Before moving further into a discussion of the Book of Mormon's New World setting, where we will discuss geography and archaeology, I'm taking a step back to examine the Lehites in their Old World setting — in about 600 B.C.— as they fled Jerusalem for the New World.
Because 1 Nephi tells us the Lehites begin from a known city, Jerusalem, and traveled a course that ran parallel to another known geographical marker, the Red Sea, we can confidently deduce that their flight traveled southward into Southern Arabia.
As Nephi details their journey, we are also told that eventually they turned eastward until they came to luxuriant "Bountiful" — a coastal region rich with flowers, fruit trees and ore and timber for shipbuilding, from where they launched a vessel that took them to the New World.
When we examine the Old World geography through which the Lehites would have traveled, we find remarkable consistency with the terrain and trails that accurately match what we find in the Book of Mormon. What are the chances that Smith could have known such accuracy from the literature available to him during his day?
Critics often argue that any information that was available to any New Englander — or sometimes to anyone anywhere in the world in 1830 — was therefore not only available to, but also absorbed by, Joseph Smith. Such a theory, however, suggests that Joseph Smith was not only well-versed with every bit of minutia from all obscure sources but also that he conveniently selected all the bits and pieces that are now known to accurately reflect ancient traditions while fortuitously disregarding all of the information that we now know to be erroneous.
In the case of ancient Arabia, we are amazed that Joseph Smith got so many things right when the literature of his day got so many things wrong. Virtually everything we know about ancient Arabia has come to light only since the Book of Mormon was published. As Hugh Nibley pointed out five decades ago in his book "Lehi in the Desert," "The world through which Lehi wandered was to the westerner of 1830 a quaking bog without a visible inch of footing, lost in impenetrable fog; the best Bible students were hopelessly misinformed even about Palestine. Scientific study of the Holy Land began with Edward Robinson in 1838, yet 40 years later a leading authority writes: 'Few countries are more traveled in than Palestine; and in few are the manners and customs of the people less known …' "
The late Eugene England pointed out that even if Smith was a clever multilingual researcher, or had an acquaintance with such abilities, that the more he could have known based on the contemporary expertise of his day, the more likely he would have been wrong.
For example, the most complete general guide to Arabia that was likely available to Joseph described the whole southern coastline as a "rocky wall," as "dismal and barren," without so much as "a blade of grass or a green thing." One book claimed that Arabia was so hot that animals were roasted on the plains and birds in midair.
Even into the late 20th century, anti-Mormon Thomas Key scoffed at the Book of Mormon for describing Bountiful as a land of "much fruit and also wild honey."
"Arabia," claimed this critic, "is bountiful in sunshine, petroleum, sand, heat and fresh air but certainly not in 'much fruit and also wild honey.' " This same critic found it objectionable that 1 Nephi 18:1 states that the Lehites found "ample timber" for ship building in Southern Arabia.
Very few books mentioned any fertile regions in Arabia, and those that did got the information wrong as well — describing fertile regions as producing rice, maize and tropical fruits. The information in Smith's day was so erroneous that even as late as the 1920s, explorers who visited Southern Arabia were surprised by the thickly wooded valleys. One article in a 1939 scholarly journal theorized that Solomon may have built ships from materials in the Mediterranean but wondered "where on the shores of the Red Sea could timber be found for shipbuilding?"
As our discussion continues during the next few weeks, I'll show that the Book of Mormon gets the details right. It's so accurate, in fact, that the tale told in 1 Nephi provides strong evidence the book was written by real ancient people who traveled through Southern Arabia.
Michael R. Ash is on the management team for FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) and is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt." His column runs Mondays on MormonTimes.com.
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