METAL SWORDS and the Book of Mormon by Dr. Ainsworth [news letter]

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The following is a news letter that is sent out via e-mail.

I am one of the many LDS authors who consider the Maya to be the people, (or a portion of the people), of the Book of Mormon. As part of that conviction, I have attended most Maya conferences during the last twenty-five years. Inasmuch as my avocation is the study of the Maya, I attended the conferences long before I made a connection between these Pre-Columbian people and the Book of Mormon.

As a result of attending these Maya conferences, I have learned many things that support selected Book of Mormon stories, individuals and geography. I have also learned many things that appear to be contrary to Book of Mormon accounts, or at least our perception(s) of those accounts. This article will address one of those conundrums.

Having taught the Book of Mormon as a gospel doctrine teacher, a seminary teacher and as an LDS Institute teacher for 28 years, I am fairly conversant with what is in the book. One thing the Book of Mormon purports is that these people had knowledge of, and use of many metals, including gold, silver, brass, copper, iron and steel. There is mention of at least one metal sword in BOM accounts, and many other uses of the term “sword” in which I have always assumed the swords being referred to were swords made of steel or some other sturdy metal.

Having said that, Maya archaeologists report that no metal of any kind has ever been found among the Maya, during the time period of the Book of Mormon, (600BC to 400AD). Not only do they not find iron, steel, brass or copper, but no gold or silver either.

Therefore, when the Book of Mormon talks about swords in the many battles mentioned, it creates a problem that begs an explanation. As is my wont, I therefore went through the Book of Mormon, using my trusty computer Infobase, to see if I could glean some insight into this apparent contradiction. And, as is usually the case I did make some discoveries. I found that I had, as on many other occasions, projected concepts into the Book of Mormon that were not actually there, and applied my biases to those concepts that were.

So, let’s start at the beginning of the accounts about metals. We know that Lehi and his family had an understanding of metallurgy and its uses. I Nephi 3:3 mentions the brass plates of Laban that Nephi and his brothers secured. These chapters also talk about the sword of Laban that Nephi confiscated. We are even told that this sword was made of the finest steel, (See 1 Nephi 4:9). In addition to this metal sword, Nephi also had a metal bow, (See 1 Nephi 16:18), made from the “finest steel.”

When Lehi’s family reached a land they referred to as Bountiful, Nephi made metal tools, with which he built the boat in which they sailed to this continent. (See 1 Nephi 17:9-11). That is a substantial number of references to the use of metal, and we are still in 1st Nephi, the first book in the Book of Mormon.

Having said that, once you get past the two books of Nephi and the book of Jacob, something interesting happens. Swords are never again referred to as being made of steel or of metal of any kind. I had always just assumed that all references to swords implied they were all made of metal. After reading all of these references, I learned something that made me question that assumption.

The Book of Mormon is explicit about the weapons of war that were used in Nephite and Lamanite battles. Some of the more popular weapons of war were, swords, javelins, the bow and arrow, slings, cemiters, and the ax. Yet, when the historians were writing about groups of soldiers who were killed in battle, they generally say, “they fell by the sword.” This could easily be misleading, as they were actually destroyed by a variety of weapons, the sword being but one of the weapons used. The use of the term, “fell by the sword,” is therefore a term used to convey the idea that the soldiers were killed in battle. It does not mean that every person killed in that specific battle was literally killed by a sword.

Following are two examples, as used by Mormon, when describing his greatest battle:

Mormon 6:9 states of his soldiers:

“And it came to pass that they (the Lamanites) did fall upon my people with the sword, and with the bow, and with the arrow, and with the ax, and with all manner of weapons of war.”

Yet, when writing of the 230,000 Nephite combatants that had been killed, Mormon 6:15 states:

“And it came to pass that there were ten more who did fall by the sword, with their ten thousand each; yea even all my people, save it were the twenty and four of us…”

Alma shares the same concept in this interchange between Captain Moroni and the Lamanite leader, Zerahemnah: (See Alma 44:8)

“And now it came to pass that when Zerahemnah had heard these sayings he came forth and delivered up his sword and his cimeter, and his bow into the hands of Moroni, and said unto him: Behold, here are our weapons of war; we will deliver them up unto you, but we will not suffer ourselves to take an oath unto you, which we know that we shall break, and also our children; but take our weapons of war and suffer that we may depart into the wilderness; otherwise we will retain our swords, and we will perish or conquer.”

(Italics added) Here Alma (possibly Mormon) represents Zerahemnah as using the term, “our swords,” to represent all the different kinds of weapons they had surrendered to Captain Moroni.

In matter of fact, the use of this term, sword, may be just as generalized and therefore as misleading as the use of the term, “chariot.” The use of this term in scripture refers to any mode of transportation, whether driven by horses, automobile engines, or the method of conveyance of the Lord, when he returns in glory, in His “chariot of fire.”

