Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas
Jaredites in the Wilderness
[p.71]… and they did sing praises unto the Lord;
yea, the brother of Jared did sing praises unto the Lord,
and he did thank and praise the Lord
all the day long;
and when the night came,
they did not cease to praise the Lord.
And thus they were driven forth;
and no monster of the sea could break them,
neither whale that could mar them:
and they did have light continually,
whether it was above the water
or under the water.
And thus they were driven forth,
three hundred and forty and four days upon the water …
—Ether 6:9-12a (line arrangement added)
The descendants of Lehi discovered the record of a civilization which had lived earlier on the American continent, a group known as the Jaredites. The Nephite and Jaredite histories mirror each other. Like the Nephites, the Jaredites had their own divinely guided migration to the American continent. Both Nephite and Jaredite narratives represent the divine beginnings in migration narratives, the piety/prosperity cycles, and the destruction of a people. They both recount a visit of Christ, the threat of secret combinations, and the tale of a lone survivor. In short, we have narrative scenes in the two accounts that reveal a theology of history—a narrated history construed as revelation. One of the [p.72]great values of the Jaredite record is that it contains the literary forms found in the rest of the Book of Mormon in truncated form. It thus provides a synoptic text in which to test and explore literary forms and other interpretive issues.
The first question that arises when encountering this parallel text is, “Why does the book repeat itself?” The first reason is that, like the journey of Lehi, the Jaredite migration solves an etiological question posed by the Bible itself in the narrative of the tower of Babel, the setting in which the Jaredites originated. After God confused the languages of those impiously working on the great tower (itself an etiological response to the multitude of languages), he “scattered [them] upon the face of all the earth” (Ether 1:33/ /Gen. 11:8). Since the scattering was over “all” the earth, any curious biblical reader would want to know who of this group from Babel came to America. The Jaredite narratives provide an answer.
Furthermore, portions of the Jaredite journey echo and allude to Genesis 6-11, a section of the Bible that recounts the story of the Flood, Noah’s lengthy genealogy, and the tower of Babel. The Jaredite story begins at the tower of Babel, cites the lengthy genealogy of Ether, and records the voyage across the ocean to the Americas. Both the biblical and the Jaredite accounts refer to Nimrod, the mighty hunter (Ether 2: 1; Gen. 10:8-9). In Ether 6:7 the Jaredite “barges” are “tight like unto the ark of Noah.” Both before the biblical flood and the Jaredite voyage, God commanded those who would enter the vessels to gather male and female animals (Gen. 7:1-3/ /Ether 2:1-3). Ether 2:15 paraphrases Genesis 6:3 as follows: “for ye shall remember that my Spirit will not always strive with man.” Ether then subtly reinterprets this biblical passage as a reference to the Holy Ghost’s departure from the sinner who will then be cut off from God’s presence. Adam Clarke’s 1827 biblical commentary states that certain commentators believed that the term translated as windows in the story of Noah’s ark was actually a reference to luminous stones used in the voyage, like those the Jaredites used in their journey.l Both journeys took about the same amount of time and were accompanied by divine winds “upon the face of the waters” (Gen. 7:18, 8:1/ /Ether 6:5).
In addition, the Jaredite account contains a few subtle references to the biblical exodus, although Lehi’s journey is a much closer parallel to the Israelite exodus.2 However, these allusions are less important [p.73]than the master theme of all three narratives: God’s establishment of a nation.
A comparison of the Jaredite and Nephite migrations shows that they contain a historical philosophy: All nations are formed as people obey God’s commandment to take their journey to a new land (1 Ne. 13, 17:35-40; Jac. 5). This view of universal history is summarized in 1 Nephi 17, which contains two sets of contrast, first, between the earth and its inhabitants and, second, between the righteous and the wicked. These four elements figure prominently in this theology of migration as the divine means for establishing nations:
(a) Behold, the Lord hath created the earth,
(b) that it should be inhabited;
(a) and he hath created his children,
(b) that they should possess it.
(c) And he raiseth up a righteous nation,
(d) and destroyeth the nations of the wicked.
(c) And he leadeth away the righteous into precious lands,
(d) and the wicked he destroyeth,
(d) and curseth the lands unto them for their sakes.
