Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Etherial Insights

In reading for the Sunday School lesson covering Ether 1-6, Brant Gardner's Second Witness series has some really interesting content surrounding the Jaredites, where they came from, when they came from, and more.  This post may seem somewhat disconnected as I'm mainly highlighting some of the ideas that I found most enlightening.

Are the Jaredites the same as the Olmecs?

According to Gardner, they are not the Olmecs, but obviously lived in the culture, though more likely were absorbed into the already extant civilization when they arrived.  The connections are "completely circumstantial.... The Olmec culture flourished and supported hierarchical societies, including kings, during the period when similar social institutions flourished among the Jaredites.  Olmec lands in the Gulf Coast lie in appropriate geographic proximity to the southern Isthmus of Tehuantepec and Chiapas [plausible Nephite lands].  The plausible linguistic and cultural connections of the people of Zarahemla also fit into the known archaeological and linguistic history of the area."

One major catch is that the "phonetics of the Olmec and therefore probably of the Jaredites, do not match the Jaredite names in the Book of Mormon."

Jaredite Chronology

Gardner hypothesizes that given "the fact that Coriantumr was given refuge in Zarahemla, [this establishes] a plausible prior connection with that group.  Mulekite early history suggests that they had participated in the Olmec culture to the point of adopting that language and religion and losing their own (Omni 1:17).  Apparently a smaller group moved up the Grijalva Valley to Zarahemla.  From the fact that both the city and the ruler at Mosiah's arrival were named Zarahemla, [Gardner deduces] that they had only recently relocated and that the city was named for the founding leader.  Thus, Coriantumr may have lived with them perhaps less than fifty years before Mosiah's arrival.

"I also read Zarahemlaite interest in the stone they brought to Mosiah as interest in a relatively recent history, not as antiquarian curiosity in a stone nearly three hundred years old.  Therefore, this commentary uses 200 B.C. as a probable death date for Coriantumr and his contemporary Ether and therefore a plausible anchor for the generational chronology.  This anchor places the beginnings of the Jaredites somewhat earlier than 1070 B.C. [Gardner uses the round number 1100 B.C.]... This places them after Abraham and the patriarchs, and after Joseph in Egypt, after Moses and the plausible timing of the Israelites' return from Egypt."

Issues in Establishing the Chronology

John Sorenson cautions, "Historical texts and archaelogical research on Mesopotamia, their homeland, tell us that big pyramid-shaped temple platforms called ziggurats were being erected well before 3000 B.C.  Nothing but one of them qualifies as 'the great tower' referred to in Ether 1:33.  If the departure of the Jaredite party from their original home had been many centuries later than 3000 B.C. or earlier than about 3300 B.C., their account about "the great tower" would sound odd in terms of Near Eastern history... We have already seen that the earliest evidences of some of the basic indicators of civilization - stable agriculture, village life, and ceramics - date in Mesoamerica to about 3000 B.C.

"There is no sound evidence, by the way, to support the idea from outmoded biblical commentaries that the great tower ('of Babel') dated to near 2200 B.C., as some Latter-day Saints continue to believe.  Indeed, contrary data abound."

Gardner places "the reign of Jared's son (the first on the king list and therefore the first to have a reign to which the average reign of 30 years might apply) at 1120-1190 B.C.  The result is a gap of nearly two thousand years between the [Tower of Babel and their arrival]....

"In the genealogical list, the text identifies Morianton as a 'descendant' (rather than 'son') of Riplakish (Ether 1:23, 10:11).  Ether himself is a 'descendant' of Corihor.  Assuming that every other part of the genealogy were absolutely accurate, at these two locations we might have a plausible collapsing of generations.  Two other locations where 'descendant' is used in the original list (Ether 1:6, 16) suggest that there might be other places where there is the possibility of missing kings.  Hugh Nibley suggests: 'The first chapter of our text [Ether] gives us warning not to be dogmatic about chronology.  Three times in the genealogical list of thirty names running back to "the great tower" the word "descendant" occurs in place of "son" (1:6, 16, 23).'

"Although this caution is important, the chronology in the text itself corrects two of the three 'descendant' links to 'son' (Ether 11:23, 10:31).  This doesn't leave much room for missing generations.... While the king-list could be in error, it is internally consistent and there is no obvious reason to call it into question.  I believe that it provides a reasonable structure for reconstructing estimated time."

The Translation of the Jaredite Record and the Tower

"The Jaredite/Mesoamerican record itself seems fairly consistent and accurate, starting at the ending point (Ether and Coriantumr) and working backwards.  But it is difficult to connect the Jaredite/Mesoamerican story with a chronology that would include the Tower of Babel."

Gardner then pulls out other examples from later Mesoamerican history where cultural history was purposely linked to Bible stories due to some similarities (the building of a tower in one linked to the Tower of Babel).  This is "either because of [their] own belief in the Bible or awareness that a Christian-like narrative would be pleasing to the politically dominant Spanish....

"The provenance of the book of Ether is inherently problematic:
  • Ether is the original author.  His relationship to any actual records is completely unknown.
  • Mosiah (2) translates the text using the translators.
  • Moroni retells the text.
  • Joseph Smith translates Moroni's text into English."
Gardner further explains that three of these four transmission steps offer the opportunity of mixing up the histories with the Tower of Babel (as Ether would have not likely made this erroneous link to the tower).  Mosiah (2), Moroni, and Joseph Smith all knew the Bible story and if any of them made the "same kind of translation/historical conflation" as others have done, "then the tower story could have been read into the Jaredite story, rather than being original to it."  Gardner suggests that if this did happen, it was likely during Mosiah's translation, "as Mormon mentions the tower as part of Mosiah's translation (Mosiah 28:17).  Thus the tower appears in the narrative before Moroni's retelling of it."  Additionally, there are elements of Noah, Moses, and Abraham clearly in the Jaredite narrative, that in my mind continue to support this reading in of Biblical history into the Jaredite story.

