Cover image: Painting of Jaredite barges by Robert T. Barrett via Gospel Media Library.
One thing can be truly said about the Book of Ether. It definitely is not “chloroform in print,” as Mark Twain once described the Book of Mormon. (Roughing It, 1872, p. 58)
Hundreds of years after the Jaredites were destroyed, the Nephites discovered the ruins of their ancient civilization. In about 121 BC, when King Limhi and his people were in bondage to the Lamanites, Limhi sent an expedition to find the land of Zarahemla, hoping his people might seek refuge there. Although the searchers did not find Zarahemla, they found a land covered with bones, war implements, and ruins—evidence that a mighty civilization had once existed there. Among these ruins was a mysterious record—twenty-four plates of “pure gold” that were “filled with engravings” (Mosiah 8:9). King Limhi could sense that this record was important: “Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates,” he said (Mosiah 8:19). The abridgement of this record, the book of Ether, comes from the same record that the Nephites “were desirous beyond measure” to read, and when they did, “they were filled with sorrow; nevertheless it gave them much knowledge, in the which they did rejoice” (Mosiah 28:12, 18). Speaking of the Jaredite record, Mormon commented that “it is expedient that all people should know the things which are written in this account” (Mosiah 28:19).
Fill in the blanks:
The Book of Ether as we have it today is___Joseph Smith’s____ translation of ____Moroni’s_______ abridgement of ___King Mosiah’s_________ translation of ____Ether’s______ abridgement of the Jaredite record.
It’s kind of fun to realize how many people were instrumental in bringing this record to the light of the latter days.
What lessons might we learn as we read about the rise and fall of these Jaredites? Harvard professor George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This quote is sometimes paraphrased as: “If we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.” Moroni wrote, “it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you” (Ether 8:23), for if we can learn from the failures and the successes of the Jaredites, “evil may be done away, and … the time may come that Satan may have no power upon the hearts of the children of men” (Ether 8:26).
Who were the Jaredites?
King Mosiah later translated the plates found by Limhi’s people, and found that they told of a people called the Jaredites who had migrated from the Old World during the time of the Tower of Babel. The book of Ether is Moroni’s abridgment of the twenty‑four plates. What do we know about the people at the time of the Tower of Babel? “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” Genesis 11:1, 4). They wanted to reach heaven.
This is not unusual, the people of the ancient world identified their temples with mountains or towers because that was the place where mankind could reach into heaven. The word “babel” is a Babylonian word meaning “gate of god.” But this was definitely not an authorized temple as can be deduced from God’s reaction to it. It was instigated by a man named Nimrod who sought to build a city whereby he could consolidate his power base. He sought the centralizing influence of a temple without the legitimate authority from God. In fact, Josephus tells us that the real reason they wanted to build the tower was so that they could have some safety if God ever decided to flood the earth again. It was in this type of spiritual apostasy that Jared and his brother found themselves.
Interestingly, the legends of many cultures contain stories of the tower and the worldwide flood. Recently, I read about an encounter between a Christian theologian and a young Chinese student that speaks of another culture that remembered the tower and the flood. The young man was a graduate student from the People’s Republic of China who was “raised on atheistic evolution.” He asked the question, “Why should I believe in the Bible God, the Bible is true, and God is fair, when China was never given Bible truth about God to believe?” Simply put, this young man was asking: “Why should I believe in your Bible’s God?” and “Why should I believe in your God’s Bible?”[i]
The theologian then asked the student to write out the Chinese word for flood, and to describe what its component symbols represented. The student wrote these symbols:
When the student tried to describe the meaning of the “flood” character, he had no explanation for the number 8 (except as a phonetic symbol as in “8” for “ate.”) The theologian then read 1 Peter 3:20 to him, pointing out that Genesis reports that exactly eight humans survived the global flood. This fact made perfect sense of these Chinese pictographs. He then pointed out that the Chinese character for “boat” also contains the number eight, and the student began to realize that his own language contained latent clues that the Bible’s early history was once well known to the Chinese people.
Returning to the ancient Jaredites, Moroni notes that “he that wrote this record was Ether,” (Ether 1:6) a direct descendant of Jared and not Jared’s brother, and he is giving the history of his line only. Consequently, neither the brother of Jared nor his children are named in this record, even though he is the major player in the book.
Within the book of Ether, Moroni has devoted fully one-third of its space to the first generation of Jaredite history. This was a glorious time for them, for they were led by men who trusted in God. As a result, they witnessed God’s power as he confounded the languages at the tower of Babel and as he led them on a journey that would take them to the other side of the world. Why do you think that Moroni inserted the Book of Ether at this point in the Book of Mormon? Why didn’t he put it in when Mosiah first translated the plates? Undoubtedly, so that readers can discover for themselves that the Book of Mormon in microcosm is the book of Ether. Moroni inserts it to add emphasis to his narration of the destruction of the Nephites.
