Evidence #113 | November 19, 2020

The Nephite Ark

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Numerous parallels exist between the Israelite Ark of the Covenant and the Nephite relics that were discovered by Joseph Smith and shown to the Three Witnesses.

Nephite Artifacts Found in a Stone Box

In his account of finding the plates of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith described them as having been placed in a stone box along with other Nephite artifacts:

Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario county, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box. … I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger. The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement. In the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them. (Joseph Smith—History 1:51–51)

Although not directly mentioned by Joseph Smith, there is some historical evidence that the stone box also contained at least two other items—the Liahona and Sword of Laban.1 Importantly, this same collection of relics were passed down from generation to generation by Nephite prophets and kings,2 and they were also shown to the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.3 Clearly, something about them was important, but what was their significance?

Artistic replicas of the gold plates, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona by David Baird. Photo by Daniel Smith.

A Nephite Ark of the Covenant?

Don Bradly has argued that the stone box containing the Nephite relics can be meaningfully compared to the Israelite Ark of the Covenant which held a similar cache of sacred objects.4 In fact, each of the Nephite artifacts, as well as the stone box they were hidden in, has intriguing parallels with one or more items from the Israelite Ark. These relationships are briefly summarized in the following chart:

Nephite Relics

Israelite Relics

Parallels

Hill Cumorah

Jerusalem Temple Mount

There is evidence that early Latter-day Saints associated the Hill Cumorah (where Joseph Smith located the Nephite artifacts) with a temple site. Likewise, the Ark of the Covenant was a central feature of the temple mount architecture of Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem.5

Stone Box

Gold Ark

 

The Book of Mormon was written on golden tablets and placed in a stone box. In an inverse parallel, the Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets and placed in a gold box (see Exodus 37:1–2).6

Gold Plates

Stone Tablets

Gold Head Plate

Both the Book of Mormon and the Ten Commandments are permanent, engraved documents containing the words and laws of God. In addition, the high priest in ancient Israel wore a gold head plate engraved with sacred words (see Exodus 39:2–3, 30; Leviticus 8:9). This is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that specifically describes engraving text onto gold.7

Interpreters

Urim and Thummim

There is biblical evidence that the high priestly ephod (a high priestly garment associated with the Urim and Thummim and Breastplate of Judgment) was contained in the Tabernacle (see 1 Samuel 21:9). Moreover, the Nephite interpreters and the biblical Urim and Thummim have a number of similarities. Both have been associated with gemstones, a breastplate, light, illuminating letters, and a lively mode of prophetic revelation.8

Breastplate

Ephod

Breastplate of Judgment

The Nephite breastplate appears to have been linked to the interpreters (they were apparently made to be connected by a rod), just as the biblical Urim and Thummum was associated with the ephod and Breastplate of Judgment (Leviticus 8:9).9 Interestingly, both the Israelite breastplate and the Nephite breastplate may have had a pocket or pouch that was specifically designed to keep the interpreters or Urim and Thummum.10

Liahona

Pot of Manna

Aaron’s Rod

Brazen Serpent

Urim and Thummim

The functionality and symbolism of the Liahona overlaps with several relics associated with the Ark of the Covenant. Like the Israelite Manna, the Liahona was discovered on the ground, was round in shape, and helped provide sustenance. A pot of Manna was stored in the Ark for remembrance, just like the Liahona was stored with other Nephite relics in a stone box. Like Aaron’s rod, the Liahona’s rod-like pointers (as well as its writings) served as a type of divinely approved divination instrument. Like the Brazen Serpent, those who looked upon the Liahona were saved, and both items were made of brass or bronze (which have essentially the same meaning in the KJV). Finally, much like the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona served as a revelatory device that communicated specific instructions from the Lord.11

Sword of Laban

Sword of Goliath

The Sword of Goliath was kept in the tabernacle near the ephod (see 1 Samuel 21:9), just as the Sword of Laban was kept with the Nephite relics. Further parallels have been noted by Brett Holbrook:12

  1. Each sword was originally wielded by a man of might.
  2. Each sword’s owner had his head cut off with his own sword by a faithful youth.
  3. Each sword was finely crafted for its time and was unique.
  4. Each sword was revered by the people.
  5. Each sword was used to lead people.
  6. Each sword was a symbol of authority and kingship.
Replicas of the Stone Tablets, Aaron's Rod, and Pot of Manna in the Israelite Ark. Image via redeemerofisrael.org. 

Conclusion

If a covenant group of Israelites like Lehi’s family really were displaced from their homeland by divine direction, it seems entirely fitting that they would need something similar to the Ark of the Covenant to perpetuate their temple worship in the New World. As explained by Bradley,

By establishing himself as a New World successor to the temple builder Solomon, building a temple directly patterned on Solomon’s in a new Jerusalem, and compiling his own set of sacred relics and memorials parallel to those in the Ark of the Covenant, Nephi reestablishes Jewish temple worship after the fall of Solomon’s temple.13

While early Latter-day Saints were apparently aware of a general connection between the Nephite artifacts and the Ark of the Covenant,14 only recent research has identified the numerous intersecting parallels between the symbolic objects contained in these sacred repositories. These previously unnoticed relationships add plausibility to Joseph Smith’s account of the discovery of the Book of Mormon.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did the Nephites Preserve Some Items as ‘National Treasures’? (Mosiah 1:16),” KnoWhy 557 (April 14, 2020).

Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 4–8, 200–208.

