“By Small Means”:
Rethinking the Liahona

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Abstract: The Liahona’s faith-based functionality and miraculous appearance have often been viewed as incongruous with natural law. This paper attempts to reconcile the Liahona to scientific law by displaying similarities between its apparent mechanisms and ancient navigation instruments called astrolabes. It further suggests the Liahona may have been a wedding dowry Ishmael provided to Lehi’s family. The paper displays the integral connection Nephi had to the Liahona’s functionality and how this connection more clearly explains the lack of faith displayed by Nephi’s band during the journey than traditional conceptions of its faith-based functionality.

“Yet I will say with regard to miracles, there is no such thing save to the ignorant — that is, there never was a result wrought out by God or by any of His creatures without there being a cause for it. There may be results, the causes of which we do not see or understand, and what we call miracles are no more than this — they are the results or effects of causes hidden from our understandings … [I]t is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law He was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law. It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author.”
— Brigham Young1

[Page 208]The Liahona, a navigational and revelatory instrument described in the Book of Mormon, is perhaps the greatest historical enigma of the ancient account. Its miraculous appearance and ostensibly spiritual operation have often been met with derision by individuals who are critical of the Book of Mormon’s historical plausibility. Indeed, as stated in the words of Hugh Nibley, “The Liahona has given rise to endless merriment and mockery among critics of the Book of Mormon; only the shining stones of the Jaredites can equal it as a laugh-getter.”2 Perhaps as a response to these criticisms, a surprising number of authors have attempted to correlate aspects of the Liahona’s functionality with known scientific principles.3 With minor variation, the majority of these previous apologetic works have suggested parallels between the Liahona’s navigatory features and geomagnetic navigation devices. While the present work also attempts to reconcile the Liahona’s functionality with historical navigation devices, it challenges traditional conceptions of both the Liahona’s magnetic and faith-based functionality. Textual and cultural evidence seem to suggest the Liahona may in fact have been a star-based navigation instrument, one similar in function to that of an astrolabe.

A Note on Magnetism

In the interest of establishing the need for the present work, a few critiques about the predominant theory of a geomagnetic Liahona are warranted. A chapter from the book Re-exploring the Book of Mormon, entitled “Lodestone and the Liahona,” written by Robert F. Smith provides a functional reference to the theory.4 Smith proposed that the navigational properties of the Liahona may have functioned on “geomagnetic principles,” while the revelatory aspects of the device were faith-based and wholly outside the realm of scientific discovery.5 Smith and other proponents of the theory have thus articulated what might be termed a “hybrid model” wherein the navigatory and revelatory features of the device operated on two disparate principles (i.e., magnetism and faith). While Smith’s work and others comparable to it have attempted to scientifically explain the Liahona’s navigatory features, the theory of a hybrid-model Liahona does little to address historical or scientific critiques of the device, as both its origin and revelatory properties still appear to have operated outside the realm of modern scientific discovery.

Furthermore, a device functioning on geomagnetic principles is a remarkably poor fit for the device and type of journey described in the text itself. Magnetic compasses are valuable only insofar as an individual has a map or comparable knowledge of a region to provide accurate [Page 209]positional information to couple with directional information derived from a magnetic compass.6 Whereas Nephi may have been able to receive some sort of cartographic information via revelation, the text seems to suggest such was not the case. When the company begins to follow the Liahona, they seem wholly dependent upon it for directional guidance.7 When the text does record communication from the Lord directly, the content of the message is almost exclusively chastisement or other information not directly related to navigation.8 Additionally, the Lord seems careful to direct questions regarding directional information back to the ball.9 It appears significant that the Lord communicates some types of information through revelatory means while leaving navigational communication to the Liahona. This pattern may suggest that the Liahona was less of a revelatory device and more of a navigational device than is traditionally assumed. Indeed, a careful reading of the text indicates the Liahona was used to communicate only information that can be derived from a naturally functioning astrolabe (e.g., the direction of travel, the location of water,) while other information (how to build a ship, moral chastening, where to find ore, etc.) were communicated via revelatory means.

Astrolabe Technology

To understand the textual parallels between the Liahona and astrolabe technology, one must first understand the basic functionality of ancient astrolabes. Stated simply, an astrolabe is an astronomical instrument capable of providing navigational information using the position of the sun or stars.10 Functioning as an analog computer, an astrolabe physically models the visible universe by storing information about star placement on the astrolabe itself.11 By manipulating this static model to match the conditions of the sky at a present location, information about physical location can be derived.

Although celestial navigation was common among ancient peoples long before the astrolabe,12 the invention and distribution of the astrolabe provided a far more structured approach than previous methods.13 In essence, the astrolabe standardized and solidified mathematical positional computation into a singular instrument, which later evolved into modern navigational instruments such as the quadrant and the sextant.14 Although no effort will be made in this work to articulate the exact mathematics that allows an individual to derive locational information from such instruments, it should be understood that astrolabes provide positional information only as the user is able to manipulate and read the device. If the Liahona functioned on similar principles, it would have been subject to [Page 210]the operation of Nephi and Lehi, rather than the party passively following instructions provided by the ball. Several nuances of the Book of Mormon text suggest this model to be a more accurate description of the Liahona than traditional perceptions.

Dating of Astrolabe Technology

The origins of astrolabe technology have been traditionally attributed to Greek astronomers in 200 bce –100 bce.15 However, as no functional astrolabes or expositions on true astrolabe technology have survived from this period, scholars have long recognized that the inference is tenuous and largely conjectural.16 This traditional dating is largely predicated on what appears to be the emergence of stereographic projection during this time period, a mathematical mapping function whereby a sphere (such as the night sky) is mapped onto a two-dimensional plane.17 This mathematical innovation is necessary for the production of the most common archaeological form of astrolabe, the planispheric astrolabe, a flat instrument utilized in Europe and the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages. As such, the treatises of Hipparchus of Nicaea (180 bce – 125 bce), which articulate the concept of stereographic projection, have often been used as the terminus post quem for the dating of astrolabe technology. However, in the words of Robert T. Gunther, the founder of the Museum of Science at Oxford, which currently houses the world’s largest collection of astrolabes, there are several “trains of evidence which point to a far earlier date for the invention.”18 Gunther himself suggests that stereographic projection may instead have had its origins in the constellation mapping performed by Eudoxus of Cnidus (409 bce – 356 bce).19

Figure 1. Planispheric Astrolabe. Image used under Create Commons License; https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Astrolabe_planisf%C3%A9rique_closeup800x600x300.jpg. Accessed September 30, 2018.

While the planispheric astrolabe is the most common form of astrolabe from an archeological perspective, there is considerable question as to whether it is the earliest.20 Ancient peoples from many geographic regions have displayed an ability to use star motion and mathematical computation for navigational purposes long before the [Page 211]invention of stereographic projection.21 Whereas Greek and Arabic planispheric astrolabes model the hemispherical night sky on a two-dimensional plane, the historical record also attests to devices that used “azimuthal equidistant mapping,” or the process of mapping the night sky onto a spherical object.22 Because these spherical or “melon shaped” astrolabes (to which the Liahona would be most similar)23 do not require stereographic projection, they are mathematically less complex than their planispheric counterparts, and devices functioning on similar principles may have pre-dated both Eudoxus and Hipparchus.24 This would suggest that the earliest functioning astrolabes were most likely of the spherical variety, and the true genesis of astrolabe technology may then be much earlier than conservative estimates dictate. Indeed, the most recent archaeological evidence suggests that primitive astrolabe technology may date at least to the Babylonians, circa 650 bce, and possibly several thousands of years earlier.25 As such, it is entirely possible that a spherical device functioning on astrolabic principles may have existed at the time of Lehi.

Origin of the Liahona

Before comparing the functionality of the Liahona and ancient astrolabes, a discussion of the textual episode of the Liahona’s appearance is warranted. After being commanded to leave Jerusalem, Lehi appears to have traveled the entire first portion of his journey unaided. His previous knowledge of the region was sufficient to allow his family to travel a significant distance from civilization while securing food, water, shelter, and other essential amenities for their journey.26 Mid-expedition, the Lord felt the need to provide an additional means of navigation to supplement whatever resources Lehi had previously used to navigate the Judean wilderness. But where did such an instrument come from? What forces deposited such a valuable device outside the tent of a traveler in the middle of the Judean wilderness precisely as he was to begin the lengthier and more dangerous portion of his journey?

