1 Nephi 4:8-9 — LeGrand Baker — Sword of Laban

1 Nephi 4:8-9 

9 And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.

When Nephi found Laban drunk and lying by the side of the road, in the gutter, the first thing he tells us is that he removed the sword from its sheath and examined it. That is just what one would expect a boy to do. It was an extraordinary ceremonial sword— designed for beauty rather than for the rigors of war. The hilt was pure gold, but it was the blade that impressed the boy the most—“ I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.”

Nephi’s describing the blade that way may tell us more about Laban, and about Laban’s relationship with Lehi, than any other information we have.

When Nephi was older, he became an accomplished metal worker, but at this time he was “exceedingly young” (1 Nephi 2:16)—probably only 13 or 14 years old.{1} That is old enough for a boy to be well acquainted with the weapons used by military personnel in a garrison city, but a bit young to have sufficient metallurgy skills to be able to recognize “the most precious steel,” especially if such steel was rarely seen. It is more likely that his description of the sword came not from his knowledge of steel but rather from his prior knowledge of the sword itself. If the sword was an ancient ceremonial sword, it was also a most precious family heirloom, and if Nephi were a member of the family, the boy would probably have been more aware of that sword than he was of any other item in the treasury. Now, our question is: In 600 B.C., what was “the most precious steel”?

The Iron Age is usually considered to be from about 1000 to 500 B.C.—that is, from about the time of King David’s reign to a hundred years after Lehi left Jerusalem. There is archaeological evidence of iron before 1000 B.C., but it was not until then that the Greeks started to use it for their weapons. After that, iron weapons and iron tools became more common.

The advantage of iron over bronze was that an iron blade was almost unbreakable. However, ancient smelting techniques could only produce wrought iron, which was very strong but not hard enough for a sword to hold a sharp edge. It was not until just after 670 B.C. that Egyptians learned how to use the process of case-hardening to improve the edges of their tools and weapons. Seventy years is long enough for the Egyptians to have shared either the technology or the advanced weapons with their Jewish allies.

Case hardening is a way of working carbon into the surface of the iron by placing the blade in a sealed jar along with some material containing carbon, usually animal hide or bone, and keeping it red hot until the bone or hide became carbon. During this process a small quantity of the carbon gases infused into the surface of the hot iron, in effect transforming that surface into steel. After the appropriate time the iron was quenched to cool it. The result was a weapon with a high-carbon surface that would keep a sharp edge, with an interior that was still strong iron.

Given the military alliance that Judah had with Egypt, we can be sure that the typical sword for a Jewish military commander would have been made of case-hardened Egyptian steel. But we can also be safe in assuming that such swords had become rather common among the Jewish military. Swords made this way were excellent fighting weapons, but they were not “the most precious steel.”

The famous, beautifully patterned Damascus steel, which, because of its name, is often associated with the ancient world, was not invented until about the ninth century A.D., just before the beginning of the Crusades. So Damascus steel could not have been what Nephi was talking about.

It is unlikely that Nephi would have described a case-hardened blade made in Egypt as “the most precious steel,” when in fact it was not. The most precious steel literally fell from the heavens, and was considered to have been a gift from the gods.

Such steel has a high nickel content and comes to the earth as a meteorite. Because of its scarcity, origin, and extraordinary quality, steel made from meteorites was reserved for implements whose purpose was sacred—either ornamental or ceremonial. A full-size sword blade made of such exceedingly rare material would certainly have been described as “the most precious steel,” and its hilt, most appropriately, would have been made of pure gold.

Throughout the Book of Mormon, from the time that Nephi obtained it, the sword of Laban had a special place in Nephite history. It was part of the royal regalia of the kings, and was occasionally wielded by them in battle—perhaps in somewhat the same way that the Ark of the Covenant was carried with the ancient Israelites when they went to battle (2 Nephi 5:14, Jacob 1:10, Words of Mormon 1:13). The sword was prized among the most sacred regalia of the Nephite people (Mosiah 1:15-16).

The sword was kept by the prophets after the Savior visited America. Moroni kept it with himself after his father was killed. Much later, when Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, the Lord promised him that the Three Witnesses could see the plates and other sacred things. He mentioned the Urim and Thummim, the breastplate, the Liahona, and the sword of Laban (D&C 17:1). That promise was fulfilled.

David Whitmer recalled that when Moroni came to the Three Witnesses, the angel also showed them “a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the sword of Laban, the directors (i.e., the ball which Lehi had) and the interpreters.”{2}

Two months before his death in 1877, Brigham Young described that cave. He explained that his purpose for telling this story was “so that they [these facts] will not be forgotten and lost.” He wanted Latter-day Saints to know and remember what had happened to the plates of the Book of Mormon. The following paragraph is the account of Joseph’s returning the plates to Moroni as Brigham Young reported that Oliver Cowdery told it to him:

This is an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery, but he did not take the liberty of telling such things in meeting as I take. I tell these things to you, and I have a motive for doing so. I want to carry them to the ears of my brethren and sisters, and to the children also, that they may grow to an understanding of some things that seem to be entirely hidden from the human family. Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates. Joseph did not translate all of the plates; there was a portion of them sealed, which you can learn from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: “This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it.{3}

It seems clear from its history that the sword of Laban had significance far beyond its being a beautifully crafted work of art. Ownership of the sword apparently signified overriding kingship and priesthood authority.

It seems reasonable to suppose that the sword did not became that sacred all of a sudden, at the time Nephi first acquired it. The plates contained records that went back beyond the time of Joseph and his great-grandfather Abraham, and “before the days of Abraham” (Helaman 8:18-20). The sword may have done also. It may also have been sacred to Joseph’s most ancient forefathers. Nephi had been promised by the Lord that he would be a ruler and a teacher (king and priest) to his people. It may be that part of the fulfillment of the promise was when Nephi obtained the symbols of kingship and priesthood that characterized one who held that authority—the regalia of the ancient kings and priests—the sword and clothing that Laban had worn and profaned that night.

{1} For the question of Nephi’s age, see my comment on 1 Nephi 1:4, reign of Zedekiah .

{2} Martin Harris saw the same things. Cannon in Nibley, LDS Stories, 96; Jensen, Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:266, 275, 270.

{3} Oliver Cowdery described this experience to at least two people: The one quoted is Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses, 19:38-39); the other is David Whitmer in Stevenson, Reminiscences, 14-15.


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