One of the things I enjoy about blogging is having readers with diverse perspectives who aren’t afraid to point out flaws in my views. This forces me to either hide my face in shame for a few days or to reconsider what I said. The latter happened this week while discussing part of the evidence for Lehi’s Trail, the discovery that a perennially flowing stream in Wadi Tayyib al-Ism appears to be an excellent candidate for the River Laman in 1 Nephi 2 of the Book of Mormon. My blog post specifically looked at the peripheral issue of the “river of filthy water” that can occur when the stream Lehi may have encountered becomes a flash flood, as it did a few weeks ago with video evidence provided at Google Maps.
Some readers wondered what was so special about Joseph guessing that some river or stream somewhere has to flow into the Red Sea, even and holding up the Erie Canal as proposed inspiration for the River Laman. In response, I explained that the “wow” factor of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism isn’t the unsurprising encounter with some random river or steam as one moves from inland toward and along the coast of the sea. The “wow” factor involves details such as the correspondence between directions given in the text and the specific location of the candidate stream and valley in an unexpected, arid place. As I consider the response of some readers, it’s almost as if our critics have already forgotten that the River Laman for decades was touted as one of the more ridiculous things about the Book of Mormon (up there with the verdant site of “imaginary” Bountiful, also now confirmed in a plausible place with many supporting details) since “everyone knows” that there are no rivers in the Arabian Peninsula.
Once mocked for being absurd and impossible, Wadi Tayyib al-Ism as apparent Book of Mormon evidence is now mocked for being trivial, an inevitable feature that most farm boys could have guessed with just a moment of thought. But could they have guessed that there would be an almost never-seen perennial stream in such an arid place, adequate to support fruit trees (dates) and grain, in spite of its flow having been significantly diminished in recent years by government wells pumping water out of the region? Could they have guessed that the river/stream would be in a highly impressive valley that would provide shade and could inspire Lehi to wax poetic about the firm walls of the steep cliffs surrounding the River Laman, cliffs that come near the mouth of the “river” but stop before the Red Sea, as Nephi describes? Could they have guessed that this once-said-to-be-impossible Book of Mormon location would be within a plausible radius of three days of travel (presumably with camels) from the beginning of the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aqaba for Lehi and family), as we read in 1 Nephi 2:5-6? And that’s where I made a mistake that needs to be corrected today [update: Spoiler alert: I was wrong in thinking that Nephi’s statement was ambiguous, not that the candidate for the River Laman is plausible].
Some readers replied that the Book of Mormon says it’s three days of cumulative travel since leaving Jerusalem — not leaving anywhere near enough time to even reach the Red Sea from Jerusalem. Following George Potter and Warren Aston, I suggested in my comments that 1 Nephi 2:5-6 plausibly refers to a three-day count after the Red Sea is first encountered, and while that reading is plausible, I added my opinion that Nephi’s statement is ambiguous and admittedly could be read to imply that the three days began with the departure from Jerusalem:
1 Nephi 2:5-6 tell us that after Lehi left Jerusalem to travel in the wilderness, he then “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… 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.”
There is ambiguity here in his meaning (is he counting the travel in the wilderness in vs. 6 relative to the immediately mentioned travel in the wilderness near the Red Sea, or back to the earlier departure from Jerusalem into the wilderness? Taking it as a three-day count from the encounter with the Red Sea mentioned just before his three day reference, as Potter did, and using conventional camel speed with full days, then we have a roughly 75-mile journey distance to reach the Valley of Lemuel from the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, which works out quite well. I suppose it would be even easier (requiring a slower pace) if the three day count began when they began traveling in the borders/mountains “nearer” the Red Sea. In any case, three days from Jerusalem would be too far. Potter’s plausible reading of Nephi’s record allows Lehi to reach the River of Laman.
