An Archaeologist's View

When I was asked to write a response to studies prepared by Warren Aston, Richard Wellington and George Potter, and Kent Brown for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, my initial reaction was reluctance. Although I have excavated and explored in the Near East for 25 years, traveling widely in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Sinai, most of Lehi’s trail lies on the Arabian Peninsula, where I have never set foot. Analyzing and responding succinctly to the data and proposals presented by these dedicated researchers, who have spent so much time and effort in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman, would not be an easy task.

I am also mindful of the difficulties involved in what these intrepid explorers have undertaken, their differences of approach notwithstanding. The spirit of sacrifice and adventure behind their efforts is remarkable. I am familiar with the expense and effort, the time and trial, and even the personal peril involved in travel and research “on the ground” in the Near East. Aston, Wellington and Potter, and Brown are certainly worthy of our congratulations for their work. Any difference I voice with their proposals in no way diminishes my respect for what they have accomplished.

Ultimately, I resolved to write this response because my own conviction that the Book of Mormon is both true and authentic demands it. As an active Near Eastern field archaeologist, I have never studied or unearthed anything in the last quarter century of research that has caused me to doubt that the account in 1 Nephi was originally composed by a Hebrew-speaking Jew from Jerusalem of the late seventh century BC, namely Nephi, son of Lehi. In light of everything I have learned while working with a trowel and brush in Israel, Nephi’s description of places, practices, and aspects of material culture in that period ring true.

So on with my response. Rather than move from article to article or author to author, I will proceed topically along the trail of Lehi from place to place—from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, from Shazer to Nahom, and from there to Bountiful, just as Nephi and his family colony traveled.

Lehi in the Land of Jerusalem

Jerusalem, where Nephi’s story began, is one Book of Mormon site that we can confidently identify. Additionally, we can say with virtual certainty that certain areas in Israel, often presented to Latter-day Saint tourists as having been associated with Lehi and his family, were not connected with them at all. For example, the so-called Beit Lei area, located in the Judean hills about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, cannot have been an area where Lehi owned land or lived.1 The Arabic term lei is not to be confused with the Hebrew name Lehi.2 Beit Lei is an Arabic toponym pronounced “bait lay.” But in Hebrew the site is known as Beyt Loya, and neither place-name is equivalent to the Hebrew name Lehi. Students of the Book of Mormon should be wary of claims about a so-called Lehi Cave3 or an alleged City of Lehi or Beit Lehi4 in the hills of Judah. These claims are entirely spurious.

I have published elsewhere my views on a number of factors related to the background of 1 Nephi 1–2, including the general type and location of Lehi’s “house at Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 1:7),5 the “land of his inheritance” (2:4),6 the dates of Lehi’s ministry in Jerusalem and his departure into the wilderness,7 and the strong possibility that Lehi and Nephi were metal smiths.8 The interested reader can find a summary of my thinking on these matters along with citations for further reading in the endnotes.

The Route from Jerusalem to the Red Sea

In the three articles to which I am responding, Aston does not offer a suggestion on Lehi’s route to the Red Sea. Brown reviews four different suggestions, including two that cross the Jordan River eastward before turning south through the territory of Ammon and Moab. Wellington and Potter concentrate on a single route much farther east of the Jordan River. It seems entirely unlikely to me, however, that Lehi would have traveled a trans-Jordanian route. There are two reasons for this.

First, both Ammon and Moab, states east of the Dead Sea, were active enemies of Judah in the period prior to 595 BC. Both had been involved in attacks on Judah around 600 BC, during the reign of King Jehoiakim (see 2 Kings 24:2).9 For Jews to travel through Ammon and Moab at that time would have been simply unthinkable. Extreme danger (including capture, slavery, and the likelihood of deadly attack) would have awaited Lehi’s party had they made their trail through Ammonite or Moabite territory after departing Jerusalem.

Second, we have to assume that Lehi was interested in getting to the Gulf of Aqaba along the path that was not only safest but quickest and least expensive. (Remember, time is money when traveling—unnecessary days spent on a longer trail would consume more food and supplies than needful.) A trans-Jordanian route, east of the Dead Sea, would have taken Lehi’s party as much as 80 miles out of the way, which equates to about four extra days of travel (assuming that some of the party were on foot, which seems likely). Traveling from Jerusalem to Aqaba via trans-Jordanian Moab would be something like traveling from Salt Lake City to St. George via Moab in eastern Utah—it is far out of the way and makes no sense. If I put myself in Lehi’s sandals, a route from Jerusalem south through the Arabah valley to the Red Sea would be the only logical choice.

