Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Warren Aston's Search for Shazer: Another Breakthrough for the Arabian Peninsula Evidence for the Book of Mormon

Important new evidence for the plausibility of Lehi's Trail in the Book of Mormon has just been published based on 2019 fieldwork in the Arabian Peninsula by Warren Aston. See Warren P. Aston, "Nephi's 'Shazer': The Fourth Arabian Pillar of the Book of Mormon," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 39 (2020): 53-72. It just came out today, Aug. 21, 2020. I'm amazed at what he has found. In my opinion, he has turned what used to be a minor question mark into one of the major "pillars" of evidence for the Book of Mormon's account on Lehi's Trail, bringing Shazer into the limelight with the River Laman in the Valley of Lemuel, the place Nahom, and the miraculous and still largely uninhabited leading candidate for the place Bountiful, Khor Kharfot with Wadi Sayq.  

One of the most interesting finds reported in this article was just how accurate and plausible Nephi's words may have been regarding the trip to Shazer:

And it came to pass that we did take our tents and depart into the wilderness, across the river Laman. And it came to pass that we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction, and we did pitch our tents again; and we did call the name of the place Shazer. (1 Nephi 16:12)

Many of us have long assumed that after Lehi and his family were done camping in the Valley of Lemuel, they had to backtrack toward the east to get back on the main trails that could take them further south. Once Wadi Tayyib al Ism was discovered by George Potter and became widely accepted as a plausible candidate for the improbable river and its valley, those looking at satellite maps also made that assumption. But there's something we've long overlooked until now. 

Aston notes that the most likely site for a safe, comfortable, long-term encampment in the valley would probably be the oasis in the center of the satellite image below. The winding red line going from the east to the Red Sea on the west corresponds to the Valley of Lemuel and shows the likely route Lehi followed. One amazing aspect from Aston's latest report is that there is a route south from the Valley of Lemuel, actually one one route within the valley, and that route can lead easily to the most probable candidate for Shazer. That route begins almost immediately across the river from the campsite, so Nephi's terse description of packing up the tents, crossing the river (probably still small enough anciently to just walk across under normal, non-flooding conditions), and moving south-southeast toward Shazer fits the landscape with remarkable precision. Nephi's description implies that the campsite was on the north of the river, and that the river and the valley ran from east to west, at least at this point, which is what we see in the region with the campsite candidate. Significantly, no backtracking would have been required to go from the most likely encampment to the most likely site for Shazer.

Interesting finds continue as Aston explores several candidates that have been proposed for Shazer. Based on the possible etymology of the name, Aston explains why Nibley's proposed link to a word referring to trees is most likely, and suggests that the place Shazer might stand out for its trees. Nephi's text also requires that it be near wilderness where they could hunt animals, and that it must be reachable within a journey of 4 days from their encampment in the Valley of Lemuel. Remarkably, Wadi esh Sharma near Sharma on the coast of the Red Sea appears to be the most probably candidate for Shazer. It is a region where ibex still can be hunted in the mountains and where there are abundant trees and two oases. The route from the Valley Lemuel accurately fits Nephi's description, lying roughly south-southeast from the campsite and being with a distance reachable via camel in four days. A route that Lehi may have traveled to the oases is marked in red below.


His final image, shown below, is a reminder of the big picture and the significant details in Nephi's description, with plausibility that goes far beyond what Joseph Smith could have managed based on what was known in his environment, especially given that highly educated people to this day have dismissed many elements of Lehi's Trail as impossible or ridiculous. It used to seem that way, I'll admit, but in my opinion, the Book of Mormon seems to be aging well. 

By the way, if you haven't read anything by Warren Aston before, this is a good time to start. Lehi's Trail cannot be understood without understanding what he has published, including his extensive information on the multiple candidates for Bountiful and the place Nahom with key archaeological finds there. I don't know how Warren keeps coming up with such amazing finds -- I think it has taken a lifetime of preparation and endless sacrifice of time and funds to be able to not only learn his way around Arabic speaking nations, but to also go to the right places after taking the right steps to critically assess textual and geographical data. To understand some of what he has contributed to our knowledge of Lehi's Trail, please read his brilliant work, Lehi and Sariah in Arabia: The Old World Setting of the Book of Mormon (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Publishing, 2015). His older book, In the Footsteps of Lehi, is also a beauty worth owning.

Warren's fieldwork began by returning to Wadi Tayyib al Ism, a stunning candidate for the Valley Lemuel and the River Lemuel that can be reached following the directions in the Book of Mormon. According to a plausible and preferred reading of the Book of Mormon, this seemingly impossible (but actually still flowing) small "river" should be in a valley that is a 3-days' journey south of the northern tip of the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aqaba. By the way, some have suggested that Nephi's words also could be taken to mean a 3-day journey from Jerusalem itself, but I explain why I think that is not the proper reading of the text in another post, "Three Days to the Valley of Lemuel -- But From Where?," Jan. 26, 2020. But even if there are two divergent ways to read the text, the fact that one leads to amazingly accurate correspondences with the real geography of the area suggest that the more interesting reading is on track.

