Was the Book of Mormon really used as a geographical guidebook?

Was the Book of Mormon really used as a geographical guidebook?

From alt.religion.mormon:

This thread began with a claim that the Book of Mormon accurately portrays the journey of a desert traveler in Arabia. In response to that claim, I asked a simple question about a river mentioned in the Book of Mormon. I have repeated the preamble and question below. Most of the comments followed the same general argument as J, so I am responding specifically to what he said. Hopefully, this will not cause the other apologists who responded too much disappointment. This post consists of a reprint of J’s comments, and a few additional comments of my own.

My original comments and question were:

Recently, an apologist described the Book of Mormon is an accurate portrayal of a desert traveler’s journey through the Arabian desert. Considering that claim, I offer the following question.

According to the Book of Mormon, the Nephites originated from a man named Lehi who lived in Jerusalem roughly 600 BCE (1 Nephi chapter 1). God (so the story goes) commanded Lehi to take his family and depart into the wilderness (1 Nephi 2:2). Lehi obliged and ‘traveled [three days] in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea …’ Whereupon he came to a valley with a river running through it and emptying into the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:4-8). This is how Lehi describes the river:

“And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness.” (1 Nephi 2:9).

Please name the continually-flowing river that emptied into the Red Sea. Describe its location so I, and others on this newsgroup, may check your answer by consulting other references.


In response to my comments and question, J said (Wed, 23 Oct. 1996):
Before S wastes time talking to you go to a library and get on [sic] of thoes [sic] big satelite [sic] snapshots of the Red Sea. You can pick from the plain `snap shot only’ or the one that draws in the rivers and cities for you. Upon doing so look for rivers. Any rivers constant or not.


Let’s stop for a moment and consider J’s comments. The Book of Mormon describes a “continually” running river, yet J says we should look for “any rivers constant or not.” Why is it justifiable to look for “any rivers constant or not” when the river described in the Book of Mormon ran “continually “? [By the way, several people have made this argument, but I have seen no offers to name the seasonal river. The argument about “seasonal” seems even weaker when those who propose it fail to identify the river, even with this watered-down (pun intended) definition.]

The context of the Book of Mormon strongly suggests the river Joseph Smith used in his story was not seasonal. Mormons often tell others about the importance of context. With this in mind, let’s examine the context in which we read about Joseph Smith’s description of an Arabian river. In chapter 2 (1 Nephi) Joseph Smith has Lehi arriving in a valley through which ran a river. Lehi named the river Laman and the valley Lemuel (1 Nephi 2:8- 10). While camped next to the river, an impressive number of things happened. The time for these events strongly suggests Lehi was there for a long time. Presumably, Lehi camped next to the river to water his animals and family, and because the valley provided forage. When he left, the Book of Mormon says he crossed the river (1 Nephi 16:9-12), so a contextual reading says the river flowed the entire time Lehi camped next to it. With this contextual understanding, can we estimate how long Lehi camped in the valley next to the river? If you follow along, I shall attempt to argue (based on claims in the Book of Mormon) that Lehi camped next to the river more than four months. Furthermore, I shall attempt to show that a contextual reading suggests the river continued to flow during that time. This adds credibility to the straight-forward reading that the Book of Mormon describes a major river, and not simply a wadi that fills only with infrequent rains.

Upon arriving in the valley, Lehi sent Nephi and his brothers back to Jerusalem to get the brass plates (1 Nephi 3:2). They were gone a long time. So long, in fact, that Nephi’s mother Sariah thought they had died in the wilderness (1 Nephi 5:1-2). Assuming the Book of Mormon is true (which, based on the evidence, it is not) we can estimate how long Nephi and his brothers were away by examining the minimum distance they had to travel.

It is about 150 miles from Jerusalem to Al `Aqabah as the crow flies. Add about 20% for overland travel (any boy scouts out there?) and the distance is about 180 miles. The shortest distance to the Red Sea (as the crow flies) is about 260 miles. Adding 20% for overland travel, and we have about 310 miles. From this information, we should be able to estimate roughly how long Nephi was away.

