Lehi in the Desert, II

Hugh Nibley, Ph. D.

From the The Improvement Era 1950.

Into the Desert

Lehi the Dreamer

Lehi possesses in a high degree the traits and characteristics of the model sheikh of the desert. He is generous, noble, impulsive, fervent, devout, and visionary, and he possesses a wonderful capacity for eloquence and dreams. As to the dreams, when the Arabs wander, they feel they must be guided by dreams, and their sheikhs are often gifted dreamers. 1 The substance of Lehi's dreams is highly significant, since men's dreams necessarily represent, even when inspired, the things they see by day, albeit in strange and wonderful combinations. It is common for men in every age, for example, to dream of ships, but a man in Lehi's day must dream of particular kinds of ships, and no others will do.

In his dreams Lehi finds himself wandering "in a dark and dreary waste," a "dark and dreary wilderness," where he must travel "for the space of many hours in darkness," lost and helpless (1 Nephi 8:4-8). Of all the images that haunt the early Arab poets this is by all odds the commonest; it is the standard nightmare of the Arab; and it is the supreme boast of every poet that he has traveled long distances through dark and dreary wastes all alone. 2 Invariably darkness is given as the main source of terror (the heat and glare of the day, though nearly always mentioned, are given second place), and the culminating horror is almost always a "mist of darkness," a depressing mixture of dust, and clammy fog, which, added to the night, completes the confusion of any who wander in the waste. 3 Quite contrary to what one would expect, these dank mists are described by travelers in all parts of Arabia, 4 and al-Ajajj, one of the greatest of early desert poets, tells how a "mist of darkness" makes it impossible for him to continue a journey to Damascus. 5 In its nature and effect Lehi's "mist of darkness" (1 Nephi 8:23) conforms to this strange phenomenon most exactly.

When Lehi dreams of the vanity of the world, he sees "a large and spacious building," suspended in the air out of reach and full of smart and finely dressed people (1 Nephi 12:18; 8:26). That is exactly how the Bedouin of the desert, to whom the great stone houses of the city are an abomination, pictures the wicked world; and as the city Arabs still mock their desert cousins (whom they secretly envy) with every show of open contempt, so the well-dressed people in the big house "were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers" (1 Nephi 8:27) at the poor little band of bedraggled wanderers, hungrily eating fruit from a tree, and duly abashed that their poverty should be put to open shame. One is reminded by Lehi's imagery of the great stone houses of the ancient Arabs, "ten- and twelve-story skyscrapers that . . . represent genuine survivals of ancient Babylonian architecture," 6 with their windows beginning, for the sake of defense, fifty feet from the ground. At night these lighted windows would certainly give the effect of being suspended above the earth.

It is interesting that Joseph Smith, Sr., had almost the same dream, according to his wife, who took comfort in comparing the wanderings of her own family with those of "Father Lehi." But what is significant is not the resemblance of the two dreams but the totally different settings of the two; when the prophet's father dreamed himself lost in "this field [of] the world," he "could see nothing save dead, fallen timber," a picture which of course faithfully recalls his own frontier background. 7 When Dante, another westerner, sees himself lost in the midst of life's journey (one of the commonest and oldest of dreams, we repeat—a very classic among dreams) he is wandering through a dense, dark forest, the forest of his native Tuscany.

In a pleasanter vein Lehi sees "a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world" (1 Nephi 8:20) just as the Arab poet describes the world as a maydan, or large and spacious field. 8 When he dreams of a river, it is a true desert river, a clear stream a few yards wide with its source but a hundred paces away (1 Nephi 8:13-14) 9 or else a raging muddy wash, a sayl of "filthy water" that sweeps people away to their destruction (1 Nephi 8:32; 12:16; 15:27). In the year 960 A.D., according to Bar Hebraeus, a large band of pilgrims returning from Mekka "encamped in the bed of a brook in which water had not flowed for a long time. And during the night, whilst they were sleeping, a flood of water poured down upon them all, and it swept them and all their possessions out into the Great Sea, and they all perished." 10 Even a mounted rider if he is careless may be caught off guard and carried away by such a sudden spate of "head water," according to Doughty. 11 One of the worst places for these gully-washing torrents of liquid mud is in "the scarred and bare mountains which run parallel to the west coast of Arabia; . . . the rainstorms break against this long ridge and produce almost in a moment raging torrents—the Arabic sail, spate—which sweep away all obstacles without warning and with loss of life of man and cattle." 12 This was the very region through which Lehi travelled on his great trek.

