Printed Journal Welcome to Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, the peer-reviewed journal of The Interpreter Foundation, a nonprofit, independent, educational organization focused on the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Non-print versions of our journal are available free of charge, with our goal to increase understanding of scripture. Our latest papers can be found below.

Interpreter's Mission Statement
Read the journal
Learn more about the Board
Find out how you can donate
Contact the Editorial Board

Amazon Smile
This week
in history

The Nature of the Original Language of the Book of Mormon

The video of the recent presentation by Royal Skousen at BYU on The Nature of the Original Language of the Book of Mormon is now available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/presentation-on-the-nature-of-the-original-language-of-the-book-of-mormon/.

“By Small Means”:
Rethinking the Liahona

Abstract: The Liahona’s faith-based functionality and miraculous appearance have often been viewed as incongruous with natural law. This paper attempts to reconcile the Liahona to scientific law by displaying similarities between its apparent mechanisms and ancient navigation instruments called astrolabes. It further suggests the Liahona may have been a wedding dowry Ishmael provided to Lehi’s family. The paper displays the integral connection Nephi had to the Liahona’s functionality and how this connection more clearly explains the lack of faith displayed by Nephi’s band during the journey than traditional conceptions of its faith-based functionality.


“Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant — that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this — they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings … [I]t is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law He was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law. It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author.”
— Brigham Young1

[Page 208]The Liahona, a navigational and revelatory instrument described in the Book of Mormon, is perhaps the greatest historical enigma of the ancient account. Its miraculous appearance and ostensibly spiritual operation have often been met with derision by individuals who are critical of the Book of Mormon’s historical plausibility. Indeed, as stated in the words of Hugh Nibley, “The Liahona has given rise to endless merriment and mockery among critics of the Book of Mormon; only the shining stones of the Jaredites can equal it as a laugh-getter.”2 Perhaps as a response to these criticisms, a surprising number of authors have attempted to correlate aspects of the Liahona’s functionality with known scientific principles.3 With minor variation, the majority of these previous apologetic works have suggested parallels between the Liahona’s navigatory features and geomagnetic navigation devices. While the present work also attempts to reconcile the Liahona’s functionality with historical navigation devices, it challenges traditional conceptions of both the Liahona’s magnetic and faith-based functionality. Textual and cultural evidence seem to suggest the Liahona may in fact have been a star-based navigation instrument, one similar in function to that of an astrolabe.

A Note on Magnetism

In the interest of establishing the need for the present work, a few critiques about the predominant theory of a geomagnetic Liahona are warranted. A chapter from the book Re-exploring the Book of Mormon, entitled “Lodestone and the Liahona,” written by Robert F. Smith provides a functional reference to the theory.4 Smith proposed that the navigational properties of the Liahona may have functioned on “geomagnetic principles,” while the revelatory aspects of the device were faith-based and wholly outside the realm of scientific discovery.5 Smith and other proponents of the theory have thus articulated what might be termed a “hybrid model” wherein the navigatory and revelatory features of the device operated on two disparate principles (i.e., magnetism and faith). While Smith’s work and others comparable to it have attempted to scientifically explain the Liahona’s navigatory features, the theory of a hybrid-model Liahona does little to address historical or scientific critiques of the device, as both its origin and revelatory properties still appear to have operated outside the realm of modern scientific discovery.

Furthermore, a device functioning on geomagnetic principles is a remarkably poor fit for the device and type of journey described in the text itself. Magnetic compasses are valuable only insofar as an individual has a map or comparable knowledge of a region to provide accurate [Page 209]positional information to couple with directional information derived from a magnetic compass.6 Whereas Nephi may have been able to receive some sort of cartographic information via revelation, the text seems to suggest such was not the case. When the company begins to follow the Liahona, they seem wholly dependent upon it for directional guidance.7 When the text does record communication from the Lord directly, the content of the message is almost exclusively chastisement or other information not directly related to navigation.8 Additionally, the Lord seems careful to direct questions regarding directional information back to the ball.9 It appears significant that the Lord communicates some types of information through revelatory means while leaving navigational communication to the Liahona. This pattern may suggest that the Liahona was less of a revelatory device and more of a navigational device than is traditionally assumed. Indeed, a careful reading of the text indicates the Liahona was used to communicate only information that can be derived from a naturally functioning astrolabe (e.g., the direction of travel, the location of water,) while other information (how to build a ship, moral chastening, where to find ore, etc.) were communicated via revelatory means.

Astrolabe Technology

To understand the textual parallels between the Liahona and astrolabe technology, one must first understand the basic functionality of ancient astrolabes. Stated simply, an astrolabe is an astronomical instrument capable of providing navigational information using the position of the sun or stars.10 Functioning as an analog computer, an astrolabe physically models the visible universe by storing information about star placement on the astrolabe itself.11 By manipulating this static model to match the conditions of the sky at a present location, information about physical location can be derived.

Although celestial navigation was common among ancient peoples long before the astrolabe,12 the invention and distribution of the astrolabe provided a far more structured approach than previous methods.13 In essence, the astrolabe standardized and solidified mathematical positional computation into a singular instrument, which later evolved into modern navigational instruments such as the quadrant and the sextant.14 Although no effort will be made in this work to articulate the exact mathematics that allows an individual to derive locational information from such instruments, it should be understood that astrolabes provide positional information only as the user is able to manipulate and read the device. If the Liahona functioned on similar principles, it would have been subject to [Page 210]the operation of Nephi and Lehi, rather than the party passively following instructions provided by the ball. Several nuances of the Book of Mormon text suggest this model to be a more accurate description of the Liahona than traditional perceptions.

Dating of Astrolabe Technology

The origins of astrolabe technology have been traditionally attributed to Greek astronomers in 200 bce –100 bce.15 However, as no functional astrolabes or expositions on true astrolabe technology have survived from this period, scholars have long recognized that the inference is tenuous and largely conjectural.16 This traditional dating is largely predicated on what appears to be the emergence of stereographic projection during this time period, a mathematical mapping function whereby a sphere (such as the night sky) is mapped onto a two-dimensional plane.17 This mathematical innovation is necessary for the production of the most common archaeological form of astrolabe, the planispheric astrolabe, a flat instrument utilized in Europe and the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. As such, the treatises of Hipparchus of Nicaea (180 bce – 125 bce), which articulate the concept of stereographic projection, have often been used as the terminus post quem for the dating of astrolabe technology. However, in the words of Robert T. Gunther, the founder of the Museum of Science at Oxford, which currently houses the world’s largest collection of astrolabes, there are several “trains of evidence which point to a far earlier date for the invention.”18 Gunther himself suggests that stereographic projection may instead have had its origins in the constellation mapping performed by Eudoxus of Cnidus (409 bce – 356 bce).19

Figure 1. Planispheric Astrolabe. Image used under Create Commons License; https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Astrolabe_planisf%C3%A9rique_closeup800x600x300.jpg. Accessed September 30, 2018.

While the planispheric astrolabe is the most common form of astrolabe from an archeological perspective, there is considerable question as to whether it is the earliest.20 Ancient peoples from many geographic regions have displayed an ability to use star motion and mathematical computation for navigational purposes long before the [Page 211]invention of stereographic projection.21 Whereas Greek and Arabic planispheric astrolabes model the hemispherical night sky on a two-dimensional plane, the historical record also attests to devices that used “azimuthal equidistant mapping,” or the process of mapping the night sky onto a spherical object.22 Because these spherical or “melon shaped” astrolabes (to which the Liahona would be most similar)23 do not require stereographic projection, they are mathematically less complex than their planispheric counterparts, and devices functioning on similar principles may have pre-dated both Eudoxus and Hipparchus.24 This would suggest that the earliest functioning astrolabes were most likely of the spherical variety, and the true genesis of astrolabe technology may then be much earlier than conservative estimates dictate. Indeed, the most recent archaeological evidence suggests that primitive astrolabe technology may date at least to the Babylonians, circa 650 bce, and possibly several thousands of years earlier.25 As such, it is entirely possible that a spherical device functioning on astrolabic principles may have existed at the time of Lehi.

Origin of the Liahona

Before comparing the functionality of the Liahona and ancient astrolabes, a discussion of the textual episode of the Liahona’s appearance is warranted. After being commanded to leave Jerusalem, Lehi appears to have traveled the entire first portion of his journey unaided. His previous knowledge of the region was sufficient to allow his family to travel a significant distance from civilization while securing food, water, shelter, and other essential amenities for their journey.26 Mid-expedition, the Lord felt the need to provide an additional means of navigation to supplement whatever resources Lehi had previously used to navigate the Judean wilderness. But where did such an instrument come from? What forces deposited such a valuable device outside the tent of a traveler in the middle of the Judean wilderness precisely as he was to begin the lengthier and more dangerous portion of his journey?

While the appearance of the Liahona has received no scholarly treatment to my knowledge, anecdotal origin theories typically ascribe the placement of the Liahona at Lehi’s tent door to some form of heavenly messenger. Some individuals have gone as far as to suggest the instrument was both forged and placed at the tent door by God himself. These suggestions appear to stem primarily from a possibly misinterpreted portion of scripture: “the ball, or compass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord (2 Nephi 5:12, emphasis added). To grasp the meaning of this passage it is imperative to note other scriptural uses of the phrase, “hand of the Lord.”27 Virtually every other use of the [Page 212]expression in the Book of Mormon describes a situation, circumstance, or event orchestrated by God rather than describing something physically performed by God himself.28 Nephi uses an almost identical expression in an earlier portion of his record to describe the “much fruit” and “wild honey” found in the land Bountiful, two objects not created by God directly but instead naturally occurring materials (1 Nephi 17:5). EzraTaft Benson, the 13th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, used the phrase in a modern context to describe the Book of Mormon itself, an object assumed to have been smelted, engraved, and buried by human hands. Referencing its miraculous preservation, President Benson stated, “[The Book of Mormon] was prepared by the hand of the Lord over a period of more than a thousand years, then hidden up by Him so that it would be preserved in its purity for our generation.”29 With such evidence that both ancient and modern prophets have used this phrase almost exclusively as a figurative expression, it seems unwise to interpret the expression in this context in a literal fashion. Consequently, the most reasonable explanation for the creation of the Liahona and for its placement at Lehi’s tent door is that both were the result of human volition.

