Part of writing a book about ancient cosmology and Genesis 1 is… reading lots about ancient cosmology and Genesis 1. In doing so, I’ve had some thoughts about three Book of Mormon passages. I’ve generally set these on the shelf, so these are initial thoughts which upon further investigation may turn out to be highly significant or completely baseless. But I float them here for public interest and as a reminder to myself later.
First, while generalizing must be recognized for what it is, the Israelites in general probably thought of the world as flat and fairly limited, geographically. Their Babylonian neighbors actually left a representation of the world, below. (See this for a fairly technical analysis, also coming to Logos for cheap, or this for a much more accessible discussion. Much longer list here.) This image comes from a multi-part paper at Biologos about Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible.
Babylon is portrayed as the center of the world, with some islands, all surrounded by the cosmic waters above and below. It’s like an inverted snow globe, with air inside the globe, but water all around the outside.
The Israelite view was probably quite similar.
Where did Nephi and company think they were going? The Israelites were not really ocean-going people. How did they conceptualize the geography of their voyage? Jacob later takes Isaiah’s “isles of the sea” theme, spending some time interpreting it, before stating that “the Lord has made the sea our path, and we are upon an isle of the sea.” (2 Ne 10:20)
I imagine the idea of sailing away from land, especially from the covenant land to an unknown “land of promise” ran quite counter to their mental geography of the universe.
Second, several biblical and non-biblical creation accounts express creation in terms of separation and differentiation, not physically but conceptually. (This is a bit like the “functional creation” idea of John Walton I summarize here.) That is, creation comes about or is defined by, God differentiating opposites or matched pairs- day from night, male from female, land from water, priestly from non-priestly, civilization from wilderness. Without naming and defining these pairs, there is no creation; everything is just a non-functional non-differentiated… non-existence. I thought of that concept of creation when I reread Lehi’s statement recently in 2 Nephi 2:11-12.
it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
Lehi’s connection of the necessity of these differentiated pairs for God’s creation and purposes was striking, although not unproblematic. I’ll have to spend some time with it later.
Third, the book of Ether makes a vague statement in 13:2.
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;
This has sometimes been interpreted as evidence for a worldwide flood, but that seems unlikely to me. First, you can find my initial thoughts on the flood at my Gospel Doctrine blog and a long follow-up here about Mormon appropriation of hyper-literalist fundamentalism. The scriptural account of the flood envisions the same cosmic geography as Genesis 1: not a globe, not a planet in a solar system, but a flat earth with a dome above, held up by the mountains, keeping out the cosmic waters of creation. Of course, the land was originally covered by waters at creation in many of the ancient creation accounts, including Genesis 1. Given the close connection in Ether between “the beginning of man” and “waters receding of the face of this land” it makes more sense to me to see Ether referring back to a creation account similar to Genesis 1, in which the cosmic waters come first (the teh?m or “Deep” of Genesis 1:2), the dry land emerging out of it, not a later global flood. (Again, a “global flood” anachronistically imputes a modern scientific planetary cosmology back on these texts.)
Will have to return and look at later.