Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Increasingly Interesting Liahona

In an earlier post here at Mormanity, I discussed an intriguing aspect of the temple that Nephi built. I am especially indebted to a chapter from Kevin Christensen, "The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi's World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker" in the Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem by John Welch, David R. Seely, and Jo Ann N. Seely (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2004), and to Don Bradley's presentation, "Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages," FAIRMormon.com, 2012. In that post, I noted how these LDS scholars help us recognize that the Nephites had sacred relics for their own "ark" that have remarkable parallels to the scared relics that were in the Ark of the Covenant of Solomon's temple.

Four of the five sacred relics of the Nephites that I discussed have fairly clear parallels to their Old World counterparts: the interpreters like the Urim and Thummin, the metal plates like the stone tablets with the law, the sword of Laban as a symbol of authority like the rod of Aaron, and the Nephite breast plate like the High Priest's breastplate. The least obvious and most interesting parallel deals with the pot of manna preserved in the Ark of Solomon's temple.

A possible Nephite parallel is introduced using language that may have been crafted to serve as a parallel to the sacred manna which, according to Exodus 16:13-15, was discovered in the desert in the morning and was described as "a small round thing" which obviously astonished them, "for they wist not what it was." In parallel, it was on a morning in the desert when Lehi was also surprised with his discovery of another gift from the Lord to weary travelers seeking a promised land: "As my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship" (1 Nephi 16:10). Round, like the "small round thing" that astonished the Hebrews on an earlier morning. Update, 1/30/15: As noted by a helpful commenter, the word "round" in this KJV verse doesn't appear to be supported by the Hebrew text and is not used in other translations. But the gist of the parallel still stands.

Lehi's Liahona serves as a fitting parallel to the pot of manna, a symbol of the Lord's mercy and deliverance. And like manna, it wasn't a gift to be taken for granted, but could quit functioning as a result of rebellion.

With relics to match each of the relics of the Ark of the Covenant, the Nephites could have a reasonable imitation of Solomon's temple in spirit and function, making the Holy of Holies an suitably sacred place.

There's more to the Liahona that we should consider. Long ago I had correspondence with a man studying to become a Rabbi who was also impressed with the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient Jewish text. He wasn't LDS and I'm not sure what became of his interest, but he offered his rough analysis of the word Liahona, opining that it was good Hebrew. He said the name (lamed-yud-hey-vav-nun-alef in Hebrew) is related to known Hebrew words with relevant meanings:
  • LIA (lamed-yud-hey), Strongs 3914: something round; a wreath
  • LAWAH (lamed-vav-hey), Strongs 3867: to bind around; to wreathe; to start or stop
  • LON (lamed-vav-nun), Strongs 3885, from LAWAH: to abide, to dwell, to remain or to continue.
That was interesting, but recently I noticed that a much more complete exploration of the name has been conducted: James Curci, "Liahona, 'The Direction of the Lord," An Etymological Explanation," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 16, no. 2 (2007): pp. 60-67, 97-98. Curci concludes that Liahona is a word coined by Nephi and/or Lehi using Hebrew elements conveying the meaning "The Direction (Director) of YHWH" or literally "To the Lord Is the Whither." As is so often the case in the Book of Mormon, there are interesting Hebrew word plays in the text that only recently are coming to light. In this case, the use of the word "whither" in relationship to Liahona-related passages in First Nephi link to the "whither" (hona) element of the name. Here is an excerpt from the PDF of Curci's paper:

Curci has much more to say about the term Liahona and its aptness in the Book of Mormon record. Just one of many cool, ancient, and increasingly plausible elements in the Book of Mormon.


Orbiting Kolob said...

Jeff, it's true that the KJV describes manna as "a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground." But, while a "small round thing" might describe the Liahona, "as small as the hoar frost on the ground" certainly does not.

Note also that we seem to be dealing with a KJV translation that subsequent translators found wanting. Consider the way manna is described in some other, more recent, and highly respected translations:

NRSV: "a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground."

NIV: "thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor."

ESV: "a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground."

In each case, roundness has been replaced by flakiness. Presumably there's a good scholarly reason for this.

Anyway, aside from depicting the manna as being found on the ground, none of these recently translated passages seem to support a parallel between manna and Liahona.

