022: Book of Mormon Lesson 45: Ether 1-6

November 19, 2012

Engaging Gospel Doctrine

In this lesson we get to discuss the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon (which made up the bulk of the plates as Joseph described them)! What is contained in the sealed portion? What can we learn from the instructions regarding how to access them?

We are going to examine these chapters on several levels.

  • Theological: The insights we gain from the brother of Jared’s amazing interaction with the pre-mortal Jesus, especially regarding the relationship between personal responsibility and divine assistance
  • Allegorical: How we can apply the narrative of the Jaredite journey to our own lives
  • Historical: How do these chapters relate to the Bible? If the Biblical narratives turn out not to be historical, what does that do to the Book of Mormon?

Other points of discussion include the importance of adversity and the idea of everything good as part of Mormonism.

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Continue the discussion by posting your comments and questions here, in the facebook group, or email them to me at MormonSundaySchool at gmail.

 

You can access my Lesson Notes Here.

 

Thanks as always to James Estrada of Oak Street Audio for his hard work in postproduction.

7 Responses to “022: Book of Mormon Lesson 45: Ether 1-6”

  1. SteveS Says:

    1) Moroni claims in Ether 1:1-2 that he’s taking his account of the Jaredites from the 24 plates found by the people of Limhi. Ether 4:1 reports that king Mosiah kept the plates, but the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon had king Benjamin holding on to the plates. This is impossible, given that emissaries to the land of Nephi (including Ammon) didn’t find Limhi until after Mosiah II became king, so the plates couldn’t be remitted to Mosiah II until after Benjamin was long gone. Also, how does the large stone with engravings on it in Omni 20 interface with these plates? Mosiah I apparently also had the gift and power of God to interpret other languages, just like his grandson Mosiah II, who interpreted the 24 plates found by the people of Limhi. Both the large stone and the 24 plates contained a record of the people who came out from the tower of Babel, and both are accounts that detail the destruction of the people in the land northward (the Jaredites). I suppose these could be separate, complimentary accounts of the Jaredite people coming to two different Mosiahs (or was it Benjamin?) to be interpreted, but I see this more as a modern evidence of a story that just doesn’t tie up all the loose threads. Joseph translates Mosiah 8 near the beginning of his work post-116-page-manuscript disappearance, wherein the 24 plates are found by the people of Limhi and there’s a brief doctrinal explanation about seers, prophets, translations, record-keeping and such. Much later, at the end of the Book of Mormon, we return to an account of the writings on those 24 plates, which were given to king Benjamin (later corrected to king Mosiah), who had translated them, after which Moroni abridged the story for inclusion on the plates. Moroni also attaches a sealed portion from the 24 plates to the Book of Mormon text, along with some interpreters (seer stones), but warns against prying. Then, after the books of Ether and Moroni are written/”translated”, Joseph Smith turns back and “translates” the small plates of Nephi to relate the account of how the Nephites and Lamanites came to be in the land, the very end of which connects back to Mosiah I and Benjamin. Somehow, Joseph is still thinking about the ancient Jaredite records and makes reference to them again in Omni 20, but makes a mistake about the medium in which the records were engraved, and makes an error about which king had these records and which had the power to translate them. Is there a way of applying some literary textual analysis to these areas (assuming they were written by at least three authors instead of just one) to determine whether they satisfy criteria that would lend authenticity to the account, or favor one account over another? What to make of these seeming inconsistencies of characters, objects, and timelines? What to make of Joseph’s intense interest in “revealing” through the text a justification for his own translation methods (rocks in a hat) by having ancient seers use the same method (Mosiah I, Mosiah II, Moroni(?))?

    2) Does the Book of Mormon presuppose a literal, historical reading of the tower of Babel story? Isn’t the tower of Babel an origin myth that explains why human groups all speak different languages, springing naturally from the previous origin myth of Noah and the Ark, which explains that all of us descend from a common ancestor? These myth narratives need not be taken literally for them to convey truths about God’s interaction with humans or to transmit important socializing narratives to create individual and cultural identity. The Book of Mormon features a mythic story of people who came from the tower and founded a culture in another part of the world. That would be fine if it were left as such, but Moroni claims that the brother of Jared actually wrote an account of his life and times, and that two of the actual stones touched by Jesus to light the barges had been passed down from 2200 BCE or thereabouts to Moroni in 400 CE, and ultimately to Joseph Smith in 1829 CE (over 4,000 years!). These artifacts place the story positively in literal history, assuming of course that the Book of Mormon itself is actually what it purports itself to be: an ancient account of real people’s lives, translated faithfully into English in the modern day to explain the purpose and existence of native cultures on the American continents. Is there a way to reject a literal reading of the tower of Babel or other biblical legends and myths in Mormonism, or do Joseph Smith’s claims about the nature and origins of the Book of Mormon prevent or challenge such readings?

