Echoes and Evidences from the Writings of Hugh Nibley

“From the Book of Mormon we learn that through the centuries the Jews have had as it were a double history. Along with the conventional story of the nation as recorded in the official accounts kept closely under the control of the schoolmen, there has coexisted in enforced obscurity another Israel, a society of righteous seekers zealously devoting their lives to the preservation of the law of their fathers in all its purity and considering the bulk of their nation to have fallen into sin and transgression. . . . Often they took to the desert and lived in family groups or communities there, teaching the law and the prophets to each other and looking forward prayerfully to the coming of the Messiah. There were many dreamers among them and real prophets as well, for they believed—unlike the scribes and doctors of official Jewry—in continued prophecy. Also they practiced rites rejected by the majority of the nation and talked constantly of such things as the resurrection of the flesh and the eternities to come—things which though they figure prominently enough in the apocryphal writings and also the Talmud, are hardly found at all in the official canon of Jewish scripture. They were a sober, watchful, industrious people, sorely distressed by the wickedness of their nation as a whole; and that nation would have nothing to do with them and did all it could to obscure the fact that they even existed. This briefly is the picture the Book of Mormon paints of Lehi and his ancestors, who had from time to time been driven out of Jerusalem for looking forward too eagerly for the Messiah. It is also the picture that now meets us in the abundant and ever-increasing documents which have come forth from the caves in Palestine almost in a steady stream since the first find was made in 1947. For some years the best scholars, Jewish and Christian, fought strenuously against accepting any of the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls as genuine—they must be medieval forgeries, it was argued, since the picture they presented was one totally at variance with the picture which had been delineated by the meticulous labors of generations of devoted scholars. . . . And as new scrolls are unrolled, the picture itself is unrolling—the picture of that other Israel that lived in obscurity and hope, first sketched out for us in the Book of Mormon and now for the first time emerging into the light of history.”1


“The Book of Mormon draws us the picture of another and totally different type of society which has become a historical reality only within the last thirty years or so. It was once thought that the world which Homer described was purely the product of his own inventive genius. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, however, the shrewd and observant English scholar and traveler Robert Wood had the idea of writing ‘a detailed work in which similarities of the cultures exhibited in the Old Testament, in Homer, and in the Near East of his own day should be collected, and prove that a “Heroic Age” is a real and recurrent type in human society.’ Wood died before he could produce the work, and it was not until the 1930s that Milman Parry showed that what is called a heroic poetry is necessarily ‘created by a people who are living in a certain way, and so have a certain outlook on life, and our understanding of the heroic will come only as we learn what that way of living is and grasp that outlook.’ Then Chadwick showed that epic poetry cannot possibly be produced except in and by a genuine epic milieu, as he called it—a highly developed, complex, very peculiar but firmly established and very ancient cultural structure. How ancient may be guessed from Kramer’s recent and confident attempt to describe the culture of the earliest Sumerians in detail simply on the basis of the knowledge that they produced a typical epic literature. Knowing that, one may be sure that theirs was the same culture that is described in epic poetry throughout the world, for epic cannot be faked: innumerable attempts to produce convincing epics by the creative imagination are almost pitifully transparent. Now one of the books of the Book of Mormon, the book of Ether, comes right out of that epic milieu, which it faithfully reproduces, though of course the world of Joseph Smith had never heard of such a thing as an epic milieu. Here is a good test for the Book of Mormon. It is but one of many—all awaiting fuller treatment, and none as yet settled with any degree of finality. But the mere fact that there are such tests is a most astonishing thing. That one can actually talk about the Book of Mormon seriously and with growing respect after all that has been discovered in the last 125 years is, considering the nature of its publication, as far as I am concerned, in itself ample proof of its genuineness.”2


“When we speak of Jerusalem, it is important to notice Nephi’s preference for a nonbiblical expression, ‘the land of Jerusalem’ (1 Nephi 3:10), in designating his homeland. While he and his brothers always regard ‘the land of Jerusalem’ as their home, it is perfectly clear from a number of passages that ‘the land of our father’s inheritance’ (1 Nephi 3:16) cannot possibly be within, or even very near, the city, even though Lehi had ‘dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days’ (1 Nephi 1:4). The terms seem confused, but they correctly reflect actual conditions, for in the Amarna letters we read of ‘the land of Jerusalem’ as an area larger than the city itself, and even learn in one instance that ‘a city of the land of Jerusalem, Bet-Ninib, has been captured.’ It was the rule in Palestine and Syria, as the same letters show, for a large area around a city and all the inhabi-tants of that area to bear the name of the city. This was a holdover from the times when the city and the land were a single political unit, comprising a city-state; when this was absorbed into a larger empire, the original identity was preserved, though it had lost its original political significance. The same conservatism made it possible for Socrates to be an Athenian, and nothing else, even though he came from the village of Alopeke, at some distance from the city. This arrangement deserves mention because many have pointed to the statement of Alma 7:10 that the Savior would be born ‘at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers’ as sure proof of fraud. It is rather the opposite, faithfully preserving the ancient terminology to describe a system which has only been recently rediscovered.“3

“While the Book of Mormon refers to the city of Jerusalem plainly and unmistakably over sixty times, it refers over forty times to another and entirely different geographical entity which is always designated as ‘the land of Jerusalem.’ In the New World also every major Book of Mormon city is surrounded by a land of the same name.4


“At the end of the last century scholars were mystified to find that a demotic prophecy datable to the time of Bocchoris (718–712 BC), in which coming destructions were predicted with the promise of a Messiah to follow, was put into the mouth of ‘the Lamb’ (pa-hib). Greek sources inform us that this prophecy enjoyed very great circulation in ancient times. The strange wording of Lehi’s great prophecy, uttered by ‘the Lamb’ (1 Nephi 13:34, 41), is thus seen to be no anachronism, taken from Hellenistic or Christian times, as was once maintained.”5


