Monday, December 19, 2011

A Book of Mormon Flood Narrative (Part I)

About a year and a half ago, I took an Honors English course at BYU called "Writing About Religion" (Honors 300R) taught by Boyd Peterson. It was, in hindsight, one of my favorite classes at BYU (at least so far) and one of the most influential to my personal writing and research style. As a final project for that class, I wrote the following article over a two and a half day period locked away in the campus library until the wee hours of the morning.

Due to its length, it will be presented in two parts.


When considered as a historical document, the Book of Mormon—a book considered scripture by several churches, most notably the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ—offers many interesting parallels with ancient beliefs and customs. Such parallels not only indicate to at least some degree a possible ancient origin for the text, they also open an avenue for further clarification of those same practices mirrored therein. A remarkable parallel exists in the latter half of the book, in a section known as the Book of Ether, where a group of nomads called the Jaredites migrated away from the vicinity of the tower of Babel and, eventually, traveled by boat to the Americas. This exodus marked the departure of this story from the Biblical account, and in order to represent this important transition period, the author or authors of the account relied on the common Near Eastern archetype of a flood narrative. The evidence of this can be seen when the story elements common to several different narratives are compared with the Ether account; also, because of the similarity of the two, special comparison may be made between the Ether and the Genesis accounts.

In saying this, it should be understood that the story of the Jaredite exodus is not a flood account in and of itself; as it is, it doesn't even have a proper flood! Rather, it relies on the conventions and symbols common to flood accounts to offer an origin story for the Jaredite civilization. Most flood narratives act as bridges between two distinct periods of civilization[1]—most often between the more myth-based earlier years and the more history-based later years.[2] In like manner, the Ether account uses flood imagery to bridge their early history (doubtless considered mythic to later Jaredites, especially after living in the Americas for hundreds of years) with their later history (again, doubtless based on more concrete historical records). The Book of Ether makes it clear that the Jaredites both knew of and were, in general, inclined towards the same manner of worship as their contemporary Hebrews. It can therefore be reasoned that they had a knowledge of the story of Noah's flood, if such a story already existed among the Hebrews at the time;[3] at the very least, they were probably familiar with Mesopotamian flood myths, coming as they did from Babel in the plains of Shinar.[4] In any case, there are certain elements that almost all major flood narratives hold in common, most especially the Mesopotamian myths (be the protagonist Utnapishtim, Xisouthros/Ziusudra, or Atra-Hasis), the Genesis flood story, and the Greek myth of Deucalion, the son of Prometheus; and these same elements are present in the Ether account.

Invariably, the story begins as a dispute between Deity and mankind. For the God of Noah, it was the disobedience of creation that got his ire up, and so he decreed to let lose the waters of heaven and earth and wipe the land clean of its wicked hosts.[5] For Deucalion, Zeus' rage at the cannibal sacrifice of the wicked king Lycaon led to his disappointment with man in general and his destruction of all men on the earth.[6] For Atra-Hasis, the source is less religious in nature: the gods seek to destroy mankind because, as the men have multiplied, they have become noisier and noisier, and the gods can find no rest.[7] Something must be done about these problems, and in each case it is decided to eradicate mankind from the face of the earth.

However, there is always a righteous man whose family is spared. Atrahasis was a prominent king with a keen friendship with the god Enki; after this same god was forced by the other gods to unleash the flood, Enki tells Atra-Hasis to gather his family and build a boat.[8] The Bible states that Noah was a “just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God,” and for his righteousness he was told that he and his kin needed to build an ark to protect themselves from the flood.[9] In the Greek, Deucalion was a pious man, and so, being apprised of Zeus' wrath, hid himself and his wife in a large wooden chest.[10] In every story, the narrative's protagonist saved not only his family and possessions, he rescued two of every kind of animal as well, thus preserving the various species for after the deluge.[11]

