Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 1


The issue of Nahom as evidence of the BoM’s antiquity has recently been a topic of heightened discussion and debate online, inspired by Philip Jenkin’s blog post Nahom Follies, which argues that the presence of the place name Nahom in the story about Lehi’s journey through Arabia is of doubtful historical significance and cannot be used to validate assumptions about the BoM’s historicity. His strong dismissal has not surprisingly engendered various counter responses from LDS apologists, including here and here and here. Among the criticisms made against Jenkins, the chief one is that his rejection of Nahom fails to engage with the extensive research published in LDS venues and so reflects bias against the claims of the BoM.

Now, I personally agree with Jenkins that Nahom should not be regarded as compelling evidence for the antiquity of the BoM. I touched on this issue only briefly in a previous post on the authenticity of BoM names in 1 Nephi, where I noted some broader contextual considerations that militate against taking the reference to Nahom as genuine. But my approach to evaluating the significance of Nahom differs with Jenkins in some respects and I think he may have been unnecessarily derisive and off the cuff in his argument, leading some to take him less seriously than they would otherwise or to focus on certain peripheral matters while failing to see the forest.

Because my thoughts on Nahom have developed substantially since I last wrote, I thought I would take the opportunity to explain in more detail why I don’t find the apologetic argument on the subject of Nahom to be convincing from a critical-historical perspective. Hopefully, what I say will be found to be beneficial and illuminating for people on both sides of the BoM historicity spectrum.




As is well known, over the last two decades the reference to the place name Nahom in 1 Ne 16:34 has come to be considered in apologetic circles as perhaps the single most significant piece of information supporting the veracity of the BoM narrative, because of the relatively recent discovery of inscribed altars and inscriptions containing a tribal name with the root NHM at a place and time in ancient south Arabia near to when Lehi would have allegedly been traveling in the area. In 2002 Terryl Givens wrote encouragingly, “Found in the very area where Nephi’s record locates Nahom, these altars may thus be said to constitute the first actual archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.”[1] During a video interview produced in 2005 about Lehi’s journey through Arabia, Daniel Peterson spoke more forcefully, “The finding of Nahom strikes me as a tremendously significant discovery. What it really is, is a prediction by the Book of Mormon of something that we ought to find; and to find it in the right location at the right time is a real striking bulls eye for the book. There are those who say the book has no archeological substantiation. That’s a spectacular substantiation right there, it seems to me. Something that would have been unexpected, that it’s so unlikely that Joseph Smith could have woven into his story on his own. It’s a direct bulls eye, as precise as you could wish it to be.”[2] In 2007 Brant Gardner concluded, “the data pointing to the connection between the Book of Mormon Nahom and the now-confirmed location of a tribe (and likely place) called NHM are extremely strong. The description fits, the linguistics fit, the geography fits, and the time frame fits. Outside of Jerusalem, NHM is the most certain connection between the Book of Mormon and known geography and history.”[3]


In reading apologetic scholarship on Nahom, one senses a combination of excitement and intellectual self-assurance, that finally believers have material confirmation for anchoring the BoM in the Old World. For many, the evidence that Nahom is an authentic detail supporting traditional belief in the BoM is so straightforward that the case is all but closed, resulting in the tendency to ignore or dismiss any suggestion that the usage of the word in the BoM may have originated from Joseph Smith.


Yet how strong is the argument for correlating BoM Nahom with the proposed inscriptions mentioning a tribal name NHM? Is an ancient BoM the best explanation for how a place name in the BoM narrative matches the root consonants of a tribal group long known to have existed in the highlands of Yemen? What methodology could we possibly apply in order to test this apologetic theory?


Starting from the assumption that the BoM is an ancient document depicting real history, it is fairly easy to see how the argument regarding Nahom has come to be viewed by traditional scholars as strong proof of the BoM’s authenticity. First, we have clear attestation of the tribal name NHM stretching back into the first millennium BCE, showing that it had long existed in the region of Marib both before and after the time of Lehi.[4] Second, based on the common connection of tribal name and territory, it is natural to suppose that the name of the tribe had been given to the region it inhabited and therefore that a place called NHM was recognized in antiquity.[5] Third, the BoM account about the journey through Nahom contains several details that appear on their face to be realistic and match what we know about ancient NHM: 1) The place lay along the ancient incense route that Lehi would have traveled along during much of the journey through Arabia.[6] 2) The passive language used in the phrase “in the place which was called Nahom” (1 Ne 16:34) indicates that it was a preexisting place encountered by the group, whereas other place names recorded in the BoM are depicted as having been improvised by members of the group on the spot (1 Ne 2:8-10, 14; 16:13; 17:5).[7] 3) The trade routes tended to turn eastward in the region of NHM and the BoM also states that after Nahom the group changed direction and “did travel nearly eastward from that time forth” (1 Ne 17:1).[8] 4) Directly east of Nahom on the coast of southern Oman can be found the only place with sufficient fresh water and natural resources to constitute a viable location for BoM Bountiful.[9]


From this limited perspective, archaeological discovery and historical research would appear to bear out the accuracy of the BoM account. Proponents of BoM historicity have maintained that the combination of factors mentioned above and coordination of geographical detail is beyond an explanation of mere coincidence and beyond the information that was available to JS when he translated the BoM. Intensive on the ground investigation has established that throughout the history of Yemen there has been only one major NHM tribe and the reference to Nahom in the BoM just happens to place it precisely in the correct geographical spot.[10]


However, in order to evaluate the strength of this argument it is important that we consider the place name Nahom in its broader literary context and not just as an isolated historical reference. If it can be shown that the general storyline of the journey of Lehi through Arabia and other names and travel information provided in the narrative are unrealistic or lack historical verisimilitude, then this will have an obvious bearing on how we approach the interpretation of Nahom. We will then need to examine the narrative presentation of Nahom itself, paying attention to all details in the text and not just those that support an interpretation in favor of historicity. Because this is the only apparent reference in the BoM to a preexisting place in the Old World of the Near East outside of Jerusalem, care must be taken to assess its plausibility in all facets and whether its depiction and role in the narrative conforms to current scholarly knowledge about ancient South Arabia and the Israelite/Hebrew culture from which Lehi and Nephi originated. Finally, if it is possible to conclude that the BoM presentation of Nahom is in the main problematic and inauthentic, then it will be necessary to explore possible scenarios for how Joseph Smith came to include the tribal name NHM in the BoM located in a place near to where it is found in the real world of southern Arabia.



The Exodus Narrative of Lehi’s Family, Part 1


The first problem that the apologetic argument faces with regard to Nahom as an authentic ancient reference is that the larger journey narrative recounted in 1 Nephi is for the most part implausible as real history. The account contains many story elements and language that indicate it originated as imaginative mythological literature modeled along biblical patterns, whereas it lacks evidence of certain details that we would expect to find if it were in fact a realistic report of an Israelite family journeying from Jerusalem through the deserts of Arabia.



A journey through Arabia to the New World?


In my opinion, the most plausible detail provided in the narrative of 1 Nephi 1-18 is the description of the general route followed by Lehi on his way through Arabia to the coastal location of Bountiful. From all the reporting of events that occurs in this part of the BoM (setting aside the reference to Nahom), the few comments that clarify that the party of Lehi traveled to the Red Sea (1 Ne 2:5-6) and then moved along the Red Sea in a south-southeast direction down the western side of the Arabian peninsula (1 Ne 16:13), “keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea” (1 Ne 16:14), and then turning east before reaching the coast of Irreantum (1 Ne 17:1, 5) seem to represent informational detail most certainly rooted in real world geography. That is to say, the route appears to accurately account for the shape of the Arabian Peninsula in relation to the Red Sea and Arabian Sea and further agrees in a general way with what we know about the topography of the region and where cross-country travel was most practicable therein. Some of the more “fertile” parts of Arabia are indeed in the high western zones and foothills of the Hijaz, where the climate is slightly more temperate and rare rainfall in the mountains has contributed to the creation of oases on the eastern slopes that sustain more diverse flora and fauna. For millennia this strip of land “bordering the Red Sea” has enabled human transit and trade from north to south and facilitated the development of overland roads. So for Lehi to have followed this general track is notable and in theory could lend support to the assumption that the author of the account was trying to depict real history.[11]


However, when we examine the description of Lehi’s route more closely it becomes clear that its links with real world geography do not provide unequivocal support for the historicity of the narrative. First, the geographical information offered in the text is for the most part vague and highly general in nature, limited mainly to general travel directions and large bodies of water associated with macro-scale Arabian geography, whereas more precise detail about the route is almost wholly lacking, consisting of an occasional generic topographic feature such as a nameless river and valley (1 Ne 2:6) or mountain (1 Ne 16:30; 17:7), or the mention of unspecified “fertile” areas near the Red Sea (1 Ne 16:14, 16). Because of this relative dearth of information about the places visited by the Lehi group, the modern reader is presented with the peculiarity that while he/she can easily grasp the general course of their journey and has a rough idea of where it began and ended, almost everything in between is nebulous and blurry. Not surprisingly, researchers of the BoM have been unable to agree on the precise path followed by Lehi in Arabia or even to identify a single site visited by the group apart from Nahom.[12]


Second, in order to accept the argument that the description of Lehi’s route lends support to the authenticity of the narrative, one would need to be reasonably confident that the level of geographic detail was beyond the capabilities of Joseph Smith or the information that was available to him in the 19th century. However, as was just mentioned, most of the geographic detail is vague and nonspecific and at least the simple unidirectional travel across Arabia (south-southeast, then eastward) and positioning with respect to the Red Sea and Arabian Sea could have been developed simply by examining a map of Arabia and creatively establishing a general course for the group to follow. The geographical information would then be fairly unremarkable, no more than the BoM claim that the New World had a narrow neck of land. We will explore the hypothesis that Joseph had seen and used a map of Arabia in his invention of the story of Lehi’s exodus later after our discussion of Nahom.


Third, it is not at all clear that the route Lehi followed should be identified as corresponding in any real sense to the trails and paths that made up the incense highway associated with more “fertile” areas of the Arabian desert. According to the BoM, the Lehi group journeyed down “by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea,” identified also as the “borders which are nearer the Red Sea” (1 Ne 2:5). Then from here the group traveled in a south-southeast direction, “keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea” (1 Ne 16:14), a stage of the journey which is implied to have taken a significant period of time (1 Ne 16:15). Because 1 Ne 2:5 specifically identifies the “borders” of the Red Sea as near the shore, it seems that the author of the BoM understood the path Lehi followed to have been relatively close to the shoreline during much of the journey southward. After the episode of the broken bow, the camp moves on, “traveling nearly the same course as in the beginning” (1 Ne 16:33), which eventually leads to Nahom (1 Ne 16:34). But importantly in this stage there is no mention about traveling in the “borders” near the Red Sea or anything about fertile areas, suggesting perhaps that they had moved somewhat away from the shoreline.


If this interpretation is correct, then it means that Lehi’s group would have totally bypassed the incense highway on the eastern side of the Hijaz mountains, moving instead in the coastal plain of the Tihama on the west, crossing the well worn incense route only after arriving somewhere near NHM. Contrary to the assumptions of many commentators, the fact that Lehi is portrayed as journeying on the west side of the Arabian peninsula has nothing to do with the suitability of some parts of this region for long distance travel, but is purely coincidental.[13] On the other hand, this would also mean that the group would have been forced to slog and scramble through an area far more rugged, difficult, and inhospitable for prolonged travel by outsiders. The Tihama is sandy and rocky and considerably more hot and humid, and Richard Wellington and George Potter have stated that a route along the shoreline “would simply have been impossible since there was no trail along the coast, nor an organized string of wells, until the 9th century AD.”[14]


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if the general description of the route followed by Lehi through Arabia is one of the features of the narrative most certainly rooted in real world geography, it is also ironically the most incredible and far-fetched. If the goal was to take a chosen family of Judahites from Jerusalem and lead them to the New World in order to establish a righteous Israelite colony, why would God direct them on a route through the Arabian peninsula by an order of magnitude more difficult, dangerous, and improbable than the biblical exodus (itself historically questionable), all in order to reach a site on the Arabian coast where they would construct a ship from meager and inadequate materials that would sail the long way to the New World against the prevailing winds of the Pacific ocean and undertake probably the lengthiest voyage in human history up until that date? Everything about the migration to the Promised Land seems to reflect real-world naiveté and ignorance.[15] Historically, there were places far closer at hand on the shores of the Mediterranean where Lehi’s family could have bought or built a ship and made preparations for a perilous trans-Oceanic journey. The route to the New World through the Mediterranean Sea would have also been much more direct, and there would have been numerous places to stop and resupply before moving out into the Atlantic thanks to the existence of Phoenician trading and shipping colonies reaching as far as Spain.[16]


If the God of the BoM is bound by natural/historical law to any meaningful degree, then the journey through Arabia is nothing short of a death wish for the people he has just delivered from destruction. In fact, as we will see, the decision to the lead this branch of Israel to the New World via the deserts of Arabia only makes sense at a literary level, created as a period of wilderness wandering and testing before the journey to the Promised Land, in conformity to the pattern of the biblical exodus.



The narrative about the escape of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem is patterned after the biblical Exodus


Another aspect of the BoM narrative that shows it was not intended to represent factual history is that the account of 1 Nephi 1-18 contains a number of motifs, thematic elements, and language that reflect dependence on the biblical narrative about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness:


1)   The catalyzing event of the narrative is a vision of God in the countryside in a “pillar of fire” (1 Ne 1:6). Cf. Moses sees God in a “flame of fire” in the countryside (Ex 3:2); elsewhere the presence of God is associated with a “pillar of fire” (Ex 13:21-22; 14:24).


2)   God’s message to the prophet is a promise of deliverance and mercy for his chosen people and destruction for the wicked (1 Ne 1:13-14, 20). Cf. God tells Moses that he will deliver Israel and smite Egypt (Ex 3:8, 19-20). Divine mercy is a major theme of the exodus (Ex 15:13; 20:6; 34:7).


