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 after the roof was damaged. Inside the cave 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”), about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem, some Mormons began to call this site “Beit Lehi” and speculate that it might be associated with the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi described in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 8) and who supposedly sailed to the Americas from Israel around 590 BC. 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 travel itinerary.
One old Hebrew inscription (Inscription A) on soft limestone was deciphered in 1963 by Dr. Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University, and it read,
“I am Yahweh thy God.
I will accept the cities of Judah,
And will redeem Jerusalem.” (“Old Hebrew Inscriptions in a Burial Cave,” Israel Exploration Journal 13 (1963), p. 74).
Naveh dates the inscriptions between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, but prefers the earlier date. Another archaeologist, Frank Moore Cross, Jr. of Harvard University, places the dates to no earlier than the 6th century (“The Cave Inscriptions from Khirbet Beit Lei,” in Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century [The Nelson Glueck Festschrift], ed. J.A. Sanders, Doubleday, 1970, p. 299).
Another cave inscription reads,
“Absolve (us) O merciful God!
Absolve (us) O Yahweh!”
A third reads, “Deliver (us) O Lord!”
Probably no Latter-day Saint scholar was more responsible for linking this site to the Book of Mormon than 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 coauthored a paper linking the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi with the cave (Newsletter of Society for Early Historic Archaeology 129 (April 1972)). Another paper written by Vernon W. Mattson, Jr. is titled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Important Discoveries” (Buried Record Productions, 1979, pp. 53-57).
Ginat was responsible for 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).
Could these inscriptions possibly be related to the Lehi described in the Book of Mormon? In the Biblical Archaeological Review (Nov/Dec, 1988, Vol. XIV, No. 6. p. 19), Cross disputes such a notion. He writes,
As you know, the site of Khirbet Beit Lei (older Layy) was connected by Mormon authors with Biblical Lehi (see Judges 15) and ultimately with the Mormon figure Lehi. The connection of the name Lei with Lehi is based on a linguistic blunder, however. The Arabic Lei, classical Arabic Layy, is based on a root lwy, and means “bend, twist,” etc. Hebrew Lehi, on the other hand, is based on the Semitic root lhy, meaning “jaw.” And lyy and lhy cannot be confused in Semitic. . . . Neither (Dr.) Naveh nor I would for a moment support the equation layy = lehi any more than we would confuse (Robert E.) Lee with (John Locke). I should add that when lecturing at Brigham Young University I discussed these issues in detail and made clear my name was not to be associated with such popular, unscholarly claims.
Apparently, the message was understood by some Mormon scholars who began to publicly doubt the connection. 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 “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 link Beit Lei 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, remains 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, Chadwick wrote a 30-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 related to Lehi or 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 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).”