Symbols of the Savior: Unnamed Women in the Book of Mormon
Louisa Jo Sieber
Louisa Jo Sieber was a sophomore studying school health education when this paper was presented.
Women have always questioned their value before God and have often sought guidance from the scriptures. Women are so seldom mentioned in the scriptures and often go unnamed, particularly in the Book of Mormon. Part of the reason they go unnamed is likely due to the patriarchal order of the church and government of the time; however, there may be additional reasons. Women can become symbols of the Savior, and to include their stories more frequently may have been considered irreverent or vain. By examining the Hebrew roots of the Book of Mormon and applying that lens to unnamed women therein, one can see how women can be types of the Savior.
Women’s potential as symbols of the Savior begins with repeated metaphors of birth seen throughout the scriptures. The scriptures say that we must repent and be born again. We repent through the blood of the Atonement. We are born again through baptism by water, and are then baptized by fire as we receive the Holy Ghost. During physical birth, the mother gives copious amounts of her own water and blood to her child and nurtures that child by being a constant source of love, comfort, and advice. Just as the sacrifice of the Savior gives us spiritual life and we become his children, it is a mother’s sacrifice that gives her own children physical life and brings them into a family. Then, it is through the mother that we take on the name of our father. In the same way, we become part of Heavenly Father’s family by being born of the Savior.
The symbolism of the Savior in motherhood does not stop after a child’s birth. Just as our spiritual salvation does not stop after baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost, mothers continue to nurture their children after delivery. Referencing mothers of young children, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has said, “Through these years, mothers go longer on less sleep and give more to others with less personal renewal for themselves than any other group I know at any other time in life.” Mothers continue providing physical and emotional stamina for their children as long as they live. Mothers hurt when they see their children in pain. Mothers are willing to forgive—just like the Savior—and mothers are anxious for their children’s safe return home.
Modern revelation informs us that the Holy Priesthood was renamed the Melchizedek Priesthood to avoid repetition of and out of respect for the Savior’s name (see D&C 107:2–4). The same principle may be at work in the scriptures. Many women in the Book of Mormon could be unnamed as a way of showing reverence and to avoid taking their names in vain. It might be a long shot to claim this idea as the sole reason for the lack of named women (or women altogether) in the scriptures. It has the potential to imply that their named counterparts, male or female, are somehow less holy. As a literary tool, names are used to quickly refer to recurring characters. It is shorter than describing who they are or what they do—but with the women in the Book of Mormon, this tool is utilized sparsely, perhaps because describing characters by what they have done is more important than their names. It still gives them honor while protecting their names (e.g., the daughter of Ishmael who pleaded for Nephi’s life, the Lamanite queen who married Amalickiah to protect her people), but to employ that throughout the scriptures would be far too cumbersome.
Recently, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been found that contain an honorific form of the word “mother” in the same way that there is an honorific form of the word “father,” which refers to the elders of the church or local priesthood leadership. This gives reason to believe that in the ancient church, women held positions of stewardship. It also contradicts the idea that women existed “primarily [as] accessories to men, dependent upon them not only for survival but also for identity.” In the restored Church, women also hold positions of stewardship through the Relief Society, organized “under the priesthood after the pattern of the priesthood.”
In the ancient Near East and eastern countries, the way to bring shame to one’s name was to go back on one’s word. Men kept their word if they wanted respect (even if it was a poor choice). However, if a woman pleaded for a man to change his mind, he could go back on his promise and still be respected. This particular tradition shows how much women’s opinions can be valued (particularly in the home) and, being a tradition, was most likely taught and exemplified in the home. This may be why when Laman and Lemuel attempted to kill Nephi, they did not—because a daughter of Ishmael pleaded for Nephi’s life.
Another key, and supposedly controversial, part of Middle Eastern culture is the tradition of veil wearing. Veil wearing could have begun as a tradition to reverence women. In many cultures it was law for women to wear veils outside the home. Women of nobility and married women wore veils to mark themselves as such. In some countries, concubines or women who had been unfaithful would be tortured if they were caught wearing a veil. While the Mosaic law gives no specifics about head coverings, the Jewish law (dat Yehudit), derived from Jewish customs, sets the rules for women and head coverings. It is unclear how the tradition started, but “discomfort with the undefined lines of authority [of dat Yehudit] led some rabbis to formulate the principle that all custom [e.g., veil wearing] actually comes from earlier, forgotten law.”