Remembering that the term wilderness refers to desert terrain, both in the Bible and in 1 Nephi, a word about Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem “into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:4) is in order. All of the territory east of Jerusalem is wilderness. Departure on any trail directly east, northeast, or southeast puts one immediately into the mountainous desert known as the Wilderness of Judah. Wellington and Potter’s article seems to give the impression that their trans-Jordanian “Way of the Wilderness” would be the only plausible desert route to the Gulf of Aqaba. But this is not so. And the impossibility of travel through Moab for Lehi has already been noted. A direct cis-Jordanian (west of Jordan) route from Jerusalem through the Wilderness of Judah to the Arabah valley is a far more plausible choice for Lehi’s travel.

Of the two approaches to the Arabah valley discussed by Brown, however, neither departs Jerusalem directly into the wilderness. He takes the party to Bethlehem, southwest of Jerusalem, along a five-mile path through quite fruitful country. From there, his first option continues southwest to Hebron, 15 more miles along the fruitful and cultivated “Way of the Patriarchs.” It does not seem to me that a trail that ran 20 verdant miles from Jerusalem to Hebron (a full day’s travel) describes Lehi’s departure “into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:4). I could, however, envision a route from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as leading fairly directly “into the wilderness” if at Bethlehem the party turned immediately southeast from there to pass Tekoa and descend to Ein Gedi.

It seems more likely, however, that Lehi departed Jerusalem directly to the southeast, following the Kidron Valley past Ein Rogel and connecting immediately to the desert path along the Draga valley. This trail leads directly south and southeast into the Wilderness of Judah, running well east of Tekoa, and it eventually connects with the path that descends to Ein Gedi through the Arugot valley.10 I have explored this route by vehicle and on foot, tracing the trail from Jerusalem to Ein Gedi.11 The route is easily passable and by every measure would have been the most direct route for Lehi to descend to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. And, as Brown notes, from Ein Gedi the trail turns south along the west shore of the Dead Sea, passes Masada and Ein Bokek, and proceeds through the Arabah valley to the Red Sea gulf of Aqaba.12

The 200 miles from Jerusalem to the Red Sea via the Arabah valley are by far the most fully explored and understood miles on the trail of Lehi. At 18 to 20 miles a day, with at least some in the party traveling on foot, the trip would take about10 days, not including the Sabbath. The ancient path from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba runs parallel to the modern Israeli highway through the Arabah, and all of the springs and oases along that wilderness road are well known. In fact, most of the ancient water spots have been developed into kibbutzim or modern service stations, complete with roadside restaurants. A few even boast hotel guest cabins and swimming pools among the tall oasis palm trees. Alas, Lehi found no such accommodations. But he would have found water at Ein Bokek and Zohar along the Dead Sea’s southwest shore and in the Arabah at Ein Tamar, Ovot (“Oboth” in Numbers 33:43), Shafir (“Shapher” in Numbers 33:23), Beʾer Menuhah, Yotvatah (“Jotbathah” in Numbers 33:33), and Ein Evronah (“Ebronah” in Numbers 33:34) before finally sighting the Red Sea port at Aqaba (“Ezion-gaber” in Numbers 33:35). For reasons I will discuss later, I suspect Lehi’s party departed Jerusalem around November; thus their travel in the desert to the Red Sea would have been by day, in mild temperatures ranging from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Valley of Lemuel

From a point “near the shore of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:5), Lehi and family continued three days farther along a desert trail that he described as being “in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:5). This suggests to me that they were walking southward, parallel to the eastern shore of the Gulf of Aqaba but a few hundred yards inland from that shore rather than right along the beach. After about 50 miles (two full days’ walk and much of a third day), the party encamped in the desert wadi that Nephi called the “valley of Lemuel” (2:14). Aston makes no specific suggestion regarding the geography of this valley other than to locate it “in ancient Midian.” Wellington and Potter are impressed with a desert wadi called Tayyib al-Ism, which they present as the Valley of Lemuel. Brown seems to concur with this identification, not only in his article herein but also in his magnificent and highly influential video presentation Journey of Faith. For several years now the notion that Tayyib al-Ism was Lehi’s first wilderness camp has become more and more popular. Until recently, no one has seriously questioned it. But has the Valley of Lemuel really been found?

The answer, from my perspective, is simply no. The physical features of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism are quite inconsistent in several different ways with the description of the Valley of Lemuel written by Nephi.

Since Wellington and Potter do not give a description of Tayyib al-Ism in their article herein, readers may consult their 2003 book Lehi in the Wilderness, where they outline in detail their views of the wadi and its physical features.13 Readers should also consider Potter’s 1999 article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies entitled “A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel,” which features better maps of Tayyib al-Ism than those in Lehi in the Wilderness.14 These two sources combine to present a fascinating view of the site.

