by Kent Ponder, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2006 Kent Ponder

        Many say that religious faith and reason are essentially incompatible -- that theological faith and sensible reason function as largely separate modes of mental and emotional behavior. LDS people, though, very often say that the Mormon faith is unusually reasonable and sensible.

        Is it? As a test, let's consider the Jaredites and their ocean-going barges, described in Ether of the Book of Mormon. If you've read it, did you do it with the "eye of faith," or with the "eye of reason" (and common sense)? The LDS eye of faith normally reads this account unfazed. But what if we read it with the eye of reason and common sense? What if we read it as if we were jury members evaluating a witness's testimony? Shall we give it a try?

        First, calmly think about what your own planning would entail if you were told that you and some friends would have to hand-build small, submersible boats in which you and your family would be taking a year-long ocean voyage, accompanied by flocks and herds of animals. Would you want to be confined to the inside of a small submersible boat for a year without planning how to care for and live with flocks and herds of animals on board, and related supplies -- for over eleven months?

        I don't know how acquainted you are with construction engineering, especially forms of shipbuilding. While I lived in Annapolis, Maryland (teaching at the US Naval Academy), I visited shipbuilding companies and studied the history of various historical shipbuilding techniques. I've also looked into Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Ra construction as well as whaling ships at Mystic Seaport, the ex-whaling town in Connecticut, and so on. Ocean-going craft must be carefully designed and strongly built.

        As we pay close attention to Ether 2 and 6 in the Book of Mormon, we need to keep in mind that the Jaredite ships are described as built following the direct personal instructions of God himself. The LDS church has always taught that the Lord of the Jaredites' Old Testament times was Jehovah, the same deity described as having created the earth and all of the plants and animals, employing all the intelligent planning and management that that necessarily implies.

        In Ether 2, note the order of procedure:

        FIRST, for a water voyage prior to the ocean crossing itself, the Lord had instructed Jared and his brother to build boats in which, according to the account, their families and friends "did cross many waters," (2:6) carrying with them "seeds of every kind," flocks ("male and female, of every kind"), "fowls of the air", "swarms of bees," and "fish of the waters." (2:1-3)  According to the account, this boat trip was accomplished successfully.

        NEXT, four years later, the Lord again ordered the men to build similar boats "after the manner of barges which ye have hitherto built" (2:16), this time for an ocean crossing of nearly one year's duration. These boats, similar to the ones built four years earlier, are described as "small, and they were light upon the water, even like unto the lightness of a fowl upon the water" (2:16), with structural integrity such that they were "exceeding tight," top and bottom, entirely leakproof and air-tight ("tight like unto a dish") (2:17) because they were going to be "many times buried in the depths of the sea" (6:6) by "mountain waves" (2:24) during many violent storms. To be both (a) light ("like a fowl upon the water"), and (b) able to carry flocks and herds with food supplies for a year, the construction would obviously have to be carefully planned and organized because of the known challenges of combining lightness with strength (which still applies: boats, airplanes, bicycles and helmets, race cars, even suitcases, etc.).

        Following the Lord's specifications, the workmen built each boat with just one tight-fitting door, and no window or other opening. Construction of all eight boats was completed, per the Lord's personal instructions ("I have made the barges according as thou [the Lord] hast directed me." 2:18).

        NEXT, the Brother of Jared looked at the finished boats and wondered for the first time, Whoa! How will we breathe in these things? Specifically, quoting him:   ". . . I have made the barges as thou hast directed me. And behold, O Lord, we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish." (2:19) It was only then, that is, that he noticed that the boats were air-tight. (He also noticed they were totally dark inside: "O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer?" (2:19)

        Now let's pause to consider: How do the eyes of faith and reason interpret this account? The LDS eye of faith typically accepts the story unfazed. But consider the following "Eye of Reason and Common Sense" questions:

        1. Is it reasonable that men smart enough to build such watertight and airtight boats, following divine instructions, would do all the planning, material gathering and construction, and finish all eight before the question of breathing and seeing occurred to any of them? At that time (Tower of Babel period), working with hand tools, such a large project would have required at least months of labor. How could they not have noticed this problem for months? Remember that these shipbuilders were experienced. They had already built very similar people/animal/cargo-carrying boats just four years earlier.

        2. Stated most succinctly, how could shipbuilders build eight air-tight boats without noticing that they were air-tight?
Visualize men walking around inside boats "tight like unto a dish," with only one door that was to be kept closed at sea. Can you imagine them finishing all of the inside walls on all eight boats before noticing that it's suffocating in there?

        3. And what about seeing? Is it sensible that the workmen could have finished all eight interiors without noticing that there was insufficient light to see -- no windows? How could they have worked inside without seeing?

        When asked about the light problem, note that the Lord answered with a question: "What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces." (2:23)

        4. "Dashed in pieces?" Dashable (shatterable) windows were not invented until thousands of years later, by a different civilization. How would Jared's brother have been able to understand the Lord's reply? Why would a deity have said something that would have had no meaning for Jared's brother?

