Is A Seven-Day Week Anachronistic for the Book of Mormon?

John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon claims that the mentioning of a seven-day week is anachronistic.

Referenced as the “seventh day” or the Sabbath day in Mosiah, the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem.

“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken on February 18, 2019

The essay does not cite where in Mosiah there is reference to the “seventh day” or Sabbath day. In fact, the reference is Mosiah 13:16–19 (with another reference to the “sabbath day” at Mosiah 18:23 at Jarom 1:5). Mosiah 13:16–19, however is a quotation of Exodus 20:8–11.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lordblessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Without providing the full citation from Mosiah (which is a biblical quotation), the author of the Mormon Stories essay (as well as Dehlin) is misleading his or her readers.

But what about the claim that “the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem”? The Mormon Stories essay hyperlinks to the Wikipedia article for “Week.” The essay appears to be following the conventional understanding given in the article that “a continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the phases of the moon was first practiced in Judaism, dated to the 6th century BC at the latest,” and that “it seems likely that the Hebrew seven-day week is based on the Babylonian tradition, although going through certain adaptations.”

What the Mormon Stories essay leaves out, however, is this sentence in the same article:

Niels-Erik Andreasen, Jeffrey H. Tigay, and others claimed that the Biblical Sabbath is mentioned as a day of rest in some of the earliest layers of the Pentateuch dated to the 9th century BC at the latest, centuries before Judea’s Babylonian exile. They also find the resemblance between the Biblical Sabbath and the Babylonian system to be weak. Therefore, they suggested that the seven-day week may reflect an independent Israelite tradition.

The Wikipedia article cites four sources for this:

  • Andreasen, Niels-Erik A. (1972). The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-historical Investigation. Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Shafer, Byron E. (1974). “Reviewed Work: The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-Historical Investigation by Niels-Erik A. Andreasen”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 93 (2): 300–301.
  • Tigay, Jeffery H. (1998). “Shavua”. Mo’adei Yisra’el: Time and Holy Days in the Biblical and Second Commonwealth Periods (Heb.), ed. Jacob S. Licht: 22–23.
  • Hallo, William W. (1977). “New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-Study in the Contrastive Approach”. Hebrew Union College Annual. 48: 1–18.

So the fully developed concept of a seven-day week as we know today may have been the product of the Jewish exile in Babylon, but this theory is disputed.1 There are mainstream biblical scholars who recognize the strong likelihood that this concept has historical antecedents which well predate Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. Shafer, reviewing and encapsulating Andreasen’s work, lays out one plausible historical development for the Sabbath:

(A) The earliest traditions were “the regulations for the six days of work and the seventh day of rest” and “the prohibition against performing any work on the seventh day at the risk of death.” These were perhaps pre-Mosaic, but that is uncertain. The themes are encountered in well-developed form in the earliest period, and we are unable to press behind that time to the origins of the institution or its traditions. (B) in the 9th and 8th centuries, traditions reflect a Sabbath which was a cultic feast day celebrated at the sanctuaries and temple . . . (C) In the later monarchy, the literary traditions re-emphasized the old Sabbath tradition of humanitarian concern and link the Sabbath with the exodus event of Israel’s salvation history. Andreasen argues that the abundant references to Sabbath in the exilic literature of P and Ezekiel cannot be satisfactorily explained by the traditional scholarly arguments from a sudden increased exilic interest in Sabbath . . . Therefore, he hypothesizes that this theological elaboration of the old traditions began during the reform movement of Hezekiah and continued through the reign of Manasseh into the reign of Josiah. . . . (D) In the exilic period, Ezekiel and P elaborate these traditions and, in addition, identify the Sabbath as a sign and covenant between Yahweh and Israel.2

Hallo, who is also cited in the Wikipedia article hyperlinked to in the Mormon Stories essay, likewise says this concerning the development of the Sabbath:

As early as the time of Solomon, we are entitled to detect a seven-day cycle in the festivities marking the dedication of his temple. The double injunction to work for six days and to rest every seventh is the most fundamental piece of social legislation written into the Decalogue. . . . The cultic counterpart of this legislation permeates every one of the many ritual calendars in the Pentateuch. Creation itself is retroactively cast into the mold of the seven-day week, as also of the Exodus typology, and thus secondarily turned into the justification for the earthly ordinance.3

Dating the composition of Exodus 20 is complicated. “The Horeb-Sinai narrative (chaps. 19–24, 32–34) will always frustrate attempts to understanding its composition history.”4 Notwithstanding, the origin of the material in the version of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 is frequently “assign[ed] dates . . . from the twelfth through the ninth centuries B.C,”5 and in any event, “the Sabbath observance does not owe its origins to the Fourth Commandment, since the practice is apparently very ancient, having existed in Mosaic times (cf. Exod 16:22–30). The Fourth Commandment merely recalled and reinforced the traditional observance.”6

The nineteenth and early twentieth consensus that “such features of the Decalogue as the sabbath law . . . could not have arisen until after the eighth century, or even later, in the exilic period . . . no longer exists.”7 Now scholars, such as those cited above, recognize that “the Sabbath was the cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times,”8 as well as the complicated evolution of ancient Israel’s social and religious institutions, including the Sabbath. “How widely and in what periods [the Sabbath] was observed is unclear,” observes Meyers, but evidence “suggests that at least some part of the population was committed to sabbath observance in the preexilic, exilic, and postexilic periods.”9

Finally, there is even non-biblical evidence for a pre-exilic origin of the Sabbath:

It is often argued that the sabbath observance is mainly an exilic or postexilic development. That may be true with reference to how widespread it was. Nevertheless, it seems to have a long history behind it and was thus probably observed in some form or other by some elements of the population long before the end of the monarchy. The texts here confirm its existence and its practice in the [Elepnatine] community; on the other hand, how it was celebrated is not so clear.10

The simplistic claim made in the Mormon Stories essay (“the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem”) reflects a surface-level reading of a single non-academic source (Wikipedia) that does not adequately cover the scope of the issue. What’s more, the very Wikipedia article that the author of the Mormon Stories essay relies on includes information that directly refutes the essay’s simplistic claim!

As in most other matters, all that John Dehlin has done in this instance is mislead his readers.

Scimitar (Cimeter) and the Book of Mormon

While there certainly are legitimate issues worth discussing about the Book of Mormon and archaeology, Dehlin’s essay on the subject is full of things that simply are not true. Take, for instance, this paragraph about the cimeter (more commonly spelled scimitar today):

Cimeter: The curved, bladed weapon, mentioned 3 times in the Book of Mormon, originated with the Ottoman empire in the 9th Century. Not only is it an Asian word for blade, it’s also made of anachronistic steel. It remains unknown how Lehi would be aware of it, as the word was unused in any contemporary Hebrew literature.

Mormon Stories “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” Essay
Screenshot of the Mormon Stories Archaeology and the Book of Mormon Essay

My honest reaction to this paragraph is:

Not only that, but it’s been known to be wrong for decades. More than half a century on some details.

Let’s review.

The Origins of Curved, Bladed Weapons

Curved, bladed weapons—which scholars freely call scimitars—have been known since the Bronze Age. Some scholars believe such weapons were known in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd millennium BC.1 It’s certainly attested by the 2nd millennium BC. Describing weapons from the Later Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 BC), archaeologist Amihai Mazar wrote, “Sickle-shaped scimitars are known both from actual finds and from Egyptian artistic depictions.”2 Mazer shows an illustration of the Egyptian weapon, which he captions as “a scimitar.”