While the appearance of the Liahona has received no scholarly treatment to my knowledge, anecdotal origin theories typically ascribe the placement of the Liahona at Lehi’s tent door to some form of heavenly messenger. Some individuals have gone as far as to suggest the instrument was both forged and placed at the tent door by God himself. These suggestions appear to stem primarily from a possibly misinterpreted portion of scripture: “the ball, or compass, which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord (2 Nephi 5:12, emphasis added). To grasp the meaning of this passage it is imperative to note other scriptural uses of the phrase, “hand of the Lord.”27 Virtually every other use of the [Page 212]expression in the Book of Mormon describes a situation, circumstance, or event orchestrated by God rather than describing something physically performed by God himself.28 Nephi uses an almost identical expression in an earlier portion of his record to describe the “much fruit” and “wild honey” found in the land Bountiful, two objects not created by God directly but instead naturally occurring materials (1 Nephi 17:5). EzraTaft Benson, the 13th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, used the phrase in a modern context to describe the Book of Mormon itself, an object assumed to have been smelted, engraved, and buried by human hands. Referencing its miraculous preservation, President Benson stated, “[The Book of Mormon] was prepared by the hand of the Lord over a period of more than a thousand years, then hidden up by Him so that it would be preserved in its purity for our generation.”29 With such evidence that both ancient and modern prophets have used this phrase almost exclusively as a figurative expression, it seems unwise to interpret the expression in this context in a literal fashion. Consequently, the most reasonable explanation for the creation of the Liahona and for its placement at Lehi’s tent door is that both were the result of human volition.

Important to this argument is the fact that, by his own admission, Nephi’s account is both incomplete and spiritually oriented (1 Nephi 6:2– 6; 19:2–7). His record is admittedly devoid of detail concerning specifics recorded in his other account, descriptions not deemed spiritually noteworthy, or situations not applicable to the reader. Nephi emphasizes that his record is to be a collection of spiritual happenings, designed and written to “show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). This at least explains, in part, the dearth of information surrounding the Liahona’s functionality and appearance. Rather than cloud his message by detailing the Liahona’s mechanisms in too much specificity, Nephi appears to focus his writing on convincing the reader that God was integrally involved in leading his family to the Promised Land. Interestingly, Nephi never states or speculates how the Liahona appeared. Not until 2 Nephi 5:12 does Nephi even suggest that it was “prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord.” When the Liahona first appears in the narrative, Nephi makes no claim that the creation, appearance, or function of the device was a display of God’s power, but instead seems to emphasize the timing of the Liahona’s appearance as the true miracle.30

The most logical suggestion for the origin of the Liahona, then, is that its appearance was in some way tied to the figure of Ishmael, a character [Page 213]who enters the narrative almost simultaneously with the Liahona. The text also provides a plausible motive for Ishmael’s giving the device to Lehi, as the verses preceding the first reference to the Liahona mention one of the most important customs of ancient Jews, the marriage covenant. No detailed examination of Jewish marriage customs will be attempted here, but even cursory understanding of Jewish dowry ritual provides a logical and natural explanation for the appearance of the Liahona. In 1 Nephi 16:7, Nephi details the marriage of his brothers and himself to the recently arrived daughters of Ishmael. Although the account is again vague, it can be reasonably assumed that the party may have attempted to observe the marriage customs of the day. The tradition that the father of the bride gives a dowry to the groom or his father was a common practice among ancient Jews.31 Because of the antiquity of the record, little information is available concerning the details of the practice in the day of Lehi. However, this practice was performed by at least some Jews who predated Lehi, as specified in the marriage accounts contained in Genesis 24:59–61; 29:24, 29; Judges 1:15; and 1 Kings 9:16.32

As several of Ishmael’s daughters married several of Lehi’s sons, it is plausible that Ishmael would have given a collective dowry to Lehi, the father of the grooms, to distribute among the newly formed households. The giving of a dowry in the desert, away from society, would have severely limited the form in which the dowry could be given. Monetary compensation or a dowry of land was certainly not an option. Neither would food be a viable dowry, as food obtained by the party appears to have been communal.33 Instead, an object that provided value in desert travel would seem a more appropriate option. An astrolabe is precisely such an instrument. As Ishmael appears to have been a trader or merchant,34 it is certainly possible he had access to such a device. The appearance of the Liahona almost immediately following the arrival of Ishmael, and then directly following the marriage of Ishmael’s children, provides at least reasonable textual evidence that the Liahona may have been part of or the entirety of a dowry Ishmael gave to Lehi. In such a case, Lehi’s “great astonishment” (1 Nephi 16:10) at finding the ball in front of his tent would be astonishment that Ishmael adhered to Jewish customs that Lehi determined impractical or impossible given their current circumstances.

[Page 214]Comparative Functionality: Liahona and Astrolabes

The first parallels between a spherical astrolabe and the Liahona are the similarities in appearance and composition. Nephi describes the Liahona as “a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go in the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10, emphasis added). The description of a spherical astrolabe now housed in the Oxford Museum of the History of Science bears striking similarities: “it is a finely worked decorative object. The brass globe is made of two hemispheres that neatly screw together … The enclosing rete, which must rotate smoothly on the perfectly round sphere, is also of brass.35 The parallels in description are remarkable, as the fine brass workmanship and the spherical shape of the astrolabe perfectly correlate to Nephi’s description. Nephi also describes the ball as having two “spindles” which were “within the ball.” While this description is often believed to denote pointers similar to those of a magnetic compass, it might also accurately describe the dually rotating retia — the net or cage-like portions of the astrolabe that rotate on a pivot or axle to represent the position of constellations in the night sky. These retia are literally within the ball, as they form the housing of the device, and each rotates in a manner that may accurately be described as a spindle. Additionally, it is not uncommon for portions of these retia to be described as “pointers,” in reference to their function of pinpointing important information on the underlying globe that could be utilized to calculate the time of day at different latitudes.36 An additional parallel between Nephi’s description of the Liahona and a spherical astrolabe is where upon the ball Nephi says writing occurs: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball … And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read …” (1 Nephi 16:28–29, emphasis added). Nephi states that the writing appeared “upon them [the spindles/pointers],” which is a curious place if the rest of the spherical instrument functioned as a casing for magnetic directional pointers. However, as can be seen in [Page 215]Figure 2, writing on spherical astrolabes is prominently placed on the retia or spindles of the device.

Figure 2. Astrolabe, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.. Inventory number 49687 from Syria, 1480/1 (A.H. 885). Image used under Create Commons License; https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spherical astrolabe 2.jpg. Accessed September 30, 2018.

More impressive than appearance are the numerous similarities of function the astrolabe and Liahona share. One of the principal uses of the astrolabe is to triangulate direction. The Liahona too appears to have allowed Nephi to determine the direction the party was traveling (1 Nephi 16:13). After the Liahona appears, Nephi can accurately describe the direction of travel to the intercardinal direction “south-southeast,” whereas prior to the Liahona’s appearance, his descriptions of direction are definitively vague (see 1 Nephi 2:4–5). If the Liahona merely pointed toward the next destination, as has been traditionally assumed, it would be odd for the device to also convey directional information based on the cardinal directions. Astrolabes, however, allow location to be calculated in latitude and longitude using the position of the sun, constellations, or individual stars. Particularly useful in desert travel, these computations allow precise locational and directional calculation without relying upon landmarks, which are often nonexistent in desert terrain. It also allowed travelers to record the exact locations of water sources, infinitely increasing their ability to traverse the desert by allowing them to find the same point on a subsequent journey. Gazetteers including the location of these water sources were often stored on the astrolabe itself or on analog disks that could be interchanged dependent on region.37 These disks, created from the knowledge of traders, nomads, or other explorers familiar with the area, contained star charts, details about the area, and even the coordinates for water sources located nearby. This information would allow someone like Lehi to locate water in a region he had never before traveled. Note Nephi’s words: “And we did follow the directions of the ball, which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:16, emphasis added). The most fertile places in the desert are locations where the presence of water allows for the growth of plant life. Traders – possibly Ishmael himself – who had followed the same route Lehi took across the peninsula would have discovered and recorded the location of these oases on the Liahona prior to Lehi’s journey. Because astrolabes could be used to record (and subsequently rediscover) an almost limitless amount of regional information, it should be noted that a Liahona functioning on astrolabic principles is equally compatible with any proposed reconstruction of Lehi’s route of travel from Jerusalem to Bountiful.38

One of the greatest challenges in desert travel, and one shared by Lehi’s caravan, is locating sources of food for the journey. As game in the desert primarily congregate near water, being able to locate oases also [Page 216]would allow a party to locate possible hunting grounds to supplement their stores of food. Nephi and Lehi’s use of the Liahona to locate food thus provides another valuable correlation between the Liahona and an astrolabe. The textual incident that illustrates this connection can be found in 1 Nephi 16:18–32. After Nephi breaks his bow and is unable to find food for several days (1 Nephi 16:18–19), Nephi constructs another bow but is unsure where to go to find game to hunt. His initial faith- based response is to inquire of his father, who in turn inquires of the Lord where to go to find food (1 Nephi 16:23–24). Rather than providing the information directly, the Lord curiously responds by telling Lehi to look upon the ball for information.39 Lehi does so, and as he looks upon the ball he discovers writing that provides Nephi with directions to a place where he could obtain food.40 It is clear from the text that until this time (several weeks, if not months from Nephi’s description),41 previous writing had been found on the ball but had caused no particular stir.

