Of the many interesting details in Nephi’s description of his journey through the Arabian Peninsula, one of the first comes after his mention of reaching the “borders” of the Red Sea after they have left Jerusalem. It states that they traveled for three days in the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:5-6). But three days from where? Let’s consider those verses with adjacent verses from 1 Nephi 2:
 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.
 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.
 And it came to pass that he was obedient unto the word of the Lord, wherefore he did as the Lord commanded him.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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!
 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!
This passage can be read in two ways. One way sees it as a description of a journey that began after reaching the Red Sea, meaning that the three days were counted after reaching the Red Sea. Another sees the journey into the wilderness as simply a continuation of the journey that began with leaving Jerusalem. After all, in v. 2, “they departed into the wilderness.” So when Nephi later writes that they “traveled three days in the wilderness,” doesn’t that mean three days total since leaving Jerusalem?
It’s an interesting question because the story either makes amazing sense or becomes ridiculous based on how one understands the three days’ journey. If the three days is counted from the initial encounter with the Red Sea, then a three-day journey by camel or about 75 miles is just right to reach a seemingly miraculous site, unknown in Joseph’s day, where a completely unexpected continually flowing stream of water exists in an impressive valley with firm, steep walls whose stream empties into the Red Sea, as described by Nephi. In other words, an seemingly ideal and very surprising candidate exists for such a river/stream of water in a place that supposedly has no such streams (except briefly after a rare rainstorm), and it’s three days from the Red Sea. That candidate, known today as Wadi Tayyib-al-Ism, provides a protected location with a good spot for an encampment that is also in just the right spot for the next leg of the journey, a four-day’s journey to the place Shazer, as described in 1 Nephi 17:
 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.
 And it came to pass that we did gather together whatsoever things we should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of our provisions which the Lord had given unto us; and we did take seed of every kind that we might carry into the wilderness.
 And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman.
 And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer.
Amazingly, the ideal encampment site in the wadi by the River Laman candidate is on the north side of the stream, and just across the stream is an opening in the walls of the canyon that one can take and travel generally south-southeast to reach an excellent candidate for the place Shazer. The opening is literally across the stream, so that one can do exactly as Nephi said, packing up (undoubtedly using camels to carry the heavy tents of the day) and just walking across the shallow “river” and then walking toward Shazer. They did not have to backtrack for miles to get back to a main trail outside the narrow canyon. See Warren P. Aston, “Nephi’s ‘Shazer’: The Fourth Arabian Pillar of the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 39 (2020): 53-72. Here’s the proposed route from the Valley of Lemuel to Warren Aston’s Shazer candidate:
Note that in going to Shazer, they again traveled “into the wilderness” and traveled for four days to reach their next destination. This surely does not mean a total trip of four days, or total travel time of four days in the wilderness since Jerusalem, but four days for that leg. They departed into the wilderness as they left Jerusalem and then came to the borders of the Red Sea. Then they “traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family…. 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” (1 Nephi 2:5,6).
As with the four days’ travel in the wilderness to Shazer, Nephi’s journey of three days to the River Laman and the Valley of Lemuel reads most naturally if taken as three days for that leg, the leg that began when they reached the Red Sea.
Reading it as three days total to the River Laman requires traveling impossibly fast. For our critics, it makes Joseph Smith a fool who could not make sense of distances on a map, in spite of being the resourceful plagiarizer who allegedly used rare high-end maps of the Arabian Peninsula to come up with intricate details like the place name Nahom from the tiny site of Nehhem in Yemen and or who could see a squiggle or two for a wadi or perhaps the words “Felix Arabia” to inspire a proposal for the lush, green site of Bountiful, nearly due east of Nahom, that would pan out almost miraculously over a century later as skeptics declared that no such place could exist in Arabia.
So what does one do when a text seems ambiguous, with one reading leading to interesting “enhancements” such as surprising fits with geographical or archaeological data, better correlation with later portions of the text, or overall added explanatory power once that reading is applied, while the other reading leads to an obvious fatal flaw that leaves the text hopelessly unrealistic or even impossible? Two choices, one that adds light and one that turns the light off — which one makes more sense?
This kind of scenario happens many times in various fields when there is uncertainty or ambiguity in how something might be understood. It can happen in evaluating scientific data or historical events, in weighing evidence and statements in jury trials, in translating a passage from a foreign language, or in reading poetry and deciding which of several possible meanings a poet have intended for an ambiguous word. If a seemingly plausible first interpretation leads to dead ends or ridiculous results, while a reasonable second reading opens up new windows of understanding as the result better fits with other data or provides explanatory power that helps things make more sense, then that second reading should be entertained even if the reader would be happy with the dead end from the first reading. The apparent new windows of understanding should not be closed, but at least entertained long enough to see if the path opened up leads somewhere meaningful. This is reading a text with generosity, or “giving the text (or evidence) a chance.” Of course, for purely polemical purposes, one can force any reading one wants onto a text one dislikes or onto the words of an opponent and declare victory, but this is not a path to understanding.
But What About the Header to 1 Nephi? Nephi’s Use of Exodus Themes
Dan Vogel recently made an interesting observation in a comment to a previous post of mine, “Three Days to the Valley of Lemuel — But From Where?” He argues that there is no ambiguity in the passage about the three-day journey and insists there is only one reading, based on Nephi’s header to the book of First Nephi. Vogel writes:
Nephi wasn’t ambiguous in his superscription: “The Lord warns Lehi to depart out of the land of Jerusalem. … He taketh three days’ journey into the wilderness with his family.” The late Bill Hamblin recognized this was a problem.
