Category:Book of Mormon/Book of Ether

The Book of Ether

Parent page: Book of Mormon

Jaredite ocean journey is precisely the right length by currents

Certain things that might at first have appeared outrageous, on closer inspection have turned out to be right on target. The ancient Jaredite transoceanic migration that lasted 344 days (see Ether 6:11) ceases to seem so fantastic when that turns out to be exactly the length of time it takes the Pacific current to go from Asia to Mexico.[1]

Book of Ether has parallels to Ugaritic flood text elements not found in the Bible

What we wish to point out here is that there are various versions of the Flood story floating about, all of which tell some of the story, none of which tell all of it. The most ancient of these versions substantiates the Bible account to a remarkable degree. Let us place these side by side with Ether's description of the Jaredite ships, matching some twelve peculiarities of the latter with the same peculiarities of the magur-boat which was the ark of Utnapishtim, that being the Babylonian name for Noah. First the Jaredite vessels:
    1. They were built "after the manner of barges which ye have hitherto built" (Ether 2:16). That is, except in some particulars, these boats were not a new design but followed an established and familiar pattern—there really were such boats.
    2. They were built "according to the instructions of the Lord" (Ether 2:16).
    3. "They were exceedingly tight, even that they would hold water like unto a dish; and the bottom thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the sides thereof were tight like unto a dish" (Ether 2:17).
    4. "And the ends thereof were peaked" (Ether 2:17).
    5. "And the top thereof was tight like unto a dish" (Ether 2:17).
    6. "And the length thereof was the length of a tree" (Ether 2:17). "And they were small, and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of fowl upon the water" (Ether 2:16).
    7. "And the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish" (Ether 2:17).
    8. "And the Lord said . . . thou shalt make a hole in the top thereof, and also in the bottom thereof; and when thou shalt suffer for air, thou shalt unstop the hole thereof, and receive air. And if it so be that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole thereof, that ye may not perish in the flood" (p. 542, Book of Mormon, 1st ed.) An exacting editor by removing those very significant thereof's has made it appear that when Jared wanted air he was to open the top window of the boat and admit fresh air from the outside. But that is not what the original edition of the Book of Mormon says. For one thing, the ships had no windows communicating with the outside—"ye cannot have windows" (Ether 2:23); each ship had an airtight door ({{s||Ether|2|17), and that was all. Air was received not by opening and closing doors and windows, but by unplugging air holes ("thou shalt unstop the hole thereof, and receive air"), this being done only when the ship was not on the surface—"when thou shalt suffer for air," i.e., when they were not able to open the hatches, the ships being submerged (Ether 2:20).
This can refer only to a reserve supply of air, and indeed the brother of Jared recognizes that the people cannot possibly survive on the air contained within the ships at normal pressure: "We shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish" (Ether 2:19). So the Lord recommended a device for trapping (compressing) air, with a "hole in the top thereof and also in the bottom thereof," not referring to the ship but to the air chamber itself. Note the peculiar language: "unstop" does not mean to open a door or window but to unplug a vent, here called a "hole" in contrast to the door mentioned in verse 17; it is specifically an air hole—"when thou shalt suffer for air, thou shalt unstop the hole thereof, and receive air" (1st ed.) When the crew find it impossible to remain on the surface—"and if it so be that the water come in upon thee" (Ether 2:20), they are to plug up the air chamber: "Ye shall stop the hole thereof, that ye may not perish in the flood." This, I believe, refers to replenishing the air supply on the surface, lest the party suffocate when submerged—"that ye may not perish in the flood."
    1. "Ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you" (Ether 2:24).
    2. "Their flocks and herds, and whatsoever beast or animal or fowl that they should carry with them . . . got aboard of their vessels or barges" (Ether 6:4).
    3. "The Lord . . . caused that there should be a furious wind" (Ether 6:5). "They were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind" (Ether 6:5). "The wind did never cease to blow . . . and thus they were driven . . . before the wind" (Ether 6:8).
    4. "They were many times buried in the depths of the sea" (Ether 6:6). "When they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them, their vessels being tight like unto a dish, and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah" (Ether 6:7). "And no monster of the sea could break them, neither whale that could mar them" (Ether 6:10).