Important to this argument is the fact that, by his own admission, Nephi’s account is both incomplete and spiritually oriented (1 Nephi 6:2– 6; 19:2–7). His record is admittedly devoid of detail concerning specifics recorded in his other account, descriptions not deemed spiritually noteworthy, or situations not applicable to the reader. Nephi emphasizes that his record is to be a collection of spiritual happenings, designed and written to “show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). This at least explains, in part, the dearth of information surrounding the Liahona’s functionality and appearance. Rather than cloud his message by detailing the Liahona’s mechanisms in too much specificity, Nephi appears to focus his writing on convincing the reader that God was integrally involved in leading his family to the Promised Land. Interestingly, Nephi never states or speculates how the Liahona appeared. Not until 2 Nephi 5:12 does Nephi even suggest that it was “prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord.” When the Liahona first appears in the narrative, Nephi makes no claim that the creation, appearance, or function of the device was a display of God’s power, but instead seems to emphasize the timing of the Liahona’s appearance as the true miracle.30

The most logical suggestion for the origin of the Liahona, then, is that its appearance was in some way tied to the figure of Ishmael, a character [Page 213]who enters the narrative almost simultaneously with the Liahona. The text also provides a plausible motive for Ishmael’s giving the device to Lehi, as the verses preceding the first reference to the Liahona mention one of the most important customs of ancient Jews, the marriage covenant. No detailed examination of Jewish marriage customs will be attempted here, but even cursory understanding of Jewish dowry ritual provides a logical and natural explanation for the appearance of the Liahona. In 1 Nephi 16:7, Nephi details the marriage of his brothers and himself to the recently arrived daughters of Ishmael. Although the account is again vague, it can be reasonably assumed that the party may have attempted to observe the marriage customs of the day. The tradition that the father of the bride gives a dowry to the groom or his father was a common practice among ancient Jews.31 Because of the antiquity of the record, little information is available concerning the details of the practice in the day of Lehi. However, this practice was performed by at least some Jews who predated Lehi, as specified in the marriage accounts contained in Genesis 24:59–61; 29:24, 29; Judges 1:15; and 1 Kings 9:16.32

As several of Ishmael’s daughters married several of Lehi’s sons, it is plausible that Ishmael would have given a collective dowry to Lehi, the father of the grooms, to distribute among the newly formed households. The giving of a dowry in the desert, away from society, would have severely limited the form in which the dowry could be given. Monetary compensation or a dowry of land was certainly not an option. Neither would food be a viable dowry, as food obtained by the party appears to have been communal.33 Instead, an object that provided value in desert travel would seem a more appropriate option. An astrolabe is precisely such an instrument. As Ishmael appears to have been a trader or merchant,34 it is certainly possible he had access to such a device. The appearance of the Liahona almost immediately following the arrival of Ishmael, and then directly following the marriage of Ishmael’s children, provides at least reasonable textual evidence that the Liahona may have been part of or the entirety of a dowry Ishmael gave to Lehi. In such a case, Lehi’s “great astonishment” (1 Nephi 16:10) at finding the ball in front of his tent would be astonishment that Ishmael adhered to Jewish customs that Lehi determined impractical or impossible given their current circumstances.

[Page 214]Comparative Functionality: Liahona and Astrolabes

The first parallels between a spherical astrolabe and the Liahona are the similarities in appearance and composition. Nephi describes the Liahona as “a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10, emphasis added). The description of a spherical astrolabe now housed in the Oxford Museum of the History of Science bears striking similarities: “it is a finely worked decorative object. The brass globe is made of two hemispheres that neatly screw together … The enclosing rete, which must rotate smoothly on the perfectly round sphere, is also of brass.35 The parallels in description are remarkable, as the fine brass workmanship and the spherical shape of the astrolabe perfectly correlate to Nephi’s description. Nephi also describes the ball as having two “spindles” which were “within the ball.” While this description is often believed to denote pointers similar to those of a magnetic compass, it might also accurately describe the dually rotating retia — the net or cage-like portions of the astrolabe that rotate on a pivot or axle to represent the position of constellations in the night sky. These retia are literally within the ball, as they form the housing of the device, and each rotates in a manner that may accurately be described as a spindle. Additionally, it is not uncommon for portions of these retia to be described as “pointers,” in reference to their function of pinpointing important information on the underlying globe that could be utilized to calculate the time of day at different latitudes.36 An additional parallel between Nephi’s description of the Liahona and a spherical astrolabe is where upon the ball Nephi says writing occurs: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball … And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read …” (1 Nephi 16:28–29, emphasis added). Nephi states that the writing appeared “upon them [the spindles/pointers],” which is a curious place if the rest of the spherical instrument functioned as a casing for magnetic directional pointers. However, as can be seen in [Page 215]Figure 2, writing on spherical astrolabes is prominently placed on the retia or spindles of the device.

Figure 2. Astrolabe, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.. Inventory number 49687 from Syria, 1480/1 (A.H. 885). Image used under Create Commons License; https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spherical astrolabe 2.jpg. Accessed September 30, 2018.

More impressive than appearance are the numerous similarities of function the astrolabe and Liahona share. One of the principal uses of the astrolabe is to triangulate direction. The Liahona too appears to have allowed Nephi to determine the direction the party was traveling (1 Nephi 16:13). After the Liahona appears, Nephi can accurately describe the direction of travel to the intercardinal direction “south-southeast,” whereas prior to the Liahona’s appearance, his descriptions of direction are definitively vague (see 1 Nephi 2:4–5). If the Liahona merely pointed toward the next destination, as has been traditionally assumed, it would be odd for the device to also convey directional information based on the cardinal directions. Astrolabes, however, allow location to be calculated in latitude and longitude using the position of the sun, constellations, or individual stars. Particularly useful in desert travel, these computations allow precise locational and directional calculation without relying upon landmarks, which are often nonexistent in desert terrain. It also allowed travelers to record the exact locations of water sources, infinitely increasing their ability to traverse the desert by allowing them to find the same point on a subsequent journey. Gazetteers including the location of these water sources were often stored on the astrolabe itself or on analog disks that could be interchanged dependent on region.37 These disks, created from the knowledge of traders, nomads, or other explorers familiar with the area, contained star charts, details about the area, and even the coordinates for water sources located nearby. This information would allow someone like Lehi to locate water in a region he had never before traveled. Note Nephi’s words: “And we did follow the directions of the ball, which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:16, emphasis added). The most fertile places in the desert are locations where the presence of water allows for the growth of plant life. Traders – possibly Ishmael himself – who had followed the same route Lehi took across the peninsula would have discovered and recorded the location of these oases on the Liahona prior to Lehi’s journey. Because astrolabes could be used to record (and subsequently rediscover) an almost limitless amount of regional information, it should be noted that a Liahona functioning on astrolabic principles is equally compatible with any proposed reconstruction of Lehi’s route of travel from Jerusalem to Bountiful.38

One of the greatest challenges in desert travel, and one shared by Lehi’s caravan, is locating sources of food for the journey. As game in the desert primarily congregate near water, being able to locate oases also [Page 216]would allow a party to locate possible hunting grounds to supplement their stores of food. Nephi and Lehi’s use of the Liahona to locate food thus provides another valuable correlation between the Liahona and an astrolabe. The textual incident that illustrates this connection can be found in 1 Nephi 16:18–32. After Nephi breaks his bow and is unable to find food for several days (1 Nephi 16:18–19), Nephi constructs another bow but is unsure where to go to find game to hunt. His initial faith- based response is to inquire of his father, who in turn inquires of the Lord where to go to find food (1 Nephi 16:23–24). Rather than providing the information directly, the Lord curiously responds by telling Lehi to look upon the ball for information.39 Lehi does so, and as he looks upon the ball he discovers writing that provides Nephi with directions to a place where he could obtain food.40 It is clear from the text that until this time (several weeks, if not months from Nephi’s description),41 previous writing had been found on the ball but had caused no particular stir.

Instead, in this episode “new writing” is discovered, the content of which made it worth mentioning (1 Nephi 16:29). Because a word for word description of the writing is not provided, some misconceptions regarding the information conveyed have arisen. To correctly understand the content of the message contained on the ball, it is important to remember the question that had been asked and was subsequently answered by the writing. After reading the inscription, the text states that Nephi “did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball. And it came to pass that [he] did slay wild beasts, insomuch that [he] did obtain food for [their] families” (1 Nephi 16:30–31, emphasis added). The ball appears to have told Nephi where a water source was located and where, inherently, he could find game to hunt. If such is the case, some explanation must be given for why the writing on the ball caused Lehi to “quake and fear exceedingly” (1 Nephi 16:27).

As water generally flows to the lowest topographical point in any given region, directions provided by the ball specifying that a water source would be found at the top of a mountain would have seemed counterintuitive to Lehi and his party. This irregularity may have been the cause of Lehi’s consternation because if water was not indeed located at the place specified by the ball, the party was likely to starve. The “appearance” of new writing on the ball is not incongruent with the functionality of an astrolabe. As calculations are made at different times of day or night, the rete of the astrolabe is turned to accurately mirror the visible position of the referential celestial body. As the rete is manipulated, different portions of the underlying globe or disks become [Page 217]visible, possibly revealing previously unseen writing.42 Subsequently, as Nephi or Lehi calculated the party’s location at different times of the day, month, or year, different portions of the disks could be read, and the writing would be changed “from time to time,” a very literal reading of Nephi’s phrase (1 Nephi 16:29). This interpretation does not necessarily preclude traditional understandings that the writing on the Liahona may have contained spiritual guidance. Indeed, ancient astrolabes have a long history of spiritual application:

Astrolabes had blended uses, from scientific to what we would today consider spiritual. They have a strong history in Islam as a tool to find both the direction of prayer toward Mecca — known as the Qibla — as well as the five times of prayer required throughout the day, as stated in the Quran. They later became popular amongst Europeans during the Middle Ages as an astrological tool …43

In addition to being used for astrological divination, writing on astrolabes often contained religious maxims, scriptural verses, or other spiritually pertinent information along with geographical information.44 These common spiritual uses provide at least some corroboration with Nephi’s claim that the Liahona provided “understanding concerning the ways of the Lord.” Additionally, it is possible the “understanding” Nephi derived from the writing was a more appreciative awareness that the Lord often utilizes ordinary means to answer the prayers of his children. Nephi and Lehi, who appear to have relied tremendously on revelation to direct their lives, may have gained a more profound understanding of this “way of the Lord,” as when they expected an answer to come via a direct revelatory experience, their attention was directed back to a physical device.

