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Book of Mormon geography 101

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Book of Mormon Geography 101

Speaking to Oliver Cowdery in

D&C 9:7 the Lord says the following:

7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

Oliver was admonished by the Lord concerning why he was unable to translate the Book of Mormon plates. This is sound advice for all of us when it comes to Book of Mormon geography. We might rephrase it as follows:

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it to mine apostles and prophets and they would give it unto thee when you took no thought save it was to ask their opinion.

We have four sources to consider when addressing the topic of Book of Mormon geography. They are:

First and foremost is the English text of the Book of Mormon given to us by the gift and power of God. It contains the words of the Book of Mormon Prophets, first hand witnesses to the geography and sustained as canonized scripture.

Second are the words and statements of Joseph Smith who was instructed directly by Moroni son of Mormon and one of the Nephite prophets .

Third are statements of general authorities and other Church leaders expressing their understanding of the topic.

And forth, not to be ignored are the scientific findings of archeologists, geologists, anthropologists and linguists.

It is to be expected that among these sources, there will be some disagreement but if we study it out as admonished in the above scripture, most of them will disappear and will lead to a better understanding of the topic as a whole.

As a starting point for the study of Book of Mormon geography, I would like to submit the following brief description of some of the methodology involved.

In order to build a consistent picture of any geography from textual descriptions, it is necessary to already have or choose an anchor point. This geographic feature serves as the anchor around which all other geographic features mentioned in the text are placed. The text must contain descriptive information sufficient to identify a location on modern maps, which fits the description in the text.

Both Jerusalem and the Red Sea are old world locations mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Since Jerusalem is the point of departure for Lehi and his family, it is the obvious choice for an anchor point for their travels in the old world from Jerusalem to the seashore at Bountiful. It has a continuous historical context from the time Lehi left Jerusalem up to our day and there is no problem locating it on modern maps. Using Jerusalem and the geography of the surrounding area a reasonable description of this part of the journey has been proposed. It fits both the culture and the geography as described in the text of the Book of Mormon.

When we consider the new world of the Americas we are faced with the problem that there are no geographical features mentioned in the text that have a continuous historical context going back to the time of Lehi and his family's arrival in the new world. The only connection we have is the final burial place of the plates. Although we know where Joseph Smith found them, there is no textual information connecting that place with any other geographical feature mentioned in the Book of Mormon. During the 35 years that Moroni wandered before burying the plates, he could have traveled from almost any place in the Americas to the hill in New York where he buried the plates and later delivered them to Joseph Smith. It is unlikely that he remained in the same area where the last battles were fought since in his own words, he was fleeing from the Lamanites who obviously still controlled that area.

Since Joseph Smith and the early saints were of the opinion that Zarahemla was located somewhere in Central America or southern Mexico then if we identify the hill in New York with the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon, which the early Latter Day Saints did, we are faced with the problem of resolving the numerous travel times mentioned in the text between locations near Zarahemla and the Land of Cumorah. There is, however, no problem with accepting that Moroni could have traveled from there to New York in 35 years. Since there are many other geographic features mentioned in the text that are not plagued by this problem, it is reasonable to put the location of the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah on the back burner until we have a better idea of where we think the Book of Mormon culture took place. We can then try to identify possible locations for this feature.

Not having good evidence to identify the Book of Mormon Cumorah as an anchor we must choose another. Possibilities are

The narrow neck

The narrow strip of wilderness

The east sea

The west sea

and

The river Sidon.

If we base our choice on the number of times the feature is mentioned and the amount of geographical information available in the text then the order of preference is as follows

1. The river Sidon

2. The east sea and west sea

3. The narrow neck

4. The narrow strip of wilderness

No other feature is mentioned with as much geographic information as for the river Sidon. Although the seas are mentioned numerous times, the only information about them is their direction with respect to the principle parts of the land of Zarahemla. The narrow neck, both seas and the narrow strip of wilderness are all mentioned with their geographical relationship to the Head of the river Sidon. If we choose the river Sidon as anchor, then the relationship between these features and the river Sidon as described in the text will serve to ensure we have chosen a river on modern maps with a high probability of being the same as the river Sidon described in the text of the Book of Mormon. Any rivers that do not place these features in the correct relationship to the Sidon are poor candidates and will result in a high probability that the chosen location is wrong.

