I was sure the simple instructions were wrong as I assembled the frame for the Casio electric piano I purchased for my wife for Mother’s Day. When it came time to add the pedal assembly, the instructions called for removing two screws holding a metal bracket in place on each of the side panels, and instead of the two screws one big screw would be put in place that was supposed to hold a bracket that could connect to the beam holding the pedals. But it made no sense, because the bracket would only just sit on top of the big metal screw and let the whole pedal beam wobble. It seemed like the bracket was defective. My wife encouraged me to just plod ahead and stick with the instructions.
It was only at the last step, when the big metal screw was tightened, that I could see how the system worked. It pulled a part of the metal frame in tightly to compress the wobbly bracket and hold it firmly in place. The system was actually pretty clever. It was only after following the instructions through to the end that everything finally made sense. The instructions were good, though they lacked (unnecessary) explanation to allay my concerns along the way.
That experience came around the same time I was reviewing some of the typical critical complaints about the mysterious barges of the Jaredites in the Book of Ether, chapters 2, 3, and 6. As with Noah’s ark, we really don’t know many details and have to wonder how much of the original record has actually been preserved and interpreted correctly. In the Jaredite story, we have a record passed on from Jaredite culture to the Nephites, and then on to us in telegraphic form. There are opportunities for a lot of helpful details to be lost.
Along the way, it’s fair to question the assumptions we bring to the text. Some LDS folks as well as critics have imported a number of assumptions. The idea of the ships turning upside down in the water is one that I don’t think is justified. These ships were peaked at the ends and had a top and a bottom. They may have been covered with waves from time to time, but nothing requires them to go upside down, though there would be some encounters with monster waves.
Another possibly errant assumption is that modern glass windows are meant in Ether 2:23 when the Lord explains that they barges can’t have windows for they would be dashed in pieces by the waves. A fair question is what exactly would be dashed to pieces, the windows or the barges themselves? I assume the windows are meant, but John Tvedtnes explains why this could refer to the barges themselves being at risk if the structure were weakened with multiple windows. In either case, glass panes are not required here. If the windows themselves are meant, as I’ve always assumed, other writers have noted that the warning about something being destroyed could simply refer to a window with wooden shutters. Whether wooden shutters or openings with translucent materials (fabric, parchment, etc.) were what the Jaredites understood, they would be a weak structure that would not be wise for the ships. Apparently small ports related to ventilation would be added that could be “stopped” with some kind of seal, unlike the action of shutters on a window. I’ll discuss the important detail of ventilation below.
Some critics have also wondered how on earth the Jaredites would not recognize the problems of lighting and ventilation until after the barges were completed, resulted in the brother of Jared’s prayer to the Lord in Ether 3 in which he presents the problem. Wouldn’t experienced barge builders have noticed that right away and raised the objection early? Yes, that’s a reasonable question. I don’t know the answer to that, but it may be that there were several components to the barges, and the final internal situation only became clear as the parts were brought together in the final assembly. For example, there may have been top sections which were added to the main bottom section in the end, and only then did it become clear that they had a problem. As with my electric piano assembly, a lot of things might not have made sense until they acted in faith and saw, several steps later, how things worked. Maybe they were expecting the final step to resolve the problems they might have been worrying about all along. When the disappointment came, all that was left was more faith and prayer, resulting in the real final instructions that did, in fact, resolve the problems.
The instructions may have come in stages, not all at once, so there might have been no reason to worry as they constructed the ship because they expected more instructions to keep on coming until everything made sense.
Whatever the sequence of events, the Jaredites did reach what seemed like the final stage of construction and were faced with unresolved problems: no light, bad ventilation. Now what?
The result of Ether 3 is that the Jaredites received miraculous glowing stones that would provide light for the journey. Were these radioluminescent materials? We don’t know, but the concept of brightly glowing materials is no longer scientifically ludicrous. Interestingly, there are ancient Jewish traditions about Noah also receiving glowing materials for the ark.
