Arabia and The Book of Mormon
By Cooper Johnson
When one considers the archaeological efforts aimed at learning about the people, places and events of the Book of Mormon, it is easy to focus on Mesoamerican studies while forgetting about the origins of the Book of Mormon peoples. Let’s face it, literally 99% of the Book of Mormon, which covers more than a thousand years in time (the book of Ether notwithstanding), takes place in the Americas.
More specifically, less than 10 of the roughly 1021 years covered in the Book of Mormon, from the time of Nephi’s first writings to the last writings of Moroni, take place outside of the Western Hemisphere. So, it’s not surprising for the majority of archaeological energies to be spent in Mesoamerica.
However, turning our attention to that very small amount of time after Lehi and his family departed Jerusalem and traveled in the wilderness and desert of Arabia has proven very fruitful in demonstrating the authenticity of the claims within the Book of Mormon. The research and resulting finds in the Arabian peninsula have provided absolutely incredible insight into the lives of Lehi, his family, and the beginnings of their journey to the promised land.
In addition to providing insight, the findings from Arabian research, in recent years, have provided some of the most valuable archaeological evidences to authenticate the claims of the Book of Mormon. Many significant “direct-hits” have been logged in Arabia. And considering the information about Arabia (i.e. the landscape, terrain, geography, botany, names of places, etc.) that would have been available to Joseph Smith during the 1820s (almost nothing), these findings become even more amazing and increasingly difficult for Book of Mormon critics to face.
Jeff Lindsay, a prolific LDS apologist (he has one of the largest LDS apologetic Web sites I’m aware of, for an individual), once put it this way: ‘If Joseph Smith were a fraud and the Book of Mormon a work of his imagination, mingled with scarce facts Joseph was able to put together, time would be his biggest enemy. For, over a period of time, a fraud will be surely revealed as such.’
If the Book of Mormon is not an authentic record, we would expect to find more and more holes as we learn more facts about the cultures, people, places and events covered within its pages. Year after year, we would expect to find more and more evidence that would invalidate the book.
However, this is not what we have found. To the contrary, year after year, we continue to find evidence that supports descriptions of the cultures, places, names, etc. within the book. Time has become a close friend to the Book of Mormon. You will find this to be the case as you review the presentation delivered by S. Kent Brown, a BYU professor of Ancient Scripture and Director of Ancient Studies, at the 2001 FAIR Conference.
For many years Brother Brown has been very involved in retracing the steps of Lehi and his family in their trek out of Jerusalem and across the Arabian Peninsula. He brought these Book of Mormon characters to life as he shared with us his findings resulting from years of study in Arabia.
“Why pay attention to this family trekking into the desert of Arabia?” Brother Brown gives us three distinct reasons.
First, “it is evident from the Book of Mormon text that the descendants of this family referred back to the desert saga again and again. It was a chief point of reference in their long history which defined how they saw themselves and how they saw others.” We can learn more about the people, their struggles, their faith and humility as we study more about the background of their exodus out of Jerusalem.
Second, “While it is spare in its detail, Nephi has written enough that we can actually track in a general way where the family traveled and where important events occurred.” This portion is absolutely fascinating and allows us to almost relive the events.
The third reason, “concerns clues within the text that shed light on this journey of journeys. We notice that it was not a journey that mirrors circumstances in upstate New York where Joseph Smith was living when he began to translate the Book of Mormon. It was a desert journey that ran across one of the harshest climes on the surface of the earth,” a clime Joseph Smith would have known nothing about, yet, the text of the Book of Mormon provides outstanding details and some of those “direct-hits” mentioned earlier.
The Site of Lehi’s First Camp
Citing several researchers that have preceded him, Brother Brown discussed many of the studies and projects that have been significant in establishing our current perspective.
In search of Lehi and Sariah’s first campsite, which would have been where the Arabian and Sinai peninsulas meet at the northern tip of the Red Sea, Hugh Nibley in 1952 identified an area that would have been the site of Lehi and Sariah’s first camp. Additionally, Lynn and Hope Hilton, in 1976, narrowed the search for the first camp of Lehi’s family and found an excellent candidate at Al-Bad, where there were wells and irrigation works, evidence of ancient inhabitants.
