Directions in the Book of Mormon
John A. Tvedtnes
A correct understanding of compass directions is essential to an understanding of geography as depicted in the Book of Mormon. The first directional indicators are found in Nephi’s account of his family’s travels through the wilderness after leaving Jerusalem, where we read that from their base camp on the Red Sea they traveled “nearly a south-southeast direction” then proceeded in “the same direction, keeping in the most fertile parts of the wilderness, which were in the borders near the Red Sea” (1 Nephi 16:13-14). Following the death of Ishmael at Nahom (1 Nephi 16:34), they traveled “nearly eastward from that time forth” (1 Nephi 17:1). Nephi’s information is rather straightforward and, when combined with the recent discovery of a place corresponding to Nahom in northern Yemen, it has been possible to determine the route Lehi’s party took, as well as the region they denominated Bountiful, whence they set sail for the New World.
New World geography described in the Book of Mormon is more complicated. While all four of the cardinal directions are named in some passages (2 Nephi 29:11; Mosiah 27:6; Helaman 1:31; 3 Nephi 20:13), we have vague references to “the north countries” (Mormon 2:3) and “this north country” (Ether 1:1). We read of a “land north” and a “land south” (Helaman 6:9-12; 3 Nephi 1:17; 4:1), as well as a “land northward” and a “land southward” (Omni 1:22; Alma 22:33; 46:22; 50:29, 31, 33-34; 52:2, 9; 63:5, 7, 9-10; Helaman 3:3, 8-11; 5:16; 6:6; 7:1-2; 3 Nephi 3:24; 4:23-24; 6:2; 8:11-12; Mormon 2:29). In Helaman 6:10, we read that “the land south was called Lehi and the land north was called Mulek, which was after the son of Zedekiah; for the Lord did bring Mulek into the land north, and Lehi into the land south.”
An earlier passage informs us that “the land on the northward was called Desolation, and the land on the southward was called Bountiful” and that “it was only the distance of a day and a half’s journey for a Nephite, on the line Bountiful and the land Desolation, from the east to the west sea; and thus the land of Nephi and the land of Zarahemla were nearly surrounded by water, there being a small neck of land between the land northward and the land southward” (Alma 22:31-32; cf. Alma 50:11, 30, 34).
A number of Latter-day Saint scholars have noted that only Mesoamerica, the region comprising southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, meets archaeological and geographical expectations for the land inhabited by the Nephites and Lamanites in Book of Mormon times. This, however, presents a bit of a problem in regard to directions, for the land mass flows from northwest to southeast, which makes it difficult to account for terms denoting the cardinal directions. Joseph Allen suggested that the cardinal directions used by the Nephites were identical to the ones used in the Bible, but that “land northward” denoted a land to the northwest, while “land southward” denoted a land to the southeast.
John L. Sorenson suggested that, since the Hebrew term meaning “sea” was sometimes used to denote “west” in the Bible, Lehi may have oriented the directions according to the sea by which he sailed to Mesoamerica. Thus, with the sea behind him to the southwest, east would have been northeast and north and south would have been northwest and southeast, respectively. David A. Palmer made the same argument, which I subsequently refuted.
The problem, as I see it, is that ancient peoples would have oriented themselves to the east, not the west. This is clear from Hebrew, where we have two sets of terms for the four directions, one set deriving from orienting oneself to the sunrise. Thus, one word for “east” is qedem (“front”), one for “south” is yāmīn (“right hand”), one for “north” is śemō’l (“left hand”), and one for “west” is yām (“sea”), which in Israel is behind as one faces east. It seems very unlikely that Lehi’s people would have oriented themselves anywhere but eastward.
A much simpler explanation that does not change one’s orientation (the word comes from “orient,” meaning “east”) is that none of the Hebrew terms denote precise compass points. We say that the sun rises in the east, but realize that it only rises due east twice a year, at the spring and autumnal equinoxes. Because the earth’s axis is tilted at 23 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic (the planet’s orbit around the sun), the sun actually rises 23 degrees north or south of east at the time of the summer and winter solstice. This means that “east” covers 46 degrees of arc, meaning that “west” likewise covers 46 degrees of arc. With 360 degrees of arc on the horizon, “east” and “west” total 92, leaving 268 degrees for “north” and “south” or 134 each. This scheme, based on observable phenomena in nature, may be an important key to understanding Book of Mormon geography.
 This article was written and approved as a FARMS Update in 2002, but never published.
 Hebrew knows only the four cardinal directions, so “southeast” seems out-of-place in an Israelite text of the sixth century B.C. The original likely read “south and east,” as in Alma 2:36, where we read of “the wilderness which was west and north.” This usage is known in the Hebrew Bible; e.g., Isaiah 49:12, “these from the north and from the west,” meaning “from the northwest” (cf. Deuteronomy 33:23). It is particularly interesting that two of Nephi’s contemporaries, Ezekiel and Daniel, used this method of denoting the four secondary directions (Ezekiel 40:23; 42:12; Daniel 8:9; 11:44).
 See the map in Joseph L. Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (Orem, UT: S.A. Publishers, 1989), 173, and the discussion in chapters 18 (“The Land Northward”) and 19 (“The Land Southward”), ibid., 215-254.
 See his discussion of “Directions in the Book of Mormon” in John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret, 1985), 36-42.
 David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico (Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 1981), 34-7, and the review by John A. Tvedtnes in Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology No. 149 (June 1982), 9.