Come Follow Me: Ether

A few general introductory notes about the Book of Ether.

First, unlike the other two Book of Mormon migratory peoples, the Jaredites (as we call them) are not under the Law of Moses. Abraham>Isaac>Jacob (Israel)>>>>Moses. They’re not Jewish nor even Israelite (also a late term) nor Canaanite, but Mesopotamian, probably. So they are operating under a different set of religious ideas, different language— Sumerian, Akkadian, something else? Hebrew isn’t an option— and different cultural background than the rest of the Book of Mormon. And indeed, Ether has a different feel to it than the rest. It’s largely political history, stories of wars between scheming royal families, imprisonment, regicide, etc. All very Game of Thrones-y.

Second, we need to remember something simple but important. Although Moroni is separated by almost a thousand years from Ether, and Ether is separated from the Brother of Jared by a similar distance, all of these are ancient peoples— though inspired— expressed themselves through ancient cultural patterns, with ancient knowledge and assumptions. 

Ether has often been read as directly confirming the historical genre and accuracy of the Bible’s accounts of both the Tower of Babel story and the Flood; the first because of Jared talking about “the tower” and language change, the second because of Ether 13:2 “after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord.” It is assumed that this refers to the Genesis flood.

There are a few problems here, which I think are illustrated in principle by a story told by Elder Oaks.

I remember the reported observation of an old lawyer. As they traveled through a pastoral setting with cows grazing on green meadows, an acquaintance said, “Look at those spotted cows.” The cautious lawyer observed carefully and conceded, “Yes, those cows are spotted, at least on this side.”

We need to take careful account of the text and its nature, and not go beyond it, leaping to conclusions.

The first issue is that Ether is, I think, the most heavily edited and translated book we have. Records of some kind are kept by the Jaredites and centuries later, edited and compiled by Ether. These plates are then translated (edited?) by Mosiah. 500 years later, they are re-edited by Moroni (Ether 15:33) who makes expansive and editorializing commentary, and then they are translated again by Joseph Smith. So although it appears we are reading an immediate first-hand eyewitness account of a tower and language change, in actuality that record passed through lots of minds and editing, whom we know inserted their own comments to the record. There is lots of room for ancient interpolation here.

Another issue is that Mesopotamia had its own traditions. The Sumerian epic of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta describes a time when all humans spoke one language (Sumerian), but because of a conflict among deities, the language was

Atrahasis, an ancient mesopotamian creation and flood story.

changed. The text is fragmentary, and scholars differ about how much this dovetails with Genesis 11 which few, if any, take as historical and with good reason. Note that Ether never refers to “Babel,” only “the tower” and “great tower.” Mesopotamia certainly had towers and great towers in the form of ziggurats. Genesis shows strong Mesopotamian influence in the short Tower of Babel story, and is probably using Mesopotamian traditions to argue against and ridicule Babylon as a source of confusion, not education and high culture.

As for the flood, the Book of Ether contains this editorial insertion by Moroni in 13:2.

they rejected all the words of Ether; for he truly told them of all things, from the beginning of man; and that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord;

This has sometimes been interpreted as evidence for a worldwide flood, but that seems unlikely to me. First, you can find my initial thoughts on the flood narrative here and a long follow-up here about Mormon appropriation of hyper-literalist fundamentalism, a topic I have researched and written about much more since then.

The scriptural account of the flood envisions the same cosmic geography as Genesis 1: not a globe, not a planet in a solar system, but a flat earth with a dome above, held up by the mountains, keeping out the cosmic waters of creation. In this conception— found in numerous ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, including Genesis 1— the land was originally covered by waters at creation.

Given the close connection in Ether between “the beginning of man” and “waters receding off the face of this land,” it makes more sense to me to see a reference back to a creation account in which the cosmic waters come first (i.e. the tehōm or “Deep” of Genesis 1:2) with dry land emerging out of it, not a later global flood. (Again, a “global flood” anachronistically imputes a modern scientific planetary cosmology back on these texts.) See here further for some Book of Mormon ancient ideas.

