My recent post on Nephi’s three-day journey, the leg of Lehi’s Trail that reaches the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel, discussed the significance of Exodus themes in Nephi’s account and why Nephi would give special emphasis to that particular leg of an eight-year trip. In response to several questions from readers, I see a need to share a few more details that might help some better appreciate some meaningful details in Nephi’s account.
A key issue to address is whether the three-day journey begins near the Red Sea at a place near the northern end of the Red Sea such as Aqaba, or whether the three days began upon leaving Jerusalem. Latter-day Saint readers have generally read 1 Nephi 2 to mean that the three days began at the northern tip of the Red Sea, but the heading to 1 Nephi may make it seem like the count for the travel to the River Laman began at Jerusalem. We’ll consider both passages in a moment, but let’s first consider the three-day journey in the Exodus.
Many writers have noted that Nephi’s agenda included deliberate highlighting of parallels to the Exodus. See, for example, Terry L. Szink’s “Nephi and the Exodus” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1991), 38-51. Like Moses leading Israel out of Egypt to the promised land, Nephi’s people are taken out of spiritual “captivity” in Jerusalem and imminent physical captivity shortly before the Exile. They are led into the wilderness toward the promised land by a prophet of God (Lehi initially, and then Nephi) with miraculous assistance. One significant part of both the Exodus account and Nephi’s account is a three-day journey. Moses initially made a request to Pharaoh to let his people go on a three-day journey into the wilderness or desert to offer sacrifice, but this was declined (Exodus 3:18; 5:3; and 8:27). After the plagues upon Egypt forced Pharaoh to let Moses and his people go, Moses would lead his people across the Red Sea. After that miraculous crossing, Exodus 15 describes a three-day journey from the Red Sea to Marah, where water would be miraculously provided (see also Numbers 33:8, which confirms a three-day for the journey from the Red Sea to Marah). Here is the account from Exodus 15:22-27:
22 So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.
23 And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter: therefore the name of it was called Marah.
24 And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
25 And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them,
26 And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
27 And they came to Elim, where were twelve wells of water, and threescore and ten palm trees: and they encamped there by the waters.
So after crossing the Red Sea, Moses leads the people on a three day journey. There was no water at first, and when they then found water at Marah, it was not drinkable. However, the Lord performed a miracle by having Moses cast a tree into the water that caused the bitter waters to become sweet. This seems to be parallel to Nephi’s description in 1 Nephi 2 of traveling three days from near the Red Sea to a surprising river of water, thanks to miraculous guidance from the Lord. The miraculous provision of water in Exodus 15 was given special emphasis with a “statute and an ordinance” (v. 25), and the Lord covenanted that if they would hearken to His voice and keep his commandments, He would spare His people from the plagues He had put upon the Egyptians (v. 26), similar to the promise made to the Nephites: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land” (2 Nephi 1:20; also see 1 Nephi 2:20, 4:14, 13:15,20; 2 Nephi 1:9, 4:4; Jarom 1:9; Omni 1:6; etc.). After this, they come to a place with twelve wells of water and 70 palm trees, “and they encamped there by the waters” (Exodus 15:27).
The heading of 1 Nephi needs to be considered in light of Nephi’s intentions and his desire to liken his journey to the Exodus:
An account of Lehi and his wife Sariah and his four sons, being called, (beginning at the eldest) Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi. The Lord warns Lehi to depart out of the land of Jerusalem, because he prophesieth unto the people concerning their iniquity and they seek to destroy his life. He taketh three days’ journey into the wilderness with his family. Nephi taketh his brethren and returneth to the land of Jerusalem after the record of the Jews. The account of their sufferings. They take the daughters of Ishmael to wife. They take their families and depart into the wilderness. Their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness. The course of their travels. They come to the large waters. Nephi’s brethren rebel against him. He confoundeth them, and buildeth a ship. They call the name of the place Bountiful. They cross the large waters into the promised land, and so forth. This is according to the account of Nephi; or in other words, I, Nephi, wrote this record.
The wording in the header exactly follows the KJV language when Moses asks Pharaoh to let them “go … three days’ journey into the wilderness” (Exodus 3:18, 8:27) and closely follows Exodus 15:22’s “they went three days in the wilderness” after they escaped from Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. Given the many other instances in which Nephi alludes to the Exodus, it is reasonable to conclude that this is deliberate. The three days’ journey is important enough to be one of the few details that are placed in the compact header. But since the previous sentence mentions the warning to depart out of the land of Jerusalem, must we understand the sentence about the three-days journey to begin at Jerusalem?
