The name "Lehi" in the Book of Mormon

Parent page: Book of Mormon Names

"the Jewish/Hebrew names Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri"

Jeffery Chadwick:

It is also an interesting coincidence that similar evidence for Lehi's wife's name has turned up in a papyrus document, written in Persian period Aramaic, in the era following the sixth century BC. The female Jewish/Hebrew name Sariah appears in an Aramaic papyrus from the fifth century BC (albeit partially restored by the original publisher). The document is known as C-22 (or Cowley-22), and was found at Elephantine in upper Egypt around the year 1900. The appearance of the name Sariah was first published as a possible example of the Book of Mormon female name Sariah by myself in 1993.33 The female name Sariah does not appear in the Bible, just as the male name Lehi does not. Yet both appear in the Book of Mormon. That we can now identify both the Jewish/Hebrew names Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri and Lehi in the Samaria Papyri and on Ostracon 2071 represents two significant steps forward in corroborating the authenticity of heretofore unique Book of Mormon names.[1]

Book of Mormon Names—Lehi

The name of Lehi occurs only as part of a place-name in the Bible.25 And only within the last twenty years a potsherd was found at Elath, where Lehi's road from Jerusalem meets "the fountain of the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 1:9), bearing the name of a man, LHI, very clearly written on it. Since then Nelson Glueck has detected the name in many compound names found inscribed on the stones of Arabia.26 On a Lihyanite monument we find the name of one LHI-TN, son of Pagag, whose name means "Lehi hath given." The LHI name is quite common in inscriptions.27 Nfy28 and Alma29 are also attested, and Mormon may be of Hebrew, Egyptian, or Arabic origin.30 While Glueck supplies the vowels to make the name Lahai, Paul Haupt in a special study renders it Lehi, and gives it the mysterious meaning of "cheek," which has never been explained.31 There is a Bait Lahi, "House of Lahi," among the ancient place names of the Gaza country occupied by the Arabs in the time of Lehi, but the meaning of the name is lost.32[2]

Thirteen desert motifs in Lehi's dream

In reporting his father's dreams, Nephi has handed us, as it were, over a dozen vivid little snapshots or colored slides of the desert country that show that somebody who had a hand in the writing of the Book of Mormon actually lived there:

1. The first is a picture of a lone traveler, Lehi himself, in "a dark and dreary waste" (1 Nephi 8:4-7); he has "traveled for the space of many hours in darkness," and in desperation "began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me" (1 Nephi 8:8).

Now if we turn to the vast photo-album of Arabic lyric poetry or to the actual photographs of inscriptions scratched on a thousand red rocks, we will find almost countless duplications of this particular snapshot-the lone wanderer lost in the darkness. Of all the images that haunt the early Arab poets this is by all odds the most common. 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.1 That the poetry is born of grim reality may be seen from the inscriptions. One fellow, many centuries ago, reminds us of an event that took place "in the year in which he walked the whole night in the mire."2 In the inscriptions a thousand lone wanderers send up, in desperation, prayers for help: "O Radu, help Shai!" "O Allat and Gad-'Awidh, grant protection!" 3 The great Abu Zaid said there was one prayer that he had learned in a dream which alone was his guarantee of safety in the desert: "Preserve me, O God; . . . guard me in my person and my property. . . . Cover me with the curtain of thy grace."4 Just as Nephi prays: "O Lord wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness!" as he wanders "in the path of the low valley" (2 Nephi 4:32-33).

2. In the next picture we see "a large and spacious field" (1 Nephi 8:9), "a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world" (1 Nephi 8:20). This in Arabic is the symbol of release from fear and oppression, the state of being mabsūṭ or spread out. The Arab poet describes the world as a maidan, or large and spacious field,5 an image borrowed by the earliest Christian writers, notably the Pastor of Hermes and the Pseudo-Clementines, for the religious symbolism of the maidan is as old as it is obvious.6 Heroic literature is full of it.

3. The next picture is a close-up of a tree-"the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow" (1 Nephi 11:8), "whose fruit was desirable to make one happy, . . . most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted; . . . the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen, . . . desirable above all other fruit" (1 Nephi 8:10-12).

