Lehi in the Desert, III

Hugh Nibley, Ph. D.

From the The Improvement Era 1950.

Desert Ways and Places

Lehi's Altar

As his first act once his tent had been pitched for his first important camp, Lehi "built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks to the Lord" (1 Nephi 2:7). It is for all the world as if he had been reading Robertson Smith: "The ordinary artificial mark of a Semitic sanctuary (Hebrew as well as Arabic, that is) [is] the sacrificial pillar, cairn, or rude altar . . . upon which sacrifices are presented to the god. . . . In Arabia . . . we find no proper altar but in its place a rude pillar or heap of stones beside which the victim is slain." 1 It was at this same "altar of stones" that Lehi and his family "did offer sacrifice and burnt offerings . . . and they gave thanks unto the God of Israel" (1 Nephi 5:9) upon the safe return of his sons from their dangerous expedition to Jerusalem. When Raswan reports, "A baby camel was brought up to Misha'il's tent as a sacrificial offer in honor of the safe return of Fuaz," 2 we cannot help thinking of some such scene before the tent of Lehi on the safe return of his sons. This is what the Arabs call a dhabihat-al-kasb, a sacrifice to celebrate the successful return of warriors, hunters, and raiders to the camp. "This sacrifice," writes Jaussen, "is always in honor of an ancestor," 3 and Nephi twice mentions the tribal ancestor Israel in his brief account. In the best desert manner Lehi immediately after the thanksgiving rites fell to examining the "spoils" (1 Nephi 5:10).

To this day the Bedouin makes sacrifice on every important occasion, not for magical and superstitious reasons, but because he "lives under the constant impression of a higher force that surrounds him." 4 St. Nilus, in the oldest known eyewitness account of life among the Arabs of the Tih, says, "they sacrifice on altars of crude stones piled together." 5 That Lehi's was such an altar would follow not only from the ancient law demanding uncut stones (Exodus 20:25), but also from the Book of Mormon expression "an altar of stones," which is not the same thing as "a stone altar." Such little heaps of stones, surviving from all ages, are still to be seen throughout the south desert.

Contacts in the Desert

The Book of Mormon makes no mention of Lehi's people meeting any other party in their eight years of wandering. Casual meetings with stray families of Bedouins then as now would merit no special attention, but how were they able to avoid any important contacts for eight years and some 2500 miles of wandering?

One illuminating "aside" by Nephi explains everything. It was only after they reached the seashore, he says, that his people were able to make fires without danger, "for 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; and I will also be your light in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:12-13). That tells all. "I remember well," writes Bertram Thomas, "taking part in a discussion upon the unhealthiness of campfires by night; we discontinued them forthwith in spite of the bitter cold." 6 Major Cheesman's guide would not even let him light a tiny lamp in order to jot down star readings, and they never dared build a fire on the open plain where it "would attract the attention of a prowling raiding party over long distances and invite a night attack." 7 Once in a while in a favorably sheltered depression "we dared to build a fire that could not be seen from a higher spot," writes Raswan. 8 That is, fires are not absolutely out of the question, but rare and risky—not much fire, was Lehi's rule. And fires in the daytime are almost as risky as at night: Palgrave tells how his party were forced, "lest the smoke of our fire should give notice to some distant rover, to content ourselves with dry dates," instead of cooked food. 9

So of course no fire means raw food. And what is one to do if one's diet is meat? "Throughout the Desert," writes Burckhardt, "when a sheep or goat is killed, the persons present often eat the liver and kidney raw, adding to it a little salt. Some Arabs of Yemen are said to eat raw not only those parts, but likewise whole slices of flesh; thus resembling the Abyssinians and the Druses of Libanon [sic], who frequently indulge in raw meat, the latter to my own certain knowledge." 10 Nilus, writing fourteen centuries earlier, tells how the Bedouin of the Tih live on the flesh of wild animals, failing which "they slaughter a camel, one of their beasts of burden, and nourish themselves like animals from the raw meat," or else scorch the flesh quickly in a small fire to soften it sufficiently not to have to gnaw it "like dogs." 11 Only too well does this state of things match the grim economy of Lehi: "They did suffer much for the want of food" (1 Nephi 16:19); "we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:2).

All this bears out the conviction, supported both by modern experience and the evidence of archaeology, that Lehi was moving through a dangerous world. In ancient times Jewish merchants traveling through the desert fell so often into the hands of Bedouin raiders that by the beginning of the Christian era their word for "captor" normally meant simply "Arab"! 12 Arab inscriptions from Lehi's time show that "in the peninsula . . . there was constant unrest," even as in modern times. 13 Ordinary times in the desert are bad times when, in the words of one of the oldest Arab poets, "the honored man did not dare stay in the open country, and flight did not save the coward." 14 "A lonely life it is," writes Philby, ". . . a life of constant fear; . . . hunger is the rule of the desert." 15 Hunger, danger, loneliness, fear—Lehi's people knew them all.

