1 Nephi Chapter 16
1 Nephi 16 Lehi and his family find the Liahona and depart the valley of Lemuel.
In chapter 16 Lehi and his family depart the valley of Lemuel.
verses 1-6 These six verses might better have been included as the last six verses of chapter 15. In 1 Nephi chapters 8 through 15, we find visions, prophecies, and admonishments. Chapter 16 begins the second phase of their journey from the valley of Lemuel to the ocean.
1 And now it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had made an end of speaking to my brethren, behold they said unto me: Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.
2 And it came to pass that I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified, and testified that they should be lifted up at the last day; wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.
verses 1-2 The admonishments of Nephi were perceived as "hard things" by Laman and Lemuel since they were condemned by them. It would seem that the expression "more than we are able to bear" does not reflect the brothers' resentment (see verse 5) so much as it does their despair over their sinfulness. Indeed, "it cutteth them to the very center."
"the righteous have I justified" To be justified is to be entirely free of sin and qualified to enter the kingdom of God after this life. Obviously Nephi does not do the judging or justifying, but here he pronounces that the righteous will eventually be justified.
3 And now my brethren, if ye were righteous and were willing to hearken to the truth, and give heed unto it, that ye might walk uprightly before God, then ye would not murmur because of the truth, and say: Thou speakest hard things against us.
verse 3 Simply stated, the best way to obtain a spiritual witness of a true principle is to live it.
4 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did exhort my brethren, with all diligence, to keep the commandments of the Lord.
5 And it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord; insomuch that I had joy and great hopes of them, that they would walk in the paths of righteousness.
6 Now, all these things were said and done as my father dwelt in a tent in the valley which he called Lemuel.
7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, took one of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also, my brethren took of the daughters of Ishmael to wife; and also Zoram took the eldest daughter of Ishmael to wife.
8 And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord which had been given unto him. And also, I, Nephi, had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly.
verses 7-8 "And thus my father had fulfilled all the commandments of the Lord" This phrase implies that father Lehi had been commanded by the Lord to arrange marriages for his sons. Under ancient Israelite law, it was the father's duty to arrange marriages for his children, and it was the children's duty to accept the father's arrangements. Recall that Lehi selected the family whose daughters his sons would marry.
"I, Nephi, had been blessed of the Lord exceedingly" It's fun to read between the lines as you read scripture. For example, in these verses the men in the traveling company have divided up the girls among themselves and have taken them to wife. Note particularly Nephi's statement, "I Nephi have been blessed of the Lord exceedingly." Nephi is probably not talking about just generic blessings here. He is likely saying that when a woman was chosen for each man, he got the loveliest of the group! He was "blessed of the Lord exceedingly."
9 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.
verse 9 The marriages between the families of Lehi and Ishmael marked the end of the long encampment in the valley of Lemuel. The next phase of the journey would be more difficult. They would traverse country that was more arid and dangerous. Food and water would be scarce, and a vigil would have to be maintained for robbers. As we read the following narrative account written by Nephi of the family's journey in the wilderness, it is appropriate to keep in mind that this account was translated by Joseph Smith from the small plates of Nephi. The account was actually written by Nephi perhaps as many as thirty years after the fact. Thus it seems unlikely that Nephi could have given us a precise chronological account, and more likely that he is simply reporting the important highlights of the journey.
10 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.
verse 10 This device is referred to in the text of the Book of Mormon as "the ball," "the compass" (1 Nephi 18:21), and "the director" (2 Nephi 5:12; Mosiah 1:16). It is not given the name "Liahona" until Alma 37:38. Though many meanings have been suggested for the term Liahona, Dr. Nibley's favorite is "God is our Guide" ("The Liahona's Cousin," a FARMS reprint).
Some interesting insight on how the extended family of Lehi used the Liahona is obtained from the account of Alma the younger's delivering the Liahona to his son Helaman (Alma 37:38-47). The Liahona was a gift of God that worked solely by the power of God. It functioned only in response to the faith and diligence of those who followed it.
Alma taught that the Liahona seemed a "temporal" thing of "small means," and apparently it was regarded as such by Lehi's people. They seemed to take it for granted and almost ignored it altogether. It is apparent that it was not regarded by Lehi's people as a new and unfamiliar type of object. They seemed to regard it as unremarkable and ordinary. Dr. Hugh Nibley has pointed out why this might have been so. He has reported evidence that the tradition in Hebrew culture of "divining with arrows" is well established. Hebrews believed that for many types of decisions, including such things as finding their way through uncharted territory, the Lord's influence would intervene if they used arrows in a type of divining ritual ("The Liahona's Cousin," a FARMS reprint).
Evidently, then, to Lehi's group the Liahona seemed just another device with which they could seek the Lord's will through the use of arrows-just another way to "cast lots" as it were. Apparently they often did not take it seriously and were careless in giving heed to its advice. Alma later taught Helaman that this carelessness and disobedience of those in Lehi's party contributed to their having to wander eight years in the wilderness: "They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions" (Alma 37:40-41). Alma would also teach that the Liahona was a type or symbol of Christ (Alma 37:44-45) in that Lehi's party had but to follow its words and directions to be led to the Promised Land. Similarly, if we follow the words of Christ, we will be led to a much better promised land.
"a round ball of curious workmanship" One definition of the word curious in Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language is, "wrought with care and art; elegant; neat; finished; rare; singular." It is natural to try to visualize in one's mind the appearance of this device. It is not possible, of course, to be certain of its appearance, or its size, because we only have this cursory description. Apparently the round ball of brass did not have a complete spherical shell and was at least in part hollow since the pointer spindles were "within the ball." There was obviously some type of gap or window in the shell that allowed visualization of the spindles or pointers.
Robert L. Bunker has provided us with a helpful article on the Liahona in which he speculates as to its appearance. Under the section titled Illustrations, see "Liahona" and "Spindles of Liahona." He also suggests a plausible reason why the Liahona had to have "two spindles" or pointers ("The Design of the Liahona and the Purpose of the Second Spindle," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 3, [Fall 1994] 1-11). A "spindle," according to the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970) is an object used in spinning: "a slender rounded rod . . . tapering towards each end." "Such a spindle-shaped pointer is often encountered in magnetic compasses where some type of marking designates one end as north. The spindle in the Liahona used to designate direction would also have required differentiation between ends, either by color, texture, or shape. While use of the spindle shape is aesthetically pleasing and appropriately functional, there are sound engineering reasons for its selection: The symmetry inherently provides mechanical balance along its major and minor axes, a requirement for both compasses and the Liahona" (Bunker, 3).