Read carefully, I don’t think this is a direct witness to anything except the tradition Moroni has received. There’s no implicit or explicit claim of revelation here, just the records.

When inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.

– Elder John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 127.

(For a longer essay on “what do prophets know and how”, see here.)

In short, I think we need to read critically and not make the simple assumption that Genesis and Ether are talking about the same thing in the same way.

Outline

Ether 1-Introduction, summary, lineage.

Ether 2- Begin voyage, cross, camp, build barges. 2 Problems.

Ether 3- Bro. Prepares stones, mountain episode.

Ether 4 –Moroni is fulfilling commandments/prophecy in writing them on   the plates. Testifies of their truth and a vision he had.

Ether 5-Moroni- don’t translate sealed portion and three witnesses.

Ether 6-Moroni, “and now, back to our story”. Load barges and go, 344 days (v.11) Jared gets old, picks a king.

Ether 7-The soap opera begins.Rebellion, murder, wars, prophets, etc. houses divided.

Ether 8-Continued. Akish and secret combinations. Warned against them.

Ether 9- Continues. Some kind of drought, and snakes. People repent  sufficiently for God to send rain.

Ether 10-More history.

Ether 11-Starts getting bad. “Began to be wars and contentions.” Reject the prophets.

Ether 12- get to Ether and Coriantumr. Ether and faith, Moroni diverges. Faith, atonement, charity.

Ether 13- ether and the New Jerusalem. Beginning of the end. Ether prophecies to Coriantumr. No one repents.

Ether 14- curse upon the land. Coriantumr vs. Shiz. Coriantumr wounded.

Ether 15- Wakes up, remembers Ether’s prophecy. Final battle.


Notes and tidbits

2:8-11 Curse on those who don’t obey God. This would be quite prominent in Moroni’s mind, as he’d just seen such covenantal destruction happen to his own people. He wants Gentiles to have that example in mind.

2:13-14 The Jaredites get to the beach and apparently get too comfortable. Four years later, Brother of Jared is chewed out by God for three hours for not praying during that time. Note that after the less comfortable trip across the great waters, the first thing they do when they land is pray and give thanks (Eth 6:12). What’s the connection between our life situation, prayer, and giving thanks?

2:16-  Barges. Problem solving and the nature of revelation. (v. 25) What do you want me to do? Revelation (particularly here) includes a human component and God rarely just hands over answers.

“Usually we think of revelation as information. Just open the books to us, Lord, like: What was the political significance of the Louisiana Purchase or the essence of the second law of thermodynamics?…aside from the fact that you probably aren’t going to get that kind of revelation…this is too narrow a concept of revelation.”- Elder Holland.

I’ve also used this to similar ends in my longer talk about composite revelation here.

3- See M. Catherine Thomas, “The Brother of Jared at the Veil” for some temple typology here.  Link to paper, Amazon link to the book.

5:1 Moroni is writing from memory.

12:26-27 Listen in your classes. We tend to misread this as “weaknesses” plural, but the text has “weakness” singular. I suspect this is the weakness of mortality, not a divinely selected package of problems customized for each person.

15:33 People of Limhi find plates. (Mos. 8:8-9). Coriantumr among people of Zarahemla (Omni 1:21).

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2 thoughts on “Come Follow Me: Ether

  1. There is no reason to assume that the Jaredites were Christian. The brother of Jared received a revelation of Christ but was commanded to keep it confidential. Centuries later at the end, Ether teaches some Christian doctrines. Where did he learned them? Maybe from the writings of the brother of Jared. Maybe from interacting with Nephite prophets with whom he was contemporary. But in between Jared and Ether, there is no discernible Christian doctrine taught by the Jaredite prophets, whose teachings seem to be limited to worshipping the true God, not idols.

    Alma, who had read the Jaredite record, spoke of the Lord inspiring men in different nations and giving them a portion of His word. It seems that the Jaredites were one of those nations. Importantly, the Jaredites were accountable for obeying the inspired teachings the Lord gave them. Moroni does not hesitate to call the inspired teachers “prophets”.

    This broadens the scriptural idea of prophets and their inspired messages considerably and the accountability of their recipients.

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