In a November 2021 post, “Recent Discoveries and Advances Published by Interpreter, Part 1,” I discussed a recent publication by Neal Rappleye, “An Ishmael Buried Near Nahom,” in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. He reported an intriguing find among roughly 400 burial markers in Wadi Jawf, a place very near or within ancient tribal lands for the Nihm tribe, whose influence and name in Yemen during Lehi’s day is now attested in 3 ancient altars bearing the NHM name given as gifts to a temple at Marib, raising the possibility that the rare place name “Nahom” (which would have been written without vowels in the Hebrew of the days, or simply NHM) mentioned in the Book of Mormon as the place where Ishmael was buried may have been associated with the Nihm tribe.
Based on multiple inscriptions regarding Nihmites in the region, several scholars not affiliated with the Church believe that the ancient Nihm tribe was in or near the Wadi Jawf region in antiquity (see Rappleye’s footnote 4). Significantly, Wadi Jawf makes a great deal of sense as a region associated with Nahom in the Book of Mormon, for it is in just about the only place where one can turn nearly due east from the Incense Trail or any other south-southeast route from the River Laman and Shazer and still have a chance of making it to the eastern coast of Oman alive. An eastward route a few miles to the north (or along nearly all of the hundreds of miles of Lehi’s Trail to the north) or a few miles to the south of Wadi Jawf would result in crossing great sand dunes in the Empty Quarter to the north or another dessert to the south that would be too difficult for Lehi’s group, especially given the general lack of sources of water. But the trek due east from the Waid Jawf region avoids the great dunes and presents no serious natural obstacles, and can, with a little guidance, take one into the right wadi to find a reasonable candidate for Bountiful. That eastward route also has terrain that can capture pools of water that persist after the rainy season. Not easy, but vastly more likely to encounter water than other routes. In fact, as discussed in my “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 of 2” in Interpreter, turning east at the proposed Nahom site near Wadi Jawf may put one on a route with higher annual rainfall than routes slightly north or south of that path, at least based on a 2012 CIA map of rainfall, shown combined with a map from Warren Aston below (click to enlarge).
Getting back to Rappleye’s article, one interesting and possibly controversial aspect of the funerary stela bearing the name “Ishmael” is that it also has a crude line drawing of man’s face carved into the stone:
|Funerary stela YM 27966 bearing a name in Epigraphic South Arabian equivalent to the Hebrew name “Ishmael,” dated to ca. 6th century BC, from Neal Rappleye, “An Ishmael Buried Near Nahom.”|
Scholars examining the collection of stelae propose that they were made either for foreigners from the north passing through the area or for the members of the lower ranks of society. In either case, this could fit the case of Lehi’s family, traveling as nomads without the gold and silver Lehi once had in Jerusalem.
Rappleye’s conclusion is appropriately cautious:
At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest that if the Ishmael of the Book of Mormon was buried with some sort of identifying marker, it probably would have looked something like the Yasmaʿʾil stela — a crudely carved stela typical of foreigners traveling through the area, who lacked substantial time or resources to afford a more extravagantly carved and engraved burial stone.
Although a firmer conclusion eludes us, the very fact that an Ishmael was buried in close proximity to the Nihm tribal region around the very time the Book of Mormon indicates that a man named Ishmael was buried at Nahom is rather remarkable. Such a fact certainly does not weaken the case for the Book of Mormon’s historicity.
Rappleye also makes the case that the name on the marker most likely has Hebrew rather than Arabic origins. If so, it could also be another Semite named Ishmael, not the Book of Mormon Ishmael. We know there were Hebrews that fled to Yemen anciently, and one speculative possibility is that a Hebrew colony in Nihm tribal lands might have provided the assistance needed for a proper burial of Ishmael. But a Jewish/Hebrew man being buried in Nihm tribal lands dated to an era compatible with the time of Ishmael’s burial in the Book of Mormon is definitely an intriguing tidbit that would be, as Rappleye puts it, “worth considering.”
Could this at least have some relevance to the Book of Mormon? Absolutely not, according to some of our critics, for everyone knows that Jews are forbidden from making graven images or images of any kind of humans, animals, etc., based on the second of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20:4).
In fact, David Bokovoy has made this argument, though perhaps in haste on a bad day. Apparently a Facebook comment from Bokovoy is being quoted on a Reddit page under the title, “Bokovoy smacks down Nahom and Ishmael” (accessible via tinyurl.com using “smackdownfail”). The smack down features the “no graven images” argument:
Moreover, the grave marker features an anthropomorphic representation of the man, Yasmaʿʾīl. Hence, whoever this man was, his family did not feel obligated to obey Exodus 20:4: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
So there is no reason to believe that this person from Arabia was even Israelite, let alone a worshipper of the god Yahweh from the Hebrew Bible. And remember, Ishmael from the Book of Mormon is described as an Ephramite from Jerusalem.
The “common knowledge” that faithful Israelites would shun any artistic representation of an object may not be as reliable as the smack down implies. The point of the Second Commandment is to avoid idolatry. But any Bible scholar should understand that this cannot be taken to mean a universal prohibition ever since the time of Moses against any artistic depiction. When I saw this “smack down” argument, I wondered if its source had taken time to recall the lengthy descriptions in the Old Testament of the various artistic work commanded by God to decorate the Tabernacle and then the Temple.
