Abstract: The 1999 excavation of the Barʾan complex at Maʾrib in Yemen yielded identical Sabaean inscriptions on three votive altars. These dedication texts list the donor's grandfather as a member of the Nihm tribe, definitively establishing the presence of the tribal name to c.2,800 years ago. The name, rare in southern Arabia, can then be traced through a variety of other inscriptional, topographical and historical sources down to the present-day tribe and its lands. While the consonants NHM refer to ‘dressing stone by chipping’, and may appear in a variety of contexts, an etymological examination of its Semitic roots yields interesting pointers to the possible origins of the name. Multiple links in these roots to terminology such as ‘consoling’, ‘comforting’ and ‘complaining’ have led to the name being long associated with death and the processes of mourning. This paper, therefore, suggests the possibility of the name being specifically associated with a place of burial, perhaps a connection in the distant past to the extensive, still poorly understood, desert necropolis at the ʿAlam, Ruwayk and Jidran complex north of Maʾrib. Being able to firmly document, a specific tribal and topographical name for almost three millennia is significant. Such continuity of a tribal name, perhaps unique in Arabia, would have implications for our understanding of the processes of tribal naming, structure, and movements in pre-Islamic southern Arabia generally.Aston reviews the three inscriptions, their meaning, location, and dating. Dating to before Nephi's day, three altars have been found in Marib bearing an inscription mentioning the donor, a member of the Nihm tribe. They were given as gifts to a pagan temple in Marib, which is somewhat to the west of current Nihm tribal boundaries (the region marked Nehem or Nehhm on some maps), suggesting either that the Nihm tribe's boundaries or scope of influence was larger anciently than it is today, or perhaps Marib had the nearest holy place to give these gifts.
Aston explores the etymology of the Nihm name in Arabic and in Hebrew:
In attempting to understand its possible origins, the ﬁrst point to note is that the consonants NHM are exceedingly rare; they do not appear anywhere else in Arabia as a toponym. NHM is attested only rarely in southern Arabian writings as a personal or tribal name; it also appears a handful of times in northern Arabian Safaitic texts. NHM itself has two closely related Semitic roots: NH ̣M [that should be H with a dot underneath] and NHM. The ﬁrst root, NH ̣M, has the voiceless pharyngeal h ̣ consonant, giving it the basic meaning of 'to comfort, console, to be sorry' and is used in Arabic (as nah ̣ama)to refer to a 'soft groan, sigh, moan'. Likewise, in ancient Hebrew this root is commonly used in connection with mourning a death. Indeed, David Damrosch notes that:The ancient Nihm tribe's wealth and influence may have been related to their expertise in stonework, demonstrated perhaps by the carved stone altars given by one wealthy man to the temple in Marib. That expertise may be associated with the vast complex of stone tombs in the ancient burial associated with Nehem. Aston notes that there are other ancient burial regions, much smaller than the huge ones to the north, that are in the present Nihm tribal boundaries.
It appears twenty-ﬁve times in the narrative books of the Bible, and in every case it is associated with death. In family settings, it is applied in instances involving the death of an immediate family member (parent, sibling or child); in national settings, it has to do with the survival or impending extermination of an entire people. At heart, nah ̣am means 'to mourn', to come to terms with a death.The second root, NHM, has the simple voiceless laryngeal h and is also found in Hebrew where it means to 'roar', 'complain' and 'be hungry'. In ancient Egyptian the root refers ‘to roar, thunder, shout’, which is similar to the Arabic meanings ‘to growl, groan, roar, suffer from hunger, to complain'. This association with hunger may be connected to the fasting that was often part of mourning for the dead in ancient Yemen and still in many cultures today. It is this second root, NHM, that appears in every known occurrence of the name in epigraphic South Arabian text, whether Sabaean, Hadramitic or Minean in origin. Here, it usually refers to ‘dressed masonry’ or the ‘dressing of stone by chipping’....
Aston's article has interesting insights for students of the Book of Mormon. One of the earliest Hebraic word plays recognized in the text is the one involving Nahom, a place named by others where Lehi's family buried Ishmael. Immediately after Nahom is introduced at the end of verse 34 in 1 Nephi 16, we read of the mourning, complaining, and murmuring of the daughters of Ishmael, whose complaints include the hunger that they have suffered, and their fear that they will now perish with hunger (1 Nephi 16:35,36). This connects nicely with the meanings that Hebrew speakers would associate with Nahom.
The Hebraic wordplay was interesting internal evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, long before the discovery by a BYU professor in 1978 than Nehem was actually on some old high-end maps of Arabia. Later we would recognize that this region is in exactly the right place for an eastward turn that could then lead directly to a remarkable candidate, nearly due east of Nahom as Nephi wrote, for the previously ridiculed place, Bountiful. I find that cool. That was before German archaeologists discovered the altars at Marib bearing the ancient Nihm tribal name, showing that the tribe was in the area and influential in Lehi's era (well before, actually). So Nehem is not a modern name. It's rooted in antiquity, with hard evidence chiseled in stone to prove it. I also find that to be cool.
Aston, as you may know, is LDS and well aware of the implications for the Book of Mormon, which he does not raise in this publication. While his interest in the Book of Mormon and Lehi's trail is well known, other scholars and officials also recognize his academic passion for Arabia and especially for preserving and investigating the surprising region at Khor Kharfot and Wadi Sayq, a rare gem in the Arabian Peninsula that also is a leading candidate for the long ballyhooed place called Bountiful. Efforts are underway through his Khor Kharfot Foundation to increase research and preserve the biology of that delicate region, where modern diversion of its water supply is already jeopardizing some of the magnificent trees in the area. It's a remarkable place, a biological and geographical gem in Arabia that needs your help. LDS or not, I hope you'll consider making a donation to this worthy cause.