For a book that is often assumed to be nonsense spewed out by an ignoramus, the Book of Mormon, as I mentioned, seems to be aging well as it approaches its second century. The account in the opening chapters of an audacious journey through the Arabian Peninsula is a case in point. So much of it could be dismissed out of hand as soon as it was published, with arguments that have been repeated right up to the present era, for "everyone knows" that Arabia is rich in sand but generally lacks things like the river flowing into the Red Sea called the "River Laman" in the "Valley of Lemuel" supposedly on the Gulf of Aqaba, and certainly could not have a seemingly uninhabited rich fertile place like Bountiful due east from the place Nahom. Strangely, these blunders have become strengths of the Book of Mormon, as surprisingly strong candidates for each of these places have been found in places that fit the text and with some intricate details that strengthen the case for their plausibility -- even hard archaeological finds showing that a Nahom-like name (NHM) was present in 700 B.C. in the general region that makes the most sense for Nahom. It boggles the mind to think that Joseph Smith was just a fantastic guesser, so theories have cropped up to suggest he must have had access to a handful of rare European maps that did include the placename Nehhem/Nehm, but even having such a map before him could not have told him about the River Laman, Shazer, the eastward route that can be taken at Nahom, and then the many miracles of Bountiful. 

These evidences do not prove that Joseph saw an angel, had ancient gold plates that he translated, or was called of God as a prophet. They do not prove that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and visited people in the ancient Americas after His resurrection. But they do make it just a little harder to dismiss the Book of Mormon as something Joseph could fabricate from the common knowledge of his day, especially when the common knowledge of our day has held Lehi's Trail as ridiculous. Perhaps it's time to give the Book of Mormon a little more respect and read it more carefully. 

Some questions remain, such as how much bigger and longer the river was in Lehi's day than today. I am not sure if it now starts as far upstream as the oasis -- need to check. 

Update, Aug. 26, 2020: I understand now that the water flow begins upstream of the oasis and was visible there in 2019.  The above surface water today starts further down the wadi and isn't currently visible at the oasis, but the water underground should be there and It flows perennially above ground into the Red Sea or into the "fountain of the Red Sea" as the Book of Mormon says. 

Ponder the significance of the candidate for a campsite at the oasis in Wadi Tayyib al Ism. It's at a location that is three days south of the beginning of the Red Sea and four days from a great candidate for Shazer if one travels in the general direction stated by Nephi. From that campsite, one can walk across the river (not a deep river, obviously) and walk into the only place in the valley that allows a southward departure and then reach a probably candidate for Shazer. These are places that shouldn't even exist if Joseph were a fraud, and to have them plausibly in just the right locations reachable with directions given in the Book of Mormon is really spectacular. Was this just the result of great fortune from a young man making stuff up on the fly with virtually no knowledge of Arabia?

Related resources:

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The Passing of My Father, a Man Who Taught His Children to the Very End

Every day for roughly 30 years my wife, Kendra Lindsay, has prayed that we might be near family when we are needed most, such as for the passing of our parents. We have lived away from them ever since leaving BYU and going to Wisconsin, Georgia, Wisconsin again, and then China. While many of our prayers have not yet been answered (except for the implied "sorry, no"), my wife was blessed to be able to return home in time for the passing of both of her parents. For my father, who passed away on the morning of July 27, a series of blessings allowed us both to be there at his side and my mother's side when he died. We could easily have both been stuck in China, where we lived for 9 years until recently, unable to return swiftly to the U.S. Or we could have been in Wisconsin where we now live. But we were in Salt Lake City at the ideal time, with tickets we had bought over a month prior. 
We were there at just the right time not only for my father's crisis, but also for my mother's, for she would fall and break her ankle as our plane was about to land, greatly escalating her care needs. We just spent a touch over two weeks filling in the gaps until an additional care giver could be hired, facing one of the most challenging times of our lives and yet also one of the most rewarding. Our small taste of day and night care for an elderly parent has greatly expanded our respect for those of you who care for an aging family member, especially those with serious physical issues and dementia. We feel so blessed that we could help my mother but also could be there for my father during that time.