“Whether or not Nehi and Nehri are in any way related to the name Nephi (there are other Egyptian names that come nearer) remains to be investigated. But no philologist will refuse to acknowledge the possible identity of the Book of Mormon Korihor with the Egyptian Kherihor, and none may deny, philologist or not, a close resemblance between Sam and Sam (the brother of Nephi).”6

“[In the Book of Mormon] the experiment with government by priestly judges collapsed, largely due to a rivalry for the chief judgeship among three candidates, all sons of the great chief judge, Pahoran. Their names are Pahoran, Paanchi, and Pacumeni (Helaman 1:1–3). . . . The name of Pahoran reflects the Palestinian Pahura (for the Egyptian Pa-her-an; cf. Pa-her-y, ‘the Syrian’), which is ‘reformed’ Egyptian, i.e., a true Egyptian title, but altered in such a way as to adapt it to the Canaanite speech. Pahura (also written Puhuru) was in Amarna times an Egyptian governor (rabu) of Syria. The same man, or another man with the same name, was placed by Pharaoh as governor of the Ube district, with his headquarters at Kumedi (cf. the element –kumen in the Book of Mormon place-names). Paanchi is simply the well-known Egyptian Paiankh (also rendered Pianchi, Paankh, etc.). . . . Pacumeni, the name of the third son, resembles that borne by some of the last priest governors of Egypt, whose names are rendered Pa-menech, Pa-mnkh, Pamenches, etc.”7

“Another Book of Mormon judge, Cezoram, has a name that suggests that of an Egyptian governor of a Syrian city: Chi-zi-ri.8

“Paanchi, the son of Pahoran, and pretender to the chief-judgeship, has the same name as one of the best-known kings in Egyptian history, a contemporary of Isaiah and chief actor in the drama of Egyptian history at a time in which the history was intimately involved in the affairs of Palestine. Yet his name, not mentioned in the Bible, remained unknown to scholars until the end of the nineteenth century.”9

“The name of Lemuel is not a conventional Hebrew one, for it occurs only in one chapter of the Old Testament (Proverbs 31:1, 4), where it is commonly supposed to be a rather mysterious poetic substitute for Solomon. It is, however, like Lehi, at home in the south desert, where an Edomite text from ‘a place occupied by tribes descended from Ishmael’ bears the title ‘The Words of Lemuel, King of Massa.’ These people, though speaking a language that was almost Arabic, were yet well within the sphere of Jewish religion, for ‘we have nowhere else any evidence for saying that the Edomites used any other peculiar name for their deity’ than ‘Yahweh, the God of Hebrews.'”10


“The editors of the Book of Mormon have given a whole verse to Nephi’s laconic statement ‘And my father dwelt in a tent’ (1 Nephi 2:15), and rightly so, since Nephi himself finds the fact very significant and refers constantly to his father’s tent as the center of his universe. To an Arab, ‘My father dwelt in a tent’ says everything. . . . So with the announcement that his ‘father dwelt in a tent,’ Nephi serves notice that he had assumed the desert way of life, as perforce he must for his journey. Any easterner would appreciate the significance and importance of the statement, which to us seems almost trivial. If Nephi seems to think of his father’s tent as the hub of everything, he is simply expressing the view of any normal Bedouin, to whom the tent of the sheikh is the sheet anchor of existence.”11

“It is most significant how Nephi speaks of his father’s tent; it is the official center of all administration and authority. First the dogged instance of Nephi on telling us again and again that ‘my father dwelt in a tent’ (1 Nephi 2:15; 9:1; 10:16; 16:6). So what? we ask, but to an Oriental that statement says everything. Since time immemorial the whole population of the Near East have been either tent-dwellers or house-dwellers, the people of the bait ash-sha’r or the bait at-tin, ‘houses of hair or houses of clay.’ It was Harmer who first pointed out that one and the same person may well alternate between the one way of life and the other, and he cites the case of Laban in Genesis 31, where ‘one is surprised to find both parties so suddenly equipped with tents for their accommodation in traveling,’ though they had all along been living in houses. Not only has it been the custom for herdsmen and traders to spend part of the year in tents and part in houses, but ‘persons of distinction’ in the East have always enjoyed spending part of the year in tents for the pure pleasure of a complete change. It is clear from 1 Nephi 3:1; 4:38; 5:7; 7:5, 21–22; 15:1; 16:10 that Lehi’s tent is the headquarters for all activities, all discussion and decisions.”12


“Is it any wonder that Laman and Lemuel worked off their pent-up frustration by beating their youngest brother with a stick when they were once hiding in a cave? Every free man in the East carries a stick, the immemorial badge of independence and of authority, and every man asserts his authority over his inferiors by his stick, ‘which shows that the holder is a man of position, superior to the workman or day-labourers. The government officials, superior officers, tax-gatherers, and schoolmasters use this short rod to threaten—or if necessary to beat—their inferiors, whoever they may be.’ The usage is very ancient. ‘A blow for a slave’ is the ancient maxim in Ahikar, and the proper designation of an underling is abida-1’asa, ‘stick-servant.’ This is exactly the sense in which Laman and Lemuel intended their little lesson to Nephi, for when the angel turned the tables he said to them, ‘Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you?‘ (1 Nephi 3:29).”13


“The first important stop after Lehi’s party had left their base camp was at a place they called Shazer (1 Nephi 16:13–14). The name is intriguing. The combination shajer is quite common in Palestinian place-names; it is a collective meaning ‘trees,’ and many Arabs (especially in Egypt) pronounce it shazher. It appears in Thoghret-as-Sajur (the Pass of Trees), which is the ancient Shaghur, written Segor in the sixth century. It may be confused with Shaghur ‘seepage,’ which is held to be identical with Shihor, the ‘black river’ of Joshua 19:36. This last takes in western Palestine the form Sozura, suggesting the name of a famous water hole in South Arabia, called Shisur by Thomas and Shisar by Philby. It is a ‘tiny copse’ and one of the loneliest spots in all the world. So we have Shihor, Shaghur, Sajur, Saghir, Segor (even Zoar), Shajar, Sozura, Shisur, and Shisar, all connected somehow or other and denoting either seepage—a weak but reliable water supply—or a clump of trees. Whichever one prefers, Lehi’s people could hardly have picked a better name for their first suitable stopping place than Shazer.”14