Internal Workings of the Liahona

Opponents may refute this theory, citing 1 Nephi 16:28 as evidence of the miraculous nature of the Liahona: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.” This verse is often associated and correlated with Alma 37:40: “And [the Liahona] did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore, they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day.” What [Page 218]readers often fail to realize is that these two accounts do not actually agree about many aspects of the Liahona’s functionality.

There are three distinct differences between the account of the Liahona as provided by Nephi and the account provided by Alma: (1) the workmanship of the device, (2) the functionality of the device, and (3) the name of the device.45 In attempting to reconcile the differences between the two accounts it is important to note that Alma’s account was written nearly 500 years after Nephi and his family left Jerusalem. If the Book of Mormon is treated as a cultural or historical text, Nephi’s account should be given primacy in any attempt to reconstruct the Liahona’s functionality.

When Nephi first encounters the Liahona he states that he ” … beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass” (1 Nephi 16:10). It seems that while Nephi was impressed with the quality of the workmanship of the Liahona, its physical appearance was not evidence of its miraculous nature. Consider for instance, that Nephi uses a nearly identical phrase to describe his own labors building a ship: ” … and we did work timbers of curious workmanship … And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship … my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (1 Nephi 18:1, 4, emphasis added). Furthermore, Nephi seems to be more impressed with the workmanship of Laban’s sword than with the workmanship of the Liahona.46 While Nephi certainly recognizes the excellent quality of the Liahona and may not be able to replicate it despite his own considerable metallurgical skills,47 he does not appear to view the workmanship of the object itself as miraculous. Indeed, the most applicable definition of “curious” from the 1828 Webster dictionary is “wrought with care and art; elegant; neat; finished.” Alma, on the other hand, is far more impressed by its appearance: “And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship.”48 This subtle, yet significant change in description about the Liahona’s workmanship is highly indicative of a shift in cultural understanding about the Liahona, its origins, and its functionality.

This cultural shift regarding the Liahona is further apparent when comparing Nephi and Alma’s description of the Liahona’s functionality. Nephi’s descriptions of how the Liahona functioned found in 1 Nephi 16:28 must be viewed in the context of Nephi’s journey up to that point. If Nephi and his family had been following the Liahona’s direction for weeks without questioning, it seems odd they didn’t discover the Liahona functioned according to faith, diligence, and [Page 219]heed to the commandments of God until Nephi broke his bow. In fact, this conception can be derived only from Nephi’s words when viewed in conjunction with the passage in Alma. Nephi states that the ball functioned according to the faith, heed, and diligence they gave unto the pointers of the ball, not the commandments of the Lord.49 This is fundamentally different from Alma’s claim that the Liahona functioned or failed based on their “… faith in God” (Alma 37:40, emphasis added). Nephi never states that the ball ceased to work if they did not have faith in God. In fact, in Nephi’s account the party’s faith is exclusively tied to the conditions of the journey, not whether the ball provided them directions. This can be seen in the words of Nephi:

And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish. (1 Nephi 16:39, emphasis added)

Here, Nephi equates disobedience with an inability to locate food, not with a Liahona that ceased to function. This mentality is mirrored when the party is on the ship crossing the sea, and Nephi’s brothers begin to grow careless. Nephi’s admonishment to them is that a storm may arise because of their revelry, not that the Liahona will cease to function (1 Nephi 18:10).

If the Liahona functioned based on the attention and care that Nephi’s party gave to the ball itself, one might still ask why Nephi describes the process using the words “faith, heed, and diligence.” Joseph Smith, the translator of the Book of Mormon, said, “[w]e understand that when a man works by faith he works by mental exertion … ” Mathematical computations are an integral aspect of astrolabe navigation, matching the “mental exertion” Joseph Smith described. “Diligence” is defined in the 1828 Webster dictionary as: “Steady application in business of any kind; constant effort to accomplish what is undertaken; exertion of body or mind without unnecessary delay or sloth.” In the same dictionary, “heed” is defined as: “To mind; to regard with care; to take notice of; to attend to; to observe.” Attention paid to calculations, the exertion of body and mind to follow the directions provided, and the trust placed in the accuracy of the directions of the ball certainly qualify as exercising faith, heed, and diligence.

If the Liahona was indeed a gift from Ishmael, Ishmael would have been the primary navigator for the party until his death. Nephi and Lehi would have had to learn from Ishmael how to perform the calculations [Page 220]necessary to find the next water source in the wilderness, and then the party had to trust that the calculations were correct. It is interesting that Nephi’s first true description of the ball’s mechanisms comes a short time before the death of Ishmael. It is quite likely Ishmael became seriously ill prior to his death, a fact that may have severely limited his ability to manipulate the device, thus necessitating Lehi and Nephi’s assistance. These conditions would not only explain Nephi’s belated discussion of the device’s functionality, but also explain the consternation the party experienced at following the directions of the ball, which seems to occur only after Ishmael’s death. Indeed, as the narrative progresses, the party seems to have more difficulty following the directions of the ball, not less, despite their continued success. While Nephi appears to be an integral part of the company throughout the narrative, he does not appear to take primary responsibility of navigating the party until after the death of Ishmael. This is shown in the text as complaints and accusations about Nephi’s leading the company occur a long while after the appearance of the Liahona and only after Ishmael has been buried (1 Nephi 17:20). This view is also strongly supported by the interesting complaint of Ishmael’s family at his death:

And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father … saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger. (1 Nephi 16:35, emphasis added.)

This complaint is unique in several aspects. First, with Ishmael dead, odds of survival for the party actually increased, as there would be more food and water for the company with one fewer dependent. Second, the caravan could then move faster without an aged and possibly ill member to worry about. Instead, it appears that Ishmael’s daughters are convinced the death of their father would bring about their deaths as well. It would seem that they, along with other members of the party, were skeptical that Nephi and Lehi could correctly utilize the Liahona to guide them to their destination. This fear would be wholly unfounded if the Liahona worked in the strictly faith-based manner assumed by most Book of Mormon readers. When the party ceased to trust Nephi’s calculations and did not follow the directions of the ball (in other words, exercising their faith) they were “afflicted with hunger and thirst,” substantive evidence of difficulty locating a water source (Alma 37:42). Additionally, they “did not progress in their journey … or did not travel [Page 221]in a direct course” — also suggestive of a difficulty in locating the next oasis to make their base camp — and were instead “driven back…” (presumably to the last known water source) “and therefore they were smitten with famine and sore afflictions, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty” (Mosiah 1:17). Each of these observations correspond well with the assertion of Chadwick “that the great majority of the ‘eight years in the wilderness’ is to be counted after Nahom.” The relative inexperience of Nephi and Lehi in utilizing the Liahona to direct their journey is a plausible explanation for both the inflated length of time spent in the wilderness after Nahom and the navigatory difficulties the party appears to have experienced only after the death of Ishmael.

Further evidence that Nephi may have used mathematical computations in the working of the Liahona is found in his brothers’ accusations:

And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: “Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren…behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness. (1 Nephi 16:37–38, emphasis added)

First, Nephi’s brothers seem to suggest that Nephi has only recently “taken it upon him[self]” to become some sort of leader on the journey. The “cunning arts” of which Nephi is accused are a natural description of astrolabic navigation techniques by anyone unfamiliar with trigonometric computation. Later, after following the Liahona for eight years, Laman and Lemuel are still plagued with doubts, and in their minds it is easy to confuse Nephi’s leadership in the desert with God’s workings of the Liahona. This confusion would be borderline psychotic if the Liahona in fact successfully and repeatedly functioned in a clearly spiritual way. It is far easier to explain the actions and attitudes of Laman and Lemuel if Nephi was indeed utilizing a naturally functioning navigation device to lead the party.

Nephi’s Manipulation of the Liahona

Perhaps the most convincing episode that provides evidence that the functionality of the Liahona was directly tied to Nephi’s manipulation occurs when the Liahona is used in the journey across the sea. One of the most useful functions of an astrolabe is that the techniques used for calculating position on land are also applicable to sea travel; [Page 222]indeed, variations of the astrolabe have been used in sea navigation for thousands of years. After using the Liahona for nearly a decade (1 Nephi 17:4), before setting out into the ocean for the final portion of their journey, the Lord tells Nephi: “After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord … did bring you out of the land of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 17:14, emphasis added). This statement suggests that the guidance of the Liahona after eight years was still not viewed as conclusive evidence that God was directing their path. Instead, crossing the sea to an uncharted land would provide the evidence necessary to prove that God was the one leading the party. This is consistent with the fact that all previous cartographical information contained on the Liahona would have been recorded on the device by its previous owners. As such, Nephi’s using the device to navigate to an unrecorded location would be a powerful display of God’s involvement. Perhaps the requisite navigational information for the journey was an example of the “great things” the Lord showed Nephi (1 Nephi 18:3).

After traveling on the water for an unspecified period, a portion of Nephi’s party began to revel in the success of their journey. Nephi’s brothers and other members of the band began to “dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness” (1 Nephi 18:9). The most offensive part of their festivities occurs when they commit the unthinkable act of “forget[ting] by what power they had been brought thither” (1 Nephi 18:9). Even after following the Liahona for eight years, possibly because of the natural means by which the Liahona functioned, it was easy for members of the party to forget that God was leading them. It is also interesting to note that although at this moment the party had ceased to exercise the traditional definition of “faith, heed, and diligence,” Nephi gives no indication that the Liahona had ceased to function. In fact, there is never a specific account in Nephi’s narrative to this point that details an instance of the Liahona’s ceasing to operate. Nephi warns his brothers that they need to repent of their iniquity, but his warning is not that the Liahona will cease to function. Instead, he is worried that a storm may arise and sink the ship (1 Nephi 18:10). Laman and Lemuel’s response to Nephi’s concern is telling: “We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us” (1 Nephi 18:10). Again, the focus of their complaint is that Nephi is somehow in charge of the expedition, and in retaliation they bind Nephi. Nephi then records: “The Lord did suffer it that he might show forth his power” (1 Nephi 18:11). Nephi viewed his bondage as an episode the Lord allowed to demonstrate more effectively that indeed God, not Nephi, was leading the party. Nephi stated that as soon as he had been bound, “the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, [Page 223]did cease to work” (1 Nephi 18:12). As Nephi was the one manipulating the device, this statement is indeed true but not in the sense that it appeared broken or that it ceased to function entirely. This is demonstrated by the fact that it took Nephi’s brothers four days before they realized that something was wrong: “And after we had been driven back upon the waters for the space of four days, my brethren began to see that the judgments of God were upon them” (1 Nephi 18:15, emphasis added). There is at least some sense that the Liahona ceased to function because the storm would have obscured the party’s view of the sun and the stars, thus preventing Nephi’s brothers from using the device to navigate. Shortly after Nephi is released from his bondage, he states: “Behold, I took the compass, and it did work whither I desired it” (1 Nephi 18:21, emphasis added). The usually deferential Nephi is careful to detail that he was the one working the compass after his release. The compass worked only for him, and it worked even before Nephi prayed to the Lord for the storm to cease. Nephi then states: “I Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22, emphasis added). Nephi appears to have had a much more integral role in manipulating the compass than a casual reading of the text would suggest.