When I first read the Bible all the way through as a teenager, one of the main questions I had was why images of pomegranates were such a big deal to the Lord? He commanded there to be pomegranates of blue on priests’ clothing (Exodus 28:33-34, 39:24-26) and then when the Temple was built, Solomon was commanded to make pomegranates, pomegranates, and more pomegranates — literally hundreds of pomegranates all over the place (1 Kings 7: 18, 20, 42; 2 Chronicles 3:16 and 4:13), apparently of brass or other metal. What was up with all these images of fruit? Certainly not fruit worship, I am relieved to report.
But the making of graven images by faithful Jews in the Bible goes beyond mere garden-variety objects such as images of fruit, the apparent image of the tree of life in the menorah, or the lovely stained-glass images of trees (as well as human hands, etc.) in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where I attended a beautiful service a few years ago. I’m disappointed that many people who thought Bokovoy’s argument was a smack down didn’t recall the art of the Tabernacle and later the art of Solomon’s Temple, including the massive figures of cherubim. Here are a few verses to consider. First, from Exodus 25, the commands for the construction of the Tabernacle:
18 And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the to ends of the mercy seat.
19 And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof.
20 And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.
What kind of face? Using my newly downloaded Sefaria app and searching for “cherubim,” I see that Rashi (originally known as Shlomo ben Yitzhak, born about 1040 AD in France) commenting on Exodus 25:18, said that the cherubim “had the form of a child’s face.” Presumably, a human child.
Cherubim are also big, if not bigger, in 1 Kings 6, as the Lord gives commands for the construction of Solomon’s Temple:
23 And within the oracle he made two cherubims of olive tree, each ten cubits high….
27 And he set the cherubims within the inner house: and they stretched forth the wings of the cherubims, so that the wing of the one touched the one wall, and the wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; and their wings touched one another in the midst of the house.
28 And he overlaid the cherubims with gold.
29 And he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved figures of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, within and without….
32 The two doors also were of olive tree; and he carved upon them carvings of cherubims and palm trees and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold, and spread gold upon the cherubims, and upon the palm trees.
33 So also made he for the door of the temple posts of olive tree, a fourth part of the wall….
35 And he carved thereon cherubims and palm trees and open flowers: and covered them with gold fitted upon the carved work.
Lots of cherubim! Carved, graven images of an angelic being with wings and a face.
The non-idolatrous graven image making gets even more intense in the next chapter, 1 Kings 7:
27 And he made ten bases of brass; four cubits was the length of one base, and four cubits the breadth thereof, and three cubits the height of it.
28 And the work of the bases was on this manner: they had borders, and the borders were between the ledges:
29 And on the borders that were between the ledges were lions, oxen, and cherubims: and upon the ledges there was a base above: and beneath the lions and oxen were certain additions made of thin work.
30 And every base had four brasen wheels, and plates of brass: and the four corners thereof had undersetters: under the laver were undersetters molten, at the side of every addition.
31 And the mouth of it within the chapiter and above was a cubit: but the mouth thereof was round after the work of the base, a cubit and an half: and also upon the mouth of it were gravings with their borders, foursquare, not round….
36 For on the plates of the ledges thereof, and on the borders thereof, he graved cherubims, lions, and palm trees, according to the proportion of every one, and additions round about.
37 After this manner he made the ten bases: all of them had one casting, one measure, and one size….
40 And Hiram made the lavers, and the shovels, and the basons. So Hiram made an end of doing all the work that he made king Solomon for the house of the Lord:
41 The two pillars, and the two bowls of the chapiters that were on the top of the two pillars; and the two networks, to cover the two bowls of the chapiters which were upon the top of the pillars;
42 And four hundred pomegranates for the two networks, even two rows of pomegranates for one network, to cover the two bowls of the chapiters that were upon the pillars;
43 And the ten bases, and ten lavers on the bases;
44 And one sea, and twelve oxen under the sea….
Oxen, lions, cherubim (with faces, no doubt), palm trees, and of course, hundreds of pomegranates, all tasteful, non-idolatrous graven images that faithful Jews put in their most sacred place.
Yes, Josiah would later destroy some of relics of the temple and leave the Holy of Holies an empty cube, and at various time other some Jews would prohibit images more generally, especially when living among opponents of Judaism, intensifying their rules to make more clear dividing lines between the good and the pagan. But there are many examples of ancient Jewish sites with artwork, including murals showing humans and animals or even figurines. And today, art of various kinds can be found in synagogues and in the homes of faithful Jews, as I saw a couple weeks ago while visiting devout Jewish friends, when a significant part of the evening involved admiring their abundant artwork. When I visited Jerusalem a few years ago, works of art were easy to find. The stained glass in the Great Synagogue was beautiful. Images of all kind were sold by Jews and Arabs alike, as far as I could tell.
In recent issues of Biblical Archaeology Review, which I subscribe to, there have been reports of ancient Jewish sites, including a temple near but outside Jerusalem, with human figurines, raising new debates about their purpose. I’ll provide some more information later in an update. But there apparently have been many discoveries in the past few decades making it clear that the “common knowledge” about Jews prohibiting all artwork or depictions of humans was not necessarily the way that Jews saw things anciently. So no, I don’t think Bokovoy’s argument was carefully considered. There’s no reason to rule out the possibility that a Jewish man named Ishmael might have been buried with a grave marker having a crude two-dimensional drawing of a face on it. If cherubim in the Tabernacle can have faces, I guess a grave marker can, too, as long as no idolatry was intended.