A Video Supplement for
Come, Follow Me Book of Mormon Lesson 5:
“I Will Prepare the Way before You” (1 Nephi 16-22)
In 1 Nephi 16, several interesting things happen related to bows. Beginning with verse 18,
18 And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food.
19 And it came to pass that we did return without food to our families, and being much fatigued, because of their journeying, they did suffer much for the want of food.
20 And it came to pass that Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael did begin to murmur exceedingly, because of their sufferings and afflictions in the wilderness; and also my father began to murmur against the Lord his God; yea, and they were all exceedingly sorrowful, even that they did murmur against the Lord.
21 Now it came to pass that I, Nephi, having been afflicted with my brethren because of the loss of my bow, and their bows having lost their springs, it began to be exceedingly difficult, yea, insomuch that we could obtain no food.
So to being with, all the bows have stopped working. As is pointed out in a Book of Mormon Central KnoWhy, “In the ancient Near East, kingly status, military power, and the right to rule were all symbolized by the bow. Thus “to break the bow” was a common idiom which meant to bring an enemy or ruler into submission.” (https://knowhy.bookofmormoncentral.org/knowhy/why-did-nephi-include-the-story-of-the-broken-bow).
Thus on the one hand, everyone’s bows ceasing to work would have been deeply humbling and on the other hand when Nephi comes up with a working bow after all of this, it positions him symbolically as the future leader of the group in the symbolic idiom of the time.
But before we discuss the new bow, what about all of the old ones? Why and how are they breaking or ceasing to work? William J. Hamblin notes in his paper, “The bow and arrow in the Book of Mormon” (William J. Hamblin, “The Bow and Arrow in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990) that steel bows as described here are most likely composite bows in which the metal is serving a decorative or reinforcing role, rather than a bow of pure metal (which would have been less vulnerable, but also wasn’t part of the technology of the time that we know of). As Hamblin notes [notes silently removed],
Such “steel” bows could break. Obviously both self bows and composite bows can break under a number of circumstances. However, composite bows have a specific structural problem that leaves them susceptible to changes in temperature and climate, which may cause the bow to warp and break. Taybugha, a fourteenth-century Arab master-archer, advised that “an archer should never neglect his bow for a single moment, and in extremes of temperature he should inspect it day and night, hour by hour”. Such care in protecting a composite bow from warping is necessary because “the neck has a natural tendency to lateral displacement…. Should sidewarping of this kind not be detected and the bow be drawn the defective limb will be subjected to a most severe twisting strain and possibly break.” Thus, if Nephi’s bow were of the composite type, his move from the more temperate climate of Palestine to the dry heat of the Arabian peninsula could have contributed to the risk that his bow might warp and break.
The loss of Nephi’s brother’s bows’ springs could also be explained by the combination of frequent use and the same climate conditions which likely damaged Nephi’s bow. As Hamblin observes,
Bows could lose their “springs.” Bows are delicate weapons that need special care and constant attention. Both medieval and modern archers recognized this fact. To lose its “spring” probably means that the bow had lost some of its elasticity and thereby its strength and efficiency. Longman describes this problem: “All bows will lose both cast [range] and strength if shot with many days running, and they will not readily recover if overshot…. Even in one day a bow will sometimes go down one or two pounds, … hot weather especially affecting them.” Most likely, this is precisely what happened to the bows of Nephi’s brothers. The change in climate, the hot weather, and continual hunting progressively weakened the elasticity and draw weight (“springs”) of their bows to the point that the bows had insufficient range and penetrating power for effective hunting.
Nephi, thankfully, spends the time that the others spent murmuring preparing to solve the problem, trusting in the Lord’s help in making his efforts fruitful. One key thing that he needs to do before anything can improve is he needs to help his group’s leadership get back on track. Encouragement does part of the job, but the key thing Nephi needs to do in order to reestablish Lehi’s leadership is show humility and ask Lehi to inquire of the Lord as to where he should go. If Nephi had usurped leadership of the group at this point it would have both destroyed Lehi and proven that everything Laman and Lemuel had said about Nephi was true. Instead, he honors his father and shows Lehi that he is still needed and recognized.
22 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did speak much unto my brethren, because they had hardened their hearts again, even unto complaining against the Lord their God.
23 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did make out of wood a bow, and out of a straight stick, an arrow; wherefore, I did arm myself with a bow and an arrow, with a sling and with stones. And I said unto my father: Whither shall I go to obtain food?
24 And it came to pass that he did inquire of the Lord, for they had humbled themselves because of my words; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul.
Nephi makes not just a bow but also an arrow. Why does he make an arrow? His bow broke but it seems unlikely that it took the arrows with it. The trick here (largely following Hamblin dialogue with David S. Fox) is that in order to function well several parameters have to be appropriately matched between the bow and the arrow. To an initial approximation, the arrow has key parameters of mass, length and stiffness. The bow has key parameters of spring constant and length. First the arrow needs to be stiff enough that what it is accelerated by the bow it won’t flex and shoot inaccurately. Second, it needs to be light enough that it will have high enough launch velocity to travel a good distance and kinetic energy to penetrate its target when it arrives. These two features place constraints on the arrow. It has to be stiff enough, which means it needs to be thick, which tends to correspond to greater mass, but the mass still has to be low enough that it will shoot at high speed. Nephi’s steel bow likely had a heavier draw weight than his do-it-yourself bow and so a lighter arrow was likely needed.
The length of the arrow also has to be right for the bow. If the arrow is too short, you can’t nock the arrow so it will shoot accurately while still drawing the bow back far enough that the arrow will shoot fast enough to have both the distance and penetrating power Nephi needs. If the arrow is too long, he is again going to lose effectiveness because it will be too massive, so he needs to optimize the arrow to match the bow as well as he can in order to make sure that it is effective, which fortunately it is, and with the help of the Lord, Nephi managed to slay wild beasts and obtain food for their families (1 Nephi 16:31).