The Sons of Lehi and the Daughters on Ishmael: Were Their Marriages Pre-Arranged?

Before departing from the valley of Lemuel, Nephi reports that the he and his brothers, plus Zoram, each were married to one of the daughters of Ishmael (see 1 Nephi 16:7). Notably absent are any romantic notions or courtship between the sons of Lehi and the daughters of Ishmael. Lynn and Hope Hilton pointed out, “It was customary in ancient Israel for the father or kinsmen of a young man to choose his wife and arrange for the marriage. No doubt Lehi, acting on behalf of his four sons, negotiated with Ishmael, even though the ‘negotiations’ may have been mere formalities based on prior arrangements.”[1] John W. Welch and Robert D. Hunt more recently made a similar comment. “There is no dating—marriages are arranged and negotiated by the fathers of the bride and groom…. Most marriages are arranged when the children are very young.”[2] They elaborate:

Marriage in this eastern world is viewed a little differently than in our own. Typically, marriage is considered an economic arrangement made between two families of the same or closely related tribes. This is not to say that love and romance do not exist in such a relationship, but these people are more focused on survival, perpetuation of their family, and family honor than on pleasure and sensuality.[3]
The role of the fathers appears to be the same in Nephi’s account. Following the announcement of the marriages, Nephi declares, “And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord which had been given unto him” (1 Nephi 16:8). It is his father, Lehi, who dictates that it will be Ishmael’s daughters that his sons marry, and the way Nephi introduces Ishmael makes it seem like it was a given that to “take daughters to wife,” they needed to “bring down Ishmael and his family” (1 Nephi 7:1–2). This suggests that there were likely prior arrangements between the two families. For Ishmael’s part, is seems that he is the one the boys had to impress to get the family to join them (see 1 Nephi 7:4). In addition, Lehi and Ishmael are from closely related tribes (Manasseh and Ephraim, respectively), and the primary motive for the marriages is the survival and perpetuation of the family, “that they might raise up seed unto the Lord in the land of promise” (1 Nephi 7:1). Though the details are few, marriage in Nephi’s record appears to coincide with marriage practices of the ancient Israelites.

[1] Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—Part 2: The Journey,” Ensign (October 1976).
[2] John W. Welch and Robert D. Hunt, “Culturegram: Jerusalem 600 bc,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 35.
[3] Welch and Hunt, “Culturegram,” 35.