1 Nephi Chapter 2
This chapter provides an account of Lehi's family's journey into the wilderness.
1 For behold, it came to pass that the Lord spake unto my father, yea, even in a dream, and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, they seek to take away thy life.
verse 1 "thou hast been faithful" Please keep in mind, as we study the Book of Mormon, that "faith," "faithful," and "faithfulness" do not refer to something held in the mind-something merely believed. Rather, they refer to something one deliberately does. Lehi was "faithful" because he consistently obeyed the Lord's commands. He was true to his word. He did what he was told by the Lord.
2 And it came to pass that the Lord commanded my father, even in a dream, that he should take his family and depart into the wilderness.
verse 2 From the vantage point of your comfortable chair, don't make the mistake of taking this commandment of the Lord lightly. This was a monumental and frightening assignment. The "wilderness" or desert was a challenging and foreboding place.
The word wilderness is used more than 300 times in the Book of Mormon. The word has different meaning depending on when and where it is used. For example, in the western hemisphere the term likely refers to thick forests or jungle in which travel is difficult and in which it is easy to become entangled and lost. However, in the Judean desert, wilderness is quite different from jungle. There are actually two Hebrew words for wilderness. The first is midbar which refers to lands which receive modest rainfall and therefore have sparse vegetation. These lands were used for pasturing cattle. The second is jeshimon which refers to desolate arid lands which receive little rain and have little drinking water available. Initially Lehi and his family would have encountered midbar, but later on, jeshimon.
There is a tendency for all of us to depersonalize the scriptures as we read them-to separate ourselves and our situations from those of the scriptural characters. After all, these people lived an awfully long time ago. In those days it must have been easier for a prophet and his wife and family to leave their home and travel into a wilderness. Isn't that what ancient prophets and their families are supposed to do? They were not like us . . . . or were they? It is difficult to identify with someone who lived in centuries past and in far different circumstances. However, the scriptures will come alive for us if we can overcome this obstacle. These were real people very much like us. In most everything, they thought, felt, suffered, and gloried for the same reasons we do today. How would we respond if we were asked to give up everything for which we have worked and take our family into a wilderness, never to return?
3 And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him.
4 And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.
verse 4 One might well ask: Why was father Lehi picked to lead this group to a promised land? What special qualifications did he have? What was his profession? How poor or wealthy was he? Because of the casual mention of tents in this verse and in 1 Nephi 2:15, it has been suggested that he was a merchant and trader who traveled, and while traveling, lived in a tent. Perhaps he was comfortable in a tent, and probably even knew the trade routes-especially the locations of favorable locations in which to set up camp. Alternate speculations have been made regarding Lehi's profession. For example, John A. Tvedtnes, a specialist in Hebrew studies, argues that Lehi and Nephi were blacksmiths, hence their appreciation for fine metal craftsmanship and their ability to make metal tools and plates ("Was Lehi a Caravaner?", a FARMS reprint). See the supplemental article, Lehi's Life and Profession in Jerusalem. Lehi does seem to have been wealthy as noted here and in 1 Nephi 3:16; 1 Nephi 3:22, and 25.
More recently the idea that Lehi was a caravaner and trader has been questioned (George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness, 59-61). Apparently caravaners did not use tents. Ownership of tents seems to have been common amongst the descendants of Lehi (Mosiah 2:5-6), yet they were neither nomads nor long-distance travelers. The wealthy families of Palestine maintained vineyards and pasture lands some distance from the city where their urban homes were located. An example of this form of commerce is the parable of the householder who planted a vineyard in a far-off place (Matthew 21:33-34). Householders, such as the house of Lehi would have required tents and camels for these operations. Potter and Wellington provide the following lines of evidence in support of the idea that Lehi and his sons were anything but professional desert haulers:
1. A tradition in the Middle East was that the sons from their earliest years grew up working beside their father in the family trade. Lehi's eldest sons showed little evidence of being trained in the caravan trade nor of having earned the nobility manifested by an experienced caravan overseer. They complained bitterly of having left the comforts of Jerusalem and their family wealth. After a relatively easy trek from Jerusalem to the valley of Lemuel with its sheltering cliffs, fresh water supply, and abundant food, Laman and Lemuel became convinced they would perish in the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:11).
2. Sariah, Lehi's wife, did not display the hardened disposition of a mother whose family traveled long periods of time away from home. When her sons made a short journey to Jerusalem from the valley of Lemuel she began to "mourn," supposing her sons had perished in the wilderness (1 Nephi 5:1-2).
3. When the going got tough, Lehi does not appear to have been a seasoned caravan captain. In times of difficulty, he began "to murmur against the Lord" (1 Nephi 16:20). It was here that Nephi, perhaps still a teenager, took the lead.
4. If Lehi did lead caravans, he would have known some basic navigational skills. Alma wrote that they "tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course" when they did not give heed to the Liahona (Alma 37:41-43). In other words, during certain parts of the journey, the family became lost.
5. Finally, an experienced and well-equipped caravaner could have made the journey from Jerusalem to Dhofar in less than four months. The fact that Lehi took eight years would seem to indicate that he had neither the knowledge nor the experience necessary to make a speedy journey.
Whatever Lehi's profession may have been and whatever the extent of his material estate, would it be surprising if God selected a man for this important calling who, in addition to his spiritual preparation, already had skills that qualified him for the task at hand?
