Prologue: Thoughts on Feasting
When one eats a delicious meal prepared by a competent cook, there is a spectrum of approaches one can take. At one extreme is caveman-on-the-run style: eat fast, get the chore over with while worrying about predators or other things, and move on quickly. The plate of pasta is a pile of needed carbs. Wolf it down.
Near the other end of the spectrum is the “joyous, informed feast” where each dish and each bite is contemplated, savored, and even explored intellectually. The plate of pasta is not just relished, but is the subject of inquiry. This cheese, what kind is it? Tallegio? My favorite! With four-year-old Parmesan from southern Italy? Why four years? How do the two cheeses interact? Are they combined at once or in stages? And this is handmade pasta? What’s special about the flour it was made from? That texture, it’s so different, so perfect — how is it achieved? Tell me about this olive oil. Why is it so golden? And these peppers and tomatoes, there’s something different. Can you tell me more?
Learning about the artistry behind each ingredient and the painstaking work it took to create the whole can add greatly to the enjoyment. One person may see a plate of carbs to be washed down the gullet in seconds, while another sees the hand of a master craftsman and rejoices with every bite and every discovery during the feast.
Our approach to the scriptures, in my opinion, should be closer to the joyous, informed feast approach, an exploration filled with inquiry, discovery, delight, and admiration for the many craftsmen who made our feast possible. This requires, of course, gaining outside information. Staring at the plate of food or staring at a page of scripture is not likely to unlock most of the mysteries begging to be unlocked and enjoyed. But many outside resources can help us do that. They can tell us about word plays and poetical devices built into the text, or guide us regarding symbolism, relationships to other passages of scriptures, give us historical context, show us details of meaning related to the physical setting, point out the significance of a word we may have overlooked, and so forth. In all this there is discovery and joy.
With that thought, you may enjoy a podcast from LDS Perspectives with Dr. Bradley Kremer, “A New Approach to Studying the Book of Mormon with Bradley J. Kramer.” Kremer is the author of the new book, Beholding the Tree of Life: A Rabbinic Approach to the Book of Mormon (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). In this well-done podcast with host Laura Hales, Kremer discusses his experience in studying the Torah with a Jewish group using a rabbinical approach where much time is taken on each passage, sometimes each word, to understand the deep meanings and connections that occur in the scriptures.
This approach, supported by knowledge of Hebrew and tapping the brains and writings of others, helps one to not just understand the microscopic details, but to grasp the overarching whole, not just a few memorable snippets, that we have in the Word of God. He recommends that we take this approach to our study of the Book of Mormon and the rest of the scriptures. A wise recommendation!
There is so much more to the Book of Mormon than meets the eye, and so much worthy of studying and contemplating in light of additional knowledge we can obtain from outside works. For example, a recent publication by Clifford Jones in The Interpreter points out that we may have frequently misjudged the status of the minor writers in the Book of Omni. One of Jones’ contributions is thoroughly exploring a tiny, easily overlooked phrase in Omni 2, “of myself” in Omni’s confession, “I of myself am a wicked man.” This phrase, more commonly used in the Early Modern English era than in our era, is often used in the Book of Mormon to express what happens when people act on their own, without the guidance of the Lord, and can indicate that the user of that phrase has repented and is seeking the Lord’s will. Jones argues convincingly that Omni’s expression is that of a penitent man, much like Joseph Smith’s recognition of his past follies in his History. His exposition also shows that the message of grace in the Book of Mormon is even more extensive than we may have recognized. Such “outside” knowledge helps us see more of the meaning and beauty that is deeply woven into the Book of Mormon.