Just what was the danger? "The Arab tribes are in a state of almost perpetual war against each other. . . . To surprise the enemy by a sudden attack, and to plunder a camp, are chief objects of both parties." 16 "Raiding to them is the spice of life. . . . Might is right, and man ever walks in fear for his life and possessions." 17 Lehi could ill afford to get embroiled in these perennial desert feuds, and yet he was everywhere a trespasser—the only way for him to stay out of trouble was to observe a rule which Thomas lays down for all travelers in the desert, even today: "An approaching party may be friend, but is always assumed to be foe." 18 In the words of the ancient poet Zuhair, "He who travels should consider his friend an enemy." 19 Nilus describes Bedouins on the march in the fifth century as possessed by the same jittery nervousness and unbearable tension that make the accounts of Cheesman, Philby, Thomas, Palgrave, Burckhardt, and the others such exciting reading: At the merest sign of an armed man, he says, his Bedu fled in alarm "as if seized by panic fear," and kept on fleeing, "for fear makes them exaggerate danger and causes them to imagine things far beyond reality, magnifying their dread in every instance." 20 Just so their modern descendants "live always under the impression that an invasion is on the way, and every suspicious shadow or movement on the horizon calls their attention," according to the astute Baldensperger. This almost hysterical state of apprehension is actually a prime condition of survival in the desert: "A Bedawy never tells his name," says the writer just quoted, "nor his tribe, nor his business, nor the whereabouts of his people, even if he is in a friendly district. . . . They are and must be very cautious; . . . a word out of season may bring death and destruction." 21 When the Bani Hilal migrate, it is "under the darkness of the night, under the obscuring veil of the rain," bypassing settled places in darkness and in silence. What can better describe such a state of things than the Book of Mormon expression, "a lonesome and a solemn people" (Jacob 7:26)? Doughty said he had never met a "merry" man among the Arabs—and there is no humor in the Book of Mormon. This mood is hardly accidental: if the Hebrew gets his brooding qualities from his desert ancestors, why not the Lamanite?

Sir Richard Burton, one of the few individuals who has ever known both the American Indian and Bedouin Arab at first hand, was greatly impressed by their exact resemblance to each other, a resemblance so striking that he must warn his reader against attributing it to a common origin, explaining the perfect paralleling of temperament and behavior as due to "the almost absolute independence" of their way of life. 22 Yet many equally independent tribesmen in other parts of the world in no way resemble these two. One of the writer's best friends is a venerable but enterprising Lebanese, who has spent many years both among the Bedouins of the desert and the Indians of New Mexico as a peddler and trader; he avers that there is absolutely no difference between the two races so far as manners and customs are concerned. Arabs now living in Utah who have had some contact with Indians in the West, affirm the same thing with considerable emphasis. It is a nice problem for the sociologist, and the writer only mentions it because it has been brought to his attention innumerable times. There may be something to it.

Lehi's party, as we have noted, were like the Bani Hilal trespassers wherever they walked. Every inch of the desert is claimed by some tribe or other that will demand the life of a trespasser. 23 "Marked boundaries do not exist, and it is natural that questions of ownership should be settled by fighting, which becomes an annual affair, while the looting of camels grows into a habit," according to Cheesman. 24 Hence the need for extreme caution and strict avoidance on Lehi's part: "In most cases," says Jennings-Bramley, "Arabs do not think it prudent to allow the raiders near enough to decide whether they are friendly or not," and he describes a typical meeting in the desert: "Both we and they were doing our best not to be seen." 25 Of course this sort of thing leads to comic situations, ignoble panic, and ridiculous anticlimaxes, but in a game of life and death one simply can't take chances, and Lehi was playing for the highest stakes. And so we are left with the picture of a wandering band sticking glumly to themselves for years on end, which, impossible as it seems to us, is a normal thing in the desert wastes, where the touchy, dangerous, unsocial Bedouin takes his stand as one of the most difficult, challenging, and fascinating creatures on earth. 26

Family Affairs

But how do the members of such closed corporation hit it off among themselves? It is the domestic history that presents the real challenge to whoever would write a history of Bedouin life. To handle it convincingly would tax the knowledge of the best psychologist, and woe to him if he does not know the peculiar ways of the eastern desert, which surprise and trap the unwary westerner at every turn.

The ancient Hebrew family was a peculiar organization, self-sufficient and impatient of any authority beyond its own: "These are obviously the very conditions," writes Nowack, "which we can still observe today among the Beduins." 27 Thus, whether we turn to Hebrew or to Arabic sources for our information, the Book of Mormon must conform. Lehi feels no pangs of conscience at deserting Jerusalem, and when his sons think of home, it is specifically the land of their inheritance, their own family estate, for which they yearn. Not even Nephi evinces any loyalty to "the Jews who were at Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 2:13), split up as they were into squabbling interest-groups. Indeed, Nephi speaks of his history as "an account . . . of my proceedings, and my reign and ministry" (1 Nephi 10:1), as if the wandering family recognized no government but that of its own head. This reminds one of the terms in which one of the earliest Bedouin poets, Ibn Kulthum, speaks of "many a chief of a tribe, whom they had crowned with the crown of authority and who protects those who seek refuge with him," as if every sheikh were truly a king. 28

While Lehi lived, he was the sheikh, of course, and the relationship between him and his family as described by Nephi is accurate in the smallest detail. With the usual deft sureness and precision, the book shows Lehi leading—not ruling—his people by his persuasive eloquence and spiritual ascendency alone, while his murmuring sons follow along exactly in the manner of Philby's Bedouins—"an undercurrent of tension in our ranks all day," and great difficulty to "appease their evil, envious souls." 29 "We left Suwaykah," says Burton, "all of us in the crossest of humours. . . . So 'out of temper' were my companions, that at sunset, of the whole party, Omar Effendi was the only one who would eat supper. The rest sat upon the ground, pouting [and] grumbling. . . . Such a game at naughty children, I have seldom seen played even by Oriental men." 30

