S. Kent Brown

Chairman, Department of Ancient Studies, BYU


Nephi wrote that his father-in-law, Ishmael, was buried at Nahom.  LDS authors have suggested that Nahom might have been a site in Yemen called Nehem or NHM.  Recently a critic attacked this argument.  Professor Brown response to this attack in the following insightful discussion:  We thank S. Kent Brown for his permission allowing the Nephi Project to post his discussion.  

Some of the main issues, it seems to me, are as follows:


• The existence of the name NHM in south Arabia

            The existence of the name NHM (tribal or otherwise) has been attested in the West since Carsten Niebuhr published his two studies (a) Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und den umliegenden Ländern which appeared in one volume in 1772, and (b) Beschreibung von Arabien, a three-volume work on his ill-fated expedition to Arabia (these three volumes appeared successively in 1774, 1778 and 1837). In 1792 Robert Heron published a two-volume translation of Niebuhr’s first work titled Niebuhr’s Travels through Arabia and Other Countries in the East. This translation was published again in 1799. The Arabic-speaking world, of course, could appeal to the description of the Arabian peninsula by geographers such as Al-Hamd~n§ whose work bore the title in Arabic Sifat Jaz§rat al-‘Arab (Al-Hamd~n§ was born about A.D. 893/AH. 280). The parts of Al-Hamd~n§’s geographical writings which survived to modern times became available in the west through the efforts of D. H. Müller in the late 1880s. Al-Hamd~n§ spent a period of time in the territory of the NHM tribe and thus knew it well, writing of it frequently. But whether Joseph Smith knew of this tribal region is very problematic (see below).

            A German archaeological team has uncovered in recent years at least two finely-carved incense altars donated to the temple of Bar’~n in ancient Marib by members of the NHM tribe. Each of the altars bears a dedicatory inscription by the donor. The excavators date one of these altars to the seventh–sixth centuries B.C., the era when the narrative of First Nephi says that the family passed through Arabia. I have published a short piece on one of the two altars in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (8/1 [1999]: 66-68).

 • NHM as the name of a “place” in south Arabia (as in 1 Ne. 16:34)

            An important matter has to do with whether the ancient name of the NHM tribe was tied to a geographical place of the same name. The Book of Mormon makes this matter an issue by speaking of “the place that was called Nahom” (1 Ne. 16:34). 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. But if, say, the NHM people were a wandering tribe that was always moving, even in a regular, seasonal pattern between customary pasturing areas, then one would expect that the names they conferred on places may not have been known to people outside the tribe. (See Charles Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Two Volumes in One [New York, 1936], 1:88, for multiple names of places, one conferred by local people and another conferred by travelers.) But the work of Christian Robin both on ancient tribal names that are noted in inscriptions, and on the relationship of these names to geographical places, indicates that the tribal name NHM (and others) has remained basically in the same place since it first appeared in inscriptions in the first millennium B.C. (Les Hautes-Terres du Nord-Yemen avant l’Islam I: Recherches sur la geographie tribale et religieuse de awl~n Qu~‘a et du pays de Hamd~n [Istanbul: Nederlands historisch-archaeologisch Instituut, 1982], 27, 72-74).

            In this light, one can be reasonably certain from ancient sources that a place called NHM existed in south Arabia at a very early date, very possibly by 600 B.C. Further, on the basis of the two iron age altars found at Marib confirming the existence of the tribal name of NHM, which was known heretofore only from the much later Arab sources, my view is that one can trust the Arab writers (e.g, Al-Hamd~n§) when they say that the NHM people and their territory (that is, their place) were by then very old and well established.


• Meaning of NHM in Hebrew

            Since Nahom is one of the few place-names that appears in Nephi’s travel narrative, and since other place names in Nephi’s narrative carry meanings which Lehi and/or other party members conferred on them (e.g., Valley of Lemuel, River of Laman, Bountiful, Irreantum), it seems that a person is justified in exploring the meaning of the name Nahom in Nephi’s language (Hebrew) in its context, even though the name (in whatever form it may have existed in a local dialect) predates the arrival of the party. (The passive voice “was called” in 1 Ne. 16:34 indicates its preexisting character.) The only exception, it seems, is the name Shazer, whose meaning to members of Lehi’s party is not spelled out (1 Ne. 16:13).


