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Lehi's Life and Profession in Jerusalem

This article is created as a sequel to the previous supplemental article, Jerusalem at the Time of Lehi, and is also largely taken from Jeffrey R. Chadwick's article "Lehi's House at Jerusalem and the Land of His Inheritance" (Glimpses of Lehi's Jerusalem, 81-130).

If, as proposed in the previous article, Lehi's recent ancestors had come to Jerusalem as refugees from the north, they would have found themselves landless in Judah. This would not have been an ideal situation in a society where farming was the way much of the population made its living. Upon establishing themselves in the refugee camp that eventually became known as the Mishneh of Jerusalem, Lehi's great-grandparents and grandparents would have to have figured out a way to support themselves without any land to farm-something that they could do living inside the city wall that Hezekiah had built between 705 and 701 BC. As first pointed out by John Tvedtnes, indications in the writings of Nephi suggest that both he and his father Lehi were professional metalsmiths. Such a vocation would have been ideal for Lehi's ancestors to learn since it would not require the ownership or rental of property outside the city. Like most professionals of that age, Nephi would have apprenticed with and learned the metalworking trade from his father. Lehi had likely learned it from his father, who in turn learned it from his father, the man who came to Judah as a refugee, who had learned it in order to survive as a landless resident of Jerusalem's Mishneh.

Expertise in smithing precious metals such as silver and gold, particularly in smithing iron and hardening it into steel, is not something a person picked up as a hobby or sideline skill. Smithing, and in particular iron and steel smithing, was the high-tech profession of Lehi's day-the period that archaeologists call the Iron Age II. Evidence of Lehi's and Nephi's expertise in all sorts of metals-in other words, evidence that smithing was their profession-is found in several passages of Nephi's writings. A sample list of ten such passages may be considered:

1. 1 Nephi 2:1. Lehi left behind gold and silver, two precious metals likely to have been used in expert jewelry smithing. While the population at large often utilized silver as money, in the form of cut pieces and small jewelry (no coins were in use in Judah during Iron Age II), to possess gold was very rare-gold was not used as a medium of common monetary exchange. For Lehi to possess both gold and silver suggests that he worked with gold, which in turn suggests gold smithing (gold and silver are also mentioned in 1 Nephi 3:16; 1 Nephi 3:22, and 24).

2. 1 Nephi 4:9. Nephi's evaluation of the sword of Laban includes his assessment that the hilt was of pure gold. This suggests that, at his young age, he was experienced in gold working (nonexperts are rarely able to judge the purity or content of gold-colored metal). He also mentioned the blade of the sword as being of "the most precious steel" and said that "the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine," assessments that suggest he was experienced in iron and steel work.

3. 1 Nephi 5:19. Lehi predicts that the "plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time"-a surprisingly accurate statement that could probably be made only by a person experienced with the properties of copper-based alloys like bronze and brass (bronze is a combination of copper and tin, and brass a combination of copper and zinc). Whereas iron, the hardest metal of Lehi's day (it could even be hardened into steel by Lehi's time), will oxidize and rust away over time if neglected, copper alloys such as bronze and brass will not. Even the most damp conditions will not cause plates of copper to "perish." And while it is possible over time for bronze or brass items to be "dimmed . . . by time" with a greenish or greyish patina, even minimal maintenance on a regular basis will prevent this.

4. 1 Nephi 8:19. Lehi "beheld a rod of iron" (see 2 Nephi 8:24; 2 Nephi 8:30). It is noteworthy that no other artificial object in his dream is described with such specificity. He does not, for example, mention the material from which the large building was constructed. That he actually noted what specific metal the rod was made of, rather than just calling it a rod or handrail, suggests that Lehi was especially sensitive to or interested in metals, as a smith would naturally be.

5. 1 Nephi 16:10. Nephi describes what eventually became known as the Liahona (see Alma 37:38). He notes that it was made of "fine brass" and was of "curious workmanship." These are the types of assessments that one who has experience with quality brass work, such as a smith, would make.

6. 1 Nephi 17:9-16. Nephi knew how to smelt metallic ore from rock and forge tools with the metal made from the ore. This is obvious evidence that he was skilled in all aspects of the metallurgical knowledge of the period. Note that Nephi does not know how to work with wood or how to design a seagoing vessel-these skills are taught him by God (see 1 Nephi 18:1-2) -but he does know, without divine tutorial, how to work in metal and forge tools, indicating is was a previously mastered skill.

7. 1 Nephi 18:25. On arrival in ancient America, Lehi's party found "all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper." The inclusion of these items in their assessment of resources available to them indicates not only their value but implies the ability to use them in metal working.

8. 1 Nephi 19:1. Nephi made "plates of ore" and lists the various records that he had "engraven" upon them-in other words, Nephi was experienced not only in ore smelting and metalworking but also in engraving long texts on the metal he worked.

9. 2 Nephi 5:15. Nephi taught his people to erect buildings and work wood, using only general terms for those activities, but then he reports specifically each type of metal he taught them to work in-iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, silver, and other precious ores. Not only does this clearly indicate that Nephi himself is a metalsmith but serves as something of a resumé of his varied smithing experience and abilities.