The character and behavior of Laman and Lemuel conform to the normal pattern. How true to the Bedouin way are their long, bitter, brooding and dangerous outbreaks! How perfectly they resemble the Arabs of Lawrence, Doughty, Burton, and the rest in their sudden and complete changes of heart after their father has lectured them, fiery anger yielding for the moment to a great impulse to humility and an overwhelming repentance, only to be followed by renewed resentment and more unhappy wrangling! They cannot keep their discontent to themselves, but are everlastingly "murmuring": "The fact that all that happens in an encampment is known, that all may be said to be nearly related to each other, renders intrigue almost impossible." 31 "We were all one family and friendly eyes," Doughty recollects, but then describes the other side of the picture: "Arab children are ruled by entreaties. . . . I have known an ill-natured child lay a stick to the back of his good cherishing mother, . . . and the Arabs say, 'many is the ill-natured lad among us that, and he be strong enough, will beat his own father!" 32 The fact that Laman and Lemuel were grown-up children did not help things. "The daily quarrels between parents and children in the Desert constitute the worst feature of the Bedouin character," says Burckhardt, and thus describes the usual source of the trouble: "The son, arrived at manhood, is too proud to ask his father for any cattle. . . . The father is hurt at finding that his son behaves with haughtiness towards him; and thus a breach is often made." The son, especially the eldest one, does not feel that he is getting what is coming to him and behaves like the spoiled child he is. The father's attitude is described by Doughty, telling how a great sheikh dealt with his son: "The boy, oftentimes disobedient, he upbraided, calling him his life's torment, Sheytan, only never menacing him, for that were far from a Beduin father's mind." 33 It is common, says Burckhardt, for mothers and sons to stick together in their frequent squabbles with the old man, in which the son "is often expelled from the paternal tent for vindicating his mother's cause." 34 Just so Sariah takes the part of her sons in chiding her own husband, making the same complaints against him that they did (1 Nephi 5:2-3), and she rates him roundly when she thinks he has been the cause of their undoing.

Is it any wonder that Laman and Lemuel worked off their pent-up frustration by beating their younger brother with a stick when they were once hiding in a cave? Every free man in the East carries a stick, the immemorial badge of independence and of authority; and every man asserts his authority over his inferiors by his stick, which "shows that the holder is a man of position, superior to the workman or day-labourers. The government officials, superior officers, tax-gatherers, and schoolmasters use this short rod to threaten—or if necessary to beat—their inferiors, whoever they may be." The usage is very ancient. "A blow for a slave," is the ancient maxim in Ahikar, and the proper designation of an underling is 'abd-al-'asa, "stick-servant." This is exactly the sense in which Laman and Lemuel intended their little lesson to Nephi, for when the angel turned the tables he said to them, "Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you?" (1 Nephi 3:29). All that saved Nephi's life on one occasion was the pleading of a daughter of Ishmael and her mother—another authentic touch, since the proud Semite may yield only to the entreaties of a woman without losing face. Burton recalls how even robbers will spare a victim who appeals to them in the name of his wife, the daughter of his uncle. 35 Through it all, Laman, as the eldest son, is the nastiest actor: "When only one boy is in the family he is the tyrant, and his will dominates over all." 36 So we see Laman still thinking to dominate over all and driven mad that a younger brother should show superior talents. The rivalry between the sons of a sheikh "often leads to bloody tragedies in the sheikh's household," 37 and Nephi had some narrow escapes.

The nature of Lehi's authority is clearly set forth in the Book of Mormon. Of the Arab sheikh we have noted Burkhardt's remark: "His commands would be treated with contempt; but deference is paid to his advice. . . . The real government of the Bedouins may be said to consist in the separate strength of their different families. . . . The Arab can only be persuaded by his own relations." The sheikh's "orders are never obeyed, but his example is generally followed." This is especially so on the march; while the tribe is in motion the sheikh "assumes all responsibility and the whole power of government." 38 Yet in leading he gives no orders: when his tent is struck "it is the rahlah," and all the others without a word strike theirs; and "when the place of encampment is reached the sheikh puts his spear in the ground, and at once the tents are pitched." 39

In the sheikh's tent the councils of the tribe are held and all decisions concerning the journey are made (1 Nephi 9:1; 15:1-2), but "no sheikh or council of Arabs can condemn a man to death, or even inflict a punishment; it can only [when appealed to] impose a fine; it cannot even enforce the payment of this fine." 40 Why, then, if there was no power to compel them, did not Laman and Lemuel simply desert the camp and go off on their own, as discontented Arabs sometimes do? 41 As a matter of fact, they tried to do just that (1 Nephi 7:7), and in the end were prevented by the two things which, according to Philby, keep any wandering Bedouin party together—fear and greed. For they were greedy: they hoped for a promised land and when they reached the sea without finding it, their bitter complaint was, "Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions" (1 Nephi 17:21). And their position was precarious: Nephi pointed out to them the danger of returning to Jerusalem (1 Nephi 7:15), and where would they go if they deserted their father? As we have seen, with these people family was everything, and the Arab or Jew will stick to "his own people" because they are all he has in the world. 42 The family is the basic social organization, civil and religious, with the father at its head. 43 To be without tribe or family is to forfeit one's identity in the earth; nothing is more terrible than to be "cut off," and that is exactly the fate that is promised Laman and Lemuel if they rebel (1 Nephi 2:21). "Within his own country," says an Arab proverb, "the Bedouin is a lion; outside of it he is a dog." 44