Conclusion

After arriving in the promised land, Lehi described Nephi’s role in the journey thus: “[He] hath been an instrument in the hands of God, in bringing us forth into the land of promise; for were it not for him, we must have perished with hunger in the wilderness” (2 Nephi 1:24, emphasis added). It is difficult to shake the impression that in this verse Lehi is making a deliberate comparison between Nephi and the Liahona itself. Just as the Liahona was “an instrument” in the hands of Nephi to guide the party through the wilderness, so too was Nephi an “instrument in the hands of God,” used as a tool to guide the party to the promised land. Nephi’s integral role in the use of the Liahona clearly suggests similarities in use and function to astrolabes used by astronomers throughout the ancient Near East. This new understanding of the Liahona provides greater meaning to the words of Nephi, “and thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).


[Page 224]
1. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1871), 13: 140, 306.
2. Hugh Nibley, “The Liahona’s Cousins,” The Improvement Era (February 1961): 88.
3. For examples of these attempts see George Q. Cannon, The Life of Nephi The Son of Lehi (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883), 38; B.H. Roberts, A New Witness for God (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1895), 550–5 2; Robert F. Smith, “Lodestone and the Liahona,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992), http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1110&index=12; Robert L. Bunker, “The Design of the Liahona and the Purpose of the Second Spindle,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, vol. 2 (1994): 1–11; Alan C. Miner, The Liahona: Miracles by Small Means (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort Inc., 2013).
4. Smith, “Lodestone and the Liahona.”
5. Ibid.
[Page 225]6. See Bob Burns and Mike Burns, Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2015).
7. “And we did follow the directions of the ball … ” 1 Nephi 16:16.
8. “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came unto my father; and he was truly chastened.” 1 Nephi 16:25–26. “And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly” 1 Nephi 16:39. Consider also the directions Nephi receives from the Lord on building a ship found in 1 Nephi 17:7–10. Nephi frequently records experiences of direct communication with the Lord, but never claims to have received any sort of directional guidance from those interactions.
9. Consider that when Lehi prays for direction on where Nephi should go to find food, the Lord directs Lehi’s attention back to the information provided by the ball, rather than providing the direction in the same revelatory experience. See 1 Nephi 16:26, 30.
10. Admittedly, this is a simplified description of an astrolabe’s functionality. The mathematic calculations used in conjunction with astrolabes are highly complex and only tangentially provide navigation information by allowing the user to calculate current latitude and longitude based on the position of fixed celestial bodies. Using this positional information, one could then infer position relative to the latitude and longitude of known cities, oases, etc. Hence, an astrolabe’s greatest navigational use is to calculate the positional information of specific locations and store that information for a later return. Without this, or comparable technology, consistent desert travel would be nearly impossible for caravans such as Nephi’s as they would be unable to find small, isolated oases which lack discernable landmarks demarcating them from the surrounding desert. For a simple discussion of the astrolabe’s basic functionality see Laura Poppick, “The Story of the Astrolabe, the Original Smartphone,” Smithsonian Magazine (website), January 31, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/astrolabe-original-smartphone-180961981/.
11. Bruce Watson, “The Astrolabe: Astronomy’s First Hot App,” Sky and Telescope 131, no. 2 (2016): 24–27.
[Page 226]12. “Regular trade was carried on between the island of Crete and Egypt, a distance of approximately 300 miles (500 km), more than 25 centuries before the Christian era … The details of how these voyagers found their way are not known, but the use of the Sun and stars as guides is mentioned in many sources, including the works of Homer and Herodotus, the Bible, and the Norse sagas.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Navigation,” accessed September 19, 2018, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/407011/navigation.
13. Primitive star navigation is typically understood to have provided only rudimentary, or “spatial,” navigation information. That is to say, primitive star navigation primarily yielded directional, not positional, information. As such the standardized calculations and methods surrounding astrolabe technology provided for the ancients, not only (but also)?? a larger wealth of available knowledge, but also a tool by which navigational information became positional and standardized.
14. Watson, “The Astrolabe,” 24.
15. Robert T. Gunther, The Astrolabes of the World, vol. 1, The Eastern Astrolabes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), 53.
16. Ibid.
17. “It is customary to refer to the Planispheric Astrolabe … as the invention of the great Alexandrian savant, Hipparchus of Bithynia, born c. 180, died c. 125 B.C. It is said that he was the first man to apply a theory of stereographic projection to the drawing of the celestial sphere upon the plane of the equator. The planispheric astrolabe is impossible without this projection, so that if Hipparchus had really been the first exponent of this projection, there could have been no astrolabe before his day.” Gunther, The Astrolabes of the World, 53.
18. Gunther, The Astrolabes of the World, 53–54.
19. Ibid.
20. E.S. Kennedy, P. Kunitzsch and R. P. Lorch, trans. and ed., The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe in Arabic Astronomy (Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart, 1999), 5.
21. See Michael Halpern, “Sidereal Compasses: A Case for Carolinian-Arab Links,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 95, no. 4 [Page 227](1986): 441–59; Ora Negbi, “Early Phoenician Presence in the Mediterranean Islands: A Reappraisal,” American Journal of Archaeology 96, no. 4 (1992): 599–615; Christos Agouridis, “Sea Routes and Navigation in the Third Millennium Aegean,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16, no. 1 (1997): 1–24; Douglas T. Peck, “Development of Celestial Navigation by the Ancient Maya,” The Journal of Navigation 4, no.1 (January 2001): 145–49.
22. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1–4.
23. Refer to Figure 2 for a visual reference of a spherical astrolabe.
24. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1–4.
25. Richard Talbert, ed., Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 37–39.
26. ” … I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about;” 2 Nephi 25:6, (emphasis added). It seems that Nephi and Lehi were the principle guides in the wilderness for the first portion of the journey. Nephi’s knowledge of the area seems to be enough to allow his family to travel away from Jerusalem, set up a camp at a suitable location, and then return to Jerusalem two times without issue. Curiously, accusations about Nephi guiding the party only occur after the company begins following the Liahona and notably after the death of Ishmael. It would seem that the group trusted Nephi and Lehi’s guidance initially and became concerned only when the party struck out into unfamiliar territory using a device most of them did not know how to use.
27. See 2 Nephi 1:5–6; 2 Ne. 28:6; Omni 1:16; Mosiah 1:1–5; Mosiah 2:11; Mosiah 28:15; Alma 2:28; Alma 37:4; Alma 45:19; see also Moses 1:4; Moses 7:32.
28. Consider, for example, Nephi’s tendency to attribute to the Lord events which he himself physically performed. Despite being the individual most responsible for the food and provisions of the company, Nephi says in 1 Nephi 16:11 that they “gather[ed] together whatsoever things [they] should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of [their] provisions which the Lord had given unto [them]” (emphasis added). The ever-deferential Nephi sees the “hand of God” in nearly every aspect of his life. Nephi attempts to display to the reader, who was not present at these events, that [Page 228]the Lord was involved in a grand guiding way, not physically performing the acts.
29. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign (November 1986), emphasis added.
30. Just prior to detailing the Liahona’s appearance, Nephi carefully informs the reader of the commandment the Lord gave to Lehi to reassume his journey the next day. Nephi seems to be attempting to display that the Liahona was provided to Nephi’s party at precisely the moment when Lehi needs the instrument to fulfill the commandment of the Lord. Nephi does not seem overly awed by its origin, composition, or even functionality. His primary interest in the device is that it appeared when his family needed it the most. To Nephi, the timing of the Liahona’s delivery is the miracle.
31. “Besides this custom of the bridegroom making gifts to the bride or paying a ransom to her father the Bible also makes frequent mention of property which the woman brought to her husband at marriage. Rebekah brought to her new home female slaves from her father’s household (Genesis xxiv. 59, 61). Laban made similar gifts to Leah and to Rachel (Genesis xxix. 24, 29). Othniel at marriage received from his father-in-law, Caleb, a field of springs (Judges i. 15). Solomon received from Pharaoh, his father-in-law, a city as the portion (‘shilluḥim’) of the princess (I Kings ix. 16). Later, the practise of giving a dowry to a daughter, as it is now understood, entirely superseded the gift or ransom given by the groom; so that in Talmudic times it (‘nedunya’) is spoken of as a long-established custom.” Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Dowry,” accessed September 19, 2018, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5297-dowry.
32. Ibid. See also: Phillip J. King, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 54.
33. See 1 Nephi 16.
34. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1988), 36, https://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1106&index=5.
35. Oxford Museum of the History of Science, “Special Exhibition Label: ‘Al-Mizan: Sciences and Arts in the Islamic World’ (26/10/2010 – 20/03/2011)”, accessed September 19, 2018, [Page 229]http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/imu-search-page/narratives/?irn=2113&index=2, emphasis added.
36. Anthony Turner, “Concerning a Pointer on the Astrolabe,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 46, no. 4 (2015): 413–18.
37. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1. See also Richard Covington, “The Astrolabe: A User’s Guide,” Aramco World 58, no. 3 (2007): 22–23, http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/200703/the.astrolabe.a.user.s.guide.htm.
38. For an introduction to the three predominant route reconstructions see: Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “An Archaeologist’s View,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 68–77, 122–24.
39. “And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food? And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord … And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.” 1 Nephi 16:23–24, 26.
40. “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball.” 1 Nephi 16:30, emphasis added.
41. “traveled for the space of many days … pitch our tents for the space of a time,” 1 Nephi 16:17.
42. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1–3.
43. Poppick, “The Story of the Astrolabe.”
44. Emily Winterburn, “Using an Astrolabe,” Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (2005), http://muslimheritage.com/article/using-astrolabe.
45. Only the first two differences are discussed at length in this paper. However, it is interesting that none of the characters in the Book of Mormon directly involved with the instrument refer to it as the “Liahona.” Instead, Nephi exclusively refers to the device as a “ball,” “compass,” or “director.” It is possible that this indicates a familiarity with technology similar to the Liahona, as Nephi appears to have had three words he felt accurately described the functionality of the device. The word “Liahona,” then, appears to be a name given by subsequent generations to describe the instrument as it functioned in the story of the Lehite exodus. Scholars have suggested a variety of possible meanings of the word based on its probable Hebrew etymology. While there is not yet a scholarly [Page 230]consensus on the etymological meaning of the word “Liahona,” the most probable interpretation appears to be “the direction (director) of the Lord.” See Jonathan Curci, “Liahona: ‘The Direction of the Lord’: An Etymological Explanation, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, vol. 2 (2007): 60–67, 97–98. Alternatively, some scholars have proposed the meaning of the word Liahona corresponds to the Liahona’s function of helping Lehi’s company find their way from one encampment to another and should thus be rendered “encamping for Yahweh.” This meaning would correspond to the hypothetical Hebrew word layahone, “encamping for Yahweh,” derived from the participle form of the Hebrew verb hānā, “to pitch (tent), encamp, dwell.” This proposed etymology corresponds with a notion that the Lehites may have viewed themselves as participating in an “exodus,” similar to that of the Hosts of Israel, as evidenced by what appear to be explicit Exodus motifs in the account. See George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in N. E. Lambert, ed., Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1981): 245–62, https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/literature-belief-sacred-scripture-and-religious-experience/13-typology-exodus-pattern-book; See also: S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 111–26, https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/jerusalem-zarahemla-literary-and-historical-studies-book-mormon/exodus-pattern-book-mormon. In any case, the proposed etymologies suggest that the name given to the device may have functioned as a mnemonic device used by Lehi’s descendants to reinforce the moral and spiritual force of the account as they recounted the narrative to their children. Because it is highly likely that the majority of Lehi’s descendants would have primarily encountered these stories orally, providing a name for the device that described its function and/or reinforced its connection to the divine (the theophoric element of the word) could assist in helping hearers remember the details of their national origin story as well as properly ascribe the success of their journey to the Lord. This would stand in stark contrast to the Lamanite recollection of the Lehite exodus and subsequent ocean crossing, which appears to focus entirely on the role played by Lehi and Nephi rather than on any divine involvement. See Mosiah 10:12–13.
46. “And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof [Page 231]was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.” 1 Nephi 4:9.
47. Nephi is able to make metal plates, metal tools, and even replicates of the sword of Laban. Nephi does not, however, attempt to recreate the Liahona despite it being a metal object. For Nibley’s assertion that Lehi and Nephi may have been metalsmiths see: Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 85.
48. Alma 37:39, emphasis added. Alma’s phrase could alternatively be interpreted as referring to the abilities of individuals of his day, not necessarily mankind as a whole.
49. 1 Nephi 16:28: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (emphasis added).

