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Were Directions in the Book of Mormon Confused in Translation?

In The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, by John L. Sorenson, the arch Mesoamerican setting apologist cites William Hamblin. Hamblin proposes that Book of Mormon directions are "distorted" because the Nephites used Egyptian like terms with Hebrew intent:

"If Nephi used Egyptian terms with Hebrew meanings in mind, and if Joseph Smith translated these terms literally, you end up with ... Hebrew (and modern) "land west ward" (Heb. behind) would be written in Egyto-Nephite characters as "land northward," (Eg. behind) while the conceptual Hebrew (and modern) "land eastward" (Heb. front) would have been written in Egypto-Nephite as "land southward" (Eg. Front) ... In other words, you find the conceptual geography of the Hebrew universe must be "distorted" in relation to the Egyptian vocabulary ..." (William Hamblin, "Which Way Did He Go?" Some Notes on Book of Mormon Geography, unpublished manuscript in possession of John Sorenson; summarized in F.A.R.M.S. Update for May 1990; see also "Directions in Hebrew, Egyptian, and Nephite Language")  

So, according to Hamblin, the Semitic minded Nephites meant land westward, but it got translated "land northward" in the English Book of Mormon. They intended land eastward, but it got translated "land southward". They tried to indicate south sea, but it got translated "west sea", and they tried to designate north sea, but it got translated "east sea". Hamblin is trying very hard to excuse the screwed directions of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon set near the Mexican Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  

But Hamblin's argument does not account for the fact that directions described by Nephi (translated by Joseph Smith) fit perfectly the biblical, or common sense coordinates in the following verses:

"AND it came to pass that we did again take our journey in the wilderness; and we did travel nearly eastward from that time forth ..." (1 Nephi 17:1 - Bold emphasis added)

The above verse was also ostensibly translated from "the reformed Egyptian". Are we to understand, using Hamblin's argument, that Nephi was actually saying that, "we did travel nearly northward from that time forth"? This translation contradicts the account placing Nephi in the wilderness, south of Jerusalem. The southward journey near the "Red Sea" is consistent with:

"And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction ..." (1 Nephi 16:13 - Bold emphasis added)

If Hamblin's logic is followed, we should interpret that Nephi was saying that they had traveled "nearly an east-eastnorth direction". This doesn't make sense with their having previously "traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea ..." (1 Nephi 2:5) It does not fit the setting of the narrative. The directions in Joseph's translation, taken as is, fit perfectly the Hebrew coordinate system of the Book of Mormon, and common sense!

The Book of Mormon informs us that its quotations from Hebrew Scripture (e.g. Isaiah), were also written in "the language of the Egyptians" upon the "plates of brass". (Mosiah 1:3-4)  The Hebrew directions cited in the Isaiah portions of the Nephite record, translate without problem into English. Of particular interrest are the following verses:

"Therefore, O Lord, thou hast forsaken thy people, the house of Jacob, because they be replenished from "the east ..." (2 Nephi 12:6, Yesha'Yahu 2:6 - Bold emphasis added)

"But they shall fly upon the shoulders of the Philistines towards the west; they shall spoil them of the east ..." (2 Nephi 21:14, Yesha'Yahu 11:14 - Bold emphasis added)

The original Hebrew word translated "the east" in the above passages, literally means "front" - as in facing sunrise. Hebrew scripture is replete with examples. (E.g. Ezekiel 8:16; 11:1) Directions in the Isaiah portions of the Book of Mormon were translated by Joseph Smith without the least distortion.

Had there been a problem with representing Hebrew directions with Egyptian styled characters, the Semitic minded Nephites could have simply "reformed" their characters so that they represented what they wanted to convey. (Mormon 9:32-34) Moreover, had there been some difficulty in communicating the meaning of a Nephite expression or symbol in English, the inspired translation could have simply inserted a familiar English substitute. Take for example the familiar King James Bible term "Red Sea", which is not the Hebraic original, and which replaces the actual Semitic term behind 2 Nephi 19:1 (Yesha'Yahu 9:1). You may notice that there is a problem with this translated Nephite verse. See Matthew 4:13-18. Other references to "Red Sea" in the English Book of Mormon are really the equivalent of reed sea in Hebrew.

Sorenson's discussion of Book of Mormon directions is a mass of confusion, which he seeks to excuse, perhaps even dodge by insisting that the subject is complicated and culturally sensitive. (An Ancient American setting for the Book of Mormon, "Directions in the Book of Mormon", pg. 38)

The fact is, the Nephites were not limited to defining east as front, and west as behind. There are other words in Hebrew scripture defining directions.


"East" is East, "West" is West in the Promised Land

The Central American Isthmus of Tehuantepec is far too wide to be the Book of Mormon's "small neck of land" (Alma 22:32) The distance across the Mesoamerican isthmus is comparable to the distance across the Yucatan Peninsula. In fact, the distance across Tehuantepec is about 3/4 as far as the distance across the narrowest breadth of the Yucatan.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, lies between the Gulf of Mexico to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The "narrow pass" mentioned in the Book of Mormon is described as having water "on the west and on the east" of it. (Alma 50:34) In order to accept a Central American setting featuring the wide, lateral, Isthmus of Tehuantepec as the Book of Mormon's "small neck of land", one has to consider that ancient peoples of that region used outrageously skewed definitions of "west" and "east". Or was it that translation by Urim and Thummim was sometimes less than perfect? One would think that the Nephite seers, who used the sacred interpreters, would have discovered whether it were possible to confuse Hebrew and Egyptian directions. (Mosiah 28:13-14)