When the Lord has a task to be done, he picks a man who is most suited for the work by temperament and training. When Moses fled into Midian, he traveled afoot in the very deserts through which he was later to lead the children of Israel, and he lived and married among the people of the desert in whose way of life he was to instruct his own people. 45 Lehi was no less prepared and qualified for his great task: richly endowed with means and experience, wise in the ways of the desert, firm, resourceful, cautious and unhurried, independent and not to be intimidated (1 Nephi 1:18-20; 2:1-4), never provoking though sorely provoked, he exemplifies what Philby has declared in a moving passage—that only the greatest strength of character in a leader can carry a party safely through a dangerous desert:

For many days now I had endured the constant and inevitable friction of my own fixed and unalterable purpose and the solid weight of the innate national inertia thrown into the balance against me by the united body of my companions. Step by step we had progressed ever away from their home fires, but each step had been achieved only by the smallest margin as the momentum of a purposeful mind triumphed at each stage over the inert mass ever ready to recoil from any arduous objective. 46

Those words might have been written to describe the achievement of Lehi. Had the Lord wished it, he could have transferred the whole party through the air; as it was, he apparently wanted them to do as much as possible on their own, with a minimum of miraculous intervention. Of all the righteous men in Jerusalem, Lehi alone was singled out for a task requiring a combination of qualifications and a measure of faith which few men have ever had. But though Lehi was no ordinary man, one fact about him should begin to emerge at this point of our study: that he was an actual flesh and blood person in a real situation, and no synthetic and overdrawn character of romantic fiction moving among the phantasmagoric stage properties that were once thought to represent the gorgeous East.

Characters and Complexions

Authorities on the East have often observed that the Arabic, and to a lesser extent the Jewish, character is remarkable for its two faces: on the one side the Semite is thoroughly proud and noble, the soul of honor, the impeccable family man, the true friend, faithful to death; and on the other, the low and cunning tramp, the sly assassin, dangerous companion and unpredictable rogue. Every page of Doughty reflects this strange paradox of the desert character, which has received its classic treatment in the third chapter of Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom: pure gold mixed with the basest dross and all within a single family. 47 And where can one find a better illustration of that than in Lehi's own household? For that matter, it comes near to being the leitmotif of the Book of Mormon.

This amazing coincidentia oppositorum is the clash of black and white. With the Arabs, to be white of countenance is to be blessed and to be black of countenance is to be cursed; there are parallel expressions in Hebrew and Egyptian. And what of Lehi's people? It is most significant that the curse against the Lamanites is the very same as that commonly held in the East to blight the sons of Ishmael, who appear to the light-skinned people of the towns as "a dark and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations, . . . an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety," etc. (1 Nephi 12:23; 2 Nephi 5:24). It is noteworthy that all the descendants of the Book of Mormon Ishmael fall under the curse (Alma 3:7), as if their Bedouin ancestry predisposed them to it. The Book of Mormon always mentions the curse of the dark skin in connection with and as part of a larger picture: "After they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people," etc. "Because of the cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people . . . and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey" (2 Nephi 5:24). The statement that "God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them" (2 Nephi 5:21) describes the result, not the method, which is described elsewhere. Thus we are told (Alma 3:13, 14, 18) that while the fallen people "set the mark upon themselves," it was none the less God who was marking them: "I will set a mark upon them," etc. So natural and human was the process that it suggested nothing miraculous to the ordinary observer, and "the Amlicites knew not that they were fulfilling the words of God when they began to mark themselves; . . . it was expedient that the curse should fall upon them" (Alma 3:18). Here God places his mark on people as a curse, yet it is an artificial mark which they actually place upon themselves. The mark was not a racial thing but was acquired by "whosoever suffered himself to be led away by the Lamanites" (Alma 3:10); Alma moreover defines a Nephite as anyone observing "the tradition of their fathers" (Alma 3:11). Which makes the difference between Nephite and Lamanite a cultural, not a racial, one. Does this also apply to the dark skin? Note that the dark skin is never mentioned alone but always as attending a generally depraved way of life, which also is described as the direct result of the curse. When the Lamanites become "white" again, it is by living among the Nephites as Nephites, i.e., adopting the Nephite way of life (3 Nephi 2:15-16). The cultural picture may not be the whole story of the dark skin of the Lamanites, but it is an important part of that story and is given great emphasis by the Book of Mormon itself. There is nowhere any mention of red skin, incidentally, but only of black (or dark) and white, the terms being used as the Arabs use them.

Place Names in the Desert

The stream at which he made his first camp Lehi named after his eldest son; the valley, after his second son (1 Nephi 2:8). The oasis at which his party made their next important camp "we did call . . . Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13). The fruitful land by the sea "we called Bountiful," while the sea itself "we called Irreantum" (1 Nephi 17:5).