Now let us match each of these twelve points with a corresponding feature of the magur-boat that Utnapishtim built to survive the flood, not trusting our own interpretation but quoting from Hilprecht throughout:

    1. "This class of boats [writes Hilprecht], according to the Nippur version [the oldest], [were] in use before the Deluge." In historic times the type still survived but only in archaic vessels used in ritual, the gods "in their boats . . . visiting each other in their temples during certain festivals . . . the Babylonian canals, serving as means of communication for the magur-boats. . . . [Billerbeck and Delitzsch] show that a certain class of boats really had such a shape." All the main features of the prehistoric ritual divine magur-boat seem to have survived even to the present time in some of the huge river craft still found on the streams of southeast Asia—veritable arks built in the shape of Jared's barges.11
    2. "In all three versions of the Deluge story Utnapishtim receives special instructions concerning the construction of the roof or deck of the boat." Oddly enough he received instructions by conversing with Anu, the Lord of Heaven, through a screen or partition of matting, a kikkisu, such as was ritually used in the temple. In the Sumerian version God announces the Flood thus: "By the wall at my left side stand, by the wall a word will I speak to thee. . . . My pure one, my wise one, by our hand a deluge [shall be caused], the seed of mankind to destroy."
    3. There was in the ship "of course a solid lower part, strong enough to carry a heavy freight and to resist the force of the waves and the storm."
    4. "Jensen explains MA-TU as a 'deluge boat,' . . . adding, that when seen from the side it probably resembled the crescent moon. . . . Moreover, the representations of the sea-going vessels of the Tyrians and the Sidonians . . . show that a certain class of boats really had such a shape."
    5. "The principal distinguishing feature of a magur-boat [was] . . . the roof or deck of the boat. . . . We notice that in the Biblical as in the Babylonian Version great stress is laid on the preparation of a proper 'roof' or 'cover.' . . . 'Cover it with a strong deck' [Nippur Version, line 9] ' . . . with a deck as strong as the earth,' or 'let its deck be strong like the vault of heaven above' " (Second Nineveh Version, lines 2—3). It is quite plain from the emphasis on tightness in Ether that the ordinary vessel was not nearly so closely or firmly constructed.
    6. The lines containing "a brief statement concerning the measures of the ark" have been effaced in the Nippur version. The first Nineveh text says simply: "Its measures be in proportion, its width and length shall correspond." Since only one ark was built, as against eight Jaredite vessels, one would hardly expect the dimensions to be the same.
    7. "Furthermore in the First Nineveh Version the boat . . . has a door to be shut during the storm flood." The various names for the boat "designate 'a boat which can be closed by a door,' i.e., practically a 'house boat,' expressed in the Hebrew story by an Egyptian loanword, Tevah, 'ark' originally meaning 'box, chest, coffin,' an essential part of which is its 'cover' or 'lid.' "12
    8. "The boat has . . . a door to be shut during the storm flood and at least one 'air-hole' or 'window' (nappashu, line 136)." The word nappashu, meaning "breather" or "ventilator," designates no ordinary window.
    9. "The vessel built by Utnapishtim being such a 'house boat' or magur, this word could subsequently also be rendered ideographically by MA-TU, a 'deluge boat.' . . . A magur-boat, then is a 'house boat' in which gods, men and beasts can live comfortably, fully protected against the waves washing overboard, the drenching rain from above and against the inclemencies of wind and weather." The fact that the magur-boat was built to be completely submerged gives strong support to our preceding point.
    10. In a magur-boat "men and beasts live comfortably." In the second Nineveh version Utnapishtim is to take "domestic animals of the field, with wild beasts of the field, as many as eat grass." The Nippur version mentions "the beasts of the field, the birds of heaven." C. S. Coon, writing of the earliest water transportation known, says, "Dogs howled, pigs grunted, and cocks crowed on these sea-going barnyards." The idea that the oldest sailing vessels might have been built for the specific purpose of transporting men and animals together, often for vast distances, may strike the reader as strange at first, yet there is ample evidence to show that such was the case. The Asiatic river boats mentioned in point no. 1 above keep whole households afloat for months with their animals and poultry—an idea which, like the riding of buffaloes, seems utterly incomprehensible to the Western mind.
    11. "The Storm-winds with exceeding terror, all of them together raced along the deluge, the mighty tempest raged with them . . . and the mighty ship over the great waters the storm-wind had tossed." Thus the Sumerian version. "Jensen explains MA-TU as a 'deluge-boat,' seeing in it 'a boat driven by the wind,' 'A sailing vessel' . . . [But] a magur-boat was written ideographically MA-TU, literally 'a deluge boat,' not because it was a sailing boat driven by the wind or rather hurricane (abubu, shubtu), but because it possessed certain qualities which rendered its use especially effective during the deluge, when its exclusive purpose was to carry the remains of life and to protect men and beasts against the waters from below and the pouring rain from above." Though driven by the storm it had "nothing in common with a boat in full sail, (and) nowhere . . . is a sail mentioned, nor would it have been of much use in such a hurricane as described. . . . Besides, we observe that the pictures of the Tyrian boats referred to have no sails." A magur-boat was driven by the wind, but not with sails.
    12. "It shall be a house-boat carrying what is saved of life," says the Nippur version, its purpose being to preserve life and offer full protection "against the waves washing overboard."[2]