    3) How do you carry (freshwater) fish and honeybees on boats for long voyages, especially if your boats are meant to be driven and tossed about in the sea for 340 days? More broadly, how would *humans* survive in such ships as are described in these chapters? But on a more serious not, is this account to be read as an origin myth instead of lived history, wherein these Jaredites seem to carry with them all the marks of civilized culture (seeds and bees needed for agriculture; fish and fowl for food sources in times of plant scarcity (winter months), etc.). Theologically, is this activity part of a larger ecological program that God has for the earth? Science would tell us that introducing new species into an ecosystem is usually a bad idea for how the species might upset the fragile balance between predator, prey, and competition for scarce resources. Thoughts?

    4) Ether 2:8: Does the Lord swear in his wrath? Why did he swear in his wrath at the brother of Jared? The phrase is borrowed from Psalm 95:11 and Hebrews 3:11 and 4:3, wherein the Lord expresses (very human-like) frustration against the children of Israel, that after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and still not learning their lesson, they would not inherit the promised land and rest. This statement is meant to be understood as God swearing rashly in anger, but then later repenting of his rashness and returning again in loving-kindness toward the people he loves. But here in the Book of Mormon, somehow God uses this phrase many thousands of years before it is first used in Psalms, then in Hebrews, then by the translators of the KJV bible, but turns it to say that he’s going to lead these people into a promised land that requires they be faithful only to Him, but also that one day he would have a fullness of wrath to unleash upon them. Here, the Lord isn’t rash in his anger or his oath, but rather darkly portentous and calculating. That is not the original intent of the phrase, and it misinterprets the biblical meanings of inheriting a promised land from the Lord. It also sets up an impossible ideal, which no civilization could possibly live up to in the long term. Thoughts?

    5) Ether 2:9-12: yet another aside to remind us all of the common theme of the Book of Mormon: the American continents are a promised land for those that honor the “God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” and value freedom, but will bring cursing and destruction upon those that do not honor the extra requirements placed on those living in this consecrated space. Lehi and Nephi introduced us to this covenant; Mormon repeats it constantly throughout his abridgment, and Moroni harps on in it even in the midst of telling a different story. It is clearly at the forefront of eveyone’s mind, and functions conveniently in Joseph Smith’s time as the explanation for the Nephite and Lamanite’s evident high level of culture anciently (whose interesting and impressive artifacts were all around the white settlers in upstate New York), as well as their fall from grace and civilization after breaking the land covenant, becoming nomadic hunter/gatherers with a violent streak (especially towards newcomers who sought to appropriate the land for themselves) who somewhat deserved to be chastened for their ancestors’ previous rejection of Jesus. But this covenant goes back even further: it apparently was also in force for the Jaredites, and became ultimately the cause of that culture’s downfall as well. I wish I could get behind this concept of a land set apart by God wherein people are better to each other and to God’s creation because they have all made a sacred commitment, but it seems to bring more pain, loss, and destruction than it brings good. It seems to create a sense of exceptionalism for those who identify with who they suppose is the “in-group” receiving all the favoritism from God. It seems to portray God as someone who has favorites among human cultures instead of working toward the salvation of all humankind. Thoughts?

    6) Ether 3:2: The brother of Jared proclaims “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually”. In Mormon theology, are we evil by nature? And is it due to the fall of Adam and Eve? Will we naturally seek evil over good, or is this statement more a casual colloquial phrase used by the brother of Jared to ingratiate himself to a temperamental God (who had recently caused a universal flood, then destroyed a huge tower and confused everyone’s languages) than a carefully considered theological statement about human nature? Does this phrase favor the concept of “original sin”, does it challenge it, or does it remain ambivalent about it? (aside: there are lots of different approaches to the concept of original sin; it’s not as simple as Augustinian total depravity.) Also, what of the fact that Jews largely do not accept the concept of sin nature or original sin? Finally, is evil absolute, or is it, along with all ethics and aesthetics, arbitrarily constructed by human societies, and if so, what is the nature of human evil if it is relative to social mores, expectations, and prohibitions rather than cosmic law? Or is the sociality of heaven yet another organization through which divine and/or eternal concepts of good and evil are established, and we mere mortals are invited to receive or reject them at our own peril, but with no real input about their classification, structure, or habitus? IOW, humans are given to simply accept these as truths with no power to change them. If so, does that place us humans in the category of a dominated group within a domination system, where others (God, Jesus, etc.) are the beneficiaries of privilege, and authority at our own expense? If so, then why are all the greatest examples of human spirituality in history those who challenge structures and throw off established ways of thinking and behaving in the world who find access to higher planes of reality? Abraham, Moses, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, even Joseph Smith represent an impulse to reinterpret these basic questions of human nature, and our responsibilities toward God and each other in community. Indeed, Joseph Smith’s later, more expansive theology includes statements that might be seen as directly challenging the brother of Jared about the evilness of human nature. Terryl Givens, in a speech at BYU, said this: “Here are the four truths about human nature that Joseph taught that would reinvent man. We are, he declared, eternally existent, inherently innocent, boundlessly free, and infinitely perfectible.” (http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=1508) How are we to understand human nature from all these seemingly conflicting statements?