Don Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’: Recontextualizing the Rise of Mormonism,” (M.A. Thesis, Utah State University, 2018), 89–95, 128–133.

Don Bradley, “Piercing the Veil: Temple Worship in the Lost 116 Pages,” FairMormon presentation, 2012, online at archive.bookofmormoncentral.org.

 

1 Nephi 4:9, 18–211 Nephi 16:16, 26–312 Nephi 5:14Jacob 1:10Words of Mormon 1:13Mosiah 1:16Mosiah 8:13, 19Mosiah 28:20Alma 37:38–47Ether 4:5Doctrine and Covenants 17

1 Nephi 4:9, 18–21

1 Nephi 16:16, 26–31

2 Nephi 5:14

Jacob 1:10

Words of Mormon 1:13

Mosiah 1:16

Mosiah 8:13, 19

Mosiah 28:20

Alma 37:38–47

Ether 4:5

Doctrine and Covenants 17

  • 1 See Don Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 8. Documentary evidence for the Liahona and Sword of Laban being in the stone box comes from statements made by Joseph Smith Sr., as reported by Fayette Lapham, “The Mormons,” Historical Magazine 8, no. 5 (May 1870): 307: “Arriving at the stone, [Joseph Smith] again lifted it, with the aid of superhuman power, as at first, and secured the first, or uppermost article, this time putting it carefully into the pillow-case, before laying it down. He now attempted to secure the remainder; but just then the same old man appeared, and said to him, that the time had not yet arrived for their exhibition to the world; but that when the proper time came he should have them, and exhibit them with the one he had now secured; …. Joseph ascertained that the remaining articles were a gold hilt and chain, and a gold ball with two pointers. The hilt and chain had once been part of a sword of unusual size; but the blade had rusted away and become useless.” There is also a report from Katharine Smith Salisbury (Joseph Smith’s sister), who mentioned not only the sword of Laban but also the brass plates: “I well remember the trials my brother had, before he obtained the records. After he had the vision, he went frequently to the hill, and upon returning would tell us, ‘I have seen the records, also the brass plates and the sword of Laban with the breastplate and interpreters’.” Katharine Smith Salisbury to “Dear Sisters,” 10 March 1886, Saints’ Herald 33 (1 May 1886): 260; cited in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents5 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 1:521. This mention of the brass plates is interesting, considering that in several different interviews David Whitmer mentioned that the Three Witnesses were shown the “other plates” or specifically the “brass plates” when Moroni showed them the plates of the Book of Mormon. Several of these reports are quoted in Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Accounts of the Liahona,” Evidence# 0416, August 15, 2023, online at evidencentral.org.
  • 2 For the transmission of the plates, see John W. Welch and J. Gregory Welch, “Who Kept the Records of the Book of Mormon (Overview),” in Charting the Book of Mormon: Visual Aids for Personal Study and Teaching (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), chart 16; see also chart 17: “ Who Kept the Records in the Book of Mormon? (By Lineages).” For the preservation of the Nephite interpreters, see Mosiah 8:13, 19; Mosiah 28:20; Alma 37:21, 24; Ether 4:5.For the preservation of the Sword of Laban, see 2 Nephi 5:14; Jacob 1:10; Words of Mormon 1:13; Mosiah 1:16. For the preservation of the Liahona, see Mosiah 1:16; Alma 37:38–47.
  • 3 The witnesses were promised a view of these artifacts in Doctrine and Covenants 17:1: “Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.” David Whitmer reported several times that the witnesses did indeed behold these items (see History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2], p. 25, footnote 79, accessed October 2, 2020, online at josephsmithpapers.org.)
  • 4 The word “ark” is from Latin arca, meaning “box” or “chest.”
  • 5 See Don Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’: Recontextualizing the Rise of Mormonism,” (M.A. Thesis, Utah State University, 2018), 89–99. For a discussion of the relationship between the Hill Cumorah in New York and the one described in the Book of Mormon (where the last battle between the Nephites and Lamanites took place), see Book of Mormon Central, “Where is the Location of the Hill Cumorah? (Mormon 6:6),” KnoWhy 489 (November 29, 2018).
  • 6 See Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages, 5, 205; Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,”93;
  • 7 See Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 93.
  • 8 See Evidence Central, “Similarities between the Nephite Interpreters and the Urim and Thummim,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org; Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages, 200–201; Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 92–93.
  • 9 See Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 92.
  • 10 Concerning the Israelite Urim and Thummim and its placement, See Cornelis Van Dam, The Urim and Thummim: A Means of Revelation in Ancient Israel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), 155; for Van Dam’s full argument see pp. 154–160. This corresponds with William Smith’s description of a “pocket [that] was prepared in the [Nephite] breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the [interpreters were] placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited.” Peterson and Pender, interview of William Smith, 7, as cited in Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 89. The interview in which William made these statements was from 1891, which was late in his life, and it wasn’t reported until 1924.
  • 11 See Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages, 150–155, 201–203; Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 92; Book of Mormon Central, “Why Were the Three Witnesses Shown the Liahona? (Alma 37:38),” KnoWhy 405 (February 6, 2018).
  • 12 These points are adapted from Brett L. Holbrook, “The Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority and Kingship,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 48–53. See also Bradley, The Lost 116 Pages, 201–202; Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 131–133; Evidence Central, “Sword of Laban,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
  • 13 Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 133.
  • 14 See Bradley, “American Proto-Zionism and the ‘Book of Lehi’,” 91–95.
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