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The Isthmus of Tehuantepec



    Obscuring the Truth about Israelite Directions in Order to Sell Mexican / Mesoamerican Cumorah Theory

by W. Vincent Coon


     Mesoamerican legends are not congruent with the idea that Book of Mormon lands are in that region.

     The Guatemalan Zarahemla hypothesis originated with an 1842 Mormon newspaper article published ------ during Joseph Smith's public absence.

     Guatemalan Book of Mormon geography misrepresents Hebrew directions. The LDS Scriptures, C-D ---------ROM Resource Edition can help Latter-day Saints understand Hebrew directions.  

The 18th century Mexican historian Don Mariano Veytia said that long ago, accompanying an eclipse of the sun, an earthquake shook Central America. The sun was so completely blotted out that the stars could be seen in the daytime. The earthquake was terrible in the extreme, but amazingly, not a single human life was lost. As many as thirty years after the earthquake, a bearded man (Quetzalcoatl), arrived in Mexico and Central America. It is said that he came from the north, by sea, in the company of other bearded men and that after living among the peoples of Mesoamerica for a time, he returned to his own country the same way that he came. A devout Catholic, Veytia became convinced that Quetzalcoatl was a disciple of Jesus Christ. (Ancient America Rediscovered, Compiled by Donald W. and W. David Hemingway, Translated by Ronda Cunningham, Chapters XV - XVII, Bonneville Books)

Many Latter-day Saints are eager to see in these legends a parallel to the great destruction, three days of smoky darkness and the appearance of Jesus Christ in America's Promised Land, as described in the Book of Mormon. The details of the accounts, however, do not support the idea that Book of Mormon lands are located in Mexico and Guatemala. For instance, according to the Book of Mormon, the great destruction and three days of darkness occurred in the beginning of the year, at the time of Christ's death. (Helaman 14:20-21) Anciently the Hebrew year began in the spring. Israelites were required to sacrifice the Passover lamb, observe the feast of unleavened bread, and offer a "first-fruits" wave offering of barley at this season. (Deuteronomy 16:1, Leviticus 23:5-11, 2 Nephi 2:8-9, Jacob 4:11) The seasons of Central America consist of a wet and a dry season, year round. Unlike Mesoamerican accounts which tell of Quetzalcoatl's arrival many years after the terrible earthquake, according to the Book of Mormon, Christ descended from heaven towards the end of the same year as the great destruction. (3 Nephi 8:5; 10:18) The darkness in Book of Mormon lands was so profound that no light of any kind could be seen, including starlight, (3 Nephi 8:22) and there were countless fatalities caused by the quaking of the earth.

The land and city of Zarahemla is central to Book of Mormon geography. The popular notion among LDS, that Zarahemla is somewhere in Guatemala does not come from LDS scripture, but from an unsigned 1842 newspaper article printed in the Times and Seasons. In the spring of 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith shouldered the Times and Seasons to affect its quality as a newspaper. We can tell which articles were written by Joseph Smith because they end with his "ED". In the fall of that same year, the Prophet found it necessary to go into hiding. The fact that Joseph was still official editor of the newspaper does not mean that he was acting editor at that time. Published in the very same issue as the anonymous "ZARAHEMLA" article we find a signed epistle to the Church from the Prophet in hiding. This epistle has become the 128th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this section of LDS scripture, the Finger Lakes location of Cumorah is made known (see verse 20 and current edition Church History maps 1, 2, and 3 at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants). Those who carefully follow the Book of Mormon eventually come to realize that the land of Cumorah, which is in a land among many waters and rivers, cannot be thousands of miles distant from Zarahemla. The Book of Mormon tells how a search party was sent out to find the land of Zarahemla and after getting lost in the wilderness, the party ended up near the land of Cumorah instead. The scripture says that they mistook the land they arrived at for Zarahemla! (Mosiah 8:7-8; 21:25-26, Mormon 6:2, 4, 6, Ether 1:1-2; 15:11-12)

Other powerful, even scriptural statements made by Joseph Smith plainly place Book of Mormon peoples and events in lands occupied by the United States of America. According to the Prophet Joseph Smith, at least one Book of Mormon land is near two of the Great Lakes. This explains why for instance, there are no monkeys or palm trees mentioned in the Book of Mormon, even though monkeys (translated "apes" in the KJV) and palm trees are terms found in the Bible. Joseph apparently believed that Book of Mormon peoples eventually migrated from northern America to other places such as Mexico and Central America.1, 2

