Seeing Moroni and the Book of Ether through a Study of Narrative Time

Amy Easton-Flake

Delays, gaps, jumps; moving backward and forward; recalling the past and creating future expectation—narrative time determines to a considerable extent the nature, structure, and meaning of a text. Yet, as leading narrative scholar Shimon Bar-Efrat notes, “the reader does not usually pay attention to [narrative time] and takes it for granted. It exists solely as background and infrastructure. Although it is indispensable and constant, and the entire narrative rests upon it, its existence is not apparent.”[1] When scholars or other readers approach scripture from a narrative perspective, they more commonly analyze setting, plot, characters, point of view, and narrators—all of which are more readily apparent than the concept of narrative time. A study of narrative time, however, is particularly beneficial because it helps readers to more clearly see the text as the author intended. By deciding what to place first and what to place last, what to repeat and what to omit, what to convey rapidly, and what to dwell at length on, the author guides readers’ interpretation of the text. Thus by making explicit these authorial decisions, we are better able to determine authorial intent. To illustrate the usefulness and relevancy of analyzing narrative time in scripture, I turn to the book of Ether.

The Jaredite record makes a good case study because it is a highly constructed text that uses narrative time in fascinating ways. While some may accept the view held by Sidney B. Sperry, John W. Welch, and Grant Hardy that Moroni did not heavily edit the plates of Ether but essentially copied Mosiah’s translation of the record and occasionally inserted his own personal commentary in large blocks,[2] others may see a stronger editorial hand at work. For instance, Frederick W. Axelgard proposes that Moroni did not simply transcribe Mosiah’s translation but rather read and digested the account thoroughly before conceiving a structure for his abridgment and deciding what to include, what to exclude, “and where to weave in his own commentary, revelation from the Lord, and passages from the Nephite records.”[3] Regardless of one’s view here,[4] the profitability of using narrative time to elucidate meaning and central themes within the text remains unchanged, and Moroni maintains his unique position in the narrative as one who simultaneously straddles past, present, and future. Moroni’s extensive narrative asides are virtually unprecedented in scripture, as is his reaching across time to speak directly to his audience.[5] Collectively, these aspects significantly affect how the narrative functions because they control, and at times halt, the flow of story time; create an alternative story line by which to view the book of Ether; link the past, present, and future; and forge a bond between Moroni and his readers. In this study, I track the three major components of narrative-temporal analysis—order, duration, and frequency—to show how Moroni has constructed the text and guided his readers’ interpretation of it. Close analysis illuminates Moroni’s authorial intent and aspects of the text that go unnoticed, as well as what is often unconscious in a person’s reading experience.

Narrative Criticism

To provide context for our study of narrative time in the book of Ether, I begin with a brief overview of the narrative-critical approach, which has become a vibrant field in biblical studies over the past thirty years. Narrative criticism stems from New Criticism and structuralism and analyzes solely the world internal to the text. It focuses on ascertaining the meaning of the text and discovering how the story communicates its meaning. The starting point for narrative criticism is the differentiation between story and discourse, between the “what” (the story, or content of the narrative) and the “how” (the discourse, or means by which content is expressed). This distinction allows one studying the text to concentrate on how the narrative constructs its meaning, keeping in mind that everything in a narrative has been chosen, arranged, filtered, and framed. Likewise, narrative critics hold the premise that narrative texts envision their own ideal readers and teach readers how they are to be read. Through setting up the mental moves required to experience and understand the text, authors seek to control their readers’ experience with and emotional response to the text. Narrative criticism invokes many new and profitable questions as it seeks to make conscious what often is unconscious in people’s reading experience and provides a useful vocabulary for sharing such discoveries.[6]

Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon is the most notable example of how a narrative-critical approach can greatly aid analysis of the Book of Mormon, and his work is essential reading for anyone seeking to better comprehend the three major editors of the Book of Mormon.[7] While at times probing elements of narrative time such as omissions, repetitions, and selectivity in an effort to uncover the personalities of Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni, Hardy does not identify those devices in terms of narrative time since time remains an unnamed concept in the background of his work. My approach here, in contrast, brings narrative time to the forefront to illustrate its usefulness as a lens for studying scripture.

Narrative Time

To begin, one must first appreciate what narrative time is and how to study it. Objective time—the sort of time we experience in our day-to-day living—is continuous; it flows evenly, without interruption, the duration of each second exactly the same as those preceding and following it. Stories, however, are at best retellings of historical or imagined events, and so time can function more flexibly in a narrative. Story time refers to the passage of time during a story (e.g., Lehi’s family spent eight years in the wilderness), and presumably readers understand that story time flows continuously and evenly, just like objective time. Narrative time, by contrast, is a kind of temporality that is never uniform and continuous. According to New Testament scholar R. Alan Culpepper (borrowing heavily from Gérard Genette), narrative time is determined by “the order, duration, and frequency of events in the narrative.”[8] Before delving into the complexity within each of these three seemingly simple aspects of narrative time and what they illuminate about the book of Ether, I begin with one example from that book that showcases how time matters and how it affects our understanding of the text.

As any reader of the Book of Mormon knows, the phrase “and it came to pass” occurs frequently throughout the text.[9] In the book of Ether, it appears 160 times (or more than once every three verses). What many readers do not note, however, is the vital function that phrase plays in the narrative. It lets readers know that a gap has occurred in the narrative. Without it, readers would assume that one event immediately follows the next; but with it, readers should recognize that an indeterminate amount of time has passed. The difficulty is ascertaining how much time. While in some situations it seems likely that only a few moments have passed, in others the text provides a sort of time stamp to let readers know that a notable amount of time has passed. For instance, Moroni uses the phrase to introduce the fact that the Jaredites had been staying by the sea for four years before the Lord reprimanded the brother of Jared for not calling upon him (see Ether 2:14), that the Jaredites’ journey to the promised land lasted 344 days (see 6:5–11), and that Coriantum’s wife was 102 years old when she died (see 9:24). Recognizing that often much time has passed between events can alter readers’ perception of the text.

