The Red City


Hugh Nibley taught of a potential connection between Hopi legend and the Book of Mormon:

“We haven’t heard of Zarahemla so far. It always got me because there’s an important trading center in the middle of the Sahara that goes by the name of Dar al-Hamra’ which means red city. Of course, it depends on the dialect. Zarahemla means red city, but what attracts me about that is that the Hopis say that their people came from the ‘great Red City of the South when it was destroyed because of the wickedness of the people.’ They were led by prophets and came north. They call it ‘the great Red City of the South.’ Of course Zarahemla means red city.” (Nibley, Hugh, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Semester 1, Lecture 26).

In a subsequent lecture, Hugh Nibley expands on this legend a bit. I’ve included some context because his narrative is interesting.

“{Mosiah 7} verse 12: ‘And now, when Ammon saw that he was permitted to speak, he went forth and bowed himself before the king [that’s exactly what he wanted]. . . . For I am assured that if ye had known me ye would [you would have been glad to see me]. . . . For I am Ammon [that good old name], and am a descendant of Zarahemla [a good old Mulekite name], and have come up out of the land of Zarahemla to inquire concerning our brethren, whom Zeniff [ah, ha, the king’s grandfather] brought up out of that land.’ That was Limhi’s grandfather, you see. ‘And now, it came to pass that after Limhi had heard the words of Ammon, he was exceedingly glad [cousin, how are you feeling?], and said: Now, I know of a surety that my brethren who were in the land of Zarahemla are yet alive [again, if Zarahemla had been a mighty city at the time they left it, he wouldn’t be worrying whether they would survive or not; it was a very small affair, hanging on probably by the skin of their teeth]. And now, I will rejoice; and on the morrow I will cause that my people shall rejoice also.’ As I said, every week the Hopis have their dance and celebration. They come from all the twelve cities. One village will host it one week, and another one the next week. The whole nation comes together. There’s no work or anything like that. They have a high old time, and it’s a very solemn affair with those costumes. There can be nothing bought, nothing artificial, nothing cheap. The colors all have to come from the berries and the minerals. The macaw feathers have to come from Guatemala (very interesting). Why are the Hopis getting their macaw feathers from Guatemala? They are forbidden because of psittacosis from crossing the border, but they go down and get them. That’s another story; you’d be surprised at the connections here, showing where they came from. To make things official at the spring dance, they have to wear macaw feathers. They have to be real, and they have to be fresh all the time. This is important. As I said, they have a great time. It keeps them occupied and happy between their long hours in the field.

“For their agriculture they have the poorest land in the world. If you have been [in] northeastern Arizona, you know there is nothing there but sand and the mesas. What they do is take a stick and push five (a sacred number) seeds of corn down about twenty inches. They push them down and trust that the ground water will make them grow. They do grow, but never more than about a foot or eighteen inches high. And I’ve never seen a stalk that had more than one ear of corn on it. That ear of corn is treasured; it’s precious. They are taken and piled like wood in front of the house; everybody keeps track of every ear. They say, ‘If one of us has corn, we all have corn.’ But they have been able to live and live well with hard work. They don’t mind that. All these years they have lived on [practically] nothing. They were pushed to the most out of the way place in the world. They were the Moquis or the Hopis, the peaceful people, but they were once the most terrible fighters of all. They were on these high mesas. When I first went down there years ago, you still had to get to first mesa by ladder. Then they put a road up, and everybody started driving off and getting killed. But it’s amazing that they could not only survive and be happy, but go on for [hundreds] of years. They came up from the south. They tell how they came from the south, but that’s another thing. This is another thing about getting lost. The story of their wanderings is very important. They kept a record of their wanderings. They came up from the ‘great red city of the south’ when it was destroyed because of wickedness. Zarahemla means ‘red city,’ as you know, Dar AhmarAhmar is red. Feminine is hamra’, and dar or zar is a settlement, a colony, or a community. If you say Zarahamra, it means a red city. That’s a coincidence. I don’t know if there’s anything to it or not, but it’s good clean fun to engage in these things. They say they came up from the south along the Little Colorado. They tell about their wanderings, etc. They kept the record, and thereon hangs a tale.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon: Semester 2, Lecture 31).

