The Jaredites are a people described in the Book of Ether (see Book of Mormon: Book of Ether) whose name derives from their first leader, Jared. The Jaredites date to the time of the great tower mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen. 11:1—9), which was built in or around Mesopotamia. Led by God, the Jaredites left their homeland for a new land somewhere in the Americas, and there they established a kingdom. They grew to be a numerous population with kings and prophets, and, like the Nephites after them, were eventually annihilated by internecine war evidently sometime between 600 and 300 B.C. Their story was recorded by their last prophet, Ether. Around A.D. 400, the last Nephite survivor, Moroni2, abridged the record of Ether and appended his summary to the account of the Nephites that had been prepared by his father, Mormon. Although the record is brief, it hints at an epic genre rooted in the ancient Near East.
The Jaredite origin in the Old World probably dates to the third millennium B.C., which due to the scarcity of historical material presents obstacles to the use of comparative literature or archaeology. Parallels with the ancient Near East can only be described in general forms, and no artifacts or writings identifiable as Jaredite have ever been found outside the Book of Mormon. But while parallels may be nebulous, certain Jaredite terms and names refer to practices, objects, or places in the ancient Near East. Several types, and a few specifics, may be analyzed in order to better understand the Jaredites and their civilization.
The principal theme of the Jaredite story is familiar in the genre of the ancient Near East. God calls a man to lead his people to a new and a promised land. Once settled in the land, the people alternate between stages of good and evil, relying on their king for guidance. When the king is good, the people tend to be good and follow God; when the king is evil, so too are the people. While parallels to the literature of the ancient Near East, especially the Old Testament, are apparent, the Jaredite narrative is unique in that the first leader, Jared, was not the one who received the call from God, but his brother (see Brother of Jared). The roles of the two men differ, as do the roles of king and prophet in the Old Testament. From the earliest days after arriving in America, the Jaredites had a monarchical government apparently patterned after Bronze Age Mesopotamian society.
The story of the Jaredites has an epic flavor. Stories of heroes, kings, and princes who perform great deeds dominate the Book of Ether. The heroes are great warriors who win decisive battles. Accounts dealing with cycles of life and death, good and evil, prosperity and hardship are the types of things that were done and written about in the epics in the Book of Ether and the epics of the ancient Near East (CWHN 5:283—443).
The Book of Ether begins with a genealogy spanning at least thirty generations, from the final prophet and historian Ether back to Jared. The list is reminiscent of genealogies in Old Testament or king lists common to antiquity. The thirty listed by name are:
Except for the lengthy accounts concerning the first and the last of these figures, all information about the people in this lineage is found in Ether, chapters 7—11. This dynasty endured for many centuries, always passing directly from father to son, except possibly in the case of Morianton, who was “a descendant of Riplakish,” following him by an interval of “many years” (Ether 10:9).
The Jaredites crossed the sea to the New World in eight “barges” in 344 days, driven by currents and winds. Their route is unknown. Perhaps coincidentally, the North Pacific current takes about the same time to cross from Japan to Mexico (Sorenson, p. 111). The question of ancient long-distance sea travel has been much debated, but extensive indications have been found of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyaging (Sorenson and Raish). The Bering land bridge “is no longer recognized as the only scientifically acceptable theory to explain the means and timing of human entry into the New World” (Dixon, p. 27).
The design of the Jaredite barges is unclear. They were built according to instructions given by God. Ether described them as being “light upon the water” like a fowl (Ether 2:16). They were “tight like unto a dish; and the ends thereof were peaked.” To allow light and air inside they had some sort of a “hole in the top, and also in the bottom” (Ether 2:17, 20). Ether also compared the barges with Noah’s ark (Ether 6:7). Thus it may be relevant that Utnapishtim, the Sumerian Noah in the Epic of Gilgamesh, similarly is said to have built his boat with a ceiling and water plugs, and to have waterproofed the entire inside with bitumen. Utnapishtim’s story also recounts the raging winds that slammed water into the mountains and people, vividly paralleling the Jaredites’ experience of being driven by a furious wind (Ether 6:6).
Stones were made to shine by the touch of God’s finger to light these barges. Shining stones are not unique to the Book of Ether. One reference to a shining stone in Noah’s ark appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, stating that a stone in the ark shone brighter in the night than in the day so that Noah could distinguish the times of day (Pesachim I, 1; discussed in CWHN 6:337—38, 349). Shining stones were also said to be present in the Syrian temple of the goddess Aphek (see CWHN 5:373) and are mentioned several times in the pseudepigraphic Pseudo-Philo (e.g., 25:12).
Little original detail remains about the culture of the Jaredite people. Some of them were obviously literate. While their royalty was strictly hereditary, sons sometimes deposed their fathers or were rivals to their brothers. Kings held their opponents in captivity for long periods, entered into secret combinations, and waged battles. The record indicates that some of these kings were “anointed” (e.g., Ether 6:27; 9:4; 10:10), sat upon beautiful thrones (Ether 10:6), and had concubines (Ether 10:5—6). Their economy was basically agrarian. They were settled people, the ruling lines living most of their long history in a single land called Moron, somewhere near and north of what would later be called the Nephite “narrow neck of land.” In some eras, the Jaredites built many cities and buildings (Ether 9:23; 10:5—12, 20). One of their kings “saw the Son of Righteousness” (Ether 9:22). They once fought off a plague of poisonous snakes that came upon the land as a curse (Ether 10:19). At times they mined several ores (e.g., gold, silver, iron, copper) and made metal weapons and tools (Ether 7:9; 10:23—25; see economy and technology). “Elephants” were useful to them (Ether 9:19). This may refer to the mastodon or mammoth, but it is not possible to date the final disappearance of these animals in the New World. A section in the Book of Ether talks of the hunt (10:19—21), a common pattern known in the Near East of the king who is also hunter. In this passage, the Jaredite king Lib designated the land to the south as a hunting preserve. An early Mesopotamian example of a royal hunter is Nimrod, who comes from about the same period as Jared. Other Jaredite parallels are of interest. The dance of Jared’s daughter for the life of Omer (Ether 8:10) has been compared with similar incidents from ancient lore (CWHN 5:213).