Instead, in this episode “new writing” is discovered, the content of which made it worth mentioning (1 Nephi 16:29). Because a word for word description of the writing is not provided, some misconceptions regarding the information conveyed have arisen. To correctly understand the content of the message contained on the ball, it is important to remember the question that had been asked and was subsequently answered by the writing. After reading the inscription, the text states that Nephi “did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball. And it came to pass that [he] did slay wild beasts, insomuch that [he] did obtain food for [their] families” (1 Nephi 16:30–31, emphasis added). The ball appears to have told Nephi where a water source was located and where, inherently, he could find game to hunt. If such is the case, some explanation must be given for why the writing on the ball caused Lehi to “quake and fear exceedingly” (1 Nephi 16:27).

As water generally flows to the lowest topographical point in any given region, directions provided by the ball specifying that a water source would be found at the top of a mountain would have seemed counterintuitive to Lehi and his party. This irregularity may have been the cause of Lehi’s consternation because if water was not indeed located at the place specified by the ball, the party was likely to starve. The “appearance” of new writing on the ball is not incongruent with the functionality of an astrolabe. As calculations are made at different times of day or night, the rete of the astrolabe is turned to accurately mirror the visible position of the referential celestial body. As the rete is manipulated, different portions of the underlying globe or disks become [Page 217]visible, possibly revealing previously unseen writing.42 Subsequently, as Nephi or Lehi calculated the party’s location at different times of the day, month, or year, different portions of the disks could be read, and the writing would be changed “from time to time,” a very literal reading of Nephi’s phrase (1 Nephi 16:29). This interpretation does not necessarily preclude traditional understandings that the writing on the Liahona may have contained spiritual guidance. Indeed, ancient astrolabes have a long history of spiritual application:

Astrolabes had blended uses, from scientific to what we would today consider spiritual. They have a strong history in Islam as a tool to find both the direction of prayer toward Mecca — known as the Qibla — as well as the five times of prayer required throughout the day, as stated in the Quran. They later became popular amongst Europeans during the Middle Ages as an astrological tool …43

In addition to being used for astrological divination, writing on astrolabes often contained religious maxims, scriptural verses, or other spiritually pertinent information along with geographical information.44 These common spiritual uses provide at least some corroboration with Nephi’s claim that the Liahona provided “understanding concerning the ways of the Lord.” Additionally, it is possible the “understanding” Nephi derived from the writing was a more appreciative awareness that the Lord often utilizes ordinary means to answer the prayers of his children. Nephi and Lehi, who appear to have relied tremendously on revelation to direct their lives, may have gained a more profound understanding of this “way of the Lord,” as when they expected an answer to come via a direct revelatory experience, their attention was directed back to a physical device.

Internal Workings of the Liahona

Opponents may refute this theory, citing 1 Nephi 16:28 as evidence of the miraculous nature of the Liahona: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.” This verse is often associated and correlated with Alma 37:40: “And [the Liahona] did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore, they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day.” What [Page 218]readers often fail to realize is that these two accounts do not actually agree about many aspects of the Liahona’s functionality.

There are three distinct differences between the account of the Liahona as provided by Nephi and the account provided by Alma: (1) the workmanship of the device, (2) the functionality of the device, and (3) the name of the device.45 In attempting to reconcile the differences between the two accounts it is important to note that Alma’s account was written nearly 500 years after Nephi and his family left Jerusalem. If the Book of Mormon is treated as a cultural or historical text, Nephi’s account should be given primacy in any attempt to reconstruct the Liahona’s functionality.

When Nephi first encounters the Liahona he states that he ” … beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass” (1 Nephi 16:10). It seems that while Nephi was impressed with the quality of the workmanship of the Liahona, its physical appearance was not evidence of its miraculous nature. Consider for instance, that Nephi uses a nearly identical phrase to describe his own labors building a ship: ” … and we did work timbers of curious workmanship … And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship … my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (1 Nephi 18:1, 4, emphasis added). Furthermore, Nephi seems to be more impressed with the workmanship of Laban’s sword than with the workmanship of the Liahona.46 While Nephi certainly recognizes the excellent quality of the Liahona and may not be able to replicate it despite his own considerable metallurgical skills,47 he does not appear to view the workmanship of the object itself as miraculous. Indeed, the most applicable definition of “curious” from the 1828 Webster dictionary is “wrought with care and art; elegant; neat; finished.” Alma, on the other hand, is far more impressed by its appearance: “And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship.”48 This subtle, yet significant change in description about the Liahona’s workmanship is highly indicative of a shift in cultural understanding about the Liahona, its origins, and its functionality.

This cultural shift regarding the Liahona is further apparent when comparing Nephi and Alma’s description of the Liahona’s functionality. Nephi’s descriptions of how the Liahona functioned found in 1 Nephi 16:28 must be viewed in the context of Nephi’s journey up to that point. If Nephi and his family had been following the Liahona’s direction for weeks without questioning, it seems odd they didn’t discover the Liahona functioned according to faith, diligence, and [Page 219]heed to the commandments of God until Nephi broke his bow. In fact, this conception can be derived only from Nephi’s words when viewed in conjunction with the passage in Alma. Nephi states that the ball functioned according to the faith, heed, and diligence they gave unto the pointers of the ball, not the commandments of the Lord.49 This is fundamentally different from Alma’s claim that the Liahona functioned or failed based on their “… faith in God” (Alma 37:40, emphasis added). Nephi never states that the ball ceased to work if they did not have faith in God. In fact, in Nephi’s account the party’s faith is exclusively tied to the conditions of the journey, not whether the ball provided them directions. This can be seen in the words of Nephi:

And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea, even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly; and after they were chastened by the voice of the Lord they did turn away their anger, and did repent of their sins, insomuch that the Lord did bless us again with food, that we did not perish. (1 Nephi 16:39, emphasis added)

Here, Nephi equates disobedience with an inability to locate food, not with a Liahona that ceased to function. This mentality is mirrored when the party is on the ship crossing the sea, and Nephi’s brothers begin to grow careless. Nephi’s admonishment to them is that a storm may arise because of their revelry, not that the Liahona will cease to function (1 Nephi 18:10).

If the Liahona functioned based on the attention and care that Nephi’s party gave to the ball itself, one might still ask why Nephi describes the process using the words “faith, heed, and diligence.” Joseph Smith, the translator of the Book of Mormon, said, “[w]e understand that when a man works by faith he works by mental exertion … ” Mathematical computations are an integral aspect of astrolabe navigation, matching the “mental exertion” Joseph Smith described. “Diligence” is defined in the 1828 Webster dictionary as: “Steady application in business of any kind; constant effort to accomplish what is undertaken; exertion of body or mind without unnecessary delay or sloth.” In the same dictionary, “heed” is defined as: “To mind; to regard with care; to take notice of; to attend to; to observe.” Attention paid to calculations, the exertion of body and mind to follow the directions provided, and the trust placed in the accuracy of the directions of the ball certainly qualify as exercising faith, heed, and diligence.

If the Liahona was indeed a gift from Ishmael, Ishmael would have been the primary navigator for the party until his death. Nephi and Lehi would have had to learn from Ishmael how to perform the calculations [Page 220]necessary to find the next water source in the wilderness, and then the party had to trust that the calculations were correct. It is interesting that Nephi’s first true description of the ball’s mechanisms comes a short time before the death of Ishmael. It is quite likely Ishmael became seriously ill prior to his death, a fact that may have severely limited his ability to manipulate the device, thus necessitating Lehi and Nephi’s assistance. These conditions would not only explain Nephi’s belated discussion of the device’s functionality, but also explain the consternation the party experienced at following the directions of the ball, which seems to occur only after Ishmael’s death. Indeed, as the narrative progresses, the party seems to have more difficulty following the directions of the ball, not less, despite their continued success. While Nephi appears to be an integral part of the company throughout the narrative, he does not appear to take primary responsibility of navigating the party until after the death of Ishmael. This is shown in the text as complaints and accusations about Nephi’s leading the company occur a long while after the appearance of the Liahona and only after Ishmael has been buried (1 Nephi 17:20). This view is also strongly supported by the interesting complaint of Ishmael’s family at his death:

And it came to pass that the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly, because of the loss of their father … saying: Our father is dead; yea, and we have wandered much in the wilderness, and we have suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue; and after all these sufferings we must perish in the wilderness with hunger. (1 Nephi 16:35, emphasis added.)