Just sayin'.

P.S. I'm not normally one to harp on minor typos. We all make little mistakes from time to time. But it is amusing to think about scared relics, and about manna being found in the dessert. Yum!

James Anglin said...

It's interesting if the word 'liahona' has plausible Hebrew etymology.

But if God were inspiring a translation, why pick the name of this one object to render syllabically instead of translating? On the other hand, if I were concocting a fable, I might well make up a cool-sounding name for an important prop. Fantasy authors do that all the time. It gives a nice flavor to let Frodo wear a coat of mithril instead of just calling it elvish steel.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Joseph Smith studied Hebrew at one point. Is this true? It doesn't take a great deal of mastery of a language to recognize a few roots and stick them together. For that matter, I bet that with a bit of ingenuity one could 'recognize' sensible Hebrew roots in random syllables.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Thank you, Orbiting, both for noting the typos and for making an important point regarding the roundness issue. In that regard, the Liahona just got a little less interesting! But the parallel to finding a surprising gift from the Lord in the morning on their journey through the desert still stands.

For LDS readers, please note this example of how the insights and comments from those with sometimes contrary perspectives add significant value. For me, it's part of what makes blogging fun and valuable for my own quest to better understand things. Again, thank you, Orbiting, for your input.

Jeff Lindsay said...

James, yes, Joseph did study Hebrew, but that began several years after the Book of Mormon was already published, so it does make it hard to explain the many interesting non-biblical names introduced in the Book of Mormon for those who claim that Joseph fabricated the text.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Using http://www.biblestudytools.com/kjv/exodus/16-14.html which taps into Strong's concordance, I see that the Hebrew text doesn't even seem to have anything justifying the use of the word "round" in Ex. 16:14. Strange.

James Anglin said...

Thanks for the info about the timing of Smith's Hebrew studies. How firmly is that established, though? How weird or difficult would it have been to study Hebrew in Smith's place and time?

Something just occurred to me about unfamiliar Book of Mormon names. Wouldn't at least the earliest characters all have had recognizable Hebrew names? And wouldn't their city names have been recognizably Hebrew as well?

We're used to cities having names that don't mean anything, except for being the name of the city in question. But that's normally because the cities are so old that the city name and the rest of the language have evolved apart. Originally the city name meant something.

Do the names of Book of Mormon cities make sense as having evolved from Hebrew? Or do they just sound like made-up names?

James Anglin said...

After a bit of googling I think I can answer my own question. People do seem to have identified reasonably plausible Hebrew etymologies for a bunch of Book of Mormon personal and place names, sometimes with a bit of Egyptian or Mayan thrown in.

I can't say I'm really convinced by the conjectured explanations I've seen. Looking at the sorts of "sounds like" and "could mean" arguments they use, I get the feeling it's not really too hard to find some kind of plausible etymology for just about anything. And any fraud artist familiar with the Bible would have known enough Hebrew names to have at least some feel for the sound of Hebrew words.

But on the other hand, explanations of the names of old cities that are still here often sound a bit tenuous, as well. If there really was a city like Zarahemla, it might conceivably have been called that, and explanations of why might still have sounded ad hoc.

So as a tentative verdict after only brief investigation, I think I'd give the Book of Mormon a neutral score on this point. Its old names aren't convincing, but I can't say they're flagrantly dubious. Old names can be weird.

bearyb said...

Wouldn't at least the earliest characters all have had recognizable Hebrew names?

What exactly is the criteria for a "recognizably Hebrew name?"

And what about Alma, thought to have been a recognizably female name?

And wouldn't their city names have been recognizably Hebrew as well?

Most of the cities in the BoM were named after individuals.

everythingbeforeus said...

If the BoM was written in Reformed Egyptian, did the Nephites have a way of rendering Hebrew words in RefE so that when they were translated into King James' English in the 19th Century, they would still reveal their Hebrew origin?

James Anglin said...

I believe Hebrew names were generally Hebrew words or phrases. Names of Hebrew people, or of cities named after them, should be recognizable as Hebrew words or phrases.

About the possibility that Reformed Egyptian garbled Hebrew names: Wouldn't God be able to work around any limitations of Reformed Egyptian, as used by Hebrew writers to convey Hebrew names, and communicate the names correctly to Joseph Smith?