• Proposed link between NHM in south Arabia and Nahom of Nephi’s narrative

             For those who believe that Nephi’s narrative is authentically ancient, the possibility of a connection between the area of the NHM tribe in south Arabia and the Nahom of Nephi’s narrative is credible. For those who do not believe that the narrative of First Nephi authentically goes back to a record written in the early sixth century B.C., any proposed link will lack merit. It is a matter, in my view, of one’s beginning assumptions. Since I believe that the account of First Nephi is authentic and offers a snapshot of life in ancient Arabia, I accept the likelihood of a tie between the area of the NHM tribe and Nephi’s Nahom. My reasons are spelled out in the short article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (8/1 [1999]) and I stand on what I wrote on that occasion.


• Ease of access to maps/books on Arabia that mention NHM

            Several issues face a researcher who seeks to learn the availability of books and maps to the young Joseph Smith which might possibly have influenced his views of ancient Arabia. (A) There is the broad question of the influence of such resources on frontier families in the northeastern United States in the early 19th century. It seems to me that this sort of matter is extremely difficult to measure unless a researcher has access to a wide range of personal journals and the like which note both the individuals’ interests in far-flung places like Arabia and the kinds of books that these people consulted. (B) A more narrow question has to do with works that might have influenced young Joseph Smith. Because within the preserved sources that deal with his youth there is precious little to indicate that works other than the Bible influenced his thinking, a researcher faces a challenging task.

            This latter task consists of answering at least two questions. (1) Was Joseph Smith inclined to be bookish? That is, was he a person who read when he had the chance to read? By his own account, he said that he was “unacquainted with men and things” and was “doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor” (Joseph Smith–History 1:8, 23). In another source, Joseph Smith wrote similarly that because “it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements” (D. C. Jessee, Editor, Papers of Joseph Smith [1989], vol. 1, p. 5). A second accounting comes from his mother who wrote that her son Joseph was “much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children.” I understand her statement to mean that Joseph was not a person who read much (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith, Edited by P. Nibley [1958], p. 82). Such notations from Joseph Smith and from his mother, who knew him best in his youth, point away from a view that the young Joseph was a person with an intense curiosity which he satisfied by appealing to books.

            (2) The other question concerns the ease of access to written sources in, say, a local library. A student assistant and I have gone through all of the works known to have been in the collection of the Manchester Public Library before 1830, a resource that would have been available to Joseph Smith in his teens and later. None of the works in that collection which claim to deal with the ancient Near East would have given him good information on ancient Arabia. And in our review we spotted nothing that bears a familiar ring in the narrative of First Nephi. The only other library resource that young Joseph could possibly have drawn on was that of Dartmouth College. As most are aware, the Smith family lived in Lebanon, New Hampshire, from 1811 to late in 1813, before moving back to Vermont. The home where the Smith family lived in Lebanon was just down the road from Dartmouth College. There are two problems that a researcher must surmount in determining whether Joseph Smith during these years might possibly have put his hands on works such as Robert Heron’s English translation of Carsten Niebuhr’s description of Arabia, or Jean-Baptiste D’Anville’s map titled Orbis Veteribus Notus, or even an English translation of Pliny’s Natural History, or Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all of which dealt with ancient Arabia in one way or another. (1) The first concerns the dates of the acquisition of these works by Dartmouth’s library, or by any other major library in the United States. In the case of Robert Heron’s two-volume translation of Niebuhr’s work that was published in1792, the acquisition date at the Dartmouth library is 1937, more than 140 years after it appeared in print. An example from a second library leads to a similar point. The Library of Congress only acquired the 1792 two-volume set in 1951. Hence, it is clear that, in the case of Dartmouth College, this work was not available in its library when the Smith family lived in the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Thus, in my mind, one cannot draw conclusions about any influence of such a work on young Joseph Smith. (We also bear in mind that Joseph Smith was only 5 years old when his family moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, and had not yet reached his eighth birthday when his family moved to Vermont.) (2) Even if — hypothetically — such resources were available in the Dartmouth library before 1810 or so, a researcher would have to determine when young Joseph Smith could possibly have spent enough time there to glean information about ancient Arabia. One will recall that Joseph Smith became seriously ill in Lebanon early in the year of 1813, after turning seven years old, and was unable to function normally for several months following the surgical removal of bone from his leg. In light of the above, a researcher would have to make a case for Joseph Smith actively reading and gleaning when he was the age of a typical first or second grader, while taking into account that these were the periods when, if he were well enough, his father needed him for the work on the farm that the family had leased in Lebanon. In this light, it seems impossible to sustain a hypothesis that any library resource which dealt with Arabia, and particularly with NHM, influenced the very young Joseph Smith, or was even consulted by him. That works which dealt with Arabia in one way or another may have available in libraries in the then United States is possible. But demonstrating that Joseph Smith ever visited such institutions, or even knew of libraries that owned these works, lies beyond what the modern researcher can show.