"And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness" By what route did Lehi and his family travel from Jerusalem to the Red Sea? At the time of Lehi, there were well known trade routes which ran from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aqaba ("The route of Salt, Sugar, and Balsam Caravans in the Judean Desert," GeoJournal 2/6 : 549-56). There are four possible routes of escape that Lehi could have used to reach the shores of the Red Sea. Traveling south from Jerusalem there are two routes. One goes straight south to Hebron, through Arad, and then to the Jordan Valley and down to the Red Sea. The other is more to the east and closer to the Dead Sea. It passes through the Oasis of Ein Gedi, on the west shore of the Dead Sea, then south to the Red Sea keeping at first to the west shore of the Dead Sea. There are also two routes which pass eastward from Jerusalem, south of Jericho and to the east side of the Dead Sea. Eventually both of these join the Jordan Valley south of the Dead Sea and lead toward the Red Sea. It would seem that one of the latter two routes is most likely since they allowed Lehi to head immediately for the wilderness on his way to Arabia. Lehi would have wished to travel quickly, so he would no doubt have chosen an existing route in order to escape Zedekiah's sphere of influence as quickly as possible. It is doubtful that Lehi would have followed either of the two routes to the south which passed through lands controlled by Zedekiah. At the time of Christ the area across from Jericho over the Jordan River was known as the "wilderness of Judea." The scriptures tell us that John the Baptist was "preaching in the wilderness of Judea" (Matthew 3:1).
Lehi's use of camels is a certainty because they brought with them tents, each of which doubtless weighed in excess of 250 pounds. To westerners, a camel is an odd curiosity, but to one crossing ancient Arabia, this animal was a lifeline. Of constant concern to Lehi would have been the welfare of his camel herd. Dromedaries break down on mountains and rocky paths. Wilfred Thesiger, famous for his explorations of Arabia, wrote in his journal, "If we did not find grazing, the camels would collapse, and that would be the end of us all" (Taylor, Traveling the Sands, 132). For this reason, despite its bad breath and belligerent temperament, the camel is beloved by the Arab. According to the Qur'an it is a gift from God. We do not know if Lehi shared the same admiration for the camel as do the Arabs, yet despite its constant companions-the flies and four-inch camel spiders-and its habit of spitting at or biting its handlers, the camels were vital assets.
"the land of his inheritance" It seems likely that Lehi and his forbears had lived in the land of Jerusalem for many years, perhaps since before the time Assyria conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel between 732 and 722 BC. "The land of his inheritance" was, however, a land quite apart from Jerusalem. See 1 Nephi 3:16 and its commentary.
It is interesting to note that Lehi and his family were likely not the only people who left Jerusalem for northwest Arabia shortly before the Babylonian destruction of the Holy City. Oral traditions of several Jewish colonies tell of others. Abu Hurairah, an early Islamic period geographer, wrote of the Jews who settled in northwest Arabia to escape the persecution of Nebuchadnezzar (Northern Hijaz, 196-97). According to Reuben Ahroni: "As a result of this prophecy of doom (Jeremiah 38:2), seventy-five thousand courageous men . . . who firmly believed Jeremiah's prophecy of impending national catastrophe-accompanied by priests, Levites, and slaves . . . crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert," eventually making their way to Yemen, all the way to the south coast of the Arabian Peninsula (Yemenite Jewry, 25). A similar story of escape from Nebuchadnezzar is told by the descendants of the Jewish colony in India (Meyer, "Jews of Cochin").
5 And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family, which consisted of my mother, Sariah, and my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam.
verse 5 "And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea" In Arabic, the name of the mountains in northwest Arabia, the Hijaz, means something like the "border" or "barrier." In the Semitic or Hebrew language, the words for mountain and border share a common derivation-the Hebrew word gebul means border. Gebul cognates with Arabic jabal (jebel, djebel), which means mountain. Dr. Hugh Nibley has also taught that in the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian languages the word borders meant mountains.
"my mother, Sariah" The name Sariah is not found in the Bible. The skeptic might thus suggest that this name was an invention of Joseph Smith. Is it an authentic ancient name of the period? Ancient documents available only several decades after the Prophet Joseph's death reveal that a Jewish woman who lived at Elephantine in Upper Egypt, near Aswan, during the fifth century BC also bore the name. This Sariah was a member of a Jewish colony. The mention of this Sariah was discovered in the Elephantine Papyri discovered in about 1903 (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 2, number 2, 196). The name probably means "Jehovah is prince" or "Jehovah is my prince," derived from the Hebrew root for sar, meaning "prince" and jah, a derivative of Jehovah.
"my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam" It is of interest to note that in the Egyptian culture the two eldest sons were often given names that were similar to each other. These are referred to as "pendant names." Examples include Qabil and Habil, Harut and Marut. Laman and Lemuel might qualify to be "pendant names."
Hugh Nibley has written: "Whether or not Nehi and Nehri are in any way related to the name Nephi (there are other Egyptian names that come nearer) remains to be investigated. But no philologist will refuse to acknowledge the possible identity of the Book of Mormon Korihor with the Egyptian Kherihor, and none may deny, philologist or not, a close resemblance between Sam and Sam (the brother of Nephi)" (Lehi in the Desert, 20-21). For commentary on the derivation of the name Sam, see the supplemental article, Names in the Book of Mormon.
"he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea" Along the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, there are two distinct mountain ranges that parallel one another. One of the two is, of course, "nearer the Red Sea" on the west side of the other. This shoreline range of mountains begins about forty miles south of the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba and continues for another forty miles to where it ends about twenty miles north of the southern end of the Gulf. When this shoreline range was visualized in 1995 by George Potter and Richard Wellington, they reasoned that the valley of Lemuel (see verse 8) had to be in this range and be next to a canyon that opens upon the Red Sea. After all, the text in these verses makes it clear that while Lehi "traveled in the wilderness in the borders [mountains] which were nearer the Red Sea," they camped in a valley (Lemuel) that was in the borders (mountains) (George D. Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness, [Cedar Fort: Springville, Utah] 5).
