Nahom and Lehi’s Journey through Arabia: A Historical Perspective, Part 2

 

In part 1 we discussed how the journey of Lehi through Arabia described in 1 Nephi 1-18 is highly implausible as a depiction of historical events, because of the unrealistic nature of various details and the narrative’s modeling after the biblical Exodus. Which raises the question of the significance of the reference to Nahom in 1 Nephi 16:34. As we saw earlier, the mention of Nahom is widely regarded as the clearest instance where the BoM preserves a real world place name in the correct geographical location that would have been unknown to Joseph Smith. The major considerations that have led to this conclusion include: 1) The fact that the BoM presents Nahom as a pre-existing name, and we know from various sources that Nihm was a tribal name from before the time of Lehi. 2) The tribal area of Nihm lies near the incense highway where the party of Lehi would have been traveling. 3) Because the caravan trails tend to turn eastward in the area of Nihm, the location also fits the narrative report that the party turned eastward after Nahom. 4) The reference to Nahom in the context of the burial of Ishmael and the mourning of his daughters is claimed to accurately reflect the historical and cultural setting.

 

A close inspection of these lines of argument, however, shows that they are considerably more problematic than BoM researchers have recognized, and we have strong reason to doubt that the reference to Nahom was based on any accurate or firsthand knowledge of Arabia. I will treat each of the above claims, beginning in reverse order.

 

 

1. The reference to Nahom in the context of the burial of Ishmael and the mourning of his daughters is claimed to accurately reflect the historical and cultural setting.

 

Although not directly bearing on the authenticity of BoM Nahom, several factors relating to the burial context in which the name appears have been thought to provide circumstantial support for this view. For example, a long line of commentators have been inclined to interpret the name Nahom symbolically rather than literally, because of the alluring semantic potential of the root NHM upon which the word is apparently based. Hugh Nibley was the first to note that Nahom is presented as if it were a preexisting name and so ingeniously proposed it referred to a local burial ground from the Arabic root NHM, “to sigh or moan,” also related to Hebrew naḥum, “comfort,” an interpretation that was adopted by others.[1] Then, as BoM researchers became aware that in South Arabian the root NHM had a lexical association different from NHM or NḤM in Arabic and Hebrew, they began to argue that the reference to Nahom was a kind of play on words, or that the tribal name was understood in light of Hebrew.[2] S. Kent Brown explains, “As a term, Nahom betrays an interesting set of possible meanings in Hebrew. In one of its forms, the root n-h-m in Hebrew—vowels do not appear in writing—has the basic verbal sense to growl or to groan, as in mourning. The other possible form of the verb, n-ḥ-m, with a rasped h sound in the middle, means to comfort or regret. Each of these meanings, of course, generally matches the events that overtook the family at ‘the place . . . called Nahom,’ what with the need to comfort those who were groaning or mourning because of the loss of Ishmael and because of unrelenting hardships.”[3] Following these lexical associations, it was reasoned, “when the party of Lehi heard the Arabian name Nihm (however it was then pronounced), the term Nahom came to their minds, a term that is familiar from the Old Testament,”[4] or again, “when Lehi’s group heard the name Nahom vocalized, it recalled to them the mourning and complaining, despite it having a different original meaning.”[5]

 

However, this understanding of Nahom as a Hebrew interpretation of a South Arabian place name is doubtful for several reasons. First, as several of the above-mentioned scholars acknowledge, the tribal name Nihm is spelled with a voiceless laryngeal middle H rather than a pharyngeal Ḥ and stems from the root NHM, which in ancient South Arabian refers to “pecked masonry” or “stone dressing.”[6] This spelling means that Nihm would have sounded utterly different to a native Hebrew speaker from Hebrew NḤM and it is unlikely that the first would have evoked the other. The weakening and coalescence of the gutturals did not occur in Hebrew until much later.[7]

 

Second, it is difficult to understand why the Lehi party would think to apply the concept of naḥûm to the place of Ishmael’s burial. In Hebrew the nominal form of NḤM is attested solely in the sense of “comfort” or “encouragement,” i.e. a positive change in the affective state (Isa 57:18; Zech 1:13; Hos 11:8).[8] David Damrosch has observed that the root NḤM is frequently associated with death in the Bible and “at heart… means ‘to mourn,’ to come to terms with a death.”[9] However, while this aspect of the word may appear superficially relevant to the context of Ishmael’s burial, the notion of NḤM as “comfort” is in fact incongruous at this stage of the narrative. When the name Nahom is introduced, Ishmael has just died and been interred in the ground and in the immediately following verse his daughters are depicted immersed in deep and raw mourning (1 Ne 16:35). In the remainder of the account the party as a whole seems to have taken this turn of events as something of the last straw (cf. 1 Ne 16:35-39). In other words, at this point there is no evidence that anyone in the party has come to terms with Ishmael’s death and a reference to “comfort” is out of place.