Email This Page

Marjorie Newton’s Account
of the Faith of the Māori Saints:
A Critical Appraisal

Abstract: Marjorie Newton’s Mormon and Maori is a version of her 1998 thesis in which she rejects key elements of the Māori Latter-day Saint historical narrative. This contrasts with her earlier, faith-affirming Tiki and Temple. In Mormon and Maori Newton targets what she sees as Māori/missionary mythology. She has written for different audiences; one was for secular religious studies scholars, while the other was for faithful Saints. Midgley rejects Newton’s claim that a Mormon American cultural imperialism requires Māori to abandon noble elements of their culture. Faithful Saints are liberated from the soul destroying behavior that results from the loss of traditional Māori moral restraints. Midgley insists that Newton has little understanding of the deeper structures of Māori culture.

Review of Marjorie Newton, Mormon and Maori (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014). 248 pp. $24.95 (paperback).

Continue reading

Email This Page

Why Did Northern Israel Fall to the Assyrians?
A Weberian Proposal

Abstract: This article is centered on possible causes for the fall of Israel and, secondarily, Judah. The topic is not new. The very destruction of these ancient kingdoms may be the cause for the production of much of the Biblical literature that drives our interpretive enterprise. My proposal is that Max Weber’s socio-political theories of power and domination, sometimes called the tripartite classification of authority, may provide a fruitful lens by which to understand some of the reasons Judah persisted for more than a century after the fall of Israel. Specifically, I wish to investigate whether the lack of routinization of charismatic authority was a contributing factor in Israel’s fall.1

Continue reading

Email This Page

Et Incarnatus Est:
The Imperative for Book of Mormon Historicity

Abstract: Some have come to insist that the Book of Mormon should be read as inspired fiction, which is to say that readers, including Latter-day Saints, should abandon any belief in the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text and instead should see it as an inspired frontier novel written by Joseph Smith that may act as scripture for those who follow his teachings. This paper provides reasoning to reject this proposition as not only logically incoherent but also theologically impotent.1 It raises the objection that this position fundamentally undercuts the credibility of Joseph Smith. The Prophet’s direct claims concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon as well as how the Book of Mormon presents itself to the world do not easily permit any leeway for a “middle ground” on this matter.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Comparing Book of Mormon Names with Those Found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works: An Exploratory Study

Abstract: The works of Tolkien and the Book of Mormon have been compared in a variety of ways by multiple authors and researchers, but none have looked specifically at the unusual names found within both. Wordprint studies are one tool used in author attribution research, but do authors use specific sounds more than others — consciously or subconsciously — when selecting or inventing names? Some research suggests they may and that their patterns could create a “sound print” or phonoprint. This constitutes a fresh and unusual path of research that deserves more attention. The purpose of this exploratory study was to see if phonoprints surfaced when examining Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit, Man, and other names created by Tolkien and Jaredite, Nephite, Mulekite, and Lamanite names found in the Book of Mormon. Results suggest that Tolkien had a phonoprint he was unable to entirely escape when creating character names, even when he claimed he based them on distinct languages. In contrast, in Book of Mormon names, a single author’s phonoprint did not emerge. Names varied by group in the way one would expect authentic names from different cultures to vary. Although much more research needs to be done to establish the validity and reliability of using phonoprints for author identification, this study opens a door for future research.

Continue reading

Email This Page

“They Shall No More Be Confounded”:
Moroni’s Wordplay on Joseph in
Ether 13:1-13 and Moroni 10:31

Abstract: In two related prophecies, Moroni employs an apparent wordplay on the name Joseph in terms of the Hebrew idiom (lōʾ) yôsîp … ʿôd (+ verbal component), as preserved in the phrases “they shall no more be confounded” (Ether 13:8) and “that thou mayest no more be confounded” (Moroni 10:31). That phraseology enjoyed a long currency within Nephite prophecy (e.g., 1 Nephi 14:2, 15:20), ultimately having its source in Isaiah’s prophecies regarding Jerusalem/Zion (see, for example, Isaiah 51:22; 52:1– 2; 54:2–4). Ether and Moroni’s prophecy in Ether 13 that the Old Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem would “no more be confounded” further affirms the gathering of Israel in general and the gathering of the seed of Joseph in particular.
Continue reading

Email This Page

To Be Learned Is Good,
If One Stays on the Rails

Abstract: This review essay looks at certain problematical issues in the recently published collection of essays honoring Latter-day Saint historian Richard Lyman Bushman. Problems emerge from the title itself, “To Be Learned is Good,” as a result of the failure to note that the Book of Mormon passage “To be learned is good” is a conditional statement. In addition, since these essays are billed as “Essays on Faith and Scholarship,” it is odd most of them do not touch on this subject at all. I examine four essays in depth, including Adam Miller’s “Christo-Fiction, Mormon Philosophy, and the Virtual Body of Christ,” which is offered as a form of clarifying Mormon philosophy but provides more confusion than clarification. Jared Hickman’s essay, “The Perverse Core of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon, Genetic Secularity, and Messianic Decoloniality,” presents Mormonism as a religion that has much in common with Marxism, Frantz Fanon, and Sean Coulhard. While not as bold as Hickman, Patrick Mason looks at Mormonism as a modern religion and suggests that premodern thinkers are largely irrelevant to Mormonism and the modern world. Mason argues that “Mormonism is a religion that could meaningfully converse with modern philosophies and ideologies from transcendentalism, liberalism, and Marxism.” I discuss the weaknesses of this view. Attention is also given to the distinction between apologetics and “Mormon Studies” that arise from essays by Grant Wacker, Armand Mauss, Terryl Givens, and Brian D. Birch, who suggests “‘a methodological pluralism'” in approaching Mormon studies. I note that several of the essays in this volume are worthy of positive note, particularly those by Bushman himself, Mauss (who does address the presumed theme of the book), Givens, Mauro Properzi, and Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye (who also addresses the titled theme of the book in a most engaging manner).

[Page 78]Review of J. Spencer Fluhman, Kathleen Flake, and Jed Woodworth, eds., To Be Learned is Good: Essays on Faith and Scholarship in Honor of Richard Lyman Bushman (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2017). 368 pp. $24.56 (hardcover).

Continue reading

Email This Page

“If I Pray Not Amiss”

Abstract: In 2nd Nephi, it is suggested that the Lord answers prayers but that requests made in prayer should not violate some kind of standard that would make them “amiss.” This undefined standard most likely excludes many prayers requesting immunity from those conditions of mortality which all mortals accepted and embraced with great enthusiasm in the great Council in Heaven. However, except for limited latter-day explanations of that great conference, our eager acceptance of all details of the conditions of mortality did not carry over into mortal memory. Consequently, when we request exemption from those conditions joyfully endorsed in premortal time, perhaps many qualify for the “prayers amiss” category. Exceptions from mortal conditions are granted only for divine and sometimes incomprehensible purposes.

Continue reading

Email This Page

A Valuable LDS Resource for Learning from the Apocrypha

Abstract: Latter-day Saints are often aware that the Apocrypha contains valuable sacred material along with some “interpolations of men,” but few know how to approach those ancient texts and what they could learn from them. A new book by Jared W. Ludlow provides a helpful tool to guide LDS readers in appreciating the Apocrypha and exploring the material in these highly diverse sacred documents.

