Internal Models and the Danger of False Requirements

Among those who have theorized about the lands of the Book of Mormon, there has been quite a bit of discussion over the years centered around the idea that the development of an “internal” model is a vital first step towards developing an “external” model of the Book of Mormon lands.

What is an “internal” model?

To understand an internal model, imagine for a moment that you have never heard of Jerusalem or the Red Sea and have no idea where the real-world locations for these places might be. In order to find Jerusalem, we do a study of the information described inside the Book of Mormon. Since all of our data for this part of our search comes from the text itself rather then from real-world maps we call this an “internal” model. We start by reading some things that Nephi tells us about Lehi and Jerusalem:

“my father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days…[saw in a vision that] Jerusalem…should be destroyed…he left his house, and the land of his inheritance…departed into the wilderness…came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea…And…when he had traveled three days in the wilderness, he pitched his tent in a valley by the side of a river of water…And…my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 1:4 – 2:9)

At this point it seems wonderful to us that in just the opening two chapters of the Book of Mormon, we have been given a lot of geographical information. For instance, our model can now describe:

  • A city named Jerusalem
  • A wilderness containing a red colored sea
  • A shore and borders near the red colored sea
  • A fountain flowing into the red colored sea
  • A valley with a river that empties into the fountain
  • All this within three days journey of Jerusalem

Of course, we might want to compose a few chapters of a book at this point so that others can understand the details of the model. In order to be as thorough as possible, we will quote plenty of experts regarding subjects like:

  • The meaning of the word “Jerusalem”: Our experts tell us that the word Jerusalem means “City of Peace” which means that Jerusalem was probably a place with very little contention or warfare in its history.
  • What a “destroyed” city would look like in the archaeological record
  • Which geologic and biologic influences might cause water to turn so red that the sea would be named after its color.
  • What a “fountain” of a sea is. Some of our experts consider this feature to be a waterfall while others believe that it refers to an a large spring or geyser. Many experts discount the idea that the “fountain” could be a geyser because it is unlikely that a geyser would have a river emptying into it. After a lengthy discussion of the topic, our book will conclude that the fountain is almost certainly a spring or waterfall
  • A lengthy discussion about distances based on expert estimation of likely travel speeds for Lehi’s party

Once all this research is complete, we realize that there are some ambiguities, like which direction Lehi traveled, but we have enough to identify some clear-cut things to look for in the real world:

  • A destroyed city that was usually considered peaceful
  • This peaceful city was located near a sea with red water
  • A large waterfall or spring feeding into this sea
  • A river flowing into the waterfall or spring

Of course, in the real world, none of those things are actually true about Jerusalem, so why would I go through this illogical exercise?

Because the only reason that we know that Jerusalem wasn’t extraordinarily peaceful or that the red sea doesn’t have red water or that there is no river flowing into a waterfall filling up the sea is because we already know where Jerusalem is. So what went wrong in our internal model? Was Nephi wrong in his geographical descriptions?

No, Nephi was not wrong. The Red Sea isn’t very red, Jerusalem wasn’t exactly peaceful all the time, and searching for rivers flowing into springs and waterfalls wouldn’t do much to help us learn the location for Lehi’s journey.

Perhaps the biggest mistake that we commonly make when searching for the lands of the Book of Mormon is that we try to decide what the verses mean. As soon as we “decide” what it means, we close our mind to reasonable alternatives.

Inventing false internal requirements is actually a very natural thing for us to do. For example, as I developed this model of the Book of Mormon in Baja, finding an appropriate location for Cumorah was troubling. It was the most puzzling single geographical reference in the whole text for me to try to model. That’s not to say that I think that I’ve identified every other reference perfectly, there is plenty of room for error on a great many of the model’s locations, but that just means means is that there is often more than one location that seems to be able to fit the vague textual references. Cumorah was different. Nothing seemed to fit Cumorah.

The text of the Book of Mormon tells us that Cumorah was in “a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains”. One thing about modern-day Baja California is that there are not a lot of places there that we would consider to have “many waters, rivers, and fountains”. There were a few possible explanations in my mind for this problem, namely:

  1. Perhaps the inhabitants of the peninsula were accustomed to so little water that an area with even a modest amount of water would look like a lot of water to them.
  2. Perhaps the climate of the peninsula was radiclly different than today and the “land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” no longer has any waters, rivers, or fountains.
  3. Perhaps this water-filled land I was looking for was somewhere outside of the peninsula.