I previously shared the unusual experiences around my wife's courageous return to China on what would prove to be the last plane from North America to Shanghai (as far as we know) before China cut off all foreign flights into China (see "The Last Plane to Shanghai" at Meridian Magazine and here at Mormanity). Another strange series of events allowed my wife to return from her work for her international school about a week earlier than expected, which made a huge difference for us. 
When President Trump recently declared that he was cancelling all flights from Chinese airlines to the US, Kendra's flight was cancelled and she had to scramble to find a new way back. The day of his announcement, I was fortunate to have my weekly Chinese lesson via Skype, and my Chinese teacher alerted me to the newly made announcement that Kendra and I had both missed. I abandoned the lesson, with apologies, and called my wife who was just beginning her day at work, unable to work on getting a new ticket for many hours. By then, it might have been too late. So I did the legwork for her and was able to get one of the last three or four tickets left on a flight to Toronto. Shortly before this, Kendra received some good news from her international school in Shanghai, where she was a beloved math teacher (yes, in Asia, math teachers can be beloved -- it's amazing to see how students in Shanghai react to her when they see her at the mall or elsewhere, shouting out in glee to "Mrs. Lindsay!!"). The principal told her that after all she had done to help them, she could leave a week early if she wished since the last week of the semester would be pretty slow. So the new flight I found through Canada  would bring her to the States a week earlier than would have been the case without President Trump's sudden ban on Chinese flights. 
If she could make it back safely, one of the first things we planned to do was to visit my aging parents in Salt Lake City.  With her new itinerary apparently settled, we bought tickets to go from Appleton, Wisconsin to Salt Lake on July 23, leaving time for a two-week self-imposed quarantine for the safety of my parents and others before traveling to Utah.

But the challenges weren't over. At the Shanghai airport on July 3, as her flight to Toronto was about to board, an agent of China Eastern airlines called her and told her to leave the gate and go back to the ticket counter because a new rule from Canada would not allow her to stay overnight in Toronto as she had planned. Going to the ticket counter would mean missing her flight because she would have to go through security and customs again even if she could resolve the problem, and getting one on the very few flights to North America was difficult and costly, and might add many days to her trek. She refused to go and instead called me. 

I was in the middle of rushing to meet the most urgent patent deadline I have ever faced for a critical patent application for my employer that we didn't know we would need until that day -- a rather complex story I can't share here. With my deadline approaching and too much left to do, I received a panicked call from my wife telling me that she needed to show the China Eastern agents proof of a new ticket leaving Toronto to the US on the same day she arrived, otherwise they would not let her go. Instead of panicking and complaining, as I might have been tempted to do, I felt calm and was able to work fast for this urgent matter. After a quick prayer, I called Delta and learned that there was a 3 hour wait to reach an agent. I requested a call back but that path was hopeless. In fact, it would be over 5 hours before they called, at nearly 3 AM, thanks to the amazing changes in customer service I see in so many parts of this rather foreign land I have returned to after 9 years in China, a land where customer service has gone from generally horrible to outstanding in many areas during my years there. I tried online searches and found that there was no way to get to Appleton from Toronto after her flight would arrive.

Then the right idea hit me: she doesn't need to reach Appleton that night,  just anywhere in the US. Then she could fly to Appleton the next day. So I soon found a reasonable route and bought a ticket to Detroit for July 3, and then a ticket from Detroit to Appleton on July 4. Problem solved! Then came another panicked call: the regulation also required that she could not transfer to a different terminal terminal. The ticket had to be on the same day and from the same terminal, Terminal 3 in Toronto. With growing fear, I checked and learned that the ticket I had bought was indeed departing from Terminal 3. Whew! This route worked. I had lost an hour on my patent project, but then, receiving another blessing, I realized I could take some shortcuts in the remarks and arguments I had to submit, enough to make up for the lost time. With about 15 minutes to spare, I met the deadline and felt good about my efforts, with no serious loss in spite of losing an hour to rescue my wife while also seeking to rescue my employer. 
My wife would arrive July 4, and then she went through the rather awkward but appropriately strict two-week quarantine to ensure she was COVID-free when she met my parents. She did not want to risk being the person who brought death and destruction to my family and to others in the US. 
As our July 23 departure date approached, we got a call from my youngest sister telling us that my father was declining rapidly. Should we change our tickets to go a little earlier? After prayer and seeking more information, we both felt we should and moved up our planned trip by one day to June 22 in order to see my father and perhaps comfort him in his extreme and painful situation. 
Plagued with pain and a host of serious health issues, my father has been suffering for many years. How he remained so cheerful and kind to others right up to the end is a mystery to me. In fact, it's a miracle. Perhaps the greatest of his burdens was the PTSD he has suffered from for many years due to the daily carnage and shelling he faced during the horrific Korean war, where he also mourned over the need to mow down so many poorly equipped young men whose lives were wasted by the thousands in hopeless assaults. So many vets with PTSD have not lived to his age, 88 years, because the temptation to commit suicide is so great. It was a temptation at time for him, too, one that he told me he had overcome in part because of his commitment to his dear wife and also because of constant help from the Savior. He was fortunate, though many very good people in similar circumstances don't have the same happy ending and long life he did. I am grateful he could hold on, and hope I would have been understanding had he not. 
The stories of what my father saw and endured in the war add to my abhorrence of senseless no-win wars fought far from our borders for the gain and benefit of others but not actually for the defense of our nation. He suffered so much because of that war, though he would be blessed to have many years essentially free of PTSD symptoms beginning with a miracle on his mission after the war that continued until it returned somehow after a serious heart attack decades later (I discussed this in a 2013 post, "A Father on Loan"). In spite of the ravages of PTSD, his faith and his love for my mother kept him going. Miracles kept him going. But it's been clear for years that he was near the end. 
With severe cardiovascular issues, diabetes, and other problems, his imminent death was a cold fact that kept on looming long after many of his healthier peers and relatives had passed away. For about 20 years, ever since his first series of serious heart attacks, I've been mentally prepared for my father's death. But I was not prepared for how sweet and joyous the experience would be. The last few days of my father's life were filled with touching moments that almost seemed scripted by a generous and merciful playwright. Wonderfully for my wife and me, we were there at his side, against all odds.