Where would one find such a tree in the poets? Only in the gardens of kings. The Persian King, and in imitation of him, the Byzantine Emperor and the Great Khan, had such trees constructed artificially out of pure silver to stand beside their thrones and represent the Tree of Life,7 and if the reader has a genuine Persian or Turkish rug in his home he may discover that the central pattern, though stylized almost beyond recognition, represents either a flowing vase (the water of life) or a tree. The naturalistic curves and tendrils that surround the tree and run to the ornamental border are nothing less than the garden of Eden, and the tree in the center is the Tree of Life. The rug pattern turns up on Cappadocian seals four thousand years old. Many hundreds of books and articles have been written on the Tree of Life as a symbol and a cult-object, but in no land on earth is the sight of a real tree, and especially a fruit-bearing one, greeted with more joy and reverence than in treeless Arabia, where certain trees are regarded as holy because of their life-giving propensities.8

4. In the next picture the man who has found the tree all by himself is looking for his family, that they too might be revived by the fruit: "I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; . . . and . . . I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family" (1 Nephi 8:12-13).

Perhaps the most common and most touching theme in the vast corpus of Arabic desert inscriptions is the theme of longing and looking for one's family. When the writer comes to water and rests, he wishes for his family, and is usually smitten with terrible longing to see them. The desire is often intensified by the sudden recognition of some long forgotten landmark, as in the poets, or by noting an inscription put there, maybe years ago, by the lost loved ones, or some other little reminder of an earlier and happier visit to the place. Thus: "N. encamped in this place yearning . . . and he yearned for Shal-bal." "And he found the inscriptions of A. and of his father, so he yearned for them."9 "And he found the inscription of his uncle, so he yearned for him." "And he found the inscription of his uncle, and he longed."10 "N. camped here . . . and he was looking out for his imprisoned fellows. So O Baal-Samin, rest to those who are distressed."11 "H. . . . found the inscriptions of his fellows and was sad."12 "N. N. laid a stone on the tomb of his brother who was killed. . . . And he was looking out for his two brothers."13

5. In the next picture we see the missing family resting at a spring and trying to decide which way to go. From the spring comes "a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree; . . . and I saw the head thereof a little way off" (1 Nephi 8:13-14). This is the authentic "scenery of a desert oasis, with its rivers springing miraculously from nowhere and emptying themselves again perhaps in the desert sands."14 The expression "river of water" is used only for small, local streams, 15 and here Lehi is so near the source of the little stream that he can recognize people standing there.

6. The next picture is largely a blur, for it represents a "mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost" (1 Nephi 8:23). We see other dim figures, guiding themselves to the tree by holding on to a rod or railing of iron as they "did press forward through the mist of darkness" (1 Nephi 8:24).

In the many passages of Arabic poetry in which the hero boasts that he has traveled long distances through dark and dreary wastes all alone, 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.16 Quite contrary to what one would expect, these dank mists are described by travelers in all parts of Arabia, 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.17 In its nature and effect Lehi's mist of darkness conforms to this strange phenomenon most exactly, always bearing in mind that this dream-mist was a super-mist, "exceedingly great." A very ancient Arabic tale recounts how when the Pharaoh of Joseph's time was on an expedition in the desert he found himself "in a dark valley, in which he heard a great outcry, yet he could see no people because of the thick darkness." There he did a strange thing-he built a great and wonderful castle of light, which was destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Egyptian lands.18

7. This strongly suggests the picture of "a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth . . . on the other side of the river (1 Nephi 8:26). By now most of us have seen photographs of those wonderful ancient Arab houses (first "discovered" in the 1930s) built after the Babylonian design of Lehi's day, "ten-and twelve-story skyscrapers that . . . represent genuine survivals of ancient Babylonian architecture," 19 with their windows beginning, for the sake of defense, twenty to fifty feet from the ground. At night these lighted windows would certainly give the effect of being suspended above the earth. The eighth book of Hamdani's al-Iklil is devoted to describing the early castles of Arabia, "great and spacious buildings" which "stood as it were in the air, high above the earth." "And the castle of Ghumdan," writes Hamdani, of one of the most famous, "had twenty stories of upper chambers, one above another. There is disagreement as to its heighth and breadth, for some say each of its walls measured a thousand by a thousand (i.e., cubits: a "great and spacious building" indeed!), while others say it was greater, and that each of its stories was ten cubits (15 feet) high."20 In Arabic parlance the prime index of elegance and ease in any house or dwelling (including tents) is always "spaciousness."