Likely the best examples of this in the book of Ether surround the incidents when the Lord chastens the brother of Jared and when he sees the Lord. These events are often presented and understood as occurring close together in time; however, a close look at the text shows this to be an incorrect assumption. Between the narration of those events in Ether 2 and 3, the phrase “and it came to pass” appears five times[10] while the brother of Jared performs a number of tasks, some very time-consuming: building eight barges, petitioning the Lord on how to solve the lack of air and light in the barges, making holes in the top and bottom of each barge, and coming up with the idea of lighted stones from molten rock and presenting this idea to the Lord. Readers who recognize the lengthy amount of time it must have taken for the brother of Jared to build eight barges, to engage in numerous reported (and, likely, unreported) conversations in which he learned “according to the instructions of the Lord’ (2:16), and to counsel with the Lord on how to solve perplexing issues will readily see that the brother of Jared did not neglect to call upon the Lord one day and then qualify to see him in a stunning vision the next day. Rather, an extensive amount of time and tutelage had passed before the brother of Jared was prepared to see the Lord. Awareness of this time gap, signified by Moroni’s repetition of “and it came to pass,” helps readers to better appreciate and understand the brother of Jared’s remarkable experience.


With this background in place, the first element of narrative time we will examine is order. Analyzing the order in which authors explain events is useful because such ordering can shape and alter significance and meaning, build dramatic intensity or reiterate what is important, and enrich the narrative by extending it back or moving it forward. In the book of Ether we may see how the ordering of events produces meaning and foreshadows significance with the text’s opening lines: “And now I, Moroni, proceed to give an account of those ancient inhabitants who were destroyed by the hand of the Lord upon the face of this north country. And I take mine account from the twenty and four plates which were found by the people of Limhi, which is called the Book of Ether” (1:1–2). By beginning with an aside that introduces himself, his source text, and his role as editor—rather than the story time and plot readers expect to see in scripture narratives—Moroni indicates that he will not be an invisible, background element of the text, as editors of scriptural text normally are. Rather, he prepares readers to see him as a prominent figure in the text and to see his asides as an integral part of the narrative. These early indications are borne out throughout the book, with Moroni’s interjections accounting for 25 percent of the text, making him arguably the most prominent person in the book of Ether.

Another example of order signaling emphasis and creating meaning relates to Moroni’s decision to include the genealogy of Ether back to Jared.[11] By moving immediately from a narrative aside to a lengthy genealogy, Moroni continues to delay the beginning of the narrative and thereby asserts the genealogy’s importance to the story he is about to relate. First, the genealogy alerts readers that the record Moroni is about to recount is primarily a family history—it is not, as many have supposed, primarily a history of the Jaredite kings.[12] Often the history of the family and of the Jaredite kings is one and the same, but when it is not—such as the time that the royal lineage spent six generations in captivity—Moroni writes only of the family line in captivity and records nary a word about the actual rulers during this time.[13] The genealogy moving from son to father at the beginning of the text establishes this narrative focus. Furthermore, the decision to reverse the standard biblical model of genealogies moving from father to son and to instead begin with Ether and move back from son to father points to Ether as the essential person in the Jaredite lineage.[14] By placing Ether at the forefront of the narrative, the author also builds dramatic anticipation for Ether’s arrival.


A study of narrative time in the book of Ether has first led us to ask questions about why Moroni begins the narrative with an aside and why he delays the story with a genealogy. What do these delays tell us about how Moroni would like his readers to read and interpret his text? In our study of the book of Ether through the lens of narrative time, we will next want to pay close attention to anachronies—instances (or places in the text) when the order of events in the narrative does not match the sequence in the story. Anachronies provide fertile ground for asking new questions and determining the purpose and workings of the text. To aid in the recognition and discussion of these instances, most narrative critics use the terms introduced by Gérard Genette in his field-defining work, Narrative Discourse. The first of these terms, prolepsis, refers to “any narrative maneuver that consists of narrating or evoking in advance an event that will take place later.”[15]

The first prolepsis in the book of Ether is when the Lord promises the brother of Jared that he will meet him in the land northward and lead him, and all those who are with him, “into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth” (1:42). This prolepsis not only builds anticipation for what is to come, but also institutes what will be a major theme of the first half of the book of Ether—the Lord personally guiding the people to a choice land. This part of the prolepsis is soon fulfilled when a few verses later the Lord speaks to the brother of Jared in a cloud and directs him to take the people into the wilderness. Once they are in the wilderness, the prolepsis continues to play out as “the Lord did go before them, and did talk with them as he stood in a cloud, and gave directions whither they should travel” (2:5). Having the actual event immediately follow the prolepsis establishes the Lord’s character and his role in the text as one who can be trusted to lead, guide, and fulfill his word. In contrast, the second part of the first prolepsis—that the Lord will raise these people to be a nation greater than any other “upon all the face of the earth”—does not occur for some time and therefore serves a distinctly different function in the text. By anticipating an event that is not clearly defined, the prolepsis generates dramatic intensity as readers wait to see not only how this will occur but also why this nation that the Lord raised up to be greater than any other will also be “destroyed by the hand of the Lord,” as revealed by Moroni in the opening line of the book of Ether (1:1).

The next term Genette uses to study anachronies more precisely is analepsis, referring to “any evocation after the fact of an event that took place earlier than the point in the story where we are at any given moment.”[16] Moroni adeptly uses such analepses throughout his narrative. During the story time of Ether, for instance, Moroni inserts an analepsis about the brother of Jared moving a mountain. Its placement in this location not only recalls the faith of the brother of Jared and indicates how little of his life has been recorded, but also compresses the vast time gap between Ether and the brother of Jared and effectively links them and their stories together.