In 2004 the editors of the FARMS Review asked me to read Lehi in the Wilderness and prepare a review of the book.  It was published under the provocative title “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” and it outlined in detail the reasons why I think Tayyib al-Ism is not the Valley of Lemuel.15 Because of space limitations here, I refer readers to that review for a full consideration of the merits of Tayyib al-Ism, one way or the other.16 In short, I point out that the perennial stream at Tayyib al-Ism does not have a mouth that empties into the Red Sea, as required in Nephi’s report, nor does it feature a valley entrance that is near a river mouth (see 1 Nephi 2:8). It does not have any practical coastal access from dry land, and its inland access is many miles away from the coast, in a location that, to me at least, seems unlikely for Lehi to have discovered. That access is also some 75 miles from the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba, which seems impossibly far for the group to have reached in only three days’ travel (see 2:6). Furthermore, Potter and Wellington’s notion that the term borders means “mountains” is untenable.17 The sum of all the issues I explored in that review is that although Potter and Wellington describe Tayyib al-Ism as a “fully qualified candidate for the Valley of Lemuel,” it is not a candidate to my mind.18

My own conjecture is that the camp was probably in the Bir Marsha area, about 50 miles south of Aqaba on the Red Sea coast. (I did not argue, as Wellington and Potter allege herein, that Wadi Bir Marsha “could be a candidate for the Valley of Lemuel”—that wadi is, as they imply, a dry gulch. I suggested, rather, that “one of the wadis near the shore at Bir Marsha would be the strongest candidate.”)19 I will amend that suggestion here by saying that it was likely in one of the small wadis just south of Bir Marsha, some of which have seasonal streams during the winter months.

As a postscript to this part of the discussion, it seems appropriate to point out that a perennial stream is not an absolute requirement for any Valley of Lemuel candidate. There are very few perennial streams anywhere in the mountains on the east coast of the Gulf of Aqaba. When Lehi likened the valley’s river to his son Laman, he used the words “continually running” (1 Nephi 2:9) rather than “continually flowing.” A wadi’s streambed may run all the way to the sea whether water happens to be flowing in it or not. And while I have no doubt that water was flowing in the streambed when Lehi made his exclamation (which was probably in late November, at the outset of the rainy season), that does not mean that water had to be flowing in that same streambed six months later. The streambed itself would have been a continually running course to the ocean for the wadi’s water, whether seasonal or perennial.

Winter rains begin in the Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba region as early as November and continue as late as April. In any given year some seasonal streams in the region’s wadis could flow as long as five months. All of the travel and events narrated while Lehi’s family was at the Valley of Lemuel, from the arrival in 1 Nephi 2 to the departure in 1 Nephi 16, can be easily accommodated in a 19-week period—just over four months.20 This would include two weeks of initial camp setup; two weeks’ travel back to Jerusalem to visit Laban; one week to go to the land of inheritance to obtain gold and silver and then return to Jerusalem in the attempt to buy the plates of brass; one week to be robbed by Laban, to be chased into the wilderness, and to return to Jerusalem to finally take the plates; two weeks for the return trip to the Valley of Lemuel; two weeks for Lehi to study the plates of brass; two weeks for a second return to Jerusalem to visit Ishmael; one week to convince and prepare his family to depart Jerusalem; two weeks again to return to the Valley of Lemuel; one week in which Lehi experienced his vision and related it to his family; one week in which Nephi experienced the same vision and taught his brothers; one week to prepare for and perform marriages of Lehi’s sons to Ishmael’s daughters; and one week to break camp and depart the Valley of Lemuel for good. If Lehi’s initial departure from Jerusalem had been sometime in November, they could have departed the Valley of Lemuel in late March or early April. Winter rains would have provided a small but steady flow of water in the stream (“river Laman”) during that entire time. In this regard, I think that Brown is on target to “assume that the family spent no more than a few months at the camp.”

From Shazer to Nahom

Four days’ travel south-southeast from the Valley of Lemuel brought Lehi’s party to a location that they called “Shazer” (1 Nephi 16:13). Specific models for the location and nature of Shazer are not discussed by Aston and Brown. Wellington and Potter explain that “Shazer was to prove remarkably difficult for us to find.” When I first read this, I chuckled and thought to myself, I can understand why. But upon reading their description of the location and features of the wadi Agharr, I was impressed. Their suggestion that it was Lehi’s “Shazer” seems to me remarkably plausible. If Shazer was not at Agharr, it has to have been at a place just like Agharr. Kudos to Wellington and Potter on this identification—they may just have it.

But we have to be careful in any claims we make concerning Nephi’s text. For example, Wellington and Potter claim that Shazer meant, in Arabic at least, “a valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs.” The problem is that Nephi recorded no such thing. He wrote nothing regarding the meaning of the name Shazer, in Arabic or otherwise.

