Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: To Arabs, valleys, not mountains, the symbol of permanence
As discussed in last week's installment, at the Lehites' first semipermanent encampment Lehi renamed the river "Laman" and the valley "Lemuel." Lehi's description of the valley, however, sounds odd to modern readers. Lehi calls the valley of Lemuel "firm," "steadfast" and "immovable." We might image these kinds of descriptors for a mountain; but for a valley? Hugh Nibley, however, explains that among the Arabs, "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."
How does the description of the river of Laman and valley of Lemuel near the borders of the Red Sea match the actually geography and landscape that we find in Arabia? LDS scholars have suggested a least a few different candidates for the location of Lehi's first encampment.
It is important to stop here and point out that some critics charge that the validity of the Book of Mormon story somehow diminishes if LDS scholars cannot agree with each other as to the location of Book of Mormon events. Such a claim is specious, however, and doesn't accurately reflect the way that scholarship deals with history and archaeology.
Nearly all mainstream scholars, for example, including agnostic and atheist scholars, acknowledge that there really was an historical Jesus who lived in the first century A.D., was a religious leader and was crucified by the Romans. These scholars do not agree, however, as to the precise location of the crucifixion, the location of Jesus' tomb, or even the place and year of his of birth. Other hotly debated geographical topics in the Bible include: the locations of Bethsaida, Sodom and Gomorrah, Mount Sinai and the actual route taken by the Israelites during the Exodus (not to mention the debates about the historicity of the Exodus itself). Historians and archaeologists often disagree about the details from accepted historical events.
When scholars attempt to match geography to text, they must consider all the details given in the text — including terrain, landscape and distance from other locations. One particular statement in Lehi's description has caused critics to point out a possible problem. Lehi tells us the river of Laman had water that emptied into the Red Sea and was "continually running" (1 Nephi 2:6-9). According to most non-LDS descriptions of the area, however, one of the reasons the Red Sea is high in salinity is the lack of significant rivers or streams draining into it. Some critics have claimed that there are no permanent rivers that drain into the Red Sea and it has been that way for thousands of years.
Among the possible candidates for the Valley of Lamuel with a River of Laman, the one that I find the most persuasive has been proposed by LDS researchers George Potter and Richard Wellington as well as a professor of ancient scripture, S. Kent Brown. They suggest that the Valley of Lemuel matches what we find at Wadi Tayyib
al-Ism. Potter and Wellington found, after numerous visits to the valley on various times throughout the year, that the river does indeed run "continually." As for the valley itself, Jeffrey R. Chadwick quotes a description recorded by those who did an archaeological survey of the region:
"Here (at the mouth), a sheer granite cliff rises from a c. 200 m. wide beach. The Tayyib al-Ism gorge extends c. 4-5 km. and has vertical sides 400-800 m. high; the gorge itself is less than 50 m. wide."
"In my view," writes Brown, "this narrow 'gorge,' with its sheer rock walls of 2,000 feet, brings us closer to Lehi's words 'firm and steadfast, and immovable' than any other canyon in the region."
While future explorations and data may strengthen or weaken the possibility that Wadi Tayyib al-Ism is the Valley of Lemuel, the fact is that Lehi's description fits neatly into what we currently know about the geographical features in the land through which Lehi and his family would have traveled.
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