© Copyright 1999 by Richard G. Grant.
The Real Beginning of the Book of Mormon
Somewhere between about 1600 to perhaps as much as 2600 years before Lehi and his family landed in the Promised Land the people of Jared arrived on these sacred shores.(2) They, also, had been led here by the hand of God.
Who were these people? Beyond their beginnings, their history in the land of promise is one of degradation, conspiracy, and war. Why should this be scripture? Moroni, the abridger of this history, says that he was commanded by the Lord to give us their testimony, "that evil may be done away" (Ether 8:26). Their record tells of two great prophets, the brother of Jared and Ether. One begins the record and the other ends it. However, the greatest instructional value of this short record may be the running commentary of the Nephite prophet Moroni, the abridger of Ether's history of the Jaredites. Moroni's thus you sees point to the relevance of this message for our day.
Moroni had seen our day. In Mormon 8:35 he tells us of the vision he has been given: "Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doings."
Moroni knew our doings, our pride, our social and political problems, our wickedness. He gave specific warning to the latter-day inhabitants of America: "For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off. . ." (Ether 2:10).
In Ether chapter 8, after describing the introduction of secret conspiratorial oaths and combinations into the Jaredite society, Moroni breaks his narrative to solemnly warn to his last-days readers (8:23-25). Yes, this book is scripture and it has an important message for these the latter-days. It is a brief, highly abridged, record written specifically to us by a prophet who knew our needs.
The most significant Jaredite presence in this record is that of the brother of Jared. This was a man of such great faith, knowledge, and righteousness, that "he could not be kept from beholding within the veil" (Ether 3:18). Yet, this man is not named in this record. Why wasn't the brother of Jared referred to by name? Some have suggested that Moroni was unable to render his name in the reformed Egyptian so adroitly avoided it. Hugh Nibley gives a better reason: this was Jared's record not that of his brother. Ether was a descendent of Jared, not his brother. With the lone mention of his eldest son, Pagag, as the peoples choice as king, even the brother of Jared's posterity go unnamed. Perhaps to emphasize that this is not a casual omission, at the end of the record Ether leaves unnamed the descendent of the brother of Jared, the "mighty man" (11:17), who overthrows the kingdom of his grandfather, Moron. This pattern of avoiding names must have been as strange to Joseph Smith as it is to us. It is one of our first clues that we are dealing here with a very different culture.
The record tells us that Jared and his people came from the land of "the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people" (Ether 1:33). The Bible tells us that this was the beginning of all cultures: "So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth" (Genesis 11:8). What were these people like. From this beginning came the Mongols, the Blacks, the Egyptians, the Hebrews, and all other races. Did these Jaredites resemble any of these known historical cultures?
Throughout the record their cultural peculiarities, their strange practices of government, and the manner of their warfare give these people away. Their whole history is a struggle for power. Dr. Nibley says that "it is a strange, savage picture of nightmare politics that the book of Ether paints, but it is historically a profoundly true picture."(3)
We first meet these people as they depart the land of the tower and go "down into the valley which is northward." There's no sneaking out of town. All the friends and relatives are invited to come. They bring their "flocks of every kind." They even "prepare a vessel, in which they did carry with them the fish of the waters" (Ether 2:2). And they make special mention of a most important passenger, deseret.