8. The next picture shows a party going on in the big house: "And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit" (1 Nephi 8:27). As others came and joined the party they also joined in the mockery (1 Nephi 8:33). For "the large and spacious building, which my father saw, is vain imaginations and the pride of the children of men" (1 Nephi 12:18). "And the multitude of the earth was gathered together; and I beheld that they were in a large and spacious building, like unto the building which my father saw; . . . the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great" (1 Nephi 11:35-36).

Now speaking of the great castle of Ghumdan, the poet Al-A'asha tells us:

And never was there a more splendid assemblage of people than the people of Ghumdan when they gathered. But dire calamity befell them, even as a wailing woman who has been utterly bereft.21

Hamdani gives other accounts of this and other castles, whose legends and whose silent ruins all point to the same moral lesson-the magnificent gathering in the great and spacious building high above the earth is doomed to the destruction reserved for the haughty and the wicked, just as Pharaoh's shining "castle of light" in the desert was said to have been destroyed by the same conqueror who leveled the pride of Jerusalem and Tyre in Lehi's day.

9. The mockery, mimicry and finger-pointing that passed for sport among the smartly dressed people in the spacious house were directed at a poor little bedraggled band of wanderers, hungrily eating the fruit of the tree that stood nearby and terribly humiliated at having their poverty made an object of public merriment. "And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed" (1 Nephi 8:25), for all the fine people upstairs were "mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit. And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them" (1 Nephi 8:27-28).

"The Bedouin in a town appears to be a very different man from the same person in the Desert," writes Burckhardt. "He knows that the town's-people, whom he despises, entertain absurd notions respecting his nation. . . . The wandering Arabs have certainly more wit and sagacity than the people who live in towns; their heads are always clear, their spirits unimpaired by debauchery."22 What is more natural than that the "city Arabs" should "mock their desert cousins [whom they secretly envy] with every show of open contempt"? "The 'million' are educated in the towns," a recent observer reports, "and they have always despised the Bedouins, like a certain inhabitant of Jericho whom I met in 1947, who, though quite uneducated himself, made fun of certain poor desert Arabs who were passing by with all their baggage: women, children, camels, chickens, and the rest,"23 a funny sight indeed. While every visitor is impressed by the pride and nobility of the desert Arab at home and notes his contempt for sedentary life, this contempt is met by equal contempt, and "both sides would consider themselves degraded" by a marriage between the desert people and the dwellers in houses of clay.24 In town the Arab is, so to speak, on enemy ground, and keenly sensitive to his position. Nobody likes mockery-least of all the proud and touchy Arab.

10. As a result of being scoffed at, the victims beat a retreat in confusion and humiliation: "and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost" (1 Nephi 8:28). If this seems an extreme reaction to a little loss of face, we need only contemplate a touching inscription cut in the rocks by one who "encamped at this place . . . and he rushed forth in the year in which he was grieved by the scoffing of the people: he drove together and lost the camels. . . . Rest to him who leaves (this inscription) untouched!" 25

11. Our snapshots include a number of moving little pictures of parties lost in the desert. Because of the mist of darkness one group "who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost" (1 Nephi 8:23:{{{4}}}). Many on their way to the great and spacious building "were lost from his [Lehi's] view, wandering in strange roads" (1 Nephi 8:32). It is the devil, we are told, who "leadeth them away into broad roads, that they perish and are lost" (1 Nephi 12:17).