Therefore the obvious question is, when is the term “sword” actually used to represent just a sword, and when is it used as a generalization, simply conveying the idea that the people were killed in battle, whether that killing was actually done with a sword, or some other weapon.

This question is crystallized in Alma 24:12-16 when the converted Lamanites, (later called the anti-Nephi-Lehis), when talking about their repentant state, proclaim:

Verse 12:

“Now, my best beloved brethren since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.”

They expand on this in verse 15:

“Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright,…”

To the logical mind, the last place you would want to place a metal sword, to keep it bright, would be under ground. This is therefore a symbolic use of the term sword, just as it is symbolic when Moroni states, “…my garments are not stained with your blood…” Plus these Lamanites buried all of their weapons of war, not just their swords.

And there is another thing that I learned. After the Book of Jacob, (excluding the book of Ether), there is never another mention of a metal sword. The term sword, or swords is used frequently, but we are not told that the swords were made of metal. We have just made that assumption. Or at least I have made that assumption – at least up until the writing of this article.

So, if the sword was not made of metal, what else could it be made of? That answer is simple, either obsidian, or obsidian, (or some other sharp material) stuck into wooden devices, shaped like swords. Although obsidian is not as durable as metal, it is equally sharp, if not sharper. The Spaniards, upon being confronted by Aztec warriors, said that an Aztec warrior could cut the head of a horse off with one swing of his obsidian cimeter. Having such a fete documented makes it easier to appreciate Alma 17:37, where we are told Ammon “smote off their arms with his sword…” Is it possible that this was a sword using obsidian, and not one of metal? (more on this later)

There is one other interesting facet of this encounter of Ammon. Alma 17:36-38 indicates that most of the people killed by Ammon, were killed with weapons other than the sword. (the sling, etc.), and that he killed only one of these Lamanites with his sword. Alma states that this one person was the leader, to wit, “…but he slew none save it were their leader with his sword;…”

In other words, it appears that Ammon’s chosen weapon of war were methods other than the sword. The sword was Ammon’s weapon of choice, only when he killed “the leader,” or was in close hand-to-hand combat. I believe this may give us some insight into how the sword was viewed by these people. As has already been mentioned, the term “sword” was used as a euphemism for all implements of war and military standing.

Such symbolism precedes the Nephites and has been used during the history of our country. At the conclusion of our Civil War, as well as others, the surrender was symbolized by the leader of the vanquished side presenting his sword to the leader of the victorious side. Given such symbolism, it may be that Ammon was extending a “professional courtesy” so to speak, by killing the leader with his sword, as to do so with a lesser weapon would have been considered an insult, between combatants.

There is possibly another important point to be made about the killings that are related in these three verses. If I understand the verses, these are the events as they transpired, with Ammon and those with whom he fought:

1. It appears that Ammon initially killed and wounded a number of the Lamanites with his sling, (See Alma 17:36).

2. Those Lamanites who were still able, then charged Ammon with their clubs.

3. Ammon then cut the arms off of some of those who were trying to club him. Verse 37 states, “…and they were not a few in number…” (See Alma 17:37)

4. Ammon then dispatched the leader with his sword, having already killed six with his sling. (See Alma 17;38).

5. After killing the leader, it appears Ammon then took a different weapon and killed those who had not run away, and those who had lost their arms.

After reading this account, my question was, “After cutting off the arms of some of these Lamanites, (not the leader) why not finish the job with your sword? Why was only one Lamanite killed with Ammon’s sword?”

In addition to the possibility I have already offered, there is an additional possibility. I have a few Pre-Columbian swords and cimeters, in which the cutting edges are made of obsidian. Although obsidian is as sharp, or sharper than steel, it is not as resilient, and breaks easily. (See photo.) Is it therefore possible that the reason Ammon limited the use of his sword, is because he was preserving these sharp pieces of obsidian that formed the cutting edge of his sword. He therefore cut the arms off of some of the combatants with his sword, killed the leader with his sword, and then dispatched the disarmed, and others, using some other weapon of war. It is just a thought, a possibility.

When we read the term “sword” in the Book of Mormon, the writer may be communicating a symbol, rather than an actual weapon of war. Using the term as a symbol may have been initiated by the Lord himself, in having his prophets communicate such directives as, “…The sword of justice hangeth over this people; and four hundred years pass not away save the sword of justice falleth upon this people.” (See Helaman 13:5)

There are twelve such references in the Book of Mormon, where the term sword is used, but rather than referring to a physical sword, is referring to impending justice meted out by the Lord.

