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Journey to the Promised Land
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Last updated on February 1, 2018

In his account of reaching the ocean shore at the Old World Bountiful, Nephi wrote, “We beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which being interpreted, is many waters” (1 Nephi 17:5). This unfamiliar name was a source of amusement to some early readers of the Book of Mormon, who attributed its origin to Joseph Smith’s creative imagination.1 Others, though, have sincerely wondered if there are any plausible linguistic roots that match up with Nephi’s definition for this strange word.

Nephi’s explanation suggests that Irreantum was not a Hebrew word, but was from an unfamiliar language which had to be interpreted. Yet if Irreantum is not Hebrew, then what is it? In recent years, scholars have found that its roots could mean “watering of completeness” or “watering of (super)abundance” in  ancient Semitic dialects spoken in southern Arabia. These meanings are certainly consistent with Nephi’s interpretation of the name, and the dialects from which they come were spoken in Lehi’s day along his route through the mountainous coasts of the Red Sea.

Interestingly, the name Irreantum may also be broken down into elements that refer to “great” or “watercourse” in Egyptian as well.2 Ample references in the Book of Mormon indicate that Lehi and his record-keeping posterity knew some form of Egyptian as well as a number of Arab practices and literary customs. These proposals show that Nephi’s interpretation of the name Irreantum has several plausible linguistic explanations.

  • 1. “Irreantum, which being interpreted, is, many waters.” … Proof of this, Mr. Nephi Mormon Moroni Rigdon Harris Cowdery Smith. Let us have the proof. Irreantum signifies a complete ass, nearer than anything else. Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (1838), 14.
  • 2. See the discussion of all of these options at https://onoma.lib.byu.edu/index.php/IRREANTUM.

Further Reading

Paul Y. Hoskisson, John Gee, Brian M. Hauglid, “What's in a Name: Irreantum,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002): 90–93.

Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah (Provo, UT; Deseret Book, 1988), 171–72.

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Last updated on February 1, 2018

This concern is based on an unnecessary reading of the text. Nephi stated: “And it came to pass that [Lehi] departed into the wilderness … And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family … And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent” (1 Nephi 2:5–6).  

Some have interpreted Nephi’s words to mean that it took only three days to get from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, but this reading seems unlikely.1 The distance between Jerusalem and the Red Sea by road is about 180 miles (290 Km). Even if the party traveled with loaded camels, as would seem necessary in order to carry their provisions (1 Nephi 2:4; 3:9), they would normally have covered an average of only 20 to 25 miles (32–40 km) per day.

Lehi would likely have fled Jerusalem as quickly as possible, pushing his traveling party much faster than under normal travel conditions, but the journey of three days does not refer to the distance from Jerusalem to the Red Sea. Rather, their party first departed from Jerusalem and came down near the Red Sea, and after that traveled three more days until they reached their first campsite in the Valley of Lemuel.2 It makes clear sense to understand the three-day journey as a reference to the specific segment of wilderness travel “near the shore of the Red Sea,” which had just been mentioned in the previous verse. Thus, the most likely interpretation, based on sound textual analysis, also happens to be the most geographically realistic.

It is also possible that the family’s three-day journey, which echoes the Exodus narrative, had symbolic legal significance. In this case, the “three days” may not necessarily refer to an exact duration of time and distance, but rather to the technical limit of the sacrificial jurisdiction of the temple in Jerusalem.3

Either way, the supposed error in the Book of Mormon is eliminated.

  • 1. “This, it must be confessed, was a most extraordinary journey; to go from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, with his wife and children, tents and baggage, in three days, was to travel with unparalleled celerity,” Gimel, “Book of Mormon,” Christian Watchman, 7 October, 1831. “We can pass without comment that remarkable journey which these people made from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, a distance approximating, if not exceeding, two hundred miles, on foot, carrying food and tents, and possibly some necessary change of clothing, and apparently in the space of three days, except as we may say that they allowed no grass to grow under their feet en route.” Samuel Traum, Mormonism against Itself (Cincinnati, OH: The Standard Publishing Company, 1910), 90.
  • 2. On the question of whether the Valley of Lemuel has been found, see Book of Mormon Central, “Have the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman Been Found? (1 Nephi 2:6),” KnoWhy 286 (March 13, 2017).
  • 3. Book of Mormon Central, “Why Would Lehi Offer Sacrifices Outside of Jerusalem? (1 Nephi 7:22),” KnoWhy 9 (January 12, 2016). A passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q19 52:13–15) specifically reads, “You shall not slaughter a clean ox or sheep or goat in all your towns, near to my temple (within) a distance of a three-days’ journey; nay, but inside my temple you shall slaughter it, making it a burnt offering or a peace offering.” Donald W. Parry and Emanuel Tov, The Dead Sea Scrolls Reader: Volume I (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013), 689–699.

Further Reading

S. Kent Brown, “New Light from Arabia on Lehi’s Trail,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 56–62.

Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015), 38–42.

Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Volume 5 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 54–58.

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Book of Mormon Reference

1 Nephi 2:4-6