By what right do these people rename streams and valleys to suit themselves? No westerner would tolerate such arrogance. But Lehi is not interested in western taste; he is following a good old Oriental custom. Among the laws "which no Bedouin would dream of transgressing," the first, according to Jennings-Bramley, is that "any water you may discover, either in your own territory or in the territory of another tribe, is named after you." 48 So it happens that in Arabia a great wady (valley) will have different names at different points along its course, a respectable number of names being "all used for one and the same valley. . . . One and the same place may have several names, and the wadi running close to the same, or the mountain connected with it, will naturally be called differently by members of different clans," according to Canaan, 49 who tells how the Arabs "often coin a new name for a locality for which they have never used a proper name, or whose name they do not know," the name given being usually that of some person. However, names thus bestowed by wandering tribesmen "are neither generally known or commonly used," so that we need not expect any of Lehi's place names to survive. 50

Speaking of the desert "below the Negeb proper," i.e., the general area of Lehi's first camp, Woolley and Lawrence report "peaks and ridges that have different names among the different Arab tribes, and from different sides," 51 and of the nearby Tih Palmer says, "In every locality, each individual object, whether rock, mountain, ravine, or valley, has its appropriate name," 52 while Raswan recalls how "miraculously each hill and dale bore a name." 53 But how reliable are such names? Philby recounts a typical case: "Zayid and 'Ali seemed a little vague about the nomenclature of these parts, and it was only by the irritating process of continual questioning and sifting their often inconsistent and contradictory answers that I was able in the end to piece together the topography of the region." 54 Farther east Cheesman ran into the same difficulty: "I pointed out that this was the third different hill to which he had given the same name. He knew that, was the reply, but that was how they named them." 55 The irresponsible custom of renaming everything on the spot seems to go back to the earliest times, and "probably, as often as not, the Israelites named for themselves their own camps, or unconsciously confounded a native name in their carelessness." 56 Yet in spite of its undoubted antiquity, only the most recent explorers have commented on this strange practice, which seems to have escaped the notice of travelers until explorers in our own times started to make maps.

Even more whimsical and senseless to a westerner must appear the behavior of Lehi in naming a river after one son and its valley after another. But the Arabs don't think that way. In the Mahra country, for example, "as is commonly the case in these mountains, the water bears a different name from the wadi." 57 Likewise we might suppose that after he had named the river after his first-born the location of the camp beside its waters would be given, as any westerner would give it, with reference to the river. Instead, the Book of Mormon follows the Arabic system of designating the camp not by the name of the river (which may easily dry up sometime), but by the name of the valley (1 Nephi 10:16; 16:6).

Another surprise: Nephi more than once refers to the river of Laman as "flowing into the fountain of the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:9). Since when is the Red Sea a fountain, forsooth? In the first place we should note that Nephi does not call the Red Sea a fountain but speaks of a body of water as a "fountain of the Red Sea." To what can he be referring? "In Hebrew," writes Albright, "the word yam means '(large) river' and 'fresh water lake' as well as 'sea' in the English sense. In our case we cannot, however, be sure whether the designation yam came originally from inland, referring to pure fresh water as the source of life, or . . . it referred to the Mediterranean as the main source of Canaanite livelihood." 58 In the former case fountain is the best translation of the word, and it is certainly in this "inland" sense that Nephi uses it, for he employs a totally different expression, as we shall see, when speaking of the ocean. The Nile and the Euphrates were anciently called yams, and this has been explained as "probably a kind of poetic hyperbole, founded upon the fact that they annually overflowed their banks." 59 Now the average width of the Gulf of 'Aqaba is only about twelve miles, and Musil reports that one can look right across it and "see on the Sinai Peninsula not only the mountains of the southern part of the peninsula, but also the plain extending north. . . . To the South we had a view of the greater part of the at-Tihama (southern Sinai) shore." 60

From the Arabian side, then, the long northeastern extension of the Red Sea for over a hundred miles, that is, the sector where Lehi's party possibly first came upon the sea (1 Nephi 2:5), is not an open sea at all, and is not the Red Sea; it is a broad and elongated sheet of water like the Nile and Euphrates at flood, and like them it is not closed water—not a great lake—but opens out to the sea at its mouth, flowing out through two channels about five miles wide each. A glance at the map will show that there is a northwestern extension of the Red Sea also, closely resembling the one on the northeast. This western arm anciently had the mysterious and much-discussed name of Yam Suph, "Sea (or fountain) of Weeds (or rushes)." If it was called a yam, what is more natural than that its twin gulf to the east should bear the same designation? The latter certainly was what the ancients, by Albright's definition, called a yam, the word having, whether applied to salt water or fresh, the basic meaning of source or fountain. When Lehi's party first saw this body of water, it was a feeder of the Red Sea, with the spring torrents pouring into it (1 Nephi 2:9), a yam, that is, in the very sense that the Nile and the Euphrates at flood were yams.

When the travelers reached the ocean proper, "we beheld the sea," Nephi recalls, "which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters" (1 Nephi 17:5). But why did they not simply call it the sea and be done? Obviously because there was no name in their language to designate this particular sea. The ancients regularly resort to epithets when speaking of the outer oceans, as the "Great Green" of the Egyptians and the "Great Deep" of the Hebrews. In Coptic, the last form of Egyptian, the Red Sea proper was called fayum nehah (phiom nhah), literally "many waters." If one wanted to speculate, it would be easy to trace Irreantum back to some derivation containing Egyptian wr (great) and n.t (Copt. nout "standing water"), or to identify the final -um with the common (Eg., Copt., Heb.) yem, yam, yum, "sea" and the rest of the word with Coptic ir-n-ahte "great or many." But we need not go so far. It is enough to know that in Lehi's day the ocean was designated by epithets, and that the sea to the east was called "many waters" by the Egyptians. 61

