When Nephi slew Laban in order to obtain the plates of brass, Nephi used Laban's own sword made of "precious steel" (1 Nephi 4:9). James H. Hunt, a critic writing in 1844, listed "steel" as one proof that the Book of Mormon was fraudulent. Hunt — who lived in the same time and general vicinity as Joseph Smith (and would likely have had access to the same resources) — claimed that steel was unknown in Nephi's day and wasn't invented for several hundreds of years later (Mormonism: Embracing the Origin, Rise and Progress of the Sect, 22). Even as late as 1920, some critics were claiming that Joseph Smith got it wrong and that steel was unknown in Nephi's day (Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism, 44).
"Steel" is an alloy, typically comprised of iron and traces of carbon, hardened by a process of heating and quenching. LDS apologist Jeff Lindsay demonstrates that — according to non-LDS scholars — the deliberate "steeling" of iron was well-known in the Near Eastern world centuries before Nephi was even born. Recent discoveries, for example, include a twelfth-century B.C. carburized knife that shows evidence of quenching. An iron pick, likely dated to the same period, was discovered in northern Israel and has a hardness value characteristic with modern hardened steel.
Non-LDS archaeologist Amihai Mazar, claims that this pick "is the earliest known iron implement made of real steel produced by carbonizing, quenching, and tempering" (Archaeology and the Land of the Bible, 361). Other non-LDS scholars agree that blacksmiths in the Mediterranean had mastered the process of quenching iron into weapons long before Nephi was born. Steel was likely an uncommon metal in Nephi's world — which is probably why Nephi referred to Laban's sword as "most precious steel" — but archaeology shows that it was not unknown.
As we continue our story about the Lehites we read that after returning to the Valley of Lemuel, Lehi's sons were directed back to Jerusalem to get Ishmael and his family. Eventually, Ishmael's daughters married Lehi's sons, and it's possible that Lehi's daughters married Ishmael's sons.
While living in the valley, Lehi had a dream or vision. In the vision, a man dressed in a white robe led Lehi to a dreary waste. After traveling for what seemed like several hours in darkness, he came to a large field where he saw a tree bearing an exceedingly white fruit that was delicious to the soul. Lehi called to his family to come partake as well. Sariah, Sam, and Nephi came but Laman and Lemuel would not.
Lehi saw a rod of iron extending along the bank of a river leading to the tree of life. A straight and narrow path ran alongside this iron rod and also led to the tree. Scores of people were pressing forward toward the path but many became lost in a mist of darkness. Some of the people grabbed hold of the iron rod and hung on through the darkness until they reached the tree.
On the other side of the river stood a large building filled with well-dressed people mocking those who partook of the fruit on the tree. Some of those who had partaken of the fruit became ashamed and deserted the tree for the building. Some drowned in the river, others became hopelessly lost, and still others joined the people in the building-mocking those who ate the fruit on the tree (see 1 Nephi 8).
In 2001, at the annual FAIR Apologetics Conference, Dr. S. Kent Brown presented a paper on Lehi's trek through the Arabian Desert. Among the many interesting insights in Dr. Brown's paper (some, of which, will be discussed in future installments), are parallels between what Lehi saw in his dream and actual ancient Arabian landscape (as a side note, in a few weeks I'll spend at least one installment discussing the strengths and weaknesses of "parallels").
In his presentation, Dr Brown explained that while Lehi lived in a hot and dry desert, some dwellers of the Arabian Peninsula built water systems to catch and dam mountain runoff. This water was used to irrigate strips of oasis in the middle of the sandy surroundings. This appears to be what Lehi was seeing in his vision.
Brown also notes that in Lehi's dream, the patriarch appears to be traveling at night-which would probably have seemed unusual in Joseph Smith's world. In Lehi's world, however, people often traveled by the light of the moon (or starlight reflected from the sand) to avoid the heat of the desert. While these details may seem minor, they are the kinds of indicators that are consistent with what we know from the ancient Near East during Book of Mormon times.