Why were there two spindles? In his article, Brother Bunker reminds us that the Liahona functioned appropriately only part of the time "according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give" (1 Nephi 16:28). But even when it wasn't functioning, its directional spindle would always be pointing in some specific direction. It is clear then that the Liahona not only had to provide directional information, but also had to indicate whether or not that information could be relied upon-whether or not its users were exercising sufficient faith (1 Nephi 18:12; 1 Nephi 18:21). One of the pointers provided directional information. Again, since a single pointer is always pointing in a specific direction, it seems likely that the role of the second pointer was to provide the information as to whether or not the directional information from the first pointer was reliable. Brother Bunker speculates: "If an observer viewed the pointers and saw only a single pointer, then they were both aligned in the same direction, one on top of the other, and the director was providing correct information. Lehi's party could then follow the indicated direction with confidence that it was the Lord's instruction. If, on the other hand, the two pointers were cross-ways to each other-forming an "X," then the pointing information was not reliable. No other information was required of the Liahona, so no more than two pointers were needed. But the requirements demand a minimum of two." See the illustration of the spindles. Brother Bunker points out that this technique is used in modern engineering and is called "voting." When the decision of a computer system, for example, is critical, two independent systems will be asked to make an independent analysis. If the decision of both systems (the "votes") are the same, then a correct decision is assumed. If the answers are different, then an error is assumed.
Brother Hugh Nibley has written:
A . . . study by an Arabic scholar has called attention to the long-forgotten custom of the ancient Arabs and Hebrews of consulting two headless arrows whenever they were about to undertake a journey; the usual thing was to consult the things at a special shrine, though it was common also to take such divination arrows along on the trip in a special container. The message of the arrows, which were mere sticks without heads or feathers, was conveyed by their pointing and especially by the inscriptions that were on them, giving detailed directions as to the journey (Prophetic Book of Mormon, 244-45).
11 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.
verse 11 This verse marks the beginning of what has been referred to as the "Desert Journal." It will include 1 Nephi 16:11-17; 1 Nephi 16:33; 17:1-6. It is possibly a journal kept by Nephi himself, but it more likely is Nephi's quoting of his father's writings from the record of Lehi (see 1 Nephi 19:1-2). The reader will recall that Nephi did not even start the small plates of Nephi, the record from which we are now reading, until about 570 BC, some thirty years after the group left Jerusalem. It is likely that Lehi's "Desert Journal" proved very useful in filling out Nephi's memory of hazy or forgotten details.
"we did take seed of every kind" It is safe to assume that Nephi's party did not have access to every kind of seed, rather they took those seeds which were available to them. These likely came from both the land of Jerusalem and from the valley of Lemuel. They would surely have included dates (see the commentary for 1 Nephi 8:1). Along with the camel, the Arabs consider the date to be one of God's greatest gifts to them. Without the camel, travel across the desert would have been impossible. Without the date, one of the few foodstuffs that do not perish in the heat of the desert, those making long desert journeys would have little to eat.
12 And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman.
verse 12 As they broke camp and set out for the wilderness, Lehi knew they were headed for a promised land and that it would be over water. It is therefore quite possible that when Lehi left the valley of Lemuel, he had a good idea of where they were headed-to one of the South Arabian ports. Also, it is likely that he knew, camped in the valley of Lemuel, that he was less than twenty miles from the Frankincense Trail which could lead him down the full length of western Arabia to those ports. See the illustration of the map of the Frankincense Trail.
When Lehi and his family departed the valley of Lemuel, they would have descended the wadi Tayyib al-Ism to the shore of the Red Sea, crossed the small river Laman and traveled south along the narrow coastal plain to the site of modern Maqna. From there they would have turned east and traveled twenty miles to the ancient town of Midian (modern al Bada'a). Here in Midian they would have picked up the Frankincense Trail.
The Frankincense Trail, in the days of Lehi, was the one trail that existed from the Mediterranean Sea to southern Arabia (Thesiger, Arabian Sands, 208-9). If one were traveling up the Frankincense Trail from southern Arabia, one would encounter a major division in the trail about 250 miles below the valley of Lemuel at a place now called Dedan or Ula. One branch, the main branch, continued on north-northeast to pass east of the Dead Sea to modern-day Amman, Jordan and Damascus, Syria. The other branch, the Egyptian or Gaza branch, turned more toward the west to run near the Gulf of Aqaba, through the modern-day town of Aqaba on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, and thence north to the town of Gaza on the Mediterranean. It is this latter branch of the Frankincense Trail that Lehi's family would have traveled after leaving the town of Midian.
At the time three major ports existed in southern Arabia (see Frankincense Trail map): Aden (Eden), Cana (Qana), and Moscha (in Dhofar). The merchant ships of these three ports virtually monopolized trade with India and the Far East until the first centuries BC-AD. Aden and Cana were the ports of the Sheban empire (the kingdom of Sheba) and were known to the people of Palestine in Lehi's time (Ezekiel 27:23). It is almost certain that Lehi also knew of the ocean-going ships of the Indian Ocean which called at these three ports. His contemporaries, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, had knowledge of the Frankincense Trail and the merchant ships which sailed the Indian Ocean (Ezekiel 27:20; Ezekiel 27:22). The Liahona eventually will point Lehi and his family to Moscha on the Indian Ocean. Today, the ruins of what is thought to be Moscha are found at the inlet of Khor Rori in the southern part of the Sultanate of Oman. From Moscha in the area known as Dhofar, ships loaded with the precious frankincense embarked into the Indian Ocean. We will have more to say about Khor Rori later.
It is peculiar that many in the Church have the idea that Lehi and his family traveled from the valley of Lemuel to the Arabian coast secretly, avoiding trails and shunning contact with other people. The only practical way to have made the journey was to follow the Frankincense Trail, and doing so was reasonably safe. It is true that small bands of outlaws occasionally preyed on small groups of travelers, but the tribes who lived along the trail were mostly a source of security for those traveling the trail rather than a source for fear. It was apparently the habit, in those days, for the traders who used the trails to pay protection money called khawah to the tribes through whose territory they were traveling. Thus, the tribes regarded the travelers as their customers, and had a genuine interest in their safety (Keohane, Bedouin, Nomads of the Desert, 10, 11). The tribute money they collected from the travelers was their main source of income. For this reason, the tribes that ruled trade routes went to great efforts to protect their trails and to organize small parties into larger groups for travel between villages. Tribute-paying travelers were welcomed so long as they obeyed the terms of passage: staying to the authorized trails through the Arab's lands, paying tribute, and not robbing the locals. The desert trails could be viewed as toll roads that crossed the private property of the tribes. The tribes fiercely protected their lands and guarded their wells. Lehi would have understood that in order to travel through Arabia he would need the protection of an authorized trail, for he would not have been allowed free access to wells or provisions of the local tribe. If Lehi did not pay khawah or if he strayed from the authorized trails, he and his family would have quickly found themselves at the mercy of the local tribes. In the years Lehi was in Arabia, his party would have passed through the lands of at least a dozen tribes and many more sub-tribes. It is incomprehensible that Lehi with many men, woman, and children in his party could have traveled undetected through Arabia.
Another technique for staying safe on the journey through the desert was to combine into larger groups. Apparently, in Lehi's day, when a smaller group wished to make a long journey, they would wait at a caravanserai or village, making their intentions known, until enough people could band together to make a sizable traveling party. Only then would they set out, the large size of the group providing the deterrent to would-be bandits. The caravan was thus a small army traveling across the desert, a veritable town on the move, bristling with weapons. To think that Lehi would have been so foolish as to try to wander across Arabia alone, trespassing lands and without permission simply ignores the realities of travel in that period.