 

The other Hebrew root NHM mentioned by Brown is perhaps a better fit to the narrative, since it can refer to the loud groaning of a human sufferer (Prov 5:11; Ezek 24:23).[10] But this derivation faces challenges as well: 1) The nominal masculine form of NHM is attested in Hebrew only in the sense of the growling of a lion (Prov 19:12; 20:2). 2) Because Nahom could only be interpreted as a singular noun from this root, the name would mean something like “groan” or “growl”, which is hardly intelligible as a stand-alone name (cf. Jdgs 2:1, 5).

 

Third, from a translational perspective, the fact that Nahom is transliterated rather than translated weakens the case for assuming it bears a linguistic relation to Hebrew. If the name as it appears in the BoM was understood by Nephi as Hebrew, whether from NḤM or NHM, and was an aspect of the story he wanted to convey to his readers, we would expect the name to have been translated along with the surrounding narrative content, as in the name Bountiful.

 

Fourth, the context of the reference to Nahom gives us no reason to suspect that any subtle wordplay is going on. The narrative reports simply and matter-of-factly that Ishmael was “buried in the place which was called Nahom.” In other words, Nahom is presented as the regular name given to the place by others, not a new name attached to the place by Lehi’s party.

 

The apparent similarity between BoM Nahom and Hebrew NḤM or NHM is thus likely coincidental and not based on any ancient philological interpretation of the name. The recurrence of this notion in recent apologetic writing reflects the tendency of this mode of study to attract claims favoring the premise of antiquity and historicity, without fully considering whether the various components of a reconstruction fundamentally cohere with one another.

 

Another consideration sometimes raised in discussion of Nahom is that archaeological research shows that there were large burial grounds near or within the tribal area of Nihm, which potentially could explain why Ishmael was buried there.[11] Warren Aston has argued, “Given that Nahom was a place of burial, the 1936 discovery of the largest ancient burial site in all of Arabia close to the boundary of the modern Nihm tribe is obviously significant. This necropolis consists of thousands of circular aboveground tombs built of roughly hewn limestone slabs spread over several ridges, dating as far back as 2900 BC.”[12] However, Aston embellishes the facts when he intimates that the burial complex was anywhere near the tribal area Nihm. This large necropolis is actually on the rocky escarpment of ʿAlam and Ruwayk far northeast of Maʾrib in the Ramlat As-Sabʿatayn desert, whereas in the time of Lehi the territory of Nihm was likely located in the highlands south of the Jawf valley, its boundaries constrained by the larger and more powerful tribes to the north, east, and west (see below). The burial site has no demonstrable relation to the Nihm tribe and in fact recent archaeological investigation has established that the tombs belong to a much earlier period and culture, with radiocarbon evidence fixing “most of [the] burials at 2900-2700 BC, with others around 1700-1500 BC.”[13]

 

The reality is that the tribal area of Nihm was not distinctively a place of burial and no special significance should be attached to Ishmael’s burial there. As one would expect for the large numbers of peoples who have historically inhabited the interior highlands and valleys of Yemen, graves and cemeteries dot the landscape, generally located immediately outside town walls.[14]

 

Finally, Hugh Nibley has suggested that the description of the daughters of Ishmael mourning for their father reflects authentic Hebrew and desert Bedouin mourning customs, because it was common in these cultures for women to be especially involved in the mourning process: “It was the daughters of Ishmael who mourned for him and chided Lehi for his death (1 Nephi 16:34—35). Budde has shown that the Old Hebrew mourning customs were those of the desert, in which ‘the young women of the nomad tribes mourn at the grave, around which they dance singing lightly.’”[15] Yet the brief statement that the “daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father, and because of their afflictions in the wilderness” hardly seems an adequate basis upon which to find traces of ancient Near Eastern funerary custom. No specific mortuary practices are mentioned in the narrative, and while it is true that women in ancient Israel and many cultures throughout the eastern Mediterranean had a prominent role in funerary wailing and lamenting,[16] the description of only women mourning in v. 35 seems to stem from the more simple narrative intention to portray females as emotional in nature and especially sensitive to the physical challenges of wilderness travel (cf. 1 Ne 17:1-2). The gender stereotype of women as tender and weak appears fairly frequently in the BoM (1 Ne 5:1; Jacob 2:7, 28-35; Mosiah 19:13-14; 21:9; Alma 18:43; 3 Ne 8:25; Ether 8:9) and is also found in the contemporary pseudo-biblical prose work The Late War, by Gilbert Hunt.[17]

