The Contents and Nature of the Brass Plates of Laban

by F. Allan Roth
© 2020

This morning, I was reading in 1 Nephi 5 about what Lehi found when he read the plates of Laban “from the beginning.” Verses 11 through 15 of that chapter describe the contents as comprising the following:

  • The five books of Moses (verse 11)
  • A record of the Jews down to the reign of Zedekiah (verse 12)
  • The prophecies of the prophets, including many prophecies of Jeremiah (verse 13), who was a contemporary of Lehi.

Then, verse 14 says that Lehi “also found” a genealogy of his fathers on the plates, and he devotes three verses to describing that genealogy.

I’ve read those few verses dozens of times, and I’ve always just glossed over them, thinking that the plates must have contained the scriptures, or the Old Testament, but I’ve never really thought about it more than that. This morning, I thought about it more than that.

It’s a bit inaccurate to say that the brass plates of Laban contained the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, since the Jews did not have a Bible yet at the time of Lehi. The selection of books that would eventually become the Hebrew Bible had not been agreed upon at that time. They certainly had not been bound together in a single volume yet, and many of them had not even been written yet.

Like the brass plates, the Hebrew Bible as it exists today, also contains three main divisions, the Torah (five books of Moses), the Nevi’im (writings of the prophets), and the Ketuvim (other holy writings). In fact, the most common name among Jews for their Bible is “Tanakh,” which is an acronym for these three divisions, Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim: TaNaKh.

Nephi’s description of the contents of the brass plates is similar, but not identical, to the contents of the Hebrew Bible as it exists today. I believe that a study of what may have been on the brass plates can give us a good idea of the development of the Hebrew Bible as it existed then, in Nephi’s day, six hundred years before Christ.

Five Books of Moses

The first section of the brass plates that Nephi mentioned was the Torah: the five books of Moses. In any discussion of Jewish holy writings, these books always come first, as they are universally regarded as the foundation of Jewish thought, theology, and history. They come first in our Christian Bible, they come first in the Tanakh, and they came first in the brass plates. This is as it should be.

Writings of the Prophets

The third section Nephi mentioned (I’ll skip over his second section, the historical record, for a moment) was the writings of the prophets. This would seem on the surface to correspond fairly well to the Nevi’im in the Hebrew Bible, as long as we realize that many of the prophets we know today had not lived yet at Nephi’s time.

But which prophets would have been included in this section of the brass plates? Actually, not very many. The brass plates contained all or most of Isaiah and some of the writings of Jeremiah, since those prophets are both mentioned by name, and Isaiah is quoted extensively. It is possible that the brass plates could have included some of the so-called minor prophets (Hosea to possibly Zephaniah), but none of those prophets are directly mentioned anywhere in the Book of Mormon. There is a single passage in the Book of Mormon that seems reminiscent of Hosea (2 Ne. 8:16. Compare to Hosea 1:10 and 2:23), but that is the only passage I’ve found so far that seems reminiscent of any of the thoughts of any of the minor prophets.

Other than Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the prophets mentioned in the five books of Moses (Adam, Abraham, Isaac, etc.), not one of the other Old Testament prophets—not even the mighty prophet Elijah—is mentioned by any Book of Mormon prophet. Elijah was mentioned once by Jesus (3 Nephi 25:5, when He gave the Nephites the record of Malachi), but that would not have come from the brass plates.

Since the names of some Old Testament prophets were known among the Nephites (such as Samuel, Joshua, and Gideon) their stories might have been included, but the Hebrew prophets known by those names are never mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The Old Testament prophet Samuel was mentioned (by Jesus) in 3 Nephi 20:24, but like Jesus’s mention of the prophet Samuel, that did not come from the brass plates.

Two other prophets (Zenos and Zenock) who lived during the Old Testament period are mentioned extensively, so their writings must also have been included on the brass plates. Unfortunately, their names and writings are unknown in any other source.

Nephi said that the brass plates contained “the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah.” Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zenos, and Zenock seem to me like a fairly small group of prophets to fit this description.

There might have been other writings on the brass plates that Nephi was considering “prophecies,” though. Some books we today consider historical (such as Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) are considered prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible, and Nephi might have been including them among the “prophecies of the prophets.” A few stories (but very few) from those books also seem to have been known by Book of Mormon people.