The point of the post that received Dan’s comment was to show that in light of the rhetorical or poetic tools Nephi applied, there really should be no ambiguity in the meaning of the three-days’ journey in 1 Nephi 2, for Nephi is clearly referring to three days since the Red Sea, not three days since Jerusalem. That may be even more clear when we consider, as discussed above, his next leg of wilderness travel requiring four days (obviously four days more, not in total) to Shazer. But Vogel makes a point that needs consideration: what does Nephi mean when he speaks of a “three days’ journey into the wilderness” in the header for First Nephi? It definitely sounds like the only travel mentioned between Jerusalem and their camp at the side of the River of Laman. Here’s the header:
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.
In this telegraphic summary, the only time of travel mentioned is the three days in the wilderness. Not the four days to Shazer, or the many days or many years (1 Nephi 17:4) of the rest of the journey. So does this necessarily refer to the entire trip from Jerusalem to the River of Laman, or is he highlighting the final three-day leg of that trip for some reason? Is there any explanatory power, any new meaningful insights, if we read the three-days’ journey in the header as a reference to the leg of their journey that began in the borders near the Red Sea? Why would Nephi even bother elevating that little detail, a three-day journey, to be included in his brief summary?
To understand what Nephi likely intended, we should consider Nephi’s agenda. He’s not just telling us random tidbits about a trip to escape Jerusalem. He’s describing an Exodus-like trek to a new Promised Land, led by a Moses-like prophet. Allusions to the Exodus play an important and clearly deliberate role in Nephi’s writings. See Terrence L. Szink, “Nephi and the Exodus,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1991), 50–51; Kent S. Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1998), 75–98; John W. Welch and Greg Welch, “1 Nephi and Exodus,” Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1999; and “Book of Mormon Evidence: Exodus and Nephi’s Wilderness Journey,” Evidence Central, Aug. 15, 2022.
Given Nephi’s many efforts to draw attention to parallels with the Israelite Exodus, the three days’ journey portion of the trip is a natural one to highlight. Recall that once Moses crossed the Red Sea, he led the Israelites into the wilderness for three days without water, and then water was provided with a miracle (Exodus 15: 22-25). [This paragraph was modified slightly on Dec. 26, 2023 for clarity, and the short paragraph after it was added.] The wording of Exodus 15:22 echoes Nephi’s account with a departure from the Red Sea (the water comes immediately after): “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.” Then they came to Marah, apparently still in the wilderness of Shur, but “could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter” (v. 23), but the Lord guided Moses to cast a particular tree into the water, miraculously making the water sweet (v. 25). In Nephi’s account, after they reach the borders of the Red Sea, then they travel three days in the wilderness, and reach a surprising river of water. It’s a reasonable parallel. Reach the Red Sea, travel three days in an arid wilderness, and then find miraculous water. (The parallel works best if the arrival at Marah occurs later on the third day, or if Nephi could plausibly have read it that way.) In 1 Nephi 2:5-6, just as Moses brought Israel along on this journey, so Nephi is bringing his family of Israelites. A desire to echo the phrase “So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea” of Exodus 15:22 may explain why Nephi rather redundantly restates who is with him as the three-day journey begins: “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” (1 Nephi 2:5). If Nephi’s reference to a three-day journey in that passage makes the most sense as a parallel to the Exodus based on three days travel from the Red Sea to a miraculous fresh water source, then his reference to that same journey in the header must be understood as an effort to emphasize the Exodus themes associated with that leg of the journey rather than new information that three days refers to the entire journey from Jerusalem to the River Laman (or to Bountiful, for that matter).
On the other hand, or in addition, the reference to a journey of three days also reflects the request Moses made of Pharaoh to depart from their abode and travel three days in the wilderness to offer sacrifices (Exodus 3:18; 5:3; and 8:27). Indeed, once Lehi completes the three-day journey and arrives at the Valley of Lemuel, he offers sacrifices of gratitude to God. This parallel to the Exodus account may also have been intended by Nephi. Moses’s requests were denied, so it may be that Nephi chose to emphasize the three-day journey that was completed, the one from the Red Sea, while also echoing the aspect of sacrifice in the original requests Moses made.
There would be less potential ambiguity about the starting point of the three-day journey if Nephi had clarified that the wilderness (or portion of the wilderness) of the three-day journey was the one he had just mentioned in the previous verse, the wilderness near the Red Sea, but it’s still the most natural reading of the passage without such redundancy. The reference to “three days” in the heading for 1 Nephi refers to this highly symbolic and Exodus-like aspect of a much longer journey. It fits perfectly with Nephi’s agenda of drawing connections to the Exodus, makes sense grammatically, and has the bonus of nicely fitting what we now know of the long-undocumented geography of the Arabian Peninsula: that there is a surprising source of flowing fresh water within a three-day journey (by camel, of course) from the “borders of the Red Sea” near or “nearer’ the shore that Nephi would first encounter at the north end of the Red Sea. The Exodus parallel and the fit to real geography weighs heavily in favor of the most natural interpretation of Nephi’s words, and weighs against the alternate reading favored by those who prefer a non-miraculous, naturalistic origin of the book. That naturalistic reading with Joseph as the clueless author describing an impossibly fast journey does not lead to a unity of evidence or new windows of insight into Book of Mormon origins, and fails to explain the gems of the Arabian Peninsula such as the River Laman, the plausible location of Nahom and its relationship to ancient Nihm/Nehem tribal lands, the location of Shazer, or the miracle of at least one solid candidate for Bountiful nearly due east of Nahom. But great added insight and explanatory power comes when we accept the three day journey as one that began at the Red Sea.
I think the natural reading is far superior to the naturalistic one.