A theme is so prevalent throughout scripture, and especially in the Book of Mormon, that you would think we would never miss it, and yet we do. What is that elusive theme? We’ll tell you today.
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Maurine and Scot Proctor have taught Book of Mormon for many years in Institute and have spent extensive time in the Arabian peninsula, following Lehi’s trail. They are the creators of a foundation that has sponsored a multi-year archaeological study of the best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful in Oman. They have written a book on the Book of Mormon, as well as immersed themselves in the culture, history, and geography. of the scripture.
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A theme is so prevalent throughout scripture, and especially in the Book of Mormon, that you would think we would never miss it, and yet we do. What is that elusive theme? We’ll tell you today.
Hello, this is Scot and Maurine Proctor with Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast, today called “I Will Prepare the Way Before You”, which is 1 Nephi chapters 16-22. The transcript for this podcast is at latterdaysaintmag.com/podcast. We issue a new podcast every Friday for the lesson material that runs from the following Monday through Sunday. We’re so glad you’re listening. Please tell your friends and we can all have a lively scripture discussion in our lives. We also hope you are reading Meridian Magazine, which is updated daily, with remarkable stories you don’t want to miss. It is at latterdaysaintmag.com
As chapter 16 starts, we are about to venture out with the family into the wilderness and eventually on a journey that will take them 2/3 of the way around the globe. This is an epic journey for an ancient people. When I teach this, I always ask, is there anyone else in scripture who took a wilderness journey? Hands go up because there are so many people that do. Let’s list some of them. Certainly the Children of Israel led by Moses. The Jaredites both on land and on sea in their barges are taking a wilderness journey.
Mosiah and his people leave the Land of Nephi on a wilderness journey. Alma and his people flee King Noah’s court into the wilderness. Limhi and his people escape out the back way into the wilderness. The people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi make an exodus into the wilderness. And, of course, the Book of Mormon itself ends with an exodus, as Moroni begins his wanderings, one man alone departing into the wilderness, who writes, “And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life” (Moroni 11:3) Moroni is on a wilderness journey.
Of course, there are many more. Adam and Eve take a wilderness journey when they are expelled from Eden. As they came to America, the New England Puritans also perceived themselves in the same light. Their view of their own destiny was that they were making an exodus into the wilderness, and then on to the Promised Land.
Our Latter-day Saint pioneers saw themselves as following the archetype of the wilderness journey, calling themselves very consciously, the Camp of Israel.
This wilderness journey is so archetypal and so important, that we could list many more, but what we all have to finally come to, with a kind of ah-ha, is that we are all on a wilderness journey. Every one of us who left the light, comfort, and safety of our pre-mortal home are on a wilderness journey, for reasons that are critical to our growth and well-being.
Who is on the soul’s journey, the journey of us all? Who is disconnected from our true home, seeking to escape bondage, and assaulted by every difficulty before we can be cleansed and reborn in the wilderness, and made ready to be partakers of the promised land? Every one of us.
We watch Lehi and his family and all the other wilderness journeys, and we learn something essential about our own mortal journey. Why is a wilderness journey so essential for nations and each of us as individuals? How does a wilderness journey perfectly describe our time in mortality?
Here, like Nephi’s family, we experience the tremendous heat of trial, the tedium of the way, the wandering through a sometimes trackless desert, the hardship, the thirst. Sometimes we are deluded into thinking that this life should be a Sunday school picnic or a ride on a cruise ship instead of a wilderness journey, and we become miffed that it is all harder than our expectations, but neither the picnic, nor the cruise ship, show up in scripture—just the wilderness journey. It tests the very core of your being, but it is all for a purpose. The purpose of a wilderness journey is to transform the travellers. For you, it is to burn out your impurities, strip you of the world, clarify your thinking, magnify your strength and sharpen your devotion, so that you may be a candidate to dwell in the promised land. The wilderness journey is the Lord’s kindness to us, to make us fit for His kingdom.
One of the characteristics of a wilderness is that it is trackless. You do not know where you are going because you have not been here before. You aren’t even sure of the exact destination. How could you know? You have to have a light in the wilderness, the Lord to direct you or you wander aimlessly. You would find yourself at dead ends, in dangerous places surrounded by enemies.
13 And I will also be your alight in the wilderness, (the Lord says in 1 Nephi 17:13) and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore, inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the bpromised land; and ye shall cknow that it is by me that ye are led (1 Nephi 17:13).