The first important stop after Lehi's party had left their base camp was at a place they called Shazer (1 Nephi 16:13-14). The name is intriguing. The combination shajer is quite common in Palestinian place names; it is a collective meaning "trees," and many Arabs (especially in Egypt) pronounce it shazher. It appears in Thoghret-as-Sajur (the Pass of Trees), which is the ancient Shaghur, written Segor in the sixth century. 62 It may be confused with Shaghur "seepage," which is held to be identical with Shihor, the "black river" of Joshua 19:36. 63 This last takes in western Palestine the form Sozura, suggesting the name of a famous water hole in South Arabia, 64 called Shisur by Thomas and Shisar by Philby. 65 It is a "tiny copse" and one of the loneliest spots in all the world. 66 So we have Shihor, Shaghur, Sajur, Saghir, Segor (even Zoar), Shajar, Sozura, Shisur, and Shisar, all connected somehow or other and denoting either seepage—a weak but reliable water supply—or a clump of trees. Whichever one prefers, Lehi's people could hardly have picked a better name for their first suitable stopping place than Shazer.

When Ishmael died on the journey, he "was buried in the place which was called Nahom" (1 Nephi 16:34). Note that this is not "a place which we called Nahom," but the place which was so called, a desert burial ground. Jaussen reports that though Bedouins sometimes bury the dead where they die, many carry the remains great distances to bury them. 67 The Arabic root NHM has the basic meaning of "to sigh or moan," and occurs nearly always in the third form, "to sigh or moan with another." The Hebrew Nahum, "comfort," is related, but that is not the form given in the Book of Mormon. At this place, we are told, "the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly," and are reminded that among the desert Arabs mourning rites are a monopoly of the women. 68

A Note on Rivers

Before leaving the subject of waters, it would be well to note that Nephi's mention of a river in a most desolate part of Arabia has caused a good deal of quite unnecessary eyebrow-raising. Though Hogarth says that Arabia "probably never had a true river in all its immense area," 69 later authorities, including Philby, are convinced that the peninsula has supported some quite respectable rivers even in historic times. The point to notice, however, is that Lehi made his discovery in the spring of the year, for Nephi's story begins "in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah" (1 Nephi 1:4), and moves very rapidly; with the Jews and "in the Bible throughout the 'first month' always refers to the first spring month." 70 In the spring the desert mountains are full of rushing torrents. The very fact that Nephi uses the term "a river of water" (1 Nephi 2:6), to say nothing of Lehi's ecstasies at the sight of it, shows that they are used to thinking in terms of dry rivers—the "rivers of sand" of the East. 71 The Biblical expression "rivers of water" illustrates the point nicely, for the word for "river" in this case is none of the conventional ones but the rare aphe, meaning gully or channel (e.g., Ezekiel 32:6; 35:8); in one of the instances where "rivers of waters" are mentioned in the Bible, the river is actually dried up (Joel 1:20), in another they contain not water but also wine and milk (Joel 3:18), and in a third ( 72) the proper rendering, as in many modern translations, is "water-brooks." One only speaks of "rivers of water" in a country where rivers do not run all the time. But in the spring it is by no means unusual to find rivers in the regions through which Lehi was moving, as a few examples will show.

"We . . . descended . . . into Wady Waleh. Here was a beautiful seil, quite a little river, dashing over the rocky bed and filled with fish. . . . The stream is a very pretty one, . . . bordered by thickets of flowering oleanders. Here and there it narrows into a deep rushing torrent." 73 Describing the great wall that runs, like our Hurricane fault in Utah, all along the east side of the Dead Sea, the Arabah, and the Red Sea, an earlier traveler says: "Farther south the country is absolutely impassable, as huge gorges one thousand to fifteen hundred feet deep, and nearly a mile wide in some places [compare Lehi's "awful" chasm! (1 Nephi 15:28)], are broken by the great torrents flowing in winter over perpendicular precipices into the sea." 74 The sea is the Dead Sea, but the same conditions continue all down the great wall to "the borders which are near the [Red Sea]" (1 Nephi 2:8). One is reminded of how impressed Lehi was when he saw the river of Laman flowing "into the fountain of the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:9). On the desert road to Petra in the springtime "there are several broad streams to pass, the fording of which creates a pleasant little excitement." 75 A party traveling farther north reports, "We presently came upon the deep Wady 'Allan, which here cuts the plain in two. How delightful was the splash and gurgle of the living water rushing over its rocky bed in the fierce heat of that Syrian day!" 76

Given the right season of the year, then—and the Book of Mormon is obliging enough to give it—one need not be surprised at rivers in northwestern Arabia. It was this seasonal phenomenon that led Ptolemy to place a river between Yambu and Meccah with perfect correctness. 77

That invaluable researcher and indefatigable sleuth, Ariel L. Crowley, has suggested with considerable astuteness that the river of Laman was a very different kind of stream from the "rivers of water" of which we have been speaking, being nothing less than Necho's canal from the Nile to the Red Sea. 78 The greater part of Brother Crowley's study is devoted to proving that there was such a canal, but that is no issue, since it is not disputed. What we cannot believe is that the big ditch was Laman's river, and that for a number of reasons of which we need here give only two.