The Book of Mormon says Lehi “came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea;….” (1 Nephi 2:5). I can imagine Joseph Smith narrating this story with a map of the middle east in front of him, mistaking the Gulf of Aqaba for the Red Sea. This would make the distance (and time) shorter. Giving Joseph the benefit of the doubt, lets assume Lehi and his family only traveled to the Gulf, and not (as the text says) to the Red Sea. This means they would have traveled nearly 200 miles. The Book of Mormon says Lehi brought only “his family, and provisions, and tents…” (1 Nephi 2:4). Apparently, traveling on foot, they would have managed about 12 or 15 miles per day. So it would have taken them about 15 days to reach the Gulf of Aqaba. From there, the Book of Mormon implies they traveled three more days to the river (1 Nephi 2:6). So they camped about 18 days from Jerusalem. They were Hebrew, so they would not travel on Saturday. Thus, elapsed time for their trip would have been roughly 20 days. [A literal reading of the Book of Mormon makes the time much longer than this, since they would have to travel about 100 more miles to reach the Red Sea.] Sariah would have expected Nephi and his brothers to make the round trip in about 40 days. Add time for negotiations with Laban and typical delays, and she probably would not have started worrying until they had been gone 45 days. Since they were overdue enough for Sariah to think they had died, and voice her fears openly to Lehi, let’s say Nephi and his brothers were gone about 50 days.

After getting the brass plates, Lehi read them and discovered his genealogy. Meanwhile, Nephi began his own writings (1 Nephi 5- 6). Then, Lehi decided he needed daughters for his sons, so he sent Nephi back to Jerusalem to get another family (headed by Ishmael) to join them (see chapter 7). Let’s suppose Lehi read the brass plates, and Nephi started his own writings in about 7 days. Further, suppose Ishmael required four days to prepare his family for the journey. Add this to a round- trip time of 40 days (for Nephi et. al. to travel to Jerusalem, get Ishmael, and return) and we have another 51 days. Thus, by the time Nephi returned with Ishmael, Lehi had been camped by the river for at least 101 days.

With the arrival of Ishmael, there was more prophesying. Meanwhile, Lehi’s sons paired up with Ishmael’s daughters and got married (see chapter 16). Let’s suppose the prophesying took another 7 days. Let’s also give our Mormon friends the benefit of the doubt and say the courtships were brief and the marriages all arranged. Say it takes three weeks to get everyone married. This is another 28 days camped near the river. So the total time (on the express track, giving Mormons every benefit of doubt) comes to at least 129 days that Lehi was camped next to the river.

Finally, Lehi and his troupe leave the valley. The Book of Mormon says they cross the river Laman into the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:12). The matter of fact way in which Joseph Smith writes this indicates that (in his imagination) the river was still flowing. It was going when they got there, and it was still going four months later when they left. Presumably Lehi and his family camped by the river because they and their animals required water and forage. Consequently, even without the mention of them crossing the river, a logical assumption is that the river ran while they camped next to it.

Thus, if the Book of Mormon is true, we expect to find a valley near the Gulf of Aqaba with a river in it. The river should run at least 4 months out of the year. The Book of Mormon’s description is sufficiently clear that if such a river existed, evidence should be available. Even if the river has since dried up, it would have been close to established trade routes and an important source of water for ancient travelers. Given this, it should be mentioned in ancient texts.

J continued:
On the map that I pulled out there were three seasonal rivers that flowed into the sea along with other geographical sites that could have supported a river flow.


You say you found three seasonal rivers. Where? Along the entire length of Arabia? The coast is over 1500 miles long. The Book of Mormon is very specific in its description. It says the river was in a valley “[three days] in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea …”. This constrains the region we are investigating to only a small fraction of the coast line. Are any of the alleged seasonal rivers you found within this region? Will you name these rivers you found? If the rivers you found are hundreds of miles away, down the coast of Arabia, then the time for Lehi’s encampment next to the river extends to well over 6 months (see previous discussion). Do any of these rivers you found run for more than 6 months each year?

Other people following this discussion should take note. K made a bold claim, echoed in the title of this thread. He claimed the Book of Mormon is a geographic guidebook in the Arabian peninsula. Yet here is a clear description of what should be an easily identifiable feature (a continually-running river in a desert). I asked for the modern name of the river. Has the question be answered? No.

Instead, J replied that somewhere in Arabia there appear to be three “seasonal” rivers. He has not named the “rivers”. He has not described their locations. He has not explained if they are truly seasonal (running regularly with the seasons) or if they only run during infrequent rains. From appearances, he simply found three blue lines on a map and considered his “research” completed. I suspect a similar mistake led Joseph Smith to include an Arabian river in the first place. J has not explained why a desert traveler would describe a ‘”seasonal” river as “continually” flowing. He has not explained why a natural reading of the Book of Mormon would lead to any other conclusion than that the river was year round. Then, with an extra serving of ambiguity, J hedged his bets by referencing “other geographical sites” that “could have” rivers in them. What are these sites? Dry gulches? The Book of Mormon says the river was in a valley. Not a canyon, ravine, or gulch.

