Saturday, December 6, 2014

Why Did Lehi Not Have Fires?

Quite often when we read the scriptural record, we pass over some significant or interesting facts that may not, at first, seem apparent or noteworthy. As an example, Nephi tells us: “For the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:12).
Yet, their food was the wild animals that Nephi and his brothers were able to hunt and kill along the way (1 Nephi 16:15), and when game was not available or when Nephi broke his bow and his brother’s bows lost their spring, the party “did suffer much for the want of food” (1 Nephi 16:19).   
    Without a means of obtaining food, Nephi states that he “did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow” (1 Nephi 16:23). However, making a bow out of wood is not a simple fete, and finding the right wood would have been important since he would have needed a piece long enough, thick enough, straight enough, and flexible yet strong enough to draw back with great force without breaking. Such an effort would take someone with learning, skill, ingenuity and determination. Evidently, Nephi had some experience with bows, and was evidently an accomplished hunter for it was he, it seems, that provided the bulk of the game along their journey (1 Nephi 16:18).
    This new bow would have been different, no doubt a different size and weaker than his steel bow, and obviously would have had a different draw weight. The fact that he had to make an arrow for it and not use one of his own or brother’s arrows, suggest a different, customized requirement to be of use with this new wood bow.
Top Left: Olive tree; Top Right: Pomegranate tree; Bottom Left: Acacia tree; Bottom Right: Juniper tree--all were available in the area where Nephi would have broken his steel bow
    While Nephi probably had olive, pomegranate, acacia or juniper for wood in the area, archaeologist Salim Saad claims that the especially hard, close-grained fruitwood of the pomegranate tree, which is remarkably limber and tough, and grows around a place called Jiddah (Jeddah)—a tiny village in Lehi’s time—would have been an absolute necessity for bow-making purposes. On the other hand, the Egyptians of the time used Acacia, Tamarisk, and Jujube, all of which are found in the southern Arabian Peninsula; however, anciently the Atim tree, which is an Olive tree, was used along the coastal area of the Asir Mountains close to the Frankincense Trail, for all types of weapons, including arrows, staffs, throwing sticks and spears, as well as being flexible for bows. An extremely hard wood, it was also used for hammers and gimlets. In addition, Nibley cites the use of nab wood, which is a sa’sam, the same as shauhal or jujube Indian wood.
The Asir Mountains are a series of escarpments alongside the Red Sea down the western coast of Arabia where Nephi probably went to hunt 
    It is interesting that Nephi says the instruction on the Liahona caused him to “go forth up into the top of the mountain” where he was able to find and “slay wild beasts” (1 Nephi 16:30-31), since it is in the tops of the mountains in this area where mountain goats, gazelle, leopards and wolf are common.
    Along the route they took, Nephi makes no mention of meeting any other party in their eight years and about 2500 miles of wandering in the wilderness. Of course a casual passing of a stray family or an occasional camel caravan would not have merited any special attention, but any actual meeting or joining would certainly have elicited some comment in the narrative.
    To cook the meat of the wild animals killed for food, normally a fire would have been struck for cooking during the day or at night, and also for warmth and light, but the Lord told Nephi, “I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not; and I will also be your light in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:13). Not until they reached the seashore at the place Lehi called Bountiful did they feel free to build fires. Nephi tells us he did so when he built a bellows “to blow the fire” that he made striking two stones together (1 Nephi 17:11). 
    What was the difference? 
In 1922-24, ninety-three years after Joseph Smith translated the plates, Bertram S. Thomas (left), became the first Westerner to cross the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter), a desert in Southern Arabia—an area until then that was forbidden to all but the Bedouin and completely unknown outside the Arab world. Thomas was a British civil servant and later became the Wazir (Vizir), or high-ranking political advisor (minister) to the Sultan of Oman. He wrote in Arabia Felix, that despite the bitter cold at night, campfires were avoided because they might attract the attention of a prowling raiding party over long distances of sculptured sand dunes and invite a night attack. He added, that on occasion, a favorable sheltered depression in this vast land sometimes referred to as the Abode of Silence and called simply by the Bedouins “The Sands,” provided an opportunity for a fire that could not be seen from a higher spot. In addition, the smoke of a daytime fire was just as likely to be spotted by some distant rover or murderous raiding party and just as dangerous. His comment: “Fires were not out of the question, but rare and risky,” seems to match Nephi's comment: “For the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire,” suggesting Lehi’s party followed this ancient Bedouin custom of not traveling with fire through this largest sand desert in the world, but only occasionally were able to build one. 
    Obviously, in traveling through these perpetually shifting sand dunes there was always the fear of raiding parties to keep Lehi and his group alert and tense. At night, no fires meant raw food “we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:2), though the Lord told them that “I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not” (1 Nephi 17:12).
    According to William F. Albright (Archaeology and the Religion of Israel, Johns Hopkins Press, 1942, p. 101), the area where Lehi traveled has always been a land of “disoriented groups and of individual fugitives, where organized semi-nomadic Arab tribes alternate with sedentary society, runaway slaves, bandits, and their descendants.” Obviously, it would have been imperative to avoid all contact with anyone, not knowing who was friend and who was foe.
After all, the raid is a highly honorable and traditional undertaking among the desert tribes, and includes attacks on neighboring tribes as well as on traveling caravans. Jeremiah, in Lehi’s day, wrote: “Thou has laid in ambush for them, as the Arabians in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 3:2). All this bears out the reality, supported both by archaeology and modern experience, that Lehi was moving through a dangerous world. In ancient times Jewish merchants traveling through the desert fell so often into the hands of Bedouin raiders that by the beginning of the Christian era their word for "captor" normally meant simply "Arab." Inscriptions from Lehi's time show that "in the peninsula there was constant unrest," and "the honored man did not dare stay in the open country, and flight did not save the fainthearted." Hunger, danger, loneliness, fear—Lehi's people knew them all.
    The Arab tribes of this desert are in a state of almost perpetual war against each other. To surprise the stranger by a sudden attack, and to plunder a camp, are chief objects of the Bedouin. Raiding to them is the spice of life, and "might is right." In the desert, “a man ever walks in fear for his life and possessions." Lehi, of courser, could ill afford to get embroiled in these perennial desert feuds, and yet he was everywhere a trespasser—the only way for him to stay out of trouble was to observe a rule which Bertram Thomas lays down for all travelers in the desert, even today: "An approaching party may be friend, but is always assumed to be foe."
    Consequently, the Lord’s injunction to Lehi not to make much fire as they journeyed in the wilderness makes sense in light of the understanding of the area through which he traveled. It also shows the accurate portrayal and knowledge of the times and conditions in which Lehi lived--factors unknown and unheard of in the U.S. in 1830.

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