(e) He ruleth high in the Heavens,
(f) for it is his throne,
(f) and this earth is his footstool (1 Ne. 17:37-39; line arrangement added).
The Jaredite migration narrative describes how God led the group through trials in the wilderness to their appointed promised land. As with the Nephite journey, the Jaredite narrative focuses less on arrival in the promised land than on the long arduous journey in the wilderness, through which the people are led by divine guidance.
While the migration narratives of the two Book of Mormon nations present the same scene with some of the same general motifs, the details of the plots are entirely different. The basic formulaic plot in Lehi’s journey was the warning prophet form and its variant in the seven subplots. The form of the Jaredite migration narrative, in contrast, is based on Matthew 20:30-34 in which two blind men cry out as Jesus passes by, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.” Jesus asked, “What will ye that I should do unto you?” When they asked him for their sight, Jesus “had compassion on them” and restored their sight, and they followed [p.74]him. This story is spiritualized in the book of Ether to refer to the restoration of spiritual sight.
But in a more concrete fashion, the Matthean narrative form is the basis for the Jaredite narrative form. The Jaredite journey to the promised land is based on two sets of formulaic prayers, each containing three prayers. Narrator commentary surrounding these two formulaic sections interprets and contextualizes the narrative. After the narrator’s introduction, the story itself begins at the tower of Babel where three formulaic prayers echoing Matthew 20 (Ether 1:33-2:8) are followed by Moroni’s commentary based on that narrative (Ether 2:9-12), a second formulaic episode of three prayers (Ether 2:13-4:3), and a final narrator commentary to interpret this second episode (Ether 4:4-5:6). The actual voyage to the promised land then follows.
Let us examine this structure in detail. The first formulaic story begins when Jared asks his brother to cry unto the Lord for a particular blessing. This is followed by the phrase “and it came to pass that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord” for the particular blessing; the formula ends with the conclusion that “the Lord had compassion” on them and granted the brother’s request.
In this first set of prayers at the tower, the verbal formulas are italicized with references to important parallels to other wilderness narratives in brackets:
And the brother of Jared, being a large and mighty man [/ / 1 Ne. 2:16, 4:31; Mosiah 7:2-3], and being a man highly favored of the Lord [/ /1 Ne. 1: 1]; for Jared his brother said unto him, Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words. And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord, and the Lord had compassion upon Jared; therefore he did not confound the language of Jared; and Jared and his brother were not confounded.
Then Jared said to his brother, Cry unto the Lord, and it may be that he will tum away his anger from them which are our friends, that he confound not their language. And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord, and the Lord had compassion upon their friends, and their families also, that they were not confounded.
And it came to pass that Jared spake unto his brother, saying, Go and inquire of the Lord whether he will drive us out of the land; and if he will drive us out of the land; cry unto him whither we shall go. And who knoweth but the Lord will carry us forth into a land which is choice [p.75]above all the earth [/ / 1 Ne. 2:19-24]. And if it so be, let us be faithful unto the Lord, that we may receive it for our inheritance [/ / 1 Ne. 3:16, 21, 4:1, 7:12-13]. And it came to pass that the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord according to that which had been spoken by the mouth of Jared. And it came to pass that the Lord did hear the brother of Jared, and had compassion upon him (Ether 1:34-40; emphasis and paragraphing mine).
The Lord then instructed the group to travel “into the valley, which is northward” and assured them that they would travel into a land which is “choice above all other lands.” He promised that their seed would become the greatest nation “upon all of the earth.” This added blessing, granted after the third prayer, was beyond anything requested: “And this I will do unto thee because of this long time which ye have cried unto me.” This blessing concludes the first set of three prayers.