Anonymous said...

Nomenclature is such a rat's nest when it comes to Joseph and the writing of scripture. Why are so many Book of Mormon place names similar to place names in upstate New York? Why does he use the word Pharaoh in the PoGP before it was actually used in the timeline of history? And what of his spurious origin of the name Egypt in the PoGP?
A real rat's nest.

Anonymous said...

As far as place names in New York, I couldn't really find a list except a list of towns in New York. Here is a wikipedia entry:


You are correct, it appears that Joseph lifted the name of a town in New York called Jerusalem and used that Hebrew sounding name as a place name in the Book of Mormon.


James Anglin said...

Place names in New York versus Book of Mormon places seem to be a serious but not obviously fatal issue. The list of supposed similarities can be found on a number of online sites, though I expect most of them might tend to count as anti-Mormon links.

My impression as a non-Mormon is that, after you filter down only to the place names that existed in Joseph Smith's day, you're left with a list that maybe looks a bit suspicious, but isn't a smoking gun. If you're looking for clear evidence that the Book of Mormon is genuine, I think the place names will be disappointing; but if you believe in the Book of Mormon and find its place names sufficiently plausible, I don't think I can call that unreasonable.

I'm not a linguist. My impression is that of a skeptical lay person on the topic, for whatever that's worth.

Anonymous said...

The place names issue has been addressed. Has it not?
Most of the names that Joseph Smith allegedly copied did not exist in Joseph Smith's day, although the critics are good at convincing otherwise.

Anonymous said...

"The place names issue has been addressed. Has it not?" Has it? For you personally? Have you researched it for yourself and looked to sources on both sides of the fence?

I know some apologists have dismissed the place name similarities (as they are wont to do), but it still begs comparison. Moravionton, Lehigh, Tecumseh? Suspiciously similar sounding place names right in Joseph's neighborhood.
And what of Egypt and Pharaoh in the Book of Abraham? And what of the Greek name Timothy in the Book of Mormon?
The mental gymnastics suggested by apologists on these matters is tiresome, when simple reason is clearly the only answer. Joseph made these things up, from a wide variety of sources and his own imagination. Fiction writers do it every single day.

James Anglin said...

I doubt that any of these linguistic points is fatal in itself. Some sort of explanation can probably be found for any one of them. The premise, after all, is of ancient people writing in a special language that was miraculously translated. A message that came by such an unusually complex channel might well have unusual features.

One is left with the infamous 'Big List' effect, where there are many relatively minor objections that have all been answered to some degree. The Book of Mormon is quite old now, and most of these little worries are easy to notice just by reading and thinking; so the list is by now an old list — the same old Big List of already-answered questions.

The problem is that very few of the answers are really home-run, knockout punch answers. Most of them leave me, at any rate, with no better than a grudging recognition that the objection is not necessarily fatal. The case for the Book of Mormon often seems to me tenuous rather than solid.

A Big List of decisively answered objections would be one thing, but a Big List of tenuously rebutted objections is another. I think that at some point the meta-objection is fair to raise: why does the Book of Mormon have so many dubious features?

It just seems to me as though too much effort is required to uphold this book. Surely a revelation from God would be less rickety. I feel reminded of the verses from Isaiah 46 that include the line, "The things you carry are burdensome." The Isaiah text contrasts how the real God carried the people, whereas the idols had to be carried with effort.

Doesn't it at some point just begin to feel wrong, that the Book of Mormon has so many weak points that need to be defended with mental effort? Maybe you can survive each battle, but doesn't it start to feel wrong that you always have to fight?

everythingbeforeus said...


Yes it does seem wrong, but as you know just from this blog, there are many out there who are up to the fight. Because their lives depend on it. Their families, their communities, their reputations, their sense of identity,...basically every aspect of their existence depends on the church being true.

The way the church seeps into all aspects of life is the only thing it has going for it. The moment a person's life crashes to the point that it no longer matters to them if the church is true or not, the church has nothing to stand on. It is a very sick, co-dependent relationship that exists between this organization and its membership. Both sides get needs met through this relationship, but at a very high price. Most members just don't know how much they are really paying. When they find out, that is when the drama starts. And then they are at their most vulnerable point. Many don't make it through this, and they give up God altogether, because the Church never brings anyone to God. It only bring them to itself.

