Book of Mormon, Lesson #8: 2 Nephi 6-10
Posted by joespencer on February 17, 2008
What we have in these five chapters, of course, is a massive discourse given by Jacob to the Nephites. Its basic makeup is simple enough: Jacob, by the request of Nephi, is reading from and interpreting two and a half chapters of Isaiah to his people. After reading Isaiah but before doing his work of “likening,” Jacob gets distracted for six or seven pages of text in the marvelous chapter 9 (perhaps the only part of this speech that is usually referenced or commented upon). Three questions, it seems to me, must be asked about this speech, then: (1) How does Jacob think/liken Isaiah? (2) What is Jacob teaching in chapter 9? (3) How is the Isaiah/interpretation of Isaiah connected to the teachings of chapter 9?
In the end, it is the last of these three questions that I think deserves the most attention in the teaching situation: what the “average Latter-day Saint” seems to be almost entirely ignorant of in the Book of Mormon is the connection between the Abrahamic covenant as a kind of pattern for the whole history of the world and the personal effects of the atonement of Jesus Christ. For my own reasons, I think this connection is absolutely vital: not to recognize it is, if I might say something so humble, not to know God.
Let me call Nephi to witness: “And now, Jacob spake many more things to my people at that time; nevertheless only these things have I caused to be written, for the things which I have written sufficeth me” (2 Nephi 11:1). Jacob’s speech (it lasted for two days, after all!) was apparently quite a bit longer and more involved than what we have in 2 Nephi 6-10, but Nephi has excerpted what from Jacob’s speech accomplishes his own purposes. And Nephi states quite clearly what those purposes are: Jacob “saw my Redeemer” (a word that must be taken here in two different senses), and so his teachings can be inserted in a text that it taken up both with “proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ” and of “the covenants of the Lord which he hath made to our fathers” (2 Nephi 11:2, 4-5).
It is a mistake, therefore, to approach this five-chapter speech by focusing only or even primarily on chapter 9: such a focus is almost universally grounded in modernistic abstraction, in our desire for an antiseptical “plan of salvation,” in our secret wish that God had never gotten Himself mixed up in that silly Old Testament. As unfortunate as it may seem to some, we cannot get around the fact that the plan of salvation, for Christ later in the Book of Mormon as much as for Nephi at this early point in the text, is a question not only of personal, essentially atemporal redemption, but also (and perhaps more fundamentally) of communal, essentially historical redemption.
It seems to me important, in order to make this point quite clear, to make a few rather broad textual observations, observations which aim to situate these five chapters within the larger project Nephi is undertaking.
For some reason, we pay very little attention to passages in the Book of Mormon where the author or editor tells us explicitly what he is doing. A most important one of these is to be found in the first six verses of 1 Nephi 19. There Nephi essentially provides us with an outline of his two-book record. He divides it into two large parts: “an account of my making these [the small, as opposed to the large] plates shall be given hereafter; and then [that is, only after the account of the physical production of the small plates], behold, I proceed according to that which I have spoken,” namely, to write about “the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them.” What Nephi tells us here, and in the plainest language, is that the brief account of the actual physical production of the small plates marks a breaking point in his text: after that account, Nephi provides us with the “more sacred” text he has been commanded to write; before that, he is doing something else. The account of the physical production of the small plates can be found in the last verses of 2 Nephi 5, and so we are to split Nephi’s two-book record right there: 1 Nephi 1 through 2 Nephi 5 is the not-commanded-but-still-sacred part of the text (Nephi is at pains in 1 Nephi 19:6 to make it quite clear that though this first part of the record is not commanded and hence not “more sacred,” it is nonetheless sacred), and 2 Nephi 6-33 is the commanded-and-hence-“more-sacred” part of the text.
I think these two parts of the text can be further subdivided to some benefit. The first, “uncommanded” part of the text can be split into 1 Nephi 1-18 and 1 Nephi 19-2 Nephi 5, the split being marked by the very passage discussed in the preceding paragraph. The second, “commanded” part of the text can be split into 2 Nephi 6-30 and 2 Nephi 31-33, the split being imposed by the last words of the last verse of chapter 30: “And now, my beloved brethren, I make an end of my sayings.” What we have, then, is a four-part text that tells a very common story:
1 Nephi 1-18 — the creation of the Lehite people (take a careful look at 1 Nephi 18:22-25 and see how Genesis 1 is interwoven into the narrative: as the Lehites come to a “new world,” Nephi mentions in strict succession water, land, plants, animals, and then humans… coincidence?)