Dr. Hugh Nibley says, "By all odds the most interesting and attractive passenger in Jared's company is deseret, the honeybee." He points out that "our text betrays an interest in deseret that goes far beyond respect for the feat of transporting insects." The implication of Moroni's statement that desert, "by interpretation is a honeybee," (Ether 2:3) strongly suggests that this is a word right out of the Jaredite language. If so, it's the only Jaredite word we have been given other that proper nouns. What was the importance of this word? Did the honeybee have some special cultural significance at the time of the Tower of Babel, or was this a purely Jaredite thing? Dr. Nibley Continues:
Now it is a remarkable coincidence that the word deseret, or something very close to it [dsrt], enjoyed a position of ritual prominence among the founders of the classical Egyptian civilization, who associated it very closely with the symbol of the bee. . . Chief among their cult objects would seem to be the bee, for the land they first settled in Egypt was forever after known as "the land of the bee," and was designated in hieroglyphic by the picture of a bee, while every king of Egypt "in his capacity of `King of Upper and Lower Egypt' " bore the title, "he who belongs to the sedge [a plant of upper Egypt] and the bee."(4)
They were directed by the Lord to "go forth into the wilderness, yea into that quarter where there never had man been" (Ether 2:5). They built barges on which to cross "many waters." They continued until they came to "that great sea which divideth the lands." They remained on the seashore for four years during which time they constructed eight vessels for crossing the sea.
How far they traveled we can only guess. That guess places the terminus of their land journey on the Pacific shores of the Asian continent. From there the prevailing winds "never cease to blow towards the promised land."
In the promised land a monarchy was established. Orihah, the first king and youngest son of Jared, ruled in righteousness. Orihah's 31 sons and daughters strongly suggest a polygamous society. Intrigue and rebellion enter the story with the arrival of Orihah's grandson, Corihor. Corihor rebels. He goes off into another region and draws "away many people after him." When he has gathered sufficient to form and army, he challenges and overthrows his father, Kib. Then we read a strange thing. We are told that Kib dwells in captivity for the remainder of his life and in captivity he continues to bare children who are free. Then Kib's son, Shule, repeats the process. After raising an army he overthrows his brother and restores the kingdom to his father. The echo of this scene is heard over and over in the Jaredite record. While strange to us, it's not at all strange to students of ancient cultures.
Dr. Nibley's introduction to his discussion of these people and their culture is instructive:
The book of Ether is a typical ancient chronicle, a military and political history relieved by casual references to the wealth and splendor of kings. . . The whole structure of Jaredite history hangs on a succession of strong men, most of them rather terrible figures. Few annals of equal terseness and brevity are freighted with an equal burden of wickedness. The pages of Ether are dark with intrigue and violence, strictly of the Asiatic brand.(5)
Throughout the Jaredite history the desire of strong men for power and riches is the dominant theme. This is the classic Asian pattern. Nibley comment, "All observers of the Asiatic system have commented on the dedicated zeal with which the men of the steppes devote themselves to two objectives–power and gain. . . Nowhere is all government put on such a frankly mercenary basis as in Asia." Over and over, the culture displayed in the Jaredite records is a reflection of Asiatic, particularly Mongol, practices.
Attila is said to have cheated his brother of the throne then "hoped to subdue the entire world" (N194). Jenghiz Khan "lived for years as an outcast and a bandit as he gathered around him the forces that were to conquer all his rivals."(6) Just change the names and these are Jaredite stories.
Even in their travels in the wilderness the Jaredites mirrored the life and practices of Asian nomads. These peoples have for millennia move large populations immense distances, together with flocks of every kind. Nibley observes:
The Jaredites left their homeland driving great herds of cattle before them in the immemorial Asiatic manner, and even if they had never been nomads before, they certainly lived the life of the steppes during those many years before they set sail (Ether 3:3), and when they embarked, they crammed all they could of their beasts into their small boats, "flocks and herds" and other beasts (Ether 6:4), and upon reaching the New World continued to cultivate "all manner of cattle, of oxen, and cows, and of sheep" just as their ancestors had in the old country (Ether 9:18).(7)
Of Kings and Kingdoms
The monarchy established by the Jaredites has all the earmarks of Asian excesses and despotism. Our example is the reign of Riplakish. Br. Nibley asks, "Where could one find a more perfect thumbnail portrait of the typical Asiatic overlord than in the four verses that describe the reign of Riplakish? (Ether 10:5-8). The lechery and cruelty , the magnificence and the oppression are all there."
