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Interpreting Interpreter
Eight Years in the Wilderness

This post is a summary of the article “Nephi’s Eight Years in the “Wilderness”: Reconsidering Definitions and Details” by Godfrey J. Ellis in Volume 57 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Ellis argues that Nephi’s reference to “eight years in the wilderness” includes the time spent in Bountiful, allowing us to set concrete estimates for Nephi’s travel and shipbuilding efforts, and making it unnecessary to explain that time by positing extended stays in desert regions.


The Summary

In this article, Godfrey J. Ellis provides a thorough account of arguments related to 1 Nephi 17:4, where Nephi states that he and his family spent “eight years in the wilderness.” Though a straightforward reading would suggest that these eight years were all spent in the desert prior to arriving in Bountiful, Ellis suggests that the passage is part of either a colophon (a parenthetical aside), or an amplification, one that serves to amplify God’s blessings to Nephi’s family during the journey. Ellis’ reading of Nephi’s eight-year timeframe possesses, in his view, several key advantages, thereby providing a “book end” to Nephi’s Old World journey that allows for concrete travel estimates, avoiding the need to explain eight years’ worth of desert travel, and making it more likely that the seeds obtained in Jerusalem would’ve survived to be successfully planted in the New World.

Ellis begins with a discussion of Nephi’s literary practices, noting several instances where the narrative isn’t interpreted as a sequential series of events. The verses immediately preceding Nephi’s wilderness statement are presented as an example, where Nephi amplifies his description of their travel experience (e.g., wading through affliction, living upon raw meat) in a way that would be hard to interpret as a temporal sequence. Similarly, the wilderness statement could be considered a parenthetical aside emphasizing the extent of God’s mercy during their journey, providing the means to take them to the promised land.

Ellis then discusses the term wilderness, which he suggests could include any undeveloped area. Though the potential underlying Hebrew term (midbar) often refers to an arid, dry land, it can refer to a diverse range of uninhabited environments, including relatively fertile regions (reflecting its use by Nephi himself). Assuming a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, the term wilderness may even apply to lush rainforests. The modern English usage of Joseph Smith’s time is similarly diverse, referring to forests, plains, mountains, or even oceans. Nephi provides some indirect hints that Bountiful can itself be considered part of the wilderness, such as noting that they obtained “fruits and meat from the wilderness,” that were likely sourced from the Bountiful area. That the events in Bountiful appear to continue to be referenced as part of the wilderness trek provides further support for Ellis’ framing.

Ellis also includes a detailed breakdown of the various legs of Nephi’s journey, in the context of the speeds they likely would’ve been travelling. (Ellis uses an average of 13 miles per day in alignment with travel along the Mormon trail.) He discusses (and ultimately rejects) potential factors that might have slowed their journey, including Exodus-like sluggishness (Ellis sees Laman and Lemuel as generally compliant rather than consistently stubborn and rebellious), having to stop to grow crops (which Ellis rejects as it would involve planting the seeds they were saving for the promised land, among a number of other problems), and potentially being sold into slavery (which Ellis sees as a misinterpretation of several Book of Mormon passages). In doing so, Ellis outlines the following segments of the wilderness journey:

  • The exit from Jerusalem, for which Ellis allocates half a month, in the context of people actively plotting to take Lehi’s life (though likely not chasing him with pitchforks).
  • Traveling to the Valley of Lemuel, a distance of 180-250 miles, which Ellis has them covering in another half month.
  • The stay in the Valley of Lemuel, which Ellis puts at a maximum of one year.
  • Traveling to the Oasis of Shazer, which is defined in the text as taking four days. The clear mention of setting up tents itself suggests that doing so was not a nightly occurrence.
  • The stay at Shazer to replenish food and water, to which Ellis allocates to just one month, in part because Lehi would likely have had to pay for water rights at the oasis.
  • Traveling to the “Camp of the Broken Bow”, a journey estimated at 830 miles which, described as a “space of many days," Ellis pegs at a little over two months, having support from a similar definition in the text equating “many days” with “40 days.”
  • The stay in the “Broken Bow” camp, described vaguely as “as space of a time," which Ellis estimates similarly at two months.
  • Traveling to Nahom, again described as “the space of many days,” at a suggested distance of 425 miles and taking an estimated 33 days.
  • The stay in Nahom, also described as a “space of a time," which Ellis estimates at two and a half months.
  • Traveling to Bountiful, representing the harshest 700 miles of their journey, which Ellis estimates at 54 days. All told, this puts the time spent travelling from Jerusalem to Bountiful at what Ellis considers a generous two years—a far cry from the eight years assigned by a traditional (sequential) reading.
  • The stay in Bountiful, representing the remaining six years. Ellis breaks this time down further based on the various activities that would’ve been required to build the ship, including:
    • Setting up camp, which likely involved setting up tents, restocking supplies, the construction of a worship area, and taking care of basic health and sanitation needs. Given another use of the phrase “the space of many days," Ellis suggests this took about two months prior to Nephi’s revelation about building the ship.
    • Persuading Laman and Lemuel, which, given the “space of many days” framing, Ellis suggests took another two months.
    • Construction of blacksmithing facilities required to construct shipbuilding tools, to which Ellis allocates six months.
    • Cutting and drying the necessary lumber, which would’ve taken considerable time and would’ve preceded any attempt to construct the ship. Ellis allows for six months to cut the wood and at least 18 months to properly cure it, suggesting two years total for this step. Accounting for some possible overlap with tool construction and other activities, Ellis estimates two years total for all preparation activities.
    • Assembling the vessel. By Ellis’ estimates, the time allocated to other activities would leave four years to assemble the vessel, representing a logic-based compromise between estimates presented by other scholars (ranging from 1 to 6 years).

For Ellis, this timeline matters, in that it provides useful bookends to Nephi’s journey in the Old World. But he is also careful to allow for other potentially valid interpretations, and notes that there’s room for his estimates to be refined by other experts. What he sees as his main contribution is in providing a justification for something other than a straightforward, sequential reading of Nephi’s wilderness statement, even as Nephi’s overall message—of “emerging from corruption and chaos, travelling through a period of testing, to eventually arrive in our promised land”—continues to shine through.


The Reflection

How one feels about Ellis’ proposal probably has a lot to do with how you feel about his core assumption–that Nephi may not have been describing a linear sequence of events in 1 Nephi 17:4. This is in contrast to the assumption that Lehi and company could have spent eight years in the desert before reaching Bountiful. In light of the Hebraic literary character of the book and the uncertain nature of its translation, I don’t have much problem thinking that a particular passage might not be as straightforward as it may seem to modern readers. And if doing so helps me avoid proliferating a set of explanations, each barely tethered to the text it’s trying to explain, so much the better. As he mentions, the details of Ellis’ estimates may have a pretty sizable margin of error, but you can count me among those who favor a less-than-eight year trek through the sandy Arabian wastes.

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