Have the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman Been Found?
March 13, 2017
KnoWhy #286
Two images of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism via lds.org
Two images of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism via lds.org
“And it came to pass that when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water.”

1 Nephi 2:6

The Know

After traveling down to the Red Sea, Lehi and his family pushed forward for another three days before setting up their first long-term camp in a valley with “firm and steadfast, and immoveable” walls, and a river “continually running” into the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:5–10). In poetic fashion,1 Lehi named this river after his oldest son, Laman, (1 Nephi 2:8–9; 16:12), and the valley after his second son, Lemuel (1 Nephi 2:10; 16:6).

Rivers are rare in northwest Arabia. While many of the typically dry riverbeds briefly overflow with water during the rainy season, a comprehensive geological survey published in 1984 concluded that Saudi Arabia “may be the world’s largest country without any perennial rivers or streams.”2 This lack of year-round rivers led several researchers to propose that the “continually running” River Laman was one of the many seasonal rivers that run through the wadis—deep canyons and narrow valleys—of northwest Arabia.3

In May 1995, however, a pair of Latter-day Saint explorers made a chance discovery. George Potter and Craig Thorsted got lost while looking for a site known to the local Arabs as the “Waters of Moses.” Being misdirected by a local guide, they headed north along the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba until out of nowhere, the rocky, sandy terrain was broken up by “a magnificent narrow canyon” which “ended in a palm-lined cove. The brilliant blue shades of the clear gulf waters and the sky framed the scene.”4

Map by Book of Mormon Central depicting a possible route from Jerusalem to Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, a candidate for the Valley of Lemuel.

Map by Book of Mormon Central depicting a possible route from Jerusalem to Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, a candidate for the Valley of Lemuel.

They had found Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, a narrow valley 74 miles south of Aqaba, along the Arabian coastline.5 Estimates for daily travel in the Arabian deserts in antiquity range between 15–25 miles per day.6 Wadi Tayyib al-Ism thus falls just within the maximum distance of a 3-day journey (45–75 miles) from the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, a northeastern extension of the Red Sea.

Fruits and grains are found growing naturally at Wadi Tayyib al-Ism (see 1 Nephi 8:1), and the wadi’s sheer granite walls rising about 2000 ft. are among the most impressive in the region, easily invoking Lehi’s description, “firm and steadfast, and immovable” (1 Nephi 2:10).7 Most significantly, there was a small stream running through the wadi, and return visits made at various times of the year confirmed that water flowed in the stream throughout the year.8 Potter and his colleagues had discovered the first—and to date, the only—known perennially flowing river or stream in all of northwest Arabia.

Screenshot from Google Earth pinning a possible location for the Valley of Lemuel

Screenshot from Google Earth pinning a possible location for the Valley of Lemuel

Today, few would call the small stream a river, but it may have been more like a river in Lehi’s day. Some accounts from antiquity suggest that northwest Arabia was wetter anciently,9 and the stream has been severely reduced in recent years as its water has been reallocated to more populated areas.10 In any case, the Hebrew term nahar actually means “perpetual course of water” and was applied to both rivers and streams.11

The mouth of the stream currently falls short of reaching the sea by about three-eighths of a mile.12 Since the River Laman “emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 2:9), this inconsistency led one scholar to discount Wadi Tayyib al-Ism as the Valley of Lemuel.13 However, Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier has cited evidence signifying that, since around 8th–6th century BC, “the Red Sea has retreated from its ancient shoreline by five hundred meters.”14 Assessing the evidence of a changing shoreline, S. Kent Brown concluded, “all geological indicators point to the current mouth of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism lying under the waters of the Red Sea in antiquity.”15

The Why

It is impossible to be certain if Wadi Tayyib al-Ism is the Valley of Lemuel.16 Perhaps, since it was wetter in that region during ancient times, there were other perennial rivers and streams that have since dried up.17 But the existence of Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, with its “firm and steadfast” granite walls and “continually running” stream demonstrates with certainty that a river-valley like the one described in 1 Nephi 2 really exists, and that it is within the distance of a 3 day-journey from the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Lehi Building an Altar of Stones in the Valley of Lemuel by Kelly Clark Price

Lehi Building an Altar of Stones in the Valley of Lemuel by Kelly Clark Price

This is not an insignificant fact. The stream running through Wadi Tayyib al-Ism is currently the only documented perennial river or stream in the entire region of northwest Arabia—and it happens to be within a narrow 30-mile window wherein the Valley of Lemuel, with its “continually running” river, should be located.

Standard sources on Arabia in Joseph Smith’s day failed to document even the presence of wadis with seasonal rivers in this region,18 let alone the approximate location of the only perennial river in the area. As Daniel C. Peterson asked, “How did Joseph Smith know about the Wadi Tayyib al-Ism? Even in our information-rich contemporary environment, what could most of us say about it?”19

Realizing how unique a place like the Valley of Lemuel was in that region also helps readers better appreciate the way the Lord guided Lehi and his family. Lehi took his family from Jerusalem because the people there wanted to kill him (1 Nephi 2:1). Lehi needed to get out of town quickly. The Valley of Lemuel provided a safe place, with reliable access to food and water, where Lehi and his family could stop to regroup, gather supplies in preparation for their extended journey, and return to Jerusalem as needed (1 Nephi 3:2–4; 1 Nephi 7:2).

No wonder Lehi stopped, “built an altar of stones … and gave thanks unto the Lord” upon arrival (1 Nephi 2:7), and made exclamatory, poetic declarations exhorting his wayward sons to be firm, steadfast, and immovable like these impressive rock walls, and continuously running into the fountain of all righteousness like this clear-flowing stream (1 Nephi 2:9–10). After traveling through a “brutal wilderness,” where “hardly a blade of grass breaks up the monotony,”20 Lehi no doubt recognized the Lord’s hand in guiding his family to such a rare valley with a “continually running” river.

Further Reading

S. Kent Brown, “The Hunt for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, no. 1 (2007): 64–73.

Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “The Wrong Place for Lehi’s Trail and the Valley of Lemuel,” FARMS Review 17, no. 2 (2005): 197–215.

George Potter and Richard Wellington, Lehi in the Wilderness: 81 New, Documented Evidences That the Book of Mormon is a True History (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2003), 31–51.

George D. Potter, “A New Candidate in Arabia for the Valley of Lemuel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 54–63.