The brief Book of Mormon account of Lehi's journey with his family from Jerusalem to the Red Sea has taken on vivid new meaning for more than 200 BYU students.
They've been along the same kind of path.Led by Dr. D. Kelly Ogden, assistant director of the school's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, the students walked over various portions of the 200 miles separating Jerusalem and the Red Sea. Pieced together sequentially over an 18-month period ending this past fall, the completed "Lehi Trek" covered the entire distance. It began near the end of the Winter 1986 semester of BYU's Israel Study Abroad Program. Nine groups traveled portions of the route, and walking time totaled 65 hours.
Though no one knows the exact path Lehi and his family took in their 600 B.C. journey, the students realized, with awe, as they crossed some of the most desolate terrain on Earth, that the mountains they viewed in the distance may have been the same ones their Book of Mormon forerunners used for guidance nearly 2,600 years before.
Beginning in Jerusalem, the students' route descended 3,500 feet to the shores of the Dead Sea, which at more than 1,000 feet below sea level is the lowest spot on Earth. Then they followed the barren western shore of this stagnant body of water for 50 miles, at times gingerly working their way around the base of sheer cliffs that rose virtually from the water's edge.
From there the groups traveled straight south for about 120 miles through teh Arabah, a desert valley between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. The mostly flat, desolate terrain was broken up only by an occasional acacia tree and the mountains of Edom and Moab looming in the distance to the east, 5,000 feet above the valley floor.
The trail finally ended on the rocky beaches of Aqaba, which look out over the narrow Gulf of Aqaba that eventually opens into the Red Sea.
The 60 students who left Jerusalem to begin the trek on a blustery, early spring morning walked 30 miles in two days. They camped overnight but couldn't sleep because of the cold. Groups walking during summer months traveled at night to avoid daytime temperatures soaring well above 100 degrees. Even beginning at 2 a.m., Dr. Ogden reported it "was like an oven."
One group toward the end of the trek walked from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. but were forced to return to Jerusalem by van after being routed from their camping spot by hordes of mosquitoes. At the end of the journey, the travelers, standing on the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba, shivered as chill winds whipped in from the Red Sea.
The students also experienced some unique contemporary experiences along their ancient route. One group was stopped by a military patrol wanting to know what a group of people were doing walking along an international border in the middle of the night. Another group drew odd looks and numerous questions as the students trudged through the posh hotel district in the coastal resort town of Eilat, after having walked 27 miles.
Book of Mormon descriptions of the return trips to Jerusalem by Laman, Lemuel, Nephi and Sam along a similar route are very brief, leaving the impression that the journey itself was also brief. However, as Dr. Ogden has written in a chapter he authored in the newly published book, "Studies in Scripture, Volume 7, "...the distance between Jerusalem and the Red Sea is 200 miles (some authors insert a figure of 150 miles or so 'as the crow flies,' but ancient Judeans were not crows and they didn't fly, and it is 200 miles to the Red Sea!)."
Dr. Ogden also points out that Lehi's company traveled an additional three days after coming "by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea;..." (1 Ne. 2:5-6.) That means the distance traveled by Lehi and his family, and later by Lehi's four sons, may have been closer to 250 miles. (They probably went much farther later during their eight years in the wilderness.) Lehi's sons were asked to do this five times (2 1/2 round trips) for a total of approximately 1,300 miles-- akin to the journey of the latter-day pioneers, but across less-hospitable territory.
Not surprisingly, students on the Lehi Trek developed sympathy for Laman and Lemuel and their rebellious "murmuring." That feeling was only exceeded by the admiration for the strength and courage of Lehi, Nephi, Sam and other righteous family members.
"I never imagined that 27 miles took that long on foot," said Nancy Wright, a junior from American Fork, Utah, who walked the trek's final leg to the Red Sea. "I've never hated life as much as I hated life that day."
Dr. Ogden has the unique perspective of perhaps being the only person in modern times to complete the entire 200-mile journey. He also understands how Laman and Lemuel could have rebelled under the conditions he saw: "If you didn't have faith, and if you didn't believe in what you were doing, this would have been an almost impossibly difficult journey. It would have been easy to grumble."
Testimonies were also strengthened as students passed through the countryside where the Book of Mormon has its roots. "We found that it [Lehi's journey] fits all of the historical details. It fits the time and place. It fits the method of travel. It fits in the contemporary historical context."
And now, in the minds of more than 200 students, it fits in vivid detail.
A chronology of the Book of Mormon to help church members in their study of this important volume of scripture during the coming year is being prepared by the staff of the Church News, and will be available for purchase toward the end of January.
The chronology will consist of two parts: The chronology on pages 8-9 of this issue, which covers the period from 600 B.C. until the time of the signs of the birth of Jesus, and a chronology to be printed next week that will cover the period from the birth of the Saviro to A.D. 421, plus the Jaredite period.
The materials will be reprinted on tear-resistant paper, and will be a valuable asset for teachers and students of the Book of Mormon, as well as for meetinghouse libraries.
The chronology may be ordered for $2.50 plus postage and handling from the Church News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, Utah 84110, or may be obtained later this month from the Church News office, 30 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City.