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Question: Is the description in the Book of Mormon of a "river running into a fountain" absurd?
In the ancient Near East, the "fountain of a river" was perceived to be the ocean, from which all waters originated
It is claimed that description of a "river running into a fountain" in 1 Nephi is absurd. The criticism is based on a shallow reading of the text. In the ancient Near East, the "fountain of a river" was perceived to be the ocean, from which all waters originated.
All instances of "fountain" in 1 Nephi describe either:
- the Red Sea (rivers surely run to the sea)
- the fountain near the Tree of Life in Lehi's dream, from which the river flows.
Hugh Nibley tackled this issue by pointing out that the text speaks not of the “fountain” or source of the river, but of “the fountain of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:9). Nibley then goes on to explain how the Semitic word yam (usually translated as “sea”) originally connoted “whether applied to salt water or fresh, the basic meaning of source or fountain.” (Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, CWHN 5:77-78.) Nibley then reasons that the Gulf of Aqaba, as a narrow branch of the Red Sea which one can look across to the opposite shore, “is a broad and elongated sheet of water… [which] opens out to the sea at its mouth, flowing out through two channels about five miles wide each.” In other words, a “fountain” or “source” leading out into the Red Sea.
Taking a different approach, Paul Y. Hoskisson explains that the cosmological conceptions of ancient Near Eastern peoples were such that rivers drew from the oceanic waters at their mouth. As such, the notion of the river flowing into a “fountain” or “source” is not problematic, but rather reflects a rather authentic expression of the ancient Near Eastern Perspective. Hoskisson writes,
Finally, in an unusual passage in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 2:9, Lehi noted that the river which he named after his son Laman “emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea.” Does a river empty into a fountain? Is it not the other way around? That the passage is problematical is indicated by the attempt to explain fountain in a footnote in the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon. The problem fades, however, when ancient Near Eastern lexical and cosmological considerations are taken into account. In the ancient Near East there were two great bodies of water, the saltwater oceans and the subterranean sweet waters, both of which were thought by the ancients “to be the source of rivers and streams.” These “fountains of the great deep” (a phrase used by the translators of the King James Bible in Genesis 7:11), as U. Cassuto explained in commenting on the Hebrew word thwm, refer “undoubtedly to the subterranean waters, which are the source of the springs that flow upon the ground.” The Hebrews shared this Canaanite concept of the subterranean waters being the source of springs.
These subterranean and oceanic waters then are actually the source of all rivers, streams, and springs. The ancient Semites did not conceive of this, however, as we currently do, namely, through the chain of evaporation, cloud formation, condensation, and precipitation. (No doubt they also had some understanding of this process, but they did not limit their perceptions to this one process.) It was S. N. Kramer who, when first pointing out the remarkable and unusual ancient Near East perception that the source of rivers is the oceanic waters, said: The Sumerian “mouth” of the rivers, while it coincides geographically with the actual mouth of the rivers as we understand it today, is nevertheless not to be understood in terms of our modern usage, as the place where the rivers “empty” their water (into the Persian Gulf) but rather as the place where they “drink” the waters (from the Persian Gulf). In the light of this conception, the “mouth” of the Tigris and Euphrates may well be designated as their source, but not the real source, i.e., in the mountains of Armenia, but the source as conceived by the Sumerians.
That is to say, the source of the rivers was the oceanic waters, not in an ultimate sense as we conceive it, but in a more immediate sense, in that the rivers drew directly either from the seas as springs, or from the oceans through their mouths, depending on whether the Canaanite concept or S. N. Kramer’s Sumero-Akkadian example applies. Returning now to 1 Nephi 2:9, it is the statement that the river flows into the fountain that is disturbing. As was just explained, in the ancient Near East the fountain of a river was conceived of as being the oceanic waters, the river actually drawing from the ocean or fountain in a sense that is not clear to our occidental and empirical understanding. Our Book of Mormon is in authentic ancient Near Eastern tradition on this point; and the Prophet Joseph Smith could not have known about it. This then seems to become sufficient evidence. 
- Origen Bachelor, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (New York: Privately Published, 1838), 9. off-site
- Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, the World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, edited by John W. Welch with Darrell L. Matthew and Stephen R. Callister, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 77. ISBN 0875791328. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Textual Evidences for the Book of Mormon,” in First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1988), 289-90. off-site