Monday, June 19, 2017

Understanding Lehi’s Desert Trek

When we think of things from a western mindset, we often see things quite different than they were (or are) in the Middle East. Take the idea of a “road,” for example. We think of a road as something paved with cement or asphalt, or at worse, a hard-packed dirt area with specific boundaries and alignment. However, in the Middle East deserts, it is simply a wide place in the desert that may stretch for a mile or two in width (or more) that is basically flat but appears little different from the rest of the topography.
A typical “road” through the desert, such as the Frankincense Trail, or King’s Highway—often little more than a wide place in the desert between water holes or oases

A “wadi,” which is typically thought of as a dry river bed, sometimes is hard to distinguish from the rest of the surrounding wilderness in the desert. It can also be a valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season.
    It was down the wadi Arabah to the south, from the southern tip of the Dead Sea to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba that Lehi took his family as they fled “into the wilderness” from the area of Jerusalem.
Top: a more recognizable wadi, which is free-flowing river in the rainy or wet season; Bottom: a wadi not so recognizable  because it is not specifically a river during the wet season, but a periodic water flow

The old meaning of Wadi Arabah, which was in use up to the early 20th century, covered almost the entire length of what is today called the Jordan Rift Valley, running in a north-south direction between the southern end of the Sea of Galilee and the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba at Aqaba/Eliat and the seaport of Ezion-Geber. This included the Jordan River Valley between Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea to the north, and the wadi Arabah to the south. 
    Once in the desert, Lehi’s family would have been taken with the harsh difficulty of the place. Loose rocks cover the ground as far as the eye can see to the south of Jerusalem. Shrub-like trees provide the only shade against the sun’s unrelenting heat. Cutting through the landscape are large canyons formed in the past by dangerous wadi floods, which provide a constant reminder of one’s danger. All who travel there know that if the floods come, and they do so without warning, that they will be in constant danger, and have already taken many lives each year—no doubt the reason why the people of Israel are since this southern half is so harsh and dangerous for many to settle.
    How much of this Lehi knew before entering the wilderness is not known, but since he had tents and donkeys and knew how to use them and appeared comfortable in the wilderness, we can safely assume he well understood the dangers through which he passed. He also probably knew that anytime God wanted to test a person and prepare him for a great work, he too him into such hard places where survival depends on the Lord and not upon one’s own expertise.
    Obviously, this was the case with Lehi and his family, and especially Nephi who was being prepared to lead this journey and found a new nation in a promised land. Perhaps this is why it took eight long years before they reached Bountiful. 
The Wilderness of Judea, located to the south of Jerusalem between the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea, through which Lehi would have had to take his family to go south toward the Red Sea

While the term “wilderness” does not necessarily mean an uninhabitable wasteland, that description pretty much denotes the area to the south of Jerusalem through which Lehi traveled to the Red Sea. Beyond that, the term wilderness more describes a country such as nomads may inhabit, with oases and wadis where crops may be planted and harvested, but where no permanent settlements exist. So at this point Lehi's wilderness had "more fertile parts" in which survival was possible (1 Nephi 16:16).
    As Hugh Nibley wrote in “Lehi in the Desert,” (Improvement Era 1950): “The particular waste in which Lehi made his first camp is among the most uninviting deserts on earth; though some observers think the area enjoyed a little more rainfall in antiquity than it does today, all are agreed that the change of climate has not been considerable since prehistoric times—it was at best almost as bad then as it is now. Even if Lehi took the main southern route down the Arabah, as he very probably did, since it was the direct road to the Red Sea, and a caravan way known to all the merchants, he would be moving through a desert so repelling that even the hardened Bedouins avoid it like the plague.”
    Of all the places in the Middle East, perhaps none other than this desert could have tried Lehi and his family to the point of breaking and in the process forging future leaders. It is well known that Romans, Crusaders and the Arabs all passed over these tracks, and they have given us place-names and no more. Probably, as the old saying goes, they found the country too detestable to merit further reference”—certainly Lehi and his family, especially Laman and Lemuel, who "murmured" bitterly at being led into such a place would have described it that way.
Lehi’s journey from outside Jerusalem down to the Valley of Lemuel, their first semi-permanent camp, after wading through the Wilderness of Judea, along the Wadi Arabah, and the desert east of the Gulf of Aqaba—some of the worst desert anywhere

