As the drought intensifies, it has a dramatic effect on animal populations. They begin to search for water, and apparently head south to find it. The drought also leads to an increase in the known presence of serpents. The snakes were probably always there, but the conditions of the drought forced them into different behaviors, just as the flocks of the Jaredites began migrating.
As a quick note, the fact that the “flocks” began to move migrate suggests that there was no rigid control over them. We do not know if there was a domesticated relationship at any time, but there certainly wasn’t later in Mesoamerican history. The “flocks” would therefore be less the herding animals we tend to think of as associated with sedentary populations, and those “flocks” were therefore free of boundaries and moved to water.
This episode with the serpents is a fascinating one. It requires several aspects that can be checked against history and location. The first is that the region must have poisonous serpents. While there are constrictors in the Mesoamerican area, there are also poisonous snakes, so the presence of that type of serpent in this story is certainly plausible. The next set of aspects has to do with the drought, and with the hedging up of the way.
John Tvetdnes relates an experience that bears on the relationship of drought to the increase in serpents:
“During my lengthy residence in Israel (1971-79), I had opportunity to visit the Musa Alami Farm near Jericho. The farm had been constructed after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence to settle displaced Palestinian refugees. It was particularly geared toward teaching various farm skills to Palestinian boys. During the 1950s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had equipped the farm with a dairy and a starter herd and had sent dairy experts to operate that portion of the farm.
Much of the farm was in disrepair during our visit because of the 1967 Six-Day War. Orange groves had died from lack of water, and most of the fields lay fallow. During the war, all but two of the pumps bringing underground water to the surface had been destroyed, making it impossible to maintain the farm at its previous level. Most of the refugees had fled across the Jordan River to the kingdom of Jordan. The Israelis had also expropriated all the land on the western bank of the river in order to maintain security patrols along the new border.
Of particular interest to me was the effect on local wildlife. When crops were no longer being grown near the river, the mice moved westward to find grains in the few fields still under cultivation. They were, naturally, followed by serpents. From time to time, residents of the farm found vipers in and around their houses. This, they assured us, had never happened before the war.
My thoughts turned to the story in Ether 9:30-3, where we read that the Jaredites were plagued by “poisonous serpents” during a time of “great dearth” when “there was no rain upon the face of the earth.” Their flocks fled southward from the serpents; some of the people also escaped in that direction, but the large number of serpents “hedge[d] up the way that the people could not pass.” After the people repented, the Lord sent rain, which ended the famine, producing “fruit in the north countries” (Ether 9:35).
Several generations after the famine, “in the days of Lib the poisonous serpents were destroyed. Wherefore they did go into the land southward, to hunt food for the people of the land, for the land was covered with animals of the forest” (Ether 10:19). It was at this time that the Jaredites set aside the land southward as a game preserve (Ether 10:21). This suggests that much of the wildlife had perished during the dearth in the land northward.
We do not know by what means—whether miraculous, natural, or by the hand of man—the serpents were eliminated. It may be that they simply dispersed throughout the region as the dearth abated, following the rodents who, in turn, were following the regenerating plant life.” (John A. Tvedtnes “Drought and Serpents.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. FARMS 6:1, 1997).
The extent of the serpent problem among the Jaredites is also paralleled in Old World historical records:
“The description of how people were driven out of a land by a plague of serpents that then “hedge up the way that the people could not pass” (Ether 9:31-35) may put a strain on your scientific credulity. I hasten to relieve it. Pompey the Great, we are told, could not get his army into Hyrcania because the way was barred by snakes along the Araxes, a stream that still swarms with the creatures. fn One of the chief philanthropic activities of the Persian magi was to make war on the snakes—a duty which must go back to a time when the race was sorely pressed by them. fn The Absurtitani were said to have been driven from their country by snakes, and Esarhaddon of Assyria recalls the horror and danger of a march by his army through a land “of serpents and scorpions, with which the plain was covered as with ants.” fn In the thirteenth century A.D. Shah Sadrudin set his heart on the building of a capital which should surpass all other cities in splendor; yet the project had to be abandoned after enormous expense when during a period of drought the place so swarmed with serpents that no one could live in it. fn It is interesting in this connection that the plague of serpents in Ether is described as following upon a period of extreme drought (Ether 9:30).” (Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co, 1952, 219-20.)
The multiple set of characteristics that would lead to a story about the serpents fits into a Mesoamerican location. There were poisonous serpents, and it was a land prone to serious drought. In addition, the connection between the swarming of the serpents and the drought indicates a touch of absolute authenticity into what otherwise appears a fanciful tale.