Note that Nephi does not say in the header nor in the text of 1 Nephi that the three days began in Jerusalem. My proposal is that the header and the text in 1 Nephi 2 better fit Nephi’s authorial intent if understood as starting at the Red Sea, and that the three-day journey in 1 Nephi 2 reads most logically as beginning at the Red Sea. So let’s turn to 1 Nephi 2:5-7, and not only note the language used to describe travel near the Red Sea, but also the distinction Nephi appears to make with the verbs “depart” and “travel”:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The account begins in the land of Jerusalem, from which Lehi is commanded to “depart into the wilderness” (v. 2). He then “departed into the wilderness” (vs. 4). With seeming redundancy, Nephite immediately adds that Lehi took his family and that they “departed into the wilderness” (v. 4). Then they “came down” by the “borders near the shore of the Red Sea” (v. 5). Only then does the verb “travel” appear for the first time in Nephi’s account. Once near the shore of the Red Sea, they “traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea” (v. 5). That is emphasized, apparently unnecessarily, in the next phrase: “and he did travel in the wilderness with his family” (v. 5), and again in the next verse: “when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water” (v. 6). We already know that Lehi departed with his family from vv. 2 and 4, so why reiterate that his travel in the wilderness was “with his family” (v. 5)? Was Nephi just a sloppy writer with so much redundancy, or a careful architect of text? I suggest there is architecture at play.
The passage above has “depart[ed]” + “in the wilderness” three times, regarding Lehi with his family, and then “travel[ed]” + “in the wilderness” three times, again for Lehi with his family, and that action of traveling in the wilderness last three days, making it a “three days’ journey” as described in the header. These two parallel parts suggest that Lehi and his family departed into the wilderness and then came down near Red Sea. At that point, they “traveled in the wilderness” in a new place, beginning “in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea” and ending up in what can only be described as a miraculous place even in this day, a place with a river of water in a region long thought to have no rivers apart from temporary flows after rain. That second leg lasted three days. Nephi, seeing the obvious significance of a three-day journey from the Red Sea to a place with miraculously provided fresh water, seems to have chosen to highlight this important parallel in his header. There is no reason to assume that this journey had to begin at Jerusalem. It makes more sense and reads more naturally in 1 Nephi 2 if understood to be a leg that began near the Red Sea.
Further, just as Moses was leading Israel from the Red Sea to the waters of Mara, Lehi wasn’t traveling alone, but was bringing a future part of the house of Israel on a journey to the New World. The repeated emphasis on Lehi bringing his family, and even naming each of them in the midst of defining the three-day journey, reminds us of Exodus 15:22: “Moses brought Israel from the Red sea….”
Adding to the parallels with the Exodus account, sacrifices are offered after this three-day journey, echoing the request Moses made of Pharaoh to go travel three days in the wilderness to offer sacrifices (Exodus 3:18; 5:3; and 8:27).
Understanding the relationships between Nephi’s three-day journey and the ancient Exodus account helps us appreciate the rhetorical tools of Nephi in framing his story and teaching us important lessons. But that’s not the reason this little detail is drawing attention from critics who insist on starting the three-day clock in Jerusalem. They would prefer to demolish what has become an impressive body of evidence for the ancient authenticity of the Book of Mormon into evidence that the story of Lehi’s Trail is impossible due to Joseph Smith’s sloppy work and ignorance of distances.
Is the Three-Day Journey to a River Near the Red Sea Possible?
While it may make interesting allusions to the Exodus, does Nephi’s account of travel to the Valley of Lemuel and the River of Laman have any foundation in reality? Is there any such place within a three-days’ journey from the northern end of the Red Sea? Or any such place three days from anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula? Until recently, the answer was simple: no, for there are no rivers in the Arabian Peninsula, and absolutely no candidate that could come close to qualifying as the River Laman. As often happens, though, apparent great weaknesses in the Book of Mormon have a strange tendency to eventually become powerful evidences for its authenticity. (Faith and patience are a vital combination in dealing with the attacks of critics.)
