When it comes to evidences for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon text, the most exciting finds come from the Old World, where we have the significant advantage of knowing the precise starting point of Nephi's account and where we have far more archaeological work to draw upon than we do in the New World. As Latter-day Saints in upcoming Sunday School lessons review the stories of Nephi's journey out of Jerusalem and across the Arabian Peninsula to Bountiful, I hope some of them will learn that trek as described in First Nephi 16 and 17 is remarkably "interesting" in terms of its plausibility as an ancient record. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how some of the fine details in Nephi's account could have been written by anybody who didn't actually make the journey and experience the places he mentions.

These places include the Valley of Lemuel and River of Laman, places that until recently were mocked as impossibilities for "everyone knows" that there is no river that flows into the Red Sea as Nephi described. This Book of Mormon weakness has become a strength, a granite-walled stronghold, in fact, with the field work that discovered actual candidates for the valley.

That was early in the long journey of Lehi's group, a journey that, though described in brevity, is given numerous specific details such as the specific directions traveled: south-south east, followed by a sharp turn to nearly due east after Ishmael is buried in a place called Nahom. Following that eastward direction, the group eventually hits the coast and finds Bountiful--one of the biggest barriers to plausibility that the Book of Mormon suffers from. Or rather, suffered from, until people did field work and gave the Latter-day Saints at least one and perhaps two excellent candidates for that lush, green, abundant place that Nephi and his family found in that part of the world that "everyone knows" is nothing but barren sand dunes. If only Joseph had lived in the day of movies and had seen Lawrence of Arabia, he would have known what a ridiculous blunder his description of Bountiful was. Today, we have the luxury of knowing that it might be plausible after all. Now, of course, the argument of the critics must switch to arguing how obvious it was to come up with directions, descriptions, and even place names. Joseph the Blunderer who couldn't even get the birthplace of Christ right (per the standard anti-Mormon attack on Alma 7:10, now handily refuted with the help of modern discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls) has become Joseph the Erudite, apparently armed with his vast frontier library and an international network of scholars, carefully building detailed "evidences" of authenticity into the text that, uh, he and his fellow-conspirators didn't seem to know about. Chiasmus and other Semitic literary tools, ancient covenant formulas, the details of the Arabian Peninsula, civilization and its Mesoamerican discontents, and other evidences were carefully woven in so that future generations might be impressed. If only Joseph had bothered to trot out some of these evidences in his lifetime, it might have helped. Highly-publicized reports of ancient American civilization in Mesoamerica did come in the 1840s and created a positive stir among the Saints, over a decade after the Book of Mormon came out, but we would have to wait for over a century before the real fun would even begin.

Yes, I mentioned not just directions and descriptions, but placenames. Foremost on the list is Nahom. The argument here is missed by many critics, who seem to think that we are arguing that there is exciting new evidence that Nahom as an ancient Semitic name. No, of course we know it's a Semitic name since it is a book in the Bible. But as a place name, it is rare, exceedingly rare. More interestingly, it is a specific placename in the Book of Mormon associated with some very specific details: a) it is a specific place in the Arabian Peninsula where one can turn nearly due east after having traveled south-south east from Jerusalem; b) it is a place that was not named by Lehi but apparently was already called that name by others in the area; and c) it is a place where Ishmael was buried (he died somewhere, and then was buried at Nahom). Given those specific, how fascinating it is that we now know that these details are remarkably plausible. There is an ancient Arabic tribe in Yemen with the name Nihm, having the same Semitic root NHM as Nahom. We know that the location of that tribe fits extremely well with the one place where a survivable eastward turn to the sea can be made to depart from the ancient incense trails that were south-southeast from Jerusalem. And we now know, based on archaeological finds from Yemen, that the Nihm tribal name was in existence all the way back to the 7th century B.C. or so, making it possible that Lehi's group did in fact bury Ishmael in an ancient burial location called Nehhm, Nihm, or, as it may have sounded to Nephi, Nahom--a name that in Hebrew nicely fits the concept of mourning as described in the text.

The Nahom story is an important and exciting part of the growing body of evidence for plausibility of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text. A key part of this story comes from the discovery of several ancient altars bearing the tribal name Nihm. Here are some links for those interested in learning more:

"Newly Found Altars from Nahom," Warren P. Aston, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, volume 10, no. 2, pp. 56-61, 2001. (PDF)

"In Search of Lehi's Trail—30 Years Later," Lynn M. Hilton.

"New Light: 'The Place That Was Called Nahom': New Light from Ancient Yemen," S. Kent Brown.

Book of Mormon evidences (my page)
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