This complaint is unique in several aspects. First, with Ishmael dead, odds of survival for the party actually increased, as there would be more food and water for the company with one fewer dependent. Second, the caravan could then move faster without an aged and possibly ill member to worry about. Instead, it appears that Ishmael’s daughters are convinced the death of their father would bring about their deaths as well. It would seem that they, along with other members of the party, were skeptical that Nephi and Lehi could correctly utilize the Liahona to guide them to their destination. This fear would be wholly unfounded if the Liahona worked in the strictly faith-based manner assumed by most Book of Mormon readers. When the party ceased to trust Nephi’s calculations and did not follow the directions of the ball (in other words, exercising their faith) they were “afflicted with hunger and thirst,” substantive evidence of difficulty locating a water source (Alma 37:42). Additionally, they “did not progress in their journey … or did not travel [Page 221]in a direct course” — also suggestive of a difficulty in locating the next oasis to make their base camp — and were instead “driven back…” (presumably to the last known water source) “and therefore they were smitten with famine and sore afflictions, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty” (Mosiah 1:17). Each of these observations correspond well with the assertion of Chadwick “that the great majority of the ‘eight years in the wilderness’ is to be counted after Nahom.” The relative inexperience of Nephi and Lehi in utilizing the Liahona to direct their journey is a plausible explanation for both the inflated length of time spent in the wilderness after Nahom and the navigatory difficulties the party appears to have experienced only after the death of Ishmael.

Further evidence that Nephi may have used mathematical computations in the working of the Liahona is found in his brothers’ accusations:

And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: “Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren…behold, we know that he lies unto us; and he tells us these things, and he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness. (1 Nephi 16:37–38, emphasis added)

First, Nephi’s brothers seem to suggest that Nephi has only recently “taken it upon him[self]” to become some sort of leader on the journey. The “cunning arts” of which Nephi is accused are a natural description of astrolabic navigation techniques by anyone unfamiliar with trigonometric computation. Later, after following the Liahona for eight years, Laman and Lemuel are still plagued with doubts, and in their minds it is easy to confuse Nephi’s leadership in the desert with God’s workings of the Liahona. This confusion would be borderline psychotic if the Liahona in fact successfully and repeatedly functioned in a clearly spiritual way. It is far easier to explain the actions and attitudes of Laman and Lemuel if Nephi was indeed utilizing a naturally functioning navigation device to lead the party.

Nephi’s Manipulation of the Liahona

Perhaps the most convincing episode that provides evidence that the functionality of the Liahona was directly tied to Nephi’s manipulation occurs when the Liahona is used in the journey across the sea. One of the most useful functions of an astrolabe is that the techniques used for calculating position on land are also applicable to sea travel; [Page 222]indeed, variations of the astrolabe have been used in sea navigation for thousands of years. After using the Liahona for nearly a decade (1 Nephi 17:4), before setting out into the ocean for the final portion of their journey, the Lord tells Nephi: “After ye have arrived in the promised land, ye shall know that I, the Lord … did bring you out of the land of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 17:14, emphasis added). This statement suggests that the guidance of the Liahona after eight years was still not viewed as conclusive evidence that God was directing their path. Instead, crossing the sea to an uncharted land would provide the evidence necessary to prove that God was the one leading the party. This is consistent with the fact that all previous cartographical information contained on the Liahona would have been recorded on the device by its previous owners. As such, Nephi’s using the device to navigate to an unrecorded location would be a powerful display of God’s involvement. Perhaps the requisite navigational information for the journey was an example of the “great things” the Lord showed Nephi (1 Nephi 18:3).

After traveling on the water for an unspecified period, a portion of Nephi’s party began to revel in the success of their journey. Nephi’s brothers and other members of the band began to “dance, and to sing, and to speak with much rudeness” (1 Nephi 18:9). The most offensive part of their festivities occurs when they commit the unthinkable act of “forget[ting] by what power they had been brought thither” (1 Nephi 18:9). Even after following the Liahona for eight years, possibly because of the natural means by which the Liahona functioned, it was easy for members of the party to forget that God was leading them. It is also interesting to note that although at this moment the party had ceased to exercise the traditional definition of “faith, heed, and diligence,” Nephi gives no indication that the Liahona had ceased to function. In fact, there is never a specific account in Nephi’s narrative to this point that details an instance of the Liahona’s ceasing to operate. Nephi warns his brothers that they need to repent of their iniquity, but his warning is not that the Liahona will cease to function. Instead, he is worried that a storm may arise and sink the ship (1 Nephi 18:10). Laman and Lemuel’s response to Nephi’s concern is telling: “We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us” (1 Nephi 18:10). Again, the focus of their complaint is that Nephi is somehow in charge of the expedition, and in retaliation they bind Nephi. Nephi then records: “The Lord did suffer it that he might show forth his power” (1 Nephi 18:11). Nephi viewed his bondage as an episode the Lord allowed to demonstrate more effectively that indeed God, not Nephi, was leading the party. Nephi stated that as soon as he had been bound, “the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, [Page 223]did cease to work” (1 Nephi 18:12). As Nephi was the one manipulating the device, this statement is indeed true but not in the sense that it appeared broken or that it ceased to function entirely. This is demonstrated by the fact that it took Nephi’s brothers four days before they realized that something was wrong: “And after we had been driven back upon the waters for the space of four days, my brethren began to see that the judgments of God were upon them” (1 Nephi 18:15, emphasis added). There is at least some sense that the Liahona ceased to function because the storm would have obscured the party’s view of the sun and the stars, thus preventing Nephi’s brothers from using the device to navigate. Shortly after Nephi is released from his bondage, he states: “Behold, I took the compass, and it did work whither I desired it” (1 Nephi 18:21, emphasis added). The usually deferential Nephi is careful to detail that he was the one working the compass after his release. The compass worked only for him, and it worked even before Nephi prayed to the Lord for the storm to cease. Nephi then states: “I Nephi, did guide the ship, that we sailed again towards the promised land” (1 Nephi 18:22, emphasis added). Nephi appears to have had a much more integral role in manipulating the compass than a casual reading of the text would suggest.


After arriving in the promised land, Lehi described Nephi’s role in the journey thus: “[He] hath been an instrument in the hands of God, in bringing us forth into the land of promise; for were it not for him, we must have perished with hunger in the wilderness” (2 Nephi 1:24, emphasis added). It is difficult to shake the impression that in this verse Lehi is making a deliberate comparison between Nephi and the Liahona itself. Just as the Liahona was “an instrument” in the hands of Nephi to guide the party through the wilderness, so too was Nephi an “instrument in the hands of God,” used as a tool to guide the party to the promised land. Nephi’s integral role in the use of the Liahona clearly suggests similarities in use and function to astrolabes used by astronomers throughout the ancient Near East. This new understanding of the Liahona provides greater meaning to the words of Nephi, “and thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).