So in this perilous place, the wilderness, where you cannot find your way, the Lord promises to “prepare the way before you.” You learn that you aren’t smart enough, or strong enough, or good enough to figure this out on your own. It’s an illusion you have to drop. What greater guide could you have than God, who promises to go before you, if you’ll just keep his commandments? In fact, the commandments themselves are to keep you from peril on the journey.
For Lehi’s family, that guide was tangible because when he left his tent one morning he “beheld upon the ground a round aball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one bpointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10). But this spindle only worked when they were faithful. If they weren’t, they wandered. Periodically, the Liahona contained written instructions from the Lord.
The Lord makes it clear that, knowing you are in a wilderness, He will be your light—and that is for you personally, not just for Lehi’s family. But because you are in the wilderness, you shouldn’t be surprised if sometimes conditions are tough. It was the design.
What you learn in the wilderness is a new dependence on the Lord, a greater need for revelation and a greater love for the God who guides and protects you. Otherwise, you can be like Laman and Lemuel and just be mad.
Now, the Liahona will lead the family to “the more fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:16). That has specific meaning in the deserts of Arabia, where Scot and I have spent some time. This is a place where very little vegetation grows. It is stark, barren, forbidding. But if there is vegetation, it is likely to grow in dry riverbeds called wadis that run with water maybe only a few days a year. Those riverbeds become the superhighways of the desert, and would be where the Liahona led the family.
Food and water, the very substance of your needs would be tenuous in this desert. You can see just how fragile their hold was by the reaction of the family when Nephi breaks his bow, just as his brother’s bows had lost their springs. Very quickly the family starts to starve, and they murmur with hunger and fear. This can be part of a wilderness journey. True difficulty. And I suspect that those who don’t murmur when the going is rough, may find themselves hollering when it gets this intense, as it can in our lives. Even the indomitable Lehi murmured against the Lord.
Hugh Nibley noted, “Things looked dark when Nephi broke his fine steel bow, for the wooden bows of his brothers had lost their springs’ (1 Nephi 16:21; … 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 anywhere 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. 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 guesswork.” Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988)
Having made that bow, Nephi asked his father to inquire of the Lord where he should go to obtain food. They had all been humbled. The answer was given by the pointers on the Liahona, which, Nephi said, “did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (1 Nephi 16:28).
Nephi describes the wilderness as a place, where “we had suffered many afflictions and much difficulty, yea, even so much that we cannot write them all” (1 Nephi 17:6), and yet it is also place that is somehow essential for our purification and growth. The pain comes for us when we think that it should somehow be different or easy and our expectations are dashed.
The Lord could have been talking specifically about the wilderness journey when he says, “I am able to do mine own work” (2 Nephi 27:20) and we know that that “work is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39) Since the wilderness journey seems to be part of his work, what are the consistent elements that show up in these wilderness journeys?
Bondage: As the journey begins, people are in some kind of bondage, either to sin or to a tyrant who holds them as slaves or to an enemy who is about to attack. Their world is ripe for destruction, so much so that in many cases, it is imminent. Sometimes the Book of Mormon calls that bondage as being in “chains.” By the way when something is ripe for destruction, it can’t go any farther without being rotten.
This bondage is certainly true for Moses and the Children of Israel who are literal slaves of Pharaoh.
For Nephi, their world was about to be decimated by Babylon, and soon the people would be in bondage, weeping by the waters of Babylon for their lost Zion. They had brought this on themselves by their own wickedness.
So the first aspect of a wilderness journey is there is trouble at home and imminent danger, usually unto destruction.
Then, a Prophet Warns and Saves: When the people are about to be destroyed, or when they must be led out of bondage, a prophet comes to warn the people or save them from slavery. Not everyone will hear this warning and sometimes the prophet is ridiculed or threatened.
Those who are righteous will be led away from imminent destruction, where they can worship God freely and without the corrupting influences at home. Interestingly enough, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70AD, the Christians had already removed themselves from the city and were saved. They had remembered that earlier Jesus had foretold the terrible events that would follow his death. They knew to carefully watch for these signs, and when they saw them they fled from the city and were spared.
Next, the righteous flee bondage into the wilderness: The people are cast into the wilderness where everything is difficult. The heat bears down. Food and water are scarce. It is easy to lose your way in a trackless world.
