“Lehi Left His House and the Land of His Inheritance”

Culture: Lehi’s family lived in the city, but had a land of inheritance outside the city walls. As a family of some wealth, Lehi’s home would have been nicer than many, but it was probably built along the same lines as the other homes of that time period. As Jeffrey R. Chadwick, a professor of Church history at Brigham Young University, describes them:

The typical house found throughout Israel and Judah during the period when Lehi lived is called by archaeologists the “pillared” or “four-room” house. The basic plan, which first appeared in the twelfth century B.C. and which, with improvements and variations, endured for over six centuries, featured three rectangular, parallel rooms on a long axis tied into a single rectangular room on a broad or perpendicular axis. The outer three rooms were roofed and formed a squared U around the middle long room which was an open-air courtyard.

While his main residence was inside the city walls, he maintained a land of inheritance that was probably in the land from which his grandfathers or great-grandfathers had fled. Chadwick notes:

Lehi’s land of inheritance was most likely not located within the borders of the southern kingdom of Judah. The most likely location for Lehi’s ancestral real estate in the ancient land of Israel was the region of Manasseh. Lehi is reported to have been a descendant of Manasseh, the son of Joseph who was sold into Egypt (see 1 Nephi 5:14 and Alma 10:3). The ancient tribe of Manasseh possessed large tracts of land on both sides of the Jordan River. As described in the Bible (Josh. 13:29–31 and 17:7–10), the territory of Manasseh east of the Jordan was equivalent to the area of Bashan (the modern Golan) and the northern part of Gilead (north of modern Amman). West of the Jordan, Manasseh held territory in what came to be known as the Samaria region, from the Jezreel Valley on the north to Tappuah on the south—Tappuah being about thirty-five kilometers (twenty-one miles) north of Jerusalem. Historical considerations suggest that the area west of Jordan and north of Tappuah—specifically between Tirzah on the east and modern Jenin on the west—was more likely than any other segment of Manasseh to have been the location of Lehi’s ancestral land tract.

Second, the catalogue of abandoned wealth establishes that Lehi was probably a wealthy man who would, naturally, have been well known in his “land of inheritance.” Nibley suggests that Lehi was a caravaneer, a merchant, by occupation:

There is ample evidence in the Book of Mormon that Lehi was an expert on caravan travel, as one might expect.… While he took absolutely nothing but the most necessary provisions with him, he knew exactly what those provisions should be, and when he had to send back to the city to supply unanticipated wants, it was for records that he sent and not for any necessaries for the journey. This argues for a high degree of preparation and knowledge in the man, as does the masterly way in which he established a base camp in order to gather his forces for the great trek.

Potter and Wellington strongly disagree with Nibley’s suggestion that Lehi was a professional caravaneer. They note that caravans did not use tents and that long-distance traveling would have been an unusual profession for a wealthy Palestinian family. They further suggest that the descriptions of the family in the wilderness strongly indicate that they were unused to the rigors of long-distance travel:

1. A tradition in the Middle East was that the sons from their earliest years grew up working beside their father in the family trade. Lehi’s oldest sons showed little evidence of being trained in the caravan trade nor of having earned the nobility manifested by an experienced caravan overseer. They complained bitterly of having left the comforts of Jerusalem and their family wealth. After a relatively easy trek from Jerusalem to the Valley of Lemuel with its sheltering cliffs, fresh water supply, and abundant food Laman and Lemuel became convinced they would perish in the wilderness (1 Ne. 2:11).
2. Sariah, Lehi’s wife, did not display the hardened disposition of a mother whose family traveled long periods of time away from home. When her sons made a short journey to Jerusalem from the Valley of Lemuel she began to “mourn,” supposing her sons had perished in the wilderness (1 Ne. 5:1–2).
3. When the going got tough Lehi does not appear to have been a seasoned caravan captain. In times of difficulty, he began “to murmur against the Lord” (1 Ne. 16:20). It was here that Nephi, perhaps still a teenager, took the lead. As Noel B. Reynolds wrote, “It is here that Nephi emerges as co-leader with his father.”
4. If Lehi did lead caravans, he would have known some basic navigational skills. Alma wrote that they “tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course” when they did not give heed to the Liahona (Alma 37:41–43). In other words, during certain parts of the journey, the family became lost.
5. Finally, an experienced and well-equipped caravaner could have made the journey from Jerusalem to Dhofar in less than four months. The fact that Lehi took eight years would seem to indicate that he had neither the knowledge nor the experience necessary to make a speedy journey.

