If I could ask them one question . . .
Come Follow Me, Lesson 31
For Come Follow Me, lesson 31, Aug 3-9, Alma 43-52
If I wanted to encourage thought and try to understand devout believers better, I might ask:
Things to consider:
- The Book of Mormon chapters for this week’s lesson refer to swords and cimeters (a type of sword) 26 separate times. That’s more often per chapter than the rest of the book, but these weapons are referred to 168 separate times in the entire Book of Mormon by my count, from the history of the Jaredites up until a relatively short time before Moroni buried the golden plates in the Hill Cumorah.
- To provide some context, I counted Book of Mormon mentions of other man-made weapons:
- I may have missed some type of weapon, so let me know if I forgot something, but I think my point is made in what I counted. Of the mentions of specific man-made weapons that I know of, swords seem to be mentioned at a rate of three times all other weapons put together. Obviously, to the author or authors of the Book of Mormon, swords were very important relative to other weaponry, so we would expect them to have been relatively ubiquitous among these pre-Columbian Americans. However, my research indicates there were no swords in the Americas at the time, so this calls for a deeper look.
- Some references to swords are not a challenge to the authenticity of the book. For example, references to these weapons regarding Lehites in the Old World and the early days in the New World could be expected since swords were used in the Old World from a time much earlier than Lehi.
- But there is no record of swords at all in the Americas prior to European invasion. “… Native Americans used clubs and axes of stone or wood (occasionally copper in the Andes), slings, bows and arrows, and quilted armor …” (Jared Diamond; Guns, Germs, and Steel; 20th Anniversary Edition; p. 343. See also this wiki page and this article about Native American weapons).
- In fact, metallurgy was not sufficiently developed in the Americas in the Book of Mormon time frame to make functional swords. When Europeans invaded the Americas, “… although copper, silver, gold, and alloys were used for ornaments in the Andes and some other parts of the Americas, stone and wood and bone were still the principal materials for tools in all Native American societies, which made only limited local use of copper tools” (Jared Diamond; Guns, Germs, and Steel; 20th Anniversary Edition; p. 343). So naturally one wonders if Native Americans had previously had extensive metallurgy, but it disappeared prior to the arrival of Europeans. According to Diamond, iron tools were never in widespread use in the pre-Columbian Americas (there was only some use of meteoric iron), and use of copper or bronze tools didn’t became widespread until about 1000 CE starting in the Andes. This is particularly problematic for assertions of swords made of steel in the earliest portions of the Book of Mormon. In about 4000 BCE, Shule allegedly “did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him” (Ether 7:9), and steel wasn’t even invented until about the 13th century BCE, and that was in the Old World.
- That pre-Columbian metallurgy in the Andes (and elsewhere) did not focus on utilitarian objects is explained in the cultural importance of metals. “In the Andes, the locus of attention of the metallurgy is not to be found in the realm of utility but in the realm of the symbolic. Metals carried and displayed the content or message of status, wealth, and political power and reinforced the affective power of religious objects” (Heather Lechtman, Archaeometry of
Pre-Columbian Sites and Artifacts, p. 6).
- Some have argued that in some cases when a true sword would be an anachronism in the Book of Mormon, “sword” might actually mean macuahuitl, a weapon made with a plank of wood similar in shape to a cricket bat with obsidian blades mounted on the edges. It is similar enough to a sword that it is often referred to as the Aztec sword.
- However, I think the macuahuitl is more like a hybrid between a club and an axe. “The term means: maitl (hand) and cuahuitl (wood or stick)” (Arms & Armour, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2006, p. 128), which even sounds like a club to me. But, some early colonizers said the macuahuitl was so powerful and sharp it could cut the head off a horse with one blow. It seems that is likely an exaggeration. “Francisco Hernandez de Cordova assures us that this weapon could be used once only since its blades fractured after the first blow and had to be replaced” (Arms & Armour, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2006, p. 128). This seems to make sense because obsidian (material the blades were made from) is volcanic glass. It may be sharp and hard, but it is also brittle. In a study done with attempted replicas of macuahuitls, “[T]he macuahuitl was able to cut muscular tissue and make slight fractures of bones without being able to amputate it completely, and a large part of its edge would be transformed into tiny micro-flakes that would encrust the wound and bone and make it difficult for the wound to heal” (Arms & Armour, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2006, p. 128). So, it seems that the macuahuitl could have been a very formidable weapon, but it also seems doubtful that it could have functioned like the swords of the Book of Mormon, cutting off scalps (Alma 44:12-15) and appendages (Alma 17:37-39).
- However, I think the macuahuitl is completely irrelevant because the macuahuitl does not seem to fit the Book of Mormon time frame. “Some groups of Central Mexico, principally in the transition between the Early and the Late Post-Classic, probably developed this weapon” (Arms & Armour, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2006, p. 146, emphasis added). The Post-Classic period is between 900 CE and the Spanish conquest.
- Given this background and since swords that are as old as 5,000 years have been found elsewhere (Smithsonian Magazine), how likely is it that Book of Mormon swords were real knowing that we haven’t found any in the Americas from that time frame?
Other observations about this lesson’s reading:
If you could ask believers questions about the scriptures for this lesson, what would you ask?
Have fun studying!
If I could ask them one question, Lesson 31