For example, in 1 Nephi 17:32-33, Nephi reminds Laman and Lemuel of how the Israelites had crossed the Jordan and scattered the children of Canaan. This crossing of Jordan is found in Joshua 3 and subsequent chapters, not in the five books of Moses. Jacob also recounts the story of David and Solomon, and their many wives and concubines (Jacob 2:23-24). This story, which comes from 1 Kings 11 and 2 Samuel 5, probably also was found on the brass plates of Laban.

It is impossible to tell whether those stories were considered by Nephi to be part of the “prophecies of the holy prophets” or whether Nephi would have included them in the section he called the record of the Jews.

But in any case, the prophecies of the prophets found on the brass plates of Laban were not as extensive as we have today.

Record of the Jews

The second section Nephi mentioned was a historical record of the Jews “from the beginning” down to his time. This sounds like a history, but it does not seem to correspond very well to the holy writings from the Hebrew Bible as they are known today.

The only books from the holy writings, or Ketuvim, in the Hebrew Bible that could have existed at Lehi’s day would have been Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, and possibly part of Chronicles. All the other books included in this section of the Hebrew Bible were written after Lehi left Jerusalem.

Surprisingly, there is almost no clear reference in the Book of Mormon to any of these writings. Even the beloved Psalms do not seem to be quoted by any of the Book of Mormon writers, as far as I have found. I can only assume that they were not included on the brass plates.

I have found a single reference to Proverbs in 2 Nephi 4:5, where Lehi told the children of Laman, “I know that if ye are brought up in the way ye should go ye will not depart from it.” Here, Lehi seems to have been paraphrasing Proverbs 22:6, but this does not necessarily mean that the book of Proverbs was included on the brass plates of Laban. Lehi was obviously well educated in the scriptures, and he may well have been speaking from memory.

In my opinion, the poetic books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Song of Solomon, as well as the book of Ruth were probably not found on the brass plates. This would explain why Book of Mormon prophets never quote from any of those books.

So what was the “record of the Jews” on the brass plates, and why did Nephi distinguish the record of the Jews as a separate section of the brass plates, distinct from the other sacred writings?

The books we call 1 and 2 Chronicles are a single book in today’s Hebrew Bible, and that book is included among the Ketuvim, rather than among the prophets. Surprisingly, Chronicles begins with Adam and Eve and describes the chronology of the patriarchs and kings of Israel from the Garden of Eden down to Lehi’s day (and beyond, of course).

It could be possible that those portions of the book we now call Chronicles that predated Zechariah’s reign were included on the brass plates. This would correspond perfectly to Nephi’s description of “a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah.”

It is also possible that Nephi was considering the books of Joshua, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings to be part of this “record of the Jews,” rather than part of the prophecies.

A Genealogy of my Fathers

So what of Lehi’s genealogy, which also was on the plates?

The scriptures do not contain a genealogy of Joseph that extends as far as Lehi’s day. The fact that such a genealogy was not part of the scriptures is why Nephi says that Lehi “also found” it on the plates. Nephi had been thoroughly taught in all the “learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:2), so he would have been familiar with all the scriptures and would have recognized that this genealogy did not really belong with the other writings. This may also be why he devoted three verses to describing the genealogy and only a single verse to each of the other three main divisions of the brass plates. Perhaps he thought that since this genealogy was unfamiliar, it needed more explanation. In 1 Nephi 5:16, Nephi mentioned that Laban was also descended of Joseph, as were Lehi and Nephi, explaining why he and his family had kept the brass plates.

Nephi carefully excluded the genealogy from the other portions of the plates that he recognized as scripture. He knew what was scriptural and what was not and kept them separate in his own mind, as well as in his record.

This separation is reiterated in 1 Nephi 6:1-3, where he says that he will not include the genealogy on “these plates which I am writing . . . for I desire the room that I may write of the things of God.” In Nephi’s mind, the “also included” genealogy was clearly not the same kind of material as the other scriptural material on the brass plates.

Conclusion

So what? Why does it matter to us today what was on the brass plates?

It seems to me that Nephi’s brief description of the contents of the plates, as found in these few verses, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the thinking of the Jews and reflects a sophisticated understanding of how they viewed their own sacred writings, as well as the level of development of their own canon of scripture. Even though the Jews would not consolidate their writings into a “Bible” for several hundred years after Lehi’s time, even at that early date, they obviously (1) recognized the primacy of the five books of Moses and (2) distinguished between the writings of the prophets and other sacred but historical records. Nephi, being educated in all the learning of the Jews knew this.