If one were writing a book in the nineteenth century about a group of people escaping from Jerusalem, one would surely have them escape southwest to Egypt since all such flights into exile in the Bible follow that route (1 Kings 11:26-40; Jeremiah 43:1-7; Genesis 12:10; Genesis 46:1-7). Escaping southeast to Arabia would be quite unexpected. Today, however, there is a growing body of evidence, only made available long after Joseph Smith's day, for extensive contacts between Arabia and Jerusalem in antiquity (Yigal Shiloh, "South Arabian Inscriptions from the City of David, Jerusalem," Palestine Exploration Quarterly 119/1 : 9-18). We know that the Lord was leading Lehi and his family to a promised land in the New World, not into exile.
6 And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water.
verse 6 Having arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, Lehi and his party decided to continue on for another three days, after which they established camp "in a valley by the side of a river of water." They will live in this camp for months and perhaps years.
The expression "river of water" might seem to be redundant, since we are used to thinking of rivers as consisting only of water. In the Middle East, however, most rivers do not contain water, but rather are wadis which are washes that contain water only following a rain storm. Thus it is entirely appropriate and even necessary to use the phrase "river of water."
There are a few factors that are pertinent about the area in which Lehi and his family are making their camp. First, this area, also known as Midian, was rather heavily populated in antiquity (M. C. A. MacDonald, "Along the Red Sea," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack Sasson et al. [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995], 2:1350). Hence it may be incorrect to think that the family was completely isolated in this region. Second, this verse makes it clear that they camped about three days' journey south or southeast of the point at which they initially reached the Red Sea. They would have first seen the Red Sea at what is now modern Aqaba. Thus their camp must be a distance of between forty-five and seventy-five miles, depending on their speed and endurance, particularly the speed and endurance of their camels. Third, the camp lay next to a "river of water" that "emptied into the Red Sea" (verse 8). Lehi described this stream as "continually running" (verse 9). Fourth, the evident impressive character of the valley where they located their camp led Lehi to term the valley "firm and steadfast, and immovable" (verse 10).
Thus, we do have a few clues about the camping place. The most astonishing is the claim that there was a "continually running" stream of water in that part of Arabia. After all, students of geography believe that Arabia has been largely a desert for thousands of years and that water flows only after heavy rains. At the time the Book of Mormon was first published, the claim that a river ran in arid northwestern Arabia could not be checked. Western explorers did not venture into this remote area until well after 1830. The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Agriculture and Water, with the assistance of the U.S. Geological Service, spent forty-four years surveying the kingdom's water resources. Their study consisted of seismic readings, surface and aerial surveys, and even land satellite photo analysis. They concluded that "Saudi Arabia may be the world's largest country without any perennial rivers or streams" (Water Atlas of Saudi Arabia, XV). But there is an unforeseen surprise in the mountains south of Aqaba, a surprise that Joseph Smith could not have known about.
In 1952 Hugh Nibley pointed out that the camp had to lie near "the Gulf of Aqaba at a point not far above the Straits of Tiran" where Lehi, "perhaps from the sides of Mt. Musafa or Mt. Mendisha," beheld that the stream of water ran into the Red Sea (Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites, 85). In 1976 Lynn and Hope Hilton visited the area and proposed that the likely location of the camp was at the oasis Al-Bad in Wadi al-Ifal, about seventy-five miles south and east of Aqaba. Although any running water at the oasis was seasonal, flowing only after heavy seasonal rains, there were springs. Besides, the distant hills were impressive to behold. Thus, the Al-Bad oasis seemed to be a good fit with Nephi's narrative.
More recently George D. Potter and Richard Wellington have described an exciting new candidate in Arabia for the river of Laman and the valley of Lemuel (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 8, Number 1, 54-63). In May of 1995 Potter, Wellington, and some friends were searching for one of the Arabian candidates for Mount Sinai when they made an unexpected discovery. (Their friends had rejected the popular belief that Mount Sinai is found in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Instead, they believed the Apostle Paul was correct when he wrote that Mount Sinai was located in Arabia-Galatians 4:25.) Traveling near the eastern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, they stopped at the oasis town of al-Bada'a, the town known anciently as Midian, the hometown of Moses's father-in-law, Jethro, the high priest of Midian. From here they were directed to Maqna, a small isolated village twenty miles west of al-Bada'a on the Gulf of Aqaba. According to local tradition, Maqna had been the first camp of Moses after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. They then wandered north along the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba. Rounding the base of a cliff, they came upon a magnificent narrow canyon which opened onto the sea in a palm-lined cove. This was the wadi Tayyib al-Ism ("Valley of the Good Name"). They decided to walk up the spectacular wadi or canyon. After three and three-quarter miles it opened into a beautiful oasis upper valley with several wells and three large groves of date palm trees. A stream started in the canyon near its upper end and ran down the wadi virtually all the way to the sea. From the vegetation in the valley and the erosion on the rocks, it appeared that the small desert river flowed continually night and day, year after year. The steep canyon walls would have afforded Lehi and his family enough shade to make the summer heat tolerable. The valley might have offered security to Lehi's family as it was off the main route southward.
Lehi and his family would have come into this valley from its upper end and not from the coast. Note that this verse did not say that Lehi found the river and the valley. Rather he "pitched his tent in a valley by the side of" the river. Perhaps they were even shown the camp site by friendly local inhabitants. They maybe even paid something to stay there. Or, perhaps they simply discovered an uninhabited valley, just as it exists today.
Potter and Wellington have written an exciting description of this purported valley of Lemuel (Lehi in the Wilderness, 32-34):
The grandeur of the valley is difficult to describe in words or even portray in photographs. It is a narrow gorge cut through a massive granite mountain. It consists of three sections which we will refer to as the upper valley, the canyon of granite, and the lower canyon.The grandeur of the valley is difficult to describe in words or even portray in photographs. It is a narrow gorge cut through a massive granite mountain. It consists of three sections which we will refer to as the upper valley, the canyon of granite, and the lower canyon.
The upper valley constitutes an oasis that lies at the south end of a twelve-mile long wadi-known locally as Wadi Tayyib al-Ism-that leads down from the north. The upper valley site is like a pleasant jewel, spread out over approximately one square mile with several hundred palm trees and twelve wells that local residents call the Waters of Moses.