The object of the wilderness journey is to cleanse the travelers of the world and to teach them their complete dependence on the Lord. There is no solving the intensity of the problems without His help. Your own efforts are clearly puny and ineffectual.
What is interesting here, is that it is a snare to think you could just return to your old comfortable ways or put a coat of paint on the corruption. No, instead, the wilderness is a place where you must be utterly reborn through the Atonement. You cannot bring the “natural man” to the new place.
Then on the wilderness journey, Divine guidance is offered, dependent on your righteousness: Since the wilderness is trackless, you will wander without divine guidance. It is a must, an unvarying necessity.
The Camp of Israel had their cloud by day and their pillar of fire by night. The Nephites had their Liahona. The Brother of Jared asked for light in the wilderness, because it was impossible to descend into the ocean in dark barges. You cannot make your way in the wilderness unless you are helped. This is just as true for us.
Remember the Lord tells Nephi: “And I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you… ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led” (1 Nephi 17:13).
In the wilderness, the necessities of life are provided: Often food and water are miraculously provided. The Lord gave the Children of Israel manna to eat and water gushing from the rock. Nephi was led to make a bow and find food in the wilderness. Their meat, though raw, was made sweet to them.
In the Lord’s lifetime, He provided fish and loaves in the wilderness and the sacrament in the Americas.
Of course, in the wilderness, they carry scripture with them, so they don’t lose their way and forget the words of the Lord. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and likewise Nephi obtained the plates of brass that they might have the words of the Lord and His Prophets on their wilderness journey.
In the wilderness, many murmur: The wilderness does not have the same cleansing effect on all of those who take this wilderness journey. Some find it impossible and “murmur”, a word found in both Moses’ and Nephi’s accounts. For those who murmur or rebel, they have been in the wilderness, but the wilderness has not gone through them and fulfilled its cleansing purposes.
Water: The wilderness journeys usually have an element of water that must be passed through or over. The Children of Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and again passed through the River Jordan on the way into the Promised Land. The Nephites circumnavigated much of the globe in a sea journey.
These symbolize birth and the rebirth of baptism. You cannot take even your favorite vestiges of your old self into the Promised Land if it is to be the land it can be. You must be reborn to come.
What we are seeking, of course, is not just a physical landscape. The Promised Land, located in a particular geography on earth, does not answer all of our longings, which come from the core of our being, that bright internal source that first existed somewhere else. A physical location could never answer those yearnings for home. Even in the Promised Land itself, we are still strangers and sojourners.
Everyone makes this journey, but not everyone has the same experience as Nephi indicates. Despite its hardships, Nephi feels blessed and happy and grateful on this journey. He says:
“And so great were the ablessings of the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon braw cmeat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.
“And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and astrengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them; wherefore, he did bprovide means for us while we did sojourn in the wilderness”(1 Nephi 17:2,3),
In contrast here is what Laman and Lemuel say about that very same experience.
“And thou art like unto our father, led away by the foolish aimaginations of his heart; yea, he hath led us out of the land of Jerusalem, and we have wandered in the wilderness for these many years; and our women have toiled, being big with child; and they have borne children in the wilderness and suffered all things, save it were death; and it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions
“Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy.
“ And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a arighteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord” (1 Nephi 17:20-22)
The whining and victimhood is so clear here. And add to it, complete delusion when they call the people of Jerusalem righteous.
So, if ever you have the conditions for a scientific experiment, here it is. Nephi, Laman and Lemuel, three brothers, all raised in the same environment with the same parents and the same opportunities have wilderness journeys that could haven’t have been more different.
Laman and Lemuel had travelled the same miles Nephi had. The heat had borne down on Nephi and Laman and Lemuel with the same driving force. The relentless desert wind had dried all their faces and parched their throats without partiality. They had all equally lived on raw meat and given up the honey and pomegranates of home. If ever there were the perfect scientific experiment where all were subjected to the same conditions to test to see their differing responses, this was it.
Why Laman and Lemuel had such a miserable time on the wilderness journey was given right at the beginning of the Book of Mormon: “And thus Laman and Lemuel, being the eldest, did murmur against their father. And they did murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them” (1 Nephi 2:12).
Nephi’s journey, which is a type of our journey in life, was joyously transformed because he did know the dealings of that God who had created him. This core understanding changed the nature of his journey through the desert and later across the whirling, boiling sea because it changed his core, the very essence of who he was.
