During Ammon’s discussion with Limhi in Mosiah 8 we learn more of how these stone and the man who could use them were conceived:
13 Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer….
17 But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.
In this verse we add to the current chapter’s rather limited explanation of the power of the stones. In the current chapter we are most concerned with the ability of the stones to be the interpreters for records that cannot otherwise be read. In Mosiah 8:17 we have the additional information that the seer (who is a seer due to his possession and use of the stones) may reveal things of the past and future, and make secret things known.
Thus for Ammon, the stones were more than just a means of reading records. They were a means of seeing the hidden. They were a way that the knowledge of God was manifest among men, through the medium of the seer who possessed the gift of God to use those interpreters.
In the Old Testament, there were stones called the Urim and Thummim, which appear to function similarly to these interpreters of Mosiah. This similarity of function might lead one to assume that they are the same as the Old World stones, but that is not required by the text nor the circumstances. It is entirely possible that a second set would be created for the New World Nephites, and similarly work to divine the will of God.
Their Old World function may be inferred:
“When Joshua is solemnly appointed to succeeded the great hero-lawgiver, he is bidden to stand before Eleazar, the priest, “who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim,” and this counsel is to determine the movements of the host of Israel (Numbers 27:21. In the blessings of Moses they appear as the crowning glory of the tribe of Levi: “They Thummim and they Urim are with they Holy One” (Deut 33:8,9).” (“Urim and Thummim”. Smith’s Bible Dictionary. Fleming H. Revell Company. 1970, p. 719).
As with the New World Interpreters, they are not limited in their functions, but rather serve as means of communicating the will of God. Walther Eichrodt takes a view more typical of modern social sciences, but nevertheless captures some of the essential meaning of the stones:
“The interpretation of the stones as memorials of Yahweh’s self-manifestations was able to subsist side by side with the popular conception that they were receptacles of holy power and signs of God’s abiding presence.” (Eichrodt, Walther. Theology of the Old Testament. The Westminster Press. 1961, p. 116).
One of the functions of the stones as presented in the Book of Mormon is to be translaters for ancient records, a function they continued to perform as part of the restoration as Joseph began to use them to translate the plates he was given by Moroni. While this particular function is not mentioned in the Old Testament, we must remember that it is not the exclusive use of these interpreters. They also appear in the Book of Mormon with the familiar functions known from the Old World.
Once again, it is not necessary that these stones be the precise Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament, as they could easily be stones created or set apart anew as replacements for the Old World stones. The priesthood functions had to follow a new tradition in the New World because Lehi was not a Levite. The re-creation of the priesthood could easily have incorporated the re-creation of these interpreters in the hands of a righteous man.