Lehi the Smelter: New Light on Lehi’s Profession

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A strong case has been made by John A. Tvedtnes and Jeffrey R. Chadwick that Lehi was a metalworker by profession.1 Although the text gives several indications of Nephi’s (and by implications, Lehi’s) familiarity with the craft of working metals, prominent Book of Mormon scholar John L. Sorenson nonetheless disagreed with this assessment on the grounds that, “it would be highly unlikely that a man who had inherited land and was considered very wealthy (1 Nephi 3:25) would have been a metalworker, for the men in that role tended to be of lower social status and were usually landless.”2 More recent findings, however, are changing the picture.

In the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, editor Hershel Shanks has a short comment entitled “Life Was Not So Bad for Smelters,” which draws on the very recent findings at both Timna and Faynan, both mining towns in antiquity, to conclude, “While life for miners at ancient copper mining sites was ‘hell on earth,’ the smelters of the better class feasted like visitors at a first-class spa!”3 According to Shanks, Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, the archaeologists at Timna, “draw a [Page 224]distinction between the low-class miners and the higher-class smelters.” The abstract of their study describes the nature of the evidence:

The popular image of metalworking sites in desert settings envisages armies of slaves engaged in back-breaking labour. This is in conflict with ethnographic evidence indicating that skilled specialist metalworkers are often accorded high social status. This study approaches that contradiction directly by studying the remains of domesticated food animals from domestic and industrial contexts at Timna in southern Israel. The authors demonstrate that the higher-value meat cuts come from industrial contexts, where they were associated with the specialist metalworkers, rather than the ‘domestic’ contexts occupied by lower status workers engaged in support roles. It is suggested that the pattern documented here could also have been a feature of early metalworking sites in other times and places.4

The authors go on to explain, “Metalworkers are commonly perceived to have been a cheap labour force, but a growing set of data shows the contrary, especially in the pyrotechnological stage of primary metal production.”5 They are looking specifically as the remains of animal bones, which indicate that smelters enjoyed the meat from the best body parts on local and imported species, while the miners and others got the butchers scraps. “This observation,” they note, “implies that different ranks may be attributed to the two populations, with the people engaged in smelting enjoying the higher status.”6 They conclude,

We suggest that the people engaged in smelting were actually highly skilled craftpersons and were treated as such. This fundamental observation stems from the inherent complexity of the technology that demanded and created an idiosyncratic class of workers, and hence we believe it should apply to smelting activities across time and space, namely at different periods, in different cultures and even in relation to different metals.7

[Page 225]According to Shanks, archaeologists in the Faynan have attested similar findings that will soon be published. The findings at both sites date to the early first millennium bc.

Chadwick has specifically argued for a business association between Lehi and the mines of Timna, since they are near the Red Sea in the area Lehi most likely traveled too (see 1 Nephi 2:5).8 Daniel C. Peterson likewise feels that Lehi’s smelting skills “might have dictated the direction they went. It would be a known route. If you do metalwork, then you probably know the mines of Timna at that period.”9 It is therefore significant that evidence for the higher socioeconomic status of smelters comes from this same area.

While we may never know for certain what Lehi’s profession was, metalworking is an increasingly appealing option. Not only does it fit with Nephi’s apparent knowledge and interest in metallurgy but also lends explanatory power to the direction Lehi traveled. Now, it can also be said to be consistent with Lehi’s apparent socioeconomic status.

1. See John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Springville, UT: Horizon, 2003), 78-97; Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of his Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 113-117. Also see Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 1:78-80.

2. John L. Sorenson, “The Composition of Lehi’s Family,” in By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 2 vols., ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:176.

3. Hershel Shanks, “Life Was Not So Bad for Smelters,” Biblical Archaeology Review (January/February 2015): 6.

4. Lidar Sapir Hen and Erez Ben Yosef, “The Socioeconomic Status of Iron Age Metalworkers: Animal Economy in the ‘Slaves’ Hill’, Timna, Israel,” Antiquity 88/341 (2014): 775, emphasis mine.

5. Ibid., 776.

6. Ibid., 785.

7. Ibid., 787.

8. See Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem,” 117.

9. Daniel Peterson, in Journey of Faith: From Jerusalem to the Promised Land, ed. S. Kent Brown and Peter Johnson (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006), 62.

14 thoughts on “Lehi the Smelter: New Light on Lehi’s Profession

  1. Nephi definitely had working knowledge of metallurgy. Other than recognizing Laban’s craftsmanship he mentioned that his bow was made of fine steel. Understand that steel is made of iron ore,metallurgical coke ( derived from hard cooking coal ) and limestone resulting in pig iron which then must be added ferro-alloys tô become steel. Also God showed where the ores were to make tools for ship building but Nephi obviously knew the process to make iron and steel implements using billows in reduction segment same principals used today in the modern day blast furnace.
    Likewise this knowledge was applied in the Americas. I think it would be reasonable to think Nephi learned this trade from his father, Lehi. When his brothers rebelled against Nephi stating that Nephi was placing himself above brothers due to his knowledge of craftsmanship.