3)   Lehi has “visions and dreams” (1 Ne 1:16; 8:2, 36). Cf. God tells Moses, “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream” (Num 12:6).


4)   The Jews “seek” to kill Lehi (1 Ne 1:20; 2:1), who “flees” out of the land (1 Ne 3:18). Cf. Egypt “seeks” to kill Moses, who “flees” to Midian (Ex 2:15; 4:19)


5)   Lehi leaves his “gold, silver, and precious things” behind (1 Ne 2:4). Cf. Israel despoils the Egyptians of “jewels of silver and jewels of gold” (Ex 3:22; 11:2).


6)   Lehi’s family travels down from Jerusalem to the Red Sea (1 Ne 2:5). Cf. Israel travels up out of Egypt toward the Red Sea (Ex 13:18).


7)   They go a “three day” journey into “the wilderness” (1 Ne 2:6). Cf. Israel takes a “three day” journey into “the wilderness” (Ex 3:18; 8:27; 15:22).


8)   After the journey Lehi builds an altar, offers sacrifice, and worships God (1 Ne 2:7; 5:9). Cf. Israel takes their journey into the wilderness in order to sacrifice and worship God (Ex 3:12, 18; 8:27; 17:15). After arriving somewhere near Sinai, Jethro presents “a burnt offering and sacrifices” to God (Ex 18:12).


9)   Lehi and others attach names to topographic features on the journey (1 Ne 2:8, 14; 16:13; 17:5). Cf. Moses and Israel give names to topographic features and other objects while journeying to Sinai (Ex 15:23; 17:7, 15).


10) Lehi invokes the names of his sons in poetic statements (1 Ne 2:8-10). Cf. Moses provides poetic interpretations of the names of his sons (Ex 18:3-4).


11)  Laman and Lemuel murmur against Lehi for leading them out of the land of Jerusalem to “perish in the wilderness” (1 Ne 2:11-12). Cf. Israel complains against Moses for leading them out of Egypt to “die in the wilderness” (Ex 14:11-12).


12) The importance of keeping the “commandments,” being “diligent,” and “hearkening” to the “voice of the Lord” is highlighted (1 Ne 2:18-24). Cf. Moses enjoins Israel to “diligently hearken” to the “voice of the Lord” and keep his “commandments” (Ex 15:26; cf. 16:28; 20:6; 34:32).


13)  Lehi and Nephi are promised a “land of promise… choice above all other lands” (1 Ne 2:20). Cf. Moses and Israel are promised a good land “flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8).


14)  Nephi is designated a “ruler and a teacher” over his brothers (1 Ne 2:22). While the reference to “ruler” possibly points to Nephi as a Davidic figure (for David as “ruler,” see 1 Sam 25:30; 2 Sam 6:21; 7:8; Nephi is the youngest of his brothers, is large in stature, cuts off an enemy’s head with the enemy’s own sword, and later becomes king and head of the Nephite dynasty[17]), Moses is often portrayed as a teacher (Ex 4:15-16; 7:1; 18:20). The double title also recalls the Hebrew slave’s complaint to Moses, “Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?” (Ex 2:14).


15)  Nephi is told that the posterity of Laman and Lemuel will be cut off from the presence of the Lord and be a “scourge” to his posterity in the promised land (1 Ne 2:23). Cf. Moses is told that the land to which he will take Israel is a land full of other peoples: “the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Ex 3:17), a reference that in the context of the biblical narrative foreshadows the “scourge” they will become to Israel (Deut 11: 22-28; 12:29-32; Josh 23:13).


16)  The record of the Jews is said to have a “genealogy” of the forefathers (1 Ne 3:3), tracing back to Jacob and Joseph (1 Ne 5:14). Cf. Genealogical information is prominently featured in Genesis-Exodus (e.g., Gen 46:8-27; Ex 1:1-5; 6:14-25).


17)  Nephi and his brothers struggle against the powerful Laban, who over a period of several interviews refuses to grant their request to give them the brass plates (1 Ne 3:13, 24-25; 4:7). Cf. Moses struggles against the hard hearted Pharaoh, who refuses to grant permission for Israel to go into the wilderness to worship. Moses meets with the Pharaoh in multiple interviews, the dramatic intensity of which progressively increase until finally the Pharaoh’s son is slain (cf. Ex 4:21-23; 5:1-2, 6; 7:10, 20; 8:1, 8, 25; 9:27 etc.).


18)  An angel of the Lord assists Nephi and protects him from his brothers during their expedition against Laban (1 Ne 3:29-30). Cf. An angel of God protects Israel from Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Ex 14:19-20).


19)  Laban is explicitly compared to the Pharaoh and the Egyptian enemy (1 Ne 4:2).


20)  Nephi slays Laban because he understands the Lord “slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes” (1 Ne 4:13). Cf “the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon” (Ex 12:29).


21)  Nephi obtains the “law of Moses” written on the plates of brass to take with him to the promised land (1 Ne 3:19-20; 4:14-16); cf. Moses receives the law of Moses from the Lord on mount Sinai (Ex 24:12).


22)  Nephi and Zoram speak about the “elders of the Jews” (1 Ne 4:22, 24, 27). Cf. The elders of Israel are prominently featured in the exodus account (Ex 3:16, 18; 4:29; 12:21; 17:5-6; 18:12; 19:7; 24:1).


23)  Nephi and his brothers are worried about the Jews pursuing them into the wilderness (1 Ne 4:36). Cf. Pharaoh pursues Israel into the wilderness (Ex 14:4).


24)  After Nephi and his brothers are “delivered” from “the hands of Laban” (1 Ne 5:5) and return from their expedition to retrieve the plates, Sariah rejoices and exclaims, “Now I know that the Lord…” (1 Ne 5:8). Cf. After Moses tells Jethro about the deliverance of Israel, Jethro rejoices and exclaims, “Now I know that the Lord…” (Ex. 18:9-11).


25)  Nephi desires to persuade men to follow “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (1 Ne 6:4). Cf. In the Hebrew Bible the title “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” is peculiar to the book of Exodus (Ex 3:6, 15; 4:5).


26)  Laman and Lemuel have hard hearts (1 Ne 7:8; 15:10-11). Cf. The Pharaoh has a hardened heart (Ex 7:3, 13-14, 22-23; 8:15, 19).


27)  The sons of Lehi take wives in the wilderness (1 Ne 16:7). Cf. Moses takes Zipporah to wife (Ex 2:21; 4:20) and Aaron and his son Eleazar take wives in the wilderness (Ex 6:23, 25).


28)  Lehi discovers a ball made out of brass that plays a pivotal role in saving the group when they are in dire straits (1 Ne 16:10, 26-29). Later Alma tells us that the Liahona symbolizes the word of Christ and he then associates it with the serpent lifted up by Moses, saying, “for so was it prepared for them, that if they would look they might live…” (Alma 37:46). Cf After the children of Israel are bitten by serpents, the Lord tells Moses to make a “serpent of brass”: “and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Num 21:8-9). This serpent of brass is also interpreted as a symbol of Christ (2 Ne 25:20; Hel 8:14-15; John 3:14). As with the Liahona, one had to only exercise simple faith for it to work (1 Neph 17:41).


29)  The people of Lehi suffer hunger and murmur “against the Lord” (1 Ne 16:19-20). Cf. The congregation of Israel suffer hunger and murmur not only against Moses and Aaron but also the Lord (Ex 16:2-3, 8).


30)  The daughters of Ishmael mourn exceedingly, murmur against Lehi, and express a desire to return to Jerusalem (1 Ne 16:35-36; cf. 1 Ne 7:7). Cf. The congregation of Israel wept, murmured against Moses and Aaron, and said to one another, “Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt” (Num 14:1-4).


31)   Laman and Lemuel rebel against Lehi and Nephi and accuse Nephi of usurping power over them (1 Ne 16:37). Cf. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebel against Moses and complain that he had usurped authority (Num 16:1-3, 13-14), and earlier a Hebrew slave had similarly protested, “Who made thee a prince and a judge over us?” (Ex 2:14).


32)  The Lord tells Nephi to go up into a mountain. He prays to the Lord, after which he receives instructions to build a ship, “after the manner which I shall show thee” (1 Ne 17:7-8). Cf. The Lord instructs Moses on mount Sinai to build a sanctuary, “According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it” (Exodus 25:8-9).


33)   The Lord is the “light” for the people of Lehi as they journey in the wilderness, who “leads” them toward the promised land (1 Ne 17:13). Cf. “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night” (Ex 13:21).


34)  The Lord tells the people of Lehi, “After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord, am God; and that I, the Lord, did deliver you from destruction; yea, and I did bring you out of the land of Jerusalem” (1 Ne 17:14). Cf. “I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:7-8).


35)  Laman and Lemuel tell Nephi that it would have been better for their women to have died before they came out of Jerusalem (1 Ne 17:20). Cf. The congregation of Israel tell Moses and Aaron that it would have been better if they had died “by the hand of the Lord in Egypt” (Ex 16:3; cf. Num 14:2).


36)  Nephi explicitly compares Laman and Lemuel to the hardhearted children of Israel in the wilderness (1 Ne 17:41-42).


37)  Nephi implicitly compares himself to Moses, “If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth: and if I should say it, it would be done” (1 Ne 17:50). Cf. “But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea” (Ex 14:16).


38)  Nephi works timbers of “curious workmanship” (1 Ne 18:1-2). Cf. Bezaleel, the craftsman of the sanctuary, is “filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; and to devise curious works” (Ex 35:30-33).


39)   Some time after their voyage on the ship gets underway, Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael and their wives “began to make themselves merry, insomuch that they began to dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness, yea, even that they did forget by what power they had been brought thither” (1 Ne 18:9). Cf. “He had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt…. The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (Ex 32:4-6); “And he said it is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing. . . .” (Ex 32:18-19).



From this list of parallels or points of contact between the two narratives, it seems clear that the biblical account of the exodus deeply informed the story about Lehi’s escape from Jerusalem and journeying in the wilderness. While some of the parallels are fairly minor or insignificant when taken on their own, others are very strong, especially those that employ distinctive terminology (1, 7, 11, 12, 22, 32, 35), repeat larger phrases (25, 29, 34), or show multiple points of contact in one individual motif or passage (8, 17, 24, 28, 30, 31, 33).[18] For example, the passage about Sariah rejoicing after her sons had returned from their expedition to Laban is obviously dependent on the episode about the meeting of Moses and Jethro in the wilderness (Ex 18:7-11), because of the distinctive clustering of phraseology: “rejoicing,” “deliver,” “from the hands of [the enemy], “now I know that the Lord….”


On the other hand, many parallels become significant because of the larger narrative context in which they are found. For example, the scene with Lehi poetically invoking the names of his sons in 1 Ne 2:9-10 can be positively correlated to the narrative interlude about Moses interpreting the names of his sons in Ex 18:3-4, because not only does the latter story show 1) the prophet of the exodus making 2) poetic statements with some religious content about 3) his two sons, but it appears 4) in a context after the initial exodus from Egypt, including a “three-day” journey, 5) in the general vicinity of the Red Sea, 6) at a camp where sacrifices are made, and 7) shortly after Moses and Israel are said to have given names to topographic features, including one connected to their rebellion against Moses. The connections and associations are just too numerous to think they could be chalked up to coincidence.


The importance of the biblical exodus as a major literary influence on the narrative of Lehi’s journey from Jerusalem has been recognized by BoM researchers and commentators for several decades now, who in seeking an explanation have unanimously tended to see it as the product of conscious borrowing on the part of Nephi the author.[19] In a short but worthwhile study of parallels between 1 Nephi and the Exodus account, Terrence Szink concluded, “It appears that Nephi purposefully wrote his account in a way that would reflect the Exodus…. Certainly this connection could not have been a product of Joseph Smith’s writing. The parallels to Exodus occur at dozens of places throughout the Book of Mormon record. No hasty copying of the Bible could have produced such complex similarities, not to mention the differences that remain. In fact, because they are so quiet and underlying, no Latter-day Saint until our day has even noticed these comparisons. Nephi clearly composed a masterpiece full of subtle literary touches that we are only now beginning to appreciate.”[20]


However, because elements of the biblical story are seamlessly interwoven into the language and structure of the account of 1 Nephi is not an argument against attributing the development of the narrative to Joseph Smith. Not only is subtle and selective literary borrowing not a phenomenon limited to ancient authors or even solely writers, but this approach assumes that Joseph Smith was not sufficiently familiar with Old Testament literature and the book of Exodus in particular in order to creatively adapt it to his own purposes, a notion severely challenged by the frequent references to Moses and other figures and events from the Pentateuch in his revelations and revealed scripture, or even the fairly explicit typological patterning of himself after Moses and early church events after the Israelite gathering to Sinai (Moses 1:41; D&C 38:32; 42). It also fails to recognize that the culture in which Joseph grew up was saturated in Old Testament preaching, allusions, and storytelling, providing him with a tacit knowledge he could instinctively call upon.


More importantly, from a historical perspective the author responsible for modeling Lehi’s escape from Jerusalem after the Exodus is very unlikely to have been an ancient Nephi. First, the kind of literary borrowing that we see in the BoM is not merely a case of someone trying to “reflect” aspects of the Exodus story in a personal narrative recounting unique and real historical events, or a matter of accentuating similarities between the respective escape-journeys in order to emphasize God’s active intervention in the contemporary present of Lehi’s family, but actually a full literary patterning after the biblical narrative, so that much of the core content, plotline, structure, and characterization appear to have had their inspiration in biblical sources. This includes Lehi’s initial vision of God and the associated message of deliverance and doom, the exodus into the wilderness to the valley of Lemuel and all that occurs there, the relational dynamics between Lehi and Nephi on the one hand and Laman and Lemuel on the other, the conflict with and slaying of Laban, the salvific appearance of the Liahona, the construction of a ship through divine direction, and the sporadic rebellions in the wilderness and on the waters.


