Bones

November 13, 2008 | 21 comments
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One of the subterranean threads running throughout the Book of Mormon is the mystery of whose bones are heaped upon the land northward. If we read the Book of Mormon in its present sequence, the mystery and its solution are explained almost simultaneously, so that it’s easy for us to lose sight of how concerned the Nephites were with the question of the bones’ origin. But if we follow the bones through the sequence of Nephite history, they tell a somewhat different story.

The Mulekites, the original people of Zarahemla, knew of a land covered in bones because it was their first home in the Promised Land, but they didn’t know whose bones lay scattered there.

Later, the people of Limhi sent 43 men to to seek aid from Nephite Zarahemla, but they instead found a land covered in bones. Supposing it was Zarahemla destroyed, the men gathered up metal plates with indecipherable writing and returned to Limhi. When the peoples of Limhi and Alma are rejoined to the Nephites, what the Nephites are anxious to know is: whose bones lie scattered over the land northward?

The various records and traditions available to the Nephites provide one answer: the bones in that distant northern land belong to a people of a bygone age, who fell into sin and were destroyed.

But then there are new bones heaped up on the land close to the Nephites’ homes, bones of others who came up to battle against them. But the Nephites slew and wounded many and drove the rest into the wilderness, and “many died in the wilderness of their wounds, and were devoured by those beasts and also the vultures of the air; and their bones have been found, and have been heaped up on the earth.” The bones that litter the land before their eyes, then, are Lamanite bones.

At the end of Nephite history, only Mormon is left to recognize what his painstakingly transported and abridged records had been trying to tell him for decades, and trying to tell the Nephites all along: the bones that cover the land are our own bones. They have been here from the beginning, waiting for us.

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21 Responses to Bones

  1. Brad Kramer on November 13, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    Superb.

  2. Thomas Parkin on November 13, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Awesome. A+. Hurrah!!! ~

  3. Adam Greenwood on November 13, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    Chilly.

  4. iguacufalls on November 13, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    I always thought it was Mammoth bones that the Jaredites used as war beasts. They became extinct in the final battle and their (big) bones covered the earth. :)

  5. Ben Pratt on November 13, 2008 at 8:41 pm

    Wow.

    Wow.

    I wonder: what are the bones haunting the fringe of our society? Is the message different for us than it was for the Nephites?

  6. Adam Greenwood on November 13, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Only a German medievalist could have discovered that the Book of Mormon is a gigantic memento mori. Good work.

  7. N.G. on November 13, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    Gives new insight into Ezekiel 37 (esp. vs. 11), doesn’t it?

  8. Rameumptom on November 14, 2008 at 9:28 am

    While I like your concept, I think the Mulekites knew more than you suggest. Zarahemla, the city, was founded by Zarahemla the man. Zarahemla the man was still around when King Mosiah arrived on the scene.

    Omni tells us:
    “14 And they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. Now, there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla; and also Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews. ” Note that the man Zarahemla also “did rejoice exceedingly”. Later HE gave his genealogy to Mosiah: “Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory” (vs 18).

    The Mulekites then tell of King Coriantumr dwelling with them for 9 moons. If that is the case, then the destruction of the Jaredites was not in 600 BC, but more likely 250 BC. This suggests that the Mulekites dwelt on the fringes of Jaredite society for several centuries. What would have occurred because of dwelling that long with the Jaredites? “And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.” (vs 17).

    All of these are typical events to happen because they were partially absorbed into Jaredite society. Once the Jaredite wars became extreme, the Mulekites fled south of the narrow neck of land, and founded Zarahemla.

    Another evidence of this is the sudden appearance of Jaredite names into the Nephite vocabulary. It is unlikely that 9 months with Coriantumr would have caused such a large number of names and Jaredite customs to become struggles for the Nephite nation. But is very likely if some Jaredites fled along with the accultured Mulekites. Names like: Korihor, any name ending in “anton” (Corianton, Morianton, Gadianton), etc.

    It also explains struggles between the Mulekites and Nephites, such as the sister cities Morianton and Lehi that Captain Moroni established in the wilderness. And it explains how the secret societies and combinations of the Jaredites were passed down to the Nephites, which were not spoken of among the Nephites until Alma explained them to his son, Helaman – all tied to the Jaredites!

  9. Russell Arben Fox on November 14, 2008 at 10:02 am

    Jonathan, this is a powerful insight. There is a poem buried in this post, or a brilliant, Twilight-Zone-ending short story. I wish I could do it justice, but I don’t have the words. I hope someone does; this is just too good a concept to leave alone. Them dry, dry bones, indeed.

  10. Rose Green on November 14, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Cool. And creepy.

  11. mike on November 14, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    For what it is worth..

    Most bones will not survive above ground more than a year or two without being consumed by other animals, either large or small. Most bones under ground in areas with normal rainfall will not survive more than a century or two at the most without careful embalming or other unusual conditions. There are exceptions such as extremely dry conditions resulting in mummification or else immediate deep freezing on the edge of galciers, etc. Rarely bones mineralize and turn to stone and can last millions of years as fossils.