Brother Brown also cites the work of George Potter, in his efforts, with others, to locate a better candidate for the first camp. Potter found it in a valley with a running stream of water, highly unusual for the area, but matching Nephi’s description (1 Nephi 2:9). Potter, along with the other researchers, have successfully identified this valley as the only one in this area of Arabia to have a running stream of water, a prospect which was not likely in such an arid area of the world. However, it was finally found. It did exist, although Joseph Smith, or anyone else in his part of the world, could not have known about it.
Traveling To Nahom
Nephi records that his family left the first camp and traveled “south-southeast” and continued in that direction until they arrived at “the place which was called Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:13, 34). Brother Brown, referring to Nephi’s choice of words, notes that, “the expression is passive, meaning that someone else had named the place. At all the other stops which are named in Nephi’s narrative, it was family members who named the places. But when they reach Nahom, it was a place that already enjoyed a preexisting name.” So, one should expect, at some point, this place called Nahom to be identified on some ancient document or artifact, if it was indeed a preexisting location and known well enough for Lehi and his family to identify it by it’s name, once they arrived.
Back in the 1970s, Ross Christensen and Warren and Michaela Aston estimated the location of Nephi’s Nahom to be in modern-day Yemen and started doing their research, which eventually yielded some fruit. The Astons “found that this name, or its equivalent which is spelled Nihm, also appeared in Arabic sources which go back to the early Islamic period, the ninth century A.D.” and “is known as both a place name and as a tribal name,” according to Brother Brown.
This was a substantial step in identifying the location of Nahom. For, as Brother Brown notes, “this area lies almost due west of the place where Bountiful must have lain in Oman.” This is important, because Nephi recorded turning “eastward” out of Nahom and eventually ending up in the place they called Bountiful, which we will discuss in greater detail shortly. However, as Brother Brown points out, “There was a problem.” While the Astons found a location with the same name, it could only be confirmed back to the Ninth century A.D., and Nephi’s reference occurs roughly 1500 years earlier.
As Brother Brown mentioned, “we needed a written source that would establish this name closer to the time of Lehi and Sariah,” which didn’t exist at the time. However, “now we have the evidence.” Brother Brown describes his discovery as follows:
I became interested in an exhibit of ancient Yemen artifacts that was in Paris about four years ago. I saw a notice of it in a magazine. The exhibit is still showing in Europe under the title of the Queen of Sheba. I bought the catalogue. I was interested in some incense altars that were donated to a temple in south Arabia. These altars are inscribed with the name of the donor, the father’s name, and the grandfather’s name, as well as the tribal name. At first, I was less interested in the names than in the shapes of the altars because these altars seem to preserve distinctive architectural forms that distinguish early Arabian sacred buildings… While I was examining the inscription of one of the altars that is pictured in the catalogue of this exhibit, I read the name of the donor: ‘Bicathar, son of Saw_d, son of Nawc_n, tribe of Nihm.’ Moreover, the excavator who translated the inscription dates this altar to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C. I thought, Bingo!
So, Brother Brown had now found an ancient Arabian artifact with the name Nihm, or Nahom that could be dated back to the time of Lehi.
Some may wonder why the name Nihm is being likened unto Nahom. Of course, they are different. However, Brother Brown makes an important point when he informed us, “in Semitic languages one writes with consonants rather than vowels. Hence, the name is NHM. These letters make up the name on the altars and also the name Nahom.” One difference is worthy of note, when considering how NHM would have been pronounced, which determines how we add vowels to the word in English. The south Arabian NHM would have been said with a soft “H” sound, thus rendering it “Nihm.” However, the “H” in Hebrew, would likely have been a strong “H” sound, the Hebrew letter, “het,” resulting in “Nahom.” Additionally, Lehi and his family would have associated NHM with “a Hebrew term which was familiar to them, that is, Nahom.”