Second, in other known examples where an author constructs a new and independent narrative after the structure or pattern of a previous narrative, these tend to occur as a rule only after a significant length of time has allowed for the earlier narrative to become culturally authoritative and available for literary adaptation. Think, for example, of the Aeneid’s dependence on the Odyssey and the Illiad, the book of Genesis’ dependence on the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh, the Gospel of Matthew’s use of the Book of Exodus to shape a story about Jesus, etc. The free and extensive use of the biblical exodus in the BoM therefore presupposes a cultural situation where the Pentateuchal story has already become canonical and widely familiar to public readership, to such a degree that one could borrow it for literary purposes totally unrelated to its original meaning and use. However, this situation could not possibly have obtained in the time of Nephi. The broad consensus of contemporary biblical scholarship is that while parts of the Pentateuch may have been written during the late monarchy and been in existence when Nephi supposedly lived, the narrative did not become culturally authoritative for Jews in any significant sense until the Persian and Hellenistic periods.[21]


Third, the tendency of ancient Israelite/Jewish literature when interacting with and alluding to a prior text was to use the occasion as a means of commenting on, interpreting, or otherwise revising earlier tradition. For example, Deuteronomy cites the language of the Covenant Code in the process of attempting to revise and supplant the tradition,[22] the story of Elijah in 1 Kgs 19 alludes to the theophany at Sinai in order to provide a distinctive perspective on the nature of Israelite deity and the history of the Israelite cult,[23] the book of Job engages somewhat polemically with certain orthodoxies represented in priestly and psalmic literature.[24] Yet the BoM shows little interest in the ideas and practices described in the literature from which it borrows or in situating its own ideological perspective in relation to them. In fact, the author of the BoM treats the Pentateuchal legal material as though its meaning and function as a unified collection of divinely originated and internally consistent law delivered to Moses were self-evident. For example, there is no attempt to define or specify the “statutes and judgments” that Israel had failed to obey and for which they would be destroyed, or even what constitutes the “Law of Moses.”[25]


Fourth, and perhaps most damagingly, the allusions and references to the book of Exodus in the BoM show that the form of the narrative it presumes corresponds to that found in the Bible, combining both non-priestly (non-P) and priestly (P) material. As is well known, one of the more significant conclusions of two centuries of biblical scholarship is that the story of the Exodus is actually a product of multiple literary sources/strands that were developed and combined over time, including a non-P source (sometimes divided into separate Yahwist and Elohist sources or early non-P and late non-P strands) and a P source that covered similar material but had distinctive theological emphases and content as well. Although many scholars believe that some of the non-P material may date to the pre-exilic or monarchic period, the P source is at the earliest exilic and more likely from the post-exilic/Persian period.[26] The P source would also by necessity have been composed before it and non-P were combined together into one continuous Torah narrative, meaning that the project to conflate the sources would have occurred even later during the Persian period.[27] So in direct opposition to what we would expect if the BoM were ancient, the author of 1 Nephi seems to have known and made use of an Exodus that contained both P and Non-P.


  • The knowledge of P is reflected in 1 Ne 3:3 (Gen 46:8-27; Ex 6:14-25); 4:2 (Ex 14:21-22); 16:19-20 (Ex 16:2-3); 17:7-8 (Exodus 25:8-9); 17:14 (Ex 6:7-8); 17:20 (Ex 16:3); 17:26-27, 50 (Ex 14:21-22); 18:1-2 (Ex 35:30-33).
  • The knowledge of non-P in 1 Ne 1:6 (Ex 3:2); 2:6 (Ex 3:18; 8:27; 15:22); 2:7 (Ex 3:12, 18; 8:27; 17:15; 18:12); 2:11-12 (Ex 14:11-12); 2:18-24 (Ex 15:26); 3:13, 24-25 (Ex 4:21-23; 5:1-2, 6; 7:20; 8:1, 8, 25; 9:27); 3:29-30 (Ex 14:19-20); 5:5-8 (Ex. 18:9-11); 6:4 (Ex 3:6, 15; 4:5); 16:10, 26-29 (Num 21:8-9); 16:35-36 (Num 14:1-4); 16:37 (Ex 2:14; Num 16:1-3, 13-14); 17:13 (Ex 13:21); 18:9 (Ex 32:4-6; Ex 32:18-19).


The extensive borrowing and revisioning of the Exodus story in the BoM is thus most easily reconciled with a modern origin for the narrative. Not only would this provide a setting for such an all-inclusive revisioning to have taken place,[28] but it would explain why various aspects of the borrowing do not reflect the social, intellectual, and literary world of ancient Israel.


Which raises the question, if the reuse of the biblical exodus in the BoM is most amenable to the assumption that Joseph Smith was responsible for constructing the narrative, why would he have made such extensive use of the Exodus pattern, aside from that being a cultural narrative he would have been highly familiar with? Why would he have inserted visible signs and traces of the text that functioned to catalyze his own imagination and provide many of the basic building blocks of the story about Lehi? In his discussion of inner-biblical allusion, Benjamin Sommer offers insight into why some authors recall and appropriate earlier texts: “Literary theorists describe many factors that lead authors to recall the language of their predecessors. A lack of confidence may prompt an author to borrow from a work already acknowledged as great. As Johnson explains, the poet, ‘unsatisfied by his system’s own capacity to create permanence, seeks further security. It founds its sign system and semic-substance on a literary substrate already considered permanent…. The older text is the “iron” the poet chooses to run through the “reinforced concrete” of his poetic world.’ This may be the case even if an audience is unlikely to recognize an older vocabulary in the new text…. Allusion may serve as a way of acknowledging, even asserting influence… By acknowledging a predecessor, an author may seek to gain entry into a canon; through allusion the poet avows, ‘This work is worth reading, just as its predecessors were.’ In such a case, allusion attempts to bolster the authority of the work.”[29]



The absence of mention of pack animals highlights the fanciful character of the narrative


As is generally acknowledged by researchers of the BoM, Lehi’s journey through the Arabian desert would have required the use of pack animals, and specifically camels, since they are reported to have carried significant provisions and gear, including tents, and had need of an animal suited to long-distance travel and prolonged camping in dry and difficult conditions.[30] Hugh Nibley believed there could be no doubt about the group’s reliance on camels,[31] and more recently S. Kent Brown has argued only slightly more cautiously, “The family must have taken pack animals—very probably camels—to carry tents and other essentials (see 1 Nephi 2:4). The sections of the tents would have weighed more than 100 pounds each.”[32] Yet strangely no camels or means of conveyance is mentioned at any point in the narrative, either at the group’s departure from Jerusalem, during the journey proper, or at their final destination in Bountiful, where, presumably, the animals would have been left behind and not taken on the ship to the Promised Land. The absence of any reference to pack animals during the desert journey itself is particularly unexpected, since the work of obtaining water and fodder for the livestock would have constituted one of the main and consistent objectives of the traveling party.


The apologetic response to this problem has been to say that the use of camels in such a context was so normal and commonplace that there was no need to mention it. In his discussion comparing Lehi’s party to Arab camel-nomads, Hugh Nibley explains, “But neither does Nephi mention camels. Why not? For the very reason that they receive no notice in many an Arabic poem which describes travel in the desert, simply because they are taken for granted. In the East the common words for travel are camel-words; thus raḥal and safar, the two basic words, both mean ‘to set out on a journey’ and also ‘to saddle a camel,’ the presence of camels being inferred when no special mention of them is made. When I say I drove from Heber to Salt Lake, no one would think to ask ‘in a car?’ though for all my hearers know I may have driven a chariot or a tricycle. In the same way when the Arab reports that he has journeyed in the desert he never adds ‘on a camel,’ for in his language ‘to travel’ means to go by camel…”[33] Following this line of reasoning, Brant Gardner states: “Even though the Book of Mormon does not mention camels, it is difficult to imagine that anyone familiar with the desert would travel without them. We ought not to suppose that a lack of mention indicates the absence of this ship of the desert. In the high-context culture of the Old World, having camels for such a journey would be expected. As a parallel in our modern day, we might discuss going on a vacation but neglect to note that we drove a car.”[34]


But these rationalizations based on wide ranging analogy hardly suffice as a satisfactory explanation for the absence of mention of pack animals at any point in the narrative. For the BoM account of Lehi’s journey is not an Arabic poem or abbreviated firsthand report of a desert traveler, but rather a autobiographical-historiographical narrative written by a supposedly former urban Jerusalemite containing substantial itinerary material, including details such as place names, travel directions, and chronographic formula, as well as accounts about hunting for food and notable incidents and interactions within the group, in other words, the precise type of context where we would expect to find some mention of the status of the group’s livestock or pack animals.


Furthermore, from the evidence of archaeology and biblical text, it would seem that camels were not used as a regular beast of burden in the central hill country of Judah and Israel, but were confined to areas in the south and southwest/southeast of Palestine close to desert trade routes.[35] Contrary to Nibley, camels were not “as common then as automobiles are today.” So unless one assumes that Lehi was a caravaneer and spent most of his time in the south—an assumption based on a complete lack of evidence and not to mention inconsistent with the notion that Lehi was fully literate and therefore belonging to the highest levels of Judahite society, he and his family would not have owned camels or had experience using them. They would have had to obtain them elsewhere and learn the basics of how to manage and care for them on the fly, which in itself would have been something worth mentioning.


Finally, we can note as a means of methodological control that although the accompaniment of individuals with pack animals and animal property on journey narratives in the Bible is indeed sometimes implied rather than explicitly stated, they nevertheless appear in these same narratives at various points (e.g. Gen 12:5; 13:5; 22:3; 42:26; 43:24; Ex 4:20), showing that they were not so commonplace to justify completely omitting them. In addition, the biblical authors seem to have taken a special interest in the presence of camels in their stories, often in relation to long distance travel, or as a luxury prestige item fit for kings or royal like figures (e.g. Gen 12:16; 24:35; 30:43; Jdgs 6:5; 1 Kgs 10:2; 1 Chron 27:30).[36]



Making sacrificial offerings in the wilderness?


According to the BoM narrative, Lehi makes sacrificial offerings in the wilderness on three occasions: 1) after the initial escape from Jerusalem he builds an altar and makes an “offering” to the Lord (1 Ne 2:7); 2) later after Nephi and his brothers return from their expedition to obtain the brass plates from Laban, Lehi offers “sacrifice and burnt offerings” at the same altar (1 Ne 5:9); and 3) after Nephi and his brothers return from retrieving Ishmael’s family, Lehi again offers “sacrifice and burnt offerings” (1 Ne 7:22). The oddity of Lehi building an altar and making sacrifice in the desert wilderness has been acknowledged or attempted to be made intelligible by some interpreters. Hugh Nibley explained Lehi’s sacrificing as conforming to the standard sacrificial practices of nomadic Arabs, who made use of heaps of stones in place of regular altars and offered sacrifice on the safe return of warriors,[37] whereas David Seely, concerned with the problem of why Lehi would build an altar and offer sacrifice outside Jerusalem in conflict with the centralization law of Deuteronomy, proposed that as a Melchizedek priesthood holder Lehi may not have been constrained by all of the injunctions of the law of Moses and further that the strictures on sacrifice in Deut 12 may have been thought to apply only to the land of Israel.[38]


However, in my opinion these interpretations of Lehi’s sacrifice do not even begin to grasp the problematic nature of the BoM narrative presentation. Thanks to archaeological and historical research, we now have a much better understanding of the role and function of bloody sacrifice in ancient Israel and elsewhere in the Near East, where it was integrally connected to settled agricultural life, the worship of local deities, and the enactment of cult and ritual in particular spaces set apart for this purpose. As a form of gift-giving, the purpose of sacrifice was to express veneration toward particular deities and provide for their care and sustenance and in return elicit continued blessing or achieve some specific favor and engender conviviality and wholeness in the divine-human relationship.[39]


From this perspective, Lehi’s building of a lone altar in an isolated spot in the desert seems strange and culturally out of place. Contrary to the impression that one could get from a superficial reading of the Bible, one did not simply build an altar out in the country when you wanted to make a sacrifice to deity. Altars were in fact inextricably linked to particular cult sites and sanctuaries, where deities were understood to be close at hand as manifested by their iconic representations or memorials and could be communicated with through cultic officiates.[40] Because sacrifice was fundamentally about feeding the deity and engaging in a form of social interaction and reciprocity, one fed the deity where he/she was widely viewed to be present and cultically available.


By contrast, the BoM presents a concept of sacrifice far removed from the world of ancient Israel. The deity is conceived as transcendent, omnipresent, and non-materially bound to any cult site. The implication of Lehi’s construction of an impromptu altar is that the Israelite God could be accessed in some nameless and uninhabited place on the shore of the Red Sea as well as anywhere. Further, the altar is not associated with any other cult paraphernalia, such as a standing stone, but is treated as merely a tool for expressing unidirectional worship to deity.


