“We Should Call the Name of the Place Nephi”

Brant Gardner

Geography: The phrase “we did take… whatsoever things were possible” suggests very hasty preparations and flight. Although they also took tents, the first mention of pitching them (establishing even a temporary campsite) occurred after a journey of “many days.” It may be that their flight was as rapid as possible, and they did not take the time to set up a camp until they believed themselves to be safe. Not having the advantage of modern equipment, setting up and dismantling tents would take a fair amount of time.

When they left, where did they go? According to Sorenson’s geographical hypothesis, the Lehites landed on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The Lamanites remained there, but the Nephites probably went to the interior highlands.

Within three kilometers, the Guatemalan piedmont begins to rise away from the coastal plain. To reach the highlands, the group had to pass through a mountainous area where “volcanic peaks extend like a picket fence across the entire southern edge of the highlands from Mexico on the west to El Salvador on the east.” They left what is now termed the tierra caliente, or hot country and entered the tierra temprada, or temperate country, which is between 2,500 and 5,500 feet in elevation. They would have left temperatures ranging from 85 to 90 degrees F. in the daytime, and entered a region where the range is from 75 to 80 F. with nighttime temperatures a pleasant 60 to 70 degrees F.

There are basically two seasons in this area of the world, the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season is typically from May to October, and the dry season from November to the following May. It is a semi-tropical area, with a great variety of birds, including parrots, ducks, herons, and the beautiful quetzal. Several species of poisonous snakes, wild pigs, armadillos, jaguars, bears, and tapirs are native to the region. Crocodiles and iguanas inhabit the swampy areas and lagoons.

Culture: Nephi’s mention of tents raises the question of whether they would be the same shelters they had used on the Arabian Peninsula and whether they had pack animals to carry them. Their Old World experience would not likely have been any assistance in either case. While the colonists may have brought their tents to the New World, the fleeing Nephites could not have carried them. Those Old World tents probably weighed around 250 pounds. There is no suggestion that the Lehites brought the camels with them (and they would have been useless in the mountain terrain anyway), and there were no indigenous pack animals in Mesoamerica. Until the time of the conquest (and for much of the area, long after) the only means of transport was human. It is therefore probable that the tent was not a fabric they carried along but a temporary shelter constructed from available materials. Sorenson suggests:

What was a Nephite “tent”? Would the crowd have been seated in sprawling shelters like Arabs? The term “tent” is used some 64 times in the Book of Mormon, so the question may deserve attention.
Biblical translators have usually rendered the Hebrew root ‘hl to English as “tent”; however, it has a rather wide range of possible meanings. Sometimes it referred to full-fledged tents on the pattern of those used by desert nomads of southwestern Asia; but to semi-nomads like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the term could also mean “hut” as well as “tent.” In later usage, as the Israelites became sedentary village or city dwellers, its meanings were extended further. For example, in Psalm 132:3 and Proverbs 7:17 the related word ‘ohel means “canopy (over a bed),” while in the New Testament, John 1:14 says literally “he pitched his tent among us” to communicate the thought “he lived among us.” A Hittite account has the god Elkunirsha living in a “tent” made of wood. In writings from South Arabia in Lehi’s day and also in classical Arabic, languages closely related to Hebrew, the root stood for “family” or “tribe” as well as tent. In the related Semitic language of the Babylonians, a word from the same root meant “city,” “village,” “estate,” or “social unit,” and even formed part of the word for “bed.” An Egyptian equivalent could be read as “hut, camel’s hair tent, camp.” Furthermore, Dr. Hugh Nibley reminds us that “throughout the ancient world… the people must spend the time of the great national festival of the New Year living in tents.” But for this occasion Israelites came to use makeshift booths made of branches, as fewer and fewer of their town-dwelling numbers owned genuine tents. The Nephites, of course, routinely lived in permanent buildings (see, for example, Mosiah 6:3). Alma’s people “pitched their tents” after fleeing to Helam, but then they “began to build buildings” (Mosiah 23:5). Military forces on the move are said to have used tents (Alma 51:32, 34; 58:25), but it is nearly unbelievable that the entire Lamanite army referred to in Alma 51 lugged collapsible tents on their backs through tropical country hundreds of miles from the land of Nephi. Far more likely they erected shelters of brush or whatever other materials could be found in the vicinity, referring to those or any other temporary shelters by the traditional word for tent. Farmers in parts of Mesoamerica still throw together simple brush shelters when they stay overnight at their fields in the busiest work season, and at the time of the Spanish conquest, Bernal Diaz reported that the soldiers of their Indian allies “erect their huts” as they move on campaign. So when we read that Benjamin’s subjects sat in their tents listening to his sermon, we should understand that they might have been under shelter a good deal different from what comes to mind when we hear “tent.”

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2