By John A. Tvedtness
Following the lengthy war between the Nephites and the Lamanites, peace was once more established in Nephite territory and many people began moving into the “land northward,” probably because it was more distant from the Lamanite border and hence safer. Mormon summarized the events in Alma 63:4-9:
And it came to pass that in the thirty and seventh year of the reign of the judges, there was a large company of men, even to the amount of five thousand and four hundred men, with their wives and their children, departed out of the land of Zarahemla into the land which was northward. And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful , by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward. And behold, there were many of the Nephites who did enter therein and did sail forth with much provisions, and also many women and children; and they took their course northward. And thus ended the thirty and seventh year. And in the thirty and eighth year, this man built other ships. And the first ship did also return, and many more people did enter into it; and they also took much provisions, and set out again to the land northward. And it came to pass that they were never heard of more. And we suppose that they were drowned in the depths of the sea. And it came to pass that one other ship also did sail forth; and whither she did go we know not. And it came to pass that in this year there were many people who went forth into the land northward. And thus ended the thirty and eighth year.
From this passage, many readers of the Book of Mormon assume that Hagoth led groups of people by ship to the north and that he and one group disappeared, probably ending up in Hawaii or elsewhere in Polynesia . The first of these assumptions is untrue and the second, though possible, is not supported by the text itself and must be inferred from Polynesian traditions.
The general assumption is that Hagoth, “being an exceedingly curious man” (verse 5), was led by his curiosity to want to explore lands to the north. Were this the case, he need not have traveled by sea, since it was possible to go there by land, as some evidently did before he built his first ship (verse 4). But the real question that confronts us is what is meant by the term “curious.”
In our day, we use the term “curious” to mean “inquisitive,” “strange,” or “unusual.” But that is not its original meaning, nor is it the sense in which it is used in the scriptures. When the King James version (KJV) of the Bible was translated, “curious” meant “skilled.” Thus, we read of the ” curious girdle of the ephod ” worn by the Israelite high priest, made of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen” (Exodus 28:8, 27-28; 29:5; 39:5, 20-21; Leviticus 8:7). 1 Exodus 35:30-33 describes Bezaleel, the chief artisan who made the tabernacle and its accouterments, including the high priestly vestments, saying he was “filled . . . with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; And to devise curious works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work.” Indeed, the Hebrew word translated “curious works” in verse 32 is rendered “cunning works” in the very next verse and in verse 35. Psalms 139:15-16 uses the term “curiously wrought” to describe some of the Lord’s creations.
That the word “curious” still had the meaning of “skilled” (in addition to “inquisitive”) in Joseph Smith’s day is evidenced by Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, which defines it in terms such as “accurate,” “careful,” “nice,” “artful,” and “wrought with care and art.” This is the sense in which we must read it in the Testimony of Eight Witnesses, published at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, in which they described the plates from which the record was translated as having “the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.”
In the Book of Mormon itself, we read that Lehi, encamped at the river he named after his eldest son Laman, “arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship” (1 Nephi 16:10). This does not mean that the device was “strange,” but that it was well wrought. Centuries afterward, Alma described the instrument, saying, “our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it. And behold, there cannot any man work after the manner of so curious a workmanship” ( Alma 37:38-39). 2
Other passages that use the term “curious” in the sense of “skilled” include Helaman 6:11 (“there were also curious workmen, who did work all kinds of ore and did refine it”) and Ether 10:27 (“And they did make all manner of weapons of war. And they did work all manner of work of exceedingly curious workmanship”).
We have a parallel to Hagoth’s situation in the account of Nephi’s construction of the ship that would take them across the waters to the New World . Nephi wrote, “and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship” (1 Nephi 18:1).
From such passages, it seems that Hagoth’s curiosity was not an intense desire to see the land northward, but his skill in constructing ships by which people were able to travel to that region by sea. But the best evidence that Hagoth was not “curious” about the area is that, contrary to what many modern readers seem to think, Hagoth evidently did not sail in any of his ships. Following the departure of his first vessel ( Alma 63:5-6), “this man built other ships. And the first ship did also return” ( Alma 63:7). His skill was in shipbuilding, not in skippering oceangoing vessels. Moreover, we do not know the nature of these ships. They may not have been sailing vessels and may have depended more on ocean currents than wind power. 3
Bottom line: We should divest ourselves of modern ideas when reading ancient texts such as the Book of Mormon, and try to read it in context of the times in which the events occurred. The words of Brigham Young are helpful in this respect:
Do you read the Scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them? If you do not feel thus, it is your privilege to do so, that you may be as familiar with the spirit and meaning of the written word of God as you are with your daily walk and conversation, or as you are with your workmen or with your households. You may understand what the Prophets understood and thought-what they designed and planned to bring forth to their brethren for their good. (Journal of Discourses 7:334)
1 The KJV translators understood the Hebrew term, a single word they rendered “curious girdle,” to derive from the verb meaning “to think,” but we now know that this is not its origin. But the point about the meaning of the English word “curious” is what concerns us here.
2 The suspicion of Laman and Lemuel that Nephi had used “cunning crafts” to lead them astray in the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:38) is but one piece of evidence suggesting that Lehi and his family may have been metalworkers, and may have prompted Alma to suggest that no human could have been so skilled. See the discussion in “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?”, chapter 10 of John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights From a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999, later reissued by Horizon).
3 Some pre-Columbian Native Americans are known to have sailed large rafts along the Pacific coast for commercial purposes.