First, while noting that Nephi's account of the exodus "is so precisely worded that it bears the stamp of deliberate, careful phrasing," Crowley fails to note that nothing is more precise and specific than Nephi's report on the direction of the march, and that, as we have seen, he never mentions a westerly direction, which must have been taken to reach the place. Brother Crowley assumes that "into the wilderness" (1 Nephi 2:2) means by the "Wilderness Way" to Egypt, first "for the sake of hypothesis," then, without proof, as a fact. 79 There is no expression commoner in the East than "into the wilderness," which of course is not restricted to any such area. The last place in the world to flee from the notice of men would be to the border of Egypt, which at all times in ancient history was very heavily fortified and closely guarded (see the Story of Sinuhe); and Lehi as a member of the anti-Egyptian party would be the last man in the world to seek refuge in Egypt.

Second, Crowley calls Necho's canal a "mighty stream," and says that it lay "at the ancient crossroads of continents, perhaps as well-known as any place on earth in 600 B.C." 80 Then why wasn't it known to Lehi? It was the greatest engineering triumph of the age, the most important purely commercial waterway in the world; it lay astride the most travelled highway of antiquity if not of history; reached by a few days' journey from Jerusalem over a level coastal plain, it was the only great river anywhere near Jerusalem except for the Nile, of which it was a branch, and yet "the stream was unknown to Lehi [!], otherwise it is improbable that he would have given it a new name. In this very fact," says Crowley, "lies confirmation of the recent creation of the stream." 81 Just how long does it take news to travel in the East? The canal was at least ten years old, it had taken years to build, a wonder of the world, an inestimable boon to world trade, less than two hundred miles from Lehi's doorstep by a main highway, and yet at a time of ceaseless and feverish coming and going between Egypt and Palestine, neither Lehi, the great merchant with his sound Egyptian education, nor his enterprising and ambitious sons, had ever heard of it! It is impossible to believe that Lehi did not know that if one traveled towards Egypt and came across a mighty stream in a perfectly empty desert, it would not be some unknown and undiscovered watercourse but really quite an important one. If anyone knew about Necho's canal, it was Lehi. But we agree with Crowley that the river of Laman was obviously not known to him. Therefore the two cannot have been the same. "No river answering the description of Nephi could have escaped historical notice in profane works," says Crowley. 82 Why not? It escaped Lehi's notice, steeped as he was in the lore of Egyptians and Jews. It cannot therefore have been an important stream, let alone one of the most remarkable on earth, or Lehi would have known about it. Nor does Nephi ever say or imply that it was a great river; it was not a waterway at all, but a "river of water," which is a very different thing.


1. W. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites, Burnett Lectures (London: Black, 1907), 200-201.

2. Carl R. Raswan, Drinkers of the Wind (New York: Creative Age Press, 1942), 237.

3. Antonin Jaussen, "MĂ©langes,'' RB 3 (1906): 109.

4. Ibid., 110.

5. Nilus, Narratio (Narrations) 3, in PG 79:612.

6. Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix (New York: Scribner, 1936), 137.

7. Robert E. Cheesman, In Unknown Arabia (London: Macmillan, 1926), 228-29, 234, 240-41, 280.

8. Raswan, Drinkers of the Wind, 200.

9. William G. Palgrave, Narrative of a Year's Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia (London: Macmillan, 1865), 1:13.

10. John L. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys (London: Colburn & Bently, 1831; reprinted New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967), 1:242.

11. Nilus, Narrations 3, in PG 79:612.

12. David S. Margoliouth, The Relations between Arabs and Israel Prior to the Rise of Islam, Schweich Lectures (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), 57.

13. Ibid., 54.

14. Frank E. Johnson, tr., Al-Mu'allaqt (Bombay: Education Society's Steam Press, 1893), 218, line 38.

15. Harry S. J. B. Philby, The Empty Quarter (New York: Holt, 1933), 27.

16. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:133.

17. Thomas, Arabia Felix, 142.

18. Ibid., 172-73.

19. Johnson, Al-Mu'allaqt, 87, line 58.

20. Nilus, Narrations 6, in PG 79:669.

21. Philip J. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East,'' PEFQ (1925), 81; second quote is from PEFQ (1922), 168-69.

22. Richard F. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (London: Tylston & Edwards, 1893), 2:118.

23. Hence it is regarded as an honorable and courageous act to camp outside of one's own tribal domain. Georg Jacob, Altarabisches Beduinen-leben (Berlin: Mayer & MĂĽller, 1897), 211.

24. Cheesman, In Unknown Arabia, 24. In Nibley's original magazine article, he also noted: "After a raid a whole tribe will go in to hiding to avoid reprisals,'' Hugh W. Nibley, "Lehi in the Desert,'' IE 53 (1950): 383. W. E. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula,'' PEFQ (1912), 16, states that "not a soul was to be seen, for the Debur were in temporary hiding, having come home from a successful raid, and the victims might daily expect to return the compliment.''

25. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula,'' PEFQ (1908), 31, 36.

26. On the anti-social nature of the Arab, see Baldensperger, "The Immovable East,'' PEFQ (1922), 168-70; Antonin Jaussen, "Chronique,'' RB 3 (1906): 443; Edward H. Palmer, Desert of the Exodus (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell, 1871) 1:79-81.

27. Wilhelm Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebräischen Archäologie (Freiburg i/B: Mohr, 1894), 152.

28. Johnson, Al-Mu'allaqt, 139, line 30.

29. Philby, The Empty Quarter, 219.

30. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 1:276.

31. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula,'' PEFQ (1905), 213.

32. Charles M. Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta (New York: Random House, 1936), 1:272, 282-83.

33. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:354; Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1:258 .

34. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:114.

35. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 2:102.

36. Philip J. Baldensperger, "Women in the East,'' PEFQ (1901), 75.

37. Max von Oppenheim, Die Beduinen (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1939), 1:30.

38. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:116-17; Jaussen, "Chronique,'' RB 12 (1903): 107-8; Oppenheim, Die Beduinen, 1:30.

39. John Zeller, "The Bedawin,'' PEFQ (1901), 194; Jaussen, "MĂ©langes," RB 12 (1903): 254

40. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula,'' 217.

41. H. H. Kitchener, "Major Kitchener's Report,'' PEFQ (1884), 215.

42. Eliahu Epstein, "Bedouin of the Negeb,'' PEFQ (1939), 61-64; Baldensperger, "The Immovable East,'' PEFQ (1906), 14. "The tyranny of relations is more severe . . . than the descent of the Indian sword,'' says the ancient poet Tarafah. Johnson, Al-Mu'allaqt, 57, line 81.

43. Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebräischen Archäologie, 154; Jacob, Altarabisches Benduinenleben, 212.

44. Jaussen, "Chronique,'' RB 12 (1903): 109.

45. Philby, The Empty Quarter, 216.

46. Ibid.

47. Thomas E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York: Garden City Publishing, 1938), ch. 3.

48. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula,'' PEFQ (1908), 257.

49. Taufik Canaan, "Studies in the Topography and Folklore of Petra,'' JPOS 9 (1929): 139; cf. David G. Hogarth, The Penetration of Arabia (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1904), 162.

50. Canaan, "Studies in the Topography and Folklore of Petra,'' 140. This is the standard work on desert place names. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah 1:250, n. 3: "A folio volume would not contain a three months' collection'' of such names, so numerous are they.

51. C. Leonard Woolley & Thomas E. Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin (London: Cape, 1936), 70.

52. Palmer, Desert of the Exodus, 1:20.

53. Raswan, Drinkers of the Wind, 131.

54. Philby, The Empty Quarter, 39.

55. Cheesman, In Unknown Arabia, 261.

56. Woolley & Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin, 86-87; cf. Claude R. Conder, "Lieut. Claude R. Conder's Reports, XXXII,'' PEFQ (1875), 126.

57. Thomas, Arabia Felix, 50-51.

58. William F . Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942), 149.

59. Joseph Offord, "The Red Sea,'' PEFQ (1920), 179.

60. As cited by William J. T. Phythian-Adams, "The Mount of God,'' PEFQ (1939), 204.

61. Wilhelm Spiegelberg, Koptisches Handwörterbuch, 204, 258.

62. Claude R. Conder, Survey of Eastern Palestine (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1889), 1:239, 241; Edward H. Palmer, "Arabic and English Name Lists,'' in Survey of Western Palestine (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1881), 8:116, 134. Another transliteration of the Arabic is Thughrat-al-Shajar.

63. Claude R. Conder, "Notes on the Language of the Native Peasantry in Palestine,'' PEFQ (1876), 134; Edward H. Palmer, The Survey of Western Palestine, Name Lists (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1881), 29, 93.

64. Claude R. Conder and H. H. Kitchener, "Memoirs of the Topography, Orography, Hydrography and Archaeology,'' in Survey of Western Palestine (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1881), 2:169.

65. Thomas, Arabia Felix, 136-37; Philby, The Empty Quarter, 231.

66. Thomas, Arabia Felix, 136-37.

67. Jaussen, "Chronique,'' RB 10 (1901): 607.

68. Ibid.; Taufik Canaan, "Unwritten Laws Affecting the Arab Women of Palestine,'' JPOS 11 (1931): 189: "In funeral processions women may not mix with men. . . . When the burial is over the women assemble alone. . . . In visiting the tomb . . . they always go alone.'' Cf. Baldensperger, "Women in the East,'' 83; and Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:101: "At the moment of a man's death, his wives, daughters, and female relations unite in cries of lamentation.'' Among the Jews the men play a more prominent part in mourning rites, and even professional male mourners were not unknown. Nowack, Lehrbuch der hebräischen Archäologie, 196. Both the root nhm (groan, suffer, complain) and the similar root nhm (sigh, mourn, console) are relevant here.

69. Hogarth, The Penetration of Arabia, 3.

70. Abraham S. Yahuda, The Accuracy of the Bible, (London: Heinemann, 1934), 201.

71. Cf. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 2:72.

72. Edward H. Palmer, "The Desert of the TĂ­h and the Country of Moab,'' in Survey of Western Palestine, Special Papers (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1881), 4:67.

73. Conder, "Lieut. Claude R. Conder's Reports, XXXII,'' 130.

74. Gray Hill, "A Journey to Petra-1896,'' PEFQ (1897), 144.

75. W. Ewing, "A Journey in the Hauran,'' PEFQ (1895), 175.

76. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, 2:154.

77. Ariel L. Crowley, "Lehi's River Laman,'' IE 47 (1944): 14-15, 56, 59-61.

78. Ibid., 15, 56.

79. Ibid., 15, 61.

80. Ibid., 61 (emphasis added).

81. Ibid., 15.

82. Philip J. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East,'' PEFQ (1925), 81.