In researching this topic, I felt that the best way to continue the discussion on “small miracles” was to share a lengthy essay/article Hugh Nibley wrote some years ago, which can be found in Since Cumorah. That being said, it is a very interesting topic and one which very much relates to this topic of small miracles. Regardless of your thoughts, it opens the world to our view and peels back our eyelids a little to ponder just exactly how God works.
Without further ado, here it is:
The Liahona. 51
We have in the Book of Mormon a most interesting apparatus called the Liahona. Now the chances of finding a genuine Liahona are, to say the least, remote; but what if something just like it showed up in the hands of Lehi’s relatives? That should certainly come as a surprise, and even provoke some thought. The Liahona has given rise to endless merriment and mockery among critics of the Book of Mormon only the shining stones of the Jaredites can equal it as a laugh-getter. Even the present writer, for all his curiosity about Book of Mormon oddities, has always passed it by in an abashed silence—it was like nothing he ever heard or read of—until the year 1959. For it was in that year that an Arabic scholar by the name of T. Fahd published the hitherto scattered, scanty, and inaccessible evidence that makes it possible for the first time to say something significant about the Liahona. But before we consider his report, let us see what the Book of Mormon has to say on the subject. This is what the first edition tells about the Liahona:
251“And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment, he beheld upon the ground a round ball, of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (p. 39, 1 Nephi 16:10).
252“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith, and diligence, and heed, which we did give unto them. And there was also written upon them, a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it: And thus we see, that by small means, the Lord can bring about great things.
252 “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did go forth up into the top of the mountain, according to the directions which were given upon the ball. And it came to pass that I did slay wild beasts, insomuch, that I did obtain food for our families” (pp. 40-41, 1 Nephi 16:28-31).
252“And moreover, he also gave him charge concerning . . . the ball or director, which led our fathers through the wilderness, which was prepared by the hand of the Lord, that thereby they might be led, every one according to the heed and diligence which they gave unto him. Therefore, as they were unfaithful, they did not prosper nor progress in their journey” (p. 155, Mosiah 1:16-17).
252“And now my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director; or our fathers called it liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it. And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship. And behold, it was prepared to shew unto our fathers the course which they should travel in the wilderness; and it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day; nevertheless, because those miracles were worked by small means, nevertheless it did shew unto them marvelous works. They were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence, and then those marvellous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions.
253 “And now my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; for as our fathers were slothful to give heed to this compass, (now these things were temporal,) they did not prosper; even so it is with things which are spiritual. For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land. And now I say, Is there not a type in this thing? . . .
253 “O my son, do not let us be slothful, because of the easiness of the way; for so it was with our fathers; for so it was prepared for them, that if they would look, they might live; even so it is with us. The way is prepared, and if we will look, we may live forever” (pp. 329-30, Alma 37:38-46).
253“And it came to pass that after they had bound me, insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work; wherefore, they knew not whither they should steer the ship. . . . And it came to pass that after they had loosed me, behold, I took the compass, and it did work whither I desired it” (pp. 48-49, 1 Nephi 18:12-13, 21).
253 Listing the salient features of the report we get the following:
253 1. The Liahona was a gift of God, the manner of its delivery causing great astonishment.
253 2. It was neither mechanical nor self-operating, but worked solely by the power of God.
254 3. It functioned only in response to the faith, diligence, and heed of those who followed it.
254 4. And yet there was something ordinary and familiar about it. The thing itself was the “small means” through which God worked; it was not a mysterious or untouchable object but strictly a “temporal thing.” It was so ordinary that the constant tendency of Lehi’s people was to take it for granted—in fact, they spent most of their time ignoring it: hence, according to Alma their needless, years-long wanderings in the desert.
254 5. The working parts of the device were two spindles or pointers.
254 6. On these a special writing would appear from time to time, clarifying and amplifying the message of the pointers.
254 7. The specific purpose of the traversing indicators was “to point the way they should go.”
254 8. The two pointers were mounted in a brass or bronze sphere whose marvelous workmanship excited great wonder and admiration. Special instructions sometimes appeared on this ball.
254 9. The device was referred to descriptively as a ball, functionally as a director, and in both senses as a “compass,” or Liahona.
254 10. On occasion, it saved Lehi’s people from perishing by land and sea—”if they would look they might live” (Alma 37:46).
254 11. It was preserved “for a wise purpose” (Alma 37:2, 14, 18) long after it had ceased to function, having been prepared specifically to guide Lehi’s party to the promised land. It was a “type and shadow” of man’s relationship to God during his earthly journey.
