We begin Nibley’s Part 7, Life in the Desert by discussing chapter 18, Man versus Nature.
In this chapter, we read about how very difficult the Saudi Arabian desert really is. Nibley shows how Nephi began following the Red Sea, among the more fertile parts of the land. This would have been along the Royal/King’s Highway, one of the major spice trade routes in the ancient world. In the southern part of the peninsula, they would turn east, into one of the harshest places on the planet.
Nephi describes how difficult the trip is, with hunger being a constant among them. Nibley shows from ancient sources that many who traveled the area suffered thirst and hunger, noting that many sheikhs traveling between oases often would be down to their last pint of water prior to arriving to the next water hole. For Nephi to break his steel bow, struggle to find food, and perhaps struggle finding water without the help of the Liahona, could easily cause even Lehi to murmur on occasion.
Water holes and Wadis (river beds that are often dry during dry seasion, and flooding during a torrential rain), seem to be a boon to the traveler. For Lehi, to find the “river of water” that he named after Lemuel was a blessing. Not all rivers have water in the desert, which is why a “river of water” is such a significant term in the BoM.
“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.”
Anciently, and through most of history, skills were kept as family or guild secrets. It ensured the family or group could never lose its ability to provide for itself. For a guild to lose its trade secrets would mean it could lose its wealth. Nephi could not build a steel bow to replace the one he lost. Chances are, building a simple bow would also have been very difficult to build, as the right wood would have to be found and selected. The bow would need wood that made it strong, yet flexible. The arrows would require wood that was straight and without knots or irregularities. Arrows were made to work specifically for a bow, so items were not interchangeable as we make them today. It is quite likely that the Lord showed Nephi how to make a bow and arrow, just as he taught him how to build a ship.
Amazingly, turning east around the 19th parallel leads to the area the Nephites called Bountiful. Decades after the Book of Mormon was written, Sir Richard Burton notes that the stories tell it to be an uninhabitable area. Modern research since the days of Nibley actually shows that the probable Arabian Bountiful contains all the things required, as mentioned in the Book of Mormon: mountains, cliffs at the sea’s edge, trees for ship building, ore, etc. You can read more about the Arabian Bountiful here.