Another analepsis, this time placed immediately after the brother of Jared has seen the Lord and a vision of the history of the earth and its inhabitants, discloses that in prior conversations the Lord had told the brother of Jared “that if he would believe in him that he could show unto him all things” (3:26). That this information is placed after rather than prior to the brother of Jared seeing the Lord makes sense from a storytelling perspective because an author would likely not want to give away the big reveal. However, its placement directly after this event signals that it does impart something significant that Moroni wants to make sure readers understand about the experience: the Lord had promised and encouraged the brother of Jared multiple times to seek such an experience. Such a reveal enhances readers’ knowledge of the relationship between the brother of Jared and the Lord and adds necessary complexity and nuance for those readers who may look to the brother of Jared as a model for coming to know the Lord.

Prolepses and analepses occurring in the text take on an increasingly interesting role when we place the book of Ether within the larger context of the Book of Mormon. In doing this, we immediately see how Moroni repeatedly collapses or compresses narrative time by relating events that are expected in the future of the story of the book of Ether but have already occurred within the larger story of the Book of Mormon. For instance, Ether prophesies to Coriantumr that if he will not repent all his people will be destroyed and he alone will remain to eventually receive a burial by a new people whom the Lord has brought to receive the land (13:20–21). While this event has yet to occur in the story time of the book of Ether, it is long since past in the Book of Mormon story line and has been known by readers since the book of Omni. In one sense, then, Ether 13:20–21 is a prolepsis since it foretells an event that will take place at the end of the story line of the book of Ether. In another sense, though, it is an analepsis because the event has already occurred and been recorded in the Book of Mormon.

This example is particularly meaningful because it illustrates how the book of Ether in its entirety holds an intriguing place within the narrative time of the Book of Mormon: it functions as a long-awaited backstory. Readers have known about the Jaredites since page 142 of a 531-page book (see Omni 1:20–22), and since that time (for more than 300 pages), Mormon has steadily built readers’ desire to learn more about these people and about what led to their demise by scattering curious references to the Jaredites, their destruction, and their record throughout the text.[17] Knowing the end of the Jaredites’ story from the beginning, readers consequently approach and read the book of Ether differently than they do the other books in the Book of Mormon. For instance, Moroni anticipates that readers who come to Ether’s prophecy that the Jaredites’ “bones should become as heaps of earth upon the face of the land” (Ether 11:6) will recall reading in the book of Mosiah about Limhi’s men discovering the twenty-four gold plates in a land “covered with bones of men, and of beasts, . . . a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel” (Mosiah 8:8). Likewise, when these ideal readers, as envisioned by the text, read that if the Jaredites do not repent “the Lord God would send or bring forth another people to possess the land” (Ether 11:21), they immediately think of Lehi’s family, the people of Zarahemla, and of the entire Book of Mormon narrative that essentially recounts the fulfillment of this prophecy.[18] Narrative time collapses and compresses in these instances, linking the Jaredites to the Nephites, as readers layer these analepses and prolepses.

Time becomes even more elastic when Moroni steps completely out of Book of Mormon story time to speak directly to Joseph Smith—the book’s eventual translator. Roughly one-fourth of the way through the narrative, Moroni interrupts the story to include an external prolepsis—a reference to an event that occurs entirely outside the boundaries of the Book of Mormon—that provides Joseph Smith with direction for translating the record and choosing “three witnesses” who will testify of the reality of the record (5:1–4). Past, present, and future collide because an event that was in Moroni’s future at the time he wrote has already occurred in the past for the reader and, intriguingly, has become part of the paratext of the Book of Mormon, documented as the “Testimony of Three Witnesses.”


Examining another aspect of narrative time—duration (how long it takes to narrate a scene)—will further enhance our ability to perceive Moroni’s authorial intent. Duration often indicates how important an event and its corresponding themes are to an author, who of course would not be inclined to invest time in crafting a narrative event of little or no consequence. In the book of Ether there is considerable variation in the speed of the narrative. For instance, we are 31 percent of the way (5,330 words) through the book by the time the Jaredites reach the land of promise. The great bulk of Jaredite history (between 1,200 and 2,000 years) occupies only 38 percent (6,437 words) of the narrative. Ether’s account of the Jaredites’ final destruction and Moroni’s commentary on faith account for the remaining 31 percent (5,346 words) of the book of Ether. This quick synopsis readily affirms that Moroni is primarily concerned with the founding and destruction of the Jaredite nation. To analyze duration more systematically, narrative scholars employ the following categories: scenes (which most nearly approximate the duration of the story and include dialogue or monologue), summaries (which cover time more rapidly and provide only essential facts), ellipses (moments when a narrative leaves a gap), and descriptive pauses (“passages which mark no advance in story time but give an extended description of a setting, character, or emotion”).[19] Moroni employs all of these categories, but to different extents and with different effects, within each section of the book of Ether. The book can be divided into three basic sections: the first treating the founding of the Jaredite nation, the second giving an overview of kingship, and the final third covering the Jaredites’ destruction.

To show how a study of these elements illuminates themes and authorial intent, I begin by analyzing the middle section of the book of Ether, which provides an overview of Jaredite kingship. In comparison with the first and last thirds of the text, readers could argue that the middle section consists primarily of summaries. Because scenes are the foundation of scripture narratives (e.g., the stories making up the narrative account of the eight-year sojourn of Lehi’s family in the wilderness and the stories representing the sons of Mosiah’s missionary efforts to the Lamanites for fourteen years), the overabundance of summaries in the book of Ether gives it a distinctly different feel than what we find in the Bible and the sections of the Book of Mormon written by Nephi or Mormon.