It is worth noting that footnote a at 1 Nephi 16:13 in our current English edition of the Book of Mormon, where the name Shazer first appears, has this entry: “HEB twisting, intertwining.” This is meant to convey the meaning of the (supposedly) Hebrew name Shazer, but the appearance of a “HEB” footnote in the Book of Mormon is somewhat puzzling since we possess no original Hebrew text of the Book of Mormon.21 We have no original Hebrew spelling for the term spelled “Shazer” in our English translation. And although I assume Nephi was using a Hebrew term, we cannot be certain what letters it contained. It probably featured the initial letter shin (the sh phoneme in Hebrew), and it probably ended with the letter resh (the Hebrew r), but the middle of the word is less secure. Was it spelled with a zayin (the soft z in Hebrew), or was it spelled with a tzadi (the hard z—pronounced “tz”)? Was there an intermediate letter aleph or ayin, representing vowel sounds between the harder consonants, or were these absent? We simply cannot know how the word was spelled in Hebrew since we do not possess any original Hebrew text from Nephi. So even though there is a Hebrew verb spelled shin-zayin-resh that means “to twist,” we cannot confidently cite Hebrew translations in footnotes to the Book of Mormon when we cannot be sure of the original spelling (and some would say language) of the text.22

One thing, however, that we can be sure of—I feel very confident about it—is that the name Nahom in 1 Nephi 16:34 is now securely represented in the historical geography and archaeology of south Arabia by the Arabic toponym nehem, which not only appears on antique maps of Yemen but is also preserved in inscriptions on stone altars from the Barʾan temple site near Marib. These archaeological finds date to the seventh century BC, the very century in which Lehi and Nephi were born and grew to manhood. Aston’s groundbreaking research into the region and the altars, coupled with Brown’s preparatory research and careful follow-up, have solidified the legitimacy of a major Book of Mormon—related discovery.23 That the toponym nehem is Arabic rather than Hebrew is, in this instance, not a problem. In fact, it is an indicator of authenticity because Nephi does not say his party gave the name Nahom to the place where Ishmael was buried; instead he says that the place “was called Nahom,” presumably by the local Arab population. When I first began teaching in the Jerusalem Center program in the early 1980s, we used to jokingly say, “There is only one Book of Mormon place whose location we know for sure, and we’re standing in it!”—meaning, of course, Jerusalem. But that joke doesn’t work anymore, because we can say with absolute surety that we know where the area of ancient Nahom was. The importance of this, in terms of demonstrating the authenticity of Nephi’s record, cannot be overstated.

The Difficult Path Eastward

Aston makes a suggestions that I find quite valid: “The Lehites probably attracted scant attention on their journey.” It seems to me that “the need for Lehi to pay levies and seek tribal permission en route” has been overstated. And on a related issue, contrary to the common consensus that began with Hugh Nibley, I do not think that the party’s spare use of fire was due to the danger of attracting desert marauders.24 Nor do I think that the avoidance of fire was at the Lord’s command. Though Aston suggests it was “the Lord’s instruction not to ‘make much fire'” and Brown mentions “the commandment that Nephi’s party not make fire,” this language is not in the text of 1 Nephi itself. What Nephi specifically wrote is that “the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:12). While the term suffered could be understood as allowed or permitted, in the context of the passage it could also be understood as Nephi attributing to the Lord the fact that, for practical reasons, they had simply not made much fire on their journey.

There are three quite practical reasons why Lehi’s group would not have made much fire. (1) The availability of firewood or other fuel was not consistent, and in some areas where few trees and shrubs grew, kindling would have been largely absent. (2) The party would often have traveled at night, particularly in the hot months, which means that their resting hours were during the daylight, when no fire would be needed for visibility. (3) They cooked very little of their food, animal meat or otherwise, which seems obvious from the Lord’s promise: “I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not” (1 Nephi 17:12). Bread, for example, could be baked as infrequently as once a week, whenever the group could actually obtain grain to grind into flour. Local fruits and vegetables, when available, would need no cooking. Cheeses made from animal milk needed no cooking. And animal meat would have been cooked only directly after a hunting kill. Though the group may have had such a “barbeque” every several days, only enough meat would have been cooked to satisfy the family for a single meal. The remainder of the animal meat—and probably all of the meat from some of their hunts—would have been sun dried while raw, without cooking it. In other words, the “raw meat” that the party ate (17:2) would have been what we today call jerky. And it, too, was probably seasoned so that it was “sweet, that ye cook it not.” Jerky travels well, even in hot desert terrain, as does cheese and bread. So the party could have maintained an adequate food supply on their trail without having to “make much fire.” So again, I doubt that the paucity of fire had anything at all to do with fear of desert marauders.

When discussing the difficult path eastward, one of the more remarkable observations made by Brown—one that I had never thought of myself before reading his insightful book From Jerusalem to Zarahemla—is that probably no more than a year passed between the marriages of Lehi’s sons at the Valley of Lemuel (see 1 Nephi 16:7) and the party’s eastward travel where the new wives were bearing children (see 17:1). This is a key indicator of the duration of time along Lehi’s trail. The 4 to 5 months spent at the Valley of Lemuel, combined with the 9- to 12-month passage between there and the eastward turn where childbearing commenced, suggests that less than 18 months of the reported “eight years in the wilderness” (17:4) had passed when the party departed from the place called Nahom.

