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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Discovering Nahom

Published: Monday, Aug. 16 2010 6:30 a.m. MDT

After Nephi's broken-bow incident the Lehites continued on their journey until the death of Ishmael. "And (he) was buried," wrote Nephi, "in the place which was called Nahom" (1 Nephi 17: 24).

Typically — in customary Israelite fashion — the Lehites re-named those places through which they traveled. In this instance, however, Ishmael was buried in a place that "was called Nahom." In 1952, based strictly on the text, Hugh Nibley suggested that the place was already known as Nahom prior to the Lehite arrival.

In 1999 Dr. S. Kent Brown, a professor of Near Eastern studies, reported on the finds of a German (non-LDS) archaeological team who were excavating an ancient temple in southern Arabia when they discovered the inscription of a man belonging to the tribe of NHM. In 2000 and 2001, the tribal name NHM was found on two more altars from the same excavation. Brown wrote:

"It is important to emphasize that in the world of archaeology, written inscriptions are the evidence most sought after, for they often establish names and dates, key components for interpreting the past. The inscriptions on the three altars, all mentioning the NHM tribe, prove beyond doubt the existence of this name in the first half of the first millennium (B.C.)."

Based on common ancient Near Eastern customs and the fact that the name had been used in that area for 2600 years, scholars suggest that NHM was not only a tribal name, but the name of the territory in which they lived. A number of ancient maps, for example, show a location — in this same spot in Arabia — that went by the name of Nehem (other maps spell the location as Nihm, Nehem, and even Naham, but they all refer to the same geographical location in southern Arabia). While a few of these maps may have been available to scholars in Joseph's day, it is highly unlikely that they were available to Joseph Smith.

Could NHM be the Book of Mormon Nahom? Ancient Hebrew did not use vowels, so NHM could be easily be translated "Nahom." Even if it was translated as Nehem, or Naham (or any other variable) the roots are typically the same. Nephi didn't use English characters. He would have recorded — according to their Hebrew sensibilities — what they heard. This name was then recorded several decades later in a reformed Egyptian script which was eventually transliterated into Roman letters for our English Book of Mormon text.

Critics attempt to dismiss this discovery as coincidental. Coincidence, however, becomes less likely when we recognize that there are several layers of parallels between the Book of Mormon Nahom and NHM. The name NHM does not just appear out of thin air. The ancient site fits precisely within the timeframe of the Lehite journey, as well as in the likely territory through the Lehites traveled.

There are actually multiple etymologies for translating NHM. One Semitic root means to "comfort" or to "console" (as in consoling someone that is grieving) and when Ishmael was buried at Nahom, Ishmael's daughters did "mourn exceedingly" (1 Nephi 16:35). Archaeology reveals that NHM was the largest burial site in all of ancient Arabia and that starting in about 600 B.C. (the same time that the Lehites fled Jerusalem) anyone could be buried there.

The complexity of interconnectivity for this parallel is impressive. Following Ishmael's burial the Lehites traveled "eastward from that time forth" (1 Nephi 17:1). At least as early as 1976, LDS scholars noticed that the frankincense trail did, indeed, take an eastward turn in the Yemen area of Arabia. Dr. Brown notes that this "eastward" turn "does not show up in any known ancient source." No one knew of this eastward turn in the incense trail except persons who had traveled it." This eastward turn just happens to occur in the general region of ancient NHM exactly as described in the Book of Mormon. As we'll show in forthcoming issues, this eastern turn at NHM also leads — just as described by Nephi — to a land "Bountiful."

If there was no other similarity between NHM and Nahom other than the consonants, it might be dismissed as a homophonic coincidence (two words that sound the same). NHM, however, was the name of an actual seventh-sixth century B.C. location that precisely fits the Lehite narrative of their South Arabian journey — including the note the fact that it was a burial ground. It lies, just as the Book of Mormon predicts, in the vicinity of an eastward turn in the ancient Arabian trail, and leads to another specific location that also matches Book of Mormon geography. Such interlocking complex parallels add significant weight to Old Word archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon.

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