Because simply categorizing this whole section in Ether as summary impedes our ability to discern Moroni’s authorial intent, I have created the category “summary scene” to more aptly account for some instances in the text that fall between what is generally considered a scene and what is considered a summary in scripture. This middle section begins with a summary of the people beginning to “multiply” and “spread [out] upon the face of the land” (6:18). Because of this section’s extreme brevity, each seemingly extraneous detail stands out with greater intensity than it would if located elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. Since Moroni clearly inserts these details purposefully, readers should note them with care if they want to accurately determine his authorial intent. The first such detail tells readers that the Jaredites were “taught to walk humbly before the Lord; and they were also taught from on high” (6:17). From this readers can surmise that the brother of Jared’s communications with the Lord continued once the Jaredites arrived in the land of promise. The verse may also be a summary reference to other people communicating directly with the Lord—a possibility supported later in the text when Moroni relays that Emer and many others (including Moroni himself) have seen Christ.[20]


This middle section of the text includes two scenes. The first occurs when Jared and his brother, nearing death, gather their people together and learn that they desire a king. Moroni highlights the gravity of this event by choosing to slow down his narrative by including a conversation between Jared and his brother (the inclusion of dialogue being what qualifies this moment to be labeled as a scene). The brother of Jared warns, “Surely this thing [i.e., monarchy] leadeth into captivity” (Ether 6:23), to which Jared replies, “Suffer them that they may have a king,” and then tells the people to choose a king from among the sons of Jared and his brother (6:24). Moroni then implies the undesirability of kingship by including the surprising information of a number of their sons being chosen and declining to become king before sharing that one, and only one, son—Orihah—was willing to assume the throne. Through the rest of the text, Moroni will emphasize the undesirability of the rule of kings by using summaries to recount the problems that accompany the transfer of power from one king to the next. While occasionally this succession process is smooth, much more often it is marked by rebellions, captivities, and battles, all stemming from power plays for the throne. That the dangers of kingship should be a major takeaway from this text is further signaled when Moroni chooses to devote the first pause—or editorial interruption—in this third of the text to noting the fulfillment of the brother of Jared’s warning that having a king would lead to captivity (7:5). Significantly, the next pause (or editorial explanation) in the text is Moroni’s lengthy warning against secret combinations, a connection between the two pauses that should not be overlooked.

This second pause is part of the most extensive scene in this section, which details the introduction of secret combinations into Jaredite society and the accompanying rise and fall of Jared and Akish (see 8:1–9:12). It accounts for over a fourth of the text dedicated to Moroni’s overview of kingship and includes action, dialogue, and a lengthy editorial interruption. Surprisingly, given the dearth of active females in the Book of Mormon, Moroni presents the daughter of Jared as a, if not the, key player in the scene. Moroni grants her the most extensive dialogue in the scene where she reminds her father of the ancient record that includes “secret plans” and devises her own plan for helping him to obtain the kingdom by dancing for Akish (see 8:9–10). That her father’s only recorded utterance simply repeats the words she has told him to speak—“I will give her unto you, if ye will bring unto me the head of my father, the king” (8:12)—reinforces her role as the mastermind of the plan. Additionally, Moroni credits the daughter of Jared with putting it into her father’s “heart to search up these things of old” (8:17).

Moroni is primarily interested in the rise and fall of Jared and Akish because of their connection to secret combinations, a fact made clear by the extensive editorial interruption that comes midway through the scene (see 8:15–26). Moroni’s willingness to slow down the narration and linger on this scene through the insertion of extensive editorial commentary indicates the subject matter’s importance to his authorial intentions. After Akish forms a secret combination but before we hear of the consequences, Moroni suspends the story action with more than six hundred words tracing secret combinations back to Cain and the devil, sharing how they caused the destruction of the Nephites and warning his future readers that secret combinations “bringeth to pass the destruction of all people” (8:25). Moroni endows his editorial insertion with greater gravitas when he informs readers that he has been “commanded [by the Lord] to write these things that evil may be done away, and that the time may come that Satan may have no power upon the hearts of the children of men” (8:26). The actions that follow this editorial insertion serve to reinforce the validity and weight of Moroni’s warning as readers notice, first, the irony of Jared obtaining the kingdom for only a short time before being killed by the secret combinations he helped to introduce (see 9:5), and second, Akish’s subsequent reign through secret combinations that ultimately lead to the destruction of all but thirty of his people (9:11–12).

Summary scenes

We now turn attention to what may be learned about Moroni’s authorial intent by analyzing the next level of duration, summary scenes in the middle third of the text, which is devoted to an overview of Jaredite kingship. The first summary scene occurs when Moroni writes of prophets coming to call the Jaredites to repentance (see Ether 7:23–27). The lack of dialogue and its overall brevity keeps this moment from qualifying as a scene. However, Moroni has clearly slowed down his normal summary pace to recount several items of importance: what the prophets taught, the people’s initial revilement of the prophets, the king’s law granting the prophets power to freely preach repentance throughout the land, and the people’s eventual repentance and subsequent prosperity. Identifying this moment as a summary scene helps us to recognize the value Moroni placed on the thematic messages it contains.

Here Moroni preaches of the fundamental promise that applies to those occupying the land—follow the Lord and prosper, or reject the Lord and be cut off—and the enormous impact that a king has on his people’s welfare, since Shule’s response to the prophets’ dire warnings is what brings about his people’s repentance (see 7:23–27). Notably, all of the summary scenes in this third of the book of Ether will reiterate these basic messages.

The second summary scene recounts Emer’s righteousness and the great prosperity his people enjoy under the guidance of his righteous judgment (see 9:15–22). By listing the many possessions of Emer’s people, Moroni emphasizes the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to pour out blessings (see 9:17–19). The third summary scene, which immediately follows the second, affirms these same themes by showing how Heth, a wicked king, leads his people to reject the Lord and his prophets (see 9:26–35). He is thus responsible for bringing his people to the brink of destruction as the Lord curses the land with famine and poisonous serpents because of the Jaredites’ failure to listen to the prophets. The fourth summary scene returns the focus to another positive example of Moroni’s message as he recounts the righteousness of King Lib and the great prosperity the people enjoy under his reign. Moroni again accentuates the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise by offering details about the people’s expansion across the land; their possession and use of many different ores, metals, cloths, and tools; and their great industry—not to mention the elimination of poisonous serpents (see 10:19–28). Moroni ends this summary scene with an editorial comment surely intended to connect to earlier moments in the Book of Mormon: “And never could be a people more blessed than were they, and more prospered by the hand of the Lord” (10:28).

