Evidences of Mormon
A compilation and review of the claims made by the Book of Mormon compared against non-apologetic data

The Liahona working like a traditional magnetic compass

The term 'a compass' is used to describe an object called the Liahona in the Book of Mormon. According to the Book of Mormon the Liahona was a ball shaped object that directed the family of Lehi in the direction they were supposed to travel.

This article addresses these related topics:

Liahona as a magnetic compass

The Book of Mormon does not describe the Liahona as a magnetic device.
A word that means circle, orb, or sphere that also translates literally to the term 'a compass' from an ancient Hebrew text.

This occurs in the translation of the Old Testament.
Quotable SummaryShow

A compass in the Book of Mormon

The word compass is used in two sections in the Book of Mormon when talking about the director that was given to the family of Lehi. Three of those times were in one speech. More than anything else, it was called a ball.

According to the Book of Mormon, a man named Alma identifies the ball by the name 'Liahona' approximately 500 years after the Lehi's journey from Israel. According to Alma, the name Liahona means 'a compass.' The word compass is never given as a description of its function, but only as an identifier of the object.

The Hebrew word for a magnetic compass is much younger than the Old Testament. The other definition of compass, however, was a fairly popular word in the ancient Hebrew language. This compass is the root of our English word encompass. The English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament contains 25 instances where the word compass appears.

While the term for magnetic compass would be highly unlikely to be found in the Hebrew language at the time claimed by the Book of Mormon, the possibility of a Hebrew word that could be interpreted to 'a compass' in English as a description is highly plausible. There is evidence of this found in the Old Testament.

The Liahona according to the Book of Mormon

According to the Book of Mormon, Lehi was given this device of curious workmanship which Alma later identified with the word Liahona. In order to isolate what the described function of the ball was, I have copied every scripture where the Liahona is mentioned and added them here. However, in order to identify any described function of the ball, I have removed the words used to identify the ball, and replaced them with the word "Bob." I also removed any adjectives or other descriptive parts of the sentence. I kept anything that described how "Bob" worked or functioned. I have noted the Bob's that replaced the word compass with a *. You can follow the links for the original verse:

1 Nephi 16:10:

"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 [Bob] [ … ]. And within [Bob] were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness."

1 Nephi 16:16:

"And we did follow the directions of [Bob], which led us in the more fertile parts of the wilderness."

1 Nephi 16:26-30:

"And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord said unto him: Look upon [Bob], and behold the things which are written.

And it came to pass that when my father beheld the things which were written upon [Bob], he did fear and tremble exceedingly, […]

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in [Bob], 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.

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 [Bob]."

1 Nephi 18:21:

"And it came to pass after they had loosed me, behold, I took [Bob*], and it did work whither I desired it. […]

Mosiah 1:16:

"And moreover, he also gave him charge concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass; and also the plates of Nephi; and also, the sword of Laban, and [Bob], 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."

Alma 37:38:

"And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call [Bob*]; and the Lord prepared it."

Alma 37:43-45:

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 [Bob*] (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 [Bob*], which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.

And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely as [Bob] did bring our fathers, by following its course, to the promised land, shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise."

The function of the Liahona

As you read the actual functionality, it's clear that the Liahona did two things.

  1. One of the arrows pointed the direction that the family would travel. In the beginning of the journey, this was south. Later the journey turned east. It was again used once they were on the ocean.
  2. There was writing on one of the arrows or on the ball itself that would change periodically.

Both of these would work according to their obedience and faith and not according to a magnetic field. There were two arrows on the device. One arrow pointed in the direction to travel. The function of the second arrow, however, is never mentioned.

Nowhere in these verses is it stated that the device pointed north. The closest similarity is in Alma, 500 years later, which compares the words of Christ to a straight path, like the one provided by the Liahona. The direction, however, is never stated.

The Hebrew language

There are many words in the Hebrew language that are synonymous with compass. In the Old Testament we find the word חוּג twice. Once we find it in Isaiah, where it was translated into English as 'the circle.' We find it again also in Proverbs where it was literally translated as 'a compass.'

Another Hebrew word that is synonymous with both the word compass and sphere is the word לאֱפוף (pronounced l-ah-f-waw-f). In Hebrew, the most common usage of this word means to wrap into a circle, or to wreathe or surround. This is consistent with the shape of the Liahona. This word does not appear in the Old Testament. The closest comparable word in the Old Testament is לֵאָה which is the name Leah.

References according to the 1st edition Book of MormonShow