Thanks to the challenge from some readers, I reconsidered my views as I looked at what George Potter and Warren Aston had said and reflected on what the text really tells us. Potter is the explorer who initially found this candidate and reported that it was in a plausible location that could comply with the text. See George Potter, “A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1999): 54–63, 79; available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol8/iss1/11. Regarding the location, Potter interprets the text to say, “the valley was located within three-day’s walk or camel ride beyond the northeast tip of the Red Sea (see 1 Nephi 2:5–6)” (p. 57). Why the text requires that view is not explained. Warren Aston, an expert on Lehi’s Trail who did the original field work for the most plausible candidate for Bountiful at Khor Karfot in Oman and has some brilliant insights to share from there and also from the Nahom area, says a bit more about the three days journey of 1 Nephi 2:5-6 in his excellent and detailed work on Lehi’s Trail, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015). Though his treatment of the Valley of Lemuel is relatively brief and ultimately calls for more field work to confirm the merits of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism and to consider other potential candidates that have proposed (fieldwork that he recently conducted, as I discussed in “A Feast of Knowledge Awaits“), Aston does say this regarding the location in the chapter “Base Camp in the Valley of Lemuel” in Part 2 (Kindle edition):
A careful reading of [1 Nephi] 2:5-6 makes it clear that it was not from Jerusalem, but rather from the head of the Red Sea, where the twin cities of Eilat and Aqaba now lie, that the Lehites traveled another three days “in the wilderness.” Reaching the Red Sea had already required as much as ten days’ travel from Jerusalem, so the “three days” travel further into the wilderness began at this point. This allows us to identify the general area where this significant campsite must have been as three days’ travel with loaded camels must be in the order of 50 to 70 miles distant from the Aqaba area.
Here, in a valley beside a “river of water,” they set up camp, for what may have been a considerable period. Nephi tells us that their camp was “in the borders nearer the Red Sea” beside a river that “emptied into the Red Sea” (2:5, 8). Lehi used the appearance of the valley, “firm and steadfast, and immovable” (2:10) as an object lesson when exhorting Lemuel, and so the place came to be known as the “Valley of Lemuel” (2:14).
Of their eight years in the wilderness, the majority may have been spent here, in Dedan, ancient Midian, safely distant from Jerusalem. The valley was a base camp for them to more properly prepare for the long desert journey that lay ahead and the epic sea voyage that would then follow. Indeed, most of the Old World account takes place while they were living here. From here, Nephi and his three older brothers would return twice to Jerusalem, firstly to obtain the brass records from Laban (resulting also in the unplanned addition of Laban’s servant Zoram), and the second time to bring additional manpower in the form of Ishmael’s family. Their arrival back at the camp would more than double the size of the group, and the need for adequate food supplies. Nephi’s statement that they “gathered together all manner of seeds” (8:1), apparently to augment those brought from Jerusalem, suggests that their stay in the valley was both preparatory and long enough to include at least one growing season. [emphasis added]
While I also felt that Nephi’s wording appears to be referring to the time from the previously mentioned encounter with the Red Sea, neither of the statements from Potter and Aston seem to remove the ambiguity that I could see after consider the views from readers who disagreed with this interpretation. So I went back to the text and reconsidered — and that’s when I discovered I had made a mistake, or been hasty in my conclusion, for Nephi’s wording might not be as ambiguous as it seems at first glance.
Here’s the text of 1 Nephi 2:1-6:
 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.
Here I can see why others might think the three days refer to time since leaving Jerusalem, for chapter begins with Lehi being commanded to “depart into the wilderness” (2), and so “he departed into the wilderness” (3), and thus left all his goods except provisions and tents, “and departed into the wilderness.” Three times we have this phrase, “depart/departed into the wilderness,” and it refers to leaving Jerusalem to begin his long journey. So later in verse 6, after Lehi “had traveled three days in the wilderness” and discovered “a river of water,” it is certainly plausible that Nephi means three days since they “departed into the wilderness.” One could say that not only is there ambiguity, but the “three days since Jerusalem” reading is more faithful to the text.
As with many things in the Book of Mormon and especially in Nephi’s writings, there are interesting rhetorical or literary tools employed that often shed added meaning or help reveal the intent from the author.
Looking again at verses 5 and 6, two things hit me that I should have noticed before. First, Nephi is employing an interesting and common literary tool variously called “repetitive resumption,” “resumptive repetition,” epanalepsis, and Wideraufnahme (taking up again), wherein a parenthetical remark or departure from the main story line is flagged by a repeated phrase or word before and after the inserted remark. For some background and examples, I recommend these resources:
- Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber, “The Resumptive Repetition (Wiederaufnahme),” TheTorah.com.