There are so many other valuable works of scholarship on the Book of Mormon and other aspects of the LDS scriptures that members can use to strengthen their ability to feast with gusto on the Word. This includes those who have done field work in exploring possible Book of Mormon sites in the Arabian Peninsula (e.g., Warren Aston and George Potter), and the investigations of scholars into the text and its meaning, scholars such as Royal Skousen, John L. Sorenson, Daniel Peterson, Don Bradley, Jack Welch, and many others. Unfortunately, I am continually surprised at how many faithful Latter-day Saints study the Book of Mormon without caring to examine the abundant outside resources that directly help us understand the reality, plausibility, and deeper significance of the text. I hope you will resolve to learn more and read more from some of the outstanding LDS scholars who are helping to bring the Book of Mormon to life.
Let Us Feast on Knowledge Regarding Lehi’s Trail and the Nephite Exodus
One of the most tangible and impressive results of LDS scholarship in the Book of Mormon involves the remarkable finds regarding the Arabian Peninsula, including the astonishing evidence for previously deemed “impossible” and “absurd” places like the continually flowing River Laman (“there are no rivers in Arabia — everyone knows that!”) and Bountiful (“a green haven with trees, fruit, and water not only doesn’t exist but if it did, could not possibly be uninhabited as the Book of Mormon implies!”). We’ve discussed such things here many times as well as on my Book of Mormon Evidences page, and I’ve provided some detailed rebuttals to some inadequate complaints of learned scholars in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 of 2” and “Part 2” at The Interpreter, while strongly recommending Warren Aston’s recent book, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia. And I’ve also recommended the book by George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness, that introduces us to their incredible discovery of an ideal candidate for the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel. Some parts of that work may now be dated; in particular, I think their proposed route out of Jerusalem is unlikely and their proposed candidate for Bountiful is inadequate, with Aston’s nearby candidate being much preferred — but how amazing it is that we can even discuss which of two candidates for a green place is the best choice for a place that shouldn’t exist based on what most people still think they know about the Arabian Peninsula. Understanding these locations helps us better grasp the meaning of elements in the story and the gritty realities of their journey, in spite of the tremendously abbreviated account. How I yearn for a restoration of the missing 116 pages (actually more like 300 or so pages, according to the fascinating discoveries and proposal of Don Bradley in his recent book that I review here).
As for the remarkable candidate for the River Laman, the case for its plausibility has been further strengthened with newly reported field work from Warren Aston, following up on the groundbreaking work of George Potter. See Warren P. Aston, “Into Arabia: Lehi and Sariah’s Escape from Jerusalem, Perspectives Suggested by New Fieldwork,” BYU Studies, 58/4 (2019): 99-126, with this abstract and a great deal of meat:
Based on his explorations of the terrain from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, the author proposes a likely route Lehi and his family took as they fled Jerusalem. He also proposes a location for the Book of Mormon’s valley of Lemuel. Using clues embedded in Nephi’s account of the family’s journey in the wilderness, Aston discusses the pros and cons of various routes that have been proposed over the years and expresses his preference for a route through the Negev Wilderness. He similarly comes to the conclusion that Wadi Tayyib al-Ism in the southern end of the Mazhafah ranges is the likeliest location for the valley of Lemuel.
Book of Mormon Central has a short video (under two minutes) summarizing the discovery of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism in 1995:
Here’s another briefly summarizing some evidences across the entire journey through the Arabian Peninsula, though many interesting issues cannot be covered in the brief 8 minutes of this video:
In the past, there have been some complaints or arguments against the specific proposed site, Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, about 3 days by camel south of the beginning of the Red Sea (relative to voyagers coming from Jerusalem). For example, BYU archaeologist Jeffrey Chadwick disputed it because the river seemed to lack a mouth flowing directly into the Red Sea (the stream sinks into the rocks and sand before it reaches the Red Sea) and for other reasons. Aston digs in and explores those charges — or rather, explodes them.
