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Grant Hardy
Thursday, June 23 2011

How I Learned to Love the Book of Ether (Part 2)

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Two months ago I wrote an essay explaining how the genealogy of Jaredite kings in Ether 1 serves as a table of contents for the chronicle of their reigns in chapters 6-11; the names are identical but they appear in reverse order when they each have stories attached to them. It’s a striking example of the complexity and consistency of the text. Yet there is another, even more subtle literary pattern in Ether that is as remarkable as it is unexpected.

First, remember how the book of Ether fits into the structure of the Book of Mormon as a whole. Way back in Mosiah 8:5-21, we learned that the people of Limhi had discovered twenty-four mysterious gold plates in the wilderness when they were trying to find their way back to Zarahemla. These were obviously a record of some sort, probably of a destroyed civilization, but no one could read them. The story is told again at Mosiah 21:25-27 at the end of a lengthy flashback. (The next verse seamlessly picks up the main narrative from Mosiah 8:21 and returns readers to the exact same conversation that had been interrupted twelve chapters earlier.)

After Limhi’s people finally made it to Zarahemla, King Mosiah translated the plates with the help of two seer stones and found that they contained “an account of the people who were destroyed, from the time that they were destroyed back to the building of the great tower [of Babel]” (Mosiah 28:17). The narrator, Mormon, promised his readers that “this account shall be written hereafter, for it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account,” but he apparently never got around to fulfilling this editorial promise. After his death, his son Moroni took up the task of adding to Mormon’s abridgment a synopsis of the twenty-four plates, which contained a history of the Jaredites.

This is all a little odd. If Mormon had a translation of the Jaredite record in his possession, why didn’t he just add it as an appendix to his own book, much as he did with the Small Plates of Nephi? Perhaps there was some sort of difficulty involved, and indeed, a close examination of the book of Ether suggests a possible reason. It is possible that the Jaredites may not have been Christians, much as they weren’t of the House of Israel since they had left the Eastern Hemisphere before the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

At first glance, the hypothesis of non-Christian Jaredites doesn’t seem right. The book of Ether speaks regularly and reverently of Christ, just as the rest of the Book of Mormon does. But if you were to go through Ether and separate the material that originated with the twenty-four plates from Moroni’s own editorial comments (perhaps by marking the latter with a red pencil), you would quickly discover that, with very few exceptions, the specific references to Jesus come from Moroni’s words.

The most obvious exception, of course, is the vision of the brother of Jared, when the premortal Lord said to him, “Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ” (Ether 3:14). But as the vision closes, the Lord instructs his prophet to write an account of the experience, seal it up, and not speak of it again (3:21-22). And it appears that is exactly what happened. The Jaredites have prophets who preach repentance and talk of the “Lord,” but there is nothing that specifically links this deity to Jesus or his gospel. In Moroni’s abridgment of the Jaredite record, there are no sermons, no mention of places of worship, no discussion of the nature of God or resurrection or salvation or the atonement, and no warnings of a final judgment.

Mormon, writing a book whose main focus was Christ, apparently did not know quite what to do with this religious but basically non-Christian record. Moroni, who seems not to have shared his father’s inclination to strict historiography, brings Jesus into the Jaredite account by adding eighteen specific references to him. His methodology can be easily tracked if we line up the explicit references to Christ with Moroni’s six direct comment sections, each of which either begins with some variation of “And now, I , Moroni . . .” or is followed by “And now I proceed with my record . . .”

Moroni’s Editorial Interruptions in Ether      Instances of Christ’s name in Ether

                        1:1-6                                                              

                         2:9-12                                                        2:12

                         3:17-20                                                      3:17, 19, 20

                         4:1-5:6                                                       4:1, 2, 3, 7, 8; 5:5

                         8:20-26                                                           

                         12:6-41                                                     12:7, 16, 19, 22, 38, 39, 41

This is a remarkably consistent pattern. The story of the Jaredites appears to highlight Jesus, but only because Moroni, through his editorial comments, has subtly and smoothly Christianized it. (There is one outlier at 13:4, which appears in Moroni’s paraphrase of Ether’s prophecies, and also a reference to the “Son of Righteousness at 9:22; for a discussion of why these examples are minor aberrations, see my Understanding the Book of Mormon, pp. 235-240, 321).

Now imagine what this might mean for people who assume that Joseph Smith just made it all up as he was dictating to his scribes. He would have had to create a character, Mormon, who as the major narrator has a problem with the material he is editing: he has promised to include an account of the Jaredites but can’t figure out how to work in this virtually non-Christian people without throwing off the emphasis on Jesus that is the whole point of his abridgment. So Joseph Smith then creates a second character, Moroni, who takes over from his father and solves the dilemma by unobtrusively inserting multiple editorial comments into his paraphrase of the Jaredite records. And the specific references to Jesus all appear in those comment sections (with just a couple of exceptions).

It’s hard enough to keep track of all this when you’ve got the book in front of you and are reading carefully, over and over. The idea of doing it so consistently in an extemporaneous dictation is almost mind-boggling. And, as far as I can tell, this particular literary pattern has escaped the notice of readers for 180 years.

This is where I left things in Understanding the Book of Mormon, but as the book went to press last year, I remembered that this type of spiritual revision in scripture is not without precedent. Something quite similar happened with the biblical book of Esther, which notoriously never mentions God once. This fact seems to have bothered some of the ancient Jews, and when the book was translated into Greek in the 2nd century BC as part of the Septuagint, the translators added six sections to the Hebrew record. (The fact that there are exactly six interpolations in both Esther and Ether is entirely a coincidence.)

Here is how Stephen Harris and Robert Platzner describe the situation in their excellent The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (p. 375):

The Septuagint edition of Esther contains six parts (totaling 107 verses) not found in the Hebrew Bible. Although these interpretations originally may have been composed in Hebrew, they survive only in Greek texts.


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