Anonymous said...

Everything. .....
Relax! You strike me as a sincere guy but why the anger? Why does it bother you so much that many of us within the church have a testimony of it? I believe that Christ is our Lord and redeemer. Equally, I believe He has asked us to follow him and set up his church to help us accomplish that. What is wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

The critics are always rude and hateful. They come to blogs like this one to attack and ridicule, not to discuss topics calmly.

LDS are not the only ones who give up God when they leave the LDS religion. It happens in many other religions, but especially with Evangelicals. People who leave other religions say they were deceived, that they paid a high price, ostracized or asked to find another congregation to attend for questioning teachings, told they were going to Hell if they did not toe the line or had doubts, etc.
For critics to say these type of things only happen in the LDS church and to ex LDS members is not true. A good example is the daughter of anti Mormon Matt Slick. Stories like Slick's daughter are very numerous. To single out and accuse the LDS for these things is blatant dishonesty.

There are other so called Christian religions that never bring anyone to God. A good example is the Quiverfull movement.

Anonymous said...

Whst about historical inaccuracies in Genesis and Exodus?

The same arguments over and over by critics is tiresome.

everythingbeforeus said...

Any church that cannot be abandoned without also abandoning God did not bring that person to God. If you think I am a cheerleader for some other organization, you've got the wrong guy. And if you seriously think the only way back to our creator is through a man-made organization that has rituals necessary for this purpose, it is time to grow up and be an adult. God has created everything. Do you seriously believe that water that will evaporate, buildings that will crumble to dust, and mortal men who will do likewise are necessary so that an all-powerful God can get you back to him?

This stuff is all religion. And people love religion, because it makes them feel like they are doing something to contribute to God's cause. God doesn't need, nor does he want, your contributions. He wants you to know him. Directly. Personally. Individually.

So, don't give me the "well...other religions do it, too" bit. This is one of the defenses Mormons always go to when they hear criticism of their religion. I don't get it.

First of all, Mormons are always telling everyone how unlike the other religions they are. But when they are backed into a corner, they are suddenly just like everybody else. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

So did I understand you correctly that everyone who leaves Mormonism finds atheism?

James Anglin said...

I hope my remarks aren't just hateful. I identify my own religion as Christian in the Anglican tradition, where reason, tradition, and Scripture are weighed about equally. I'm also a professional scientist. So I don't attribute authority to any scripture, but I believe quite a lot of traditional Christian teachings.

I've found some very inspirational things beyond my own denomination's scriptures. I believe I can see at least some of why so many people are so impressed by the Bhagavad Gita and the Qu'ran, for example. I'm interested in how and why people believe different things.

Recently I've become interested in Mormonism. Not in the sense that I'm thinking of converting, I'm afraid; but also not in the sense of trying to argue Mormons out of their faith. I see faith as being somewhat like a marriage. It's a personal thing between you and God, with a lot of history I'll never know. I'm just an outsider.

I don't think anyone should change their basic beliefs because of anything I write. Sometimes one can read something on the internet that fits in with one's own train of thought. That's the most anything I write ever ought to do, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm sincerely curious about Mormon thought and belief. In particular, I'm afraid, I'm curious about how Mormons deal with the constant question of whether Joseph Smith's purported revelation was really a fraud. My impression is that this remains a front-and-center issue for Mormons, and I find this unusual and interesting.

I've never been in any Anglican or Lutheran or Catholic church where people made a point of declaring that their church, or their scriptures, were 'true'. I've never read a mainstream Christian blog posting in which 'increasingly plausible' was a concluding statement. It's not that mainstream Christians don't care about truth, but that people mostly take the important beliefs for granted, and don't worry so much about the rest.

Maybe I've just been reading the wrong blogs, but I've got the sense that being a Mormon intellectual means being intellectually embattled, to a degree that's quite foreign to me, as an Anglican intellectual. I'm sympathetic, but I am also skeptical. In that sense my interest in Mormonism does have a negative edge. I hope that doesn't come across as hateful, though. Whether Mormonism is true or false, Mormons deserve as much respect as anyone else.

Orbiting Kolob said...

The critics are always rude and hateful. They come to blogs like this one to attack and ridicule....