A breakthrough in understanding the physical reality of Lehi’s Trail came with a publication by George D. Potter, “A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 54–63, which described finding a potential candidate for the River Laman in Wadi Tayyib al Ism. This was followed by fieldwork to see if that promising site could be reached by following Nephi’s directions starting near the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba. This resulted in a book by George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences That the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2003). Potter and Wellington began a journey in a jeep in Aqaba at the north end of the Red Sea and traveled south to Haql on the coast, then further south until they turned east into the mountains for a few miles, then went further south and had to choose between a route going further east or driving into a wadi going west. Heading to the west into Wadi Tayyib al Ism, as it is known today, brought them into a granite valley where they encountered a small stream — one that would prove to flow all year round, consistent with Lehi’s phrase “continuously running” in 1 Nephi 2:9 (though they may not yet have had evidence of its persistent flow when Lehi spoke those words). Here’s one view of this stream, which is much smaller than it must have been in the past due to the local government extracting a portion of the water source and possibly due to changes in climate, from George Potter’s work:
Potter and Wellington reached that stream at Wadi Tayyib al Ism in under 75 miles from Aqaba, which is a reasonable upper limit for the distance that one can travel in three days with camels under normal circumstances (about 25 miles a day maximum, though it may be possible to travel further if one travels both day and night). The stream currently disappears into the ground near the shore of the Red Sea. Perhaps it did so long ago when the stream was stronger, or visibly reached the Red Sea rather than subterranean waters feeding feeding the Red Sea, or its “fountain” (1 Nephi 2:9). However, even today with a portion of the water supply being pumped away by the government, the steam does reach the Red Sea directly during the wetter times of the year, as shown in this photo from Book of Mormon Central’s article, “Book of Mormon Evidence: The Valley of Lemuel,” Nov. 28, 2020:
Of critical importance, this candidate for the River Laman is a “river” (a stream to us, but a river in the desert lands of the Arabian Peninsula) that was not supposed to exist and lies within the scope of a three-day journey from Aqaba. It is on an accessible path that a group traveling by camel could have followed on an ancient three-day journey. It’s remarkable physical evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, or at least for the account of Lehi’s Trail.
If you insist that the three-day journey had to begin in Jerusalem, then the distances don’t work out. The distance from Jerusalem to Aqaba is over 150 miles. Reaching Wadi Tayyib all Ism would then require impossibly fast travel. Nephi’s story would then appear to be evidence against the Book of Mormon rather than for it. But as explained above, the text does not require impossibly large distances to be covered in three days.
In addition to arguing that the three-day journey must begin at Jerusalem, Dan Vogel in his comments on my prior post has argued that the distance from Aqaba to the River Laman candidate is actually 88 miles, and claims that George Potter started his journey from a port 16 miles south of Aqaba. I’m not sure how he came to these conclusions. Potter wrote in his book that his exploratory trek began in Aqaba, but exactly which part is unclear. While I think there is an error in his report of the distances from Aqaba to Haql and from Haql to the eastward turn into the mountains, the reported overall distance of just under 75 miles is reasonable, though I obtained 75.76 miles for a route that begins on the north side of Aqaba by using the Google Earth “path” tool. My route followed what appeared to be reasonable wadis and smooth paths but I may have gone further east than Potter and Wellington did. They also may have started closer to the southern boundaries of Aqaba. But frankly, if they had to travel a few miles over the “normal” limit of about 75 miles by sleeping less and traveling longer than normal on the third day, for example, I don’t think that’s a serious problem. if the ideal route turns out to be 80 or 85 miles from Aqaba, or if we have to assume Nephi started their three-day journey a few miles south of Aqaba, it’s not a fundamental problem. There’s an amazing candidate for the River Laman and the Valley Lemuel that can fit the guidelines of the Book of Mormon. Arguing that it might have required a few miles more than 75, or that the river doesn’t quite reach the Red Sea in the dry times of the year (in our era) is quibbling over minor details while ignoring the stunning important of the find at Wadi Tayyib al Ism: an unexpected river flowing to the Red Sea in an impressive valley that is accessible from the northern end of the Red Sea in a three-day journey.
Next I show a slightly different approach done at higher resolution for the lower part of the trek to better represent what I think might be a plausible route. First I show the easier, relatively flat part of the journey near the coast, taking about 49.9 miles, and then the trek through the mountains, taking about 26.6 miles, for a total trip of 76.5 miles (less if we start on the southern side of Aqaba, a couple miles further south). For the mountainous route, by the way, Google Earth allows you to see elevation along the path. The route I have marked gets as high as about 4,000 feet above sea level before descending again, but seems to avoid any sudden cliffs or impassable portions, and when zoomed in sufficiently, there’s even a local government office listed in the middle of the southern leg, not far after the high point, which might suggest that the route is indeed drivable. (I’m guessing the water is related to water management.) Here are the results from Google Earth:
As I look at these maps now, I can see room for improvement in better following the route that might add half a mile to the distance. I also would like to add information about elevation along the way, but that’s easy for the reader to check with Google Earth
Vogel also wrote in his comments to my prior post that Potter said he started at the Port of Aqaba, which is allegedly 16 miles south of the city of Aqaba. I don’t think that’s accurate. If Potter said something about starting near a port, confusion is certainly easy here since Google Maps shows at least four and maybe five sites that can be called a “Port of Aqaba,” some being far to the south of the city itself. Going clockwise around the Red Sea, we have the Port of Aqaba shown as close to Eilot (Eilat), about 3 miles west of Aqaba, then Hafen Aqaba (Hafen is German for “port”) near downtown Aqaba, then an Aqaba Port by the ferry terminal several miles south of Aqaba, and Aqaba New Port / Port of Aqaba near Jordan’s border with Egypt, which may be the port (ports?) Vogel was thinking of. The multiple port candidates may have led to some confusion. Starting in or very near to the city of Aqaba seems to give a distance of about 75 miles an oasis in Wadi Tayyib Al Ism, a reasonable place for an encampment after three days of travel in the wilderness.