“Speaking of Lehi’s poetry, we should not overlook the latest study on the qasida, that of Alfred Bloch, who distinguishes four types of verse in the earliest desert poetry: (1) the ragaz-utterances to accompany any rhythmical work; (2) verses for instruction or information; (3) elegies, specializing in sage reflections on the meaning of life; and (4) Reiselieder, recited on a journey to make the experience more pleasant and edifying. Lehi’s qasida (1 Nephi 2:9–10), as we described it in Lehi in the Desert, conforms neatly to any of the last three of these types, thus vindicating its claims to be genuine.”15

“One of the most revealing things about Lehi is the nature of his great eloquence. It must not be judged by modern or western standards, as people are prone to judge the Book of Mormon as literature. In this lesson we take the case of a bit of poetry recited extempore by Lehi to his two sons to illustrate certain peculiarities of the Oriental idiom and especially to serve as a test-case in which a number of very strange and exacting conditions are most rigorously observed in the Book of Mormon account. Those are the conditions under which ancient desert poetry was composed. Some things that appear at first glance to be most damning to the Book of Mormon, such as the famous passage in 2 Nephi 1:14 about no traveler returning from the grave, turn out on closer inspection to provide striking confirmation of its correctness.”16


“By all odds the most interesting and attractive passenger in Jared’s company is deseret, the honeybee. We cannot pass this creature by without a glance at its name and possible significance, for our text betrays an interest in deseret that goes far beyond respect for the feat of transporting insects, remarkable though that is. The word deseret, we are told (Ether 2:3), ‘by interpretation is a honeybee,’ the word plainly coming from the Jaredite language, since Ether (or Moroni) must interpret it. Now it is a remarkable coincidence that the word deseret, or something very close to it, enjoyed a position of ritual prominence among the founders of the classical Egyptian civilization, who associated it very closely with the symbol of the bee.”17


“There is one tale of intrigue in the book of Ether that presents very ancient and widespread (though but recently discovered) parallels. That is the story of Jared’s daughter. . . . This is indeed a strange and terrible tradition of throne succession, yet there is no better attested tradition in the early world than the ritual of the dancing princess (represented by the salme priestess of the Babylonians, hence the name Salome) who wins the heart of a stranger and induces him to marry her, behead the old king, and mount the throne. I once collected a huge dossier on this awful woman and even read a paper on her at an annual meeting of the American Historical Association. You find out all about the sordid triangle of the old king, the challenger, and the dancing beauty from Frazer, Jane Harrison, Altheim, B. Schweitzer, Farnell, and any number of folklorists. The thing to note especially is that there actually seems to have been a succession rite of great antiquity that followed this pattern. It is the story behind the rites at Olympia and the Ara Sacra and the wanton and shocking dances of the ritual hierodules throughout the ancient world. Though it is not without actual historical parallels, as when in AD 998 the sister of the khalif obtained as a gift the head of the ruler of Syria, the episode of the dancing princess is at all times essentially a ritual, and the name of Salome is perhaps no accident, for her story is anything but unique. Certainly the book of Ether is on the soundest possible ground in attributing the behavior of the daughter of Jared to the inspiration of ritual texts—secret directories on the art of deposing an aging king. The Jaredite version, incidentally, is quite different from the Salome story of the Bible, but is identical with many earlier accounts that have come down to us in the oldest records of civilization.”18


“But who gave the brother of Jared the idea about stones in the first place? It was not the Lord, who left him entirely on his own; and yet the man went right to work as if he knew exactly what he was doing. Who put him on to it? The answer is indicated in the fact that he was following the pattern of Noah’s ark, for in the oldest records of the human race the ark seems to have been illuminated by just such shining stones. We have said that if the story of the luminous stones was lifted from any ancient source, that source was not the Talmud (with which the Book of Mormon account has only a distant relationship) but a much older and fuller tradition, with which the Ether story displays much closer affinities. The only trouble here is that these older and fuller traditions were entirely unknown to the world in the time of Joseph Smith, having been brought to light only in the last generation.”19


“Nothing in the Book of Mormon itself has excited greater hilarity and derision than Joseph Smith’s report that the original record was engraved on gold plates, the account being condensed from much fuller records on bronze plates. Today scores of examples of ancient historical and religious writings on sacred and profane plates of gold, silver, and bronze make this part of Joseph Smith’s story seem rather commonplace. But it was anything but commonplace a hundred years ago, when the idea of sacred records being written on metal plates was thought just too funny for words.”20


“In the time of Jeremiah, or shortly before, a certain Jonadab ben Rechab had led a colony of permanent settlers from Jerusalem into the wilderness, where his descendants survived through all succeeding centuries as the strange and baffling nation of the Rekhabites. What makes them baffling is their Messianic religion, which is so much like primitive Christianity in many ways that it has led some scholars to argue that those people must have been of Christian origin, though the historical evidence for their great antiquity is unquestionable. When one considers that Jonadab’s project was almost contemporary (perhaps slightly prior) to Lehi’s, that his name, ending in –adab, is of a type peculiar to the period and to the Book of Mormon, and that the Book of Mormon specifically states that the Lord had led other people out of Jerusalem beside Lehi, and that the Rekhabite teachings are strangely like those in the Book of Mormon, one is forced to admit at very least the possibility that Lehi’s exodus could have taken place in the manner described, and the certainty that other such migrations actually did take place.”21


