“The Whiteness of the Driven Snow”: An Evaluation of the Word "Snow" in the Book of Mormon
“The Whiteness of the Driven Snow”: An Evaluation of the Word "Snow" in the Book of Mormon
by Ted Dee Stoddard
Among the best-known accounts in the Book of Mormon is Nephi’s vision of the tree of life. In recording this vision, Nephi expands upon the comparable vision received earlier by his father, Lehi:
And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.
And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.
And he said unto me: What desirest thou?
And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof. (1 Nephi 11: 8–11; emphasis added)
In Nephi’s record of the vision he had of the tree of life, we find the only use of the word snow in the Book of Mormon. Clearly, whiteness of the driven snow in Nephi’s account of the vision reflects figurative, poetic language at its best.
However, some readers of the Book of Mormon go beyond figurative or poetic language in attempting to use “driven snow” as evidence that the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in the cold climate of the New York-Great Lakes region of the Eastern United States. That is, they reason, Nephi must have experienced blizzard-like conditions in the New World that provided him the frame of reference to understand the nature of snow and then to use “whiteness of the driven snow” in his account of the tree-of-life vision.
From another perspective, the issue was broached succinctly by John Pryor, who composed the following email in response to an offer to answer questions associated with Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon:1
I have a question regarding 1 Nephi 11:8. Do we know how Nephi would have experienced “the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow”?
It seems to be an odd expression, as I don’t see Nephi having traveled to a region at his young age where he could have experienced a snowstorm.2
What follows is an examination of the issues and outcomes associated with “driven snow” in the Book of Mormon along with conclusions that are based on that examination.
The Word Snow in Brass Plates Scriptures
We cannot name with absolute certainty all the Old Testament books that were included in the brass plates that Lehi brought from the Old World to the New World. Nephi does provide a hint to the effect that the brass plates contained more records than our Old Testament contains:
The book that thou beholdest is a record of the Jews, which contains the covenants of the Lord, which he hath made unto the house of Israel; and it also containeth many of the prophecies of the holy prophets; and it is a record like unto the engravings which are upon the plates of brass, save there are not so many. (1 Nephi 13:23; emphasis added)
We do know that the record of Isaiah was included on the brass plates, and we know that Jeremiah was an Old World contemporary of Lehi. So perhaps the writings of Jeremiah were on the brass plates, or perhaps Lehi possessed those writings when he left Jerusalem. With that knowledge in hand, we can conclude that at least nineteen uses of the word snow occurred in the brass plates if they contained all the books of the Old Testament up to and including Jeremiah:
Exodus 4:6—behold, his hand was leprous as snow
Numbers 12:10—became leprous, white as snow
2 Samuel 23:20—in the midst of a pit in time of snow
2 Kings 5:27—his presence a leper as white as snow
Job 6:16—the ice, and wherein the snow is hid
Job 9:30—If I wash myself with snow water, and
Job 24:19—and heat consume the snow waters
Job 37:6—for he saith to the snow, Be thou on
Job 38:22—entered into the treasures of the snow
Psalms 51:7—me, and I shall be whiter than snow
Psalms 68:14—in it, it was white as snow in Salmon
Psalms 147:16—He giveth snow like wool
Psalms 148:8—Fire, and hail; snow, and vapours;
Proverbs 25:13—As the cold of snow in the time of
Proverbs 16:1—As snow in summer, and as rain in
Proverbs 31:21—She is not afraid of the snow for her
Isaiah 1:18—scarlet, they shall be as white as snow
Isaiah 55:10—down, and the snow from heaven, and
Jeremiah 18:14—Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon3
All the above occurrences of the word snow are translated from the Hebrew word sheleg, which, according to James Strong, reflects the connotation of whiteness as an inherent element of the translation process.4
From the book of Helaman, we know of three other Old Testament writers whose writings were probably contained in the brass plates but not in our Old Testament—Zenos, Zenock, and Ezias (see Helaman 8:20). And perhaps the brass plates contained the writings of other Old Testament prophets—any of whom could have used the word “snow” or even “driven snow” in their writings.
