1 Nephi 18:12. Lehi’s Compass
According to 1 Nephi 18:12, 21, 2 Nephi 5:12, and Alma 37:38, Lehi used a compass called Liahona to guide him in his travels to the New World. But the compass was discovered in the late middle ages in China and was unknown in the ancient Near East from which Lehi sailed.
In modern English, the word “compass” usually denotes a device with a magnetized needle that points to magnetic north. The fact that the Lord had to prepare the device for Lehi implies that it was an instruction not known in Lehi’s day. So even if such an instrument was not in use in Lehi’s day, the Lord surely knew the principles on which the magnetic compass works, and could have provided one for Lehi.
However, that seems not to be the case. According to 1 Nephi 16:10, “within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness,” rather than pointing north. Moreover, Nephi wrote of “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” (1 Nephi 16:28).
Equally important is the fact that the word “compass” really denotes something round, which fits the description of the Liahona as “a round ball” (1 Nephi 16:10). We have, for example, the “compass” used by draftsmen to draw circles. The magnetic compass derives its name from the fact that it helps us orient ourselves to the 360 degrees into which the ancients divided the horizon, which has the appearance of a circle with the observer at the center. The term “compass” in the King James version of the Bible derives from the Hebrew verb meaning “surround” (e.g., Joshua 6:3) or “go around” (e.g., Numbers 21:4).
While the term “compass” is sometimes used of the instrument the Lord provided Lehi (1 Nephi 18:12, 21; 2 Nephi 5:12; 7:11; Alma 37:38, 43-44), other passages call it “liahona” (Alma 37:38), “director” (Mosiah 1:16; Alma 37:38, 45), or “ball” (1 Nephi 16:10, 16, 26-28, 30; 2 Nephi 5:12; Mosiah 1:16; Alma 37:38).