2 NEPHI 11-25

“My soul delighteth in the Word of Isaiah”  But why?  The Isaiah Problem in The Book of Mormon

Taking Grant Hardy’s, Understanding the Book of Mormon, lets now explore Nephi’s exegesis on Isaiah.

2 Nephi chapter 11 to about chapter 29 contains a lot of Isaiah.   It is often this part of The Book of Mormon that loses so many readers.   In this post, I will not be looking at explaining Isaiah, but instead, explaining why Nephi might have included so much of it.

We encourage all of you to share what you read here in your Sunday School class and let all of us know how it was received.   We would also be interested in knowing what topics were brought up in your own Sunday School classes.

As a side note, I will have another post next week dealing with Natural Theology.  If you don’t know what that is, please check it out.  I will be dealing specifically with the Argument for the Existence of God based upon Objective Moral Values and Duties. It is part one of a three part post.   It will be up either Monday or Tuesday.  

The Isaiah chapters in The Book of Mormon come from the King James Version of the Bible; that is clear.  Grant Palmer in his book, “Insider’s View of Mormonism,” goes so far as to point out which edition of the KJV Joseph would have used because that version’s mistakes are carried over into The Book of Mormon.    I have not had the time to fully investigate Grant Palmer’s claims, so I will not be refuting nor confirming his theory.  However, other questions come to mind.

Many scholars believe that Isaiah was written by at least  three different authors, during three different time periods. First Isaiah (called Proto-Isaiah  & consisting of chapters 1-39) scholars contend was written as early as the 8th century BCE with possible additions/revisions during the 7th century BCE.  Second Isaiah, (called Deutero-Isaiah & consisting chapters 40-55) many believe was written toward the end of the Babylonian captivity around the 6th century BCE; this is well after the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem.  Third Isaiah (called Trito-Isaiah & consisting of  chapters 56-66) is believed by many critical scholars to be written after the Babylonian Exile. Why does The Book of Mormon contain parts of Second Isaiah, if they were written toward the end of the  Babylonian captivity?  Why does The Book of Mormon contain no Third Isaiah passages?   These questions, nor , as stated earlier, Grant Palmer’s claims, will  be investigated in this post. The purpose of this post is not to investigate the veracity and/or fallacy of these theories.  We just want our readers to be aware that these passages could be seen as problematic. Perhaps this will lead to further investigation by our readers and maybe a post by one of our readers dealing with the above perceived problems.

Those who look for a naturalistic explanation for the origins of The Book of Mormon, see Joseph Smith Jr. as being the author.  Those who take this easy explanation often see the eighteen chapters of Isaiah in 1 and 2 Nephi as filler.  “Employed when his creativity flagged or because he felt the need to pad the narrative so that its size was roughly equivalent to the 116 pages lost by Martin Harris.” (Hardy, Understanding The Book of Mormon; Hardy sights Fawn Brody and Dan Vogel for this interpretation).   Believers on the other hand, often see the Isaiah portions as preserving a version of Isaiah older and more accurate than anything else available today.  Yet there are puzzling features of Nephi’s paterns of quoatations that suggest that both of these explanations are too simplistic.

Joseph Smith, unlike nearly everyone else in his religious environment, is not simply quoting Isaiah from the KJV; rather, he presents a modified form of the text.  About half the quoted verses read differently form the KJV.   However, it does not appear that these changes are always the result of intentional revision.   More on that later in the post.

Looking at Nephi’s (Not Mormon’s nor Moroni’s) reasoning for writing, (as well as some other things Nephi has said) we get little glimpses into what Nephi’s  possible purposes  could have  been for including so much Isaiah.

1 Nephi 1:20 “I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen…”

2 Nephi 5:5 “…I, Nephi, should depart from them and flee into the wilderness…”

2 Nephi 25:3 “Wherefore, I write unto my people, unto all those that shall receive hereafter these things which I write…”

2 Nephi 25:21-22 “…these things which I write shall be kept and preserved, and handed down unto my seed…that the promise may be fulfilled unto Joseph…”

2 Nephi 11:2  “I will liken his [Isaiah] words unto my people…”

1 Nephi 15:4-5 “….for I considered that mine afflictions were great above all, because of the destruction of my people..”

1 Nephi 21:6  “…shouldst be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel.  I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.”