The springhead and the sayl, such are the two and only types of "river" (for he calls them rivers) known to the desert Arab. 13 When Lehi dreams of people gone astray, they are lost in a trackless waste, "wandering in strange roads" (1 Nephi 8:23, 32) or blundering "into broad roads, that they perish and are lost" (1 Nephi 12:17) because of the "mist of darkness" (1 Nephi 8:23). Losing one's way is of course the fate that haunts every desert dweller sleeping and waking, and the Arab poets are full of the terror of "strange roads" and "broad ways." 14 To symbolize what is utterly inaccessible, Lehi is shown "a great and terrible gulf" (1 Nephi 12:18), "an awful gulf" (1 Nephi 15:28), a tremendous chasm with one's objective (the tree of life) maddeningly visible on the other side; all who have traveled in the desert know the feeling of utter helplessness and frustration at finding one's way suddenly cut off by one of those appalling canyons with perpendicular sides—nothing could be more abrupt, more absolute, more baffling to one's plans, and so will it be with the wicked in a day of reckoning. 15

Wherever else one might find parallels to these things, in combination they could only come from a man who knew the desert. Rubah, one of the desert poets, describes in a single short poem the terror of the loneliness, the long journey, the mist of darkness (sultry and thick), the "awful gulf," the broad ways, and the paths that stray. 16 The Book of Mormon, in giving us not a few such clear and vivid snapshots (there are many more to come) of life in another world, furnishes picturesque but convincing proof of its own authenticity. Nephi's complaint, "they sought to take away my life, that they might leave me in the wilderness to be devoured by wild beasts" (1 Nephi 7:16), is ever in the mouth of the Arab poet, for to leave one's enemy lying in the desert to be devoured by wild beasts is standard and correct procedure when Arabs quarrel, and for all its popularity with the poets, no mere figure of speech. 17

The Flight into the Wilderness

That a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem should leave the land of his inheritance at a moment's notice and with no more substantial incitement than a dream may seem at first blush highly improbable, to say the least. Yet Lehi had brooded long and anxiously over the fate of Jerusalem, praying "with all his heart, in behalf of his people" (1 Nephi 1:5), and when the dream came, he was prepared. Moreover in taking his sudden departure Lehi was doing not only the sensible but also the ordinary thing. From the earliest times to the present day the correct thing to do when going got rough in the cities and states of the Near East was simply to take off and seek the security of the desert. Sinuhe, a high official at the court of Amenemhet I, fearing a palace revolution on the death of the king, rushed impulsively out into the night and the desert, where he would have perished of thirst had he not been picked up by some friendly Arabs who traded with Egypt. His story, thirteen hundred years older than Lehi's, illustrates the ease with which men passed between the desert and the town, and shows us how natural was the impulse to take to the sands in a crisis. Had not Moses and the prophets, and even Father Abraham himself, sought safety from their enemies by flight into the desert? Had not the whole nation of Israel done the same in the beginning? But what makes Lehi's story ring true with perfect pitch is the recent discovery that those very leaders of the Jews at Jerusalem whose wickedness had obliged Lehi to leave the land while there was yet time, when they found the city on the verge of destruction and themselves faced with the consequences of their own folly, hid "in the wilds during the siege," and when all was lost fled to Egypt. 18 "Hiding in the wilds" was exactly what Lehi—and later anyone else who could escape—was doing.

The desert to which Sinuhe fled was the country south of Palestine, the classic hide-out land both of the Egyptians and the Jews, where "men of all conditions and nations . . . look to the Arab camp as a safe retreat and refuge." 19 While the Syrian desert is "the unenvied resort of defeated tribes," 20 the proper home of the outcast, escapist, and discredited revolutionary was ever Edom and the south country, "the land of disoriented groups and of individual fugitives, where organized semi-nomad Arab tribes alternate with the flotsam and jetsam of sedentary society, with runaway slaves, bandits, and their descendants." 21 Even the great merchants who brought forth the civilized Nabataean state placed their confidence, says Diodorus, in their ability to disappear quickly and easily into the desert—like any common Bedouin. 22 So let us not suppose that Lehi was the first big merchant to take to the back-country with his worried family. Even in the present century Arab farmers and towndwellers, to flee the exactions of a tyrannical Turkish government, fled to the desert and adopted the life of wandering Bedouins, 23 and in recent years thousands of fellahin, raised to a life of farming, might have been seen eking out a miserable existence on the sands of the Syrian desert as the result of hasty and ill-advised flight from their homes. 24

We have mentioned that "the Jews who were at Jerusalem" who finally got away when the city fell ended up in Egypt. Many of them settled far up the Nile, at Elephantine or Yeb. 25 This famous colony has been described as "but an eccentric deviation from the broad pathway of Hebrew history: it led nowhere, and had no influence on the development even of Egyptian Judaism." 26 In such words we might describe Lehi's own migration—an eccentric deviation breaking off completely from the main current of Jewish history, but, like the Elephantine settlement, preserving its own peculiar version of transplanted Judaism intact. The Elephantine story, by demonstrating the possibility of a development that scholars at first found inconceivable and were long reluctant to believe, confirms the possibility of just such an expedition as Lehi's. The Jews throughout history display, as Montgomery observes, a constant tendency to "revert to type" and go back to the desert, and Lehi was by no means the first or last Jew to do so. 27 Furthermore, it is not uncommon for rich town and country people and even poor farmers to take to the desert for a spell and enjoy from time to time a taste of nomad life, so that Lehi's behavior in turning Bedouin was thoroughly conventional and respectable. Of course, the people who take that sort of vacation are those who already have a good deal of experience in the desert way and have acquired a liking for it. 28

As to the direction taken by Lehi's party the Book of Mormon is clear and specific. He took what we now know to have been the only possible way out, what with immediate danger threatening from the north, and the eastern and western lands held by opposing powers on the verge of war. Only the south desert, the one land where Israel's traders and merchants had felt at home through the centuries, remained open—even after Jerusalem fell this was so. And the one route into that desert was the great trade-road down the burning trough of the Arabah. 29 For a long time the party traveled south-southeast and then struck out almost due east over a particularly terrible desert and reached the sea at a point to be considered later. Nephi is careful to keep us informed of the main bearing of every stage of the journey, and never once does he mention a westerly or a northerly trend. The party traveled for eight years in but two main directions, without retracing their steps or doubling back, and many of their marches were long forced marches.