It is true that the Hebrew Bible describes a number of examples of individuals who construct altars for what appears to be personal use (Gen 13:18; 22:9; 35:7; Ex 17:15; Ex 32:5; 23:14; Josh 8:30; Jdgs 6:24 etc.), which is undoubtedly the source of inspiration for the BoM account of Lehi, but it is important to emphasize that in these cases they are literary presentations of times in the distant past rather than historical narrative and as a rule function as etiologies for the establishment of actual cult sites/sanctuaries. As Wellhausen once explained, “But of course it was not intended to throw dishonour upon the cultus of the present when its institution was ascribed to the fathers of the nation. Rather, on the contrary, do these legends glorify the origin of the sanctuaries to which they are attached, and surround them with the nimbus of a venerable consecration. All the more as the altars, as a rule, are not built by the patriarchs according to their own private judgment wheresoever they please; on the contrary, a theophany calls attention to, or at least afterwards confirms, the holiness of the place… What is of importance is the theophany in and for itself, its occurrence on that particular place. It must not be regarded as an isolated fact, but rather as the striking commencement of an intercourse between God and man which is destined to be continued at this spot, and also as the first and strongest expression of the sanctity of the soil.”[41]


In addition to the unlikelihood of an Israelite refugee building an ad hoc altar to his native deity after journeying in the Arabian wilderness, the accounts of Lehi’s sacrificing are historically unrealistic in other respects. First, in order to have made his consecutive offerings, Lehi would have had to have brought multiple sacrificial animals with him on the journey as part of the caravan train, which would have not only slowed the group down considerably but put greater stress on finding sufficient water and fodder. According to the text, Lehi makes as many as seven offerings at the campsite by the Red Sea, if we count “sacrifice and burnt offerings” as representing at least one sacrificial offering and two burnt offerings.[42]


Second, on each of the occasions when Lehi sacrifices, the literary context indicates that the main purpose of this action was to show gratitude to deity: “made an offering to the Lord, and gave thanks to the Lord our God” (1 Ne 2:7); “did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto the Lord; and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel” (1 N 5:9); “they did give thanks unto the Lord their God; and they did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings unto him” (1 Ne 7:22; see also Mosiah 2:3). In other words, the author of the BoM does not seem to differentiate among the variously named offerings and all are leveled to a singular generic function.[43] However, in ancient Israel the terms “offering/sacrifice” and “burnt offering” designated distinct forms of sacrifice and would never have been confused. The simple zebaḥ “offering/sacrifice” denoted the communal offering or šelamim in which humans consumed part of the sacrifice, whereas the ʿolah “burnt offering” was burnt entirely to deity and as such had a special sacred status. Although the šelamim was often used for the purpose of celebration or expressing gratitude, the burnt offering had a totally different range of functions as the main food offering to deity, to cultically actualize the divine presence, often for special ritual occasions, and possibly as a form of atonement.[44]


Third, the phrase to “offer sacrifice and burnt offerings” in 1 Ne 5:9 and 7:22 (also Mosiah 2:3) seems to be dependent on the fairly common biblical formula pairing “burnt offerings and sacrifices” (which notably appears in Ex 10:25; 18:12; 20:24; 24:5). But strangely in each case the BoM has “sacrifice” in the singular and “burnt offering” in the plural, which is not attested anywhere in the Bible (cf. the reverse in Ex 18:12). Because of the consistency in wording in the BoM and the fact that only one cultic function is ascribed to Lehi’s sacrificial actions, it suggests that in the mind of the BoM author the phrase “sacrifice and burnt offerings” functions as if it were a merism or compound expression for the offering of sacrifices, thus further reinforcing the impression that the author had no firsthand knowledge of Israelite sacrificial practice.


Finally, Lehi’s acts of sacrifice are unique in the context of the BoM. They are the only reports of a character engaging in actual sacrifice in the whole of the BoM narrative, appearing consistently after the group or its members successfully abscond from Jerusalem (1 Ne 2:7; 5:9; 7:22), whereas surprisingly after the much more perilous voyage to the New World there is no mention of sacrifice (cf. 1 Ne 18:23-25). This literary oddity can most easily be explained by the fact that the author of the BoM was dependent on the biblical narrative’s representation of sacrifice following immediately upon Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (cf. Ex 18:12).



Lehi’s naming of a river and valley after Laman and Lemuel reflects non-Israelite concepts and naming conventions


Upon arriving at an unnamed valley and river of water near the Red Sea and building an altar and offering sacrifice to the Lord, the BoM describes how Lehi’s first speech-act in the wilderness is to name the river after Laman and the valley after Lemuel, providing an opportunity for him to address his wayward sons and poetically urge them to adopt principles of devotion called to mind by the natural surroundings. Laman is encouraged to be like the river that emptied into the Red Sea, “continually running into the fountain of all righteousness” (1 Ne 2:9), while Lemuel is told to be like the valley, “firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord” (1 Ne 2:10).


Hugh Nibley famously attempted to paint this episode as reflecting authentic ancient “Semitic” colors, suggesting that it was customary among desert Bedouin to name topographic features for themselves and that Lehi’s rhetoric was comparable to early Arabic poetic forms.[45] But while his discussion of these cultural parallels is certainly interesting and at times ingenious, it is beset by the same basic problem that plagues so much of Nibley’s antiquarian investigations, that is, a tendency to connect diverse phenomena widely separated in time and space when it supports a certain line of argumentation without giving adequate attention to the unique and contingent contexts in which this phenomena arose and had currency. Lehi’s group of Judahite expatriates were not in fact Sinai Bedouin from the early 20th century, so we should not look primarily to this culture’s idiosyncratic naming habits in order to elucidate the frequent naming of topographic features by the Lehi group in the BoM. Furthermore, the short poetic-like statements made by Lehi enjoining his sons to be righteous and keep the commandments can only be linked to early forms of Arabic poetry such as the sajʿ and qasida by virtually ignoring most of their defining features and characteristic content. For example, the sajʿ is a composition used for various stock purposes distinguished by end-rhyme, accent-based meter, and repetition of a syllabic pattern in the colon-final word,[46] whereas the qasida was a polythematic poem of a simple rhyme scheme and uniform meter, usually beginning with amatory verses, then a description of the poet’s camel, and finally verses of self-praise or praise of tribe.[47]


Rather than reflexively seeking to authenticate the BoM narrative, if we examine the episode of Lehi addressing Laman and Lemuel more dispassionately simply in order to ascertain whether its depiction is historically credible, we immediately begin to encounter problems. First, as was already argued earlier, the poetic statements directed to Laman and Lemuel as well as the naming of local topographic features during the journey through Arabia were likely inspired by particular content contained in the biblical account of the Exodus. The poetic declarations of Lehi were stimulated by similar poetic declarations made by Moses about his two sons (Ex 18:3-4), and the naming of local topography was also a prominent feature of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land (e.g. Ex 15:23; 17:7, 15).


Second, the BoM treats the spontaneous naming of sites while traveling through unfamiliar territory as though it were something completely normal in an Israelite context. The naming of a new encampment occurs not once but several times, and it is generally the first thing reported after arriving (1 Ne 2:8; 16:13; 17:5; 18:23). However, we have very little reason to think that actual Israelites would have behaved this way in the course of a long distance journey, since the attachment of a name to a place would have been almost meaningless, only to members of the group. Furthermore, biblical scholars have shown that the naming episodes recounted in the Exodus narrative and elsewhere in the Bible, upon which the BoM naming events are most likely modeled, as a rule had a literary function and origin and were not intended to represent factual history. They served as scribal etiologies whose purpose was to explain the origin of place names that already existed in the time of the author and to provide a backdrop upon which narrative action and conflict could be portrayed. For example, the Bible contains two distinct etiologies for the waters of Meribah near Qadesh in the Sinai desert (Ex 18:7; Num 20:1-13).[48]


Third, the BoM suggests that Lehi actually named the river Laman and the valley after Lemuel, as a matter of customary usage and not merely as poetic suggestion (1 Ne 2:8, 14; 9:1; 10:16; 16:6, 12). But as far as we know, ancient Israelites did not name local topography with the names of private individuals. In fact, names tended to be either descriptive (e.g. of a topographic feature, human interest or function, flora and fauna) or related to clan names or patronymics.[49] To name something generally meant to have authority over it, so it is unclear why the Lehi group would name the sites they visited in the first place.


Fourth, the address to Laman and Lemuel reflects non-Hebraic concepts and language. For example, the Red Sea is implied to be a “fountain” and specifically likened to the “fountain of all righteousness.” However, as others have noted, this description is at odds with the conventional understanding of “fountain” in ancient Israel and the Near East more broadly. In ancient Hebrew words for “fountain” (ʿyn, mʿyn, mqwr) referred to springs or outlets of subterranean fresh water, that is, sources from which water flowed on land. Nibley tried to solve this problem by suggesting that the Semitic word yam originally meant “fountain” or “source” and that the Gulf of Aqaba could be understood as a source or feeder for the Red Sea.[50] But this etymology lacks evidentiary support and comparison of various West Semitic and Egyptian sources makes clear that the word yam referred to large bodies of water, such as the ocean, seas, inland lakes, and large rivers.[51] In addition, we have no reason to think that ancient Israelites would have distinguished the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea as a water source, since the Bible specifically labels the Gulf of Aqaba as yam suph (Ex 23:31; Num 14:25; 1 Kgs 9:26). Nibley also misreads the passage when he suggests that the “fountain of the Red Sea” in v. 9 is something different from the Red Sea. The broader context shows clearly that the term “fountain” is being used to describe the Red Sea, or in technical language the construct phrase “fountain of the Red Sea” is a genitive of species, i.e. the Red Sea is designated a specific member of the class “fountain.” We are told that the river “emptied into the Red Sea” in v. 8 and that Laman was to flow “into the fountain of all righteousness” in v. 9, implying that the Red Sea and fountain were equivalent. Another similarly broad/inaccurate usage of the term “fountain” appears later in 1 Ne 8:32.


On the other hand, Paul Hoskisson has argued that calling the Red Sea a fountain is a mark of the BoM’s authenticity, since in ancient Near Eastern cosmological thought the oceans and inland subterranean waters were believed to be connected, to such a degree that “the fountain of a river was conceived of as being the oceanic waters, the river actually drawing from the ocean or fountain in a sense that is not clear to our occidental and empirical understanding.”[52] However, this description is only partially accurate. While it is true that the ocean and subterranean waters were widely seen as somehow interrelated, it reflects a misunderstanding of ancient Syro-Palestinian cosmology to say that inland fountains or springs were drawing directly from the ocean, or that the ocean was in fact the cosmological source of the world’s water. Rather, the two kinds of waters were fundamentally distinct in character. Although both the oceans and subterranean waters were believed to be ultimately derived from a common watery source, originating at the time of creation, the waters of the sea, typically represented in myth as a destructive force, were in fact a chaotic or uncontrollable element, whereas the inland waters of springs were the contained or “cosmic aspect of the primeval water,” associated with beneficent deities.[53] In any case, Hoskisson does not provide any rationale for why a cosmological reading of the word “fountain” is appropriate to the narrative context of Lehi’s address.


The apologetic arguments that attempt to justify calling the Red Sea a fountain are therefore unconvincing and the description remains problematic under the assumption that the BoM reflects an ancient Israelite origin. Because the usage of fountain is conceptually inappropriate to the narrative context, a more likely explanation for the word is that it reflects the peculiar idiom of the modern author of the BoM (cf. 1 Ne 8:32), who in seeking to construct a divine metaphor relevant to the landscape, moved from the familiar homiletic (also modern and non-biblical) trope of God as the “fountain of all righteousness” to the necessity of characterizing the neighboring body of water as a “fountain”: “fountain of all righteousness” + river flowing into the Red Sea –> God = “fountain of the Red Sea.”


Fifth, the above observations about the difference between sea and inland subterranean waters raise an additional feature of the narrative that is plainly anachronistic: the implicit comparison of the waters of the Red Sea to divinity. Lehi encourages Laman to be like the river, “continually running into the fountain of all righteousness,” suggesting that the author of the BoM is comparing the “fountain of the Red Sea” to God. But such a divine metaphor is completely beyond the pale of what would have been possible for an ancient Israelite/Jew to conceive, since the sea was commonly recognized as a force of destruction and had a mythological identity separate from God, always an antagonistic figure threatening the order established by beneficent deities (Ps 18:16; 74:12-17; 89:10; Job 26:12; Nah 1:4; Hab 3:4; Jer 31:35; Isa 27:1; 51:10, 15).[54]


Finally, it is doubtful that an ancient Israelite would have thought to compare mortal individuals to natural/cosmic phenomena such as rivers or valleys as described in the narrative. As sources of life-giving water, rivers tended to be closely associated with deity (Gen 2:10; Ps 46:4; 78:16; Isa 33:21; 41:18; Ezek 47:1-9), who provided water from below and above, unless they were evoked for their destructive power, in which case they could represent foreign imperial invasion (e.g. Isa 8:7; Jer 46:7). On the other hand, valleys and mountains were not typically viewed anthropomorphically, but were rather seen as the objects of God’s creative/destructive activity or places of fertility, war, and death (Ps 33:9; 65:6, 13; Isa 7:19; 28:4; 40:4; 41:18; Jer 49:4; Hosea 1:5; Joel 3:2; Mic 1:4; cf. Ezek 6:3).



Other place names mentioned in the broader literary context are also implausible


Aside from Nahom, the other names given to places by the Lehi group during their journey do not appear to be historically authentic and show signs of having been artificially developed, including Shazer (1 Ne 16:13) and Irreantum (1 Ne 17:5). The closest available Hebrew root to Shazer is שזר “to twist,” which the Book of Mormon Onomasticon suggests may have reference to the twisted aspect of the acacia trees that grew in the vicinity of the oasis where Lehi camped.[55] But words derived from this root in Hebrew and cognate languages seem to consistently have in mind the twisting of threads to produce cloth or textiles (cf. NRSV “to twist finely”). So it seems a dubious stretch to suggest that this sense could be used to apply to the twisting action of a tree, especially since there were any number of terms in Hebrew that could have been better suited to this purpose (עקש, סבך, עבת, חבש, עות). In addition, it seems a highly odd feature of the environment to take much notice of and then to memorialize in one of the few place names mentioned along the journey. Based on the available evidence, Hebrew toponyms tended to be more straightforward and simple in their meaning and inspiration.[56]


Another possible interpretation of Shazer comes from Hugh Nibley, who proposed that the word relates to šajer, the Arabic word for “trees.”[57] Because this derivation fits with the assumption that Lehi camped at some oasis-like setting, the interpretation has become widely adopted by other commentators. For example, Brant Gardner claims, “The name ‘Shajer’ has a collective meaning of ‘trees’ in Semitic languages, and is pronounced ‘shazher’ by many Arabs.”[58] But this kind of loose casting of the philological net that claims simply because a word is attested elsewhere in Semitic or even in non-Semitic languages it can be used to shed light on the language of the BoM is based on a naïve and erroneous picture of ancient Near Eastern languages. The ancient Near East was not some static and relatively homogenous cultural region, as suggested by the use of the term Semitic to describe the family origin of many of its languages, but a vast area characterized by synchronic and diachronic linguistic diversity. Languages were discrete and differentiated and evolved over time.


