How I Learned to Love the Book of Ether
by Grant Hardy
used with permission of Meridian Magazine, 2011
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. (editor's note: Mark Twain once referred to the Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print", perhaps in reference to the book of Ether.) 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 to 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:
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?
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.
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
3:17-20 3:17, 19, 20
4:1-5:6 4:1, 2, 3, 7, 8; 5:5
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.
Then 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. .
Because the Hebrew Bible’s version of Esther’s story contains neither prayers nor even a single reference to God, Greek redactors apparently felt compelled to give this secular tale a more explicitly religious orientation, alluding to “God” or the ‘Lord” fifty times.
This expanded Greek version of Esther was considered scripture by early Christians, and is still the Holy Bible today for Catholics (though Protestants now regard it as part of the Apocrypha; see D&C 91).
Oftentimes Latter-day Saints will discover in secular scholarship some aspect of the biblical record or the ancient Near East and then attempt to identify parallels in the Book of Mormon. In this case, I had exactly the opposite experience. I found an intriguing feature of the Nephite record and only later was reminded that it had a biblical precedent. Scholars, believers, and skeptics may argue about the origin and transmission of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but the point is that the literary pattern of spiritual revision that underlies Moroni’s use of Ether is exactly the sort of process that is employed by actual, historical individuals as they edit and translate scripture.
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.