Review of Jared W. Ludlow, Exploring the Apocrypha from a Latter-day Saint Perspective (Springville, Utah: CFI, 2018). 234 pp. $16.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

An Inviting Exploration

Abstract: This informative and very readable volume, targeted to a Latter day Saint audience, serves as an introduction to the Apocrypha and an exploration of Latter-day Saint views of the books. Even those already familiar with the Apocrypha will find this book insightful in the Latter-day Saint approaches it brings to bear. Even so, the book touches too lightly on some issues, including the extent of the Apocrypha, the phenomenon of pseudonymity, and the reasons for the current exclusion of the Apocrypha from the Latter-day Saint canon.

Review of Jared W. Ludlow, Exploring the Apocrypha from a Latter-day Saint Perspective (Springville, Utah: CFI, 2018). 234 pp. $16.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

A Compelling Case for Theosis

Abstract: What is theosis? Why does the doctrine of theosis matter? Why did God become man so that man might become God? In his book To Become Like God, Andrew C. Skinner answers these questions with compelling clarity. He provides ample convincing evidence that, far from being a deviation from original Christian beliefs, the doctrine of theosis, or the belief that human beings have the potential to become like God, is central to the Christian faith.

Review of Andrew C. Skinner, To Become Like God: Witnesses of Our Divine Potential (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016). 164 pp. $18.99 (hardback).

Continue reading

Email This Page

“And the Meek Also Shall Increase”: The Verb YĀSAP in Isaiah 29 and Nephi’s Prophetic Allusions to the Name Joseph in 2 Nephi 25–30

Abstract: Beyond his autobiographic use of Joseph’s name and biography, Nephi also considered the name Joseph to have long-term prophetic value. As a Semitic/Hebrew name, Joseph derives from the verb yāsap (to “add,” “increase,” “proceed to do something,” “do something again,” and to “do something more”), thus meaning “may he [God] add,” “may he increase,” or “may he do more/again.” Several of the prophecies of Isaiah, in which Nephi’s soul delighted and for which he offers extensive interpretation, prominently employ forms of yāsap in describing iterative and restorative divine action (e.g., Isaiah 11:11; 26:15; 29:14; cf. 52:1). The prophecy of the coming forth of the sealed book in Isaiah 29 employs the latter verb three times (Isaiah 29:1, 14, and 19). Nephi’s extensive midrash of Isaiah 29 in 2 Nephi 25–30 (especially 2 Nephi 27) interpretively expands Isaiah’s use of the yāsap idiom(s). Time and again, Nephi returns to the language of Isaiah 29:14 (“I will proceed [yôsīp] to do a marvelous work”), along with a similar yāsap-idiom from Isaiah 11:11 (“the Lord shall set his hand again [yôsîp] … to recover the remnant of his people”) to foretell the Latter-day forthcoming of the sealed book to fulfill the Lord’s ancient promises to the patriarch. Given Nephi’s earlier preservation of Joseph’s prophecies regarding a future seer named “Joseph,” we can reasonably see Nephi’s emphasis on iterative divine action in his appropriation of the Isaianic use of yāsap as a direct and thematic allusion to this latter-day “Joseph” and his role in bringing forth additional scripture. This additional scripture would enable the meek to “increase,” just as Isaiah and Nephi had prophesied.
Continue reading

Email This Page

An Ancient Survival Guide: John Bytheway’s Look at Moroni

Abstract: Moroni’s years of wandering alone after the battle of Cumorah have been often discussed, but not in the context of how they impacted his writing and editorial work. John Bytheway’s latest offering provides us insight into the man Moroni and how his isolation impacted the material that he left for his latter-day readers.

Review of John Bytheway, Moroni’s Guide to Surviving Turbulent Times. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017). 159 pp., $11.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Is Faith Compatible with Reason?

Abstract: In this article I argue that faith is not only rationally justifiable but also inescapable simply because our decisions regarding ultimate questions must necessarily be made under conditions of objective uncertainty. I review remarks by several prominent thinkers on the subject — both avowed atheists and several writers who have addressed the challenge implicit in issues related to faith and reason. I end my discussion by citing William James, who articulated clearly the choices we must make in addressing these “ultimate questions.”

Continue reading

Email This Page

Missourian Efforts to Extradite Joseph Smith and the Ethics of Governor Thomas Reynolds of Missouri

Abstract: This is the second of two articles discussing Missouri’s requisitions to extradite Joseph Smith to face criminal charges and the Prophet’s recourse to English habeas corpus practice to defend himself. In the first article, the author discussed the English nature of pre-Civil War habeas corpus practice in America and the anachronistic modern idea that the Nauvoo Municipal Court did not have jurisdiction to consider interstate habeas corpus matters. In this article, he analyzes the conduct of Governor Thomas Reynolds in the matter of Missouri’s requisitions for the extradition of Joseph Smith in light of 1840s legal ethics in America. That analysis follows the discovery that Governor Reynolds had dismissed the underlying 1838 charges against Joseph Smith when he was a Missouri Supreme Court judge. It also responds to the revelation that Missouri reissued indictments based on the same underlying facts in June 1843 despite the existence of a double-jeopardy provision in the Missouri Constitution of 1820.

Continue reading

Email This Page

The Habeas Corpus Protection of Joseph Smith from Missouri Arrest Requisitions

Abstract: This is the first of two articles discussing Missouri’s requisitions to extradite Joseph Smith to face criminal charges and the Prophet’s recourse to English habeas corpus practice to defend himself. In this article, the author presents research rejecting the suggestion that the habeas corpus powers of the Nauvoo City Council were irregular and explains why the idea that the Nauvoo Municipal Court lacked jurisdiction to consider interstate habeas corpus matters is anachronistic. In the second article, the author analyzes the conduct of Missouri Governor Thomas Reynolds in relation to the requisitions for Joseph Smith’s extradition. Even by the standards of the day, given what he knew, his conduct was unethical.

Continue reading

Email This Page

What’s in a Name? Playing in the Onomastic Sandbox

Abstract: Name as Key-Word brings together a collection of essays, many of them previously published, whose consistent theme is exploring examples of onomastic wordplay or puns in Mormon scripture in general and the Book of Mormon in particular. Without a knowledge of the meaning of these names, the punning in the scriptural accounts would not be recognized by modern English readers. Exploring the (probable) meanings of these names helps to open our eyes to how the scriptural authors used punning and other forms of wordplay to convey their messages in a memorable way.

 

Review of Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2018). 408 pp., $24.95.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Toward a Deeper Understanding:
How Onomastic Wordplay Aids Understanding Scripture

Abstract: Matthew L. Bowen’s book compels readers to consider both the Book of Mormon’s construction and the significance of names in the text. Bowen and his coauthors invite readers to contemplate not only scripture but its stages of construction to completion, be they first draft, editing, final abridgement, or translation. Bowen’s work reveals how, in the endeavor to sacralize the act of scripture reading, specific details like names and their meanings can invigorate one’s understanding of the narrative and its theology, preventing such reading from becoming a rote endeavor.

Review of Matthew L. Bowen, Name as Key-Word: Collected Essays on Onomastic Wordplay and the Temple in Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2018). 408 pp., $24.95.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Isaiah 56, Abraham, and the Temple

Abstract: In the days of the first Israelite temple, only certain individuals were allowed into the temple and sacrificial services; foreigners and eunuchs were excluded. However, in Isaiah 56:1–8, formerly excluded individuals are invited into the presence of God at the temple. This paper will explore how metaphorically connecting Isaiah’s words with Abraham, the eponymous father of the covenant faithful, may demonstrate that even the most unlikely candidates for the presence of God are like Abraham; they too will inherit the ancient covenants according to their faithfulness.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Much More than a Plural Marriage Revelation

Abstract: Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation is a textual study of Section 132. It offers some interesting information as the author attempts to understand and place within context the revelation, which is, as the heading for this section in the scriptures reads, “relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant and the principle of plural marriage.” The book has its strengths but is also hampered by some weaknesses, as discussed in this review.

Review of William Victor Smith. Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2018), 273 pp. $26.95.

Continue reading

Email This Page

The Case of the Missing Commentary

Abstract:The first published commentary on Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 is a lengthy volume with much material that deals directly with the revelation as well as extended discussions that go well beyond Joseph Smith’s dictated text. Much of the included material has been previously published, although several new historical items are presented, including a detailed examination of the provenance of the revelation. An apparent weakness of the book involves key themes mentioned in the revelation but minimized or otherwise ignored in this extended commentary. Examples include the possible meanings of the “law” (v. 6), importance of sealing authority (vv. 7‒20), possible polyandry (v. 41), Emma’s offer (v. 51), and others.

Email This Page

Race: Always Complicated, Never Simple

Abstract: The concept that race has evolved rather than remaining static is not well understood, both outside and within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In Religion of a Different Color, W. Paul Reeve shows how the concept of race evolved from painting Mormons as nonwhite in the 19th century to “too white” by the beginning of the 21st century.

Continue reading

Email This Page

What is Mormon Transhumanism? And is it Mormon?

Abstract: Some sources have described Mormonism as the faith most friendly to the intellectual movement known as Transhumanism. This paper reviews an introductory paper by the past President of the Mormon Transhumanist Association. A syllogism that purports to show that Mormonism is compatible with — or even requires — Transhumanism is analyzed. The syllogism’s premises are shown to misunderstand or misrepresent LDS scripture and doctrine. The proffered Transhumanist conception of “human nature” and the perspective offered by LDS scripture are compared and found to be incompatible. Additional discrepancies between the Transhumanist article’s representation of LDS doctrine and the actual teachings of LDS scripture and leaders on doctrinal matters (the Premortal Council in Heaven, the relationship between substance dualism and LDS thought, and the possibility of engineering or controlling spiritual experiences) are examined. The article does not accurately reflect LDS teachings, and thus has not demonstrated that Transhumanism is congenial to LDS scripture or doctrine.1

Continue reading

Email This Page

Peace in the Holy Land

Abstract: Living in the Holy Land as a Palestinian Latter-day Saint has created unique challenges and perspective for Sahar Qumsiyeh. In order to attend church meetings in Jerusalem from her home near Bethlehem, Sahar was required to travel under unsafe and stressful circumstances for hours through military checkpoints to cover the few miles’ distance (as the crow flies). Sahar’s story, Peace for a Palestinian, varies dramatically from our own and reminds us that true discipleship requires sacrifice, which in turn brings blessings.