Admittedly, the themes uncovered in labeling these instances as summary scenes are not surprising. Readers of the book of Ether have long recognized the fulfillment of the fundamental promise, whether toward prosperity or destruction, and the impact of kings on the people as core messages. What readers have likely not recognized is that Moroni has made these themes central by placing them into scenes and summary scenes. Of the possible twenty-seven times that Moroni could note whether the people’s prosperity and righteousness or destruction and unrighteousness are connected to the righteousness or unrighteousness of the king, he chooses to specifically mention a positive correlation only eleven times. In fourteen of the twenty-seven instances, he does not mention the people’s level of prosperity or righteousness, and in three instances he records a negative correlation between the people’s and the king’s righteousness. This finding (i.e., that a positive correlation between the people and the king is stated only 40 percent of the time) is surprising when one considers how omnipresent this message seems to be in the text. Importantly, this connection seems omnipresent precisely because Moroni has expanded six of the eleven instances when he records a positive correlation into scenes or summary scenes. In direct contrast, Moroni has kept in the background the remaining fourteen instances when he does not mention a correlation and, more crucially, the three times when a negative correlation occurs by granting them only summary status. Recognizing this helps us to see that without Moroni’s editorial hand these themes would not be at the forefront of the narrative, and thus a careful and methodical analysis of duration has allowed us to ascertain clear authorial intent.[21]


We can gain further insight into authorial intent through a close examination of dialogue. As Shimon Bar-Efrat explains, conversations in biblical narrative “are highly concentrated and stylized, are devoid of idle chatter, and all the details they contain are carefully calculated to fulfill a clear function.”[22] Dialogue acts as a vehicle for the development of the plot and as a means for illuminating “motives and intentions, points of view and approaches, [and] attitudes and reactions.”[23] It also signals the relevance of speakers and their messages as gauged by the narrative space the author grants.

Paying attention to the dialogue throughout the book of Ether, for instance, we see more clearly Jared’s role in the story. Jared is the first person granted utterance in the text. It is his idea to ask the Lord to not confound his people’s language, it is his idea to ask the Lord to lead them “into a land . . . choice above all the earth” (Ether 1:38), and it is upon his initiation that his brother takes these requests to the Lord. Moroni emphasizes that the brother of Jared is acting as Jared’s mouthpiece by including Jared’s—but not his brother’s—words as well as the statement “the brother of Jared did cry unto the Lord according to that which had been spoken by the mouth of Jared” (1:39). These moments also affirm Jared’s position as the leader of this group. Keeping Jared at the forefront of the narrative is clearly what Moroni, or more likely Ether, wanted to do, since the brother of Jared is not identified by his own name—thus every mention of the brother of Jared is by association a mention of Jared as well.[24] Up to a certain point in the narrative, the inclusion of dialogue involving Jared, but not his brother, is another way of asserting Jared’s leadership.

Perhaps surprisingly, the person accorded the most dialogue in the book of Ether is the Lord. The Lord voices nearly 60 percent of the dialogue in the text, and compared to the sparse dialogue that usually exists in scripture, the Lord’s words are often voluminous. The Lord’s first words establish the Jaredites as holding a position similar to that of the biblical Noah, for the Lord tells the brother of Jared to “gather together thy flocks, both male and female, of every kind” (1:41).[25] These words also announce that the Lord will lead the Jaredites “into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth” and make them “a great nation” (1:42–43). Thus, looking at the dialogue we see that Jared was the first one to voice a request to be led to a choice land, and the Lord then echoes Jared’s words as he grants Jared’s request. Such repetition of words within dialogue signals their thematic importance. The next time Moroni records the Lord’s words is when the Lord tells the brother of Jared that he “will forgive [him] and [his] brethren of their sins” after the brother of Jared has repented of not calling upon the name of the Lord (2:15). That Moroni accords dialogue to this moment—and not to the Lord’s three-hour visit with the brother of Jared in which he “chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord” (2:14)—makes it clear that repentance, not chastisement, is the point of this conversation.

Nearly two thousand words into the narrative, Moroni finally grants the brother of Jared dialogue:

O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me. And behold, O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish. (2:18–19)

Simple and straightforward, the brother of Jared’s words accomplish precisely what Bar-Efrat lays out as the purpose of dialogue in the Bible: the words focus on action, develop the plot (by raising the issue of light and air), and illuminate character (by revealing the brother of Jared to be diligent in following the Lord’s direction).[26]

This event is also noteworthy for being the first two-way dialogue in the text (see Ether 2:18–25). The casual, straightforward conversation between the brother of Jared and the Lord establishes for readers a sense of that relationship. The brother of Jared has evidently been approaching the Lord with questions throughout the journey, and the Lord in turn has been providing direct guidance. That their conversation is free of the reverential and effusive language that the brother of Jared uses when he approaches the Lord to touch the sixteen stones indicates the affable, working relationship that generally defines their interactions.[27] The brother of Jared goes to the Lord with questions, the Lord provides answers, and the brother of Jared follows this direction and reports back. Over the course of much time and many conversations, the brother of Jared has developed the faith and reliance on the Lord that prepares him for his eventual vision of the Lord.

Editorial pauses

One last element related to duration deserves further elaboration: pauses, or times in the text when story time stops while the narrator provides some type of commentary. Though we have already looked at two examples of pauses in scenes where Moroni warns of the danger of kings and secret combinations, pauses in the book of Ether require further investigation because their high frequency is what most distinguishes this book from other scripture—from the Bible as well as from the rest of the Book of Mormon. Explaining pauses in the Bible, Bar-Efrat writes: “The interpretations, explanations, and evaluations given by the narrator as well as the depictions are both infrequent and brief. As a result, there are very few instances in which time stops, and these are short and of little impact. This is what gives biblical narrative its characteristic dynamic nature and its almost incessant, rapid motion.”[28] In marked contrast, pauses account for 25 percent of the book of Ether[29] and, as such, are a foundational component of the text.

