During a recent Gospel Doctrine lesson, a comment was made regarding the description of both Nephi's ship and the Liahona. In both cases, the "workmanship" is described as "curious" (see 1 Nephi 16:10 & 1 Nephi 18:1). The commentator linked this to God's influence in both the construction of the ship and Liahona. The teacher (who was actually a substitute) noted that he had never noticed the connection and mentioned in passing that such descriptions reminded him of the temple. This teacher was much closer to uncovering a deeper cultural and theological point than I'm sure he was aware. The journey of Lehi's family is often depicted in terms of the Exodus, which itself is shaped by creation imagery. Scholar Alan Goff illuminated the connection between Nephi's ship and creation two decades ago. After receiving divine instruction upon the holy mount, Nephi constructed the Lord's design much like Noah did for the ark and Moses did for the Tabernacle. Within all these accounts, the concept of creation is repeated and renewed:
These repetitions of the cosmogony are particularly important at times of new beginnings: [Mircea] Eliade points specifically to times when man "creates something (his 'own world'—the inhabited territory—or a city, a house, etc.)," but also when a new king is being consecrated, when the crops are imperiled, in times of war, or during "a sea voyage." ...Nephi says he is going to build a ship. This event qualifies in a number of ways as Eliade's time of primordial creation. The group is about to embark on a sea voyage; the ideological battle over who will be the ruler has been taking place and will continue; the group sees itself as independent of the Jews at Jerusalem (a new people) and will soon take the eponymous names of Nephites, Lamanites, and others; the group has undergone a typological exodus through the wilderness. This is a time of creation that relives the creation of the world, just as the building of Noah's ark and the Tabernacle in the wilderness relived the cosmogony.
Goff draws on scholarship that compares Noah's ark
with Utnapishtim's ark in the Gilgamesh epic. Each is specifically a re-creation of the world...[T]he flood stories in Atrahasis and Gilgamesh re-enact creation in the same manner as the Genesis account, and that the seven-day span of the deluge or the period prior to the opening of the ark in the Mesopotamian stories is a reverse analog to the seven days of creation in Genesis chapters 1—2...[Steven] Holloway includes the ark in this category [i.e. divine patterns] because the ark has the same dimensions as and in many ways is portrayed in the Bible as a ziggurat, or temple; the ark and the temple of Solomon share the three-level design common to Near Eastern cosmogonies that the portable sanctuary could never reproduce.
Inspired by Goff's article, John S. Thompson took a similar approach to the Jaredite voyage. In his article, Thompson brought together three main themes: creation, temple, and Christ. "The "great deep" and "wind . . . upon the face of the waters" echoes almost word for word the biblical account of creation, connecting that great event with the Jaredite exodus in the mind of the reader." Thompson moves to Christ's central role in the Jaredite exodus narrative, specifically the incident in which the Lord touches the molten stones presented by the brother of Jared. Thompson explains,
When the reader analyzes the narrative as a whole, he or she finds that the answer to the brother of Jared's plea for light is not necessarily limited to the illumination of the stones, though their presence in the narrative is significant, but it also encompasses Christ himself, the source of light. It is his finger that touches the stones, illuminating them. In other words, the brother of Jared's diligent search and humble request for light brought him face to face with the Light. This imagery brings to mind the Savior's words: "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk [or, in this case, cross the "raging deep"] in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12).
Such views are not merely "devotional" in nature (though Thompson's connection may have been), but are actually rooted in antiquity. In his award-winning book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, author Howard Schwartz describes the Jewish folklore surrounding an object known as the Tzohar: "When the world was first created, God filled the world with a sacred light, known as the primordial light...When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the first thing they lost was that precious light...But God preserved one small part of that precious light inside a glowing stone, and the angel Raziel delivered this stone to Adam after they had been expelled from the Garden of Eden, as a token of the world they had left behind. This jewel [was] known as the Tzohar..." Upon his deathbed, Adam passed the stone to his son Seth, who eventually entrusted it with Enoch. The family heirloom continued down to Noah, who placed it inside the ark. Following the flood, Noah lost the stone. However, the divine jewel ended up in the very cave that Abraham was supposedly born. The stone had powers to heal, while it enhanced Abraham's ability to study the stars. When the jewel eventually reached Joseph in Egypt, he used its powers to interpret dreams. Recovering it from Joseph's coffin, Moses was commanded to hang the stone in the Tabernacle, "where it became known as the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light."