Neither James nor ETBU strike me as "rude and hateful."

And no, not all who leave the LDS Church become atheists. One obvious case in point: Sandra Tanner.

everythingbeforeus said...

You can reread what I wrote, anonymous. I didn't speak in such absolute terms. I said many don't make it through a faith crisis as a Mormon and still maintain a belief in God. There has been research done on this (granted, not the best and most scientific), but there does seem to be such a trend. Some Mormons leave for other Christianity. Sandra Tanner, yes, being an obvious example. But this is rare. Even in my experience, my friends who have officially checked out are now atheist/agnostic. Again, not scientific proof, but significant all the same.

Anonymous said...

The accusation of anger and hate was clearly a feint to segue into a rant. I didn't see any anger in the preceding comments.

James Anglin said...

I've known some evangelical Christian groups who seemed to teach deliberately that there was and could be no middle ground between accepting every detail of their teachings, and outright atheism. Picking and choosing what to believe, according to them, was impossible: it had to be all or nothing. I thought that kind of package deal just made no sense.

After all, they were relying on human judgement, the same as everyone; they just wanted to make that human judgement call once, for everything at once, when they decided to buy the idea that the entire Bible, and their favorite pastor's interpretation of it, was the literal word of God. By making that one big judgement call once, they could forget about having made it, and pretend they were only obeying the clear command of God. But if the Holy Spirit can guide human judgement once, why not all the time?

It seems to me that the real logic of the no-middle-ground doctrine is that it keeps a person committed to religious authority by holding their entire spiritual life hostage. "If you question us on 10% tithe, you'll lose God."

Does the Mormon church take this approach at all — actively telling people that they cannot pick and choose what to believe, but have to take all or nothing?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Absolutely. Without going into detail, especially in the temple.

bearyb said...

Doesn't it at some point just begin to feel wrong, that the Book of Mormon has so many weak points that need to be defended with mental effort? Maybe you can survive each battle, but doesn't it start to feel wrong that you always have to fight?

Mental efforts to defend it arise from mental efforts to attack it. Divine origin cannot be deduced by mental exercise in any case.

"...and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost."

I am sure that any work claiming divine origin would suffer similar criticizm. I wonder how many entries there are in the "Big List" against the Bible...

I have never thought of the BoM as "full of weak points." In contrast, to me it is a book containing a powerful message that has and continues to change lives, and actually improves mine whenever I am engaged in reading it.

Perhaps it would have been nice for the BoM to have included, for example, a greater number of physically testable descriptions that would more irrefutably correspond to today's world (beyond those that are there), but that was not the purpose of the book and likely would have detracted from its message. Unfortunately for some, the absence of such things seem just as much of a distraction.

It is likely that those who demand such "proof" would not believe it even if there were more such things.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Doesn't it at some point just begin to feel wrong, that the Book of Mormon has so many weak points that need to be defended with mental effort? Maybe you can survive each battle, but doesn't it start to feel wrong that you always have to fight?
James, this is a fascinating statement and I think it sums up well the foundation of some of the most popular attacks on the Book of Mormon. The purpose sometimes behind the "Big List" attacks is to create a feeling that something is wrong. It is to create confusion and mistrust--a negative "testimony" based on emotion.

In reality, the Book of Mormon has numerous impressive issues that demand a lot of respect. Have you considered the evidence from the Arabian Peninsula for starters? Is there any reasonable hypothesis that can account for the specific and detailed direct hits in First Nephi based on the assumption that Joseph Smith or his peers just made that up?

In addition to raising old objections, have you looked seriously at the many evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient text?

Jeff Lindsay said...

If you're serious at looking at the evidence, I'd suggest two places for starters: the Arabian Peninsula evidence and then, highlights from John Sorenson's Mormon's Codex. Fascinating stuff.

James Anglin said...

Sorry, I missed these replies.

What is 'the Arabian peninsula evidence'? I've read some stuff about someone finding an old stone with glyphs for NHM carved into it. I'm afraid that three letters in a whole peninsula didn't really sound like a smoking gun, so I didn't look carefully.

What highlights can Sorenson provide? Maybe this would be a worthwhile blog entry. I'd appreciate it, at least.