The ventilation issue is one that is especially easy to criticize. The Lord gave these instructions in Ether 2:
 And it came to pass that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me.
 And behold, O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.
 And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.
It is commonly assumed that the hole in the bottom is a hole below the water line. Some have proposed that it could have been a moon pool, and I personally long assumed it was an opening below the water line but with impermeable sides rising above the water line defining a moon pool that did not require elevated air pressure and that could be used to dump waste or even catch fish. But how would that help with ventilation?
Perhaps the Jaredite barges had structurally distinct top and bottoms. Since they were light and floated like a fowl on the water (Ether 2:16), a portion of the bottom section could have been above the water line. If so, the port in the bottom could have assisted in ventilation while also facilitating waste removal (and maybe fishing?). Here’s a rough sketch (click to enlarge):
The barges the Jaredites built for their travels before they crossed the ocean may have been similar, but without the sealed top portion. The top may have been assembled and locked into place in a final step that led to the sudden realization that they still had a serious problem.
It is also possible that both the top and bottom were crafted with sections that made it easy to add the final ports without just hacking away at the solid hull. But for both ports, when waves were high, there was the risk of water coming in, so being able to quickly stop the port was needed. They may have been hinged or completely removable.
One issue the Brother of Jared raised when he asked about lighting was steering. He wanted to see to know how to steer (Ether 2:19). Perhaps there was some mechanism for steering, such as a rudder, and so he wanted to be able to see to know how to steer. The issue of steering is not addressed after that, but perhaps it was resolved and not spelled out in the brief description we have. Maybe the upper port or both ports together provided enough visual access to guide the boats to keep them together (others have speculated that they may have been roped together, although that could be a liability when dealing with big waves and heavy storms).
OK, I really don’t know, and there are still many aspects of this story that are unresolved. But my experience with a confusing electric piano reminds me that many details in instructions as well as written descriptions might not make sense at first. What we are given may not be enough to understand the details and resolve our confusion, and these simple accounts of complex ancient voyages are likely to be that way. We can give up in exasperation, or move forward with faith and patience. In the end, that worked for my piano and I think it worked for the Jaredites.
- Hugh Nibley, “Strange Ships and Shining Stones“
- Michael Ash in the Deseret News
17 thoughts on “Jaredite Barges: Clearing the Air (with the Help of a Confusing Electric Piano)”
Seems a lot simpler to read the Book of Mormon as a Christian-American myth. By "myth," of course, I mean not a falsehood, but a narrative that conveys certain fundamental beliefs and values.
Also, wouldn't it make sense for the Jaredite mariners to keep the upper ventilator port open whenever possible, and close it only when necessary? I'm thinking of Ether 2:20:
And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and when thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air. And if it be so that the water come in upon thee, behold, ye shall stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.
This makes it seem as if the default mode is to have the barge closed up, and only open the port when things get excessively stuffy. Seems to me it should be the reverse. I mean, think about the climate. Think about all those people and animals generating all that body heat. With the barge stopped up tight like unto a dish and the Jaredites enclosed with entire "flocks and herds," how long would it take before they would "suffer for air" — 10 minutes? 20 minutes? In such circumstances, one would keep the hole unstopped whenever possible rather than waiting until one "suffered for air." I mean, do you know how much methane is produced by cows? Phew, the stink! Someone open the window! And somebody muck the stables already!
This would have at least made a little bit of sense:
And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: Behold, thou shalt make a hole in the top, and also in the bottom; and thou shalt leave the upper hole unstopped, lest ye suffer for air. Only when it shall be that the water come in upon thee shall ye stop the hole, that ye may not perish in the flood.
Too bad Joseph didn't have someone like me around for editorial advice. Most every writer needs a good editor, inexperienced writers especially.
Nice try, Jeff, but as any number of critics have thoroughly demonstrated, the whole barge story is implausible on its face. It's myth, not history.
