Book Club: Nibley – An Approach to the BoM
chapter 9 – Escapade in Jerusalem
Laman, Lemuel, Sam and Nephi are sent on two missions back to Jerusalem. Lehi, and perhaps his family, has already been threatened for his preaching. Knowing that Sariah would worry so much, why would Lehi send his 4 sons back on such a dangerous mission as obtaining the Brass Plates from Laban? Lehi has seen that Laman and Lemuel are not happy about returning on such a dangerous trip. Why send them? Why not do it himself?
Here, we see that Nibley describes Lehi’s Jerusalem in terms that are recognizable to the story in the Book of Mormon:
“It has ever been an established and conventional bit of gallantry for some Bedouin brave with a price on his head to risk his life by walking right through a city under the noses of the police in broad daylight—a very theatrical gesture but one which my Arab friends assure me has been done a thousand times.”
Different cultures find ways to display their bravery (or is it foolishness?). For Sioux Indians, counting coup, or touching an enemy with one’s coup stick without harming him, was a greater sign of bravery than to kill him. For many young people in America and elsewhere, drag racing, jumping out of perfectly safe airplanes, and scaling impossible peaks are a sign of gallantry. People wish to be noticed by doing things the average person would not do. In literature, we read of Robin Hood, Ali Baba and many others who risk going among their enemies in broad daylight. In this Book of Mormon story, we see a penchant for youthful adventure.
“It was in fact the keeping of such records that distinguished civilized nomads from the floating riffraff of the desert….”
What later distinguishes Nephites from Lamanites? Written language. Jacob and Esau describe them as savages, who eat raw meat, and are lazy. However, when the priests of Noah teach writing to the Lamanites, it revolutionizes their world, allowing them to increase trade, and therefore their wealth.
It must have infuriated Laman and Lemuel when Nephi sneaked off with many of the people and the records of the people. Centuries later, Lamanites and Gadianton robbers would both accuse the Nephites of being thieves, stealing their lands and their right to govern. Such sacred national relics, such as the Brass Plates, the Liahona, and Laban’s sword, would later represent the legitimacy to rule the people.
In describing the death of Laban, he suggests that Nephi is a “skilled swordsman.” I am not convinced of this point. Being a “skilled swordsman” would suggest that Nephi had military experience. Knowing how to use a sword was necessary for personal defense or war. Personal defense may not require a major knowledge of swordsmanship. We do not see any evidence that Nephi has been trained with a sword for military purposes. Nephi was a hunter, as he shows in ensuing chapters in the Book of Mormon, owning a fine steel bow. However, hunters have little need for swords, as bows, arrows, slings and spears were the more common items used anciently for hunting. Only after arriving in the New World and separating from Laman, do we see that Nephi must make swords for his people to defend themselves. While having a sword to defend themselves on the trek was needed, again, it does not mean that Nephi was an expert swordsman at the time of beheading Laban.
As for note 11/10 (the end notes are messed up), modern LDS scholars do not seem to agree with Nibley on this point: “It was Nephi who supervised the making of swords after the manner of Laban’s sword, which he so admired. 2 Nephi 5:14.”
Nephi made swords, but the swords made were more likely to have been slashing swords made of wood with obsidian edges known as a macuahuitl .
In their book, Warfare in the Book of Mormon, William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, note that the sword used in the Americas was probably a macuahuitl. The obsidian blades are so sharp, they can easily cut a man’s head off, just as Nephi cut off Laban’s head with the steel sword. It is unlikely that Nephi knew about working iron into swords, as that was a rare expertise to have in 600 BC., particularly in Jerusalem In fact, Babylon had already carried off many of Jerusalem’s artisans and skilled workers, which would have included those experienced in working in iron. This would have made Laban’s sword a very rare find, and a precious weapon for Nephi to own.
That said, Nibley’s description of the dark streets of Jerusalem fit perfectly well with stories from the 1001 Arabian Nights, and into the stories of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890). (who first translated 1001 Arabian Nights into English).