It is true that various cultures around the world have different ways of coordinating directions, but ancient Israelites coordinated their east and west according to sunrise and sunset. For instance, the Hebrew expression translated "westward" (in the direction of the Great inland sea) in Joshua 23:4, literally means "going down of the sun". (Yehoshua 23:4)

Can we trust that "west" plainly means in the general direction of sunset, and that  "east" faces sunrise when the Book of Mormon tells us of a "sea on the west and on the east" relative to a point "by the narrow pass ..."? (Alma 50:34)

The Hebrew word "qĕdĕm" (קֶדֶם) means front or before, it is sometimes translated east or before sunrise. As one stands before the rising sun, "west" is behind or in back. Therefore, the Hebrew word "ahor" (אָחוֹר) meaning back, after or hinder can in some instances be interpreted to mean west. See Yesha'Yahu 9:11 in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 9:12 in the KJV.

The Dead Sea is sometimes referred to as the "former sea" or "eastern sea" , while the Mediterranean is sometimes called the "back sea", "hinder sea" or "western sea". (Zechariah 14:8) Relative to Jerusalem, the Mediterranean is west, as the sun sets, and the Dead Sea is east - toward sunrise.

The LORD said to Joshua, "...unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast." (Joshua 1:4) It makes sense in the land of Israel to equate seaward with "westward". (Genesis 13:14) The Hebrew dictionary in the LDS RESOURCE EDITION of THE SCRIPTURES notes that seaward, pronounced "yamah" (יָמָה) is locally "westward" (in the direction of the Mediterranean). In other words, seaward is "westward" in the land of Israel. Interpreting seaward as west elsewhere risks taking things out of context.

Similarly desert-ward, "negbah" (נֶגְבָּה) is used as another way of saying "south" in the land of Israel, because there is desert to the south. (Joshua 18:14) This does not mean that ancient Israelites, outside of the land of Canaan, were inclined to arbitrarily designate "south" in the direction of an arid land, or "west" in the arbitrary direction of a seashore. The Israelite compass is actually based on the perceived movement of the heavenly quarters, and there are other terms in Hebrew scripture for east and west, and these terms directly relate to sunrise and sunset.

The Hebrew word "mizrah" literally means from sunrise or place of sunrise; it is translated "east" in Joshua 11:3 (KJV). In the same verse, "on the west" literally means "from the sea" (the Mediterranean).

The English word east relates to the Greek eos meaning dawn. The Hebrew word for west, "maarav" means from evening or place of sunset. (Isaiah 45:6; 59:19) This Hebrew word for west appropriately applies to places beyond the confines of the land of Israel, and would certainly have been used by Lehi and Nephi. (Psalm 103:12; 107:3, Isaiah 43:5) The English word west relates to the Latin vesper, and has much the same connotation as the Hebrew word "maarav". There is no sound reason to suppose that the LORD would allow the meaning of "west" in the English translation of the Book of Mormon, to not remain true to its origin.

The word translated "sea" from Hebrew scripture, is "yam" (יָם). Yam doesn't have to mean ocean. Examples are: yam kinĕrĕt - "the sea of Chinnereth" (Numbers 34:11, KJV); westerners call this sea "the Sea of Galilee." There is also yam mĕlah "the salt sea" (Genesis 14:3, KJV); westerners call this sea "the Dead Sea." These are inland bodies of water. (2 Chronicles 20:2, KJV)

Just as we should not assume that everywhere the Bible mentions a "sea" or even "the sea", it is referring to ocean, so we should not assume, as we read the Book of Mormon, that "the sea south", "the sea north", "the sea west", "the sea east", "the west sea, south" and "the place where the sea divides the land" all refer to oceanic bodies of water. (Helaman 3:8, Alma 53:8, Ether 10:20) Ocean, in fact, is a Gentile term that does not appear in Hebrew Scripture, or in the Book of Mormon. Distinguishing the Ocean from other seas, the Book of Mormon speaks of "the great deep". In the Bible, "the great sea" can refer to the Mediterranean. (Doctrine and Covenants 133:20, Genesis 7:11, Isaiah 51:10, Ezekiel 47:19-20, 2 Nephi 4:20, Helaman 12:16, Ether 2:25; 7:27)

Phyllis Carol Olive, author of The Lost Lands of the Book of Mormon, has found what the lands of western New York would have looked like with ancient inland seas restored. The lands that appear, match descriptions given in the Book of Mormon in terms of location, orientation and elevation. Western New York was once occupied by peoples classified broadly as "mound builders". Phyllis Olive's discovery of a small neck of land (a moraine passing through ancient Lake Tonawanda) squares with scripture and the Israelite compass. Sister Olive has realized that the lands of the Book of Mormon cannot be thousands of miles distant from the place that scripture designates as Cumorah. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20) Sticking with the Scriptures, Phyllis has discovered, or rather rediscovered, the genuine lands of the Book of Mormon.

Click on Broad Neck to find an article titled The Tehuantepec Smoke Screen  - Obscuring the Truth about Israelite Directions in Order to Sell Mexican / Mesoamerican Cumorah Theory. This article discusses in greater detail how the Central American theory fails to follow LDS scripture and actually misplaces Book of Mormon lands.

Click on American Land of Israel for Olive's Near Cumorah Setting by Deduction and Best Fit!

Copyright © 2008 by W. Vincent Coon

Click here for Phyllis Olive's
The Lost Lands of the Book of Mormon


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