As Judahites the spoken language of Lehi and Nephi would have been a form of ancient Hebrew, so this should be the starting point for all interpretations of transliterated names bestowed by members of the group. After all, people tend to use their own language in customary matters of naming and we have little reason to believe that Lehi and others in the group commonly spoke some other non-native language.[59] However, if this assumption is correct, then we can conclude that a derivation of Shazer from šajer is not viable philologically: 1) Arabic šajer has no cognate in Hebrew or in fact in any other Semitic language, meaning that it seems to have been a development peculiar to Arabic;[60] 2) Hebrew already has a general term for trees (ʿṣ), as well as names for specific varieties of trees, so there is no need to reconstruct another general term for trees; 3) the Hebrew cognate of šajer would have been pronounced sager with a simple “s” and hard “g” sound, a phonemic combination that is unlikely to have produced the two sibilants of Shazer.[61]


Because we lack a Hebrew root that could be used to explain the origin of Shazer, we have good grounds for assuming that the name was artificially fashioned by the author of the BoM. The word sounds vaguely biblical, and Thomas J. Finley has reasonably speculated that it was inspired by the place name “Jazer” in the KJV.[62] Another possibility that we will consider later is that the name was partially derived from an authentic location in Arabia seen on a contemporary 19th century map.


With regard to Irreantum, the extraordinarily complicated nature of the word and its associated textual gloss as “many waters” has led researchers to devote considerable attention to elucidating its etymological origin. To date a number of different etymologies have been proposed, including one South Semitic and several Egyptian.[63] Because I consider an Egyptian derivation to be inherently implausible—in view of the pragmatic situation of naming by the group as a whole, “And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum,” and because we have no reason to think that Egyptian would have been commonly understood by anyone else in the group, I will restrict my focus to the South Semitic etymology.[64]


According to Paul Hoskisson, the use of a textual gloss for Irreantum suggests that the term is not in the language of Nephi and therefore must derive from some other language. As he explains, “The only rational reason for Nephi to include both the transliteration and translation is that he did not expect his audience to immediately grasp the meaning of Irreantum, because it was not a readily recognizable Nephite word.”[65] Following this clue, he proposes that Irreantum may be of South Semitic origin and was constructed from various morphological elements, including a prosthetic aleph, the root RWY, the afformative -an, and the root TMM. The root RWY “to provision with water” is attested in pre-Islamic South Arabian inscriptions, and so the first part of Irreantum could represent a nominal form having to do with “watering,” similar to the place name ʾrwy in ancient South Arabia, whereas the tum element could be construed as a separate word functioning as a simple attributive genitive. Together the two words would form a construct chain meaning “abundant watering of completeness.” In support of this derivation, Hoskisson conjectures that during the eight years Lehi and his family traveled in the wilderness they “could have borrowed elements or whole words from one or more South Semitic languages either on their journey to Bountiful or even after they arrived in Bountiful.”[66]


However, this explanation of Irreantum is unconvincing for several reasons. First, historically and narratively we would rather expect the name given to the sea to correspond to the spoken language of Lehi and Nephi, namely Hebrew: 1) The text specifically says that the Lehi group was responsible for naming the waters: the verb is written in the active voice and the subject is plural (“And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum”), suggesting that the name was a product of their cultural interpretation and would have been meaningful to the group as a whole. 2) The phraseology used to describe the naming event of Irreantum is virtually the same as that used in previous cases of naming, so we would not be led to assume that the source language had suddenly changed in this instance. On each occasion of naming, the narrative describes how the group arrives at a certain place or sees something for the first time and then forthwith gives it a name (“… and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer”; “… and we did come to the land which we called Bountiful, because of its much fruit”; “And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum”). 3) There is no reference or clear intimation in the text that the group had met any local inhabitants of Southern Arabia or found an opportunity to learn a new language. 4) If they had learned a South Semitic language during their journey, it is far more likely that they would have used this knowledge in their naming of the area of Bountiful, perhaps dependent on local tradition, whereas the sea or ocean was something that they would already have been familiar with from back home on the eastern Mediterranean and could describe with culturally specific terminology (ym, thwm, mym rbym). For them, the waters surrounding dry land already had a name and associated mythology, from which the waters of the southern Arabian coast would not have been fundamentally separated, since in Israelite tradition the seas were all seen as belonging to one great oceanic entity yam.


Hoskisson is correct that the use of a textual gloss to explain the meaning of Irreantum is odd assuming that the BoM narrative were historical and would normally indicate that the word was foreign or unfamiliar to the author’s audience or readers. But it is important to emphasize that this treatment of BoM language as non-translatable is not unique to the naming of Irreantum. Shazer is also transliterated as though it were a foreign term rather than translated into English, in contrast to Bountiful (1 Ne 17:5), the Promised Land (1 Ne 18:23), and Desolation (Alma 22:30). Other terms are transliterated and provided with an explanatory gloss even though it would seem reasonable to presume they also were derived from native vocabulary and could have been translated, including Rabbanah (Alma 18:13), Rameumptom (Alma 31:21), and Liahona (Alma 37:38). In view of this repeated and bizarre irregularity in the translational modus operandi of the BoM, it makes more sense to understand the practice of transliterating and/or glossing particular terms as having been made for the benefit of modern readers of the BoM and therefore to stand as evidence of intentional linguistic artifice. Following biblical patterns from both the Old and New Testaments, names are generally reproduced in transliterated form and allegedly native expressions are provided with explanatory glosses in order to lend the narrative authenticity and historical verisimilitude (cf. John 1:38, 41; Mark 5:41; 15:22, 34; Matthew 1:23).


Second, the proposed etymology from South Semitic is highly dubious. Hoskisson’s identification of morphological elements that would account for the various phonemes represented in Irreantum is ad hoc and conjectural rather than based on a sound understanding of Ancient South Arabian attested in inscriptions: 1) If the initial nominal form were based on the root RWY, there is no reason I can see why it would need to be preceded by an aleph. Noun forms from RWY are well attested in Ancient South Arabian (rwym, mrw, mryt), and they are never spelled with an initial aleph.[67] As the first root letter in the word, the “r” would not have been doubled and neither is there a prefixed definite article in Ancient South Arabian that would explain the need for a prosthetic aleph. In addition, the Sabaean town spelled ʾrwy cannot be used to suggest that RWY was sometimes prefixed with an aleph, since the meaning of the name is unclear and it may in fact be related to ʾrwy, “mountain goat.”[68] 2) The root RWY is nonsensical as applied to the waters of the ocean. Across the Semitic language family as a whole it is clear that RWY was used to refer to the satisfying and nourishing qualities of fresh water or drinkable liquids.[69] For example, in ancient South Arabian the verbal form of RWY means “to provide with irrigation,” and the nominal forms can refer to a “well, watering place,” “water carrying animals,” and “sweet well.”[70] 3) As far as I know, the afformative -an attested in Semitic languages to the North does not play a visible role in Ancient South Arabian.[71] The ending –n is rather used to mark the determinate state similar to the definite article, which in this case would undermine the theory that the two words were in construct.[72] 4) The noun form tm from TMM is unlikely to have been used as an attributive genitive, since it carries the meaning of “complete, nothing lacking,” a concept that an ancient Israelite would have hardly thought to apply to the sea. Contrary to Hoskisson’s insinuation, the word does not generally connote superabundance or anything of the sort.[73] Furthermore, in all of ancient Semitic I have not been able to find a single instance where the noun form is used in place names or personal names.[74] The adjective form frequently appears in personal names, but there it always seems to function as a predicative element describing a personal deity invoked by a theophoric (e.g. yhwtm, “YHW is beyond reproach/ blameless).[75]


Third, the BoM portrays Irreantum as though it were a single word by producing the letters in a continuous sequence. To suppose that Irreantum is made up of two or more words is to diverge from the interpretation of the name provided in the text itself.


Ultimately, I can think of no way that Irreantum can be plausibly derived from any Semitic language. Its combination of an initial vowel/aleph, doubling of the r, multiple consonant clusters, and final -tum ending seem at total variance to the phonological and morphological conventions of known Semitic and Hebrew in particular. Significantly, the concept “many waters” could have very easily been conveyed in Hebrew and the phrase is even attested in the Bible (mym rbym, Ps 18:16; 29:3; 93:4; Jer 51:13), thus further reinforcing the impression that the BoM does not stem from authentic Israelite tradition.


On the other hand, a number commentators on both sides of the historical question have noted that Irreantum is strikingly similar to the Latin name used for the Arabian Sea from late antiquity up into the modern era, Erythraeum.[76] The general pattern of the letters is closely comparable: initial vowel + r + vowel + t/th + um. As we will see later, this name was still known in the 19th century and could be read on maps depicting the sea below Arabia.



The few chronological notices seem unrealistic and dramatically disproportionate


The first chronological notice implies that it took the group three days to travel from Jerusalem to somewhere along the Gulf of Aqaba: “And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family, which consisted of my mother, Sariah, and my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam. And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent…” (1 Nephi 2:5-6). In recent years, most BoM commentators have interpreted “when he had traveled three days in the wilderness” to have reference to a discrete phase of travel along the Red Sea, which is to say, Lehi came down to the Red Sea, traveled along its borders, and then three days later pitched his tent.[77] However, close analysis of the broader context and phraseology of the notice suggest that it has in mind a departure from Jerusalem: 1) This is the first chronological report in the narrative since the departure, so we would expect it to be inclusive of the journey up to that point. 2) The three statements about travel in v. 5 appear to have been intended to convey the general idea of traveling in the wilderness toward the borders of the Red Sea, through repetition of similar wording. Parallel or slightly varying language is repeated in each case: “he came down”/“he traveled”/“he did travel”; “by the borders”/“in the borders”; “near the shore of the Red Sea”/“nearer the Red Sea”; “in the wilderness”/“in the wilderness.” On the other hand, the chronological notice in v. 6 is constructed as a dependent clause with a past perfect verb, “when he had traveled,” thus distinguishing it from the previous statements of travel and indicating that it is not a report of further travel. 3) The qualification of the chronological notice by the simple phrase “in the wilderness” implies that this is not a specific wilderness by the Red Sea, but the general wilderness outside Jerusalem into which Lehi departed in v. 4. 4) The heading to the First Book of Nephi specifically states that Lehi took a “three days’ journey into the wilderness,” meaning the trip from Jerusalem to the valley of Lemuel.


If this interpretation of the text is correct, then it is obvious that the stated period of “three days” is fanciful and imaginative rather than historical. We have already argued above that the description of the journey as having lasted three days is likely dependent on a literary motif from Exodus, but the claim is also problematic because it is not anywhere near the length of time it would have taken for a large family to have traveled from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aqaba. According to Jeffrey Chadwick, “The distance from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Eilat via the Ein Gedi/ Arabah valley route is just under two hundred miles and takes ten days to cover on foot, averaging twenty miles per day.”[78] Twenty miles a day would have been a significant feat in itself, considering the baggage they would have been carrying and that their party consisted of men and women, young and old. With camels they could have made the trip somewhat faster, but even at a brisk 24 miles/40 kilometers a day it would have taken 6-7 days.[79]


The remaining chronological notices become increasingly vague, moving from the four days to Shazer (1 Ne 16:13), to the “many days” along the borders of the Red Sea until Nephi breaks his bow (1 Ne 16:15, 17), to another “many days” until they reach Nahom (1 Ne 16:33), until finally the narrative reports that when the group arrives at Bountiful on the coast of southern Arabia they had sojourned in the wilderness for eight years (1 Ne 17:4)!


As with the first chronological notice, the report that they had wandered for eight years across Arabia is unrealistic and difficult to take seriously: 1) According to S. Kent Brown, the total length of the journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful was about 2200 miles.[80] So even if we were to assume that they went a relatively slow pace of 10 miles on average a day, with a number of longer stops included for every 50 miles, the trip would have taken no more than a year. Historically, we know that the journey from Shabwa in Yemen to Gaza on the Mediterranean along the incense road by camel took only two to three months.[81] 2) From the available chronological notices, it took the group 3 days to travel 200 miles from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aqaba, whereas the remaining 2000 miles consumed eight years. The two chronological notices are therefore highly disproportionate from one another, the first lightning fast and the second extremely slow and drawn out. 3) As is well known, travel through Arabia was dangerous and exposed one to various threats, including the possibility of dying for lack of water and food. Of crucial importance therefore was that a traveler did not spend more time than was necessary moving through these desolate regions. One had to move quickly from one water resource to the next, surviving on the supplies one carried until other food resources could be obtained. In this environment, spending inordinate amounts of time hunting for occasional wildlife would not have been wise.[82] 4) Camping and traveling for this long in Arabia would have required significant interactions with local inhabitants of the various regions the group moved through, and yet the narrative never mentions any such encounters (see below).


Because the journey through Arabia is so much longer than what we would expect and in fact was humanly feasible, it seems probable that the large number of “eight years” was motivated by the similarly large number of “forty years” that the Bible claims for the wilderness wandering of Israel on their way to Canaan.



The narrative shows no knowledge of any actual people, tribal groups, or oasis communities in Arabia


We know from archaeology, inscriptions, and historical references that there were several major communities and peoples that Lehi would have doubtless encountered or had some interactions with during a journey from Jerusalem to the coast of southern Arabia. Contrary to some popular conceptions, the area was not a vast wasteland, but at a number of points was inhabited and controlled by various tribal groups and polities generally associated with trade routes and water resources/oases, to which were also linked nomadic groups that ranged over a broader area. Starting from the east shore of the gulf of Aqaba, some of the major settlements included the town of Al-Badʿ of the former kingdom of Midian, the kingdom of Dedan at al-ʿUla, the main political power in the northern Hijaz, the oasis Yathrib in the central Hijaz, and the oasis Najran in the south, an old urban center and focal point of all routes leading north from Yemen.[83] The highlands of Yemen from the Jawf to the Hadramawt were even more densely populated with villages and towns, thanks to higher levels of precipitation and developed agricultural practices.[84] The dominant political force in the late 7th century was the kingdom of Sabaʾ with its capital at Marib, but other notable towns included Qarnaw, Sirwah, Tamnaʿ, and Shabwa.[85]


Considering the central locations of many of these communities, lying relatively close to the general route of Lehi’s group described in the BoM, and their control of inland trade and travel, it is hard to see how a party of Judahite refugees from central Palestine could have avoided coming into contact with them. The settlements were favorably positioned in terms of the geography, meaning that in many cases one would have to go out of their way over difficult terrain to get around them, and local governments had a natural interest in knowing who was moving through their territory and what their business was. Even sporadic watering holes and springs would have been closely monitored.[86]


On the other hand, Lehi’s party consisted of a fairly sizeable group of inexperienced desert travelers, men and women, young and old, who at times would have been in need of replenishing their supplies and getting access to water for themselves and their animals. Furthermore, I can see no obvious rationale why Lehi would have turned away from these stopping places, since they posed no danger to him and in fact almost certainly would have been life saving. Once they had arrived in Arabia, the threat of the Jerusalem authorities sending someone to pursue them was far past.