 

In addition to the stereotyped representation of women, the report about Ishmael’s death reflects ignorance about ancient Israelite attitudes toward death and burial. In Israelite thought the gravesite was a socially structured space that carried significant meaning for communities and families, including providing a means of maintaining ties between the living and the dead. To be buried apart from one’s family, outside of the ancestral land, and where the proper mortuary rituals could not be performed, was a misfortune and calamity of the highest order.[18] For example, by examining biblical texts concerned with entombment Saul Olyan has reconstructed a hierarchy of burial types, ranging from honorable burial in the family tomb, honorable burial in an adequate substitute for the family tomb, burial in someone else’s family tomb, dishonorable internment in the ground, to dishonorable nonburial.[19] However, within the account of Ishmael’s death and burial there is no indication that the BoM author or members of Lehi’s party had any knowledge of such cultural norms. We hear of no issues surrounding the entombment of Ishmael in a foreign funerary setting, or how native members of the Nihm tribe responded to foreigners seeking a burial place on their land. Although v. 35 describes how after Ishmael’s death his daughters “mourned exceedingly,” the remainder of the verse explains that this was specifically because of the “loss of their father” and afflictions of “hunger, thirst, and fatigue.” In other words, the problem of a foreign burial context does not even come into view.

 

 

2. Because the caravan trails tend to turn eastward in the area of Nihm, the location also fits with the narrative report that the party turned eastward after Nahom.

 

A prominent element in the apologetic evaluation of Nahom is the correlation of the eastward turn of the Lehi party after Nahom with the general tendency for caravan trails to turn eastward near Nihm in South Arabia.[20] According to S. Kent Brown, “Nephi writes that from ‘the place which was called Nahom… we did travel nearly eastward’ (1 Ne. 16:34; 17:1). In fact, from the region of Nahom-Nihm, all roads turned east. Even the shortcuts across the Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert, which connected to the incense trail north of Nahom-Nihm, ran east-west, connecting to Shabwah, which lay more than 200 miles east of Nahom and was the main center for gathering incense harvested in South Arabia. The caravan traffic out of Shabwah traveled westward to the general area of Nahom and then turned north to Najran.”[21] Similarly, Richard Wellington and George Potter state, “Nephi relates that after Nahom the family traveled ‘nearly eastward from that time forth’ (1 Nephi 17:1). Here again the Book of Mormon narrative is in total harmony with the route of the Frankincense Trail in 600 BC . . . . very close to an area still known by the name Naham, the trail that ran the entire length of Arabia in a general south-southeast direction changed bearing and turned to the east, exactly as Nephi described.”[22]

 

However, here again as elsewhere a desire to map the BoM onto real world phenomena has led to a kind of myopic appraisal of the evidence, so that only aspects that lend plausibility to the BoM account happen to be noticed or given salience, whereas other aspects that pose significant or even insurmountable challenges to a historical interpretation of the narrative are ignored or brushed over. While it is true in a very broad sense that the caravan road of the incense highway changes its south-southeast trajectory to the east in the general region of central Yemen where Nihm is located, a closer examination of available routes shows that the claim that they turned specifically at this tribal area is inaccurate and misleading. As is well known, from the highlands of Yemen there were actually two major routes leading to the Hadramawt plateau in the east. The first was the main caravan route that skirted around the Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert in a large arc, moving southeast from Maʿin to Maʾrib and then Tamnaʿ before turning east to Shabwa, a distance of about 350 kilometers. The second was an alternate shortcut route from Maʿin to Shabwa through the desert, a distance of about 250 kilometers.[23] When we consider that the tribal area of Nihm was located in the highlands south of the Jawf valley and west of Maʾrib,[24] it is clear that it was not in a position to function as a turning point for the party. Directly east of Nihm was the forbidding Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert and to get around it one had to travel either to the north or south.

 

Perhaps the route that corresponds most nearly to the BoM claim to have gone eastward from Nahom is the northern shortcut, since it is more direct than the southern route and lines up more or less with the east-west passage of the Wadi Hadramawt. But this then raises the question of why the party came as far as the Nihm tribal area in the first place. If the party had traveled southeast from northern Arabia and entered Yemen via the incense highway, they would have first arrived at Maʿin as the northernmost stopping point on the central plateau. As the access point to all roads leading east to Shabwa, this is the place where potentially they could have opted for the northern route if they had so desired, whereas the tribal area Nihm was located further south and west away from this juncture in inland travel. So a journey to Nihm would have resulted in an overshot of the eastward turn by a substantial amount, requiring them to backtrack to Maʿin before heading across the desert.[25] Furthermore, a northern route through the desert is improbable on other grounds. As we have already discussed, crossing the Ramlat al-Sabaʿtayn desert directly with such a large and mixed group, carrying significant baggage and tents, and with no prior experience or knowledge of the area would have been imprudent and perilous in the extreme.