He did not face anything alone or without purpose. God walked by his side, led him to the more fertile parts of the wilderness. He knew who stood by him when he climbed into the crags of the mountaintops looking for just the right wood to make a bow. He had protective arms around him when the way was hard. Even when he became depressed later in the Promised Land, and Laman and Lemuel sought his life, he was lifted up again by remembering, “I know in whom I have trusted.”
He had been given strength because he could say with confidence: “My God hath been my support…He hath filled me with his love…He hath confounded my enemies…He hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime” (2 Nephi 4: 20-24).
Even if Laman and Lemuel had not been given to whining and had wanted to assume a good attitude about the journey, all the best self-talk in the world pales pathetically to what Nephi had.
Their problem is clear. They “knew not the dealings of that God who had created them” and therefore their wilderness journey was going to be merely a miserable, futile experience that not only did not transform them to make them fit candidates for the kingdom, it ground them into empty whiners with murderous resentments.
Let’s give you some specifics of this journey. It is about 2500 miles from Jerusalem to the most likely spot of Nephi’s Bountiful on the Arabian Sea. A loaded camel can travel from 25 -30 miles a day. If they traveled and never stopped, that means they could have made that journey in less than three months, but it took them 8 years! Why? Because they had a family with small children. Women gave birth. Most important they stopped to plant seeds and harvest them so they could have enough food. They obviously dwelt in certain locations for a period of time before moving on as they had in the valley of Lemuel.
We know many exact things about their route, because Nephi tells us. They travel south-south east along the Red Sea and as they go they name places such as the valley of Lemuel and a place they called Shazer. Yet, when they begin to go east, they come to a place already called Nahum. This is where Ishmael died and interestingly enough the name means place of consolation or of sorrow.
Now many ask whether there is archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, and this is a bulls eye for Joseph Smith. What are the chances that he could guess this? There is a place that was anciently called Nahum in ancient Sheba, which is today’s Yemen, right where the text says it should be, and it was there during Lehi’s time. Three altar inscriptions have been discovered containing the name “NHM” as a tribal name and dating from the seventh to sixth centuries BC. This is a significant correlation.
From Nahum, the party then traveled directly east to the place that Nephi calls Bountiful, which is right on the Arabian Sea and where he built the ship.
Nephi and his family would have largely followed the frankincense trail, as this precious substance only comes from what is present-day Oman, right where the family ended their land journey. The ancient wells along this trail would have been necessary for their water and there are only so many in very particular locations along this way. They would have stopped at these wells. They would have seen many others along that trail, had discussions and interactions, camaraderie and concern.
We’ve been at ancient wells in Yemen where you can see old grooves in the rock around the top, where people have been dragging their ropes to pull up their buckets of water for centuries.
It is significant, though, too that the Lord warned them not to make much fire in the last part of their journey, which meant they ate their food raw. Why? Because the desert is a dangerous place, where the only way to make a living is by plunder. Marauders can see fire at a great distance, so undoubtedly, it was a safety measure.
Finally, the family arrives at Bountiful where they have a bit of a respite from the grueling conditions they have known. Surprisingly, we have a possible location for that too. It is a place called Khor Kharfot, directly east of Nahum and right on the Arabian Sea. While we call it a candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful, there is really nothing else that so specifically fits the description that Nephi gives. Think of how unusual it is. Here on the coast of Arabia, which is one of the driest, least vegetated and least hospital places on the earth, suddenly there are trees, and big ones. Trees big enough to build a ship.
We have been to this place many times, both for photography and research and to further the work of our foundation that has permission from the Omani government to conduct an ongoing archaeological dig there. When you are yet 6 miles from the sea, it is still barren, and then suddenly the landscape changes. Trees begin to dot the landscape and then more. Can this really be, a little green paradise right on the sea coast of Arabia? It is this way because of a yearly monsoon season that hits just this tip of Arabia—the Dhofar Region.