“Lehi’s intimacy with desert practices becomes apparent right at the outset of his journey, not only in the skillful way he managed things but also in the quaint and peculiar practices he observed, such as those applying to the naming of places in the desert. The stream at which he made his first camp Lehi named after his eldest son; the valley, after his second son (1 Nephi 2:8). The oasis at which his party made their next important camp ‘we did call . . . Shazer’ (1 Nephi 16:13). The fruitful land by the sea ‘we called Bountiful,’ while the sea itself ‘we called Irreantum’ (1 Nephi 17:5). By what right do these people rename streams and valleys to suit themselves? By the immemorial custom of the desert, to be sure. Among the laws ‘which no Bedouin would dream of transgressing,’ the first, according to Jennings-Bramley, is that ‘any water you may discover, either in your own or in the territory of another tribe, is named after you.’ So it happens that in Arabia a great wady (valley) will have different names at different points along its course, a respectable number of names being ‘all used for one and the same valley. . . . One and the same place may have several names, and the wady running close to the same, or the mountain connected with it, will naturally be called differently by different clans,’ according to Canaan, who tells how the Arabs ‘often coin a new name for a locality for which they have never used a proper name, or whose name they do not know,’ the name given being usually that of some person.”22


“Eduard Meyer says that all [Israel’s] power and authority went back originally to the first land-allotments made among the leaders of the migratory host when they settled down in their land of promise. Regardless of wealth of influence or ability, no one could belong to the old aristocracy who did not still possess ‘the land of his inheritance.’ This institution—or attitude—plays a remarkably conspicuous role in the Book of Mormon. Not only does Lehi leave ‘the land of his inheritance’ (1 Nephi 2:4) but whenever his people wish to establish a new society they first of all make sure to allot and define the lands of their inheritance, which first allotment is regarded as inalienable. No matter where a group or family move to in later times, the first land allotted to them is always regarded as ‘the land of their inheritance,’ thus Alma 22:28; 54:12–13; Ether 7:16—in these cases the expression ‘land of first inheritance’ is used (Mormon 2:27–28; 1 Nephi 13:15; Alma 35:9, 14; 43:12; Jacob 3:4; Alma 62:42; Mormon 3:17). This is a powerful argument for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon both because the existence of such a system is largely the discovery of modern research and because it is set forth in the Book of Mormon very distinctly and yet quite casually.”23


“In Zedekiah’s time the ancient and venerable council of elders had been thrust aside by the proud and haughty judges, the spoiled children of frustrated and ambitious princes, who made the sheet anchor of their policy a strong alliance with Egypt and preferred Tyre to Sidon, the old established emporium of the Egyptian trade, to which Lehi remained devoted. The institution of the judges deserves some attention. Since the king no longer sat in judgment, the ambitious climbers had taken over the powerful and dignified—and for them very profitable—‘judgment seats,’ and by systematic abuse of their power as judges made themselves obnoxious and oppressive to the nation as a whole while suppressing all criticism of themselves—especially from recalcitrant and subversive prophets. It was an old game. In 1085 BC one Korihor, the chief priest of Ammon, had actually seized the throne of Egypt, where for a long time the priests of Ammon ran the country to suit themselves in their capacity as judges of the priestly courts. These courts had at first competed with the king’s courts and then by murder and intrigue quite forced them out of business. This story reads like a chapter out of the Book of Mormon. . . . The extreme prominence of judges and judgment seats in the Book of Mormon, apparent from a glance at the concordance, is a direct and authentic heritage of the Old World in Lehi’s day.”24


“What astonishes the western reader is the miraculous effect of Nephi’s oath on Zoram. . . . The reactions of both parties make sense when one realizes that the oath is the one thing that is most sacred and inviolable among the desert people and their descendants. . . . But not every oath will do. To be most binding and solemn an oath should be by the life of something, even if it be but a blade of grass. The only oath more awful than ‘by my life’ or (less commonly) ‘by the life of my head’ is the wa hayat Allah, ‘by the life of God’ or ‘as the Lord liveth.’ . . . So we see that the only way that Nephi could possibly have pacified the struggling Zoram in an instant was to utter the one oath that no man would dream of breaking, the most solemn of all oaths to the Semite: ‘As the Lord liveth, and as I live’ (1 Nephi 4:32).”25


“An important part of [the War Scroll] is taken up with certain slogans and war cries which the army writes boldly upon its trumpets and banners . . . emphasizing as did Moroni’s standard the program of deliverance from bondage and preservation of liberty. We are reminded of the great care the ancients took to establish the moral guilt of their enemies and thereby clear themselves of their blood by an inscription on a ritual dart. . . . The Romans also before making war on a nation would throw three darts in its direction, dedicating it to destruction in the archaic rite of the feciales, the great antiquity of which establishes both the age and the genuineness of the Jewish practice. . . . We have in the Title of Liberty episode a clear and independent parallel [to ancient Iranian tradition], for Moroni’s banner is just like the ‘Flag of Kawe’ . . . , the legendary founder of the Magi. . . . To liberate the people there rose up in Isfahan a mighty man, a blacksmith named Kawe, who took the leather apron he wore at his work and placed it on the end of a pole; this became the symbol of liberation and remained for many centuries the national banner of the Persians as well as the sacred emblem of the Magi.”26


“[Nephi] explicitly tells us that the hunting weapons he used were ‘bows . . . arrows . . . stones, and . . . slings’ (1 Nephi 16:15). That is another evidence for the Book of Mormon, for [Moritz] Mainzer found that those were indeed the hunting weapons of the early Hebrews, who never used the classic hunting weapons of their neighbors, the sword, lance, javelin, and club. . . . According to the ancient Arab writers, the only bow-wood obtainable in all Arabia was the nab wood that grew only . . . in the very region where, if we follow the Book of Mormon, the broken bow incident occurred. How many factors must be correctly conceived and correlated to make the apparently simple story of Nephi’s bow ring true! The high mountain near the Red Sea at a considerable journey down the coast, the game on the peaks, hunting with a bow and sling, the finding of bow-wood viewed as something of a miracle by the party—what are the chances of reproducing such a situation by mere guesswork?”27