Yet significantly the BoM narrative contains not one mention of any people encountered during the journey or any explicit detail suggesting their existence (again setting aside the “place” Nahom, whose significance is yet unclear), such as names of towns, tribal groups, wells/watering holes/oases, military activity, fortifications, temples, markets, agricultural industry, animal husbandry, bandits, or desert nomads. In other words, the BoM author demonstrates no firsthand knowledge of the social and political landscape of Arabia, despite having allegedly spent eight years wandering through it.



The general practice of not making fire on the trail implies secrecy and as a practical matter would have posed severe challenges for a group relying on hunted food


After arriving in Bountiful and describing how he had made fire in order to molt ore for tools, Nephi reveals that “the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness; for he said: I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not” (1 Ne 17:12). The clear implication of the narrative is that God had not permitted the group to make “much fire” during their eight-year sojourn through Arabia and as an expedient had miraculously altered the meat obtained through hunting so that cooking was unnecessary. But why does the author fail to mention this important point earlier in the narrative, during the account of the journey itself? The disclosure feels unexpected and post-hoc (cf. 1 Ne 17:2)? And why would God instruct the group not to make fire in the first place?


When we pair the fact that no other people are ever mentioned as having been encountered by the group in the wilderness and the immediately following passage that suggests the issue with fire was its visibility (“And I will also be your light in the wilderness…”), then it seems clear that the reason God instructed Lehi not to make fire was to avoid attracting notice from others in the general region. This is how most BoM commentators have understood the passage,[87] and literarily it would cohere with the idea that Lehi and Nephi wanted to escape from Jerusalem incognito (1 Ne 4:36). Later Omni 1:6 speaks of God having preserved Lehi’s party from “falling into the hands of their enemies” while traveling from Jerusalem (cf. Alma 9:10). However, if this interpretation is correct, then it raises all sorts of problems: 1) It implies that the Lehi group actually did avoid contact with other peoples on their journey through Arabia, which as we have already discussed would have been virtually impossible; 2) What would be the purpose in having Lehi’s family covertly steal away through Arabia? Although the need to avoid bandits and marauders would make the non-use of fire conceivable for limited periods, the sense from Nephi’s statement is that they did not make “much fire” as a general rule, such that the decision to make a fire at Bountiful represented a break from the norm (the only other implied use of fire on the journey is the several instances when Lehi sacrificed in the valley of Lemuel). As we have already mentioned, historically there would have been many cases along the trail when Lehi’s family was not in danger from local tribes and in fact would have benefited greatly from their assistance and access to water resources. 3) The general non-use of fire would have made surviving for eight years in the desert with Bedouin-style camping impracticable, since they would have not been able to cook their meat or bake bread.


Recognizing some of the problems with the BoM claim that Lehi’s group did not use “much fire” during the journey, commentators have offered various theories that attempt to elucidate the passage. Jeffrey Chadwick has proposed that the term “suffered” could be understood “as Nephi attributing to the Lord the fact that, for practical reasons, they had simply not made much fire on their journey.”[88] In other words, God here is rhetorically invoked as fate or providence, whereas the real reasons why Lehi’s group did not regularly cook with fire include 1) the lack of available firewood in some areas; 2) the possibility that they traveled mostly at night; and 3) because they cooked rather infrequently and sun-dried most of their meat.[89] However, the meaning of this transitive use of “to suffer” is clear from the broader narrative context, where it consistently has reference to someone—generally deity—allowing or permitting something else (1 Ne 1:14; 13:30-32; 17:55; 18:11; 22:16 etc.); and in any case the following line, “for he said: I will make thy food become sweet…” presumes that the Lord is the one who had dictated the non-use of fire. Furthermore, the BoM does not give any indication that the group merely cooked irregularly or that dried meat formed a substantial part of their diet, but rather that they did not cook and had been living upon raw meat as a general practice (1 Ne 17:2, 12). The whole point of the motif about raw meat eating is to underscore the miraculous nature of the divine intervention in the exodus of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem and therefore Chadwick’s reading is simply a rationalistic attempt to secularize the narrative and make it intelligible in modern historicist terms.


Another unpersuasive suggestion is that because the claim to have not used “much fire” is made in the narrative only after having passed through Nahom that this practice was peculiar to the final stage of the journey.[90] But the language used by Nephi is not so qualified, “For the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire” (1 Ne 17:12), meaning the Lord had not permitted them to make fire from the beginning of their wandering in the wilderness. Furthermore, the larger context of first person speech in 1 Ne 17:12b-14 is presented as if it were a flashback, containing words spoken to Nephi by the Lord in the valley of Lemuel shortly after their escape from Jerusalem and in anticipation of their subsequent journeying toward the Promised Land (“I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments… ye shall be led towards the promised land….”). Finally, Nephi’s initial report about the group’s experience living on a diet of raw meat is formulated, “And so great were the blessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness” (1 Ne 17:2), the “while” pointing to a durative condition of their traveling.



Liahona is superfluous in the context of the narrative


Although the story about the Liahona or magical brass ball given to the Lehi group in order to guide them in the wilderness sounds fictitious and imaginative simply because of the conception of God it presupposes, i.e. an extraordinary miracle worker who dramatically intervenes in the mundane world to aid his chosen people, even within the world of the narrative the role of the Liahona seems superfluous and contrived. For Lehi is already a prophet or “visionary man” (1 Ne 2:11), capable of receiving various kinds of revelatory information (1 Ne 1:13, 19; 2:2; 3:2; 5:5, 18; 7:1; 8:1; 16:9). We are even told once that Nephi goes to Lehi to find a place where to hunt (1 Ne 16:23), the same type of information for which the Liahona was used (1 Ne 16:16). So in practical terms there was no need for any additional revelatory instrument to relay divine communication to the party. The motif serves rather to accentuate the theme of supernatural assistance as a mysterious divine object used to test the faith of the Lehi group, comparable to the brass serpent that saved the Israelites (see above), and to provide a more technological means of explaining how the refugee Jews made their way to the Promised Land. As Dan Vogel has explained, “Nineteenth-century debates about whether the ancients crossed the ocean to America often turned on the question of navigation. Many doubted if such a crossing could be accomplished without a mariner’s compass.”[91] Further, whereas “the Jaredite colony had simply drifted on the ocean’s current… the Lehi colony had use of both sail and rudder and thus a compass or some kind of directional device was imperative (18:9-22).”[92]


In addition, it is probably not coincidental that the idea of the Liahona as a ball upon which words appeared is closely analogous to the seer stone JS used to translate the BoM and has no relation to documented divinatory techniques or technology practiced in ancient Israel.[93]



The relative non-significance of water to the narrative


Another detail that attracts attention is the role of water in the narrative, or rather its irrelevance. As we have already discussed, the search for water resources would have been one of the main and consistent objectives of the traveling party, for themselves and their animals. In the desert one can live for a while without food, but without water only hours or days, so having places where one can regularly access water is key to survival. Consequently, it is highly peculiar that in the narrative of the Lehi group’s wandering through Arabia water plays such a minimal role. Water or the lack thereof is rarely mentioned. Only once during the whole journey through Arabia is a water source associated with the establishment of a campsite (1 Ne 2:6)! And only once do we hear about the group complaining for thirst while traveling, and even then it is tertiary in a litany of afflictions that give priority to hunger (1 Ne 16:35).


In fact, the account of travel down the shore of the Red Sea suggests that the primary concern for the group was not water, but rather the search for food. The party camps at Shazer and then they “go forth into the wilderness to slay food” with their bows and arrows (1 Ne 16:14). Then again, they travel for “many days, slaying food by the way” (1 Ne 16:15). Again they stop to rest in order to hunt for food (1 Ne 16:17), and when Nephi breaks his bow the narrative emphasizes that this development was devastating on the group because they “did obtain no food” (1 Ne 16:18); “they did suffer much for the want of food” (1 Ne 16:19); “insomuch we could obtain no food” (1 Ne 16:21). In other words, water is implied to be a non-issue compared to the search for animal food. Based on the prominence of the hunting theme, it would seem that the references to the “more fertile parts of the wilderness” that occur in the same section (1 Ne 16:14, 16) allude to places where wild game was available and not primarily to water resources.


On the other hand, the one instance where a water source is associated with a campsite is diluted in significance because it is described as a “river of water” (1 Ne 2:6, 8, 9) that “emptied” into the Red Sea (1 Ne 2:8, 9) and was continually “running” or flowing (1 Ne 2:9). It is well known that there are no actual rivers flowing from Arabia into the Red Sea due to the harsh desert climate, a state of affairs that has changed only marginally since the time of Lehi.[94] Although BoM researchers have identified some seasonal wadis along the east side of the Gulf of Aqaba as possible candidates for the river Laman,[95] it is only with considerable semantic stretching and a dose of wishful thinking that we can possibly consider calling these small waterbeds rivers. In ancient Hebrew full continuously flowing rivers were typically distinguished from small watercourses, streams, or seasonal wadis,[96] and the same is the case with the English of Joseph Smith’s day,[97] so the repeated use of “river” in the context of the narrative would appear to be intentional and meaningful.


Jeffrey Chadwick has argued that a perennial stream or river is “not required to fulfill Nephi’s description or Lehi’s exclamation. Lehi said ‘continually running,’ not ‘continually flowing.’ A Near Eastern wadi’s streambed can run all the way to the sea whether water happens to be flowing in it or not.”[98] But this reading of the passage is forced and motivated by apologetic concerns. In context the participial phrase “continually running” modifies the word “river”—no riverbed is mentioned—and in the English of Joseph Smith’s period “running” was commonly used as a synonym of “flowing.”[99]


Furthermore, the river Laman is portrayed at various points as though it were a full flowing river. The waters are said to “empty” into the Red Sea (1 Ne 2:8, 9), and the poetic address urging Laman to flow into the fountain of all righteousness (1 Ne 2:9) gains rhetorical force only under the assumption that the amount of water was substantial. Later the narrative reports that in resuming their journey along shore of the Red Sea they departed “across the river Laman” (1 Ne 16:12), a detail that would hardly seem necessary if it were only a small stream. Finally, the phrase “river of water” is used elsewhere in the general context of 1 Nephi to describe water in which one could drown (1 Ne 8:32).


Thus on the whole there is continuity in the unrealistic representation of water in the narrative of 1 Nephi. At the beginning of the journey the author of the BoM places a river carrying abundant water in a desert environment where there should be nothing of the sort, whereas later while traveling through Arabia no particular concern is attached to finding resources of water.



The lack of differentiation in Arabian geography


While journeying from Jerusalem to Bountiful on the southern coast of Arabia, a historical group of Judahite refugees would have walked over, explored, and personally experienced a spectacular range of natural geography, traveling along the rocky, wadi ridden, and hot and humid coast of the Red Sea, traversing long swathes of sand and volcanic fields, at some point moving up the rocky escarpment bordering the Tihamah into the foothills of the Asir mountains. From here they would have climbed into the highlands of Yemen, a steep mountainous region characterized by a favorable subtropical climate, otherwise known as Arabia Felix. Once having entered this area, travel would have become considerably more pleasant and practicable, following well-worn paths and taking advantage of the food and water resources of local settlements. Continuing southeast, they would have eventually found their way to the more arid central Yemen plateau, with its valleys inhabited by large oasis-like communities that harnessed seasonal floods for irrigation and were situated close to the incense trade route, finally arriving somewhere near NHM.


After departing from NHM, if the party went east as alleged in the BoM, they would have been forced to cross the Ramlat Al-Sabʿatayn desert, a southern branch of the Rubʿ al-Khali, lying in the depression between the Jawf and the Hadramawt.[100] Treading close to one of the driest regions on earth, this stretch of the journey would have been particularly desolate and perilous. Although a route through the dunes is known to have existed in ancient times and was used by caravans as an alternative to the main road to the south that skirted around the desert, the trip required preparation and skill, and even then it was “eight to ten days of difficult traveling, the main challenge being lack of water.”[101] Arriving at Shabwa the group would have continued the journey eastward into the wadi Hadramawt following the main caravan trail. Then, instead of heading south via the wadi Masila, they would have set off into the Mahra upland desert, a maze of hills, wadis, and stony gravel plains largely uninhabited except by nomadic peoples and lacking any direct routes to the Dhofar region.[102] Because of the difficult nature of the landscape, travel here would have been slow going, constant exposure and scarcity of food and water making it as formidable as any previous stage of the journey. Finally, at some point the group would have crossed over the mountainous divide separating the desert interior of the Mahra, entering a small wadi and coming out at the relatively fertile site of Bountiful on the coast of southern Arabia.


Yet in comparison to this hypothetical account of the journey, the BoM seems largely ignorant of Arabia’s geographic diversity and complexity. Distinct climates and environmental terrain, which would have powerfully shaped the context in which the party traveled and struggled to survive, go unmentioned or undescribed in the narrative (e.g., the Tihama, the highlands of Yemen, the crossing of the Rubʿ al-Khali), whereas reports or hints of geographic variation are few and far between, limited to 1) a valley and river near the shore of the Red Sea (1 Ne 2:6); 2) some “fertile parts” said to be in the coastal area of the Red Sea (1 Ne 16:14, 16); 3) a mountain in the vicinity where Nephi breaks his bow (1 Ne 16:30); 4) the much fruit and timber found at Bountiful (1 Ne 17:5; 18:1); and 5) the existence of a mountain at Bountiful (1 Ne 17:7). Even more strangely, in the two cases where the presence of a mountain is recorded they are each appended with a definite article with no additional information about their location (“the mountain”), suggesting that they are somehow known or particular mountains.