Personal response to Sahar Qumsiyeh, Peace for a Palestinian: One Woman’s Story of Faith amidst War in the Holy Land (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018). 176 pp. $15.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Dehumanization and Peace

Abstract: Those who follow world events are painfully aware that peace in the Middle East — and particularly in the Holy Land — seems eternally elusive. From a distance we watch events unfold which we are not able to fully comprehend because of that very distance. There are individuals who are burdened with the devastating reality of living with war and perpetual turmoil in the Holy Land. One of those is Sahar Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian Arab Latter-day Saint who grew up in the West Bank near Bethlehem. Her story of how she converted to Mormonism and learned how to find peace in a troubled world is recommended reading for every Latter-day Saint.

Review of Sahar Qumsiyeh, Peace for a Palestinian: One Woman’s Story of Faith Amidst War in the Holy Land (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018). 176 pp. $15.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Joseph Smith’s Universe vs. Some Wonders of Chinese Science Fiction

Abstract: Chinese science fiction works recently have received increasing attention and acclaim, most notably Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem. Liu’s epic trilogy, available in Chinese and English, has received international honors and recognition for its vision, its daring application of advanced physics in a novel, and its highly original ideas about our life in the cosmos. Another Chinese physicist and science fiction author, Jiang Bo, also explores related issues but in a much more distant and wide-ranging trilogy, The Heart of the Milky Way series. Both works have interesting treatments of concepts relevant to Gospel perspectives, particularly the cosmic implications and teachings in the revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. In the end, the questions they raise and the possibilities they present raise cosmic questions worthy of consideration by seekers of truth and urge us to consider what this cosmos is and where it is going. There are two ultimate possibilities: “Darkness, everything darkness” from the tragic “dark forest” model of Liu Cixin or the model of a benign universe crafted by a loving Heavenly Father. The latter, the cosmos of light, eternal progress, and endless joy is the universe of Joseph Smith and is profound enough to be seriously pitted against the alternative offered by China’s brilliant physicists. Their writings treat the physics and metaphysics of the cosmos from a materialist perspective; if materialism rules, then it is tooth and claw, “everything darkness” in the end (though Jiang Bo offers hope of renewal and progress for some after his chaos and final grand calamity at the heart of the galaxy). Joseph Smith’s cosmology gives us compelling reasons to see it otherwise and rejoice in the miracle of the actual universe we are in. Along the way, he offers some profound insights that should at least raise eyebrows and stimulate thinking among the physicists and philosophers of our age. These insights, contrary to claims of some critics, are not simply plagiarism or [Page 106]crude reworkings of common ideas from his day, but represent profound and original breakthroughs in thought, solving significant problems in the world’s views on life and the cosmos.

Continue reading

Email This Page

The Gospel According to Mormon

Abstract: Although scholarly investigation of the Book of Mormon has increased significantly over the last three decades, only a tiny portion of that effort has been focused on the theological or doctrinal content of this central volume of LDS scripture. This paper identifies three inclusios that promise definitions of the doctrine or gospel of Jesus Christ and proposes a cumulative methodology to explain how these definitions work. This approach reveals a consistently presented, six-part formula defining “the way” by which mankind can qualify for eternal life. In this way the paper provides a starting point for scholarly examinations of the theological content of this increasingly influential religious text. While the names of the six elements featured in Mormon’s gospel will sound familiar to students of the New Testament, the meanings he assigns to these may differ substantially from traditional Christian discourse in ways that make Mormon’s characterization of the gospel or doctrine of Christ unique. The overall pattern suggested is a dialog between man and God, who initially invites all people to trust in Christ and repent. Those who respond by repenting and seeking baptism will be visited by fire and by the Holy Ghost, which initiates a lifelong interaction, leading the convert day by day in preparation for the judgment, at which she may finally be invited to enter the kingdom of God.
Continue reading

Email This Page

Pushing through Life’s Pilgrimage Together

Abstract: Walking for 500 miles in a foreign country through heat, arduous terrain, and many inconveniences is difficult enough. Add to the equation a man in a wheelchair, and the task appears impossible. The solution? Determination, humility, humor, faith, love, and someone, or many, who give you a push. I’ll Push You is a true story and parable for life that will give readers hope and encouragement.

Review of Patrick Gray & Justin Skeesuck, I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2017). 296 pp. $24.99 (hardback); $15.99 (paperback).

Continue reading

Email This Page

The Word Baptize in the Book of Mormon

Abstract: The word baptize appears 119 times in the Book of Mormon; three speakers (Jesus Christ, Mormon, and Nephi) account for 87% of all of these usages. Each of these individuals have distinctive patterns in how they use the word baptize, indicating that each speaker has his own unique voice. When one accounts for the fact that Christ says relatively fewer words than Mormon, it is evident that per 1,000 words spoken, Jesus Christ uses the word baptize more than any other speaker in the Book of Mormon. This finding holds true for Christ’s words both in and outside of 3 Nephi. Among other patterns, we demonstrate that Jesus Christ associates his name with baptism more than any other Book of Mormon speaker and that Christ is responsible for 58% of the Book of Mormon’s invitations to be baptized. Additional patterns and their implications are discussed.
Continue reading

Email This Page

Too Little or Too Much Like the Bible? A Novel Critique of the Book of Mormon Involving David and the Psalms

Abstract: A recent graduate thesis proposes an intriguing new means for discerning if the Book of Mormon is historic or not. By looking at Book of Mormon references to David and the Psalms, the author concludes that it cannot be the product of an ancient Jewish people and that it is, instead, the result of Joseph Smith’s “plagiarism” from the Bible and other sources. This paper examines the author’s claims, how they are applied to the Book of Mormon, and proposes points the author does not take into consideration. While the author is to be congratulated for taking a fresh perspective on the Book of Mormon, ultimately his methodology fails and his conclusions fall flat.
Continue reading

Email This Page

“The Time is Past”: A Note on Samuel’s Five-Year Prophecy

Abstract:1 The story of believers being nearly put to death before the appearance of the sign at Christ’s birth is both inspiring and a little confusing. According to the Book of Mormon, the sign comes in the 92nd year, which was actually the sixth year after the prophecy had been made. There is little wonder why even some believers began to doubt. The setting of a final date by which the prophecy must be fulfilled, however, suggests that until that day, there must have been reason for even the nonbelievers to concede that fulfillment was still possible; yet after that deadline it was definitively too late. An understanding of Mesoamerican timekeeping practices and terminology provides one possible explanation.

Continue reading

Email This Page

On Being the Sons of Moses and Aaron: Another Look at Interpreting the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood

Abstract: Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants contains what is commonly known by Latter-day Saints as the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood. Priesthood leaders in the church are expected to teach and explain this Oath and Covenant to prospective Melchizedek Priesthood holders. However, the meanings of phrases within the Oath and Covenant are not well understood. For example: What does it mean to become the sons of Moses and Aaron? In what sense are bodies renewed? Are the promised blessings just for holders of the priesthood or for others as well? This paper discusses several ways that phrases in the Oath and Covenant have been interpreted. To identify differing interpretations, I conducted an extensive review of references to the Oath and Covenant in LDS conference addresses and the words of Joseph Smith using the LDS Scripture Citation Index1. After considering these interpretations, I explore other ways the phrases could be interpreted to provide greater understanding of what it means to hold the priesthood and “magnify” it.

Continue reading

Email This Page

The Word and the Kingdom

Abstract: Members of the Church have been charged since ancient times with the covenant need to share the Gospel message with those around them. In more recent times, this has been described as a need for “every member” to be a missionary. There are many ways that we can do so through the use of modern technology and the dedication of our talents. The “ministry of the word” beckons each of us onward.

Continue reading

Email This Page

A Valuable Book for the Increasingly International Church

Abstract: As the Church expands among the many nations, peoples, and tongues of the earth, new challenges arise that require the organization and the members of the Church to better meet the needs of the peoples in various nations and to cope with the specific challenges that may exist there. In this article I review a valuable book that can help in that expanding effort.

Review of Reid L. Neilson and Wayne D. Crosby, eds., Lengthening Our Stride: Globalization of the Church (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2018), 400 pp. $27.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Pressing Forward with the Book of Abraham

Abstract: The Book of Abraham continues to attract scholarly attention. New findings in the fields of Egyptology, Near Eastern archaeology, and Mormon history have highlighted the complexity surrounding the origins of the Book of Abraham and its relationship to the Egyptian papyri that came into the possession of Joseph Smith in 1835. A new introductory volume on the Book of Abraham by John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, is an excellent resource that may help laypersons and scholars alike navigate this rapidly developing area of study.

Continue reading

Email This Page

“Thou Art the Fruit of My Loins”: The Interrelated Symbolism and Meanings of the Names Joseph and Ephraim in Ancient Scripture

Abstract: To the ancient Israelite ear, the name Ephraim sounded like or connoted “doubly fruitful.” Joseph explains the naming of his son Ephraim in terms of the Lord’s having “caused [him] to be fruitful” (Genesis 41:52). The “fruitfulness” motif in the Joseph narrative cycle (Genesis 37–50) constitutes the culmination of a larger, overarching theme that begins in the creation narrative and is reiterated in the patriarchal narratives. “Fruitfulness,” especially as expressed in the collocation “fruit of [one’s] loins” dominates in the fuller version of Genesis 48 and 50 contained in the Joseph Smith Translation, a version of which Lehi and his successors had upon the brass plates. “Fruit” and “fruitfulness” as a play on the name Ephraim further serve to extend the symbolism and meaning of the name Joseph (“may he [God] add,” “may he increase”) and the etiological meanings given to his name in Genesis 30:23–24). The importance of the interrelated symbolism and meanings of the names Joseph and Ephraim for Book of Mormon writers, who themselves sought the blessings of divine fruitfulness (e.g., Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob), is evident in their use of the fuller version of the Joseph cycle (e.g., in Lehi’s parenesis to his son Joseph in 2 Nephi 3). It is further evident in their use of the prophecies of Isaiah and Zenos’s allegory of the olive tree, both of which utilize (divine) “fruitfulness” imagery in describing the apostasy and restoration of Israel (including the Northern Kingdom or “Ephraim”).

