Introduction to the 1988 Edition

At first light on June 6, 1944, the earliest of many allied landing craft began hitting the beaches of Normandy.1 At Utah Beach, twelve men dangling from one of those landing jeeps cheered their rollicking driver on as they surged up from beneath the surface of the chilly English Channel waters. That driver, an army intelligence noncom holding a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of California at Berkeley, was none other than Hugh W. Nibley, age thirty-four.

While preparing for the invasion, he had just visited several antiquarian bookstores in London—walking out with armloads of Arabic and Greek literary treasures. He had also, on the sly, slipped a copy of the Book of Mormon into one of the fifty-five pockets in his regimental intelligence corps fatigues.

The jeep ahead of Nibley’s went over a sand knoll and disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be heard of or even seen again. “It was right there at Utah Beach,” Hugh still vividly recalls, “as we were all a couple feet under water, that it really hit me—how astonishing the Book of Mormon truly is. It had never occurred to me before, as far as that goes, but all I could think of all that day was how wonderful this Book of Mormon was.”2

Judged by any standard, the Book of Mormon is nothing ordinary. So it seems only right that the most illustrious scholar yet to have investigated the Book of Mormon should have become fascinated with it in no ordinary way. Since Utah Beach, Hugh Nibley was never the same again. Nor was Book of Mormon scholarship.

Hugh Nibley is probably still best known for his groundbreaking investigations into the ancient Near Eastern backgrounds of Lehi and of the Jaredites. Those classic studies are contained in this volume—the first of several books to appear in the volumes of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley that deal with the Book of Mormon. To this day, Nibley remembers how excited he was while making these discoveries and writing them up.

Nevertheless, to Nibley, these and many other similar historical details only set the stage for understanding the actual messages of the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, the importance of the Book of Mormon in his opinion is that it conveys a remarkably clear and compelling picture of the plan of salvation. It exposes in unequivocal terms the foibles of the human condition and the choices all people face for temporal and spiritual survival. These messages—urgently relevant for our present day—are at the heart of the Book of Mormon for Hugh Nibley. His excursions into the history, language, culture, and backgrounds of the Book of Mormon are only one method of understanding and appreciating certain aspects of that message.

Developing this understanding has been a lifelong endeavor for Hugh Nibley. It began in 1948 with his article “The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East,”3 which soon grew into three lengthy serials, “Lehi in the Desert” in 1950,4 “The World of the Jaredites” in 1951—52, 5 and “There Were Jaredites” in 1956—57,6 all of which were published in the Improvement Era. In 1952, the collected articles under the names of “Lehi in the Desert,” and “The World of the Jaredites” were published as a book entitled Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites. That volume has enjoyed wide circulation for thirty-five years.

In the present volume, the work of the editors has been confined largely to technical tasks. The earlier texts remain substantially unchanged, but they have been edited lightly. All the information found in “The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East” (much of which was inserted into “Lehi in the Desert” in 1950) has been worked back into the text and notes of “Lehi in the Desert,” as have most of the original illustrations. The series “There Were Jaredites” is included here for the first time, and all footnotes in this enlarged edition have been verified and made more readable, thanks especially to the labors of Stephen Callister, Darrell Matthews, and Rebecca Bishop.

Close work with these articles and their sources makes it even more apparent now than before that “The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East” and “Lehi in the Desert” broke completely new ground. Since that time, this novel research has spawned many other fruitful studies, corroborating the soundness of this innovative approach. Dr. Nibley’s broad knowledge of the ancient Near East, and especially his fluent Arabic, allowed him to reconstruct the probable cultural backgrounds of men like Lehi and Nephi and to read between the lines in the Book of Mormon to identify evidences of their cultural world. Much of that evidence is quite direct and strong; other times it is subtle and more remote. In either case, no one else had even thought of seeing such things; yet without such insights, the lives of Lehi and the Jaredites would “remain in the shadows,” as Elder John A. Widtsoe said in his foreword to the 1952 publication of Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites. 7