Besides money for tributes, Lehi would have needed funds for acquiring provisions, and probably for replacing camels that became lame or died on the trail. We know Lehi did not take his gold and silver into the wilderness. Randolph Linehan, an attorney specializing in international commerce, and one who practiced law in Arabia, speculates on how Lehi acquired the funds necessary to purchase passage through Arabia:
Lehi was wealthy. He had taught not just his oldest sons, but his younger ones as well, reading, writing, and the trade languages: Egyptian, Canaanite script, and Judahite Hebrew. . . . The idea that nobles would hire themselves out as slaves or workers on their journey south makes little sense. Anyone who could read in their period of time already had a talent which would be similar to an M.D. traveling abroad today (personal communication between Linehan and George Potter, reported in Lehi in the Wilderness, 64).
Linehan finds it reasonable to assume that in the commercial centers located along the Frankincense Trail, Lehi and his older sons could have exchanged their highly valued personal services for tribute and provisions. This might, to some degree, explain why it took Lehi eight years to cross Arabia, and is consistent with the history of the Arab world where educated people would migrate from city to city seeking positions as scholars, political and commercial aids, or judges. Undoubtedly the well-educated Lehi could have offered an array of needed skills to the courts of sheikh's along the Frankincense Trail.
One might well ask, "If they traveled along a trail why did they need the Liahona to show them the way?" Couldn't they have simply walked along the road? The Frankincense Trail was not a road in the sense that we are used to. There was no clearly delineated trail along which to walk. It is not really possible to speak of a single trail. At times this trail was only a few yards wide when it traversed mountain passes. At others, it was several miles across. In places the trail split into two or more branches that, at a point farther on, would reunite into one main road. Until late antiquity, the trail ran along the east side of the mountain range in western Arabia rather than along the west or coastal side. The Frankincense Trail was simply a general course that would take one to the next caravan "halt" and source of water. Lehi would have needed a guide, and for those times that the family was traveling alone, the Liahona was capable of taking a guide's place. The trip down the Frankincense Trail was no jaunt down a well-marked highway.
13 And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer.
verse 13 "we traveled . . . nearly a south-southeast direction" This is the direction of the Frankincense Trail. The Frankincense Trail took its name from the product that was primarily transported along it, frankincense, a sweet smelling sap of the frankincense tree. The southern Arabians became wealthy on the sale of this aromatic, highly prized by the ancients. It was used in perfume, in medicine, in embalming, and in religious worship. At the time of Lehi, the main place where frankincense grew naturally was southern Arabia, with the most highly prized "silver" frankincense coming from Dhofar. The Persian Emperor Darius (521-486 BC) received one thousand Babylonian talents in weight, nearly twenty-five tons, of frankincense annually as a "voluntary tribute" from the Arabs (W. W. Muller, "Weihrauch," suppl. 15, col. 708, lines 40-58; Groom, Frankincense and Myrrh, 60). Herodotus in the fifth century BC recorded that two and a half tons of frankincense were burned annually in the temple of Bel Al Babylon ( Hawley, Oman and Its Renaissance, 245). This was obviously only a tiny fraction of the total produce of the area at that time. Vast amounts were also used in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece. An estimated three thousand tons of frankincense were sent to Greece and Rome each year at the peak of the incense trade in the second century AD. Huge caravans must have left regularly from Dhofar carrying frankincense to Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, and still more was taken on board ships to Yemen.
"and we did call the name of the place Shazer" The text implies that it was the Lehites themselves who named this place "Shazer." Regarding the name Shazer, Hugh Nibley wrote, "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" (Old Testament and Related Studies, 78-79). Nigel Groom, in his Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Place Names, uses a number of variations of the same place name, Shajir being one of them, identical to Nibley's "Shajer." Groom's definition of Shajir is: "A valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs." So it appears highly likely that the family had named the place Shazer because it was a valley with many trees.
Armed with the knowledge that this cultivated valley was within one hundred miles south-southeast of the valley of Lemuel ("we traveled for the space of four days"), George Potter and Richard Wellington set out to find a likely candidate for the place called Shazer. It took them two years and three field trips. Finally, the in summer of 2000, the whereabouts of Shazer became apparent. Nephi recorded that their first halting place after leaving the valley of Lemuel was a place of trees where they stopped to hunt. In their research in the spring of 2000, Wellington had learned, from studying the ancient trade routes in Arabia, that the first rest stop traveling south from Midian (modern al-Bada'a) was a place called Al-Aghra'. In other writings he found a description of a fertile valley with an oasis over fifteen miles long which was south-southeast from the valley of Lemuel at about the appropriate distance. This was found in the wadi Agharr. Noticing the similarity of the spelling of these two places, Al-Aghra' and Agharr, Wellington recalled that on a previous field trip he had been told by the Police General at al-Bada'a that the best hunting in the entire area was in the mountains of Agharr. From al Bada'a Potter and Wellington headed sixty miles south-southeast to the wadi Agharr. To their right was the Red Sea glittering in the bright noon light; to their left the mountains of the Hijaz towering over them. Straight ahead they soon came to a place where the wide plain on which they were traveling was constricted by a low mountain chain that ran at right angles to their path. These were the Agharr mountains. The trail led to a gap in the mountains. Passing through the gap they entered an oasis that ran as far as the eye could see both to their left and to their right. This was a narrow valley, perhaps one hundred yards across, bounded on each side by high walls stretching up a few hundred feet. "Shazer" was certainly an apt description for this location-a valley with trees, set amid the barren landscape of Midian. They felt they had found Shazer.
After the family departed from Shazer, it seems likely that they turned east and ascended a mountain range described in the commentary for verse 15. After the following verse, Nephi's account will not mention the Red Sea again.
14 And it came to pass that we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families; and after we had slain food for our families we did return again to our families in the wilderness, to the place of Shazer. And we did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea.
verse 13 "we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families" Potter and Wellington, on a later expedition, returned to wadi Agharr (Shazer) and drove up into the mountains in the area they thought the men of Lehi's party would have gone to hunt. They spoke with Bedouins who lived in the upper end of the wadi Agharr who told them that Ibex lived in the mountains, and they still hunted them there. It may have been these very animals that Lehi and his sons went out to hunt. Here at wadi Agharr was a site that probably had the best hunting along the entire Frankincense Trail. It is the first place travelers would have been allowed to stop and pitch tents south of Midian, and as the Book of Mormon states, it is a four days' journey from the valley of Lemuel.
"in the borders near the Red Sea" Here Nephi informs us that after leaving Shazer, the group traveled "in the borders near the Red Sea." We have discussed previously that it is likely that the word borders refers to mountains (see the commentary for 1 Nephi 2:5), particularly the Hijaz mountains which are a range of mountains that runs along the northwestern shoreline of Arabia, dividing the interior desert valleys from the shoreline plain. Thus the term "borders" for this mountain range is most appropriate. The group traveled up in the mountains for much of the journey through northwest Arabia which happens to be the route followed by the Frankincense Trail. See, again, the map of the Frankincense Trail.
The phrase "in the most fertile parts of the wilderness" also makes a mountainous location more likely. It is pertinent that Nephi uses the phrase "in the borders" only in the initial phase of the journey. Subsequently he drops the word "borders." This is consistent with the mountainous terrain through which the Frankincense Trail runs for the 500 or so miles from the valley of Lemuel toward the southern coast of Arabia. From then on, the trail through Arabia was on the plains well east of the mountains.
"keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea" Nephi tells us here that while they are traveling in the mountains, there are areas of fertility and cultivation and that the Frankincense Trail passed through them. From Shazer, the group continued on the Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail to the ancient oasis town of Dedan. Here it joined the main branch of the trail which continued either north or south.
There is another interesting concept that supports the veracity of the Book of Mormon. In ancient times there was a 215 mile-long section of the Frankincense Trail which incorporated twelve frankincense halt (oasis) settlements toward the south between Dedan and modern-day Medina. This section was known in pre-Islam times as the Qura 'Arabiyyah, or the "Arab Villages" (Groom, Dictionary of Arabic Topography and Placenames, s.v. "Qura 'Arabiyyah"). These villages with their cultivated lands were linked together by the Frankincense Trail. These cultivated lands stood out from the surrounding vast and barren desert like a string of pearls. They are located in valleys surrounded by mountains, thus Nephi's reference to fertile parts in the "borders" or "mountains" is in harmony with the geography of this section of the trail.
Even more interesting is the name applied to all the Qura Arabiyyah villages by the prophet Mohammed. He referred to them as the Muhajirun, which means the "fertile pieces or parts of land." Muhajirun is the plural form of Hajar which means simply "farm." In other words, when Nephi referred to the "most fertile parts," he appears to have been using the actual place-name for the area in which they were traveling, the Muhajirun.
It is noteworthy that Nephi's record does not mention the family murmuring while they traveled in the most fertile parts of the land. It they had traveled anywhere else in the northwest part of Arabia, other than the unique and narrow strip of rich farmland that is found along the main Frankincense Trail, we can be sure that the impatient Laman and Lemuel would have vented strong complaints. Why would anyone want to wander off the trail, since just a few miles on either side was harsh waterless desert? Lehi and his family would have had to travel this route.
15 And it came to pass that we did travel for the space of many days, slaying food by the way, with our bows and our arrows and our stones and our slings.
verse 15 "slaying food by the way, with our bows and our arrows and our stones and our slings" Brother Hugh Nibley wrote of these weapons:
[Nephi] explicitly tells us that the hunting weapons he used were "bows . . . arrows . . . stones, and . . . slings" (1 Nephi 16:15). That is another evidence for the Book of Mormon, for [Moritz] Mainzer found that those were indeed the hunting weapons of the early Hebrews, who never used the classic hunting weapons of their neighbors, the sword, lance, javelin, and club. . . . According to the ancient Arab writers, the only bow-wood obtainable in all Arabia was the nab wood that grew only . . . in the very region where, if we follow the Book of Mormon, the broken bow incident occurred. How many factors must be correctly conceived and correlated to make the apparently simple story of Nephi's bow ring true! The high mountain near the Red Sea at a considerable journey down the coast, the game on the peaks, hunting with a bow and sling, the finding of bow-wood viewed as something of a miracle by the party-what are the chances of reproducing such a situation by mere guesswork? (Approach to the Book of Mormon, 231-32).
verses 14-15 The traveling party were truly nomadic hunters. On occasion they would establish a base camp and launch hunting expeditions from it. Also they would hunt food "along the way."
Joseph Smith's only known statement about the geography of Arabia and the route of Lehi's family shows no knowledge of the mountain chain pattern, the major trade route, or the economy and trading practices in Arabia. He simply said that the party traveled from "the Red Sea to the great Southern Ocean" (TPJS, 267), a rather simple statement when compared to Nephi's complex narrative.
The length of the party's journey from Jerusalem to the ocean was at least 2,100 miles. From Jerusalem to Nahom (see verse 34) was about 1,400 miles. The first 250 or so miles brought them to the first camp, their valley of Lemuel. The remaining 1,150 or so miles lay between the first camp and Nahom. There remained approximately 700 miles to traverse to their Bountiful, where they would build their ship.
The time it took to travel from the first camp to Nahom was likely less than one year. How do we know that? The answer comes from Nephi's placement of details in his narrative. We start with observations about the marriages that took place in the camp before everyone departed (see 1 Nephi 16:7). While we cannot be entirely certain how long after the marriages the party left the camp, we would expect that one or more of the new brides became pregnant within the first months of marriage. Thus, they may have been pregnant when they set out from the camp. So we should expect a report of childbirths. And we find it. What may be significant is that Nephi noted the first births of children only as he finished his record of later events at Nahom, not before (see 1 Nephi 17:1). We naturally conclude that the women gave birth to their first children at Nahom and that the journey from the camp to Nahom took a year or less, the length of the new brides' pregnancies.
16 And we did follow the directions of the ball, which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness.
verse 16 "the more fertile parts of the wilderness" After leaving the "most fertile parts," Nephi here reports that the family hunted with bows as they traveled in the "more fertile parts of the wilderness." Most has now become more. The implication here is that this part of the journey was through lands which were not as fertile as the "most fertile parts."
The Qura Arabiyyah (see the commentary for verse 14), the fertile pieces or parts, ended south of Medina, and from that point the trail changes in nature. The trail moved away from the mountains and onto the Arabia shelf. The trail south from Medina headed inland. In order to skirt the lava fields it stayed in the desert, the entire course being approximately three hundred fifty miles to Bishah. See again the map, the Frankincense Trail. South of Medina the oases with cultivation were farther apart. After Medina the oases were at Turbah, Bishah, Tathlith, Ranyah, and Najran, five oases over a distance of more than seven hundred fifty miles. Now, rather than an oasis every night, they were many days or weeks apart.
17 And after we had traveled for the space of many days, we did pitch our tents for the space of a time, that we might again rest ourselves and obtain food for our families.
verse 17 The trail and its spurs kept to the main wells and grasslands where caravanners could obtain food and water for their animals and themselves. The course of the Frankincense Trail can be explained in one word-water-the most precious commodity of all to the desert traveler. Lynn Hilton notes, "The history of Arabia is written in water, not ink" (In Search of Lehi's Trail-Part One, 36). The great oases of western Arabia, Tabuk, Hijra (Madain Saleh), Dedan (Ula), Medina, Mecca, and Najran are all found on the Frankincense Trail or a branch of it. See the map of the Frankincense Trail. The eastern side of the coastal mountains forms an underground seal, trapping large pools of water in aquifers. The inland underground reservoirs, called the Basalt Aquifers, run almost the entire length of the northern and central parts of the trail, providing dependable wells and springs along its course. Indeed, the course of the Frankincense Trail was not a fluke. It was there because it offered the traveler the best chance of surviving a crossing of the great deserts. It had a reliable water supply. Because of the need for water, Lehi had no option but to travel on a proven trail.
As previously mentioned, some believe that Lehi tiptoed through the desert of Arabia undetected by the local inhabitants. After all, were the family not fugitives from justice since Nephi had killed Laban? It is simply not possible that they could have avoided everyone on the trail, as every few days the family would have needed water and when they did, they would have had to deal with the owners of the wells in order to obtain it. To attempt to steal it would have been a punishable crime. Some might argue that the Liahona could have directed Lehi through the desert without a trail. Even so, the party needed to rejoin the trail at the wells. They had no other choice. The need to find water in the desert made it relatively easy for the tribes to control passage through their lands. Even if a party attempted an unauthorized passage through the land, they would eventually need to stop for water at the precious few wells.