All this entirely excludes the Sinaitic Peninsula as the scene of their wanderings, and fits perfectly with a journey through the Arabian Peninsula. The slowest possible march "in a south-southeasterly direction" in Sinai would reach the sea and have to turn north within ten days; yet Lehi's people traveled "for many days," nay, months, in a south-southeasterly direction, keeping near the coast of the Red Sea all the while. Ten days take a foot traveler the entire length of that coast of Sinai which runs in a south-southeasterly direction—and what of the rest of the eight years?

What entirely excludes Sinai as the field of Lehi's journeyings is the total lack at all times of timber to build ships with, to say nothing of a lush and beautiful Land Bountiful. "It is quite possible," writes a present-day authority, "that, Solomon had to transport his ships, or the material for them, from the Mediterranean, for where on the shores of the Red Sea could timber be found for ship-building?" 30

The desert into which Lehi first retreated and in which he made his first long camp has been known since Old Testament times as the wilderness par excellence. Thanks to the Bible, it is this very section of the earth's surface to which the word wilderness most closely applies, so that Nephi is using the word in its fullest correctness. 31 From 1 Nephi 8:4 and 7, we learn that by wilderness he means waste, i.e., desert, and not jungle. Today we call the region a desert, yet Woolley and Lawrence preferred the older word to designate this particular desert—the Wilderness of Zin. "The term 'wilderness' does not necessarily mean an uninhabitable waste," wrote Kenyon (thus associating the two words as Nephi does), "rather it means a country such as nomads may inhabit, with oases and wadies where crops may be reared." 32 So Lehi's wilderness had "more fertile parts" in which survival was possible (1 Nephi 16:16). The particular waste in which Lehi made his first camp is among the most uninviting deserts on earth; though some observers think the area enjoyed a little more rainfall in antiquity than it does today, all are agreed that the change of climate has not been considerable since prehistoric times—it was at best almost as bad then as it is now. 33 Even if Lehi took the main southern route down the Arabah, as he very probably did, since it was the direct road to the Red Sea, and a caravan way known to all the merchants, he would be moving through a desert so repelling that even the hardened Bedouins avoid it like the plague. Nor need we look there for any monuments of his passing: "The Egyptians, the Patriarchs, the Jews, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Arabs all passed over these tracks, and they have given us place-names and no more. Probably in their eyes the country was too detestable to merit further reference." 34 Detestable certainly describes the place in the eyes of Lehi's people, who "murmured" bitterly at being led into such a hell.

Tent People

The editors of the Book of Mormon have given a whole verse to Nephi's laconic statement, "And my father dwelt in a tent" (1 Nephi 2:15), and rightly so, since Nephi himself finds the fact very significant and refers constantly to his father's tent as the center of his universe. 35 To an Arab, "My father dwelt in a tent" says everything. "The present inhabitants of Palestine," writes Canaan, "like their forefathers, are of two classes: dwellers in villages and cities, and the Bedouin. As the life and habits of the one class differ from the those of the other, so do their houses differ. Houses in villages are built of durable material; . . . on the other hand, Bedouin dwellings, tents, are more fitted for nomadic life." 36 An ancient Arab poet boasts that his people are ''the proud, the chivalrous people of the horse and camel, the dwellers-in-tents, and no miserable ox-drivers." 37 A Persian king but fifty years after the fall of Jerusalem boasts that all the civilized kings "as well as the Bedouin tent-dwellers brought their costly gifts and kissed my feet," 38 thus making the same distinction as the later poet. One of the commonest oaths of the Arabs, Burckhardt reports, is "by the life of this tent and its owners," taken with one hand resting on the middle tent pole. 39 If a man's estate is to be declared void after his death, "the tent posts are torn up immediately after the man has expired, and the tent is demolished," while on the other hand "the erection of a new tent in the desert is an important event celebrated with feast and sacrifice." 40 And the cult of the tent was as important to the Hebrews as well. Indeed, the Hebrew word for tent (ohel) and the Arabic word for family (ahl), were originally one and the same word. 41 "The Bedouin has a strong affection for his tent," says Canaan. "He will not exchange it with any stone house." 42 So Jacob was ''a plain man, dwelling in tents" (Genesis 25:27), though, let us add, by no means in squalor: "Casual travelers in the Orient, who have seen only the filthy, wretched tents of the tribeless gypsy Bedouins . . . would be surprised, perhaps, at the spaciousness and simple luxury in the tent of a great desert sheik." 43

