Lehi and Local Color
Reviewed by Stephen D. Ricks
Perhaps the most popular and influential publication of FARMS is John Sorenson's An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.1 In this book Sorenson gives classic expression to the "limited geography" hypothesis: the Book of Mormon takes place not on the American continents stretching from Tierra del Fuego to Hudson Bay, but in a very restricted area in what is now southern Mexico and Central America. So influential has Sorenson's book become that subsequent studies on Book of Mormon geography have widely (though by no means universally) accepted Sorenson's thesis and argue for settings for the Book of Mormon that are within fifty to one hundred miles of the location proposed by Sorenson. Journey of Faith, edited by S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson, could well be subtitled An Ancient Near Eastern Setting for the Book of Mormon. Brown and Johnson argue convincingly for an ancient Near Eastern background for Lehi's journey in the desert and also for their sojourn in Bountiful before setting sail for the land of promise.
Journey of Faith is a companion volume to the informative and deeply moving documentary movie of the same name, filmed on location in the cities and deserts of the Middle East. In this generously illustrated volume—and in poetic fashion—chapters dealing with the background story of the filming are interspersed with others that include the content of the documentary and quotations from an array of scholars and other specialists interviewed for that production.
The great American archaeologist and orientalist William F. Albright gives criteria for determining the historical plausibility of the Middle Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, which Albright considers to be " 'a substantially true account of life in its milieu' on the grounds (1) that its 'local color [is] extremely plausible,' (2) it describes a 'state of social organization' which 'agrees exactly with our present archaeological and documentary evidence,' (3) 'the Amorite personal names contained in the story are satisfactory for that period and region,' and (4) 'finally, there is nothing unreasonable in the story itself.' "2 Hugh Nibley asks about the story of Lehi: "Does it correctly reflect 'the cultural horizon and religious and social ideas and practices of the time'? Does it have authentic historical and geographical background? Is the mise-en-scène mythical, highly imaginative, or extravagantly improbable? Is its local color correct, and are its proper names convincing?"3 First Nephi in the Book of Mormon, as detailed in Journey of Faith—possessing plausible local color, plausible social organization, plausible proper names, and a plausible story line—fits Albright's criteria as "a substantially true account of life in its milieu." Some of what I draw for this discussion is from Journey of Faith, some from other sources.Plausible Proper Names
I begin this discussion of the historical plausibility of the book of 1 Nephi with a rather extensive consideration of its use of proper names, all of which, I hope to demonstrate, are plausible for the ancient Near East in the mid-first millennium BC.
Nephi (1 Nephi 1:1). A Phoenician inscription discovered at Elephantine contains the personal name KNPY. Frank L. Benz, in his important study on Phoenician and Punic personal names, sees the name KNPY as the Phoenician form of K3-nfr.w, a genuine Egyptian personal name.4 (In the period of the late Egyptian language, dating after 1,000 BC, the final r of nfr—pronounced "Nefer" or "Noufer"—came to be pronounced as an i or y, thus "Nefi".) The name element NPY seems to be the Semitic transcription of either the Egyptian nfr, a common element of Egyptian personal names, or the Egyptian Nfw, meaning "captain."5 The middle p in Phoenician or Hebrew would have been pronounced as an f sound, so the vocalization of NPY as Nephi poses no problem. "One may confidently conclude," observes John Gee, "whether from Nfr or Nfw, the name Nephi is an attested Egyptian name."6
Lehi (1 Nephi 1:4). This proper noun derives from a root meaning "jawbone." It is used as a place-name in the Bible, specifically in Judges 15:9, 14, 17, and 19. In verse 17 the name appears in the combination Ramath-lehi, meaning "Jawbone Heights" or "Heights of Lehi."7 Personal names occasionally appear as elements in place-names in the Old Testament. For example, Rameses or Raamses (from the Egyptian pr-rc-ms-sw, "domain of Rameses") was the name of the royal residence of the Ramesside kings in the Egyptian delta.8
Sariah (1 Nephi 2:5). According to Jeffrey Chadwick, the personal name Sariah is mentioned in the Aramaic papyri of Elephantine and appears in Papyrus #22 (also called Cowley #22 or C-22) in Arthur E. Cowley's Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C.9Although the language of the documents is Aramaic, Cowley observes that the names are in fact Hebrew. Line 4 of C-22 lists the personal name as sry[h br]t hwsc br hrmn, which may be vocalized as Sariah barat Hoshea bar Harman and translated as "Sariah daughter of Hoshea son of Harman." Cowley was obliged to reconstruct part of the text, supplying the final h of Sariah and the initial b-r of barat, but the spacing of the letters is reasonable, and the reconstructed text established by Cowley is in all probability accurate. "The extant final t of barat assures us," observes Chadwick, "that the person was a daughter, not a son, and, after the letters b-r are supplied, there is only room for one additional letter—the final h of Sariah." Further, although Seraiah (or Sariah) is not attested as a woman's name in the Old Testament, it is mentioned therein nineteen times (in reference to nine persons) as a man's name. Still, its attestation with a high degree of likelihood in the Elephantine Papyri as a Hebrew woman's name, along with the interchangeability of men's and women's names in ancient Israel10 and elsewhere,11 make it probable that sryh was an interchangeable man's and woman's name in Israelite tradition of the first millennium BC.
