Evidence #140 | January 25, 2021

Nephi’s Broken Bow

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The broken bow narrative in 1 Nephi is consistent with symbolism found in the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts. It is also quite sophisticated on a literary level.

The Broken Bow Narrative

During his family’s travels through Arabia, Nephi reported that on one occasion he went hunting and broke his bow “which was made of fine steel” (1 Nephi 16:18). Because his brothers’ bows had “lost their springs, it began to be exceedingly difficult, yea, insomuch that [they] could obtain no food” (v. 21).

Laman, Lemuel, the sons of Ishmael, and even Lehi all began to “murmur against the Lord” (1 Nephi 16:20). Nephi, however, encouraged them by saying “many things unto them in the energy of [his] soul” (v. 24). He then “made out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow” and went to his father for guidance (v. 23). Lehi humbled himself and consulted the Liahona, which directed Nephi to the top of a mountain where he “did slay wild beasts, insomuch that [he] did obtain food for [their] families” (1 Nephi 16:31). 

Symbolism of the Broken Bow in the Ancient Near East

A seventh century BC seal depicting the commander of Jerusalem receiving a bow (and arrows), symbolizing the king’s bestowal of military authority onto the commander. Image via Biblical Archaeology Review 45, no. 1 (Jan./Feb. 2019).

In the ancient Near East, kingly status, military power, and the right to rule were all symbolized by the bow.1 Thus “to break the bow” was a common idiom which meant, among other things, to bring an enemy or vassal into submission. This imagery is found in treaties, curses, and other ancient Near Eastern documents from various times and places, as well as in biblical passages.2

“As the symbolism is used in treaties,” writes Alan Goff, “the biblical usage indicates dependence especially on the lord (other biblical references include 1 Samuel 2:4; Psalm 18:34; Ezekiel 39:3; Hosea 1:5; 2:18; Jeremiah 49:35; 51:56). The message of the broken bow is that the Lord’s people can’t rely on the arm of flesh but must rely on the arm of the Lord.”3 Psalm 37:14–17 illustrates this point well:

The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation. Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken. A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken: but the Lord upholdeth the righteous. (emphasis added)

Symbolism of the Broken Bow in Nephi’s Account

These biblical themes are prominent in Nephi’s account, where his family’s bows were literally broken (or rendered useless), where their dependence upon the Lord was absolutely crucial, and where they were ultimately delivered through Nephi’s construction of a new bow.

Themes of submission and rulership—which are so fundamental to “bow” and “broken bow” imagery in the ancient Near East—are also clearly present in Nephi’s account. For Lehi’s family, it appears the Lord was testing their loyalty and humility by breaking their bows, or at least allowing their bows to break or become useless. Notably, Nephi was the only one who passed the test. Rather than murmuring like the others, he responded just as he should—through complete submission, both to his father and to the Lord. This is precisely the response that was expected when a ruler broke the bow of a vassal in ancient Near Eastern imagery or idiom.4

Nephi showing his broken bow to Lehi. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Additionally, Nephi was the only one who had the faith to construct a new bow—the ancient symbol of power and authority. It seems to be no coincidence that after this point Nephi essentially “took the lead of their journey in the wilderness” (Mosiah 10:13). As Noel B. Reynolds put it, “The stories in 1 Nephi 16 record a significant turning point in Nephi’s account, for it is here that Nephi emerges undeniably as coleader with his father.”5 The presence of this leadership theme is solidified by the fact that only a few verses later Laman and Lemuel accuse Nephi of taking it upon himself “to be our ruler and our teacher” and also “to make himself a king and a ruler over us” (1 Nephi 16:37–38).

Explaining the family conflict over who should lead was particularly important to Nephi. As observed by Reynolds, “Nephi carefully constructed what he wrote to convince his own and later generations that the Lord had selected him over his older brothers to be Lehi’s successor.”6 The broken bow narrative achieves this goal remarkably well. It symbolically establishes Nephi’s right to rule, but it also emphasizes that his status as a ruler and deliverer only came after he faithfully submitted his will to his father and to the Lord. This principle—that the Lord delivers the faithful (1 Nephi 1:20) and chooses rulers “with lowliness of heart” (1 Nephi 2:19–22)—is what Nephi promised to prove in the beginning chapters of his record.7

Nephi drawing his new bow. Image via churchofjesushrist.org. 

Conclusion

It is hard to imagine how Nephi’s account could conform much better to the ancient Near Eastern symbolism regarding bows and the breaking of bows. Submission, dependence on the Lord, deliverance, rulership—these relevant Near Eastern and biblical themes are all concentrated in a few short verses where Nephi breaks and then makes a bow. The way this story helps achieve Nephi’s larger narrative goals is also not without merit. Overall, the account provides evidence of the Book of Mormon’s literary complexity, as well as its subtle consistency with ancient Near Eastern symbolism.

William J. Hamblin, “Nephi’s Bows and Arrows,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 41–43.

Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephi’s Political Testament,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May have Missed Before, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991), 220–229.

Alan Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Historicism, Revisionism, Positivism, and the Bible and Book of Mormon,” (MA dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1970), 92–99.

1 Nephi 16:17–32

1 Nephi 16:17–32

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Book of Mormon

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