Mosiah 20:11; Alma 43:44. Dragons
Two Book of Mormon passages speak of soldiers fighting “like dragons” (Mosiah 20:11; Alma 43:44). Since the dragon is a mythological beast, why is this term used in a book that purports to be an historical record?
The term “dragon” appears 47 times in the King James version (KJV) of the Bible.[i]Of these, 34 are in nine books of the Old Testament and are translations of the Hebrew word tannin. In the prophecies of Jeremiah, a contemporary of Lehi and Nephi, it probably refers to jackals, while other passages suggest that it denotes a poisonous serpent (in Deuteronomy 32:33, it parallels “asps”). In still others, it may refer to the crocodile, and is mentioned in connection with water (Psalm 74:13; Isaiah 27:1).
Sometimes, “biblical references to the dragon can be regarded as symbolic-that is, the writer using the dragon in a fictional way. These references are a kind of shorthand evocation of the evil forces of the cosmos that are in conflict with man.”[ii] This may be the context of Mosiah 20:11, where the Nephites are unjustly attacked by a superior Lamanite force. The Nephites, who are fighting for their wives, children, and very existence are said to fight like “dragons.” Some Mesoamerican myths portrayed the earth as resting upon a gigantic reptilian monster, representative of the forces of chaos.
It is possible, of course, that, like the Bible, the Book of Mormon uses the term “dragon” to denote crocodilians, the largest extant reptiles. Several species of the crocodile, the alligator, and the caiman, are known in the Americas, and modern English speakers have used the term “dragon” to denote the ten-foot-long monitor lizards first discovered on the island of Komodo in Indonesia.
The medieval Jewish text known as the Zohar describes soldiers from the land of Ammon, which bordered ancient Israel on the east, being separated from them only by the Jordan river. Zohar Exodus 107a explains, “For on every Ammonite sword was engraved a crooked serpent, the image of a dragon, which was their god.”[iii]In Lehi’s day, the Ammonites came to fight against Jehoiakim king of Judah (2 Kings 24:1-2). This event took place about 609 BC, not long before Lehi’s family left Jerusalem, and it is not inconceivable that the idiom of fighting like dragons may have been adopted because of the Ammonite participation in the invasion of Judah.
[i] In the original (1611) edition of the KJV, the term also appeared twice in the section known as the Apocrypha (2 Esdras 15:29, 31).
[ii] Roy Pinney, The Animals in the Bible (Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Books, 1964), 201.