    On a recent boy scout hike we stumbled upon an old family cemetery on a dry rocky hill top of about a dozen marked graves, the most recent being buried in the 1870′s. A couple were above ground concrete cripts that had been broken open and we peeked into them and could see very badly deteriorated bones. It was dark and raining hard and quite cold; it really spooked the scouts which they later described as the best hike ever.

    Another example in our history for comparison is what happened to the remains of those people killed at the Mountain Meadows Massacre. They apparently were buried in shallow graves which were dug back up by wolves and a scattered around. Within a few years they were mostly gone. And about 10 years ago they accidently dug into one of the mass graves. That was in a cool and dry climate so the bones were intact but not in very good shape. One question I have is what could be learned if a bunch of archeologists went down there and dug the entire place up. The answer might be …not much.

  12. iguacufalls on November 14, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    @mike – so Mammoth bones, being bigger, would last longer, no? The Jaredites made the mammoths extinct. Then there were only a few left to roam the hills of Jacobugath before the great storm… Oh wait. Maybe I read that in a Chris Heimerdinger novel. :)

  13. Ronan on November 14, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    JG,
    Bravo. I love it.

  14. Kent G. Budge on November 14, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    It likely wasn’t just the people of Zarahemlah who had contact with the Jaredites:

    “And now it came to pass after some years had passed away, there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem.”

    Where did Sherem come from? He seems to have been a stranger in Jacob’s community, and his name sounds like a Jaredite name rather than a Semitic name.

  15. Cal on November 14, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    I love this examination of \”Bones\” in the Book Of Mormon. I know Mormon
    was inspired to include certain things in the ancient record. I know he knew
    future people would want to know of the people of old in more ways than one.

  16. Jonathan Green on November 14, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    Mr. Rameumptom, thanks for your thoughts. If the Book of Mormon is a complicated and layered work with multiple competing narratives–and I’d very much like it to be one–then there is room aplenty for all kinds of possibilities. The more, the merrier!

  17. Jim F on November 14, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Brilliant, Jonathan, brilliant.

  18. Ray on November 15, 2008 at 1:29 am

    What a wonderful post. Thanks, Jonathan.

  19. mike on November 17, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    I don’t know if mammoth bones would last longer than smaller bones or not. The most common way of their disposal naturally is being eaten by other mammals such as wolves and rats. If they are bigger they might be more easily found and consumed. Where they end up is probably more crucial than their size.

    Mammoths are a fascinating topic. First, they appear to have been driven to extinction more than 10,000 years ago by a combination of global warming and human hunting, both hot topics today. But this was way before Book of Mormon times. Second, they lived in frozen climates, yet snow is never mentioned in the Book of Mormon and most local geographies are in the tropics. Many years ago the skeleton of a large mammoth with an arrowhead in the ribs was on display at BYU, lending plausibility to the Book of Mormon story. But I heard it has a less visible presence now and if anything raises more questions.

    Finally a horse is a horse and a mammoth is mammoth. The Book of Mormon mentions elephants, not mammoths. Forgive me but I am one of those who has a hard time visualizing Alma saddling up his deer or his tapir. If this is feasible, then I suggest that BYU organize races with people riding deer or tapirs as annual events. Perhaps President Monson could ride a tapir in the Pioneer day parade. The finding of mammoth bones does not help support the existance of elephants in Book of Mormon times. Such theories make us look ridiculous to our critics, although they can make a Sunday school class laugh uncomfortably.

    I think we used to imagine that we had some wiggle room for dating in this era. That science could confuse 12,000 BC with 2,000 BC. But my limited understanding is that there are now multiple independent methods of dating organic items in that age range and they are much more accurate. One that is hard for me to argue with is the field of dendrology, or counting of tree rings. Each year the tree ring grows slightly thicker or thinner giving a sensitive indicator of the overall favorability of the climate for that tree species during that year. This results in complex patterns over the decades that are more specific than bar codes and exlude the problem of two or three trees growing together and appearing to be much older. Apparently there are bristlecone pine trees high in the mountains (of what was once Mormon country) that are older than the Biblical chronology and preserved dead logs of the same that overlap with living trees that push this method of dating beyond 10,000 BC. It can be used as a sort of control of other methods.

    Mammoths have been frozen and preserved in Siberia. When I was young and somewhat of a dreamer, back in the ’70′s, I had this idea that fertility specialists could harvest frozen mammoth eggs and sperm and inpregnate a few modern elephants and thereby resurrect this species from extinction. If the DNA was broken up too much they could somehow compare it with modern elephant DNA and create polymerases that would correct it.

    But I have never thought of any unique or clever scientific findings to go looking for that would significantly advance the cause of the Book of Mormon.

  20. Adam Greenwood on November 17, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Bone deterioration depends a lot on local climate conditions.

  21. dave on December 28, 2008 at 3:11 am

    I never really think more about bones…but its good…