[Page 224]
1. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1871), 13: 140, 306.
2. Hugh Nibley, “The Liahona’s Cousins,” The Improvement Era (February 1961): 88.
3. For examples of these attempts see George Q. Cannon, The Life of Nephi The Son of Lehi (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883), 38; B.H. Roberts, A New Witness for God (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1895), 550–5 2; Robert F. Smith, “Lodestone and the Liahona,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992), http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1110&index=12; Robert L. Bunker, “The Design of the Liahona and the Purpose of the Second Spindle,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3, vol. 2 (1994): 1–11; Alan C. Miner, The Liahona: Miracles by Small Means (Springville, UT: Cedar Fort Inc., 2013).
4. Smith, “Lodestone and the Liahona.”
5. Ibid.
[Page 225]6. See Bob Burns and Mike Burns, Wilderness Navigation: Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2015).
7. “And we did follow the directions of the ball … ” 1 Nephi 16:16.
8. “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came unto my father; and he was truly chastened.” 1 Nephi 16:25–26. “And it came to pass that the Lord was with us, yea even the voice of the Lord came and did speak many words unto them, and did chasten them exceedingly” 1 Nephi 16:39. Consider also the directions Nephi receives from the Lord on building a ship found in 1 Nephi 17:7–10. Nephi frequently records experiences of direct communication with the Lord, but never claims to have received any sort of directional guidance from those interactions.
9. Consider that when Lehi prays for direction on where Nephi should go to find food, the Lord directs Lehi’s attention back to the information provided by the ball, rather than providing the direction in the same revelatory experience. See 1 Nephi 16:26, 30.
10. Admittedly, this is a simplified description of an astrolabe’s functionality. The mathematic calculations used in conjunction with astrolabes are highly complex and only tangentially provide navigation information by allowing the user to calculate current latitude and longitude based on the position of fixed celestial bodies. Using this positional information, one could then infer position relative to the latitude and longitude of known cities, oases, etc. Hence, an astrolabe’s greatest navigational use is to calculate the positional information of specific locations and store that information for a later return. Without this, or comparable technology, consistent desert travel would be nearly impossible for caravans such as Nephi’s as they would be unable to find small, isolated oases which lack discernable landmarks demarcating them from the surrounding desert. For a simple discussion of the astrolabe’s basic functionality see Laura Poppick, “The Story of the Astrolabe, the Original Smartphone,” Smithsonian Magazine (website), January 31, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/astrolabe-original-smartphone-180961981/.
11. Bruce Watson, “The Astrolabe: Astronomy’s First Hot App,” Sky and Telescope 131, no. 2 (2016): 24–27.
[Page 226]12. “Regular trade was carried on between the island of Crete and Egypt, a distance of approximately 300 miles (500 km), more than 25 centuries before the Christian era … The details of how these voyagers found their way are not known, but the use of the Sun and stars as guides is mentioned in many sources, including the works of Homer and Herodotus, the Bible, and the Norse sagas.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Navigation,” accessed September 19, 2018, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/407011/navigation.
13. Primitive star navigation is typically understood to have provided only rudimentary, or “spatial,” navigation information. That is to say, primitive star navigation primarily yielded directional, not positional, information. As such the standardized calculations and methods surrounding astrolabe technology provided for the ancients, not only (but also)?? a larger wealth of available knowledge, but also a tool by which navigational information became positional and standardized.
14. Watson, “The Astrolabe,” 24.
15. Robert T. Gunther, The Astrolabes of the World, vol. 1, The Eastern Astrolabes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1932), 53.
16. Ibid.
17. “It is customary to refer to the Planispheric Astrolabe … as the invention of the great Alexandrian savant, Hipparchus of Bithynia, born c. 180, died c. 125 B.C. It is said that he was the first man to apply a theory of stereographic projection to the drawing of the celestial sphere upon the plane of the equator. The planispheric astrolabe is impossible without this projection, so that if Hipparchus had really been the first exponent of this projection, there could have been no astrolabe before his day.” Gunther, The Astrolabes of the World, 53.
18. Gunther, The Astrolabes of the World, 53–54.
19. Ibid.
20. E.S. Kennedy, P. Kunitzsch and R. P. Lorch, trans. and ed., The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe in Arabic Astronomy (Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart, 1999), 5.
21. See Michael Halpern, “Sidereal Compasses: A Case for Carolinian-Arab Links,” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 95, no. 4 [Page 227](1986): 441–59; Ora Negbi, “Early Phoenician Presence in the Mediterranean Islands: A Reappraisal,” American Journal of Archaeology 96, no. 4 (1992): 599–615; Christos Agouridis, “Sea Routes and Navigation in the Third Millennium Aegean,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 16, no. 1 (1997): 1–24; Douglas T. Peck, “Development of Celestial Navigation by the Ancient Maya,” The Journal of Navigation 4, no.1 (January 2001): 145–49.
22. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1–4.
23. Refer to Figure 2 for a visual reference of a spherical astrolabe.
24. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1–4.
25. Richard Talbert, ed., Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 37–39.
26. ” … I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about;” 2 Nephi 25:6, (emphasis added). It seems that Nephi and Lehi were the principle guides in the wilderness for the first portion of the journey. Nephi’s knowledge of the area seems to be enough to allow his family to travel away from Jerusalem, set up a camp at a suitable location, and then return to Jerusalem two times without issue. Curiously, accusations about Nephi guiding the party only occur after the company begins following the Liahona and notably after the death of Ishmael. It would seem that the group trusted Nephi and Lehi’s guidance initially and became concerned only when the party struck out into unfamiliar territory using a device most of them did not know how to use.
27. See 2 Nephi 1:5–6; 2 Ne. 28:6; Omni 1:16; Mosiah 1:1–5; Mosiah 2:11; Mosiah 28:15; Alma 2:28; Alma 37:4; Alma 45:19; see also Moses 1:4; Moses 7:32.
28. Consider, for example, Nephi’s tendency to attribute to the Lord events which he himself physically performed. Despite being the individual most responsible for the food and provisions of the company, Nephi says in 1 Nephi 16:11 that they “gather[ed] together whatsoever things [they] should carry into the wilderness, and all the remainder of [their] provisions which the Lord had given unto [them]” (emphasis added). The ever-deferential Nephi sees the “hand of God” in nearly every aspect of his life. Nephi attempts to display to the reader, who was not present at these events, that [Page 228]the Lord was involved in a grand guiding way, not physically performing the acts.
29. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion,” Ensign (November 1986), emphasis added.
30. Just prior to detailing the Liahona’s appearance, Nephi carefully informs the reader of the commandment the Lord gave to Lehi to reassume his journey the next day. Nephi seems to be attempting to display that the Liahona was provided to Nephi’s party at precisely the moment when Lehi needs the instrument to fulfill the commandment of the Lord. Nephi does not seem overly awed by its origin, composition, or even functionality. His primary interest in the device is that it appeared when his family needed it the most. To Nephi, the timing of the Liahona’s delivery is the miracle.
31. “Besides this custom of the bridegroom making gifts to the bride or paying a ransom to her father the Bible also makes frequent mention of property which the woman brought to her husband at marriage. Rebekah brought to her new home female slaves from her father’s household (Genesis xxiv. 59, 61). Laban made similar gifts to Leah and to Rachel (Genesis xxix. 24, 29). Othniel at marriage received from his father-in-law, Caleb, a field of springs (Judges i. 15). Solomon received from Pharaoh, his father-in-law, a city as the portion (‘shilluḥim’) of the princess (I Kings ix. 16). Later, the practise of giving a dowry to a daughter, as it is now understood, entirely superseded the gift or ransom given by the groom; so that in Talmudic times it (‘nedunya’) is spoken of as a long-established custom.” Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Dowry,” accessed September 19, 2018, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5297-dowry.
32. Ibid. See also: Phillip J. King, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 54.
33. See 1 Nephi 16.
34. Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1988), 36, https://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1106&index=5.
35. Oxford Museum of the History of Science, “Special Exhibition Label: ‘Al-Mizan: Sciences and Arts in the Islamic World’ (26/10/2010 – 20/03/2011)”, accessed September 19, 2018, [Page 229]http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/collections/imu-search-page/narratives/?irn=2113&index=2, emphasis added.
36. Anthony Turner, “Concerning a Pointer on the Astrolabe,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 46, no. 4 (2015): 413–18.
37. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1. See also Richard Covington, “The Astrolabe: A User’s Guide,” Aramco World 58, no. 3 (2007): 22–23, http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/200703/the.astrolabe.a.user.s.guide.htm.
38. For an introduction to the three predominant route reconstructions see: Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “An Archaeologist’s View,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 68–77, 122–24.
39. “And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food? And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord … And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon the ball, and behold the things which are written.” 1 Nephi 16:23–24, 26.
40. “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball.” 1 Nephi 16:30, emphasis added.
41. “traveled for the space of many days … pitch our tents for the space of a time,” 1 Nephi 16:17.
42. Kennedy, Kunitzsch and Lorch, The Melon-Shaped Astrolabe, 1–3.
43. Poppick, “The Story of the Astrolabe.”
44. Emily Winterburn, “Using an Astrolabe,” Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (2005), https://muslimheritage.com/using-an-astrolabe/.
45. Only the first two differences are discussed at length in this paper. However, it is interesting that none of the characters in the Book of Mormon directly involved with the instrument refer to it as the “Liahona.” Instead, Nephi exclusively refers to the device as a “ball,” “compass,” or “director.” It is possible that this indicates a familiarity with technology similar to the Liahona, as Nephi appears to have had three words he felt accurately described the functionality of the device. The word “Liahona,” then, appears to be a name given by subsequent generations to describe the instrument as it functioned in the story of the Lehite exodus. Scholars have suggested a variety of possible meanings of the word based on its probable Hebrew etymology. While there is not yet a scholarly [Page 230]consensus on the etymological meaning of the word “Liahona,” the most probable interpretation appears to be “the direction (director) of the Lord.” See Jonathan Curci, “Liahona: ‘The Direction of the Lord’: An Etymological Explanation, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16, vol. 2 (2007): 60–67, 97–98. Alternatively, some scholars have proposed the meaning of the word Liahona corresponds to the Liahona’s function of helping Lehi’s company find their way from one encampment to another and should thus be rendered “encamping for Yahweh.” This meaning would correspond to the hypothetical Hebrew word layahone, “encamping for Yahweh,” derived from the participle form of the Hebrew verb hānā, “to pitch (tent), encamp, dwell.” This proposed etymology corresponds with a notion that the Lehites may have viewed themselves as participating in an “exodus,” similar to that of the Hosts of Israel, as evidenced by what appear to be explicit Exodus motifs in the account. See George S. Tate, “The Typology of the Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” in N. E. Lambert, ed., Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1981): 245–62, https://rsc-legacy.byu.edu/archived/literature-belief-sacred-scripture-and-religious-experience/13-typology-exodus-pattern-book; See also: S. Kent Brown, “The Exodus Pattern in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 111–26, https://rsc-legacy.byu.edu/archived/jerusalem-zarahemla-literary-and-historical-studies-book-mormon/exodus-pattern-book-mormon. In any case, the proposed etymologies suggest that the name given to the device may have functioned as a mnemonic device used by Lehi’s descendants to reinforce the moral and spiritual force of the account as they recounted the narrative to their children. Because it is highly likely that the majority of Lehi’s descendants would have primarily encountered these stories orally, providing a name for the device that described its function and/or reinforced its connection to the divine (the theophoric element of the word) could assist in helping hearers remember the details of their national origin story as well as properly ascribe the success of their journey to the Lord. This would stand in stark contrast to the Lamanite recollection of the Lehite exodus and subsequent ocean crossing, which appears to focus entirely on the role played by Lehi and Nephi rather than on any divine involvement. See Mosiah 10:12–13.
46. “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 [Page 231]was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.” 1 Nephi 4:9.
47. Nephi is able to make metal plates, metal tools, and even replicates of the sword of Laban. Nephi does not, however, attempt to recreate the Liahona despite it being a metal object. For Nibley’s assertion that Lehi and Nephi may have been metalsmiths see: Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, 85.
48. Alma 37:39, emphasis added. Alma’s phrase could alternatively be interpreted as referring to the abilities of individuals of his day, not necessarily mankind as a whole.
49. 1 Nephi 16:28: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (emphasis added).