254 We should not pass by Alma’s description without noting a most remarkable peculiarity of verses 40 and 41 (chap. 37). Let us read these verses without punctuation, as the ancients did; and as the Book of Mormon manuscript is written:
255 “Therefore they had this miracle and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God day by day nevertheless because those miracles were worked by small means nevertheless it did shew unto them marvellous works they were slothful and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvellous works ceased.”
255 The meaning is perfectly clear: though Lehi’s people enjoyed daily demonstrations of God’s power, the device by which that power operated seemed so ordinary (Alma included it among “small and simple things . . . very small means” Alma 37:6-7) that in spite of the “marvellous works” it showed them they tended to neglect it. We could punctuate the passage accordingly:
255 “Therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles, wrought by the power of God day by day. Nevertheless, because those miracles were worked by small means (albeit it did show unto them marvellous works), they were slothful and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence.”
255 A comparison of various editions of the Book of Mormon will show that others have tried their hand at punctuating these phrases. 52
255 But it is time to turn to Mr. Fahd’s study of belomancy in the ancient Near East. Belomancy is the practice of divination by shooting, tossing, shaking, or otherwise manipulating rods, darts, pointers, or other sticks, all originally derived from arrows. Over ten years ago the present writer made a fairly exhaustive study of ancient arrow-divination, and some years later presented in the pages of the Era a long discourse on the ritual use of sticks and rods, especially in ancient Israel. 53 Yet it was not until he saw Fahd’s study, the first full-length treatment of old Semitic arrow-divination, that it dawned upon him that these old practices might have some connection with the Liahona. For the most common use of divination arrows, and probably their original purpose, was, according to the forgotten evidence unearthed by the diligent Fahd, the direction of travelers in the desert.
256Fahd begins by pointing out that the “arrows” used in divination, called qidh or zalam, were devoid of heads and feathers, being mere shafts or pointers. 54 Since Lane has given a fuller description of these objects from the sources, we can do no better than quote his quotations:
256“Zalam, plural azlam [divining—] arrows by means of which the Arabs in the Time of Ignorance [i.e, before Islam] sought to know what was allotted to them: they were arrows upon which the Arabs in the Time of Ignorance wrote ‘Command’ and ‘Prohibition’; or upon some of which was written ‘My Lord hath commanded me’; and upon some, ‘My Lord hath forbidden me’; or they were three arrows; upon one of which was written ‘My Lord hath commanded me’; [etc.] . . . and the third was blank; and they put them in a receptacle, and took forth an arrow; and if the arrow upon which was ‘Command’ came forth, he went to accomplish the purpose; but if that upon which was ‘Prohibition’ came forth, he refrained; and if the blank came forth, they shuffled them a second time. . . . The azlam [were arrows that] belonged to Kureysh, in the Time of Ignorance, upon which were written ‘He hath commanded,’ and ‘He hath forbidden,’ and ‘Do thou’ and ‘Do thou not’; they had been well shaped and made even, and placed in the Kaabeh [the holy shrine of Meccah] . . . and when a man desired to go on a journey, or to marry, he came to the minister, and said, ‘Take thou forth for me a zalam‘; and thereupon he would take it forth and look at it. . . . There were seven of the arrows thus called with the minister of the Kaabeh, having marks upon them, and used for this purpose: and sometimes there were with the man two such arrows, which he put into his sword-case; and when he desired to seek the knowledge of what was allotted to him, he took forth one of them.” 55
257But why arrows? Because, as we have shown elsewhere, the shooting of arrows is a universal form of divination, “as is evident in the prayers that the legendary heroes of the steppe—Finnish, Norse, Russian, Kazakh, Turkish, and Yakut—address to their three enchanted arrows before releasing them, and for instance, in the arrow-prayers of the Indian and Beduin, all eloquently expressing the humility of men about to entrust their lives and their fate to a power beyond their control.” 56 The consultation of the arrows by one about to marry was, according to Gaster, also an old Jewish custom; the parties concerned would throw rods into the air, “reading their message by the manner of their fall; this, Gaster observes, is ‘tantamount’ to the shooting of arrows.” 57 Other substitutes for shooting were shaking or drawing from a bag or quiver, “balancing on the finger, or spinning on a pivot.” 58
257 In the New World “the antetype . . . possibly of all the Indian dice games” is one in which the “arrows or darts are tossed . . . or shot . . . at an arrow tossed or shot to the ground so that they fall one across the other.” More often than not, the arrows in question were mere sticks or pointers. 59 In Arabic, sahamahu means both to shoot arrows with another and to draw lots or practice sortilege with one. There was no more popular form of divination among the magic-minded Babylonians than arrow-lottery, and Meissner suggest that “casting lots” in Babylonian (salÃº sha puni) refers to an original shaking or shooting of arrows. 60
257 All this shaking, tossing, and shooting emphasizes the divinatory office of arrows as pointers, 61 but along with that they also conveyed their message, as the passages from Lane demonstrate, by the writing that was upon them. Fahd notes that “on the arrows words were inscribed determining the object of the cleromantic consultation.” 62 Whenever divination arrows are described, they are invariably found to have writing on them, like the Zuni “word-painted arrows of destiny.” 63 The Arabic proverb for “Know thyself!” is absir wasma qidhika, literally, “Examine the mark on thy divination-arrow!” 64 It has even been maintained that writing originated with the marking of arrows, 65 but whether this be so or not, it is certain that men from the earliest times have sought guidance by consulting the pointings and the inscriptions of headless and tailless arrows.
