Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Book of Mormon Flood Narrative (Part II)

Part II of the essay I wrote comparing the Jaredite journey across the ocean to the Americas to other near-eastern flood narratives, especially that of Noah. This part considers more similarities between traditional flood narratives and the Jaredite account, and then compares the Ether account with the Genesis account more fully--especially in light of the documentary hypothesis, which by itself is able to be explored in more detail in future articles.


There is one area where the Ether account varies somewhat from the others. After the flood in Genesis withdrew, Noah built an altar and offered sacrifice to the Lord.[31] When Deucalion and Pyrrha exited their craft, they also built altars to appease their gods, then continued on and made temples for them as well.[32] One of the first things Atra-Hasis did once back on dry land was build an altar and offer sacrifice; his gods, who had unwittingly deprived themselves of the sweet scents of a burnt offering after drowning all of the humans, are said to have “gathered [like flies] over the offering.”[33] As for the Jaredites, there is no mention of an altar or a sacrifice. Instead, the record merely states that the people of Jared “bowed themselves down upon the face of the land, and did humble themselves before the Lord, and did shed tears of joy before the Lord, because of the multitude of his tender mercies over them.”[34] While it is still apparent that the people expressed gratitude to their God for saving them from the flood, this does show a departure from the other texts. However, this seems more like an omission on the part of a later editor than anything, especially since the chapters immediately previous to this are a parenthetical insertion from one of the men who, in the very last years of the historical period portrayed in the Book of Mormon, abridged the many texts that now make up the Book of Mormon. It reads as though this man (whose name was Moroni), after finishing his personal commentary, returned to the record a little haphazardly, perhaps glossing over parts of the account to shorten the overall length of the record. Moroni was writing on plates made of precious gold, which was in scarce supply to him at the moment—at this time, he was actually living as an outlaw, on the run from a civilization that had just destroyed his own. In an earlier part of the Book of Mormon, he wrote, “And behold, I would write it also if I had room upon the plates, but I have not; and ore I have none, for I am alone.”[35] It seems likely, then, that in order to conserve the dwindling space on his plates, he swept over large parts of the stories he abridged, thus leaving us with a very bare record in comparison with the original.

Ether departs again from the Mesopotamian accounts by not ascribing an incredible longevity to its protagonist, but it is not alone in this, as the Biblical Noah account does the same. In the story of Atra-Hasis, the gods devise numerous schemes to eradicate humankind spreading over a number of millennia, but the titular hero is always there to stop them, as though unaffected by the passing of thousands of years.[36] According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim was granted immortality after escaping the flood. This, in fact, is the very reason Gilgamesh sought him out; the warrior had grown to fear death, and so he wished to discover the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim.[37] Noah, on the other hand, receives no such blessing, and neither does the brother of Jared. Noah, it would seem, was destined for something less ambitious than immortality.

Looking at the etymology of a few of the names produces a similar dichotomy. For example, another Mesopotamian flood hero is named Ziusudra (or Xisouthros, depending on the source), whose name can be translated as “Life unto distant days.”[38] As for Noah, Kraeling notes: “The root a, from which Noah is manifestly derived, means first of all 'to settle down,' and then 'to rest.'”[39] The same root is used in Proverbs 21:16, in reference to settling down, or “remaining,” in the “congregation of the dead.”[40] Thus, while a common theme for the Mesopotamian flood narratives was immortality, the hero of the Genesis flood seems, if anything, resigned to “settle down” or “rest” eternally, along with the rest of humanity. If that be the case, then the brother of Jared would be resting there with him; after mentioning how the Jaredites had spread and multiplied across the land, the book mentions the brother of Jared as growing old and, eventually, as dying.[41] But while the Genesis and Ether accounts may not afford their heroes immortality, they both make specific mention to their protagonists multiplying. Concerning Noah, the Bible says: “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”[42] Concerning the brother of Jared, the book of Ether reports: “And it came to pass that [the Jaredites] began to spread upon the face of the land, and to multiply and to fill the earth....Now the number of the sons and the daughters of the brother of Jared were twenty and two souls....”[43] From looking at these two accounts, it seems that in the Hebrew flood narratives, rather than being awarded longevity through a gift of immortal life, the heroes of said accounts are granted longevity in their posterity. This would make sense given another major player in Hebrew traditions—Abraham, who the Bible records as being told by the Lord, “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore.”[44]