Being there at his side when he took his last breath, after so much joyous closure with family, was profoundly touching. I felt so blessed to be there. But I also felt it may have been even more important to arrive when we did to help my mother. She was hauled away to the Intermountain Medical Center  by paramedics three minutes before we pulled into her driveway. When I called my brother and sister-in-law who were there with her, I learned that the Emergency Room had a policy of no visitors, so she had been taken away from them while screaming and crying. With her dementia, she did not understand where she was or why people were taking her away from family. She was terrified and in distress. 

I am so pained by the bureaucratic inhumanity that fills our medical system based on an apparent overreaction to COVID fears. People are dying alone when family should be there with them in our hospitals. Women are giving birth alone when they should have the absolute right to have the father or someone they trust to be there at their side to not only provide essential comfort, but to protect them and their babies from improper treatment or any of the many mistakes that can happen in busy hospitals caring for multiple babies and new moms. And my poor 88-year-old mother, with serious dementia and in great fear and anxiety, was dragged away from those she knew and loved by strange people for unknown reasons as she screamed because "no visitors are allowed due to COVID." That's inhumane. Is there no way to bring in essential support with proper protective gear, even a HAZMAT suit if really needed, without infecting others in a hospital? Is our technology so backward, our hospitals so crowded (this one seemed surprisingly quiet with very few patients), that a family member cannot be brought in somehow to help in a crisis? Is the palpable distress and suffering caused by this draconian policy really outweighed by the minute COVID risk? Is there anything approaching real science behind this policy?

Perhaps one reason we felt especially blessed to arrive that day is that I seem to have been the only one among my siblings who not only understood how senseless and cruel that policy was, but also knew it could be opposed and was worth opposing. My weakness of being a complainer may have been a needed strength in that moment. I picked up the phone and called the hospital to complain and to demand an exemption for their inhumane policy. I would reach some personnel who understood that what was happening was inappropriate, and would soon be forwarded to the head nurse who listened, and took action to reach senior management to request an exemption. It took well over an hour, but the exemption was granted. Wonderful, how sad that we had to spend so much time and energy appealing a cruel policy to let a screaming, crying elderly woman suffering from dementia be given essential emotional support in a time of distress. As a result, my brother who had been there at the hospital with Mom was allowed to accompany her in the emergency room, and, after another round of requesting a further exemption, he and then I and later my sister would be allowed to accompany my mother in her hospital room. That alone made us feel our trip to Utah was worth it and was a blessing for which we should be forever grateful. It would still be just one visitor at a time, immediate family members only (in-laws not allowed), but that was enough. She really needed us at the hospital. Being there also allowed me to get some training from an expert on how to transport her between a bed and a wheelchair or between a wheelchair and other places such as a car or commode. That training would become helpful each day during our stay, and I gradually got amazing compliments from my mother. "Oh my gosh! That was perfect. You are an expert!" So sweet of her. 

The time with my mother was precious. I heard kind words I was not used to receiving when young. We had wonderful, spiritual, loving conversations in spite of her dementia. There seems to be an underlying mental core that comes in and out of focus, while the outer layers of memory that we interact with might be foggy much of the time. I believe it is wrong and heartless to assume that a patient with dementia doesn't know what you are saying about her in her presence or does not recognize your love or lack of it. She had to be reminded many times of my name, "Jeff from China," her son, but one morning when I approached her she looked up and said, "Oh, you are my son, my little baby. I love you so much!" She recognized me. And those were tender words I don't recall hearing before. She also said hilarious things with her frequently irreverent wit and enjoyed laughing with us. She can be so entertaining and sometimes a bit shocking or naughty. But at her core is a sweet and faithful woman.