The anonymous writer(s) of the October 1, 1842 "ZARAHEMLA" article, argued that the Central American ruins of Quirigua, discovered by renowned traveler John Lloyd Stephens, were none other than the ruins of Zarahemla or some other Book of Mormon city. Stephens' two volume book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan had become an 1840s hit, and Mormon newspaper writers, with the best of intentions, wanted to strap their sacred scripture to the coattail of Stephens' success. Careful research over the years has shown that the ruins of Quirigua date to the eighth century A.D., and are definitely not the ruins of Zarahemla or any other Book of Mormon city. This fact came too late to stop the momentum of speculative Mesoamerican geography among LDS Church members. Though in all fairness, it should be pointed out that Stephens devoted an entire chapter in his work to reasons why that the ruins which he and Catherwood documented, were not truly ancient. (Incident of Travel in Central America, Vol. II, Chapter XXVI, “COMPARATIVE MODERN DATE OF RUINS”, pp. 442-443)       

Despite the tabloid origin of the Guatemalan Zarahemla hypothesis, certain LDS writers are bent on selling some version of it. They have been undaunted even though the Mesoamerican setting conflicts with the location of Cumorah set forth in LDS scripture, and even though certain General Authorities of the Church have publicly opposed the notion that "Cumorah" is somewhere in Central America.3, 4, 5 Now days, Mormon revisionists are willing to second guess the scriptural location of Cumorah as well as Joseph Smith's knowledge of Nephite lands and civilization.

The foremost Central American setting alleges "plausible locations in Mesoamerica for Book of Mormon places".6 One of the meanings of the word "plausible" is: "Having an appearance or show of truth, reasonableness, or worth; apparently acceptable or trustworthy (but often with implications of mere appearance); fair-seeming, specious" (Oxford Dictionary). Before any Mesoamerican setting can even begin to qualify as a possible setting for Book of Mormon lands it has got to get its directions right with the book.

The "small neck of land" is a key feature in Book of Mormon geography. (Alma 22:32) Once you cast in your lot with those who say that Zarahemla is in Guatemala, you become rather limited in terms of the pick of isthmuses to label as "the small neck". Most in the Guatemalan geography camp feel compelled to promote the 125 mile wide Isthmus of Tehuantepec (tāwntāpĕk) as the "small neck of land". But in order for this wide Mesoamerican isthmus to pass as the Book of Mormons "small" or "narrow neck", with its "narrow pass" or "passage" it has got to have water "on the west and on the east." (Alma 50:34; 63:5, Mormon 2:29) Tehuantepec is situated between the Gulf of Mexico on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the south. The location of seas is a problem in general with the "plausible" map. At places where the sea is supposed to be west (according to the Book of Mormon) it is south or south west on the "plausible" map. The setting has similar problems locating and orienting other seas named in the Book of Mormon.

Directional difficulties have not kept advocates of a Guatemalan Zarahemla from publishing their geographies. How do they handle the direction problems? Intentional or not, some resort to an intellectual smoke screen, arguing that the whole business of direction is really quite relative after all. Examples from several non-Israelite cultures are cited. Their shifty compass is certainly not the moral Liahona (sacred Book of Mormon compass) that Church leaders want members to follow in their personal lives. Of course coordinate systems are relative. The focus should be on how devout Israelites would have coordinated directions outside Canaan.

There is a growing number of LDS who stand by their common sense and object to south being west, north being east. Attempts have been made to confuse or belittle the common sense of these people. For instance, laymen are accused of naively imposing European coordinates on an ancient culture, despite the fact that these coordinates seem to work fine for the Bible. Finally advocates of the Guatemalan hypothesis cleverly misrepresent Israelite directions. They are seldom called on it because not many people can actually read the "Old Testament" in Hebrew. Of course, if Book of Mormon sites and directions had fit nicely into the Mesoamerican scheme, Guatemalan Zarahemla advocates would never have resorted to such "scholarly" tactics.

