Category:Book of Mormon/Anthropology/Language/Hebraisms/Poetry

Ancient poetry in the Book of Mormon

Parent page: Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon

Eloquence and persuasion

On one occasion Nephi returned to the tent of his father to find his brothers hotly disputing there "concerning the things which my father had spoken unto them" (1 Nephi 15:1-2). Nephi, who had just before been conversing with the Lord, entered into the discussion, and "did exhort them with all the energies of my soul, and with all the faculty which I possessed" (1 Nephi 15:25), until finally "they did humble themselves" (1 Nephi 16:5), even against their nature. Wonderful is the power of speech among the desert people. Against the proud and touchy Bedouins, eloquence is the only weapon the sheikh possesses, and Lehi had it in great abundance. A good part of Nephi's account is taken up with his powerful words, of which, we are told, only a tiny part are given. The true leader, says an ancient Arab poetess, "was not one to keep silent when the contest of words began." When the men assemble in the chief's tent to take counsel together, the leader "address[es] the whole assembly with a succession of wise counsels intermingled with opportune proverbs," exactly in the manner of Lehi with his endless parables. "People of any other country hearing them speak," says our informant, "would simply suppose them filled with a supernatural gift."1 Poetical exclamations . . . rose all round me," Burton recalls, "showing how deeply tinged with imagination becomes the language of the Arab under the influence of strong passion or religious enthusiasm."2[1]

Lehi's desert poetry

In Lehi's day an inspired leader had to be a poet, and there is, in our opinion, no more remarkable episode in the Book of Mormon than that recounting how he once addressed his wayward sons in verse.

It was just after the first camp had been pitched, with due care for the performance of the proper thanksgiving rites at the "altar of stones," that Lehi, being then free to survey the scene more at his leisure (for among the desert people it is the women who make and break camp, though the sheikh must officiate in the sacrifice), proceeded, as was his right, to name the river after his first-born and the valley after his second son (2.6-8, 14?lang=eng#6-8, 14 1 Nephi 2:6-8, 14). The men examined the terrain in a place where they expected to spend some time, and discovered that the river "emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea," at a point "near the mouth thereof" not far above the Straits of Tiran. When Lehi beheld the view, perhaps from the side of Mt. Musafa or Mt. Mendisha, he turned to his two elder sons and recited his remarkable verses. Nephi seems to have been standing by, for he takes most careful note of the circumstance: "And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness! And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!" (2.9-10?lang=eng#9-10 1 Nephi 2:9-10).

The common practice was for the inspired words of the leader to be taken down in writing immediately. When Abu Zaid returned by night from a wonderful experience, Hariri reports, "We called for ink and pens and wrote at his dictation."10 Another time when a wise man feels inspiration upon him he calls, "Prepare thy inkhorn, and take thy implements and write."11 So Lehi might have spoken to his sons....

Ibn Qutaiba, in a famous work on Arabic poetry quoted a great desert poet, Abu Sakhr, as saying that nothing on earth brings verses so readily to mind as the sight of running water and wild places.15 This applies not only to springs, of course, but to all running water. Thomas recounts how his Arabs, upon reaching the Umm al-Hait, hailed it with a song in praise of the "continuous and flowing rain," whose bounty filled the bed of the wady, "flowing along between sand and stream course."16 Just so Lehi holds up as the most admirable of examples "this river, continually flowing"; for to the people of the desert there is no more miraculous and lovely thing on earth than continually running water. When the BanÄ« Hilāl stopped at their first oasis, the beauty of it and the green vegetation reminded them again of the homeland they had left, "and they wept greatly remembering it." It was precisely because Laman and Lemuel were loud in lamenting the loss of their pleasant "land of Jerusalem . . . and their precious things" (2.11?lang=eng#11 1 Nephi 2:11) that their father was moved to address them on this particular occasion. Two interesting and significant expressions are used in Nephi's account of his father's qaṣidah to Laman and Lemuel. The one is "the fountain of the Red Sea," and the other "this valley," firm and steadfast. Is the Red Sea a fountain? For the Arabs any water that does not dry up is a fountain. Where all streams and pools are seasonal, only springs are abiding—water that never runs away or rises and falls and can therefore only be a "fountain." This was certainly the concept of the Egyptians, from whom Lehi may have got it.17 Hariri describes a man whose income is secured and unfailing as being "like a well that has reached a spring."18 Nicholson quotes one of the oldest Arab poets, who tells how the hero Dhu 'l-Qarnayn (who may be Alexander the Great) "followed the Sun to view its setting / when it sank into the sombre ocean-spring."19