My father, on the other hand, was sharp and often lucid near the end, with clear memory and a lot of his own style of humor. He used his mental clarity, when it was present, to love us and to teach us almost up to his dying breath. 

The Thursday after our arrival, as my wife and I were joined by my youngest sister and her Brazilian husband and his niece in chatting with my father and mother, something truly strange occurred. My father, who had been groggy for a while, began talking with remarkable clarity and force. One by one, he spoke to each of us with words of counsel and wisdom. He started with me and mentioned some specific attributes, and then gave recommendations for action, including the counsel to do more to serve others. He turned to my wife and spoke remarkable words about her including counsel regarding a son. It took us a while to realize what was happening and for me to start taking notes, but this experience struck me very much like the final counsel of the prophet Lehi to his children. Each of us came out of this encounter deeply touched. It was nothing he had prepared to say and he didn't even recall what he had spoken until I reminded him of some specifics from my notes. It was a profound moment. In this episode, the steady theme was service to others, often with a "Go now and serve!"

During this episode he made several references to a gathering on Saturday, and that Saturday would be the key day. We took that seriously, and asked the rest of his children and their families to come over at noon on Saturday. Five of his six children were able to do so. Saturday was wonderful. Though he was asleep until about 1 PM, he but then became very energetic as he met with his posterity. He was able to visit with all of us and talk remotely with a daughter in Chicago. He was loving and cheerful, as always, in spite of so much pain. 

Sunday he was closer to the end. His oxygen level was in the low 60s, causing a hospice nurse to wonder why he was even still alive. In the evening, my brother, the second child (I'm the first) and his partner came over to visit while others were there again as well. My Dad was so happy to see my brother and as always was so loving, even though some parents really struggle when a child has left the Church or is openly gay. They chatted about basketball and Dad's years with the Utah Jazz (V.P. of business for a while), mentioning Mark Eaton, a kind friend of my father's who attended the funeral. I was amazed at how much energy Dad had for this chat. My brother then left and I could hear from the voices in the kitchen that he and Salvo were about to leave. I believe that Salvo, out of respect, assumed that the personal visits with my father were for children only, but I knew Dad would be happy to see him, too, so I rushed into the kitchen and invited Salvo to also come in and visit. He seemed to glow with that invitation. When I brought him into Dad's room, my Dad lit up with the biggest smile I had seen all day and said with a loud and clear voice, "Salvo, I hear you and Mike are going to buy the Utah Jazz!" It was typical Dean Lindsay humor and love mixed into one. Everyone in earshot broke out laughing. Hilarious in context. They had a warm and funny conversation. My Dad expended a great deal of his dwindling energy to kind and warm to my brother's partner, and I was so glad to have been a catalyst for that sweet moment. He was teaching us by example right up to the end. 

Early the next morning, my father's oxygen was at 48, yet he was still alive. He struggled to speak, but could clearly hear. We spoke to him and there was responsiveness on his face. My sister from Chicago called and spoke to him on speakerphone. She reminded him of a time when she was angry with Mom and went to lunch with Dad to share her complaints. Instead of saying anything unkind about Mom, Dad reminded my sister of some of the rough things Mom had been through in her life and affirmed her goodness with some accounts that gave my sister a whole new vision of who her mother was. It really helped her. And then she told Dad of how her own struggling daughter had so often praised her grandfather for being such a loving man that gave her hope through all her trials. As my sister told these things to my Dad, even though he could not open his eyes nor speak, he began crying with a huge smile, straining in an effort to say something that he could not. Be could hear. He could feel the love being expressed. More kind and joyous closure. Moments later, as we quietly chatted with Mom and others, my wife observed that he stopped breathing. It was 7:49 on July 27, or 7, 7 squared, 7/27. As a hopeless math geek, I feel those are nice numbers to wrap up an amazing life. 

He was the toughest and yet the kindest man I know. He had flaws, some of which derived from or were exacerbated by his PTSD, but his years of pain were accompanied with miracles, blessings, and gifts of kindness to others. I hope I can live up to his final exhortations to do more to love, do more to serve, do more to help others. His full obituary (a little shorter than was printed in Utah papers) is available at the Serenity Funeral Homes website. (They did a great job, by the way, and were much more affordable than another local service the family initially selected.)

