I know we’re all supposed to be on the D&C right now, but I’m a tad behind. A few people elsewhere were asking about the Jaredite voyage and I thought it’d be useful to list some things I noticed from my last close reading.
The typical view of the Jaredite voyage comes from art. As we’ve discussed before art for scriptural narratives more frequently distorts the text and history than illuminates it. Which wouldn’t be such a problem except that people tend to base their conceptions on the art rather than the text. You see this with say how Arnold Friberg’s painting determine how people think of Lamanites and Nephites in ways that are pretty dubious. The art for the Jaredite barges seems primarily based upon traditional (non-Mormon) art for Noah’s ark.
It’s not quite clear why Joseph chose the word “barge” to describe the vessel. (Nor really for many word choices in the Book of Mormon) My guess is that it was tied to the barges on the canals near where he lived. This was before widespread railways in the United States so companies dug canals to transport goods by water. These barges were often pulled by horses that were on the side of the canal. Barges could often reach 78 feet in length and hold 70 people although most were much smaller than that. It’s worth noting though that these canal barges don’t fit the description we have in the Book of Mormon anymore than miniature Noah’s arks do. While I don’t want to dismiss the word choice entirely, I think it leads us astray more than it informs given the text.
Limiting ourselves primarily to the text the first thing to note is that the Jaredites were using barges before setting out into open sea. Ether 2:6 say that they cross many waters. While we can’t know for sure it’s likely many waters means rivers and lakes. Thus these barges at this point may be more akin to canoes or rowboats than anything else. The Jaredites then reach the sea but it’s clear they are supposed to continue.(Ether 2:7)
When the Brother of Jared repents from staying on the shore for several years they build barges “after the manner of the barges which [they] have hitherto build.” (Ether 2:16) Right off we see that the boats they sail the sea with are similar to boats they sailed to the beach with. We’re explicitly told they “were small and they were light upon the water.” This seems to go against the style of the vessels in the church art.
Everyone remembers from seminary that they were “tight like unto a dish” but few ask how this was done. While it’s possible this was done with boards it’s far more likely these were solid logs carved out. The key phrase in verse 17 is “the length thereof was the length of a tree.” We don’t know the size of the trees they used, but it suggests again a hollowed out log. That would explain why it was tight – because there were no seams. Whether we have two logs mounted on top of one an other or simply some technique where all sides of a log are kept isn’t clear. And again, we should emphasize the assumption it’s a hollowed log is just as speculative as the art – but perhaps more defensible.
An other assumption people bring is that there were no sails or oars. It’s true that Ether 6:5 talks of “furious winds” that blew towards their destination. While it’s possible to assume the ships were moved passively in a miraculous fashion, the emphasis on the winds more suggests the use of sails. Even if oars aren’t mentioned it’s quite possible they were used. Often writers take for granted aspects of a description that are assumed to be part of shared knowledge and just emphasize what’s different from the usual. If so, then oars and sails likely were used.
The my ears, I think what is being described is actually much more akin to a traditional polynesian vessel. The main difference seems to be that the canoe part had a top. Now polynesian vessels often were made of two canoe like parts and then a center room made of wood or cloth. During storms to keep from being blown off course this would be taken down. While the easiest explanation is just something akin to sealed canoes and other possibility is that the sealed portion was this central living compartment that was kept low in the water.
The miracle of course would be the surviving the trip. Even if we had some sealed area and one or two canoe like parts traversing the Pacific would be extremely dangerous. Doubly so for a group with no experience. Even in modern rowing across the pacific it’s extremely dangerous. People have done it of course. While some do it in open boats often it’s done with boats that have a sealed cabin. Note that these modern boats are also made of modern materials that would hold up much better than wood.
An other problem for oceanic travel would be food. While the text describes bringing fowl (presumably chickens) and other animals we don’t know if any of these survived the trip. (Ether 6:4) The main issue is scurvy but yams, grapes, or even beans allowed to sprout along with other items found in Asia would have prevented this.
The assumption of a submarine like vessel seems unlikely. I’d imagine that most of the time they were out of the vessel and they only went into the sealed section during storms. While Mormon describes their encountering many storms verse 6 suggests this wasn’t the status quo. The use of the sealed part of the vessel seems primarily to survive being flipped and hit by waves.
Please note I’m not saying a polynesian like vessel is definitely what they used. I’m just saying this would line up better with the textual descriptions. It also has the strength of being a vessel type that people actually sailed in the open seas of the Pacific. The main novelty seems to be this sealed cabin although it’s not clear from the text whether this was the full canoe like part or a separate cabin tied to the canoe(s). Also note this doesn’t resolve all the questions we might have. How, for instance, did they manage to keep the boats together? I’m sure there are techniques but this seems very difficult to maintain during storms when the passengers were cowering in a sealed room with only faint light from rocks.
1. Friberg’s paintings are great of course. I’d encourage anyone in Salt Lake City to go to the conference center and look at the originals. But almost certainly the Nephites don’t look like a mix between vikings and Romans with gladiuses for swords. While the Church visitor centers has slowly been working in more mesoAmerican art, the influence of Nephites as Romans still dominates. One piece of art at the visitor’s center in Temple Square has Lamanites with macuahuitls (mesoAmarican sword made of obsidian and wood) while the Nephite in the same painting has a gladius.
2. We should note the text of Ether is a summarization by Moroni written more than a thousand years later. It’s likely that Moroni is not at all familiar with sailing. We should keep this in mind when reading the text. Moroni is likely bringing in assumptions from his ignorance much like readers of the Book of Mormon do. That is, we should read Ether recognizing it’s a third hand account and thus may distort the underlying narrative and descriptions we don’t have access to. We shouldn’t read the text of Ether as a “god’s eye view” of what was going on. Rather Moroni will read the 24 plates in terms of his own religious and cultural assumptions. What we have is an interpretation and paraphrase of a different text.
3. Other passages using “many waters” though could be read as the sea. See for instance 1 Nephi 13:12-13 although Old Testament passages like Is 17:13 are metaphors of rivers. Mormon uses the term in Mormon 6:4 in a fashion that seems to describe lakes.
4. Many people confuse the list of animals from chapter 2 with what was brought on the ocean voyage. It’s worth noting for instance that while bees are mentioned initially, this appears to just be the first part of the trip. Moroni doesn’t mention the Jaredites bringing bees on the sealed ships — which seems an impossible feat. My guess is that the first storm the Jaredites encountered wiped out many of the animals they brought. Again just speculation but it seems wishful thinking that they’d survive. It’s worth noting that when they land in America Mormon only talks about them tilling the soil and not tending livestock. While vague that could easily mean they had no surviving livestock. I’d imagine that if the journey took over a year even if they did stop at islands for supplies that livestock surviving storms would be soon eaten. That said though Polynesians have sailed in traditional vessels from eastern Polynesia to Hawaii with chickens and pigs surviving. Water is the toughest to keep but gourds refilled when it rained allow one to survive with careful water rationing. Liquid from turtles or certain fresh fish also helps with hydration.
Edit: As I mention in the comments below, Geordie Tocher carved a 40 foot canoe out of a douglas fir and sailed from Vancouver to Hawaii with no experience in ocean sailing. It’s appearance is fairly similar to what I describe except the cabin was tarp and sticks rather than sealed as in Ether. He was able to deal with storms and 35 foot waves.