Nephi also recognized that the genealogy of Joseph, even though it dealt with a figure from the Torah, was not in the same category of writing as the other works that would become canonized as scripture. It was something else, so he describes it by saying it was “also found” on the brass plates of Laban.

This also explains the limited references to Old Testament stories and scriptures in the Book of Mormon. Many Old Testament stories that are widely known and loved today are completely ignored by the Book of Mormon writers. That’s probably because those stories were not included on the brass plates.

These limitations are followed consistently throughout the Book of Mormon.

 

So if the Book of Mormon was a blatant forgery, a work of fiction, written by an uneducated farm boy from an insignificant farming village in upstate New York (as is so often claimed), how on earth did Joseph Smith manage to describe Jewish theology, literature, and history so accurately in these few spare verses? And how did he manage to get every one of the Biblical references from the other 500-plus pages of the Book of Mormon to conform perfectly with this one-page summary that we pay so little attention to today? Was the twenty-four year old farmer a secret scholar of Jewish lore, more learned than all the professors and ministers of his day? Or was he just lucky?

The answer, of course, is that the Book of Mormon is exactly what it purports to be: a sacred history, written by Israelites who escaped Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the Babylonians, translated by the gift and power of God.

No other explanation really will do.

 

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If you enjoyed this discussion of the Book of Mormon, perhaps you will also enjoy A Missionary’s Musings on the Book of Mormon, also by F. Allan Roth.

It is available in paperback or e-book exclusively from Amazon.

 

Fishing Scenes

I just realized that I have written at least one fishing scene into every book I write. I just finished the first draft of a fishing scene for my current work in progress, The Song of Liffrea.

Here’s the fishing scene from Chapter 4 of Fighting the Promise, which I published on Amazon last year. This scene is set on the fictitious Basalt River, just downstream from the equally fictitious town of Athelston, Idaho, near the Wyoming border.

Chapter 4

“Back it up into the eddy, Mandy.” Jimmy Eleutherios had shaggy hair that hung down to his eyebrows. His scruffy gray whiskers were of such a length that it was difficult to tell whether he was bearded or merely unshaven. At this particular moment he was in the front of a small wooden boat, crouching by the left side of a young man who was trying to learn how to cast an artificial fly.

With three smooth strokes of the oars, Miranda pulled the boat out of the current and rotated it toward the bush Jimmy was pointing at. The hole under that bush was a good spot. They had caught lots of trout there. The morning was starting to warm up as the sun got higher, and Miranda had taken off the sweat pants and flannel shirt she had been wearing earlier. Now she wore a blue sleeveless blouse and jeans that had been cut off short enough that her father disapproved of them. Her legs were long and tan, and her shoulders were well muscled. She wore felt-soled wading sandals and a large straw hat that flopped down over her neck in the back. She was grateful that the schools were closed, since otherwise she would not have been able to work for Jimmy today. Miranda had rowed Jimmy’s boat so often that she was almost unaware of the tiny strokes that she made with the oars to keep the boat nearly motionless in the calm, rotating water of the eddy.

“Now drop your fly about three feet up from that bush and as close to the bank as you can get,” Jimmy explained to the young man beside him. “Let it drift down toward the bush and then give it about a six-inch twitch.”

The novice fly fisherman began a series of false casts and then cast his fly. It landed about five feet away from the bank. “Closer,” Jimmy said. “Try to drop it within a foot of the bank. Keep your line up so it doesn’t drag in the current.” The young man picked up his line and began false casting again. This time, his fly landed much closer to the bank. Miranda nodded in approval. That wasn’t a bad cast for a beginner.

“Okay, that’s good,” Jimmy urged. “Now give it just a little bit of a twitch. Wait until you see him actually take it down before you set the hook.” Just then, a large green shadow moved slowly up out of the depths. It held still for a moment and then rushed up at the foam hopper. Just as the fish’s white mouth opened to engulf the fly, the young man eagerly heaved back on his rod to set the hook. Too soon. The fly pulled out of the fish’s still-open mouth, and the line flew back to wrap itself in a tangle around both of the men in the bow of the boat.

“Crap!” said Jimmy. “Crap, crap, double crap. I think you might have set the hook just a little bit too quick.”

Miranda grinned. It had been more than just a little bit too quick.

