Book Club: Nibley – An Approach to the BoM ch 6 – Lehi and the Arabs

Nibley – An Approach to the BoM ch 6 – Lehi and the Arabs

Nibley now will show evidence of Lehi’s involvement in the Arab and Bedouin world.  He notes, “Since the only comprehensive study of this theme is a chapter of Lehi in the Desert, we can do no better in this lesson than to quote that chapter, with necessary alterations and additions.”

While it is humorous that he would quote himself so extensively, I can think of no other person in the 1950s with the qualifications to write or discuss such a topic as he.

Nibley notes regarding the Tribe 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… The semi-nomadic 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….”

While I agree with his description of half of the tribe of Manasseh, for one half lived east of Jordan, the other half dwelt in the center of the land of Israel.  The land of Ammon bumped up next to the tribe of Gad.  Manasseh would have needed to pass through Gad to reach the people of Ammon. Not impossible, but not as simple as Nibley suggests.

My next concern is that in Lehi’s time, the tribe of Manasseh no longer existed.  A century before, the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Northern Israel, carrying off the tribes to other places.  It is likely that Lehi’s people were in the land of Jerusalem, because they came as refugees a century before.  Given Lehi didn’t know he was descended of Joseph and Manasseh, he probably would have identified with the “Jews who were at Jerusalem” or at least the Jews.

To me, it seems Nephi was distinguishing between Jews/Israelites living in the land of Jerusalem versus those living directly in Jerusalem.  By 600 BC, there was no kingdom of Judah to speak of. The Assyrians and later the Babylonians had already taken much of the land in the area, leaving just a small patch of land around Jerusalem for the kingdom of the Jews.

It also is possible that Lehi and his family considered themselves Jews until they obtained the Brass Plates, after which they understood they were not Jews, not ancestrally tied to Jerusalem, and were not following in Jerusalem’s path of self-destruction.

Under Ishmaelites of Two Worlds, Nibley seems to assume a hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon.  He compares the Native Americans of North America with Bedouins.  Since archaeologically Indians in North America precede the Nephites into Mesoamerica, we may have some problems with this comparison.  The Native Americans were living like Bedouins long before the Nephites (and Ishmael) arrived with their Arab customs!  To be useful information, we would need to see Bedouin-like behavior among the peoples of the southern portions of Central America, and perhaps going into South America.  We do not see it in the archaeological record.

“Sir Richard Burton, one of the few men who have lived both among the Bedouins and the Indians, marvels that two people so much alike on all points could have had no common background; it just goes to prove, he concludes, that life under similar conditions will beget identical cultures, a statement which has been exhaustively disproven since it was made.”

I fail to see Nibley’s proof that this has been “exhaustively disproven since it (the claim) was made.”  While I agree that there is a lot of cross contamination of cultures happening anciently, today, many anthropologists also see that cultures in similar situations often develop similar behaviors.

In regarding place names being made up by each group that encounters a new (for them) river, mountain, etc., that seems to be common practice in many places and times.  In 1979, I was serving my mission in Cochabamba, Bolivia.  In my area were two hills near Lake Alalay.  One hill was nicknamed Protestant Hill by the people in the area, because the evangelical churches had heavily proselyted it and were now a majority of the residents on the hill.  The streets had never been named, even though a rough map of the area was available from the city.  So, to aid us in our missionary work, my companion and I spent a couple days wandering the entire hill, naming each street after some noticeable landmark along the street.

One street that headed down the hill towards the back of a grade school, did not seem to have any distinguishing marks to name it. We noticed that there was a door in the back of the school that was aligned with the street, and we could see it had a sign on it.  We decided to name the street according to what was on the sign.  As we approached, we chuckled, but the street ended up being named, “Calle Baños Mujeres” or “Women’s Bathroom.Street.”  I’m certain that when the city of Cochabamba finally named the street, they probably did not use our map to name it!

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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

2 thoughts on “Book Club: Nibley – An Approach to the BoM ch 6 – Lehi and the Arabs

  1. Prior to reading the chapter, I did not know the manner of Lehi’s naming lakes and valleys was a common custom of those from his region. Thanks for posting your thoughts here!

  2. Sorry I’m just getting to this. We had a baby in the last week, which has kept me from participating!

    Just a word of response to the original post, and then a few thoughts of my own.

    I think Nibley’s “exhaustively disproven” bit is a reference to the scholarly trend of his own day. There had for a long time been a kind of consensus that similarities were a question of independent development, each culture developing in parallel ways according to roughly consistent evolutionary laws. Nibley’s generation began to experiment with the idea that similarities—particularly in myth and ritual—were actually the product of a diffusion of ideas. It seems clear to me that it’s that he’s referring to. I’m not enough of a historian to know how that idea has fared in the years since.

    Okay, to my own thoughts now.

    “Nephi always speaks of ‘the Jews at Jerusalem’ with a curious detachment, and no one in First Nephi ever refers to them as ‘the people’ or ‘our people’ but always quite impersonally as ‘the Jews.'”

    This is, I think, a nice point. It may be that there are nuances about usage in Nephi’s day (and, for that matter, one might well argue that the wording reflects Joseph Smith’s own distance from Jerusalem!), but Nibley has at the very least struck on a peculiarity of Nephi’s talk about those at Jerusalem. It’s a detail that needs explaining, and Nibley’s explanation seems to me as good as any.

    “The interesting thing is that Nephi takes Ishmael (unlike Zoram) completely for granted, never explaining who he is or how he fits into the picture—the act of sending for him seems to be the most natural thing in the world, as does the marriage of his daughters with Lehi’s sons.”

    Again, this is a nicely identified nuance in the text. Whatever the explanation, it’s a point that needs to be attended to.

    “One might, in a speculative mood, even detect something of Lehi’s personal history in the names he gave to his sons.”

    This is quite rich, I think—the idea that the first two sons reflect Lehi’s Arabic connections, the second two sons reflect his Egyptian connections, and the third two sons reflect his desert sojourn. It is, as Nibley says, speculative, but it’s beautifully speculative.

    Late in the chapter, Nibley speaks of the “quaint conservatism among Lehi’s people,” indicating by the use of -on in their place names, etc. I haven’t much of a sense as to whether Nibley’s point here is defensible, but I think it’s a most interesting proposal to look at how the Book of Mormon’s reflections of a conservative strain in late seventh-century Israelite culture might tell us something about Nephite culture more generally. It’s an intriguing point, and one that deserves close attention from those qualified to study this.

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