John A. Tvedtnes argues that Lehi and his family were metalworkers; this knowledge would have been passed onto Nephi's descendants in the Old World.

John A. Tvedtnes

John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Bountiful, UT: Cornerstone, 1999), 94-97

John A. Tvedtnes
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But we must still deal with the question of how Lehi acquired his wealth. As noted above from Nibley’s study, it is not reasonable to believe that Lehi could have accumulated wealth from agricultural pursuits. Caravaneering is Nibley’s recourse as the only reasonable means by which the prophet could have become rich. But another possibility suggests itself. There is evidence to show that Lehi and his family were craftsmen and artisans—probably metalworkers.

For example, we have Nephi’s keen interest in the sword of Laban when he encounters him drunk on the streets (1 Nephi 4:9). Nephi’s steel bow (1 Nephi 16:18) might also be an indication of his occupation. (His inability to repair the bow in the desert could be explained by either the lack of iron ore in the region or by the fact that the Lord had forbidden them to make fires, as noted in 1 Nephi 17:12.) And if Laban was somehow related to Lehi, as Nibley first suggested, then this might be further evidence that the family was involved in metal-working, for Laban was the custodian of the brass plates containing the scriptures.

When the Lord told Nephi, in the land of Bountiful, to build a ship, he had to give detailed instructions on how to do it (1 Nephi 17:8; 18; 1-4). But there is no record that Nephi had to ask how to prepare the metal tools with which he built the ship. Rather, he simply asked the Lord where he could find the “ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship.” He then constructed a bellows, lit a fire and fabricated the tools (1 Nephi 17:8-11,16). Nephi stressed that he built the ship according to the way shown him by the Lord, but makes no similar statement regarding the smelting of ore and the making of the bellows and tools for building the ship (1 Nephi 18:1-2). Furthermore, while his brothers mocked his efforts to build a ship, they said not a (recorded) word about his abilities as a smith (1 Nephi 17:17).

Further evidence for Nephi’s metal-working skills came after the group’s arrival in the New World. He reported that they found “all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper” (1 Nephi 18:25). Nephi prepared the plates of ore from which the Book of Mormon ultimately developed, smelting the ore and forming the plates themselves. He also manufactured “many swords” based on the pattern of the weapon he had taken from Laban in Jerusalem (2 Nephi 5:14), though we cannot be sure that these were metal swords. The full range of his talents is explained in the verses that follow this entry:

And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance. And I, Nephi, did build a temple . . . I, Nephi, did cause my people to be industrious, and to labor with their hands. (2 Nephi 5:15-17)

The descendants of Lehi’s colony found “all manner of gold . . . and of silver, and of precious ore of every kind; and there were also curious workmen, who did work all kinds of ore and did refine it; and thus they did become rich” (Helaman 6:11; see Jacob 1:16; 2:12). One of Nephi’s descendants, Moroni, complained that he was running out of “room upon the plates,” and lamented, “and ore I have none” (Mormon 8:5). This implies that he knew what to do with the ore.

John W. Welch has suggested in private conversations with the author that the skepticism of Laman and Lemuel upon the discovery of the Liahona or compass outside Lehi’s tent one morning (1 Nephi 16:10) may be yet another indication of Nephi’s metalworking skills. Lehi’s elder sons seem not to be impressed by this marvelous instrument. Welch has proposed that this may be because they thought the brass ball-like device had been manufactured by their brother in an attempt to convince them that they were doing the right thing by following their father into the wilderness. He notes that 1 Nephi 16:38 refers to Nephi’s using “cunning crafts.” If this suggestion is correct, it would explain why Alma was so insistent in his declaration that no human hand could have fabricated the Liahona (Alma 37:38-39).

If Lehi and his family were metalworkers (living on a plot of land sufficiently large to grow crops as well), then the source of their wealth is readily explained. From Biblical passages (2 Kings 24:11-15; Jeremiah 24:1; 29:2), as well as the Assyrian and Babylonian documents of that era, we have learned that craftsmen and smiths were considered in Lehi’s day to belong to the upper class.

S. Kent Brown has suggested that Lehi’s family were bondservants to one or more Arabian clans during their sojourn in the desert. But it seems unlikely that a group of caravaneers could have been of much use in Arabia unless they actually travelled elsewhere with the caravans—travel that is never suggested by the Book of Mormon. Moreover, any Arabians already involved in the caravan trade would likely have been much more skilled at it than Lehi. On the other hand, desert nomads could clearly have made use of the skills of metalworkers. Indeed, itinerant metalworkers have long been known in the Middle East.

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