In his own words, here is how John L. Sorenson (and other LDS authors) would have us understand Israelite directions:

"The Israelites of Palestine, in their most common mental framework, derived directions as though standing with backs to the sea, facing the desert. Yam ("sea") then meant "west," for the Mediterranean lay in that direction, while qedem ("fore") stood for "east." Then yamin ("right hand") meant "south," while semol ("left hand") denoted "north." [Beth Mikra 48(1971): 100-104. FN] In Palestine, this model coincided nicely with nature (the coast runs nearly north-south) and also proved neatly translatable to our European uses of the terms east, west, north, and south. (This was not the only model of directions in use among the Israelites, but it was the most fundamental, being deeply embedded in the language.)" (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, pg. 38)

Sorenson cites a single Hebrew reference; a short article by S. H. Weingarten published in Beit Mikra that proposes how the "Red Sea" got its name. The article associates various colors with directions (dwelling on the colors of horses). There is nothing substantial in this article justifying Sorenson's idea that migrating Israelites would have favored an inland orientation (from an arbitrary coastline) over sunrise in defining east. The article, in fact, makes repeated use of the Hebrew terms "mizrah" (sunrise, east) and "maarav" (sunset, west) which Sorenson does not mention. Sorenson continues:

"Suppose, for a moment, that you were with Lehi's party as it arrived on the Pacific coast of Central America. By western civilization's general present-day terminology, the shore would be oriented approximately northwest-southeast. When you said yamah, intending "westward," the term would mean literally "seaward," although the water would actually be "behind your back" to our southwest. Further, the first step you took inland, away from the sea, would be "eastward" ("to the fore," literally) in Hebrew; we today would say the motion had been northeastward. In the absence of a conscious group decision to shift the sense of their Hebrew direction terms by 45 degrees or more, the little group of colonists would have fallen into a new directional language pattern as their Semitic-language model encountered the new setting."

Now for the full truth: "Yam" in Hebrew does mean "sea", but "yam" doesn't have to mean Ocean. Large inland bodies of water can also be called "seas" in Hebrew. Folks familiar with Bible lands can easily think of a couple of examples. The Book of Mormon mentions a "sea east" a "sea west" a "sea north" a "sea south" a "west sea, south" and a "place where the sea divides the land". There is no reason to believe that all of these seas refer to oceanic bodies of water. John Sorenson and company would have us believe that Lehi's party of Israelites crossed the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the vast Pacific Ocean to finally land on a Central American coast. What a lot of fresh water they would have had to store on board! Never mind the long way to the Americas, Jewish minds want to know why the LORD would lead a colony of Israelites to a place that does not accommodate the Torah (Law of Moses) very well in terms of the requisite seasons, grains, fruits and animal life. Fortunately for Sorenson and his advocacy they don't have to sell many Jewish thinkers on the idea, but they do have to sell Latter-day Saints on skewed directions.

The Book of Mormon does not say that Lehi's party crossed the Pacific Ocean. It says they traveled "nearly eastward" (biblical east) across the Arabian wilderness to a place where they were able to build a wooden ship. Apparently they needed to avoid contact with potential adversaries outside their families. Nephi's slaying of Laban alone would have necessitated avoiding the populous Mediterranean coast. A flight into the southern wilderness was both inspired and expedient. Yes, the Book of Mormon says that Lehi's American land of first inheritance was by a west sea, but there is nothing in the LDS scripture to make us conclude that this "sea...on the west" (Alma 22:27-28) was salt water (i.e. the Pacific Ocean). Arguably, the wisest way to bring your family from Arabia to America in a seaworthy wooden vessel is to keep close to shoreline most of the trip. You bravely round the Cape of Good Hope and divinely guided, cross the Atlantic at the shortest distance between the Old World and the New, with enough fresh water stored on board for the crossing. After crossing over to the western hemisphere, you sail along coastal waters and northward, near chains of islands; and then navigate North American waterways inland until you arrive within walking distance of a freshwater "west sea". If you are a devout Israelite, you trust that the LORD has led you to a land with all four seasons, goats (e.g. mountain goats), sheep (e.g. bighorn sheep) and various cattle (e.g. bison) - a place where you can plant barley and grapes with no impediment to keeping all of the seasonal ordinances of the Law of Moses. (2 Nephi 5:10)

But which way is west? Sorenson argues that when Lehi's party stepped ashore (presumably near El Salvador) with their backs to the Pacific Ocean, that this quite readily and endemically established "west" for the colony. Regardless of the fact that the Pacific Ocean lies south of this part of Central America, Sorenson would have us believe that because the sea was behind them, that the Hebrew word "yamah", "seaward" in the New World came to designate "west". Never mind the sun! With the Pacific behind, "forward" then came to designate "east", even though this direction really points northward. What is wrong with Sorenson's argument? It is entirely specious and misleading, scripturally speaking.