Joseph Smith and Jaredite Ships

Truly remarkable is the statement in Ether that the submarine nature of Jared's ships made them "like unto the ark of Noah," since that aspect of the ark, perhaps its most characteristic, is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, and has led to great confusion among Bible illustrators, ancient, medieval, and modern.14 The only peculiarities mentioned in the brief three verses of Genesis (Genesis 6:14—16) are the window and the door; but they, combined with persistent traditions about the ark, were enough to perplex the learned for generations. They lead us directly to the most puzzling problem of all—that of the illumination of the ark, for while the window is called a zohar (more properly tsohar), i.e., shiner or illuminator, in the Hebrew versions, the Babylonian word for it is nappashi, meaning breather or ventilator. Of course, all windows have the double function of lighting (hence the common fenester—"light giver"), and ventilation ("window"), but in a boat equipped to go under water other sources for both would have to be found, and it is in the lighting department that the Jewish sources are most specific. For the rabbis do not settle for the zohar—the lighter of the ark—as being simply a window: for some of them it was rather a miraculous light-giving stone. Its purpose, however, was not to furnish illumination as such, but to provide Noah with a means of distinguishing night from day. It is in that connection that the rabbis come to mention the stone, for a very important point in the observation of the Law is to determine the exact moment at which night ends and day begins, and vice versa. The rabbis, according to the Midrash Rabbah, "could not explain the meaning of zohar," but they did know that it had something to do with light in the ark.15 Rabbi Akiba ben Kahmana, for example, says it was a skylight, while Rabbi Levi said it was a precious stone. He quotes R. Phineas as saying that "during the whole twelve months that Noah was in the Ark he did not require the light of the sun by day or the moon by night, but he had a polished gem which he hung up: when it was dim he knew that it was day, and when it shone he knew it was night,"16 and to illustrate this odd arrangement, R. Huna tells a story: "Once we were taking refuge from [Roman] troops in the caves of Tiberias. We had lamps with us: when they were dim we knew that it was day, and when they shone brightly we knew that it was night." The reference to hiding from the Romans shows that this tradition is at least two thousand years old. But all such stories seem to go back to a single source, a brief notice in the Jerushalmi or Palestinian Talmud, which reports that Noah was able to distinguish day from night by certain precious stones he possessed, which became dim by day and shone forth by night.17

Plainly we have here statements which could have given Joseph Smith some hints in writing about the shining stones with which the vessels of Jared, constructed and operated "like unto the ark of Noah," were illuminated. Only there is conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith had no access to such material, either directly or indirectly, and equally clear evidence that if such material was available to him he did not use it. To consider the last point first, we can be sure that anyone who had access to the old Jewish sources, either directly or indirectly, had a gold mine of useful information at his disposal. Yet of all this wealth of material, the Book of Mormon exploits only one small detail—and that a detail that is merely hinted at in these sources, which say nothing about the stone or gem being actually used to illuminate the ark, but only mention it as a device for distinguishing night from day. But while the Ether version of the shining stones has only a distant relationship to one minor detail in the Palestinian Talmud, it follows much more closely and fully certain far more ancient versions of the story. From that it would appear that the Book of Mormon and the Talmud are drawing on a common ancient source, for there can be no question of Joseph Smith's lifting material from the latter. Why not? Because to this day the Palestinian Talmud remains a rare and difficult book. Only the most eminent rabbis ever read or cite it.18 Only four printed editions of it have appeared, two of them after 1860, the other two in 1523—24 (the Bomberg edition, containing no commentary) and 1609 (with a very short commentary in the margin).19 The commentaries are important since it is they that give us the various ancient theories about the stones. The language of this book is a terrible barrier, being the difficult West Aramaic dialect, rather than the familiar East Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud, which is fairly close to modern Hebrew. Who can and does read this book even today? It is full of technical expressions that nobody understands; it is a much smaller work than the Babylonian Talmud, and considered much duller.20 The scholars and ministers who studied Hebrew in America in the 1830s knew Rabbinical Hebrew no better than they do today; their whole interest was in the Old Testament, and if any of them ever looked into the Talmud we can be sure it was not the Jerushalmi. Recently Professor Zeitlin has deplored the almost total ignorance of Rabbinical Hebrew among the scholars who are attempting to interpret the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Granted that the language of the Palestinian Talmud presented an insuperable barrier to Joseph Smith and his friends, or for that matter to any scholar in America at that time, they would of course have used translations. Only there were no translations! In 1871 a small section of the work was translated into German, but it is not the section containing the account of the tsohar. After that there was nothing until Schwab's French translation, done between 1871 and 1890; in 1886 Schwab also undertook an English version but did not get very far with it.21 No translation was available in any modern language in 1830. If Joseph Smith lifted the story of the shining stones, it was not from the Talmud or any source known to his contemporaries; for they never charge him with plagiarism on this point, but only insist that his tale is the sheerest, wildest fantasy of a completely undisciplined and unbridled imagination.[3]