Laman (1 Nephi 2:5). LMN was a proper name mentioned in a Lihyanite inscription.12 Lihyanite was a language spoken (and written) in the ancient northwest Arabian Peninsula in the mid-first millennium BC. It is quite possible that Lehi chose this name and the name Lemuel as a result of his contact with Arabian names during his travels along the incense route.
Lemuel (1 Nephi 2:5). Lemuel, King of Massa is a man's name mentioned in Proverbs 31:1. Massa was the name of the seventh son of Ishmael, apparently the eponymous head of an Arabian tribe mentioned in Genesis 25:14. An inscription of Tiglath-Pileser III, dating from 745 to 722 BC, mentions that tribes from the region of northern Arabia, including "the inhabitants of Mas'a, of Tema" brought him tribute.13 A text from the sixth century BC mentions the presence of the Massa' tribe in the area between al-Jauf and Taymaʾ (Tema) in northern Arabia.14 The tribe of Massa may also be connected with the Masanoi of the Arabian desert, mentioned by Ptolemy in his Geography.15
Sam (1 Nephi 2:5). The proper name Sam may have an Israelite origin. Research indicates that it is "attested on a bronze ring-mounted seal dated to the seventh century BC."16 This word could be pronounced as "Shem" or with a lateralized s (originally pronounced like the Welsh ll but later pronounced as s).17 However, there were certain dialect variations in the pronunciation of this sound. For example, the Ephraimites—a tribe of Joseph and closely related to the family of Lehi and Ishmael—were unable to pronounce the word shibboleth properly, saying sibboleth instead (see Judges 12:4–6).
Laban (1 Nephi 3:3). Laban, the erstwhile custodian of the brass plates, had a very self-respecting Aramaic/Hebrew personal name mentioned first of all in the book of Genesis (24:29).
Ishmael (1 Nephi 7:2). The Hebrew name Ishmael means "God will hear" (see Genesis 16:11). In 1 Nephi we learn that he and his five daughters and at least two sons accompany Lehi (perhaps connected to them by marriage) into the wilderness and thence to the promised land. According to Erastus Snow, Ishmael was a descendant of Ephraim (while Lehi was a descendant of Manasseh).18 He was buried at Nahom.
Shazer (1 Nephi 16:13–14). Nibley notes that the term shajer is common in Palestinian place-names and that it means "trees," with the variants Sajur, Shaghur, and Segor all said to represent a collection of trees. Nibley also mentions "a famous water hole in South Arabia, called Shisur by [Bertram] Thomas and Shisar by Philby."19 A ruined city called Shisur and a permanent spring exist ninety miles northwest of Salalah in Oman on the frankincense route.20
Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34). Nahom was the place where Ishmael was buried. Strikingly, Nahom is also a place-name in the Arabian Peninsula. Carsten Niebuhr, an eighteenth-century German surveyor, geographer, and writer who journeyed through the Arabian Peninsula in the latter half of the eighteenth century,21 produced a map giving the name Nehhm to a location in Yemen north of Sanaca, the present-day capital.22 This place was also anciently the traditional site of graves, hence the appropriateness of Ishmael's burial there. In Hebrew naham means "to groan"; in the South Arabian dialects nahama means "to dress stone."23
Irreantum (1 Nephi 17:5). Paul Hoskisson, in a brief article on the etymology of the name Irreantum, notes that the reason why 3 percent of the names given in the Book of Mormon are included with their meanings is that the Nephites, whose native spoken language was Hebrew and whose written language (or script) was Egyptian, would have been unable to understand the meaning of these words. "The only rational reason," observes Hoskisson, "for Nephi to include both the transliteration and translation is that he did not expect his audience to immediately grasp the meaning of Irreantum, because it was not a readily recognizable Nephite word."24 The word is quite likely South Arabian or South Semitic in origin. The root *RWY has a basic meaning connected with watering and is related to another word, crwy (pronounced either "arway" or "irway"). The Semitic suffix element -an indicates a place suffix.25 Finally, the Semitic root *TM, meaning "whole, complete, abundant; abundance; entirety," is appended to the end of the word. The resultant form, which may be read Irwayantum/Arwayantum, has the meaning "place of abundant water, many waters."