    7) If the brother of Jared was the first man to see the Lord, does that mean Adam, Enoch, and Noah had less faith than he did (see Ether 3:9,15)? Why was the brother of Jared’s first reaction to seeing the Lord’s finger fear that the Lord would “smite” him? Does he expect God to be first and foremost a violent, punitive deity?

    8) Ether 3:19: Moroni claims that the brother of Jared could not be kept from beholding within the veil because of his “knowledge”. But it seems like Jesus decides to show himself to the brother of Jared in the account, not that Moroni demanded it (although he did ask the Lord to show himself to him). In what way(s) does our knowledge about God’s flesh-and-bones nature or anthropomorphism give us the ability to look within the veil and behold greater mysteries? What theological advantages and disadvantages are realized when God is conceived of as embodied? Does this account *require* God to be embodied, or is this simply a revelation of *one aspect* of Jesus’ nature, a prefiguring of his human form 2200 years hence? Jesus tells the brother of Jared he is the Father and the Son (see v. 14), but is he separate from God in this revelation, and does Jesus corporeality require the Father to also be corporeal? Is this a good time to bring up that Mormonism is one of the only religious traditions that believes that Jehovah (YHWH) of the Old Testament is Jesus of the New Testament?

    9) Ether 3-4: Also, here again we see the narrator cutting off the conversations with Jesus just as they are about get really revelatory. Instead we’re teased with an explanation that so much was revealed, but that there’s no room (!) to write it down. Instead, the brother of Jared’s account is written in a sealed portion, attached to the Book of Mormon record for future generations. That sealed portion is not part of our current Book of Mormon. Apparently, Joseph didn’t use them or the two stones kept with the plates to aid in reading the sealed portion. Then, Moroni quotes Jesus telling him about a guy named John who would write the contents of the sealed portion, and anyway that the words really functioned more as a signifier of the imminent end of the world than a detailed account of world history. WTH?

    10) Ether 4:11: is one criterion of truth that it persuades people to do good? IOW, is a common characteristic of all true things that it persuades people to do good, or is this characteristic simply one of many aspects of “true things”, and not a requirement? If encouraging goodness isn’t a requirement of truth, why mention it as an evidence for testing the truth of something if the method isn’t 100% reliable? This a posteriori epistemology seems broken to me, and is undercut by modern prophets in our own time: for example, aren’t there true things that are not useful or *good* for the organization who wishes its troubling history would sometimes be forgotten? If God is the source of all that is good (see v.12) and true (John 14:6), then why isn’t all truth good, even if it is troubling or messy or difficult? Doesn’t this line of reasoning (truth known by whether it has good fruits; all goodness comes from God; therefore if something bears good fruit, it must be true) favor only confirming narratives, and cast aspersions upon the person who doesn’t believe or who doesn’t see the truth or the goodness of what is being professed?

    11) Trying to end on a positive note: Ether 6:9: I love this verse. The image of people passing through a terrible trial together, where fear for one’s life was constant for months on end, singing to keep their spirits up as they are buried deep in the sea is striking. And it is songs of praise and thanksgiving they sing. I’ve felt the edifying and courage-inspiring effect that music can have, and find in it some of my strongest spiritual stirrings. It might be interesting to have a quick discussion about the ways music has helped us each and us all to “weather every storm” in our path.

    Reply

  2. chris Says:

    I just get confused when the discussion of these chapters and the book of mormon generally so easily at times jumps in and out of myth. One moment serious consideration seems to be given to the actuality of the barge narrative and glowing stones and next moment to how the story has application even if its not literal. Can the hesitancy to call the story of the Jaradites mythology stem from some uncertainty that Joseph may have described real events? I admit to being in awe of how he could have come up with such a story given what his contemporaries say about the process. But each time I think could this have been real or true I consider questions like SteveS raises above and I am quickly brought back to reality.

    Personally, I look forward to the end of the study of the Book of Mormon because it causes so much cognitive dissonance. Internal evidence points to it being myth created in the 19th century but it has so many interesting characters, stories, doctrine, and truth claims that we jump in and out of the myth when discussing it. Frankly, I look forward to the D&C lessons where there are tangible records, documents, and real people to discuss.

