Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM chapter 11, The Flight Into the Wilderness
“To appreciate the setting of much of Book of Mormon history, it is necessary to get a correct idea of what is meant by “wilderness.” ”
I agree with this concept. He notes that in the Arabian wilderness, Lehi is dealing with a desert. This is definitely true, and the route taken along the Red Sea, and then east across southern Arabia peninsula is rugged desert area.
Nibley then seeks to impose this definition on the Americas. He insists that it is unlikely that the wilderness referred to forests or jungles. In this, I do not agree. When we look at the various possible locations suggested for the Limited Geography of the Nephites, we do not find deserts. The major theory is from John Sorenson, who believes the Nephites dwelt in an area around Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Other theories have the Nephites in the Andes mountains or amidst the String Lakes of New York. With the exception of the Andes mountains, none of these areas have a desert available to use as a wilderness. And with the Andes mountain theories, the Atacama desert is a far distance from the proposed civilizations and cities for the Nephites.
With Sorenson’s preferred theory, the nearest desert, the Chihuahuan desert, is further north into Mexico. These deserts would not have been accessible to the Nephites until they fully inhabited the land north. But the wilderness is referenced as being between the Nephites and Lamanites, south and east of Nephite lands!
The two most likely possibilities for the Sorenson theory is that the wilderness meant either jungle or a mountainous area. We note that when King Mosiah II sent Ammon and others to find the people of Limhi, they suffered hunger and thirst as they wandered in the wilderness. This possibly means they did not wander in the jungle, which would have offered food and water to them. It is possible that they wandered through mountainous regions which offered less vegetation, water and food. That said, there is no reason to believe that the various wilderness areas that Nephites mention in the Americas are only of one type. If the peoples already dwelling here viewed the wilderness in some other way, it is likely the Nephites adopted the new definition. For example, when the Jaredites suffered by an invasion of snakes, they saw all the animals flee south into the wilderness, which they later turned into a nature preserve for hunting. It is unlikely that so many animals would survive in a desert setting. However, they would thrive in the jungle.
Nibley suggests that the lazy Lamanites dwelt in the desert wilderness in tents, wearing loincloths. However, today we find that many natives dwell in the jungle areas like this. When I served my mission in Bolivia 30 years ago, I met many peoples that dwelt very simply in the jungle areas. Not only that but the cannibals of the time dwelt primarily in the jungle areas, although some were also known to have lived in the high Andes: another type of wilderness.
While Jacob and Enos described the Lamanites as all being savages that dwelt in the wilderness, we see that this is possibly more a biased judgment made simply because they only had contact with those that dwelt in the wilderness between the two civilizations. Later, when Zeniff went back to the land of Nephi, he found Lamanite civilization. They were in cities and organized. Ammon and Aaron would enter several Lamanite cities and see a political system that a few savages in the wilderness could not dream of having. Yet those savages still remained in the wilderness when Captain Moroni forcefully removed them and their tents, in order to build up the area with defensive cities.
Quarantining the Wicked
Nibley is correct in explaining that the Lord tends to separate the righteous from the wicked. In the Bible, we see Cain was separated by a curse that drove him away from his family. Noah and family escaped the wicked in the ark. The Lord often destroyed the wicked, or as in the case of Enoch’s city, relocated them.
As Nibley notes, this is a flight from Babylon, or the wicked world. God calls all of us to flee from Babylon to Zion, the promised land. Sadly, as with Laman and Lemuel, too many of us seek to have one foot in Zion and the other in Babylon. Those who are lukewarm do not receive the blessings of God.