What we have is an interesting hypothesis of Nibley’s. He postulates that this “red city” of the Hopis’ ancestors might have been Zarahemla, which became a major center for the Nephites after they joined with the descendants of another group who left Jerusalem (the Mulekites). More modern Hopis called this ancient “red city” Palatkwapi (knowing how quickly languages and words change, particularly in the absence of written records, it is not expected that modern names of ancient cities are the same as what they were called anciently).

While all this is speculation that Nibley did not fully believe, it is interesting that the Hopis have an ancient legend telling about the destruction of an ancestral home, a “red city in the south”, in the days of their wickedness; in the Book of Mormon we have a record of a city with a name that possibly meant “red city” (I’ll trust Hugh Nibley on this – if anyone knows, it’s Nibley); this city was later destroyed.

While I’m not one for speculating much about where events of the Book of Mormon took place, it’s likely that much of the Book of Mormon took place in what is now Central America (which is south of Arizona, where the Hopis lived and live).

Hugh Nibley on Blashphemy


In the context of the interaction between Jacob, son of Lehi, and Sherem, Hugh Nibley talked about what blasphemy is. I found this interesting in light of how sacred things are treated by much of the world and even by some people within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“What does the word blasphemy mean? What does it come from? What is blasphemia? To speak blapt?, which is what? It’s to treat lightly, not with contempt, but not seriously. It is not to damn something to hell. It is not to say horrible and tremendous things, but to treat lightly. It’s much worse to treat the gospel as trivia and laugh it off (you can’t reach people like that) than it is to attack it savagely and say, ‘I’ll show you where it is wrong,’ and really do some studying because then you are in danger. But that’s what blasphemy is. We get the impression that when a person speaks blasphemy, he has spoken terrible things. He has denounced and used vile language. That’s not it. Blasphemy is treating it lightly, ‘This is nothing; we’ll laugh it off.’ It’s laughing something off, which is the best argument if you want to crush something that you can’t answer. You just laugh it off and walk out of the room. They ask plenty of questions about the gospel, but they never wait for the answers.” (Hugh Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, Lecture 25).

So the problem of blasphemy is not, as I used to believe, a problem of profaning what is sacred (although that certainly can be a component of blasphemy) but rather a problem of treating sacred things lightly. This is precisely the problem with the recent musical called The Book of Mormon – it is blasphemous because its creators treat the LDS Church with the exact lightness that Hugh Nibley so aptly criticized. The creators of that musical want people to laugh off Mormonism and never give it the honest studying it requires and deserves.

This does not mean we are humorless about the Church or even some aspects of the gospel but there is a distinction between the Church and the gospel. There is also a distinction between honest humor and the levity of loud laughter and lightmindedness. It is difficult for many people to take something seriously when it is presented humorously, even if it is supposedly good-natured humor. That’s the tricky thing about blasphemy – treating sacred things lightly – it might appear all in good fun but its effects are precisely the opposite.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them


I recently started reading Hugh Nibley’s book Abraham in Egypt (nicely available online too, through that link). I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Nibley’s keen insights and outstanding scholarship (he’s someone who very few people even try to criticize; how do you even start to try and address any faults in his scholarship?). Much of Hugh Nibley’s works have focused on direct products of Joseph Smith. Jesus Christ is the center of our religion, He is its Head, He is our Savior. Joseph Smith, though, is the prophet of the restoration. It is through Joseph Smith that we have the restored gospel and the restored authority to act and perform ordinances in the name of Christ. Joseph Smith is as important to us as Abraham is to the Jews. None of this focus on Joseph Smith detracts from the importance of the Savior; Joseph’s works and life are only important because they help us draw near to the Savior in word and deed. Our love of Joseph Smith and our recognition of his importance is one reason many try to attack The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by attacking Joseph Smith (he was used to personal attacks starting when he was 14 so Joseph certainly was no stranger to the attacks; I don’t think anything is said about Joseph Smith today that was not said to him and about him in his lifetime).

So most of the work of people antagonistic to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent trying to discredit the work of Joseph Smith; more accurately, most of their work is spent trying to discredit Joseph Smith, particularly by attacking his character once all of their other attacks or critiques fall short, as they invariably do.

