When the Lord told the Jaredites he would lead them to a new land (Ether 2:7), he also instructed them to build eight barges to traverse the waters to their new destination (v. 16).
According to Ether, these barges, which were patterned after Noah's Ark (6:7), were "tight like unto a dish," peaked at both ends and had holes that could be unplugged to allow ventilation (2:17, 20).
The story of Noah, or some equivalent figure, is found in a wide array of ancient non-biblical literature and could easily have been known to the ancient Jaredites. Some of these traditions about the Ark — or "deluge boat" — contain details and oddities not found in the Bible.
Dr. Hugh Nibley has shown that several of these non-biblical details and oddities are also found in the Jaredite account.
Some of these ancient sources, for example, claim that the shape of the deluge boat resembled a crescent moon when viewed from the profile. Like the Jaredite barges, it would have been peaked on both ends. Artwork of actual sea-going vessels from the Tyrians and Sidonians show that some boats really had such a shape.
Although the book of Ether never says that the Jaredite barges had sails, we are told (as noted in a last week's installment) that the barges were driven by furious winds (Ether 6:5-9). While the Bible never mentions that wind was a factor in propelling the Ark, the deluge boat was supposedly sail-less but driven by ferocious winds.
Just as the Jaredite barges were "tight like unto a dish," the deluge boat had a portal that could be shut during the storm flood. The word "ark," in fact, originally meant a "box" — such as a chest or coffin — that was covered with a lid. And just as the barges had ventilation holes, the Ark had not only a door that could be shut but at least one nappashu, which is translated as "air-hole" or "window" but means "breather" or "ventilator" and was not an ordinary window. The Jaredite barges and the deluge boat both took on almost submarine-like natures, often being submerged in violent waves during their voyage.
Concerned about the lack of light in the barges, the brother of Jared asked the Lord for some means of illumination. Glass would break, the Lord replied, and they couldn't light fires, so the Lord turned the problem back over to the brother of Jared. Having complete faith in the Lord's abilities, the brother of Jared climbed a mountain, "did molten out of rock" 16 small transparent stones and asked the Lord to touch the stones so they would shine in their vessels.
While the tale of "shining stones" has elicited the laughs of critics, we find that the story is perfectly at home in ancient lore. According to the ancient Palestine Talmud, for example, the Ark was illuminated with a miraculous light-giving stone. This precious stone supposedly glowed for 12 months inside the Ark and would dim during the day so that Noah knew if it was day or night outside.
Such information was likely unavailable to Joseph Smith. As Dr. Nibley explains, of the four copies of the Palestine Talmud that mention the Ark's shining stones, two appeared 30 years after Joseph had already translated the Book of Mormon. When the Book of Mormon was published, there was not a single translation of the Palestine Talmud available in any modern language.
As noted above, it was the brother of Jared, not the Lord, who suggested the idea of the shining stones. It seems reasonable to surmise that the brother of Jared was familiar with an ancient tradition of Noah and his illuminated stones. One of those ancient sources (unknown in 1830) relates the tradition of a gem that could be produced by subjecting certain stones to intense heat. The resulting gem would be a perfectly transparent crystal which shined as brightly as the sun (see the same elements in Ether 3:2, 4).
The common name for this gem was "Moonfriend," or Jalakanta, which interprets, "that which causes the waters to part." Thus the peculiar power of this shining gem enabled its possessor to pass through the depths of water unharmed.
The Ark was also called a "bright house" or moon-boat, not only "because it was crescent-shaped and wandered through space for 12 months, but also because it was illuminated by a miraculous light." While ancient Babylonian texts tell us that the deluge-boat had a "window" or nappashu, the "window" in Genesis comes from the Hebrew tsohar, which also translates as "shiner" or "illuminator."
The Book of Mormon version, which is a fuller account than any other, contains both ideas — that the barges had a ventilator as well as an illuminator.