Others have noted the existence of glowing stones in antiquity, yet I have not seen this connection between the glowing stone and the creation in Mormon studies (likely due to the Jaredite creation imagery being overlooked). Given the above information, the book of Ether appears to paint the following picture: Atop the divine mountain, Christ the Creator provides His sacred, primordial light (stones - tzohar) for the new Adam (brother of Jared) to place in the new tabernacle (barges) to shine for His new creation (the covenant Jaredites). Once again, the Book of Mormon brings a Christological paradigm to seemingly unrelated concepts.
But who needs ancient Jewish mythology when we have Living Scriptures?
1. "One meaning of "curious" in Joseph Smith's time was slightly different from "unusual." According to Webster's 1828 dictionary, the seventh definition is: "Wrought with care and art; elegant; neat; finished; as a curious girdle; curious work. Ex. 28:8." In the case of the Liahona, the idea that it was elegant and "wrought with care and art" seem to be a more apt description than "unusual." (Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Volume 1b - First Nephi 12-22. Greg Kofford Books, 2007. Kindle Edition. Comments on 1 Ne. 16:10.)
2. There may be something to this claim. I have only found four references to "curious workmanship" in the Book of Mormon. The Liahona is once again referenced in Alma 37:39 (by name in vs. 38), but Ether 10:27 refers to "all manner of work." However, vs. 28 states that the people "prospered by the hand of the Lord" (italics mine). It has been argued by Italian Hebraist Jonathan Curci that Liahona could potentially be translated as "the direction of Yahweh" or, more precisely, "to the Lord is the whither." The first part, li-, indicates possession, while iaho bares resemblance to Yah (Yahweh). The adverb 'ona is often translated as "whither" and means "direction" or "motion to certain place." The ball "pointed the way whither we should go in the wilderness" (1 Ne. 16:10). See Jonathan Curci, "Liahona - "The Direction of the Lord": An Etymological Explanation," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16:2 (2007). For an analysis of the Liahona's "curious" mechanisms, see Robert L. Bunker, "The Design of the Liahona and the Purpose of the Second Spindle," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3:2 (1994).
3. See Terrence L. Szink, "Nephi and the Exodus," Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, eds. John L. Sorenson, Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1991). For an explicit creation view of Exodus, see Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000). Enns covers this motif in several posts over at the BioLogos Foundation's blog Science and the Sacred: "Yahweh, Creation, and the Cosmic Battle," "Exodus, the Plagues, and the Cosmic Battle," "Exodus and the Cosmic Battle (Again)," "Exodus, Mt. Sinai, and Creation." Ph.D. candidate David Larsen covers this on his own blog Heavenly Ascents.
4. Alan Goff, "Boats, Beginnings, and Repetition," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1:1 (1992). Larsen also reviews the creation imagery in the Deluge myth. This understanding of ancient history/mythology should encourage readers to abandon scientistic, Hovind-like approaches to the Flood. For a more modern approach to science and scripture, see Duane E. Jeffrey, "Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions," Sunstone 134 (2004).
5. Ibid., pgs. 70-71.
6. Ibid., pgs. 73-74.
7. John S. Thompson, "The Jaredite Exodus: A Literary Perspective of a Historical Narrative," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3:1 (1994).
8. Ibid., pg. 106. Even more enlightening is the following insight: "Ether 2:1–3 also reflects Creation imagery in the "seed of every kind," "fowls of the air," "fish of the waters," "flocks," and even the creeping things of the earth—the "swarms of bees"—which the Jaredites take with them on their journey. The request in verse two that the Jaredites prepare a vessel for carrying fish seems odd to the modern reader, especially since the Jaredites would be traveling on water more than once (see Ether 2:6), but the imagery of Creation would not be complete without it, for every type of created being mentioned in Genesis 1–2 is represented here. These three simple verses could have been left out of the record if the writer's purpose was to report major events in the lives of the Jaredites, and, due to the difficulty of engraving on metal plates (see Jacob 4:1), superficial data would most likely be excluded. Therefore, the inclusion of this Creation-related data is a perfect example of how the selection of material gives the reader insight into the theme or themes which the author/editor tries to develop." (pg. 106)
9. Ibid., pg. 109.
10. Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 83.
11. The KJV translates tzohar in Gen. 6:16 as "window." The LDS footnote reads, "HEB tsohar; some rabbis believed it was a precious stone that shone in the ark."
12. Schwartz, 2004: pg. 84.
13. John A. Tvedtnes, "Glowing Stones in Ancient and Medieval Lore," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6:2 (1997); Hugh Nibley, "Strange Ships and Shining Stones (A Not So Fantastic Story)," An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: Deseret Book, 1964 ).