Updated: Dec 14, 2020
For me, there are some unsettling elements in the account of the Brother of Jared and the 16 stones. They are his anxiety about the Lord's possible anger with his weakness, his very dismal description of human nature (evil continually), and his fear of being smitten when he sees the finger of the Lord.
These things don't resonate with my experience of God. I have found him to be patient with my weakness and constantly reassuring of my preciousness to him, even when I'm feeling chastised. And I can't imagine myself being afraid at the appearance of the Lord. I feel like I would be awestruck, speechless, and unable to stand, but never fearful that he'd smite me. In Joseph Smith's First Vision, the appearance of the Father and the Son released him from the grasp of a fear that bound him and seemed about to destroy him.
So why the difference?
I'm going to explore some thoughts.
First of all, there's the cultural context in which the Brother of Jared grew up. He lived at a time when it seems that his people were united in their mistrust of God. There's a lot we don't know about the tower of Babel. What was the underlying motive for the people to build it, and why did the Lord respond by confounding their language and scattering the people?
I have trouble with the idea that the Lord was responding to a perceived threat from a brick and mortar tower of any height. There was no possible way for them to build high enough to leave the atmosphere. And, even if they were extraordinarily technologically advanced (a proposition for which there seems to be very little evidence), if the tower is a metaphor for a space travel program, even then, we are pretty isolated in our corner of the Galaxy and there was still no chance of their program bringing them, unprepared, to Kolob.
So what was the Lord's motive in confounding their language and scattering them?
The little information we have on that is in Genesis 11:6-7: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
“Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
It seems like there was some danger of the people having too much power. Yet the Lord loves to empower His children. In fact, the Lord promised the brother of Jared himself “that if he would believe in him that he could show unto him all things—it should be shown unto him; therefore [the day came that] the Lord could not withhold anything from him, for he knew that the Lord could show him all things” (Ether 3:26).
Similarly, in Mormon 9:21 we have this promise: “Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth.”
So if the Lord wants to empower us to ask and receive, why did he act to disempower the people at Babel?
I think it’s because they were seeking to empower themselves, to their own detriment, rather than to receive from him, to their everlasting salvation.
What if the Tower of Babel was an institution of human empowerment that sought to overcome the physical aspects of the Fall, pain, illness, etc, without tending to the spiritual aspects? It might have offered training in psychic healing, the occult arts, and a host of other methods for gathering power and achieving personal goals without reliance on Jesus Christ.
If so, I imagine the people of Babel didn’t understand that they weren’t prepared for such power. Could they have believed (as I am tempted to do) that, since people tend to behave poorly when they are threatened, oppressed, disempowered and in pain, the solution to human corruption was the removal of pain and pestilence and the empowerment of all?
It's kind of scary to me to realize how close that comes to describing how I tend to think. And often, it's what I see. Disempowered people do tend to improve behaviour when their agency is honoured. But human nature remains tainted by pride and selfishness, even (perhaps especially) when empowered. So it's extremely dangerous to become mighty before becoming sanctified. That's the reason we have the adage, "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." And it's why the Lord waits until a servant has overcome himself and achieved unity of will with Him, before granting that servant the kind of power he gave to Nephi, son of Helaman (Helaman 10:4-10).
I do believe that a little empowerment and a supportive culture can help us live prosperous lives as decent people. But becoming decent and prosperous is not why we came to Earth. We came with the purpose to become like our Heavenly Parents: beings of unalloyed love, purely good to the core, capable of wielding godly power with no whiff of abuse. And for that, we need both a crucible and a Redeemer. We need affliction, frustration, anguish, even betrayal, and we need Jesus Christ to become our rock, our refuge our rescue, and eventually, our all.
Supposing, that the ancients of Babel, gifted with a common, flawless language (and I'm remembering that the world was created by the power of the word), were working on a plan to do away with the crucible and to unlock mythical power, then it makes sense that the Lord needed to act in their protection. They did not understand that the powers they pursued were dangerous, that they were poised to unleash the inner beast. They thought themselves capable of their own redemption and didn't acknowledge the "carnal, sensual and devilish" impulses hiding in their natures.
So, their language was confounded, divisions arose, and they were forced to confront their inner ugliness. Meanwhile, the Jaredites were preserved from participating in the near-universal calamity by trusting in the Lord. They were, however, "driven forth" from the land (Ether 3:3) and experienced a multitude of hardships in the wilderness.
Now they face another crucible, an interminable voyage across unchartered waters, where they are to have no control over their course but to be driven by the winds and waves, while enclosed in limited confines with their stock animals. And, unless the Brother of Jared can come up with a solution, they're going to have to do all this in darkness.
So, the Brother of Jared goes and moltens 16 clear, white stones from a rock. I've always thought of these as crystals, rather than lumps of glass, although I'm not aware of a process for obtaining crystals by melting, rather than mining. However, it looks like there is a process for purifying crystals by melting a narrow region of them, and then moving that molten zone across the rock. For me, this is a fascinating possibility, although it seems to rely on superior technology than we generally credit to the ancients.
Here's what I like about it. It seems likely that crystals were associated with magical properties and used in healing and other rituals in ancient times, as they are now. If so, they may have been associated with all that the Jaredites left behind in Babel. But there are also legends of Noah's arc being lighted by gemstones. So what if the Brother of Jared went and gathered up earthly materials associated with forbidden powers, did his best to purify them, and then brought them to the Lord to touch?
There is something beautiful to me about this idea, especially when it's coupled with the complete submission in his prayer. Paraphrasing, I see him saying, "Dear Lord, I get it now that we need the crucible, that we aren't capable of righteously wielding these powers ourselves. I understand that we need the experience of whatever Thou dost call us to endure. And we are willing, however terrified and cringing, to endure this journey in total darkness, if that's what's required. But, Thou hast also told us to bring Thee our problems and to ask for our needs. So, I've...umm... purified these crystals. Please don't be angry; I'm not presenting them as magical implements but in hopes Thou wilt make them Thy tools, like the crystals in Noah's arc, and let us please have the comfort of Thy light to keep us through the crucible ahead."
There is something incredibly vulnerable and trusting in such a prayer and risky request. In this scenario, the Brother of Jared is very much outside of the "safe" zone of beaten paths and approved answers. He's thinking outside the box of his own previous assumptions and he is keenly aware, thanks in part to very recent chastening, of his mortal weakness and his ability to be deceived and badly wrong. But he is willing to risk being badly wrong in an effort to find what's right, because he trusts the Lord to correct him. He risks so much in such a request that it's no wonder he momentarily fears being smitten when the Lord reaches forth and touches those stones.
But he isn't smitten.
Instead, he's brought back into the presence of the Lord.
I know this whole scenario is speculative. That's not the point. The point is what it means to me. Here's what I think I've learned.
I need to remember, in my zeal to empower others, that none of the tools the world provides can actually heal people from their fallenness. Seeking to replace injustice with kindness and mercy is an imperative I feel and should follow. But Zion will only be established through faith in Jesus Christ and that needs to be the core of all my humanitarian efforts.
I need to remember my own fallenness, especially at those times when things are going well, I'm not feeling threatened, and my heart doesn't feel particularly unruly. I need to keep coming before the Lord as a penitent, asking for correction.
Orthodoxy can become a substitute for trusting in Jesus Christ who, in His personal ministry, was anything but orthodox. It's not just okay but good to think outside the box and ask daring questions if I'm doing so as a penitent, willing to be corrected.