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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Tracing the Lehites journey through the wilderness

Published: Monday, Aug. 2 2010 6:00 a.m. MDT

The Lehites were in the Valley of Lemuel long enough that Lehi's sons as well as Zoram married the daughters of Ishmael. Sometime later, Lehi received a revelation to continue moving into the wilderness. "And we traveled for the space of four days," wrote Nephi, "nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer."

"And it came to pass that we did take our bows and our arrows, and go forth into the wilderness to slay food for our families; and after we had slain food for our families we did return again to our families in the wilderness, to the place of Shazer" (1 Nephi 16:13-14).

Several decades ago Dr. Hugh Nibley pointed out that the combination "shajer is quite common in Palestinian place names; it is a collective meaning 'trees,' and many Arabs (especially in Egypt) pronounce it shazher." In typical ancient style, the word varied in spelling according to dialect and geography but always referred to either a collection of tress or a weak but reliable water supply (which would be necessary for the growth of a clump of trees).

More recently George Potter and Richard Wellington, citing a non-LDS scholar, point out that the ancient word "shajir" means a "valley or area abounding with trees and shrubs."

In the Book of Mormon, Shazer is the place specifically noted where the Lehites stop to hunt for game (which would likely be found where there are trees and water in the desert landscape). Potter and Wellington explain:

"Lehi's first camp after the Valley of Lemuel must have been at an authorized halt along the Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail; otherwise he would not have been allowed to stop for an extended period. And so we began to look for a caravansery in a valley with trees that would have been a four-day journey from the Valley of Lemuel."

When we examine the territory likely traversed by the Lehites we find an interesting match for the Book of Mormon's Shazer. Potter and Wellington studied the maps and writings of several non-LDS cartographers who had journeyed along the Frankincense Trail, and together the two have personally traveled to those locations to examine possible candidates. Wadi Agharr is about 60 miles southeast from the likely location of the Valley of Lemuel and is described by non-LDS scholars as an oasis more than 15 miles long. "We now had evidence from independent sources," write Potter and Wellington, "that the first rest stop after Madyan on the ancient Gaza branch of the Frankincense Trail was in a fertile valley with trees, Wadi Agharr, and the surrounding mountains presented the best hunting opportunities along the trail."

After leaving Shazer the Lehites traveled "in the most fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:14). As noted in a previous installment, the best reports of Joseph Smith's day claimed that southern Arabia was nothing more than a barren desert. The Book of Mormon was even ridiculed for claiming that the Lehites found fertile spots during their journey. The late 19th century explorer Richard Francis Burton, for example, traveled in parts of this land and wrote this of his experience: "Nowhere had I seen a land in which the earth's anatomy lies so barren, or one richer in volcanic or primary formations" (quoted in Potter and Wellington).

But Joseph Smith, or rather Nephi — who actually traveled these ancient trails — got it right. Potter and Wellington explain that "not only were the large oasis towns mostly located on the Frankincense Trail, but also each of these oases had a farming community associated with it."

"In pre-Islamic times there was a series of villages along a 215-mile section of the Frankincense Trail, incorporating the 12 halt settlements between Dedan and Medina. They were known anciently as the Qura 'Arabiyyah,' or the 'Arab Villages.' These villages with their cultivated lands were linked together by the Frankincense Trail. Surrounded by thousands of square miles of barren terrain, the cultivated lands stood out from the surrounding desert like pearls adorning a chain along the south-southeast course of the trail…"

Anciently, these cultivated lands were known as "fertile pieces of land" just as described by Nephi. "It is interesting," write Potter and Wellington, "that the name Muhajirun, or 'fertile parts,' occurs nowhere else in Arabia and is situated only on the Frankincense Trail, after the two locations that would appear to perfectly fit Nephi's descriptions of both the Valley of Lemuel and Shazer — quite a coincidence!"

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