We have already seen the repetition of three events in the Lehi narratives. Other important repetitions of three are the three prayers of Enos, the three visits of Christ to the Nephites in 3 Nephi, the three prayers of Christ during his second visit, and the three trials of Korihor (Enos 1:1-8; 3 Ne. 11-28; Alma 30:1-60). The repetition of three increases dramatic conflict, as in the case of Nephi obtaining the brass plates (1 Ne. 3:1-4:38). But in the case of the Jaredite exodus, the three prayers provide the basis for the didactic and exemplary nature of persistent prayer in the narrative; the persistent prayers of the righteous were rewarded beyond what was prayed for. While the narrative in the 1 Nephi wilderness journey is driven by the interaction between good and evil characters governed by God’s power, the Jaredite narrative is driven by what could be called the drama of prayer. Prayer is referred to as “crying unto the Lord,” here and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. It evokes a concept of prayer as extreme exertion. The Jaredites’ prayerful exertion is always rewarded, for “the Lord had compassion … “The repetition of the form reinforces the Book of Mormon teaching that the earnest and persistent prayer of faith will be rewarded. Thus the formulaic plot demonstrates the repeated answering of prayer, while the repetition itself becomes a didactic tool.
After the narrative structured around the three prayers ends with the promise to guide the Jaredites to their promised land, the narrator discusses the religious blessings and obligations of all who live in America (Ether 2:9-12), warning Gentile readers of the 1830s (and later) that they must not repeat the follies and sins that caused the Jaredite destruc-[p.76]tion. This commentary thus establishes the Jaredite history as a “type” history, applicable to the American reader of Joseph Smith’s day. It is interesting that the narrator focuses on the destruction of the nation as the reader’s primary lesson, even as the Jaredites are about to arrive in a new world and found their new nation.
The narrative resumes as God commands the Jaredites to build barges for crossing the ocean and rebukes the brother of Jared for ceasing to pray. This next episode is structured around a second series of three prayers, by now clearly the major formulaic element in the Jaredite narrative. The first set had demonstrated the importance of prayer. The second set stresses the importance of both faith and prayer. This second set contains a much shorter formula: “ … and the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord saying …” The first prayer in this second series asks for help in providing air in the barges. The second request is for light. God asks how the brother of Jared proposes that light be provided: “What will ye that I should do …?” (Ether 1:23) echoing the language of Jesus to the two blind men in Matthew 20:32. Both were asking for sight. Jesus touched the eyes of the two blind men and now touches the Jaredite stones to make them luminous.
As in the first set of prayers, the brother of Jared was blessed with more than he requested. Because of his faith, he saw the person of Christ, followed by a historic panorama of “all things.” There are important parallels between the description of Christ’s visit to the Nephites and Jaredites and the teachings he pronounced in both settings (Ether 4:12/ /3 Ne. 11:11, 9:18; Ether 3:14/ /3 Ne. 9:15, 11:14, 27, 36; Ether 3:14/ /3 Ne. 9:17). In both instances, those receiving the visit fall to the ground and, through direct sensory evidence, gain a knowledge of Christ’s divinity (3 Ne. 11:12-17; Ether 3:6, 19-20). In both settings, Jesus discusses the gathering of Israel and the appearance of the Book of Mormon as signs of the latter days, and delivers a doctrinal summary on the nature of the trinity.
To summarize, this Jaredite journey contains a formulaic plot based on two sets of three prayers. Within that formulaic plot is a second formulaic plot of the visit of Christ. The similarities between these two visits of Christ reveal a common concern for and defense of the divinity of Jesus. Moroni stresses, in summarizing Christ’s appearance to the brother of Jared:
Jesus shewed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after [p.77]the manner and in the likeness of the same body, even as he shewed himself unto the Nephites; and he ministered unto him, even as he ministered unto the Nephites: and all this, that this man knew that he was God, because of the many great works which the Lord had shewed unto him (Ether 3:17-18).
During this visit, the brother of Jared has a panoramic vision of all things. The narrator, like the narrator in 3 Nephi, is forbidden to report this vision. Thus he mentions yet tantalizingly withholds further truths from the reader. He also makes another defense of the Book of Mormon, anticipating and condemning the skepticism with which modern readers will receive it in Joseph Smith’s day (Ether 3:194:18).
In summary, the migration of the Jaredites to the promised land contains within it a theology of migration’s role in God’s plan of nation-making and explains a connection between the biblical narrative of the great tower and the peopling of the American continent. This narrative contains exemplary tales consisting of two formulaic plots based on Matthew 20 with three prayers each, surrounded by narrator commentary interpreting and applying the two plots.