Before turning to Aston’s new observations, let’s consider the problem of the “River Laman” candidate flowing into a gravel bed before reaching the Red Sea. It may be, as Potter argues, that in Lehi’s day the flow was much stronger and could have reached the Red Sea directly with a nice river mouth into the Red Sea, in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map, Part 1,” I suggested that even if the river still disappeared beneath the gravel then, the water would obviously not be disappearing completely, but would still be recognized as flowing into the Red Sea, joining the underground springs or waters that connect with and feed the Red Sea. In other words, the River Laman is now, and possibly was in Nephi’s day, literally flowing into the subterranean “fountain of the Red Sea.” Perhaps this explains Nephi’s repeated use of the verb “empty” rather than “flow.” The river “emptied into the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:8), and again Lehi “saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:9). Waters disappearing, descending into the earth, could well be described this way. Perhaps Potter’s candidate for the River Laman fits the details of Nephi’s description even better than he realized, although it is difficult to know if the behavior of the river around 600 BC would be similar to its behavior today.
Another objection to the leading candidate for the River Laman is that it lacks a mouth flowing into the Red Sea, apparently contrary to 1 Nephi 2:8, which states that the river “emptied into the Red Sea; and the valley was in the borders near the mouth thereof.” Chadwick emphasizes this repeatedly in his critique, claiming that without a mouth, we can rule this candidate out and be certain that Potter has been looking in the wrong place. See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” The FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 197–215; see especially 209, 212–214. One definition of “mouth” is:
something that resembles a mouth especially in affording entrance or exit: as
a: the place where a stream enters a larger body of water,
b: the surface opening of an underground cavity. …
Another dictionary gives one definition for mouth as “the outfall at the lower end of a river or stream, where flowing water is discharged, as into a larger body of water.” If Nephi understood that the River Laman, as it sank into the ground, was flowing into the subterranean waters that feed the Red Sea, or the fountain of the Red Sea, then the place where that stream disappeared and entered a larger body of water (the subterranean fountain) would appropriately be called a mouth. The Book of Mormon does not say that the mouth directly contacted the Red Sea. It had a mouth and flowed into a fountain, the fountain of (meaning “belonging to” or “associated with,” I would argue) the Red Sea, and thus “emptied into the Red Sea,” via the fountain. This understanding resolves the primary argument Chadwick offers against this candidate and is consistent with the ancient concept of interconnected subterranean waters that feed rivers and oceans.
Now here’s the exciting news from Aston’s recent field work. His discussion begins with the observation that Nephi’s record describes obtaining seeds and fruit while in the Valley of Lemuel, suggesting that this was not merely a normal dry wadi that had seen a bit of temporary rain. It is more reasonable to expect it to be a place where trees and plants could grow.
Then Aston describes the need for his added field work:
The Mazhafah ranges assume the highest importance in any discussion about locating the valley of Lemuel. Based on the simple parameters of three days’ travel from the head of the Red Sea at the speed at which loaded camels can travel (about 32–40 kilometers or 20–25 miles per day), the valley of Lemuel must lie somewhere in, or at least very close to, these mountains.
Also in 1995, a new possibility for the valley emerged, this time with the quite accidental discovery of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism(approximately “Valley of the Good Name”) in the southern end of the Mazhafah ranges and thus plausibly three days’ travel from the top of the Red Sea (fig. 1). This candidate was not reported until 1999, and based on the reports and images published, it was immediately seen by most researchers as a promising, even probable, candidate.
But while some Church members working in the region have visited Wadi Tayyib al-Ism over recent years to see it for themselves, no one—including the original discoverers—had completed the systematic exploration of the area needed to determine if viable alternatives existed. The mountainous terrain here is such that satellite imaging has proved inadequate in providing definitive answers. This remained the situation until 2018 when I undertook a new exploratory effort.