At times these pauses (or editorial commentary) can even seem to overwhelm the narrative it interrupts. For instance, this is one potential effect of Moroni’s editorial commentary when he relates the brother of Jared’s experience of seeing the Lord. Although Moroni is purportedly narrating another quite significant event, he dedicates more than half of the text devoted to this event to reporting on his conversations with the Lord.[30] The overall effect of such pauses in the book of Ether is to produce an alternative story line situated not in relaying the past but in presenting Moroni’s current relationship with the Lord and his messages for future readers.

Moroni’s pauses present him as an echo of the brother of Jared. The Lord commands the brother of Jared to write and seal up his vision; centuries later, the Lord commands Moroni to write and seal up the brother of Jared’s vision (see Ether 4:1–5). Furthermore, Moroni’s relationship with the Lord is similar to the brother of Jared’s in that the Lord frequently directs Moroni on what to include in the book of Ether: the Lord commands him to write the Lord’s words concerning promises of knowledge (see 5:1); the Lord commands him to write the warning about secret combinations (see 8:26); and the Lord forbids him to write more of the prophecies of Ether (see 13:13).

While their appointed tasks are different (the brother of Jared is to lead his people to the promised land, and Moroni is to complete the Book of Mormon), the way the Lord directs and communicates with them is similar. This point is reinforced when we look at the instances of recorded dialogue and find the Lord conversing with Moroni in the same straightforward manner with which he conversed with the brother of Jared. For instance, when Moroni goes to the Lord with his concern that “the Gentiles shall mock at our words” because of his people’s weakness in writing, the Lord comforts him by saying, “Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness” (12:25, 26). Perhaps most relevant is Moroni’s revelation that he too, like the brother of Jared, has “seen Jesus” and “talked with [him] face to face” (12:39). Presenting himself as an echo to the brother of Jared adds a compelling layer to a key message of the book of Ether—namely, that future readers are to seek after Jesus and to qualify to see “the things which the brother of Jared saw” (4:7). Put simply, the narrative form of the book of Ether brings readers to a culminating moment when past, present, and future merge as Moroni shares that he has accomplished in the present what the brother of Jared accomplished in the past, and Moroni encourages future readers to follow their joint example.

Pauses are also essential to the book of Ether because they contain the crucial themes and doctrine of the text, such as the covenant of the promised land (serve God or be destroyed), the danger of secret combinations, and the necessity of faith to enable God’s help and qualify for his miracles. Particularly valuable are the Lord’s words to Moroni contained in these pauses. In the pause in Ether 4 already discussed, the Lord’s words account for more than 60 percent of Moroni’s editorial insertion.[31] Here the Lord explains how to qualify to see what the brother of Jared saw and encourages Gentiles and the house of Israel alike to seek after “[these] greater things” (4:13–14). The Lord goes on to reiterate that the coming forth of this record is a sign “that the work of the Father has commenced upon all the face of the land” (4:17), and he states once again the necessity of faith, repentance, and baptism (see 4:18–19). Additionally, the Lord shares information about his own nature. He controls the heavens and the earth, he is the author of everything good, and he is “the light, and the life, and the truth of the world” (see 4:9, 12). In the second editorial pause containing direct statements from the Lord, he teaches about the value of weakness, grace, and humility; about people bringing their “weak things” to him so he can make them strong; and about the necessity of possessing “faith, hope, and charity” (12:27–28). Through repeated pauses, Moroni not only slows down narrative time but also foregrounds his construction of the narrative. In doing so, he creates an alternative story line and temporality through which the text must be understood to ascertain authorial intent.


Frequency, the last component of the tripartite system for analyzing narrative time, describes how many times a single event is narrated in a story. Similar to duration, frequency helps the implied reader perceive the magnitude of certain events and to think more carefully about what they signify. Readers of the book of Ether, for instance, cannot help but notice the foundational promise associated with this land, presented initially in Moroni’s summary of the Lord’s words: “Whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off” (Ether 2:8). Not only does Moroni repeat this foundational promise four different times in his second editorial pause (see 2:9–12), he also narrates multiple examples of its fulfillment—both positive and negative—throughout the text. The most notorious of such examples include the kingdom’s reduction to thirty people under the reign of Akish and the complete destruction of the Jaredite people (save Coriantumr and Ether) at the end of the book (see 9:6–12; 15:19–33). More moderate examples keep this theme at the forefront of the narrative as well, since Moroni repeatedly recounts how the people prosper in the land when they are righteous but are brought to the brink of annihilation when they are wicked.[32] As readers come across each of the examples, they will likely recognize them as fulfillments of the Lord’s promise because Moroni, through frequency, has taught his readers how to interpret these events.

Genette describes four possible relationships between frequency in narrative time and story time: singular narration, repetitive narration, multiple singular narration, and iterative narration.[33] Being cognizant of and able to identify the use of these narrative devices in the book of Ether may assist us in ascertaining how Moroni would have us interpret the text.

Singular and repetitive narration

Singular narration simply refers to events that happen once and are recorded once: the brother of Jared asks the Lord not to confound his people’s language; the Jaredites cross the sea to the land of promise; Coriantumr kills Shiz. This is the most common and natural form of storytelling in scripture and literature at large. Repetitive narration takes a one-time occurrence and mentions it repeatedly. An example is when the brother of Jared sees the Lord. Although Moroni narrates the event in detail only once, he refers to it repeatedly. Because the brother of Jared’s theophany is a highly significant component of the book of Ether, we need to probe the multiple mentions of this event more closely.