In these chapters, we come to know Nephi as a reader – poring over ancient texts, offering alternative interpretations, interweaving his own revelations with the words of past prophets, reading himself back into existing scripture, and envisioning himself  as the author of future scripture.  Nephi is completely cut off from his homeland which means that Hebrew literature is no longer a living tradition for him or his descendants.   He is keenly aware that most of the Hebrew traditions will die with him (2 Nephi 25:1-2).  After his brother Jacob, we get no further quotations from  ancient Hebrew prophets.   Nephi professes a love for Isaiah (2 Nephi 11:2,8).  Over and over we see him attempting to connect his own revelations with what earlier prophets had foretold, in particular with the writings of Isaiah.

He is eager to literally connect his own prophecies with those of his predecessor.  Nephi uses  the ancient words as a framework for his own prophecy of the eventual destruction of the Nephites and the coming forth of  The Book of Mormon.  He does not deny the validity of the original, historic meaning of Isaiah’s warnings (2 Nephi 25:6), but he virtually ignores the original setting in favor of reinterpreting the words so that they apply to his own predictions of the distant future (2 Nephi 25:7).  Even though he has just quoted chapters concerning Assyria’s attack on Israel and Judah – warning that had been fulfilled more than a century earlier – he still believes that in some sense Isaiah’s visions are as yet unrealized (2 Nephi 25:7 ).

Nephi’s pattern for interpreting scripture is to follow a rather lengthy direct quote with a discussion that incorporates a few key phrases but does not provide a comprehensive or detailed commentary.    Instead, the phrases fit into a fresh prophecy that recontextualizes and expands the meaning of the original, always with particuar reference to his own people.  This is done deliberately  (1 Nephi 25:5-6).

Comparing Nephi’s exegesis to 19th century sermonizing is intriguing.   As stated earlier,  in The Book of Mormon, we don’t see simple quotations from Isaiah from the KJV.  We find a modified text.     There are some alterations that clarify or expand Isaiah’s words, but there are also a number of variants that make little or no difference to the meaning.

Following Royal Skousen’s reconstruction of the original Book of Mormon text, we see some trivial as well as significant changes to the text of Isaiah.   First I need to provide some KJV clarifications.   When reading the KJV, the reader will sometimes run into italicized words.  These italicized words indicate that they do not exist in the original Greek or Hebrew texts, but are necessary for the scripture to be understood in English.    In the following text, we will compare Isaiah 13:15-18 with 2 Nephi 23:15-18.   Underlining will indicate substituted phrases, bold type marks insertions, and the italics are those occurring in the KJV that indicate phrases added by the KJV translators.

Isaiah 13 (KING JAMES VERSION)                                                            2 Nephi 23

15. Everyone that is found  shall be                                                                       15. Every one that is proud  shall be

thrust through; and every one that                                                                        thrust through; yea, and every one

is joined unto them shall fall by the  sword                                                        that is joined to the wicked shall fall by the sword

16. same  no changes                                                                                                16. Same no changes

17. Behold, I will stir up the Medes                                                                       17. Behold, I will stir up the Medes

against them, which shall not                                                                                against them, which shall not

regard silver;   and as for gold, they                                                                      regard silver  or gold, nor they shall                                                                                                                                                          

18. Their bows also shall dash the                                                                        18. Their bows shall also dash the

young men to pieces; and they                                                                                young men to pieces; and they

shall have no pity on the fruit of                                                                             shall have no pity on the fruit of

the womb; their eye shall not spare children.                                                     the womb; their eyes  shall not spare children.

It is difficult to know what to make of all this.  Some of the changes appear to be deliberate revision (vs 15, where the two changes work in tandem, equating the “proud”  and the “wicked,” making it less likely that proud for found is a copying error), others seem to be sorts of changes that might occur when citing a text from memory, and there are sentences such as vs. 17 that have been rendered less grammatical.    Skousen estimates about 1/3 of the changes are associated with the italicized words of the KJV.

It is possible that Joseph Smith just opened his Bible and read the chapters aloud, making whatever changes he saw necessary.   This explanation does not account for the irregularities that we see – some of the alterations increase parallelism or make Isaiah easier to understand while other fragment the text or make it more obscure (sometime in ways that later editors of the Book of Mormon had to remedy).  If Joseph Smith thought it better to omit words in italics, he did so inconsistently. In addition, many of the revisions work together to reflect a well-thought-out reinterpretation of Isaiah, while  others are trivial and serve no obvious purpose.     The situation is further complicated by the fact that Joseph’s wife, Emma, asserted that he never worked from a book or manuscript (ie Bible), and there are no reports of Joseph having the kind of memory that would allow him to quote scripture by the chapter.

What we find in the Book of Mormon is not the sort of cannon/commentary distinction common in the post-biblical world.  Nephi is offering a new prophecy that is based on or responding to Isaiah.   If what is said, fits Joseph Smith’s 19th century environment, it is weird how little attention Nephi gives to standard Christological readings; “virgin shall conceive”, “for unto us a child is born”.  It is almost as if Nephi does not recognize them as referring to Jesus.