Most of the Book of Ether covers the first and last generation of Jaredites. Ether 1:6-33 traces Ether’s family tree backward, all the way to Jared. From verse 33 through the rest of the Book of Ether, we move forward in time, learning about each of these generations until we get all the way to Ether who witnessed and chronicled the final war among the Jaredites and hid the record. The first six chapters speak only of the first generation, or of Jared and his brother and their journey to the promised land. Chapters 7-11, move quickly through the next 28 generations, then the last chapters, Ether 12-15 cover the last generation of Jaredites.
Lessons Learned from the Prayers of the Brother of Jared
The story starts in Ether 1:34, where we are introduced to the brother of Jared, a large and mighty man, and a man highly favored of the Lord.We know his name is Moriancumer, because it is the name of the place of their first settlement. (Ether 2:13) We learn from Church history, that Joseph Smith blessed the baby of Reynolds Cahoon and gave him the name of “Mahonri Moriancumer,” then explained that was the name of the Brother of Jared.
In the first five chapters of the book of Ether, we learn much about the character of God by the way he answers the prayers of the brother of Jared.
1. Ether 1:34-35 God answers prayers because he is compassionate. He likes to answer our prayers because he loves us. Whatever answer comes, it will arise out of his compassion. Jared and his brother’s people are not to be “mixed up” with other people—culturally, linguistically, or otherwise. They were to be separated, as we shall see in chapter 6. Notice the order of requests — first, “do not confound us,” then, “do not confound our friends,” and finally, “lead us to a new land.” We are reminded of Enos who prayed for himself, then his friends, then his enemies, then for the preservation of the records.
2. Ether 1:36-37 His compassion also extends to those we pray for. The Lord also turned his anger away from their friends and their families, and their language was not confounded.
3. Ether 1:38 Stay faithful. Our FAITHFULNESS is the best thing we can do in order to receive what we have asked for. God will often grant our requests because of our FAITHFUL-NESS not just because of our FAITH. Ether 1:39-40 All three of his prayers are answered because of God’s compassion.
4. Ether 1:42 God likes to meet us along the way and give us instruction. Ether 2:6 God directs us step by step. Many of us don’t like to be directed this way. We want to know the end from the beginning. We need to walk to the edge of the light, and then go forward. The Lord likes to direct us line upon line. As illustrated in the Red Sea incident recounted in Exodus 14:15-16, the children of Israelhad to wade into the surf, and then Moses split the Red Sea.
5. Ether 1:43 A long pattern of communication has been established. “This LONG TIME ye have prayed unto me”—not a desperate emergency prayer. Ether 2:8-12 are a parenthesis between 7 and 13. Ether 2 :7 “I won’t direct you to anything less than a promised land.”
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught:
God is anxiously waiting for the chance to answer your prayers and fulfill your dreams, just as He always has. But He can’t if you don’t pray, and He can’t if you don’t dream. In short, He can’t if you don’t believe. (https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/jeffrey-r-holland_terror-triumph-wedding-feast/)
6. Ether 2:25 God likes us to come up with our own decisions.
The Lord tells the brother of Jared to build barges according to his instructions, which he does. However, there are problems. They can’t breathe. They have no light. They can’t steer. Ether 2:19 It was probably Mrs. Moriancumr who helped here. “Did you get the instructions right, dear?” Ether 2:20 The Lord has a sense of humor. “For heaven’s sake, if the water is coming in, STOP THE HOLE!” But the Lord mentions nothing about how to solve the problem of the light. Ether 2:23 Ether realized that they cannot go by the light from windows or from fires. He had to come up with an idea on his own.
When Oliver Cowdery attempted the translate, the Lord responded:
Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right…(D&C 9:7-8).
In Genesis 6:16, Noah is instructed to make a “window to the ark.” The Hebrew of this word is tsohar, and the footnote tells us that some rabbis believed it was a precious stone that shone in the ark. Ether 2:23 (23–24). Perhaps the brother of Jared knew about this, and decided to try it in his vessels.
The Lord asked the Brother of Jared to study it out in his mind, and come up with a recommendation, which he did, perhaps inspired by the account of Noah and the ark. He received more than he asked for, witnessing the Lord himself touch each of the 16 stones he had molten.
[In D&C 17:1, we learn that the Urim and Thummim “were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount.” The three witnesses also bore testimony of the Urim and Thummim, as well as the plates.]
7. Ether 3:4 Be specific. The Lord likes specific prayers.
God had said, “Don’t bring me a windows or fire answer.” Brigham Young taught, “Don’t go to the Lord with a request that we haven’t researched.” (Journal of Discourses 3:205) If it would have been me, I would have said, “Blow gently.” We can have an open boat, catch rays, play shuffleboard, it will be a CRUISE!”
