The “narrow neck of land” described in the Book of Mormon (Ether 10:20) has been the subject of many books and articles about where the events of that sacred record may have taken place. During the course of the twentieth century, a consensus began to form and many scholars now believe these events took place in and around Central America with the “narrow neck of land” variously identified as the isthmus of Panama or the isthmus of Tehuantepec (see map below).1 The purpose of this short article is to neither prove nor disprove such theories. Instead, like my post Nibley on Book of Mormon Geography, it is hoped that the following provides additional food for thought on this subject.
Over the years, I often find myself rereading Dr. Hugh W. Nibley’s writings. For whatever reason, I am drawn to his words and find nuggets of information that I simply didn’t understand on my last read through. Such is the case below. I find fascinating the idea that the description “narrow neck of land” may be based upon an archaic system of dividing a country into “Two Lands”.
Here is what Dr. Nibley wrote concerning the parallels between the Jaredites in the Book of Mormon and ancient Egypt:
Story of the Snakes
There had been a great drought, so severe that it permanently affected conditions of life: the population was terribly reduced by famine; the country began to swarm with snakes; the cattle started a mass movement of drifting towards the south, where there was better grazing; in desperation “the people did follow the course of the beasts, and did devour the carcasses of them which fell by the way” (Ether 9:34). When the drought finally ended, things got better, but the snakes were still so bad towards the south as to shut off attempts at migration and colonization in that direction for at least two hundred years to come. Then came the heroic Lib, who “did that which was good in the sight of the Lord,” and in whose days, and apparently under whose leadership, “the poisonous serpents were destroyed.” They did not just vanish or cease to annoy, they “were destroyed.” Consequently the coveted southland was again open to exploitation, and the first step was a great national hunt: “they did go into the land southward, to hunt food for the people of the land, for the land was covered with animals of the forest.” In this King Lib himself would have taken the lead, for “Lib also himself became a great hunter” (Ether 10:19).
Instead of colonizing the forested land to the south, however, it was set aside as a game preserve: “And they did preserve the land southward for a wilderness, to get game. And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants” (Ether 10:21). Exactly at the point of meeting between these two zones, “they build a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land” (Ether 10:20). Then follows a description of a great economic boom and expansion period, marking King Lib as the founder of a new age (Ether 10:22-29).
Turning to Egypt, we note that whoever the first Pharaoh and chief author of Egyptian civilization may have been, it is apparent from the texts we quoted in the Era that he opened vast new tracts of land to settlement by a systematic destruction of serpents and crocodiles which hitherto had barred settlement and even passage throughout the area. The serpents are always associated with a drought. It was also he who, having come in and settled with his people, “the followers of Horus,” established the system of the Two Lands, the double organization of Egypt, building a great city in the narrow neck just at the point of the Delta at a place called “the balance of the two lands.” It is also known that the whole Delta, with its lush meadows and dense thickets, was preserved down to a late period as a hunting grounds for the nobility, and that Pharaoh himself enjoyed the ritual position of chief hunter. All this information is gathered from ritual texts, and it is folly to try to distinguish too sharply between religious institutions and the secular elements in them, since at all times, as Kees has shown, the Egyptian state itself was a huge religious institution, while the king’s office was from first to last a sacred one and everything he did was a religious ritual. The great and prolonged drought that marked a new phase in Jaredite history may have been the same worldwide weather disturbance that sent the Horus people into Egypt; at any rate there is, to say the least, a remarkable resemblance in the way things are done in the two worlds, that puts a clear stamp of authenticity of Ether’s claim to be telling a tale of archaic times.2
Here is another nugget on the narrow neck of land by Dr. Nibley:
“Would you say that the conflict between men and serpents so often mentioned in the Egyptian texts goes back to real events,” Blank asked suddenly, “or is it symbolic?”
“No need to be symbolic about it,” Schwulst replied, opening an Egyptian handbook to the part on snakes and reading from it: `For the protection of human life, the Egyptians had to wage a constant war on snakes and scorpions.’ But what is your idea on the subject? You have brought some notes which you want to put into the record. Let’s have them.”