With this context, I present a quote from the opening chapter of Hugh Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt (my emphasis added).

To discredit Joseph Smith, or anyone else, in the eyes of an uninformed public is only too easy, requiring but the observance of a few established routines in the art of public relations. That gets us nowhere honestly. What about the Book of Abraham? In it Joseph Smith has given us a straightforward and detailed narrative, whose boldness, ingenuity, and originality should excite the interest and command the respect of anyone who has ever tried to write anything. Even as a work of fiction it does not permit the reader to see in it the production of some poor fool who had no idea of what he was doing, completely befuddled as to his sources, trying to squeeze a story out of a handful of perfectly meaningless Egyptian doodles. We invite the critics to use the great advantage of their superior education and vast resource material to produce anything like it. We will even allow them full use of what they call Joseph Smith’s modus operandi, which they have so brilliantly suggested as the explanation of how he really did it. And to assist them further, we offer at no extra charge another clue, a statement by the great E. A. Wallis Budge that is all the more revealing for its frank hostility to the Prophet: “The letter press [Joseph Smith’s explanation of the Book of Abraham] is as idiotic as the pictures, and is clearly based on the Bible, and some of the Old Testament apocryphal histories.” As to those apocryphal sources, why have all his other critics overlooked them, insisting that the whole thing is “a pure fabrication,” and “simply the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination”? As we have already observed, what could Joseph Smith have known about Old Testament apocryphal histories? Budge was possibly the greatest authority of his day on apocrypha, but that was because he spent his days mostly in the British Museum among original manuscripts to which nobody else had access. There were indeed a number of important apocrypha published in Budge’s day—but in the 1830s? Who has access to the apocryphal Abraham materials even today?” Now if Budge insists that the Abraham story in the Pearl of Great Price is clearly based on Old Testament apocryphal sources, that story deserves to be treated with some attention. What, the relatively uneducated Joseph Smith using sources of which none of the experts save only Budge, the most prodigiously learned and productive Orientalist of his time, was aware? What a flattering accusation!

What happens is that when serious scholars try to discredit Joseph’s Smith’s work, they often unwittingly give him far more credit than they intend to do. This is because they recognize the themes and truths in Joseph’s work; however, they perfunctorily discount him, so they form hypotheses that fit their pre-conceptions of Joseph Smith’s character. There is the assumption that Joseph Smith was a charlatan or at least misguided, thus all of his work is wrong. Based on this assumption, many people then try to interpret his works. In other words, they interpret his work in light of his – as they perceive – faulty character. This limits their critiques of his work because why should they give serious consideration to the works of someone they view as below their consideration. What Hugh Nibley calls for is to assess Joseph’s works independent from his character. The following quote is referring specifically to the Book of Abraham but it can be extrapolated to all of Joseph’s works.

“In short, it is the Book of Abraham that is on trial, not Joseph Smith as an Egyptologist, nor the claims and counterclaims to scholarly recognition by squabbling publicity seekers, nor the provenance and nature of Egyptian papyri, nor the competence of this or that person to read them. The resounding charge in the headlines was that ‘the Book of Abraham is a pure falsification.’ Joseph Smith is no longer with us; his reputation must rest on the bona fides of the book, not the other way around. By his own insistence, he was merely an implement in bringing forth the record, not its creator.” (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Chapter 1).

Hugh Nibley takes this stance because too many people do not look at the validity of Joseph’s works. They impugn his character and then try to leave it at that. People attack Joseph as “a corrupt tree” that cannot “bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). But in doing so, they are approaching Joseph’s character in the reverse order the Savior said. Jesus said, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). We cannot declare a tree corrupt and then assume all the fruit is bad; we have to look at the fruit to understand the nature of the tree. That is precisely what Hugh Nibley is suggesting, yet that is what few outside the LDS Church actually do. For an other example of this, read the account of what happened when some of the characters from the Gold Plates were showed to Charles Anthon, who had some expertise in ancient languages. He was a man who couldn’t see the fruit for the tree.

Isaiah Spake Many Hard Things


“Now I, Nephi, do speak somewhat concerning the words which I have written, which have been spoken by the mouth of Isaiah. For behold, Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” (2 Nephi 25:1).