    Reply

    • Jared Anderson Says:

      I will think about how I can present more clearly, Chris. My usual method is to live in the world of the text so to speak rather than spending any more time on critical-historical issues than necessary. The Book of Mormon is a complex document even with a straightforward view. If the Book of Mormon is historical, how much impact did Joseph’s worldview have on the translation process? Is the Book of Mormon a close translation or more like a paraphrase? Close reading demonstrates that 19th century perspectives permeate the Book of Mormon, a key example being the word for word agreements with the King James Version. This is a long way of saying that though it may be more confusing, I think multiple approaches are necessary when dealing with this text. Additionally, as is true with all forms of art and human expression it is possible to appreciate it on multiple levels.

      Reply

      • Stan Says:

        You have a unique way of presenting the Book of Mormon, Jared. You manage to emphasize life principles that we can grasp without concerning yourself too overtly about the historicity of the text. In some ways it is akin to the BOM-as-literature approach of Grant Hardy and Terryl Givens, but I never get the sense that you’re tacitly endorsing the official standpoint on historicity as Hardy and Givens do. That said I greatly appreciate it. However, as a doubter of the BOM’s historicity, I am like Chris. Too much of the BOM makes my head spin with cognitive dissonance, and I just don’t have the patience to carefully parse through what appear to me to be glaring 19th-centuryisms to try to derive deep insight from the book. I too look forward to your discussions about D&C.

        Reply

        • Jared Anderson Says:

          Stan,

          Very perceptive… that is an accurate description of my approach. My goals in teaching and this podcast are very pragmatic… I want to meet the needs of as many people as possible, and I realize that meeting those disparate needs fully is impossible in one format or approach.

          Well I hope that me modeling it efficiently helps a bit with the deep insights. 🙂 I am motivated to present Mormonism, including the Book of Mormon, at its very best. I want to be a resource for the well-being of a maximum number of people.

          For example, one thought exercise I engage in is this: Is it possible to teach and present in such a way that both literal believers, non-literal believers, and non-believers are all edified? Is it possible to address the questions and critical issues that some have while providing the nourishment and substance for those who don’t wrestle with these questions?

          I fall short, but this is the task I am trying to fulfill.

          Reply

  3. Jonathan Cannon Says:

    There was lots of great stuff in the podcast. Thanks again!

    I would like to add selected notes in response to the mythologizing of the story of Jared.

    The Book of Mormon says nothing about the tower of Babel. Such references are from modern commentators making assumptions. It makes no claims about all languages coming from the great tower–it is only one language that is in danger of being confounded. So the criticisms of the tower of Babel myth are at most irrelevant to whether the Book of Ether is mythological.

    We further add many modern assumptions in criticizing the journey across the ocean. I’ll assume we’re not dismissing things we clearly don’t know enough about to make any judgements other than arbitrary acceptance or rejections, like the lighted stones. We have a very limited account which no reasonable person is claiming is a how-to about crossing the ocean using storms and currents. Assumptions we make that aren’t in the text?

    The boats flip over
    The boats are made of wood
    The boats are boats
    The journey was made in a single stretch without landing on the way
    The Jaredites were idiots who didn’t know how to plan for food and water on a long ocean voyage, rather than experienced ocean travelers (they’d made at least one previous journey) who didn’t think it important to record what they would have considered mundane details–they recorded the highlights.

    Another assumption–the sealed portion was included on the 24 plates. As far as I can find, this isn’t claimed, but inferred by modern readers. Multiple records are likely (certainly at least two, as noted by SteveS), and Moroni only claims that his narrative is from the 24 plates.

    I would point out that a careful reading of the text, without bringing certain modern prejudices to it, actually removes many of the mythological difficulties that spring up from criticisms of common, casual readings. It doesn’t answer the questions, but it opens the door to more answers than the “it’s exactly real as I, the modern reader interpret it” or “it’s all an inspiring myth.”

    Reply

    • Jared Anderson Says:

      Great comments Jonathan.

      1) I too was looking at a way to distance the Book of Mormon and Biblical narratives. That is my working theological solution as well… that the tower wasn’t necessarily Babel. Textually however I feel it is strongly implied. In Ether 1:3 the beginning of the plates are said to contain a narrative from the “creation of the world, and also of Adam, and an account from that time even to the great tower” had among the Jews sure sounds like Genesis 1-11. The singular of language is a good observation… Ether 1:33 says “from the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth”… but again there are two ways to interpret this. Either it is talking about confounding Jared’s groups language, or it is referring to the unified language that was confounded according to Gen. 11. But I very much approve of your focus on what the text actually says.

      2) I think the ending of Ether 3 strongly implies that the 24 plates contained what became the sealed portion. The Lord tells the Brother of Jared to write his vision of the history of the world and that they should be sealed, and then Ether 5 again tells Joseph to keep them sealed.

      3) That portion of the conversation was a bit tongue in cheek. It is helpful to examine our assumptions and conclusions.

      That is my reading though; I agree with you that there is room for multiple readings and interpretations.

      Reply

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