In both the ancient and modern Church, veils are used to mark or protect sacred things. A spiritual veil covers our memory of the premortal life; the veil in Solomon’s temple separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (where Jehovah dwelt in the temple); and bridal veils are still used in marriage ceremonies today (although, presently, bridal veils are fashion accessories as opposed to having any symbolic meaning). In all of these uses, the point remains the same: veils are used to mark sacred things; therefore, the tradition of veil wearing among women in the Middle East could have originated to mark their holiness, or even the sacred role women hold naturally.
Women in the Bible
Distinct differences exist in the way women were written about in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. This most likely occurred because of the time difference, as well as the cultural differences, of the Testaments’ authors. Through both texts, however, unnamed women usually have a single occurrence.
Old Testament women. Typically, the named women in the Old Testament fall into four categories. First are those promised to be the progenitors of Christ; second, women of royalty; third, prominent women who were wicked; and finally, women who helped the prophets. The Old Testament writers make a point to be clear about the lineage of the Savior through Sarah, Rebekah, and Ruth. The last three categories have overlapping characters. Esther was a woman of royalty as well as a helper in rescuing the Israelites, and other women in the royal court were named in her story. The wicked queen Jezebel was often cited in prophecies against Israel, but Bathsheba did wickedly and then became royalty. Hagar, Miriam, and Rahab became great aids to Abraham, Moses, and Joshua, respectively. But these are only a few of the well-known and named women of the Old Testament.
Unnamed women in the Old Testament displayed qualities of Christ through selfless service, divine nature, and absolute love. First, the widow at Zarephath gave her last portion of grain to the prophet Elisha, even though she and her son would starve (see 1 Kings 17). Second, a barren Shunammite woman followed a prompting to prepare to host the prophet. She was blessed with a son, who later needed and received healing through that same prophet (see 2 Kings 4). The third example is of a young maid who, with earnest love for her master, told him of a prophet in Israel who could heal him (see 2 Kings 5). These women all held seemingly ordinary statuses in the world, and yet they all personified attributes of the Savior. One reason they remained unnamed may have been to preserve their virtue as symbols of him.
New Testament women. In contrast to Old Testament literature, it is more comfortable for a modern audience to relate to women in the New Testament because of the Savior’s dealings with them in the four Gospels. The book of Luke contains the majority of Christ’s interactions with women, possibly due to the fact that Luke was a Gentile convert who may not have grown up with the tradition of excluding women from scriptural writings. Out of the three Jewish writers (Matthew, Mark, and John), John gives the most accounts of women. His overall style and choice of what to include might be an attempt to show us character traits about the Savior that aren’t as visible in the other three Gospels. One of these traits is certainly reverence for the daughters of God.
We read of three particular instances when the Savior interacts with women who have seriously sinned: the woman who washed his feet with her own tears in Simon’s house, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the woman taken in adultery. In each case, Jesus gave counsel specific to each woman’s individual needs. He addressed each as “woman,” which may seem abrasive in English, but the Greek word it was translated from, γύναι, connotes respect or admiration. The Savior never raised his voice, insulted the women, or magnified their sins, but he always offered them a second chance to become the daughters of God that he saw they could be, demonstrating great respect and admiration for them. We know he visited Mary Magdalene first after his Resurrection, and she was the woman who witnessed the empty tomb and guarding angels. We know of his willingness to assist his mother in any task (turning water into wine), and we know that during his Crucifixion, he charged John the Beloved with the care of his mother. His actions show equal love and respect for men and women alike.
There is also the instance of the woman who anointed the Savior. Christ promised that “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her” (Matthew 26:13). Christ may have known her name. He could have told her name to his disciples for them to record, but he didn’t. Perhaps this nameless but purposeful mention adds holiness to a non-recurring character. Perhaps referencing her by her actions is more meaningful than by her name.
Women in the Book of Mormon
There are equal numbers of practical and spiritual reasons for the lack of women’s stories in the Book of Mormon. The purpose of the Book of Mormon, the way in which it was compiled, and the limited amounts of space all contribute to the scarcity of female characters. In part, the seeming exclusion of women comes from the previously mentioned Hebrew roots of the Book of Mormon, passed down through the record keepers. But these are not the only reasons. Mormon chose specific stories to include in the narrative. Why did he include the women that he did? The idea of women’s sanctity through reverence becomes clear in the Book of Mormon when the stories of unnamed women are examined.