Of course, some researchers, like Aston, feel the party must have spent much more time at the Valley of Lemuel, perhaps even years. Like Brown, however, I think it was only a matter of months and that the great majority of the “eight years in the wilderness” is to be counted after Nahom. But after Nahom is where I find myself preferring a different model than those proposed by Aston, Brown, and most other commentators. For one thing, I do not think there is a case for the supposed bondage of Lehi in Arabia.25 Eloquent arguments notwithstanding, I simply see no real evidence in the text to support the notion. Rather than bondage, the bitterness and suffering that caused Lehi so much sorrow seem in every case directly attributable to the wicked and violent actions of his older sons Laman and Lemuel and his sons-in-law, the sons of Ishmael. I doubt Lehi spent any significant time in bondage or indentured service before arriving at Bountiful.

On the contrary, it seems to me that Lehi’s party probably arrived at Bountiful within just a few months of leaving Nahom and that the entire trip from the Valley of Lemuel to Bountiful lasted no more than two years. I strongly suspect that as much as six of the eight years in the wilderness was actually time spent at Bountiful building Nephi’s ship. Of course, the first objection some might make to this model is that Bountiful was not wilderness but rather a place of “much fruit and also wild honey” (1 Nephi 17:5). Nephi noted, however, that after his ship was completed at Bountiful, his family loaded it with “much fruits and meat from the wilderness, and honey in abundance” (18:6). This suggests that he considered Bountiful to be wilderness territory, its fruit and honey notwithstanding. Nephi’s summary statement about eight years in the wilderness seems to me to include both the period of the trek (prior to 17:4) and the time at the seashore (after 17:4)—in other words, the time from the Jerusalem departure until the departure from Bountiful.

A further clue in this regard is found later in 1 Nephi 18 in the report of the rebellion against Nephi during the sea voyage. Lehi and Sariah had become ill, age having begun to take its toll. Lehi may have been in his mid-fifties by then, and Sariah in her late forties or early fifties, which was a fairly advanced age for that period, particularly given the rigors of wilderness living. Nephi reports that Jacob and Joseph, his little brothers who had been born in the wilderness (see 18:7) were still “young, having need of much nourishment” (18:19) during the voyage. This suggests to me that at least one of them, logically Joseph, had not yet been weaned by the time the party had set sail and still needed the nourishment of his mother’s milk, which Sariah was unable to give because of her illness. This probably indicates that Joseph was less than three years old. But since Joseph had been born in the wilderness, he would have to have been older than nursing age on the ship if the wilderness period had ended when the party arrived at Bountiful. Consequently, I think that Nephi counted the Bountiful period as part of the eight wilderness years and that Joseph himself was born at Bountiful, perhaps during that time of “greatest sorrow” (2 Nephi 3:1) when both the shipbuilding effort and even Nephi’s life were being threatened by Laman and Lemuel (see 1 Nephi 17:17–49). Though Jacob was a bit older, he too was still a young child at the time of those “afflictions” and “sorrow” brought on by the “rudeness” of his brothers (2 Nephi 2:1).

Bountiful and the Building of a Ship

For a person who has never visited Oman, never walked around the shore at Khor Rori, and never climbed the mountain at Khor Kharfot, commenting upon the location of Nephi’s Bountiful is difficult. Wellington and Potter make some very good points in their advocacy for Khor Rori, and Aston offers a compelling case for Khor Kharfot and its land access through Wadi Sayq. From my far-away perspective, Khor Kharfot seems to match the requirements of Nephi’s textual description better than Khor Rori. Having said that, Wellington and Potter’s discussion of the challenges involved in launching a ship and the virtues of a protected port must be seriously considered. In fact, the issues they raise with regard to shipbuilding in general are a valuable contribution to our general understanding of the task Nephi confronted.

Some of the suggestions made by Wellington and Potter, however, raise questions in my mind. They suggest that Nephi’s statement “we did work timbers of curious workmanship” (1 Nephi 18:1) somehow “alludes to the possibility that the timbers he and his brethren were working had already been cut somewhere else” and were “precut in an unfamiliar manner.” But Nephi’s statement is merely a linguistic “cognate objective”—a combination, familiar in Hebrew, where the verb (work) and an aspect of the objective phrase (“timbers of curious workmanship“) are cognate terms. And the notion that lumber to build Nephi’s ship must have come from India seems unlikely. Clearly Nephi had no channel through which to import such wood by himself. And if Indian hardwood was being imported to Oman by other Arabs for shipbuilding during Nephi’s time, we would have to ask ourselves why Nephi had to make his own shipbuilding tools—for surely the other Arab builders would have such tools and Nephi could have purchased them as readily as he could have purchased their imported lumber. The logic of an “imported lumber” model does not hold up for me.