Although wells were still found at regular intervals along the southern Frankincense Trail, they were more widely spaced and no longer were the large sweet water wells like those found on the northern part of the trail. The wells in the south were small deep wells with dark polluted water. The commercial caravans that utilized the Frankincense Trail consisted of hundreds and even thousands of camels in one caravan. For hundreds of years prior to Lehi's journey, caravan after caravan stopped at the same watering holes. The stench from the dung and urine, and the accompanying swarms of flies must have been revolting. If the family ran short of water, Lehi would have instituted rationing. Even worse, if their water ran out, they would have been forced to stoop to previously unthinkable depths. In such a time of crisis, Lehi would have resorted to the technique used by the Bedouins in emergencies, where they will either kill an old camel or thrust a stick down a camel's throat to make it vomit water (Musil, Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins, 368). If the camel has been watered within a day or two, the liquid is tolerably drinkable but if it has not drunk for some time the liquid will be foul to the taste. Could the family have been forced by circumstances to sink to depths of drinking this liquid in order to survive?
Other adversities the family would surely have encountered on the trail would have been sandstorms, despair and loneliness, overwhelming swarms of flies, and other pests including the camel or sun spider. This four-inch long creature is a flesh-eating parasite that normally satisfies itself by hiding in the fur of camels and dining at will, yet at times they are rumored to enter tents in the night and feed on human flesh.
The Frankincense Trail also provided the other important elements needed to survive the trip through the desert: food and fresh camels. At the caravanserais, or camps along the trail, the traveler could also share news and companionship with other travelers as well as inquire about the trail ahead. It is apparent that Lehi's party met people who knew and used this trail because some in Lehi's group threatened to return home from Nahom, even though they were by then approximately fourteen hundred miles south of Jerusalem, and even though twice between the first camp and Nahom they had faced the terrifying prospect of starvation (see verses 17-32, 39).
As we might expect, the terrain through which the trail ran differed from place to place. In the south, where inhabitants harvested and packed the incense, the trail ran from populated area to populated area where cultivation was extensive because of irrigation works, extant even in those early times. Father north, past Nahom, the trail passed through a vast, sparsely settled area. It was evidently in this area that the party of Lehi came to rely heavily on their compass to lead them to the "fertile parts of the wilderness" where they could find fodder for their animals and food for themselves (see verses 14, 16).
What attitudes in other peoples might Lehi and his family have encountered on their journey from the valley of Lemuel to Bountiful? Historically the people of Arabia have been divided into two groups: the town dwellers, or settled Arabs, and the Bedouin, the desert dwellers who subsist by herding goats and sheep. Since the fodder is so sparse, the Bedouins live a nomadic life, moving from one range to another. In the towns, we may assume that Lehi would have been treated with respect, given his noble status and education. The Bedouins, on the other hand, might have presented to the family of Lehi a mixed possibility of experiences. Some Bedouins were notorious robbers. On the other hand, the Bedouin was obligated by their "law of the desert," and much of the time, the family was probably treated to a form of hospitality called the Bond of Salt. This tradition seemed to originate as a system of mutual support by which the Bedouin attempted to deal with the difficult physical circumstances of their world. To this day the Bedouin code of hospitality requires that when a stranger comes to one's tent, the guests must be shown generous hospitality for three days. Thus, the host's tents became a restaurant and a hotel for the traveler. In return the Bedouin receives news from the outside world, and his guest today may be his host tomorrow.
verses 18-32 These verses contain the well-known broken bow incident. What is the likely site of the broken bow incident?
The mountains in this part of Arabia, south from the site of Medina, are called the Asir, which means "difficult" because of the impact of the terrain on travel. It is the only place in Arabia where the camel is replaced by the donkey as the chief pack animal. The Frankincense Trail is inland from these mountains to avoid the difficult mountains and the lava fields. It is likely that Lehi would have followed this more inland trail. Lehi left the most fertile parts with no further mention of being in or by the "borders." The "trail" here is simply a vast expanse of gravel or sand with perhaps a week to the next oasis, and virtually no landmarks. It is easy to understand why the family would need either a guide or the Liahona in order not to get lost in this wilderness. Camels leave few tracks in the gravel, and the tracks they leave in the sand are blown away when the first winds come. The word trail is used loosely to describe a route which is basically "any way that gets you from one oasis to the next." It would have been somewhere in country like this that the family stopped to rest and hunt (see the previous verse).
Lehi didn't pass through Arabia in one winter traveling season. The journey took a total of eight years. It is impossible to travel in Arabia during the hot months of May through October, and Lehi would have stopped for the summer to rest. With the arrival of the hellish summer, travel would have been very dangerous and the trade business along the frankincense route would have ground to a halt. By late spring, the temperatures along the trail are consistently over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, which made the caravan business in Arabia a mostly seasonal activity. The most likely reason Lehi stopped was that he had no choice. He was probably faced with the onslaught of the summer. Waiting out the hot season provided them with an opportunity to hunt and rest from a journey through difficult terrain.
As a candidate for the specific site for the broken bow incident, Potter and Wellington (Lehi in the Wilderness, 95-106) have suggested the site of the oasis called Bishah. See the map of the Frankincense Trail. They proffer the following arguments in favor of their suggestion: (1) Bishah is the closest trail oasis to the mountains, and thus a logical place to leave the trail to find a refuge from the heat. From the Frankincense Trail in Bishah, the high wadis of the Asir are no more than sixty-five miles distant, and the summer temperatures are relatively pleasant, for the most part remaining about eighty to ninety degrees Fahrenheit. (2) Bishah's general location is deep into southern Arabia, but still a considerable distance from Yemen where Nephi recorded that they turned east. After they left the camp where Nephi broke his bow, he wrote that they continued "traveling nearly the same course" (south-southeast) for a "space of many days" before they reached the place where they turned east (1 Nephi 16:33; 1 Nephi 16:34; 1 Nephi 16:17:1). (3) There is a long summer-months tradition of the permanent residents of Bishah leaving their businesses, which were mostly involved with providing support and supplies to trading caravans, and moving into the mountains. In the mountains they tended to hunt for game and tend fruit orchards in the highlands. (4) Though camels have difficulty traveling in the mountains, two large wadis pass through Bishah from the mountains which provide a ready-made path into the mountains. Surrounded by mountain peaks, the wadis end at an altitude of approximately 6,000 feet or more. Nephi says that he "did go forth up into the top of the mountain" (1 Nephi 16:30) to hunt. This seems to imply that they were already on the slope of a mountain and that he went up to the top to hunt. From this point in the wadi, Nephi could have continued on foot to the tops of the mountains, which are up to 9,000 feet high. (5) After considerable research, Potter and Wellington learned that the best wood in southern Arabia for making bows was from the Atim tree, a type of wild olive. Most other dead woods simply broke when bent. Atim is known to have been used anciently for making bows, arrows, staffs, throwing sticks, and spears (Miller and Morris, Plants of Dhofar, 216). Atim is found in abundance on the eastern slopes of the Asir Mountains only between the altitudes of 6,000 and 7,000 feet, but the eastern mountain slopes farther south in Yemen are too dry to support the growth of trees. In fact the entire range where the Atim trees grew was seventy-two miles, north to south. However all but the very northernmost trees of the Atim range were too far from the Frankincense Trail for Nephi to have reached them. The best Atim groves were found due west of Bishah.