From the time of Ezra through the first centuries AD, Jewish rabbis developed a method of scriptural interpretation that sought to explain sacred writ through creative reinterpretation clever wordplay, metaphor, or allegory.  They wanted to uncover meanings that were not apparent in a surface reading.   These rabbis were interested in updating the scriptures and reading their own circumstances and lives back into the text.  This is the definition of a midrash.    What we see with the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon is  something like a midrash (although this would be an anachronistic term).  Joseph Smith is not offering to the world his own commentary on Isaiah; everything in 1 and 2 Nephi is depicted as coming through the mind of Nephi, and the appeal of the Book of Mormon is due in large part to the construction of Nephi as a unique and compelling voice.

So why so much Isaiah?   At the beginning of this post, a long list of Book of Mormon scriptures were sighted as possibly providing some insight into Nephi’s reasoning for so much Isaiah.  Looking in particular at 2 Nephi 5:51, Nephi 15:4-5 and drawing on previous blog posts, we see that Nephi’s life was one of general disappointment.   His  family split up shortly after his father’s death, and he had seen in vision the destruction of his posterity.  1 Nephi 19:4 describes, “wars and contentions and destructions of my people.” As Grant Hardy puts it, “The Small Plates of Nephi that is, the account we have been reading all along – come out of this crucible of contraries.  This is the general context for Nephi’s turn to Isaiah.”

If one takes Isaiah 48 and compares it side by side to 1 Nephi 20 as was done earlier in this post with Isaiah 13 &          2 Nephi 23 you find some illuminating things into Nephi’s midrash of Isaiah.   Usually scholars see The Servant of God as being Cyrus of Persia (made explicit in Isaiah 44:28 & 45:1), but Nephi changes the text to deflect this interpretation, so the words more readily apply to Nephi and his family. There seems to be evidence for a particular, deliberate reinterpretation of Isaiah on the part of Nephi.  This can be found in the changes made to the KJV text.  There is a consistent twist given whereby the focus of Isaiah 48 falls on the messengers of the Lord and their predictions.   The key issue is no longer the Persian conquest of Babylon and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem; rather, it is Nephi’s own predictions about the much more distant gathering of other branches of the House of Israel, including the descendants of Lehi.  He is likening the scriptures unto himself (1 Nephi 19:24).  The variants we find in the Book of Mormon may have little to do with the textual history of Isaiah, but the way that Nephi transforms scripture is rather interesting from the perspective of scriptural interpretation in general.

The sort of glossing and reworking that we see here – which appeals to the authority of the text while at the same time modifying it – is similar to the process that scholars attribute to the prophets and scribes who redacted early Hebrew writing before they were fixed in their final canonical forms.  In Joseph Smith’s later Biblical revisions we find in the “Inspired Version” of the Bible is very similar to what we see Nephi doing.  Latter-day Saints can profit from imagining how Nephi fits into the evolving tradition of prophecy at the time of the Exile, when there was an increased emphasis on repentance, hope in the face of disaster, eschatology, apocalypticism, written communication, and an established cannon (concerns that characterize much of Nephi’s writings).

From the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi has some audience in mind (1 Nephi 1:18, 20). The audience seems to be his people (1 Nephi 7:1; 19:3, 5, 18; 2 Nephi 5:32; 11:2) and he is writing either as a king or as an ancestor.  This is despite one somewhat tentative appeal “unto all the House of Israel, if  it so be that they should obtain these things.”  In 2 Nephi 25-33 we now find him addressing a second audience as well (2 Nephi 25:3, 4).  By this time, Nephi is aware that his descendants will all be destroyed and this gets reiterated in 2 Nephi 26:10. So it comes as a surprise that he refers to his people “in the last days.”  Nephi must either have in mind the posterity of his brothers (with whom Nephi’s descendants mingle) or he is claiming the entire House of Israel as his kin.  Regardless, this is the first acknowledgment that his prophecies will be more intelligible to a distantly removed audience (1 Nephi 25:1;, 21-23).   Nephi sees his writings as supplementing and supporting the witness of the Bible (1 Nephi 13:41) From perspective readers, this is obviously referring to the Book of Mormon.   Over the course of the revised version of his own memoirs (that is 1 & 2 Nephi as we now have it), Nephi demonstrates a growing sense of an audience.   As we see, it is not until decades after 1 Nephi 13, that Nephi realized that the book he is writing is actually the same book he saw in earlier in  vision.

