Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Is the Narrow Neck the Key? – Part I

Venice Priddis claims the narrow neck of land is the major key to Book of Mormon geography. Phyllis Carol Olive claims the Hill Cumorah is the key to the geography. John L. Sorenson claims that “Mormon North” is the key to understanding the geography. Milton R. Hunter claimed the Popul Vuh was the key to understanding the Book of Mormon. It seems that just about everyone has a pet key, that once understood is claimed to be the answer to discovering the location of the Book of Mormon lands.
    Of course, there are many who have no interest in where the Nephite lands were located, accepting simply on faith the accuracy and validity of the Book of Mormon. At the same time, there are many others who argue extensively over the meaning and location of descriptive scripture left us by Nephi, Jacob, Mormon and Moroni as to where the Land of Promise was located.
    So is it important?
To many, having visited the Holy Lands in the Middle East, the Bible events and message has come alive, and to many others, seeing pictures of Israel, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and knowing where Jesus walked, has significantly strengthened their testimony of the messages of these ancient events and acts.
    So if we are going to look for, and support a position of, the Land of Promise as described in Mormon’s writings, where do we look? Is the narrow neck, or the hill Cumorah, or the land’s diretions where we begin?
    It might be of interest to know that for the past 25 years or so there has been a movement or trend called Biblical Minimalism (Copenhagen School) that began in the 1990s with two main claims:1) The Bible cannot be considered reliable evidence for what had happened in ancient Israel; and 2) "Israel" itself is a problematic subject for historical study (Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel’s Past, Eerdmans Publishing, Cambridge, 2011).
    The emphasis for this movement, mostly taught at the University of Copenhagen, as well as other universities, claims that before the 1970s, the study of the bible had been in its adolescence, and not until the 1990s, did the scriptural pursuit enter into a more mature and flourishing field. People like the archaeologist William Dever and the influential publication Biblical Archaeology Review were in opposition to evangelical Christians such as biblical scholar Iain Provan and Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen. As early as 1974, Thomas L. Thompson raised serious questions about the assumption that the patriarchs could be securely located in a particular historical period in his book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, in which he states that there is no historical evidence that the Patriarchs should be dated to the Middle Bronze Age, since some of the descriptive parts of their lives did not fit that age, but rather the Iron Age. This debate went on for more than a decade.
    Although these debates were in some cases heated, most scholars stayed in the middle ground between minimalists and maximalists evaluating the arguments of both schools critically, and since the 1990s, while some of the minimalist arguments have been challenged or rejected, others have been refined and adopted into the mainstream of biblical scholarship.
Not to belabor this extensive argument here, but it should be noted that the well accepted concepts of the Bible, where, when, how, etc., have more and more evolved over this past twenty-five year period in mainstream biblical scholarship. And in the second claim is that "Israel" itself is a difficult idea to define in terms of historiography. There is, firstly, the idealizd Israel, which the Bible authors created—"biblical Israel," that in the words of Niels Peter Lemche wrote in 1998, “The Israelite nation as explained by the biblical writers has little in the way of a historical background. It is a highly ideological construct created by ancient scholars of Jewish tradition in order to legitimize their own religious community and its religio-political claims on land and religious exclusivity.” 
    In fact, modern scholars have taken aspects of biblical Israel and married them with data from archaeological and non-biblical sources to create their own version of a past Israel—"Ancient Israel." Neither bears much relationship to the kingdom destroyed by Assyria in about 722 B.C.—"historical Israel." In this ongoing debate,the real subjects for history-writing in the modern period are either this historical Israel or else the biblical Israel, the first a historical reality and the second an intellectual creation of the biblical authors. Linked with this was the observation that modern biblical scholars had concentrated their attentions exclusively on Israel and Judah, and their religious history, while ignoring the fact that these had been only a fairly insignificant part of a wider whole.
    The point is, what is one to believe, not about the tenets of Christianity and Hebraism, but of the events described that bring these tenets into their reality? It is not that this modern movement is destroying the Jewish or Christian underpinings, but in its questioning without opposition the locations, attitudes, natures, and significant actions of these people, the very stories we have known all our lives are taking on an entirely different view to the present and younger generations. In another generation or two, we will have two different bibles—a “fanciful” and a “real” one, and who can say where we go from there.
    It seems to me that in understanding the actual events that take place in history, based on an accurate and defensible knowledge of that history, that is not open to differing views of the historical setting in which they took place, or in the scriptural record of the Nephites, a setting of understanding of where Lehi landed, where Nephi traveled, where the city of Nephi was built and where the Mulekites founded the city or settlement of Zarahemla, are as important to our appreciation of God’s dealings with man as is knowing and understanding where Christ was born, where Jerusalem was located, and where the Savior was when he turned the water into wine. Or understanding the road down which the “certain man” was traveling when attacked, and why thieves frequented that road and that an attack would happen, and how unusual it would have been for the Good Samaritan to help the Jew and likely save his life.
Jericho Road heading down from Jerusalem to Jericho 
    Events of the past did not happen in a vacuum, they took place in real areas, under real circumstances, in real environments. When knowing that Jerusalem sets at 2582 feet above sea level on the top of a mountain (Mountain of Jerusalem, which is across from the Mountain of Olives), and the road winds down the mountain to Jericho, which is 846 feet below sea level, or the road drops 3428 feet in 16 miles as the crow flies, then the Lord’s statement “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30) rings true in the telling.
    Of course, not knowing these details does not change the story, however, it lessens its impact for one is not seeing a dark and dreary road, winding down around the mountain where there are no houses, buildings, or people, and could easily fall among thieves since that is where thieves frequented and lay in wait to fall upon an unwary traveler.
    It is like a question I was asked a while back by a reader of this blog who couldn’t understand why Laban was not discovered since he was killed in a city street and Nephi apprehended. But in knowing the nature of these streets, that few people ventured out into them after dark, in a city where people went to bed early and got up at dawn, where the streets were usually covered over and only an occasional torch lit the way, Laban’s undiscovered body that gave Nephi enough time to change clothes and escape is not surprising.
    So how important is it to know where the Land of Promise is located and the events took place?
(See the next post, “Is the Narrow Neck the Key? – Part II,” for more on the importance of landmarks, and how to find the location of the Land of Promise and understand the events that took place there)

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