Nephi’s Ark

Although it takes longer to get to this point in the Book of Mormon, the story of the Nephite oceanic crossing in 1 Nephi 17-18 is in reality Joseph Smith’s analog to the flood of Noah.  An elementary comparison of them both by the casual reader would make them appear of similar quality, yet further scrutiny reveals one is clearly of superior literary quality.  While the Biblical account of Noah in Genesis 6-9 is concise, multi-layered, and complex, the Nephite story is simple, long-winded exposition.

Typical for the entire Book of Mormon, nearly every sentence in this passage begins with “and” (most often Joseph Smith’s favorite phrase, “and it came to pass”), or sometimes the occasional “but”, “wherefore”, or “yea” that were characteristic of his making up the story as he went along.  In Genesis, the narrative is laid out in episodic pericopes, the typical style of the Pentateuch, which is arranged more like building blocks than a linear story.  Noah has no lines of dialogue whatsoever (something Smith would remedy in his “inspired translation” of the Bible), but the bulk of Joseph Smith’s story is another run-on speech in 17:23-51 (and if that weren’t enough, Nephi tells us after the speech that he said even more things that weren’t even written in the book!).

Joseph Smith evidently favored the first 9 chapters of Genesis over the rest of the Pentateuch; it is, after all, nearly the only extract of the Joseph Smith translation widely used in a Mormon holy book (the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price), and he revisited the creation passage again in the Book of Abraham (also in the Pearl of Great Price).  Particularly, he must have drawn on the antediluvian section because, on the surface at least, the civilizations and customs described therein are less specific than in later parts of the Bible, just as throughout the Book of Mormon.  Although Nephi talks at length about keeping the commandments in this story, Joseph Smith appears virtually ignorant of the Mosaic Law; there is no reference nor even a hint of awareness of the Hebrew purity code, sacrifice rituals, or the festivals in the Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith was a storyteller, so his interest in the Bible was limited to its narratives, but his undoing was in never realizing the law and the lore were irrevocably intertwined.  Although Moses and Sinai are a great distance away, Genesis still demonstrates an awareness of near-eastern customs and traces of Mosaic law appear from the Lord’s creation sabbath onward.

One of the most astounding feats in the Flood story is that across the span of days and months, every event respects the sabbath starting from the seven days from which God sends the rains for forty days and nights (Gen. 7:4), to 150 days of standing floodwater (7:24), and beyond.  On top of that, each month of the flood corresponds to a day of Creation, starting in the second month (Gen. 7:11) when the heavenly floodgates are opened, in contrast to the firmament created on the second day (Gen. 1:6).  The 150 days, or 5 months, then signify the undoing of the 5 creation days of all life on Earth.  Finally, in the seventh month the ark rests, and after another month-day cycle, Noah and his family depart the ark on the next sabbath-month.  It’s incredible how much nuance and significance is crammed into this brief passage.

On the other hand, Joseph Smith’s imitation is uninterestingly devoid of subtlety or deeper meaning.  His intent here, as in his previously written flood narrative in the Book of Ether, seems to be to apologetically fill in the logistic cracks missing in Noah’s ark.  Here he explains in tedious detail the rather unimportant details of God directing him first where to find the ore so he can craft tools to build his enormous ship, how he made a bellows to blow fire, and even how he made the fire (17:11).  This is clearly a 19th century response to skeptics who questioned the logistics of Noah’s ark building.  Despite being a liar and a fraud, Joseph Smith was a pious fraud in the long line of pseudepigrapha authors from antiquity, and many of his fabrications were designed to offer solutions like this to his contemporary critics of Biblical literalism.

While on the voyage, Nephi’s rebellious brothers tie him up for the space of three days (18:11-14), obviously an anticipatory allusion to the burial of Christ, but with nowhere near the double-complexity in the Deluge.  With nothing else to mention in the undisclosed “many days” that followed, Nephi’s ark lands in the American promised land abruptly and instantly establishes a new civilization.  Here, all of Joseph Smith’s apologetic explanations are undone in one fell swoop, as the very next thing the Nephites do (18:25) is find cows, horses, and goats–none of which were indigenous to this hemisphere (Of course, he had already outdone himself in the Jaredite crossing by curiously mentioning elephants).  While most critics point out such flora and fauna anachronisms, it rarely is mentioned how immediately upon landing in the New World that it occurs.

even the church's artistic renditions of Nephi's ship capitalize on familiar images of Noah's ark

even the church's artistic renditions of Nephi's ship capitalize on familiar images of Noah's ark

Like a bad Hollywood sequel made long after the last installment, it’s undeniable to anybody, except the willfully blind, that Joseph Smith’s imitation is substandard compared to the original.  It certainly doesn’t read as methodically as one would think an ancient Hebrew would write, especially if they were chiseling words on metal plates.  It reads more like the first draft of a novel, or more specifically, like the transcription of a story as it was made up in dictation, which of course it was.

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