Reading Ether chapter 6 in the Book of Mormon this week, I was struck by some quick and minor details in these verses:
19 And the brother of Jared began to be old, and saw that he must soon go down to the grave; wherefore he said unto Jared: Let us gather together our people that we may number them, that we may know of them what they will desire of us before we go down to our graves.
20 And accordingly the people were gathered together. Now the number of the sons and the daughters of the brother of Jared were twenty and two souls; and the number of sons and daughters of Jared were twelve, he having four sons.
21 And it came to pass that they did number their people; and after that they had numbered them, they did desire of them the things which they would that they should do before they went down to their grave.
22 And it came to pass that the people desired of them that they should anoint one of their sons to be a king over them.
Any time I’d read these before, I’m sure I just assumed that the “numbering” mentioned in verses 19 and 21 was some kind of census, and moved on. Certainly, the totals given in verse 20 seem to indicate a census.
But I wonder if there’s more going on here. A formal meeting needed to count a few dozen people? Hardly seems necessary.
What if the “numbering” here isn’t counting, but is a ritualistic ceremony meant to culminate the work of one generation and sanctify the next?
Webster’s 1828 dictionary suggests this possibility in its final definition of “number,” as:
To reckon as one of a collection or multitude.
“He was numbered with the transgressors.” Isaiah 53:12.
In that light, if we consider that “number” in verses 19 and 21 might be synonymous with the verb “to name,” as in “to give somebody a name,” then we see a pattern here that reminds us of Mosiah 5-6 earlier in the text: one generation of leaders is about to die, the people are gathered, the people are numbered or named, a new king is anointed, and then the old generation passes away. Was the spiritual purpose of both of these ceremonies, Nephite and Jaredite, to identify the people as, and have them covenant to be, followers of God?
On this note, a comment about Ether 6:20 on the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum points out that
According to Brant Gardner, the numbers given in Ether 6:20 are too neat to plausibly be actual counts. There are twenty-four [from the family of the brother of Jared — 22 sons and daughters plus the brother of Jared and his wife] (twice twelve). Jared had four sons and twelve total children. All of these numbers are symbolically important in either the Bible (twelve) or Mesoamerica (four). In other words, the only numbers given have symbolic meaning. [Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Vol. 6: Fourth Nephi through Moroni, p. 233]
This further suggests that this episode was not just a practical census, but a religious ritual.