First, let us remember how Mormon received and compiled this record, and let us compare the circumstances to the criteria of named women in the Old Testament. Like the Old Testament, the records had been kept and handed down by the prophets and righteous kings. Unlike the Old Testament, none of the women in the Book of Mormon would be the progenitors of Christ, and a Nephite queen is never mentioned. Included in the record are named women who served the Lord, such as Sariah and Abish, but there are also named women who were wicked, such as Isabel the harlot. The Book of Mormon writers wanted us to know the stories of the unnamed women for a specific reason. When readers examine the details of the stories, they can realize the parallels between the unnamed women and the Savior.
Sariah and Nephi’s sisters may not have been mentioned at all if we had the account of the large plates instead of Nephi’s more personal record from the small plates. But we do have some account of them and can learn a great deal about their character. When the Lord commanded Nephi to separate his family from Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael, he recounted that his sisters went with him. His sisters were married to the sons of Ishmael. They chose to leave their husbands in order to follow the prophet. For a Hebrew woman to leave her family was a cultural abomination. Few reasons for divorce existed under Jewish tradition: if the marriage was childless after ten years, if the husband refused to have children with his wife, if the husband beat his wife, or if the husband contracted a loathsome disease. The importance of loyalty to family was the reason Laman and Lemuel followed Lehi into the wilderness in the first place. Therefore, the departure of Nephi’s sisters from their husbands, and whatever children stayed behind (if any chose to stay with their fathers), was a monumental decision with which they likely struggled.
The ideal of family loyalty continued through Lamanite culture more consistently than it did in Nephite culture and can be seen throughout generations of Lamanite history. Jacob explained to his people at the temple that the Lamanites kept the law of chastity and remained loyal to their spouses, while the Nephites were unfaithful (see Jacob 3:5–7). This tradition comes back into focus in the stories of the Lamanite queens. The stories of the Lamanite queens are some of the most powerful examples of women in the Book of Mormon. To sincerely attempt to understand their experiences, readers must meticulously question the characters’ motives, thoughts, and what they might have been feeling as their stories progressed. Why did Mormon include their stories in the Book of Mormon? Why didn’t he give their names? These women acted as symbols of the Savior with their examples of faith, loyalty, bravery, and love for their people. By leaving them unnamed, Mormon showed reverence for them.
Lamoni’s wife. The first Lamanite queen mentioned is King Lamoni’s wife, whose unexpected amount of faith delivered miracles. She is introduced with her children, mourning for her husband, who they thought was dead (see Alma 18:43). She waited two days and two nights before summoning Ammon. During that time, she heard everyone’s opinion on whether or not Lamoni was actually dead—something she didn’t want to believe. From the way she recounted her story to Ammon, it seems that she kept hoping for Lamoni to wake up. It’s possible that she received some kind of witness from the Spirit that he was alive. But others disagreed with her. After she heard friends and associates say he was dead and that his body stunk, she may have wondered if her mind had begun to play tricks on her. What if she walked past his room and thought she caught the smell of a dead body? She would have had to either face the decision to believe that her husband was dead or listen to her heart and keep believing he was alive. Whatever amount of doubt the queen might have felt, she kept on hoping for Lamoni to wake up.
The queen is next shown summoning Ammon because of the testimony of her servants. She could have also been prompted by the Spirit, but the queen still put quite a bit of trust in her servants, which exemplifies the type of relationship she had with them, the closeness they had with each other. Also, in Alma 19:9 she uses the phrase “our servants” when speaking to Ammon. This informs us as readers that she and the king didn’t have separate servants, but that their servants served the whole household, confirming the idea that the Lamanite monarchy was very much a family affair, that they hadn’t lost the Hebrew ideal of family loyalty. They were not at all like a king and queen in Babylon or Persia (we know that Esther and King Xerxes did not dwell together often and did not share servants). But because Ammon was a Nephite (the ultimate betrayer of trust to the Lamanites) who had only recently entered the king’s court and volunteered to live as a servant, asking for his help might have been the queen’s last resort. However, because she loved her husband and was willing to do whatever it took to save him, she pleaded with Ammon for his help and guidance. Of her Ammon said, “there has not been such great faith among all the people of the Nephites” (Alma 19:10).
Lamoni’s mother. Lamoni’s mother offers a much different example of an unnamed Lamanite queen. She also loved her husband. When she saw her husband appear to be dead, she did what was expected of her culturally and demanded swift retribution. She ordered her servants to slay Aaron and his brethren. She, like her daughter-in-law, trusted her servants. When she saw that they were too afraid to slay Aaron, she called for a mob to gather so that no one else could be slain. She was determined to avenge her husband because she loved him. Because of those ties of trust within the family, Lamoni’s mother was able to quickly accept the gospel when Lamoni’s father told her about it and began to be obedient to it immediately. Like the Savior, who kept the law of Moses until it was fulfilled, Lamoni’s mother lived up to the expectations of her culture until a better way presented itself.
