Evidence #135 | January 4, 2021

Laban's Steel Sword

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Archaeological discoveries of ancient weapons with blades of steel, hilts of gold, and sheaths are comparable to Nephi’s description of the Sword of Laban.

Labans Sword

Nephi gave the following description of the Sword of Laban: “I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). Several aspects of this description are consistent with archaeological discoveries from the ancient world.

Early and Persistent Criticisms

One early and persistent criticism of the Book of Mormon was Nephi’s description of Laban’s sword as having been made of “precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). As one 19th-century commentator objected, “Laban’s sword was steel, when it is a notorious fact that the Israelites knew nothing of steel for hundreds of years afterwards.”1 Such claims continued well into the 20th century, as demonstrated in the following comment from 1964: “No one believes that steel was available to Laban or anyone else in 592 B.C.”2 Similar statements could be cited.3

Ancient Near Eastern Steel Blades and Artifacts

Contrary to these views, scholars in recent decades have learned that ancient Near Eastern blacksmiths and metallurgists were making steel objects through a process of carburization hundreds of years before Nephi’s day.4 Archaeologists have recovered not only tools,5 but also rare examples of steel swords from the ancient Near East.6

Particularly relevant to the Book of Mormon is a sword discovered near Jericho, only about 12 miles east of Jerusalem.7 Approximately one meter in length, the sword dates to the time of King Josiah, a contemporary of Lehi. According to Avraham Eitan, “Metallurgical analysis of a sample taken from the blade proves … that the iron was deliberately hardened into steel, attesting to the technical knowledge of the blacksmith.”8 It is apparently “the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel.”9

This 7th-6th century BC Israelite sword, held at the Israel Museum, was found at Vered Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem. The blade is made "iron hardened into steel" (museum plaque). Photo credit: Lauren Perry. Image and caption via studioetquoquefide.com.

Gold Hilts

Concerning Laban’s sword, Nephi explained that “the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (1 Nephi 4:9). Many examples of gold-hilted or gold-ornamented swords and daggers from diverse times and locations have been discovered throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. According to John A. Tvedtnes,

Other nations from Lehi’s time (ca. 600 BC) also had swords with gold hilts. These included Assyria, which fell to the Babylonians in 605 BC; Persia, which conquered Babylon in 539 BC; the Medes, who joined with the Persians in the conquest of Babylon, and the Scythians, who migrated from Russia and Afghanistan to the Near East as far south as northern Israel in the 7th century BC. Later Mediterranean peoples, notably the Greeks and Romans, also decorated swords with gold. Various examples of swords resembling the one taken from Laban by Nephi were found after Joseph Smith’s time, yet the Book of Mormon testifies of a gold-hilted sword when such were as yet unattested in the biblical world before the age of modern archaeology.10

Gold hilted daggers discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (14th century BC). Image via livescience.com. 
Hilt of Achaemenid Sword from 5th-4th centuries BC. Image via https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/.
Golden Cover of a Sword Handle with Animals from the second half of the 4th century BC. Image via https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/.

Sheaths

Nephi described Laban’s sword as having a “sheath” (1 Nephi 4:9). Depending on the materials from which they were made and the circumstances in which they were preserved, some ancient sheaths have survived the ravages of time (some of which are demonstrated in the examples above). Tvedtnes has drawn attention to a Mesopotamian sword (ca. 2500 BC) with a gold blade and a hilt decorated with gold bead inlay. “Of particular interest is that this sword was found with its sheath intact. The sheath is of gold-decorated open-work and has two vertical slits on the back to allow it to be attached to a belt.”11

Gold dagger and scabbard, from the royal tomb of Ur. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

In 2019 a Scythian a dagger/short sword with a gold-plated hilt, cross-guard, and sheath was discovered at Mount Mamai in modern-day Ukraine. The burial site dates to the 6th century BC, which is approximately contemporary with Laban.12

The leaf-ribbed grip and cross-guard of the Scythian short sword (Credit: MamaiGora/Facebook). Image and caption via archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com.
Scabbard of the Scythian short sword (Credit: MamaiGora/Facebook). Image and caption via archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com.

Conclusion

Because of archaeological discoveries made after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Nephi’s description of Laban’s sword is no longer an apparent anachronism. Relevant examples of blades of steel, hilts of gold, and sheaths can all be found in antiquity, sometimes in contexts very close in time or place (or both) to the Sword of Laban.

Neal Rappleye, “The Iron Dagger of King Tutankhamun,” Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon (September 2018): 1–4.

Neal Rappleye, “Vered Jericho Sword,” Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon 3 (August 2018): 1–3.

Book of Mormon Central, “What Was the Sword of Laban Like? (1 Nephi 4:9),” KnoWhy 401 (January 23, 2018).

