An interesting feature of the Book of Mormon is the subtle ways that it plays upon and develops biblical themes. In fact, allusions to the Bible are sometimes so understated that they are not apparent even to careful readers.
War prisoners of Ramses III being led by cords bound around their necks.|
Courtesy Oriental Institute
The reference to a flaxen cord in 2 Nephi 26:22 is one example: He leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. This passage contains some obvious biblical themes. The submitting of the neck to a yoke or placing the hand or foot upon the neck of a captive and binding prisoners with cords are familiar,1 but what of the gentle binding with the flaxen cord followed by the final and inescapable binding with strong cords? Does this image also have a biblical source?
Flax was a common material used to make cords and ropes, because it is soft and strong and does not stretch, which makes it useful for measuring.2 Archaeological examples from Egypt are known from the First, Twelfth, and Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasties.3 The Bible often refers to flax (or tow) and its byproduct linen (the same terms, peset and pistah, are used for all three), but only rarely can these references be understood to mean cords of flax. Examples of the latter usage may be found in Judges 15:14, Isaiah 19:9, and Ezekiel 40:3. The example from Judges concerns the binding of Samson, one of the most dramatic stories in the Old Testament.
Relying on his supernatural strength, Samson allowed the men of Judah to bind him and deliver him to the Philistines: . . . and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands (Judges 15:14). When a flaxen cord is burned, the ash retains the cords outward form but crumbles at the touch, making burned flax a suitable image for fragility.4 Later, Samson playfully allowed Delilah to bind him with green withes and with new ropes and to weave his hair into a web. In each case he escaped easily, mocking the Philistines, until at last he was betrayed by his overconfidence, deprived of his strength, and bound with unbreakable fetters.
The story of the binding of Samson is a powerful lesson in the dangers of flirting with evil and confiding in our own strength. In 2 Nephi 26:22 the image of the flaxen cord being replaced by unbreakable strong cords recalls the binding of Sam son, suggesting that Nephi was familiar with that story and that some version of it may have been preserved on the brass plates. It is also significant that, of the prophets in the Book of Mormon, only Nephi, who was familiar with the Old World, mentions flax. Flax seems to have been unavailable in the New World, where cotton and hemp were used instead.5
1. See Robert K. Ritner, The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1993), 11319; Lorelei H. Corcoran, Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1995), 5355.
By Paul Mouritsen