1 Nephi 16:9-10 — LeGrand Baker — “a round ball of curious workmanship”

1 Nephi 16:9-10  

9 And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord spake unto my father by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.
10 And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.

Whenever the Lord gives assignments to his servants, he also provides a way for them to accomplish them (cf: 1 Nephi 3:7). Here, the Lord gave Lehi instructions in the night, and the next morning Lehi found the Liahona that would give him and his family more explicit directions. Nephi gives us only a sketchy description of what it looked like, a round ball of curious workmanship, made of fine brass. “And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.”

Later, Nephi called it “the ball, or compass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord” (2 Nephi 5:12).{1}

King Benjamin called it “the ball or director, which led our fathers through the wilderness, which was prepared by the hand of the Lord that thereby they might be led, every one according to the heed and diligence which they gave unto him” (Mosiah 1:16).

Its name, “Liahona” is found only once in the Book of Mormon when Alma spoke of it as “the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director—or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38).

Nibley wrote that many have tried to find a Hebrew equivalent to the name. Then, after assuring his readers that there was no certainty about the meaning of Liahona, he wrote,

Our own preference has always been for le-yah-hon-na, literally, ‘to God is our commanding,’ i.e. ‘God is our guide,’ since hon hwn, is the common Egyptian word for ‘lead, guide, take command.’ This might be supported by the oldest and commonest of all known inscriptions in divination arrows: ‘My Lord hath commanded me’….{2}

He identified eleven remarkable features of the of the Liahona. They were:

1. The Liahona was a gift of God, the manner of its delivery causing great astonishment.
2. It was neither mechanical nor self-operating, but worked solely by the power of God.
3. It functioned only in response to the faith, diligence, and heed of those who followed it.
4. And yet there was something ordinary and familiar about it. The thing itself was the “small means” through which God worked; it was not a mysterious or untouchable object but strictly a “temporal thing.”…
5. The working parts of the device were two spindles or pointers.
6. On these a special writing would appear from time to time, clarifying and amplifying the message of the pointers.
7. The specific purpose of the traversing indicators was “to point the way they should go.”
8. The two pointers were mounted in a brass or bronze sphere whose marvelous workmanship excited great wonder and admiration. Special instructions sometimes appeared on this ball.
9. The device was referred to descriptively as a ball, functionally as a director, and in both senses as a “compass” or Liahona.
10. On occasion, it saved Lehi’s people from perishing by land and sea—“if they would look they might live” (Alma 37:46).
11. It was preserved “for a wise purpose” (“Alma 37:2, 14, 18) long after it had ceased to function, having been prepared specifically to guide Lehi’s party to the promised land. It was a “type and shadow” of man’s relationship to God during his earthly journey.{3}

In at least one of its features it functioned like the Urim and Thummim, for on occasion written messages would appear on it that were addressed to Lehi and his family (1 Nephi 16:26-29).{4} Even though there is no record that it was used by Book of Mormon prophets after the time of Nephi, it was preserved with other sacred items, and was shown to the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses in 1829 along with the Book of Mormon plates (D&C 17:1).

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FOOTNOTES

{1} He called it a ball when it was first given to his father (1 Nephi 16:16-27) and a compass when it failed to work during his brothers’ rebellion on the sea (1 Nephi 18:11-13)

{2} Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City. Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), Footnote 80 of chapter 9, “Some Fairly Foolproof Tests.” For his explanation of “divination arrows” see Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City. Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988), 257)

{3} Nibley, Since Cumorah, 2nd ed. 253-54.

{4} Examples of the Lord’s giving Joseph Smith messages through the Urim and Thummim are: D&C 6:1-4 (Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-1951], 1:32 – 33), D&C 11:1-3 (History of The Church, 1:44), and D&C 17:1 (History of The Church 1:52 -53)
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