the small mentions of women and then guessing what their lives were about or trying to make them some great example they generally aren’t because of lack of information and depth of character in the stories is silly.
    I like the story of Abish too because her story can be more broadly applied. I wish she wasn’t skipped over as much as she seems to be in GD classes. I can’t help but wonder if she was a male character if she would get closer inspection in church settings.

  18. To comment 1: Exactly. The grammar is ambiguous and we jump to conclusions. I think too many people tend to attribute religious visions to the patriarch, whereas if Abish saw her father in a vision (which is the first manner in which I thought of it)… that’s so much more interesting.

  19. Honestly, I had never thought of Abish seeing her father in a vision. I guess I’m jumping to conclusions about patriarchy as well. Thanks for the comment.

    Also, thanks for pointing out the other named women that I had missed. Honestly, my point pretty much still stands, though.

    Mmiles, you said: “If the scriptures are supposed to be universal to learning the gospel, it seems focusing on the small mentions of women and then guessing what their lives were about or trying to make them some great example they generally aren’t because of lack of information and depth of character in the stories is silly.” Honestly, I tend to agree. I would actually go a bit farther and say it’s not right that women’s stories are not included, for whatever reason, and it’s important to actually point that out rather than pretend that something is there when it clearly is absent. I also think that women can learn from men’s stories, and vice versa. However, unlike the archetype characters, I think there is enough about Abish that we ought to at least notice her, and comment on her contribution to the story. She really is a bit invisible in everyday Mormon discourse.

  20. I have often thought of Abish and her contribution. Thank you for pointing out her admirable character traits. In Oct conference, Elaine Dalton mentioned that the people Abish warned were the parents who raised up the stripling warriors. I think this correlation should be made more often and credit given to her much more.

    In one of the movies my children watch, the people who depict Ammon & Abish exchange sly glances with each other over the fainted Lamanite people. Although some artistic liberties were clearly taken, I do think they must have admired one another’s boldness & testimony. And I think it fulfills the law of two witnesses having both of them there. Also,some of the people who were not willing to hear the words from a Nephite may have been more receptive to hear it from one of their own. Abish rocks!

  21. clarkgoble says:

    One can but hope that the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon has an abundance of women in it to make up for this. It’s long bugged me in certain ways. Now that I have two daughters more so. (It’s one of those things that’s kind of invisible in some ways when a guy reads) The Nephites clearly had a lot of cultural blinders on. (Remember how Samuel was excluded from the Book of Mormon until Christ had to tell them about it? 3 Ne 23:9-11 – one wishes he’d mentioned something about major women to get the Nephites to mention them.)

    To be fair though this is one of those places where the narrative of the Book of Mormon is more complex than a surface reading allows. For instance the Lamanites are hardly the bad guys and the one sided portrayal by the narrators is obviously problematic. But then the text such as the above scripture lets us in on this problem. There’s a certain element of the untrustworthy narrator to it all which is quite interesting. (Not just the question of what gets left out but also what gets included – especially during the Gadianton periods)

  22. A little off-topic, but Brad and jeans spurred me on. Here’s another family-authored BOM Stories about some of Abish’s converts…
    Anti-Lehi-Nephies put their weapons in the ground.
    They would never fight again; their Saviour they had found.
    Many died, and their example stands for all to see–
    Live or die, we must live righteously.

  23. correction to the above verse:
    Live or die, we must CHOOSE righteously.

  24. “Brad and jeans spurred me on”

    I can’t tell you how many illegitimate children and venereal diseases have started the same way.

  25. Larry the cable guy says:

    How are we forgetting # 6, the harlot Isabel who, uh, helped to generate a few quality chapters in Alma?

  26. Is Steve a perma on this site? If not, I nominate #24 for BCotW.

  27. heh.

  28. #26 for BCotW (it’ll win, too!)

  29. Counting numbers bigger than 2 is hard (up to two is easy, I have two hands so I can use them). Final count: there is six women mentioned by name in the BoM (as somebody already said). Three of them “lived in the story” and three of them are just mentioned. They are Sariah, Abish, Isabel; Eve, Mary and Sarah.
    (Rahab is mentioned in 2 Ne 8:9, but I don’t think it is a woman. If it is, she’s a fiery one)

    The interpretation of Abish seeing her father in vision is lost in most of the translations. Actually, the Swedish translation says that Abish was converted because of a vision her father had.

  30. Seconded.

  31. @25 Larry: Yes, Isabel was the “whore” archetype I mentioned in the OP. Who did you think I was talking about???

  32. rigel hawthorne says:

    I was helping my 5 year-old daughter prepare a talk for primary and having been inspired by Sister Dalton’s talk, decided to work with her to tell the story of Abish. I wanted to print out some coloring pages from the internet to tell the story that my daughter could attach to sticks and hold up as she talked. I was disappointed to find no illustrated references to Abish’s story online. So…I took what I could and pieced something together. A picture of the daughter of Jairus became the young Abish being converted from a vision of her father’s. (I had never considered that Abish had the vision). A picture of Queen Esther and a King became the wife of Lamoni and his wife. A picture of Ruth and her mother in law became Abish and the Queen. My two daugthers colored the pictures together and enjoyed learning about the story.

    I did see in the recent Deseret Book catalog that there was a mini-puzzle offered that showed Abish as a Book of Mormon character. I thought of buying it just because I captured that missing image that I had sought.

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