“As his first act, once his tent had been pitched for his first important camp, Lehi ‘built an altar of stones, and made an offering unto the Lord, and gave thanks to the Lord’ (1 Nephi 2:7). It is for all the world as if he had been reading Robertson Smith. ‘The ordinary . . . mark of a Semitic sanctuary [Hebrew as well as Arabic, that is] is the sacrificial pillar, cairn, or rude altar . . . upon which sacrifices are presented to the god. . . . In Arabia . . . we find no proper altar, but in its place a rude pillar or heap of stones.’ . . . That Lehi’s was such an altar would follow not only the ancient law demanding uncut stones, but also . . . the Book of Mormon expression ‘an altar of stones,’ which is not the same thing as a ‘stone altar.'”28


“In reporting his father’s dreams, Nephi has handed us, as it were, over a dozen vivid little snapshots or colored slides of the desert country that show that somebody who had a hand in the writing of the Book of Mormon actually lived there: 1. The first is a picture of a lone traveler, Lehi himself, in ‘a dark and dreary waste’ (1 Nephi 8:4–7). . . . Of all the images that haunt the early Arab poets this is by all odds the most common. It is the standard nightmare of the Arab. . . . In the inscriptions a thousand lone wanderers send up, in desperation, prayers for help. . . . 2. In the next picture we see ‘a large and spacious field’ (1 Nephi 8:9). . . . This in Arabic is the symbol of release from fear and oppression. . . . The Arab poet describes the world as a. . . large and spacious field, an image borrowed by the earliest Christian writers, notably the Pastor of Hermes and the Pseudo-Clementines. . . . 3. The next picture is a close-up of a tree . . . (1 Nephi 8:10–12; 11:8). . . . Where would one find such a tree in the poets? Only in the gardens of kings. The Persian King, and in imitation of him, the Byzantine Emperor and the Great Khan, had such trees constructed artificially out of pure silver to stand beside their thrones and represent the Tree of Life. . . . In no land on earth is the sight of a real tree, and especially a fruit-bearing one, greeted with more joy and reverence than in treeless Arabia, where certain trees are regarded as holy because of their life-giving propensities. . . . 6. The next picture is largely a blur, for it represents a ‘mist of darkness’ . . . (1 Nephi 8:23). . . . In the many passages of Arabic poetry in which the hero boasts that he has traveled long distances through dark and dreary wastes all alone, . . . the culminating horror is almost always a ‘mist of darkness,’ a depressing mixture of dust, and clammy fog, which, added to the night, completes the confusion of any who wander in the waste. . . . 13. One of the most remarkable of our snapshots is that of a ‘fountain of filthy water’ (1 Nephi 12:16)—’the water which my father saw was filthiness’ (1 Nephi 15:27). . . . This was a typical desert sayl, a raging torrent of liquid filth that sweeps whole camps to destruction. . . . Even a mounted rider, if he is careless, may be caught off guard and carried away by such a sudden spate of ‘head water,’ according to Doughty. One of the worst places for these gully-washing torrents of liquid mud is in ‘the scarred and bare mountains which run parallel to the west coast of Arabia.’ . . . This was the very region through which Lehi traveled on his great trek.”29


“This passage [2 Nephi 1:14] has inspired scathing descriptions of the Book of Mormon as a mass of stolen quotations. . . . A recent study of Sumerian and Akkadian names for the world of the dead lists prominently ‘the hole, the earth, the land of no return, the path of no turning back, the road whose course never turns back, the distant land, etc.’ . . . This is a good deal closer to Lehi’s language than Shakespeare is. . . . Lehi . . . can hardly be denied the luxury of speaking as he was supposed to speak.”30


“In the Book of Mormon we have an excellent description of a typical Great Assembly or year-rite. . . . Though everything takes place on a far higher spiritual plane than that implied in most of the Old World ritual texts, still not a single element of the primordial rites is missing, and nothing is added, in the Book of Mormon version.”31


“Ezekiel is probably referring here to an institution which flourished among the ancient Hebrews but was completely lost sight of after the Middle Ages until its rediscovery in the [nineteenth] century. That is the institution of the tally-sticks. . . . When a contract was made, certain official marks were placed upon a stick of wood in the presence of a notary representing the king. . . . The stick was split down the middle, and each of the parties kept half as his claim-token. . . . When the time for settlement came and the king’s magistrate placed the two sticks side by side to see that all was in order, the two would only fit together perfectly mark for mark and grain for grain to ‘become one’ in the king’s hand if they had been one originally.”32


“An important clue is the statement in Ether 6:7 that Jared’s boats were built on the same pattern as Noah’s ark. . . . [But] the Bible is not the only ancient record that tells about the ark. . . . There are various versions of the Flood story floating about, all of which tell some of the story.”33

“The oldest accounts of the ark of Noah, the Sumerian ones, describe it as a ‘magur boat,’ peaked at the ends, completely covered but for a door, without sails, and completely covered by the waters from time to time, as men and animals rode safe within.”34

“The remarkable thing about Jared’s boats was their illumination. . . . The Rabbis tell of a mysterious Zohar that illuminated the ark, but for further instruction we must go to much older sources: the Pyrophilus is traced back to the Jalakanta stone of India, which shines in the dark and enables its owner to pass unharmed beneath the waters; this in turn has been traced back through classical and Oriental sources to the Gilgamesh Epic, where Alexander’s wonderful Pyrophilus stone turns up as the Plant of Life in the possession of the Babylonian Noah.”35