 

On the other hand, while the southern route would possibly have been accessible from Nihm without any backtracking and had the superior advantage of following a recognized trail with water resources and settled populations from which they could have purchased food and supplies, this would have meant continuing after departing from Nahom in the same southeast direction they had followed from the beginning of their trek through Arabia all the way to Tamnaʿ. In other words, they would have not changed their trajectory to the east per the BoM account.

 

In sum, the eastward turn of the Lehi party described in the BoM has no clear connection to the caravan routes winding through and around the desert to the Frankincense regions of eastern Yemen and cannot be used to confirm the authenticity of the Nahom reference.

 

 

3. The tribal area of NHM lies near to the incense highway where the party of Lehi would have been traveling.

 

Another consideration related to the previous is that the tribal area of Nihm lies close to the caravan routes of the incense highway that passed through central Yemen. Most BoM commentators agree that if Lehi’s party were moving through this part of Southern Arabia they would likely have kept to known caravan trails, following the availability of water resources and where the physical geography was most accommodating to overland travel,[26] and so the note that Ishmael was buried in the area of Nahom-Nihm, situated near the Jawf valley, is believed to confirm that this was indeed the case. For example, S. Kent Brown claims that “it is Nephi’s note about the tribal area of Nahom and its connection to the eastward turn that signals to readers that his party was traveling along the incense route.”[27]

 

Yet this understanding of Nahom-Nihm as lying along the caravan highway is not without its problems. First, although the precise location and boundaries of the Nihm tribe in the time of Lehi are unknown, the available evidence from other periods consistently associates it with the highlands south of the Jawf valley and west of Maʾrib, which means that the tribe occupied a territory fundamentally distinct from the lowland communities that controlled the caravan traffic between Maʿin and Maʾrib. As is well known, the tribes of South Arabia have been territorially defined from prehistoric times, guarding access to land, natural resources, and trade routes, and so because the Jawf during this period was already dominated by the Haram and Maʿin tribes and the Wadi Dhana by Saba, this would have severely restricted the ability of the Nihm tribe to expand from its highland zone.[28]

 

Warren Aston has presented the novel and speculative argument that the tribal name Nihm may have originated in the eastern Jawf in connection with the construction of burial areas and that the several altars discovered in the Barʾan temple near Maʾrib dedicated by a one Biʿathtar of the Nihm tribe provide evidence that “the tribe’s influence [may have] once extended as far as Maʾrib.”[29] But this theory is built on a chain of questionable philological and historical assumptions. As we have already seen, the NHM root reflected in the tribal name had nothing to do with “mourning” but was lexically associated with “pecked masonry” or “stone dressing.”[30] This cultural reconstruction also commits the etymological fallacy of assuming that a word’s meaning is closely associated with its historic etymology. In addition, the Nihm tribe had no known relation to the dressing of stones for tombs and the burial complex found on the ʿAlam, Ruwayk and Jidran ridges on the edge of the Ramlat As-Sabʿatayn desert was constructed by another culture more than a millennium distant from the South Arabian tribes of the first millennium BCE. Finally, Aston misunderstands the nature of the Barʾan altar dedications when he supposes that they reflect the Nihm tribe’s sphere of influence in the region of Maʾrib. During the period of Saba’s hegemony over the broader region, Maʾrib became a focus of pilgrimage for tribes in the hinterland, where the dedication of commemorative stelae and the offering of tithes and sacrifices functioned to cement their relationship to the Sabaean religio-political area. As McCorriston has suggested, “Pilgrimage served to confederate these tribes and to implement truces and periods of safe conduct for the safe passage of incense and caravans.”[31] The Barʾan altars are most easily interpreted in this setting, which means that the sphere of influence was moving in the opposite direction from Saba to Nihm.[32]

 

