This post is a summary of the article “Stained Swords: A Psalm of Redemption” by Loren Blake Spendlove in Volume 54 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at https://interpreterfoundation.org/interpreting-interpreter-on-abstracting-thought/.
Spendlove writes short, accessible abstracts that you can read for yourself.
In this article, Loren Spendlove uses the rhetorical and poetic elements of Alma 24 to propose an alternative framing for the “stained swords” referenced in that chapter. Though he is sympathetic to the idea that the swords may have been wooden rather than metal, and thus more likely to be stained, Spendlove argues that “stains” also serve independently as a strong metaphor for sin, with those stains being a “metonymic replacement” (associating two things or objects and referring to one in place of the other) for the sin and guilt they seek to avoid. That their swords could be seen as being defiled by the blood of their enemies (independent of any physical stain) is possible in that context.
Spendlove identifies five rhetorical aspects of King Anti-Lehi Nephi’s speech that support that idea, noting that the Hebrew that potentially underlies the word “stain” (the root g-a-l, denoting to pollute or to defile, with the connotation of to stain) being equated with hands being “defiled/stained with iniquity”, as used by Isaiah. Interestingly, this Hebrew root is shared by the word “redeem”, allowing for strong connections to the redeeming power of the Savior to remove the stain of sin. The reference to making their swords “bright” could also reflect a wordplay on the idea of swords being sharpened rather than simply having physical stains removed, as both words share a Hebrew root (b-r-r).
Spendlove’s five identified aspects include:
A spiral progression in the prologue (v. 7-10), which repeats an expanding set of points that culminate in God taking away “the guilt from our hearts” following their conversion.
An expanded progression (v. 11-13) highlighting repentance and forgiveness, with repetition of variations of the phrase “our many sins and murders”, which quickly switches from referring to personal sin to referring to “stains”. This is similar to how Alma earlier refers to the stained garments of the people of Zarahemla.
A chiasm (v. 14-15) focusing on the love and mercy of God.
A second chiasm focusing on being “made bright” (v. 15), and which contrasts being stained with the word of God (a likely Messianic reference) that served to make them clean.
An epilogue that features an additional repetitive structure (v. 16), emphasizing that burying their brightened swords will allow them to be saved despite the potentially lethal consequences.
Spendlove provides an extra layer of depth to an already powerful metaphor, with that metaphor strengthened with a series of dense rhetorical and poetic structures. I’m particularly struck with what he labels a “spiral progression,” a structure that seems purpose-fit for providing verbal emphasis to a progressive series of ideas. That Spendlove frames his proposal as an addition to the idea of stained wooden swords, rather than competing with it, allows for the two ideas to strengthen and support each other, imbuing it with further meaning. That meaning applies to more than those who make consistent use of swords—to those of us defiled by sin and guilt, and who require the cleansing power of Christ’s atonement to renew and sharpen our own souls.
Rather than a sword, the cimeter of the Book of Mormon was probably similar in construction to the Mesoamerican macuahuitl, which has a wooden shaft. The sword of Laban, from which Nephi did make many copies (2 Nephi 5:14), was made of steel (Nephi mentions that the blade of Laban’s sword “was of the most precious steel” (1 Nephi 4:9), so it was probably imported wootz steel from India, or manganese hardened Spartan steel). Steel swords could be described as “bright,” but it is unlikely that a wooden and stone macuahuitl could be described as “bright.” The dissolved oxygen and other chemicals in blood would rust and discolor a steel sword very quickly if not washed off immediately and then rubbed with oil.
Cimeter is mentioned eight times in the Book of Mormon. The first is in Enos 1:20 as a weapon of the Lamanites, who probably at that time did not have the technology to make a steel sword. The exact spelling of this weapon is not found in Webster’s 1812 dictionary but is found in John Kersey’s 1702 “A New English Dictionary,” where Cimeter is described as “a kind of broad back-sword without a gard” (sic). This would probably be the closest choice of an English word to describe such a weapon as the macuahuitl. Every other time that cimeter is mentioned in the Book of Mormon it is always coupled with the word, sword, as in “sword and cimeter. Lamanite captain, Zerahemnah, carried both a sword and a cimeter (Alma 44:8).
The exact spelling of cimeter only appearing in Early Modern English is further confirmation of Stanford Carmack’s thesis that the Book of Mormon was translated into Early Modern English, rather that the English of Joseph Smith’s day, or of King James English. It is also further confirmation that Joseph and Oliver received and copied exact wording and spelling during the translation process.
There was no need to import steel from India. Fine steel had been produced in Egypt, Israel, South Arabia, and Anatolia by local smiths for centuries before the time of Lehi.
The curved scimitar /cimeter is defined in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary (in which cimeter is the preferred spelling and is used throughout the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, but never appears in that form in the Original or Printers Manuscripts – where it is always spelled beginning with -s-). A scimitar is the same as the Hebrew כידון kîdôn and ancient Egyptian ḫepeš, which are not the same as a straight sword.
Matt Roper wrote a short piece on scimitars (cimeters) for FAIR back in 2013, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/blog/2013/08/10/ancient-near-eastern-scimitars-howlers-19 , showing that it refers to a particular kind of ancient sword “having a curved blade with the edge on the convex side” or “something resembling a scimitar (as in sharpness or shape); esp: a long-handled billhook,” and that just such a curved wooden sword inlaid with flint or obsidian blades was used by the Aztecs – similar to the straight macuahuitl.