Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

“Smote off his head” may not mean decapitation.

December 12th, 2011 by Bookslinger

Some people have a problem when they do a literal reading of “smote off his head” in the case of Nephi killing Laban (1 Nephi 4:18), and Coriantumr killing Shiz (Ether 15:30-31).  Common questions are “How could Shiz raise up on his hands and struggle for breath if he had been decapitated?”  and “Wouldn’t Laban’s clothes have been covered in blood and gore, and wouldn’t Laban’s servant Zoram have noticed the blood?” (Warning: the rest of this gets gory and technical.)

On my first few readings through the Book of Mormon, I supposed that there were further details that would have answered those questions, but the details were just not pertinent to the story, so they weren’t included.   I assumed that Laban might have been lying on an incline or some stairs, head down, so that when Nephi cut off his head, the blood ran away from his clothing.

In regards to Shiz’s death throes, people who are familiar with animal slaughter (hunters and farmers), and even combat veterans who have observed combat casualties,  know that sometimes a decapitated mammal does not immediately cease action.   There can still be a second or more of seemingly random muscle contraction and movement.    In the case of head wounds (that are not complete decapitations) that miss a certain critical area, the immediate aftermath is even more unpredictable, and in some cases violent.

Shiz’s death spasms causing him to (appear to) rise up on his hands, and (appear to) struggle for breath seem to be within the scope of  those types of reactions.

However, after reading some commenters in the bloggernacle dissing (and some dismissing) the Book of Mormon over the Laban/Shiz “smote off his head” issue,  the next time I read the Old Testament, I found that Judges 4:21  and 5:26 shed some light.

Judges 4:21. Then Jael Heber’s wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him (Sisera), and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died.

Judges 5:26. (Deborah and Barak are singing about the victory over Sisera, see v. 1.) She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off his head, when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.

Judges 4:21 makes it clear that it was a mortal head wound, but not decapitation.  Yet Judges 5:26, while describing the exact same blow,  mentioning the same nail (tent peg) and hammer, calls it “smote off his head.”

May we then conclude that “smote off his head” was an idiom for a mortal head wound?  It seems very likely to me.

If we then think of Nephi and Coriantumr inflicting mortal head wounds  to their victims, not clear-through decapitations, then the questions that arise in modern minds are immediately answered.

A piercing head wound inflicted by the  point of a sword at a particular spot could fit  Laban’s situation.   If inflicted in one certain spot (where police/military snipers usually aim for) , it can produce little or no blood, yet act immediately as on “off switch.”

In the case of Shiz, missing the “off switch” spot, or perhaps inflicted with the edge of the sword, and not the point, could have still been a mortal wound, but just not immediate, giving him the few seconds to instinctively rise up on his hands and gasp for breath.

Conclusion:  The overview or “big picture” nature of scriptures necessitates that many details had to be left out. Nephi tells us that his two books (that start off the Book of Mormon) are the “Small Plates,” a summary, and that more detail can be found on his “Large Plates.”  Mormon constantly reminds us that he included less than 1% of the things from his source documents.   And, one should also be able to easily excuse the writers for not including minutia of deadly encounters.

Yet, an even better answer to the questions that arise in the matters of Laban and Shiz is the use of the phrase “smote off his head” in Judges, to indicate something other than decapitation.

Comments (4)
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December 12th, 2011 10:21:02

December 12, 2011

In the case of Shiz, I’ve read an article (can’t remember where) that pointed out that Coriantumr was himself near collapse from exhaustion, and it would not be surprising if he botched the decapitation. If Shiz was decerebrated without destruction of the brain stem, as might happen if the blow was too high and only took off the top of his head, then he would have experienced a bulbospinal reflex that might well have caused him to rise up on his hands in the described manner.

Also interesting is the literary point of sharing this grusome detail, which is to show that Shiz was so obstinate he would not stop his pointless struggle even in death.

Adam G.
December 12, 2011

Intelligent analysis, thanks.

I agree that the Book of Mormon is highly condensed and so we should expect that some events will be described in a shorthand. But I would point out that this would be true even if the Book of Mormon wasn’t condensed. All historical writing condenses real events, and until recently, there was no such thing as blow-by-blow action adventure writing.

One other point about Laban and blood–most people don’t know this if they don’t slaughter animals, but massive wounds that kill you quickly produce very little blood, because your heart stops pumping.

December 12, 2011

so what does that say about Ammon “smote off their arms?” in Alma 17? I thought that made sense, because it requires incredible strength I would imagine to literally cut off an arm with a sword. But then it says the servants carried the arms to the king…maybe it means arms as in armaments as in their clubs or clothing? interesting…

December 13, 2011

I think it is instructive to realize that the sword in question, would likely have been obsidian blades held together, even if my imagination and Arnold Frieburg insist on metal European swords.

In which case, it is less a matter of strength (but still significant) and more a matter of skill and aiming. Obsidian can be fantastically sharp.

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