258 The word for “divination-arrow” in the above proverb was qidh, defined in Lane as one of the “two arrows used in sortilege.” The original and natural number of arrows used in divination seems to have been two. Even when the “magic three” were used, the third was a dud, the manih, which is a blank “to which no lot is assigned.”
258 66 It is the other two that do the work. On the same day on which the king of Persia shook out the divining-sticks (the baresma), the Jews would draw three boxwood lots to choose the scapegoat; but the Talmud says there were only two lots and they were of boxwood or gold. 67
258 The reason for the two basic staves is apparent from their normal designation as “Command” and “Prohibition.” To this the priests at some shrines added a third arrow called the “Expectative”—”Wait and see!” 68 But the original arrangement was that two arrows designated the advisability or inadvisability of a journey; they were designated as “the safr [Go ahead!] and the khadr [Stay where you are!]” 69 From passages in Lane it is clear that the regular consultants of the arrows were those faced with travel-problems—all others are secondary. The patron of the caravans of the Hejaz from time immemorial was the archer-god Abgal, “the lord of omens,” in his capacity of the master of the arrows of divination. 70 The inscriptions on the arrows themselves give top priority to travel: typical examples from the various systems, which employ from two all the way to ten arrows, are “Go slow!” (bata’), “Speed Up!” (sari;kc), “Water!” “Stay where you are!” “Get moving!” “You are in the clear,” etc. 71
259 It would be an obtuse reader indeed who needed one to spell out for him the resemblance between ancient arrow-divination and the Liahona: two “spindles or pointers” bearing written instructions provide superhuman guidance for travelers in the desert. What more could you want? But what is the relationship between them? On this the Book of Mormon is remarkably specific. Both Nephi and Alma go out of their way to insist that the Liahona did not work itself, i.e., was not a magic thing, but worked only by the power of God and only for appointed persons who had faith in that power.
259 Moreover, while both men marvel at the wonderful workmanship of the brass ball in which the pointers were mounted, they refer to the operation of those pointers as “a very small thing,” so familiar to Lehi’s people that they hardly gave it a second glance. So contemptuous were they of the “small means” by which “those miracles were worked” for their guidance and preservation that they constantly “forgot to exercise their faith,” so that the compass would work. This suggests that aside from the workmanship of the mounting, there was nothing particularly strange or mystifying about the apparatus, which Alma specifies as a “temporal” thing.
259 Here we have an instructive parallel in the ship and the bow that Nephi made. Without divine intervention those indispensable aids to survival would never have come to the rescue of Lehi’s company—their possession was a miracle. Yet what were they after all? An ordinary ship and an ordinary bow. Just so, the Liahona was “a very small thing” for all its marvelous provenience, having much the same relationship to other directing arrows that the ship and the bow did to other ships and bows. We must not forget that the ancients looked upon even ordinary azlam as a means of communication with the divine: “In view of the importance of religious sentiment in every aspect of the activity of the ancient Arab and of the Semite in general,” writes Fahd, “I do not believe that one can separate these practices [i.e., of arrow-divination] from their character as a consultation of divinity. . . . They always believed, however vaguely, in a direct and constant intervention in human affairs.” 72
260 Like the wonderful staff of Moses in Jewish history, these things suggest remote times and occasions when, according to popular belief, God communicates more directly with men than he does now. Tha’labi knows of a Hebrew tradition that Moses led the children of Israel through the wilderness with the aid of a double arrow mounted on the end of his staff. 73 Such a device seems to be represented as a very ancient cult object in Egypt, going back to the earliest migrations. 74 This is certainly implied in the status of the ritual arrows or marked sticks among the American Indians, regarding which Culin writes: “Behind both ceremonies and games there existed some widespread myth from which both derived their impulse,” though what this mysterious tradition is he does not know. 75 Consistent with their holiness, “the consulting of the mantic arrows,” according to one Ibn Ishaq, “seems to have been reserved to questions of general public concern and to solemn occasions of life” and death. 76 Which again reminds us of the Liahona, “that if they would look, they might live” (Alma 37:46).