The most overt repetition of this event is found in Moroni’s exposition on faith. Here he informs his readers, “There were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad. And behold, we have seen in this record that one of these was the brother of Jared” (12:19–20). Moroni does not emphasize the singular nature of the brother of Jared’s sacred experience, but rather how he is an example of something that many have experienced. This repetition near the end of the book of Ether serves to remind readers of the Lord’s plea, accompanying Moroni’s initial narration of the event, for readers to seek after and qualify to see “the great and marvelous things which have been hid up from the foundation of the world” (4:15).

It is also instructive to look at the differences in how this event is narrated across the book of Ether. Moroni adds or omits information, substitutes details, or changes the order of events, each time giving us increased insight into his authorial intent. As Bar-Efrat reminds us, “special attention should be paid to the differences which often exist between the first and second versions . . . [because] in most instances these differences reflect the viewpoint or intention of the speaker.”[34] This indeed holds true when one studies Moroni’s two accounts of the brother of Jared’s experience. He first recounts the experience as follows:

And when he had said these words [“Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie”], behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you. . . .

Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh. (Ether 3:12–13, 16)

When Moroni immediately offers an additional account of the experience, he shifts his focus subtly to underline what is significant to him about this moment:

And now, as I, Moroni, said I could not make a full account of these things which are written, therefore it sufficeth me to say that Jesus showed himself unto this man in the spirit, even after the manner and in the likeness of the same body even as he showed himself unto the Nephites.

And he ministered unto him even as he ministered unto the Nephites; and all this, that this man might know that he was God, because of the many great works which the Lord had showed unto him.

And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting. (Ether 3:17–19)

In the first version, Moroni recounts the actions and words spoken by the brother of Jared and the Lord. In the second version, Moroni drops the direct dialogue in favor of recounting the event through his point of view. He adds context that makes the experience more meaningful to him, specifically through the connection that the brother of Jared’s experience is similar to that of the Nephites’ experience when they saw the Lord after his resurrection. Moroni also emphasizes the information that reinforces the messages he wishes to teach readers—namely, that Jared moved from faith to knowledge, that this knowledge brought him within the veil, and that there the Lord ministered unto him.

One more proximate reiteration of the same event reinforces the event’s significance and teaches readers how to view it: “Wherefore, having this perfect knowledge of God, he could not be kept from within the veil; therefore he saw Jesus; and he did minister unto him” (Ether 3:20). In this telling, now condensed into a single-line summary, Moroni repeats what he sees as critical: enabled by his perfect knowledge, the brother of Jared saw Jesus, who then ministered unto him. Readers are left to ponder what it means for Jesus to minister and also why Moroni chooses to emphasize this through repetition. Other questions concern the nature of this perfect knowledge and how one obtains it. For example, by knowledge, does Moroni mean the same thing that Jesus does in saying, “Because thou knowest these things . . .” (3:13)? What exactly are “these things” (3:13)?

Multiple singular narration

Genette’s next category, multiple singular narration, refers to an event that happens repeatedly and is also reported repeatedly. Examples abound in the book of Ether. Most notable in the third of the text devoted to the founding of the Jaredite nation are the multiple references to the Lord leading the people. He leads them as they journey into the wilderness, directs them as they build barges and cross many waters, prepares them against the elements, and guides their vessels to the promised land (see Ether 2:5–6, 24–25; 6:4–12). This is a particularly instructive example because it showcases how, in addition to providing emphasis, repetition of actions and events can come to define individuals and thus create characterization.[35] In this case, tangibly leading and caring for the Jaredites defines the Lord’s character in the book of Ether because this is all that readers see him do. His actions are who he is, and these actions show that he is not a remote God but rather an invested God involved in and affecting people’s lives. The third of the book dealing with Jaredite kingship is marked by the multiple singular narrations of rebellion, captivities, and usurpations of the throne that may easily blend into one another because of their sparse and quick narration. These narrations exemplify how an author can repeat words, themes, or activities to form a cumulative impression that defines a people or a time in the text. As a result, the author facilitates implied readers’ feeling that they have been provided with sufficient information for comprehending a people or situation, when in reality the information provided is rather sparse.

Perhaps the best-known example of multiple singular narration in the book of Ether is found in Moroni’s editorial insertion on faith as he describes fifteen different events made possible “by faith.”[36] Using this technique, Moroni builds his argument about the necessity and power of faith. And through his decision to reiterate examples located in earlier portions of the Book of Mormon, Moroni once again compresses narrative time through analepses that bring past, present, and future together.

Iterative narration

Genette’s final category, iterative narration, refers to an event that happens repeatedly but is reported only once. An interesting example of this is the repetition of the Lord speaking to the brother of Jared in a cloud. Although we know from the text that this happens repeatedly, the only place Moroni provides dialogue between the Lord and the brother of Jared (besides the interchange when he sees the Lord) is when they discuss how to have air and light in the barges (see Ether 2:18–25).[37] Consequently, this dialogue can be seen as a stand-in for the many other conversations the text references but does not show—namely, the many times Moroni reports that the Lord is speaking to the brother of Jared and guiding and directing the Jaredites.[38] This back-to-back conversation about the need for air and light, gives readers a sense of what the Lord’s guidance looked like and the congenial working relationship that generally defined the interactions between the Lord and the brother of Jared. Aware of this relationship, readers may then imaginatively flesh out the many other instances when Moroni mentions a conversation but shares no dialogue. Additionally, it is worth noting that Moroni has focused his readers on the events that matter most by sharing only the dialogue that surrounds the building of the barges. Recognizing and analyzing these different aspects of frequency in the book of Ether allows readers to better grasp Moroni’s authorial intent and to think about what each of these events signifies.


What a close study of narrative time in the book of Ether makes clear is how Moroni (and possibly Ether and Mosiah as well) constantly guide readers’ interpretation of the text. Through narrative choices governing the order, duration, and frequency of recorded events, Moroni has shaped, altered, and produced significance and meaning, built dramatic intensity, reiterated what is important, and created characters and established relationships between them and the Lord. By paying close attention to these rhetorical choices, we have been able to recognize how Moroni has constructed the text and guided his readers toward his desired reading of it. In addition, we have been able to better discern authorial intent and see many points about the text that may otherwise go unnoted. By providing a vocabulary and tools to see what is often unconscious in one’s reading experience, narrative-time theory proves to be an effective lens through which to engage scripture.