Among the nineteen occurrences listed above, Isaiah 1:18 is especially intriguing, as its figurative, poetic language so nearly approximates the words of Nephi in 1 Nephi 11:8:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
“Driven snow” in 1 Nephi 11:8 seems to refer to blizzard-like conditions—perhaps reflecting the intensity of the whiteness that Nephi wanted to convey in his account.
In summary, Nephi clearly was exposed to the word “snow” by virtue of his reading the scriptures contained on the brass plates. And Nephi clearly reflected the correct connotation of Hebrew-language “whiteness” associated with the word “snow” as he engraved the reformed Egyptian phonetic symbols that Joseph Smith translated as “the whiteness of the driven snow.” In turn, Joseph’s translation undoubtedly reflects the literalness of Nephi’s words—perhaps in conjunction with Joseph’s environment, perceptions, and language.
“Driven snow” in this instance seems to be very descriptive figurative and poetic language associated with the Hebrew word sheleg that is used in Old Testament writings to depict whiteness. Thus, “driven snow” is not a climate or weather term as used in 1 Nephi 11:8 but instead is a figurative, poetic-language expression that should not be used in depicting the weather or climate of the New World where Nephi was living when he recorded his words about the visual of the tree of life.
As mentioned, the word snow occurs only once in the Book of Mormon. Knowing that information, careful readers of the Book of Mormon should observe that what is not included in the book about snow is just as important as what is included. That is, if the New World events of the Book of Mormon had taken place in the New York-Great Lakes region, Book of Mormon writers very likely would have made direct references to the snowy, cold weather of that region. That they did not is perhaps reasonable evidence that they did not live in an environment in which snowy, cold weather had to be dealt with for several months of the year.
On the other hand, snow is not a commonplace weather-related event in the Mesoamerica region of the New World. Had Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon rather than translated it and if he had believed that the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in the New York-Great Lakes region, he easily could have committed a fatal error by bringing into the account the snowy conditions with which he was familiar. That he did not is further evidence that he translated by the gift and power of God—rather than authored—the Book of Mormon.
Snow in Jerusalem
From the environment of the continental United States, readers of the Bible have a tendency to think that the entire Holy Land, including the locale of Jerusalem, basks in a Mediterranean climate that is devoid of snow. That perception is enhanced because the New Testament contains only three occurrences of the word snow, and all three use snow from a figurative, poetic-language perspective rather than from a weather or climate perspective.5
In a similar vein, readers of the Book of Mormon could be lulled into false perceptions about Nephi’s exposure to snow and snowstorms while he lived in Jerusalem. A logical question to ask here is the following: Did Nephi ever experience a snowstorm while he lived in Jerusalem?
In answering that question, professional climatologists could perhaps predict the probability of snowstorms having occurred during the years of Nephi’s life in Jerusalem. They might be willing to undertake such probability research because they are undoubtedly aware that Jerusalem rather routinely does experience snow on the ground in the city and on the hills surrounding the city. On infrequent occasions, the snowstorms are such that any imaginative writer could easily refer to the blizzard-like conditions with the figurative, poetic expression driven snow.
During the last weekend of January 2000, Jerusalem experienced just such a snowstorm. Leiah Elbaum, one of the eyewitnesses who wrote about this event, describes the Jerusalem snowstorm in very descriptive language. In reading excerpts from the account, we can draw no other conclusion than that Jerusalem does indeed have a climate that occasionally produces a snowstorm of such magnitude that those involved in it might use “driven snow” as a reflection of the blizzard-like conditions:
Fallen tree in the forest I know, smug people in northern Europe and north America are looking at this title [“Snow in Jerusalem”] and thinking how childish we are here in Israel. What a big fuss over a few days of snow, do I really need a webpage to show people what snow looks like? Well, no, plenty of people have seen snow, but tell me honestly, how many snow pictures have you seen from the Middle East? How many of you who have visited Israel have seen the noble pine forests and stone buildings of Jerusalem covered in a layer of white? That’s what I thought. That cliched postcard of the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall covered in snow doesn’t count.