260 Was the Liahona, then, just old magic? No, it is precisely here that Nephi and Alma are most emphatic—unlike magic things, these pointers worked solely by the power of God, and then, too, for only those designated to use them. Anybody about to make a journey could consult the mantic arrows at the shrines, and to this day throughout the world mantic arrows are still being consulted. But it is clear from Alma’s words that in his day the Liahona had been out of operation for centuries, having functioned only for a true man of God and only for one special journey.
261 Another man of God, Lehi’s great contemporary, Ezekiel showed a remarkable interest in divinatory sticks and rods, as we have pointed out elsewhere, and he describes how the fate of certain wicked cities is sealed as God “shakes out the arrows,” each one being marked with the name of a condemned city. 77
261 Where, then, does one draw the line between the sacred and the profane? Religion becomes magic when the power by which things operate is transferred from God to the things themselves. As Fahd notes, the Arabs were extremely vague about the powers with which they dealt, as “primitive” people are everywhere. When men lack revelation they commonly come to think of power as residing in things. Did the staff of Moses make water come from the rock or cause the Red Sea to part? Of course not; yet in time the miraculous powers which were displayed through its agency came to be attributed by men to the staff itself. It became a magic thing, like Solomon’s seal, which possessed in itself the wonder-working powers which gave Solomon his ascendancy over men and beasts.
261 In time the Bible became a magic book in men’s eyes, conveying all knowledge by its own power, without the aid of revelation. So also after a fierce controversy on the matter, priesthood itself acquired the status of a thing that automatically bestows power and grace, regardless of the spiritual or moral qualifications of its possessor—it became a magic thing. Strangest of all, science has consistently supplanted religion by magic when dealing with final causes. When Sir Charles Sherrington, for example, after describing the incredibly complex and perfect workings of the body, insists that it is the cells themselves that agree to cooperate in following an indescribably complex plan of development, he is simply appealing to the old doctrine of the magicians, that things in themselves possess wondrous powers of performance: “It is as if an immanent principle inspired each cell with knowledge for the carrying out of a design.” 78
262Hunters and medicine men throughout the world who use arrows to bring them luck pray to their arrows, blow on them, and talk to them, as gamblers do to dice and cards—for at an early date “the use of the divination arrows drifted down into the vulgarisation of gaming cards,” i.e., the practice quickly degenerated to magic. 79 That is why it is so important to understand, and why the Book of Mormon is at such pains to make perfectly clear, that the Liahona was not magic. It did not work itself, like other divination arrows, in any sense or to any degree.
262 And yet it seems to have been an ordinary and familiar object, a “temporal thing,” which could also serve as “a type and a shadow,” teaching us how God uses “small things” to bring about great purposes. Here we have an implement which, far from being the invention of a brainsick imagination, was not without its ancient counterparts.
262 If we were to stop here, this would probably be the only article ever written about the Liahona that did not attempt to explain the meaning of the name. Fortunately the Book of Mormon has already given us the answer: “Our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass” (Alma 37:38). Liahona is here clearly designated as an Old World word from the forgotten language of the fathers, which must be interpreted to present readers. But what is a compass? According to the Oxford Dictionary, the derivation of the word remains a mystery; it has two basic meanings, but which has priority nobody knows: the one is “to pass or step together,” referring always to a pair of things in motion; the other refers to the nature of that motion in a circle, “to pass or step completely,” to complete a “circumference, circle, round,” to embrace or enclose completely. Thus whether it refers to the ball or the arrows, “compass” is the best possible word to describe the device, though generations of Book of Mormon critics have laughed their heads off at the occurrence of the modern word in what purports to be an ancient book.