1 Nephi 3:3 — LeGrand Baker — What Were the Brass Plates

1 Nephi 3:3 

3 For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.

There was nothing unusual about Laban’s having family records. What was unusual was that they were written on brass plates, and that they apparently included the national history as well as the sacred writings. What is even more impressive is that they had survived the religious purge conducted during king Manasseh’s (Hezekiah’s son) long reign when he desecrated the Temple and made the worship of Baal the state religion. How effective that king’s purge of Jehovah-worship had been is indicated by the response of his grandson king Josiah to the scroll the workers found in the Temple when they were renovating it (2 Kings 23:1-3).

The fact that the plates were made of brass may tell us something of their history and importance. Some scholars have suggested that rather than brass, the plates were made of bronze, which was much more common. Bronze is an alloy of copper and about 10% tin. The tin makes the copper very hard and easy to cast into weapons or works of art.{1} However, when zinc is added to copper, it produces the golden colored brass from which Lehi said the plates of Laban were made. Sorenson has shown that the plates may have been brass.

Within the last few years, however, some ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean area have been tested by more sophisticated scientific techniques than before, and the tests reveal that actual brass, with zinc in it, was in use among the Etruscans, probably as early as Lehi’s time. That means that perhaps the brass plates of Lehi’s day are neither an anomaly of culture history nor an oddity of linguistic labeling, but of the literal metal.{2}

Apart from the unusual material from which they were made, an intriguing thing about the plates is the way Lehi described their content. He never refers to them as the plates of the tribe of Manasseh. Indeed, Joseph’s son Manasseh is not even mentioned by Lehi, and it is not until we learn Amulek’s genealogy in Alma 10:1-3 that we find that Lehi was of the tribe of Manasseh. Rather, both Lehi and Nephi write that the genealogy on the plates shows that they are descended from Joseph of Egypt. Nephi tells us the brass plates contained.

14 And it came to pass that my father, Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph; yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob” (1 Nephi 5:14).

Lehi’s interest is focused on Joseph, and he does not mention either of Joseph’s sons. There is probably a very good reason for this. Manasseh was Joseph’s oldest son. Consequently, except for the instance of the patriarchal blessing he received from his grandfather (Genesis 48:12-22), Manasseh had every right belonging to the birthright son. One would expect, then, that the official family history and royal regalia would have been passed down through the sons of Manasseh, and represented the birthright of Manasseh’s distinguished father Joseph—and that is just how Lehi describes them. Nephi goes further, and leaves us asking some very intriguing questions. He writes,

10 And after they had given thanks unto the God of Israel, my father, Lehi, took the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, and he did search them from the beginning.
11 And he beheld that they did contain the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents;
12 And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah” (1Nephi 5:11-12).

In another place Nephi explains what he meant by the phrase, ‘from the beginning’:

20 And also… the words which have been spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets, which have been delivered unto them by the Spirit and power of God, since the world began, even down unto this present time (1 Nephi 3:20).

If the brass plates were the family record of Joseph, or even a permanent copy of that family record, then it does not take a very great stretch of the imagination to guess that they might have been passed down from Joseph’s great-grandfather Abraham, and if that, perhaps from his forefathers as well. We get an idea of the broad range of time covered by the writings on the brass plates when another Nephi tells the people about the extensive prophetic testimonies of the Savior (Helaman 8:16-20). There we learn that the plates not only contained the writings of Moses and Abraham, but also of “many before the days of Abraham.”

That would make the brass plates one of the great treasures of the very ancient past—the sort of treasure one would expect to find only in the custody of a birthright prince. All that circumstantial evidence invites one to conclude that Laban, who possessed the history and genealogy of the house of Manasseh, was actually the prince of the tribe of Manasseh.

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FOOTNOTES

{1} “Weapons and Implements of War,” in The interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vols., Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990 ), 4:821.

{2} John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985), 283.

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