More on the River Laman

The Book of Mormon records that after Lehi and his family fled Jerusalem at the Lord’s command, they camped in a valley by a river (1 Nephi 2:6). Lehi named this river Laman and the valley Lemuel after his eldest sons. Envisioning that locale, many readers of that account naturally may think of the seasonal rivers that run through many of the wadis of the Arabian peninsula.

For more than a century, however, critics have found fault with the description of the river Laman as “continually running” into the Red Sea during the time that Lehi’s group camped in the valley of Lemuel (see vv. 8—9). The description seems to call for a perennial river rather than one that flowed only during the rainy season. But from the text, we know only that it was continually flowing during Lehi’s sojourn in the valley; it may have dried up after the family moved on. Indeed, the “river of Egypt” mentioned in the Bible as marking the border between the land promised to Abraham and the land of Egypt[1] is considered by scholars to be the seasonal stream known as Wadi Arish, which runs through the Gaza strip. (The larger Nile River runs through the center of Egypt, not along its border.)

In May 1995, George Potter and Craig Thorsted identified a small perennial stream flowing down Wadi Tayyib al-Ism and into the Red Sea near the Arabian town of al-Maqnah as the likely location of Lehi’s sojourn in that region.[2] But is there ancient evidence for such a river?

About 440 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote: “There is a large river in Arabia called the Corys, which issues into the Erythraean [Red] Sea. . . . The Arabian king had the hides of cows and other animals sewn together into a pipe, which was long enough to reach the desert from the river. Then he drew the water from the river through the pipe into big storage tanks, which had been excavated in the desert to receive and hold the water. It is twelve days’ journey from the river to this desert, and he is supposed to have brought the water to three separate parts of the desert, through three pipes” (Histories 3.9).[3] Although we cannot ascertain the location of this river (it may have been in the south, in Yemen),[4] there are other ancient texts that mention rivers in the al-Maqnah region explored by Potter and Thorsted.

In the second century BC, Agatharchides of Cnidus, a Greek historian and geographer, wrote his treatise On the Erythraean Sea. The original text has been lost over time, but portions were quoted by subsequent writers who had access to it.[5] In this way, portions of Book 1 of his work have been preserved, while Book 5 has survived almost intact and gives a description of the horn of Africa and the lands adjoining the Red Sea. Describing the northwest Arabian coast near the Sinai peninsula, Agatharchides wrote:

After these places there is a well-watered plain which, because of the streams that flow through it everywhere, grows dog’s tooth grass, lucerne and also lotus the height of a man. Because of the abundance and excellence of the pasturage it not only supports flocks and herds of all sorts in unspeakably great numbers but also wild camels and, in addition, deer and gazelles. In response to the abundance of animals which breed there, crowds of lions, wolves and leopards gather from the desert.[6]

Strabo, a Greek historian born in 63 BC, cited an earlier work by Artemidorus. After describing the region of northwestern Arabia near the island of Tiran and opposite the southern end of the Sinai peninsula, he wrote: “One comes next to a plain [about modern al-Maqnah] which is well supplied with trees and water and is full of all kinds of domestic animals—mules among others; and it has a multitude of wild camels, deer, and gazelles, as also numerous lions, leopards, and wolves [jackals?]. Off this plain lies an island called Dia. Then one comes to a gulf about five hundred stadia in extent, which is enclosed all round by mountains and a mouth that is difficult to enter; and round it live men who hunt the land animals” (Geography 16.4.18).[7] In the same section, Strabo mentioned a harbor named Charmothas (modern Umm Lajj) farther south along the same coast, saying that “a river flows into it.”[8]

These classical sources support the idea that there were rivers flowing in the western part of Arabia, both in Yemen to the south and in the land of Midian to the north, where Lehi encamped beside the river Laman.

By John A. Tvedtnes Senior Research Associate, FARMS


[1] See Genesis 15:18; Numbers 34:5; Joshua 15:4, 47; 1 Kings 8:65; 2 Kings 24:7; 2 Chronicles 7:8. In some of these passages the Hebrew word rendered “river” is nahar, the normal term for a river, while in others it is nahal, which usually denotes a seasonal stream in the same fashion as Arabic wadi. In the King James version of Isaiah 27:12, the rendering is “stream of Egypt.”

[2] George D. Potter, “A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999): 54—63.

[3] Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 172.

[4] Describing the region called Yemen in our day, Strabo wrote: “The extreme parts towards the south, lying opposite to ®thiopia, are watered by summer rains and are sowed twice, like India; and the rivers there are used up in supplying plains and lakes. The country is in general fertile, and abounds in particular with places for making honey; and, with the exception of horses and mules and hogs, it has an abundance of domesticated animals; and, with the exception of geese and chickens, has all kinds of birds” (Geography 16.4.2, in The Geography of Strabo, trans. Horace Leonard Jones [London: William Heinemann; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Loeb Classical Library, 1966], 7:309—11).

[5] The early writers who cited Agatharchides were Diodorus of Sicily (Library of History), Strabo (Geography), and Photius (Bibliotheca).

[6] Agatharchides of Cnidus: On the Erythraean Sea, trans. and ed. Stanley Mayer Burstein (London: Hakluyt Society, 1989), 151—52.

[7] In The Geography of Strabo, trans. Jones, 7:343.

[8] Ibid., 7:345.