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About Timothy Gervais

Timothy Gervais received a BA in History from Brigham Young University in 2013 and a Masters of Theological Studies from Loyola University Maryland in 2016. Graduating at the top of his class, his thesis was selected for presentation at the 2016 Emerging Scholars event hosted by Loyola University Maryland. Timothy currently resides in Lincoln, California with his wife and two children, where he works as a librarian for John Adams Academy. He also serves on the Library Advisory Board for the City of Lincoln.

About John L. Joyce

John L. Joyce (Larry) has independently researched aspects of Egyptian language, culture, and ancient navigation techniques related to The Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price for over forty years. His research has recently expanded to include Hebrew and Judaism. Larry currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife Cheryl Fulmer Joyce. He is the father of six children and the grandfather of nineteen grandchildren.

20 thoughts on ““By Small Means”: Rethinking the Liahona

  1. I am not sure the initial premise of this paper is correct that the appearance of the Liahona is incongruous with natural law. The Quote from Brigham Young does not support the supposition, but simply indicates we do not always know the exact means by which God works his miracles.

    Just like a casual reading may lead one to a hemispheric model for geography of the book of Mormon (which is not justified), so too would a casual reading cause a basic correlation between the Liahona and a planispheric astrolabe – as it’s the best reference that exists.

    The Liahona and Ishmaels apparent connection to me is more of a timing coincidence – Lehi needed Ishmael and his family (and was commanded to bring them), and as they were about to leave on their journey beyond their homeland they also required the Liahona. The Dowry theory seems too much of a stretch to be taken seriously, as does the idea that Ismael was a great user of the supposed astroble but yet somehow, a man of Lehi’s statue and experience, was not. It seemed Nephi managed ok building a ship under divine assistance. No doubt, they could also manage to use the Liahona with or without Ismael.

    The idea that Nephi doesn’t start providing specific directions (South south-east) seems to neglect the fact that he wasn’t writing the narrative as it was happening, but many years later. I suspect he was able to determine this direction without any aided assistance by using the mere rising of the sun. It is also the first time they begin their real journey away from the homeland, clearly with no intent on returning, and still by the boarders of the red sea.

    It is an interesting attempt to draw a correlation of sorts, but I find the Book of Mormon text being stretched to substantiate the claims and requires supplanting other writings within the text that do not support the thesis.

  2. This is impossible.

    The article states that an astrolabe was used to find latitude AND longitude. This would obviously come as a surprise to any navigator. There was no known way of determining Longitude prior to the invention and popularization of the nautical chronometer during the era of the American revolution and the French revolutionary wars. The astrolabe was used to find latitude ONLY.

    Given the creation of the astrolabe would be somewhere in what is generally known as the middle east it would only be good for the northern hemisphere, as southern navigational stars would be invisible and therefore unknown to any point where the pole star WAS visible.

    There is nothing particularly mathematical about using an astrolabe as surviving ones were often calibrate not in degrees or some equivalent but in port cities. That is to say you sail this far north or south and then turn east or west and you will find this or that port. For example leave Portugal and sail south until the pole star angle indicates Dakar (14 degrees 39 minutes north) then turn east and you will find landfall and Dakar. Be careful though, if you sail out of sight of land there may be unknown islands or shoals between you and your desired landfall (Cabo Verde in this case).

    This system had it’s limitations, of course, as the farther south you go you will eventually ‘sail off the edge of the earth’. Not literally but but figuratively as the Pole star sinks lower and lower on the horizon. The limit would be about 4 or 5 degrees north latitude. At the latitude of present day Monrovia, Liberia or Georgetown, Guyana, the pole star is less than 6 degrees about the horizon and that was the limit up until Henry the Navigator. If you continue south your astrolabe would be useless very quickly. At the latitude of present day Libreville, with the pole star less than 1 degree about the horizon, it would be lost in the haze and unusable and when the pole star sets, so to speak, so does the utility of your astrolabe, the stars overhead being completely strange and therefore unusable.

    Once Henry’s ships sailed past the equator they discovered the southern cross which served as a reference for the southern hemisphere, but it required a new astrolabe and new calculations of latitude designed to reference southern not northern stars.

    As stated above there is also the problem of avoiding unknown or dangerous landfalls on the same parallel of latitude. Christopher Columbus, who was an accomplished navigator, had been to Iceland and carried an astrolabe on is famous first voyage to the new world took pains to maintain a course on a line of latitude far enough south to avoid the large Viking islands he knew to be in his way. The southern reach would have been known to him but not the longitude.

    There was, and is, no known non-electronic method of finding longitude from the stars without a time reference. This is despite the considerable time, talent and treasure expended on that very search by the Royal Navy and other maritime powers prior to the invention of the nautical chronometer.

    As for direction, a compass of some sort could be integrated into an astrolabe, I suppose, although the utility of the combination is somewhat questionable. It would require a knowledge of declination but not much, at least initially, but this would change rapidly once you put to sea rendering the compass, if not totally useless at least unreliable despite being fully functional.

    Then there is the issue of magnetic compass ‘needle dip’. The magnetic field of the earth not only pulls a compass needle left and right it also pulls it down. Some modern compasses will have specially constructed magnetic needles in multiple parts to compensate for needle dip but most compasses manufactured and calibrated for the northern hemisphere become increasingly useless as you move south past the equator. This problem is separate from and in addition to the declination problem.

    If the Lehi party departed from anywhere on the Red Sea, Persian Gulf or the Arabian Sea they could not reach America, north or south without crossing the equator and rendering any astrolabe in their possession useless and still the Liahona continued to function by some means guiding the party way past usable (northern) parallels of latitude, and unknown and unknowable magnetic declination lines through unknown and unknowable meridians of longitude while compensating for the, to them, unknown phenomenon of needle dip. To do this with a single, automatic instrument usable by novices, would have been impossible to us with our technology prior to the final decades of the 20th century much less to anyone in the 6th or 7th century before Christ.