Need we say that to get lost in the desert is the chief waking dread and most common nightmare of the Arab? The first westerner to explore Lehi's desert in modern times was Edward Robinson, who writes: "On a course N.W., we launched forth into the 'great and terrible wilderness.' . . . The desert however could not be said to be pathless, for the many camel-tracks showed that we were on a great road."26 To stray from that broad way, to become separated from one's party, is fatal. The religious imagery of "going astray" needs no long commentary. "[No one] will succeed in having his pilgrimage accepted," says Hariri, "who goes astray from the broad road of rectitude."27 It is pure insanity to strike off for oneself in a moment of vain glory and self-sufficiency. "He went astray and made a hasty journey," one inscription recounts, "and O Dusares, protect him!"28 Another man tells us how "he found traces of his fellows and longed for them," while being "heavy hearted on account of his brother and on account of his father and on account of his uncle, and he was afraid of the enemy."29 That is a sad little reminder of how families could get separated forever in the desert. Many of the personal inscriptions in the huge collection of Littmann are messages left behind in the desperate attempt to get in touch with relatives. Typical is No. 156: "By S. . . . and he found the inscription of his uncle, and he longed for him. So, O Allah, peace to him who leaves [this inscription untouched], and relief!" 30

12. To symbolize what is utterly inaccessible, Lehi is shown "a great and a 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. Hariri describes death as "a chasm drear" which sooner or later confronts all mortals.31 Many recent photographs show us that Burton was not exaggerating when he described the "titanic walls, lofty donjons, huge projecting bastions, and moats full of deep shade" that are a characteristic of Lehi's desert.32 It is very much like the "red rock" country of our own Southwest.

13. One of the most remarkable of our snapshots is that of a "fountain of filthy water" (1 Nephi 12:16:{{{4}}})-"the water which my father saw was filthiness" (1 Nephi 15:27).

"And . . . many were drowned in the depths of the fountain" (1 Nephi 8:32). This was a typical desert sayl, a raging torrent of liquid filth that sweeps whole camps to destruction. In the year 960 A.D., according to Bar Hebraeus, a large band of pilgrims returning from Mekkah "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."33 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.34 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."35 This was the very region through which Lehi traveled on his great trek.

"The situations [for camps] are not always, however, wisely chosen," one observer reports, "for, in more than one instance, a sudden thunderstorm in the hills has brought a flood down the great valleys, in the bottom of which the smaller groups of tents are often found, and the water has carried away and drowned the whole settlement, together with its flocks."36 Quite recently a visitor to Arabia has pointed to another interesting scriptural parallel:

A temptation exists to build villages to cater for the needs of the caravan traffic in wadis [the more fertile parts of the wilderness] which are thought to have permanently dried up. Thus it happens that the parable of the house built upon the sand still finds periodical illustration in actual fact. Recently, after many years of drought and consequent security, one such village near the Yemen road was suddenly obliterated when the wadi filled once again with a raging torrent of water from the mountain.37

The most minute and careful description of such an event is one recorded by a German engineer working in Palestine early in the present century. On May 18, 1913, there occurred a typical flash-flood in which "people from the Bedouin camps, camels, sheep, and also wild animals were swept away and killed by the terribly rapid rising of the floodwaters."38 The engineer visiting two valleys two days later was impressed more than anything else by the filthiness and mess of the thing. "Thick yellow mud, mixed with desert sand, clung to the bushes on the bank. . . . In the freshly-dried desert mud I found dead snakes, lizards, grasshoppers, beetles, shreds of blue cloth that belonged to the Bedouins, a piece of woolen rope and elsewhere small, half-petrified animals."39 Such storms as this, he says, occur about every ten or twelve years in the desert. Lehi had good reason to worry-and dream-about them! In the inscriptions we read of one who was "driven away from the watering-place of the camels by a torrent, in the year in which the tribe of Qadam drove away the tribe of Harim."40 Another inscription is "By A., and the sail drove him away at the water-place of the camels." 41 "By An., and the sail drove him away at Rass."42 Another "abode in the springtime in this valley, in the year in which the torrent passed along with his camels." To which Littmann appends a note: "It seems that a torrent took away the camels of Sawad. A sudden torrent sometimes tears down tents and seizes upon men and animals."43

