1 Nephi 16:18. Nephi’s Steel Bow
The Book of Mormon says that Nephi had a bow of “fine steel” (1 Nephi 16:18) in 600 B.C., but such weapons were unknown at that time. Steel is an alloy that was not known to the ancients.
It is ironic that those who level this criticism at the Book of Mormon fail to take the King James version (KJV) of the Bible to task for its use of the term “bow of steel” (2 Samuel 22:35; Job 20:24; Psalm 18:34) and the use of the term “steel” in Jeremiah 15:12. The Hebrew word behind these passages is actually the term used for copper and its alloys, notably bronze.
The word “steel,” today used to refer to a specific range of iron alloys, did not always have that meaning. Steel as we know it had not yet been invented at the time the King James Bible was translated. In those days, “steel” referred to anything hard, which could apply to bronze or various other metals as readily as iron. Even in Joseph Smith’s day, one of the meanings given in Webster’s 1828 dictionary for “steel” was “extreme hardness,” while the verbal form means “to make hard.” The second entry under the noun “steel” says the word is used figuratively for “weapons; particularly of defensive weapons, swords, spears and the like.”
Hugh Nibley has pointed out that Nephi’s bow was probably a composite weapon, part metal and part wood. He noted that the Canaanite “chariots of iron” (Joshua 17:16-18; Judges 1:19; 4:3) were not solid iron, but merely iron-trimmed, and that various other iron tools mentioned in the Bible undoubtedly had wooden handles.[i] If Nephi possessed a composite bow, made mostly of wood, this would more readily explain how he could have accidentally broken it. Indeed, the story reminds us of a Bible passage that cites a Psalm in which David declares, “He teacheth my hands to war; so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms” (2 Samuel 22:35).
[i] Hugh Nibley, Lehi In the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret, 1988), 59-61; William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (eds.), Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990), 367-75.
See also Steel Older Than Previously Thought