  2. The operative words are “if I understand correctly:” Levites held the Aaronic Priesthood by right, but others could be ordained to it. Restricting the priesthood to Levites was a feature of the post-exilic period. When Ezra kicked out of the priesthood anyone who couldn’t prove his Levitical genealogy, it was to suppress these “other” priesthood holders, who were mostly from the former Northern Kingdom

    • Lehi and Nephi held the Melchizedek Priesthood, of which the Aaronic and Levitical are subsets. There was no need for Levites in America.

  3. Great work!
    Apropos of very little, I’ve wondered if Lehi was sufficiently wealthy to have brought a house Levite with him to America. Given that Levites couldn’t be numbered, it would make sense not to mention them in the text.

  4. Interesting stuff. It is fascinating to consider that while Nephi was forging tools from the ore that he “did molten out of the rock” (1 Ne. 17:16) in order to build a ship, the Lord, for His own purposes, was forging Nephi as an instrument in His hands. The Lord was testing Nephi’s metal in the wilderness, and molding him as he had molded his father Lehi. This sort of shaping foreshadows the shaping of the prophet Joseph Smith, the instrument of the Restoration: “I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, … Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.”

  5. Interesting theory. Lehi working as a metal worker would certainly make sense of those verses describing Nephi teaching his people to work metals (just as the theory that Nephi was a scribe in training makes sense of his talents in writing). In my opinion the lack of metallurgy in ancient Mesoamerica (pre-Classical Era) is probably the most serious anachronism currently weighing in against the historicity of the Book of Mormon — hopefully one that we will see resolved by future discoveries, just as the cement “anachronism” has been resolved. The absence of advanced metallurgy prior to the Classical Era might indicate the uniqueness of Nephite technology, so it makes sense if this started with Lehi and Nephi.

  6. Additional evidence for the metallurgical knowledge of Lehi and Nephi is demonstrated after their landing in America. Nephi wrote, “And we did find all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper.” (1 Nephi 18:5) Looking for metal ores, recognizing the ores of gold, silver and copper, and knowing how to refine them, requires considerable metallurgical knowledge and skill.
    This statement of Nephi could also be used as yet another test for the validity of the Book of Mormon itself. Is there a place on the Pacific coast of North America where there are known deposits of gold, silver and copper within a reasonable thirty-mile radius? According to US Geological Survey maps, from California to Columbia there is only one such point and that is at the middle of the Costa Rica Pacific coastline. Further evidence for this location are the pre-Columbian almond trees in Cost Rica, which are indigenous to the Levant. This information could not reasonably have been known to Joseph Smith when he translated The Book of Mormon. ( http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/country/latin.html#mx )
    Also, when Nephi and party left Lehi’s Landing to escape the persecution of Laman and Lemuel, the travelled “many days” to a place where Nephi wrote:
    “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.” (2 Nephi 5:15)
    Nephi obviously had knowledge and skills to find the ores and work the metals. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and it would take considerable metallurgical knowledge and skill to find, refine and properly combine these metals.
    Does a location exist within “many days” travel from Costa Rica where these ores all exist within a reasonable proximity? Again, according to the US Geological Survey, such a location does exist where there are gold, silver, copper, iron, and zinc ores. Nephi could have found them all in central Guatemala. Again, Joseph Smith could not have known that when he translated the book.

  7. I’m not throwing out the idea presented here, but there are a few things to consider. Once they arrived in the valley of Lemuel, the reason they traveled the way they did was because of the Liahona not because of some previously traveled route.
    On the plus side of the proposal though, Laman Lemuel accused Nephi somehow creating the Liahona and deceiving them. He could’ve only been accused of that if he had some familiarity with metalworking.

    • Hi Kelley,
      I appreciate your comment. It is true, the accusation of Nephi’s brothers is among the many evidences that point toward the families expertise in metallurgy.
      Timna is just north of the Gulf of Aqaba, and probably only about a 4-day distance from the Valley of Lemuel (about a day to the Red Sea/Gulf of Aqaba, and then a 3-day trip to the Valley of Lemuel, per 1 Nephi 2:5-6). Reaching Timna, therefore, would make up the bulk of their journey from Jerusalem to the Valley of Lemuel (Wadi Tayyib al-Ism, in my view), the part they did not have the Liahona for, and which Lehi’s sons traveled back and forth repeatably. It is this part of the journey to which I, and Peterson and Chadwick whom I cite, are referring to. The question is why did they not need the Liahona for this leg of the journey, but did for the later part? If Lehi was a smelter who had spent time working near the mines of Timna, or traveling there to purchase ore, then he and his sons would have known this route well, and therefore who not need the Lord’s compass.

  8. Young Nephi, in the moonlight or starlight, recognized that the sword of Laban had a hilt of pure gold, “and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9). This instant analysis could only come from an experienced metallurgist, well trained by his father.

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