Rappleye re-examines the location of Nahom, outlining (1) where the text suggests Nahom would be located on the Arabian Peninsula, and (2) where the tribe of Nihm would have been located in Lehi’s day, concluding that both lines of evidence produce a remarkable convergence and detailing four concrete proposals for the general location of Ishmael’s burial.
In this article, Neal Rappleye reviews both the textual and historical evidence surrounding Nahom as a Book of Mormon place name, attempting to show whether and how that evidence independently converges on the tribal area of the Nihm in Yemen. Having progressed from a suggested correlation based on hints from old maps, this convergence has since become a consensus among LDS scholars resting on a foundation of interlocking linguistic and archaeological details. Rappleye focuses on evidence that predates the initial identification of Nahom with Nihm in 1977, “without assuming or taking for granted interpretations of the text that may be influenced by the presumed location of Nahom in Yemen.” This effort follows four steps: (1) reviewing the basic textual indications of the path followed by Lehi through Arabia, (2) looking at the geographic distribution of existing burial sites near the region that the text suggests Ishmael might have been interred, (3) examining Nephi’s specific reference to Nahom for further details that may further narrow its location, and (4) considering the historical geography of Nihm based on an interpretation of primary sources. These steps lead Rappleye to propose four potential scenarios for the location of Lehi’s camp and Ishmael’s burial in Nahom.
Though Lehi’s exact route is impossible to determine, Rappleye nonetheless reviews the “indefinite itinerary” from the Valley of Lemuel (likely Wadi Tayyib al-Ism) and Shazer (likely Wadi Agharr/Sharma) to Nahom, with the Frankincense Trail being a logical route through the Arabian wilderness. This trail turned east at Wadi Jawf, in keeping with Nephi’s description of an eastward turn after Nahom (other alternatives run in a northeastward direction). Though there are a number of ways to traverse that area, Rappleye suggests Lehi’s party moved through the mountains after Shazer, and could have followed one of three main routes through or around Wadi Jawf, and would have been able to continue in a nearly eastward direction to the fertile Dhofar region in southern Oman (the likely location of Bountiful). Rappleye marks the practical boundaries of this turn as an area 60 miles around Wadi Jawf, north-to-south.
Though it’s possible that Ishmael was buried informally someplace near the party’s path, the preferred option would have been a formal burial ground, with the Jawf valley featuring a series of turret tomb necropolises, which appear to have been used by itinerant travelers burying their dead along the caravan route. Funerary stelae of the travelers’ faces have been found along that route, including one with an Arabic version of the name Ishmael. 1 Nephi 16:33-39 contains some additional clues to help identify this path, including having to “tarry for the space of a time” (which would have required resources such as those available in the fertile Jawf) and the daughters of Ishmael lamenting having suffered in the wilderness. Depending on how this passage is interpreted, this period of suffering could allude further back to the camp of the broken bow, or to their time in Nahom itself (perhaps as they waited to grow crops), but if it refers to the period immediately preceding Nahom, it would aptly describe travel through the arid region just north of the Jawf. Either way, the text is consistent with the geography of the area.
Rappleye compares these details with the known extent of the tribal area of Nihm, looking first at the modern administrative area’s boundaries (somewhat south of the Jawf and the turn eastward). The tribes’ territory extends somewhat beyond those boundaries, and covered a much larger area historically, including in the early Islamic period and as indicated by pre-Islamic inscriptions. This includes the area north of the Jawf that encompasses the various options for the eastward turn. Rappleye recounts four such scenarios, each with various strengths and weaknesses:
- Lehi encamping along Wadi Nihm after getting lost in the confusing arid trails north of Wadi Jawf.
- Ishmael being buried in a necropolis north of the village of Milh from which they would turn “nearly eastward” to rejoin the main trail.
- Camping at Wadi Jawf itself with Ishmael being taken to remote burial areas further along the trail (which the Wadi lacked).
- Setting up an encampment at the Khabb Oasis, which features a trail running “nearly eastward” toward the proposed Bountiful sites in the Dhofar region.
As Rappleye concludes:
“The earliest documented Nihm borders correspond nearly exactly to the region wherein Nahom must be located, and scholarly commentary on the inscriptional evidence tends to place them somewhere within that region in antiquity. In short, there proves to be a strong convergence between eastward travel, burial of the dead, and the location of Nihm — a convergence that fits well with Nephi’s report of the burial of Ishmael at a place called Nahom, followed by a turn “nearly eastward” for the duration of their journey to Bountiful. Such a robust convergence deserves to be taken seriously.”
Rappleye usefully recounts all the relevant details regarding Nahom (though I wouldn’t have minded one more map outlining the paths of his proposed scenarios), but what makes it even more interesting to me is that I now have to revise my estimate of the strength of Nahom-related evidence. A couple years ago, I’d estimated that the odds of Joseph picking a place name that matched a similar name in the area of the eastward turn was about 1 in 100. But I’d done so using all the place names in a range of about 120 miles north to south (without much justification beyond eyeballing an old map). Using Rappleye’s estimate of 60 miles would cut that probability about in half—to something close to 1 in 200. Restricting that range east to west would cut that probability even further, though I’m not sure Nephi’s silence regarding the Red Sea and the implied use of the Frankincense Trail would’ve been much of an impediment to scholars had the name matched a place further west. Either way, it’s a useful example of how updated scholarship can (or should) lead us to change how we weigh certain pieces of evidence. And in the case of Nahom, the strength of that convergence suggests that evidence should not be ignored, even if chance ultimately had a realistic probability (it feels weird saying that a 1 in 200 chance is realistic, but that’s only in comparison with other classes of Book of Mormon evidence) of producing the connection we see.