Once we have chosen an anchor point and built an internal map using and correlating all of the more than 500 instances of geographical information found in the text, then it is time to test our hypothesis against the real world geography. Using the scientific method involving the following series of cyclical processes

Hypothesize a location

Test it against the internal map

Modifythe hypothesis or propose a new hypothetical location.

we can begin our search for the location of the Nephite, Jaredite and Lamanite cultures of the Book of Mormon.

One final caveat. Although there have been many proposed internal maps of Book of Mormon geography, most of them fail to correlate well with real geography. Geological, archeological and anthropological data all agree that, other than minor changes due to volcanic activity and earthquakes, the geography of the Americas has seen little change since well before the arrival of Book of Mormon peoples on the American continent. In order to create a rational concept of Book of Mormon geography requires a constant back and forth examination of the text and the geography using the best two and three dimensional maps available to us today.

Larry P

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In order to build a consistent picture of any geography from textual descriptions, it is necessary to already have or choose an anchor point. This geographic feature serves as the anchor around which all other geographic features mentioned in the text are placed.

Since Lehi et al. could observe the sun rising and setting just as easily as we can, I'd say that we must anchor north to north. Any realignment of the Earth's axis of rotation, or flipping of its magnetic field is a nonstarter.

Once we have chosen an anchor point and built an internal map using and correlating all of the more than 500 instances of geographical information found in the text, then it is time to test our hypothesis against the real world geography.

Don't forget that the geography must be big enough to fit all the people.

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Since Lehi et al. could observe the sun rising and setting just as easily as we can, I'd say that we must anchor north to north. Any realignment of the Earth's axis of rotation, or flipping of its magnetic field is a nonstarter.

Don't forget that the geography must be big enough to fit all the people.

Mortal Man

I agree with you on both points. With respect to north, one must also rationalize the use of north and south versus northward and southward as well as the fact that the Book of Mormon use of North, northward, south and southward far exceeds the use of east, eastward, west and westward.

Larry P

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Since Lehi et al. could observe the sun rising and setting just as easily as we can, I'd say that we must anchor north to north. Any realignment of the Earth's axis of rotation, or flipping of its magnetic field is a nonstarter.

While I don't entirely disagree, you seem to assume that "north" has an absolute meaning that everyone accepts. If so, you would be mistaken. Secondly, you also assume that the existence of a technical celestial definition of north necessarily equals an on-the-ground description of north. I have seen firsthand that that assumption is not absolutely correct.

So -- we certainly have to deal with directions, but if we require that all directions must conform to our opinions about what directions should be, then we are correct only if the text is modern and western. If it is something else (and it says it is) then those assumptions may not hold true.

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While I don't entirely disagree, you seem to assume that "north" has an absolute meaning

"North" has an absolute meaning and precise definition. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything more well defined, universally observable and culturally fundamental as the Earth's axis of rotation.

If Hipparchos could discover the precession of the equinoxes within sixteen years, I'm sure that the Nephites could figure out which way is north over the course of a thousand years.

that everyone accepts.

Is it really worth destroying the language to force-fit some theory? Like Rush Limbaugh says, "words have meaning." If you insist that "north" means "mostly west" and "horse" means "tapir" and "sword" means "macuahuitl" and "bow" means "atlatl" and "steel" means "obsidian" and "three days" means "some vague period of time, probably months" and "ten thousand" means "some random number" and "translate" means whatever it needs to mean depending on the immediate circumstance, then communication becomes literally impossible. Why can't we place all the various theories on the race track and let them compete for what their worth, rather than turning the track itself into the La Brea Tar Pits?

Secondly, you also assume that the existence of a technical celestial definition of north necessarily equals an on-the-ground description of north.

I assume that not all of the Nephites and Lamanites "on the ground" were lost in the forest for an entire millennium.

I have seen firsthand that that assumption is not absolutely correct.

What other civilization of millions of people had its directions mixed up for its entire history?

if we require that all directions must conform to our opinions about what directions should be...

