Remember that time in the book of Ether where the brother of Jared (Mahonri) forgot to pray for 4 years? My seminary teacher tried to explain to our class that Mahonri hadn’t forgotten to pray for 4 years, because a great prophet like him would never do that Rather, he had forgotten to pray for others during that period. It made sense to me at the time, but now I disagree. I think Mahonri stopped praying entirely for 4 years straight, and I think this episode in Jaredite history is evidence that he was a shaman.
Yes, a shaman. It’s clear to me that the brother of Jared was not your typical Christian prophet. I think he’s much better described as a shaman, and here I will lay out my reasoning for thinking so.
Wikipedia defines shamans as “those who contact a spirit world while in an altered state of consciousness at the behest of others.” Behest means “at the command of”. People ask the shaman to pray to a higher power on their behalf to secure blessings for themselves. It’s kind of like when I played high school football and the team almost always wanted me to say the pre-game prayer. I know I wasn’t more righteous than the others, but I was the one that was usually asked to pray for the whole team. I guess, in some ways, I was the team shaman? (1)
That’s kind of a stupid example, but hopefully it shows the principle: the shaman is one individual who goes to the higher power on behalf of a group. You could think of a Native American medicine man, a witch doctor, etc. In fact, the prevalence of shamanism among the native inhabitants of the Americas, including the Maya, might be a clue that shamanism was a foundational part of Jaredite society. Joseph Smith himself remarked that the Jaredites were the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent*. Would it be so much of a stretch to say that some of Jaredite culture could have survived?
But let’s look at correlations in the Book of Ether.
Behests to Pray
First thing, we’re told that the brother of Jared is “highly favored of the Lord.” If you’re going to be supplicating the world of spirits to ask for assistance on behalf of your people, you better be in good standing with the Lord. It makes perfect sense that a shaman would be considered by others to be favored in the eyes of God.
Next we get some rapid-fire requests from Jared for his brother to pray for him and their group of friends. I will list them here with some commentary:
1. Jared: “Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us that we may not understand our words.” The brother of Jared did this, and it was granted. The two brothers and their families were not confounded. (Ether 1:34-35)
2. Jared: “Cry again unto the Lord, and it may be that he will turn away his anger from them who are our friends, that he confound not their language.” A second time, the brother of Jared went to pray as requested by Jared, and his request was granted. Their friends were not confounded. (Ether 1:36-37)
3. Jared: “Go and inquire of the Lord whether he will drive us out of the land, and if he will drive us out of the land, cry unto him whither we shall go.” And the brother of Jared did so and he and his group was promised safe passage to a new land. (Ether 1:38-43)
And so we see that in the first chapter of Ether alone, we have the brother of Jared being commanded (behested) three times to intercede with God on the behalf of others. Notice that Jared wasn’t ever going to God in prayer himself, nor were their friends and family members; it was solely Mahonri going and asking for everyone else. I mean, why ask the Lord yourself if your belief is that the shaman is the only one who’s supposed to talk to God? This concept will become important later.
Go at the head
In response to the brother of Jared’s last request to deity, God tells him he is to “go at the head” of the group into the valley of Nimrod (Ether 1:42). Shamans, of course, are leaders. Spiritual leaders. And if your group is relying on directions from the world of spirits to get to their destination, then the shaman, naturally, is the one who will lead. Some people think Jared was in charge because he was the one commanding Mahonri to pray for things; but the Lord makes it clear in Ether 1 that Mahonri is to lead the party. This is similar to how the Nephites asked their spiritual leader, Alma to inquire of God where the Lamanites would strike next (Alma 43:23-24).
Cries for a long time
After the brother of Jared asks the Lord where they will be driven to, God says he’ll take them to a choice land above all others and make their seed a great nation, saying “And thus I will do unto thee because this long time ye have cried unto me” (Ether 1:43). To me, the Lord’s words evoke an image of a shaman performing his rituals and chanting for long periods of time. Perhaps this is what the brother of Jared was doing, and as foreign as it may seem to us Latter-day Saints, this behavior pleased the Lord, and his cries were accepted. (Compare with Matthew 6:7)
Communicates with God
When the Jaredites have everything ready to go, they descend into the valley of Nimrod, where the Lord comes down in a cloud to talk to the brother of Jared. As the shaman, it makes sense that he would be the one that God would communicate to. After this, the Lord leads their party through the wilderness, giving directions as they go, all from behind a cloud. We’re not told that the cloud-obscured Lord speaks to anyone else but Mahonri during this trip, so we could assume that He only spoke to the leader.