Is it possible that the Nephites and Lamanites, through apostasy, simply lost their ability to smelt ore and make metal weapons of war – and why would it even be necessary? If the obsidian weapons were just as deadly, and exponentially easier to make, why not just gravitated from metal swords, to those of obsidian. Since there was an abundance of obsidian, and it did not require metallurgy skills, smelting ore, etc. This may have been an attraction that led them away from the preference of metal swords.

One thing is for certain. When the Spaniards arrived and were confronted by the Aztec, the Aztec’s chosen weapons of war, for hand-to-hand combat, were the cimeter and the sword, both made with obsidian. There are numerous Aztec accounts (with drawings) showing their battles with the Spaniards, and the weapons of choice among the Aztec, was the cimeter and the sword, using obsidian for the cutting edges.

The obvious question is therefore, since we know the Aztec had the capacity to make metal swords, and many other metal tools, why did they choose the obsidian sword over those made from metal? The reason they did so may be the same reason the Nephites and Lamanites chose to do so.

There are 142 references in the Book of Mormon to the term sword or swords. As already mentioned, 12 of those references have to do with a symbol of the Lord’s impending wrath.

An additional 11 references to the terms sword and swords have to do with prophecy, such as in 2 Nephi 12:4:

“And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks – nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” These prophetic utterances could also be viewed as symbolic uses.

Of the remaining 119 references to swords and sword in the Book of Mormon, 87 are used to refer to all forms of weapons of war, such as in Alma 44:8:

“And now it came to pass that when Zerahemnah had heard these sayings he came forth and delivered up his sword and his cimeter, and his bow into the hands of Moroni and said unto him: Behold, here are our weapons of war; and we will deliver them up unto you, but we will not suffer ourselves to take an oath unto you, which we know that we shall break, and also our children: but take our weapons of war, and suffer that we may depart into the wilderness; otherwise we will retain our swords. And we will perish or conquer.”

There are then only 21 references indicating that someone was actually and literally killed by a sword, such as in Alma 17:37:

“But behold, every man that lifted his club to smite Ammon, he smote off their arms with his sword: for he did withstand their blows by smiting their arms with the edge of his sword…”

There are three Book of Mormon references that I assume are also somewhat symbolic, although this could be argued. In the case where Ammon converted the people of King Lamoni’s father, and the converted Lamanites said this of their swords, as they prepared to bury them – Alma 24:12:

“Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away your stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.”

Last of all, there are 8 references to the sword of Laban. 1 Nephi 4:9 states, “And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.”

There are three interesting things about this scripture. First Nephi tells us that he “drew the sword from Laban’s sheath.” This is the only place in the Book of Mormon where it is stated that a sword was in, or was drawn from a sheath. One could make that assumption when the record states the sword was drawn, but it could just as easily be assumed that it was not drawn from a sheath. If the swords in the Book of Mormon, (excluding the sword of Laban), were made of obsidian, they would not have been placed in a sheath.

Second, the sword of Laban was clearly a ceremonial sword, not one made for battle. Just as our current military, in certain formal attire, have ornate swords that are ceremonial in nature and not really intended for battle. The hilt of Laban’s sword was made of pure gold. That creates two problems for a sword that would be a weapon of war. The gold increases the weight of the sword, as gold is one of the heaviest of all metals, and it is also one of the softest. These are two characteristics that one would not want in a sword designed for battle. The hilt, among other things is designed to protect the hand from assault from other swords. Gold would not be the metal of choice to do that.

I spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to determine what a sword from the time period of Laban would look like, its construction, etc. I could not locate one from his time period, but I did for an earlier time period, that of Solomon, about 250 years earlier. Using the description in the Book of Mormon, of the sword of Laban, I obtained a replica of the sword of Solomon, gold hilt and all.

The sword that I obtained weighs over eight pounds, is bottom heavy, (a gold handle), and is extremely clumsy to use – much to heavy to use in battle.

Alma 27:29 appears to indicate that the sword and the cimeter were used for the same purpose, to wit:

“Therefore, they would suffer death in the most aggravating and distressing manner which could be inflicted by their brethren, before they would take the sword or cimeter to smite them.”

The term cimeter does not appear in an English dictionary. The closest weapon that appears in the dictionary is the scimitar, which is defined as a “saber having a curved blade with the edge on the convex side, used chiefly by the Arabs and Turks.” This weapon was commonly used with two hands, and was the weapon of choice for beheading people.

It is therefore now my assumption that excluding the sword of Laban, the swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon were not made of metal, but of wood and obsidian.

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Dr. Jerry L Ainsworth (author of "The Lives and Travels of Mormon and Moroni") is now responding to questions and comments about his Swords article and Book of Mormon geography (or anything else) on the new Mormon Sites Discussion Board:

Ask a Mormon • Index page

Anyone interested in communicating with Dr. Ainsworth and others is invited to add that LDS board to their list of frequent places to visit.

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