Naming in the Desert (Howlers # 13)

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All the rivers and valleys he makes Lehi name with new names.
John Hyde Jr., Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (1857), 223.

From Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert (1988), 75-76.

By what right do these people rename streams and valleys to suit themselves? No westerner would tolerate such arrogance. But Lehi is not interested in western taste; he is following a good old Oriental custom. 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 territory or in the territory of another tribe, is named after you.” 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 wadi running close to the same, or the mountain connected with it, will naturally be called differently by members of different clans,” according to Canaan, 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. However, names thus bestowed by wandering tribesmen “are neither generally known or commonly used,” so that we need not expect any of Lehi’s place names to survive.

Speaking of the desert “below the Negeb proper,” i.e., the general area of Lehi’s first camp, Woolley and Lawrence report “peaks and ridges that have different names among the different Arab tribes, and from different sides,” and of the nearby Tih Palmer says, “In every locality, each individual object, whether rock, mountain, ravine, or valley, has its appropriate name,” while Raswan recalls how “miraculously each hill and dale bore a name.” But how reliable are such names? Philby recounts a typical case: “Zayid and ‘Ali seemed a little vague about the nomenclature of these parts, and it was only by the irritating process of continual questioning and sifting their often inconsistent and contradictory answers that I was able in the end to piece together the topography of the region.” Farther east Cheesman ran into the same difficulty: “I pointed out that this was the third different hill to which he had given the same name. He knew that, was the reply, but that was how they named them.”  The irresponsible 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.” 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 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. In the Mahra country, for example, “as is commonly the case in these mountains, the water bears a different name from the wadi.” Likewise we might suppose that after he had named the river after his first-born the location of the camp beside its waters would be given, as any westerner would give it, with reference to the river. Instead, the Book of Mormon follows the Arabic system of designating the camp not by the name of the river (which may easily dry up sometime), but by the name of the valley (1 Nephi 10:16; 16:6).

*This item is cross-posted from Ether’s Cave.

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