Time passed and the rains came down, and the peoples of the earth were destroyed; whether it was Zeus, the Babylonian gods, or the God of the Hebrews who instigated the torrent, inevitably the belligerent humans are drowned. In spite of this destruction, the few chosen survivors resided safely aboard their vessels, and when the waters receded enough, they landed safely atop a mountain. They then offered sacrifice, either to appease the angry deities who caused the flood, or to thank the pleasant deities who spared their lives. The flood abated, and mankind began again to multiply—whether by natural means, as with Noah and his sons, or by supernatural, as with Deucalion.[12]

The account as recorded in the Book of Ether is no less exciting than any of the previous examples. The ancestors of the Jaredites originally inhabit the area of the tower of Babel (which Emil G. Kraeling asserts would be better rendered “the city of Babel,” or Babylon).[13] One of their number, a man named Jared, was forewarned of the impending curse upon Babel, and so he implored his brother (referred to throughout as “the brother of Jared”): “Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words.”[14] This same brother of Jared becomes the story's main protagonist, despite never being specifically named in the text.[15]

Upon pleading with the Lord, the brother of Jared receives the following command: “Go to and gather together thy flocks, both male and female, of every kind; and also of the seed of the earth of every kind; and thy families; and also Jared thy brother and his family; and also thy friends and their families, and the friends of Jared and their families.”[16] After gathering the people and animals mentioned in the command, Jared and his brother lead their band away from Shinar and into the wilderness, with constant supervision coming from the Lord in the form of a cloud to the brother of Jared. Out there, away from Babel, they crossed the land in a great caravan, often passing through various bodies of water in ships referred to as “barges.” Eventually, the migrants arrive at the edge of the ocean, where they encamp for several years. After four years, the brother of Jared again speaks with the Lord, and is told that he and the rest of the people shall once more construct their barges, only this time they will use them to cross the ocean and arrive in the Americas (referred to as the “Promised Land”).[17]

Following this is a lengthy aside where the brother of Jared, concerned for the welfare of his tribe while on board these barges, asks the Lord for help. Specifically, he asks the Lord to find a way for the barges to be lit within, and to allow in fresh air. The Lord tells the brother of Jared to add portals to the top and bottom of the barges that can be opened to allow in fresh air, then states that he wants his servant to come up with the rest.[18] The brother of Jared returns to the Lord with sixteen stones and the idea that, if the Lord touches the stones with his finger, they will glow and thus provide light in the barges. As the Lord touches them, the brother of Jared sees the Lord's finger, and as a result is shown the Lord in his fullness. This theophany acts as a prelude to an apocalyptic vision not recorded in our current text.[19]

Returning to the main narrative, the people of Jared board their barges and set out into the ocean. Guided by divinely affected weather patterns, they drift through the waters of the ocean for three hundred and forty four days before arriving at last in the “Promised Land.” There they disembark and give praises to the Lord for his merciful guidance in their travels.[20]

The parallels between this story and the other flood narratives are easy to spot, even in this brief summation. The catalyst for the wrath of deity was the wickedness of the people of Babel, who, as they gathered into an urban multitude, forsook the proper worship of their God.[21] As written in the text, “...The Lord confounded the language of the people, and swore in his wrath that they should be scattered upon all the face of the earth....”[22] The Bible's version of this says: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth....”[23] Interestingly, Emil Kraeling stated that the story of the tower of Babel should be taken “as the sequel” of the Genesis flood story,[24] which further solidifies the link between the Noachite and the Jaredite flood accounts.

In order to spare the righteous from this punishment, the Lord chose Jared and his friends and family, exactly like Noah, Atra-Hasis, Utnapishtim, Deucalion, and countless others. Again, not only does he spare the righteous people, but animal life as well—remember the specific mention of “flocks, both male and female, of every kind” in Ether 1:41. This is described in even more detail as follows:

And it came to pass that Jared and his brother, and their families, and also the friends of Jared and his brother and their families, went down into the valley which was northward, (and the name of the valley was Nimrod, being called after the mighty hunter) with their flocks which they had gathered together, male and female, of every kind. And they did also lay snares and catch fowls of the air; and they did also prepare a vessel, in which they did carry with them the fish of the waters. And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind. (Ether 2:1)

The ark motif is similarly apparent. The Jaredite transports are a number of barges, which the text's author describes as being “small” and “light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water.”[25] He goes on to describe them in further detail:

And they were built after a manner that 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; and the ends thereof were peaked; and the top thereof was tight like unto a dish; and the length thereof was the length of a tree; and the door thereof, when it was shut, was tight like unto a dish. (Ether 2:17)

This is reminiscent, of course, of the Genesis description of the Ark:

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. (Genesis 6:14-16)

More than that, it is also reminiscent of the description Utnapishtim offers Gilgamesh concerning the construction of his own ship in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh Epic: “On the fifth day [I] laid its framework. One iku was its floor space, one hundred and twenty cubits each was the height of its walls; one hundred and twenty cubits measured each side of its deck. I 'laid the shape' of the outside (and) fashioned it.”[26]

While the Ether account doesn't contain an actual flood (much less one sent from God to destroy the wicked), it makes up for the lack by constantly using flood imagery when referring to the ocean. When describing the holes used to receive fresh air, the Lord said, “And if it so be that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.”[27] The Lord later comforted the brother of Jared concerning the future voyage by saying, “Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth.”[28] A few lines later he stated again: “For ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come.”[29] Even when floods are not specifically mentioned, the descriptions of their voyage express a similar sentiment: “And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them, and also the great and terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind.”[30]


For the exciting conclusion, please tune in to "A Book of Mormon Flood Narrative (Part II)."

[1] Isaac M. Kikawada “Noah and the Ark,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1127. Kikawada describes how Moses parting the Red Sea is another example of, as he puts it, an “epoch-dividing Flood.”

[2] Emil G. Kraeling, “The Earliest Hebrew Flood Story,” Journal of Biblical Literature 66, No. 3 (1947): 279.

[3] Ibid. See, however, Ether 6:7 for a brief mention of “the ark of Noah;” whether this be from the original author, or added by a later editor (such as those mentioned in the text, namely, Ether or Moroni), is unclear.

[4] Ether 1:33; see also KJV Genesis 11:2.

[5] Genesis 6:5-7.

[6] Elaine Fantham, Ovid's Metamorphoses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 28. According to Ovid, Zeus chose a flood over his customary lightning bolt because he was afraid that, by incinerating the earth, he might accidentally incinerate all of the cosmos.

[7] W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-Hasis, the Babylonian Story of the Flood ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), 67. Prior to the flood, the gods also tried plague, drought, and famine, but every 1200 years mankind would again become numerous and noisy enough to bother the gods.

[8] Ibid., 89.

[9] Genesis 6:7-14.

[10] Emil G. Kraeling, “Xisouthros, Deucalion and the Flood Traditions,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 67, No. 3 (1947): 181.

[11] For Deucalion's account, see Ibid. For Atra-Hasis' account, see Lambert and Millard, Atra-Hasis, 93. For Noah's account, see Genesis 6:19-21 and 7:1-3.

[12] Kraeling, “Xisouthros,” 182. Deucalion and his wife, Pyrrha, are told to cast stones over their shoulders; the stones cast by Deucalion become men, while the stones cast by Pyrrha become women. See also Fantham, Ovid's Metamorphoses, 30.

[13] Kraeling, “The Earliest Hebrew,” 282. Kraeling claims that the Biblical account refers to the creation of the city of Babylon, done to help unify the people and keep them from scattering across the land; however, they did so without offering sacrifice to God, and for that they were scattered and their language confounded.

[14] Ether 1:34.

[15] Mormon tradition asserts that his name is Mahonri Moriancumer. The name Moriancumer is used as a place name in Ether 2:13.

[16] Ether 1:41.

[17] Ether 2:1-7, 13, 16-17.

[18] Ether 2:19-24.

[19] Ether 3:1-17.

[20] Ether 6:2-12.

[21] Kraeling, “The Earliest Hebrew,” 282.

[22] Ether 1:33.

[23] Genesis 11:7-8.

[24] Kraeling, “The Earliest Hebrew,” 281.

[25] Ether 2:16.

[26] Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949), 82.

[27] Ether 2:20.

[28] Ether 2:24.

[29] Ether 2:25.

[30] Ether 6:6.