In Canaan, “the curved sickle-sword, or scimitar” is known even earlier, in the Middle Bronze Age.3 An Egyptian text written in the early 2nd millennium BC mentions the plundering of weapons, including scimitars, from Canaanite towns: “copper-cum-wood [weapons]: (battle)-axes, 10; scimitars, 33; daggers, 12; knives (?), 11.”4

There’s even evidence that Israelites specifically used curved-bladed swords. Boyd Seevers, an expert in Old Testament warfare, said, “Likely the typical early Israelite sword was a sickle-sword, which had a handle attached to a straight shaft that continued into a curved blade.”5 The only known artistic depiction of Israelite swords, from Assyrian reliefs dated to ca. 700 BC, illustrates them as curved-bladed weapons.6

For what it is worth, curved weapons that leading Maya scholars Mary Miller and Simon Martin have described as “scimitar-like” are also known in Mesoamerican art going back to the early pre-Classic period (ca. 1500–900 BC).7

So the existence of curved-bladed weapons, which scholars have freely referred to as scimitars, is well attested long before the Ottoman empire or the 9th century AD.

UPDATE: The Origins of Ottoman Empire

My fellow time traveler Ann Eliza Young has pointed out another inaccuracy in this section, which I failed note originally, as it is somewhat tangential to my post. But as she noted, the Ottoman Empire was founded in the 13th century–some 400 years later than that claimed in Dehlin’s essay. Given that this is in a section on anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, the anachronistic reference to the Ottoman Empire is comical, to say the least.

Asian Word for Blade

First, what’s an “Asian” word? This generalization is unhelpful, and also pretty racist. Asia is a huge continent, with literally hundreds of different languages and cultures—which includes the Middle-East, where Israel is. So technically a “Hebrew” word is an “Asian” word.

I assume that what they mean is it’s a Persian word, but even that is not really accurate. Scimitar is an English word—and there’s no problem with it showing up in an English translation. As quoted above, Egyptologist Donald Redford used “scimitar” in his English translation of an Egyptian word referring to curved-bladed weapons from around 2000 BC.8 So again, not clear what the problem is.

As for the origins of the word, its etymology goes back to 15th century French (cimeterre) and Italian (scimitarra). It’s origins beyond that are uncertain. Some think it comes from the Persian shimshir, but others think that connection is unsatisfactory.9

Anachronistic Steel

There’s a whole section on steel elsewhere in the essay, which I or one of my compatriots might decide to deal with in detail later. For now, I’ll just say three things:

1. Steel is definitely not anachronistic for Lehi’s time. Tests performed on iron objects from the early Iron Age proved that nearly all of them were technically made of steel.10 What’s more, a steel Israelite sword has specifically been found dated to the 7th century BC.11

2. The Book of Mormon never says what their “cimeters” are made out of (Enos 1:20; Alma 27:29; Alma 44:8).

3. Scimitars needn’t necessarily be made out of steel. As noted, sickle-shaped swords referred to as scimitars by scholars are known from the Bronze Age, and were made out of bronze, and sometimes even wood. In Mesoamerica, scimitar-like blades were made out of flint.12

The Word Unused in Contemporary Hebrew Literature

Obviously, the Englishword scimitar is not used in any Hebrew literature from Lehi’s day. But as noted, words translated as “scimitar” by scholars are known in the ancient Near East, going back to well before Lehi’s day. Obviously, since Israelites had curved swords (as noted above), they probably had a word for such swords as well. And indeed, there is just such a Hebrew word: kidon (כידון), defined as “javelin or short curved sword.”13 Roland De Vaux explains:

[Kîdôn] is usually translated ‘javelin’, … [m]ore probably, however, the kîdôn was a scimitar … like those shown on monuments discovered in excavations.14

In 1 Samuel 17:6 and 45, P. Kyle McCarter translates kidon as “scimitar,” and defines it as “a heavy, curved, flate-bladed, Oriental sword with a cutting edge on the outer (convex) side of the blade.”15

Significantly, the term kidon shows up twice in Jeremiah (6:23; 50:42), a contemporary prophet with Lehi—so it is used in “contemporary Hebrew literature.”

Conclusion

I honestly can’t imagine someone writing a single paragraph with more factual errors than this one. And while I’ve made it a point to cite mainstream academic sources here, it’s not like Mormon scholars have not pointed this out—in response to this very criticism—before.16 So why does critical literature, including here Dehlin’s essays, keep repeating this nonsensical claim over and over and over?