The only place in Israel which gets snow pretty much every year is Mt Hermon, Israel’s highest peak and only ski site. Every few years other mountain regions of Israel, including Jerusalem, get a “real” snowstorm. I say real to distinguish from the occasional light dusting these areas might get for an hour or so on a cold night in an average winter. I’m talking about the sort of snowstorm that would do Washington, D.C. or Manchester proud, several inches of snow, roads blocked to traffic and all the fun of kids missing school. You get the idea.
The storm that hit Israel over the last weekend in January 2000 really surpassed itself. Not only did it dump between 30–50cm of snow around the Jerusalem area and other regions above 600m, but in lowly Modi’in, under 300m above sea level, we had a light dusting and snow even fell briefly, though without settling, in mild coastal areas such as Herzyliya. Be’er Sheva, the main city of the southern Negev desert region also received several centimetres of snow, and don’t ask how much fell on and around Mt Hermon. It was the biggest and most comprehensive snowstorm to hit Israel in 50 years. . . .
It’s a long story, but we ended up stuck in Jerusalem over the weekend of the big snow. We had seen some pictures on the news, but we weren’t quite prepared for the extent of the snow in Jerusalem. As soon as we reached the part of the highway which starts to climb into the Jerusalem foothills everything was white, and in the distance we could see the Judean mountains and forests covered in snow. Weird to see such familiar landscape looking so unfamiliar. I must have taken this road hundreds of times and yet in the snow and mist it took me a while to get my bearings.
The snow was much heavier than we expected, I think that it was the heaviest snowfall in Jerusalem in about 8 years. There was very little traffic on the roads, but many people, children and adults, were out making snowmen and having snowball fights in the streets. . . .
We ended up staying with friends who live near the Jerusalem forest, in a suburb called Har Nof (literally “Mountain View”) close to the main entrance to the city. . . .
In the last few hours of daylight before the Sabbath started we took a short walk in the patch of the forest nearest to the apartment. The fresh snowfalls in the forest came well over our knees. Sadly we saw many trees which had collapsed under the weight of the snow and the high winds of the night before. Fallen tall majestic pines lay scattered throughout the forest, snapped like matchsticks or pulled up from the roots.. The sturdy little olive, carob and almond trees however were unaffected by the heavy snow. . . .
Although Sunday is normally a workday here we decided to take the day off so that we could enjoy the beauty and take some photos (photography is forbidden on the Sabbath). Saturday night it got colder again and by Sunday morning all the water had re-frozen into ice. We braved the treacherous ice and hiked down into the valley and through the forest. All the meltwater streams from the day before were frozen solid, glittering in the sun. . . .
From the campus of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus we had stunning views of the city. In one direction we could see the snow covered city and the ramparts, domes and towers of the Old City laid out in front of us, and to the east we had a view of the outskirts of the city and the desert covered in snow, right next to areas of the desert where the snow had already melted. It was weird to have a view of the snow and the desert side by side, but very beautiful. Ah, Jerusalem in snow, certainly something to savour through the long, dry, hot summer.6
Did such a snowstorm occur in Jerusalem while Lehi and his family lived there? Did Nephi ever experience such an exhibition of winter’s fury while he lived in Jerusalem? Answers: Who knows? But the possibility of such a snowstorm must be accepted by anyone who is interested in the weather and climate of Jerusalem in connection with the Book of Mormon.
Elbaum’s almost-poetic description of the Jerusalem snowstorm of January 2000 evinces images of whiteness that mirror the inherent meaning of whiteness associated with the Hebrew word for snow, sheleg. In the Old World “land of Jerusalem” in which Nephi lived until his departure for the New World, the residents through the years undoubtedly experienced snowstorms of such a nature that “driven snow” seems very apropos from a personal-experience perspective as suitable figurative, poetic language for describing such snowstorms. And if Nephi himself did not experience such snowstorms, he could easily have learned about them as part of his Jerusalem education. Growing up in the “land of Jerusalem” while he was a “young age,” he must have experienced snowstorms of some kind simply as an outcome of the frequency of snow falling in the Holy Land in any given decade. At the very least, Nephi would have learned about snow and “driven-snow weather” from his parents or other elders in the Jerusalem area.
