Tuesday, March 3, 2009

1 Nephi 16:18 A Steel Bow?

In 1 Nephi 16:13 Nephi is recorded to have broken his bow which was made of steel. Reading this I have been scratching my head in puzzlement for over a week. It sounds like something you would read in a comic book written by a thirteen year old. A steel bow? I am somewhat dumbfounded. Several questions come to mind. Did they have steel in 7th and 6th century B.C. Israel or ancient Near East. And why would you make a bow out of it? Would a steel bow be practical?
Interestingly, I find that I am not the only one who has been baffled by this, as the Mormon apologists over at www.fairlds.org have written a full apologetic for the use of the word steel here in 1 Nephi, according to them steel was synonymous with Bronze in nineteenth century American English. I am somewhat skeptical of that. For one, Joseph Smith is repeatedly distinguishing between steel, brass, iron, copper, etc.
The King James does actually use the word steel to mean these metals too, which is interesting. In fact, the King James uses the word “steel” in almost the same way we would use the word metal, to translate the Hebrew word, Nechusha. However the King James is never in the awkward position of having to use it to distinguish between different metals. The King James Bible is also a 17th century translation. What was true of the use of words in the 17th century is not always true of the use of words in the 19th century. Steel began to have the common meaning it has today in the English language with the development of Crucible steel in the 1740s, by Benjamin Huntsman. This distinguished steel from iron. The upshot is I can see why 17th century translators would use the word steel in place of the word bronze. But I do not see why someone in the nineteenth century would. It sounds rather dubious, especially to distinguish it from both iron, and copper as he does in 2 Nephi 5:15 "work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores" (2 Ne 5.15) The king James version translates the same word as copper in Ezra 8:27. So one wonders what is this special word that Joseph Smith is supposedly translating, It can’t be Nechusha as our friends over at Fairlds.org would have us believe. Smith meant steel, and not iron, bronze, brass, or copper.
This puts one in a special predicament. Steel as we know it today was not around at that time. Though people in some areas of the world were able to come up with steel making processes before then, the process was unknown at that time in the Near East, and the steel would have been crude, not near flexible enough to make a bow. It gives one suitable reason not to regard the Book of Mormon as an historical record, but a work of fiction written by a thirteen year old who would have had a better career as a comic book writer. And this would be true even if he meant Bronze as again our friends over at fairlds.org would have us believe. My suspicion is Joseph Smith read the King James Bible and came across references to steel bows and did not know that they would more accurately be translated bronze bows. Yes the Bible makes a couple poetic references to bronze bows, never does it make a reference to one that is actually used, or to one that actually existed. The Bible is actually quite explicit in its hyperbole.
2 Samuel 22:35 (KJV)
He teacheth my hands to war; so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.
Job 20:24 (KJV)
He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through.
Psalm 18:34 (KJV)
He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.
The same verses are translated in the ESV as:
2 Samuel 22:35 (ESV)
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
Job 20:24 (ESV)
He will flee from an iron weapon;
a bronze arrow will strike him through.
Psalm 18:34 (ESV)
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
In each of these verses you can see that it is poetry, and therefore should be taken as a hypothetical allowing David to brag about the strength God has given him. Of course it is not David in Job, there the hypothetical is there to show the seriousness and earnestness of God. However it is clearly meant to be as poetical statement not meant to be taken literally, as if there really was a bow made of bronze in all three cases. A bow made of bronze would I think be quite impractical, but could spur the imagination of a thirteen year old.
Bows are among some of the first weapons invented by man. A couple sticks and a piece of string made of leather, hair, or entwined sinews. Simple, expedient and deadly. Some were made of a single stick. Later to gain strength in the bows, they started making composite bows, gluing wood together, maybe even working in antler and so forth. But they are supposed to be light, easy to carry, and they are supposed to be springy. For steel to do this it would have to be of very refined quality. Bronze would be heavy and hard to pull back. One wonders if the strings they had would be good for very long. Thing is the wood bows they had were of sufficient strength to do the job they wanted a bow to do whether killing a man, or hunting a beast. There would be no reason even if it were possible to make the weapon of steel or bronze. Those metals would have been desired for the making of other things like knives and swords, and other tools that could not be made out of wood. To make a bow out of steel or bronze would have been considered a waste of precious resources not to mention time. I think if I was an archer in the 7th and 6th century B.C. I would not have been impressed by such a thing, but would have found it a joke. Perhaps a few guys around a campfire would find it a convenient test of strength after a few bottles of wine, but it would not have been seen as practical. You didn’t want a bow that was to hard to draw back. Archers were required to shoot often and repeatedly throughout a battle. And on the hunt when you are stalking or chasing an animal the lighter the better, not to mention you don’t want the thing reflecting sunlight. But I do see how a thirteen year old would be enthralled by the prospect.


Steve Martin said...

How about a bow made out of titanium!?

Bror Erickson said...

Dude that would be so awesome! Like you could poke someones eye out at 500 bijillion yards with a bow made of Titanium!

Nancy said...

Yeah, Bror...but in this case... seems like all they needed was a bit of wool! Unfortunately they need to be a bit closer for it to work...