Evidence #411 | July 3, 2023

Raw Meat

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Scripture Central


The Book of Mormon claims that Lehi’s family ate “raw meat” during at least part of their wilderness journey. This is consistent with known customs of the Bedouin living in the Arabian desert, particularly those living in Yemen where Lehi likely traveled on his journey eastward.

For at least part of their Arabian journey, Lehi and his family “did live upon raw meat in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:2). According to Nephi, “the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire.” But the Lord also promised, “I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not” (v. 12). These details may be shocking to modern readers, and some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries criticized them as absurd.1

Yet, as documented by Hugh Nibley, when explorers from Western countries first began to travel in Arabia and observe the customs of the Bedouin there, they learned first-hand just how true-to-life Nephi’s statements really were.2 Traveling parties often had to go long periods without lighting a fire in order to avoid the risk of being detected by marauding bands. “So of course no fire means raw food,” noted Nibley, even if one’s diet is meat.3

Artwork by Ludwig Hans Fischer.

As an example, Nibley quoted from the notes on Bedouin culture and lifestyle gathered by John L. Burckhardt during his travels in Arabia and elsewhere, which were published about the time the Book of Mormon was coming off the press.4 Burckhardt observed, “Some Arabs of Yemen are said to eat raw … whole slices of flesh,” and thus resembled other Middle Eastern cultures known to “frequently indulge in raw meat.”5 Significantly, Nephi’s reference to eating raw meat occurs as he is commenting on the portion of their journey between Nahom and Bountiful, which almost certainly involved crossing the deserts of Yemen.6

In the 1970s, Lynn and Hope Hilton traveled through Arabia trying to retrace Lehi’s steps. Their experiences shed further light on the practice of eating “raw meat,” as done by many Arabs still in modern times:

Nephi’s mention of eating “raw meat” (1 Ne. 17:2) intrigued—and repelled—us, so we were surprised to find ourselves eating it in Cairo when our friend Angie Chukri served us this local delicacy. It was not dripping with blood as we had imagined it, but spicy with garlic and other flavorings. It had been allowed to dry in the sun until it was dark brown on the outside. But it was pinkish-red on the inside and soft to chew, not tough like jerky. Garlic was the dominant flavor, of course, but it left a sweet taste that changed our impression of the hardship of eating raw meat. Later we saw raw meat for sale in Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian markets.7

Raw meat dish known as pastirma, which was encountered by the Hiltons. Image via Wikipedia. 

In addition to the potential danger of lighting a fire, the reality of desert travel is that the kindling, wood, or other materials needed to start and maintain a fire are often sparse or absent. Sun drying their meat while “raw” would have limited the necessity of transporting flammable materials, lighting a fire, and burning up needed fuel supplies. It also would have facilitated the preservation of meat on their long, hot journey. As Jeffrey R. Chadwick has explained:

Animal meat would have been cooked only directly after a hunting kill. Though the group may have had such a “barbeque” every several days, only enough meat would have been cooked to satisfy the family for a single meal. The remainder of the animal meat—and probably all of the meat from some of their hunts—would have been sun dried while raw, without cooking it. In other words, the “raw meat” that the party ate (17:2) would have been what we today call jerky. And it, too, was probably seasoned so that it was “sweet, that ye cook it not.” Jerky travels well, even in hot desert terrain, as does cheese and bread. So the party could have maintained an adequate food supply on their trail without having to “make much fire.”8

These details fit especially well with the travel between Nahom and Bountiful. As Warren Aston notes, “In well-traveled areas the making of fire would not have presented a problem, and perhaps the group needed to conserve fuel resources.” But the journey eastward would have taken them through less populated areas of Yemen and Oman. “They now ate their meat raw (see 17:2), probably spiced as many Arabs still do …. All this paints a clear picture of survival in a region away from other people.”9


Although the thought of living upon raw meat can be startling or even repulsive to modern Western readers, the custom is perfectly at home amongst the nomads of the Arabian desert, where opportunities to actually cook meat were rare—both due to the need to avoid drawing attention to one’s location and out of necessity to conserve fuel resources.

According to some accounts, raw meat was particularly common among the Arabs of Yemen, the region Lehi and his family would have been traveling when Nephi said they “did live upon raw meat in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 17:2). Uncooked, sundried meat was actually ideal for desert travel because it preserved well in the hot, dry climate, and could be seasoned for flavor, and in some reports had a “sweet” aftertaste. 

Image via Warren P. Aston, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015), 96.

Knowledge of such practices in Arabia was available as early as 1830—right as the Book of Mormon was coming off the press, but too late for Joseph Smith to have taken advantage of it. Nonetheless, even years later, this peculiar aspect of desert life was not widely available in Joseph Smith’s time, and some criticized the Book of Mormon for it. For instance, in 1841 Tyler Parsons scoffed, “But, however, they went on their journey eastward; their women ate raw meat. 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.”10

No one seems to have noticed the research confirming the authenticity of this practice until 120 years after the Book of Mormon’s publication. Even then, it took another quarter-century before additional details shed light on the advantages of this custom when traveling through the dry, hot, and barren regions of Yemen. The Book of Mormon’s accurate recording of this practice—during the very portion of their journey when it would have been most necessary—strongly suggests it was written by someone who had authentic, first-hand knowledge of the hardships of life in the Arabian desert.

Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 63–67.

Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—Part 2: The Journey,” Ensign (October 1976): 53–54.

Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “An Archeologist’s View,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 74–76.

1 Nephi 17:21 Nephi 17:12

1 Nephi 17:2

1 Nephi 17:12

  • 1 Tyler Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed (Boston: For the Author, 1841), 11; W. Sparry Simpson, Mormonism: Its History, Doctrines, and Practices (London: A.M. Pigott, 1853), 32.
  • 2 Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book; Provo, UT: FARMS, 1988), 63–64.
  • 3 Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 64.
  • 4 John Lewis Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys collected During His Travels in the East (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830). The preface was written on March 19, 1830, just days before the Book of Mormon came off the press (see p. v). This, of course, means that Joseph Smith couldn’t have drawn upon this particular publication, as the translation was completed months earlier in 1829.
  • 5  Burckhardt, Notes on the Bedouins, 138. Also quoted in Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 64.
  • 6 See Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Travel Eastward from Nahom,” Evidence #0184, April 19, 2021, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 7 Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—Part 2: The Journey,” Ensign (October 1976): 54.
  • 8 Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “An Archeologist’s View,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 74, capitalization silently altered.
  • 9 Warren P. Aston, “Across Arabia with Lehi and Sariah: ‘Truth Shall Spring out of the Earth’,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 12.
  • 10 Parsons, Mormon Fanaticism Exposed, 11.
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