Once reaching the area of the Gulf of Aqaba and the settlement of Eliat, Lehi would have veered to the east into the Wadi Rum (pronounced Ramm), meaning “high” or “elevated,” located  in the southern tip of Jordan, an area frequented by the Nabateans—a people who were exceptionally skilled traders, and who furthered commerce between China, India, the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome, dealing in such goods as spices, incense, gold, animals, iron, copper, sugar, medicines, ivory, perfumes and fabrics.
    This area is also the location known as the Valley of the Moon because of the rock formations, and was the area T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) passed through several times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-1918, and where he helped in the revolt against the Ottoman Empire, assisting in gaining Jordan’s independence from the Turks in 1916. This area, because of its ruggedness has also been used to make several movies, three about Mars, including the recent “The Martian,” with Matt Damon.
    Further south, near the mouth of Aqaba, in 1995, researchers Richard Wellington and George Potter and colleagues found a hitherto unrecognized wadi, which has parallels to the requirements of 1 Nephi 2:10), including a river of water which is "continually running, steadfast and unmovable" which suggests a year-round water flow.  
Top: The Wadi Rum; Bottom: The upper valley of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism (near maqna, Saudi Arabia), the Wellington and Potter’s proposed site for the Valley of Lemuel

Called a “spectacular valley” named Wadi Tayyib al-ism, by Potter, this wadi, or small valley, is typical for the area and contains perhaps the only stream that flows year-round in the region today and empties into the Red Sea. This canyon’s solid granite walls are an impressive sight, and they offer plenty of shade in an area where the temperature in the summer is usually over 110ºF.
    After receiving the Liahona and from this point onward, Lehi traveled the Frankincense Trail southeastward that saw caravans of 300 camels and more anciently, along this portion of the original 2,000-mile-long trail more or less beside the Red Sea, and eventually eastward through the scorching Empty Quarter desert.
    As has been said, there is no greater character-testing and building than desert travel along the route Lehi took. Out of this travel, came two prophets and the fathers of several prophets among the Nephite Nation. Perhaps the greatest prophet we know was that of Nephi, who knew the Lord would ask nothing of man without providing a way for im to accomplish the task. And Lehi, who went into the wilderness without comment and provided the underpinnings of a great nation that lasted for a thousand years.


  1. Do you happen to know what kinds of animals Nephi would have hunted? Looks to me like no self respecting deer would hang around such a place.

  2. Ira: The animals along the Red Sea are not the same as those in the Sand Desert of the Rub'al Khali (Empty Quarter). Which do you mean?

    1. Just wondering what Nephi would have hunted is all. Big or small game I guess is the question. I read a book about the adventures of Lawence of Arabia. Not a fun place to live and travel. Thanks, Ira

  3. There are probably far more animals than one might think that were available for Nephi and his brothers to kill for food:
    1. There were two types of animal life along Nephi’s course. Along the Red Sea where they first traveled, the Oryx (species of antelope), Ibex (species of wild goat), Reem (a large horned animal in ancient Hebrew literature, somewhat like a wild ox [Job 39:9]), as well as a small white deer, pigeon, grouse, partridge, and hare, all of which have been hunted for millennia! No doubt they would have also done some fishing along the Red Sea.
    2. In the Rub’al Khali (Empty Quarter) sand desert, there were Arabian Leopards, Desert Hedgehogs, white-tailed Mongoose, Common cat-like Genet, Honey Badger, Sand Gazelle, Arabian Oryx (White Oryx), Sand Cat or Dune Cat, Sand Fox, Cape Hares, Striped Hyenas, Red Foxes, Caracals (wild cat often called a Desert Lynx), two species of gazelle and Arabian wolves all live within the southern Arabian desert.

  4. Thanks Del, good information.