Sadly, no matter how hard I try, the North Pole will not conform to my opinion.

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Is it really worth destroying the language to force-fit some theory? Like Rush Limbaugh says, "words have meaning." If you insist that "north" means "mostly west" and "horse" means "tapir" and "sword" means "macuahuitl" and "bow" means "atlatl" and "steel" means "obsidian" and "three days" means "some vague period of time, probably months" and "ten thousand" means "some random number" and "translate" means whatever it needs to mean depending on the immediate circumstance, then communication becomes literally impossible.

I'll leave the geographical comments to others, but I found this comment of yours, MM, astounding. Please tell me the one and only meaning for the word "gay."

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"North" has an absolute meaning and precise definition. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything more well defined, universally observable and culturally fundamental as the Earth's axis of rotation.

And you assume that because modern westerners accept this definition that it has always been that way and all peoples of the earth have a term that precisely replicates this definition that has only become available in the last couple of centuries?

If Hipparchos could discover the precession of the equinoxes within sixteen years, I'm sure that the Nephites could figure out which way is north over the course of a thousand years.

You are missing the point. The Maya were excellent astronomers, but didn't have the same conception of north that you have posited as universal. it is one thing to know where the north start is. It is quite another to define terrestial directions according to an application of that.

Still, they had sufficient astronomy to orient buildings - but they still do it with a different conceputal universe that we use when we say "north."

Is it really worth destroying the language to force-fit some theory?

Pardon me, but that is just what I was trying to explain that you are doing. The problem is that you have accepted a particular definition of "north" and simply assumed that it is universal. It isn't, and ethnohistory is full of examples of where it is not. If you really want to bring up the issue of language, then the evidence is absolutely contrary to your hypothesis. The Nephites knew the direction that we consider north - and included it in a wider definition that also includes areas that we do not consider north. That is a matter of historical record, not manipulation of language.

If you insist that "north" means "mostly west" and "horse" means "tapir" and "sword" means "macuahuitl" and "bow" means "atlatl" and "steel" means "obsidian" and "three days" means "some vague period of time, probably months" and "ten thousand" means "some random number" and "translate" means whatever it needs to mean depending on the immediate circumstance, then communication becomes literally impossible.

This clarifies things. You aren't talking about north, you are talking about how the Book of Mormon was translated. If that is the case, we can move on from the culturally-specific way you have defined north and try another issue.

If you really want to deal with translation theory, that is quite different, but again you are making several assumptions that simply cannot stand against real-world evidence. I am speaking of all kinds of current translations from multiple languages and cultures. Unfortunately, you are making an argument that is intended to appeal to those without any experience in the subject. For a very simple example "macuahuitl" was routinely translated as "sword" in Spanish reports. For that particular example, you have the problem of trying to explain why your argument is important at all when it contradicts known practice. While the others don't have the same specific translation histories, the theory and translation issue is precisely the same.

So, your argument is now based on a concept of translation that is contradicted by historical precedent and theoretical basis for translation. Other than the value of using an overly-simplistic assumption in a reductio ad absurdam style reasoning, of what possible value is this?

I assume that not all of the Nephites and Lamanites "on the ground" were lost in the forest for an entire millennium.

Nor do I. However, you appear to be under the assumption that because true north is known, it is readily available. Without compasses, we guess. Without stars in the daytime, we use the sun (which defines north generally, not specifically). What we use is orientation to the world around us. I lived in a city that was built following a river. There were no true north/south streets in the city, but everyone used north and south in their directions. All of their spoken references to north and south (and east and west) were actually skewed by a number of degrees. The physical landscape was mentally "rectified" to match the conception. No one got lost, but they never used north in the definition you have provided. Never. These are modern westerners in a modern city. They accept and can repeat your definition of north. They just never used it with that meaning when they spoke of directions in their terrestrial world.

What other civilization of millions of people had its directions mixed up for its entire history?

No one for their understanding. Most, based on your understanding. This is a matter of ethnohistorical record. The Zinacantecas conceive of "north" as straight up to the sky (I believe it was they, perhaps the Chimulans).

Sadly, no matter how hard I try, the North Pole will not conform to my opinion.