Every aspect of Nephi’s text suggests to me that his family at Bountiful was essentially isolated and alone, with no local Arab population nearby. It was absolutely necessary for Nephi to have his brothers help him in the ship’s construction—no other labor was locally available. Potter and Wellington have suggested elsewhere that after the ship was ready to sail, Nephi actually brought local Arab sailors with the family on the ship’s trans-Pacific voyage.26 Their article herein implies that, at the very least, Arab sailors would have to have trained Nephi in seamanship. They quote an experienced modern sailor who maintained that “even with the inspiration of the Lord, it was simply impossible for Nephi to have sailed to the New World without training.” But if this refers only to training by other humans, I must reject the notion. The same observation could be made of every prophet who ever accomplished any mighty task, including Joseph Smith, who was not a “trained” linguist or translator but who translated the Book of Mormon nonetheless. God has a proven record of training his servants, by revelation, to accomplish his instructions in ways that defy the understanding of experts. Nephi was no exception. Local Arab sailors were not, in my mind, at all a necessity.

Again, however, the points made by Wellington and Potter regarding the challenge of preparing not only suitable lumber but also sufficient quantities of rope and fabric for the ship’s lines and sails are important issues we must consider when reconstructing the activities of Lehi’s colony at Bountiful. No wonder it took some six years (according to my model) to complete the project. And the challenges of launching the ship, guiding it safely from the shore or harbor to deep water, and of course actually sailing the vessel across the Pacific demand similar consideration.

The publications of both Warren Aston and Kent Brown have enhanced the depth of my appreciation for all that occurred on the journey along the trail of Lehi. And Richard Wellington and George Potter, both in their article herein and in their book Lehi in the Wilderness, have greatly increased my appreciation for the remarkable accomplishments of Nephi and his family at Bountiful and on the sea, as well as the adventure of arriving in the New World.


1.   Specific reasons why Lehi could not have lived or possessed land in the hills of Judah, such as at the Beit Lei site, are given in my study “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004): 105–6.

2.   On the lack of connection between the Arabic toponym lei and the Hebrew term lehi, see the remarks of Professor Frank Moore Cross in the response by Hershel Shanks (editor), “Is the Mormon Figure Lehi Connected with a Prophetic Inscription Near Jerusalem?” in Biblical Archaeology Review 14/6 (November/December 1988): 19.

3.   See LaMar C. Berrett, “The So-Called Lehi Cave,” JBMS 8/1 (1999): 64–66.

4.   The most recent effort of Latter-day Saint tourists trying to connect Lehi to the Beit Lei (Beyt Loya) area is known as the “Beit-Lehi Excavations,” and information about their effort is available online at These tourists have volunteered labor at the excavation of a Byzantine-era Christian church at Beyt Loya. In 2006 the Web site referred to the area as the “City of Lehi,” but as of 2007 that name has been deleted, and the Web site uses only the term Beit-Lehi. But there are no professional archaeologists who agree with the tourists on this naming or who think the Byzantine site has any connection to the era in which Lehi lived (seventh–sixth century BC).

5.   Lehi’s house was probably a typical Israelite pillared-court structure, the type Israeli archaeologists call a “four-room house.” It was very likely located in the ancient city quarter known in Hebrew as the Mishneh (oddly rendered as “the college” in the King James version of 2 Kings 22:14 and 2 Chronicles 34:22). The Mishneh neighborhood lay just inside the “middle gate” (Jeremiah 39:3) in the northern city wall, on land that is currently the Jewish Quarter in today’s Old City of Jerusalem. See my discussion of the architecture and location of Lehi’s residence, including maps and drawings, in “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance,” 81–130.

6.   The “land of [Lehi’s] inheritance” was probably a tract located some 30 miles north of Jerusalem, in the ancient territory of the tribe of Manasseh. Although Lehi and his sons had access to that land tract, they maintained no residence there. For a thorough discussion of the issues surrounding Lehi’s land of inheritance, see my study “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance,” 81–130.

7.   The exact dates of Lehi’s ministry in Jerusalem and his subsequent departure into the wilderness are a matter of debate. The asterisked notation of 600 BC at 1 Nephi 2:4 in editions of the Book of Mormon printed since 1920 could lead readers to assume that Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem occurred exactly in that year. Brown and Seely, however, note that Zedekiah came to the throne in 597 BC and suggest that Lehi’s departure occurred some time after that year (see S. Kent Brown and David R. Seely, “Jeremiah’s Imprisonment and the Date of Lehi’s Departure,” The Religious Educator 2/1 [2001]: 16–17). For quite some time I have maintained that Lehi departed Jerusalem years earlier, in 605 BC (probably around November).