Four years of no behests
At length they get to the seashore and they rest for a while. For four years, actually. During that whole time, the brother of Jared doesn’t pray once to God. Either He forgets or he just doesn’t feel the need or desire to pray. Now, how many biblical/Christian prophets do you know of that have forgotten to pray for a span of four years? It seems that, as a shaman, nobody’s asking the brother of Jared to pray anymore, and their guiding cloud seems to be gone. Life must have been good. Maybe they thought this was the promised land.
Then, as He had done with the (supposed) shaman the entire time, the Lord suddenly comes to the brother of Jared alone, and we’re told He “chastened him because he remembered not to call upon the name of the Lord” (Ether 2:14).
The brother of Jared quickly repents, then the record says he “did call upon the name of the Lord for his brethren who were with him” (Ether 2:15).
There we go again—the brother of Jared is praying FOR his brethren. While this could be interpreted to mean he was praying for them, as in asking for the Lord to bless them—as you would pray for someone in your family who needs blessings—it could actually mean that he was literally praying for his brethren, as in he was praying on their behalf so they didn’t have to pray—i.e. he was the spokesman between them and God. The text completely supports this interpretation up until now. How? Well, who is the one person who’s been doing all the praying thus far on their journey? The brother of Jared. Who is the one person that the Lord is talking to from behind the cloud? The brother of Jared. No one else is doing any praying for themselves. Therefore, the brother of Jared had forgotten to pray, and especially to pray on the behalf of his people for four years. So not only was he missing out on blessings, but his entire tribe was too, because he was the shaman and they weren’t praying either. Nobody was praying!
My high school seminary teacher explained to us that there’s no way a great prophet like the brother of Jared could have forgotten to pray for four whole years–and so, citing Ether 2:15, he must have merely forgotten to ask the Lord to bless his friends for a period of four years. It’s my opinion that the text supports the brother of Jared being a shaman a lot more than it does the seminary-teacher interpretation I was taught. But I’ll let you decide for yourself what you think about that.
After the brother of Jared’s prayer, the Lord says, “I will forgive thee and thy brethren of their sins; but thou shalt not sin any more.” (Ether 2:15)
Whoa! Did you catch that? Mahonri prays for his brethren and the Lord says He will forgive everyone’s sins. The brother of Jared was able to ask God to forgive the sins of everyone in his group, and they didn’t even have to pray for forgiveness themselves. The man is a shaman. That’s exactly what they do. But I doubt this proxy repentance thing would last for much longer…
A God with a Body
It seems like some of their religious practices were beginning to change at this point. Later on, the brother of Jared approaches the Lord and remarks, “O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires,” showing that the others have now been commanded to pray too, for themselves (Ether 3:2, my emphasis). Apparently, the time had come for these people to learn that they also could speak with God, and He would hear them. (Side note: This is an important, eternal principle for all of us Christians to understand–that we have been commanded by the Lord Himself to rely no more upon a middleman, but to seek Him and to communicate with Him ourselves, individually, and personally.)
Nevertheless, it’s the one man, the brother of Jared who goes up to the mount in this instance to talk to God alone. This time he goes to ask for light in their boats. I believe him going alone with this question shows that Mahonri still has a pos vition of spiritual leadership among the tribe, and that the light source on their voyage was one problem that leadership needed to solve. Again, if he were a shaman, this is something that you would expect.
On this trip to the top of the mountain, the brother of Jared actually sees God, and he is surprised at what he sees. “I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood,” he says in astonishment (Ether 3:8). He likely thought that God was a spirit, since as a shaman, he had been communicating with the world of spirits this whole time. Most shamans focus on the spiritual. No wonder he was so taken aback, for there was something physical about this God.
Years later, when the brother of Jared is about to leave this mortal existence, the people want to choose his firstborn son to be king. The role of shaman can be passed down from father to son. Was Mahonri’s eldest son, Pagag, in line to assume the office of tribe shaman? Perhaps this is why the people chose him to be their leader—following their shaman’s leadership to the new land had resulted in great success. (2)
While we don’t know for sure if the Brother of Jared was a shaman, we definitely can say he was unique when it comes to prophets mentioned in scripture. The text might support the theory that he was a practicing shaman, communicating with the spirit world for his tribe. He was commanded repeatedly to importune God on the behalf of his people, even securing forgiveness for them through no apparent effort on their part. He was the leader, he spoke with God, he advocated for his people. He thought God was a spirit.
I think that the idea of the brother of Jared as a shaman for his tribe supports the Gobekli-Jaredite hypothesis very well… but you’ll have to tune in next time for that.
Was the brother of Jared a shaman? We can’t really know. But we can know from the text that he wasn’t a typical Old Testament prophet. And I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason Moroni included Ether 2-3 on the gold plates was for us to learn the lesson that we ALL are supposed to talk with God, even if we’re not a shaman.