That is surprising, since most people throughout history have conformed it to theirs.

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I'll leave the geographical comments to others, but I found this comment of yours, MM, astounding. Please tell me the one and only meaning for the word "gay."

I fail to see how your second sentence is related to the first.

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And you assume that because modern westerners accept this definition that it has always been that way and all peoples of the earth have a term that precisely replicates this definition that has only become available in the last couple of centuries?

Was the inscriber of the Brass Plates a modern westerner? The Nephite scriptures were packed with "north", "south", "east" and "west" references in relation to places Lehi's family was familiar with; e.g.,

Genesis 12:8 And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Hai on the east...

Numbers 2:3 And on the east side toward the rising of the sun...

Numbers 34:7 And this shall be your north border: from the great sea ye shall point out for you mount Hor:

Numbers 34:10-11 And ye shall point out your east border from Hazar-enan to Shepham: And the coast shall go down from Shepham to Riblah, on the east side of Ain; and the border shall descend, and shall reach unto the side of the sea of Chinnereth eastward:

Deuteronomy 3:17 The plain also, and Jordan, and the coast thereof, from Chinnereth even unto the csea of the plain, even the salt sea, under Ashdoth-pisgah eastward.

Deuteronomy 3:27 Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan.

Joshua 15:7 And the border went up toward Debir from the valley of Achor, and so northward, looking toward Gilgal, that is before the going up to Adummim, which is on the south side of the river

Joshua 18:5 And they shall divide it into seven parts: Judah shall abide in their coast on the south, and the house of Joseph shall abide in their coasts on the north.

Joshua 16:1 And the lot of the children of Joseph fell from Jordan by Jericho, unto the water of Jericho on the east...

Joshua 18:12 And their border on the north side was from Jordan; and the border went up to the side of Jericho on the north side, and went up through the mountains westward; and the goings out thereof were at the wilderness of Beth-aven.

Joshua 18:19 And the border passed along to the side of Beth-hoglah northward: and the outgoings of the border were at the north bay of the salt sea at the south end of Jordan: this was the south coast.

So Nephi, watching the morning sun rise from his rooftop in Jerusalem, would have known that he was looking east toward Jericho. Why then, upon reaching the new world and watching the sun rise over some geographical features, would he arbitrarily decide to refer to them as "southward"?

Here Nephi is copying directly off the Brass Plates:

2 Nephi 21:14 But they shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines towards the west; they shall spoil them of the east together; they shall lay their hand upon Edom and Moab; and the children of Ammon shall obey them.

Why would "west" and "east" here refer to different directions than they do elsewhere in the BoM? Why would the Nephites set up a directional system inconsistent with their scriptures?

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So Nephi, watching the morning sun rise from his rooftop in Jerusalem, would have known that he was looking east toward Jericho. Why then, upon reaching the new world and watching the sun rise over some geographical features, would he arbitrarily decide to refer to them as "southward"?

Only if it happened to be in the month of June. If it were in December, he would see the sun rise 60 degrees south of the location of Jerico. In Jerusalem the sun rises along a 60 degree arc on the horizon.

MM,

No one is saying that the Nephites arbitrarily defined the direction of sunrise as southward. It was always eastward but not necesarily exactly towards the modern definition of east. Very few modern scholars of BofM geography accept Sorenson's concept of Nephite directions.

See the following article for a discussion of Sorenson's mistaken assumptions about BofM geography.

http://www.bmaf.org/node/251

Larry P

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No one is saying that the Nephites arbitrarily defined the direction of sunrise as southward. It was always eastward but not necesarily exactly towards the modern definition of east. Very few modern scholars of BofM geography accept Sorenson's concept of Nephite directions.

See the following article for a discussion of Sorenson's mistaken assumptions about BofM geography.

http://www.bmaf.org/node/251

Fair enough. If we're just talking about tolerances then I'll accept anything within 45 degrees of true north as "northward". Go beyond that though and it becomes "westward" or "eastward". (Note the implied-if/and conditional.)

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Fair enough. If we're just talking about tolerances then I'll accept anything within 45 degrees of true north as "northward". Go beyond that though and it becomes "westward" or "eastward". (Note the implied-if/and conditional.)