“Well,” said Blank with suppressed enthusiasm, “I have long suspected that there was a great plague of serpents in the days of the first Pharaohs, and the circumstances described in the Egyptian records are so very much like those reported in Ether that I am going to ask you to listen to the two descriptions and judge for yourselves. Here are the pertinent passages from the Mormon record. Early in their history, after only half a dozen or so kings had reigned over them there came a time of ‘great dearth upon the land, and the inhabitants began to be destroyed exceedingly fast, because of the dearth, for there was no rain upon the face of the earth. And there came forth poisonous serpents also upon the face of the land, and did poison many people. And it came to pass that their flocks began to flee before the poisonous serpents, towards the land southward, . . . [and] there were many of them which did perish by the way; nevertheless, there were some which fled into the land southward’” (Ether 9:30-32).
“Do you get the picture? A great drought, a southward movement of cattle to better pastures, people and cattle both plagued by serpents! Some of the cattle get through to the `land southward,’ apparently a region where tropical rains could be relied on, but a great distance away, since most of them never made it. It was the `dearth,’ incidentally, that destroyed the people, not the serpents. The animals were looking for grass, of course, and the people followed them: `the people did follow the course of the beasts, and did devour the carcasses of them which fell by the way, until they had devoured them all’ (Ether 9:34). After that, it says, the serpents `pursued them no more,’ but they did present a definite barrier to the southern migration of the people, who were able to return to something like a normal economy when it finally rained, `and there began to be fruit in the north countries, and in all the countries round about’ (Ether 9:35). Still it was not until over two hundred years later that `the poisonous serpents were destroyed’ and the people could go into the land southward. That means, of course, that this was no local or temporary condition. It was more than a few miles of snake-infested desert that kept a whole nation out of the lush south country for two centuries and more. In its years of isolation the land southward had become a paradise for game, and it had always been favorite grazing land for the herds (Ether 10:19). We are told that in the days of King Lib, `who became a great hunter,’ `the poisonous serpents were destroyed,’ and the south country was opened up–but not to settlement: `they did preserve the land southward for a wilderness, to get game. And the whole face of the land northward was covered with inhabitants’ (Ether 10:21). Moreover `they built a great city by the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land’ (Ether 10:20)–divides it into north and south, that is, for there were no cities in the southland proper. All this activity seems to have been part of a great period of expansion and settlement in the days of Lib.”
“Now let me take you to Egypt, and first of all recall what has already been said tonight, that from the earliest times the Delta country was preserved both for grazing and `for a wilderness to get game,’ with Pharaoh himself as the Mighty Hunter. After rain had fallen on the land and the serpents had `become cowardly,’ the great Menes, the first in the line of historical Pharaohs, `built a great city by the narrow neck of land’–only in this case it was the narrow valley passage right at the base of the Delta, at the spot which at that time `divided the land’ between the Land Northward and the Land Southward. Before the city could be built, it was necessary to drain vast tracts of land to the north, which were still uninhabitable marshes. The city itself was known as `The Balance of the Lands,’ and the `City of the White Wall’ because it controlled all passage between the two lands and barred or permitted access from the one to the other. The founder of another great dynasty at a later date built just such an establishment at the other end of Egypt, calling it `The Gate of the North,’ since it blocked off the southern empire. The classical distinction between the Land Northward and the Land Southward, which first meets us with great persistence in the Book of Mormon, was more than a geographical convenience for the Egyptians: it was a ritual dichotomy in which the Two Lands theme, the red and the white, was carried out with great thoroughness at all times. Eberhard Otto has recently written on the subject. The philologian Joseph Karst has argued that the Egyptian word for the Land Northward, which everyone knows is Mekhi, is the same as Mexico, which has the same meaning. Of course we don’t have to go along with speculation like that, but I do maintain that some aspects of Egyptian life and history demonstrate that just such things as described in Ether could have been on the earth.”3
The “great city by the narrow neck of land” described by Dr. Nibley above is Memphis and was built by Menes soon after the unification of Egypt (see map below).
Over the years, I have come to appreciate these insights. It’s almost as if Dr. Nibley wrote these things in passing and didn’t try to make a big deal of them. While we may never know the specific location of places mentioned in the Book of Mormon without the benefit of direct revelation, I love studying his writings.
In a future post on this subject, I hope to draw upon the division of the two lands of Egypt that may have been based on archaeoastronomy and wonder if there are some Book of Mormon implications just waiting to be studied. Who knows, maybe there are narrow necks of land associated with rivers in North and South America described by the ancient inhabitants of these areas waiting to be discovered?
- Hamblin, William J. “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon”. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1:171.↩
- Nibley, Hugh W. An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988. 335-336.↩
- Nibley, Hugh W. “Egypt Revisited”. Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988. 342-343.↩