In Ether Chapter 6 we find a classic example of the panegyris, the Great Assembly of which Hugh Nibley so often spoke. The actions of gathering, census, establishment of the institution of kingship, transfer of power, granting and bestowal of desires (sparsiones), are all elements of the panegyris.
Panegyris marks the both "the Eternal Return" to the Beginning (Mircea Eliade) and the New Order, the New Year: "The old order changeth yielding place to new"; "And the brother of Jared began to be old." "The rites of the New Year," says Hugh Nibley, "being the death of the old, had to begin with a funeral. 'The old prehistoric mysteries of Abydos [in Egypt],' writes Wolfgang Helck, 'necessarily include both the funeral of the dead king and the installation of his successor'" (Hugh Nibley, Michael Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 164; Chapters 3 and 4 cover the ground).
In the following passage from Ether 6, I put in italics activities that are both semiotically and also semantically linked, although the semantic link is more implied than expressed: 1) numbering and 2) bestowing desires. These seemingly disparate doings come together in the Proto-Semitic verbal root *mnh. Such associations run deeper than what we may be tempted to name it: a play on words. The semantic link, rather, reveals a semiotic of a particular culture: a peculiar and specific view of the economy of the inhabited world, the cosmic realities, at the moment of panegyris. That the Jaredites were, at least in part, inheritors of the Proto-Semitic language and culture needs no argument: most of their names point unerringly to that source: Jared, Ether (Track, Trace--so Hugh Nibley), Riplakish (Lord of Lakish--Hugh Nibley), Amgid (People of Sinew), Emer, Omer, Heth, Levi, Shule, Amnigaddah, Aaron, Lib. A few names: Coriantumr, Coriantor, Coriantum, Corom (did they have trouble pronouncing this odd name?), Corihor, Moriancumr, and the like, suggest a relaxed blending, so we mustn't think in terms of a rigid identity.
Consider the nuanced meanings, as they develop in the various languages, of the Proto-Semitic root *mnh or *mn (as brought together by Bernice Verjick Hecker, in her recent dissertation: "The Biradical Origin of Semitic Roots," taken from the chart on page 113):
MN II quantity: manu: count, hand over; mana: unit of weight min: a portion; manah: count, assign; maneh: a weight; minxah: tribute, offering manay: assign, apportion; minru: count; manna: grant, award; manaħa: bestow, confer.
With the semanitics of *mnh now well in mind, let's look at Ether 6:
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.
That is to say, "that we may number them, that we many know of them what they will desire of us" as a bestowal. The onerous task of tally once completed, the assembly as a whole mulls over the future: the act of numbering, at once, become an act of inquiry. "You're tallied--so what would you like as a gift? Speak up!"
The following verse (20) shows a tally of the sons and daughters of both Moriancumr and of Jared, a mere fraction of the total, but which perhaps expresses a sort of firstfruits in-gathering, with the family of the leadership the first to be registered. They were not, ironically, the first to be consulted; for the text makes clear that while the people desired a king, the sons of Moriancumr and of Jared firmly refused the offer. Orihah, the son of Jared, youngest of them all, finally consented to be king.
Was that a matter of ambition? of ego? No. Orihah saw the results of a blanket refusal from the leading clan--another clan would then take precedence, and eventually do harm to the honor and memory of his father's house. Orihah should be thanked for keeping the right and reins of governance in that great and righteous founding family. He was prudent and pragmatic enough to save his family from the consequences of its own otherworldly meekness. And he was simply following a course expected of him: with each refusal, the pressure to accept the burden of kingship must have substantially increased down the chain until reaching very youngest. Instead of gladly taking the honor, the youngest and least of all was courageously taking up what was now already a crushing weight of responsibility.
And note how the Book of Ether gives us a perfect example of these archaic rites of selection as a game, as are all juridical proceedings (see J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens). It's all very much a back-and-forth, a barter, a contest, between "the People" (a common descriptor in Ether) and the primary Clan, the result of which is a full cession of power to that clan.
We are told that the Assembled People systematically went down the list, choosing each several son of Jared's Brother, then, in their turn, each of Jared's sons. It's a merry dance of wills. When Pagag, the first choice of all, turned the People down flat, they became restive and frustrated, and resorted to compulsion, whereupon the Brother of Jared set into place the first of all laws: they were to "constrain no man to be their king."
By the time the Assembly got to Orihah, which might have taken hours or even days, tensions must have been running very high, but fair play remained the name of the game. Despite that stand-off, the Assembly settled in and tallied downward, a switching of roles in action of elimination, in what must have been an assurance that the Clan would eventually conform to the uniform wish of the people--as the ruling brothers had promised. Once elected by the Assembled People, Orihah's line was to be the ruling house forever, the dynastic choice was clearly intended to be made just once, for all time.
Despite the topsy-turvy nature of the subsequent Jaredite history, that history resolves in Ether, the last of Orihah's line. The dynastic contract was a sacred covenant, and though Ether was Prophet not King, he contrasts dramatically with Coriantumr, the acknowledged but false king. Coriantumr and Ether make up the only survivors of that great people--but while Coriantumr survives only to see another people take control of Jaredite lands, Ether lives to record the long history of his people and to bring the story to full circle.
And as all readers know, the end of the Jaredite story makes up a grim final countdown (and that's after 2 million men, women, and children fall in speedy yet prolonged battles), a bitterly marvelous game of tally, face-off, and of royal election--the men of Shiz, the challenger, and the subjects of Coriantumr: 69-52; then 32-27 (numbers that show the royal guard to be, as we expect, the strongest of warriors); after two days more it's 1-1, a total tally of 3: Coriantumr battling Shiz for the kingship; Ether, the true king, watching from a secure place; Shiz slain, there remain 2; Coriantumr's death has been prophesied, so Ether seems to get the last word--he continues--and even mysterious speculates about whether he might forever continue, as a translated being, a sort of Once-and-Future King, held in reserve for a future day. Orihah's people are everlastingly gone, but his power continues in the form of the 24 gold plates, the sacred history.
Having come full round, we return to the original act of the play, the first tally and royal election:
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 [or, bestow] before they went down to their graves.
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.
So here we have a little archaic text about the inauguration of the kingly office, as a special gift of merit to a people who, so the tally, had now indeed become very great. Even a war of annihilation hewed to the law of the count--and the People got exactly what they had asked for: utter destruction--and Ether, who tallied the final score.
The strange little book speaks to semiotics and language, laws and games, far beyond our ken.
But we can count. A child may count them.
Remember Isaiah? "And they shall be as when a standard-bearer fainteth" (Isaiah 10:18). What a remarkable image! The battle becomes so very intense, the heat so overwhelming--and down go the colors. We recall how Coriantumr fainted after slaying Shiz: he "fell to the earth, and became as if he had no life").
"And the rest of the trees of his forest shall be few, that a child may write them" (Isaiah 10:19). The verse finds repetition in 2 Nephi 20:19, where we are told (in the chapter heading) that it typifies "the destruction of the wicked at the Second Coming," for "Few people will be left after the Lord comes again."
Moroni tellingly re-quotes Isaiah 10 (verse 3) in the final leaves of his re-cord, after re-counting the destruction of his own people--and, re-positioning the prophecy--points the words directly at the hearts of men in our own day: "And what shall ye do in the day of your visitation?"