18 And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food.
verse 18 "which was made of fine steel" For years the mention of steel in the Book of Mormon (see also 1 Nephi 4:9) was considered by critics of the Book of Mormon to be an anachronism-an embarrassing mistake. An anachronism is something out of its appropriate historical timeframe. They believed that steel was not available in 600 BC. It is now well established that the Egyptians had been making steel since 1200 BC (Hugh Nibley, "Howlers in the Book of Mormon," a FARMS reprint).
It is perhaps pertinent here to comment further on anachronisms. Since the earliest days of the Church, critics of the Book of Mormon have pointed to certain alleged anachronisms-claims that ideas, words, events, persons, and objects are historically out of place-as evidence that the Book of Mormon is false.
Let us evaluate, for example, three categories of alleged anachronisms: linguistic, cultural, and doctrinal:
1. Allegations of linguistic anachronisms concern words in the Book of Mormon. For example, the book of Jacob ends with the French word for farewell, "adieu." Please see the commentary for Jacob 7:27 for a discussion of this particular issue.
2. Critics of the Book of Mormon have noted certain cultural features of the Book of Mormon that supposedly do not square with its presumed setting in Mesoamerica. For example, according to these critics, the Book of Mormon describes ancient Americans involved in massive armed conflicts, with armies of hundreds of thousands engaged in single battles, but they claim ancient Americans were sedentary and peaceful.
This cultural criticism of the Book of Mormon is becoming more and more difficult to maintain in the light of more recent research. According to one scholar, "It has been held that the Maya pursued a peaceful existence. From the beginning of the Classical Era, however, the treading of victors on captives is represented and such scenes carved in stone increase in numbers and complexity with the passage of time" (Lothrop, Samuel K., Treasures of Ancient America [Cleveland, Ohio, 1964], 107). John L. Sorenson has also identified many fortified Mesoamerican sites indicative of a warring people that date to Book of Mormon times (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985).
Another cultural claim is that the use of the word "horse" is another striking anachronism, because no horses existed in Mesoamerica unto the time of Columbus. For a discussion of this issue, see the commentary for 1 Nephi 18:25.
3. An example of a presumed anachronism to doctrine is the early reference to the unpardonable sin (see Jacob 7:19; Alma 39:6; cf. 2 Nephi 31:14). See the discussion of this issue in the commentary for Jacob 7:19.
19 And it came to pass that we did return without food to our families, and being much fatigued, because of their journeying, they did suffer much for the want of food.
20 And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael did begin to murmur exceedingly, because of their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness; and also my father began to murmur against the Lord his God; yea, and they were all exceedingly sorrowful, even that they did murmur against the Lord.
verse 20 "also my father began to murmur" Perhaps none of us is exempt from real discouragement given prolonged exposure to adverse circumstances!
Here is yet another use of that verb "murmur" (see the commentary for 1 Nephi 2:11). That commentary mentions the frequent association in scripture of the verb murmur with the exoduses-the Israelites from Egypt and the Lehites from Jerusalem. It is suspected that Nephi had in mind a comparison with his family's travails in the wilderness and the Israelite Egyptian exodus. Perhaps he obtained the word "murmur" from the brass plates' account of Moses and the exodus. It is interesting to note the similarities between the Israelites' experiences in the Sinai and the Lehites' experiences in that wilderness. Both groups experienced hunger, and in both the problem of insufficient food was solved miraculously-for Israel, manna from heaven; for the Lehites the Liahona which showed them where to obtain game. Both groups feared dying in the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:11; Exodus 14:11). Both groups at times wished they had died before coming into the wilderness (1 Nephi 17:20; Numbers 14:2), and both also at times wished to come back from where they had come (1 Nephi 16:35-36; Numbers 14:1-4). Both people were ultimately saved from destruction by an object-the Liahona among the Lehites and the symbolic serpent among the Israelites (Numbers 21:8-9). The similarity between these two devices is obvious. To be healed or saved from destruction one had only to exercise simple faith. The Lord guided both groups in their wilderness experience (1 Nephi 17:13-14; Exodus 6:7-8). Both Nephi and Moses received from the Lord a summons to climb a high mountain where they would receive instruction (1 Nephi 17:7; Exodus 19:20; Exodus 24:12-13). While on the mountain, Nephi received instructions on building a ship (1 Nephi 17:8), and Moses received instructions on building a tabernacle (Exodus 25:1; Exodus 25:8- 9). Both structures were eventually described as being of "curious workmanship" (1 Nephi 18:1-2; Exodus 35:30-33). Both groups had inappropriately raucous parties (1 Nephi 18:9; Exodus 32:4-6; Exodus 32:18-19; Exodus 32:25). Both the Israelites and the Lehites subsequently developed the custom of retelling their exodus experience to remind them of their dependence on God (see, for example Mosiah 7:19-20; Alma 36:28-29).
It is at this point in the story where Nephi emerges as the dominant leader of the expedition. He started the trip in Jerusalem as a young man (see the commentary for 1 Nephi 2:16) but soon assumed leadership of the entire group.
21 Now it came to pass that I, Nephi, having been afflicted with my brethren because of the loss of my bow, and their bows having lost their springs, it began to be exceedingly difficult, yea, insomuch that we could obtain no food.
verse 21 "having been afflicted with my brethren because of the loss of my bow" A careful reading of this phrase suggests that even Nephi had been "afflicted" or discouraged, but he seems to have made a quick recovery as evidenced by the next verse.
22 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did speak much unto my brethren, because they had hardened their hearts again, even unto complaining against the Lord their God.
verse 22 "because they had hardened their hearts again" See the discussion of hard-heartedness in the commentary for Alma 10:6.
23 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow; wherefore, I did arm myself with a bow and an arrow, with a sling and with stones. And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food?
verse 23 "I, Nephi, did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow" Some might wonder why Nephi had to make a new arrow in addition to his new bow. Certainly he would have had arrows already. Those familiar with archery have pointed out that arrows used with a metal bow, likely metal arrows, would have been unusable with a wooden bow (David S. Fox in a letter to FARMS and "Nephi's Arrows Create Solid Bulls-eye," Insights: An Ancient Window, a FARMS publication, October 1984).
Nephi's bow had broken, and the bows of his brothers had lost their spring. We will learn that Nephi's fashioning for himself a new bow will quickly result in his brothers' accusing him of having ambitions to rule over them (see verses 37-38). Alan Goff taught: "Bows were symbols of political power. One thinks of Odysseus bending the bow to prove himself. An overlord would break the bow of a disobedient vassal to symbolically put the rebel in his place" (see Jeremiah 49:35) (FARMS newsletter, March 1984).