The particular attention to an elaborate throne (the plan of the royal throne was said to have been revealed from heaven), imprisonment used as a mean of forced labor, and the ambitious building programs; these are all typical characteristics of the Asiatic monarchy. Dr. Nibley is fascinated by this attention to building by a society that seem almost devoted to plunder:
It is a strange thing that warlike and nomadic kings should display a passion for building, but it is a fact in Asia as in America: "Cities sprang up like mushrooms in honor of the ruling Khan, most of them remaining unfinished and falling speedily into decay. Armies of handicraftsmen would be assembled for the purpose [another Jaredite practice]; . . . then the Khan would perish and of the intended glory nothing would remain but a heap of ruins." A silly and wasteful procedure that often led to financial ruin and revolution, as we learn from the pages of Bar Hebraeus and also from the Book of Mormon example of Riplakish ( Ether 10:5-8).(8)
Even placing the king in captivity all his days and allowing him to continue to bare children who would almost certainly seek revenge proves to be an ancient Asian practice. Nibley explains that the king is seen as sacred, particularly by members of his own family. And the king's problem so often came from members of his own family. Dr. Nibley comment is interesting:
Asia's gift to the world has many times saved the world from Asia's rule, for how many an Assyrian, Persian, or Mongol conqueror has had to turn his back on the West just as he stood on the verge of world conquest, to quench the fires of rebellion set by the secret conspiracies of relatives behind his back!(9)
Dr. Nibley described this record of the Jaredites as "dark with intrigue and violence." Yet, Moroni said that this Jaredite history carries an even essential message for our latter-day society. A warning: "Wherefore, O ye Gentiles, it is wisdom in God that these things should be shown unto you, that thereby ye may . . . suffer not that these murderous combinations shall get above you (Ether 8:23). What is it about this history that the Lord finds so important for our day?
Moroni's warning interrupts his recounting of the violent history of Akish. His is a record which is "dark with intrigue." Moroni devotes considerable space to the history of the exploits of this roguish aspirant to the Jaredite throne (Ether 8:1-18; 9:1-14). We learn that it's Akish who introduced into the Jaredite culture those secret combinations which Moroni says were the cause of "the destruction of this people."
And it came to pass that Akish gathered in unto the house of Jared all his kinsfolk, and said unto them: Will ye swear unto me that ye will be faithful unto me in the thing which I shall desire of you? And it came to pass that they all swear unto him, by the God of heaven, and also by the heavens, and also by the earth, and by their heads, that whoso should vary from the assistance which Akish desired should lose his head" (Ether 8:13-14).
What was the source of this devilish plan? Ether 8:9 tells of a "record which our fathers brought across the great deep." We learn there that this record contained "an account concerning them of old that they by their secret plans did obtain kingdoms and great glory." The old world is clearly identified as the source of these terrible oaths. Dr. Nibley says, " From the flood of documents that have come forth of recent years to teach us the ways of men at the dawn of history, it is apparent that oaths, conspiracies, and combinations were the established order of things from the beginning."
Moroni says that "Akish did administer unto them the oaths which were given by them of old who also sought power, which had been handed down even from Cain" (Ether 8:15). Dr. Nibley observes that "we are not only told that the system was inherited 'from them of old' and perpetuated by the same methods of secret societies, family compacts, bribes, oaths, assassinations, etc., as in the Old World, but we are given a clear image of the physical background of the whole thing."(10)
The histories of these Jaredites and the Mongol conqueror Jenghiz Khan (his name means "supreme conqueror") contain a surprising perfusion of parallels. For another example, we learn that "the people of Akish were desirous for gain, even as Akish was desirous for power; wherefore the son of Akish did offer them money, by which means they drew away the more part of the people after them" (Ether 9:11) Dr. Nibley tells us, "It was the sons of Jenghiz Khan . . . who did most of his campaigning for him, and from the very beginning the secret of his power was the huge heap of precious things that always stood near his throne and from which . . . he rewarded all who joined him."(11)
Why all this emphasis on Asia. It's Jaredites that we want to understand, not Asians. Dr. Nibley apologizes:
If my insistent harping on central Asia annoys you, let me remind you again that the book of Ether gives us no choice. It never lets us forget that what the Jaredite kings did was a conscious imitation and unbroken continuation of the ways of "the ancients," of "them of old" on the other side of the water.(12)
And we're not through yet.