I have stated that the healing of the blind men in Matthew 20 provides the structure of the plot. The Matthean narrative is spiritualized in the Jaredite migration narrative. Sight and blindness are simultaneously both temporal and spiritual elements in the narrative. This motif is important in the other wilderness narratives in the Book of Mormon as well.
In the Jaredite account, because of his faith, “the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared,” and he saw God’s finger (Ether 3:6). Because the brother of Jared understood God’s nature and believed in his word, Jesus then appeared to him in a literal sense, commending him, “Ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence” (Ether 3:13). The fall of Adam and Eve created the spiritual veil over human eyes, preventing them from seeing God. This narrative links sight and redemption. By seeing God, the brother of Jared is redeemed from the Fall.
God makes the stones luminous, thus providing light for the travelers on their journey. Lehi was similarly led by the divine compass, the Liahona, and exhorted his rebellious sons to “awake” from their spiritual sleep (1 Ne. 16:10; 2 Ne. 1:23). Prophetic figures see with the “eyes of [p.78] faith”—a mental imagining which is contrasted to literal visionary sight (Alma 5:15-18; Ether 12:19-20; see excursus in chap. 2). The motif of sight and blindness is continued in other portions of the Book of Mormon. For example, in a narrative connected to the book of Ether, the wilderness wandering of Zeniff contrasts the vision of the seers to the blindness of “the children of men” (Mosiah 8:13-21).
After preparing the luminous stones for the immediate use of the brother of Jared and his people, God prepares two stones that have no immediate purpose but which will be useful to another people far in the future. These stones, delivered later to the Nephites, were those that Mosiah used to translate the Jaredite record. Later still, they presumably became the stones that Joseph Smith used to translate the first portion of the Book of Mormon. The narrator commentary in Ether 4 encourages the latter-day reader to exercise faith so that he or she, like the brother of Jared, can see beyond the veil. The Jaredite exodus narrative spiritualizes its discussion of blindness and sight:
Then will I manifest unto them the things which the brother of Jared saw, even to the unfolding unto them all my revelations … For behold, I am the Father, I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world. … Behold, when ye shall rend that veil of unbelief which doth cause you to remain in your awful state of wickedness, and hardness of heart, and blindness of mind, then shall the great and marvelous things [be manifest] which have been hid up from the foundation of the world from you; yea, when ye shall call upon the Father in my name, with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then shall ye know that the Father hath remembered the covenant which he made unto your fathers, O house of Israel; and then shall my revelations which I have caused to be written by my servant John, be unfolded in the eyes of all the people. (Emphasis mine.)
Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, evil is portrayed as a mist of darkness and as sleep (e.g., Hel. 5:28-52; 3 Ne. 8-10; 2 Ne. 1:23). The mists of darkness prevent the spiritual traveler from seeing the right direction to the promised land. Sleep may symbolize an unawareness of reality while dreams imply deception. Those whose will is evil cannot perceive reality correctly. Sight in the Book of Mormon also refers to a grasping of reality-an understanding and knowledge (Mosiah 27:22).
But sight has connotations that go beyond knowledge. To be blind (as we have seen in the situation of the brother of Jared) is to be estranged [p.79]from the spiritual world and one’s own true nature. The Fall as the origin of the veil can therefore be understood as a symbolic representation of human estrangement.
The wilderness itself, as in 1 Nephi, is also an image of loss. Social estrangement comes from persecution (Lehi) and from the confusion of language at Babel (Jared). As we have seen, Alma 37 spiritualizes the wilderness wanderings. In Chapter 4 we will discover more wilderness narratives which hint at spiritual states of being. The wilderness, like the imagery of blindness, signifies separation from God. Thus both metaphors depict the exiled soul suffering from personal and social estrangement. To see and to arrive at a promised land are expressions of the human longing to overcome the limits of human existence. The connections between physical and existential limitation are hinted at, even in Matthew 20:34: “And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.”
1. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments: The Text . .. including the Marginal Readings and Parallel Texts. With a Commentary and Critical Notes … (New York: N. Bangs and J. Emory for the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1827).
2. The most prominent are that both groups are guided by a pillar of smoke and that the touch of God’s finger is important in both: in Genesis to write the Ten Commandments and in Ether to make stones luminous.