Gardner understands that this contradicts traditional reading, and the assumption that scripture must be historically accurate, but it does help understand "how a text that is otherwise accurate to a time and place could miss a 'little thing' like a gap of two thousand years between the dates of the Old World tower and the date Gardner reconstructed using the average reign calculation of the king-list in Ether."

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Case for Laman and Lemuel

As long as I can remember, I've always wondered about the overly simplistic description of Laman and Lemuel by Nephi.  Nephi is writing his record 30 years after they left Jerusalem and the tensions between the Nephites and Lamanites are undoubtedly worse than ever, which doesn't help memories much.  Don't take this as me thinking that Nephi was wrong in his descriptions; he wrote what he felt inspired to write and didn't have the luxury or space to write everything from different perspectives.  What we have is sufficient for us to continue on the path of righteousness.

With that out of the way, a lot of the thoughts that follow come from Brant Gardner's Second Witness series.  Gardner and others he referenced provide some very interesting context surrounding the historical setting of 1 Nephi.  "The fall of Samaria and the northern kingdom [of Israel] ... [caused] the relocation of a large number of refugees from the northern kingdom into Jerusalem.  Among those refugees were likely to have been Lehi's great-grandparents....The destruction of Israel was a caution to Judah, but one that Judah did not heed.  Mistakenly assuming that his allies were more powerful than they really were, Hezekiah also rebelled against the Assyrian domination...."

Political Background

"King Josiah reigned from 639 to 608 B.C.  After his death, Egypt placed Jehoiakim on the throne as a vassal king who, after Babylon drove Egypt out of Canaan, shifted his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar but later revolted at his first opportunity.  Nebuchadnezzar deported Jehoiakim's son, Jehoiachin, and installed Zedekiah as a vassal regent.  Lehi received his call as a prophet under Zedekiah's reign."

Religious Background

King Josiah changed the religion of Israel in 623 B.C. removing all manner of idolatrous items from the temple, eliminating Canaanite practices; all done with the finding of an old law book (Deuteronomy) in the temple (similar to reforms made earlier by Hezekiah).

According to some historians, Lehi and his family fit into the category of people who left Jerusalem and did not agree with the reforms made.  The Book of Mormon represents Israelite religion in the pre-exilic (before they were exiled by the Babylonians) period.  Many themes of the Book of Mormon emphasize some elements of the pre-reform religion, though not opposed to all the reforms.

Possible Explanations for Specific Incidents

Understanding what was going on at the time allows for some interesting assumptions to be drawn as to why Laman and Lemuel were such murmurers.  During this time, there were not really any agnostic Israelites.  Gardner references that religion was not a separable component of life; religion was just how they lived their lives.  So to assume that Laman and Lemuel were just not that religious probably isn't that realistic.  If Lehi clung to the pre-reform beliefs, then it's likely Laman and Lemuel could have accepted the reforms made and thus saw no reason to leave Jerusalem or be unhappy with the way the Jews were living.

Laman and Lemuel are almost always referenced as a single entity, as if they had no individualistic thoughts or beliefs on their own.  This serves to simplify Nephi's story telling, but also makes it easy to reduce them to one-dimensional beings having no emotional or personal depth.

Laman was the birthright son.  Nephi's constant efforts to take the lead surely bugged them to no ends.  "A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country."  Their persecution of Nephi is not excusable, but how hard must it have been to see this taking place and having it occur to you?

The constant reminder that Jerusalem would be destroyed would also have been difficult to accept.  Jerusalem had been attacked several times in recent history and hadn't fallen yet.  It would have been easy to attribute the reason for it's continued existence as its people's righteousness.  Why would we need to leave if God has been blessing the city for its righteousness?  Surely there were other indications to the city's wickedness, but this would have been a pretty strong argument for the other side.

This list is by no means exhaustive.  I think it's helpful to try to see things through someone else's eyes.  Even if those people are proven wrong, it's helpful to see what it might have been that caused them to be so obstinately blind.  Any other instances with Laman and Lemuel you can think of that could be viewed through a different lens?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Answers to Prayers

Most of what follows was inspired by thoughts provided in Brant A. Gardner’s Second Witness series.

At the end of 1 Nephi chapter 2, Nephi has had a vision that shows him that he will become a ruler and a leader over his brethren.  Nephi continually makes parallels between his and Joseph in Egypt’s life to help support the unusual calling for a younger brother to rule over his siblings.  His vision came as a result of “being grieved because of the hardness of [his brothers’] hearts” and so he  “[cried] unto the Lord.”  

Chapter 3 then starts with him excited to tell Lehi about the vision and ensuing comfort received, but Lehi speaks first.  Interestingly, Lehi has also had a vision.  We’re not told about what prompted Lehi’s praying or if the vision came on it’s own.  I’d like to think that Lehi, as a parent, was aware of his son’s concerns about them leaving Jerusalem.  He likely was aware of Nephi’s attempt to soften their hearts and provide a second witness to the truthfulness of their father’s words.  Naturally, this seems like something Lehi would be praying to the Lord about.

The directive to retrieve the brass plates seems like a perfect answer to what Nephi and possibly Lehi were praying about.  The plates, we are told, were necessary so that they and their posterity would not “dwindle in unbelief.”

The Lord doesn’t always give us everything we need to start off with.  He didn’t provide the plates, liahona, sword of Laban, etc. at the outset of their journey to the promised land.  He waited for the opportune time to provide each, emphasizing important principles to them and the millions of people who have since read their words.