Evidence #132 | January 4, 2021

Steel Bow

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi’s account of breaking his steel bow is consistent with current knowledge of ancient Near Eastern archery.

Nephi’s Steel Bow

During Lehi’s travels through ancient Arabia, his sons needed to slay animals along the way in order for their group to avoid starvation. Nephi reported that on one occasion he went hunting and broke his bow, “which was made of fine steel” (1 Nephi 16:18).

Nephi breaks his bow in the wilderness. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org.

Steel (Bronze) Bows in the Bible

While it might seem like a bow made from steel would be out of place in a story from the early 6th century BC, we find reports of such items in the King James Version of early biblical texts:

“He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken in mine arms” (2 Samuel 22:35Psalms 18:34).

“He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through” (Job 20:24).

The word translated “steel” in these biblical passages is the Hebrew term nhwsh,2 which actually means “bronze” and is rendered that way in more recent translations.2 The term “steel,” as found in the King James Bible, reflects an older, broader range of meaning which included not only carburized iron (what we would call steel today) but also hardened copper alloys such as bronze. This broader meaning of steel is also shared with other European languages.3 It is plausible that Nephi’s “fine steel” bow was similar to the bow of nhwsh (bronze, steel) mentioned in the Bible.

Composite Metal Bows

Ramses II at the Battle of Kadesh. Image via Wikipedia.

According to Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman, the bronze bow in biblical passages does not refer to a bow made entirely of metal, but instead, “probably refers to a composite bow, bound and/or inlaid with bronze.”4 Such bows could be “decorated or reinforced in certain parts (usually the upper limb, nock, and grip) with bronze.”5 

More common composite bows were made from a wooden base, animal horn, and sinew. These materials were bound and glued together to form an integrated body, shaped into a double-convex form that was powerful enough to fire arrows which could effectively pierce objects from 300–400 meters away.6 It was also smaller and less heavy than regular bows. They were very effective and feared in warfare, but were also difficult and expensive to make. “For a considerable period after the composite bow was introduced, it remained primarily a weapon of royalty.”7

Relatively few composite bows have survived from the ancient Near East. Before the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, only ten of these were known, but amidst the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, 27 composite bows were found. Although some were purely ceremonial, “the majority of the weapons would have been usable.”8 One of these, the so-called “Bow of Honour,” was beautifully decorated with gold sheeting on the grip, lower, mid, and upper arms as well as the tips of the weapon.9 Howard Carter, who first discovered and excavated the tomb, described it as a “work of almost inconceivable fineness,”10 reminding us of Nephi’s description of his own bow of “fine steel” (1 Nephi 16:18; emphasis added).

Tutankhamun’s gold-plated “Bow of Honour,” writes W. McLeod, “could have been strung” and used.11 It is plausible, based on the biblical references to a “bow of bronze,” that the same could be done with bronze either for decorative purposes, or to strengthen parts of a composite bow without substantially increasing its weight.

The Breaking of the Bow

Understanding that Nephi’s bow was likely not fully made of steel or bronze, but rather was a composite bow (most likely with bronze sheeting), is significant for understanding how Nephi’s bow could break in the Arabian wilderness. William J. Hamblin, an authority on ancient Near Eastern warfare, has noted:

Composite bows have a specific structural problem that leaves them susceptible to changes in temperature and climate, which may cause the bow to warp and break. … Thus, if Nephi’s bow were of a composite type, his move from the more temperate climate of Palestine to the dry heat of the Arabian peninsula could have contributed to the risk that his bow might warp and break.12

Arabian Desert (the Empty Quarter). Image via Wikipedia.

Conclusion

Nephi’s account of breaking his steel bow is consistent with known bow technology from the ancient Near East. This includes the decorative or functional use of metals to reinforce parts of some composite bows, terminology used to refer to these bows as if they were entirely made of metal, and specific weaknesses that make such bows more susceptible to breakage under certain climatic conditions.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Nephi’s ‘Fine Steel’ Bow Break? (1 Nephi 16:18),” KnoWhy 584 (January 31, 2020).

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Nephi Include the Story of the Broken Bow? (1 Nephi 16:23),” KnoWhy 421 (April 3, 2018).

William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 365–399.

Alan Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Historicism, Revisionism, Positivism, and the Bible and the Book of Mormon” (Master’s Thesis, Brigham Young University: 1989), 190–200.

1 Nephi 16:18

1 Nephi 16:18

  • 1 Rendered also as nechushah. See Strong’s Concordance, online at biblehub.com.
  • 2 For instance, see the various translations for 2 Samuel 22:35 and Job 20:24 at biblehub.com.
  • 3 For example, the Florentine glassmaker Antonio Neri used the word acciaio (“steel”) for bronze in his influential book, The Art of Glass translated into English in 1662 (Paul Engle, “Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall,” Conciatore: The Life and Times of 17th Century Glassmaker Antonio Neri, January 20, 2015. https://www.conciatore.org/2015/01/). Likewise, the Spanish historian Tezozomoc recorded that the Tarascans of western Mexico had helmets of steel (acero), although this likely referred to bronze, not actual steel (Edward Kingsborough, Antiquities of Mexico [London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848], 9:83. On Tarascan bronze technology during late pre-Columbian times, see Dorothy Hosler, The Sounds and Colors of Power: The Sacred Metallurgical Technology of West Mexico (London: MIT Press, 1994), 21. The meaning of the Hebrew nhwsh was possibly extended to actual steel by the medieval Jewish commentator Joseph Kimhi who rendered nhwsh as “hard metal.” (Steven Shnider, “Psalm XVIII: Theophany, Epiphany, Empowerment,” Vetus Testamentum 56, no. 3 [2006]: 394.)
  • 4 Frank Moore Cross Jr. and David Noel Freedman, “A Royal Song of Thanksgiving: II Samuel 22 = Psalm 18,” Journal of Biblical Literature 72, no. 1 (1953): 31. Roland De Vaux, Ancient Israel: It’s Life and Institutions, trans. John McHugh (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 243: “the term refers to the metal coverings of certain bows.” Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary. Psalms 1-50 (Waco, TX: Word Press, 1982), 176: “The expression ‘bow of bronze’ may either indicate a wooden bow with bronze decoration, or the bronze tipped arrows shot from large bows, or it may be a poetic way of describing the great strength of the warrior’s bow.”
  • 5 William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 374.
  • 6 See Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 1:7–8.
  • 7 Cross and Freedman, “Royal Song of Thanksgiving,” 31.
  • 8 Karl Chandler Randall IV, “Origins and Comparative Performance of the Composite Bow” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of South Africa: 2016), 61.
  • 9 According to W. McLeod, “Details of construction are concealed by gold sheeting and fine filigree gold-work inlaid with colored stones and glass. The bow is not completely covered with gold sheeting in a single piece; rather each plain band is composed of a single piece of gold; the decorative bands overlap it at each edge for a width of 0.004.” He also notes, “Because the gold of the ‘Bow of Honour’ is not continuous, but is applied in zones, presumably, it could have been strung.” W. McLeod, Composite Bows from the Tomb of Tutankhamun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 10, 12.
  • 10 Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 174–175.
  • 11 McLeod, Composite Bows, 12.
  • 12 Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” 374.
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