I first suggested this dating scheme in print in my article “Has the Seal of Mulek Been Found?” JBMS 12/2 (2003): 117–18n24: “It is historically certain that Nebuchadnezzar placed 21-year-old Zedekiah upon the Judean throne in the year we know as 597 BC (see 2 Kings 24:17–18). Some Latter-day Saints will wonder how this can be, in view of the prophecy that Jesus would be born 600 years from the time Lehi left Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 10:4). Based on the dating model of Elder James E. Talmage, who placed Jesus’ birth on April 6, 1 BC, the year 600 BC has appeared as an extratextual footnote to 1 Nephi 2:4 (the passage where Lehi departed Jerusalem) in all editions of the Book of Mormon since 1920 (the 1920 edition was edited by Elder Talmage). Therefore, some Latter-day Saints have assumed that 600 BC must have been the ‘first year of the reign of Zedekiah’ (1 Nephi 1:4). A number of dating models have been proposed (different from Talmage’s model) to explain how the historical date of Zedekiah’s first year (597 BC) can be reconciled with Lehi’s 600-year prophecy, but space prevents exploring them here [see, for example, David Rolph Seely, “Chronology, Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 198–99]. I will, however, offer a very brief outline of my own solution, which is that Jesus was most likely born in the winter of 5 BC/4 BC (just months prior to the death of Herod the Great in April of 4 BC) and that Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem probably occurred 600 years earlier, in late 605 BC. In this model I presume that the ‘first year of the reign of Zedekiah’ spoken of in 1 Nephi 1:4 does not refer to 21-year-old Zedekiah’s installation by Nebuchadnezzar, but to the year 609 BC, theorizing that following the death of Zedekiah’s father, Josiah (see 2 Kings 23:29–30), and the Egyptian removal of Zedekiah’s older full brother Jehoahaz from the throne (see 2 Kings 23:30–34), the young 8-year-old Zedekiah was recognized by Judah as legitimate heir to the throne, even though the Egyptians installed his older half brother Jehoiakim (see 2 Kings 23:34). This solution further theorizes that the exilic or postexilic composer of the last segment of 2 Kings (comprising 2 Kings 23:26–25:30) was unaware of the situation with young Zedekiah and reported only the tenure of the Egyptian vassal Jehoiakim, first mentioning Zedekiah at his installment by the Babylonians at age 21. However, it would have been the 8-year-old Zedekiah, in a 609 BC context, of whom Nephi was speaking in 1 Nephi 1:4.”

Thus I date “the first year of the reign of Zedekiah” mentioned by Nephi (1 Nephi 1:4) to 609 BC, when eight- or nine-year-old Zedekiah could logically have been regarded as the genuine successor to his deceased father Josiah and his deposed brother Jehoahaz (see 2 Kings 23:29–33; on the question of whether an eight- or nine-year-old son of Josiah could plausibly have inherited the kingship, compare the account in 2 Kings 22:1, where Josiah himself was only eight years old when he was placed on Judah’s throne). This means that Lehi’s ministry in Jerusalem may have lasted as much as four years (609–605 BC) prior to his departure. But these issues of dating are far from settled.

8.   The expertise in metalworking that Nephi documents in his narrative strongly suggests that he and his father were metal smiths and that they had experience in mining ore and processing it into tools, plates, and other artifacts. Lehi possessed supplies of both gold and silver (see 1 Nephi 2:4), and Nephi was able to work in these precious metals (see 2 Nephi 5:15). Silver was the common medium of exchange in Judah and was always in plentiful supply locally. But gold was rare, and the main source for Judeans to obtain gold in that period was Egypt. This may help explain Lehi’s and Nephi’s skill in Egyptian as a second language—they likely traveled to Egypt on a regular basis to obtain gold supplies. (Hebrew, of course, would have been their native tongue.) Nephi also noted his ability to work in iron and copper (see 2 Nephi 5:15). The primary source for copper ore in the region was the Red Sea area near the Gulf of Aqaba and the adjacent Sinai Peninsula. This suggests to me that Lehi and his sons had previously traveled from Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aqaba area, perhaps often, in order to obtain copper ore and smelt it into ingots that could be brought back to Jerusalem. And this would mean that Lehi and Nephi were already well familiar with the most expeditious route from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, having probably traveled it numerous times.

The suggestion that Lehi was a metalworker was first made by John Tvedtnes as early as 1984 in “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?” (FARMS Preliminary Report, 1984) and was later expanded by him in “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?” in his The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999), 94–97. See my fuller discussion of Lehi and Nephi as metal smiths who were experienced in traveling to the Red Sea area to obtain copper in “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance,” 113–17.

9.   See John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 327. Bright also discusses the implications of Jeremiah 27:3 in terms of a possible anti-Babylonian coalition of Judah, Sidon, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab, but only in the period after 595/94 BC, when rebellion flared up in Babylon (see p. 329).