I suppose it might seem that I'm being negative without having read much pro-Book of Mormon literature, but honestly I think this is a matter of perspective. I've had very little exposure to Mormonism, but I've studied some other topics, and the pattern I've learned from them is this.

Nothing is so crazy that somebody can't write a book to defend it, and make what looks to non-experts like a good case. I mean, even the theory that the Earth is flat can take far more effort to shoot down than you would ever think.

On the other hand, surprising things that are nonetheless true tend to have multiple heavy arguments in their favor: arguments you might not expect in advance, but they're simple to state, and once you hear them, you really have to admit it's not easy to get around them. My feeling is that if there were a bunch of arguments like that for the Book of Mormon, people would be shouting them so loudly that I couldn't have missed them.

So yeah, I'm kind of critical of the Book of Mormon by default, rather than from exhaustive study. But I actually think this is a fair position to take.

Orbiting Kolob said...

James, you are far too kind in describing Mormon apologetics. A lot of it is incredibly weak, even the supposedly serious claims. Consider, for example, Jeff's suggestion that we read up on the "fascinating stuff" in John Sorenson's Mormon's Codex.

Yes, by all means let us read Sorenson, who writes that he has located the Book of Mormon lands, because "All the possible geographical correlations Latter-day Saints have come up with except one display fatal flaws that rule out their identification as the territory Mormon had in his mind. The one satisfactory answer goes like this: the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico is the narrow neck of land of the Nephites, the highlands of southern Guatemala contained the land of Nephi," etc.

OK, so, all those other proposed locations "display fatal flaws," but Sorenson's proposed location does not.

Except that, you know, in Sorenson's model, the Land Northward is actually to the west, and the Land Southward is actually to the east. The East Sea is to the north, and the West Sea to the South. (See here.)

Ah, but this little embarrassment is not really a "fatal flaw," because, argues Sorenson, in a sterling example of the apologist's dexterity in explaining evidence away, the ancient Israelites had a special way of describing directions. If one is in Israel, the sea is to the west, and, says Sorenson, the ancient Israelites had the habit of using the term "seaward" to indicate "west." The Lehites carried this habit with them to Mesoamerica, and labeled the Pacific Ocean the West Sea -- not because it was to the west, but because it was the sea.

The idea is that the ancient Israelites took the fact that the Mediterranean Sea was to their west and generalized it into their labeling of the cardinal points of the compass, and used that labeling even when they weren't in Israel.

Of course, there are many problems with this idea:

(1) Non-Mormon scholarship doesn't support it. Nor does a cursory reading of the Bible, which shows the Israelites regularly using the cardinal points of the compass in the usual way.

(2) The fact that one occasionally uses geographical features to indicate direction doesn't mean one uses those geographical references generally, even in locations where they make no sense. If I'm in Los Angeles, I might tell someone that Pasadena is "toward the mountains," instead of "to the north," but if I were in Denver I'd be an idiot to tell someone that Golden is to the north, simply because, like Pasadena relative to LA, Golden too is toward the mountains.

Maybe this is how the Ten Tribes got lost.... ;-)

Anyway, even Sorenson's work is ludicrously bad.

everythingbeforeus said...

Thank you Orbiting. I have been hearing about Sorenson's book lately. And I just don't have the time or money to track down this stuff and read it. I wish I did. If the Book of Mormon is historical, I think we'd have some OBVIOUS indicators of its historicity in the book itself.

Those are scarce. What we do have in the book are obvious indicators that it is 19th Century.

How disappointing!

Jeff Lindsay said...

Thank you Orbiting. I have been hearing about Sorenson's book lately. And I just don't have the time or money to track down this stuff and read it.

You are not alone. The critics of Sorenson's work often seem to have the same challenge. But they will gladly slam it as ridiculous and encourage others to ignore it without confronting the very significant body of evidence that demands much more than a flip dismissal. Orbiting has restated the most obvious challenge that his framework presents, but does not recognize how that challenge has been addressed by Sorenson (e.g., Codex, pp. 124-127 for starters) and especially by Brant Gardner in From the East to the West: The Problem of Directions in the Book of Mormon at MormonInterpreter.com, 2013. I will dig into these issues more fully in an upcoming post.