        5. How many boats would you have to finish before noticing no air and no light? Could you finish all eight boats before that dawned on you? Especially if you had built several similar boats and traveled in one of them four years earlier?

        6. Is it sensible to finish even one before noticing? Do you know any carpenter who would do that?

        7. Would the Lord himself not think of the need to breathe and to see, and then wait until the end to be asked about these life-or-death issues?

        8. Would a person of common sense build even a mountain cabin, finishing all walls inside and out, before thinking to make a window hole, without thinking about breathing and seeing inside?

       9. Is it sensible that all of these shipbuilders, described as previously experienced in carrying flocks and herds of animals inside of boats, waited until the end to realize, Oh, wait! We forgot that our animals will need to breathe in here. And we need to see in order to feed them and clean up.

        Despite the common-sense requirements of structural integrity of ships that will be on the ocean carrying flocks and herds of animals and their feed for a year, all boats are finished, and then, as an afterthought, holes are hacked into that finished structure, one in the top and one in the bottom (because when it flops upside down in stormy seas, the bottom becomes the top).(2:20)

        10. Wouldn't the Lord think that the sensible time to plan and build windows for air and light was during construction, not waiting to hack holes after finishing all boats, as a "whoops!" reaction? Would a sensible deity or human do that?

        11. Is this not similar to teaching a work crew how to build automobiles for an extremely long trip without mentioning steering? Then, AFTER all the cars are built, the chief builder asks, "We have built all of the cars exactly as you have directed, but how shall we steer, for the wheels and axles are built so that they do not turn?" And the master planner replies, "Well, you can just make a hole in the dashboard and stick in a steering wheel. Then, when you need to steer, just turn the wheel."

        12. Is it fair to ask how this differs from the following? Mormon elders, after following the Lord's exact instructions on building and painting the Celestial Room in the Salt Lake Temple, discovering that they've painted themselves into a remote corner, pray, "We have done as thou hast instructed us, oh Lord, but thy instructions have resulted in our painting ourselves into a corner." What would you think if the answer were, "Behold, ye shall make a hole in the granite temple wall, and after ye have escaped, ye shall stop the hole."

        Does the following improve the faith/reason problem, or worsen it?

        "When thou shalt suffer for air thou shalt unstop the hole and receive air." (2:20)

        13.If  you were taking your family on a car trip, would you tell them, "Wait until you notice you're suffering for lack of air, THEN open the window." Isn't it the case that people who need air often don't notice it until too late, because oxygen shortage has caused them to pass out? Don't we read that people who suffocate often don't know it's happening? Pilots at altitude undergoing oxygen deprivation experience the same hazard. Their awareness drops below the level needed to know they lack "air."

        14. How is the Jaredite level of planning and knowledge different from that of men described in current news articles, who carelessly suffocate illegal aliens by transporting them in unventilated trucks? (And that problem occurs in just a few days, not a year.)

        If we ask ourselves whether the following is sensibly reasonable, what is the answer?.

        "They did lay snares and catch fowls of the air." (Also see 6:4: "fowl that they should carry with them") Birds are the first animals to die from inadequate oxygen, canaries in coal mines being a famous example.

        15.How were the birds to notify Jared that they "suffered for air?"

        For the reasoning person, it gets worse.

        People and animals obviously keep breathing at night, while sleeping.

        16. What if they "suffer for air" while everyone is asleep? Is that a good time to need to "unstop the hole?"

        17. Did the Jaredites have "Hole Unstoppers" on guard while everyone else slept? Did the unstopper continually check to be sure that sleeping people and animals, especially birds, were still breathing?

        How well does the eye of reason and common sense fare with the following problem?

        " . . . unstop the hole . . . "  Also, "thou shalt make a hole in the top and also in the bottom." (2:20) Note that it says the hole, that is, a hole, as in one hole. (The hole at the bottom clearly doesn't count except when the ship flops upside down in high seas.) Now picture in your mind traveling with flocks of flatulent sheep and herds of flatulent goats and cattle) in a boat with ONE functioning air hole.

        18. What about air movement for ventilation?

        19. How would air enter and exit the same single hole supplying the entire barge/boat?

        There's a related problem: Air doesn't readily enter a closed space. Why not? Because the space is already full of air -- In the Jaredites' case, warmer, body-heated air that exerts greater-than-outside pressure thus resisting incoming air. People taking car-trips with kids partially open at least two windows for air movement.

        20.In these Jaredite boats, reported as designed by the highest divine intelligence, why is there no cross ventilation for three hundred and forty-four days? The eye of reason tries to visualize people and animals struggling to vent their body gases and heat through just one hole.

        Now let's apply the eye of reason to general animal care:

        21. How much does even one goat, sheep or cow eat in a year?

        These are grazing animal, but they can't graze on the ocean; and they don't eat fish. Their grasses and grains have to be stored on board. A goat eats 2 - 3 pounds/day. Even a pony eats about 8 pounds/day. Let's sensibly use 3 pounds X 344 days. That's 1,032 pounds of feed per animal. That's a lot of bulky weight to lash down to prevent it crashing around when the ships roll, and even flip upside down.