The Brother of Jared's Shining Stones

But who gave the brother of Jared the idea about stones in the first place? It was not the Lord, who left him entirely on his own; and yet the man went right to work as if he knew exactly what he was doing. Who put him on to it? The answer is indicated in the fact that he was following the pattern of Noah's ark, for in the oldest records of the human race the ark seems to have been illuminated by just such shining stones.

We have said that if the story of the luminous stones was lifted from any ancient source, that source was not the Talmud (with which the Book of Mormon account has only a distant relationship) but a much older and fuller tradition, with which the Ether story displays much closer affinities. The only trouble here is that these older and fuller traditions were entirely unknown to the world in the time of Joseph Smith, having been brought to light only in the last generation. But since the critics have said again and again that the story of the shining stones is the last word in pure nonsense and the surest index of a cracked brain, they deserve to be shown just how ancient and widespread this particular type of nonsense really is.

First of all, let us recall that "the brother of Jared . . . did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass" (Ether 3:1). Now the oldest traditions of India have a good deal to say about a wonderful stone that shines in the dark.23 This gem can be produced only by subjecting certain types of stone (or the heart of a poisoned person) to terrific heat—it must in fact be kept in an exceedingly hot fire for no less than nine years!24 By this process was supposed to be produced a perfectly clear, transparent crystal, which "would illuminate even the deepest darkness and sometimes shine as brightly as the sun."25 Now this strange belief did not originate in India, though it is very ancient there; Meyer and Printz have both traced it to distant China and the West. It receives prominent mention by certain leading thinkers of the Middle Ages, including the great Albertus Magnus. It was even believed in Europe that the Holy Grail was such a jewel and of such fiery power that the Phoenix bird cremated itself in its heat and was thus reborn, for among other things the stone had the power of regeneration.26

The common name by which this wonderful shining stone was designated was pyrophilus or "friend of fire," usually described as a perfectly transparent crystal and called in the Indian sources (which are the fullest) "Moonfriend" and Jalakanta. The last term is significant, for it means "that which causes the waters to part," the peculiar power and virtue of the stone, the most celebrated of all its many miraculous powers being a strange capacity for enabling its possessor to pass unharmed through the depths of the waters.27

So we have a very ancient, widespread tradition of a clear, transparent stone, formed by a smelting process requiring terrific heat, that shines in the dark and guides and preserves its owner beneath the waves. Surely a strange combination of clues, and yet one that has led the experts (to whom, of course, the book of Ether meant nothing at all) directly and unerringly to a single source—the story of the Flood and the ark! It became apparent that the story and legend of the pyrophilus stone did not originate in India when certain classical sources directed the scholars to the old Mesopotamian Flood stories. The philosopher Aesculapius, in a letter to the Emperor Augustus, for example, gave an authentic description of the pyrophilus, closely agreeing with the Indian accounts, but with the added information that such a stone had been the prized possession of Alexander the Great, who carried it always under his belt and would never part with it for a moment, until one day, wishing to bathe in a stream, he laid his belt and jewel on the bank, where a serpent promptly seized the stone, carried it off, and vomited it up into the Euphrates.28

That this story is no fantasy of the medieval imagination is clear from the fact that Aristotle, Alexander's teacher, mentioned such a stone in a lost writing,29 while long before the time of Alexander and Aristotle the story of the stone and its loss was identified with a much older Greek hero.[4]


  1. John W. Welch, "The Power of Evidence in the Nurturing of Faith," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 3, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 24, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  3. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 24, references silently removed—consult original for citations, Template:Io.
  4. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 24, references silently removed—consult original for citations.