    In short the idea of some locally constructed instrument with the functionality of the Liahona, in the absence of some unknown ‘flying saucer’ type technology, is not just improbable, it is absolutely impossible.

  3. There are some major speculative jumps here and the BOM text indicates that the Liahona was definitely NOT a preconstructed astrolabe provided to the Lehite party. First, 1 Nephi 16:13 does not require the Liahona for direction, this direction is easily derived from seeing where the sun comes up and sets. The comparison of the Liahona with the astrolabe does not seem to be at all corollary. The early astrolabe was used to determine time. Only the later astrolabes had the daily information of the Sun’s declination in order to determine one’s latitude. It could not provide information as to the specific longitudinal location on the open sea or in areas of land where your location was not generally previously known. The astrolabe was limited in directional capabilities to a previously known point (usually Mecca) where the appropriate information was inscribed on the astrolabe. Also, one had to know generally which city one was close to in order to locate Mecca, as this information also had to be inscribed on the astrolabe. The Liahona gave them direction to local locations out in the wilderness (ie top of mountain to get food) not previously known locations. The way an astrolabe functions is not consistent with the description of the way that the Liahona functions. In addition, there is a secondary description of the Liahona being utilized in the New World and it ceased to function once the interpreter stones were found. While it may have been useful for determining latitude in the New World, a preconstructed astrolabe provided in Arabia would have been little use in the New World (or on the trans-oceanic voyage to the New World). While the conjectures about needing some skill to use the Liahona may have some merit, it is fairly clear it was not an astrolabe. Furthermore, as mentioned in a previous comment, the description of the Liahona indicates that it was not dependent on celestial observations (stars and sun) for its function as an astrolabe is, as Nephi was able to get the Liahona to “work wither I desired it” (1 Nephi 18:21) in the midst of wind and storm during the absence of the ability to sight the sun or stars. Only after Nephi had worked the Liahona (and then after praying) did the storm and wind cease.

    • It did not seem to me that the authors were basing much of their comparison on 1 Nephi 16:13. They were just pointing out what seemed to be a curious aspect of the text, which is that Nephi does not describe the party’s direction of travel by intercardinal direction until AFTER the Liahona enters the narrative. While this is certainly not conclusive, it is a small corroborating detail that seems to lend credence to their overarching assertions.

      Additionally, while early astrolabes were sometimes utilized to determine time, ALL astrolabes carry the latent ability to allow a user to make the requisite observations to determine latitude. Additionally, as I noted in a previous comment, determining longitude by Lunar sights is a similar skill to that of determining latitude by astral observation. I do not think the authors overstep their bounds by suggesting an instrument functioning on astrolabic principles could assist one in determining longitude via Lunar sights.

      Your point about the Liahona giving local information is exactly a point the authors use to demonstrate the comparable functionality. That many astrolabes (both planispheric and spherical) contained gazeteers that included local information is attested in a variety of surviving astrolabes.

      Your reference to a “secondary description of the Liahona being utilized in the New World and [ceasing] to function once the interpreter stones were found” I assume is a reference to the Fayette Lapham account. Unfortunately, the Lapham account is tremendously problematic in that it is the recollections of an individual 40 years after a conversation that he had with Joseph Sr. who as of yet had not read the Book of Mormon text. To use that account to contradict what appear to be genuine textual details about the Liahona is problematic in a variety of ways, especially since the Lapham account contradicts Joseph’s own story of his discovery of the plates in a number of ways.

      • I actually agree that the Liahona could have operated partially off of astrolabic principles. I think my objection is that it was of domestic make. Ever wonder why it was a ball? The spherical astrolabe is more difficult to operate and provided little more functionality than a standard astrolabe. I think that this must have been a different sort of astrolabe with enough information for arrival in the New World. This could also be squared with the Lapham information (btw, I’m not aware of comments by Joseph Smith regarding the Liahona contradicting the Lapham account, a reference might be nice). The information on the Liahona took them to the location of the interpreters. This is also consistent with it being made by the hand of the Lord. This is one of many future research interests worth pursuing when time permits.

  4. Letter to the Editor:
    Response to ‘By Small Means’
    I found this article, stimulating and thought provoking. I applaud the authors for exploring new spaces and looking at the scriptural text in new ways. They make a case that is plausible, but ultimately unconvincing.
    1) If the author’s hypothesis is correct, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that Nephi was being intentionally misleading in his description of the Liahona. Why not be upfront about it being a gift from Ishmael? Why not be up front in his description of how it is used. Why describe it as being some mysterious spiritual process if it was actually very cerebral and mechanistic? And this from a man who claimed his ‘soul delighteth in plainness’ (2 Ne 31:3).
    2) If the whole group was dependent on this one device for getting through the desert, finding food and water sources, and then later through the ocean to the Promised Land it seems improbable that only Nephi and Lehi, an old man by this point (1Ne 18:18) were trained in its operation. One would think that Laman and Lemuel would insist on being brought in, and that Nephi and Lehi would welcome their help. Not for reasons of personal power, but because the group would want redundancy in such a critical skill set.
    3) The authors claim that if the Liahona is a mechanical device, operated through reason, calculation and observation, Laman and Lemuel’s continued murmuring is more understandable than if they knew they were dependent on a divine spiritual object for their daily bread. Maybe…but if Nephi’s record is to be believed, then Laman and Lemuel were severely chastised by an angel, and then immediately began to murmur again (1Ne 3:29-31).
    4) The story of the Liahona beginning to work on the ship before the storm abated would imply that the clouds cleared enough for Nephi to get a reading on the stars before the storm ended (1Ne 18:21). I am not a mariner, and claim no familiarity with maritime storms, but this seems unlikely to me.
    5) During that same episode on the ship Nephi states that when he was bound the ‘compass…did cease to work’ (1Ne 18:12). The subject of that clause is the compass, not Nephi. That is a strange way to phrase it, especially if what he meant was ‘I was unable to operate the compass because I was tied up.’
    6) I don’t think we can dismiss the prophet Alma’s account as quickly as the authors do. It’s true that he was 500 years later and raised in a different cultural and geographic setting. But Alma seems to understand clearly the difference between things he knows and things he believes, and he is very willing to admit his ignorance in his conversations with his sons (Alma 37:11 and Alma 41:3-9). I don’t know how Alma knew the things he says he knows about the Liahona, but he was confident enough that he didn’t qualify his description with something like ‘this is what some people believe about the Liahona, others believe it worked mechanistically, independent of faith.’
    Thanks again for this interesting article.

  5. Astrolabes are reminiscent of the “Antikythera mechanism,” which is the device alluded to on the episode of Interpreter Radio whereon this article was discussed.

  6. It is often assumed that Ishmael was a descendant of Ephraim. I don’t think it would be to much of a stretch to think that Abraham’s vast knowledge of Astronomy would have been passed down this particular line from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph and down to Ephraim. Perhaps the Liahona itself has a longer history then we know if it had such detailed information as you suggest. Just a thought.

  7. Comment: The astrolabe was probably invented by Aristotle (384-322 BC), and probably took an Aristotle to use. Also, it could only be used to determine LATITUDE. It wasn’t until major astronomical observatories by major seafaring nations, e.g. Greenwich, UK; Paris, France; Amsterdam, Holland; St. Petersburg, Russia, etc. in the 1700’s AD that sextants (a modern version of the astrolabe) could observe the star field adjacent to the moon, then looking up the angles in tables produced by these observatories could determine LONGITUDE. Otherwise a good chronometer would make longitude measurements easier.

    • I would suggest you reread the author’s “Dating of Astrolabe Technology” section which provides a detailed account of the scholarly consensus on the invention of Astrolabe technology. The articles cited by the authors and my own research do not suggest any ties to Aristotle.

      Also, while the mathematical computations utilized to determine location utilizing an astrolabe certainly require some practice (and guidance if you have not performed them previously), they do not require an “Aristotle” to produce. Similar methods have been used by amateur and professional astronomers alike for thousands of years to determine latitude. A simple google search reveals dozens of websites devoted to walking a modern reader through the relatively simple process of producing a functional astrolabe and utilizing it to take readings of celestial bodies. While the early astrological observations were typically documented by titans of ancient science, once the technique had been demonstrated just about anybody could do it.