The Hebrew word "qedem" means front or before, it is sometimes translated east. The Hebrew word "ahor" means back, after or hinder and can, in some instances, be interpreted west. (Y'shaYahu 9:11 in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 9:12 in the KJV) The Dead Sea is sometimes called the "former sea" or "eastern sea" while the Mediterranean is sometimes called the "back sea", "hinder sea" or "western sea". (Zechariah 14:8) Relative to Jerusalem, the Mediterranean is west, as the sun sets, and the Dead Sea (Salt Sea) lies east - toward sunrise.

The LORD said to Joshua, "unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast." (Joshua 1:4) It makes sense in the land of Israel to equate seaward with "westward". (Genesis 13:14) The Hebrew dictionary in the LDS RESOURCE EDITION of THE SCRIPTURES notes that seaward, pronounced "yamah" is locally "westward". In other words, seaward is "westward" relative to the land of Israel. Interpreting seaward as west elsewhere risks taking things out of context.

The Israelite compass is actually based on the perceived movement of the heavenly quarters, and there are other terms in Hebrew scripture for east and west, and these terms directly relate to sunrise and sunset:

The Hebrew word "mizrah" literally means sunrise or place of sunrise and is translated "east". For example: "mizrah" is translated "east" in Joshua 11:3 (KJV). In the same verse, "on the west" literally means "from the sea" (the Mediterranean). Psalm 113:3 reads, "From the rising of the sun (mi-mizrah) unto the going down of the same the LORDS name is to be praised." The English word east relates to the Greek eos meaning dawn. The Hebrew word for west, "maarav" means from evening or place of sunset. (Isaiah 45:6; 59:19) This Hebrew word for west appropriately applies to places beyond the confines of the land of Israel, and would certainly have been used by Lehi and his son Nephi. (Psalm 103:12; 107:3, Isaiah 43:5) The English word west relates to the Latin vesper, and has much the same meaning as the Hebrew word. The meaning of west in the English Book of Mormon remains true to its origin. Consider the following passage:

"Behold the back pass, through the back wall, on the back side of the city" (Mosiah 22:6)

Notice that the above verse does not use west, i.e., "Behold the west pass", even though the word ahor meaning back, is sometimes interpreted as west. Of course, with respect to Jerusalem, facing sunrise, the "back sea" really is west - the place of sunset. In the land of Nephi, however, the "back pass...wall...side of the city" may not have been on the city's west side (according to the heavenly compass), hence west does not necessarily substitute for back in the verse. Similarly, the use of the word "forward" in the Nephite scripture, does not necessarily mean east. (Alma 58:26)

When qedem (before) is used to designate east in Hebrew scripture, it is understood to mean, standing before or facing sunrise. The divine decree that the "lights in the firmament of the heaven" should be "for signs, and for seasons" relates their usefulness in marking direction as well as times. (Genesis 1:14) Referring to the Israelite Tabernacle, the LORD directed:

"And the breadth of the court on the east (qedemah, before) side eastward (mizrahah, towards sunrise) shall be fifty cubits" (Exodus 27:13)

There are other verses in Hebrew scripture such as Numbers 3:38 and Joshua 19:13, showing that the reference frame for which before is interpreted as east is standing before the rising sun. This Promised Land reference frame results in one's right hand directing south, one's left hand directing north, and if there is a sea nearby, opposite the rising sun, with a coastline running north and south, then yamah (seaward), is west. In any event ahor (behind), same as maarav (place of sunset) appropriately names west.

Sorenson asserts that Israelites, because of their language, were inclined to confound the direction towards a sea with "west". Yet Hebrew scripture successfully distinguishes between the direction towards an "east sea" and the direction towards a sea on the west. (Joel 2:20) Sorenson doesn't elaborate on the skewed "west" which he attributes to Lehi's landing, in comparison to the "seaward" of Mulek's landing. (Helaman 6:10) Using Sorenson's logic, shouldn't we conclude that Mulek's "seaward" was also regarded as "west"?