As to this valley, firm and steadfast, who, west of Suez, would ever think of such an image? We, of course, know all about everlasting hills and immovable mountains, the moving of which is the best-known illustration of the infinite power of faith, but who ever heard of a steadfast valley? The Arabs to be sure. For them the valley, and not the mountain, is the symbol of permanence. It is not the mountain of refuge to which they flee, but the valley of refuge. The great depressions that run for hundreds of miles across the Arabian peninsula pass for the most part through plains devoid of mountains. It is in these ancient riverbeds alone that water, vegetation, and animal life are to be found when all else is desolation. They alone offer men and animals escape from their enemies and deliverance from death by hunger and thirst. The qualities of firmness and steadfastness, of reliable protection, refreshment, and sure refuge when all else fails, which other nations attribute naturally to mountains, the Arabs attribute to valleys.20 So the ancient Zohair describes a party like Lehi's:

And when they went down to the water, blue and still in its depression, they laid down their walking-sticks like one who has reached a permanent resting place.21
In the most recent study on the qaṣidah, Alfred Bloch distinguishes four types of verse in the earliest desert poetry: (1) the ragaz, or verses to accompany any rhythmical repeated form of work or play, (2) verses for instruction or information, (3) elegies, specializing in sage reflections on the meaning of life, and (4) Reiselieder or songs of travel, recited on a journey to make the experience more pleasant and edifying.22 Lehi's qaṣidah meets all but the first of these specifications—and to be genuine it only needs to meet one of them. It also meets the requirements of the sajʿ, or original desert poetry, as Nicholson describes it: " 'rhymed prose' . . . but originally it had a deeper, almost religious, significance as the special form adopted by poets, soothsayers, and the like in their supernatural revelations and for conveying to the vulgar every kind of mysterious and esoteric lore."23[2]

More on Lehi's desert poetry

Lehi's qaṣidah

If the earliest desert poems were songs inspired by the fair sight of running water, no one today knows the form they took. But it can be conjectured from the earliest known form of Semitic verse that that form was the sajʿ, a short exhortation or injunction spoken with such solemnity and fervor as to fall into a sort of chant. Examples of this would be magical incantations, curses, and the formal pronouncements of teachers, priests, and judges. From the earliest times the sajʿ was the form in which inspiration and revelation announced themselves. 24 Though the speaker of the sajʿ did not aim consciously at metrical form, his words were necessarily more than mere prose, and were received by their hearers as poetry. The sajʿ had the effect, we are told, of overawing the hearer completely, and was considered absolutely binding on the person to whom it was addressed, its aim being to compel action.25

Lehi's words to his sons take just this form of short, solemn, rhythmical appeal. The fact that the speech to Laman exactly matches that to his brother shows that we have here such a formal utterance as the sajʿ. The proudest boast of the desert poet is, "I utter a verse and after it its brother," for the consummation of the poetic art was to have two verses perfectly parallel in form and content. Few ever achieved this, and Ibn Qutaiba observes that the usual verse is followed not by a "brother" but at best by a "cousin."26 Yet Lehi seems to have carried it off. Of the moral fervor and didactic intent of his recitation there can be no doubt; the fact that Nephi recounts the episode in a record in which there is, as he says, only room for great essentials, shows what a deep impression it made upon him.

In addressing his sons in what looks like a little song, Lehi is doing just what Isaiah does (Isaiah 5:1-7) when he speaks to Israel in a shirat dodi, "a friendly chant," a popular song about a vine which, once the hearer's attention has been won, turns into a very serious moral tirade. 27 On another occasion, as we have noted, he employs the popular figure of the olive tree. The stock opening line of the old desert poems is, "O my two beloved ones! (or friends)," an introduction which, says Ibn Qutaiba, should be avoided, "since only the ancients knew how to use it properly, uniting a gentle and natural manner with the grandiose and magnificent." 28 Lehi's poem is an example of what is meant: he addresses his two sons separately but each with the peculiar and typical Arabic vocative "O that thou . . . !" (Ya laitaka), and describes the river and valley in terms of unsurpassed brevity and simplicity and in the vague and sweeping manner of the real desert poets, of whom Burton says, "There is a dreaminess of idea and a haze thrown over the object, infinitely attractive, but indescribable."29 Lehi's language is of this simple, noble, but hazy kind.