Ether is a book of wars. From the time the Jaredites get themselves established in the promised land, their history is just one war or rebellion after another. But, these aren't at all like Nephite wars. Dr. Nibley describes the Jaredite pattern of warfare as "a war of motion with no set frontiers, great armies sweeping over the continent in flight or pursuit, making the most of space by continually falling back on this or that 'wilderness,' setting up rival camps for a period of a year or two, while dissenting groups or individuals join themselves to one army or another." He says that it's "Asia all over again."(13)
Dr. Nibley continues by pointing out the similarities between the geography of the North American and Asiatic continents. He says that the main difference is that "in Asia everything is bigger." Perhaps some students of the Jaredites are too restrictive in their view as the their areas of influence on the American continent. If they followed the patter of their Mongol cousins we might find that they freely roamed wide expanses of American geography. (for example, Dr. Nibley notes that during one campaign a Mongol subdivision was described as "separated by only about 1,200 miles" from the main body.(14)
Again mirroring Asian history, the history of the Jaredites is "one of chaos, violence, and insecurity produced by constant warring between the tribes and rivalry among ambitious men within them." The Jaredite story tells of one "mighty-man" after another. Each first gathers dissidents to his support then challenges his rival in a great "battle of the nations."
While "Coriantumr dwelt with his army in the wilderness for the space of two years, in which he did receive strength to his army," his opponent Shared "also received strength to his army" through the operation of "secret combination." Later Coriantumr pitched his tents by the Hill Ramah and spent four years "gathering together the people" ( Ether 14:7-8; 15:11-14). Just so Jenghiz Khan hid out in the wilderness for two years recruiting an army against his relative Wang Khan, who was doing the same thing, and later devoted four years to building up an army to meet the emperor of Khwarizm, who worked feverishly to build up his army, each doing everything in his power to "draw off" his enemy's supporters to his own side.(15)
What's so appalling in the Jaredite record is that these are not wars between rival nations, they're wars of rebellion and revenge. The justification is generally offense or greed. It's the reigning monarch against an upstart, a son against a father, a deposed king seeking to regain his throne. One angry man against another–each conscripting, by force or bribery, the support of vast armies in his personal quest for vengeance or power.
The grim ferocity with which the rulers of Asia concentrate all their wrath against the person of a rival king belongs to the Jaredite tradition: "And it came to pass that Coriantumr was exceedingly angry with Shared, and he went against him . . . to battle; and they did meet in great anger" (Ether 13:27). And "when Shiz had received his epistle, he wrote an epistle unto Coriantumr, that if he would give himself up, that he might slay him with his own sword, that he would spare the lives of the people" (Ether 15:5). During the battle that ensued, "Shiz arose, and also his men, and he swore in his wrath that he would slay Coriantumr, or he would perish by the sword" (Ether 15:28). What these men seek before everything else is not power or victory but a settlement with a personal rival.(16)
We read (Ether 9:12) that the civil war between Akish and his sons reduced the population to thirty. The record further describes the war between Coriantumr and Shiz as resulting in the complete annihilation of both sides, with the kings the last to fall.
This all seems improbable to us, but two circumstances peculiar to Asiatic warfare explain why the phenomenon is by no means without parallel: (1) Since every war is strictly a personal contest between kings, the battle must continue until one of the kings falls or is taken. (2) And yet things are so arranged that the king must be very last to fall, the whole army existing for the sole purpose of defending his person. This is clearly seen in the game of chess, in which all pieces are expendable except the king, who can never be taken. . .