So with the announcement that his "father dwelt in a tent," Nephi serves notice that he had assumed the desert way of life, as perforce he must for his journey. Any easterner would appreciate the significance and importance of the statement, which to us seems almost trivial. If Nephi seems to think of his father's tent as the hub of everything, he is simply expressing the view of any normal Bedouin, to whom the tent of the sheikh is the sheet anchor of existence. 44 "A white flag," we are told, "is sometimes hoisted above his tent to guide strangers and visitors. All visitors are led directly to the tent of the [sheikh]." 45 When Nephi urged the frightened Zoram to join the party in the desert, he said: "If thou wilt go down into the wilderness to my father thou shalt have place with us" (1 Nephi 4:34). The correctness of the proposal is attested not only by the proper role of Lehi in receiving members and guests into the tribe but also in the highly characteristic expression, "thou shalt have place with us." For since time immemorial the proper word of welcome to the stranger who enters one's tent has been ahlan wa sahlan wa marhaban, literally (perhaps), "a family, a smooth place, and a wide place!" 46 Equivalent expressions are found in the Old Testament, as when Abraham invites his heavenly visitor to sit beneath his tree (Genesis 18:4), and here too such details are authentic touches of Bedouin life. But none of the Bible expressions are as typically "Arabic" as Nephi's invitation.

The Order of March

The Book of Mormon tells us a good deal about how Lehi and his people moved through the desert, and the report can now be checked against the firsthand accounts of life with the Arabs which the last one hundred years, and especially the last forty, have brought forth. All these would agree with Nephi that the keynote of life in Arabia is hardship: "Life is hard, a ceaseless struggle for existence against nature and man." 47 "It is no exaggeration," writes a present-day authority, "to say that the Bedouin is in an almost permanent state of starvation." 48 "Many times between their waterings," Doughty reports, "there is not a single pint of water left in the greatest sheikh's tent." 49 Palgrave's recollection is particularly impressive: "Then an insufficient halt for rest or sleep, at most of two or three hours, soon interrupted by the oft-repeated admonition, 'if we linger here we all die of thirst,' sounding in our ears, and then to remount our jaded beasts and push them on through the dark night amid the constant probability of attack and plunder from roving marauders . . . and about an hour before sunset we would stagger off our camels as best we might, to prepare an evening feast of precisely the same description as that of the forenoon, or more often, lest the smoke of our fire should give notice of some distant rover, to content ourselves with dry dates and half an hour's rest on the sand." 50 This, it is true, is marching under pressure, but the conditions—no fire, raw meat, "wad[ing] through much affliction" (Helaman 3:34), are exactly duplicated in the Book of Mormon.

Lehi's party is described as moving through the desert for a few days (three or four, one would estimate) and then camping "for the space of a time" (1 Nephi 16:17). This is exactly the way the Arabs move. Caravan speeds run between two and one-quarter and three and nine-tenths miles an hour, thirty miles being, according to Cheesman, "a good average" for the day, and sixty miles being the absolute maximum. 51 "The usual estimate for a good day's march is reckoned by Arab writers at between twenty-eight and thirty miles: in special or favoured circumstances it might be near forty." 52 On the other hand, a day's slow journey for an "ass-nomad," moving much slower than camel-riders, is twenty miles. 53

The number of days spent camping at any one place varies (as in the Book of Mormon) with circumstances. "From ten to twelve days is the average time a Bedouin encampment of ordinary size will remain on the same ground," according to Jennings-Bramley, who, however, observes, "I have known them stay in one spot for as long as five or six months." 54 The usual thing is to camp as long as possible in one place until "it is soiled by the beasts, and the multiplication of fleas becomes intolerable, and the surroundings afford no more pastureage, [then] the tents are pulled down and the men decamp." 55 "On the Syrian and Arabian plains," according to Burckhardt, "the Bedouins encamp in summer . . . near wells, where they remain often for a whole month." 56 Lehi's time schedule thus seems to be a fairly normal one, and the eight years he took to cross Arabia argue neither very fast nor very slow progress—the Bani Hilal took twenty-seven years to go a not much greater distance. After reaching the seashore Lehi's people simply camped there "for the space of many days" (1 Nephi 17:7) until a revelation again put them in motion.

The Problem of Baggage

Were Lehi's party ass-nomads or camel-nomads? The latter, there can be no doubt. The times required it, and the Book of Mormon all but insists on it. But before turning to the evidence it would be well to correct the theory, sometimes propounded, that the party went on foot.

When the Lord appoints a man to a task, he gives him the means of carrying it out, as Nephi himself observes, and to Lehi he had given ample means indeed. The sight of a rich merchant and his family setting out for the desert in a caravan even of some magnificence would never have excited the slightest comment from Lehi's neighbors. Burckhardt describes as a matter of course passing by the caravan of a rich merchant from Maskat in the deep desert: "He had ten camels to carry his women, his infant children, his servants, and his baggage." 57 Lehi would have been such a one. But for an elderly and aristocratic Hebrew to load himself, his wife, and his children with tents, utensils, weapons, food, and other supplies would have been as unthinkable then as now. "Without the camel," writes a modern authority, "it would be impossible for the nomads to carry their tents and furniture over the vast sandy spaces, where asses can pass only with difficulty and carry only a very small load." 58 The decisive clue is the fact that Lehi's party took grain with them and "all manner of seeds of every kind" (1 Nephi 8:1). The Arabs, as we shall see below, do this when they migrate in earnest, packing the seed in big, black 150 to 180-pound sacks, two to a camel. At the very least there has to be enough grain either to make a worth-while crop somewhere or to supply substantial food on the way—and who could carry such a load on his back? To pass through the heart of Arabia on the best camel in the world requires almost superhuman endurance—no need to make the thing ridiculous by carrying children, tents, books, food, furniture, weapons, and grain on one's back!

