Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What is So Important About the Scriptural Term “Wilderness”?

I was asked recently about the term “Wilderness” in the Book of Mormon and why we spend time even talking about it—wilderness is wilderness, right? To this question, we can reply:
    One of the tendencies that marks Mesoamerican Theorists, is the tendency to take words in the scriptural record and use them for other than they are meant, or to restrict them to a very narrow meaning when their meaning was intended to be much more broad.
    As an example, the word “wilderness” is interpreted and promoted by these theorists as meaning a mountainous region. They state: “Wilderness areas to the Nephites in the New World involved two kinds of terrain: (1) mountainous territory covered with dense forests and underbrush and (2) lowland jungle area with dense forests and foliage of all kinds. Mormon does not apply the term “wilderness” to such areas as the waters of Ripliancum or the “land among many waters.” He does apply it to the territory known as the east wilderness. Logically, this area is east of the narrow neck of land as well as east of the land of Zarahemla. In fact, the area could be labeled as “Zarahemla’s east wilderness.” John E.Clark claims that: “Internal evidence in the Book of Mormon is convincing that ‘wilderness’ refers to mountainous regions filled with wild beasts.”
Left: Mountain wilderness; Right: Jungle wilderness
    Response: First of all, Mormon describes the land OF many waters, not a land among many waters. There is a difference there, since of means a relationship between one and the other, and is used to indicated derivation, origin or source—a land of many waters, which he goes on to define, includes waters (probably lakes), rivers and fountains, the latter being the source of the waters in the land, or where waters begin. On the other hand, among means “surrounded by,” suggesting a land that is surrounded by waters or spring up. Secondly, according to these theorists, any area mentioned in the Nephite record as wilderness has to be either a mountain area or a jungle. It is interesting to note that both Hugh Nibley and John L. Sorenson believed that the word wilderness in the Book of Mormon meant mountains. In the scriptural record, however, the word wilderness is connected with wild beast (1 Nephi 7:16; Enos 1:20; Alma 2:37; 22:27: however, there is no indication of wild beasts in  other passages (Mosiah 10:9; 18:34; 19:9; 20:4-5; 22:2,6,8,11). As for wilderness overall in the scriptural record, when Lehi left his home at Jerusalem, he “departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:4).
All four images are the areas around Jerusalem—wherever Lehi would have gone into the wilderness, it was neither in mountains nor jungle forest
    Jerusalem rests upon four hills, with the largest hill, called Mount Zion in the Bible, but actually referred to as the southwestern hill of Jerusalem, where the city rests on a limestone plateau 2500 feet above sea level. It is located in the central hill country, and is near the border of the Judean desert. On the west side of Jerusalem are the Judean mountains, on the east side is the Judean desert which descends 4000 feet in 10 miles at the Dead Sea. The rugged terrain of Jerusalem was a definite military advantage, it was easy to defend because the city can only be reached on its northern side. The east, west, and southern sides had steep ravines 200 to 400 feet deep and were unoccupied in 600 B.C.
Views along the Red Sea, which shows a stark desert area
    Secondly, Lehi traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:5). This area, for the entire length of the Red Sea is mostly a desert, with an occasional oasis surrounding a spring or water hole. Caravans must travel from oasis to oasis so that supplies of water and food can be replenished. Much later, Mosiah also referred to this area as a wilderness (Mosiah 1:16; 10:13)
When Nephi arrived in the Land of Promise, he uses the same word, wilderness, when he said: “And it came to pass that we did find upon the land of promise, as we journeyed in the wilderness, that there were beasts in the forests of every kind” (1 Nephi 18:25). Certainly, then, a wilderness to Nephi included a forest. A forest is usually an area with trees, that is a vast expanse covered by trees, but any tall densely packed area of vegetation may be considered a forest. The use of the word forest in English used to denote any uninhabited area of non-enclosure, or an uncultivated area, and did not need to be wooded, though the word was originally forhist, meaning wooded country.
Nephi also wrote: “and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken” (1 Nephi 19:1-2). Nephi also describes the areas of Egypt and the Sinai into which the Israelites were driven in the time of Moses as a wilderness (1 Nephi 19:10). Actually, the area of the Sinai is referred to on maps as “the wilderness of Sinai.” Lehi also refers to the area of the desert strip beside the Red Sea and the area of the Rub’ al Khali desert (Empty Quarter) as a wilderness (2 Nephi 2:1-2, 11; 3:1, 3, 20). In addition, after Lehi’s death, when the Lord told Nephi to flee his older brothers, Nephi tells us that he “did journey in the wilderness for the space of many days. And after we had journeyed for the space of many days we did pitch our tents” (2 Nephi 5:7). Therefore, the area in the Land of Promise between the area of their first landing along the west seashore (Alma 22:28), and the City of Nephi, was also a wilderness (Mosiah 10:16). Also, the land around the location of the Lamanites Nephi called a wilderness (2 Nephi 5:24).
Left: Semi-Desert; Right: Dried up river. These are not the same; consequently, other than a semi-desert could also be a wilderness—in fact, any uninhabited tract of land is a wilderness
    Despite the fact that Hugh Nibley claims a wilderness is a semi-desert, the Lord has called a dried up sea and river a wilderness (2 Nephi 7:2). And Jacob refers to the children of Israel being in the wilderness (Jacob 1:7), and that Abraham had been in the wilderness (Jacob 4:8). Jacob also refers to the place where he was born as a wilderness (Jacob 7:26). In fact, Enos also calls the area where the Lamanites wandered about as a wilderness (Enos 1:20).
    We also learn that the area between the City of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla was called a wilderness by Amaleki (Omni 1:12-13, 27-29; Mosiah 7:4; 9:2-4) some 400 years after Lehi left Jerusalem. In addition, when the Mulekites left Jerusalem on their way to the sea, they also wandered in the wilderness (Omni 1:16). When Alma left with his converts to avoid king Noah’s army, he fled into the wilderness (Mosiah 18:34).
    It should be evident from all of this that no one type of topography can be a definition of wilderness, but that the word has a far greater reference than just a mountainous or jungle area. Nor does it only mean a desert, or just a forest. In Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, a wilderness is defined as an unoccupied tract of land, which seems to be the only definition that would fit the several scriptures in the Book of Mormon as indicated above.
   As a result, when someone refers to a wilderness by stating it was a specific type of wilderness, it can be assumed he is trying to defend his model by wanting the scriptural record to state something not necessarily intended--such as Clark trying to make "wilderness" mean "jungle." Again, this is not scholarship--it is self-serving and disingenuous. Therefore, it should be stated that the word "wilderness" is not so important as the idea that all words in the scriptural record are important to understand in their true meaning--not the meaning writers or historians try to claim they mean. And any guide to a word in the Book of Mormon should be considered in the light of the language Joseph Smith knew in 1829 when he translated the records, for he is the one that chose the English words we have and, it should be kept in mind, were verified as correct by the Spirit before Joseph was allowed to go on to the next phrase. And New England English in 1829 was different in many ways from the English we know today.

1 comment:

  1. I do not know much about Australia so I would not know where to go, I would like to go india2australia Vancouver and take an excursion to the Wilderness.
    They still have Virgin Forests up there and all kinds of Wildlife still like wolves and grizzly bears.