Even so, Shiz was willing to spare all of Coriantumr's subjects if he could only behead Coriantumr with his own sword. In that case, of course, the subjects would become his own. The circle of warriors, "large and mighty men as to the strength of men" (Ether 15:26) that fought around their kings to the last man, represent that same ancient institution, the sacred "shieldwall," which our own Norse ancestors took over from Asia and which meets us again and again in the wars of the tribes, in which on more than one occasion the king actually was the last to perish. So let no one think the final chapter of Ether is at all fanciful or overdrawn. Wars of extermination are a standard institution in the history of Asia.(17)
Have archeologist discovered anything which might be consistent with the Book of Mormon description of this Jaredite people. There is an interesting speculation. The ancient Americans, known as Olmecs, are believed to have inhabited Central America between 1300 BC to 600 BC. This is believed to be the first American civilization to have a written language.(18) The area defined as inhabited by the Olmecs is much too confining to be identified as encompassing the whole of the Jaredite culture. Ether (10:20-21) tells us that they had spread throughout the land from the narrow neck northward.
If you've ever wondered what a Jaredite might have looked like. If we assume an Olmec identity, this figure might be a reasonable approximation. Note the Asiatic features.
Both their record and archeological evidence speak together to identify the Jaredites closest cousins as the Mongols of Asia.
Ether prophesied that all of the household of Coriantumr would be destroyed. Ether further prophesied, in the same verse, that "every soul would be destroyed save it were Coriantumr" (Ether 13:21). Ether closes his record with the declaration that all but Coriantumr had been slain in the final battle with Shiz. What does all this mean?
The general assumption has been that Coriantumr was the lone remaining Jaredite. A people who had once covered the land, all showed up, every man women and child, to be slaughtered in this last battle. Yes, that does seem preposterous, but what else could Ether mean? Ether said that they would all be destroyed with the exception of Coriantumr and he reports that "they had all fallen" with the exception of Coriantumr.
First, we might ask, does Ether 13:21 really say that all the Jaredites would be destroyed, or is Ether referring only to the household of Coriantumr? A careful reading of this verse would suggest that Ether is not referring to all Jaredites. Rather, the prophesy of Ether is given twice in this verse, the first clearly limited to the household of Coriantumr and the second a parallel restatement of the first. "Every soul" of the second sentence would seem most directly related to the "all" of the first. Thus, this would not be two prophesies, but the common parallel phrasing of a single prophesy: all of the household of Coriantumr will be destroyed.
However, there are other reference and prophesies of destruction in this record. Moroni begins the record (1:1 & 5) by referring to the Jaredites as "those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed." Further, Moroni uses this destruction as an object lesson, prophesying that any inhabitants of the Promised Land who did not serve the Lord would eventually be destroyed as were the Jaredites (Ether 8:22; 9:20).
What is the meaning of the word destroyed? Previous lessons have presented a case for the Hebrew background of the original Book of Mormon language. Assuming this to be the case, and assuming, as is suggested in the many biblical quotations throughout the Book of Mormon, that Joseph translated the Hebrew into a near King James phrasing, the Hebrew meaning of the word translated destroyed in the Old Testament could be relevant. According to Strong's Concordance, there are several Hebrew words translated destroyed by the King James translators. In addition to "wiped out" or "perished," these words have the meaning: to desolate, to bring to naught, to overthrow, to pluck down, decay, to ruin. Nibley gives this meaning: "to unbuild; to separate violently into its constituent parts; to break up the structure." He then refers to a number of Book of Mormon verses which clearly use this word destroy to convey the meaning of disorganization or scattering. For example, Nephi says (1 Nephi 17:43): "I know that the day must shortly come that they [the Jews in Jerusalem] must be destroyed, save only a few." What really happened was that it was the Jewish nation that was destroyed, and the Jews themselves were disorganized and scattered.
That Ether did not mean "every soul" of all the Jaredites would be destroyed (killed) should be obvious by Ether's own survival. Certainly many others of this people who covered the land northward would also have survived this final battle. It's possible that this battle involved but a small minority of the total Jaredite population: the capitol city, the center of government, or maybe just the descendants of Jared. Is it possible that Ether's evident preoccupation with the descendants of Jacob, as evidenced by the almost total absence of reference to the descendants of the brother of Jared, limited his record to only the history of Jared's branch of this people called by his name?