If Mormons can accept evidence of a dry gulch for Lehi’s continually-running river, then I am not surprised they believe the Book of Mormon can be used in Arabia as a “geographic guide”.

J continued:
Now using the vague idea that rivers tend to move out of their courses and flow and many times dissappear [sic] altogether during a few hundred years due to climate shifts and other things.


Please provide references for your claim that a continually- running river ‘[three days travel] in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea …’ existed roughly 2600 years ago. Provide evidence that the river has since dried up and disappeared. Show that evidence of such a river exists in the same area near the Red Sea as described in the Book of Mormon. If such a river existed, evidence of it should be available (river gravel, for example, or mention in ancient texts from the region). The Book of Mormon says the river was in a valley. Valleys do not generally disappear in 2600 years. It should be straightforward to locate a valley that is within 100 miles of Lehi’s expected intersection with the Red Sea, and look for evidence that through it flowed a continually-running river. In fact, if you are unable to name the river, I will be happy starting with the name of the valley.

Remember, J, Mormons are the ones claiming the Book of Mormon has been used as a geographic guide in Arabia. It is incumbent upon you to support this affirmative claim. Mormons made the claim. Now prove it. If all you can offer are suppositions, excuses, and disappearing rivers, then you need to have sufficient intellectual honesty to stop claiming that the Book of Mormon can be used as a geographical guide.

J continued:
Ponder on the fact that according to the Book of Mormon it has been over 2000 years since that river was recorded. Will you be open minded enough to consider yourself wrong?


I was once an active Mormon who, like you, believed these improbable excuses for the Book of Mormon. I have since decided the evidence does not support the Book of Mormon, but rather denies its authenticity. So, I have demonstrated the ability to consider myself wrong, and change my opinion. Furthermore, if Mormons supplied significant evidence for the Book of Mormon I could change my opinion again. I have no problem admitting when I am wrong.

How about you? If there is no evidence of a continually flowing river “[three days travel] in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea…”, will you and other Mormons be open minded enough to consider yourself wrong?

This is probably a good place to review the evidence different findings might provide. If a river is found roughly in the location described in the Book of Mormon it would be of definite interest, but provide little in the way of proof. The reason, simply, is that mention of a river is not too remarkable even if the Book of Mormon is fiction. It is easy to imagine Joseph Smith looking on a map, seeing a blue line, and concluding the existence of a river. Thus if a river is found, its mention in the Book of Mormon is as easily explained by coincidence as by revelation. What the Book of Mormon needs, by way of proof, is consistent agreement with archeological evidence. Sporadic forced agreement with facts, and ad-hock excuses for disagreement with facts is hardly convincing.

On the other hand, it takes only one counter example to disprove a theory. Thus, if no evidence of Lehi’s river is found, it is much stronger evidence against the Book of Mormon than the presence of a river would be for the Book of Mormon. Add Lehi’s missing river to a long list of other Book of Mormon mistakes (steel smelting, domesticated horses, and horse-drawn chariots in ancient America, for example) and the evidence against the Book of Mormon is simply too substantial for intellectually-honest people to ignore.

J continued:
Would you consider the Book of Mormon false because it describes a “Yellowstone national park-like area” 60 miles away from the one we have today? (FYI Yellowstone has moved and is moving today).


J’s analogy is a fantasy. The Book of Mormon’s discrepancy is serious, and it will take more than wise-cracks to satisfy critical thinkers. To summarize:

1. K made the bold claim that the Book of Mormon accurately describes a desert traveler’s journey through the Arabian peninsula.

2. The Book of Mormon describes a “continually” flowing river “[three days travel] in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea…”. Contextual reading of the Book of Mormon shows the river flowing for a long time as Lehi and his family camped next to it.

3. When asked to provide evidence of the river, J responded by:

A. Saying it was a waste of time.

B. Looking on a map and supposedly finding three seasonal rivers somewhere in Arabia. He did not name the rivers. He did not describe them, except to say they are seasonal (apparently his opinion). He did not describe where they are located, if they are in coastal valleys, or if they are near the place where Lehi’s route supposedly intersected the Red Sea.

C. Suggested the “continually” running river might have been in some other geological feature (a gully, ravine or canyon?) that “might” have supported a river.

D. Suggested the river might have dried up or moved (a distinct possibility) but failed to provide any evidence supporting the idea.

E. Concluded with a false analogy to Yellowstone Park, implying that the evidence exists but Mormon critics just don’t want to accept it, or are too skeptical.

F. Suggested that the reason I was asking the question was because I don’t have an open mind.

And still the question remains unanswered. What is the modern name of the river that Lehi described?