According to Richter, the best possible example of the primitive Arabic qaṣid (the name given to the oldest actual poetry of the desert) is furnished by those old poems in which one's beloved is compared to a land "in which abundant streams flow down . . . with rushing and swirling, so that the water overflows every evening and continually."30 Here the "continually flowing" water is compared to the person addressed, as in Lehi's "song" to Laman. The original qaṣid, the same authority avers, was built around the beseeching (werbenden, hence the name qaṣid) motif, not necessarily erotic in origin, as was once thought, but dealing rather with praise of virtue in general (Tugendlob).31 Ibn Qutaiba even claims that the introductory love theme was merely a device to gain attention of male listeners and was not at all the real stuff of the poem. The standard pattern is a simple one: (a) the poet's attention is arrested by some impressive natural phenomenon, usually running water; (b) this leads him to recite a few words in its praise, drawing it to the attention of a beloved companion of the way; and (c) making it an object lesson for the latter, who is urged to be like it. Burton gives a good example: at the sight of the Wady al-Akik the nomad poet is moved to exclaim,

O my friend, this is Akik, then stand by it,
Endeavoring to be distracted by love, if not really a lover.

This seems to be some sort of love song, albeit a peculiar one, and some have claimed that all the old qaṣidas were such.32 But Burton and his Arabs know the real meaning, "the esoteric meaning of this couplet," as he calls it, which quite escapes the western reader and is to be interpreted:

Man! This is a lovely portion of God's creation:
Then stand by it, and here learn to love the perfections of thy Supreme Friend.33

Compare this with Lehi's appeal to Lemuel:

O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast,
and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!

Note the parallel. In each case the poet, wandering in the desert with his friends, is moved by the sight of a pleasant valley, a large wady with water in it; he calls the attention of his beloved companion to the view, and appeals to him to learn a lesson from the valley and "stand by it," firm and unshakable in the love of the ways of the Lord. Let us briefly list the exacting conditions fulfilled by Nephi's account of his father's qaṣidas and demanded of the true and authentic desert poet of the earliest period:

  1. They are Brunnenlieder or Quellenlieder, as the Germans call them, that is, songs inspired by the sight of water gushing from a spring or running down a valley.
  2. They are addressed to one or (usually) two traveling companions.
  3. They praise the beauty and the excellence of the scene, calling it to the attention of the hearer as an object lesson.
  4. The hearer is urged to be like the thing he beholds.34
  5. The poems are recited extempore on the spot and with great feeling.
  6. They are very short, each couplet being a complete poem in itself. 35
  7. One verse must be followed by its "brother," making a perfectly matched pair.

Here we have beyond any doubt all the elements of a situation of which no westerner in 1830 had the remotest conception. Lehi stands before us as something of a poet, as well as a great prophet and leader, and that is as it should be. The "poetic art of David," says Professor Montgomery, "has its complement in the early Arabic poets, . . . some of whom themselves were kings."36

Nephi's authentic Arabian desert language and imagery

Shortly after landing in America, Nephi himself took his tents and all who would follow him and continued his wanderings in the new land as in the old (2 Nephi 5:5). The great man in his old age still speaks the language of the desert: "I may walk in the path of the low valley, that I may be strict in the plain road" (2 Nephi 4:32—33) is the purest Bedouin talk for "May I stick to the wady and not get off the clearly marked mainline that everyone follows!" One hears the echo of innumerable old desert inscriptions in his prayer: "O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy" (2 Nephi 4:33). The immemorial desert custom which required a sheikh to place the edge of his robe (kuffah) over the back of anyone seeking his protection is clearly recalled in Nephi's cry: "O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!" (2 Nephi 4:33).[4]


  1. 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), Chapter 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. 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), Chapter 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  3. 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), Chapter 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  4. 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), Chapter 6, references silently removed—consult original for citations.