What did Nephi mean when he said that Isaiah spake things that were hard for his people to understand? The obvious answer to that question is elucidated by the last part of the verse: “for they [knew] not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” His people did not generally have the education or experience or knowledge to fully understand Isaiah’s prophecies. Maybe they didn’t have the desire to understand Isaiah. I think this holds true for many people today. The common ‘complaint’ I hear about Isaiah is that the book is difficult to understand. It can be if you do not understand that Isaiah’s language is highly symbolic but at the same time it is very direct and literal, meaning it refers to specific events. It’s also repetitive; meaning that Isaiah states the same thing multiple times in multiple ways.

I will not get into ways of understanding Isaiah – the best way is to spend time reading the book and praying for understanding – because that is not the purpose of this post. I wanted to share another quote and insight from Hugh Nibley about what he thinks is the reason that Isaiah is “hard…to understand”. I have been quoting him a lot recently because I have been reading his Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, which is a transcript of lectures he gave in his Book of Mormon class at Brigham Young University in the 1980s.

“‘Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand.’ Isaiah himself often mentions the fact that the people ask him to speak smooth things [i.e., the people want Isaiah to tell them only things that make them feel good and that they want to hear]. They want to hear smooth things. I am not going to teach you smooth things, he says. If I just gave you the smooth things you want, you wouldn’t need them…. If the scriptures told us only what we wanted to hear, of course we wouldn’t need them.

“You notice it all changed under the rabbis; the interpretations became different. Isaiah is much too literal [for them], etc. Then, of course, they accepted the University abstractions and became more philosophical and intellectual in the interpretation of everything.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, 2004, p.249).

In short, Hugh Nibley’s explanation of why Isaiah is hard to understand is because Isaiah does not speak “smooth” things to the people, he told them things that were hard to hear because he condemned their wickedness. He was a prophet who simply “told it like it was.” I think Hugh Nibley’s insight adds to our understanding of Isaiah. Yes, his writings can be difficult to understand because of his language and his symbolism, but then again, the book of Isaiah is not as difficult to understand as many people believe. Isaiah simply wrote many difficult things for the wicked to understand, for he prophesied about the Messiah and the temple and the way to salvation. He wrote of many things that would transpire in the last days – in our day – the restoration of the gospel, the building of temples, and so forth. Great are the words of Isaiah.

Geography of the Book of Mormon?


Hugh Nibley sums up my view of discussions about Book of Mormon geography: “[The Nephites] journeyed in the wilderness for many days [to get away from Laman and Lemuel]. We don’t know how many many is. Book of Mormon geography is a waste of time. I wouldn’t touch it with a forty-foot pole. Never have; it’s not necessary. Some day we’ll get more information, I suppose. Everybody has tried their hand at it. I don’t know why; it doesn’t make any difference.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, 2004, Covenant Communications).

I know some, maybe even many LDS Church members, disagree with that sentiment but we do not know where in the Americas the Book of Mormon events took place. We can speculate all we want and say, “Well Joseph Smith [purportedly] said this” or “This narrow neck of land is the Panama isthmus or this particular area in modern Mexico or Guatemala or the Great Lakes region.” Whatever; we do not know where the Book of Mormon events took place and speculating about them is a waste of time. Again, I know some disagree but I wanted to offer my opinion on the matter. Maybe we’ll learn more in our lifetimes but for now there are much better things upon which to focus, like the basic doctrines of the gospel: faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the Holy Ghost.

Do I have no intellectual curiosity about matters such as Book of Mormon geography? To the contrary, I find it a fascinating topic; fascinating but a waste of time. We simply do not know and even if we did, it is not important. Knowing just where King Benjamin was exactly when he gave his marvelous farewell address does nothing for our salvation but knowing, believing, and living what he taught does. I would love to know Book of Mormon geography – we have fairly compelling evidence of how and where Lehi and his family went after they left Jerusalem but after that? It’s anyone’s guess.

Hugh Nibley on the Council in Heaven


Here is a quote by Hugh Nibley that provides an interesting perspective (not necessarily entirely true, but interesting) on the Council in Heaven during our pre-earth life.