“The Elephantine Papyri . . . show us a Jewish community living far up the Nile, whither they had fled for safety, possibly at the destruction of Jerusalem in Lehi’s day. In 1954 some of these records, the Brooklyn Aramaic Papyri, were discovered. . . . Perhaps the most surprising discovery about these Jews settled so far from home was their program for building a temple in their new home. Not long ago, learned divines were fond of pointing out that Nephi’s idea of building a temple in the New World was quite sufficient in itself to prove once and for all the fraudulence of the Book of Mormon, since, it was argued, no real Jew would ever dream of having a temple anywhere but in Jerusalem.”36


“The major writings in the Book of Mormon are introduced and concluded by ‘colophons,’ which have the purpose of acquainting the reader with the source of the material given and informing him of the authorship of the particular manuscript. Such colophons are found at 1 Nephi 1:1–3; 22:30–31; Jacob 1:2; 7:27; Jarom 1:1–2; Omni 1:1, 3–4; Words of Mormon 1:9; Mosiah 1:4; 9:1; Helaman 16:25. . . . This complacent advertising of one’s own virtues, in particular one’s reliability, is a correct and indeed a required fixture of any properly composed Egyptian autobiography of Nephi’s time.”37


“We have always thought that the oddest and most disturbing name in the Book of Mormon was Hermounts, since there is nothing either Classical or Oriental about it. So we avoided it, until . . . a student from Saudi Arabia asked point blank what the funny word was. Well, what does the Book of Mormon say it is? Hermounts in the Book of Mormon is the wild country of the borderlands, the hunting grounds, ‘that part of the wilderness which was infested by wild and ravenous beasts’ (Alma 2:37). The equivalent of such a district in Egypt is Hermonthis, the land of Month, the Egyptian Pan—the god of wild places and things. Hermounts and Hermonthis are close enough to satisfy the most exacting philologist.”38


“Jacob’s (or rather Zenos’s) treatise on ancient olive culture (Jacob 5–6) is accurate in every detail: Olive trees do have to be pruned and cultivated diligently; the top branches are indeed the first to wither, and the new shoots do come right out of the trunk; . . . the ancient way of strengthening the old trees (especially in Greece) was to graft in the shoots of the oleaster or wild olive; also, shoots from valuable old trees were transplanted to keep the stock alive after the parent tree should perish; to a surprising degree the olive prefers poor and rocky ground, whereas rich soil produces inferior fruit; too much grafting produces a nondescript and cluttered yield of fruit; the top branches if allowed to grow as in Spain or France, while producing a good shade tree, will indeed sap the strength of the tree and give a poor crop; fertilizing with dung is very important, in spite of the preference for rocky ground, and has been practiced since ancient times; the thing to be most guarded against is bitterness in the fruit. All these points, taken from a treatise on ancient olive culture, are duly, though quite casually, noted in Zenos’s Parable of the Olive Tree.”39


“There is a peculiar rite of execution described in the Book of Mormon whose ancient background is clearly attested. When a notorious debunker of religion was convicted of murder, ‘they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death’ (Alma 1:15). A like fate was suffered centuries later by the traitor Zemnarihah. This goes back to a very old tradition indeed, that of the first false preachers, Harut and Marut (fallen angels), who first corrupted the word of God and as a result hang to this day between heaven and earth confessing their sin. Their counterpart in Jewish tradition is the angel Shamhozai, who ‘repented, and by way of penance hung himself up between heaven and earth.'”40


“An interesting study on ‘Men and Elephants in America’ . . . in the Scientific Monthly . . . concludes: ‘Archaeology has proved that the American Indian hunted and killed elephants; it has also strongly indicated that these elephants have been extinct for several thousand years. This means that the traditions of the Indians recalling these animals have retained their historical validity for great stretches of time. . . . Probably the minimum is three thousand years,’ . . . which would place [the elephant’s] extinction about a thousand years BC, when the Jaredite culture was already very old and Lehi’s people were not to appear on the scene for some centuries. . . . Here, then, is a strong argument for Jaredite survivors among the Indians.”41


“Another characteristic expression [in the Book of Mormon] is that of failing to heed ‘the mark’ set by prudence and tradition [see Jacob 4:14]. In the Zadokite Fragment the false teachers of the Jews are charged with having ‘removed the mark which the forefathers had set up in their inheritance,’ and there is a solemn warning to ‘all those of the members of the covenant who have broken out of the boundary of the Law,’ or stepped beyond the designated mark. The early Christian Gospel of Truth says Israel turns to error when they look for that which is beyond the mark.”42


“A . . . study by an Arabic scholar has called attention to the long-forgotten custom of the ancient Arabs and Hebrews of consulting two headless arrows whenever they were about to undertake a journey; the usual thing was to consult the things at a special shrine, though it was common also to take such divination arrows along on the trip in a special container. The message of the arrows, which were mere sticks without heads or feathers, was conveyed by their pointing and especially by the inscriptions that were on them, giving detailed directions as to the journey.”43


“There is nothing in the Lachish Letters that in any way contradicts [the Book of Mormon’s] story. . . . Both documents account for their existence by indicating specifically the techniques and usages of writing and recording in their day, telling of the same means of transmitting, editing, and storing records. . . . The proximity of Egypt and its influence on writing has a paramount place in both stories. . . . Both abound in proper names in which the –yahu ending is prominent in a number of forms. . . . The peculiar name of Jaush (Josh), since it is not found in the Bible, is remarkable as the name borne by a high-ranking field officer in both the Lachish Letters and the Book of Mormon. . . . The conflicting ideologies—practical vs. religious, materialist vs. spiritual—emerge in two views of the religious leader or prophet as a piqqeah, ‘a visionary man,’ a term either of praise or of contempt—an impractical dreamer. . . . For some unexplained reason, the anti-king parties both flee not towards Babylon but towards Egypt, ‘the broken reed.’ . . . Other parallels may be added to taste, but this should be enough to show that Joseph Smith was either extravagantly lucky in the opening episodes of his Book of Mormon—that should be demonstrated by computer—or else he had help from someone who knew a great deal.”44