Furthermore, the land from Jerusalem to Bountiful is presented as if it were an undifferentiated, almost monolithic, wilderness, “the wilderness.” Lehi and his family depart from Jerusalem into “the wilderness” (1 Ne 2:4) and travel in “the wilderness” (1 Ne 2:5) down to the Red Sea. After camping in the valley of Lemuel for a period, the group again departs into “the wilderness” (1 Ne 16:12), with no language clarifying that this is a wilderness utterly different from the Judean wilderness near Jerusalem. From Shazer, “And we did go forth again in the wilderness… keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Ne 16:14). After Nahom, “we did again take our journey in the wilderness… And we did travel and wade through much affliction in the wilderness” (1 Ne 17:1). Rounding out the narrative and summarizing the trip as a whole, Nephi reports that they sojourned for eight years in “the wilderness” (1 Ne 17:4).


We have already seen that the description of the valley and river near the Red Sea is problematic based on the use of the word “river.” The mention of “fertile areas” is similarly of doubtful historical value, since as was argued earlier, Lehi’s route along the shore of the Red Sea was not anywhere near the oasis settlements of the incense road. Further, in view of the many significant mountains the group would have climbed over and passed by during the journey, the two references to generic mountains can hardly be seen to reflect accurate knowledge of the topographic realities of Arabia, especially since the mountain at Bountiful appears only in relation to reports of Nephi’s experience of revelatory theophanies (1 Ne 17:7; 18:3), borrowing from the biblical representation of Moses on mount Sinai.


Perhaps the only geographic detail with an apparent connection to real world Arabian geography is the description of Bountiful on the coast of southern Arabia, which is portrayed as something of a garden paradise, with abundant fruit (1 Ne 17:5), trees (1 Ne 18:1), and wild honey (1 Ne 17: 5; 18:6). As BoM apologists have been wont to emphasize, several sites in the Dhofar region of southern Oman resemble this picture and boast of significantly greater fertility and vegetation than almost anywhere along the Arabian coast, including Wadi Sayq, Mughsayl, and Khor Rori. Arguments identifying one site or another as Bountiful have been advanced, and many now believe that the general vicinity of the spot where Nephi built a ship to cross to the Promised Land has been established beyond reasonable doubt.[103]


However, if we examine the narrative about Bountiful more closely, we see that there are substantial problems with the assumption that the author of the BoM had any of the Dhofar sites in mind or that he was drawing upon real world personal experience. First, the narrative implies that Bountiful was uninhabited of people from the time of the group’s arrival, its natural abundance having been “prepared of the Lord” so that they would not perish (1 Ne 17:5). Not only are no other people ever mentioned as having been seen or encountered at Bountiful, but 1 Nephi 17 contains many clues that in the world of the narrative the whole area was bereft of human occupants. This includes the group giving the place a new name upon arrival (1 Ne 17:5), camping alone by the seashore (1 Ne 17:6), Nephi smelting ore to make his own tools (1 Ne 17:9-11), the construction of a uniquely designed ship revealed of God (1 Ne 17:8; 18:2), and the need for Laman and Lemuel to assist in building the ship as the only available manpower (1 Ne 17:18, 49).[104]


If this understanding of the narrative is correct, then it highlights its inauthentic and imaginary character, since we know from archaeology that the Dhofar was inhabited and its natural geography exploited from very early times, including the time of Lehi. The recent archaeological survey of the southern region of Oman by Lynne S. Newton and Juris Zarins has documented human occupation from the Neolithic to the Iron Age (1100 BCE-600 CE), and although urbanization and the creation of towns only began in the 5th century CE, during the early Iron Age smaller settlements could be found in both the Dhofar hills and coastal plains. Overall, the archaeology of the region suggests a transhumant pastoral lifestyle of seasonally inhabiting the hills and coastal area, “at least from the Bronze Age.”[105] In this context the fresh water and natural resources of the coast were certain to be utilized. According to Newton and Zarins, “One of the conclusions after completing this survey is that water catchment systems and dams appear to be a hallmark of Iron Age settlements along the coastal plain of Dhofar, particularly to the west of Raysut where coastal areas tend to be enclosed by sheer cliffs. Four sites stand out as examples: Rakhyut North, Kherfut, al-Hawta, and al-Hawta East.”[106]


Thus virtually all of the proposed Bountiful sites would have seen significant human activity, and it is simply impossible that Lehi could have found a pristine garden spot on the coast far from human civilization. To rephrase William Revell Phillips, “Wherever he reached the sea, Lehi [would have] had neighbors, and if he tried to avoid them and was not curious about them, they [would] certainly [have been] curious about him. In a short time, he [would] have become aware of significant population centers along the coast and of a major commercial port at Khor Rori, where a wide variety of supplies and amenities were probably available.”[107]


Second, another reason to doubt the authenticity of the narrative is that it describes Nephi building a sailing vessel from timber available at Bountiful (cf. 1 Ne 18:1-2). The narrative provides several clues that the craft was similar to a modern sailing ship. To quote Aston, “First, the fact that the people went ‘down into’ the ship (1 Nephi 18:5, 6 [twice], 8) suggests a decked vessel, as does the mention of dancing on board (see 18:9). Second, sails and at least one mast were involved since the ship was ‘driven forth before the wind’ (18:8, 9) and ‘sailed again’ (18:22). Third, some type of rudder system was used, because after binding him, Nephi’s angry brothers ‘knew not whither they should steer the ship’ (18:13).”[108] In addition, the ship must have been very large in order to accommodate the party of Lehi.[109] We are told that both the families of Lehi and Ishmael had grown during their eight-year sojourn in the wilderness: Lehi and Sariah had had two children (1 Ne 18:7), Nephi, his brothers, and their wives had had multiple children (1 Ne 17:20; 18:19; 2 Ne 4:3, 8), and presumably the same was the case with the sons of Ishmael and their wives. BoM researchers have estimated there were anywhere between forty-three to seventy-five people onboard.[110] On top of this, the ship would need to be able to carry water and food sufficient to sustain everyone for a long trans-oceanic journey.


However, the construction of a sailing vessel from the timber available in the Dhofar would have been highly impracticable, and for a large sailing ship, simply impossible. As explained by Richard Wellington and George Potter, “nearly all of the woods native to Dhofar in southern Oman are permeable softwoods and could not be used for shipbuilding. The hardwoods that are found in Oman are short, gnarly, and unsuitable for the fabrication of the massive structural components of a large sailing vessel.”[111] This is why historically Oman has imported most of its hardwood for shipbuilding from elsewhere, generally India.[112]


To get around this problem, proponents of historicity have offered two alternative theories to support the BoM claim with regard to Nephi’s shipbuilding. The first is that Nephi built an unconventional sailing craft, such as a raft, which would have been a better match to the meager materials available.[113] But this interpretation can be excluded based on the various clues mentioned above that the ship was a large sailing vessel with a deck, mast, and rudder. Further, the craft is never referred to only as a “ship” (1 Ne 17:8, 9, 17, 18, 19, 49, 51; 18: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 13, 22). By contrast, some have argued because of the long history of exporting goods from Dhofar by sea Nephi must have purchased imported timber from a shipping port elsewhere along the coast.[114] However, this theory is problematic in several respects: 1) The clear implication of the narrative is that Nephi obtained timber to build the ship from nearby at Bountiful, based on the description of the site as abundant in fruit and vegetation and the statement, “[they] did go forth with me, and we did work timbers” (1 Ne 18:1), implying timber was readily available. 2) The idea that Nephi purchased wood and interacted extensively with locals contradicts the literary evidence described above that the group was living alone at Bountiful and knew of no other neighbors. If Nephi was able to purchase timber and learn about shipbuilding from locals, there would have been no need to make his own tools or for God to dramatically intervene and reveal a unique design of ship, built not “after the manner of men” (1 Ne 18:2). 3) As Warren Aston notes, we have no evidence that anyone was building ships in the Dhofar at the time of Lehi or even later.[115]


Finally, the narrative about Bountiful is plagued with other historical and literary implausibilities, for example: 1) Nephi smelting ore and forging his tools from scratch: this project would have been a massive undertaking, requiring time, resources, and labor completely asymmetrical to life as a hunter-gatherer, all in order to achieve a fairly modest product, i.e. a few tools that could have been much more easily purchased during the journey and brought with them to Bountiful. We know that the smelting and forging of iron in antiquity was labor intensive, entailed specialized knowledge and skills, and was generally dependent on some sort of administrative or communal sponsorship.[116] 2) The construction of a ship facilitated solely by divine revelation (1 Ne 17:18): in order to build a ship, Nephi needed far more than knowledge or divine instruction. He needed practical skills and experiential know-how in order to even begin to apply any knowledge he may have received. At countless steps along the way, he would have had to translate revelatory ideas into a physically constructed reality, which is hardly conceivable outside of Nephi having real world experience with shipbuilding. 3) In addition to borrowing language and motifs from the biblical exodus (see above), the story about Nephi building an unusual ship based on divine instruction for the purpose of preserving God’s chosen people was likely dependent on the biblical account of Noah and the ark (cf. Ether 6:7, which shows that the author of the BoM had Noah’s ark in mind there as well). But this only underscores the literary origin of the narrative, since biblical scholars agree that the story of Noah’s ark is mythological and symbolic in nature and was not written to convey real history.[117]


In sum, there are many features in the narrative about Bountiful pointing to its origin as imaginative and invented story, including ignorance about the native inhabitants of southern Arabia, reliance on local timber for shipbuilding, naiveté about the pragmatic requirements of ancient metallurgy and shipbuilding, and literary borrowing and adaptation of various biblical texts.


Nevertheless, this raises the question of how the author of the BoM knew to describe a location eastward of Nahom on the seacoast corresponding so nearly to Dhofar, a place of plentiful vegetation and fruit? It is this correlation of narrative detail with real world geography that has had such a decisive influence in lending plausibility to the BoM account, since it is very unlikely that Joseph Smith could have known anything about the Dhofar or the environmental conditions prevailing along the coast of southern Arabia.


On closer examination, Bountiful’s alleged fertility may have no relation to Dhofar at all and possibly arose fortuitously. Taken broadly, the description of Bountiful as abounding in natural fertility resembles the legend of Arabia Felix, or the idea that southern Arabia was “endowed with natural bounty in prodigious measure,”[118] which had a long history in Western culture and was still fairly common in the English speaking world of Joseph Smith’s day. For example, a commentator who had never been to Arabia writing in an English journal in 1817 could say, “Arabia Felix, a land to which nature has been so bountiful, is now inhabited only by wandering hordes, instead of being studded with flourishing towns and smiling villages which ensure competence and happiness to the industry of their inhabitants.”[119]


Furthermore, the knowledge that southern Arabia was fertile and had fruit and wild honey could have been discovered fairly easily, either directly from popular geographies or guidebooks or secondhand from someone else. Jedidiah Morse’s 1806 Geography: “But the southern part of Arabia, deservedly called the Happy, is blessed with an excellent soil, and, in general, is very fertile. There the cultivated lands, which are chiefly about the towns near the seacoast, produce balm of Gilead, manna, myrrh, cassia, aloes, frankincense, spikenard, and other valuable gums, cinnamon pepper, cardamom, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, figs, and other fruits; honey and wax in plenty, with a small quantity of corn and wine.”[120] Sidney E. Morse’s 1822 Modern Geography: “The soil, wherever it is well watered, exhibits an uncommon fertility, but where this is not the case it degenerates into a waste, affording a barely scanty support to a few wild animals and the camels of the wandering Arabs. The most fertile district is Yemen or Arabia Felix, which in many parts is cultivated like a garden. The principal productions are coffee, myrrh, aloes, frankincense, pepper, and tropical fruits.”[121] Josiah Conder’s 1824 Modern Traveller: “Like the rough and russet coat of the Persian pomegranate, which gives little promise of the rich and crimson pulp within, so Arabia, all forbidding as she looks, can boast of Yemen and her sparkling springs, of her frankincense-and precious gums, her spices and coffee-berries, her luscious dates, and her honey of the rock.”[122]


Of course, the fact that southern Arabia was famous for its fruit and wild honey still does not explain why Joseph Smith chose to locate the fertile qualities of Arabia Felix where he did, far away from its original home in Yemen. But as we will see later, Smith probably only had a very limited knowledge of Arabia and his positioning of Bountiful may have been stimulated, on the one hand, by the need to have a place on the coast from which the people of Lehi could set sail to the New World, and on the other, by some topographical information contained on a map he had seen, which just happened locate a prominent feature indicative of fertility east of the tribal area NHM on the seacoast of southern Arabia.


Conclusion to Part 1


The aim of this part of the study has been to consider the broader context of the journey from Jerusalem to Bountiful in 1 Nephi in which the reference to Nahom appears and to ascertain whether the details and presentation of the narrative are plausible or realistic to any degree based on what we know about the Israelite cultural background of Lehi and Nephi and the geographical, social, political, and linguistic realities they would have encountered. As a result, we can conclude that the account lacks details or information that would unambiguously support the assumption of historicity, while on the other hand the narrative carries many story elements, tensions, and informational gaps that are most easily explained if we assume it was developed artificially as imaginative literature by someone with no firsthand knowledge of the ancient world of Judah and Arabia. Part 2 will evaluate the historical plausibility of the reference to Nahom in 1 Nephi 16:34 and part 3 will propose the hypothesis that Joseph Smith had seen and used a map of Arabia to construct his narrative about the exodus of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem.






[1] By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford, 2002), 120.

[2] Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Maxwell Institute, 2006).

[3] Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 1:289.

[4] Warren P. Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” BYU Studies 51 (2012): 79-98.

