Reading in Ether recently, I noticed how peculiar their society was.
I’m not the first person to observe that the whole Jaredite thing of keeping a usurped king in captivity along with his descendants is mighty strange. Yet the captivity doesn’t seem to be too rigorous. The whole situation is very much like Japan under the Shoguns, where the Emperor was still the Emperor and wasn’t being held in durance vile, but wasn’t exactly a free man either. You see a similar pattern in Ottoman society and elsewhere. The book of Ether may well be a religious chronicle of a series of shogunates and Meiji restorations by a last descendant of the priestly imperial house.
This set me off thinking in general about the historical parallels to the Book of Mormon. I’ve already pointed out the interesting parallels between the last days of the Nephites and the Mfecane in South Africa. What struck me this time was the family resemblance between our glimpses of Nephite society and what we know of the Silk Road in central Asia (the title of this post refers to the famous line about the Silk Road, ‘isn’t it pleasant to be a king and rie in blood to Samarkand?’). The Silk Road had sudden changes of ownership and ethnicity as a new set of nomads displaced the old elite and imposed their own identity on society. It had surprising ethnic revivals, where some group that had lurked in some obscure corner would suddenly burst back into history. It also had lots and lots of wealth and fine clothing from trade, but with sudden crashes in prosperity. The Book of Mormon’s pride cycle is universally applicable in some form or other, but in the Book of Mormon itself it seems to occur much more swiftly and dramatically than in the modern West. Our societies move slower and take longer for the rot to work its way into and out of our systems. But on the silk road, the immense wealth from trade was fragile. Too much brigandage, too much infighting, or even too oppressive taxation by the ruler, and the trade would suddenly stop. This fragility was accentuated by living in marginal agricultural areas that could be very vulnerable to shifts in rainfall patterns.
The Book of Mormon scene sounds a lot like the Silk Road, right down to the dramatic shifts in wealth. Could the Nephites have practiced a fragile form of agriculture that was very vulnerable to societal disruption? Could they have counted as wealth trade items that were also vulnerable to disruption? I don’t know, but the parallels are striking. Of course we suspect that the Nephites lived in a highland region, not in a semi-desert or steppe setting along a trade route. But highlands have also been known to host a melange of mutable cultures and ethnicities.