"And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food?" Notice also how Nephi evidences his humility and respect for his father's patriarchal authority. His asking his father where he should go to get food seems an ingenious act, since it seems to have helped his father and the others to humble themselves again.
24 And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord, for they had humbled themselves because of my words; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul.
25 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came unto my father; and he was truly chastened because of his murmuring against the Lord, insomuch that he was brought down into the depths of sorrow.
verse 25 "brought down" Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the English Language defines "to bring down" as to humble or abase.
26 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.
verse 26 Messages were apparently written upon the outside of the ball. We will also learn that messages were also written on the pointers (see verse 29).
27 And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were written upon the ball, he did fear and tremble exceedingly, and also my brethren and the sons of Ishmael and our wives.
verse 27 We are never told what was written on the ball. Presumably it was a message of chastisement and a stern warning of the possible consequences of continued rebelliousness.
28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.
verse 28 To heed is to observe, to attend to, to take notice of.
29 And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.
verse 29 "And there was also written upon them" The word "them" refers back to "the pointers" in the previous verse.
"And thus we see" This phrase or similar phrases are frequently used by Book of Mormon record keepers to emphasize a principle, precept, or consequence that can be learned from the event(s) or behavior(s) just discussed. It signals the reader that something important will immediately follow. Simply put, by using the phrase "and thus we see," the writer is saying, "If you missed the point of what you just read, I will now explain the message you should have received." Other forms of this phrase include: "And now . . . ye see"; "And now . . . we see"; "And thus we can behold"; "And thus it is"; "And we see"; "And when ye shall see"; "For I see"; "For . . . we see"; "Look . . . and see"; "Nevertheless . . . we see"; "Now we see"; "Now . . . we see"; "Seeing we know"; "Thus we may see"; "Thus we see"; "Thus . . . we see"; "We may see"; "We see"; "We shall see"; "When ye see these"; "Ye see"; "Ye shall see"; and "Ye should see."
This phrase does not appear in other volumes of scripture, but such words as "behold," "therefore," "wherefore," "because," and sometimes, "thus saith the Lord" often function as cause-and-effect conjunctions. It becomes apparent that most writers of holy writ used some form of the "and thus we see" model (e.g., Deuteronomy 9:6; Deuteronomy 32:39; Joshua 23:15; Judges 2:16; 1 Samuel 24:13; John 3:16; Acts 10:34-35; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 3:19-4:2).
When "and thus we see" phrases are used, the antecedent may be only a few verses or it may be hundreds of pages.
"by small means the Lord can bring about great things" Knowing what we do today about the Liahona from the Book of Mormon story, I think if we could see and handle and make use of the Liahona, we would hardly regard it as "small means." We would regard it as a fascinating wonder! There is evidence from the text, however, that Lehi's party often took it for granted and did not regard it as a constant miracle. Often they seemed even to ignore it (see the commentary for Alma 37:41).
30 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball.
31 And it came to pass that I did slay wild beasts, insomuch that I did obtain food for our families.
32 And it came to pass that I did return to our tents, bearing the beasts which I had slain; and now when they beheld that I had obtained food, how great was their joy! And it came to pass that they did humble themselves before the Lord, and did give thanks unto him.
33 And it came to pass that we did again take our journey, traveling nearly the same course as in the beginning; and after we had traveled for the space of many days we did pitch our tents again, that we might tarry for the space of a time.
Leaving the camp where Nephi made his bow, the family would have taken the wadi back to the plain to rejoin the Frankincense Trail and continue south-southeast. The next oasis would have been Tathlith and then on to Najran, the northernmost of the kingdoms of southern Arabia (see the map of the Frankincense Trail).
Beyond Najran, the Frankincense Trail comes into direct contact with the southwestern corner of the infamous Rub' al Khali, or Empty Quarter. The Arabs have a legend that when the world was made, two quarters were made for man to inhabit, one quarter was sea, and the last quarter was the Empty Quarter. No one, in written history, has ever lived there. Usually the Empty Quarter is avoided as the largest and one of the most treacherous sand dune deserts in the world. A colleague of George Potter and Richard Wellington told the following story about this area (Lehi in the Wilderness, 108-10): As a young man this colleague had intended to travel into the Rub' al Khali. He asked his grandfather how much water he should take. "In winter take as much water as you can carry," said the grandfather. "And what about the summer?" retorted the young man. "For the summer I have no advice for you," came his reply.
Even in this day and age, traveling through the Rub' al Khali, even along established trails, is not without its perils. On August 21, 2001 the Arab News newspaper reported the death of fourteen people as they tried to cross the Empty Quarter. Apparently they died because of a lack of water after their jeep had run out of fuel. Without the help of the Liahona to direct them away from perils, the family of Lehi would not have lasted long in this wilderness. To become lost there would have meant almost certain death. But we will learn that it is possible that Lehi's family did just that. Let us continue our discussion.
34 And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.
verse 34 It is notable that during the group's journey from the valley of Lemuel to the sea, Nephi seems to purposefully omit mention of all persons and places except for Nahom. Nahom is a word derived from the Hebrew root nhm which may be translated "to sigh, to beat upon the breast, to mourn, to grieve" (Hugh Nibley, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988] volume 5, 79). An alternate translation of this same Hebrew root is "growl, groan, suffer from hunger, complain" ("Lehi's Trail and Nahom Revisited," Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992] 47-50). The scholar David Damrosch says of the word:
It [the root for naham] appears twenty-five times in the narrative books of the Bible, and in every case it is associated with death. In family settings, it is applied in instances involving the death of an immediate family member (parent, sibling, or child); in national settings, it has to do with the survival or impending extermination of an entire people. At heart, naham means "to mourn," to come to terms with a death; these usages are usually translated . . . by the verb "to comfort," as when Jacob's children try to comfort their father after the reported death of Joseph (The Narrative Covenant [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987] 128-29).
Book of Mormon scholars have tried to make much of the association between the meaning of the name Nahom and the situation of Lehi's group at the time of their sojourn there (see, for example, Alan Goff's article "Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom" in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 92-99). All of this association would only be pertinent if the group had given the place of Ishmael's death and burial its name. Nephi's wording here in verse 34, however, suggests that Lehi's group did not concoct the name but learned it from local inhabitants. Incidentally, this verse is the first evidence that Nephi gives that they had met others while traveling, though as is evident from the foregoing, nearly constant interaction with others on the Frankincense Trail would have been necessary and expedient.
The modern-day site on the Arabian peninsula, which seems to be the leading candidate for Nahom, is the tribal area still known as Nehem which lies about twenty-five miles northeast of Sana'a, capital of the republic of Yemen. This area is about 1,400 miles south-southeast of Jerusalem. It is the only place in Arabia where the Semitic name nhm (spelled variously as Nahm, Nehem, or Nihm) is preserved. The name has now been accounted for in the same location by means of maps and early writings to as early as AD 600 and possibly earlier. Modern Nehem includes an extensive traditional burial area with tombs dating as far back as neolithic times, long predating Lehi's day.
