NHM – A Place Name from the Book of Mormon?

By Bill McKeever 

At the Worlds of Joseph Smith Conference held in Washington, D.C. in May 2005, BYU professor John Welch spoke about circumstantial pieces of evidence that he believes substantiates Joseph Smith’s claim as a prophet. Among the list of "evidence" Welch supplied was an inscription on a stone from the country of Yemen, which is located on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Welch is not the first Mormon apologist to use this stone to legitimize the authenticity of both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The question is, does this stone really have any great significance?

Mormon Church-owned Ensign magazine covered the discovery of the stone in its February 2001 edition. If this is, in fact, a momentous discovery, then many Mormons must have been disappointed in the mere three-paragraph article that barely filled a quarter of a page.

Found tucked away on page 79, the article (titled "Book of Mormon Linked to Site in Yemen") boasted that "a group of Latter-day Saint researchers recently found evidence linking a site in Yemen, on the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula, to a name associated with Lehi’s journey as recorded in the Book of Mormon." The passage from the Book of Mormon to which this stone is linked comes from 1 Nephi 16:34. It reads, "And it came to pass that Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom."

The Ensign article went on to say that "Warren Aston, Lynn Hilton, and Gregory Witt located a stone altar that professional archaeologists dated to at least 700 B.C. This altar contains an inscription confirming ‘Nahom’ as an actual place that existed in the peninsula before the time of Lehi. The Book of Mormon mentions that ‘Ishmael died, and was buried in the place which was called Nahom.’" Included in the article was a picture of the stone with a caption that reads, "On this altar is written the word Nahom."

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that the inscription does not confirm that Nahom was an actual place or that this particular stone validates 1 Nephi 16:34. The inscription on the stone merely provides three consonants – NHM. This undisputable fact also exposes the misleading caption in the article that the word Nahom was written on the stone altar, which is not true.

In an article found at www.lehistrail.com, Warren Aston notes, "The recent discovery by a German archaeological team of a stone altar in Yemen referring to the tribal name NIHM was announced in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in 1999.(1) Perfectly preserved under centuries of sand, the altar had been dated by its excavators to about 600-700 BC, thus placing it squarely in the time frame of the Book of Mormon ‘Nahom’ (1 Nephi 16:34) where Ishmael was buried. Unlike most places mentioned in the account of the journey from Jerusalem, Nephi's wording makes it clear that Nahom was already called such by the local population."

Can we assume that Mr. Aston is not letting his presuppositions get the best of him? After all, to say that "Nephi's wording makes it clear that Nahom was already called such by the local population" would carry no weight to someone not yet convinced that a person named Nephi ever existed. Let us not forget that the LDS Church has provided no historical or archaeological evidence that Nephi or any of the unique characters mentioned in the Book of Mormon actually lived.

It is also important to note that NIHM is believed to be a tribal name, not a place name, and that the three consonants can have a variety of spellings when vowels are inserted. Aston notes in the web site article that references to NHM are "usually given as NiHM, NeHeM, NaHaM etc." The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies reports that this can also be spelled "NaHM" (7:1, 1998, p. 7).

In an article titled "The Place That was Called Nahom: New Light from Ancient Yemen," BYU professor S. Kent Brown notes, "Although we cannot determine that at the time there was a place called Nihm or Nehem, it is reasonable to surmise that the tribe gave its name to the region where it dwelt…Was it this name that Nephi rendered Nahom in his record? Very probably." (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8:1, 1999, p.68). Very probably?

Even more interesting is how the article in the Ensign closes. It reads, "This is the first archaeological find that supports a Book of Mormon place-name other than Jerusalem or the Red Sea…." On what little we know of this inscription can a Mormon be all that hopeful? If there is significant examination by unbiased sources showing that this inscription has no relationship to the Book of Mormon Nahom, then it would mean that there are no archaeological finds supporting a Book of Mormon place-name other than Jerusalem or the Red Sea. After 180 years the LDS Church would still be batting zero.

John Hamer, a member of the Community of Christ who has written on numerous topics pertinent to the LDS movement, does not share the Mormon enthusiasm for this discovery. In a blog post he writes:

Although some apologists have described the odds of this Nahom/Nihm/”NHM” correlation as “astronomical,” it hardly even rises to the level of notable coincidence. The Book of Mormon derives its names from a book that has Semitic sources, i.e., the King James Bible. Many of the names in the Book of Mormon are just plucked directly from the Bible, e.g., “Lehi” (Judges 25:9), Laban (Gen. 24-30), Lemuel (Prov. 31:1-9). Other names, however, use the Bible as their inspiration with alterations, e.g., “Jarom” (“Joram” 2 Sam. 8:10), “Omni” (“Omri” 1 Kings 16:16), “Nehor” (“Nahor” Gen. 11:22). “Nahom” easily fits into the latter category: “Nahum” is actually a book of Old Testament.. .

Hamer does not see this as a “bulls-eye.” For him "it’s not even noteworthy. Given one has the entire volume of a large, Semitic country in which to find a common Semitic root (again, note that the Nihm in Arabia does not precisely match the Book of Mormon’s 'Nahom'), we would be surprised not to find a place-name that is somehow similar to NHM."