[5] S. Kent Brown, “On Nahom/NHM” [accessed Aug 22, 2015]. Online:

[6] Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton, Discovering Lehi: New Evidence of Lehi and Nephi in Arabia (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 1996), 20-21.

[7] S. Kent Brown, “The Place that was Called Nahom,” JBMS 8 (1999), 67.

[8] S. Kent Brown, “New Light: Nahom and the ‘Eastward’ Turn,” JBMS 12 (2003): 111-112.

[9] Warren P. Aston, “The Arabian Bountiful Discovered? Evidence for Nephi’s Bountiful,” JBMS 7 (1998): 4–11, 70.

[10] Warren P. Aston, “Identifying our Best Candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful,” JBMS 17 (2008): 59, 63, n. 2. Cf. Jan Retsö, The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads (New York: RutledgeCurzon, 2003), who states that Nihm was the name of “two distinct groups, one northeast of Ṣanʿaʾ and another one on the northern slopes of the land of ʾAmir,” 564.

[11] S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, John W. Welch; Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 55-125; Brant Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 101-102.

[12] Cf. Richard Wellington and George Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” JBMS 15 (2006): 26-43, 113-116; Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” The FARMS Review 17 (2005): 197-215; S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon (ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, John W. Welch; Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 55-125; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi; Warren P. Aston, and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi’s Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994). Cf. the survey of research in Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History, 83-112.

[13] Cf. Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History, 101-102.

[14] Richard Wellington and George Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 27.

[15] Cf. Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History, 112-114.

[16] See María Eugenia Aubet, The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies and Trade (2nd ed; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[17] Cf. Ben McGuire, “Nephi and Goliath: A Case Study of Literary Allusion in the Book of Mormon,” JBMS 18 (2009): 16–31.

[18] Brent Metcalfe argues for direct dependence on the Exodus in the case of the three day journey from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (1993): 161-162.

[19] Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon,1:44-47; Terrence L. Szink, “Nephi and the Exodus,” Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 39-42; Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 92–99; S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30 (1990): 112. Cf. Grant Hardy strangely pays relatively little attention to the Exodus theme in 1 Nephi in his Understanding the Book of Mormon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 41-42.

[20] Szink, “Nephi and the Exodus,” 42.

[21] Cf. Diana V. Edelman, Philip R. Davies, Christophe Nihan, Thomas Römer, Opening of the Books of Moses (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2012), 11-50; Gary N. Knoppers and Bernard M. Levinson, The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007).

[22] Bernard M. Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (New York: Oxford University, 1997).

[23] Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985), 89-90.

[24] Katharine Dell, The Book of Job as Sceptical Literature (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991); Reading Job Intertextually (ed. Katharine Dell and Will Kynes; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012).

[25] These gaps in the text, of course, have not stopped commentators from trying to fill them in so as to historicize the BoM, cf. Brant Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History, 74-75.

[26] Konrad Schmid, The Old Testament: A Literary History (trans. Linda Maloney; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 147-152; Christophe Nihan, From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch: A Study in the Composition of the Book of Leviticus (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 379-394.

[27] Konrad Schmid, The Old Testament: A Literary History, 178-181.

[28] For the significance of the Exodus narrative during this period of American history, see Eran Shalev, American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 6-7, 19-21, 118-119.

[29] A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 18.

[30] George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2003), 22; Lynn M. Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—30 Years Later,” JBMS 15 (2006): 5.

[31] Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 54.

[32] “Refining the Spotlight on Lehi and Sariah,” JBMS 15 (2006): 116, note 5.

[33] Lehi in the Desert, 56.

[34] Second Witness, 1:276.

[35] David Dorsey, The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 8; Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 117-118; 186-187; Oded Borowski, Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1998), 116-120; Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 64, n. 29.

[36] Camels were not domesticated until the end of the second millennium and so are anachronistic in the stories about the patriarchs, Israel Finkelstein, “Patriarchs, Exodus, Conquest: Fact or Fiction?” The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of early Israel (ed. Brian Schmidt; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 46-47. The prominence of camels reflects the later time period of the biblical authors, who employed them to enable the long distance travel of the patriarchs and to emphasize their wealthy royal-like status.

[37] Lehi in the Desert, 62-63.

[38] David Rolph Seely, “Lehi’s Altar and Sacrifice in the Wilderness,” JBMS 10 (2001): 62–69, 80.

[39] See the various contributions in “Sacrifice, Offerings, and Votives,” Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (ed. Sarah Iles Johnston; Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004), 325-339.

[40] Diana Edelman, “Cultic Sites and Complexes Beyond the Jerusalem Temple,” Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah (ed. Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton; New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 82-103.

[41] Prolegomena to the History of Israel (trans. J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies; Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885), 31.

[42] Cf. S. Kent Brown, “What Were Those Sacrifices Offered by Lehi?” From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 1–8; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 10-11, who suggest Lehi purchased sacrificial animals from locals.

[43] My reading therefore disagrees with S. Kent Brown’s interpretation that the first offering made by Lehi was fundamentally different from the second and third with burnt offerings, S. Kent Brown, “What Were Those Sacrifices Offered by Lehi?”

[44] Gary Anderson, “Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings (OT),” ABD 5: 870-86, JoAnn Scurlock, “The Techniques of the Sacrifice of Animals in Ancient Israel and Ancient Mesopotamia: New Insights through Comparison, Part 1,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 44 (2006): 13-49.

[45] Lehi in the Desert, 74-92.

[46] Devin J. Stewart, “Rhymed Prose,” Encyclopedia of the Quran (ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 4:476-483.

[47] Renate Jacobi, “The Origins of the Qasida Form,” Classical Traditions and Modern Meanings (ed. Stefan Sperl; Leiden: Brill, 1996), 21-34.

[48] For the role of etiologies in biblical narrative, see John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1992); The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1994).

[49] Anson F. Rainey, “The Toponymics of Eretz Israel,” BASOR 231 (1978): 6-7.

[50] Lehi in the Desert, 76-77. Nibley quotes Albright, who speaks metaphorically of inland lakes and the Mediterranean as “sources,” but not in the sense of “fountains.”

[51] H. Ringgren, “ים” TDOT, 6:87-92; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic version under ים).

[52] “Textual Evidences for the Book of Mormon,” First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation (ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr.; Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1988), 283–95.

[53] F. Stolz, “Sea,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd Edition; Leiden: Brill, 1999), 739.

[54] See Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[55] “Shazer” [accessed Aug 21, 2015]. Online:

[56] Cf. Anson F. Rainey, “The Toponymics of Eretz Israel,” BASOR 231 (1978): 1-17.

[57] Lehi in the Desert, 78-79.

[58] Second Witness, 1:277.

[59] Though it is true that sometimes an exceptional scribe would receive training in a non-native language and its scribal literature, David Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 156-158.

[60] Martin Zammitt, A Comparative Lexical Study of Quranic Arabic (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 235.

[61] Cf. Thomas J. Finley, “Does the Book of Mormon Reflect an Ancient Near Eastern Background?” The New Mormon Challenge (ed. Francis Beckwith, Carl Mosser, and Paul Owen; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 361; John A. Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper, “One Small Step,” FARMS Review 15 (2003): 181.

[62] Thomas J. Finley, “Does the Book of Mormon Reflect an Ancient Near Eastern Background?” 362.

[63] “Irreantum,” [accessed Aug 21, 2015] Online:; Paul Y. Hoskisson, with Brian Hauglid and John Gee, “Irreantum,” JBMS 11 (2002): 90-93.

[64] Hoskisson also judges an Egyptian derivation to be less likely on philological grounds, “Irreantum,” 93.

[65] “Irreantum,” 91.

[66] Ibid, 92.

[67] Joan Copeland Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic: Sabean Dialect (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 482-83.

[68] Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic, 483.

[69] Paul Maiberger, “רוה” TDOT, 13:357-358; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic version under רוה).

[70] Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic, 482-83.

[71] Edward Lipiński, Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 228.

[72] Norbert Nebes and Peter Stein, “Ancient South Arabian,” The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 151-152.

[73] Hoskisson, “Irreantum,” 92. This interpretation of Isa 47:9 is specifically labeled by Koehler and Baumgartner a “free rendering.”

[74] For example, I see no place name from the root TMM in Nigel Groom, A Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Place Names: Transliterated Arabic-English with an Arabic Glossary (London: Longman, 1983). See also J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 2:1216-1219.

[75] Cf. Rainer Albertz and Rüdiger Schmitt, Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2012), 573; G. Lankester Harding, An Index and Concordance of Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 137-139; F. Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1967), 201.

[76] Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 21.

[77] Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 55-125; Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 207; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 49; Paul R. Cheesman, “Lehi’s Journeys,” First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, 241–50.

[78] “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 202.

[79] For rates of travel, see Dorsey, The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel, 12-13.

[80] “Refining the Spotlight on Lehi and Sariah,” 49.

[81] Nigel Groom, “Trade, Incense, and Perfume,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen (ed. St. John Simpson; London: British Museum, 2002), 91; Jean Francois Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba: Eighth Century B.C. to First Century A.D. (trans. Albert LaFarge; Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 67.

[82] Francoise Demange, “The Frankincense Caravans,” Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (ed. Ali Ibrahim Al-Ghabban; Paris: Musee du Louvre, 2010), 132-135.

[83] See Christian Robin, “Antiquity,” Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (ed. Ali Ibrahim Al-Ghabban; Paris: Musee du Louvre, 2010), 80-99, as well as the other entries, Abdulaziz bin Saud al-Ghazzi, “The Kingdom of Midian,” 210-217; Said F. Al-Said, “Dedan (al-Ula),” 262-269; Saleh Al-Marih, “Najran,” 364-371.

[84] See Tony Wilkinson, “Agriculture and the Countryside,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, 102-103; Klaus Schippmann, Ancient South Arabia: From the Queen of Sheba to the Advent of Islam (trans. Allison Brown; Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2001), 9-14; Jean Francois Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba: Eighth Century B.C. to First Century A.D., 11-22.

[85] On the history of Sabaʾ, see Christian Robin, “Sabaʾ and the Sabaeans,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, 51-66; Robert Hoyland, “Kings, Kingdoms, and Chronology,” idem., 67-72.

[86] Francois Demange, Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 134-135.

[87] Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 63-64; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 91-92; Potter and Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness, 118; Warren P. Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah: ‘Truth Shall Spring out of the Earth,’” JBMS 15 (2006): 12; Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History, 108-109.

[88] “An Archaeologist’s View,” JBMS 15 (2006): 74.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Neal Rappleye and Stephen O. Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions: A Response to Dan Vogel,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 8 (2014): 166-167; Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 12; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 91-92.

[91] Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), 139.

[92] Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1986), 46.

[93] Ann Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 144-229.

[94] Paul Sanlaville, “Geographic Introduction to the Arabian Peninsula,” Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 61-66. John A. Tvedtnes’ claim that classical sources suggest that rivers were once flowing in the western part of Arabia reflects a misunderstanding of climate history and the nature of his sources, “More on the River Laman,” Insights 25 (2005): 2-3.

[95] George D. Potter, “A New Candidate in Arabia for the “Valley of Lemuel” JBMS (1999): 54–63, 79; Jeffrey Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 197-215.

[96] L. A. Snijders, “נהר,” TDOT, 9: 264.

[97] Webster’s 1828 Dictionary (under “river”).

[98] “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 211.

[99] Webster’s 1828 Dictionary (under “running”).

[100] Cf. Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 12.

[101] Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, 66-67.

[102] Wm. Revell Phillips, “Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful,” JBMS 16 (2007): 50; Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 12.

[103] Gardner, The Book of Mormon as History, 110-112; Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 8–25; idem, “Identifying Our Best Candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful,” 58–64; Phillips, “Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful,” 48–59, 97; Richard Wellington and George Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 68–77, 112; Lynn M. Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—30 Years Later,” 4–7, 110; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 55-125.

[104] Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 16.

[105] Lynne S. Newton and Juris Zarins, “Preliminary Results of the Dhofar Archaeological Survey,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40 (2010): 247-248.

[106] Ibid, 254.

[107] “Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful,” 56.

[108] Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 22.

[109] Wellington and Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 38-39.

[110] John L. Sorenson, “The Composition of Lehi’s Family,” By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley (ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks; Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1990), 174–96; John A. Tvedtnes, “Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6 (1994): 24–29; George Potter, Frank Linehan, and Conrad Dickson, Voyages of the Book of Mormon (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2011), 38-39.

[111] “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 38.

[112] Dionisius A. Agius, Seafaring in the Arabian Gulf and Oman: People of the Dhow (London: Kegan Paul, 2005), 29-33; Potter et al, Voyages of the Book of Mormon, 49-53.

[113] Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 22-23; Phillips, “Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful,” 56.

[114] Wellington and Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 39; Phillips, “Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful,” 56.

[115] “Identifying Our Best Candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful,” 60.

[116] For background on the technology and social contexts of iron making in the world of ancient Israel, see Naama Yahalom-Mack and Adi Eliyahu-Behar, “The Transition from Bronze to Iron in Canaan: Chronology, Technology, and Context,” Radiocarbon 57 (2015): 285–305; James D. Muhly, “Metals,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East (ed. Eric M. Myers; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4:13-14. The historical unlikelihood of Nephi smelting his own tools is brushed over by Wm. Revell Phillips, “Metals of the Book of Mormon,” JBMS 9 (2000): 36–43, 82.

[117] See Cory Crawford, “Noah’s Architecture: The Role of Sacred Space in Ancient Near Eastern Flood Myths,” Constructions of Space IV: Further Developments in Examining Ancient Israel’s Social Space (ed. Mark K. George; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 1-22.

[118] Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, 6.

[119] New Monthly Magazine, March 1818.

[120] Geography Made Easy: Being an Abridgment of the American Universal Geography (Boston: J.T. Buckingham for Thomas & Andrews, 1806), 388, quoted also in Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, 138.

[121] A New System of Modern Geography (Boston: G. Clark, 1822), 499.

[122] The Modern Traveller: A Popular Description, Geographical, Historical, and Topographical, of the Various Countries of the Globe, Arabia (London: J. Moyes, 1825), 308.

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