- “Why Did Nephite Authors Use Repetitive Resumption?,” Book of Mormon Central, March 13, 2018.
- Larry G. Childs, “Epanalepsis in the Book of Mormon,” Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium 12, no. 1 (1986): 158-163. Childs explores this literary tool and finds that its use in the Book of Mormon does not remotely match Joseph Smith’s own writings and suggests that the translation of the Book of Mormon reflects relatively literal translation (or I would say, relatively tight control, at least in many cases).
Now consider repetitive resumption in verses 5 and 6 of 2 Nephi 2. Lehi “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,” after which we have an aside or parenthetical remark telling us who was in that family, followed by the flag that is meant to pick up and continue the story from immediately before the aside: “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.” The three days of travel is a continuation of this episode of traveling in the wilderness in the borders near or nearer the Red Sea. This period of travel is using different language than the phase of departing from Jerusalem. Interestingly, just as “depart/departed into the wilderness” was used three times in the initial departure stage,” after they “came” to the Red Sea, we then have three occurrences of a related but different phrase: “travel/traveled in the wilderness.” The tool of repetitive resumption flags this action, taking place in the borders near or nearer to the Red Sea, and tells us that it continued for three days.
In light of the literary devices used here, I suggest that I was wrong in my prior statement about the ambiguity of Nephi’s statement. I don’t think it’s actually ambiguous. I think his language requires looking at the three days journey as limited to the “travel” phase that began after meeting the Red Sea. The River Laman and the Valley of Lemuel aren’t required to be in an impossible location just south of Jerusalem, where no river can possibly flow into the Red Sea, but south of the Gulf of Aqaba in the borders/mountains near the Red Sea, where it is not only theoretically possible to locate something like the River Laman, but where an excellent candidate has now been found that actually is within a three-day journey by camel from Aqaba (or regions thereabout) to the amazing Wadi Tayyib al-Ism.
Second, Nephi uses “travel in the wilderness” three times, just as he did with “depart into the wilderness,” possibly as if this section of travel is parallel with the initial departure scene. One episode begins in Jerusalem with divine revelation and seeing a book in vision, and the next phase of the adventure begins after the encounter with the Red Sea, a phase abounding in miracles, trials, and revelation, along with obtaining a divine book (the brass plates), with both stages rich in Exodus themes.
The significance of this latter phase of travel being associated with “the border near the Red Sea” is again picked up many chapters later in 1 Nephi 16:14, after having left the Valley of Lemuel that was in the borders “nearer the Red Sea,” where, after hunting animals in the place called Shazer, they “did go forth again in the wilderness, following the same direction [roughly south-southeast], keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea.” So it seems that after the time in the Valley of Lemuel, they had gone from the borders “nearer” the Red Sea back to the borders “near” the Red Sea, meaning they weren’t right next to the Red Sea as they were while in the Valley of Lemuel, but had moved somewhat away from the Red Sea, as seems to be required for the journey to Nahom via the general direction of the Incense Trail. That is consistent with the route proposed by Potter, in which they went away from the Red Sea back to the main trails that connected to the Incense Trail, putting some space and mountains between them and the Red Sea. It’s a subtlety in the text I had not noticed before. Something Joseph must have picked up from Joseph’s Technicolor Dream Map of Arabia that he used, I suppose. Seriously, there are many delightful details in Nephi’s account that correspond with details from antiquity and the Near East. Much to ponder there.
Resuming where I left off, I believe I was wrong in my comments about the three days issue, for I don’t think that Nephi was truly ambiguous about where the three days’ journey began. Based on his structure and his use of repetitive resumption, the time assigned is surely intended as the time in that second phase, the phase that began after reaching the Red Sea, the time since traveling in the borders near the Red Sea (or nearer the Red Sea — perhaps there’s a touch of ambiguity there after all). Aston and Potter instinctively understood that this was Nephi’s message, and I think considering the literary devices involved shows that Nephi was not being sloppy in his wording, but relatively clear. As with all texts and translations especially, there’s room for misunderstanding, but the case for dismissing the “wow” of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism because of the impossibility of reaching the Red Sea in three days relies on a weak reading that strives to miss misses the plain significance of some very interesting evidence.