The Lamanite queen of Amalickiah. The most intriguing of all the Lamanite queens is the widowed queen who was forced to marry Amalickiah. Why did Mormon include her story? How did Mormon learn of her story? Amulon and the priests of King Noah taught the Lamanites to keep records (see Mosiah 24:6). Who kept her record? If Amulon kept to the tradition of the Nephites, he would have taught that the kings keep a record of the people. If this is true, then Mormon had a record written by her or someone in her court, though it is still unknown how it became part of the Nephite record. If Mormon knew her name, he made a conscious decision to leave it out. Why? Is she also symbolic of the Savior?
This queen’s story is brief, but Mormon rarely includes anything in the abridgment that is not important. Mormon believes there is something so important about her that he starts from the beginning, when Amalickiah’s servants slay the Lamanite king. Mormon states that Amalickiah took his own servants to testify to the queen and then describes that “they satisfied the queen concerning the death of the king” (Alma 47:32–35; emphasis added). What is Mormon trying to tell us? If the queen really believed Amalickiah, wouldn’t Mormon have told us she was convinced with their testimony, not “satisfied”? And if this queen was anything like the last two Lamanite queens, then she knew and trusted her servants, who had likely been serving her and the family for many years. Amalickiah expected her to believe that her trusted servants murdered their king in front of the highest-ranking military officer. Few people are that stupid. It would be comparable to someone speeding down the highway, seeing a police car in the distance, and deciding to step on the gas even more. This queen knew that Amalickiah was a Nephite who worked his way up in the Lamanite military incredibly fast. She knew that the testimony given was from Amalickiah’s servant. She could connect the dots that her servants were framed.
Mormon included that the queen desired to protect her people from bloodshed when she “sent unto Amalickiah, desiring him that he would spare the people of the city” (Alma 47:33). Before she met him, the queen already considered Amalickiah a threat (which might be why she also asked for witnesses). She did not have sufficient power to safely oppose him and valued the protection of her people more than revenge, so she became his wife. Joining with the person who murdered her husband so that she could protect her people showed courage and true sacrifice for her people. Given Amalickiah’s history, she was very likely signing herself up for rape and other such abuse. But she went willingly like a lamb to the slaughter. This Lamanite queen showed true bravery and devotion to her people.
It is apparent that the amount of women in the Book of Mormon is a cause of consternation for some. If the Book of Mormon was to help usher in the fulness of times, why are so few women mentioned, and fewer named—especially when we know of the Savior’s high esteem for women? There are many opinions on this answer, some more legitimate than others, but there isn’t a concrete answer. The Book of Mormon was given to help usher in the fulness of times, but it isn’t the end-all of the gospel. It proves that the heavens are not closed, and neither is revelation on women’s great potential. Because of that, readers make do with what they have and try to understand the reason for the unnamed women in the Book of Mormon.
When the reader seeks to understand biblical traditions, such as covering things which are sacred, perhaps the reader will better understand his or her own sacredness before God, his or her value in his eyes. When readers understand that those referred to by their actions are just as meaningful as those referred to by name, they can see that there are different ways of showing reverence. Through their ability to give birth, women have the potential to be symbols of the Savior. If questioning readers can see unnamed women in the Book of Mormon as symbols of the Savior, then perhaps those readers will begin to see women in their own lives as symbols of the Savior as well.
Jeffrey R. Holland, “Because She Is a Mother,” Ensign, May 1997, 35.
Sidnie White Crawford, “Mothers, Sisters, and Elders: Titles for Women in Second Temple Jewish and Early Christian Communities,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls as Background to Postbiblical Judaism and Early Christianity: Papers from an International Conference at St. Andrews in 2001, ed. James R. Davila (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 177.
Francine R. Bennion, “Women and the Book of Mormon,” in Women of Wisdom & Knowledge: Talks Selected from the BYU Women’s Conferences, ed. Marie Cornwall and Susan Howe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990).
Sarah M. Kimball, “Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent, September 1, 1883.
Heather B. Moore, Women of the Book of Mormon: Insights & Inspirations (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2010), 14.
Fadwa El Guindi, Veil Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (Oxford: Berg, 1999).
Leila Leah Bronner, “From Veil to Wig: Jewish Women's Hair Covering,” Judaism 42, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 465–77.