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Grant Hardy
Monday, April 18 2011

How I Learned to Love the Book of Ether

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Even though we carry around copies of the standard works in which every book and chapter gets equal treatment, the truth is that we prize some parts of the scriptures more than others. We each have our favorites, which may change over time, but clearly some chapters strike us as particularly relevant or exciting or inspirational. Others, not so much.

Really, when was the last time you read Leviticus all the way through? Or any of the 42 chapters of Ezekiel that are not in the seminary reading list (where six chapters are recommended) or the Sunday school student guide (which only asks for two complete chapters and four partial chapters)?

I know the feeling. Despite my love for the Book of Mormon, I used to think that the book of Ether was an unfortunate add-on, best skimmed over quickly. Sure, the story of the brother of Jared is a classic, and Moroni’s comments in chapter 12 are moving, but everything in between seemed like a dry, sparse account of just one sad king after another. My perceptions changed, however, when my wife pointed out how tightly the overall narrative was constructed.

Here’s a quick experiment for you (which you then can try on your kids in family home evening next week, or your first-Sunday Relief Society lesson, or that bishopric youth discussion you need tom come up with).

Turn to the first chapter of Ether and read verses 6-32—that’s right, the long list of who begat whom. Now close your book and see how many of those names you can remember.

Or better yet, you could put the names on a chalkboard like this:

Ether was a descendant of

Coriantor, the son of

Moron, the son of

Ethem, the son of

Ahah, the son of

Seth, the son of

Shiblon, the son of

Com, the son of

Coriantum, the son of

Amnigaddah, the son of

Aaron, a descendant of

Heth, the son of

Hearthom, the son of

Lib, the son of

Kish, the son of

Corom, the son of

Levi, the son of

Kim, the son of

Morianton, a descendant of

Riplakish, the son of

Shez, the son of

Heth, the son of

Coriantum, the son of

Emer, the son of

Omer, the son of

Shule, the son of

Kib, the son of

Orihah, the son of
Jared

Read them through and then cover the list and ask, “Okay, who was the son of Jared? And who was Jared’s grandson? How about his great-grandson?” I would imagine that there are very few high priests in your ward who could remember even the last four names on the list. (Answers – Jared’s son was Orihah, his grandson was Kib, and great-grandson Shule).

Yet this genealogy in the first chapter of the book of Ether provides the framework for the chronicle of Jaredite kings in chapters 6-11. Orihah’s reign is recounted at Ether 6:27-7:3; Kib’s kingship is at 7:3-9; and Shule’s rule at 7:10-27. And on it goes from Omer to Emer and beyond. With a pencil and paper—and a little patience—you can line up a story with each name on the original list. (As usual, all this is much easier to see in the Reader’s Edition, which has subheadings indicating the reigns of different kings.)

Now think for a moment about how the Book of Mormon was produced. Joseph Smith dictated to his scribe that long string of twenty-nine odd names in Ether 1, and then several pages later he repeated the list, but this time with stories attached to each name. If, as most non-Mormons assume, he was simply making it up as he went along, that would be quite a feat of memory. But the skeptical hypothesis becomes even more incredible when you realize that in chapters 6-11, Joseph reproduced the same list of names, but in reverse order. That is to say, the genealogical list starts with the latest descendant and works backwards to the earliest Jaredites, while the chronicle of kings begins with the first generation and moves forward in time to the last king.

Perhaps this exact correspondence might have been possible if Joseph had been using pre-written notes, but Emma Smith was adamant that her husband “dictated hour after hour . . . [with] neither book or manuscript to read from” and that “if he had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me” (Reader’s Edition, p. 641). Creating made-up names on the spot, and then keeping them in mind long enough to compose a narrative, with plenty of editorial interruptions from the narrator Moroni, while working through the exact list backwards, seems almost miraculous. But then again, I think that the production of the Book of Mormon was miraculous, just not in the way that critics assume. Who would have thought that the plain-looking, somewhat tedious book of Ether might include some of the strongest evidences of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity?

But there are even more impressive patterns to notice in the book of Ether, which I will share with you next month. At this point, however, it would be good to return to Emma’s testimony: “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent a well-worded letter, let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon. And, though I was an active participant in the scenes that transpired, and was present during the translation of the plates, and had cognizance of things as they transpired, it is marvelous to me, ‘a marvel and a wonder,’ as much so as to anyone else.”

Special bonus observation: If you actually take the time to line up the genealogical list with the narrative, you will discover an intriguing discrepancy—when Oliver Cowdery was taking Joseph’s original dictation, he made a spelling error, so that the name “Shiblon” in Ether 1:11 is spelled as “Shiblom” at Ether 11:4.  (For a comprehensive discussion, see Royal Skousen’s Analysis of Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part 6, pp. 3718-3720.) This

discrepancy was in the 1830 edition and has been continued into the current edition (though in the Index you will find the entry “Shiblom [or Shiblon]”). It thus appears that neither Joseph nor Oliver realized how tightly constructed the book of Ether is, or the way in which Ether 1:6-32 functions as a sort of backwards table of contents for the book as a whole.

Grant Hardy is the editor of The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois Press, 2003) and the author of Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 2010). He is a professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina—Asheville.

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