Ether 15:29-32. Shiz Gasping for Breath
The description of Shiz raising up on his hands and gasping for breath after having been decapitated is impossible (Ether 15:29-32).
The description of Shiz’s death was written by Ether, who must have observed it from afar, since he had not participated in the Jaredite war of extermination. From his vantage point, it may have seemed that Shiz gasped for breath, but we need not take this literally. However, that he rose up is a possible reflex.
M. Gary Hadfield, M.D., Professor of Pathology (Neuropathology) at the Medical College of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Virginia, has written:
“Though the combatants in this story were well acquainted with wholesale carnage, Shiz’s unique death struggle was so astonishing that his throes were reported in grisly detail. Perhaps Ether and Coriantumr interpreted this astounding incident as a sign of Shiz’s indomitable fighting spirit or refusal to die. However, Shiz’s death struggle illustrates the classic reflex posture that occurs in both humans and animals when the upper brain stem (midbrain/mesencephalon) is disconnected from the brain. The extensor muscles of the arms and legs contract, and this reflex action could cause Shiz to raise up on his hands. Of course, Shiz would not have remained long in this position, and he would have bled to death rapidly through the severed arteries that go to the head.” (“Neuropathology and the Scriptures,” BYU Studies 33/2 [Spring 1993], 324).
In a footnote to this paragraph, Dr. Hadfield adds:
“In a surviving person who suffers such a massive infarct (an area of necrosis in a tissue resulting from obstruction of the local circulation), hemorrhage, tumor, or traumatic section involving the upper brain stem, the arms and legs remain permanently outstretched, rigid, and fixed. In many patients, it is the sparing of vital respiratory and blood pressure centers in the central (pons) and lower (medulla) brain stem that permits survival. Such patients remain in a vegetative state because the brain has been effectively cut off from the body. For the brain, see Adams and Duchen, Greenfield’s Neuropathology, 195‑200.”
Shiz experienced the nervous system phenomenon known as decerebrate rigidity, which was first reported in 1898, sixty-eight years after the Book of Mormon was published. A similar event is described in the Bible, where Jael pounded a tent-peg (KJV “mail”) into the head of the Canaanite general Sisera to kill him as he lay sleeping: “She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead” (Judges 5:26-27). In this case, rather than raise up on his hands, Sisera “bowed.” But Jael could not have smitten off his head with a hammer and the KJV has mistranslated the verbs employed here; the New English Bible renders the passage “she crushed his head.”
See M. Gary Hadfield and John W, Welch, “The Decapitation of Shiz” in Welch, ed., Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS,1999), 276-8.