He then describes his significant explorations of the region — something I believe he has done, as he did for his search for Bountiful and his investigation of the regions around Nahom — at his own expense. This has been a labor of love for which we should all be tremendously grateful. Some of his observations follow:
A “Valley, Firm and Steadfast, and Immovable” (1 Ne. 2:10)
As I examined Wadi Tayyib al-Ism alongside the other possibilities proposed over the years, the differences were very evident. In particular, no other location has a flow of water running continually anywhere, much less into the Red Sea. No other place evokes Lehi’s emotive language in wishing that his two eldest sons had the qualities of character suggested by the granite mountains, over two thousand feet high, towering over both sides of the wadi near the coast, and the constantly flowing stream within it (fig. 8). The wadi is not only fully accessible but also sits within the correct three days’ travel distance from the head of the Red Sea. It would have provided Lehi and Sariah’s group what it still does today: a sheltered haven with all the resources of a fertile oasis. The easy, unforced convergence of the details outlined here established it firmly for me as the place described by Nephi.
A “River, Continually Running” (1 Ne. 2:9)
Unsurprisingly, the novelty (and apparent anomaly) of a river in Arabia being claimed in the Book of Mormon account has been given much attention by commentators. Many Latter-day Saint researchers have accepted the scholarly consensus that Arabia contains no perennial rivers, therefore assuming that Nephi’s reference must refer only to a seasonalflow of water. In asserting this, it has become common to minimize the text’s plain wording by describing the river as a mere “stream” (a term that nowhere appears in the Book of Mormon, except in a quote from Isaiah, recorded in 2 Ne. 21:15).
He goes on to explain the flaws in the mistreatment of the evidence for the River Laman by too many other scholars who have not been there.
A fascinating observation is that contrary to what Potter and Wellington reported, the stream does not disappear several hundred meters before reaching the Red Sea, but at least when he was there at the end of the dry season, it was only about 40 meters away before “emptying” into the “fountains” below (my words, and Nephi’s). He also saw, as did Potter, clear evidence that the stream was stronger in the past:
While the present steam goes underground just before reaching the Red Sea, the base and the sides of the wadi, including just before it reaches the shore, preserve the unmistakable signs of long-term erosion in its hard granite (figs. 12, 13). A scientist who specializes in the erosion of rock surfaces described the erosion in Wadi Tayyib al-Ism as follows: “Granite breaks down by weathering to a mixture of clay, sand and gravel; when carried by water this sediment is abrasive and smooths the floor of the wadi and there is much evidence of sand and gravel in the valley floor . . . derived from the bedrock. The smoothing of the rock surface along the lower sides of the valley indicates that there have been higher volumes of water flowing through the valley probably in the past but also, perhaps, associated with flash floods in the present day.” The erosion is broad in places and up to about one meter or about three feet high on the sides of the wadi. A very substantial flow of water—a river—once ran through this valley over a very long period.
His conclusion also merits consideration:
As for the valley of Lemuel and the river of Laman, there no longer remain any issues regarding Wadi Tayyib al-Ism lacking simple, ready solutions. The valley has a permanent year-round flow of water to the Red Sea with geological evidence indicating that the flow was much larger over a very long period in times past. The question of how the sheltered fertile pocket in its interior can be accessed in a way that matches Nephi’s account has been answered, as presented earlier.
The truly stark contrast between it and any other possibilities means that the time has come, I believe, for Wadi Tayyib al Ism to move from being judged the “most secure candidate for the Valley of Lemuel” to at least being accepted as the candidate that most plausibly matches Nephi’s account.
It cannot be mere coincidence that the Arabian segment of the Lehite journey began and ended precisely at remarkable locations that provided for the group’s specific needs at the time. The most plausible candidates for both locations—for the valley of Lemuel at the beginning and the land Bountiful at its end—were, and still are, sources of that rarest of commodities in Arabia, year-round fresh water, and remain uninhabited, even today.
Read his article, look at the fascinating photos he provides, and contemplate what this valley and river must have meant to a family wandering into danger on a crazy mission from a visionary man and his Liahona. The hand of God can be seen in this account, and the physical reality of the long-mocked place should give all of us pause as we confront the sacred record of the Book of Mormon with new insights that help us to have a more joyous, more informed feast.