“Pull back up onto that island, Mandy, while I straighten out this mess. We’ll give that fish a few minutes to calm down, and then we’ll try him again with something else. At least he didn’t feel the hook.”

Miranda rowed the boat out of the eddy, across the fast water of the channel behind her, and just as the stern of the boat touched a gravel bar along the edge of the island, she stepped on the anchor release and held it down. The anchor dropped onto the gravel bar, and the boat swung gently around and came to rest against the bank. Miranda jumped out, and tied the bow line to one of the larger cottonwood saplings on the island, pulling the boat up firmly against the shore. Finally, she picked up the large, pyramid anchor and moved it far enough up on the bank that it couldn’t slide loose with the current.

Jimmy and his young client got out of the boat. “Ready for a cold one, Dave?”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” David Peterson leaned over backwards, stretching his back. He wore a new pair of brown neoprene chest waders, but he had folded them down to his waist to let his chest cool off. “These things are hot,” he said.

“I’ll get it,” Miranda said. She reached into the cooler in the back of the boat and took out two cans of beer. She handed one to Dave and then popped open the other one for herself.

Jimmy stepped over and smoothly plucked it out of her hand. “Why, thank you, Mandy. How did you know I wanted a beer?” He took a long drink of it. “I think there’s some soda in that cooler if you’re thirsty.”

“Jimmy!” she protested. “It’s hot out here.”

“If you’re hot, then why don’t you grab a nice cold can of soda? There’s plenty in there.”

“But Jimmy, everybody my age drinks beer in the summer.”

“Not in my boat, they don’t. I don’t want your father to think that I allow his daughter to drink my beer in my boat. You want a soda, then get a soda. If not, there’s water. Otherwise, why don’t you sit down in the shade and wait for me to untangle this line.”

With a loud sigh of disappointment, Miranda stomped over and sat down on the bank. Idly she plucked stems of dry grass and threw them like spears into the current.

“Is she always this . . . feisty?” Dave asked in little more than a whisper.

“No, it’s more like ‘Is she always this big a pain in the butt.’ And the answer’s yes.” Jimmy looked up at Miranda and winked.

“I heard that!” Miranda said as she got up to get a can of pop. “But you forgot to say I row a boat so good that you can’t get along without me.”

Jimmy looked up and smiled. “I guess there is that. And if you’re really good, maybe we’ll let you get back in the boat with us and row us the rest of the way down.”

“Yeah, right. Put either one of you at the oars and pretty quick you’ll be begging me to row again.” She sat down on the bank again to drink her pop. A movement in the trees downstream caught her eye, and she looked up. An eagle flapped ponderously out of a cottonwood tree and three starlings immediately started to chase it. The smaller birds darted around the eagle, swooping in rapidly to peck at its back and head. One of them must have gotten in a particularly good peck, because a small feather floated loose from the eagle and floated in large slow spirals toward the ground. Ignoring its tormentors, the eagle stoically continued its course until it disappeared out of sight.

“Okay, this is ready,” Jimmy said. “Let’s go try him again. He’s not going to look at another dry fly today, so I’ve got a couple of nymphs on there.”

They got back into the boat. Miranda rowed upstream in the calm water next to the island, and then angled across the current and back into the eddy.

“Okay,” said Jimmy, holding up the end of the line, “This is a brown rubberlegs up here, and this beadhead on the dropper is what I call a pheasant’s ear. This yarn is a strike indicator. It’ll float, but the flies will sink. I want you to cast six or eight feet upstream from the bush to give it time to sink. Watch the strike indicator. If it moves or jerks or sinks, set the hook.”

Dave tried to false-cast the heavy flies, but they buzzed angrily past Miranda’s ear and smacked Dave in the back of the head. “Hey, I’m back here, guys,” Miranda complained.

“You can’t cast these weighted flies like you cast a dry, Dave,” Jimmy said. “Just pull out some line and flop it up into the current. Try not to let the flies get tangled and then watch your strike indicator.”

Dave pulled several feet of line off the reel, raised his rod tip, and then flipped it forward in a clumsy approximation of a roll cast. The flies flipped up high into the air and then sailed forward to land with a noisy splash about ten feet above the bush. The line floated down stream, and suddenly the yellow strike indicator was pulled out of sight.

“Set the hook!” Jimmy yelled. “You’ve got him.”