The next post will deal more directly with  2 Nephi 26-33,  but we do start getting a sense in 2 Nephi 25 that Nephi’s concluding discourse is not just an academic commentary on Isaiah 2-14.   Rather, it is a deliberate, creative synthesis of his own revelations,  the writings of Isaiah, and the prophecy of Joseph.  Nephi’s writing reflects his theology.

Why should we trust Nephi’s prophesies?  By looking at Nephi’s method of quoting Isaiah, we get a sense of what he considered evidence for authentic revelation.  First is multiple attestation.  Joseph (of Egypt), Isaiah, and Nephi  all said the same thing (similarly, the rapid juxtaposition in 2 Nephi of his brother Jacob’s sermon).   The three men (Isaiah, Nephi, and Nephi’s brother Jacob)  are explicitly named as witnesses of Jesus (2 Nephi 11:2-3). The second evidence for authentic revelation is “argument from fulfilled prophecy.”    So many of the predictions in Isaiah 2-14 – the details of the Syro-Ephraimit war of 743 BC and the Assyrian conquest of  Israel in 722 BC – had been fulfilled long before Lehi’s family left Jerusalem lends credibility to those prophecies of Isaiah that have yet to come to pass.  Nephi seems to be interested in Isaiah from what is revealed about the pehenomenon of prophecy in general.

Adding to this idea, think of how Nephi puts into his father’s mouth “I have  deamed a dream; or in other words, I have seen a vision.” (1 Nephi 8:2)   There seems to be concern about the legitimacy of dreams during Old Testament times (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Psalms 73:20).  Nephi could be expressing this same Old Testament  skepticism about the legitimacy of dreams as being reliable revelation.  Perhaps he foresees his future readers as also having skepticism about revelation in general. So by adding these other “witnesses” he hopes to validate his own prophecies.    As a side note, in his exegesis of Isaiah it is interesting to note that Nephi does not provide the kind of specific Christological or eschatological readings the Latter-day Saints have come to expect from modern Mormon commentaries on Isaiah.

Later in life, Nephi seems to have discovered a satisfying resolution to his religious frustrations.   He seems to have found solace in the assurance  that his writings would someday  be instrumental in the restoration of the house of Israel and the conversion of the Gentiles.  His was the consolation of prophecy.  It was revealed to Nephi that there would be an appreciative audience waiting for him far in the future.   In other words, Nephi’s mission from God was not to unite his family in faithfulness but rather to be a means of “restor[ing] the preserved of Israel,” to “be a light to the Gentiles,” in bringing  salvation “unto the ends of the earth” (1 Nephi 21:6  Isaiah 49:6).  And all of this would be accomplished through Nephi’s own writings.   God had shown Nephi and his book to both Joseph of Egypt  and Isaiah long ago (1 Nephi 20:5   Isaiah 48:5).  In this way Nephi situates himself within a community of seers and scripture readers that transcends the linearity of history (1 Nephi 19:21,21)

When we read 1 and 2 Nephi with “resistance and imagination,” as james O’Donell says of his own study of Augustine, a character emerges that is more complex and interesting than many readers first assume (James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography).  Nephi not only shapes his narratives with particular ends in mind, but he also interprets scripture in intricate ways.   Clearly there is an active mind here, one that is colored by his experiences, his sense of audience, and his desire for order.  Readers will always be divided on whether that mind is ultimately Nephi’s or Joseph Smith’s, but it is possible to recover from the text a coherent personality within the multiple time frames, the different levels of narrative, and the extensive inter-textural borrowings.

In summary, why does Nephi include so much Issaiah in his (Nephi’s) writings?  1)He likes Isaiah. 2) It validates his own prophecies.    3) By re-interpreting Isaiah, he sees himself and his writings as being a necessary second witness to the then future Bible for  a distant audience.  Nephi’s own writings are thus validated and allow him to deal with his own life’s disappointments.

Something  to think about for  which I have no answer:

2 Nephi 25:14 -19  Here we get Nephi skipping between the Greek (Christ) and the Hebrew (Messiah)  – words for “the anointed one (of God)”  Why does  Joseph Smith pick those certain words in those specific places?  As brought up in one of the earlier Gospel Doctrine posts why does Nephi  say “his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”  (2 Nephi 25:19) when Christ is a title, not a last name. Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth.  Also interesting to note that Joshua is the Hebrew for  “God saves” and Jesus is the Greek form of that same Hebrew name.   In 1 Nephi 25:19 we get the pairing of the Greek “Jesus” with the Greek “Christ” – not the Greek “Jesus” with the Hebrew “Messiah” or conversely the Hebrew “Joshua” with the Greek “Christ”.

Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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