By Eric Johnson
In 1961, Israeli military engineers working on a road about twenty-two miles away from Jerusalem near Israel’s border with Jordan uncovered a burial tomb. Inside were drawings and inscriptions on the walls, including the Hebrew name for God (YHWH) and Jerusalem. There were also pictures of boats on the walls.
Because the cave resides near the ruins of a medieval Arab village that was known as Khirbet Beit Lei (pronounced “Bait Lay”), some Mormons began to call this “Beit Lehi,” speculating that this might be associated with the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi. In addition, a local Bedouin named Mahmoud Ali Hassan Jaaoui told archaeologists how Lehi once lived at Beit Lei. Today many LDS tour groups make Beit Lei an important part of their itinerary.
Probably nobody was more responsible for linking this site to the Book of Mormon than Israeli anthropologist Joseph Ginat (1936-2009), who studied at the University of Utah and taught several summers at Brigham Young University. A specialist in Arab culture, Ginat wrote a paper in 1971 linking Lehi with the cave; he was also responsible in introducing LDS authors W. Cleon Skousen and Glenn J. Kimber to this find. In 1974, the Ensign magazine published an article on Beit Lei titled “Archaeology Reveals Old Testament History: Digging for the Truth.” (February 1974, p. 66).
In the 1980s, however, several Mormons began to publicly doubt the connection between Beit Lei and the Book of Mormon character Lehi. In 1982, Lamar C. Berrett disputed any connection between Beit Lei and Lehi in an article titled, “The So-Called Lehi Cave.” A few years later, amateur archaeologist William A. Johnson published an article called “Lessons Learned from Lehi’s Cave,” in the July 1985 issue of Sunstone magazine (pp. 27-30). In that piece he bemoaned the exaggeration made by Mormons regarding the site. Responding to these criticisms, Ginat and Skousen produced a 1986 video called The Lehi Cave that supported the connection and sold thousands of copies.
While some Mormons continue to tout this as a site related to the Book of Mormon, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, an associate professor of LDS Church history and doctrine at BYU who has worked in Israel for three decades, re-mains a skeptic. Chadwick, who among other things is a senior field archaeologist with the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project in Israel as well as a senior fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, was commissioned by the Religious Studies Center and the Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University to study Beit Lei and determine if this site supports the Book of Mormon. Using his first-hand research, he wrote a thirty-page article in 2009 titled “Khirbet Beit Lei and the Book of Mormon: An Archaeologist’s Evaluation” (The Religious Educator 10:3, 2009, pp. 36-44). Among reasons why he doesn’t believe this site is support for the Book of Mormon:
- The Arabic word “Lei” means “bend” or “twist.” However, the Hebrew word “Lehi” means “jaw” or cheek. The etymology of these words is unique; the two words have no relationship with each other.
- The Judges 15 account of Ramath-lehi is not related to Beit Lei, as it is not located in the same place as the biblical account. In addition, there is no evidence there was a Jewish settlement located at Beit Lei during the lifetime of Samson as recorded in Judges.
- Nobody lived at Beit Lei when Lehi was supposed to be living there before leaving for the New World. In fact, there are no Iron II age artifacts that have been uncovered at Beit Lei, and the evidence is that nobody lived there prior to 300 BC.
- There is no evidence that the writing found in the cave came from a Jewish prophet.
In his honest conclusion for his 2009 journal article, he wrote:
“There is no such thing as a Lehi Cave or Beit Lehi. These terms are the unfortunate product of linguistic misinformation, faulty scriptural interpretation, and too-fertile imagination. They are not supported by the finds of any archaeological excavation. It is stunning to me that the original linguistic blunder identifying Khirbet Beit Lei as Samson’s Lehi in 1971 has gone too long unchallenged in Latter-day Saint circles. On the other hand, the flawed use of both Bible and Book of Mormon passages to connect the prophet Lehi and his sons to both Khirbet Beit Lei and the Jerusalem Cave has not gone unchallenged. But the warnings of the challengers were not widely spread among the Latter-day Saint community and were ignored by those of too-fertile imagination.¨ (The Religious Educator 10:3, 2009, pp. 43-44).
When asked if he continued to hold to his viewpoint, Dr. Chadwick wrote me an email on April 5, 2011, stating, ”I stand by my 2009 article in TRE on Khirbet Beit Lei and the Book of Mormon—there are simply no connections between the Beit Lei site and any events described in the First Book of Nephi.¨
It should be noted that, despite his rejection of Beit Lei as support for the Book of Mormon, Dr. Chadwick added that he still believes there are “many significant evidences that lend great strength to the proposition that the First Nephi narrative was written by a person from Jerusalem of the 7th century BC (namely, Nephi).¨