The upper valley ends as the long, descending wadi veers west and runs against the eastern granite cliffs of the shoreline mountains. But rather than forming the usual impassable barrier, the coastal mountains have been breached by a narrow canyon. This deep fracture in the granite mountain border that provides a passage to the sea, we call the canyon of granite. Tim Sedor, a colleague in the exploration effort, has surveyed the length of this section of the Wadi Tayyib al-Ism to the Gulf of Aqaba; he concludes that it is approximately three and three-quarter miles.
Flash floods are a winter-time danger in this part of Arabia. If the family of Lehi and Sariah had camped here in the hot summer months, they could have stayed in the shade of the canyon. During the rainy winter months, however, campers would wisely move out of the canyon up the much wider oasis that the upper valley offers. Here, just outside the canyon in the upper valley, can be found the remains of ancient encampments which date to the Iron Age (early second to mid-first millennium BC). A number of channels are cut in the floor of the upper valley, probably cut by flash floods. However, next to the ancient camp site we found a piece of smooth rounded quartz. This was clear evidence that the stream once flowed as high up the wadi as the highest campsite.
We found old pottery shards throughout the campsite, an area of about one acre. Could these stone structures have been the remains of Lehi's camp? We have no way of determining this. However, we found that a team of international archaeologists led by Michael Ingraham visited the ruins in the upper valley. They classified the site as an 'encampment,' and dated some of the pottery shards to Lehi's time.
The final section of our valley of Lemuel is the lower canyon and the beach. The granite canyon opens out into a flat gravel floor just a few feet above sea level. This level area at the mouth of the canyon is about three-eighths of a mile long. This is the most impressive section of the canyon. Here the height of the canyon walls rises over two thousand feet straight up from the canyon floor. The lower canyon provides an important clue that wadi Tayyib al-Ism is the valley of Lemuel. Though the valley of Lemuel carried a stream to the sea, when Lehi first came into the valley he could not see from his camp that the river empties into the sea; at least that is implied by 1 Nephi 2:6; 1 Nephi 2:9. Our candidate for the valley is less than four miles long, yet its towering walls permit seeing the Red Sea only during the last 375 feet as one descends to the coast. The beautiful palm-laden beach cove that one finally encounters is a spectacular scene.
Brother Potter has re-visited this site several times at various times of the year and has always found the river flowing, in fact the volume of water in the river seems rather constant throughout the year. The spring which feeds the river comes from an underground reservoir system. The pattern of rock erosion in the canyon suggests that a substantial river has flowed in that location for a very long time.
Since their initial discovery of wadi Tayyib al-Ism in 1995, Potter and Wellington have explored the entire Arabian shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba. They have found no other streams in a wadi near the Gulf of Aqaba, and nothing they have learned subsequent to 1995 has given them any reason to change their opinion. Brother Potter concludes his article: "Are we witnesses of the river Laman and the valley of Lemuel? In my view, the characteristics of the site are compelling evidence that this is so."
verses 5-6 I was deeply moved by the account of George Potter's and Richard Wellington's attempt to retrace Lehi's trail from the modern city of Aqaba to the valley of Lemuel-wadi Tayyib al-Ism (Lehi in the Wilderness, 27-28). When they first discovered the wadi Tayyib al-Ism, three years prior, they had traveled through al Bada'a and Maqna and then come back north to Tayyib al-Ism. This "loop" route was about 122 miles from Aqaba, far too long for laden camels to have traveled in three days. They reasoned that Lehi would have reached the valley more directly along a shoreline trail. They expected the effort to find the proposed site of the valley of Lemuel along a direct trail from the north to be difficult, as the shoreline mountains are a maze of wadis that turn in all directions. What concerned them the most was that the distance from Aqaba to Tayyib al-Ism was nearly seventy-five miles on the map, and camels have a maximum three-day range of approximately seventy-five miles. Thus the trail to the valley of Lemuel had to be nearly straight. I will let Potter and Wellington tell their own inspiring story:
Confidently we headed south along the shoreline [from Aqaba] into Arabia. Nephi wrote that they [had come] "by" the mountains that were "near" the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:5). About five miles to our left were the mountains of the Hijaz range, the mountains by the Red Sea. To our right were the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea. After twenty-five miles we came to the town of Haql, the site of a caravan stop during ancient times. From Haql the ancient trail headed east into the mountains, and then south to al-Bada'a. We had traveled this route and knew it took over 122 miles [from Aqaba] to reach wadi Tayyib al-Ism. Lehi could not have used the caravan route to al-Bada'a and then to the valley from there, as a laden camel cannot travel 122 miles in three days.Confidently we headed south along the shoreline [from Aqaba] into Arabia. Nephi wrote that they [had come] "by" the mountains that were "near" the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:5). About five miles to our left were the mountains of the Hijaz range, the mountains by the Red Sea. To our right were the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba of the Red Sea. After twenty-five miles we came to the town of Haql, the site of a caravan stop during ancient times. From Haql the ancient trail headed east into the mountains, and then south to al-Bada'a. We had traveled this route and knew it took over 122 miles [from Aqaba] to reach wadi Tayyib al-Ism. Lehi could not have used the caravan route to al-Bada'a and then to the valley from there, as a laden camel cannot travel 122 miles in three days.
We decided to continue following Nephi's initial instructions and maintained our course down the shoreline. Fifteen miles south of Haql, we came to the shoreline mountains, which extended into the sea and blocked our passage. To our left was a wadi that led into the mountains. It was the only valley leading into the mountains that we had passed since leaving Haql. If this were Lehi's trail, then he had no choice but to enter this wadi. We checked Nephi's next instructions: "And he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:5, italics added)." We knew these were the mountains "nearer" the sea and Nephi said they went "in" them.