The obvious conclusion here is that Nephi, “at his young age,” did not have to experience New World snowstorms that enabled him to use the figurative, poetic language of 1 Nephi 11:8. He either learned about such weather conditions from others while he lived in the Old World territory of Jerusalem or he experienced such conditions himself while living in the “land of Jerusalem.” The picture below of the snow in Jerusalem in January of 2000 as taken by Leiah and Jason Elbaum illustrates the beauty of the figurative, poetic language of “driven snow” that residents must have experienced during this 2000 snowstorm in the Holy Land.7 This picture was taken on Sunday, the day following the snowstorm.
A careful examination of the background information associated with the expression “whiteness of the driven snow” results in several conclusions that are especially germane to any discussion about the New World setting for the Book of Mormon. The following list is not comprehensive but does lend support for Joseph Smith’s statement that he translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God”:
1. “Whiteness of the driven snow” is not a weather-related expression that can be applied to the climate of the New World setting for the Book of Mormon. Although Nephi penned the expression while living in the New World, he experienced the vision of the tree of life while living in the Old World.
2. When Lehi told his family about the tree-of-life vision he had experienced (see 1 Nephi 8), he very possibly used “whiteness of the driven snow” in describing the whiteness of the tree to his listeners. If so, such language was merely an extension of the environment and perceptions of Lehi while spending his life to that point in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Both Lehi and Nephi had comparable visions of the tree of life, and Nephi’s choice of words very likely was influenced by listening initially to his father’s account of the vision.
3. Snowstorms are not an uncommon occurrence in the Holy Land, and Nephi very likely experienced snowstorms while living in the “land of Jerusalem.” Such personal experiences would have given him the insights to use the figurative, poetic language of “whiteness of the driven snow” in helping him employ the ultimate nuance of the meaning of whiteness associated with the Hebrew word sheleg as he recorded a comparable expression in reformed Egyptian in 1 Nephi 11:8 on the Small Plates of Nephi.
4. Any Book of Mormon reader or scholar who attempts to use “driven snow” as geographic evidence for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon is guilty of shoddy, unscholarly research. Their approach to scholarship in such instances reflects either ignorance of the facts or intentional deception in distorting the facts.
5. No justification of any kind is legitimate in maintaining that the expression “driven snow” supports a hypothesis that the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place in either the New York-Great Lakes region or the territories of Mesoamerica.
6. When weather and climate are considered as external criteria for use in determining the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, what is not said about snow in the Book of Mormon is just as important, if not more important, than what is said. If the writers of the Book of Mormon had lived in the snowy territories of the New York-Great Lakes region, they probably would have used the word “snow” at some point in connection with the living conditions of the people.
7. Joseph Smith either translated literally the expression “driven snow” from the Small Plates of Nephi or created the expression as an outgrowth of his environment, perceptions, and language while living in upstate New York. The reality of Nephi’s very likely experiencing or learning about “driven-snow snowstorms” in the “land of Jerusalem” from whence he came lends support to Joseph’s contention that he indeed translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God as he claimed rather than merely authored the book himself from the figments of his imagination.
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1. See Joseph Lovell Allen and Brent Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008).
2. Personal email from John Pryor to Ted Stoddard, August 21, 2009; usage and punctuation modified.
3. See James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.), s.v. “snow.”
4. “Snow” in the references found in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is the word translated from the Hebrew word sheleg, which refers to snow, “probably from its whiteness.” See Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary Accompanying the Exhaustive Concordance,” 116.
5. See Matthew 28:3, “and his raiment white as snow”; Mark 9:3, “shining, exceeding white as snow”; and Revelation 1:14, “were white like wool, as white as snow.”