Tuesday, October 9, 2018

What Did Nephi Mean “Eight Years in the Wilderness?

It is interesting how often theorists, with answers right before their eyes, skip over what they consider of little import on their search for answers. When Nephi later sat down to write his story on the Plates as commanded by the Lord, he said of their journey in the wilderness after leaving Jerusalem and before reaching Bountiful, “we did sojourn for the space of many years, yea, even eight years in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:4).
    How did Nephi know they had spent eight years in the wilderness?
Jewish Passover is a critical part of celebration among orthodox followers of the Law of Moses, which the Nephites were. They would have had to know when that took place exactly each year, as well as numerous other points in time

How did he know that? How did he know that eight years had passed? None of the normal events he had been used to before leaving Jerusalem had been available to him, such as Passover, planting and harvesting time, mid-day points, rising measure or mid-evening day-marks (i.e., points on the horizon to which the sun crosses that helped the ancients know the time of day).
    During his stationary life at Jerusalem, Nephi had been used to seeing the sun’s movement through the heavens, perhaps even known of an observatory or at least its results as early astronomers tracked the sun across the heavens through its equinox—this can be done by recognizing that no matter where the Sun rises or sets, the middle of its path is above about the same part of the horizon. That means you can always tell when the middle of the day is if you know above which point on the horizon the highest point of the Sun's path is, referred to as Midday Place (Highday).
    Also, no matter how high the Sun is above the horizon, it always passes over the same points on the horizon after the same interval of time. Using these facts, Nephi would have been able to develop a system of time-keeping that would enable him to know the time frames through which they traveled for eight years, most of which would have been along either the same longitude (Jerusalem to where they turned almost due east), and latitude (the Red Sea to Bountiful).
    Of course, long before Nephi’s time, the day had been divided into time periods for work or ritual, people had divided the day into 12 periods, or hours (the hour did not have a fixed length until the Greeks decided they needed such a system for theoretical calculations, some time after Nephi). They were based on the 12 hours of daylight and the 12 hours of darkness on the days of the Equinoxes, though people continued to use seasonally varying hours for a long time (the invention of mechanical clocks in the 14th century A.D., standardized the hour—that is, an equinoctial hour for all times of the year).
    This resulted in some days having daylight hours as long as 75 minutes and nighttime hours as short as 45 minutes, or visa versa in the other half of the year. Only on the equinoxes were their hours actually “60 minutes” long for both day and night.
    In fact, not until the pendulum clock in the 16th and 17th centuries was this standardization consistent with what we have today, and there was no device for keeping accurate time at sea until the latter 18th century, and soon after Greenwich Mean Time became the standard international time in 1884.
Left: Red Circle—Polaris in the Little Dipper; Blue Circle—Thuban in Draco; Right: Red Circle—Polaris; Yellow Circle—Errai in Cepheus; Green Circle--Alderamin also in Cepheus

A stationary or pole star was not discovered until 169 A.D. (by Claudius Ptolemy), and became a navigational tool around the 5th century when Stobaeus described it as “always visible.” Known today as Polaris, though earlier known as Phoenice, it is referred to as the North Star, and is not constant because of the “wobble” of the Earth (precession of the equinoxes) and the star the North Pole points to will change (it will be Errai (Gamma Cephei) by 4000 A.D., and Alderamin after that around 7500 A.D. Before Polaris the North Star was Thuban about 3000 B.C., which was well known to the Egyptians—who also invented the merkhet (“instrument of knowing”) for keeping time. This allowed for time keeping at night by holding up the device, which had a string with a weight attached to one end, enabling a straight line to be held across the sky. When two merkhets were aligned with the North Star, they formed a celestial meridian in the sky. The time could then be determined by counting how many stars crossed this line.
The Egyptian markhet, was an ancient time keeping instrument. It involved the use of a bar with a plumb line, attached to a wooden handle—when held against the North Star, time could be counted

The point is, while Nephi did not have privy to the modern conveniences we have to tell time and mark the years, such matters were well enough known in his day that he was both knowledgeable of such matters and able to determine their length.
    Consequently, when Nephi was capable of determine the length of eight years in the wilderness while they were constantly moving along the Red Sea and also then across the Empty Quarter on their trek to Bountiful, he was able to determine the time it took for them to make that journey.
    Now for someone in Nephi’s era, when civilizations needed time as a matter of basic survival for such things as crop planning and harvesting, it was naturally imperative to have a knowledge of seasonal changes—to know when the planting season for their location was, and when the harvesting period took place.
    While modern man spends little, if any time at all, thinking of such matters, that knowledge alone could determine whether people lived or died in the period of Nephi, particularly when on their own and away from the normal sequences of life, such as wandering in the wilderness. If modern man runs out of food, he can run down to the grocery store, but in antiquity, food was not readily available and unless you could go out and find game, a difficult task in the winter months, you would likely starve. To show ho this was important to Lehi’s party, consider how everyone became fearful and even the staunch Lehi murmured against the Lord because they “could obtain no food” (1 Nephi 16:18,20).
    This began, no doubt, with methods of telling time involved through simple observations of the natural world, perhaps by wedging sticks in the ground and monitoring the movements of the shadows. This particular experiment would have evoked the most fundamental part of a sundial, (gnomon), which is the component that casts the shadow. It's easy to imagine this practice advancing into the use of obelisks, pillars and other megalithic clocks and calendars.
    For the most part, however, the earliest natural events to be recognized were in the heavens, but during the course of the year there were many other events that indicated significant changes in the environment. Seasonal winds and rains, the flooding of rivers, the flowering of trees and plants, and the breeding cycles or migration of animals and birds, all led to natural divisions of the year, and further observation and local customs led to the recognition of the seasons—while they were not aware of, and had no need for, the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute and even second-by-second our modern world needs, ancient man needed far less accuracy—a day or two seldom made a difference in anything. With Nephi, of course, for eight years moving through the wilderness for some 2000 miles from Jerusalem to Bountiful, almost all of the normal time-keeping methods would not have been available to him; however, some would have been as listed above.
There are several ancient observatories in Andean Peru, since understanding astronomical observations was important to the ancients; the one at Licurnique us dated to 2000BC, and the one above is at Chinkillo, a 4th century BC complex along the Peruvian north coast

The point of this is simply that anyone who could have determined an eight-year time keeping span with only the heavens as the source, would certainly not have been confused by the directions of a new location of the sun and its movement across the heavens as John L. Sorenson and other Mesoamericanists claim about the Nephites not understand the directions of their Land of Promise.
    The requirements of understanding an eight year span, with nothing whatever familiar to them to make such a judgment because of the changing topography, yet still understand correctly the passage of time would not have been confused about the passing of the sun and its adjusting directions and seasonal locations, which they would have observed each day and marked its passing. Consequently, “eight years in the wilderness” would be the same thing as knowing and understanding “land northward,” “land southward,” “land which is northward,” “land north,” “land south,” When writers, no matter their credentials, begin telling us that the Nephites did not understand directions, we should recognize they have little understanding of the needs, knowledge and understanding as well as abilities of ancient man, whose very existence required such knowledge and understanding, especially when those ancient people were isolated from their normal environment, as Lehi and his party were for those eight years.

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