Raswan tells us that "camel breeders do not fear the waterless stretches of the desert as the sheep- and goat-raising Arabs do, and for that reason camel owners alone remain independent and free." 59 On the other hand, they are often in danger of starving, and when we read that Lehi's people were continually in such danger and supported themselves by hunting alone, so that a broken bow could mean death by starvation, we may be sure that they were camel-nomads without flocks, as indeed their hasty flight from Palestine requires. Among the listing of the stuff they took with them flocks are never mentioned, as of course they would be had they had such; the "flocks . . . of every kind" (Ether 1:41) of the Jaredites are always given first place in the description of their migration, and we may confidently assume that the silence of Nephi on this head indicates that his people did not travel as herdsmen.

But neither does Nephi mention camels. Why not? For the very reason that they receive no notice in many an Arabic poem which describes travel in the desert, simply because they are taken for granted. In the East the common words for travel are camel-words; thus rahal and safar, the two basic words, both mean "to set out on a journey" and also "to saddle a camel," the presence of camels being inferred when no special mention of them is made. When I say I drove from Heber to Salt Lake, no one would think to ask "in a car?" though for all my hearers know I may have driven a chariot or a tricycle. In the same way when the Arab reports that he has journeyed in the desert he never adds "on a camel," for in his language "to travel" means to go by camel. Had Lehi's party gone afoot that would indeed have been a nine-days' wonder and something would have referred to it on every page—for such a thing was never seen nor heard of before or since his day. But when the camel is the only means of travel, it is as unnecessary to mention camels in describing a journey as it would be to specify that one sails the seas "in a ship." There is one episode, however, in which camels play a definite role in the Book of Mormon.

From their base camp in the valley of Lemuel, Lehi's sons made a flying trip back to Jerusalem. It was the young men alone who made the journey which turned out, as they expected (1 Nephi 3:5), to be a dangerous one. Now it is the established procedure among the Arabs for a few young men in a tribe to seek gain and glory by making quick raids on neighboring towns and tribes. On such expeditions they never take tents, for their transportation is limited, and speed is of the essence. 60 Nephi wants us to know that this trip to Jerusalem was no such raid, for they were going on legitimate business and took their tents with them (1 Nephi 3:9); they went boldly and openly in to Laban and stated their business. Only when he treated them as robbers were they forced to act as such, slinking about like true Bedouins outside the gates and entering the city only by night.

A typically Oriental episode of the story is the wild pursuit out of the city and into the desert—how many a filibuster by Bedouin braves in the town has ended that way! "You chase me and I chase you," is the essence of desert tactics according to Philby. 61 Of this exciting chase Nephi reports (1 Nephi 3:27), "we fled into the wilderness, and the servants of Laban did not overtake us, and we hid ourselves in the cavity of a rock." Note that they were pursued right into the wilderness, for upon reaching the desert they were not safe but had to hide under a rock. The young men might have fled a short distance through the town on foot, but fleeing "into the wilderness" was another matter; there they would have been quickly run down by mounted riders, unless they first escaped notice, but Nephi tells us that they hid only after they had outrun their pursuers, who failed to overtake them. The powerful and affluent military governor certainly had a fleet of steeds that could run down a camel, but in the sudden getaway of the brothers there would be no time to saddle them—an ancient Arab poet and king, Imrul-Qais, speaks of a phenomenal horse that "passed the night with saddle and bridle on him . . . without being sent to the stable." 62 But other horses, including Laban's, would need more attention and lose more time getting under way, and we can confidently assume that both pursuers and pursued rode the usual camels. As for the chance that Nephi and his brethren were mounted on horses, it is a remote one, for the horse cannot carry burdens in the desert, and even horse-raising Arabs seldom ride their animals on long journeys, but whenever possible lead them tethered to their camels, without riders or loads. Raswan gives many illustrations of this.

The use of camels is implied at every turn of the story of the mission to Laban: the otherwise insane carrying of tents, the trip down-country to bring back "exceedingly great" property (1 Nephi 3:25) to Laban's palace (hardly on their shoulders!), the flight into the open country and pursuit in the desert, and finally the long and necessarily hasty return trip (for they were marked men and possibly the direction of their take-off had been noted) to the secret base camp. Just as the Saints who had the means of avoiding it never crossed the plains on foot, so we would think Lehi's sons foolish indeed if they did not avail themselves of the common means of transportation that everyone was using—for camels were as common then as automobiles are today.