Lessons to be Learned When Furious Winds Blow
Ether 2:25 We should understand that Heavenly Father prefers to PREPARE US for the mountain waves, rather than still the storms. If he doesn’t still the storm, what do I know? That the Lord has prepared me for it. My ship is tight like a dish. May we have that confidence in the Lord.
Ether 3:2 When we pray, we offer up what is our heart’s DESIRE—not so much what our minds think, but the focus is on our HEARTS. God responds more to our DESIRES than to our words. The brother of Jared is very HUMBLE. Deep humility is irresistible to the Lord. It touches him profoundly.
Ether 3:3 The brother of Jared is willing to go, EVEN IF the Lord doesn’t touch the stones. This is a great attitude. “Father, if it is your will that we go forth in darkness, then we will still go.” We want God to know that we will STILL go, even if he doesn’t touch the stones.
Ether 3:4 Everything God does, he does for the BENEFIT of his children—he only gives bread, stones, and fish. He COULD do ANYTHING. But he only does “good” things. Here we see a self-imposed limit to God’s power.
Ether 3:5 Life sometimes turns on tiny hinges. He can do ALL things, but he does it through small things. At the time, they maybe don’t seem very significant. But in retrospect, they are very significant.
At one point in his life, President Gordon B. Hinckley worked for a railroad company in the central offices in Denver, Colorado. He was in charge of what is called head-end traffic during a time when nearly everyone rode passenger trains.
One morning I received a call from my counterpart in Newark, New Jersey. He said, ‘Train number such-and-such has arrived, but it has no baggage car. Somewhere, 300 passengers have lost their baggage, and they are mad.’
I went immediately to work to find out where it may have gone. I found it had been properly loaded and properly trained in Oakland, California. It had been moved to our railroad in Salt Lake City, been carried to Denver, down to Pueblo, put on another line, and moved to St. Louis. There it was to be handled by another railroad which would take it to Newark, New Jersey.
But some thoughtless switchman in the St. Louis yards moved a small piece of steel just three inches, a switch point, then pulled the lever to uncouple the car. We discovered that a baggage car that belonged in Newark, New Jersey, was in fact in New Orleans, Louisiana—1,500 miles from its destination” (“A Prophet’s Counsel and Prayer for Youth,” Ensign, Jan. 2001).
This train’s unfortunate journey can, in many ways, be compared to our lives—where seemingly small decisions could take us to a place we never intended to go.
Preparing for Our Own Journeys Through Rough Waters
You may find spiritual insights if you compare the Jaredites’ voyage across the ocean to your journey through mortality. In Ether 6:2 we are told that the brother of Jared put the stones which had been touched by the Lord into the vessels, one in each end, and they “did give light unto the vessels.” The Lord will not leave us in darkness either. In 1 Nephi 17:13, the Lord says, “I will be your light in the wilderness.” What has the Lord provided that lights your way like the stones in the Jaredites’ barges? The list is long indeed—scriptures, General Conference, patriarchal blessings, temple, prayer, pondering, personal revelation—all keep us out of the dark.
In Ether 6:7, we learn that these vessels were “tight like unto a dish,” and moreover that they were “tight like unto the ark of Noah.” This gives additional credence to the idea that Moriancumr got his idea for the stones from reading about the record of Noah and how the ark was lighted. Five times in Ether 2:17, the barges are described as “tight like unto a dish,” probably meaning watertight, which is obviously essential for a vessel intended to travel upon the water. How can you make your own barges watertight?
As we compare the journey of the Jaredites with that of the Lehi, we note a few interesting differences. While the children of Lehi experienced some discord, characterized by “rudeness” and forgetting God (1 Nephi 18:9), no such disharmony is mentioned among the Jaredites. The Jaredites sang praises (Ether 6:9), while the children of Lehi began to sing and dance (we presume with music), but it was evidently with a forgetful disregard. Also, it appears the Lord guided the Jaredite barges by “a furious wind” which did “never cease to blow towards the promised land” (verses 5, 8), whereas with the Lehi’s journey, the capability of steering the ship is mentioned (1 Nephi 18:13), and Nephi says that he “did guide the ship” with the help of the compass or Liahona (1 Nephi 18:22).
Perhaps this explains why the Book of Mormon has two sets of people bound for the land of promise build such different types of ships. The Lord explained why it would be necessary to build such peculiar type vessels that could be submergible, because he was about to unleash winds of such incredible violence, that it would make the crossing a frightful ordeal at best. (Ether 2:23-25)
During our journey through life, will we be more like the Jaredites, sing praises unto God, or like the people of Lehi, who sometimes forgot the purpose of their journey?
[i] Johnson, J. J. S. 2010. Understanding Effective Biblical Apologetics. Acts & Facts. 39 (4): 8-9.
Mark MathesonNovember 19, 2020
Fine insights! I am going to go back and read your earlier material and see what nuggets I have missed!