We entered the wadi and followed east for six miles and then south for three more. It's bed was good for camels. The wadi finally ended at a rise that opened into another wadi that led south. It was this wadi that really impressed us. It ran straight through the mountains. None of us had seen such a wadi in Midian. It was long and straight and had no obvious exits. As Timothy put it, "if Lehi were a bowling ball, he would have just kept rolling down this wadi until the ball came to its end." In other words if Lehi entered this wadi, he would have followed it to its natural end. We headed down the wadi noting as we went that its foliage was typical for Midian-practically none! Here and there we saw an occasional acacia tree barely hanging on to life. Certainly there were no signs of water, let alone a river! Our trail odometer read seventy miles, and the wadi had the same arid landscape. We were beginning to think we would find nothing in the seventy-five mile range that camels could travel in three days. Just then the wadi turned due west and headed directly toward the tallest shoreline mountains. Three miles later, having used only Nephi's directions, we were inside the great granite canyon we had discovered three years earlier. Stepping outside our truck, we were standing next to its river of continually flowing water. For the past twenty-two miles we had actually been driving down the upper section of wadi Tayyib al-Ism, the valley of Lemuel.
7 And it came to pass that he built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks unto the Lord our God.
verse 7 "he built an altar of stones" The expression "altar of stones," as opposed to the more common English form "stone altar," is standard Hebrew construction. Other similar examples from the Book of Mormon text include: "plates of brass," "rod of iron," "land of promise," "skin of blackness," and "yoke of iron."
"made an offering unto the Lord" By what authority did Lehi make this offering? The power to officiate over the offering of sacrifices in that day was held by the tribe of Levi, and so far as we know no one in Lehi's traveling party was of the tribe of Levi and held that specific priesthood. Lehi was a descendant of Joseph rather than Levi and Aaron. Because he was a prophet, he held the Melchizedek priesthood by which authority he made this offering.
Religious life in ancient Israel derived much of its meaning from the offering of sacrifices. This was true for Lehi and Sariah and their family members. How do we know? Because at critical moments during their first months away from their Jerusalem home they offered sacrifices. Their acts of devotion are consistent with the Mosaic law and its deep influence in the lives of believers. There will be two occasions in addition to that one described in this verse when Lehi offered sacrifices. In this verse, obviously, it is on the occasion of the family's arriving at their first campsite. The other two instances will be when the sons of Lehi return from Jerusalem with the plates of brass (1 Nephi 5:9), and when the sons return with the family of Ishmael (1 Nephi 7:22). In each instance we will learn that Nephi specifically ties these offerings to expressions of thanksgiving. It is interesting to note that such offerings of thanksgiving were the so-called peace offerings that are mandated in the law of Moses (see Leviticus 3:1-17; Leviticus 7:11-21; Leviticus 22:29-30). According to Psalm 107, a person was to "sacrifice the sacrifices of thanksgiving" for safety in journeying (verse 22), whether on water or through the desert (see verses 4-6, 19-30). Jonah, for example, having been delivered from the fish that had swallowed him, prayed to the Lord, saying, "I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving" (Jonah 2:9). Joseph Smith could not have known which type of sacrifices were appropriate on which occasions, but Lehi knew.
Burnt offerings, on the other hand, present an entirely different matter, and Nephi will mention them in 1 Nephi 5:9 and 7:22. They are for atonement rather than thanksgiving (see Leviticus 1:2-4). This type of offering presumes that someone has sinned and that therefore the relationship between God and his people has been ruptured, requiring restoration. Let us examine the two instances of Lehi's offering burnt offerings. On one occasion, Lehi will offer such sacrifices after the return of his sons from Jerusalem with the plates of brass in hand (1 Nephi 5:9). Had there been sin on this journey? The answer is yes. We will learn that the older two brothers had beaten the younger two, drawing the attention of an angel (1 Nephi 3:28-30). There was also the matter of the unforeseen death of Laban. Even though Nephi knew through the Spirit of God that the Lord had commanded him to kill Laban and thus justified Laban's death, Lehi was evidently unwilling to take any chances that the relationship between God and his family had not been securely reconciled, so he offered burnt offerings-exactly the right sacrifice for the occasion. On the other occasion Lehi will offer burnt offerings after the sons return from Jerusalem with the family of Ishmael in tow (1 Nephi 7:22). Had there been sin? Again, the answer is yes. The older sons had sought to bind Nephi and leave him in the desert to die (1 Nephi 7:6-16). Even though they had repented and sought Nephi's forgiveness (1 Nephi 7:20-21), Lehi evidently still felt the need to offer burnt offerings for atonement (S. Kent Brown in FARMS Insights, volume 21, 2001, 2-3).
In building this altar of stones, Lehi appears to have followed the pattern set by other ancient prophets and leaders: Noah built an altar after surviving the Flood (Genesis 8:20); Abraham built altars in several places where he had important spiritual experiences (Genesis 12:7-8; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 22:9); and Moses, Joshua, David, and Elijah, among others, also built altars (Exodus 17:15; Exodus 24:4; Joshua 8:30; 2 Samuel 24:18; 1 Kings 18:30-32). According to the law of Moses, an altar made of stones was to be made of unhewn stones (Exodus 20:25; Deuteronomy 27:5).
8 And it came to pass that he called the name of the river, Laman, and it emptied into the Red Sea; and the valley was in the borders near the mouth thereof.
verse 8 The small river in the present-day wadi Tayyib al-Ism flows under a gravel bed for the last three-eighths of a mile as it approaches the Gulf of Aqaba. The reason the river does not reach the Red Sea today is that the volume of water flowing in the river has been reduced to the point where it no longer can reach the Red Sea. Additionally, the elevation of the floor of the canyon is not the same as it was at the time of Lehi. According to geologists, where the river ends today was below the surface of the Red Sea in ancient times.