Second, even if we assumed that the Nihm tribal area was fairly close to Maʾrib in the western highlands, the Lehi party would have had to completely leave the caravan trail in order to enter it. The BoM claims that Ishmael was buried in “the place which was called Nahom,” which seems to imply that they had come to a place lying unmistakably within its borders and not merely somewhere nearby. But why would they have left the well-worn trail to go up into the highlands into an area that has virtually always been thinly populated? Someone who died on the trail could have been buried just as well next to it as somewhere a tribal territory away. Furthermore, on the caravan trail they would have only recently passed through the fertile valley of the Jawf, so it seems inexplicable why the group would have been suffering for lack of food and water.[33]

 

Third, it is possible that the tribal area of Nihm in the time of Lehi was not anywhere near Maʾrib but was located further to the west approximately where it currently resides northeast of Sanʿaʾ. As we saw earlier, there is some uncertainty about where the Nihm tribe was located during the period of ancient South Arabian civilization and some scholars have associated it with the highlands immediately west of Maʾrib based on the discovery of a large mine at al-Jabali corresponding to the famous silver mine al-Radrad described by al-Hamdani (10th century CE). Al-Hamdani said that al-Radrad lay “on the boundary of Nihm and the district of Yam in the country of Hamdan” and indeed the mine at al-Jabali is associated with Wadi Harib/Nihm running east from Jebel Nihm.[34] But the antiquity of the association of the name Nihm to Wadi Harib and other features in the area is unclear, and Timothy Power has recently discussed a number of details provided by al-Hamdani that suggest al-Radrad was situated northeast of Sanʿaʾ closer to the central territory of Nihm.[35] For example, the tribal areas of al-Yam and Hamdan were associated with the territory between Saʿda and Sanʿaʾ at the time al-Hamdani was writing and al-Hamdani reports that the mine also lay along “the road of al-ʿAtiq and al-Falaj and al-Yamama and Bayran to Basra,” which moved north-south through the same area. According to Power, this description would place the mine in “the south central ʿAsir, somewhere in the mountains in the hinterland of Saʿda.”[36]

 

If this understanding of Al-Hamdani is accepted, then it would mean that for nearly a thousand years the tribal area of Nihm had not moved very far from its position northeast of Sanʿaʾ where European explorers found it when they first began investigating the area. Carsten Niebuhr in the 1760s reported that Nihm was “situated between al-Jawf and the States of Hashid-wa-Bekil. It has its independent Shaikh, very warlike it is said, and who neglects no opportunity of compelling the Imam to a peaceable attitude. He possesses Tasiba, a large mountain where it is supposed that silver has been found.”[37] A century later Joseph Halevy is similarly said to have encountered the “independent hill-canton of Nehm on the arid eastern downs, which divide the Sana plateau from the hollow of Jauf…”[38]

 

Whether Nihm inhabited this same area more than 1500 years before al-Hamdani is uncertain, but the tribal territories of Yemen are well known to have been remarkably stable over their millennia long attested history. Further, this positioning of Nihm would fit with a highland tribe making pilgrimage to Maʾrib at the other end of the Wadi Jawf during the first millennium BCE.

 

In sum, it is clear that the tribal area of Nihm did not lie directly along the caravan route from Maʿin to Maʾrib, and it may have actually been more than a hundred kilometers to the west. Additionally, the BoM fails to explain why the party of Lehi left the trail to bury Ishmael in the territory of a highland tribe.

 

 

4. The fact that the BoM presents Nahom as a pre-existing name, and we know from various sources that NHM was a tribal name from before the time of Lehi.

 

The last component to the apologetic argument about Nahom is the name itself, which clearly seems to be related somehow to the tribal name Nihm from the highlands of Yemen. To return to S. Kent Brown, “From Nephi’s language, it seems clear that ‘the place’ already carried a local name. Its general locale is now known. It lies south of the Wadi Jawf, a place known variously as Nihm or Nehem. Three votive altars, dated to the seventh or sixth centuries B.C., all attest to the antiquity of this tribal and regional name. In effect, these altars offer the first archaeological correlation to specific events noted in the Book of Mormon.” [39]

 

Although Brown speaks here far more definitively in his assessment of the Barʾan altars than I think the evidence warrants, I agree with him that the case for identifying BoM Nahom as a reflection of the tribal name Nihm is reasonably strong. Not only does Nahom correspond exactly to the tri-consonantal stem NHM in Nihm, but as far as we know there has only been one major tribe in this part of South Arabia attested from ancient to modern times with a name built from these consonants.[40] Consistent with historical reality, the BoM places Nahom in the general vicinity of central Yemen where Nihm is located, at a point where a route following southeast from northern Arabia could at least theoretically turn eastward and reach the coast of southern Oman, and portrays it as a pre-existing name, which is unique in the context of the journey of Lehi’s party from Jerusalem to Bountiful. All of this interlocking detail is surely significant and suggests that the author of the BoM must have had access to some kind of accurate knowledge about the social/political landscape of South Arabia, which would have allowed him to place the tribal territory of Nahom-Nihm in the correct geographical spot.

