“Their Hearts Did Take Courage”

Brant Gardner

Verse 23 reports, from the Lamanite perspective, that Nephi and Lehi were surrounded by fire but not burned. The fire was real since the Lamanites feared being burned if they tried to seize the brothers. In Verse 24 is written from Nephi and Lehi’s perspective, suggesting that they were also surprised at the flames and “did take courage” when they were unharmed. Everyone present, therefore, was surprised at the fire.

Literature: This incident has obvious similarities to the experience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Dan. 3:19–28). In both cases, men are surrounded by a fire that miraculously does not harm them but repels bystanders. However, both incidents have significant differences; in the Mesoamerican context, this event has a different meaning.

An obvious difference is that the Old Testament fire is not supernatural in nature; it is designed to consume those thrown into it. The Book of Mormon fire is supernatural, designed to protect those within it. Furthermore, one form of Lamanite human sacrifice was live immolation. This fire that the Lamanites had not built would therefore appear to be an act of autosacrifice on the brothers’ part to their captors. In the Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya, the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, voluntarily die by fire and are transformed. Among the later Aztecs, the god Nanahuatl threw himself into a fire, thus creating the sun that rules over this age. Topiltzin (another name for Quetzalcoatl), an Aztec demi-god, is immolated at the end of a storied journey, but rose to become the morning star. Reading these myths back into the earlier Nephite period means, therefore, that a cultural expectation existed that an autosacrifice by fire would transform the mortal into the divine. The Lamanites would have thus understood that Nephi and Lehi were becoming more than human.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5