I should also mention that the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray was great. The large hospital seemed pretty empty, but the staff that worked with my mother were very kind, loving, and skilled. She needed surgery, and that went well, except for the splint. It was too long and the upper end had rough, abrasive fiberglass that protruded out of the soft protective wrap so it was gouging my mother's skin on the underside of her knee. She couldn't verbalize what the problem was, but seemed overly uncomfortable. It was only about 4 days after surgery when a nurse visiting her at home took off the upper part of the wrap on her leg and left it off that we could later notice what was happening. We called the surgeon's office and were told that nobody could come help but if we wanted to take the splint off ourselves and use a power tool to cut off the abrasive end of the splint, we were welcome to do that. But fortunately, that same nurse was able to return and knew what to do when we showed him the problem. No power tool required. He was able to bend the upper part of the splint back and forth to break it off, then bend the new upper portion back on itself away from the skin, and have it all nicely wrapped and protected. The surgery was done well, but someone's careless slip when installing the splint caused her great discomfort and made it hard for her to sleep for a couple of nights, contributing to what looked like a serious decline in her health. After the painful splint was fixed, she rebounded in sleep, appetite, etc. While I am very happy overall with the medical service my mother received, the one small but serious mistake she made reminds me of useful advice: don't fully trust medical professionals, but check, inspect, ask questions, and seek competent help when mistakes may have been made.

Thanks to the many kind ward members, neighbors, business associates (Mark Eaton included), and family members who showed their kindness before or after his passing. The funeral at his local ward was so wonderful, and the many visits and expressions of love from people during my time there in Salt Lake was really heartwarming. I am so grateful for all this kindness and for all the people who touched the lives of his family during that time and over the years. Funerals can be such great times to reflect on the things that really matter: love, service, charity, and the endless love of Jesus Christ, who breaks the bands of death and sin and gives us ultimate hope and joy. My father bore witness of Christ and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the end, and kept teaching us by word and by example right up to his last breath.

It was a privilege to be with him through his final days, to be able to attend his inspiring and well attended invitation-only funeral (still in compliance with Utah law) and then, a couple of days later, participate in his burial with full military honors at the Utah Veterans Cemetery & Memorial Park in Bluffdale. I was touched by the brief burial service and the military honors he received, but my mother was not impressed. As she looked around the cemetery and the dry surroundings of Bluffdale near Point of the Mountain, she complained over and over, "I just can't see why anybody would want to live here!" Indeed! I expect when the day comes that she has passed away and is buried next to Dad, she'll turn to him on the other side of the veil and say exactly the same thing again with her mischievous little smile and a joyous twinkle in her eye.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Further Thoughts on the Nephite Interpreters and Mesoamerican Culture

An important new study on relationships between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican culture was just published on Friday by Mark Alan Wright: "Nephite Daykeepers: Ritual Specialists in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 38 (2020): 291-306. Several aspects of ritual specialists in Mayan society are examined, including those who use crystals or clear stones or glass to receive revelation of some kind. That aspect reminds us of the Nephite and Jaredite "interpreters" and their apparent relationship to the Urim and Thummim.

Here is an excerpt from Wright:

Zaztun and the Urim and Thummim

In modern-day Yucatan, the most common title for shaman or ritual specialists is aj-meen, which literally means “practitioner” or “one who knows and does.”3 The aj-meen use crystals, clear rocks, or even fragments of broken glass bottles as a medium through which they receive revelation. They hold them up to a light source and wait for three flashes of light to shine through, which indicates the revelation is about to begin. They interpret these three flashes as representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which scholars attribute to the heavy influence of Catholicism among the modern Maya. They call these stones zaztun, which literally means “clear stone” or “stone of light.”4 They are considered extremely sacred objects, and the ritual specialist who owns them does not allow the stones to be casually handled by others. But not all clear stones are necessarily considered zaztuno’ob (plural of zaztun). Anthropologist Bruce Love recounted meeting a shaman who keeps a jar full of glass marbles on his table and says they are mere toys that are used as “practice” zaztuno’ob for his apprentices.5

Maya shamans believe that true zaztuno’ob are gifts from the gods that have been intentionally placed along their paths for them to find. If the stone they are meant to find is not along a well-traveled path but is out in the uncultivated forest, they receive some type of spiritual guidance to lead them to where they will find it, sometimes even given vivid dreams or visions of where it is located. One ritual specialist named Don Cosimo was led out to the forest and found his zaztun embedded in the fork of a tree.6 The finding of these stones is a sign that they have been called and chosen to be a diviner and a healer. Zaztuno’ob are not only gifts from the divine realm, but they provide the means of communicating with the Otherworld and enable the ritual specialist to tap into divine powers.