10.   The wilderness route from Jerusalem along the Draga and Arugot valleys is shown in the influential Carta Bible Atlas (formerly The Macmillan Bible Atlas) as the path taken by Flavius Silva’s Tenth Roman Legion to travel from Jerusalem past Ein Gedi to Masada. See Yohanan Aharoni et al., The Carta Bible Atlas, 4th ed. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002), 190 (map 260).

11.   In the winter of 1994, when I was a full-time instructor at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, I explored the segment of this route from Jerusalem to Ein Gedi with my wife and children. I also served as Scoutmaster of Jerusalem Troop 75 at the time and took my Scouts along the Arugot valley segment of that desert trail (located in Israel’s Ein Gedi National Park).

12.   Brown explains in an endnote that the Jerusalem/Ein Gedi/Arabah route is the one preferred by D. Kelly Ogden in “Answering the Lord’s Call (1 Nephi 1–7),” in Studies in Scripture, Volume Seven: 1 Nephi to Alma 29, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 23n8. I think it is important to mention, even if only in an endnote, that Ogden walked the entire distance from Jerusalem to the Red Sea via the Arabah valley in order to explore Lehi’s trail firsthand. The walk was accomplished over several terms during 1986 and 1987 while Ogden was an instructor for Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center student programs. As a fellow instructor there, I joined him on some portions of his “Lehi Trek,” including the summer 1986 portion where it became evident to us both that Lehi could not have taken a trail from Qumran to Ein Gedi along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea since steep cliffs meet the lake’s edge there. This led us both to the conclusion, on strictly practical grounds, that Lehi must have come from Jerusalem to Ein Gedi via the Arugot valley approach and that he traveled along the Dead Sea’s west shore only south of Ein Gedi, where that shoreline flattens out and makes foot traffic possible.

13.   See George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2005), 1–10, 31–50.

14.   See George Potter, “A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel,” JBMS 8/1 (1999): 54–63, 79.

15.   See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 197–215.

16.   The article may be accessed online at by clicking on the link for FARMS Review 17/2, 2005.

17.   See Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 206–9.

18.   My negative conclusions about Tayyib al-Ism were not well received in some quarters, as noted by the FARMS Review editor (see the editor’s introduction by Daniel C. Peterson, “Not So Easily Dismissed: Some Facts for Which Counterexplanations of the Book of Mormon Will Need to Account,” FARMS Review 17/2 [2005]: xxvn45, xlviii). I fully understand this disappointment, and even the initial tendency toward denial, on the part of those who not only felt that a “valley of Lemuel” had been discovered but also had invested significant resources in presenting the site to the public in books and video programs. And to be fair, I should point out that Brown and Wellington and Potter had not yet seen my review when they began preparing their original drafts for the articles in this present issue of JBMS. It may be that they or others who have a vested interest in Tayyib al-Ism will eventually prepare and publish a full response to the issues I raised in the FARMS Review.

19.   Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 214.

20.   This is essentially a restatement of the model presented in Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” 211.

21.   The apparatus for capitalized abbreviations in the footnotes is found at the beginning of each Book of Mormon, triple combination, and Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible. However, the apparatus for the Book of Mormon and the triple combination omits the capitalized abbreviations HEB (Hebrew) and GR (Greek) that are included in the Bible. The page titled “Explanation Concerning Abbreviations” at the front of the Latter-day Saint edition of the KJV indicates that a HEB footnote provides “an alternate translation from the Hebrew.” The use of HEB in footnote a of 1 Nephi 16:13 is thus supposed to indicate that an “alternate translation” of Shazer is “twisting, intertwining.” The problems, of course, are that we do not have a translation of the name to begin with and thus cannot know if the proposed alternate translation is legitimate.

22.   In addition to 1 Nephi 16:13, HEB occurs in a footnote to each of the following verses: 1 Nephi 16:34 (concerning Nahom, but at least qualified by probably); 2 Nephi 9:20; Mosiah 11:3; and Mosiah 27:29.

23.   See S. Kent Brown, “The Place That Was Called Nahom: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” JBMS 8/1 (1999): 66–68; and Warren P. Aston, “Newly Found Altars from Nahom,” JBMS 10/2 (2001): 58–61.

24.   See Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 63–67.

25.   In addition to Brown’s comments in this issue on the possible bondage of Lehi and family in Arabia, see S. Kent Brown, “A Case for Lehi’s Bondage in Arabia,” JBMS 6/2 (1997): 205–17; From Jerusalem to Zarahemla: Literary and Historical Studies of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 55–74; and “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 88–92, 120–22.

26.   See Potter and Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness, 142–43. Not only do the authors suggest that Arab sailors accompanied Lehi’s colony on the voyage to America, they propose that Lehi took along household servants as well, who remain unmentioned in Nephi’s text because they possessed no rights as family members. But no textual evidence for this suggestion is offered.