It seems, with all their knowledge of the arts of the compass, they did not know enough to rub two pieces of wood or stone against each other to get fire.
Tyler Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed (1841), 11.
There was no lack of wood for fire in the wilderness, no lack of stones to smite together, but simply to prove to them that they are the Lord's special pets, he saves them the trouble of making fire by performing the prodigious miracle of making raw meat sweet and palatable.
M. T. Lamb, The Golden Bible (1887), 61.
From Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert (1988), 63-67.
The Book of Mormon makes no mention of Lehi's people meeting any other party in their eight years of wandering. Casual meetings with stray families of Bedouins then as now would merit no special attention, but how were they able to avoid any important contacts for eight years and some 2500 miles of wandering?
One illuminating "aside" by Nephi explains everything. It was only after they reached the seashore, he says, that his people were able to make fires without danger, "for the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness; for he said: I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not; and I will also be your light in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:12—13). That tells all. "I remember well," writes Bertram Thomas, "taking part in a discussion upon the unhealthiness of campfires by night; we discontinued them forthwith in spite of the bitter cold." Major Cheesman's guide would not even let him light a tiny lamp in order to jot down star readings, and they never dared build a fire on the open plain where it "would attract the attention of a prowling raiding party over long distances and invite a night attack." Once in a while in a favorably sheltered depression "we dared to build a fire that could not be seen from a higher spot," writes Raswan. That is, fires are not absolutely out of the question, but rare and risky—not much fire, was Lehi's rule. And fires in the daytime are almost as risky as at night: Palgrave tells how his party were forced, "lest the smoke of our fire should give notice to some distant rover, to content ourselves with dry dates," instead of cooked food.
So of course no fire means raw food. And what is one to do if one's diet is meat? "Throughout the Desert," writes Burckhardt, "when a sheep or goat is killed, the persons present often eat the liver and kidney raw, adding to it a little salt. Some Arabs of Yemen are said to eat raw not only those parts, but likewise whole slices of flesh; thus resembling the Abyssinians and the Druses of Libanon [sic], who frequently indulge in raw meat, the latter to my own certain knowledge." Nilus, writing fourteen centuries earlier, tells how the Bedouin of the Tih live on the flesh of wild animals, failing which "they slaughter a camel, one of their beasts of burden, and nourish themselves like animals from the raw meat," or else scorch the flesh quickly in a small fire to soften it sufficiently not to have to gnaw it "like dogs." Only too well does this state of things match the grim economy of Lehi: "They did suffer much for the want of food" (1 Nephi 16:19); "we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:2).
All this bears out the conviction, supported both by modern experience and the evidence of archaeology, that Lehi was moving through a dangerous world. In ancient times Jewish merchants traveling through the desert fell so often into the hands of Bedouin raiders that by the beginning of the Christian era their word for "captor" normally meant simply "Arab"! Arab inscriptions from Lehi's time show that "in the peninsula . . . there was constant unrest," even as in modern times. Ordinary times in the desert are bad times when, in the words of one of the oldest Arab poets, "the honored man did not dare stay in the open country, and flight did not save the coward." "A lonely life it is," writes Philby, ". . . a life of constant fear; . . . hunger is the rule of the desert." Hunger, danger, loneliness, fear—Lehi's people knew them all.
Just what was the danger? "The Arab tribes are in a state of almost perpetual war against each other. . . . To surprise the enemy by a sudden attack, and to plunder a camp, are chief objects of both parties." "Raiding to them is the spice of life. . . . Might is right, and man ever walks in fear for his life and possessions." Lehi could ill afford to get embroiled in these perennial desert feuds, and yet he was everywhere a trespasser—the only way for him to stay out of trouble was to observe a rule which Thomas lays down for all travelers in the desert, even today: "An approaching party may be friend, but is always assumed to be foe." In the words of the ancient poet Zuhair, "He who travels should consider his friend an enemy." Nilus describes Bedouins on the march in the fifth century as possessed by the same jittery nervousness and unbearable tension that make the accounts of Cheesman, Philby, Thomas, Palgrave, Burckhardt, and the others such exciting reading: At the merest sign of an armed man, he says, his Bedu fled in alarm "as if seized by panic fear," and kept on fleeing, "for fear makes them exaggerate danger and causes them to imagine things far beyond reality, magnifying their dread in every instance."20 Just so their modern descendants "live always under the impression that an invasion is on the way, and every suspicious shadow or movement on the horizon calls their attention," according to the astute Baldensperger. This almost hysterical state of apprehension is actually a prime condition of survival in the desert: "A Bedawy never tells his name," says the writer just quoted, "nor his tribe, nor his business, nor the whereabouts of his people, even if he is in a friendly district. . . . They are and must be very cautious; . . . a word out of season may bring death and destruction." When the BanÄ« Hila-l migrate, it is "under the darkness of the night, under the obscuring veil of the rain," bypassing settled places in darkness and in silence. What can better describe such a state of things than the Book of Mormon expression, "a lonesome and a solemn people" (Jacob 7:26)? Doughty said he had never met a "merry" man among the Arabs—and there is no humor in the Book of Mormon. This mood is hardly accidental: if the Hebrew gets his brooding qualities from his desert ancestors, why not the Lamanite?
Sir Richard Burton, one of the few individuals who has ever known both the American Indian and Bedouin Arab at first hand, was greatly impressed by their exact resemblance to each other, a resemblance so striking that he must warn his reader against attributing it to a common origin, explaining the perfect paralleling of temperament and behavior as due to "the almost absolute independence" of their way of life. Yet many equally independent tribesmen in other parts of the world in no way resemble these two. One of the writer's best friends is a venerable but enterprising Lebanese, who has spent many years both among the Bedouins of the desert and the Indians of New Mexico as a peddler and trader; he avers that there is absolutely no difference between the two races so far as manners and customs are concerned. Arabs now living in Utah who have had some contact with Indians in the West, affirm the same thing with considerable emphasis. It is a nice problem for the sociologist, and the writer only mentions it because it has been brought to his attention innumerable times. There may be something to it.
Lehi's party, as we have noted, were like the BanÄ« Hila-l trespassers wherever they walked. Every inch of the desert is claimed by some tribe or other that will demand the life of a trespasser. "Marked boundaries do not exist, and it is natural that questions of ownership should be settled by fighting, which becomes an annual affair, while the looting of camels grows into a habit," according to Cheesman. Hence the need for extreme caution and strict avoidance on Lehi's part: "In most cases," says Jennings-Bramley, "Arabs do not think it prudent to allow the raiders near enough to decide whether they are friendly or not," and he describes a typical meeting in the desert: "Both we and they were doing our best not to be seen." Of course this sort of thing leads to comic situations, ignoble panic, and ridiculous anticlimaxes, but in a game of life and death one simply can't take chances, and Lehi was playing for the highest stakes. And so we are left with the picture of a wandering band sticking glumly to themselves for years on end, which, impossible as it seems to us, is a normal thing in the desert wastes, where the touchy, dangerous, unsocial Bedouin takes his stand as one of the most difficult, challenging, and fascinating creatures on earth.