Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Question About Sorenson’s Mesoamerican Narrow Neck of Land

I received an email recently that stated: “I noted that under the heading of ‘What was the Nature of the Narrow Neck of Land?’ by John L. Sorenson, he stated: “Because there were oceans on either side of the isthmus, a continental divide passed through it along its northward-southward axis. The land of Bountiful stretched across the isthmus. Its chief city, Bountiful, was virtually at sea level (shown by the adjacent beach reported in Alma 51:28, 32), which suggests that the entire isthmus was relatively low-lying as well.” Is this true? I have never heard of a description of the narrow neck like this before” Haran.
The problem is, you have to be careful when reading anything written by John L. Sorenson because he is so convinced, beyond even any scriptural reference to the opposite, that Mesoamerica is the Land of Promise, that he writes about the conditions of Mesoamerica rather than what the scriptural record tells us of the Land of Promise. First of all, a continental divide is a drainage divide on a continent such that the drainage basin on one side of the divide feeds into one ocean or sea, and the basin on the other side either feeds into a different ocean or sea, or else is endorheic (a closed drainage basin) and not connected to the open sea. The Continental Divide of North America runs from Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, to Chiapas in Mexico, then on through southern Guatemala, southwestern Honduras, western Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to Panama. The Divide then continues on into South America where it follows the peaks of the Andes Mountains to the southern end of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Where the continental divide passes through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, it does so close to the western coast (Pacific Ocean), leaving some 2/3 of the distance across (about 100 miles) to the Gulf of Mexico.
Left: The red line is the Great Continental Divide, the other lines are additional hydrological divides; Right: Grays Peak, the apex of the Continental Divide in North America
There is no mention of anything resembling a continental divide in the Book of Mormon—not a single reference, suggestions, inference, or hint of such. Yet, typically, that doesn’t deter Sorenson from telling us that a continental divide passed through the narrow neck of land. Nor do we know from any scriptural reference that the city of Bountiful was at sea level. Certainly Alma 51 does not say that—it mentions a beach, but either on the borders of the Land of Bountiful (Alma 51:28), or beyond that since Teancum pitched his tents “in the borders of the land Bountiful” and Amalickiah “pitched his tents in the borders on the beach by the seashore” which would have been further east of Teancum (Alma 51:32). Even by Sorenson’s comments, the land of Bountiful “stretched across the isthmus,” the borders are not said to be near the city. Thus it cannot be said that the city of Bountiful was at sea level because the borders of the land had a beach along the east sea (Alma 51:26). We simply do not know how far the city of Bountiful was from the sea. As an example, the Sierra Madre mountains to the west of the Isthmus breaks down into a broad, plateau-like ridge across the Isthmus, whose elevation, at the highest point is 735 feet—if Sorenson's city of Bountiful was near this point, it would not be at sea level.
According to Sorenson, this makes “the entire isthmus or narrow neck, low-lying.” However, again, there is no way to verify this by any scriptural reference—Sorenson, as usual, is simply using his Mesoamerican model and inserting its topography into the scriptural record as though Mormon is telling us all this, which runs contrary to the scriptural record and the narrow pass or passage through the narrow neck. It might also be noted that Sorenson continually uses the term “isthmus” for the narrow neck of land, since his narrow neck is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, he inserts the term into his scriptural record references, though the term “isthmus” never appears in the Book of Mormon. In addition, according to the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, an isthmus is only applied to a strip of land “of considerable extent between the seas.” So an isthmus is of considerable size, while the narrow neck is by definition, "small" and “narrow.”
The top three show a narrow land compared to that around each of these isthmuses or narrow necks; however,  Tehuantepec is not narrow compared to that land on either side of the isthmus
Now let’s take a scriptural look at this narrow neck, what Alma calls a “small neck of land” (Alma 22:32), and a “narrow neck” (Alma 63:5). This narrow neck “led into the northward” between the land Bountiful and land Desolation (Alma 63:5). In addition, Mormon tells us that a “narrow pass” led by the sea into the land northward, yea, by the sea, on the west and on the east” (Alma 50:34), and then repeats that this narrow pass led into the Land Northward (Alma 52:9) from the land of Bountiful. Mormon also tells us that this narrow pass (Alma 2:29; 3:5), which he also calls a passage, “led into the land southward" (Mormon 2:29) from the land Desolation (Mormon 3:5).
Consequently, we see that not only was there a “small neck” or “narrow neck” of land between the Land Northward and the Land Southward (Alma 22:32), but that within this narrow neck, which ran from sea to sea across the Land of Promise (Alma 22:32; 59:34) ran a narrow pass or passage. Now it is difficult to envision a narrow pass, which the 1828 dictionary defines as “a pass between mountains,” obviously suggesting the pass ran between two higher levels, such as hills or mountains, much like a canyon, as existing within a low-lying area as Sorenson describes. After all, if it was merely a solid roadway or footpath on higher ground across swampy terrain, as Sorenson also claims, surely Mormon would not have used the term “narrow pass,” but rather a path or road.
It is not possible to describe movement across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as moving from the south to the north—the land is configured almost due east and west
As for there being a “northward-southward axis” through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, as Sorenson describes above, we need to keep in mind that this Isthmus, and all of Mesoamerica, is in a land area that runs east and west, not north and south, despite Sorenson’s many attempts to confuse this directional problem he has with his model. Take for example, even with modern maps and satellite photos of today, current descriptions of this area state that “The states of Tabasco and Chiapas are on the east of the isthmus, with Veracruz and Oaxaca on the west” (emphasis mine), showing us that modern man considers that the Isthmus of Tehuantepec runs north and south between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean and adjacent lands are to the west and east!  Thus, as can be seen, there is simply no agreement between Sorenson’s Mesoamerican model and Mormon’s descriptions of the narrow neck of land and adjacent area.
Sorenson also wrote following the above, “How wide was this narrow neck? One historical anecdote makes clear that it was wide enough that a party passing through it could not detect seas on either side. Limhi’s explorers traveled northward from the land of Nephi trying to locate Zarahemla but wandered on through the narrow neck. When they returned home they thought they had been in the land southward the whole time. Actually, they had journeyed all the way through the neck to the zone of the Jaredites’ final battles (see Mosiah 8:8; 21:25).”
Nephites traveling through any one of these "narrow passes" would not have been able to see to the right or left beyond the hill, cliff, or mountain through which they traveled. One would not need to be passing through a wide neck of land not to see the seas on either side since vision would not allow much line-of-site from side to side
It should also be kept in mind, that while we know there was a Land Southward and a Land Northward, separated by a narrow neck, Limhi's people traveling in both lands did not, for the Nephites had never been that far north according to the scriptural record. Thus, they would obviously have thought they were in the Land Southward the entire time--what other land would they have thought they were in? This also would have caused them to think they found the Land of Zarahemla and that the people had all been killed. What other land and people would they have thought they found? After all, prior to 121 B.C., the Nephites had no idea there was another portion to the Land of Promise—that is, a Land Northward. These expedition members never knew there was such a place, and even having been there, didn’t know they had been in such a land, only that they thought they had discovered the remains of Zarahemla, and when Ammon reached the city of Lehi-Nephi around 121 B.C., Limhi "was exceedingly glad" when he learned that his "brethren who were in the land of Zarahemla are yet alive." (Mosiah 7:14).

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