Jacob (1 Nephi 18:7) and Joseph (1 Nephi 18:7). The personal names Jacob and Joseph, given to two of Lehi's sons who were born during the wilderness sojourn, are venerable Hebrew names of patriarchal figures.
Lehi's sons thus bear names from three possibly distinct traditions: three (Sam, Jacob, and Joseph) may be of Israelite origin, two (Laman and Lemuel) may be of Arabian provenance, and one (Nephi) may be of Egyptian background, suggesting the strong possibility of Lehi's acquaintance with these names as an experienced and knowledgeable traveling merchant, and also indicating the direction of his travels—along the incense route (which may have given rise to the names Laman and Lemuel) and to and from Egypt.26Plausible Story Line and Local Color
The book of 1 Nephi is a sober account of life and circumstances in sixth-century-BC Jerusalem and in the desert, and all of the details dealt with in the book—metallurgy and toolmaking,27 Nephi's metal bow,28 gold plates, ships and shipbuilding, incense culture and the incense trade,29 and the voyage to the promised land—are a far cry from the fantastic, if also perennially entertaining, tales from the Arabian Nights. The opening scene of the Book of Mormon is set in an era of uncertainty and confusion, with one side supporting the Egyptian cause, the other (including Jeremiah) arguing for submission to the Babylonians. Lehi takes a universally unpopular stance: Jerusalem would be destroyed.Plausible Social Organization
"The Book of Mormon," observes John Welch in Journey of Faith, "begins with a family, but more precisely with a couple, Lehi and Sariah" (p. 55). This story of a family in the wilderness—with a family dynamic of tension between the stoic and the whiners, the convinced and the uncommitted, sharpened and exacerbated by bitter toils in the desert—rings true. The uncommitted brothers, Laman and Lemuel, griped when asked by their father to retrieve the plates from Jerusalem, returned to the city willingly, if not enthusiastically, when asked to go there to obtain wives.
With its plausible story line, local color, social organization, and proper names, the book of 1 Nephi tells the story of a group of messianic Israelites who left Jerusalem around 600 BC and went into the desert to escape the corruption, decadence, and destruction of Jerusalem. While one cannot prove the correctness of the account through empirical means, its plausibility can but enhance its claims of authenticity. Journey of Faith does triple duty: it tells about the filming of the documentary, it is a sourcebook of quotations from the documentary, and it also relates in sober, straightforward, and plausible fashion the story of the journey of Lehi and Sariah's family from Jerusalem to Bountiful and thence to the promised land.
1. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985).
2. William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1942), 64, cited in Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites, ed. John W. Welch, Darrell L. Matthews, and Stephen R. Callister (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 3.
3. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 4.
4. Frank L. Benz, Personal Names in the Phoenician and Punic Inscriptions: A Catalog, Grammatical Study and Glossary of Elements (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1972), 192. See Hermann Ranke, Die Šgyptischen Personennamen (Glückstadt, Germany: Augustin, 1935–77), 1:340.
5. John Gee, "Four Suggestions on the Origin of the Name Nephi," in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 1.