Unlike any place else along the Arabian seacoast, Khor Kharfot meets every description that Nephi gives. Here’s 12 of them. First, it is directly eastward from Nahum. Second, there is direct access from the interior desert to the coast. Third, this is a general area of fertility, such as the name Bountiful suggests—even in the Jabali language, a native dialect of this region—Kharfot means “a place where all things have been prepared.” Fourth, it is a suitable place for the construction and launching of a sizable ship. Fifth, it has to be a place of much fruit and honey—and of course, in that culture, fruit means date palms. That would be fruit that grew wild, since it wasn’t cultivated when they got there. Sixth, there has to be enough shipbuilding timber of types and sizes to permit building a vessel able to carry several dozen persons and remain seaworthy for at least a year. Seventh, there must be year-round freshwater at the site. Eighth, there must be a mountain distinctive enough to justify Nephi’s references to it as “the mount” (1 Nephi 17:7, 1 Nephi 18:3) and it must be near enough to the coastal encampment to allow him to go there to “pray oft” (1 Nephi 18:3). See https://latterdaysaintmag.com/article-1-14946/
Ninth, the incident of Nephi’s brothers attempting to take his life by throwing him into the depths of the sea (1 Nephi 17:48) makes little sense unless there were substantial cliffs overlooking the ocean from which to throw him.
Tenth, Ore, from which metal could be smelted to construct tools, has to be available in the vicinity—and it is.
What’s fascinating is that there is just not iron ore available in this region of Arabia, yet, when we brought a Cambridge-educated geologist to Khor Kharfot, our candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful, he noticed that there was iron ore in some of the limestone seams. He, not being a member of our faith, said to us, “There’s not much ore here, but there’s enough to make tools.” He had no idea that is what it said in the Book of Mormon.
Eleventh, despite the attractiveness of the place, the 17th chapter of First Nephi is full of clues indicating that Bountiful likely had little or no resident population at that time that could contribute tools and manpower to the ship building process. Bountiful has to have been in a fairly remote location.
Twelfth, coastal conditions had to allow a ship access to the open ocean and to suitable winds and currents (1 Nephi 18:8, 9) which could carry the vessel in an easterly direction toward the Pacific coast of the Americas, as Alma 22:28 stipulates when it mentions that the west coast of the land was the place of their “first inheritance.”
Once they are at Bountiful, Nephi is told by the Lord to construct a ship, which would involve working “timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work”, Nephi said.
People sometimes assume that a life of sin is one of variety and creativity and freedom, but who in this story is taken to new heights both in vision and competence? Nephi gets plates, makes a bow, and now is asked to do something even more in building a ship. This, in turn, makes him something more. In actuality it is sin that is boring, repetitive and uninteresting. If you want to have a remarkable life, choose righteousness.
Scot, you know, you and I have sat on the seashore at Nephi’s Bountiful many times and looked at that expanse of ocean before us and considered the astonishing faith required to build a ship and take off into the unknown for a destination we hadn’t been told. It is a little like if you and I were asked to take our current skills and build a spaceship to head into the darkest space. Oh, this faith of Nephi.
Laman and Lemuel did not want to work on the ship and called Nephi foolish, that same old word of mocking that the worldly have always hurled at the righteous. But look how he seeks to convince them. He reminds them what they already know. Eleven times in this section he says to them “Ye know”, emphasizing that the Lord can do what looks impossible as he did for Moses and the children of Israel.
“Now ye know that the children of Israel were in abondage; and ye know that they were laden with btasks, which were grievous to be borne… Now ye know that aMoses was commanded of the Lord to do that great work; and ye know that by his bword the waters of the Red Sea were divided hither and thither, and they passed through on dry ground” (1 Nephi 17: 25,26).
They know through everything they have learned and they know from everything they have experienced that the Lord can do all things for His children, but still ultimately the Children of Israel who inhabited the Promised Land were not righteous.
That’s why he pleads with his brothers,
“And ye also know that by the apower of his almighty word he can cause the earth that it shall pass away; yea, and ye know that by his word he can cause the rough places to be made smooth, and smooth places shall be broken up. O, then, why is it, that ye can be so hard in your hearts?” (1 Nephi 17:46).
Nephi assures them: “And I said unto them: aIf God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done.
“And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot ainstruct me, that I should build a ship?”
Or how can He not help us with any of the problems that we face in our lives?
Nephi is filled with such power at this point that when he stretches for his hand, he shocks his brothers who otherwise were planning to murder him by pitching him over a cliff.
Laman and Lemuel, come to their senses, they repent, but, of course, repentance for them will never last long, and they will be up to their old murderous intents again on the ship when they are crossing the ocean. This whole story is truly a most remarkable view of the wilderness journey.
This is Scot and Maurine Proctor with Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast. Thanks to Paul Cardall for the music and we’ll see you next week when we’ll study 2 Nephi 1-5, “We Lived after the Manner of Happiness.” Until then, have a wonderful week.