Interpreting “lines” and “borders” in the Book of Mormon
Through our modern lens, lines and borders are just political boundaries on a map. To ancient peoples, though, lines on a map didn’t have the same meaning. They relied heavily on terrain features to determine boundaries, courses of travel, etc., and most people probably did not have a map. What were these terrain features? In what follows I will explain why “lines” are most likely desert washes or canyons and “borders” are likely to be mountains and foothills.
What are lines?
Lines are referred to once metaphorically (“line upon line”) and five times as geographical features of some type. Lines can be routes of travel, defensible borders, or both. See the references below:
Route of travel
And now, 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 — Alma 22:32
Line of defense
[H]e cut off all the strongholds of the Lamanites in the east wilderness, yea, and also on the west, fortifying the line between the Nephites and the Lamanites”
“on the south by the line of the possessions of the Lamanites. — Alma 50:11,13
Route of travel, line of defense
[I]t being a day’s journey for a Nephite, on the line which they had fortified and stationed their armies to defend their north country. — Helaman 4:7
[T]he line which was between the land Bountiful and the land Desolation. — 3 Nephi 3:23
What could serve as (1) a route of travel, (2) a line of defense and (3) a geographic boundary?
Based on my military experience, I would say a wadi perfectly fits the bill. A wadi is a desert wash or canyon. A wadi is often denoted on maps as a dry river bed. In Afghanistan in particular, wadis are basically the only way to get around. When I served there, there was one major highway that I was aware of that went from Kandahar straight to Kabul. All other traffic went through wadis — not just local traffic, but the U.S. military used wadis to get around too. You couldn’t just drive in a straight line wherever you wanted. The terrain makes that impossible. You have to travel along wadis. Rivers would also fit if we’re talking about a very wet region. Rivers can be routes of travel, lines of defense and geographic boundaries. The issue is that in the Book of Mormon, lines are not talked about in terms of boats, bridges, river crossings, catching fish, overflowing, floating, etc., so a river seems far less likely than a wadi.
The mouth of a wadi as a line of defense
Wadis make sense as defensive borders primarily because enemy forces must come down through a wadi in order to engage with defenders. Thus it would make sense to station a large force of soldiers at the mouth of the wadi, and to build barriers and other defensive positions in the mouth of the wadi. Cliffs near the mouth of the wadi would provide the best defensive positions for defenders because it would be very hard for enemy forces to fight up steep terrain to meet defenders armed with rocks, spears, and arrows. So the line itself is not really the boundary. The endpoint of the line is the boundary because that is the chokepoint where the enemy forces would have to squeeze through in order to fight with defenders.
Wadis in the modern Middle East
I did a quick check on Google Maps and noted that nearly all of the political boundaries in the Middle East follow (1) wadis or (2) mountain ridgelines. For example, the modern border between Israel and Jordan follows the Wadi Al Jayb all the way from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Most of the roads also follow wadis. Exceptions to this rule mainly occur in large flat plains where there are few visible terrain features. Thus it makes sense that references to lines that double as boundaries and travel routes are likely to be references to wadis.
Reconciling with Grover (2019)
In his translation of the Caractors Document, a set of characters that many believe were copied directly from the Gold Plates upon which the Book of Mormon was based, Jerry Grover argues that the symbol in the document Joseph Smith would have translated into “line” (see above) is a symbol that Grover believes indicates “river.” Because a wadi is a dry riverbed, this is actually a fairly close translation and doesn’t seem to be a problem for the wadi explanation.
What are borders?
More than a line on a map. First it is interesting to note that “borders” is always plural in the Book of Mormon. There is never a “border,” only “borders.” This is an important clue because it tells us that we’re not just looking at a line on a map.
Hills and mountains provide separation. The second clue is that the borders provide separation between warring peoples. When the Lamanites come into the lands of the Nephites, they are first seen entering the “borders.” But why are they borders? What consistent terrain feature would separate all of these lands. Consider that the Nephite record-keepers were an agrarian people. They would ideally settle in a river valley where they could obtain plenty of water to nourish their crops. River valleys are surrounded by hills and mountains. A foreign people would have to come through the hills and mountains (borders) to get to the Nephites in their river valleys and oases.
Clues from ancient Middle Eastern usage.
The following extract is from Alan C. Miner’s Book of Mormon geography website in which he cites both George Potter and Hugh Nibley.
Potter notes several reasons why the term “borders” should be correlated with mountains:
(1) The wilderness itself distinguished political borders.
(2) The mountains form the natural borders that separate the tribal lands of this region.
(3) The Hebrew word gebul means border. Gebul cognates with Arabic jabal (colloquial jebel) which means mountain.66 Hugh Nibley explains:
It mentions “the borders” twice in the fifth verse [1 Nephi 2:5]. That should be capitalized because that’s what the area has been called, the Jabal, which means “the Borders.” Joseph Smith didn’t know that. Neither did Oliver Cowdery, so they left it uncapitalized. But that area in which they went was the Jabal. Jabal is the range of mountains that separates one country from another. This had the name Jabel.67
(4) Another name given to the mountains in this part of Arabia is “Hegaz” or “Hijaz,” meaning “the Borders or Barriers.”68 Hijaz (“Borders”) is still today the place name used for these mountains, and its label stands as a testament to the purity of Joseph Smith’s translation.
(5) The Semitic language association of mountains to borders is illustrated in the language of the Old Testament when the children of Israel were commanded of the Lord: “go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it” (Exodus 19:12)
And when you read the Book of Mormon with this lens, knowing that “borders” are hills, foothills, and mountains, and “lines” are canyons and desert washes, all the passages make a lot more sense. It’s easy to imagine the Nephites’ enemies gathering in the mountainous regions that surround their homelands.