Again you make the mistake of imposing modern concepts of direction on ancient cultures. The arc of the horizon where the sun rises depends on your lattitude. It varies between 46 degrees in the tropics to 90 degrees in New York to 180 degrees at the north pole. For ancient cultures, directions were always with reference to the sun. Although I do not doubt that they knew where true north was but the sun played a more important role in determining directions. This is evident in the words of these cultures that are translated into our modern English directions. Even our word for east comes from an ancient word meaning "dawn". To see how this relates to the BofM culture requires a careful analysis of the BofM text.

For such an analysis see

http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=19&num=2&id=655

Be sure and click on the PDF tab in order to see all the figures.

The hebrew definition and use of the Hebrew word quedem for east is explained in this article

http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/docs/39_brown-time.pdf

The ancient Hebrew words that are used to describe distance and direction are also used to describe time. The Hebrew word for east is qedem and literally means "the direction of the rising sun.

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Sevenbak has this to say about BofM geography

Here's the only issue I have with what you posted.

"First and foremost is the English text of the Book of Mormon given to us by the gift and power of God. It contains the words of the Book of Mormon Prophets, first hand witnesses to the geography and sustained as canonized scripture.

Second are the words and statements of Joseph Smith who was instructed directly by Moroni son of Mormon and one of the Nephite prophets .

Third are statements of general authorities and other Church leaders expressing their understanding of the topic.

And forth, not to be ignored are the scientific findings of archeologists, geologists, anthropologists and linguists."

I would move #1 to #3. To put the text first and foremost as the geography arbiter of truth is a problem for me, as the BoM wasn't written for that.

James Talmage put it this way:

April 1929, General Conference

"I sometimes think we pay a little undue attention to technicalities, and to questions that cannot be fully answered with respect to the Book of Mormon. It matters not to me just where this city or that camp was located. I have met a few of our Book of Mormon students who claim to be able to put their finger upon the map and indicate every land and city mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The fact is, the Book of Mormon does not give us precise and definite information whereby we can locate those places with certainty. I encourage and recommend all possible investigation, comparison and research in this matter. The more thinkers, investigators, workers we have in the field the better; but our brethren who devote themselves to that kind of research should remember that they must speak with caution and not declare as demonstrated truths points that are not really proved. There is enough truth in the Book of Mormon to occupy you and me for the rest of our lives, without giving too much time and attention to these debatable matters."

Cheers

Sevenbak

Although I listed them in the above order, the relative significance of each is dependent on the purpose they are used for. If one is concerned with how to apply the gospel in our lives today then you are right, the words of President Monson and the rest of the General Authorities are of paramount importance. However, when it comes to the nature and location of the Book of Mormon culture, I think it would be wise to pay attention to the eye witness reports of Book of Mormon prophets and Joseph Smith who walked and talked with Moroni, one of those prophets.

I comepletly agree with Elder Talmage. The Book of Mormon is not a geography textbook and any attempt to equate cities, battle locations and journies with any degree of precision is fraught with error. The location of geographic features is some what possible simply because we have excellent and detailed 2 and 3 dimensional maps of the American continents as well as a reasonably accurate record of the geological record of the area. Again care must be taken in the application of the geographic information found in the text to avoid presentism in the interpretation of said text.

Larry P

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The arc of the horizon where the sun rises depends on your lattitude.

I'm assuming Nephi could figure out latitude and time of year.

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I'm assuming Nephi could figure out latitude and time of year.

If the Maya culture could build accurate observatories and predict eclipses, I am sure Nephi could tell that the sun rose at a different location on the horizon each day of the year. There was no need to figure out lattitude, a modern concept, it only took casual obsevation and getting up at daw over a period of days.

Even you can do it if you are willing to get up at sunrise. Simply place a vertical stick in the ground where the sun will strike it at sunrise. Then mark the shadow the sun makes of the vertical stick over several days. You will see a visible change from day to day except at the summer and winter solstices. They are called solstices from the Latin meaning when the sun stands still.

In Salt Lake City the shadow will travel .22 degrees per day.

Larry P

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