6. Gee, "Four Suggestions on the Origin of the Name Nephi," 3.
7. There has been considerable discussion about the meaning of Lehi as a proper name in ancient Israel and in the Book of Mormon. Paul Hoskisson is cautious about accepting the name Lehi as the equivalent of the Hebrew term lehi since, he believes, "personal names containing parts of the body are rare in all the ancient Semitic languages." He derives Lehi from the Hebrew l-hy, "(belonging) to/for the living one." Paul Y. Hoskisson, "Lehi and Sariah," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 31. However, John A. Tvedtnes responds that "names beginning with prepositions (the l- in this case) are even more rare." Further, Tvedtnes lists several "personal names deriving from body parts": Shechem ("back, shoulder"), occurring as a personal name fifty-four times in scripture; Rosh ("head"), occurring once in Genesis 46:21; Bohan ("thumb"), occurring twice in Joshua 15:6 and 18:17; and Seir ("hair"), occurring twice in Genesis 36:20–21. John A. Tvedtnes, "Lehi and Sariah Comments," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 37. See further Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "The Names Lehi and Sariah—Language and Meaning," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 32–34; and Dana M. Pike, "Response to Paul Hoskisson's 'Lehi and Sariah,' " Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 35–36. Paul Hoskisson, in a personal communication, notes that while Shechem is used numerous times in scripture, only three people are involved, and it is not clear that they are not named after the city, which predates them. Rosh is also questionable as a personal name according to Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994–2000), s.v. "Rosh III." Bohan is also, like Shechem, a place-name in territory belonging to non-Israelites.
8. Ronald W. Pierce, "Rameses," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 4:39.
9. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 196–98.
10. For example, Abijah is an Israelite man's name (Abiah in 1 Chronicles 6:28 and 7:8, Abijah in 2 Chronicles 11:20 and 13:2) as well as a woman's name—the name of Hezekiah's mother (2 Chronicles 29:1). In the latter case, the name is given as Abi in 2 Kings 18:2, which is "no doubt a contraction of Abijah." Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:5.
11. Consider, for example, the interchangeable names Dana, Jordan, Kim, Leslie, Madison, Morgan, Robin, Shirley, Stac(e)y, and Tracy in the Anglo-American tradition of naming.
12. G. Lankester Harding, An Index and Concordance of Pre-Islamic Arabian Names and Inscriptions (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 520.
13. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 283.
14. Frederick V. Winnett, Ancient Records from North Arabia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), 90–91, 101–2.
15. Ptolemy, Geography 5.18.2.
16. John A. Tvedtnes, John Gee, and Matthew Roper, "Book of Mormon Names Attested in Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/1 (2000): 51.
17. On the lateralized s in the Semitic languages in general, see Richard C. Steiner, The Case for Fricative-Laterals in Proto-Semitic (New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1977).
18. Erastus Snow, in Journal of Discourses, 23:184.
19. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 78–79, citing Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix: Across the "Empty Quarter" of Arabia (New York: Scribner, 1932), 136–37; and Harry S. J. B. Philby, The Empty Quarter (New York: Holt, 1933), 231.
20. Juris Zarins, "Atlantis of the Sands," Archaeology 50/3 (1997): 52.
21. For details of the Danish expedition to the Arabian Peninsula (Niebuhr accompanied this group), see Thorkild Hansen, Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761–1767, trans. James and Kathleen McFarlane (London: Collins, 1964).
22. S. Kent Brown, " 'The Place That Was Called Nahom': New Light from Ancient Yemen," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 67.
23. Francis Brown, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 625, citing Proverbs 5:11 and Ezekiel 24:23 for "the groan of a sufferer"; Stephen D. Ricks, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1989), 103; compare Joan Copeland Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic, Sabaean Dialect (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982).
24. Paul Y. Hoskisson (with the assistance of Brian M. Hauglid and John Gee), "Irreanteum," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 90–93.
25. With this compare the extensive number of place-names ending in -ôn in ancient Hebrew given in Wilhelm Borée, Die alten Ortsnamen Palästinas, 2nd ed. (Hildesheim: Olms, 1968), 57–62; see also Anson F. Rainey, "Toponymics of Eretz-Israel," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 231 (1978): 4–5, wherein Rainey calls -ôn an "appellative" suffix that describes "some feature or aspect of the site."
26. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 34–35.
27. John L. Sorenson, in "Metals and Metallurgy Relating to the Book of Mormon Text" (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), provides an extensive bibliography of sources on metallurgy in the Old World.
28. See Alan Goff and John W. Welch, "Nephi's Bows and Arrows," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 41–43; William J. Hamblin, "The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 365–99; and Nahum Waldman, Alan Goff, and John W. Welch, "The Breaking of the Bow" (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1983).
29. John L. Sorenson, "Incense-Burning and 'Seer' Stones in Ancient Mesoamerica: New Evidence of Migrations of Biblical Peoples to the New World" and "New Evidence of Migration of Biblical People to the New World," University Archaeological Society Newsletter 21 (July 1954).