"Slippery Treasures" in the Book of Mormon:
A Concept from the Ancient World

In calling the Nephites to repentance, Samuel the Lamanite warned that “the time cometh that [the Lord] curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them” (Helaman 13:31). In that day the Nephites would lament, “We have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land. O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them” (vv. 35-36).

More than three centuries later, Mormon recorded that, in fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecy, the Gadianton robbers “did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again” (Mormon 1:18).

Some critics have suggested that these passages reflect beliefs prevalent in Joseph Smith’s day. One such belief was that guard-ian demons moved buried treasures to different locations when people dug for them. Because the general idea of slippery treasures appears in the Book of Mormon, critics see it as evidence of the book’s supposed 19th-century origin. However, the concept of slippery treasures is found to have existed in the ancient Near East of Lehi’s time.

One example comes from the Instructions of Amenemope, an Egyptian text dating to between the 11th and 13th centuries B.C. and believed by many to have been the source for a portion of the biblical book of Proverbs. Proverbs 23:4-5 closely parallels chapter 7 of Amenemope. Compare the first lines of each passage:1

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. (Proverbs)

Do not strain to seek an excess, when thy needs are safe for thee. (Amenemope)

Compare also the end of each passage:

When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven. (Proverbs)

(Or) they [riches] have made themselves wings like geese and are flown away to the heavens. (Amenemope)

Even more significantly, the middle section of the Amenemope passage is not paralleled in Proverbs, but it is similar in theme to the “slippery treasures” passages in the Book of Mormon: “If riches are brought to thee by robbery, they will not spend the night with thee; at daybreak they are not in thy house: their places may be seen, but they are not. The ground has opened its mouth . . . that it might swallow them up, and might sink them into the underworld. (Or) they have made themselves a great breach of their (own) size and are sunken down into the underworld.”

It seems more than coincidental—yet not surprising—that the concept of slippery, disappearing treasures is found both in an Egyptian text known to the ancient Israelites and in the Book of Mormon, a record with cultural, linguistic, and literary roots in the ancient Near East.

Note

1. The translations of Proverbs and the Instructions of Amenemope are from Karel van der Toorn, “Did Ecclesiastes Copy Gilgamesh?” Bible Review, February 2000, 28.

Based on research by Kevin L. Barney