Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What is the Significance of 3 Days Travel?

Nephi writes that they left the area of Jerusalem and “departed into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:4), which is an age-old Hebrew phrase with specific overtones. As an example, in the ancient Hebrew philosophy, being in the desert/wilderness had two specific inferences: 1) the word B'midbar, meaning “in the desert” was a place of exile, devoid of significant human habitation, attracting those consigned to its bleak landscape to live an outlaw and even criminal existence (Genesis 16:7; 21:14; 21:20-21); and 2) more importantly, being in the desert/wilderness depicted oneself as hefker, that is, “ownerless,” and therefore, dependent upon God. 
The stony, barren, eastern declivity of the wilderness of Judea just outside Jerusalem, extending south along the Dead Sea in the area Lehi would have traveled. It is a harsh, unrelenting land anciently infested with wild beasts
    The latter meaning is often attached to the Hebrew idiom of “departing into the wilderness,” which removes a person, who is “self absorbed” and has difficulty accepting and following the directives of virtually any outside authority, from the environment supporting their self-indulgence. Thus, departing into the wilderness was meant to create some degree of hitbatlut (self-abnegation—voluntary restraint in the satisfaction of one’s appetites), which God expects of the truly spiritual individual. Being out in the desert powerfully contributes to an individual's sensibility that his or her existence is relatively insignificant when compared to the majestic scale of God and his works.
The wilderness was a locale for intense experiences—of stark need for food and water (manna and quails), of isolation (Elijah and the still small voice), of danger and divine deliverance (Hagar and Ishmael), of renewal, of encounters with God (Moses, the burning bush, the revelation of the divine name, Mount Sinai). There is a psychology as well as a geography of wilderness, a theology gained in the wilderness.
    Thus, Moses took the children of Israel into the wilderness, where they spent forty years trying to learn a dependency upon God; Lehi was led into the wilderness, where he spent eight years; Nephi was told to flee into the wilderness, where he spent an unspecified “many days”; Mosiah was told to depart into the wilderness, where he and his group were led by many preachings and prophesyings; Christ went into the wilderness where he spent 40 days; and, it would seem, there will be a time and place where God leads each of us into a figurative wilderness experience of our own.
    The purpose of “departing into the wilderness” is often for learning to trust, developing obedience, and gaining understanding—it is a place of cleansing and purification. While Lehi was told to depart into the wilderness to escape from those who sought his life, the experience was crucial in the development of the prophet and at least part of his family. It also gave Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael the opportunity to learn to trust in God—unfortunately, with these rebellious souls it did not take any more than it did with the original generation of Israel Moses led out of Egypt.
    In any event, the significance of Lehi “departing into the wilderness” should not be lost on our understanding of this event, and the teaching and molding of two future prophets (Nephi and Jacob) and the molding of a people dedicated to serving the Lord (the Nephites).
Following their travel away from Jerusalem, Lehi then “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).
    The Gulf of Aqaba measures 15 miles at its widest, is 99 miles in length, and over six thousand feet in depth. Both of these gulfs were created by the Sinai Peninsula’s bifurcation of the northern Red Sea, which forms the southern end of the Dead Sea Transform (Rift) along a strike-slip fault (tectonic plate boundary) segment.
In Lehi’s time, what is now called the Gulf of Aqaba (sometimes called the Gulf of Eliat and anciently referred to as the Fountain of the Red Sea) was the eastern branch of the Red Sea or, more accurately, a gulf (east of the Sinai) within the Red Sea, just as the Gulf of Suez was a gulf (west of the Sinai) within the Red Sea.
Lehi would have traveled along the Wadi Arabah through this Rift valley toward the ancient port city of Eziongeber (Ezion-Geber or Etzyon Gever) at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is where King Solomon’s ships left on their way to Ophir (about 350 years before Lehi sailed), and the main port of Israel’s commerce with the countries bordering along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean (1 Kings 9:26). From this point, Lehi evidently traveled another 100 miles or so, down the east side of this gulf to where he stopped at one point and perhaps rested, then traveled again and “when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water” (1 Nephi 2:6).
So why is this particular three day’s journey singled out? First, let’s consider the distance of three days of travel. According to Dr. Barry J. Beitzel, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages Director, Middle Eastern Studies Program, Trinity Divinity School, and author of the widely-acclaimed Moody Atlas of the Bible (1985) and the New Moody Atlas (2009), as well as two other Bible Atlas and Encyclopedias, claims that a day’s travel in Old Testament times was between 17 and 23 miles per day, and considered the measurement of both Hebrews and Arabs in the Middle East (see the future post “How Far was a Day-and-a-Half Journey for a Nephite?”). Consequently, a three day journey would have been between 50 and 70 miles, or an average of 60 miles overall.
    It should also be noted that this gulf lies in a pronounced cleft between hills rising abruptly to about 2,000 feet and is part of the complex East African Rift System, with its head touching the Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian boundaries. This becomes important in understanding the need for Lehi to travel three days beyond these borders to make sure he was outside Israel’s confines or boundaries.
This was important under the Mosiac Law, which Lehi obeyed, and the Dead Sea scrolls provide an alternative interpretation of this particular Mosaic Law which explains why Nephi was careful to record that he and his family traveled an additional three day journey after they reached the edge of the Israelite Kingdom near the shores of the Red Sea before pitching their tents and offering sacrifice to the Lord (1 Nephi 2: 5-6). The expression “three days’ journey from the temple” occurs twice in the Temple Scroll, first in column 43:12 about the law of the tithe, and again in column 52:14 concerning sacrifice, with this second reference being the most important to understand Nephi’s explanation of a three day journey: “You shall not slaughter a clean ox or sheep or goat in all your towns, near to my temple (within) a distance of a three days’ journey; nay, but inside my temple you shall slaughter it, making it a burnt offering or a peace offering, and you shall eat and rejoice before me at the place on which I shall choose to put my name.”
    Scholar Aharon Shemesh (Associate Professor at the department of Talmud, Bar-Ilan University, who served as visiting professor at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University [2005)]; was a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University [1996 and 2007], at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies [2000] and at the Rockefeller Foundation study center in Bellagio, Italy [2006]) has demonstrated that a three day journey is synonymous with the entire nation of Israel, since an ancient Israelite could reach the temple in Jerusalem from any location in Israel within three days. He also points out that ancient rabbis did not condemn the temples, altars, or sacrifices in the Jewish temple of Inias in Egypt because they were outside the land of Israel.
For many years critics pointed out that Nephi’s reference to build an altar of stone after traveling three days beyond the boundaries of Israel and also the building of a temple in the New World contradicted the Law of Moses, however the Dead Sea scrolls show that Nephi was acting in accordance with the accepted practice of the law. It is also possible that Nephi was subtly stating that his family had left the Kingdom of Israel. They were venturing out into new territory, no longer subjects of the King at Jerusalem, but fully intended to continue living the Law of Moses.
    In any event, the three days are singled out, giving us a time frame for the first time after Lehi leaves Jerusalem, which both provides us greater understanding of the importance and meaning of what Nephi wrote, and shows another important connection with the Book of Mormon and the ancient Jewish culture of the day.


  1. Fascinating about the 3 day journey requirement. Never knew that before.