John Tvedtnes argues that Lehi was a metalworker. Certainly Nephi’s ability to make tools for shipbuilding indicates some knowledge of metalworking, and it is reasonable to suppose that he would have learned such skill from his father or as a family trade. Chadwick supports Tvedtnes’s conclusion and sees metalworking as an important skill for the family’s location inside Jerusalem’s walls:

Lehi’s great-grandparents and grandparents would have to have figured out a way to support themselves without any land to farm—something that they could do living inside the city wall that Hezekiah had built between 705 and 701 B.C. As first pointed out by John Tvedtnes, indication in the writings of Nephi suggest that both he and his father Lehi were professional metalsmiths. Such a vocation would have been ideal for Lehi’s ancestors to learn since it would not require the ownership or rental of property outside the city. Like most professionals of that age, Nephi would have apprenticed with and learned the metalworking trade from his father. Lehi had likely learned it from his father, who in turn learned it in order to survive as a landless resident of Jerusalem’s Mishneh.

In any case, as already mentioned (see commentary accompanying 1 Nephi 1:1–3), Lehi had ties to Egypt. Perhaps he had some merchant ties; and if he had metalworking skills, they may have provided some of his trade goods.

The gold and silver representing the family wealth was probably buried on the land of their inheritance. As Chadwick notes:

Even though Lehi did not live on the land of inheritance, he had “left gold and silver and all manner of riches” on the property—these were probably buried in caches known only to the family. A common practice during the Iron Age II period, when Lehi lived, was to place loose silver in ceramic jugs and then bury those containers for safekeeping. Lehi probably hid (buried) the bulk of his wealth at a secret location on his land of inheritance in Manasseh because he knew that those riches would not be safe in Jerusalem.

Geography: When Lehi took his family into the “wilderness,” they followed historical precedent to flee into Arabia. George Potter and Richard Wellington researched Lehi’s trail from Jerusalem to Bountiful. Concerning this initial direction to the “wilderness,” they note:

The oral traditions of several Jewish colonies tell of other groups leaving Jerusalem and going into Arabia to avoid Nebuchadnezzar’s captivity. Abu Hurairah, an early Islamic period geographer, wrote of the Jews who settled in northwest Arabia to escape the persecution of Nebuchadnezzar. This flight resulted in large numbers of Jews settling at the towns of al-Hijr, Khaibar, and Medina. According to Reuben Ahroni: “As a result of this prophecy of doom (Jer. 38:2), seventy-five thousand courageous men… who firmly believed Jeremiah’s prophecy of impending national catastrophe accompanied by priest, Levites, and slaves… crossed the Jordan River and went into the desert… and arrived in the land of Eden [sic, Edom]. From there they turned south until they arrived in Yemen.” A similar story of escape from Nebuchadnezzar is told by the descendants of the Jewish colony in India (Cochin).

When Lehi’s family left Jerusalem, Potter and Wellington note that “there are four possible routes of escape that Lehi could have used to reach the shores of the Red Sea. One passed through Beersheba to the west. Another ran south via the wadi Araba. To the east were two more possible routes. Because the Jews were actively seeking Lehi’s life, we can assume that after leaving Jerusalem Lehi headed immediately for the wilderness on his way to Arabia. Lehi would have wished to travel quickly, so he would no doubt have chosen an existing route in order to escape Zedekiah’s sphere of influence as quickly as possible. For this reason, we doubt if Lehi followed the trails to the west and south, which passed through lands controlled by Zedekiah.” The two trails to the east are known as the King’s Highway and the Way of the Wilderness. Examining the two alternatives, Potter and Wellington favor the Way of the Wilderness.

Jeffrey Chadwick disagrees. He notes that the majority of Book of Mormon researchers who have suggested a path from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea have preferred the King’s Highway. Chadwick suggests that the King’s Highway was a much more direct route: “If traveling from Jerusalem to the Red Sea via the King’s Highway would be like driving from Salt Lake City to Phoenix by way of Denver, then a trip from Jerusalem to Aqaba on the route suggested by Potter and Wellington would be like going from Salt Lake City to Phoenix via Kansas!” The King’s Highway appears to be the more parsimonious choice.

Brant Gardner -

Brant Gardner

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1