The fact that some ancient peoples could precisely identify various directions does not mean that their cultures used precise terminology to define the four directions in the way we think of them today. This is an important point ably documented by both Sorenson and Gardner.

If you'll look at my latest post on "Connecting the Dots," the short summary of Brian Stubbs' new work on Uto-Aztecan languages lists this example of an Egyptian word for north being related to an Uto-Aztecan term:
t’-imnti ‘the west’ > UA *tïmïnïmïn ‘north, west’ (reduplicated)

How can one word somehow or sometimes mean both north and west in Uto-Aztecan? (If I understand Stubbs correctly on this -- I need to check.) I think it is because the use of directions in UA languages does not cleanly correspond with our cardinal points, consistent with what Gardner and Sorenson summarize regarding Mesomerican culture, where the directions are often represented as broad quadrants.

Jeff Lindsay said...

As one recently-encountered example that I think is not mentioned by either Gardner or Sorenson, see E.S. Curtis et al., The Hopi, p. 246, where footnote 6 states:

Hopi orientation corresponds only approximately with ours, their cardinal points being marked by the solstitial rising and setting points of the sun. At the summer solstice the sun rises in the east and sets in the north; at the winter solstice it rises in the south and sets in the west. Their cardinal points are therefore not mutually equidistant on the horizon and roughly agree with our semi-cardinal points.


While Gardner provides a framework that strengthens the plausibility of Sorenson's model, he argues that we do not need to rotate the cardinal axes to deal with the basic objection regarding directions, but simply use directions in a more Mesoamerican framework. A particular point of difference involves Sorenson's interpretation of some Book of Mormon terminology, especially "northward" and "southward" as directions of travel versus being labels.

In a footnote, Gardner makes this point:

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting, 41–42, notes the occurrences of northward/southward, but always considers them as indicators of directions rather than as labels as I am suggesting:

A semantic point from the Book of Mormon is important. The Book of Mormon usually refers to the “land northward” and “land southward,” rarely to the “land north” or “land south.” (The latter terms occur only seven times; -ward terms appear 47 times.) The suffix ward, of course, signifies “tending or leading toward.” Gage correctly thought of Guatemala as “southward” from Mexico City, even though technically it was more nearly east. Similarly, if you board a plane in Los Angeles for Caracas, Venezuela, do you not mentally consider your direction southward? After all, your destination is South America; but actually you’ll end up traveling more east than south. Still, southward is correct.

Sorenson appears to want to use –ward as a specific direction rather than as an indicator of direction of travel, or as a name.

Sorenson's model provides numerous and often profound insights that bring together vast bodies of information ranging from geology, agriculture, social practices, archaeology, etc., with extensive insights that create huge challenges for those who wish to dismiss the Book of Mormon as a fabrication of Joseph Smith. Both the Book of Mormon and Mormon's Codex deserve to be examined with more of an open mind.

Jeff Lindsay said...

An important aspect of Gardner's hypothesis is that the original Book of Mormon text may have used Mesoamerican terminology for north and south, or northward and southward, which, going through the translation process, ends up giving directions that we assume are precise mappings to our north and south when that may be a flawed assumption.

Here is an excerpt from Gardner that can help us better appreciate the complex issues involved:

David Stuart of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University analyzed two Maya glyphs and argued for their meaning as “right” and “left” by noting their visual associations with other glyphs typically given as “south” and “north.” He concludes: “As students of Maya cosmology have often noted, the sun’s path defines the principal axis of the universe, with its ‘right’ and ‘left’ determining the perpendicular axis that corresponds to our ‘north’ and ‘south.’ In Chamula and other Maya communities, the celestial ‘sides’ are perceived from the sun’s own perspective.”13

This idea is corroborated by a larger study of direction terms in various Mesoamerican languages. Nicholas A. Hopkins, visiting instructor at the Centro de Estudios Mayas, Universidad Nacional Autónima de México, and J. Kathryn Josserand, Research Associate, Pre-Columbian Art Research [Page 130]Institute, found a general agreement in vocabulary for east and west that was related to the path of the sun.14 They noted: “Terms for ‘north’ and ‘south’ are much more elusive. First, there are far fewer reports of these terms. Second, there are no consistent patterns in the nomenclature. Many languages have no recorded terms for ‘north’ and ‘south’, even when ‘east’ and ‘west’ are noted.”15  They concluded:

The extreme chaos of terms for ‘north’ and ‘south’ reinforces the idea that these “directions” are almost irrelevant. Directional orientation is based on the movements of the sun, east to west, and the other two “directions” are of lesser importance. How then, do we derive the system of four directions that is recorded in village barrios, regional states, and other matters? The solution seems to be, as Karen Bassie has argued, that ‘east’ and ‘west’ are not directions at all, but are broad quadrants of the sky centered on, but not limited to, the cardinal directions ‘east’ and ‘west’. ‘East’ is the entire section of the horizon where the sun rises during the year, from solstice to solstice and back again. This quadrant is represented in site layout by the E-group complexes found at Uaxactun and elsewhere. ‘West’ is the corresponding quadrant where the sun is observed to set. ‘North’ and ‘south’ are simply the quadrants that lie between these two, that lie ‘at the sides of the sky’, ‘to the right hand’ or ‘to the left’. That is, two defined quadrants imply two others, giving a total of four. The “four corners of the Maya world” are simply the limits of the east-west quadrants, and do not imply four cardinal directions.16

....There was no “north” in the Mesoamerican system—only a spatial relationship to that side of the sun’s path. That is why the vocabulary varies so greatly. It wasn’t that Mesoamericans didn’t know where north was, they conceived it—and described it—entirely differently. It existed only as a quadrant on the right or left of the sun’s path: some Mesoamerican cultures called it “right” and some “left.”

Taking that into account, plus the role of the center in defining Mesoamerican directions, the properly centered quadrant model Gardner discusses can help us appreciate the relationship of the Book of Mormon translation to the actual cartography of a remarkably plausible Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon.

Jeff Lindsay said...

One more useful point from Gardner that I wish to mention:
Just as with the description given by the Tojolabal speaker, if one were to stand with their left hand to the sun’s setting during the summer solstice, one would be looking “north,” and that “north” corresponds quite nicely to the north that Sorenson suggested. No skewing of north 60 degrees to the west is required. However, it should be noted that it would be a misrepresentation of Nephite directions to use north to indicate only the direction based upon the summer solstice. For the Nephites, “north” would indicate anything to that side of the sun’s path.

An inherent misperception of any ancient directional system occurs simply by our attempts to represent them on a map. Our maps take a bird’s-eye view, and often literally a satellite’s view of the land we are interested in. Almost any map we use to describe the Book of Mormon geography assumes an understanding of an area of land much larger than the ancients would have comprehended. Their world was limited to what they could see, travel to, or have described to them.36 No [Page 141]remaining map created by any Mesoamerican people has any of the details of our modern maps. They are spatially inaccurate and locate landmarks without precise distance interrelationships. The maps place the reader at the center and describe the conceptual bounds of the world in distances that might be a day or two of travel.37

Combined with the differences in terminology and cultural perceptions, it is little wonder that the Book of Mormon directions appear difficult fit onto a modern map. That inherent difficulty becomes even greater when we insist upon reading literal geographic statements where the text does not intend a literal reading. That is the issue that clouds our understanding of the Nephite seas.

Orbiting Kolob said...

Why would a bunch of expatriate Israelites use a Mayan directional system? They're not Mayans, after all. They're expatriate Israelites.

The only reason to suggest that, out of all the many Mayan cultural peculiarities, a Nephite writer would opt for this particular one is to remove one of the most obvious objections to the Mesoamerican theory.

Not the only objection, mind you. Look at some of the other things one must believe to buy Sorenson's theory:

(1) Joseph Smith himself was wrong about the location of Book of Mormon events.

(2) In addition to the Hill Cumorah in New York where Joseph found the plates, there must be another hill of the same name thousands of miles away in Mesoamerica where the final battles took place.

(3) All that stuff about Zelph falling in a great battle? Joseph was just BS-ing.

On top of this we must believe that even though the Nephites are not Mayans, their chroniclers would use terms from a totally alien Mayan directional system that they must have known would confuse later, non-Mayan readers. We must also believe that, when the spirit was guiding the translation of these confusing terms, it was not thought a good idea to include a phrase like, "or, in other words, west" in order to achieve clarity.

It's just too much to swallow.

Ricky Johnson said...
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