1 Nephi 16:18 reads as follows:
“And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food.”
Verse 21 reports that the bows of Nephi’s brothers had lost their “springs” (presumably, the tension provided by the flexibility of the wood). In verse 23 Nephi makes a new bow of wood and an arrow from a straight stick, and inquires of his father where he should hunt. Lehi inquires of the Lord, and the liahona directs Nephi to the top of the mountain, where he is able to slay wild beasts to feed the family.
Critics of the Book of Mormon have long pointed to Nephi’s bow of steel from verse 18 as a clear anachronism, as carbonized steel did not yet exist at that time.
William Hamblin’s comments in an article on “Steel in the Book of Mormon,” reprinted in this 2005 Meridian Magazine article:
represent the current apologetic state of the art on this issue.
The key paragraph of Hamblin’s piece on this point is as follows:
“An interesting key to the problem is Nephi’s steel bow (1 Ne 16.18). My assumption here is that this phrase is meant to describe the same weapon that is called a “steel bow” in the KJV Bible. (I think this is obvious whether Joseph Smith invented the text or
it is ancient.) The phrase “bow of steel” occurs three times in the KJV: 2 Sam 22.35, Job 20.24, and Ps 18.34. In all cases it translates the Hebrew phrase qeshet nechushah, which modern translations consistently, and correctly, translate as “bronze.”
There is one other reference to “steel” in the KJV at Jer 15.12, also referring to bronze. The metal is apparently called “steel” in the KJV because bronze is “steeled” (strengthened) copper through alloying it with tin or through some other process.”
This is a useful start on the issue. It successfully rebuts the notion that “steel” is an anachronism in the Book of Mormon. And I think we can certainly agree that Nephi’s steel bow must be understood in the same light as the KJV “bow of steel” that appears in three passages of the Old Testament.
Nevertheless, problems remain. Why would anyone make a bow of copper or bronze? These metals are not practical for bow construction, even if only added as ornamental touches. And why would such a bow break?
Of course, those same problems exist in the OT passages as well. Virtually all modern translations render the Hebrew expression qesheth nechushah as something like “bronze bow,” and simply acknowledge that we do not really know what that means in terms of bow construction.
A recent article seeks to answer these questions, and therefore is significant not only for our
understanding of the Old Testament precedents, but also for our understanding of Nephi’s steel bow from 1 Nephi 16:18.
The article is Aron Pinker, “On the Meaning of [qesheth nechushah],” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 5, Article 12 (2004-2005), available here:
Pinker begins by surveying the difficulty with positing a bow made of bronze, which would not work for bow construction, inasmuch as the body must be light and pliable. Some have thought that the bronze refers only to ornamentation on the bow, but that would still interfere with the proper working of it. Of course, a bow that was entirely ornamental could be made of bronze, but the scriptural passages contemplate a bow that actually works.
Pinker next surveys previous attempts to see the key Hebrew term, nechushah, as something other than bronze:
1. A number of medieval rabbis (Rashi, Kimchi, Ralbag) understood nechushah as a metaphor for strength: i.e., “strong bow, hard to pull bow.”
2. Mitchell Dahood interpreted the qesheth nechushah of Ps. 18:35 as “the miraculous bow,” taking nechushah from *NCHSH in the sense of “practice divination, to charm, enchant,” and translated:
Who trained my hands for battle
Lowered the miraculous bow into my hand.
This is certainly intriguing in light of the fact that there is a divination element to the Nephite story. But this requires a different approach to the “bronze bow” passage of Job 20:24, where a miraculous bow would not work in the context. Since the Psalm passage is virtually identical to the 2 Sam. 22:35 passage, Dahood’s theory requires two entirely different translations for what are essentially the only two biblical occurrences of the expression.
3. Bruno suggested that nechushah does not mean “copper, bronze” in these passages, but that it is the Niphal of the root *CHWSH, “make haste”; the bow is thus a “quick bow.” But such a form is not attested in the Hebrew Bible, and the concept of a “quick bow” does not make any sense in archery.
4. Tournay and Schwab thought the expression referred to a bow that could shoot bronze-tipped arrows, but there is no evidence for such a distinction in bows, and the material of the arrowhead is never specified in the Hebrew Bible.
5. Schmuttermayer simply suggests deleting the word nechushah in the Samuel and Psalm passages, but his reasons for deleting the word are not compelling and do nothing to resolve the Job passage.
Pinker points out that the only possible meaning for nechushah that has not been suggested is “snake-like, serpentine.” The shape made by a moving snake conforms admirably to the shape of the wooden body of a double-convex bow. Thus, he suggests that the word does not refer to the material from which the bow is made, but to the shape of a particular type of bow. Rather than “bronze bow” in these passages, he
suggests that they should be understood as “snake-like bow,” referring to a double-convex form of construction (which is well attested from antiquity).
Pinker suggests that the derivation of nechushah “snake-like” from nachash “snake” finds support in the nechushtan, or bronze serpent-pole of Moses. The derivation of this name is uncertain; some think it derives from the word for “bronze,” and others that it derives from the word for “snake.” (But in either event, the most prominent visual feature of the pole would have been the snake, not its bronze construction.) Pinker identifies several similarly derived forms in the Hebrew Bible.
Pinker’s theory would have the benefit of providing for a consistent approach between the Old Testament passages rather than trying to interpret them in different ways.
The Job 20:24 passage reads as follows in the KJV:
He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through.
Pinker notes that interpretation of this passage has suffered from a misunderstanding of the parallelism, thinking that nechushah must be a metal in synonymous parallelism with the iron of the first line. Based on an analysis of the verbs of the passage, Pinker determines that the parallelism of the passage was not meant to be synonymous, but rather antithetic. The intended contrast is between the close range of the iron weapons (sword, ax, mace, etc.) and the long-range weapons (not containing metals). The verse is saying that anyone who will escape the metal weapons of close quarters combat would be pierced by the long-range weapons, such as the snake-like bow. According to Pinker’s reading of the passage, Zophar the Naamathite describes the effectiveness of God’s anger in standard military terms: “fleeing from metal (close quarters) weapons he is pierced by (an arrow of) a snake-like bow (long-range weapons),” taking “an arrow of” as an ellipsis (cf. Isa. 41:2).
If Pinker is correct in his understanding of qesheth nechushah as a “snake-like [double-convex] bow,” and if Hamblin is correct that we must understand Nephi’s steel bow in light of the Old Testament precedents (and I think he clearly is), then we can posit that the Hebrew underlying 1 Ne. 16:18 was something like “I did break my qesheth nechushah.” Joseph rendered nechushah, under the influence of the KJV precedents, with the clause “which was made of fine steel.” But when we strip away the Jacobean level influence of the KJV, what Nephi really wrote was “I did break my snake-like [double convex] bow.”
If this reading is correct, all of the problems simply melt away. There is no metallic anachronism or puzzle as to construction; i.e., how would such a bow work and how would it break? It was simply a wooden double-convex bow, not a metal bow, and it broke, as bows sometimes do. Nephi was constrained to make another bow, also out of wood, but this one a simple bow rather than one of double-convex construction.
So what do you think? Is this too radical a reading?