The method of “Lehi in the Desert,” as Dr. Nibley once explained, is “simply to give the Book of Mormon the benefit of the doubt.” If one assumes that Lehi lived in Jerusalem around 600 B.C., a remarkably consistent picture emerges between what is now known about that historical period from a secular standpoint and what we find in the Book of Mormon itself. Likewise, if one assumes that Jared left from Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C., then the nature of society and history reflected in early accounts of his people should be consonant with those times. The kinds of ancient Near Eastern facts and observations Nibley then correlates with details in the Book of Mormon are drawn from areas of language and literature, archaeology and history, culture and politics. Taken alone, few single factors are overwhelmingly impressive, but all together they fit very convincingly into what Dr. Nibley calls “The Big Picture.”

To Hugh Nibley in these early years, a significant payoff for his research came in the ammunition it provided against Book of Mormon critics. His parting shots in Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites drive this point home:

     There is no point at all to the question: Who wrote the Book of Mormon? It would have been quite as impossible for the most learned man alive in 1830 as it was for Joseph Smith. And whoever would account for the Book of Mormon by any theory suggested so far—save one—must completely rule out the first forty pages.8

To write a history of what could have happened at the very beginning of recorded history would have been as far beyond the scope of any scholar living in 1830 as the construction of an atom bomb would have been.9

While the potency of his insights is hard to ignore, one should not be sated at this point. The first course is only the appetizer. Over the years, Hugh Nibley has not rested until he has understood the messages of the Book of Mormon in light of these historical backgrounds. Thus, a reader should not plan to stop at the end of this particular volume, but should look ahead to the broadening perspectives yet to come in An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 10 Since Cumorah,11 and many subsequent articles about the prophetic meanings of the Book of Mormon. Likewise, Nibley’s legacy and influence will surely continue to stimulate much more thinking about the Book of Mormon for many years to come.

This volume, however, is the essential starting place for understanding the things that Hugh Nibley has contributed over the past four decades to Book of Mormon scholarship. In these works, Dr. Nibley teaches us in many ways, as the reader will readily observe:

He makes us look more carefully at the Book of Mormon. “We need to make the Book of Mormon an object of serious study,” he says. “Superficiality is quite offensive to the Lord. We have not paid enough attention to the Book of Mormon.”

He challenges us to understand the Book of Mormon. “The Book of Mormon,” he says, “is a debatable subject. . . . If we do not accept the challenge we will lose by default.”

By rigorous examination, he shows that the Book of Mormon stands up well under close scrutiny. By looking carefully at the Book of Mormon, by ferreting out innuendos, by examining each significant word or phrase in the book, the reader repeatedly finds more than originally meets the eye.

Time and again Nibley teaches us to be surprised at what the Book of Mormon contains. He often remarks how perfectly obvious something should have been to him long before it was: “Some subjects I studied for years without it occurring to me for a moment that they had any bearing whatsoever on the Book of Mormon.”

But most of all, he never loses sight of the Book of Mormon’s spiritual significance. “Above all it is a witness to God’s concern for all his children, and to the intimate proximity of Jesus Christ to all who will receive him.” 12

Despite his great knowledge and wisdom—or, more accurately, because of it—Hugh Nibley knows that any scientific method is by nature limited. He knows that no ultimate, empirical proof of the Book of Mormon can be had: “The evidence that will prove or disprove the Book of Mormon does not exist.”13 In his mind, all this scholarship simply sets the stage for the ultimate questions of life. Once a person explicitly realizes that he or she cannot explain everything in the Book of Mormon, that person is at last where Moroni wants him or her to be, at the point where the person must turn to God to find out if the book’s contents are true. “All that Mormon and Moroni ask the reader is, don’t fight it, don’t block it, give it a chance!” 14