And really, what's so hard about seeing one's scripture as mythic? Why tie your mind in knots merely to accommodate literalism? Why is the Church so committed to literalism as the proper way of reading its scriptures? Myth is a perfectly valid way to convey truth — a far better way than history, and more ancient and venerable to boot. So why insist on reading a supposedly ancient text as if it were an instance of this modern, new-fangled, liberal thing called "history"?
I agree with you that I would prefer the port to be open whenever possible, and maybe they were. The brief instructions we have point out that the ports can be opened to obtain fresh air. It does not say to then close them right away. Closing is only necessary when water is gushing in from waves.
I think the ports remained open and fresh air flowed freely through the barges when the weather permitted.
The number of people was small, distributed among the 8 barges. Animal numbers may have been small, too. There are numerous details left out that could add a great deal of "oh, now I get it" moments if we knew more, but without those details, yes, a lot of things seem difficult and strange. That doesn't mean it didn't happen. It doesn't mean that there weren't stops along the way, or that, in placid weather, they didn't bring boats next to each other end open up the doors and move things around as needed. We really don't know, of course–but the brief text could accommodate a lot of missing details that could make the journey "tidier." Or maybe it was as brutal and long as it seems.
Why can't ancient stories and myths be grounded in something historical? As in the Bible, there may be multiple accounts and sources patched together, multiple traditions brought together or providing competing details, but why does that mean there wasn't an actual event that was behind the myths? I don't think Noah's flood was global, but could the records and legends be based on a real Noah and a real ark that survived some kind of flood?
Five hundred years from now, brief accounts of the pioneers crossing the plains in handcarts might seem just as implausible and mythical as the Jaredites journey, especially once we run it through a couple of foreign languages for translation.
Is an ancient transoceanic journey to the America's impossible? I don't think so. Could it have been in barges that were able to withstand intense waves? I don't think that is impossible.
Presumably a small number of animals were involved. Need not be cows. But certainly bringing animals or humans along involves waste disposal and odor issues. The suffering for air might have referred to odor more than oxygen depletion. So a little cross-circulation was often needed–but they would encounter a lot of waves along the way and had to be judicious in opening the ports. Many questions unanswered, but the basic concept is not impossible.
Jeff, concerning the Jaredite voyage, sure, it could have happened. But if it did happen, it would likely have been described quite differently. The critics are saying that the account of the building of the ship simply does not seem grounded, even remotely, in the reality of shipbuilding. To describe the addition of lighting and ventilation as afterthoughts — that seems something much more likely to be done by an amateurish writer with no experience of shipbuilding. Yes, the language would have gone through a couple of translations, but it's hard to see how that would account for specific quotes that put some pretty silly words in the mouth of an actual shipbuilder who has already built several barges.
Also, Jeff, I of course agree with you that myth and fiction can be grounded in history. Just think of James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. There is plenty of evidence that there really was a country called Great Britain, and it really did fight a war in the 18th century with a real nation called France that involved real Indian tribes called the Hurons and the Delawares. This historical grounding does not, of course, change the fact that Last of the Mohicans is fiction. It doesn't change the fact that Natty Bumppo and Duncan Heyward never really existed.
Ditto for the Bible. There's plenty of evidence for the existence of many of its settings, peoples, and at least some of its individual characters.
The Book of Mormon is different. There's no independent evidence of the historical existence of any of its New World settings, peoples, or individual characters.
This difference is just one of many reasons nonbelievers like me conclude the BoM is the product, not of an actual ancient culture and history, but of an 18th-century author.
Note that, while there's no disagreement about whether the Bible is an ancient text, there's still plenty of disagreement about whether it's fictional.
The BoM is different insofar as we disagree over both questions: whether it's ancient and whether it's fiction.
Non-Mormons, of course, say that the BoM is not ancient and is fictional.