John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hilt Thereof Was of Pure Gold,” The Interpreter Foundation (Blog), October 4, 2015, online at interpreterfoundation.org.

Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “All that Glitters is Not … Steel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 1 (2005): 66–67.

William J. Adams Jr., “Nephi’s Jerusalem and Laban’s Sword,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 11–13.

Matthew Roper, “Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 38–39.

1 Nephi 4:9

1 Nephi 4:9

  • 1 Clark Braden, Public Discussion (St. Louis and Kansas City, MO: Christian Publishing Co. and J. H. Smart and Co., 1884), 109.
  • 2 William Whalen, The Latter-day Saints in the Modern Day World: An Account of Contemporary Mormonism (New York, NY: The John Day Company, Inc., 1964), 48. It should also be noted that the commentator’s specific dating of Laban’s sword to 592 BC represents his own assumptions about the text’s chronology rather than any sort of consensus about the timing of Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem.
  • 3 In 1834, E. D. Howe argued that Nephi’s report constitutes “the earliest account of steel to be found in history,” rendering it as an anachronism. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 25–26, quote from p. 25. “Laban is represented as killed by one Nephi, some six hundred years before Christ, with a sword ‘of the most precious steel,’ hundreds of years before steel was known to man!” Daniel Bartlett, The Mormons or, Latter-day Saints: whence came they? (London: J. A. Thompson and Co., 1911), 15. “[The Book of Mormon] speaks of the most ‘precious steel,’ before the commonest had been dreamt of.” C. Sheridan Jones, The Truth about the Mormons (London, W. Rider, 1920), 4–5. “Nephi … wielded a sword ‘of the most precious steel.’ But steel was not known to man in those days.” Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1920), 44. “Laban had a steel sword long before steel came into use.” George Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1932), 55. “Every commentator on the Book of Mormon has pointed out the many cultural and historical anachronisms, such as the steel sword of Laban in 600 B.C.” Thomas O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 39.
  • 4 See Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly and Tamara S. Wheeler, “How the Iron Age Began,” Scientific American 237, no. 4 (October 1977): 127. “Wrought iron heated in contact with hot charcoal (Carbon) at high temperatures produces carbonized iron or steel which is more malleable than cast iron.” Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 169. The process of steeling iron in the ancient Near East is explained in James D. Muhly, “Mining and Metalwork in Ancient Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 vols., ed. Jack M. Sasson (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995), 3:1515. One recent study confirms that early Iron Age objects were indeed made of iron carburized into steel, but indicates that the carburization process may have been accidental at that early stage. See Naama Yahalom-Mack and Adi Elyahu-Behar, “The Transition from Bronze to Iron in Canaan: Chronology, Technology, and Context,” Radiocarbon 57, no. 2 (2015): 285–305.
  • 5 See Erik Tholander, “Evidence of the Use of Carburized Steel and Quench Hardening in Late Bronze Age Cyprus,” Opuscula Atheniensia 10 (1971): 15–22; Anthony M. Snodgrass, “Iron and Early Metallurgy in the Mediterranean,” in The Coming Age of Iron, ed. Theodore A. Wertime and James D. Muhly (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 341, 365–366; D. Davis, R. Maddin, J.D. Muhly, T. Stech, “A Steel Pick from Mt. Adir in Palestine,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 4 (1985): 41–51; Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000–586 B.C.E. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990), 361.
  • 6 See Herbert Maryon, “Early Near Eastern Steel Swords,” American Journal of Archaeology 65, no. 2 (1961): 173–184.
  • 7 See William J. Adams Jr., “Notes and Communications: Nephi’s Jerusalem and Laban’s Sword,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 194–195; William J. Adams Jr., “Nephi’s Jerusalem and Laban’s Sword,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 11–13; Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “All that Glitters is Not … Steel,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 1 (2005): 66–67; Neal Rappleye, “Vered Jericho Sword,” Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon 3 (August 2018): 1–3.
  • 8 Avraham Eitan, “Rare Sword of the Israelite Period Found at Vered Jericho,” Israel Museum Journal 12 (1994): 62.
  • 9 Hershall Shanks, “Antiquities director confronts problems and controversies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, no. 4 (1986): 33, 35.
  • 10 John A. Tvedtnes, “The Hilt Thereof Was of Pure Gold,” The Interpreter Foundation (Blog), October 4, 2015, online at interpreterfoundation.org. References to figures and sources silently omitted. See also, Neal Rappleye, “The Iron Dagger of King Tutankhamun,” Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon (September 2018): 1–4.
  • 11 Tvedtnes, “The Hilt Thereof Was of Pure Gold,” online at interpreterfoundation.org.
  • 12 See Christine Chraibi, “Gilded Scythian Sword Found at Mount Mamai Excavations in Ukraine,” October 12, 2019, online at archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com.
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