The Problem of Food

Not many years ago Professor Frankfort wrote of the south desert, "The secret of moving through its desolation has at all times been kept by the Bedawin." 63 Intrepid explorers of our own day have learned the secret, however, and Lehi knew of it too. Like a sudden flash of illumination comes the statement that Lehi by divine instruction "led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:16). Woolley and Lawrence describe such "more fertile parts" as "stretching over the flat floor of the plain in long lines like hedges." They are the depressions of dried-up watercourses, sometimes hundreds of miles long. 64 They furnish, according to Bertram Thomas, "the arteries of life in the steppe, the path of Badawin movement, the habitat of animals, by reason of the vegetation—scant though it is—which flourishes in their beds alone." 65 In Arabia it is this practice of following "the more fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:16) that alone makes it possible for both men and animals to survive. Cheesman designates as "touring" the practice followed by men and beasts of moving from place to place in the desert as spots of fertility shift with the seasons. 66

The Arab forager is everlastingly prowling, scouting, tracking, and spying; in fact, some believe that the original root of the names Arab and Hebrew is a combination of sounds meaning "to lie in ambush." "Every Bedawin is a sportsman both from taste and necessity," writes one observer, who explains how in large families some of the young men are detailed to spend all their time hunting. 67 Nephi and his brethren took over the business of full-time hunters and in that office betray the desert tradition of the family, for Nephi had brought a fine steel bow from home with him. Though we shall consider steel again in dealing with the sword of Laban, it should be noted here that a steel bow was not necessarily a solid piece of metal, any more than the Canaanites' "chariots of iron" (Joshua 17:16-18; Judges 1:19; 4:3) were solid iron, or than various implements mentioned in the Old Testament as being "of iron," e.g., carpenter's tools, pens, threshing instruments, were iron and only iron. It was in all probability a steel-ribbed bow, since it broke at about the same time that the wooden bows of his brothers "lost their springs" (1 Nephi 16:21). Only composite bows were used in Palestine, that is, bows of more than one piece, and a steel-backed bow would be called a steel bow just as an iron-trimmed chariot was called a "chariot of iron." Incidentally the founder of the Turkish Seljuk Dynasty of Iran was called Yaqaq, which means in Turkish, says our Arab informant, "a bow made out of iron." 68 The fact that "Iron Arrow" was a fairly common name among those people, and refers actually to an iron-headed arrow is a strong indication that the name Steelbow may also refer to a real weapon.

Hunting in the mountains of Arabia to this day is carried out on foot and without hawks or dogs; in classical times the hunter in this area was equipped with a bow and a sling—exactly like Nephi. 69 Nephi's discovery that the best hunting was only at "the top of the mountain" (1 Nephi 16:30) agrees with later experience, for the oryx is "a shy animal that travels far and fast over steppe and desert in search of food but retires ever to the almost inaccessible sand-mountains for safety." 70 In western Arabia the mountains are not sand but rock, and Burckhardt reports that "in these mountains between Medina and the sea, all the way northward (this is bound to include Lehi's area), mountain goats are met, and the leopards are not uncommon." 71 Julius Euting has left us vivid descriptions of the danger, excitement, and exhaustion that go with the hunting of the big game that abounds in these mountains, which are, by the way, very steep and rugged. 72

Things looked black when Nephi broke his fine steel bow, for the wooden bows of his brothers had "lost their springs" (1 Nephi 16:21; note the peculiarly Semitic use of the plural for a noun of quality), and though skilled in the art of hunting, they knew little enough about bow-making, which is a skill reserved to specialists even among primitives. Incidentally, archery experts say that a good bow will keep its spring for about one hundred thousand shots; from which one might calculate that the party at the time of the crisis had been traveling anything from one to three years. It was of course out of the question to make the familiar composite bow, and was something of a marvel when Nephi "did make out of wood a bow" (1 Nephi 16:23), for the hunter, the most conservative of men, would never dream of changing from a composite to a simple bow. Though it sounds simple enough when we read about it, it was almost as great a feat for Nephi to make a bow as it was for him to build a ship, and he is justly proud of his achievement.

According to the ancient Arab writers, the only bow-wood obtainable in all Arabia was the nab' wood that grew only "amid the inaccessible and overhanging crags" of Mount Jasum and Mount Azd, which are situated in the very region where, if we follow the Book of Mormon, the broken bow incident occurred. 73 How many factors must be correctly conceived and correlated to make the apparently simple story of Nephi's bow ring true! The high mountain near the Red Sea at a considerable journey down the coast, the game on the peaks, hunting with bow and sling, the finding of bow-wood viewed as something of a miracle by the party—what are the chances of reproducing such a situation by mere guess work?

As for the grain which Lehi carried, it was not to be eaten on the journey, for it was "seed of every kind" (1 Nephi 16:11), a needless concern for variety unless it was meant to be sown. While "ordinary travellers scarcely ever carry grain for food" in the desert, 74 it is a common thing for migrating Bedouins to carry seed with them in the thought—sometimes very vague indeed—that possibly if the year is a good one, they might find a chance to sow a hasty crop. In Sinai, "the Bedouin yearly sow the beds of the wadies, but they do this with little hope of reaping a harvest more than once in every three or four years." 75 Lehi, looking for a promised land, would under no circumstances have set out without such provision for securing crops in his new home. In traveling, "the wheat is put in the black home-made goat's-hair sacks, farde(t). . . . The farde, the Heb. sak (Genesis 42:25) holds about 150 to 180 pounds of wheat. Two are put on a camel." 76 The mention of the custom in Genesis shows that it was ancient usage even in the time of Lehi.