In the recent translation of Veytia's work, Ancient America Rediscovered, there are several references to Mesoamerican people observing the sun for a sense of direction. (pg 49 and pp 52-53) This shouldn't surprise us. By the sun, the ancient peoples of Central America would have perceived the region of Tehuantepec as situated between northern and southern seas. It does not help their confused argument when LDS Tehuantepec advocates point out that both Mayans and Hebrews designated south "on the right hand" and north "on the left". As explained, this reference frame results from standing facing east sunrise!

Peering through the intellectual smoke screen put up by Tehuantepec advocates, the fact remains, to insist that the seas north and south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec can somehow be seen as "east" and "west" respectively, is to ignore the heavens. A colony of devout Israelites is not likely to do such a thing. Hebrew scripture clearly shows that when Israelites refer to "the sea on the east" (Joshua 12:3) their "east" (mizrah) faces sunrise. Seasonal variations in the position of the rising sun cannot rescue the Tehuantepec narrow neck idea from its egregious coordinates.

Whether or not Nephites ever used the terms front sea or back sea to name New World bodies of water, it would not make sense to translate these "east sea" and "west sea", if these seas were not respectively east and west. The directions of these seas would have to agree (as in the land of Israel) with the west and east of the heavenly compass, or more correctly, with the earth's rotation; "for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun." (Helaman 12:15)

In keeping the ordinances of Israel, the Nephites would never have abandoned the Israelite way of coordinating directions. (Leviticus 1:11) The orientation of the Temple was such that "east" (mizrah) meant sunrise. Sunrise is "east" in Hebrew Scripture even if in the same verse, the word translated "west" (yamah) is seaward. (See 1 Chronicles 9:24, Zechariah 14:4, LDS Scripture CD ROM Resource, Transliterated Hebrew / English; Hebrew Dictionary) Seaward is an acceptable substitute for "west" in Israel, because it is opposite sunrise. But it is sunrise in the Promised Land that sets the compass and not the sea. We need only look at what the LORD said to Moses:

"lift up thine eyes westward (yamah, seaward), and northward, and southward (teman, on the right hand when the person faces east), and eastward (mizrah, towards sunrise)" (Deuteronomy 3:27)

Latter-day Saints expect the definition of "eastward" in connection with Lehi's journey in Arabia to be consistent with Israelite east. Why should Nephi's followers violate the Law of Moses and orient their altars differently in America? (1 Nephi 16:13-14; 17:1) Incidentally, there is a verse in Hebrew scripture in which "from the sea" can be interpreted to mean "from the south"; possibly referring to the Arabian Sea and not the Mediterranean. (Psalm 107:3) Outside of the Land of Israel, Lehi and Nephi were not constrained to think of seaward as west.

Guatemalan Book of Mormon geography misrepresents Hebrew directions plain and simple. Latter-day Saints need only use the LDS Scriptures CD ROM Resource Edition to see for themselves. Use the transliterated Hebrew / English version of the Old Testament and the click-on Hebrew Dictionary. Israelite east faces sunrise.7 The Middle East department of any reputable university will back up this fact. As for Israelite directions in Book of Mormon covenant lands, Phyllis Carol Olive at is one LDS author on the subject, willing to use the right compass.

Additional References:

1.    Joseph Smith (editor), "Traits of Mosaic History Found among the Aztaeca
       Nations", Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No 16, June 15, 1842; pg 818.

2.    Joseph Smith (editor), "AMERICAN ANTIQUITIES", Times and Seasons, Vol. 3,
       No 18, July 15, 1842; pg 858.

3.    Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 3, pp. 233-234.

4.    Bruce R. McConkie, CUMORAH, Mormon Doctrine, pg 175.

5.    Mark E. Peterson, 143 Annual Conference of the Church, April 4-6, The
        Improvement Era
, 1953; pp. 83-84.

6.   John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.

7.    MIZRAH; SUN, Encyclopedia Judaica.


The author has a Masters degree in Physics from the University of Utah and has studied Hebrew in Israel and at the University of Utah. He conferred with Dr. Harris Lenowitz (U of U Middle East Department) on the subject of Israelite directions.


Copyright © 2008 by W. Vincent Coon


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