Dave pulled back on his rod, and his line suddenly pulled straight down, bowing the rod and pulling the tip down toward the water. “Give him line,” Jimmy shouted. “Take your hand off the reel and let him run.” The fish ran upstream until backing was showing between the last few turns of line on the reel. Then it turned and came back downstream. Dave frantically stripped in slack, trying to keep his line tight. The fish ran down past the boat and started pulling line back out again. “Follow him, Mand,” Jimmy said, but she had already rowed the boat out into the fast current and had started downstream.

It was nearly ten minutes later and several hundred yards downstream when Dave brought the fish close enough to the boat that Jimmy was able to reach the long-handled boat net under it and swing it up into the boat. Dave whooped for joy as the large fish flopped once and then lay still with only its golden gill covers pulsing rhythmically open and closed. It had large red and brown spots on its sides and back, a yellowish belly, and a deeply hooked jaw.

“He’s a brown. About six pounds—maybe a little bigger. Are you going to let him fight another day,” asked Jimmy, “or take him home for dinner tonight?”

Dave thought about it for only a moment. “He’d look real good on the dinner table, and he’d probably taste even better. Think your wife would cook it for me?”

“I think she would. Hand me that hittin’ stick, Mandy.” The hitting stick was half an axe handle with a leather thong through one end. “You’re going to have to do the evil deed, Dave.” Jimmy picked up the fish and pointed to a spot above and just slightly behind the fish’s eye. “Smack him right here to kill him quick. And make sure you miss my fingers.”

Dave picked up the stick, hesitated just a moment, and then hit the fish smartly across the head. It shivered once and then was still. “Smack it one more time just to make sure.” He did.

They took some pictures, and then Jimmy cut through the fish’s gill arches to let it bleed. He held it in the stream while it bled. When Jimmy had wrapped the fish and put it in the cooler they got back into the boat and started downstream again. They put a foam hopper back on Dave’s line, but they went a mile or more without catching any more fish.

The trees along the river opened up to a sunny meadow with a hay field on the other side of the valley. Miranda looked across the field and noticed a caravan of green trucks moving slowly along the highway. They had red stars on the doors and red flags flying from the front fender. “What’s going on over there?” she asked, pointing at the trucks.

“Troop transports,” replied Dave, pointing to the bank. “Chinese. Pull up on this bank, would you, Mandy?” She rowed to shore, and Dave jumped out and ran over to the edge of the meadow. He reached down inside his waders and pulled out a compact pair of binoculars. Miranda was surprised at that. Fishermen usually didn’t carry binoculars. And they usually didn’t hide them inside their waders.

Dave watched the trucks for a few moments more and then he pulled out a small leather-bound notebook and wrote something before returning to the boat. “Six trucks,” he said to himself as he wrote, “traveling fairly slowly. Twelve to fifteen soldiers per truck, drivers, and gunners, comes to about a hundred. Probably two platoons.”

Jimmy and Miranda both looked at him silently for a moment before Jimmy said, “Sounds like you might have spent some time in the military, son.”

Dave smiled blandly. “I did a hitch in the Guard when I got out of high school. It still holds a bit of a fascination for me. Where do you think those trucks might be going?”

“Probably Athelston. That’s the only town on this road unless they’re going over the pass and into Wyoming. Doubt that, though.” Jimmy turned to Miranda. “Mandy, I want you to get my cell phone out of the tackle box and see if you can get through to your dad. Tell him there’s a hundred Chinese soldiers coming into town. They’re moving slowly, so they’ll probably be there in forty minutes to an hour. I’d just as soon this didn’t come as a surprise to him.”

“Who’s her dad?” Dave asked.

“He’s the mayor of Athelston, he’s the bishop of the local Mormon church, and he’s my friend. He doesn’t handle surprises all that good, so I thought I’d give him a few minutes to get used to the idea of having the Chinese come to visit.”

Miranda took the cell phone out into the middle of the meadow and called her home. When she came back to the boat Dave asked, “As long as we have the cell phone out and have a signal, would you mind if I used it to make a quick call? I’d like to check in with my office before they close for the afternoon.”

Jimmy looked at him a long time and then said, “I’ll make you a deal, Dave. I won’t ask you any questions, and you won’t have to tell me any lies. Fair enough?”

Miranda couldn’t tell whether Dave looked troubled or just a bit pleased as he said, “Fair enough.” Then he took the phone out into the meadow to make his call.