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.