“All the Lamanites would drive their flocks to a particular watering place (Alma 17:26). And when they got there, ‘a certain number of Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the . . . [king’s] flocks.’ After the flocks of the king ‘scattered . . . and fled many ways,’ the servants lamented that as a matter of course, ‘now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren’ (Alma 17:28). And they began to weep. What insanity is this, the king kills his own servants for losing a contest that had been acted out before? In fact, ‘it was the practice of these Lamanites to stand by the waters of Sebus and scatter the flocks of the people,’ keeping what they could for themselves, ‘it being a practice of plunder among them’ (Alma 18:7). . . . It should be clear that we are dealing with a sort of game; a regular practice, following certain rules. . . . All this reminds us of those many ceremonial games in which the loser also lost his life, beginning with an Aztec duel in which one of the contestants was tethered by the ankle and bore only a wooden mace while his heavily armored opponent wielded a weapon with sharp obsidian edges. Then there were the age-old chariot races of the princes in which one was to be killed by the Taraxippus, and the equally ancient game of Nemi made famous by Frazer’s Golden Bough. Add to these such vicious doings as the Platanista, the Krypteia, the old Norse brain-ball, the hanging games of the Celts, and so on. But the closest are those known to many of us here, namely the bloody fun of the famous basketball games played in the great ball courts of the ceremonial complexes of Mesoamerica. In these games either the captain of the losing team or the whole team lost their heads.”45


“From the days of the Jaredites to the final battle at Cumorah, we find our Book of Mormon warriors observing the correct chivalric rules of battle—enemies agreeing to the time and place of the slaughter, chiefs challenging each other to single combat for the kingdom, and so on.”46

“As to the army itself, the [War Scroll] specifies that ‘they shall all be volunteers for war [as were Moroni’s host], blameless in spirit and flesh, and ready for the day of vengeance, . . . for holy angels are together with their armies. . . . And no indecent, evil thing shall be seen in the vicinity of any of your camps.’ Such ideal armies, consciously dramatizing themselves as the righteous host, are also met with in the Book of Mormon, notably in the case of Helaman and his two thousand sons (Alma 53:17–19).”47


“One of the aspects of ancient American religion that archaeology is bringing increasingly to the fore is the dominance of the familiar Great Mother in religion: Where is she in the Book of Mormon? The Book of Mormon brands all non-Nephite cults as idolatry and does not go on to describe them. . . . But there is one broad hint. When Alma’s youngest son wanted to misbehave with the harlot Isabel, he had to go into another country to do it (Alma 39:3). Parenthetically, Isabel was the name of the Patroness of Harlots in the religion of the Phoenicians.”48


“These bands of robbers [in the Book of Mormon] are not some exotic invention of romantic fancy, but a major factor in world history. We think of the age-old traditions of Seth and his robber bands in the Egyptian literature (al-Arish, Sieg über Seth), of Pompey’s Pirates or the Algerians, the Vikings, the Free Companies of the fourteenth century, the Kazaks, the Robber Barons, the Assassins, the Bagaudi, the Druze, the militant orders that imitated them (Templars, Knights of Rhodes, and so on), the Vitalian Brothers, the Riffs, and finally the Medellin drug lords of the south, whose long arm can constrain the leaders of nations. All of these operators were terrorists, and they held whole armies at bay and overthrew kingdoms. The best and perhaps the earliest description of such bands in action is from the Amarna Letters, where we find Lehi’s own ancestors, the wandering, plundering Khabiru of the fourteenth century BC, actually overthrowing city after city in Palestine and disrupting the lives of nations.”49


“The word atonement appears only once in the New Testament, but 127 times in the Old Testament. . . . In the other Standard Works of the Church, atonement (including related terms atone, atoned, atoneth, atoning) appears 44 times, but only 3 times in the Doctrine and Covenants, and twice in the Pearl of Great Price. The other 39 times are all in the Book of Mormon. This puts the Book of Mormon in the milieu of the old Hebrew rites before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, for after that the Ark and the covering (kapporeth) no longer existed, but the Holy of Holies was still called the bait ha-kapporeth. . . . It has often been claimed that the Book of Mormon cannot contain the ‘fullness of the gospel,’ since it does not have temple ordinances. As a matter of fact, they are everywhere in the book if we know where to look for them, and the dozen or so discourses on the Atonement in the Book of Mormon are replete with temple imagery. From all the meanings of kaphar and kippurim, we concluded that the literal meaning of kaphar and kippurim is a close and intimate embrace, which took place at the kapporeth, or the front cover or flap of the tabernacle or tent. The Book of Mormon instances are quite clear, for example, ‘Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you’ (Alma 5:33). ‘But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love’ (2 Nephi 1:15). To be redeemed is to be atoned. From this it should be clear what kind of oneness is meant by the Atonement—it is being received in a close embrace of the prodigal son.”50


“In 2 Baruch we read an interesting thing. All the treasures of Israel, he says, must be hid up unto the Lord so that strangers may not get possession of them. And in Helaman, where people are rebuked for hiding their private treasures, we read, ‘They shall hide up treasures unto [the Lord]’ (Helaman 13:19). It’s a commandment.. . . Later Baruch tells us how ‘they hid all the vessels of the sanctuary, lest the enemy should get possession of them.’ Though this writing was published only since Cumorah, a more recent find gives it solid historical dimensions—the famous Copper Scroll, found in Cave Four at Qumran. The significance of this, an important record written on copper alloy sheets and hidden up, is that it was in fact written and prepared with the express purpose of its being hidden up. That’s why it was written, for it contains a record of all the other treasures hidden up to the Lord. Here we have a concrete and indisputable example of an ancient Israelite practice.”51