      Additionally, while the most common use of the astrolabe was to determine latitude, determining approximate longitude by Lunar sights without a chronometer is a cognate ability. It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for ancient peoples to have had some conception of this as demonstrated by their impressive understanding of star motion.

  8. Couple scattered thoughts.

    1. Really tired of LDS studies adopting the atheist (and frankly less intuitive) terminology of BCE & CE. I know the excuses about it being convention, etc. But it’s really just an alternative pushed by those who hate Christ & want to remove our calendar’s reliance upon & testimony of him. You might think it’s harmless, but there’s actually a subtle agenda behind its recent proliferation. BC & AD are plenty clear and have centuries of scientific usage behind them. It’s disappointing that we’re so eager to gain acceptance in the world that we drop references to the Savior in order to appease the godless & those who hate Christians.

    2. The spherical astrolabe shown in the pic is from the 900s or so? In other words, it’s a bit misleading. It didn’t make an appearance until 1500 years after Lehi. Putting one at Lehi’s doorstep would indeed have been miraculous.

    3. If they did indeed have some sort of armillary or spherical astrolabe-like object, then it would have reflected the knowledge of the day about the size & circumference of the earth–if indeed there was even such knowledge to be had. Since the history we know doesn’t suggest they had an accurate understanding of the earth’s geometry of that time, then whatever instrument they had certainly would not have allowed for there to be a giant landmass across the ocean. Essentially, by giving them an instrument that had detailed information in Arabia, the Lord amazed them with the device’s accuracy. But then, by subsequently leading them to a place not predicted or anticipated by the “miraculously accurate” gadget, He demonstrated His ultimate miraculous nature.

    • I think your critique of the BCE, CE date designations is fair. Hopefully the authors and the editors can make that adjustment.

      My reading of the document, however, certainly did not detect any attempt to “mislead” by the authors by utilizing a later archaeological device as a comparison. The dating of the spherical astrolabe pictured is clearly noted in the image caption (1480/1 AD,) and you will also note that no attempt was made to use the Oxford object to argue for the plausibility of a spherical astrolabe existing in the time of Lehi. As I understand it, the spherical astrolabe housed at Oxford is the only complete extant spherical astrolabe of ancient date in the world, and thus constitutes the only spherical device functioning on astrolabic principles that the authors could use to display visual and compositional similarities to the Liahona. Also note that the authors argue that the Liahona may have functioned on “astrolabic principles” not that it was a device identical to the one housed in the Oxford museum of science. Ishmael’s access to the device could certainly be viewed as miraculous, as even after these devices had become relatively well-known and widespread they were still expensive and were often closely guarded family heirlooms.

      In relation to your third comment, Eratosthenes of Cyrene determined the circumference of the earth using solar calculations more than 300 years before Christ. Ancient astronomers (the intellectual elite of the ancient world) had far more in depth knowledge of star motion, the size/shape of the earth, and astral navigation than we give them credit for. The second part of your third point closely matches what the authors say about the journey to the promised land across the sea being the ultimate demonstration of God’s involvement in the navigation of the journey.

  9. Thanks for the interesting article. Regarding Nephi’s statement that “within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go in the wilderness,” can an astrolabe be used in such a way that one of the retia actually points in the desired direction of travel?

  10. Thank you for sharing this fascinating theory, particularly the way you wove the scriptures together with the Ishmael connection, the dowry, and Ishmael’s death. I find it very compelling, especially in light of the fact that the Liahona is never used in later Book of Mormon accounts, as if the knowledge/ability/location to use the astrolabe was gone and it is just passed down as a sacred relic. The Fayette Lapham account of the lost 116 pages (which Don Bradley has reported on recently) mentions that Mosiah 1 had the Liahona, which ceased working in favor of the interpreters, which also fits.

  11. I do not think the Liahona should be compared with an astrolabe. It was actually a communication device similar to a seer stone or breastplate of judgment (see Ex 28:30, Num 27:21) or white stone (see Rev 2:27). All of these devices (plus more examples that could be included) are in the general class of Urim and Thummim. It is similar to having a very sophisticated smartphone that can display information from a database (the priesthood) or revelation from a higher being.

    One spindle could be pointing the way for travel. The other spindle could be switched to various categories etched on the ball such as “the promised land” (or interim destination), animals for game, water supply, cattle that got lost, runaway camels or horses, plants for textiles, or any other important resources. The variable display that changes from time to time could have been words of wisdom for the clan to read and ponder and discuss among themselves.

    • While failing to liken and resolve any comparison the Liahona might have to a Urim and Thummim may be an omission on the part of Gervais and Joyce, I think it is difficult to simply disregard the evidence they’ve gathered in support of its comparison to an astrolabe.
      Furthermore, the idea that God would work within the available technologies or culturally accepted tools of the day seems to fit well within Church history and personal experience. Seer stones were culturally acceptable in Joseph Smith’s time, which he used just as frequently if not more often than the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, and smart phones, as you suggested, can not only facilitate significant access to databases of information but can help guide our own spiritual journeys as we use them in the spirit of study and faith. Ancient scripture does tend to emphasize the miraculous nature of any divine intervention, and rightly so as we believe in an omnipotent God whose ability to save is as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea or making clear stones shine by a touch of His finger. But more explainable interventions, like perhaps the Liahona, are no less miraculous. Rather, I see it as another way God condescends to our intellectual and spiritual levels in order to communicate with and ultimately redeem us. And, as Gervais and Joyce point out, the latter method seems no less rigorous in terms of spiritual faith and diligence as the mental exertion that was potentially required to operate the Liahona did not exclude their constant faith in God’s ability to deliver them.

    • While not addressing the similarities between the Liahona and a Urim and Thummim may be one of the paper’s sins of omission, it is difficult to simply disregard the evidence Gervais and Joyce have compiled showing the similarities between the Liahona and an astrolabe. Furthermore, based on Church history and modern examples, it seems well within God’s power to intercede on our behalf through available technology or cultural customs. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, Joseph Smith had a seer stone (a cultural artifact commonly accepted at the time) which he used just as frequently if not more often when translating the Book of Mormon. And in our day, as you suggested, we have smart phones, which not only give us access to nearly limitless information but, if used in faith and diligence, can lead to significant spiritual growth and salvation through gospel study and family history work.

      But the spirit of your point is well taken. We worship an omnipotent God who can intercede on our behalf in dramatic ways, like the parting of the Red Sea or making clear stones glow by touching them with His finger. I think there are and will continue to be events and artifacts that will not be explainable until they are revealed to us. However, to say that an omnipotent God is limited to interfering in inexplicable ways is equally limiting. To say that God uses available and established technologies and methods to guide us does not lessen the importance of His intercession. I think it is evidence of His merciful condescension towards us. And as Gervais and Joyce point out, God’s condescension to work with us through the avenues already familiar to us does not necessarily require less faith and diligence. Whatever mental exertion Nephi may have demonstrated in learning to use the Liahona does not cancel out the importance of his faithfulness in keeping the commandments, and neither should our intellectual abilities in our perspective fields trump our spiritual sensitivities. Rather, we are encouraged to seek the guidance of the Spirit by faith and also by study.

      • Ross, thanks for your comment. Based on my ponderings of the BoM account, I believe the Liahona was provided for instructing the entire clan (not merely to point the way to travel). The variable display was not “permanently” etched into any part of the Liahona. In other words, the “words of wisdom” were not etched on a strip of metal that rotated into view and other phrases would rotate out of view inside the machinery. Note the words faith, diligence, heed in this scripture: 1 Nephi 16:28 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them. 29 And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.

        I do not believe it required much “mental exertion” for Nephi to operate the Liahona. All he had to do was observe the pointers and proceed in the direction indicated. And to read the new writings from time to time. All very intuitive.

        Whereas, the astrolabe is extremely complicated. It would require the operator to have a strong background of mathematics, map reading (or something similar), and astronomy. It would need calibration, presets, and adjustments far exceeding the skillset of rural people.

        The Liahona required the whole clan to be modest, humble, attentive to the commands of the Lord and to not fall into bad habits or irreverent behavior. Otherwise the device would cease to function. This is confirmed by 1 Nephi 18:12 And it came to pass that after they had bound me insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work.

        If they had an instrument that operated like an astrolabe, then it should have continued to operate with adjustments and manipulations regardless of faithfulness and diligence of the operator. Much less the disposition of the whole clan. This drives home the point that the Liahona required the faith, diligence, heed of the operator in order to function as desired. Just as Joseph Smith had to be in the right frame of mind in order to make use of the interpreter (he was unable to operate the interpreter when he had that spat with Emma).

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