Lehi's dreams are summed up in the words of a single brief poem by Rubah, who in a few lines describes the terror of loneliness of the long journey, in the mist of darkness (sultry and thick) the "awful gulf," the broad ways, and the paths that stray.44


Joseph Smith, Sr., according to his wife, once had the classic dream (as who has not?) of being lost and alone in a vast empty waste, only in his case he "could see nothing save dead, fallen timber."45 That is natural enough, for men dream by night of the things they see by day-that is what makes Lehi's dreams so convincing as authentic testimony. Only one who had actually seen those things would have dreamed them; only one who had been haunted by those fears and frightened by those situations would have been visited by them in a dream of the night.[3]

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[4]

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[5]

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

Names in the Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith may have known that Hebrew was the language of Lehi, but how did he know of the huge cultural impact of Egypt on Israel in 600 B.C.? Lehi's descendants used "Reformed Egyptian" to write on the metal plates for brevity, and the 2 languages/cultures clearly influenced the Book of Mormon people.

The existence of so many Hebrew and Egyptian names and phrases in the Book of Mormon is strong evidence of its truthfulness.

Hugh Nibley explains:

[W]e [can now] test certain proper names in the Book of Mormon in the light of actual names from Lehi's world, unknown in the time of Joseph Smith. Not only do the names agree, but the variations follow the correct rules, and the names are found in correct statistical proportions, the Egyptian and Hebrew types being of almost equal frequency, along with a sprinkling of Hittite, Arabic, and Greek names. To reduce speculation to a minimum, the lesson is concerned only with highly distinctive and characteristic names, and to clearly stated and universally admitted rules. Even so, the reader must judge for himself. In case of doubt he is encouraged to correspond with recognized experts in the languages concerned. The combination of the names Laman and Lemuel, the absence of Baal names, the predominance of names ending in -iah—such facts as those need no trained philologist to point them out; they can be demonstrated most objectively, and they are powerful evidence in behalf of the Book of Mormon....
  1. There is in the Book of Mormon, within one important family, a group of names beginning with Pa-. They are peculiar names and can be matched exactly in Egyptian. Names beginning with Pa- are by far the most common type in late Egyptian history, but what ties Pahoran's family most closely to Egypt is not the names but the activities in which the bearers of those names are engaged; for they sponsor the same institutions and engineer the same intrigues as their Egyptian namesakes did centuries before—and in so doing they give us to understand they are quite aware of the resemblance!
  2. There is a tendency for Egyptian and Hebrew names in the Book of Mormon to turn up in the Elephantine region of Upper Egypt. It is now believed that when Jerusalem fell in Lehi's day a large part of the refugees fled to that region.
  3. The most frequent "theophoric" element by far in the Book of Mormon names is Ammon. The same is true of late Egyptian names. The most common formative element in the Book of Mormon names is the combination Mor-, Mr-; in Egyptian the same holds true.
  4. Egyptian names are usually compound and are formed according to certain rules. Book of Mormon names are mostly compound and follow the same rules of formation.
  5. Mimation (ending with -m) predominated in Jaredite names, nunation (ending with -n) in Nephite and Lamanite names. This is strictly in keeping with the development of languages in the Old World, where mimation was everywhere succeeded by nunation around 2000 B.C., that is, well after the Jaredites had departed, but long before the Nephites.
  6. A large proportion of Book of Mormon names end in -iah and -ihah. The same ending is peculiar to Palestinian names of Lehi's time but not so prevalent other times.
  7. The names in the Book of Mormon that are neither Egyptian nor Hebrew are Arabic, Hittite (Hurrian), or Greek. This is in keeping with the purported origin of the book.
  8. Lehi is a real personal name, unknown in the time of Joseph Smith. It is only met with in the desert country, where a number of exemplars have been discovered in recent years.
  9. Laman and Lemuel are not only "Arabic" names, but they also form a genuine "pair of pendant names," such as ancient Semites of the desert were wont to give their two eldest sons, according to recent discoveries.
  10. The absence of "Baal-" names (that is, names compounded with the theophoric Baal element) is entirely in keeping with recent discoveries regarding common names in the Palestine of Lehi's day....