 

But does the reference to a single tribal name in the appropriate region of southwest Arabia necessarily entail that the story was a product of an ancient author, or represent the kind of information that could have been obtained only through personally visiting the area and speaking with locals? We have already had occasion to note various features in the account about Nahom that appear to be highly unrealistic, including the decision to leave the trail and bury Ishmael in the territory of a highland tribe, the absence of mention of settlements and tribes more prominent than Nahom-Nihm along the caravan trail, the portrayal of the group suffering from extreme hunger in one of the more cultivated areas of South Arabia, and the lack of any direct and viable route eastward from the area of Nihm. However, beyond these considerations, the presentation of the name Nahom itself shows signs that the historic tribal name Nihm was adopted artificially by the author of the BoM.

 

First, Nahom is inaccurately portrayed as a place rather than a tribal people. We mentioned at the beginning of this study that a critical assumption made by BoM researchers about Nahom is that it represents a designation for the territory possessed by the tribe Nihm, which is why the narrative speaks of Nahom as a place rather than a people. As explained by Brown, “Naturally, a person reasonably assumes that, if the majority of the NHM tribe dwelt in a certain area, they would have had a ‘place’ for themselves that bore their tribal name. And outsiders would have known it.”[41] So on this understanding, there were actually two closely interrelated usages of the root NHM as an appellative in ancient south Arabian culture, one used to denominate the tribal group itself (the people Nihm) and another to refer to its territory (the Nihm region), a conclusion that finds support in the modern use of the term Nihm to designate a tribe as well as a geographical district in present day Yemen. However, it is doubtful that this later use of tribal names to refer to geographical entities can be retrojected onto much earlier periods and careful examination of South Arabian inscriptions indicates that the names of tribes were essentially social-political in orientation. Christian Robin, one of the world’s foremost experts on the tribal history of ancient South Arabia, explains that the tribal names “are not toponyms nor ancestor names. But they were used as eponyms when the genealogies were elaborated in late Antiquity and early Islam… The tribes in the south are strictly connected with a territory. But, in general, there is no confusion. The inscriptions distinguish always between Ḥimyar [a south Arabian tribe] and ‘the Land of Ḥimyar’.”[42] Accordingly, within an ancient south Arabian context, it does not make sense to speak of Nihm as though it were a regular place name.

 

Furthermore, even if we were to assume that this reference to the tribal group Nihm as a place name (“the place which was called Nahom”) stemmed from misunderstanding on the part of an ancient BoM author, neither is the description of Nahom as a “place” intelligible in terms of Hebrew usage, since the Hebrew common noun mqwm “place” is always used to refer to a particular or closely defined locale, such as a house, town, or sanctuary, never a tribal region (Gen 13:14; Jdgs 7:7; Deut 21:19; 1 Kgs 10:19).

 

Second, the designation of Ishmael’s burial place as a tribal region sounds conceptually non-Israelite. If apologists are correct in their assumption that Nahom in the BoM represents a tribal place name, then this means that the sentence should be understood to say that Ishmael was buried in the tribal district of Nihm. That is, the narrative does not report he was buried at a particular place but rather at an indeterminate spot within the borders of a fairly sizable region. However, this kind of vague and general specification of Ishmael’s burial place seems conceptually far removed from Israelite convention for naming burial places. As we discussed above, the location of burial in Israelite culture functioned as a site of significant social and cultural meaning, consistent with the belief that the dead continued to exist at some level in relation to their place of entombment and could be interacted with there. In line with this cultural and social understanding, when speaking about the burial of individuals the biblical authors almost always refer to the specific location where they were buried rather than a general location or area (Gen 23:19; 25:10; 35:8, 19; 50:13; Num 11:34; Deut 10:6; Josh 24:30; Jdgs 8:32; 10:2, 5; 12:7, 10, 12, 15; 16:31; 1 Sam 25:1; 31:13; 2 Sam 2:32; 3:32; 21:14; 1 Kgs 2:10, 34; 13:31; 16:6, 28; 21:26; cf. 2 Kgs 13:20). When a tribal area is specified, this is consistently followed by further geographical qualification or delimitation (e.g. 2 Sam 21:14; Deut 34:6). In light of this cultural perspective, the idea that an Israelite speaker would refer to a family member’s burial place by a general tribal region seems anomalous and almost incoherent, appearing to give information about where Ishmael was buried but only falsely so.