9 And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!
verse 9 The use of the term fountain in this verse is consistent with ancient Near Eastern language patterns. A fountain is a body or source of water, such as a spring, well, pool, reservoir, or sea.
10 And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!
verses 9-10 Brother Hugh Nibley has reported on an ancient form of desert poetry known as qasida. These two verses provide a good example of qasida. A biblical scholar Alfred Bloch has distinguished four types or purposes of this poetry: (1) utterances to accompany any rhythmical work; (2) verses for instruction or information; (3) elegies, specializing in sage reflections on the meaning of life; and (4) recited on a journey to make the experience more pleasant and edifying. Lehi's qasida in these two verses conforms neatly to any of the last three of these types (Prophetic Book of Mormon, 91).
Brother Nibley also wrote:
One of the most revealing things about Lehi is the nature of his great eloquence. It must not be judged by modern or western standards, as people are prone to judge the Book of Mormon as literature. In this lesson we take the case of a bit of poetry recited extempore by Lehi to his two sons to illustrate certain peculiarities of the Oriental idiom and especially to serve as a test-case in which a number of very strange and exacting conditions are most rigorously observed in the Book of Mormon account. Those are the conditions under which ancient desert poetry was composed. Some things that appear at first glance to be most damning to the Book of Mormon, such as the famous passage in 2 Nephi 1:14 about no traveler returning from the grave, turn out on closer inspection to provide striking confirmation of its correctness (Approach to the Book of Mormon, 265-75; see also Lehi in the Desert, 84-92).
verses 7-10 To a westerner it may seem strange to name a river after one son and its valley after another. We usually give both the same name-for example, Mississippi River and Mississippi Valley. Lehi's naming of the Lemuel Valley and the River Laman, however, is appropriately Hebrew in its style (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 65-66). The ancient Hebrews frequently formed analogies between things in nature and human qualities. If only Laman could be more like this river, continually running toward the source of all righteousness.
There was a custom of a newcomer's naming a place and its geographical features. By what right do these people rename streams and valleys to suit themselves? But the immemorial custom of the desert, to be sure. Such actions seem odd in light of the fact that people lived in this part of Arabia and therefore the valley where the family camped probably had already received a name. It was Hugh Nibley who first drew attention to this custom, and he also pointed out what was obvious, that the names conferred by Lehi did not stick (Lehi in the Desert, 75-76). Charles Doughty, an Englishman who traveled in Arabia during the nineteenth century, observed that "every desert stead" had received a name. In fact, many had two or more names. Why? Because landmarks and important places received names from both local residents and from traveling caravanners. These names were never the same because the places in question meant different things to these individuals, depending on the function and importance of the landmarks or depending on an event that occurred there. He observed that one cannot predict which name will stick to a locale, that of the local people or that of the caravanners who visited places again and again (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1:88). For another instance of naming a valley after only being there a short while, see Mosiah 24:20.
Professor W. Kent Brown of Brigham Young University notes that "in a desert clime all arable land and all water resources have claimants" ("Case for Lehi's Bondage," 206. Nibley made a similar point; see Lehi in the Desert, 66). How might Lehi have acquired the right to camp in the valley that was likely controlled by a local tribe? There are a few possible reasons:
1. Lehi had evidently been a wealthy man and, though he left his gold and silver in Jerusalem, his family probably carried among their provisions some items that could be exchanged for temporary camping privileges.
2. Perhaps Lehi's group appeared small and sufficiently non-threatening that the locals required no payment of them. The hosts may even have pointed out to Lehi where he could find water and a campsite out of their way in the side canyon whose lower reaches they did not use themselves (Nephi did not write that his family "found" a river, but only that they pitched their tent next to it; see 1 Nephi 2:6). This latter possibility is enhanced when we note that Lehi apparently brought no sheep or goats with him into the wilderness. This would imply Lehi had to acquire animals for his sacrifices from the local people.
3. Perhaps there were no inhabitants in this valley. That is true today. If the area had been empty of people except for nomadic Bedouins, then Lehi was in no way beholden to locals.
verse 10 Another construction which might well have seemed unusual to Joseph Smith, as he was translating, was Lehi's referring to a valley as "firm and steadfast and immovable." Westerners would be more likely to think of a mountain as having those qualities of stability. Again, Brother Hugh Nibley assures us that such a use is typically middle eastern (Ibid., 223-24).
Being "firm and steadfast and immovable" is arriving at that state of faith and conviction which enables the saint to undergo tribulation, temptation, and persecution while remaining resolute and unwavering in their spiritual convictions.
11 Now this he spake because of the stiffneckedness of Laman and Lemuel; for behold they did murmur in many things against their father, because he was a visionary man, and had led them out of the land of Jerusalem, to leave the land of their inheritance, and their gold, and their silver, and their precious things, to perish in the wilderness. And this they said he had done because of the foolish imaginations of his heart.
verse 11 This verse contains the first appearance of the interesting word "murmur" in the Book of Mormon. The verb murmur is uncommonly used in scripture. In both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon, murmur is used primarily for the exoduses-the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the exodus of Lehi's family from Jerusalem. Forms of the Hebrew root lwn (translated "to murmur") in the King James Bible Old Testament occur eighteen times. All but one of them are connected with the exodus from Egypt. In the Book of Mormon, it appears thirty-three times; of these, nineteen describe events in the Old World wilderness.
"because he was a visionary man" It is interesting that the original text of the Book of Mormon rendered this phrase "because that he was a visionary man." This latter form is actually better Hebrew (see Genesis 2:3). The term "visionary" in today's language has a positive meaning something like a person with original ideas. In Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the English Language, however, the term "visionary" is provided with the meaning of one whose ideas are fanciful or disturbed.
