Reposted, and edited, in light of the use of the ephod in 1 Sam 23 (part of the Gospel Doctrine reading)
The Book of Mormon translation mechanism is surrounded in mystery.
We have conflicting reports of seer stones, “interpreters,” Urim and Thummim, hats, breastplates, divining rods, words appearing on parchment, plates not even in the room, etc. Trying to figure out just how we are to believe the process went is a complicated task.
Adding to the mystery is the one canonical account of the translation, D&C 9:8-9, which refers to Oliver Cowdery’s failed attempt to translate the Book of Mormon record:
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
Aside from its use as a key to personal revelation, this text suggests some interesting things about the Book of Mormon translation.
Assuming Oliver had some kind of interpreting device to hand (the Nephite interpreters, or Joseph’s seer stones, or Oliver’s own divining rod), the mechanism suggested required a confirmation or rejection of a translation that he was to come up with himself.
The binary nature of the revelation (yes/no) is also interesting. This seems to be the preferred method employed by oracles: the petitioner asks the god, the god says yes or no. This is how we think the biblical Urim and Thummim worked, and it is also how such things went in ancient Mesopotamia (the Near East’s Divination Central), which is where Blake Ostler and the Assyrian king come in.
The Cowdery experience is somewhat reminiscent of Ostler’s Book of Mormon “expansion theory” (that Smith “expanded” using his own words and ideas a divinely inspired core Book of Mormon narrative).
Assuming some influence from the plates (proximate or not) and the stones (or maybe the rod), Oliver is supposed to “study things out in his own mind” and get a sense as to what the “translation” is. He then asks whether the “translation” is correct. All being well, he will get a yes/no answer.
It seems to me that in this scenario there is loads of room for personal “expansion.” It’s not necessarily how Ostler sees things, but it seems to me that the process is one that allows Joseph (if Oliver’s experience per D&C 9 was similar to Joseph’s) to decide on his own (under some form of inexact inspiration) how to translate and God gives him a yes/no confirmation. God’s input here seems to be limited to whatever influence (perhaps through the stones, although this is all left unsaid by D&C 9) he had on Joseph’s “mind” and a confirmation that the translation was “right.” By “right” I do not think we mean “exact.”
I think D&C 9 forecloses, at least in this instance, a Joseph-sees-the-words scenario. If he simply sees the words, what role does his “mind” play, and what is there left to confirm? It seems that Cowdery expected the process to “magically” provide a translation, perhaps via a “divine teleprompter.” Clearly, this was not how it worked.
This D&C 9-esque divination/revelation reminds me of the reports given by ancient Mesopotamian diviners who turned yes/no confirmations into more complex “revelations.” For example, according to a scenario painted by several ancient divinatory texts, the superstitious king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (681-669 BC), inquired of the god whether he should build a temple. I imagine he had worked it out in his mind and believed it to be a good idea. The answer (through the examination of sheep entrails) comes back “yes” but is narrated in far grander terms:
“He (the god) gives him (Esarhaddon) an instruction, and sends him a command…’build the Esharra temple, dais of my delight! Like the writing of heaven make its form artistic!’”
The Assyrian god never said this. He only said “yes” (through the divination). Thus a divine confirmation is “expanded” and given more detail.
Adding colour to simple revelation is an age-old practice and is the skill of a prophet. I am willing to bet that many of the “thus saith the Lord” pronouncements in the OT are similar expansions: a question is formulated; an inquiry of the Lord is made; he says “yes” but the answer is shared through a poetic expansion of the divine license, perhaps a reformulation of the original question.
This seems to be the case, for example, in 1 Sam 23 where David receives spoken answers to questions which were probably received as binary pronouncements only.
1. Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20/1 (1987): 66-124.
2. Of course, most of you probably don’t believe that the Assyrian god said anything, but the point is that the biblical Urim and Thummim and psephomancy in general belong to this kind of tradition. It is a question for further discussion as to whether Joseph’s stones are psephomantic (strictly speaking, psephomancy is the drawing or casting of stones). Phelps’ use of the term “Urim and Thummim” is misleading.