It would be nice if I could set up a nice 2×2 grid here, with Ancient-Not Ancient along one axis, and Fictional-Not Fictional along the other. That would show the four logical possibilities more clearly and perhaps help us better understand each other in these discussions. The BoM could be:
(1) Ancient and Fictional (as many of us believe the Bible to be, and as perhaps some theologically liberal Mormons believe the BoM to be)
(2) Ancient and Not Fictional (as Jeff believes the BoM and the Bible to be)
(3) Not Ancient and Fictional (as the "antis" believe the BoM to be)
(4) Not Ancient and Not Fictional
No one I know of believes in (4), but I guess it's conceivable. It would mean that Joseph wrote the BoM himself rather than translating it from ancient source, yet nonetheless somehow managed to provide an accurate history of New World events.
What would it mean if it were proved that the BoM really is an ancient text? It would certainly give a boost to the Church! But it wouldn't necessarily mean that the BoM's stories are not fictional, no more than the Bible's ancientness does with its stories. Just because the Bible really is ancient doesn't mean that Adam and Eve really existed! Ancient peoples were perfectly comfortable using myth and story to explain their reality, express their values, and convey their truths. The fundamentalist-literalist idea that myth and other forms of fiction is somehow not up to these tasks is a very strange one.
Similarly, proof of the BoM's antiquity would not in itself allow us to choose between (1) and (2) above. It could be that Joseph Smith was telling the truth about the gold plates all along, yet was mistaken in thinking they contained history rather than fiction. It could be that the Jaredits and Nephites, like the ancient Israelites, used myth and story to convey truth.
Of course if you accept Smith and plates, you need to reject what Moroni said about their content, which is incongruous.
With you carefully worded statement, I'm assuming you do recognize that we do have interesting evidence supporting specific Old World sites mentioned in the Book of Mormon such as Bountiful in Oman, the River Laman and Valley Lemuel, and the burial place Nahom. If so, thank you for at least acknowledging that in a subtle way. Or am I too hopeful?
As for specific New World locations, an importance difference relative to the Bible is that in the New World we don't have recorded Mesoamerican place names for well-known places that have persisted for millennia. Sites typically have Spanish names, and we rarely know how the name was known to the ancient inhabitants. One of the exceptions is Lamanai in Belize, which has a name similar to Book of Mormon names like Lamoni and Laman. Might be a coincidence, of course. The real point is that the discontinuity between modern geography and ancient place names in the Americas is a real issue. A related challenge is that only a fraction of Mesoamerican sites have been excavated, with far less progress that there has been in Bible lands.
Even if the Book of Mormon or any other ancient story from the Americas is true, figuring out where to place it is a challenge. We don't have easily identifiable Jerusalems to anchor the geography. But we do have consistent relationships between cities and terrain features that can be used to construct maps that can be correlated with various degrees of success with specific ancient sites. Though there are difficulties and debates, the progress in this area is much greater than you let on.
The convergence of things like volcanism in the right time and place with the details of geography, written language, warfare practices, and many other details etc. create something more than wishful thinking pointing to Mesoamerica as a serious candidate for Book of Mormon lands in the New World.
Anonymous, I'm not sure what you mean about rejecting what Moroni said. Can you explain?
Actually, Jeff, I left the Old World out of my "carefully worded statement" because the BoM refers to Old World places that are actually real but were well known to Smith from the Bible — Jerusalem, Judah, the Red Sea — not because I'm impressed with NHM.
But you're right to say that identifiable Nephite sites might be somewhere out there in the Americas, waiting to be found someday.
Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love you, tomorrow, you're only a day away.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time….
Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait!
Jeff, Orbiting had mentioned that Smith could have told the truth about the plates but that it wouldn't rule out the possibility that the Nephites and Jaredites could have written fiction. My point was that that view is a difficult position, since Smith said Moroni gave him the plates and that Moroni said they contained an account of real historical events. I know Orbiting doesn't believe any of this, but I was pointing out the problem with his comment in that regard. And of course that's why Mormons treat the narrative in the book as real history, which Orbiting was wondering about also. He could have figured this out, and answered his own question, or maybe he was just trying to be difficult. There's only fraud/delusion = fiction, or truth = historicity. No middle ground except for garrulous sophists.