 

Third, the pronunciation of Nahom in the BoM diverges significantly from the pronunciation of the real world South Arabian tribal name. The name Nahom has what is clearly a long o vowel in the final syllable of a two-syllable word, whereas Nihm in Arabic is monosyllabic with only a short vowel between the first two consonants. While the difference between the spellings may appear fairly minor to an English speaker, they actually imply entirely different vocalic structures. I asked Peter Stein, professor of Semitic philology at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität, about the spelling of Nihm in the early Sabaic period and if it were possible for a long vowel to have ever been present between the last two consonants, to which he responded, “There is no obstacle against a mono-syllabic spelling /nihm/ of the name in Sabaic. Since there is a fairly strong continuity in the South Arabian tribal system from pre-Islamic to the Islamic period, one should proceed from a similar spelling of identical names. I would not suggest that a (long) vowel could be placed between the last two consonants.”[43]

 

The apologetic response to the problem of the spelling of Nahom in the BoM has been to emphasize the history of variability in the pronunciation of the tribal name Nihm and the negligible importance of vowels in Hebrew writing.[44] For example, Rappleye and Smoot argue, “The tribe and territory of NHM still exist in the area today, and local pronunciations range from ‘Neh-hem’ to ‘Nä-hum,’ and the name has been translated in a variety of ways, including Naham and Nahm. There is no reason ‘Nahom’ should be considered beyond the pale. When written, Semitic languages do not need to include vowels, so the altars simply have NHM (in South Arabian), and Nephi’s record would have been no different.”[45] However, the so-called local pronunciations and translations of Nihm mentioned above often reflect Western misprisions of the historical pronunciation, interpreting the rapid glide between the last two consonants as though it were a vowel. It is misleading therefore to suggest that “Nä-hum” is in any way a satisfactory representation of the phonological structure of the tribal name. Furthermore, if the inaccurate vocalization of Nahom in the BoM were attributed to the lack of vowels in the record, then how does one explain the role of deity in the translation process? Was God able to reveal correct consonants in proper names, but not vowels?

 

Based on the above historical, cultural, and linguistic factors, it appears that the author of 1 Nephi who constructed the note about Nahom was only minimally acquainted with the existence and historical reality of the tribal group Nihm in the highlands of Yemen. While he had a vague idea of how to spell the name and could locate it in the general vicinity of Southwest Arabia, he did not have the kind of knowledge that would be consistent with the assumption he had personally visited the area in the time of Lehi, for example, a correct understanding of Nihm’s social and territorial significance or how the tribe related to the caravan trails and other tribal communities in the general region.

 

 

Conclusion

 

We have seen that none of the reasons that have been cited for treating the Nahom reference in the BoM as evidence of the narrative’s antiquity hold up well under close scrutiny. The tribal territory of Nihm is not a place of burial and the caravan trails do not in fact turn eastward near or run alongside it. While the name of the Nihm tribe is undoubtedly ancient and existed at the time of Lehi, because of its attestation at Maʾrib on the Barʾan altars, we have no evidence that would justify connecting Nahom directly to this archaeological evidence or the assumption that the use of the name in the BoM arose in remote antiquity. In fact, I have presented a number of considerations that indicate Nahom was adapted by someone who was ignorant of the Nihm tribe’s precise name, history, and geographical location. In the following post, I will present a new reconstruction for how Joseph Smith as the modern author of the BoM came to include the name of this obscure Yemenite tribe in his imaginative narrative about the origin of the Native Americans.

 

———-

[1] Lehi in the Desert, 79; Warren P. and Michaela J. Aston, “The Place which was called Nahom: The Validation of an Ancient Reference to Southern Arabia,” FARM Preliminary Reports (1991), 8-10.

[2] S. Kent Brown, “’The Place that was Called Nahom’: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” JBMS 8 (1999): 67; idem, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 82-83; Stephen Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” JBMS 20 (2011): 67.

[3] Voices from the Dust: Book of Mormon Insights (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2004), 38.

[4] Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 82.

[5] Warren P. Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” BYU Studies 51 (2012): 81.

[6] Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic Sabaean Dialect, 296; A. F. L. Beeston, M. A. Ghul, W. W. Müller, J. Ryckmans, Sabaic Dictionary (Louvain-la-Neuve: Editions Peeters; 1982), 94; Stephen D. Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” 67-68, n. 14.

[7] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Hebrew,” The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia, 47-48.

[8] See Koehler and Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic version under נחום); Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon (under נחום). Cf. Simian-Yofre, “נחם,” TDOT, 9:340-355.

[9] David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant: Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 12829, as quoted in Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” 6 and Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom,” Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 92-99.