        22. How do you fit 1,000 pounds of feed per animal in the small boats, along with people, flocks and herds of animals, and birds?

        23. And how about carrying a year's supply of drinking water for each person and animal? They couldn't drink ocean water, and in boats of the type described they couldn't gather significant rain water. How could they load and carry sufficient fresh water?

        Even the most illiterate people have learned how important ventilation is for food items, especially without refrigeration. People and animals exhale moisture with every breath. The numerous animals couldn't be taken outside to urinate and defecate. Such a year-long, high-moisture, low-ventilation environment breeds bacteria, yeast, fungus and molds, and rots food.

        24. So, what about food spoilage?

        Could it get worse?

        The voyagers are reported to have sung praises to the Lord day and night. (6:9)

        25. How likely does day-and-night singing and praising seem after months of close confinement in small boats with urinating, defecating, flatulent flocks, herds and fowls, with only one air hole per drum-tight boat?

        Could it get worse?

        Ether describes heavy seas (" . . . they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them" 6:6). So these boats were crashing around under water, occasionally flipping upside down (thus the need for a hole in the bottom which could be opened as an air hole when the boat flopped over).

        26. Can you visualize adults, children, flocks and herds, rocking, tossing and flipping over, traveling that way for a year? Could you ride for 344 days and nights with your children on a boat, repeatedly buried in the depths of the sea with flocks and herds crashing over each other, with urine-soaked "litter box" material spilling into their food as the ship flopped upside down?

        27. How would you pour all the urine and feces out of one hole -- for a year?

        Could reason and common sense be additionally battered?

        " . . . fierceness of the wind . . . the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind." (6:6 - 8)  This testifies to three major factors: (a) wind force, (b) wind constancy, (c) wind direction.  "And thus they were driven forth, three hundred and forty and four days upon the water."

        28. If the wind was (a) constant, (b) strong, (c) always toward the promised land, how could this force require 344 days?

        But wait! Could the shape of the boats, the front and back "ends thereof were peaked" (2:17), have presented insufficient flat surface at the back for the wind to blow against, causing the trip to last longer?

        29.But then why would an intelligent divine designer choose such an inefficient shape?

        Could it get worse for the sensible eye of reason?.

        " . . . terrible tempests which were caused by the fierceness of the wind." (6:6)

        30. Beyond the fact that a tempest is not caused by a fierce wind, but rather IS a fierce wind, why would an intelligent deity think that so much wrenchingly violent motion, even overturning stored goods, animals, their bedding and feed, be an intelligent thing to do?

        31. Wouldn't an exhorbitant amount of water in the flocks' and herds' drinking containers be lost as the boats pitched, rolled and flipped over?

        32.How did the Jaredites mop and dry this constant sloshing spillage for a year?

        33. How could they have carried enough fresh water to offset the constant sloshing spillage?

        34. Could you keep your family food and belongings together with that kind of flailing around?

        Were the people and animals secured by ropes (analogous to seatbelts)? Today, even seatbelted people in slow-speed vehicle rollovers are often seriously injured. But at least their vehicles then stop. Ocean storms, though, last for hours or days. The Jaredites and their animals would have been thrown around (a) many times longer and (b) in a vastly larger interior than in a car rollover. The sliding and falling collisions of people, animals, food and water supplies would often have gone on for hours or days at a time. And if tied down, in a rollover they'd have been left hanging from the ceiling.

        The food supplies, and especially the water supplies, would have had to be lashed down to prevent lethally crushing slides into people and animals.

        35. But then, when the boat turned upside down, how did the people access the food and water, which would now be secured to the ceiling?

       36. How would the Jaredites have been able to prevent or deal with orthopedic injuries and concussions as animals and people crashed into each other?

        37. When the boats were upside down, did the people and animals just walk around on what had been the ceiling, outside of pens?

        "And thus they were driven forth, three hundred and forty and four days upon the water. And they did land upon the shore of the promised land." (6:11,12) That is, the account directly implies that all the boats landed at approximately the same time.

        38. Is it sensible that after 344 days of such violent tossing and sloshing, the boats would have arrived on essentially the same day? How could eight ocean-going vessels tossed by violent storms maintain near-identical speeds, remaining near each other over such an extremely long time period?

        39. Would the "eye of reason" perceive the ocean trip in Ether to be a fitting example of famed LDS general authority and historian Elder B.H. Roberts' notable assessment of the Book of Mormon "as if it were a tale told by a child, with utter disregard for consistency " ? (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 251)

        The eye of faith apparently does not perceive the Jaredite ocean voyage to be a nutty fictitious story.

        40. How does the eye of sensible reason see it?

        It seems to me that all 40 of the above questions are honestly, fairly and sensibly stated.

- Kent Ponder


Three wise men of Gotham -
They went to sea in a bowl....

- Nursery rhyme

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