This is but the first of many characteristics shared between the Genesis and Ether accounts exclusively. This is understandable, given that they share the same basic religious background. With that in mind, it would make sense for the Ether account to most closely resemble the Biblical, and vise versa. Curiously enough, while the Bible refers to the deity involved as either “God” or “the Lord,”[45] in the Ether account, the deity behind the whole story is constantly referred to as only “the Lord.” In the English Bible, the titles translated as “God” and “the Lord” come from different Hebrew source-words; “God” is a translation of Elohim, while “the Lord” comes from Yahweh, or Jehovah.[46] Though often considered by modern readers to be one and the same, these are believed to actually refer to two separate deities: Yahweh, who was worshiped earlier in history, and Elohim, who was worshiped later. Biblical authors who wrote during these different periods would use the name they considered sacred as the name of God in their text; sometimes, when combining an “older” story with a “newer” one, the story would include both names.[47] This fact is especially evident in the story of Noah, where in some places the deity in question seems to switch from verse to verse.[48] Evidence strongly implies that the Hebrew Bible is mostly an amalgamation of what are known as the earlier “Jahwist” versions and the later “Elohist” versions[49]. The Book of Mormon, being a record entirely separate from the Bible, wasn't subject to the same redactions, although the book clearly tells us that the records in the Book of Mormon were abridged by editors immediately prior to the book's end. This editing is especially evident with the book of Ether, which seems to have gone through several editors before arriving as it is today. The book itself claims to be written by a prophet named Ether at the very close of Jaredite history; however, being a history of the entire civilization, it is no doubt based upon other records that were kept by the Jaredites throughout their existence, and therefore consists mostly of a historical account largely edited by Ether. This is then translated and edited by Moroni, one of the two principle redactors of the Book of Mormon (the first being his father, Mormon, for whom the whole book was named). Thus, to at least some extent, the original story had to have been affected by its editors, much as the Bible was. Judging from the rest of the Book of Mormon, it would seem that the authors (and especially the editors, Mormon and Moroni) could be loosely classed as “Jahwists,”[50] and so it should come as no surprise that the Ether account, as filtered through Moroni, is very Jahwistic. Bear in mind, the history of Mormon and Moroni's civilization begins about thirteen years prior to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. This would mean that the scriptures taken with Moroni's ancestors and used throughout their culture's history were, by that time, already Elohistic;[51] thus the classification of the Book of Mormon theologians, then, may be considered something akin to “Elohist-influenced Jahwists.”

The Jahwist verses in the Genesis account show Jehovah to be a fierce and wrathful god. It is he who is sorry to have ever made man, and he who declares venomously, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air.”[52] While the first Elohist command to gather animals for the ark mentions only gathering them in pairs,[53] the second Jahwist account commands that the “clean” animals used in sacrifices should be gathered in higher numbers[54]—presumably to allow Noah to continue making sacrifices to Yahweh.[55]

The Yahweh of Ether sounds very much like his Genesis counterpart. He is constantly described as being angry or destructive. Early in the record, when describing the time period when Jared and his family lived, the author wrote, “...At the time 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....”[56] Later, the brother of Jared enters into a covenant with Yahweh in order to enter the promised land: “And he [Yahweh] had sworn in his wrath unto the brother of Jared, that whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fullness of his wrath should come upon them.”[57] After living beside the sea for several years, the brother of Jared was chastened by the cloud-veiled Yahweh “for the space of three hours” because the man had “remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord.”[58] Yahweh's next words to the brother of Jared draw the connection between Ether and Genesis even tighter: “I will forgive thee and thy brethren of their sins; but thou shalt not sin any more, for ye shall remember that my Spirit will not always strive with man.”[59] Compare this with his nearly identical words in Genesis: “My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh.”[60]

Samuel Shaviv has a different interpretation of the Jahwist and Elohist accounts of the Noachite flood. He argues that the account shouldn't be read as two separate stories mashed together; rather, it should be considered the byproduct of an earlier polytheistic version, in which the high god Elohim and the lesser god Yahweh argue back and forth over whether or not to wipe out humanity.[61] When thus comparing the vicious and warlike Yahweh with the more peaceful and caring Elohim, one is reminded of the divine duels at the heart of the other Flood Narratives.[62] In fact, a key ingredient of each seems to the angry god seeking death being undermined by the loving god saving a chosen person or persons. For the Mesopotamians, the angry god Enlil stirred up the other gods into a frenzy every 1200 years to try and destroy the bothersome humans, at which time the more merciful Enki would go to Atra-Hasis and prepare him for the coming blight.[63] In Deucalion's version, Zeus was the obstinate god who, to borrow a phrase from Ether, “swore in his wrath” to destroy mankind; opposed to this was the titan Prometheus, who warned Deucalion and Pyrrha to stay in their chest and ride out the deluge.[64]

If the typical flood-narrative polytheism is obscure in Genesis, then it seems entirely missing from Ether; that too, like the Bible account, may be the work of later editing which chose to preserve only the parts involving Yahweh. Looking again at the verse where the author writes, “Whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fullness of his wrath should come upon them,”[65] it seems a pretty clear indicator that the Lord mentioned is a lone deity, what with the emphasis on the word "only." However, compare that with what follows:

And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fullness of his wrath shall come upon them....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....And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God...that ye may not bring down the fullness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of this land have hitherto done. (Ether 2:9-11)

It is especially evident in the closing sentiment ("...as the inhabitants of this land have hitherto done") that these are the words of a man who has already lived in the Americas and is speaking about the history of the inhabitants in the past tense; in short, these are the words of Moroni coming to us centuries after the story at hand, not the original words of the brother of Jared. The transition between the Lord speaking to the brother of Jared, and Moroni speaking parenthetically, is heavily blurred; it's entirely possible that Moroni redacted the text to eliminate unwanted polytheistic passages and better express his own monotheistic religious views.