Out of a hundred possible points we have confined ourselves to a mere sampling, choosing ten clear-cut and telling philological demonstrations by way of illustration. The force of such evidence inevitably increases with its bulk, but we believe enough has been given to indicate that Eduard Meyer did not consider all the factors when he accused Joseph Smith of "letting his fancy run free" in inventing the Book of Mormon names.46 The fact is that nearly all the evidence for the above points has come forth since the death of Meyer. Let us be fair to him, but let us in all fairness be fair to the Book of Mormon as well.[7]

Lehi at home in Middle East

Lehi does not belong in the fantastic world that passed as the Ancient East a few years ago. He is at home in a very different kind of world, and a very real one. In the brief compass of Nephi's account, which is an abridgment of his father's own journal, whose type it imitates and continues (1 Nephi 1:2,15-16), we are given an amazing amount of information, both general and particular, regarding conditions in Lehi's day. From this it can be shown that Lehi has an excellent claim to being a thoroughly representative man of his time and place. First consider what the Book of Mormon says.

Lehi was a man possessed of exceeding great wealth in the form of "gold and silver, and all manner of riches" (1 Nephi 3:16; 2:4). He had "his own house at Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 1:7); yet he was accustomed to "go forth" from the city from time to time (1 Nephi 1:5-7), and his paternal estate, the land of his inheritance, where the bulk of his fortune reposed, was some distance from the town (1 Nephi 3:16,22; 2:4). He came of an old, distinguished, and cultured family (1 Nephi 5:14-16). The opening verse of the Book of Mormon explains the expression "goodly parents" not so much in a moral sense as in a social one: Nephi tells us he came of a good family and "therefore" received a good traditional education: "I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father" (1 Nephi 1:1). He was of the tribe of Manasseh, which of all the tribes retained the old desert ways and was most active in the caravan trade.1 He seems to have had particularly close ties with Sidon (for the name appears repeatedly in the Book of Mormon, both in its Hebrew and Egyptian forms),2 which at that time was one of the two harbors through which the Israelites carried on an extremely active trade with Egypt and the West. He was proud of his knowledge of Egyptian and insisted on his sons learning it (Mosiah 1:4). He was a meticulous record keeper, conscientious to a fault, and given to addressing long moral tirades to youth (1 Nephi 1:16-17 and elsewhere). From his sons Nephi and Jacob one gathers that Lehi must have been something of an expert in vine, olive, and fig and honey culture.

He and his sons were connoisseurs of fine metal work (gold, silver, "precious things," weapons, armor, plates, engravings, "curious workmanship," "fine brass," etc.), though they had to acquire the skill of making them after they left Jerusalem (1 Nephi 17:9-10;19:1; 2 Nephi 5:14-15); that is, their relationship to fine workmanship and precious materials had been that of handlers and owners but not of artisans and craftsmen.3 As we shall see, Lehi's behavior was a remarkable combination of courtesy and firmness, gentleness and toughness, caution and daring. Put all these things together, and you have a perfectly consistent and convincing picture of Lehi the merchant.[8]

A connection with Egypt and other centers was key

Lehi's cosmopolitan approach, and his familiarity with Egyptian matters, is appropriate to his time and place:

The merchant went forth in person, and personally sought out the places and people that would receive his wares. . . . The caravan visits each place on the route and mingles with the inhabitants of each, while the modern transport employee knows only the overnight quarters at terminals and harbor towns. . . . The traveling merchant of the caravans conveys his goods personally to the buyer, whose taste and temperament he must understand if he is to do business with him. . . . The person-to-person system of trade fostered a lively intellectual and cultural intercourse, as in our own Middle Ages, which was far more effective in spreading ideas than the modern method of the printed word. No temple, no center of culture, was ever out of contact with the great world-centers. . . . The student was obliged far more than he is today, to seek knowledge at the actual sources. . . . In Israel no one could be an educated man whose knowledge did not have ties with the temples of Babylon or Egypt, or whose degree of education was not judged in terms of how closely it matched both the theoretical and practical teachings of the great centers.[9]