Continue reading

Email This Page

Approaching Abinadi

Abstract: The recently released Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise, a new book from Brigham Young University’s Book of Mormon Academy, offers readers multidisciplinary approaches to Mosiah 11–17 that highlight the literary, historical, and doctrinal richness of the story of Abinadi. Students and scholars of the Book of Mormon are sure to benefit greatly from this new volume.

Review of Shon D. Hopkin, ed. Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2018), 404 pp. $27.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Abinadi: A Minor Prophet, A Major Contributor

Abstract: The new edited volume Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise, from the Book of Mormon Academy, is a valuable contribution to Book of Mormon studies. It should find a wide audience and stimulate greater and deeper thinking about the pivotal contributions of Abinadi to the Book of Mormon. It should, however, not be considered the end of the conversation. This review discusses the volume’s importance within Book of Mormon scholarship generally. It also highlights certain valuable contributions from each of the authors, and points out places where more can be said and deeper analysis is needed.

Review of Shon D. Hopkin, ed. Abinadi: He Came Among Them in Disguise (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book, 2018), 404 pp. $27.99.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Easters: The Eternal Atoning Sacrifice Testifies of the Everlasting Redeeming Savior

Abstract: Easters come year after year, reminding us of new life brought to the children of men by the eternal atoning sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He grants us peace, forgiveness, grace, mercy, contentment, and joy in our hearts, and thus we gratefully testify of our everlasting redeeming Savior. All things bear witness of Jesus Christ. The Lord spoke thus face-to-face with Moses upon a high mountain: “And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.”1 The intent of this article is to discuss scriptures that bear testimony of the reality of the Lord’s infinite atonement, to express deep gratitude for our Savior, and to praise Him for His grace, mercy, wisdom, power, and holiness.

Continue reading

Email This Page

The Status of Women in Old Testament Marriage

Review of Gordon Paul Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: A Study of Biblical Law and Ethics Governing Marriage Developed from the Perspective of Malachi (Supplements to Vetus Testam, Book 52). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994. Pp. xx + 414. Paperback reprint edition with a modified subtitle published in 2014 by WIPF & STOCK, Eugene, Oregon. 343 pages, plus bibliography and four indices.

Abstract: In his book Marriage as a Covenant, author Gordon Paul Hugenberger begins with the late 20th century Bible-studies insight that in Israel, covenants were devices used to make binding on unrelated persons the same obligations blood relatives owed to each other. So by covenant, marriage partners became one bone and flesh. This thorough study of the Hebrew Bible and related literatures argues that the view of marriage as a covenant in Malachi 2:10‒16 echoes the first marriage in Genesis 2 and is consistent with the other passages in the Bible that have often been mistakenly interpreted to promote a patriarchalist view denigrating the position of wives vis-à-vis their husbands.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Is the Book of Mormon a Pseudo-Archaic Text?

Abstract: In recent years the Book of Mormon has been compared to pseudo-biblical texts like Gilbert J. Hunt’s The Late War (1816). Some have found strong linguistic correspondence and declared that there is an authorial relationship. However, comparative linguistic studies performed to date have focused on data with low probative value vis-à-vis the question of authorship. What has been lacking is non-trivial descriptive linguistic analysis that focuses on less contextual and more complex types of data, such as syntax and morphosyntax (grammatical features such as verb agreement and inflection), as well as data less obviously biblical and/or less susceptible to conscious manipulation. Those are the kinds of linguistic studies that have greater probative value in relation to authorship, and that can determine whether Joseph Smith might have been able to produce Book of Mormon grammar. In order to determine whether it is a good match with the form and structure of pseudo-biblical writings, I investigate nearly 10 kinds of syntax and morphosyntax that occur in the Book of Mormon and the King James Bible, comparing their usage with each other and with that of four pseudo-biblical texts. Findings are summarized toward the end of the article, along with some observations on biblical hypercorrection and alternative LDS views on Book of Mormon language.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Two Notes on the Language Used in the Last Supper Accounts

Abstract: The institution of the Lord’s Supper is recounted explicitly in four New Testament texts (Matthew 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:19–20; 1 Corinthians 11:23–26). Common to all these texts is the phrase “this is my body,” and in the Lukan and Pauline texts, the command to “do this in remembrance of me.” In this paper, I will examine both the grammatical and theological implications of “this is my body” and the concept of “remembrance” in the theology of the Last Supper — with how Latter-day Saints can appropriate such in their weekly observance of this sacred ordinance.

Continue reading

Email This Page

“Swearing by Their Everlasting Maker”: Some Notes on Paanchi and Giddianhi

Abstract: This brief article explores Paanchi and Giddianhi as names evidencing the Egyptian onomastic element –anchi/anhi/ʿnḫ(i) and the potential literary significance of these two names in the context of Mormon’s narrative detailing the formation of the oath-bound secret combinations sworn with oath-formulae upon one’s “life” (cf. Egyptian ʿnḫ, “life”; “live”; “swear an oath [by one’s life]”). It also explores the implications for Mormon’s telling of Nephite history during his own time.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Unveiling Women’s Veils of Authority

ABSTRACT: The Apostle Paul’s theological explanation for female veil wearing (1 Corinthians 11:2–13) highlights the woman’s head covering as an expression of female empowerment or “authority/exousia.” It appears that the Corinthian saints struggled with this tradition, as Paul preceded the discussion with, “but I would have you know/thelõ de” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Rather than merely restating the dress code for certain prayers, Paul laid out the doctrinal background underlying the imagery. He began with the order of creation from the Garden of Eden. God was the “kephale,” meaning source or origin of Christ, who was the source of man, who was the source of woman. Paul taught that God’s glory (referring to man) should pray unveiled, and by the same token, humanity’s glory (referring to woman) should address God with her head covered (1 Corinthians 11:7). The early church interpreted the relationship between Adam and Eve typologically. The Edenic couple typified Christ and his Church — the Bridegroom and Bride. In this typological scenario, Eve (or the Church) worked through the mediator Adam (or Christ). In either a symbolic or literal interpretation, Paul described this empowering veil as a sign of unique female authority to pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:5). By covering her head, female saints received “power on her head” and could interact with angels (1 Corinthians 11:10). Paul concluded by emphasizing that men and women are completely interdependent — woman was created from man, while man is born of woman (1 Corinthians 11:11–12). In this regard we see an equal status between men and women in their relationship with the Lord. Their relationship focuses on their union with each other and God.
Continue reading

Email This Page

Through a Glass Darkly: Examining Church Finances

Abstract: The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power is Michael Quinn’s impressive response to a century of books and articles that have often distorted the finances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This third volume in The Mormon Hierarchy series covers Church history from 1830 to 2010, and represents a staggering commitment. For 46 years Quinn has diligently gathered data on Church income, expenditures, taxation, and “living allowances” paid to Church leaders. The results are significant and engrossing, with but one possibly serious error. If you are interested in any aspect of the Church finances, the enormous effort required to bring us Wealth & Corporate Power may well be the final word. In Quinn’s own words, it tells an “American success story without parallel.”

Review of D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2017), 597 pp., with appendices and index. $49.95.

Continue reading

Email This Page

“Possess the Land in Peace”: Zeniff’s Ironic Wordplay on Shilom

Abstract: The toponym Shilom likely derives from the Semitic/Hebrew root š-l-m, whence also the similar-sounding word šālôm, “peace,” derives. The first mention of the toponym Shilom in Zeniff’s record — an older account than the surrounding material and an autobiography — occurs in Mosiah 9:6 in parallel with Zeniff’s mention of his intention to “possess the land in peace” (Mosiah 9:5). The language and text structure of Mosiah 9:5‒6 thus suggest a deliberate wordplay on Shilom in terms of šālôm. Zeniff uses the name Shilom as a point of irony throughout his brief royal record to emphasize a tenuous and often absent peace between his people and the Lamanites.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Playing to an Audience: A Review of Revelatory Events

Review of Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies in the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2016, 366 pages with notes and index $29.93 (paperback).

Abstract: Ann Taves’s book offers a comparative look at the origins of three groups, among them Mormonism. While she does not address the issue of competing explanations by each group about their origins or how to best navigate among them in terms that are not self-referential, that crucial circumstance is modeled by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. So I, too, have a pattern that applies to my arguments just as much it does to those offered by Professor Taves. Where her book attempts to solve the puzzle of Joseph Smith, my review offers a test of her rules for puzzle solving. This includes comparisons with the standard approach to document testing cited by Hugh Nibley, looking at key aspects of her argument and treatment of sources, and by considering Richard L. Anderson’s crucially relevant study of imitation gospels compared to the Book of Mormon. My own response should be tested not just as secular or religious, but against standards that are dependent on neither secular nor religious grounds. That is, to be valid, my response should argue “Why us?” in comparison to her case, rather than just declare that what she offers is “Not us.”

Continue reading

Email This Page

Changing Critics’ Criticisms of Book of Mormon Changes

Abstract: In early 1830 Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, a 269,938-word volume that discusses religious themes intermingled with a history of ancient American peoples.1 Claiming it was scripture like the Bible,2 in 1841 he declared it to be “the most correct of any book on earth and the keystone of our religion.”3 Yet, many changes in the text of the Book of Mormon can be detected when comparing the original manuscript to the version available today. These changes have served as a lightning rod for some critics who imply that a divinely inspired book should not require any alterations. This article examines the types of changes that have occurred while trying to assign levels of significance and identify Joseph’s motives in making those alterations in the 1837 and 1840 reprintings of the book.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Celebrating the Work of John W. Welch

A review of Paul Y. Hoskisson & Daniel C. Peterson, eds., To Seek the Law of the Lord: Essays in Honor of John W. Welch, The Interpreter Foundation, 2017, 543 pages. $24.95 (paperback).

Abstract: In this collection of articles gathered in honor of John W. Welch, a wide variety of subjects are explored by authors from many different disciplines. Like the work of Professor Welch himself, these articles draw on scholarship from varied fields of study and provide many interesting and valuable insights.

Continue reading

Email This Page

Not Just Sour Grapes: Jesus’s Interpretation of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard

Abstract: In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, he heavily references Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. An understanding of both the original Hebrew and the Greek translation in the Septuagint of this passage helps provide greater context and meaning into Jesus’s sermon. In particular, it clarifies Jesus’s commentary and criticisms of both society and those administrators in charge of society, especially of the scribes and those that can be considered false prophets.

Continue reading

Email This Page