            In a similar vein, to hypothesize that Joseph Smith had access to a private library which contained works on ancient Arabia is impossible to sustain.

            (3) Another issue relates to the above. It concerns the approach or method that one adopts when dealing with similarities that appear in written materials, whether any connection is apparent or not between writings. In the case before us, if a researcher wants to argue that Joseph Smith had gained access to written materials on Arabia, such as the initial pages of chapter 50 of Edward Gibbon’s work on the fall of the Roman Empire, the researcher must be willing to go beyond the question of apparent, superficial similarities. In Gibbon’s case, he depended chiefly on Classical sources for his portrait of Arabia. Both Gibbon and his sources (e.g., Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Pliny the Elder) are interested in certain questions that attach to their historical and cultural situations. For example, Diodorus focused on the aromatic plants that Arabians cultivated (II. 49; III.46). One of Pliny’s main interests was such plants (Natural History XII.24, 29-41). Following these sources, Gibbon also wrote about this subject. But the narrative of First Nephi makes no connection to this dimension of Arabia that is featured prominently by Gibbon’s sources. In my view, if a person wants to show connections, one also has to explain the areas of disconnection in order to make a sound case. In my reading, the dissimilarities substantially outweigh the similarities when one begins to compare First Nephi and the Classical sources which have informed studies of the modern era.


• Link of NHM with eastward turn

            There is another piece that one should add to the NHM issue. It concerns Nephi’s note that “we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth,” following events at Nahom (1 Ne. 17:1). This geographical notice is one of the few in Nephi’s narrative and invites examination. One observes that northwest of Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabaean kingdom of south Arabia, almost all roads turn east, veering from the general north-south direction of the incense trail. Moreover, the eastward bend occurs in the general area inhabited by the NHM tribe. (I add parenthetically that I assume that Lehi’s party had been following or shadowing the incense trail because wells were located at more or less regular intervals along the route. This view would fit most naturally with the observation in the Book of Mormon that Lehi’s party traveled in a generally south-southeast direction, an observation which matches the direction of the incense trail [see 1 Ne. 16:13-14, 33].)

            An important question is whether Joseph Smith could have learned about this eastward turn in the main incense trail. As far as I have been able to discover, no written source, Classical or contemporary, mentions it. It is my view, therefore, that only a person who had traveled either near or along the trail would know that it turned eastward in this area. To be sure, the longest leg of the incense trail ran basically north-south along the highland (eastern) side of the Al-Sar~t mountains of western Arabia (actually, from the north, the trail held in a south-southeast direction, as Nephi says). But after passing south of Najran (modern Ukhdãd, Saudi Arabia), both the main trail and several shortcuts turned eastward, all leading to Shabwah, then the chief staging center for caravans in south Arabia. One spur of the trail continued farther southward to Aden. But the traffic along this section was very much less than that which went to and from Shabwah. The main trail and its spurs ran eastward, matching Nephi’s description, because wells were there and because Shabwah controlled the finest incense of Arabia that was coming westward from Oman. This general area is the only place along the incense trail where traffic ran east-west. Hence, until other evidence surfaces, I conclude that neither Joseph Smith nor anyone else in his society knew about this turn in the incense trail which the narrative of First Nephi features. (Incidentally, for maps that show the eastward spurs of the trail that led to Shabwah, see Pierre Robert Baduel [ed.], L’Arabie antique de Karib’îl à Mahomet: Nouvelles données sur l’histoire des Arabes grâce aux inscriptions. La Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée, no. 61 [1991-3], map 1; and Nigel Groom, Frankincense and Myrrh [London: Longman Group Ltd., 1981], 167, 192.)


• Further discussion

            For those who wish to read further on matters related to the journey of Lehi and Sariah, I ask for patience until my article appears in a FARMS publication scheduled to be released later this year (2001).

  — S. Kent Brown

February 23, 2001

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