[1] Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible (London: T&T Clark International, 2008), 143.

[2] See Sidney B. Sperry, Book of Mormon Compendium (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 22; John W. Welch, “Preliminary Comments on the Sources behind the Book of Ether” (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1986), 9–12; and Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 222–23.

[3] Frederick W. Axelgard, “More Than Meets the Eye: How Nephite Prophets Managed the Jaredite Legacy,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 26 (2017): 153.

[4] This debate exists in part because it is not clear from the Book of Mormon account whether Moroni translated the twenty-four plates and made his abridgment from that translation or whether he abridged the translation of the twenty-four plates that King Mosiah (or perhaps King Benjamin) made around 90 BC. In my analysis, I favor Axelgard’s argument that accords Moroni greater agency and responsibility for constructing the book of Ether.

[5] See Mormon 8:34–41. Most striking is verse 35: “I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.”

[6] See Mark Allan Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990); and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Narrative Criticism: How Did the Theory Develop and What Are Its Main Features?,” in Searching for Meaning: An Introduction to Interpreting the New Testament, ed. Paula Gooder (London: SPCK, 2008), 80–87.

[7] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Other works that analyze the Book of Mormon from a literary approach include Richard Dilworth Rust, Feasting on the Word: The Literary Testimony of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1997); James T. Duke, The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon (Springville, UT: CFI, 2004); Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999); and Amy Easton-Flake, “Beyond Understanding: Narrative Theory as Expansion in Book of Mormon Exegesis,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 25, no.1 (December 2016): 116–38.

[8] Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 54. See Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980). Genette is largely responsible for the reintroduction of a rhetorical vocabulary into literary criticism, and his work is foundational for anyone doing serious study of narrative.

[9] Mark Twain famously wrote, “If [Joseph Smith] had left [“and it came to pass”] out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.” Twain, Roughing It (Hartford, CT: American, 1901), 133.

[10] See Ether 2:16, 18, 21; 3:1, 6.

[11] One could, of course, argue that this is not a decision Moroni made but rather one made by Ether or Mosiah. Regardless, the analysis holds: someone, whether it was Moroni, Mosiah, or Ether, placed Ether’s genealogy at the beginning of the narrative. I will continue to attribute decision-making to Moroni, though I recognize that Ether or Mosiah may have been behind these narrative decisions.

[12] For instance, Marilyn Arnold writes, “Moroni cursorily scans centuries upon centuries of Jaredite history in a text that reads like a royal census, a brief compendium of Jaredite kings and kingdoms.” Arnold, Sweet Is the Word: Reflections on the Book of Mormon—Its Narrative, Teachings, and People (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 1996), 321.

[13] See Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), s.v. “Ether 10,” Kindle.

[14] See Gardner, Second Witness, s.v. “Ether 1,” Kindle. Other scholars, such as John L. Sorenson and John W. Welch, have written about how the reverse king list found in the book of Ether is similar to retrograde king lists found in the Near East and Mesoamerican dynastic histories. See Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2013), 198–218.

[15] Genette, Narrative Discourse, 40.

[16] Genette, Narrative Discourse, 40.

[17] See Mosiah 8:7–9; 21:25–27; 22:14; 25:5; 28:11–20; Alma 22:30; 46:22; Helaman 3:5–6; 3 Nephi 3:24.

[18] As mentioned previously, a premise within narrative scholarship is that narrative texts create their own readers. The “ideal reader” is the reader the author envisions while writing. The author makes assumptions about what that readers will think, understand, believe, or expect. The ideal reader is ideal because he or she will read the text as the author intended it to be read. See Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 205–11.

[19] Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 71; see 70–73.

[20] See Ether 9:22; 12:39; 12:19.

[21] Once again, one should note that all these editorial decisions could have been made by Ether or Mosiah instead of Moroni. However, that possibility does not change what we have uncovered using the lens of narrative time, only which prophet constructed the text with the above-mentioned rhetorical purpose in mind.

[22] Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 148.

[23] Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 147.

[24] Many readers have grappled with understanding why the Book of Mormon consistently refers to this great religious leader as “the brother of Jared.” Brant Gardner offers this response: “The best answer is that Ether is writing this story as it has descended through Jared’s line. Despite the brother of Jared’s faith, he is collateral to the genealogical focus” (Gardner, Second Witness, s.v. “Ether 1,” Kindle. Daniel H. Ludlow likewise suggests that Ether does so to emphasize the name of his progenitor. Ludlow, however, will also mention two other possibilities: the brother of Jared may have omitted his name out of modesty, or Moroni may have found the name too difficult to translate. Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976) 310.

[25] See Gardner, Second Witness, s.v. “Ether 1,” Kindle.

[26] See Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 147.

[27] For an explanation of why the brother of Jared uses ceremonial language at this point in the text, see the chapter by Charles Swift herein.

[28] Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 147.

[29] Approximately 4,258 of 17,066 words are devoted to Moroni’s editorial insertions. The word count could be slightly more or slightly less depending on whether a few brief insertions originated with Moroni or Ether.

[30] Moroni’s editorial pauses account for 1,088 of the 2,194 words devoted to this scene.

[31] Of those 1,088 words, 677 of them are spoken by the Lord.

[32] See Ether 7:23–27; 9:28–35; 10:19–28; 11:5–8.

[33] See Genette, Narrative Discourse, 113–60.

[34] Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art, 162.

[35] See Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 73–75.

[36] See Ether 12:7–22.

[37] In two other instances, Moroni records the Lord’s side of the presumed two-way conversation but not the brother of Jared’s (see Ether 1:39–43; 2:14–16).

[38] See Ether 1:35, 39–43; 2:4, 5, 6, 14, 15.