"land of Jerusalem" Many critics of the Book of Mormon have claimed that the book's use of the term "land of Jerusalem" was a major error and proof that the book was false. They have especially criticized the use of this phrase in reference to the place where Christ would be born. They point out that this phrase was not used in the Bible. Therefore, the critics have concluded it was an example of Joseph Smith's ignorance and evidence that he had tried to perpetrate a fraud. The phrase "land of Jerusalem" has now been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in a text that links the phrase to the Jerusalem of Lehi's time (Gordon C. Thomasson, FARMS Update in Insights [March 1994], 2). This phrase was definitely not in current use in Joseph Smith's day, but, unknown to him, it was an accurate usage for the day in which he claimed the book was written. Thus, despite the critics' best efforts, Joseph's supposed "error" becomes an evidence of the Book of Mormon's authenticity (see also the commentary for 1 Nephi 1:4).
"foolish imaginations of his heart" Webster's 1828 Dictionary of the English Language adds to the definition of "foolish" as "wicked and sinful." It also adds to the definition of "imaginations" the idea of "a scheme or plan formed in the mind." Hence, it seems possible that Laman and Lemuel were actually accusing their father not just of being an unwise dreamer but of creating a wicked plot to lead them far away with the purpose of depriving them of happiness (see 1 Nephi 16:38).
12 And thus Laman and Lemuel, being the eldest, did murmur against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them.
13 Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets. And they were like unto the Jews who were at Jerusalem, who sought to take away the life of my father.
verse 13 Our natural bias leads us to be judgmental with Laman and Lemuel. We are inclined to label them as stubborn and rebellious and disobedient and unrighteous. They were, after all, reluctant to follow the counsel of their prophet father. Perhaps we should be a bit more sympathetic with them. This one-way trip into the wilderness was a most significant commitment for them. In Jerusalem their father was wealthy in material goods. They were likely to inherit a significant fortune at their father's death. By leaving their home and traveling into the unknown wilderness they were abandoning this inheritance.
"Neither did they believe that Jerusalem, that great city, could be destroyed according to the words of the prophets" There may have been, at least in part, a historical precedent for Laman and Lemuel's reluctance to believe that Jerusalem could be destroyed. In 701 BC at the time of king Hezekiah, Jerusalem was besieged by Assyria led by Sennacherib. On the very night before they were be attacked by Assyrian forces, a mysterious illness epidemic swept through the Assyrian army, and it is alleged that 185,000 of them died (see the supplemental article, Historical Setting for the Book of Isaiah). Sennacherib departed quickly back to Nineveh, never to return. In the years that followed, this event would be recounted until "later generations could ascribe this deliverance to nothing less than a supernatural intervention, second only to the one which had secured the freedom of the Israelites from the Egyptian captivity" (Roth, The History of the Jews, 42).
Regarding this event Professor Benjamin Mazar wrote:
Embellished by legendary accretions, it strengthened the popular view of the impregnability of the city, and the ultimate sanctity and inviolability of mount Zion and the Temple. This confidence remained intact through subsequent generations down to the last years of the monarchy, until the day that the city walls were breached, the defending forces overwhelmed, and the city itself destroyed by the armies of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Mountain of the Lord, 57).
Read this verse carefully. Did Laman and Lemuel actually seek to take the life of their father? The point is not quite clear, as the verse is somewhat ambiguous.
The term "Jew" in the Book of Mormon is used to refer to either a descendant of Judah, the son of Jacob, or to an inhabitant of the kingdom of Judah. Obviously, Lehi and his family were not Jews by the former definition (1 Nephi 5:14 makes it clear that Lehi was a descendant of Judah's brother Joseph) but did qualify by the latter.
14 And it came to pass that my father did speak unto them in the valley of Lemuel, with power, being filled with the Spirit, until their frames did shake before him. And he did confound them, that they durst not utter against him; wherefore, they did as he commanded them.
verse 14 On this and several subsequent occasions, Laman and Lemuel are cowed or subdued by someone manifesting the power of the Holy Ghost (see also 1 Nephi 3:29; 1 Nephi 16:39; 1 Nephi 17:47-48; 1 Nephi 17:53-55; 1 Nephi 18:11-15). Each time, however, the change of heart was short lived. How universally typical of those who, like Laman and Lemuel, are spiritually "past feeling" (1 Nephi 17:45)!
15 And my father dwelt in a tent.
verse 15 In addition to this verse, Nephi will inform us on two additional occasions that his father Lehi lived in a tent (1 Nephi 9:1; 1 Nephi 9:10:16). Why this repeated emphasis? Perhaps it is to emphasize the humility of this good man who had left behind his considerable worldly possessions, and who now, uncomplaining, he was living in a wilderness, in a tent.
Hugh Nibley has added insight to this verse:
To an Arab, "my father dwelt in a tent" says everything. . . . So with the announcement that his "father dwelt in a tent," Nephi serves notice that he had assumed the desert way of life, as perforce he must for his journey. Any easterner would appreciate the significance and importance of the statement, which to us seems almost trivial. . . . It is most significant how Nephi speaks of his father's tent; it is the official center of all administration and authority. First, the dogged insistence of Nephi on telling us again and again that "my father dwelt in a tent" (1 Nephi 2:15; 1 Nephi 9:1; 1 Nephi 10:16; 1 Nephi 10:16:6). So what? we ask, but to an Oriental that statement says everything. Since time immemorial the whole population of the Near East have been either tent-dwellers or house-dwellers, the people of the bait ash-sha'r or the bait at-tin, "houses of hair or houses of clay." It was Harmer who first pointed out that one and the same person may well alternate between the one way of life and the other, and he cites the case of Laban in Genesis 31, where "one is surprised to find both parties so suddenly equipped with tents for their accommodation in traveling," though they had all along been living in houses. Not only has it been the custom for herdsmen and traders to spend part of the year in tents and part in houses, but "persons of distinction" in the East have always enjoyed spending part of the year in tents for the pure pleasure of a complete change. It is clear from 1 Nephi 3:1; 1 Nephi 4:38; 1 Nephi 5:7; 1 Nephi 7:5; 1 Nephi 7:21-22; 1 Nephi 15:1; 1 Nephi 15:16:19 that Lehi's tent is the headquarters for all activities, all discussion, and decisions (Approach to the Book of Mormon, 243).
