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  Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Nephi doesn't actually give it a name, just a description.  He records that his father Lehi awoke one morning to find this astonishing brass ball outside his tent door, with "spindles" seen inside the ball to guide Lehi's wandering group through the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:10).  This isn't the first divinely empowered item we encounter in the text -- Lehi prophesied that the brass plates "should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time" (1 Nephi 5:19), and the Sword of Laban took on iconic significance almost immediately (see 2 Nephi 5:14, Jacob 1:10, Mosiah 1:16, D&C 17:1) --  but the round ball of 1 Nephi 16 is an entirely supernatural object. 

Where did it come from?  Did an angel deliver it outside the tent?  Angels generally stop for conversation; in fact, that's generally the only thing they do.  Who made this round ball of curious workmanship?  Do angels have workshops on high where they make divine gadgets to deliver to holy men on Earth?  I know of no scriptural parallels for this -- God sometimes directs men to make things (the stone tablets of Moses, the ark of Noah, or even the plates of Nephi) but they use terrestrial materials to construct these items.  I am aware of no Mormon writers that comment on the singular and mysterious nature of the appearance of the round ball.  It would be like if Noah awoke one morning to find a completed ark out in the meadow.  The Book of Mormon account actually reads more like stumbling on buried treasure (conveniently not buried) than it reads like a case of angelic special delivery; angels are not mentioned or even hinted at in the text.

Personally, I find 19th-century parallels intriguing.  The Nephite ball showed "a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord" (16:29), just like the seer stones or interpreters used by Joseph to dictate the Book of Mormon.  See the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, article "Translation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith" (David Whitmer indicated that words would appear to Joseph on something resembling a piece of parchment and that he would read the words off to his scribe) (citing Whitmer's An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887).  Furthermore, the ball's spindles that pointed the way to go seem to resemble the wands used in water witching or dowsing more than some ancient cult of the arrow you might have read about elsewhere.  And there's a direct link for this parallel, too: Oliver Cowdery.  He was told in an early revelation that "you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod" (Book of Commandments VII:3; cf. D&C 8:7-8).  So the supernatural features of the Liahona are represented in the pre-translation life experience of Joseph and Oliver, who worked together dictating and writing the text of 1 Nephi 16 (as well as the rest of the book).

For a more orthodox discussion of the Liahona (and a very good one), see Michael Ash's short article.  He covers the Nibley arrow stuff and gives citations.  I once dug up Nibley's article "The Arrow, the Hunter, and the State" from the 1951 volume of the Western Political Quarterly, down on the 2nd floor of the BYU library, his first arrow article.  Ah, the follies of youth.  It's all summarized nicely in the transcribed Nibley lectures published by FARMS.  See Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 1, p. 213-16 (FARMS, 1993).  Okay, here's one sentence:  Belomancy is the practice of divination by shooting, tossing, shaking, or otherwise manipulating rods, darts, pointers, or other sticks -- all originally derived from arrows (Teachings, p. 213).  That's your word for the day: belomancy. 9:26:10 PM      

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