“Desert imagery has been shown to be vivid in the writings of the Jewish sectary. . . . In our civilization, the broadest roads are the safest; in the desert, they are the most confusing and dangerous. ‘Walk in the strait path,’ says good old Nephi—in true desert style—’which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation’ (2 Nephi 33:9). It is not the geographical, but the apocryphal reference that interests us now. In the late Egyptian period [approximately 1000–300 BC], according to Grapow, it became a very common teaching that a man should never depart from the right road, but be righteous, not associate his heart with the wicked, nor walk in the path of unrighteousness. This had actually become a literary convention in Lehi’s day; and in his culture, it is very closely connected with the Israelite use of it. . . . Another favorite desert image is the great castle in the desert, which, as Nephi tells us, represents ‘the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceeding great’ (1 Nephi 11:36). Consider the castle of Agormi, from the time of Nectanebos the Second (from the time of Lehi); it was indeed a great and lofty building, with date trees growing at the foot of it and a big fruit tree in the courtyard—reminiscent of Lehi’s description. The archetype of the great building that falls and slays its wicked owner is the house of Cain; we can trace this to the work called the al-Ikll, the crown. The castle of Ghumdan is described by al-Hamdn as the ‘great and spacious building’ which ‘stood as it were in the air, high above the earth,’ with the finely dressed people. . . . The Jewish legend goes back to the house of Cain, the first house to be built of stone. . . . The book of Jubilees reports that Cain was killed when his stone house fell on him: ‘For with a stone he had killed Abel, and by a stone was he killed in righteous judgment.'”52


“One striking image that meets us in [the] account of Lehi’s heavenly vision is that of a meeting breaking up. Lehi sees God on his throne, the people are singing the hymn; but then the hymn stops, the meeting breaks up, and everyone goes about his business (1 Nephi 1). One of the newly discovered apocrypha, the so-called Creation Apocryphon, also describes such a situation. And what was decided on in the heavenly council is now being carried out by Gods, angels, and men. This concept of heaven is alien to conventional Judaism and Christianity, in which the chief characteristic of the heavenly order, conforming to the teachings of Athanasius, is absolutely motionless stability.”53


“Apocalyptic imagery is not missing from the Book of Mormon, though it’s not nearly as prominent as one would expect if the book had actually been composed in the world of Joseph Smith, because this was the one kind of doctrine that did have popular reception—the apocalyptic destruction. End-of-the-world sects were very common in Joseph Smith’s time; the forerunners of the Seventh-Day Adventists were expecting the end of the world in 1843 or 1844, as were many people. The Book of Mormon avoids this image. The fire and smoke of hell, and other apocalyptic images, are clearly stated to be types, rather than realities, as is the monster death and hell. This practice agrees with the old apocrypha. Typical is the phrase of Alma: ‘I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God’ (Mosiah 27:29). ‘He has freed us from the darkness to prepare himself a holy people,’ says Barnabas [in his Epistola Catholica]. To the image of the diggers of the pit who themselves fall into it, there are many parallels. Nephi mentions it twice (cf. 1 Nephi 14:3; 22:14). [In Wisdom of Ben Sira 27:26], Ben Sira says, ‘He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and he that setteth a snare shall be taken therein.'”54


“Alma is obsessed with the image of the white garment: ‘There can no man be saved except his garments are washed white’ (Alma 5:21) [see Alma 13:11, 12; 7:25]. . . Such expressions forcibly call to mind the work of Professor [Erwin] Goodenough, in which he shows that the white garment had a special significance for the early Jews. God himself may be represented in the earliest Jewish art as one of three men clothed in white. . . . This image [from the Dura Europos synagogue] wasn’t even known to exist until 1958, but every time Goodenough goes back into the earliest Jewish pictorial representations he can find, there are the three men in white, or a single figure, the prophet in white. The symbol of the chosen prophet, an emissary from God, is always the white robe, which is reserved for heavenly beings. Nephi says that the righteous shall be ‘clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness’ (2 Nephi 9:14).”55


  1. Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets, ed. John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 211–13.
  2. Ibid., 213–14.
  3. Hugh 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), 6–7.
  4. Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 101.
  5. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 18.
  6. Ibid., 20–21.
  7. Ibid., 22–23. See Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 101.
  8. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 23.
  9. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 283–84.
  10. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 41.
  11. Ibid., 51–52.
  12. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 243.
  13. Ibid., 249; see pp. 246–47. See also Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 67–71.
  14. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 78–79.
  15. Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 91.
  16. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 265–75. See Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 84–92.
  17. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 189.
  18. Ibid., 210–13. See Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 248.
  19. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 352; see pp. 336–39. See also Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 366–69.
  20. Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 245. See Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 21–28.
  21. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 68–69.
  22. Ibid., 81–82.
  23. Ibid., 100.
  24. Ibid., 102–4.
  25. Ibid., 128–29.
  26. Ibid., 214–17. See Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 242; and Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 92–95.
  27. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 231–32.
  28. Ibid., 245–46.
  29. Ibid., 253–62. See Hugh Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, ed. Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 239–41.
  30. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 276–77. See Nibley, Since Cumorah, 162; and Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 90–91.
  31. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 297.
  32. Ibid., 319–20. See Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 15–22, 286–87, 298.
  33. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 342–43.
  34. Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 243.
  35. Ibid., 243–44. See Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 348–58.
  36. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 53.
  37. Ibid., 151. See Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 17.
  38. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 169. See Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 246–47, 281.
  39. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 238–39. See Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 244–52.
  40. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 244–45. See Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 250.
  41. Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 111.
  42. Nibley, Since Cumorah, 167. See Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 241–42.
  43. Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 244–45.
  44. Ibid., 400–402.
  45. Ibid., 539–41.
  46. Ibid., 542.
  47. Nibley, Approach to the Book of Mormon, 215.
  48. Nibley, Prophetic Book of Mormon, 542.
  49. Ibid., 556.
  50. Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion, ed. Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1989), 566–67.
  51. Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 216–17.
  52. Ibid., 219–23; see pp. 243–44.
  53. Ibid., 227.
  54. Ibid., 235–36.
  55. Ibid., 238–39.