An aj-meen named Don Jose once held his zaztuno’ob to the sky and when they flashed he said:

“Look! You can see the angels.” Ti’aan te ka’an ‘elo, “They are in the sky. This is how they speak to me. They are near. Their words come down. The spirit makes a blessing, makes salvation. The holy ones make a sign and then READY!”7

There is evidence that such divination stones were used anciently as well. For example, a burial from Copan dating to the Middle Classic period contained “five peculiar quartz stones, with ferromagnesium inclusions, probably used in divination rituals.”8 This burial was likely that of a royal priest or shaman rather than of a ruler, as these stones were found along with other paraphernalia common to ritual specialists.9

Now, what does all this have to do with the Book of Mormon? I suggest there are conceptual and functional similarities between the zaztun, which literally translates as “light stone” or “clear stone” in Mayan, and the Urim and Thummim, which means “Lights and Perfections” in Hebrew. In Ether 3:1 we read that the stones the brother of Jared made upon the mount Shelem were “white and clear, even as transparent glass.” Interestingly, the brother of Jared went up the mount with sixteen stones, but he came down with eighteen; the two extra stones were the interpreters that were given to him by the Lord. Just as Maya ritual specialists believe their clear stones are gifts directly from their gods, the brother of Jared was given his zaztuno’ob by the Lord himself.

We know that Mosiah I interpreted the engravings on a “large stone” that was brought to Zarahemla that told of the demise of the Jaredites, but we are not told exactly how he translated them other than that it was done “by the gift and power of God” (Omni 1:20). It is not until the days of Mosiah II, grandson of Mosiah I, that the Jaredite plates are discovered along with the interpreters that were given to the brother of Jared. We may presume that Mosiah I used an interpreter of some kind to translate the large stone, as that was the modus operandi among the Nephites. If Mosiah I did have an interpreter, it is unclear where he got it; we might speculate that it was a “found object” like unto the zaztuno’ob of Maya shamans (or Joseph Smith’s seer-stone, for a more recent analogy).10

The mystery of how Mosiah1 obtained the interpreters may have been resolved by a book whose late 2019 publication may have been after the time this paper was being written. Don Bradley's outstanding new book, The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon's Missing Stories (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), explains that the Book of Mormon in the original text not only implies that Mosiah1, had the interpreters, but twice indicates that his son, King Benjamin, had them (Bradley, pp. 195-198), making it clear that the Nephites had them before King Limhi's people found the 24 plates from Ether that were brought back to be translated by Mosiah2. This seems problematic, for the interpreters were "sealed up" with the sealed Jaredite record from the Brother of Jared (Ether 3:23-24, 27-28) which readers might assume was part of the 24 Jaredite plates from Ether. Not so, Bradley explains. The text does not say that the sealed Jaredite record nor the interpreters were left by Ether for the future Nephites from King Limhi's group to find, nor does it say they also found the interpreters. They were already in the hands of Mosiah2 and had been in the hands of his father and grandfather. The Book of Mormon explicitly states that the 24 plates contained the record written by Ether, not by Jared (Ether 1:1-2, 6 and 15:33). There's no need to figure out how 24 plates could contain the voluminous account of Jared and the record of Ether as well, and no need to assume that interpreters were not around for the translation episodes that occurred prior to bringing the 24 plates to Zarahemla. But how, then, did the Nephites obtain the interpreters?

Bradley finds evidence that the answer was part of the lost "116 pages" (actually much longer than that) of the Book of Mormon manuscript. An account from Fayette Lapham describing an interview with Joseph Smith, Sr., may reveal some relevant content from the lost manuscript:

In his report on the interview he had with Joseph Smith Sr. prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, Fayette Lapham recounts a narrative of the Nephites that occurred after they had settled the promised land:

They . . . found something of which they did not know the use, but when they went into the tabernacle, a voice said, “What have you got in your hand, there?” They replied that they did not know, but had come to inquire; when the voice said, “Put it on your face, and put your face in a skin, and you will see what it is.” They did so, and could see everything of the past, present, and future; and it was the same spectacles that Joseph found with the gold plates. The gold ball stopped here and ceased to direct them any further.

Lapham describes the interpreters’ finder using a tabernacle, the temple’s portable counterpart, indicating a period between stationary temples. This narrows the incident Lapham describes to one of two periods, because there are only two gaps between temples in the Book of Mormon—after Lehi leaves Jerusalem but before Nephi builds his temple, and during Mosiah1’s exodus.

The account also narrows to these two possible contexts by giving three indications that the interpreters were found on an exodus. First, the finder of the interpreters echoes Moses in that he has a Sinai-like encounter with God, who asks him, “What have you got in your hand there?” This evokes God, from out of the burning bush, asking Moses about his rod: “What is that in thine hand?” (Ex. 4:2). Second, the seer’s covering of his face after an encounter with God is also part of the Exodus. When Moses comes down from Sinai after communing with God, he has to cover his face with a cloth because it is still shining from God’s glory (34:29–35). (In assessing the validity of Lapham’s account, it is also useful to note its parallel here with Joseph Smith’s own practice as a seer or scyer of covering his face with an animal skin, his beaver-skin top hat, while using his seer stone.) Third, the seer has these experiences in a tabernacle his people have erected in imitation of the biblical Tabernacle that was first erected at Mount Sinai (33:7). Again, only the early narrative of Lehi and Nephi and the later narrative of Mosiah1 fit the context described by Lapham.