“I was going to say that the Council in Heaven is quite a theme here [in newly-discovered early Christian documents], especially that Doctrine of the Abbatôn by Bishop Cyril of Alexandria. We won’t go into that. The accounts of the Council in Heaven are that when the creation was proposed, it was voted down because the Earth complained that she would be defiled. The people up there all decided that there would be too much suffering, too much wickedness, too much defilement in this world. There was a deadlock, and they didn’t know what to go on until one person volunteered and said, ‘I will pay the price; I will take the blame.’ You know who that was. When he did that, the whole chorus broke out and ‘the morning stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.’ That was the famous Creation Hymn. See, our word poem comes from Creation Hymn. The poem was the original Creation Hymn, the hymn that was sung in the heavens to announce the glory of the creation – all the earliest poems are. The Greek poiema means creation. It was the Creation Hymn. The muses first sang it together with the Greeks, etc. You have many references to that. They broke out in hymn because it was the Lord that made it possible to go on with the creation, carry this out, and allow this to happen. Even in spite of all this wickedness and corruption, he would pay the price. Only one person could clean up that mess, and he would do it.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, Covenant Communications, 2004, p.215).

One thing I love about Hugh Nibley’s writings and teachings is that he was able to take diverse sources – anything from ancient Egyptian writings or histories to modern events – and link them to the gospel. Hugh Nibley was someone who could see Truth in just about anything. That is something that Joseph Smith taught – that we should seek the good and true in all things. “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith, annotated by Richard Galbraith, Deseret Book Company, 1993, p.351).

Hugh Nibley on Law


While reading Hugh Nibley’s Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, I came across this insightful quote (of course, almost everything he wrote was insightful):

Our word law comes from lag, the old Scandinavian, Norse word…. Well, the law is the guidance, and you have to have it to get there. It’s not the goal – it’s the way that gets you there. It’s like the iron rod; you cling to the iron rod. We love iron rods, and think is we have an iron rod we already have it made. We just keep the iron rod, and that’s our goal. The iron rod is just to get you to the temple. That is not supposed to be the temple. It’s not supposed to be the object. You don’t stick to the law all the time.

We have the Ten Commandments, the laws of Moses. Ah, yes, there is the law as far as this goes. But it is written for barbarians, as Paul tells us…. In chapter 2 [of Hebrews] here, it says the law is going to get your there. Now what are the Ten Commandments? Do you have to be told every day that you shouldn’t kill? That you shouldn’t lie? That you shouldn’t commit adultery? That you shouldn’t bear false witness? Do you have to be reminded of that? No, the time comes, the Lord says, when ‘the law is written in their hearts.’ Only a savage or a barbarian would have to be told over and over, ‘Now, you mustn’t kill anybody today.’ But we still have to be reminded. We think if we’ve kept the law, then we are saved – that’s all there is to it. But that’s not it at all. That’s where it begins. This is the least requirement. It starts out with the Word of Wisdom, for example. Do we have to tell people every day, ‘Well, don’t go out and get drunk’? We don’t have to be told that. Even with smoking now, people are warned; we don’t have to go to the Word of Wisdom for that. Most of you [BYU students] would never think of doing those things. It wouldn’t occur to you because, as it says when it is given to us in Doctrine and Covenants 89, this is adapted to the weakest of all Saints; this is the lowest requirement. This is the mere beginning – the least thing that can be expected of you. We start with the Word of Wisdom. It’s the same thing with tithing.” (Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon Part 1, Covenant Communications, 2004, p.208).

What Hugh Nibley said reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures: “For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified” (Moses 6:60). When we are baptized we keep the commandment. When we follow the commandments, when we keep the law, we are simply doing just that – keeping the commandments and the law. The laws are not saving – they are not the goal, they merely help us get to our goal, which is “the temple” as Hugh Nibley said; I would like add that it is really the temple in heaven that is our goal (see Isaiah 6:1 – “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”).

Even the Holy Ghost is not enough; yes, we are justified by His presence, we are absolved from guilt, but that is not enough. If keeping the commandments and feeling the Spirit are not enough for salvation, what is? The blood of the sacrificial Lamb; the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. It is only through Him that we are saved. The law does not save us, it simply provides a path; Jesus is the Way. He is the only way to salvation and exaltation. The point Hugh Nibley made is that laws do not save us, Jesus does.