From a narrative perspective, the Book of Ether is a frustrating problem. It comes just as the Book of Mormon is winding down–after the chief redactor hands the whole work over to his son, who then writes several chapters of his own and seems to say “goodbye.” And then, “wham,” the narrative hits us with 1600 years or so of history that we didn’t know about before. At precisely the moment that we anticipate closure, the narrative opens up wider than it has ever been.
I want to try to answer the question, “why”? That’s kind of a hard question, because any possible answer will be colored by one’s assumptions about what the Book of Mormon is. One answer is, “God wanted it this way.” But even if we accept that as unproblematically true, all it does is shift the uncertainty to a new question. Why did God want it this way? What is the spiritual value of this particular story in the place that it occupies?
If we assume that Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon entirely from his imagination, we have the same problem: why would any rational narrator—human or divine—choose to end a lengthy epic story by inserting another, highly compressed epic story into the closing lines. It would be like Homer having Odysseys come home, reunite with his son, and then tell the entire story of the Trojan War in Bok XXIII—right before going on to kill the suitors. Someone reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, with no understanding of its structure, would experience just such a disjuncture.
But something else happens too—something that I found particularly striking when I read the Book of Mormon this year in the 1830 edition (i.e, the version without verse division that reads more like a novel). The story of the Jaredites contains so many similarities to two other narratives—the narrative of the Nephites and the Lamanites and the narrative of the Coming forth of the Book of Mormon—that it turns isolated incidents into repeating patterns. It does this through a narrative mechanism that can be called (with lots and lots of definitions and caveats) “typology.”
Let’s start with the Nephites and the Lamanites. The story of the Jaredites parallels the story of the Lehites in a dozen important ways. Both stories begin in biblical settings, before major catastrophic biblical events involving Babylon (the Tower of Babel and the Babylonian Captivity). Both center around a family that is saved from the catastrophe by God’s intervention. Both families build boats and, with the help of God, travel to the New World, where they split into constantly warring factions. Ultimately, both societies are destroyed by “secret combinations” that place the acquisition of wealth above all else.
All of these little bits and pieces of narratives can be called “type scenes,” or just “types” that can be removed from one story and reassembled in another—much as the story of Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew children in Exodus is reassembled to describe Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents” in Matthew. There are reasons—theological, historiographical, and literary—to create and re-use type scenes, which is why they occur so often in the Bible. They help orient readers. They connect different stories together. And they present a God who works in consistent and predictable ways.
And the typology in Ether works in two directions at once. Along with all of the type scenes that connect it to the Lehite narrative, another set of type scenes connect it to the Book of Mormon’s origin story. It functions in Mormon’s narrative in much the same way that Mormon’s narrative functions in the Joseph Smith story. In both stories, the records of a vanished people are hidden by a lone survivor and discovered and translated by prophets through “the gift and power of God.” Furthermore, the plates of Ether are hidden with other records in the ground and Mormon is told as a young boy of ten that he will be allowed to retrieve them when he is “about twenty and four years old” (Mor. 1:3). For Joseph, it is fourteen and twenty and two. Easily close enough for a type scene.
And this is why I think that the Book of Ether makes sense where it is. Typologically it tells us two important things: 1) this has all happened before; and 2) this is all going to happen again. Positioned where it is, at the end of Mormon’s narrative, just before Moroni says his last words and buries the plates, it can point simultaneously to all that has gone before and all that will come after and assure us that all of sacred history forms, with our own time, a logical continuum governed by a consistent deity and a predictable set of narrative patterns.