Significance of Manasseh

Now of all the tribes of Israel, Manasseh was the one which lived farthest out in the desert, came into the most frequent contact with the Arabs, intermarried with them most frequently, and at the same time had the closest traditional bonds with Egypt. The prominence of the name of Ammon in the Book of Mormon may have something to do with the fact that Ammon was Manasseh's nearest neighbor and often fought him in the deserts east of Jordan; at the same time a prehistoric connection with the Ammon of Egypt is not at all out of the question. The seminomadic nature of Manasseh might explain why Lehi seems out of touch with things in Jerusalem. For the first time he "did discover" from records kept in Laban's house that he was a direct descendant of Joseph (1 Nephi 5:16). Why hadn't he known that all along? Nephi always speaks of "the Jews who were at Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 2:13) with a curious detachment, and no one in 1 Nephi ever refers to them as "the people" or "our people" but always quite impersonally as "the Jews." It is interesting in this connection that the Elephantine letters speak only of Jews and Arameans, never of Israelites.[10]

Lehi and Ishmael are authentic desert names

There is a remarkable association between the names of Lehi and Ishmael which ties them both to the southern desert, where the legendary birthplace and central shrine of Ishmael was at a place called Beer Lehai-ro'i.10 Wellhausen rendered the name "spring of the wild-ox jawbone," but Paul Haupt showed that Lehi (for so he reads the name) does not mean "jaw" but "cheek,"11 which leaves the meaning of the strange compound still unclear. One thing is certain however: that Lehi is a personal name. Until recently this name was entirely unknown save as a place name, but now it has turned up at Elath and elsewhere in the south in a form which has been identified by Nelson Glueck with the name Lahai which "occurs quite frequently either as a part of a compound, or as a separate name of a deity or a person, particularly in Minaean, Thamudic, and Arabic texts."12 There is a Beit Lahi, "House of Lehi," among the ancient place names of the Arab country around Gaza, but the meaning of the name has here been lost.13 If the least be said of it, the name Lehi is thoroughly at home among the people of the desert and, so far as we know, nowhere else.[11]

Lehi and family know the proper things, and are ignorant of the proper things

That [Lehi] and his sons knew a good deal about caravan techniques is obvious, and yet we are explicitly told that they knew nothing at all about shipbuilding (1 Nephi 17:17; 18:2). Why should they? Shipbuilding was the jealously guarded monopoly of the coast people. As far as the business affairs of Lehi are set before us in the Book of Mormon, everything is exactly as it should be.[12]

Lehi in political context

But how do we know that Lehi was a member of the old aristocracy? His probable association with Jeremiah, his education, his noble ancestry that could be traced back to Joseph and related him to Laban himself, the fact that a family record had been kept from very ancient times on expensive bronze plates, his close and long-standing cultural ties with Egypt and Sidon (rather than Tyre, which was favored by the ruling group), the quantity and nature of his possessions—all tell the same story; but the key to the situation is to be found in the frequent mention by Nephi of "the land of his inheritance," which was both the source of his wealth and the place where he kept it. The pronounced distaste with which Nephi so often refers to "the Jews . . . at Jerusalem" (1 Nephi 2:13) as a group to which his own people definitely do not belong makes it apparent that he is speaking of the Jewish faction that controlled Jerusalem, both the government and the populace, and also implies that Lehi's family did not think of themselves as living in the city. They are apparently the old landed aristocracy that do not go along with the crazy ways and policies of the new rulers.[13]


  1. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, "Lehi in the Samaria Papyri and on an Ostracon from the Shore of the Red Sea," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 19/1 (2010): 14–21. wiki
  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 22, 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 20, 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 21, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 22, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  8. 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 4.
  9. 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 4, citing Hugh Winckler in Eberhard Schrader, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Reuther & Reichard, 1903), 169—70..
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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 7, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  13. 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 8, references silently removed—consult original for citations.