Within the larger picture of the Book of Mormon missionary chapters is a brilliant message of conversion and testimony tucked quietly between the story of Ammon defending the flocks of the king and the miraculous rebirth of Lamoni and his court.
Abish is one of only three named females in the Book of Mormon (Sariah, Isabel and Abish) who are not also found in the Bible (Eve, Sarah and Mary). Significantly, she is also a Lamanite, possibly the only named female Lamanite in the Book of Mormon (if Isabel was not a Lamanite). Why does Mormon give us her name? What might her name mean? And how might the meaning of her name play into the narrative to explain her missionary zeal?
Precious few details are given about the life of Abish. Nevertheless, we can discern that she was true to the Lord and was zealous in her testimony of him. This is most clearly attested when as an exuberant messenger she ran from house to house proclaiming what the power of God had done for King Lamoni.
Why would a seemingly ordinary woman rush to announce the good news?
I believe the answer is simple: faith.
In my opinion, Abish had no ordinary faith. She had the type of faith that Joseph Smith identified, "Let us here observe, that three things are necessary in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation. First, the idea that he actually exists. Secondly, a correct idea of his character, perfections, and attributes. Thirdly, an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to his will" ("Lectures on Faith," Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 1985, lecture 3, paragraphs 2-5).
It is this type of faith possessed by the heroic Book of Mormon missionaries such as Ammon, Aaron, Omner and Himni. They likely received a correct idea of God’s “character, perfections, and attributes” while they “searched the scriptures diligently” (Alma 17:2-3). But how did Abish ever come to this correct knowledge? She had been born among a people that rejected the gospel, viciously held to “the traditions of their fathers which (were) not correct” (Mosiah 1:5), and sought to destroy the faith and gospel records of the Nephites (Enos 1:14).
After identifying Abish by name, Mormon reveals a solution to this mystery by inserting the editorial comment, “she having been converted unto the Lord for many years, on account of a remarkable vision of her father” (Alma 19:16).
Yet, even with that knowledge we know nothing about the nature of what her father saw, and Mormon makes no further comment about the remarkable vision.
Remarkable visions in scriptures often are eyewitness experiences with the Lord himself. Examples include Lehi’s vision in 1 Nephi 1:8-14, Nephi’s vision of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 11, Isaiah in Isaiah 6, Moses in Moses 1, and more contemporarily Joseph Smith in Joseph Smith-History 1:15-20. These prophets, having received a correct idea of God’s character, perfections and attributes, went on to testify to the world in eager faith of what they had learned about God.
Did Abish’s father fit into the same pattern?
It's certainly possible. He gave his daughter a Hebrew name that testified of God’s attributes that such a remarkable vision could reveal. The name Abish in Hebrew means “Father is a man” Ab = Father, ish = man.
Therefore, Abish stands both in name and deed as a witness of one of God’s most important attributes that "(God the) Father is a man."
It is also possible that Abish herself had the vision and learned that God the Father is a man. If so, then her name is an authorial word play that contributes to the meaning and interpretation of the passages. This idea was shared with me by scripture scholar Matt Bowen, who has published extensively on name word plays in the Book of Mormon.
Abish knew the true attributes of God the Father. It is from this unwavering faith and sure knowledge that she acted with such courageous missionary zeal.
Taylor Halverson (Ph.D.s in biblical studies and instructional technology) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.