There seems to be little reason to draw an association between the name of the place and the vocal mourning, murmuring, and rebellion of some members of Lehi's group. It seems likely that Ishmael died before (possibly weeks or even months before) the Lehites arrived at Nahom. Hugh Nibley has pointed out that it is not uncommon for desert people to carry their dead many miles to locate the proper place of burial (Lehi in the Desert; World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites, 79). There is also a scriptural precedent: "And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, buried they in Shechem, in a parcel of ground which Jacob bought" (Joshua 24:32). Just as Joseph was buried in a special parcel of land, it seems only natural that the Lehites would wait until they found a proper place to bury Ishmael. Warren and Michaela Aston have shown that the place of Nehem is a few miles off the main trail that the Lehites took ("The Place Which Was Called Nahom: The Validation of an Ancient Reference to Southern Arabia" a FARMS reprint). The logical conclusion, then, is that Ishmael died along the way and was carried to Nahom.
Because of the remarkable insights contained in the Book of Mormon text regarding the route from Jerusalem to the point of the group's eventual embarkation, it has been suggested that Joseph Smith had access to a literary work on ancient Arabia. Brother S. Kent Brown has researched the possibility that Joseph might have had access to such a work, and he concludes: "Any hypothesis that Joseph Smith had access to a private library that contained works on ancient Arabia is impossible to sustain" ("New Light From Arabia on Lehi's trail" in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, 75).
35 And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness; and they did murmur against my father, because he had brought them out of the land of Jerusalem, saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger.
verse 35 This verse makes it clear that Lehi's group has suffered much affliction before arriving at Nahom. Obviously the entire journey was not easy for those unaccustomed to desert travel. Yet, this verse seems to paint a picture of particularly severe suffering including "much affliction," "hunger," "thirst," and "fatigue." Here, the daughters of Ishmael indicate feelings of despair-feelings that they "must perish in the wilderness with hunger." When was this particularly severe suffering? If it was between the camp of the broken-bow incident and Nahom, then the relative silence of verse 34 is especially poignant.
Potter and Wellington have suggested a plausible scenario for what happened between the camp of the broken bow and Nahom that might explain the negative attitude of the daughters of Ishmael (Lehi in the Wilderness, 110-15). They speculate as to a great drama which might have unfolded to cause the death of Ishmael and to lead to the intervention of the Lord both to save and chasten the travelers.
The despair which the daughters of Ishmael express in this verse, after their arrival in Nahom, suggests that they may have spent some time actually lost in the wilderness in an area uninhabited by other people. The elder brothers of Nephi will refer to this wilderness as a "strange wilderness" (verse 38). Nephi will later avow that if the Lord had not blessed them, they would have died of hunger (see verse 39). But where was this "strange wilderness" where they might have become lost and placed themselves in danger of starvation? They had essentially traveled the Frankincense Trail for the length of Arabia. They had described this as being in the wilderness. What could be different about this "strange" wilderness?
Alma seems to give us some insight into this question and what might have happened to the family at this time. In Alma we read concerning the Liahona: "They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions" (Alma 37:40-41). Alma appears to be describing a time when the faith of the family was faltering, and so they wandered around in the wilderness. After leaving Najran, the family would have encountered the first huge dune desert on their journey. This is the southwest corner of the terrible desert, the Rub' al Khali. The Frankincense Trail skirts to the west of the dunes, hugging the side of the mountains. Without the help of the Liahona-if the Lord had withheld his help due to their faithlessness-they may well have wandered east into the desert. Potter and Wellington describe a segment of the trail, south of Najran which is particularly tortuous and difficult to follow. It also seems possible that the Lord may have even directed them into the desert to chasten them. In the desert, they would have undergone extreme deprivation and hardship. Ishmael may have died during this period and his body carried with them. The sand dunes are huge and the soft sand quickly drains the strength of the traveler. It is noteworthy that Nephi will use the word "wade" to describe their journey after leaving Nahom (1 Nephi 17:7)-just as one would wade through water or soft sand. The Rub' al Khali has sand dunes that sometimes reach seven hundred to eight hundred feet in height. The terrain of this corner of the Rub' al Khali, its vast emptiness, and the fact that it was not traveled by the overland incense caravans, suggest this could have been considered as passing through a "strange wilderness."
36 And thus they did murmur against my father, and also against me; and they were desirous to return again to Jerusalem.
37 And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren.
verse 37 "who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren" Throughout the Old Testament is found the tradition of "primogeniture" which means that the first born son ranks highest among his siblings. Undoubtedly the culture at the time of Lehi held to this tradition. This may have been an additive factor that intensified the resentment of Nephi that his older brothers obviously experienced. There are additional verses yet to come in the Book of Mormon in which the brothers of Nephi betray their chafing resentment of him. These will be mentioned as we come to them.
38 Now, he says that the Lord has talked with him, and also that angels have ministered unto him. But behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness; and after he has led us away, he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us, that he may do with us according to his will and pleasure. And after this manner did my brother Laman stir up their hearts to anger.
verse 38 "he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness" A modern definition of "cunning" would be something like "skill in achieving one's ends by deceit or evasion." Interestingly Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the English Language defines "cunning" as "knowing; skillful; experienced; well-instructed." Given this latter definition, It would be reasonable to conclude that Laman did not accuse Nephi of using some type of creative trickery to deceive them. Rather, he most likely felt that Nephi was using skills or knowledge that he had acquired, to deceive them.
Laman accuses Nephi of making the Liahona for the purpose of deceiving his family. Nephi will later testify that it was made by the hand of the Lord (1 Nephi 18:12; 2 Nephi 5:12). Alma the younger will also so testify (Alma 37:38-39).
It is interesting, here in this verse, to understand the thinking of Laman and Lemuel-especially to view the episode of the family's traveling in the "strange wilderness" (described in the commentary for verse 35) through the eyes of Laman-to come to understand his interpretation of Nephi's motives. As the family found themselves in desperate trouble in the "strange wilderness," it is natural and appropriate that Nephi would have taken charge (see Mosiah 10:13). He had done so at the camp of the broken bow. No doubt, through his skill, the family was saved, yet Laman interprets Nephi's leadership as a desire to control and to impose his rule over the group. Laman states in this verse that Nephi had led them away into a strange wilderness. Away from what? Had they not been in the wilderness for some considerable time? From what could have Nephi led them away? The answer would seem to be the trail. If they had stayed on the trail to the probable site of Nahom, they would have traveled a stretch of the trail adequately supplied with oases, and they would not have been starving at the time they reached Nahom. Leaving the trail would have separated the family from other travelers, effectively isolating the family. Laman felt that Nephi had manipulated their circumstances in order to produce the ideal setting in which to stage his takeover bid and to realize his ambition to rule the group. Note that Laman used the past tense "has led us away" and "he has thought to make himself a king and a ruler over us" evidencing that this event had already taken place by the time they tarried at Nahom.
39 And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish.
verse 39 "even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them" How did the Lord speak to them? Directly in an audible voice? Through Nephi or Lehi? Through the Holy Spirit? We are obviously not told. It is unusual for wicked people to be addressed directly and audibly by the voice of the Lord.
"and did chasten them exceedingly" The word chasten here means scold or reprimand.
This verse provides evidence that the Liahona had ceased to work again perhaps because of the rebellious spirit among those in the traveling party.