This poses an idea contrary to common Mormon belief about the nature of the Godhead. While Mormons do indeed believe in a separately embodied Godhead as opposed to a three-in-one trinity,[66] and while Mormon scriptures do indeed mention multiple gods,[67] there is still a strict belief that the only being worshiped by Mormons as a God is Elohim, or Heavenly Father. Yahweh, according to traditional Mormonism, is the same being as Jesus Christ. Thus, the problem that may arise is: Should this theory be true, would the Godhead be better acknowledged as three polytheistic gods—gods who at times are known to quarrel amongst themselves?

Distasteful as some may find it, the three beings in the Mormon Godhead may be considered gods in their own right. One might look at it and suggest that a view of a separately embodied Godhead is, in its very essence, polytheistic (although such a term is inherently disliked by those who believe in this form of Christianity), and as the beings are separate in form, perhaps they are separate in temperament as well, not unlike Enlil and Enki or Zeus and Prometheus. While the Ether narrative contains no explicit mentions of a polytheistic pantheon of gods, it does prominently bear the scars of redaction from a much later form of Yahweh worship. It's not difficult to imagine Moroni, like his Biblical counterpart redactors, removing "unsavory" bits to highlight instead (or entirely create) pro-Jahwist sentiments in a document written during a much different era of worship.

In summary, the origin story of the Jaredite civilization as contained in the Book of Mormon shows unmistakable similarities with the ancient Flood Narratives. It begins with divine displeasure targeted at humanity. The solution for this problem is decided by deity to be a curse—often a literal flood, but in the case of the Ether account, a dispersion across an ocean—that would eradicate the problem mankind was causing. In an act of mercy, a righteous man is spared from the curse, along with his household. This same man is commanded to gather pairs of all animals in order to save them too. He then is told to board some manner of vessel and brave a treacherous water voyage. When the journey is finished, he offers gratitude to his god or gods as thanks for their mercy, then experiences some form of “longevity,” either in the form of an extension of his mortal life, or of a multitude of offspring. The story itself acts as a bridge between two important segments of a culture's history. In all these points and more, the story of the brother of Jared can be matched with the stories of Atra-Hasis, Ziusudra, Utnapishtim, Deucalion, and Noah as a Flood Narrative.

[31] Genesis 8:20.

[32] Kraeling, “Xisouthros,” 181.

[33] Lambert and Millard, Atra-Hasis, 99.

[34] Ether 6:12.

[35] Mormon 8:5.

[36] Lambert and Millard, Atra-Hasis, 67-85.

[37] Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, 75-88

[38] E. G. Kraeling, “The Interpretation of the Name Noah in Gen. 5:29,” Journal of Biblical Literature 48, no. 3/4 (1929), 139-140.

[39] Ibid., 141. Kraeling also points out a pun on Noah's name in Genesis 8:4, which says “...The ark rested...upon the mountains of Ararat.”

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ether 6:18-19, 29.

[42] Genesis 9:1.

[43] Ether 6:18, 20.

[44] Genesis 22:17.

[45] See, for example, the differences between Genesis 5:5 and 5:6.

[46] Although “Yahweh” can be spelled a number of different ways (Jahweh, Jehovah), I have used the spelling most common to academics on the subject.

[47] Gordon J. Wenham, “The Coherence of the Flood Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 28, No. 3 (1978): 336.

[48] Samuel Shaviv, “The Polytheistic Origins of the Biblical Flood Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 54, No. 4 (2004): 543.

[49] Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg, The Book of J (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), 273. In addition to the two scriptural accounts mentioned in the text, there were also “Deuteronomist” and “Priestly” accounts, followed later by general Torah redactors such as Ezra.

[50] See, for example, Moroni 10:34, the very last verse in the Book of Mormon, where Moroni writes, “I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead” (Emphasis mine).

[51] Bloom and Rosenberg, The Book of J, 6.

[52] Genesis 6:6-7.

[53] Genesis 6:19-21.

[54] Genesis 7:2-3.

[55] Shaviv, “The Polytheistic,” 547.

[56] Ether 1:33. Emphasis mine.

[57] Ether 2:8.

[58] Ether 2:14.

[59] Ether 2:15.

[60] Genesis 6:3.

[61] Shaviv, “The Polytheistic,” 527-528.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Lambert and Millard, Atra-Hasis, 67.

[64] Fantham, Ovid's Metamorphoses, 29.

[65] Ether 2:8.

[66] See Doctrine and Covenants 130:22

[67] See Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-20, 37.