It’s difficult to wrap my head around the book of Ether completely. Mormon ends his summary of the Nephite people describing the complete downfall of his civilization into chaos and civil war. His son, Moroni carries on for a couple of chapters describes the dismal landscape and what seems like isolation and despair – the aftereffects of being the last member of an annihilated people. In the midst of this, he decides to include the summary of a still more ancient people and their annihilation. This people, the Jaredites, a people originating from the Biblical narrative detailed in Genesis about the confounding of the languages at the tower of Babel. Their language is not confounded, but they are scattered, led by the power and mercy of God to the New World. Hundreds and hundreds of years go by until their society is utterly and completely destroyed. Their record left behind for the Nephite civilization to discover it and for Moroni to summarize it.
Moroni, in the midst of his own war-torn hell-scape feels compelled to summarize the hell-scape of a people who preceded him. Right before the end, Moroni pauses on the last prophet, Ether, for whom the record is named, who “could not be restrained because of the Spirit of the Lord which was in him. For he did cry from the morning, even until the going down of the sun, exhorting the people to believe in God unto repentance…” (Either 12:2-3).
The Book of Mormon speaks primarily at societal levels. Occasionally, the narrative zooms into the personal as it does here for a moment with Ether, who nonetheless is trying to address his entire community. It’s kind of vague here. How exactly was this message delivered? What does the scriptures mean here by repentance? Of what, precisely?
Perhaps, the point of the Christian message is not the precise sin that we’re guilty of, perhaps there is a general call to all people to enter into a life of repentance and forgiveness. Perhaps we need to recognize our fallibility and our proneness to error and lean into each other all the more. At a societal level, violence occurs when softer means of communication stop working. If we took on the spirit of good-faith, trust, meekness, and faith, war breaks down to. Perhaps this is what Ether is responding to.
Ether 12:4 is one of my favorite verses in all of scripture:
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.”Either 12:4
This passage is a way to address the fundamental unjustness of the world. No matter who we are or where our place in life lies, we can with surety hope for a better world. This hope within us to make this world better. It’s the hope for a better world that can become an anchor to our souls, sure and steadfast, moving us into greater charity, love and concern for others. It’s our call to do what we can to make that world better now all the while recognizing a hope for a better world to come.
Through the rest of the chapter, Moroni injects himself into the commentary. In verse 6, he defines faith using words very similar to those found in Hebrews: “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” Ether 12:6.
Faith and hope are tied together here. Moroni spends several verses listing examples of faith. That it was through faith Jesus came to those in America, through faith prophets were called, faith that Moses brought forth the law, faith that Alma and Amulek brought down prison walls, faith that Nephi and Lehi converted the Lamanites, faith that miracles happen, and it will be by faith that this record will come forth to the ancestors of the very people who destroyed Moroni’s tribe and by faith this record will bring them to the knowledge of the gospel.
It’s here that Moroni is worried about the countless people who will read his writing, unedited as it will be. This level of insecurity comes natural to any of us who’ve tried to work on something for the benefit of others, that our gifts will be rejected. “‘Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing;…'” God responds, “my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; and if men come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” Ether 12:23, 27.
I’m wondering if this is why it’s so hard for us to come unto Jesus. We come unto Jesus so that he will show unto us our weakness. The price of admission is deep humility, an utter dependence on God’s grace. Then through grace, God will magnify our sacrifice, sanctifying it so that we can bless the world, not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those who may receive it.
Moroni recognizes his weakness will be amplified through grace, but even that may not be enough if the recipient fails to receive our gifts. The recipients of the record must extend charity, “wherefore, except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of thy Father.” (Ether 12:34). And that is true not just here but in all parts of life. We do our best, we pray for grace and we hope that those who accept our gifts will receive it with charity that it may have maximum benefit. And it can. As we receive, listen and read works produced by others with an open heart full of love, both the hearer and the receiver are edified.
In Ether 13, Moroni returns to the prophecies of Ether and the people’s response to him:
For behold, they rejected all the words of Ether, for he truly told them of all things, from the beginning of man; and that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that all men should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof;Ether 13:2
The prioritization of the sacred history runs through the Book of Mormon. We forget or minimize our history to our peril. It’s our duty to see the sacred narrative of the world, recognize our place in it. This passage also seems to prioritize the land, to an extent, over the people who occupy it. Sacred places persist long after the human lives who try to exploit it.
This chapter also elevates sacred cities, the restoration of Jerusalem and the creation of a New Jerusalem in the new world, tying the new world directly to Israel. Interestingly, the United States, historically, is linked to Britain. Our cities and regions are linked to European cities, “New England, New York, New Hamphsire”, etc. We don’t have a New Jerusalem, only an old. Bringing new version of old things from Eurpoean culture out into the broader world has always been a product of imperialism, oddly. Israel has never participated in such. They’ve always the scattered, holding on to an ancient culture and religion despite the world’s best efforts to purge it from the earth. But the US has always been predominantly a Gentile country, although a friend to Israel. But the Book of Mormon’s prophesies of a gathering and describes it as an adoption into the Israeli family. There are many ways to think of this, I believe the most expansive interpretation is correct. Where the global cultures inspire and influence into something bigger and more expansive. A religion to hold all religions. That the Book of Mormon speaks to this phenomenon using Jewish words is not as relevant as we think.
Ether’s message is ultimately rejected and Ether departs from the narrative. The rest of the book continues the carnage of earlier chapters.
In the very last chapter, 15, verse 2:
“Coriantumr began to remember the words which Ether had spoken unto him. He saw that there had been slain by the word already nearly two millions of his people, and he began to sorrow in his heart; yea there had been slain two millions of mighty men, and also their wives and their children. He began to repent of the evil which he had done; he began to remember the worlds which had been spoken by the mouth of all the prophets, and he saw them that they were fulfilled thus far, every whit; and his soul mourned and refused to be comforted.”Ether 15:1-3
It was too late. Ether had warned him earlier that if he would repent, the Lord would preserve him and his kingdom. But by this point, too much blood had been spilt. Coriantumr had already killed Shared. Shared’s brother Gilead was slain. Coriantumr killed Gilead’s successor Lib, and now Lib’s brother Shiz refused Coriantumr’s offer for peace. His response was that he would spare his people if Coriantumr would sacrifice his own life. I suspect that if Coriantumr had done so, for the good of his people, it wouldn’t have ended the war, that the war would have continued on without him. However, Corianumr refused the demand, the war continued until the society completely collapsed in a monumental, cataclysmic, societal destructive civil war.
And that is where Ether ends. And I think it’s fair to ask, why do we have this in our sacred text? How is this relevant? This death spiral of grievance. This willingness to let hate consume our souls. It’s perhaps a warning or maybe a call into a more virtuous cycle of ever willing repentance and forgiveness.
I think that has been the ever-consistent message of the Book of Mormon.