Okay, not explain how the beautiful pea green boat used by the owl and the pussycat could have been constructed. I need a diagram.
Not an easy challenge, but let me give it a try. 🙂
Owls and pussycats are an improbably combination since one might eat the other, but when we consider the word "owl" in Early English would be "uf", according to the Early English dictionary at http://hord.ca/projects/eow/, and, given the late Early English northern regional consonant shift of "f" to "h", then it is not much of a stretch to see that the original "uf" might have actually been "uh" or, with a well-known diphthong variant, "eoh", which is one Early English word for "horse." Thus the seemingly implausible owl and pussycat actually becomes a much more reasonable horse and pussycat (actually, horse and curelom, when we examine the early roots of pussycat and some probably mistranslations leading to its current form). These animals embark on a transoceanic voyage, readily explaining the origins of pre-Columbian New World horses and possibly cureloms. Needless to say, the fine steel "runcible spoon" should be "runcible sword" and belonged to Laban, as one can see from exploring the Hebrew roots of runcible with some subtle consonant shifts. QED. And ready for peer review, no less!
Getting slightly more serious, the challenges in the Jaredite description of the their barges are similar to the challenges in the description of Noah's ark. How could adequate ventilation be provided from the one tiny window that appears to be part of the design? But this is where things get interesting. The Hebrew word zohar translated as the window of the ark has a meaning of light and, according to some old Jewish sources, might refer to a glowing stone used as a light source. Looking into this more deeply, there are some surprising ancient connections between the Jaredite barges and Noah's ark suggesting that the description is rooted in antiquity, whatever may be lacking in helpful scientific details. Some resources to consider:
—Hugh Nibley: Light in Noah's Ark & the Jaredite Vessels (collection of passages from his writings)
—Strange Ships and Shining Stones (A Not So Fantastic Story) – Dr. Hugh Nibley
—Michael Ash's article
—The Windows of Noah's Ark
Seriously, Noah's Ark was real? And the Tower of Babel? Sometimes I forget how far down the rabbithole we are.
Wow! Great article, Jeff. This is my first time commenting. I just wanted to say that your insights regarding LDS apologetics have been very helpful to me and my family.
About the Brother of Jared's question regarding steering in 3:19, it looks like the Lord indirectly answers that by saying in verse 24 that the winds are controlled by Him. Then, in 6:8 it says, "And it came to pass that the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind." Reading these verses, it seems apparent that the Lord most likely answered the steering question and that our record is just a little vague.
Oops, I meant to say 2:19.
I don't quite know what to think about Jeff's owl and pussycat comments. Intended humor aside, he captured the essence of apologetics and ridiculed it better than almost anybody else. I've suspected that there might be some disingenuousness in apologetics, and the fact that Jeff can willfully parody the tortuous arguments only makes me more suspicious.
There's more disingenuousness on the critical side than on the apologetic side. Just take a look at Shades' webpage on the Book of Mormon. It's full of old and bad scholarship, as well as misinformation, which is ironic in view of the title of his webpage.
Great article, Jeff. There is a comparable situation with the Phoenicia, the recreated Phoenician ship based on wrecks discovered in the late 20th century. Until these wrecks were found, the only evidence of Phoenician ships was from depictions in art:
"Contemporary representations of Phoenicians in Assyrian art depict a variety of Phoenician vessels. High prow and stern boats with horse heads appear on the embossed bronze band of a gate at Balawat featured in the exhibition. Two adjoining bronze fragments of the band depict Phoenician ships from Tyre and Sidon delivering tribute, including metal ingots and what appear to be elephant tusks, to the Assyrian king. Later depictions on the walls of Khorsabad and Nineveh show horse-headed ships dragging cedar logs, round-hulled merchant ships, and warships with long, pointed prows."
The Phoenicia was built and sailed around Africa. The next project will be to demonstrate how the Phoenicians could have sailed to America.