16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.
verse 16 "exceedingly young" It has been speculated that Nephi was probably born about 615 BC. Thus, he might have been fourteen to sixteen years old when the Book of Mormon story began.
"mysteries of God" For a discussion of the two definitions of the concept of the "mysteries of God" see the commentary for 1 Nephi 1:1. In this particular verse, a specific meaning may have been intended by Nephi. We have discussed previously the heavenly councils to which Israelite prophets are invited in vision (see the commentary for 1 Nephi 1:5). The decrees of these councils were private and secret, indeed mysteries known only to the prophets (see Amos 3:7). Here Nephi expresses his desire to receive a personal confirmation of the truth of Lehi's words. He wanted to know for himself the truth of those decrees Lehi had received in the heavenly council-the "mysteries" of God (John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 24-25).
"and behold he did visit me" This is a provocative statement, but we really don't know whether the Lord visited Nephi in person or whether he simply touched Nephi's spiritual understanding by the influence of the Holy Spirit.
17 And I spake unto Sam, making known unto him the things which the Lord had manifested unto me by his Holy Spirit. And it came to pass that he believed in my words.
verse 17 Sam was one of the older brothers in scripture who believed on the testimony of his younger brother. Can you think of any others in all of the standard works of the church? How about Hyrum Smith, Joseph's brother, and Moses's elder brother Aaron?
18 But, behold, Laman and Lemuel would not hearken unto my words; and being grieved because of the hardness of their hearts I cried unto the Lord for them.
verse 18 The expression "hardness of their hearts" is used some nineteen times in the four standard works, and eighteen of these are found in the Book of Mormon. It is likely an expression of Egyptian origin. In Egyptian culture it was believed that the dead were received by Osiris, the god of the underworld. Osiris would judge a man by weighing his heart. If his heart was found to be hard or heavy with sin, then the judgment was unfavorable. Conversely, a light hearted or righteous individual would receive a favorable verdict. See the discussion of hard-heartedness in the commentary for Alma 10:6.
19 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.
20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands.
verse 20 "a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands" We certainly do have the concept firmly in mind that the Book of Mormon land, the so-called "promised land," was in the western hemisphere, but what part of the western hemisphere is the land "choice above all other lands"? North America? Central America? South America? It would be illogical to exclude any of these three. For a discussion of the issue of the physical location of the Book of Mormon story, see the supplemental article, Book of Mormon Geography. "Promised lands" are given only to chosen or covenant people (see the commentary on the concept of being chosen in 1 Nephi 1:20).
21 And inasmuch as thy brethren shall rebel against thee, they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord.
verse 21 "they shall be cut off from the presence of the Lord" This expression means to be cut off from the influence of the Spirit.
22 And inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.
23 For behold, in that day that they shall rebel against me, I will curse them even with a sore curse, and they shall have no power over thy seed except they shall rebel against me also.
verse 23 "curse them even with a sore curse" This curse which will eventually fall upon the Lamanite people is their eventually being denied the priesthood. They will also have a mark placed upon them to identify them as bearers of the curse. This mark would be a "skin of blackness" (see also 2 Nephi 5:21).
It is helpful to keep the "they's" in this verse straight. The first two "they's" refer to the unrighteous Lamanites. The third "they" has reference to the Nephites, the seed of Nephi.
Most often God's cursings-his censuring of wickedness-take three different forms. They may result in the destruction of life (2 Nephi 5:25; Ether 11:6), forced social differentiation (2 Nephi 5:21-23; Alma 3:6-10), or loss of personal property (Helaman 13:30-36; cf. Mormon 1:17-18; Ether 14:1). Cursings and blessings often have to do with a people inhabiting a promised land (2 Nephi 1:7; Deuteronomy 27:11-28; cf. Abraham 2:6). The curse of Adam (Moroni 8:8) is the state of spiritual death that befell Adam and Eve after their transgression. This curse was imposed upon their posterity (Alma 12:22). Yet, we know that because of the Savior's atonement this curse has been overcome for all mankind.
24 And if it so be that they rebel against me, they shall be a scourge unto thy seed, to stir them up in the ways of remembrance.
verse 24 The "theys" in this verse are a bit problematic. It is likely that both "theys" refer to the Lamanites. Another possibility is that both "theys" refer to some of the Nephites who rebel against the Lord.
A "scourge" is a cause of affliction or a means of inflicting punishment or suffering. Thus, throughout the Book of Mormon, we will read how the pugnacious Lamanites will serve as a scourge or a constant reminder, even an ever-present warning to the Nephites.
"the ways of remembrance" The Hebrew verb zakhor (to remember) carries a wider range of meaning than usually attributed to the verb remember in English. It seems to mean far more than the mere mental recall of information, though of course that is part of its meaning. This verb occurs in the Old Testament over two hundred times and means "to be attentive, to consider, to keep divine commandments, or to act. . . . Indeed, to remember involves turning to God, or repenting, or acting in accordance with divine injunctions. . . . Conversely, the antonym of the verb to remember in Hebrew-to forget-does not merely describe the passing of a thought from the mind, but involves a failure to act, or a failure to do or keep something. Hence, failing to remember God and his commandments is the equivalent of apostasy" (Louis C. Midgley, "O Man, Remember, and Perish Not," a FARMS reprint, March 1990). For examples of other uses of the verb to remember in the Book of Mormon see Mosiah 2:41; Mosiah 4:30; Mosiah 13:29-30; Alma 37:35; Moroni 4:3. "Remembrance," then, involves active participation. It means recalling not simply with the mind but also with the heart, mind, and actions. It means keeping the covenants which God has made with his people.