1 Nephi 19-2 Nephi 5 — the fall of the Lehite people (these chapters detail the process by which the Lehites become the Nephites and the Lamanites, and it concludes with the Lamanites being “cut off from the presence of the Lord”… coincidence?)
2 Nephi 6-30 — the atonement effects the reinstatement of the Lehite people (three true messengers suddenly appear, bringing further light and knowledge to the Nephites, teaching them in succession about how the spiritual atonement of Christ intertwines with their own temporal history… coincidence?)
2 Nephi 31-33 — the reinstated Lehites are given to pass through the veil (a discussion of baptism is presented entirely as a question of passing through a gate, before which one must pray, at which one must knock, and through which one is to see the appearance of the Savior Himself… coincidence?)
This fourfold pattern (creation, fall, atonement, veil) is of course quite familiar to Latter-day Saints: this is a kind of temple text for the Nephites, according to which they are taught of their own people’s creation and fall, by which they are presented with true messengers who provide them with the knowledge they need eventually to pass through the veil and into the presence of the Lord. As Brigham Young said: “Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels . . . and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 416) Elder Holland has used this same language, interestingly, in describing Nephi’s three witnesses: “Standing like sentinels at the gate of the book, Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah admit us into the scriptural presence of the Lord.” (Christ and the New Covenant, p. 36)
The reason to bother with all of this may already be clear to some: this speech of Jacob, making up 2 Nephi 6-10, is the collected teachings of the first of the three witnesses sent to teach the meaning of the atonement to the Lehites. Its importance should not be overlooked: not only does Nephi place it first in his “commanded” portion of the text, but he has explicitly edited the delivered speech so that it would accomplish his purposes.
Moreover, this way of breaking up the broader text of Nephi’s two-book record is also helpful for recognizing something else that Jacob’s speech accomplishes. The three messengers Nephi presents to his readers are presented, in a sense, as three in one or one in three: Jacob quotes from and comments on Isaiah, Nephi quotes from and comments on Isaiah, and, sitting between these two quotations-and-commentaries in the text, is Isaiah himself! The whole of this “atonement” part of Nephi—which is ironically the very part that we as Latter-day Saints tend to dismiss, to skip over, to get bored with, or to hurry through—is dedicated to a “likening” (whatever that means…) of Isaiah. In a word: Isaiah, understood in the Nephite way, is the key to understanding Nephi’s entire text. I don’t think it is at all coincidence, then, that Nephi provides us two “helps,” his and Jacob’s quotations of and commentaries on Isaiah’s words.
There is more: Jacob quotes from what scholars call Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah. I think this is a point of some importance, given the heavy focus on First Isaiah or Proto-Isaiah in the Isaiah chapters and Nephi’s commentary. But this calls a bit more preparatory explanation still (my apologies! my apologies!).
Scholars have, for well over a century now, divided the book of Isaiah up into two or, almost universally now, three parts. Of course, the very desire to break the Isaiah text up into the work of different “authors” is grounded in all the presuppositions of the historical-critical enterprise with its emphasis on authenticity and a (naively) cartesian model of subjectivity: it remains unclear (to me at least) why it is of any importance whatsoever to identify authors of texts, why the particular authorship of any given text should at all matter (don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not arguing that it isn’t important, only claiming that it remains to be explained how it is importance or where its importance lies). The rather broad consensus among scholars is that First Isaiah (Isaiah 2-39) was written perhaps two hundred years before Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) and (hence) by a different person. The hypothesis has not met with much favor in (traditionally faithful) LDS circles, since the hypothesis thus places the historical event of the writing of Second Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, after Lehi’s family had left Jerusalem for the promised land: if Second Isaiah was written during the exile, then it couldn’t show up in the Book of Mormon as having come from the brass plates (had the Nephites claimed to receive it by divine inspiration, that might be okay…), but of course it does.