Accordingly, Hugh Nibley speaks candidly about the book’s relevance to our day. “I intend to take Moroni as my guide to the present world situation.” 15 “In my youth I thought the Book of Mormon was much too preoccupied with extreme situations, situations that had little bearing on the real world of everyday life and ordinary human affairs. What on earth could the total extermination of nations have to do with life in the enlightened modern world? Today no comment on that is necessary.”16 “In the Book of Mormon, the very questions which now oppress the liberal and the fundamentalist alike, to the imminent overthrow of their fondest beliefs, are fully and clearly treated. No other book gives such a perfect and exhaustive explanation of the eschatological problem. . . . Here you will find anticipated and answered every logical objection that the intelligence and vanity of men even in this sophisticated age have been able to devise against the preaching of the word. And here one may find a description of our own age so vivid and so accurate that none can fail to recognize it.”17

In so speaking, Nibley puts the Book of Mormon into an urgent eternal perspective. “The Book of Mormon should take priority. We have not paid enough attention to the Book of Mormon. This is very urgent!”18 A sense of this pressing need—no less emphatic today than it was that day on Utah Beach—is the indelible stamp left by the legacy and influence of Hugh Nibley.

Since Hugh Nibley, we as a people are not the same.19 We are warned, but reassured. In effect, we too are Lehis in the desert.



1.   This introduction has been adapted from my essay “Hugh Nibley and the Book of Mormon,” Ensign (April 1985): 51—56.

2.   Statements quoted in this introduction were gathered in interviews with Hugh Nibley conducted by Susan Roylance and John W. Welch.

3.   Improvement Era 51 (April 1948): 202—4, 249—51; reprinted Improvement Era 73 (1970): 115—20, 122—25.

4.   Improvement Era 53 (January 1950) 14—16, 66—72, running serially each month until Improvement Era 53 (October 1950): 804—6, 824, 826, 828, 830; reprinted without illustrations and with slight modifications in Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 1—139.

5.   Improvement Era 54 (September 1951): 628—30, 673—75, running serially each month, except for April and May, until Improvement Era 55 (July 1952): 510, 550; reprinted without illustrations and with slight modifications in Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), 143—266.

6.   Improvement Era 59 (January 1956): 30—32, 58—61, running serially each month until Improvement Era 60 (February 1957): 94—95, 122—24.

7.   (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952), vi; page x above.

8.   Ibid., 139; page 123 below.

9.   Ibid., 258; page 256 below.

10.   The 1957 course of study for the Melchizedek priesthood quorums of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1957); reprinted (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1964).

11.   Much of this book first appeared as a series of articles in Improvement Era from October 1964 to December 1966; it was then republished (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1967).

12.   Hugh W. Nibley, “The Book of Mormon: A Minimal Statement,” Concilium: Theology in the Age of Renewal 25 (New York: Paulist Press, 1968); reprinted in Hugh W. Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, Truman G. Madsen, ed. (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 151.

13.   Nibley, Since Cumorah, viii.

14.   Gary P. Gillum, Of All Things! A Nibley Quote Book (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1981), 93.

15.   Ibid., 86, from “Gifts,” 3.

16.   Ibid., 87, from “The Prophetic Book of Mormon,” 17.

17.   Ibid., 87, from “Historicity of the Bible,” 11; reprinted in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 1:18.

18.   See also Nibley, “The Book of Mormon: A Minimal Statement,” 149: “Until recently, most Mormons have not been zealous in the study of the book.”

19.   “Few students can talk coherently about their first class from Brother Nibley,” Robert K. Thomas has observed. “For some it was simply a rite of passage, the academic equivalent of a social unit initiation. For many it was, at best, a brisk blur edged with random flashes of insight. For a few it was an intellectual implosion, from which they will never recover. For after one has stood in the presence of his first true scholar, the world loses a bit of its apparent symmetry, reveals the forces which determined its form, and invites an infinite recasting.” Robert K. Thomas, “The Influence of Hugh Nibley: His Presence in the University,” in John W. Welch, ed., Tinkling Cymbals: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley on his 65th Birthday (Provo: F.A.R.M.S., unpublished collection of essays, 1975), 13.