The Nephite record speaks of three "Nephites" with names that are directly out of the Jaredite history. We read of Coriantumr, an apostate Nephite, who is described as a descendent of Zarahemla. Morianton was the name of a Jaredite descendent of Riplakish and was also the name of a Nephite dissenter who led a group into the land northward.
The third is Noah, which was the name of both a Jaredite king and a Nephite king. Now, to this you might object. Surly, this is a name out of the common biblical record available to both cultures. Well, perhaps. However, Dr. Nibley suggests that "The name may be authentic Jaredite." He states that "aside from the original Biblical character 'Noah does not recur elsewhere in Hebrew either alone or as a component part of a name,' according to C. L. Woolley, but is 'Harrian,' coming from the country north of Babylonia, i.e., the original Jaredite home."(19)
Further, by analyzing the linguistic characteristics of the Jaredite names given to us in their history together with a similar analysis of Nephite, Lamanite, and Mulekite names, certain patterns become apparent. This analysis suggests that the origin of the following Nephite names had a significant Jaredite influence:
There are certainly two interesting patterns here. All but the two sons of Alma are Nephite bad guys. Dr. Sorenson suggests that these "bad guys" may all be Mulekites who are not pleased with the Nephites coming in and taking over the leadership role in the government of their people.(20) Dr. Nibley agrees and see this Mulekite-Jaredite background as conclusive evidence this the commonality in these names is not mere coincidence.
Another interesting name is Moroni. Assuming that this name has a Semitic structure, it's meaning would be from Moron, or pertaining to Moron. Moron was the Jaredite capitol!
Three other Nephite names seem to be of Jaredite origin. These are sheum, shiblon, and shiblum. Sheum is the name of a Nephite crop (another interesting coincidence: the ancient Mesopotamian word for barley was –eacute;um(21)). Shiblon and shiblum (in addition to Shiblon been the name of Alma's second son) are the names of two units of the Nephite monetary system described in Alma 11. The other units, senum, senine, seon, shum, limnah, amnor, ezrom, onti, leah, and antion, all have significant Jaredite characteristics. Independent of the question of names, this is a most interesting monetary system. Note that there is no mention of coins. This is a system of measure. The units form an odd sequence: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 16, 32, and 54. I've been told that analysis of this sequence has show that adding these numbers in combination results in an extremely efficient process for achieving any other number (minimum number of units required in the computation). More interesting, those who have traveled in Mexico and Central America may have noted in the souvenir shops a small set of nested cups. The sizes of these cups match this sequence.
It seems highly probable that when Lehi and his family arrived in the Promised Land they found a fairly significant but scattered people already inhabiting the land. A people without government, without religion, and perhaps with but minimum language skill. The core of their culture had been destroyed. While once a great and cultured people, they by the time of Lehi's arrival had been scattered and divided. Had they by that time degenerated to a level of mere subsistence? Our record gives us few clues.
1. This paper is principally drawn from Hugh Nibley's 1952 publication of the same name. References are to the reprinting of World of the Jaredites as found in Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.5, Part.2.
2. While most authorities place the Tower of Babel at approximately 2200 BC, John Sorenson, in an article entitled, "The Years of the Jaredites," in BYU Today (September 1968, pp. 18-24), suggests a date as early as 3250 BC. He concludes that an "overall duration [of the Jaredite civilization in America] of about 2500 years has considerable likelihood of being about right–to within a century or so."
18. I obtained this information from the website http://udgftp.cencar.udg.mx/ingles/Precolombina/Olmecas/docs/olmin.html, which is no longer available. This site, which contained a brief introduction to the Olmec civilization, including some good graphics, is no longer available at this address. A search on "Olmec" will, however, locate a number of additional sites containing information on the Olmec history and culture.