In 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith went to his grave testifying of the Book of Mormon. By that point in his life, he had lived in the forests of Vermont and New York, the plains of Ohio and Missouri, and the swampy river bottoms of Nauvoo, Illinois. Yet the publication that defined his life began in a totally different world. The opening chapters of the Book of Mormon have a distinctly Arabian flavor, garnished with some Israelite and Egyptian dressings.
Growing up in the late-7th century BC, Nephi wrote in “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). Critics in the 1830s scoffed at the idea of Jews writing in Egyptian, and for decades this particular phrase was difficult even for believers to understand. Now, archaeological finds have uncovered over 200 texts in Israel dating to the 8th–7th centuries BC that use Egyptian script in a distinctive way. The peculiar phrasing of 1 Nephi 1:2 proves to be an apt description of what some scholars are calling “Palestinian hieratic.”
Though he grew up in Jerusalem, Nephi’s story is not about his life in the city. As he begins, he quickly tells of how his father was called as a prophet, carefully following the established pattern for Israelite prophetic-call narratives. As a prophet his father learned of the wickedness of the people, and then the family left the city and trekked down into the Arabian deserts to live and travel for 8 long years.
For an Israelite growing up in the holy city, leaving the elevated highlands of Jerusalem to go down into the wilderness must have been bittersweet. As Nephi would have known, the higher elevation represented closeness to the Lord, and the irony of descending to the sea, and finding a haven to offer sacrifices to the Lord, at an appropriate distance from the now wicked city, would not have been lost on him.
Gone were the comforts of city life. For nearly a decade, Nephi and his family would live like the Bedouin of the Arabian desert. Several hints from Nephi’s text suggest that Arabia left its mark on Nephi and his family. For instance, while settling into a valley near the Red Sea, Lehi used a poetic style similar to the Bedouin poets to exhort Laman and Lemuel to righteousness. Hugh Nibley specifically identified 7 features found in Arabic poetry that are also present in 1 Nephi 2:9–10:
- They are Brunnen[lieder]or Quellenlieder, as the Germans call them, meaning songs inspired by the sight of water gushing from a spring or running down a valley.
- They are addressed to one or (usually) two traveling companions.
- They praise the beauty and excellence of the scene, calling it to the attention of the hearer as an object lesson.
- The hearer is urged to be like the thing he beholds.
- The poems are recited extempore or on the spot and with great feeling.
- They are very short, each couplet being a complete poem in itself.
- One verse must be followed by its “brother,” making a perfectly matched pair.
Book of Mormon Central highlights the correlation to 1 Nephi 2:9–10:
Lehi: (1) sees that the river running through the valley empties into the sea, (2) addresses two of his sons traveling with him, (3) makes the majesty of the scene an object lesson for them, (4) urges them to be like the river and valley, (5) appears to give the poetic advice on the spot, (6) each verse is concise and can stand as complete on its own, and (7) pairs together two perfectly balanced couplets, directed at brothers, no less. Thus, Lehi’s poetry shares all seven features with Arabic poetry noted by Nibley.
While in that valley, Arabia haunted Lehi’s dreams. I can remember being very confused by the association of the river with a “gulf” as a kid reading the Book of Mormon. But in Arabia, this makes sense. This is one of many associations that lead S. Kent Brown to say, “as soon as we focus on certain aspects of Lehi’s dream, we find ourselves staring into the ancient world of Arabia.”
All rivers in Arabia are at the bottom of wadis, deep chasms in the Arabian mountains which can divide a traveler from where they want to go. After rainstorms these wadis fill with torrents of filthy water. This matches the imagery of Lehi’s dream perfectly. Lehi and Nephi probably witnessed this many times in their travels through Arabia. They were camping in such a wadi when Lehi had his dream—something that likely drove the symbolism home. Book of Mormon Central highlights how powerful an image this would have been for Lehi and Nephi:
In Arabia, deep chasms are filled with muddy water, separating travelers from their destination. This is the gulf of filthy water, the gulf of sin and unrighteousness, which separates the righteous from the wicked. This sweeping force struck Lehi and Nephi vividly as a powerful image of the natural justice of God.
Arabia is also home to where Nephi’s father-in-law, Ishmael, was buried. Remembering the location of Ishmael’s grave was important enough to Nephi that rather than record a personal toponym, as he does with every other place they stop, Nephi made sure to record the actual place name: Nahom. This important clue has allowed researchers to locate this place with a high degree of certainty.
This is because a similar name shows up on several maps of Arabia, and is also found in several inscriptions dating to the early 1st millennium BC, uncovered by archaeology in South Arabia. The maps assure us that “Nehem” was in the approximate location of Nephi’s Nahom, and the inscriptions confirm that the name dates back to Lehi’s day. Book of Mormon Central explains the significance of this evidence:
Could Nihm/Nehem be Nephi’s Nahom? The location of Nahom can be correlated with the family’s eastward turn and arrival in Bountiful (1 Nephi 17:1–5). Likewise, the only suitable location for Bountiful is on the southern Omani coast, in Dhofar, which is nearly due east from the Nihm territory in Yemen. Furthermore, coming down the caravan trails, traveling eastward is impossible in Arabia until reaching the Nihm area.
The inscriptions found at Mārib and elsewhere add assurance that the Nihm region was known by that name when Lehi’s family would have been there to bury Ishmael and mourn his death, and the overall correlation between Nihm and Nahom is striking. … Since the finding of these altars, it cannot honestly be maintained that there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon.
One of the strongest indications of Arabian influence may be the name Irreantum. When naming the sea they camped near, Nephi not only gives the name, but also translates it for us. This has led some scholars to suggest that the name was in a “foreign language” to Nephi, rather than his native Hebrew, or familiar Egyptian. One of the most compelling proposals is a South Arabian word that would have meant something along the lines of “fully abundant waters.”
Since this is a name Lehi’s family supplied themselves, it may hint at some familiarity with South Arabian languages. Given how long Nephi and his family spent in the area, it should come as no surprise that they learned the languages necessary to communicate with local populations.
Much, much more could be said about just how authentically Arabian Nephi’s account is, to say nothing of the Israelite and Egyptian influences that also seem to be present. Indeed, Nephi seems to inhabit a very different world than Joseph Smith did. From the sea they called Irreantum, Nephi’s family would set sail for the promised land, beating incredible odds to survive a dangerous voyage. But by then, it was already too late. Arabia had left its mark on Nephi, who lived his most formative years in its desert climes. That influence can readily be seen in the account he left behind.