Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Alma 11

The Nephite Weighting System

I normally do not delve into subjects that involve "proving" the Book of Mormon, but this subject of the Nephite weighting system is one that I developed an interest in while serving in Guatemala.

To begin, I think the chapter header in Alma 11 should not refer to the system mentioned as "Nephite coinage." I do not think coins were used. Rather, I think it was all based on weights and measurements. When we think of coins, we think of pennies, nickels and dimes. If the Nephites used "coins", then they probably were just globs of gold or silver. I'm no expert on these matters, but that is my opinon.

I'm not sure when the first time I heard about the weight the natives use to sell their produce, but I do remember the first time I took notice of this fact. I remember walking through the market in Coban and I noticed several women using a type of balance … placing the desired weight (using the weights) in one bucket and then placing dry goods in the other bucket until it balanced.

Later on I found a merchant store that sold the weights. The one I bought is made of copper (brass ...which is copper and zinc) and is about the size of the middle of my palm. The smallest measurement is 1/2. The largest cup is worth 16.

Below is some additional information I found on the subject in searching the Internet.

Dr. Joseph Allen in his book Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon (1989) writes concerning the Nephite money system.


"The native Mesoamericans traded with cocoa beans, quetzal feathers, and copper figures, and they used a weight-and-measure system that is still utilized today.

On one of our trips in 1989, we were traveling along the Guatemala border toward Guatemala City. Dean Williams, an attorney and a member of the tour group, was reading about the conversion of the lawyer Zeezrom in the Book of Mormon. He was reading in Alma 11 and asked, 'Joe, have they ever found any coins in Mesoamerica?'

I answered, 'Not really. They've found a few copper items, but not coins with which we are familiar.'

Dean said, 'Listen to this,' as he read about the money system during Alma's time: Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. And the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem; neither did they measure after the manner of the Jews; but they altered their reckoning and their measure, according to the minds and the circumstances of the people, in every generation, until the reign of the judges, they having been established by king Mosiah. (Alma 11:4)

Then he said, 'That's not talking about coins; it's talking about weights and measures.'

I said, 'You're right. I know now what that's talking about. When we get to Lake Atitlan in a few days, we'll buy a couple of things they use for weighing purposes.'

When we arrived at Lake Atitlan, some of the group bought sets of the weights that the natives still use today to weigh their produce on a balance scale. These weights consist of four small cups and a small, solid weight, each weighing various amounts, The cups nestle inside one another much like the measuring cups we use in our American kitchens. The small, solid cap fits inside the smallest cup.

The following discussion represents an interesting analysis, as the 'weights and measures' that are still used today are compared to the description of the 'weights and measures' in the Book of Mormon.

Concerning the Nephites' system of money, the Book of Mormon outlines the following- This discussion is not presented as conclusive evidence but rather as an exercise to compare the two systems.

(A) Now the reckoning is thus-a senine of gold, a seon of gold, a strum of gold, and a limnah of gold. (Alma 11:5)

The measurements of the 'weights and measures' follow he same pattern as described in the Book of Mormon:

(B) Now the amount of a seon of gold was twice the value of a senine. (Alma 11:8)

(C') And a shum of gold was twice the value of a seon. (Alma I 1:9) (D) And a limnah of gold was the value of them all. (Alma 11: 10) The above is just a preliminary statement on the type of monetary system used by the Nephites. Nevertheless, Mesoamerica does have a system of weights and measures that appears to predate the Spanish Conquest and that is still used today. And the calibrations are the same. The natives do not today, however, use the "weights and measures" to measure. They use them only to weigh their produce.

We can observe with great interest the manner in which the Book of Mormon describes the monetary system among the Nephites and then observe the manner in which the same calibrations are used by the natives of Guatemala and El Salvador today. "

Dr John L. Sorensen in his book An Ancient American Setting For The Book Of Mormon has additional views. He reports thus:

"The 'money' of Alma 11 is another story, however. It would be nice to say that the problem has been solved, but that is not true. Hugh Nibley has given a sensible introduction to the difficult topic of "What is money?" from a Near Eastern perspective. But the question remains, was money used in Mesoamerica, the land of the Book of Mormon? No reliable data show that minted coins were used anywhere in the pre-Columbian New World, despite rare, puzzling finds of Old World coins. But money need not take the form of coins. It can be any agreed-upon medium in standard units that serves as a public measure of value. Several kinds of money in this sense were known in Mesoamerica. The commonest was the cacao bean, which continued in use at least up to fifty years ago. (People could literary drink up their money then, in the form of cocoa!) The system reported in the Book of Alma followed Israelite practice before the Babylonian Exile in that the money units employed (such as the shekel) were weight units of metal rather than standardized coins. Minted coins apparently came into use in Palestine only after Lehi left there. Certainly the "money" units given in Alma 11 were proportionate weights. The inappropriate term "coinage" in the chapter heading is an error due to nineteenth century editing, not a part of the ancient text. Research has also shown recently that relating measures of grain to values of precious metal, in the manner of Alma 11:4-19, was an Egyptian practice. Whether there was Mesoamerican weighed money we cannot say. No serious study of money usage there has ever been done. As I explain at length in chapter 7, the entire subject of metals in Mesoamerica in Book of Mormon times needs far more research to fill major gaps in our knowledge. South American metallurgy is much better understood than that in Mexico and Guatemala, yet startling finds are turning up even in that "well-known" area. Most recently a burial containing 12,000 pieces of metal "money" (though not coins as such) was found in Ecuador, for the first time confirming that some ancient South Americans had the idea of accumulating a fortune in more or less standard units of metal wealth. Such a startling find in Mesoamerica could change our present limited ideas."

*update - June 20, 2010* Just read this post that offers more info on this weighting system: "The function of the gold limah and the silver onti in the Nephite currency system" and from that post I found two more links that were very fascinating: "A Bit for a Bushel of Barley" and this Maxwell Institue article: "Weighing and Measuring in the Worlds of the Book of Mormon"
Immortality and Eternal Life

"For behold, this is my work and my glory - to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." (Moses 1:39)

Simply stated, immortality is a gift from God to all. It means that regardless of what we have done in this life, we will all be resurrected and have an immortal body. Eternal life is granted to those who pass the test (Abraham 3:25) in this life and are granted the blessing of living with God forever and can "continue." (D&C 132:20)

What does this mean for us? It means that we will be resurrected and that we are in control of our future. Christ has atoned for our sins and now it is up to us to choose eternal life or damnation.

"The day cometh that all shall rise from the dead and stand before God, and be judged according to their works." (Alma 11:41)


Globi said...

Thank you so much for that blog. I'm from Switzerland and I prepare a SundaySchool class for this sunday. This is helping me so much. Keep it up!

"Dustmop" Mark Cheney said...

Hi, Don -
I have some of these weighing devices that I purchased in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala in 1995 - I believe they called them "pesas'. They are made of brass - you call them copper. You also have a typo in quoting Alma where you state that one of the measures was a "strum". You ought to check that.


Drew Wright said...

In the new edition of scriptures, (2013 edition) the chapter heading was changed from "Nephite coinage set forth" to "Nephite monetary system is set forth" in Alma 11. Just a little note for your introduction.