1. W. E. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula," PEFQ (1906), 106, and (1907), 281.

2. Frank E. Johnson, tr., Al-Mu'allaqat (Bombay: Education Society's Steam Press, 1893), 17-18, lines 46-49; 42-44, lines 34, 40-41; 106-7, lines 40-43; 175-176, lines 25-28; W. Ahlwardt, Sammlungen alter arabischer Dichter (Berlin: Reuther & Reichard, 1903); in vol. 2, nos. 3:21-38; 5:58-63; 12:24-26; 15:40-49; 22:1-45; 30:9-11*; 31:47-80*; 40:51-69*; in vol. 3, nos. 1; 10:37-56; 16:28-44; 18:33-44; 25:91-115; 27:29-36; 31:1-26; 33:48-77; 34:9-36; 40:1-14; 54:57-77; 55:34-66; 58:44-65. All passages starred in vol. 2, and all passages given in vol. 3, refer to unpleasant mists in the desert. Other poets are cited in Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (Leiden: Brill, 1943), 10, 16-17, 19-22, 54, 91.

3. The entire section on "Travel," in Kabir al-Din Ahmad & Gholam Rabbani, eds., The Diwán Hammásah of Abu Tamman (Calcutta: n.p., 1856), 206-9, is taken up with the exhaustion and terror of travel in the dark. The mist of darkness is mentioned in nearly all passages given in the preceding footnote.

4. In the country lying between Egypt and Palestine, according to Charles Warren, "Notes on Arabia Petraea and the Country Lying between Egypt and Palestine," PEFQ (1887), 44, "during November, December, and March, there are often dense mists. . . . These mists depend upon the wind, and often alternate with intense droughts." Harry S. J. B. Philby, The Empty Quarter (New York: Holt, 1933), 96, 134, 183, reports the same phenomenom in the most desert part of South Arabia: "A thick mist descended upon and blotted out the landscape after sunrise. . . . Everything was grimed with sand and the sun was feeble in the extreme. . . . A light, clammy northern breeze gently fanned a thick damp mist."

5. Ahlwardt, Sammlungen alter arabischer Dichter, 2, no. 1.

6. Edward J. Byng, The World of the Arabs (Boston: Little, Brown, 1944), 64-65.

7. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 47-50. The dream is not to be minutely examined, since it is only Mother Smith's memory of a dream reported to her 34 years before; see "Introduction," vii and ix.

8. Thus al-Buhturi, cited in Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, 88; cf. Lebid, cited in ibid., 55. Maydan means both "large, spacious field," and "an ample life" in Arabic.

9. "The scenery of a desert oasis, with its rivers springing miraculously from nowhere and emptying themselves again perhaps in the desert sands." James L. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934), 6.

10. E. A. Wallis Budge, The Chronography of Bar Hebraeus (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), 1:167.

11. Charles M. Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta (London: Cape, 1926), 2:229.

12. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible, 85.

13. "Our 'river' is an imperfect way of conveying the idea," but since we have no other word in English, the Book of Mormon must use it. Richard F. Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (London: Tylston & Edwards, 1893) 1:250, n. 2.

14. E.g., Al-'Ajjaj, in Ahlwardt, Sammlungen alter arabischer Dichter, 2, no. 1; Theodor Nöldeke, Delectus Veterum Carminum Arabicorum (Berlin, 1890), 111; Psalm 1:6 is another example.

15. For the presence of such canyons in Lehi's deserts, see Burton, Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah 1:207, describing "titanic walls, lofty donjons, huge projecting bastions, and moats full of deep shade." See "A Note on Rivers" in the text below.

16. In Ahlwardt, Sammlungen alter arabischer Dichter 3, no. 1.

17. Nöldeke, Delectus Veterum Carminum Arabicorum, 95; Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, 19, 21; Johnson, Al-Mu'allaqat, 188, line 61.

18. William F. Albright, "A Brief History of Judah from the Days of Josiah to Alexander the Great," BA 9 (February 1946): 4.

19. Philip J. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East," PEFQ (1922), 170-71.

20. C. Leonard Woolley and Thomas E. Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin (London: Cape, 1936), 34.

21. William F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942), 101.

22. Diodorus XIX, 94, 100.

23. Antonin Jaussen, "MĂ©langes," RB 3 (1906): 95.

24. In Nibley's magazine verison of this material, he continued: "As far as Lehi's flight into the wilderness is concerned, the Book of Mormon shows flawless judgment in every detail: the manner of his flight is strictly in keeping with the best conventions, and he takes what we know now was the only possible direction he could have taken." Hugh W. Nibley, "Lehi in the Desert," IE 53 (1950): 202. At this date it is plain that all other routes of escape would be closed; the intimate danger would be, of course, from the north. See John L. Myres, "God and the Danger from the North in Ezekiel," PEFQ (1932), 213-15. While the south desert remained open to the end, some Jewish settlements there actually "appear to have escaped destruction" altogether. Albright, "A Brief History of Judah from the Days of Josiah to Alexander the Great," 6.

25. Albright, "A Brief History of Judah from the Days of Josiah to Alexander the Great," 4-5. The earlier version of "Lehi and the Desert," 202, noted, "It is in that region that we located in a previous article in the Era some important Book of Mormon names, not realizing at the time that those names belonged to the descendants of Lehi's own contemporaries." Hugh W. Nibley, "The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East," IE 51 (1948): 202-4.

26. Stephen L. Caiger, Bible and Spade (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 188.

27. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible,15.

28. Carl R. Raswan, Drinkers of the Wind (New York: Creative Age Press, 1942), illustrates this meeting of town and desert.