10. 2 Nephi 5:29-31. Nephi again mentions the two sets of metal plates that he had personally made in order to write the two separate records he was keeping. The thinness and uniformity of size of these plate collections would require considerable skill in metallurgy and smithing.

This ample evidence that Nephi and his father Lehi were experienced in mining metallic ores and smithing a variety of precious and utilitarian metals sheds light on a number of interesting questions often asked about 1 Nephi. For example, why did Lehi and Nephi both seem to have been competent in Egyptian language and writing as well as their native Hebrew? The fact that Egypt was a primary center for gold trade could suggest that Lehi had regularly traveled there to conduct gold business or procure gold supplies. Why did Lehi and Nephi seem to have readily known the way from Jerusalem to the Red Sea (Gulf of Eilat) and back without the aid of the Liahona, which they later needed in Arabia? The fact that copper ore was mined in several locations near the Gulf of Eilat and in northern Sinai could suggest that Lehi and Nephi had traveled to the region several times over the years to obtain copper supplies and knew the route well prior to their permanent departure from Jerusalem in 1 Nephi 2. Certainly, however, their expertise in metalworking suggests this had been their primary vocation in Jerusalem. Their standard of living would have been comfortable by itself since metalworking was a respected middle-class occupation. When the rental monies Lehi was presumably able to collect from Samaritans living on and farming his land of inheritance are factored in (income which Lehi's father and grandfather would not have enjoyed, but which became available by the time Lehi was an adult), the combined wealth probably placed Lehi's family in an economic situation approaching Jerusalem's upper class. Thus, it is no surprise to read that, in addition to gold and silver, Lehi had possesssed "precious things" (1 Nephi 2:4; 1 Nephi 2:3:22) and "all manner of riches" (1 Nephi 3:16).

Living in the Mishneh and Working in the Makhtesh

The typical house found throughout Israel and Judah during the period when Lehi lived is called by archaeologists the "pillared" or "four-room" house. The basic plan, which first appeared in the twelfth century BC and which, with improvements and variations, endured for over six centuries, featured three identical rectangular rooms placed side by side with their longer walls in apposition. Thus the long axes of each of these three rooms were parallel to one another. The fourth rectangular room was oriented with its long axis perpendicular to the long axes of the other three rooms, and its long wall was in apposition to the short walls of the three parallel rooms. The outer three rooms were roofed and formed a squared "U" around the middle room, which was an open-air courtyard. The long walls on either side of the open-air courtyard sometimes featured pillars instead of closed walls, hence the term pillared house. The outer three rooms often featured interior walls that divided them into smaller chambers. The breadth of wall foundations and the presence of stone stairs discovered by archaeologists in some four-room houses suggest that they often supported a second floor, which doubled the number of living chambers possible in the four-room plan. The average dimensions of a four-room house were about 10 X 12 meters (33 X 40 feet). The total ground level floor space of Israelite and Judean four-room houses varied, but could be as much as 110 square meters (about 1,200 square feet). The functional space of these houses was complemented by additional floor space (as much as 800 square feet) on the flat roof, which by law featured a waist-high, upright safety ledge, or battlement (see Deuteronomy 22:8). Domestic activities such as household work, socializing, and even sleeping could take place on the roof in the dry weather that lasted much of the year. The main entrance to the household was at the open end of the enclosed (but open-air) courtyard, which also served as an area for gathering and working as well as for dry-weather cooking.

Lehi's house at Jerusalem was probably a large version of the typical pillared or four-room style with as much as 2,000 square feet of living space on two floors, typical of a family with considerable means in his day. Although the Mishneh area had begun as a refugee settlement in the eighth century BC and Lehi's grandparents would likely have plied their presumed metalsmithing trade in the courtyard of their own four-room house, the nature of the Mishneh changed in the eighty years between the completion of Hezekiah's wall in 701 BC and Josiah's Passover festival of 622 BC (by which time Lehi was likely a young father). By then the Mishneh had evolved into a rather upscale neighborhood, as evidenced by the fact that Huldah the prophetess and her husband, Shallum the "keeper of the wardrobe" (i.e., the royal clothier), lived there (see 2 Kings 22:14, but note that Mishneh is curiously translated there as "college"). This fact has led scholars to conclude that "the Mishneh was probably a well-to-do residential quarter" (Avigad, Discovering Jerusalem, 54.) Lehi's relative wealth would have placed him at home in such a quarter. But upscale neighborhoods, even in ancient settings, tended to eschew industrial or heavy commercial operations in their midst. The relatively small plot of city property in the Mishneh that Lehi probably inherited from his father, or that he acquired nearby, was of adequate size for a comfortable four-room house but was no longer a place where smithing could be carried on as it had been in his grandfather's day. The question then becomes: If Lehi and his sons were indeed metalsmiths, where in Jerusalem did they conduct their metal working and marketing operations? The answer may be that they did so in the other Jerusalem quarter previously mentioned-the Makhtesh.

The Hebrew word Makhtesh means crater (an elongated crater formed by water erosion). The ancient Jerusalem quarter called the Makhtesh was located just west of the ancient City of David (which is just south of the temple mount. It is a likely site where the metalsmithing and marketing operations of Lehi and his family were carried out.

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