I actually spent a great deal of time exploring all of these possibilities. After a lot of research I was able to show that an area called “El Volcan” had a lot more water than scientific opinion had granted it, but the water was flowing just under the surface. This was exciting and seemed like a satisfactory place to match possibility #1 above. The area was even famous for its soda-spring geyser which sounded like a fine “fountain” to me. The problem with El Volcan and the surrounding areas was simply one of carrying capacity. If El Volcan were to fit the bill for Cumorah it would need to be able to support many hundreds of thousands of people for extended periods of time as described in the final battles of the Nephites and the Jaredites. Try as I might, I could never get comfortable with the idea that any amount of climate change would make this possible in that region.

On the other hand, choosing a location for Cumorah outside of the peninsula was even more problematic because one little verse seemed maddeningly precise. The verse I’m talking about is the description of Omer fleeing his kingdom. It says:

“Omer departed out of the land with his family, and traveled many days, and came over and passed by the hill of Shim, and came over by the place where the Nephites were destroyed, and from thence eastward, and came to a place which was called Ablom, by the seashore,” (Ether 9:3)

It’s pretty clear that there is a seashore east of Cumorah…so Cumorah must be located inside the peninsula for a Baja model to be correct. Any other explanation would mean that Ablom’s seashore must have been along some sea other than the Sea or Cortez.

To make matters worse, the “land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” seemed obvious to me. It was the Colorado River Delta, just outside of the peninsula…but choosing a hill in the delta meant that the Sea of Cortez wasn’t east of Cumorah. It was actually quite frustrating. To paraphrase Dr. Suess:

“I puzzled and puzzed till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn’t before.”

It was a simple thought, actually. Cumorah didn’t need to have a seashore to its east. It just needed to have Ablom to its east, and Ablom didn’t need a seashore to its east either, it just needed a seashore on some side of it. It turns out that my Cumorah problem only existed because I had “decided” that Ether 9:3 could only mean that there was a sea east of Ablom, but that’s not what the Book of Mormon says.

Once I opened up my mind to the possibility that Ablom could be a location on the northern shore of the Sea of Cortez, Cumorah was easy to locate. It’s a prominent little hill overlooking the Colorado River Delta and Imperial Valley, California and it marks the high ground used to cross the delta. I’d love to tout the model’s location for Cumorah some more, but that’s not the point of this article so please visit this page and this page for more on Cumorah.

How common are false requirements in internal models?

Consider this:

The only way of telling how far away one city is from another in the Book of Mormon is by knowing the speed of travel and the number of days it took to travel between them. In particular, Alma’s 21-day journey from the City of Nephi to the City of Zarahemla is by far one of the most-quoted indicators of the overall size of Book of Mormon lands. The problem here is that we have to guess about how fast Alma’s group traveled.

Alma’s group included men, women, and children of all ages. They were carrying provisions and were bringing their animals with them. By any reasonable estimate, nobody would think that Alma’s party could travel very fast. That’s what I thought until I ran into a wonderful proxy for the flight of Alma’s people in the land of Nephi. Based on that very clear proxy, every internal model I’ve ever seen severely underestimates the potential traveling speed of Alma’s party and hence, they severely underestimate the possible size of the lands described in the book.

It is far too easy to create false requirements when creating internal models. I know that this goes against the grain of many authors’ approaches to Book of Mormon geography, but it’s true.

In the end, the only thing that matters is that a model is consistent with a reasonable reading of the text of the Book of Mormon itself and we should allow for the possibility that the text is vague enough that more than one model may be able to fit the requirements of the text. That’s not to say that the Book of Mormon could have taken place in more than one geographical setting, it’s simply an admission that we don’t know if there is enough information to truly exclude every wrong location. We should not use internal models to make final decisions regarding the meaning of geographical references.

Requiring that models adhere to internal models doesn’t enhance our ability to identify the lands of the Book of Mormon, it simply distracts us away from the real requirements document: The Book of Mormon.

Whether or not the Book of Mormon did or didn’t actually take place in Baja, the following two facts severely undermine the relevance of every internal model I’ve ever seen published:

  • In the model we present, we show geography where the river Sidon doesn’t flow north and still matches every requirement found in the text of the Book of Mormon.
  • In the model we present, we show geography where the hill Cumorah doesn’t have a sea to its east and still matches every requirement found in the text of the Book of Mormon.

Internal models almost inevitably lead to false external model requirements. We should show strict adherence to the text of the Book of Mormon, not to the conclusions of internal models.

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  1. Pingback: A Model for the Book of Mormon in Baja | Vague Geography

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