29. "The Hebrew stock had its original kinship with the tribes to the east and south of Palestine-Syria, and especially southwards. . . . The one line of maritime venture pursued by Judan policy was the development of the Red Sea route (e.g., I Kings 9:26ff); that is, the commercial prospects of the state looked towards Arabia," Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible, 12, 51-52, 185.

30. Stewart Perowne, "Notes on I Kings, Chapter X, 1-1 3," PEFQ (1939), 200.

31. David S. Magoliouth, The Relations between Arabs and Israel Prior to the Rise of Islam, Schweich Lectures (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), 47.

32. Woolley & Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin, 11.

33. "It is, we think, both natural and correct to assume that at all periods in man's history the southern desert has been very much the desert that it is to-day." Ibid., 36.

34. Ibid., 37.

35. 1 Nephi 2:6, 3:1, 4:38, 7:5, 7:21, 9:1, 10:16, 16:6.

36. Taufik Canaan, "The Palestinian Arab House," JPOS 12 (1932): 225

37. Georg Jacob, Altarabisches Beduinenleben (Berlin: Mayer & MĂĽller, 1897), 226.

38. Caiger, Bible and Spade, 181.

39. John L. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys (London: Colburn & Bently, 1831; reprinted New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967) 1:127.

40. Jaussen, "MĂ©langes," 93-94. If a woman wants to divorce her husband, she simply turns over his tent. Jacob, Altarabisches Beduinenleben, 212.

41. Philip J. Baldensperger, "Tent Life," PEFQ (1923), 179.

42. Canaan, "The Palestinian Arab House," JPOS 13 (1933): 57.

43. William B. Seabrook, Adventures in Arabia (New York: Harcourt, 1927), 6; cf. Grace M. Crowfoot, "The Tent Beautiful," PEFQ (1945), 34-46.

44. "Those in the neighboring booths watch when the day is light, to see if the shaykh's hareem yet strike his tent; and, seeing this, it is the rahla." Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1:257. In the same way, when the sheikh pitches his tent, all without discussion, follow suit, the chief's tent being as it were the tabernacle that leads them through the wilderness. It will be recalled that the Liahona was found at the door of Lehi's tent. It is notable that even the richest sheikh "has never more than one tent," according to Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys 1:42, speaking of the Aneze. Nibley concluded in his magazine version: "It is not uncommon in the East for rich town and country people to take to the desert for a spell, so Lehi was by no means doing the impossible or unusual thing; only the people who do so are of course those who already have had a good deal of experience in the desert way and have acquired a taste for it." Hugh W. Nibley, "Lehi in the Desert," 276. Thus a well-to-do sheikh "spends the winter in his 'house of stone' and the summer in his 'house of hair.'" Jaussen, "Mélanges," 95.

45. Canaan, "The Palestinian Arab House," JPOS 13 (1933): 55.

46. Frederic D. Thornton, Elementary Arabic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943), 156.

47. Max von Oppenheim, Die Beduinen, (Leipzig: Harrassowitz, 1939) 1:28.

48. Claude S. Jarvis, "The Desert Yesterday and To-day," PEFQ (1937), 122.

49. Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1:259.

50. William G. Palgrave, Narrative of a Year's Journey Through Central and Eastern Arabia (London: Macmillan, 1865), 1:12-13.

51. Robert E. Cheesman, In Unknown Arabia (London: Macmillan, 1926), 27, 52.

52. William J. T. Pythian-Adams, "The Mount of God," PEFQ (1930), 199.

53. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, 97.

54. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula," PEFQ (1907), 30.

55. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East," PEFQ (1923), 180.

56. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:227-28.

57. John L. Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia (London: Colburn, 1829; reprinted London: Cass, 1968), 402

58. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East," PEFQ (1922), 163.

59. Raswan, Drinkers of the Wind, 129.

60. Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahábys, 1:157-60.

61. Philby, The Empty Quarter, 229-30.

62. Johnson, Al-Mu'allaqat, 26.

63. Henri Frankfort, "Egypt and Syria in the First Intermediate Period," JEA 12 (1926): 81.

64. Woolley & Lawrence, The Wilderness of Zin, 32.

65. Bertram Thomas, Arabia Felix (New York: Scribner, 1932), 141.

66. Cheesman, In Unknown Arabia, 338-39.

67. W. E. Jennings-Bramley, "Sport among the Bedawin," PEFQ (1900), 369.

68. Ibn 'Ali al-Husayni, Akhbar 'al-Dawla al-Saljuqiyya (Lahore: University of the Panjab, 1933), 1.

69. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East," PEFQ (1925), 82-90.

70. Philby, The Empty Quarter, 249

71. Burckhardt, "Travels in Arabia," 403.

72. Julius Euting, Tagebuch einer Reise in Inner-Arabien (Leiden, 1892) 2:76-80, 92-93.

73. Jacob, Altarabisches Beduinenleben, 131-33. Mt. Jasum is in the Mecca area; Mt. Azd in the Serat Mountains is farther south but also near the coast.

74. Jennings-Bramley, "The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula," PEFQ (1907), 284.

75. Ibid., PEFQ (1914), 9.

76. Baldensperger, "The Immovable East," PEFQ (1923), 181.