Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nephite Political Geography

The Book of Mormon uses many different terms to define bounded political, cultural, and geographic entities. The numbers in parentheses show the incidence of each term (used as a geographic referent) in the text:
Conspicuous by their absence in The Book of Mormon text are these modern geographic terms:
  • States (used in the U.S. and Mexico)
  • Departments (used in Guatemala)
  • Districts (used in Belize)
  • Counties (used in the U.S.)
  • Municipalities (used in Mexico and Guatemala)
  • Constituencies (used in Belize)
  • Townships (used in parts of the U.S.)
  • Parishes (used in parts of the U.S.)
  • Provinces (used throughout the world)
  • Boroughs (used in parts of the U.S. and Mexico)
  • Hamlets (used in parts of the U.S.)
  • Wards (used in parts of the U.S.)
Obviously, cities and lands were the dominant polities in the Nephite worldview after the abolition of the monarchy following Mosiah II. Cities seem straightforward enough in the text: urban settlements larger than villages or towns with surrounding agricultural areas Mosiah 23:25 or wilderness Alma 58:13. Lands are more complicated, particularly the key lands of Nephi and Zarahemla, which have different meanings in different contexts and at different times in Nephite history. In general, early uses of the term "land of Nephi" refer to the highland area immediately around the city of Nephi Alma 18:9 where Nephi I first settled 2 Nephi 5:8 after fleeing the coastal land of the Lehites' first inheritance. Many later uses of the term "land of Nephi" expand its meaning to include all the territory controlled by Lamanites Alma 58:38 south of the narrow strip of wilderness Alma 22:27 dividing line.

In like manner, early uses of the term "land of Zarahemla" refer to the lowland area immediately around the city of Zarahemla Alma 5:1 where Mulek and his people first settled Mosiah 25:2 after making landfall north of the narrow neck Helaman 6:10, Alma 22:30. Many later uses of the term "land of Zarahemla" expand its meaning to include all the territory controlled by Nephites Alma 50:7 north of the narrow strip of wilderness dividing line and south and east of the land Bountiful. The blog article entitled "Zarahemla" explores five different meanings of the term in the text.
Specific Lands of Nephi in blue and Zarahemla in red
during the early part of Nephite history.
We expand the red and blue areas and add a yellow line to show the narrow strip of wilderness in an attempt to represent (approximately) the greater lands of Nephi and Zarahemla.
General Lands of Nephi in blue and Zarahemla in red during
the middle & later part of Nephite history.
Together, the general (greater) lands of Nephi and Zarahamla constituted the land southward which was nearly surrounded by water Alma 22:32. We will let Google Earth help us visualize what Mormon may have meant by his comment "nearly surrounded by water."
Land Southward nearly
surrounded by water.
If this is indeed what Mormon had in mind in his mental map of the land southward, the perimeter outlined in red is 11.69% land and 88.31% salt water coastline.
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For an ever-evolving map reflecting some of the best current thinking about the location of the greater lands of Nephi and Zarahemla, see the blog article "Book of Mormon Map."