Perhaps it’s because they did nothing more than read the Wikipedia article on “scimitar”—a shallow and superficial research method if ever there was one. Or perhaps it’s because they know for many who lose faith over articles like this, it’s the cumulative effect of the arguments. Piling on one claim after another—no matter how tenuous—can overwhelm the unsuspecting reader who does not know any better, and doesn’t have the means to factcheck the information presented.

If this is the case, it’s easy to see why critics might continue to repeat old claims long since debunked, since reducing the number of arguments does not ultimately serve the cumulative effect very well. But it’s also extremely unethical. So let’s give Dehlin the benefit of the doubt and just assume that he really just didn’t know any better—his understanding of the topic too superficial. This still seriously undermines the credibility of the essays.

Is Beekeeping an Anachronism in the Book of Mormon?

The Mormon Stories essay on “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” argues that the mentioning of Jaredite beekeeping is anachronistic:

“The Jaradites are described in Ether as having carried honey bees to the New World, while ignoring the improbability of transporting bees in a totally enclosed submarine for a year. The honey bee is not native to North America.”

Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” accessed February 12, 2019.

To support this claim, the article hyperlinks to a 2006 article from ScienceDaily.

The only reference to honeybees in the Book of Mormon is in the book of Ether:

“And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind.”

Ether 2:3

Ignoring for now the arguably ancient etymology of deseret, it must be pointed out that the text actually does not describe the Jaredites taking honeybees with them across the ocean. It rather describes them carrying honeybees before they cross the ocean in the “valley of Nimrod” as they went “forth into the wilderness” (Ether 2:4–5). It might be assumed that the Jaredites took honeybees with them to the New World, but when the text catalogues New World Jaredite fauna (Ether 9:18–19), honeybees are absent.

Apiculture in ancient Egypt is documented as early as the third millennium BC.1 It is striking that the Jaredite word for honeybee, deseret, has a plausible Egyptian etymology (dšrt).2 It seems probable that Jaredite apiculture was imported from ancient Egypt, since evidence for beekeeping in Mesopotamia (the supposed homeland of the Jaredites) is scant, with the clearest data for Mesopotamian apiculture coming long after Jaredite times.3 A plausible reading of the Book of Mormon text could argue that the Jaredite honeybees did not survive the group’s pan-Mesopotamian (and pan-Eurasian?) migration.4

The claim made by Dehlin that there is no native pre-Columbian apiculture is demonstrably wrong. “Yucatan was a thriving center of apiculture from pre-Columbian times, persisting, little changed, to the present,” and there are several known native North American honeybee species.5 The Spanish described native honey-producing beekeeping upon their arrival in the Yucatan,6 and Michael D. Coe, whom Dehlin has interviewed and often cites as an authority on Book of Mormon archaeology, has discussed native Mesoamerican apiculture and specifically speaks of the “stingless honeybee” as a domesticated New World animal.7 Other scholars have also discussed the significance of apiculture in ancient Mesoamerican history and culture.8

Most recently, an article published in the journal Latin American Antiquity in June 2018 documents the existence of pre-Columbian beekeeping among the pre-Classic Maya.

While the Jaredites are usually associated by Book of Mormon scholars with Olmec culture,9 which is older than Maya culture, the attestation of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican apiculture refutes Dehlin’s sweeping claim that “the honey bee is not native to North America.”10 In fact, the species Melipona beecheii is native to Mesoamerica, and was used for collecting honey. As were the species Partamona bilineata and Tetragonisca angustula, to name just two others. The “honey bee . . . not native to North America” spoken of in the ScienceDaily article cited by Dehlin is referring to is a different, more common species (the European honeybee or Apis mellifera).

So even if the Jaredites did manage to bring honeybees to the New World (which the Book of Mormon never actually explicitly claims happened), there is abundant archaeological and zoological evidence for their domestication and use in pre-Columbian North America.

As in most matters related to archaeology and the Book of Mormon, Dehlin is out of date, uninformed, and demonstrably wrong.