This has led LDS scholars to argue often for the unity of Isaiah, for single authorship of the entire book, etc. In the end, I don’t think arguments for the textual unity or for the single authorship of Isaiah need to be made: the Book of Mormon does not require that the whole book of Isaiah be written by a single hand in the eighth century, just that First and Second Isaiah be compiled in a book attributed to Isaiah before Lehi’s family leaves Jerusalem. (Third Isaiah, Isaiah 1 and 56-66, never appears in Nephite writings. This may well corroborate the placement of Third Isaiah in the post-exilic era.) It is only necessary to see First and Second Isaiah as the work of single author if we assume that Nephi and his people understood authorship in the same way we do, something that seems highly questionable to me, especially in light of the fantastic article “What Is an Author?” by Michel Foucault. In other words (and this is the point, here): if we can allow ourselves to be distracted from the question of authorship and its grounding in historical-critical presuppositions, I think we can begin to ask very interesting questions about the distance scholars have justifiably felt between the texts (rather than the authors) of First and Second Isaiah.
I obviously haven’t the space here to discuss the massive list of differences between First and Second Isaiah here, though I would highly recommend reading up on the subject. Suffice it to say that there are major differences in the texts’ models of God, in the texts’ relationship to Jerusalem, in the the texts’ fidelity to uniquely Israelite events, in the texts’ relationship to world powers and politics, in the texts’ theological language, etc., etc., etc. Whatever can or must be said about the authors of these two texts, there is clearly an important difference between them.
What is so important about this is that the Nephites, or at least Nephi, seems to recognize these differences. Though both texts are attributed to “Isaiah” (and no respected Isaiah scholar would argue that there are not connections and continuities between the two texts: they are obviously written within the same tradition or in connection with each other), Nephi and subsequent prophets put them to separate and distinct tasks in the Book of Mormon. First Isaiah is quoted for thirteen chapters straight in the “Isaiah chapters” of 2 Nephi 12-24 with a very particular aim, and then little bits and pieces of it are quoted here and there throughout the remainder of Nephi’s two-book record, always with the same theological intention as the full-blown “Isaiah chapters.” Second Isaiah, on the other hand, it broken up into one- or two-chapter sections at a time and quoted thus a chunk at a time throughout the whole of the Book of Mormon. Significantly, the chapters of Second Isaiah are quoted in order: Nephi quotes Isaiah 48-49 in 1 Nephi 20-21; Jacob quotes Isaiah 50-51 in 2 Nephi 7-8; Abinadi quotes Isaiah 52-53 in Mosiah 13-14; and Jesus Himself quotes Isaiah 54 (and part of Isaiah 55) in 3 Nephi 22. A major stretch of Second Isaiah thus forms a curious backbone for the entire Nephite history, as Mormon compiles it, while First Isaiah is put to a far more limited theological purpose within the two-book record of Nephi.
These separate tasks of the two Isaianic texts within the Book of Mormon deserve far more attention (and in print!). It is perhaps here, in 2 Nephi 6-10, that the tension between them can most fruitfully be explored: because of the structure of Nephi’s two-book record, Jacob’s quotation of and commentary on Isaiah 50-51 is set in parallel with Nephi’s subsequent quotation of and commentary on Isaiah (28-)29: First and Second Isaiah are brought together by the parallelism, even as the broader split between the two Isaiah texts makes this parallelism a site of profound tension.
The tension that thus undergirds Jacob’s quotation of and commentary on Isaiah can perhaps be related to (or at least doubled by) the tension that characterizes Jacob’s commentary itself, the tension between covenant history and eternal atonement discussed above: how does the apocalyptic redemption of First Isaiah relate to historical redemption of Second Isaiah? What I’m suggesting here is that Jacob’s interweaving (or at least Nephi’s edited version of Jacob’s interweaving) of chapter 9 into his broader discourse provides us a place for thinking about this question quite carefully.
Of course, I’ve spent so much time and space here just setting up the problem, now I have to wonder whether I can get into the solution at all! But perhaps I’m notorious enough for raising questions rather than providing answers, that I can get away with leaving just this mess of a situation for others to begin thinking carefully about? No, I suppose I had better provide at least the sketched outline of a solution, though I only do so with the warning that, though I will gladly be held to the difficulties I’ve tried to elaborate above, I will not be held to the solutions sketched out below. That is, I think the problem is clear, but the way to go about thinking that problem is something that needs to be done far more carefully than I’m about to do it.