The small plates accounts of Lehi’s and Mosiah1’s distinct exoduses, however, do not describe the finding of the interpreters. The narrative of Lehi and Nephi prior to Nephi’s building of a temple is allotted some twenty-four chapters (1 Ne. 1–19; 2 Ne. 1–5), while the narrative of Mosiah1 is allotted only eleven verses (Omni 1:12–22), with Mosiah1’s actual exodus given only two verses (vv. 12–13). Had the interpreters been found during Lehi and Nephi’s exodus, we would expect it to be narrated there with the accounts of their acquisition of the other relics. Given that Mosiah1 is also the first person implied to have possessed and used the interpreters (Chapter 11), all available evidence points to Mosiah1 finding this relic during his exodus. (Bradley, pp. 251-253)
There's much more to Bradley's work that enhances our approach to the nature of interpreters and their role as a sacred relic in Nephite religion. But turning again to Mark Alan Wright's discussion of sacred revelatory stones used in Mesoamerica and the related concept found among the Jaredites and Nephites, let me also raise the question if Mesoamerican culture might provide further insight into issues related to the Nephite interpreters.

I've recently shared a rather speculative suggestion that perhaps the spectacle-like "interpreters" from the ancient Nephites might have a connection of some kind with the mystical "goggles" that were widespread across ancient Mesoamerica. Whether they are related or not, their existence and role in ancient Mesoamerica can at least overcome the objection that mystical oracular "spectacles" are a Book of Mormon anachronism since conventional spectacles or eyeglasses are a modern European invention. As for the possible relationship,  my suggestion was that Nephite "interpreters" might be related to Mesoamerican goggles via either of two distinct routes: 1) the widespread cultural use of goggles as an oracular, mystical tool associated with divine vision may have provided inspiration for how Nephite or Jaredite prophets chose to physically frame or depict the two oracular stones received by the Brother of Jared and used by seers in Book of Mormon lands, or 2) knowledge of the use of the "interpreters" among the Jaredites and Nephites may have inspired some aspects of the complex of ideas associated with goggles in Mesoamerican culture. The related posts are  "Don't Google 'Spectacles,' Google 'Goggles': The Nephite 'Interpreters' as a Book of Mormon Anachronism" (June 25, 2020) and "Ancient American Goggles and the Nephite/Jaredite 'Interpreters,' Part 2" (June 26, 2020).

Goggles are often associated with Tlaloc, the Aztec Storm God, with control over rain, a god related to the Mayan god Chaac (but a goggle-free deity, as far as I know). Wright's article also discusses the important role of Mayan shamans in seeking divine aid in bringing rain. Shamans used stones to receive divine messages and also sought divine help when it came to rain. Could these two roles, control over rain and revelation via clear stones or glass, point to association with Mesoamerican goggles as well as accounts of Nephite seers who also implored the Lord's help in ending famine and bringing rain again? Again, this is mere speculation, and further input from those more familiar with Mesoamerican lore is welcome. But Wright's article raises some potential links that may add further background for consideration of possibilities related to Mesoamerican goggles.

Update, Aug. 5, 2020: In the comments to Mark Wright's article, where I asked Mark about the possibility of a connection with Mesoamerican goggles, Brant Gardner, an expert in Mesoamerican culture, kindly pointed out some problems with my speculative inquiry. He observes that goggles as represented in Mesoamerican artifacts do not appear to contain anything inside the circles or tubes over the eyes. Further, when Mayan shamans use crystals or glass for revelatory purposes, they seem to just use a single object, not a pair of them. With that in mind, it may be that any resemblance in form or use of mystic goggles and Nephite interpreters is due to chance.

The possibility of a relationship could remain, however. For example, modern statues of people wearing glasses are often carved or cast without showing the transparent lenses, and in many old European statues, the transparent cornea of the human eye is often simply absent, leaving a concave region.  Perhaps a transparent object over the eyes in Mesoamerican goggles would be depicted with the same convention. As for one versus two, recall that Joseph began with a pair of interpreters but eventually just used a single seerstone for his interpreting work. One seems to be enough and is certainly more convenient, so it's possible that pagan divination in Mesoamerica inspired by the ancient use of interpreters may have quickly evolved to the use of single crystals, while the mythical representation for gods and warriors kept the goggles concept. All still very speculative, and, frankly, likely to just be wrong. But perhaps something to keep an eye on as we learn more about Mesoamerica.