One last note on the subject of Nahom. As mentioned earlier, Nephi recorded that after traveling south-southeast and arriving at Nahom, “from that time we did travel nearly eastward” (1 Nephi 17:1). This is significant because, according to Brother Brown, “in the region of Nahom in South Arabia, all roads turn east,” toward the incense capital of Southern Arabia, Shabwah. And once again, this information was not available to Joseph Smith.
Every bit as significant a find as Nahom, while not addressed at length in Brother Brown’s presentation, is the discovery of a place on it’s south-eastern corner that matches, in every aspect, the place Nephi called “Bountiful.” In the country of Oman one finds a stretch of beautiful land with all manner of vegetation, in contrast to the rest of Arabia, which is dry desert land. This area becomes “a Garden of Eden” during the “summer monsoon months” and “even in the dry season…plants are still blooming and fruit is ripening,” according to Brother Brown.
And, of course, you might have guessed, since it matches Nephi’s description of Bountiful (see 1 Nephi 17:5: 18:1), it is also found right where Nephi describes it, eastward from Nahom.
We can see how increasingly difficult it becomes for a critic of the Book of Mormon to explain away one direct hit after another. How on Earth, one might ask, could Joseph have correctly guessed all of these details having to do with the terrain and landscape and commercial routes and botany of a strange and foreign land? Considering the fact that Joseph had never been to Arabia and no maps of any detail were available to him, certainly not to any level of detail as described in the Book of Mormon, how could he have accurately described a travel route of a group of people, providing obscure details at each major stop along the way?
Well, the explanation is simple, really. This story of Lehi and Sariah and their family is not the work of Joseph Smith. It is a true and authentic story of real people in a real place.
Over a period of time, validating discoveries continue to be found, time and time again. With more research of these ancient lands, comes more authentication for the Nephites and Lamanites. They were real people and the Book of Mormon is exactly what it claims to be.
Should evidence such as that presented by Brother Brown be the foundation of our testimony? I conclude with his closing remarks:
Do these observations prove the Book of Mormon to be true? No. Do they prove the Book of Mormon to be false? No. Nothing decisively proves it except a spiritual witness. Even so, a number of pieces from ancient Arabia fit Nephi’s narrative. We actually find ourselves with a clearer picture of what happened to this family and what their experience was. For myself, the way that one learns whether the Book of Mormon is true is by reading it and then by going into one’s closet and praying. I know that it is the word of God. I know that it is a divine instrument of conversion. And I know that this story happened to real people in a place called Arabia.
We are deeply indebted to scholars like S. Kent Brown, who have done much to teach us about the people of the Book of Mormon.
The Full Presentation
Dr. Brown’s presentation at the 2001 FAIR Conference was very interesting, and a must for anyone interested in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. If you are interested in owning a copy of the full presentation on audio CD, you can purchase it in the FAIR Store.
About S. Kent Brown
S. Kent Brown is a professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University and the current director of Ancient Studies on campus. He served as the director of the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies from 1993 to 1996. Dr. Brown has taught at BYU since 1971. From 1982 to 1985 he served as chair of the department of Ancient Scripture and then worked as director of publications for the Religious Studies Center (1985-1987). Prior to these assignments, he and his family spent a year in Cairo where he was a fellow of the American Research Center in Egypt (1978-1979) and worked on the collection of ostraca at the Coptic Museum. From 1984 to 1990 Professor Brown led a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mormon Archaeology and Research Foundation to microfilm more than 1500 ancient Christian manuscripts in Cairo and Jerusalem. He was a fellow of the BYU Jerusalem Center and the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies in Provo. Brother Brown has authored more than seventy published articles. Dr. Brown also served on the board of editors for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, as a managing editor for The Coptic Encyclopedia, and as an associate editor for the journal BYU Studies (1992-1995). He was a co-editor of the Historical Atlas of Mormonism. Currently he is an associate editor for the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and the coordinator of several research projects in Oman where Lehi’s “Bountiful” is probably located. He earned a B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in Classical Greek, with a minor in Near Eastern languages (1967), and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Brown University, with an emphasis in New Testament and Early Christian Studies (1972). He is married to the former Gayle Oblad; they are the parents of five children and the grandparents of thirteen grandchildren.