Place-Names in the Desert

The semester is coming to a close and while I will surely have a busy summer (between an internship and thesis research) I hope to pick up my blogging pace a little. I’ve also been working on a new project related to apologetics that I’ve undertaken that has been fun but a bit time-consuming. OK enough chatter let’s get on to the good stuff.
The following is an old “bulls-eye” by Hugh Nibley that I found to be rather impressive from his book “An Approach to the Book of Mormon” that I’ve recently been browsing. A lot of really good stuff in those old materials.


Place-Names in the Desert

Lehi’s intimacy with desert practices becomes apparent right at the outset of his journey, not only in the skillful way he managed things but also in the quaint and peculiar practices he observed, such as those applying to the naming of places in the desert.

The stream at which he made his first camp Lehi named after his eldest son; the valley, after his second son (1 Nephi 2:8 ). The oasis at which his party made their next important camp “we did call . . . Shazer” (1 Nephi 16:13). The fruitful land by the sea “we called Bountiful,” while the sea itself “we called Irreantum” (1 Nephi 17:5).

By what right do these people rename streams and valleys to suit themselves? By the immemorial custom of the desert, to be sure. Among the laws “which no Bedouin would dream of transgressing,” the first, according to Jennings-Bramley, is that “any water you may discover, either in your own or in the territory of another tribe, is named after you.”38 So it happens that in Arabia a great wady (valley) will have different names at different points along its course, a respectable number of names being “all used for one and the same valley. . . . One and the same place may have several names, and the wady running close to the same, or the mountain connected with it, will naturally be called differently by different clans,” according to Canaan, 39 who tells how the Arabs “often coin a new name for a locality for which they have never used a proper name, or whose name they do not know,” the name given being usually that of some person.40

This confusing custom of renaming everything on the spot seems to go back to the earliest times, and “probably, as often as not, the Israelites named for themselves their own camps, or unconsciously confounded a native name in their carelessness.”41 Yet in spite of its undoubted antiquity, only the most recent explorers have commented on this strange practice, which seems to have escaped the notice of travelers until explorers in our own times started to make official maps.

Even more whimsical and senseless to a westerner must appear the behavior of Lehi in naming a river after one son and its valley after another. But the Arabs don’t think that way, for Thomas reports from the south country that “as is commonly the case in these mountains, the water bears a different name from the wadi.”42 Likewise the Book of Mormon follows the Arabic system of designating Lehi’s camp not by the name of the river by which it stood (for rivers may easily dry up), but rather by the name of the valley (1 Nephi 10:16; 16:6).

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3 comments on “Place-Names in the Desert

  1. Good ole’ Hugh Nibley! Good stuff!! What is this “new project related to apologetics” that you are working on? Just curious.

    • James says:

      Yep, Nibley might be older material, but much of his stuff is not outdated.

      I’ll keep my secret project a secret for a while longer until it’s further along. Hopefully by the end of the month it’ll be ready for public consumption. Just thought I’d tease my readers a bit.

    • Alright, I’ll just wait to find out what this new project of yours is. By the way, I don’t know if I told, but I have started my own blog about LDS apologetics. There isn’t a lot there yet, but you should check it out at I could definitely benefit from having your comments and insights shared there.

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