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.”


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.

John Dehlin is ALREADY Backing Down from Some Claims in his Essays

Well, it didn’t take long before Dehlin had to start taking blatantly false claims out of at least one of his “truth claims” essays. Compare this screenshot taken when the “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” essay first went up:

To this one, taken at the time of my writing this post:

Notice that the section on “fiery flying serpents,” which originally appeared before “dogs,” has been removed. I don’t know exactly why or when this happened, but this was smart decision on the part of someone over at Mormon Stories, since Nephi’s mention of fiery flying serpents is demonstrably not a problem for the Book of Mormon, and least of all an archaeological problem. In fact, it’s supported by archaeological evidence.

For starters, look at the scripture references there—one is to the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:41), but the other two are from Isaiah, and they read (in the KJV):

Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.

Isaiah 14:29

The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.

Isaiah 30:6

Don’t you think that, right there, should have tipped off Dehlin or the author of the essays that this really isn’t a problem for the Book of Mormon? That it’s perfectly normal for an ancient Israelite to believe in fiery flying serpents?

If the author were familiar with the archaeology of Israel, they might have known that winged/flying snakes, like the one on this seal from the 7th century BC (i.e., around Nephi’s time), are well known in ancient Israel’s iconography:

Image from Benjamin Sass, in Biblical Archaeology Review 38, no. 1. The seal was found in an archaeological dig at Jerusalem and dated to the 7th century BC.

This image was originally published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, with the caption:

The pink limestone seal or amulet with a winged snake recalls the saraf, or fiery serpent, of Isaiah 30:6.1

Saraf (sometimes spelled saraph) is also the same Hebrew word which appears in Numbers 21:6, 8, in the same story Nephi is talking about in 1 Nephi 17:41. It also shows up, untranslated, in Isaiah 6 as the plural seraphim, where they are portrayed as fiery, flying creatures with six-wings. Biblical scholar Marvin A. Sweeny defines seraphim as “fiery ones” and explains:

[Seraphim are] fiery beings of supernatural origin. … Seraphim have six wings. … A flying seraph (Heb. saraph; NRSV: “serpent”) appears in Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6 together with “adders” and “vipers.” The same Hebrew word (saraph) is used to describe the “fiery serpents” (NRSV: “poisonous serpents”) that afflicted Israel in the wilderness (Num. 21:6–9; Deut. 8:15). Thus, seraphim may have had a serpentine form and served, not only as guardians of the divine throne, but also as emissaries of divine judgement.2

And this isn’t just an Israelite thing. Egyptians also had winged snake iconography, and flying serpents are mentioned in diverse historical sources, such as Esarhaddon’s annals and Herodotus’s Histories.

In contrast to the rather flippant response to these as the subject of mere “fairy tale” in Dehlin’s essay (as it originally appeared), these references to flying serpents are taken quite seriously by scholars of the ancient Near East. To the point that they’ve tried to identify which species of snake is likely being referred to by these ancient authors.3

Even if merely “fairy tale,” however, the biblical and archaeological evidence certainly demonstrates that it’s the kind of thing an ancient Israelite would believe in. And it’s certainly interesting that although the KJV only has “fiery serpents” in Numbers 21, the iconography clearly shows that saraphs were depicted with wings, and so Nephi’s “fiery flying serpents” is very likely how an ancient Israelite would have understood the reference to saraphs in Numbers 21.

Now, as I already mentioned, Mormon Stories has already removed the section on “Fiery Flying Serpents,” for reasons I am not really aware of. But the very fact that the author thought this was a problem for the Book of Mormon in the first place tells us they don’t know much about ancient Israel and its material culture (as documented through archaeology).

But shouldn’t that kind of be a prerequisite to writing about archaeology and the Book of Mormon?

There’s much more that Dehlin should consider having removed from this essay. Take, for example, the claim that “there is absolutely no mention of dogs” in the Book of Mormon, which can be seen in both screenshots above and thus is still in the essay (as of this writing).

This is demonstrably false:

Yea, wo be unto this generation! And the Lord said unto me: Stretch forth thy hand and prophesy, saying: Thus saith the Lord, it shall come to pass that this generation, because of their iniquities, shall be brought into bondage, and shall be smitten on the cheek; yea, and shall be driven by men, and shall be slain; and the vultures of the air, and the dogs, yea, and the wild beasts, shall devour their flesh.

Mosiah 12:2

But behold, in one day it was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness.

Alma 16:10

And behold, instead of gathering you, except ye will repent, behold, he shall scatter you forth that ye shall become meat for dogs and wild beasts.

Helaman 7:19

And thus six years had not passed away since the more part of the people had turned from their righteousness, like the dog to his vomit, or like the sow to her wallowing in the mire.

3 Nephi 7:8

Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

3 Nephi 14:6

I’d recommend that Dehlin have the section on dogs deleted as well. In fact, if Dehlin really wishes for these essays to be “accurate and robust,” as he claims, I would recommend he take the whole thing down and have it more carefully vetted, because it’s abundantly clear that the author’s understanding of both the relevant archaeology and the Book of Mormon text itself is deficient.