Verse 11 from chapter 6: “Wherefore, after they are driven to and fro, for thus saith the angel, many shall be afflicted in the flesh, and shall not be suffered to perish, because of the prayers of the faithful; they shall be scattered, and smitten, and hated; nevertheless, the Lord will be merciful unto them, that when they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer, they shall be gathered together again to the lands of their inheritance.” Jacob seems to see the massive historical event of redemption for Israel to be inextricably intertwined with “knowledge of their Redeemer” (I leave “their” in the quotation here to maintain emphasis on the language of collectivity—it is not one’s but their Redeemer—and on the hint of possession). Of course, within the immediate context, this reference to a Redeemer can be taken simply to refer to the One who brings them back: there is not textual reason to read “Redeemer” as referring to what we moderns would call a “personal Savior.”
Importantly, chapter 9 never uses any form of the word “redeem.” But one should note how many times the word appears in 2 Nephi 2, addressed by Lehi to Jacob, and in a “personal” way: “I know that thou [Jacob] art redeemed”; “the righteousness of thy Redeemer”; “redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah”; “the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem his children from the fall”; “because they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever.” Jacob had, at the very least, good reason to understand the term in something like a “personal” way.
But does that do any justice to 2 Nephi 2? That chapter is ostensibly about the temple: Jacob is called to the “service of God” (a nice technical phrase from the Old Testament to refer to being a part of the temple priesthood), is instructed about the law and the atonement (Mosaic Law? the Day of Atonement?), is taught about the creation, fall, atonement, and veil (in sequence, and with language that ought to sound quite interesting to some ears), etc. Though I hear it intimated often enough that the temple is an individual affair, a question of one’s personal relationship to the Savior, I think one would ultimately be very hard pressed to make a good case for that: the temple is not only a question of binding or sealing one to others (in more ways than one) and hence a question of breaking the limits of the individual or individualistic, it is also a place where one ceases to be oneself (one plays a part in a drama, takes up the role of another rather than oneself, and, when one returns, one even performs a part in the drama for and in behalf of others, playing two or three parts at once!). It seems to me that the temple is, as scholars like Mircea Eliade have been saying for a long time now, a cosmic experience, one in which one’s individualistic subjectivity is disrupted by “universal” signs, symbols, dramas, etc.
I wonder, then, if this connection between the theme of redemption and the ultimately anti-personal experience of the temple doesn’t begin to lay the foundation for an understanding of the interweaving of the eternal atonement and the historical redemption of Israel, if it doesn’t begin to orient the relationship between the apocalyptic anti-history of First Isaiah and the incessantly evental historicality of Second Isaiah: the two texts come together in their common rootedness in the temple. Or, perhaps I should say, in their common rootedness in the typology of the temple: the disruption of egoistic subjectivity accomplished by the ritual experience of temple redemption is accomplished through typology, and it is typology that (scholars universally agree) guides the thought of Second Isaiah. The case has often enough been made that typology is invented (!) by Second Isaiah: the fall of Jerusalem is the blow (typos in Greek) that shatters the egoistic self-reading of Israel and opens up the possibility of a universally addressed covenant, of a universally regarded Redeemer. Second Isaiah must be read, in the end, as unfolding the drama of the deabsolutizing of Israel and hence of the universalizing of the Abrahamic covenant.
What this means for interpretation of 2 Nephi 6-10 is triple. First, chapters 6-8 must be read as a glimpse of this historical deabsolutizing of the Abrahamic covenant, as a poetic reading of the blow that shatters the too easily fixed orientation of Israelite thinking. Second, chapter 9 must be read as a consequently universal discussion of the atonement (note: not as a sermon on the individual or personal effects of the atonement, but as a sermon on the universal or cosmic effects of the atonement), as the development of a theology of the disrupted and hence universally redirected Abrahamic covenant. Finally, chapter 10 must be read as a careful thinking out of the place of the Nephites and Lamanites in such a scheme: as a part of the shattering of the exile (they have been scattered in connection with the exile), and yet still as a part of the Abrahamic covenant “proper,” how do the Nephites and the Lamanites fit into things?
It is this final question that I think Jacob wants to address ultimately, and he only begins to answer it before Nephi cuts him off, as the latter tells us in the first verse of chapter 11. This sudden curtailing of the answer to the most important question of all, however, has an important purpose: it makes Jacob’s sermon provide only the outline of an answer and thus allows Nephi to take up the task, in chapters 25-30, of banking on the apocalyptic themes of First Isaiah (chapters 12-24) so as to lay out his own understanding of the answer to the question. Jacob’s curtailment allows for the unity of the three witnesses.
Or so it seems to me…
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