[10] See also Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” 67.

[11] Warren P. and Michaela J. Aston, “The Place which was called Nahom: The Validation of an Ancient Reference to Southern Arabia,” 10-11; Warren P. Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 15; idem, “A History of NaHoM,” 83-84; idem, “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia’s Past,” “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia’s Past,” Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea 4 (2014): 145. See also Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land (Maxwell Institute, 2006).

[12] “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 15.

[13] Christopher Edens, “Before Sheba,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, 84.

[14] Burkhard Vogt, “Death and Funerary Practices,” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen, 180-185; Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, 143-57.

[15] An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1988), 215.

[16] Carol Meyers, Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 160.

[17] E.g. The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, from June, 1812, to February, 1815 (New York: Daniel D. Smith, 1819), 72.

[18] See Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 109-132.

[19] Olyan, “Some Neglected Aspects of Israelite Internment Ideology,” JBL 124 (2005): 601-616.

[20] Gardner, Book of Mormon as History, 107-108; Rappleye and Smoot, “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions,” 161-166, 179; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 88-89; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 137-138.

[21] Voices from the Dust, 39.

[22] “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 34-35

[23] Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, 66-67; Nigel Groom, “Trade, Incense, and Perfume,” Queen of Sheba, 90-91.

[24] See e.g., Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, map for “The Jawf”; Christian Robin, Les Hautes-Terres du Nord-Yemen avant l’Islam I: Recherches sur la géographie tribale et religieuse de Ḥawlān Quḍāʻa et du pays de Hamdān (Istanbul: Nederlands historisch-archaeologisch Instituut, 1982), 13, 72–74; Alexander Sima, “Religion,” Queen of Sheba, 166; Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 81-82.

[25] In order to explain how the party avoided Maʿin and the large valley of the Wadi Jawf, which stretched more than a hundred kilometers east-west and would have been irrigated and cultivated at the time, Wellington and Potter dubiously speculate that Lehi’s party became lost in the western fringes of the Rubʿ al-Khali and came south through the desert, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 33-34.

[26] Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” 83-85; Hilton and Hilton, Discovering Lehi, 123-139; Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah,” 12; Wellington and Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 27-33.

[27] Voices from the Dust, 39.

[28] Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of Queen of Sheba, 94-95.

[29] “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia’s Past,” Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea 4 (2014): 134-148.

[30] Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic Sabaean Dialect, 296; Beeston et al, Sabaic Dictionary, 94; Ricks, “On Lehi’s Trail: Nahom, Ishmael’s Burial Place,” 67-68, n. 14.

[31] Pilgrimage and Household in the Ancient Near East (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 78.

[32] As recognized by S. Kent Brown, “NAHOM/NIHM/NHM TODAY” [accessed Aug 22, 2015]. Online: http://www.jefflindsay.com/bme15.shtml.

[33] As recognized by Wellington and Potter, “Lehi’s Trail: From the Valley of Lemuel to Nephi’s Harbor,” 32-33.

[34] Cf. Breton, Arabia Felix from the time of the Queen of Sheba, map for “The Jawf”; Christian Robin, “The Mine of ar-Radrad: Al-Hamdani and the Silver of the Yemen,” Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilization in Arabia Felix, 123-124.

[35] Timothy Power, “The Red Sea Region during the ‘Long’ Late Antiquity (AD 500-1000)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oxford, 2010), 206-207, published as The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500-1000 (New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2012).

[36] “The Red Sea Region during the ‘Long’ Late Antiquity (AD 500-1000),” 206.

[37] Description of Arabia, Made from Personal Observations and Information Collected on the Spot by Carsten Niebuhr (trans. Major C. W. H. Sealy; Bombay: Government Central Press, 1889), 93.

[38] David George Hogarth, The Penetration of Arabia (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1904), 201, quoted in Aston, “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen,” 141.

[39] Voices from the Dust, 37.

[40] Cf. Retsö, The Arabs in Antiquity, who states that Nihm was the name of “two distinct groups, one northeast of Ṣanʿaʾ and another one on the northern slopes of the land of ʾAmir,” 564. I have not found any other attestation for the latter group from another period.

[41] S. Kent Brown, “On Nahom/NHM” [accessed Aug 22, 2015]. Online: https://www.nephiproject.com/on__nahom.htm.

[42] Personal communication to author, July 27, 2015.

[43] Personal communication to author, August 4, 2015.

[44] Aston, “A History of NaHoM,” 80; idem, “The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen,” 141.

[45] “Book of Mormon Minimalists and the NHM Inscriptions,” 173.

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