The theophany of the brother of Jared, in which he sees the finger of the Lord, parallels the story of Moses. The brother of Jared goes up a mountain to pray (Ether 3:1; cf. Ex. 3:1—3); sees the finger of the Lord (Ether 3:6; cf. Ex. 31:18); fears the Lord (also meaning “held in awe”; Ether 3:6; cf. Ex. 3:6); sees the whole spirit body of the Lord (Ether 3:13, 16—18; cf. Ex. 33:11); learns the name of the Lord (Ether 3:14; cf. Ex. 3:14); and, finally, receives a symbol of power and authority (Ether 3:23; cf. Ex. 4:1—5). The unique aspect of the story of the brother of Jared is his extended revelation concerning the nature of God, who appeared to him in a spirit body “like unto flesh and blood” (Ether 3:6).
Some Jaredite prophets were apparently similar to the prophets in biblical Israel. They condemned idolatry and wickedness, and foretold the annihilation of the society and destruction of the people unless they repented. Although some prophets received the protection of the government, most were rejected by the people, and, like Ether, were forced to hide for fear of their lives. Ether’s prophecies looked beyond the despair of the final destruction of his people toward the future destiny of the Jaredite land. He foresaw it as the place of “the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven, and the holy sanctuary of the Lord” (Ether 13:3).
The final battle reported by Ether took place at the hill Ramah, the same place where Mormon later buried the sacred Nephite records (Ether 15:11). The war involved two vast armies, and hostilities continued several days until all the soldiers and one of the kings were slain. An exhausted Coriantumr culminated his victory over Shiz by decapitating him. Near Eastern examples of decapitation of enemies are evident in early art and literature, as on the Narmer palette; and decapitation of captured kings is represented in ancient Mesoamerica (Warren, pp. 230—33). Coriantumr was later discovered by the people of Zarahemla (Mulekites), with whom he lived for “nine moons” (Omni 1:21). Ether’s plates (historical records), together with the decayed remains from the final Jaredite battle were later found by a group of lost Nephites who were searching for the city of Zarahemla (Mosiah 8:8—11).
Ether writes of the annihilation of his people, but this was not necessarily an extermination of the entire population. One may assume that many of the commoners were not in the two armies and thus survived after these wars. The Jaredite people were crushed and dispersed, but probably not exterminated, since explicit features of Jaredite culture (especially personal names) were later evident in the Nephite culture (CWHN 5:237—41; Sorenson, p. 119).
The similarity between the Jaredite and Nephite histories is striking. But the similarity may be chiefly one of literary convention, which Moroni used to compare the two peoples. Other than possessing similar epic tales of people who were led across the sea to build kingdoms that eventually fell, the underlying cultures were probably quite different; for example, the Jaredite laws and government predate the Law of Moses, and thus their system of justice was different from that of the Israelites and Nephites.
The message drawn by Moroni from the histories of the Jaredites and the Nephites is, however, the same: God revealed himself to both peoples. He gave both a land of promise, where their prosperity was conditioned on righteousness. Both met their demise because of wickedness and secret combinations, and both endings are included in the Book of Mormon to teach this hard-learned lesson. Concerning this, Moroni states: “The Lord worketh not in secret combinations, neither doth he will that man should shed blood, but in all things hath forbidden it, from the beginning of man” (Ether 8:19).
Hugh Nibley provides material on the Jaredites in The World of the Jaredites and There Were Jaredites, in Vol. 5 of CWHN; see also CWHN 6:329—58; reviewed and updated by D. Honey, “Ecological Nomadism Versus Epic Heroism in Ether,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 2 (1990): 143—63. On the epic genre, see H. Munro Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, 3 vols. (Cambridge, England, 1932—1940), especially Vol. 1; Samuel Noah Kramer, “New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East,” American Journal of Archaeology 52 (1948): 156—64; David M. Knipe, “Epics,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 5, pp. 127—32, and T. G. Panches, “Heroes and Hero-Gods (Babylonian),” in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 6, pp. 642—46 (New York, 1951). Concerning kingship in the ancient Near East, see Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago, 1948). An English translation of the story of Noah’s lighted stones may be found in Louis Ginzberg, ed., The Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, pp. 162—63 (Philadelphia, 1937). On possible ancient connections between the Old World and the New, see John L. Sorenson and Martin H. Raish, Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography (Provo, Utah, 1990). See also Cyrus H. Gordon, Before Columbus: Links between the Old World and Ancient America (New York, 1971); Carroll L. Riley, et al., eds., Man across the Sea: Problems of Pre-Columbian Contacts (Austin, 1971), especially the chapter by Sorenson. See also E. James Dixon, “The Origins of the First Americans,” Archaeology 38, no. 2 (1985): 22—27; Thor Heyerdahl, Early Man and the Ocean (Garden City, N.Y., 1979); and Bruce W. Warren, “Secret Combinations, Warfare, and Captive Sacrifice in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” in S. Ricks and W. Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon, pp. 225—36 (Salt Lake City, 1990). John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, 1985), guides the reader through the archaeology of Mesoamerica and proposes possible Jaredite locations in areas occupied at comparable times, during the early and middle preclassic periods in Mexico, which include the Olmec civilization.
Sorenson, John L. “New Discoveries in Mexico on the Jaredite Period.” Insights: An Ancient Window, March 1991, 2.
Morgan W. Tanner