Here is a view from Google Maps at https://firstname.lastname@example.org,34.8941159,11.36z?entry=ttu:
In Lehi in the Wilderness, Potter gives some details on pages 25-28. He speaks of the last caravan town that Lehi might have seen, Ezion-geber near modern Aqaba (p. 25), not some remote port. An initial approach near the Eilat/Aqaba area is the most reasonable one for Lehi’s journey. While the exact location of Ezion-geber may be unclear, Britannica says archaeological evidence points to a location at Aqaba (see “Ezion-geber“). In any case, it’s clear that Potter is starting near Aqaba. He speaks then of driving south and states that they went 25 miles to Haql (p. 25). There is a slight problem here, but it’s the opposite of the problem Vogel sees. Using Google Earth to measure the distance from a spot just north of Aqaba and then south to Haql, the distance is more like 18 or 19 miles, not 25. And then the distance south to the eastward turn seems off. But again, the overall distance, as recorded from his speedometer plus a little walking at the end, as I recall, makes sense.
Another comment from Vogel says that my problem is using Google Earth instead of Google Maps. Google Maps can show you the distance by road, which may be best for assessing the driving route that Potter may have taken (assuming the roads have not changed much in the past 25 or so years), but not necessarily the distances a caravan would have taken. Today there is a coastal road that one can take to reach the coast adjacent Wadi Tayyib al Ism. Google Maps shows a distance of 78.3 miles. Some of that is from paths that zig-zag. But since Potter reports turning into the mountains for a distance of about 6 miles and then going south, it’s fair to assume that distance he drove may be somewhat more than 75 miles. There may be a need to redo the drive to more precisely document the proposed route that Lehi would have taken. Here is the map from Google Maps showing the coastal drive to Wadi Tayyib al Ism.
Here’s a view from Google Earth showing the oasis in Wadi Tayyib Al Ism, the likely site of Lehi’s encampment (labeled Setenta Palmera for some reason) that would have had water from the river nearby and multiple palm trees, as one can see now — possibly resembling the encampment site in Exodus 15:27, as quoted above.
Note that Wadi Tayyib al Ism is not just an ideal candidate for a continually flowing stream (“river”) that flows into the fountain of the Red Sea in the welcome shade and shelter of an impressive valley, but is also an ideal candidate for a starting point for a wonderfully feasible south-southeast journey to Shazer that can literally begin just as Nephi reports: after packing up their gear, they walk across the river and begin going south-southeast. There is a wadi directly across the River Laman candidate from the logical encampment site on the north of the stream, and an opening in the canyon wall there that one can take to reach the place Shazer (or the ideal candidate as proposed by Aston). That’s part of the explanatory power that is gained by recognizing Wadi Tayyib al Ism as a candidate that follows from seeing the borders near the Red Sea as the starting place for the symbolic three-day trek imitating Moses in leading Israel past the Red Sea to a miraculous source of water.
There are still plenty of questions and a need for more data and exploration, but it surely has to count for something that actual field work has identified a site that serves as a reasonable candidate for a Book of Mormon site that Joseph Smith could not possibly have known about, no matter what squiggles someone thinks he might have seen on a map he didn’t have access to (more on that later). The Book of Mormon essentially predicts the existence of a reasonable campsite on the north side of a river of water that flows into the Red Sea and is a three-day journey from the northern end of the Red Sea, and that prediction, once thought to be sure proof that the Book of Mormon was a fraud, now is supported by solid data with printed publications, video, photos, and even satellite imagery for all to see. That site fits the Book of Mormon information, both in terms of what is there and how one gets there, as well as where one goes next (four days to Shazer). It’s a reminder that we need to take the Book of Mormon seriously, while exercising patience when the “experts” throw out tough questions about the apparent defects or gaps in the Book of Mormon. Time and time again, what seem like major weaknesses in the Book of Mormon end up becoming strengths. Hang on and keep looking patiently when challenged, for “in your patience possess ye our soul” (Luke 21:19).